Worship & Workshop – March 24th

CHECK YOUR EGOS AT THE DOOR, AKA IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU
Kimberly Sweeney
Preached at Hopedale Unitarian Parish, March 24, 2019
“Check your egos at the door” read the sign on the front door of A&M Studios in Los
Angeles on the night of January 28th, 1985. Producer Quincy Jones had placed it
there because 46 of the biggest names in the music industry were arriving in an
unprecedented outpouring of generosity in response to the tragic famine wreaking
havoc in Africa at the time.
Quincy Jones’ task must have seemed impossible to most. He had to get all these
artists–some of whom were known for their fierce independence, others known for
their diva like behaviors–to work smoothly together. Naturally, he was nervous
before the start of the recording session.
Robert Hilburn from the LA Times reported that “when the soloists began arriving at
the studio around 10 p.m., they found their names written on pieces of tape on the floor.
The names were arranged in a half-circle so that three singers would share each of the
six microphones. After all 45 singers finished the chorus, the dozen or so soloists stepped
to the taped lines and began singing their parts. It worked beautifully. No one
complained about position or authority. One reason: They seemed genuinely interested
in the cause. They had exactly one night to cut a record that would save lives by raising money to
help alleviate a famine in Ethiopia.
1 http://www.latimes.com/la-archive-we-are-the-world-mar24-story.html
The result, was the USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” a project envisioned by
Harry Belafonte. In the 33 years since it’s recording, USA for Africa has raised more
than $100,000,000 to help ease the pain of poverty in Africa and the United States.
At that time, it was really unprecedented to see so many musicians performing
together. According to The New York Times ‘ Stephen Holden, “We Are the World” was
influential in subverting the way music and meaning were produced, showing that
musically and racially diverse musicians could work together both productively and
creatively. The musicians represented pop, R&B, country, rock, folk, soul and other
genres. Ebony described the January 28 recording session as being “a major
moment in world music that showed we can change the world”.2
As a young child watching this video play on TV, seeing these celebrities whom I
admired working together, noticing that some very famous musicians were singing
in the chorus and did not have a solo, this made an impact for me. It epitomized the
power of WE. To this day, watching the video or hearing the original song brings
tears to my eyes. It may not be the most complex song musically and it certainly
has its critiques, but We Are the World taught this 7 year old kid that the world was
much bigger than you and I, that there was some amazing power in individuals
coming together, and that in doing so, people could really make a difference.
Today, 30 something years later, I can acknowledge even more complexity in this
story. Quincy Jones set the tone that night with his sign “check your egos at the
door.” It was simple and direct: this is not about you. This is about and for
something bigger than any of us individually, this is not about any one person’s
legacy or success, it isn’t about airtime, genres of music or individual preferences.
They were all serving as backup singers to a purpose that, their song declared, was
2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_Are_the_World
greater than they were. They were 46 unique and individual MEs in the room that
came together as one history making WE.
Now, bear with me here for a moment. This story of the creation of “We Are the
World” has me thinking about Unitarian Universalism. It has me thinking about our
congregations made up of individuals, many of whom wear their fierce
independence as a badge of honor. It has me wondering, OFTEN, what might
happen if we were able to move away from a ME centered expectation of faith to a
WE centered expression of Unitarian Universalism. What am I talking about?
I watch countless religious professionals and lay leaders wrestle with how to best
meet the needs of their people every single day. To be fair, most of the
conversations I’m having and most of the Facebook threads I’ve been reading have
been of one general topic: the future of faith formation, or just the future of
Church. Period. I start to cringe and get a bit twitchy when the case for changing the
“way we’ve always done it” is met with a litany of reasons, excuses, explanations,
warnings etc. that changing X, Y, or Z is not what some people want. Sometimes
“some people” means parents of young children. Sometimes “some people” means
older adults without children. Sometime “some people” means those who pledge
the most. Sometimes “some people” means white members accustomed to being
part of a dominant culture.
Friends, I gotta ask: when did the mission of church become getting what you
want? I did some time in Catholic school, took some World Religion courses in
college and am a credentialed religious educator, and I have to say, I have never
seen the mission of any church of any particular denomination to be to make the
people happy and give them what they want. Why? Because church isn’t Burger
King. Have a listen:

The longer you have been in this work, the more often you hear things like:
I’m looking for a church that meets my needs.
What are you going to do to better meet my needs?
I’m leaving this church to find one that better suits my needs.
A few years ago, while in search for a new minister, a congregation was
participating in a workshop on welcoming their new settled clergyperson. When the
facilitator asked, “What is the minister’s primary job,” somebody answered, “To
make us happy.” “To serve our needs,” somebody else chimed in.
To which the facilitator replied, “Guess what? The minister’s job is not to make you
happy. The minister’s job is to serve the mission of the church.” There was a sharp
intake of breath in the room. That moment was such a shock of recognition that the
people who were there remember it still. It’s not all about me. It’s not all about my
needs. The attitude that the church exists to meet the needs of members is one
more remnant of consumer-oriented church. This message, implicitly or explicitly,
of a consumer oriented church, of a ME centered expectation of faith, is how so
many adults and youth have come to understand Unitarian Universalism.
The Rev. Peter Boullatta tells this story, a story that I’ve heard countless versions of
over the years:
Recently, a fellow who does some work for my congregation was in the building. We had
never met before, and so we introduced ourselves and chatted for a while in the church
office. At one point he said to me, “You know, I should tell you this story. I have a
thirteen-year-old son who has been asking a lot of religious questions lately. I was raised
Catholic, but we’re not involved at all, and haven’t really given him a religious education.
One day, my son was with me in the car when we drove by another Unitarian
Universalist church. He asked me, because he knew that I had done some work for them,
what kind of a church it was. When I told him, he asked what Unitarian Universalists
believe. So I told him, ‘Well they don’t really believe anything specific. It’s a religion where
whatever you think or believe or feel is what the religion is all about.’ And my son said,
‘That’s the kind of church I want to go to!’” And the fellow chuckled and we had some
pleasantries about his teenager being a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it.
But my pleasant facade betrayed the bomb that had just gone off in my head. Oh dear
God, it’s true. We have institutionalized narcissism. Here was a person that was not
involved in a Unitarian Universalist church, and yet knew something about us. As an
outsider, the message he received about what we stand for is: It’s about whatever you
want it to be about. It’s all about you! 3
The man in this story was sharing his learned understanding of Unitarian
Universalism with his son. Maybe he had spoken with UUs who told him this was a
faith of deeds instead of creeds. Maybe he heard about this commitment to a free
and responsible search for truth and meaning, and maybe someone explained a
3 https://peterboullata.com/2011/12/29/the-liberal-church-finding-its-mission-its-not-about-you/
covenant to affirm and promote some basic principles rather than doctrines. But
what he understood, or what he was possibly even told was “we don’t believe
anything, or more likely, you can be a UU and believe whatever you want.”
Church is not the place to go to have everything just the way you want it and
Unitarian Universalism is not actually a religion that’s all about you and whatever
you want. Church is being subsumed by these consumerist expectations from our
members, sometimes forgetting altogether that the mission is not people pleasing.
For starters, that would be an impossible mission. When someone says that a
church doesn’t meet their needs, what they usually mean is a church doesn’t suit
their preferences.
I prefer a more contemplative style of worship.
I really wants some drums and a bass guitar.
I don’t like being around kids.
I don’t like sending my kids away during worship.
There’s too much talk of God, there’s not enough.
Preferences. These are all preferences. And each one contradicts the next. YOU
CANNOT PLEASE ALL THE PEOPLE. Not only is trying to please all the people a
terrible strategy, it’s also not possible. The moment you begin to focus more on
who you want to keep rather than who you want to reach, you put the mission in
danger.
If a church ever meets all your people’s needs or preferences, it’s probably
off-mission. For starters, the church was never designed to meet all your needs. It
was designed for bringing the love and grace of Unitarian Universalism to the
world.
A church that is only about meeting people’s needs or wants is a church that’s
focused on insiders. To be fair, we all have a few basic needs. A church should be
centered around faith and should be reasonably healthy. And it should focus on the
true mission of the church. When you try to make everyone happy, when that
becomes the unspoken main motivation behind our work, we end up perpetuating
the consumer oriented model of church.
In our programs, our congregations, and in our movement more broadly, we are
having conversations about mission. What is our purpose? What are we called to
do? In a collection of individuals, each on their own responsible search, these
questions are impossible to answer. There is no “we.” There is no shared identity,
let alone shared sense of purpose or mission.
I don’t think we can pull a Quincy Jones and post “check your egos at the door” on
our wayside pulpits. But we can help our congregations to understand: this is not
about you. Being part of a religious community is hard work. This congregation is
about and for something bigger than any of us individually, our religious tradition is
is not about any one person’s legacy, leadership, vision or theology, it isn’t about
airtime, or individual preferences. They were all serving as backup singers to a
purpose that, as their song declared, was greater than they were. What greater
purpose are we serving?
There are scores of nonprofits and organizations living their missions: Showing up
For Racial Justice, GLAAD, 350.org, PETA, Mijente. I’m sure we could spend the next
hour naming countless others that we support, endorse, volunteer with and serve.
These organizations know their purpose and their mission. Neither their purpose
nor their mission is about teaching or preaching Unitarian Universalism. That is
uniquely, clearly, and unapologetically ours. And friends? Unitarian Universalism is
bigger than any single one of us.
Until we reverse the trend away from the consumer model of church, we’re going to
miss the obvious abundance of resources around us and the opportunities to
overcome the challenges that leave so many congregations feeling incapable of
effecting change.
It may have been relatively easy to slip into this consumer mindset over the past
few decades, but it will take a truck load of intention to refocus our ministries on
the mission of the church, and not the preferences of the people. This is what will
set your church apart from any other nonprofit, community group or country club.
Church is work. Worship is work. Being in community with people who don’t look
like you, act like you, think like you, or worship the way you do is work. Being in
Beloved Community is about a mission of inclusion and justice for all people, not
the appeasement or preferences of some.
The next time find yourself in a conversation or Facebook thread about any manner
of topics involving changing the way “we’ve always done it,” ask yourself if this is a
conversation about mission or preference. Because at the end of the day, the
mission of the church really isn’t about made to order Whoppers or “meeting your
needs.” It’s about so much more than that. As your own Reverend Tony shared
with you this month “ Congregations with a well defined mission understand themselves to be on
a journey of faith together that by its nature implies risk and uncertainty. Instead of fearing this risk
and uncertainty, missional congregations see it as the natural terrain for serving the needs of the
world….When we understand that constant change, at least gradual constant change, is the spiritual
playing field, we approach the challenges of change – such as dealing with loss and the sense of
insecurity as well as new opportunities for growth and learning – as a deep, intentional, regular
practice of what life in a faith community is all about. Life and growth are the journey and the journey
is the destination.”


Date/Time
Date(s) - Mar 24, 2019
10:00 am - 2:00 pm

Location
Hopedale Unitarian Parish