© Dr. Chris Schriner 2008
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 24, 2008

Over 80 years ago the Rev. Olympia Brown challenged her fellow Universalists to "be loyal to this faith which has placed before us the loftiest ideals." Clearly she was excited about Universalism and I hope you are just as excited at what Unitarian Universalism has to offer. Our denomination has discovered that we cannot unite humanity by proclaiming some absolute and final "revealed truth." Claims of absolute truth divide those who have one viewpoint from those who have another. It is much more empowering and life-giving to focus on common values instead of common beliefs, to build community based on our commitments rather than on our opinions about theology. That is a revolutionary approach to spirituality.

Before I go further I should explain to our visitors that this will not be a typical sermon. This is my annual talk about how Mission Peak is doing. Today we will focus more on building a better congregation than on building a better world or improving our own lives.

This sermon is also unusual because today is the first Sunday since the announcement that I am retiring from full-time parish ministry, and I'm amazed at the impact this has had. In fact, another gray-haired fellow with a beard, someone I don't even know personally, decided to follow my example this week. "If Señor Chris can retire, then so can I!" exclaimed Fidel Castro. Well, actually my retirement had nothing to do with his, just as Sally Ahnger's retirement as our Director of Religious Education had absolutely nothing to do with my decision.

For some time I have expected that during my mid-to-late sixties I would shift from parish ministry to a continued ministry of study and writing. The timing of this shift depended mostly on my health. Different people age in different ways, and many ministers work vigorously long past 65. In some respects I am aging gracefully. I still have lots of energy - except after lunch. The logical side of my mind is still sharp - although figuring things out may take a bit longer now. But several physical systems seem to be aging rapidly. It's nothing dire, and my risk of imminent death is probably no greater than the average American male my age, but my health concerns detract from my ability to carry out a complex and time-intensive occupation. And so I am refocusing my work on a full-time ministry of the written word. My last day at Mission Peak will be August 31.

Two aspects of this transition are particularly daunting. First, now that I have announced my retirement I can no longer play a leadership role regarding policies or programs which will occur after my departure. For example, I must not urge the congregation either to conduct or not to conduct a capital fund drive, since this would occur in the future. But I can still talk about how we conduct the pledge drive because that will take place prior to August 31. Since I am accustomed to discussing future programs and policies I will have to watch what I say very carefully! So I'm keeping this sock handy (pulling large sock out of pocket) to stuff into my own mouth as needed, and these band-aids in case I have to bite my tongue.

That will be a big adjustment, but now I have to tell you what's even harder. It is customary during the interim ministry for the retiring minister to refrain from contact with the congregation or its members, even if he or she continues to live in the area. We will still be in Fremont, and if I see you at Trader Joe's we'll say "Hi" just as we did while I was on sabbatical. But during the entire interim period I will not be socializing with members beyond casual chance meetings.

Most ministers in my situation find this separation difficult, and I'm sure I will too. But many denominations have concluded that it is necessary in order to establish a new ministry on solid footing. Furthermore, after being your minister I can't simply flip a switch and become just another member. It takes a fairly lengthy absence to interrupt our automatic habits of communicating about congregational and pastoral concerns. Some retiring ministers eventually resume active involvement in their former congregation, and some do not. Although I'll be in Fremont you can think of this transition as if I were relocating to another state, with the possibility of moving back here later on.

Your interim will help loosen up expectations about how ministers operate. Mission Peak has been a chartered congregation for almost fourteen years and by August 31 I will have served here for eight years. Some of you have never known any other Mission Peak parish minister but me. And you probably won't be surprised to hear that I have a unique ministerial style. I don't like doing things the way everybody else does them. For example, I'm the only minister I know who asked to split his sabbatical into two parts, and who often includes a discussion within the Sunday service. Your next minister is not likely to do either of these things.

My personal style is also rather casual and non-traditional. For instance, most of my sermons include humor. Some of my colleagues also tell jokes, but other very fine religious professionals are more serious. Since I do not focus on tradition, some other UU ministers put more thought into rituals such as offering pastoral prayers and grace before meals. That just isn't my priority, so it's not one of my strengths. For example, recently a fellow came to me for a special ritual, and I had a little trouble with it. He had saved for twenty years to buy his dream car, a 200-MPH Lamborghini. Recognizing that this was truly a spiritual moment, he had first driven to St. Joseph's Catholic Church and asked the priest, "Father, I was wondering if you'd say a blessing on my Lamborghini." "Certainly, my son, but what's a Lamborghini?" "Sorry to have troubled you Father - I just have a feeling you're not right for the job." Next he drove to Temple Beth Torah. "Rabbi, would you say a blessing on my Lamborghini." "Certainly, but what's a Lamborghini." Finally he drove to Cole Hall one Sunday and took me out to the parking lot. "Rev. Schriner, would you bless this beautiful Lamborghini." "WOW, would I ever!!?" I replied. "But what's a 'blessing'?"

Another aspect of my personal style is time-consciousness, so I like to end by 11:05. Some of you think I'm way too obsessive about that, and you may be right. Every clerical style has advantages and disadvantages, and thank goodness we are not all alike.

As I look back on our time together, trying to fulfill the mission of Mission Peak, I think we must have been doing something right. In terms of numerical growth, in 2000 we had about 84 members. After today's Ingathering we have 123, our highest total ever, an increase of about 50%, and I much appreciate the fine work of our Membership Committee. And in many ways the competence of this congregation equals that of churches with several hundred members. Our web site is beautiful and conscientiously maintained. Our newsletter looks great. The Sunday Service team is well-organized. We are ably led by our Board and Program Council, and we have strong programs in finance, Worship Associates, Pastoral Associates, and music, including the choir. Adult programs such as Small Group Ministry and Building the World We Dream About give us new insights and deepen our spirituality. We have fun together at the Black and White Auction, the retreat, and the annual campout. And our Caring Circle helps us channel our concern about members with special challenges.

The Rev. Barbara Meyers has described her ground-breaking community ministry to those with mental illness and their families. And she mentioned our Environmental Committee and our Racial Awareness and Diversity Task Force. We also serve the wider world through our Volunteers of All Ages and our Welcoming Congregation Committee's support for gay, lesbian, and transgender rights. These activities express the positive message of Unitarian Universalism - respect for all and care for the Earth.

At our Board meeting last week Social Concerns Co-Chairs Beth Schaefer and Natalie Campbell were praised for "doing a fantabulous job." Social Concerns recently concluded its volunteer challenge in which Mission Peak members and friends kept track of volunteer time between January 1 and February 17, hoping to log 500 hours. In the end we amassed 775 hours.

This is a strong congregation, growing, dynamic, dedicated, involved in spiritual and personal growth, and making a difference in the wider world.

Of course we have challenges but we have had plenty of challenges in the past. Last year when I offered my state-of-the-congregation sermon, we had lost our lease and did not even know where we'd be holding our services. Compared to finding a new site, finding a new minister should be easy!

One of our biggest challenges is continuing the wonderful vitality of our program for children and youth. Since Sally Ahnger, our highly competent Director of Religious Education, is also retiring, we are looking for another DRE. Just as future ministers will lead services differently than I do, we can't expect someone else to be "another Sally." He or she will bring us a unique combination of strengths and gifts. Even if we don't find someone with every single talent we would wish for, we certainly have the personal, spiritual, and intellectual resources within this congregation to supplement the skills of our next religious educator.

One reason religious education is so important is that many children grow up without basic spiritual literacy. I heard about a Sunday School class that was discussing "prayer," and the children knew that you end a prayer with "amen." "Does anyone know what 'amen' means?" the teacher asked. A little boy replied (pretending to click a computer mouse), "Well, I think it means, like ... "send."

Regardless of our own personal levels of religious literacy and sophistication, we Unitarian Universalists carry a great treasure in our fragile hands. This treasure is not just Mission Peak. This treasure is not just Unitarian Universalism. This treasure is the Unitarian Universalist vision of freedom in community, gathering positive power from commitment to common values. And because this vision is so precious, we should beware of being sidetracked by short-term difficulties.

  • Maybe you have an argument with somebody in the congregation, and don't feel comfortable around that person.
    Keep coming. Our vision is bigger than transitory interpersonal irritations.
  • The usual order of service changes in a way that you feel is wrong. Express your concern frankly to someone in a responsible position, but
    keep coming. This vision is bigger than the way we conduct worship.
  • Your minister retires and a stranger occupies the pulpit.
    Keep coming. Unitarian Universalism is a ministry, not a minister.

    The Unitarian Universalist vision is like a great tree of life that will blossom and grow far beyond our lifetimes, in ways we cannot yet even dream. Stand by this faith, this hope, this vision of love, that gathers us as one human family in spite of all that would divide us. And rejoice that we can play our part in making this be so. (Minister pretends to click a computer mouse:) Amen.

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