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Rev. Brian Covell, Third Unitarian ChurchService and Message
CMwD DA Opening Worship and Ceremony
Oak Brook, IL
Friday, April 26, 2012

Entering Music: Piano Blues No. 4

Prelude and Choral Anthem: Spirit of Life

Chalice Lighting
We light this chalice recalling the Unitarian desire for freedom against any oppression, and in memory of the Universalist belief that God's love knows no bounds.

Opening Words
Somebody once said, “We need a space program because we need explorers. Its in our souls.”  Liberal religion in the Midwest used to be known as the pioneering faith, on the edge of the American cultural frontier.  Will this endure as a value for us, a part of the spiritual discipline of leadership?

Opening Hymn #141, I've Got a New Name

Welcome and Introductions
Good evening and welcome to the Annual Assembly of the Central Midwest District of the MidAmerica Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association!
I am the Reverend Brian Covell, President of the District, and I join my fellow Board members and the District staff in extending a greeting and thanks for your gift of time in being with us.  I ask all of them, to stand to be recognized--in particular our Congregational Services Director the Reverend Dr. Ian Evison, his colleague Dori Davenport Thexton, our Faith Development and Growth Consultant, and the members of our district staff.

For indeed it is good to be with one another, as we deepen our faith commitments: through the practice of democratic governance, which we’ll do at our business meeting; through the sharing of wisdom to build capacity in ourselves and in our congregations, and also to learn how we might, through our combined efforts, continue the work of social justice that’s at the center of our prophetic message.
The program this weekend offers a myriad of opportunities to experience our faith at its best, we hope, and at its most relevant. 

With our keynote presenters the Reverend Dr. William Schulz--himself a product of the CMwD--tonight, and the Reverend Marilyn Sewell tomorrow, we have a rare opportunity to hear two of the most gifted and lyrically prophetic voices in our movement call us forth to the spiritual dimensions of leadership.  And so for the next three days, let learning and inspiration, flourish among us. 
Someone once told me that if you’re a UU, the probability of transformation is always in the air.  Let me suggest it’s no less true this year.

The topic of regionalism looms large, to be sure, but even this concept is perhaps best understood as invitation to revisit the meaning of how we covenant to be in relationship to one another through Unitarian Universalism.
Covenant: to be called to deeper sense of meaning through relationship with others, for others.  In Marilyn Sewell’s words, let this be the “golden thread” that runs through us and among us this weekend.

It was W.E.B DuBois who said,
“Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season.  It is today that our best work is to be done and not some future day or future year.  It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow.  Today is the seed time, now are our hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.”

Spoken and Silent Meditations
From norther Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, through Illinois and into Missouri, we’ve come from a cross-section of the center of America to be in this place, at this time.

Our interests are different, but surely human needs are the same from one to another: acceptance of self and of others, the warmth of love, the meeting of basic needs, and the safety of home.  Mindful of all this, and of the cry of those who lack all or any of the above, I invite you to, prior to any work, settle into this worship through stillness, in a moment of silent reflection and prayer.
May the light of wisdom from whatever source, and the strength of pioneers past and present, be with you now and always.

Offertory Comments
The offering we take this evening is to benefit the work of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.  From direct aid in Haiti, or in Africa, or for service learning opportunities here in the Americas, the UUSC affords all of us a context to “fit ourselves today,” in DuBois’s words, “for greater usefulness tomorrow.”  In so doing, we partner with all those congenial to the UUSC’s mission within and beyond our denomination who know that  “advancing human rights is the work of many hands.”  I invite you to learn about more about this storied organization through its Web site, uusc.org, where you can read about the exciting new UU College for Social Justice or, like I do, follow the Reverend Schulz on Facebook.

“My Reunion, Our Connection”
Let’s start with a raising of hands: how many of you have been to a reunion, high school, college, whatever?  Good, I thought so, because we are UU’s, an educated bunch. I attended a mini-reunion of my high school class last summer.  In the past, I’ve debated whether I really wanted to see people with whom I didn’t really connect, or even like, since I’d stayed in touch with a small group of friends I knew well.  But I figured after 33 years, it was time.  Whatever grudges were once held, or conspiracies founded, would be long since forgotten, or so I thought. Plus, I must be honest--I wanted to see how everyone looked!  Would it be true what they say, whoever “they” are, about reunions--that the gals look great and guys look like, well, let’s not go there (but I know what you’re thinking...)?  And I was feeling pretty good about myself, and petty enough to challenge anyone to a half-marathon, so...

Was I wrong--I’ll be the first to admit it!  OK: the gals did look great, but so did the guys!  One guy, quiet in school, was a father of a beach volleyball pro in California, and since he lived and worked out with his son, he was like a walking infomercial on fitness equipment.  Another had just hiked the New Hampshire part of the Appalachian Trail.
So much for me and my vanity!  And once we got through the hugs  and “hey, you look...better than I thought you would” stage, then there were the stories, both banal, and unbelieveable: the prom queen turned newscaster turned genealogist, the bookish girl in the back row of the chorus--this was well before “Glee”--who’s now a banker; the schoolteachers, the radio talk show host, the meat-cutting blogger, the Elvis impersonator, and so on. And this woman whom, as soon as I saw her, I still had a crush on her.  No, I’m not going to tell you--this is being recorded; she’ll find out.  Yes, I confessed to my wife.  No, she wasn’t happy.  Another show of hands, please.  Has this happned to you?  Did you tell your spouse?  Who are you to judge me?

Anyway, the conversations were rich; astonishing, even.  The party didn’t end until the early morning.  No one wanted to leave.  So there we stood, in the parking lot on a starlit night.  “Let’s stay in touch,” we said, and said again.  And they’ve meant it.
Social media made the event happen, I believe, and it continues to work its magic with the Class of ’78.  So-called “friends” have been listening to my sermons on-line, and have been tougher on me than any critic at Third Church has ever been. 

And people once close have really, deeply, reconnected: two women fell out of touch in college.  One went away, did incredibly well for herself, and lives in France. The other, not so much.  Recently, the woman in France invited, and paid for, her friend and family to stay at her home near the Pyrenees. For a month. That’s extreme, I know, but that’s the sort of thing that’s happening.  Connections, stretched by time and circumstance, made closer by interest, and technology.

It brings me to the topic this weekend.  Everyone here prizes their connections at their home congregation.  And does your church have a Facebook presence? Those relationships inform why you’re here at DA, I would guess: to learn what’s of benefit to your church, and to strengthen that institution. But the form of the congregation, as we’ve known it, is under pressure.  Research shows that the emerging “Millennial” generation is reluctant to join voluntary associations, like churches, for understandable reasons. And as “Baby Boomers”--yes, that’s me, and many of you--get older, our capacity to give and support the notion of church we grew up with changes.  The “Greatest Generation,” our parents and grandparents, are nearing the end of their lives.

When I came to Third Church in 2003, within 12 months we lost 10 percent of the congregation to death and dislocation, mostly death. The nodding heads among us confirm the landscape in the mainline American faith traditions.  The local congregation is embattled--but not without hope. I stand resolutely with Warren G. Harding, not one of our greatest Presidents, when he said, “Let us not drop anchor until we are out of the woods.” This is a moment of opportunity for us--a time for reinvention.  For just as the locals may not have the money to operate like we did in the 50’s through 2007, the denomination has to adjust.

The District is no different.  We’re all likely going to have to rely on fewer staff, working strategically, to give more people the opportunity to be connected to our faith tradition within and beyond congregational walls. This means, I believe, that we’ll have to strengthen our understanding of covenant: to work with other UU’s, within and beyond our congregational walls, to share resources to enable ministries on the issues that matter the most. The Chicago Area UU’s have developed, through cooperation, a radio show that reaches people across this district, across the boundaries of our developing region, and into the homes across the globe. How do we know?  They tell us, on the program’s Facebook page.  It’s reconnected women and men to the faith of their youth, and brought others who knew nothing about us into a local church.  27 congregations make this happen every Sunday night.

We in the CMwD share staff across three districts, and the folks who know the most about fundraising, RE or church conflict now consult from Minnesota to Kentucky, or Michigan to Kansas. We need, I believe, to build a governance structure to support all this, and for you in your church homes, that’s sustainable, future-oriented, and agile.  And we on your district board will not, and cannot, do this without your advice and consent. That advice, and your consent, is what I aspire to secure this weekend.  This does not mean silent agreement when you’re overwhelmed by the issues. It does mean patient, deliberative discussion about how we might unlock the potential of liberal religion in this region--with Midwestern needs and emphases--to become a more vital presence in justice and religion in the 21st Century
In his personal odyssey statment given last night, the Reverend Dr. Lee Barker, President at Meadville Lombard, our MidAmerica UU seminary, shared an insight. 

He found, as he talked with other seminary presidents, that evangelicals--since they have a robust, almost unwavering theology--have the ability to take on great risk.  They’re less connected to buildings and locations, and thus more ready to move and meet the need of growth.
And that yet perhaps liberals are less able to take on risk, since we offer a more flexible belief system which is paradoxically grounded in the practices of a specific building and group of people.

Think about it.  Don’t you know folks who define themselves by the UU church, who say that they’re a “(Name your modifier) Church Unitarian,” and not as a member of the UUA? I’m a minister at a church I love dearly, but I’m an adherent of our Unitarian Universalist Association first.  I seek to live our “Principles and Purposes,” wherever I serve, following the guidance of our UU Minister’s Association.
We need strong congregations, yes, but ones that can help people live UU values beyond our walls.  And, I believe, a new regional governance system, one not set in stone to last through eternity, but one agile to meet the needs of the moment, is what we need.
That’s where I stand, anyway, or am moving toward.  And I will engage you on this.

The reunion confirmed for me that my friends are hungry to stay close to those who knew them when, and who stay connected in new, deeply moving ways, physically and virtually. So do you, I think, so do you.  There are new ways to be in relationship that enrich what we know best. There’s a president in a small Iowa church that can use your wisdom; different, perhaps, than holding the hand of that member who just lost a loved one, but it’s still a way to walk your faith. Just like the Waterville High Class of ’78, you are my people.  I take what you say and do seriously.

And “now is the time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season” to ensure that the legacy of our past embraces the promise of tomorrow.

DA is our reunion.  Let’s reaffirm our covenant, our connections, to become the faith we can only dare imagine.

Closing Words
Intellect and spirit, body and mind, heart and soul--let us covenant again to lead the faith we love.

Postlude: Siyahamba