DRev. Dr. Laurel Hallmanr. Laurel Hallman
First Unitarian Church of Dallas, Texas

Keynote Address

Prairie Star District Annual Conference
Friday, April 13, 2007
Minneapolis, Minnesota


First let me say how pleased I am to be here. I moved to Minnesota from California in 1965, and found Unity Church, Unitarian in St. Paul when Arthur Foote was the Minister there. It was there I discovered that you could leave church feeling better than you had felt when you entered! Having been raised in a hellfire and damnation Baptist church, it was quite a revelation. I think the records will show that I joined the church on Easter Sunday, 1966—the most significant commitment in my life.

I want to tell one important personal story before I begin my talk.

In January, 1977, my father had open heart surgery, and I flew home to be with my family in that scary time. It was almost surreal, flying from deep winter here to winter-lite in California—taking family pictures in front of the orange trees on our ranch there—wanting to make sure we had pictures of all of us together before we drove off to the hospital.

During one of the days following the surgery, my college roommate came to spend the day with me. We drove up to the hills behind the hospital and walked in a monastery rose garden and talked. We were both 34 years old. We both had young sons. We both had divorced. She had remarried. We both were looking at our lives from a slightly longer perspective than we had when we were roommates. I had left teaching, the career I had trained for in college, and was working at Unity Church. She would soon leave nursing, the career she had trained for in college, and become an art historian.

I found myself saying that I was realizing for the first time that my father was going to die. If not that week, then eventually. It seems self-evident now, but I think there may be a moment for each of us when that gnawing concept becomes reality.

With that realization came the understanding that I needed to live my life. Not his. Not my mother’s. Not any one else’s. I had to live my life.

My father did survive that surgery, and lived 14 more years, almost all of them active and full.

I flew back to Minnesota just in time to preach at the First Universalist Church here in Minneapolis. John Cummins was the minister then, and he was at the church to greet me when I arrived to preach—I was somewhat raw around the edges and with a heightened sense of awareness.. In the five years I had worked at Unity Church, I had preached in the various congregations in the area, and the Universalist Church was one of them.

As we waited for the service to start, John turned to me and said, “When are you going to theological school?”

I said, “I don’t have plans to go to theological school.”

He said (as I remember) “I wasn’t asking if, I was asking when.”

He then said that the First Universalist Church had scholarship money available so when I did decide to go to theological school the church would help.

I went home that day and began the application process to go to Meadville Theological School, our UU school in Chicago.

That fall I left Minnesota for Chicago.

So I come back today, not only having found Unitarian Universalism in St. Paul, but having in a very personal way felt called out by ministers and congregations in this area, literally supported by people here, and sent off eventually to what one might call the Mission Field, in Dallas, Texas.

I appreciate the invitation to be with you—to come, in a way, full circle tonight to tell you a little about what I have learned about churches along the way.

Try a Little Tenderness

When I was invited to come to give this keynote, I was told that the theme of this meeting would be “Nurturing our Faith Communities”. Almost instantly, the words from the song Try a Little Tenderness came to mind. I knew that would be the title of my keynote tonight.

At that point I could hum a few bars, so I thought I’d better be a little more confident about my theme song—which of course took me down more than memory lane. I knew the Otis Redding version from 1967—the one that started out so soulful and then transitioned to R and B, putting it eventually in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But some of you may know it from the Three Dog Night version from the ’80s. There may be even a few of you who know that it was originally recorded by Bing Crosby and Ruth Etting in 1933. Still more may know that it was written by Jimmy Campbell, Reginall Connelly, and Harry Woods before that!

It was more perfect than I had known.

Oh, she may be weary . . .but when she gets weary
you try a little tenderness . . .now it might be a little bit sentimental no
but she has her grieves and care
but the sort wards they are spoke so gentle
yeah yeah yeah
and it makes it easier to bear
you’ve got to, you’ve got to
you’ve gotta hold her
don’t squeeze her
never leave her
you got
got got got to
now now now
got got got to
try a little tenderness . . .

Whether crooned by Bing Crosby, or sung by Otis Redding, or Three Dog Night, or even in the gravelly voice of Jack Webb, in which he read the words accompanied by instrumentals—still the words do touch our hearts. Try a little tenderness. She has her grieves and cares/but the soft words are spoke so gentle/and it makes it easier to bear."

I wanted to start with “try a little tenderness” because it takes us out of the usual conversations we have about our congregations. How to be better at what we do. How to understand church dynamics: whether systems theory, or governance theory, or function to size theory, or many of the other trainings we have experienced and implemented through the years.

Tonight will not be a usual conversation about how to “do” church better, although I would be the first to admit that I find it all very fascinating, and do think a working knowledge of the latest in congregational theory is always a good idea.

But not tonight.

Tonight is a night for nurturing our congregations. And I’m going to start with tenderness.

No, I’m going to start ahead of that.

The Congregation, She

I’m going to start with the pronoun “she”. Our congregations as “she”.

This is not gender politics. This is personification. The English language doesn’t give us the opportunity to make our nouns feminine or masculine as the more romantic languages do—but tonight I am going to simply say that my first premise in my talk with you is that our congregations are feminine.

I know, I know, we all need tenderness. It’s not gender specific. And someone will come up to me at the end of this, perhaps in the Question and Answer to challenge this—but I’m willing to take the risk—because I think we need to think of our congregations as living, breathing, whole beings. And I can make my point my clearly if I use the pronoun “she.” So I’ll ask for your indulgence.

And then I’ll ask you to extend the metaphor a bit and think of your congregation in a personification of human life—and admit that “she” gets weary, “she” waits for love, “she’s anticipating and she’s waiting” and those soft words that are so gentle make it easier to bear.

Bear with me for a moment if I ask you to think of your congregation, be it small or large—include the building, the furnishings, imagine your gathering place empty, waiting for you and the other members and friends who gather on Sunday and other days. Easily becoming, not nurturers, but users of the facility, users of the people who come looking like potential leaders, users of the resources you have, yearning for more possibilities, living in scarcity.

Imagine your church as a person.

Now if you thought you left personification of inanimate objects behind when you were a child, I hope that tonight, if even for this brief time, you will allow me to do so. Because I believe the language of religion is metaphor, and metaphor requires that we personify that which we cannot grasp abstractly. It is the power of scripture, it is the power of poetry and even much of prose. It is often the power of scientific description—this ability to personify, or at least put into metaphorical terms, something which might escape us otherwise.

The only caveat being that we agree, we know, that we’re using words, not in their literal sense, but in their larger, more relational, metaphorical sense.

So your church or meeting house, or shopping center, or home for your fellowship is “she”. She needs some nurture. And we’re going to “try a little tenderness.”

Hold that thought.

The Faithful Conversations Project

Some of you, I know—but perhaps not all of you are familiar with the Faithful Conversation Project that has been going on in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area for at least the last year. I’ve heard about it in bits and pieces as I’ve intersected with various ministers from the Twin Cities area. As I understand it, the Ministers and about 50 layfolk have been meeting to talk about what qualities of Spiritual Intelligence/Maturity look like.

There are two things about this project that impress me mightily. The first is that ministers and laypeople from your varied churches have assembled for such a project—this wouldn’t have happened, I don’t think, back when I was in the Twin Cities. The churches thought themselves too diverse, too different in theology, in style, in approach to religion to ever find the time or inclination to work together on such a thing. But Rob Eller-Isaacs, Janne Eller-Isaacs, Kendyl Gibbons, Victoria Stafford, and Kate Tucker either didn’t know that they shouldn’t be able to get together, or decided it was time, in spite of years of history of separation.

Second, I am impressed with the quality of the work itself.

I know the project will have a much more developed form when it is finalized, but for our purposes tonight, let me tell you a few of the qualities of Spiritual Intelligence/Maturity that they’ve named as I’ve heard of it. It’s still in somewhat rough form.

  • Fluency in the use of metaphor
  • Capacity to live within ambiguity
  • Good boundaries, self awareness in the service of intentionality
  • Connection to the earth and creatures
  • A constant awareness and acceptance of death
  • Ability to enter into covenant
  • Ability to celebrate
  • Ability to mourn
  • Attraction to beauty
  • Attraction to mercy and justice
  • The ability to repent and change (Teshuva)
  • The ability to absorb and transform suffering (Tonglen)

This is a partial listing of the qualities they developed. But I think it is a fabulous list.


This list reminds me of a story I heard from a parent in my congregation. Her son was about nine when one day as she was driving him with a friend, home from school, when she overheard him say in the back seat to his friend, “Don’t you even know what a metaphor is?”

I don’t know if he really knew what a metaphor was himself, but he knew it was important. Because we talk about metaphorical language a lot at our church. The language of scripture and poetry, and increasingly that of science won’t take us anywhere if we are stuck in what Whitehead called “misplaced concreteness”. For we are still stuck in literalism, if all we can do is reject words others use literally. Better to become fluent in the use of metaphor. The language of the lover, the contemplative, the songwriter and poet. The language that softens the heart and opens our lives to new truth. The language that is metaphorical.

You’re in the land of metaphor when you think the poet is talking about one thing and suddenly you realize it’s about something much deeper.

You’re in the land of metaphor when your eyes see an inner picture, and your heart softens, and your mind settles on some new reality that you’ve heard but never known before.

In Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore (and let me just briefly say that in the 1920's, Tagore came to Dallas, if one could imagine it, and spoke at the Unitarian Church, drawing the largest attendance ever in the history of the church. Until three years ago, I had a woman in my congregation who remembered as a little girl, going to hear him.)

In Gitanjali or Song Offerings from the original Bangali by Rabindranath Tagore, he says,

I thought that my voyage had come to its end at the last limit of my power—that the path before me was closed, that provisions were exhausted and the time come to take shelter in a silent obscurity.

But I find that thy will knows no end in me. And when old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart; and where the old tracks are lost, new country is revealed with its wonders.

(Gitanjali, McMillan Publishing, NY, 1971, p. 51)

We know that Tagore isn’t on a ship or train. We know that he doesn’t have his dog with him, smelling possibilities for a new scent to follow. We know he’s talking about the voyage of life, and new paths to follow which may not even be roads.

We know all that, so well, that we may not even know we are thinking metaphorically.

It is that very skill that deepens one’s life, opens one’s heart, and gives us new ways to view ourselves and our place in the universe.

Your Twin Cities Ministers and lay participants in the Faithful Conversations project are right on when they say that fluency in the use of metaphor is a sign of spiritual maturity.

Acceptance of Death

More than that, I could tell you story after story of people in my congregations throughout my ministry who have stunned me with their spiritual maturity, in just the ways the people in the project have listed.

Let me tell you this one, which is fresh. It is about the constant awareness and acceptance of death.

I was asked two weeks ago by the daughters of a man in my congregation who is 90, if I would talk with him about his situation. I’ve known him for 20 years. In December he went to the hospital for what he thought was a minor surgery, and came out of the anesthetic to discover that the cancer was much more invasive than anyone had thought, and half his stomach had been removed.

Over the time since then he has been positive about his recovery, eager to regain his strength, return to normal eating and get on with his life.

But it hasn’t been so easy. He had an obstruction, and they had to operate a second time. He got pneumonia and was rehospitalized for antibiotics. Last week he was moved to a rehab facility where he was receiving excellent care, but was in a significantly weakened condition.

When the Doctor explained what needed to happen medically, including another tube—for him to return to health, he asked to see me.

While he had been a good player in the drama until then, when I came in, he said, “What’s the point?”

We had a good conversation. I explained the alternatives. He was clear headed, in charge of his situation, I explained. He could decide what he wanted.

When I finished he said, “No tubes. No surgeries. This is it.”

I said, “You might die.”

He said, “That’s fine. Everyone dies.”

Now I will admit that I consulted with a doctor and an ethicist I know to make sure I was being even-handed and not folding his cards for him.

Yesterday, one of his daughters called to say they had brought him home, and Hospice said he might live 24 hours.

“That’s fine. Everyone dies.”

That’s spiritual maturity, when a person says it, having lived with the reality in his church for years and years.

The Zen master said, “Every day contemplate your death, and be happy.”

I preached that once and someone told me I was morbid. I don’t think so. I think the people I know who practice that are spiritually mature.

Maturity for Congregations

I’m tempted to give you my gloss on each of the project’s elements of maturity. But that’s not why I’m here tonight.

I just want to say enough about it, that you get the picture of what it might look like for Unitarian Universalism to be a movement of spiritually mature people who can celebrate and mourn, are attracted to beauty, mercy, and the fulfillment of justice, are fluent in the use of metaphor, understand that most of the time we live in ambiguity, and can accept being in that state, have good boundaries and self-awareness in the service of intentionality, can absorb and transform suffering. . . Wouldn’t it be something if we all could foster these qualities among ourselves and in our churches. We would be transformed and so would our churches. Which brings me to my main point, tonight:

In the same way we might name the qualities of spiritual maturity for individuals, what would be qualities of spiritual maturity for congregations?

We might be right in simply saying “all of the above”, except as a whole rather than as individuals. We’d simply have to ask ourselves if as congregations we are able to enter into covenant; are able to mourn and to celebrate; not only are attracted to beauty, but work to make it tangible in our congregational gatherings; demonstrate our congregation’s connection to the earth and its creatures (not just by word, but by action); can absorb and transform suffering when it becomes part of our congregational life. . . I won’t take you through them all, but it gives you an idea. I think it would be a wonderful idea to take these few qualities and not only search our hearts as individuals in relation to them, but also to consider our congregations as a whole.

But my task, as I’ve set it out for you tonight, is to think of the qualities that in addition to the ones listed, mark a spiritually intelligent, or spiritually mature congregation. Here is an incomplete list, but I hope will give you an idea of what she might look like. (Remember, she’s the one we love.)

A Whole Body

First we have to think of our congregations however large or small in a wholistic way. We pride ourselves in our individualism after all. Many of us have gravitated toward Unitarian Universalism because it allows us to be individuals. We are used to being the measure of our faith.

So it may be a stretch for us even to think about measuring ourselves in relation to our ability to be congregations. To think about our congregation, not as an aggregate of all the individuals in it, but rather as an organic whole.

That might be the first sign of congregational maturity—when her members think of her as a whole, with needs, and hopes, strengths and weaknesses which are different from the sum of her parts.

In short, one of the first signs of congregational maturity might be that she is personified or thought of in terms of a metaphor.

Let me give an example: In 1899, a young man who was eventually to become a Unitarian Minister gave a lecture at the Jewish Temple in Dallas on Unitarianism, at the invitation of the rabbi. He said in part (I think his talk was two hours long, which mercifully I will not try to emulate)—he said in part that “The people of Dallas are lost at sea without a Chart and Compass for their spiritual natures. The old creeds are outgrown, and they are in danger of making shipwrecks of their spiritual lives.”

He used an exquisite metaphor to talk about what is still true in our culture, and a wonderful personification of our church grew out of that lecture: A ship of faith and hope which provides a chart and compass for those whose spiritual lives are in danger. It’s still basically our mission in Dallas.

The story must be passed forwarded intentionally for it to work. But I give it as an example of what it might mean to personify a church as a whole, to live within a metaphor of her mission and purpose. It is a sign of a spiritually mature congregation.

So the first quality of a spiritually mature congregation is that it knows itself as a whole body.

Wherein We Feel Moved

The second quality of a spiritually mature congregation is that its members feel moved within that whole.

Here’s a test. From the beginning to the end of your worship service, are you one body. Not that everyone who comes has the same responses, the same reactions to what is happening. But that the flow of the service carries people together. Do you feel part of the whole?

This may seem so mundane as to be a silly example—but when you stand for hymns, are you a bunch of people getting up out of your seats, or are you one body, moving in a liturgical movement larger than yourselves.

Here’s another test: How many times do people say “Good morning” when they lead something in your service. If you’re one body, together, it’s appropriate to say “Good Morning” once to that whole—but not for each individual person who leads a part of the worship—as if you were greeting each new individual who approaches you.

Here’s another test: Have you ever been so enveloped in your worship service—perhaps by the music, perhaps by the silence, perhaps, by the word spoken or read—have you even been so enveloped in your worship service that you lost your own thoughts to a larger whole?

I remember vividly one time when that happened. It’s not easy, nor is it advisable for a worship leader to lose track of things—but I do remember an oboe solo once that was so mesmerizing that when the music stopped I didn’t know what was next. Since I was leading the service it was a bit disconcerting! Fortunately people commented after the service that they appreciated the fact that I had left some silence following the solo—not realizing that the silence occurred because I didn’t know where we were or what I was to do next. It doesn’t happen often. But when it does, you know you are in a mature congregation that can be much more than the sum of its individuals.

So the first is for your congregation to know itself as a whole organic body.

The second is for your members to be moved within that whole (and I don’t mean just emotionally moved, I mean moved along—moved from one state to another—part of a great whole that in its movement carries you forward and lifts you up.)

With Poise, Daring, and Fidelity

The third Is to be a congregation that has poise. There are congregations—we’ve all known them—where it seems they exist to give the members some agitation in their lives. Maybe it’s simply excitement—but at least to stir things up. There’s always something going there, and it often isn’t pleasant.

A mature congregation has poise. One has the sense that whatever has happened that might be distressing has probably happened before, and probably will happen again, and isn’t worth a lot of attention or agitation. A mature congregation knows what to pay attention to, and what to let go by. A mature congregation has poised leaders. Often, this is the result of leaders who consistently practice their own spiritual maturity, and pass it on. A poised board is considerate, knows its boundaries, acts as one body, and does its work deliberately. Poised leaders and a poised board create a poised congregational life. People coming in will be able to feel the spiritual maturity of such a place.

Fourth: A spiritually mature congregation is willing to risk everything for an uncertain future.

This is probably related to the spiritually mature individual’s quality to think about death and be happy. The spiritually mature congregation reinvents herself every five to ten years, just as the cells of our body are replaced, and yet we remain one body. This requires the ability to think ahead, to plan ahead, to ‘chart a course' that is more than the sum of our individual ideas, or our brainstormed newsprint. A spiritually mature congregation makes plans and is also agile enough to change them as circumstances require. She is ready to sacrifice everything for a vital but uncertain future.

Fifth: A spiritually mature congregation practices fidelity. It may be odd to think of a congregation as a whole having anything to do with fidelity—but I remember the late Joe Barth, Unitarian Minister, the head of the Department of Ministry years ago, who wrote an article in which he basically said, “You don’t leave.” He didn’t mean that once you’ve joined the church you can’t move away, or you don’t die—but that you don’t leave miffed, or mad, or because she doesn’t meet your needs any more, or any other number of reasons—he said “you don’t leave.” It’s the parallel to the Faithful Conversations Project’s “ability to enter into covenant”.

You’ll know a Spiritually Mature Congregation because her members don’t leave when they disagree. They practice institutional fidelity, and it shows in the church’s maturity.

Spaciousness, Grace, and Trust

The sixth sign of a Spiritually Mature Congregation is its spaciousness. Now if you’re like we are these days, you don’t have enough space. Some of you, like my congregation, are planning building projects to provide more space. That’s not what I’m talking about here.

This is spaciousness within the whole. It means there is silence during meetings. There is room for people to think before they say something. There is a kind of unwritten understanding that not everyone has to say something about everything. A friend of mine calls it “thumbprinting”—people needing to put their thumbprint on every topic. More than even the particular habits of people within the church, this spaciousness is a spiritual practice that permeates the whole. More than the capacity to be accepting, there is a kind of “chair for Elijah” feeling in the place. There is always an extra chair for the stranger, the welcome for the unknown. A congregation with this kind of spaciousness will be resilient when hard times come. Will have depth when uncertainties creep in.

A Spiritually Mature Congregation will be grace-full. We first think of grace as a gift of ease of movement, and perhaps as a metaphor it could apply to congregational life. But in my experience grace comes more from forgiveness than from elegance.

I often think of my church, “Oh, if these walls could talk—what they would say!” Anybody who has been in a church for any amount of time knows so much about her rough places, her triumphs and failures, her hopes and dreams. A Spiritually Mature Congregation will practice forgiveness for the failures and flaws, and assume that Grace will make something out of the ashes that we can’t imagine ourselves.

A Spiritually Mature Congregation has a quality of trust about it. This is a congregation as a wise woman. She is not naïve. She’s been sweet-talked before. But this quality of trust comes from a deep sense that things will work out, even if not in the way she expected.

At my church we’re in the middle of a five year plan, which calls for some major changes. We’ve had big surprises along the way—some have been wonderful, some not so much—but I don’t think that any of the leaders of this extended project (and the leadership has changed over time)—I don’t think any of the leaders have felt that we wouldn’t accomplish what we have set out to do.

There is a healthy sense of agility about fulfilling the plan, which took two years to create—but there is a sense of trust, within the congregation and in the congregation as a whole, that we will be the church we imagined, by 2010.

That trust doesn’t come simply from gathering some mature people together and setting them to a task. It’s deeper than that.

It comes from serious congregational discernment.

And this is the last element of my list:

A spiritually mature congregation makes choices about what direction she will take, what purposes she will fulfill, how she will present herself in the world, how she will face the future.

This is very hard for us. It’s just hard for us. We don’t want to cut ourselves off from possibility. We don’t want to limit our options. It’s hard enough in life. It’s extremely hard for congregations.

It’s why we have to vote on things, and then move forward in the democratic process to embody the results of that vote. It’s why we have to practice discernment.

Just as the Quakers have their spiritual practice of consensus, based on a clear system of soul searching and seeking the will of the whole, so do we have our democratic processes, based on discernment, election, and then speaking as one voice after the results of the election are known.

How Do We Get There?

I commend to you the book Holy Conversations by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann, if you are interested in a guidebook for this process. But let me briefly describe what we need to do.

First, we need at least a core of spiritually mature people in our churches to help us keep our congregational poise.

To be one of those people, you need to foster the qualities that the Faithful Conversations project has begun to name. You need to foster a practice: be it journal writing, or meditation and prayer, or learning poetry and wisdom words by heart, or daily study and practice of contemplative “skillful means”. And somewhere in that practice you need to ask yourself a question on behalf of your congregation. The biggest ones being who you are as a congregation, what purposes do you serve, and what you are bringing into the future.

Then you need to gather with others who are asking the same questions on your congregation’s behalf. Then in your worship services, you need to raise up this quest so that it becomes part of the movement you experience together each week.

Personify your practice. Say, “Our congregation is like . . . ” (If she is not a ship which is gathering in those who are lost at sea without a chart and compass for their spiritual natures—then what is she?

It is too bad that we have mostly chosen to be the First Unitarian Universalist Church of . . . (our town). Because we’ve lost our chance to name our churches in this larger, metaphorical way. Our tendency to name churches as The Church of All Souls, at least takes us part of the way there.

But if she is the First Unitarian Church of (our town), then it is important for us to at least know more about her. How does she present herself? (I once was minister of a church which had a consultant ask why our church had its back side to the street. Nobody had noticed that before. I’m happy to say that the next time they built, they turned the orientation of the church around.)

And then once you know who she is, metaphorically speaking, that is—then practice treating her well.

For she contains your past , and your future. She defines your capacity to be significant in the world. She serves you when you lose track of your direction, you can participate in making sure she’s there for others after you’re gone.


I have a favorite poem about such things. It is simply called Poem by Mary Oliver. [Not included here for copyright reasons. See Dreamwork, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986, p. 52–53.]

The spirit likes to dress up as individuals of course. But I hope I’ve at least suggested tonight that the spirit likes to dress up as our congregations. In beauty, in love, in tenderness.

(Copyright © 2007 Laurel Hallman)