I write again from GA in Portland, Oregon. Interesting for me to see this year how the subject of sustainability is brewing. Ecology is always and perpetually big with UUs. The Seventh Principle Project (http://uuministryforearth.org) has a presence in many congregations. But somehow the question of sustainability has come into focus in a new way in our Association in the last year, even just the last few months: how do we do this work sustainably?
On the district staff the voice of this newly focused concern is Karen Brammer, small church specialist in the Northeast District. How do we do our religious associating in a way that is sustainable? So far, I get the sense that we are not yet at the stage of plans and programs. Rather we are just feeling the discomfort of the question--the discomfort of the implication that how we are doing things now is not sustainable.
Very often the internal measure by which we judge the success of what we do in this work is by how many people show up--average Sunday attendance. Or, number of people at GA. I wonder about this. I recall I went to Russia in the seventies. A tour guide pointed with great pride to some factory smokestakes belching out smoke. To her they were a symbol of progress. The group of American students were a little embarrassed. We did not want to be bad guests but to us--US college students from the seventies--factories belching smoke had another meaning. Might there come a day when our ways of counting our success in building religious community be similarly backward?
For me, it would be only too easy to apply this line of thinking to General Assembly. Is it a mark of success to have convinced so many people to fly to Portland? Yet this is unfair. General Assembly is not one of my favorite things. More pointed question for me would concern all the miles I drive to visit congregations as a district staff person. One of my goals for the year has been to visit as many congregations in the Central Midwest District as possible. I have a big carbon footprint. One oil tanker a year from the Middle East is just for me!
I cannot imagine doing this work of weaving religious community without a lot of travel: Seeing people face-to-face, feeling the spirit of the land--driving through a quiet pine forest in Northern Wisconsin in January, standing in the little cemetery in Central Illinois where Mother Jones and the IWW miners are buried, sitting in a coffee shop in the West End in St. Louis. I want to do more of this, not less. How do I do this without the need for my own personal supertanker?
This same ambiguity, of course, exists in each congregation. We have built measures of success based on physical presence in a world where presence requires questionably sustainable use of resources. Common wisdom among congregational experts is that inadequate parking is a certain limitation to congregation growth. We have got to have space for more cars! Can I imagine a day when I would feel the same way about a big church parking lot that I felt thirty years ago in Russia looking at those factories belching smoke?
And what to do? Right now I sense we are in the stage of feeling the weight of the question, feeling the tension between the value of sustainability and the value of religious community.
I know that one thing this means in a practical sense is that this gives a new significance to the district's strategic goal of communication. Feeling this tension over sustainability raises the stakes involved in our work helping each other do a better job communicating electronically.