Vision Statement Theological Reflection (February 2020):
“First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia is committed to becoming a church that supports individuals in their process of spiritual seeking and growth.”
One of the foremothers of Unitarian Universalist Religious Education, Rev. Sophia Lyon Fahs (for whom our Communications/Music/Minister for Faith Formation Office Suite is named), led our faith in viewing Religious Education less like ‘pouring content into the brains’ of children or adults and more as ‘inviting the unfolding of the wholeness of their being.’ Her leadership is in part why our 3rd and 4th Principles are “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” and “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” In other words, as Unitarian Universalists, our goal is not for everyone to know the same scripture or believe the same thing, but instead is for us to encourage one another to engage in meaningful and responsible spiritual growth across their lifetimes.
The primary way we put this vision into practice is through our Worship on Sunday morning, where clergy and lay people invite congregants into spiritual exploration through music, sermons, readings, poetry, scripture, reflections, stories, silence, and fellowship with one another. Our worship together invites us into a collective spiritual journey through a spiritual theme, where, when we succeed, each individual is invited into deeper reflection of their own life, relationships, choices, and meaning, and where, no matter what situation you are dealing with in life, you will find something that can help sustain you, nourish you, and strengthen you for the coming week.
Just attending Sunday worship is not enough, though. Even at its best, “consuming” worship is not our goal. In order to truly support individuals in their process of spiritual seeking and growth, we need to help them foster relationships of depth, both within the congregation and in their wider lives. Deep relationships are the real place where we are challenged and supported and transformed.
And so this congregational vision also calls us to build the difficult relational skills of staying at the table when we are in conflict, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with one another. It calls us to come together in small groups to reflect on our own spirituality, like we do in our small group ministries, and to come together to plan and to strategize and to cook and to play, as we do in our justice ministries and governance teams and children’s religious education and caring ministries.
Vision Statement Theological Reflection (November 2019):
Vision Statement 2 from 2018 Mission and Vision Process:
“First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia is committed to becoming a church that empowers congregants to share their talents and grow into leadership.”
Empowering congregants to a) share their talents and b) grow into leadership are vision goals that are both important from the perspective of trying to grow and deepen congregational life, but they carry important theological meaning for us as Unitarian Universalists as well.
Everyone has something to share
As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that a spark of divinity lives in each person, that each person’s inherent worth and dignity deserve to be affirmed and promoted. In other words, we believe that each person has something special to share with the world; we are not divided into those who “contribute” to the world and those who “take” from the world. Sometimes we have the capacity to share time and financial resources and talent with those around us, and sometimes, the most we can offer is a warm hand to hold during a Sunday benediction, or a hello to a newcomer in our community. In this community, each of these gifts matters deeply.
Spiritual Growth Philosophy
Our Children’s Religious Education programming is designed not to ‘pour knowledge into’ the brain of the child, but rather to support the ‘unfolding of each child’s individual soul’ in loving community. Our 4th Principle calls us to devote ourselves to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Whether we call it “unfolding of the soul” or a “search for truth and meaning,” this spiritual growth philosophy holds across the lifespan of Unitarian Universalists. While some congregations might simply ask congregants to attend worship or receive sacraments, we would not be living our theology if we, as a congregation, were not empowering congregants to share their talents and grow into leadership.
Our Universalist heritage reminds us that every person has the capacity for growth and transformation, always. There is no end to the types of talents and leadership skills that might arise within a person if they receive the support and the space to invest in their growth.
Shared Ministry philosophy
We are committed to the “use of the democratic process,” as our 5th principle states, and arise from a history of congregational polity (organizing ourselves as a faith of autonomous congregations that covenant together to form a denomination, rather than a hierarchical denominational structure). These cornerstones of our values and heritage lead us naturally to a vision of a congregation where each person’s gifts are welcome in creating a “shared ministry.” In our faith, professional clergy help to support congregational ministry, but the bulk of our ministry itself is carried out by congregants ministering to each other, whether through music, caring ministries, justice organizing, or small group spiritual development across the age span. To fully embody a “shared ministry” philosophy, we must devote ourselves to empowering each other.
Leadership means many things
In this congregation, leadership means many things, and can come from someone at any stage of life, with any constellation of life circumstances. Besides the traditional types of “positional leadership,” there are those whose leadership might take the form of modeling vulnerability to those who have a hard time asking for help. It might take the form of reaching out to make a hesitant newcomer feel at home and navigate our building. It might take the form of noticing hymnals whose bindings are torn, and quietly repairing the bindings, hymnal by hymnal, week after week. Not all leadership roles are a good fit, or even appropriate, for every person, but all people have the ability to be leaders here.
Vision Statement Theological Reflection (October 2019):
“First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia is committed to becoming a church that welcomes everyone with warmth and openness, and broadest possible access.”
To “welcome” is to honor the holy and the inherent worth within each person. Welcoming someone is saying “you belong here,” “there is a place at this table for you.” To welcome someone into a religious community is to tell them “this is a place where you can lay your burdens down,” “this is a place where you can join something bigger than yourself,” “this is a place where you are not alone.”
For our congregation to commit, deeply commit, to becoming a church that welcomes everyone with warmth and openness is for us to say to each person - long-time member and newcomer, that this is a place where you will be seen for who you are, where you will be known not just for the surface parts of yourself - for your profession, or your skin color, or your gender, or whether you are wealthy or broke. It is a commitment to coming to know the real people who are a part of our community - the complicated and imperfect and gifted and growing parts of each of us. It is placing our faith in the belief that each person has a piece of the Truth, and that each person has something to offer the wider community.
It is a commitment to never asking anyone to be someone other than who they are at their core, and it is a commitment to doing all we can to honor each person’s agency and protect each person’s physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being while they are together in the name of the congregation.
A commitment to welcoming with broadest possible access is about removing barriers to welcome - physical barriers like stairs, financial barriers like required minimum pledges, and cultural barriers like speaking in acronyms or only using graduate-school-level language when we gather. It is a commitment to removing barriers but it is not a passive commitment. Because it is not just a commitment to offering access, it is also a commitment to warmth. And it is a commitment to asking something meaningful of people. We are not welcoming people just to have “butts in the pews” - we are asking people to become part of something big, to be engaged in their own spiritual search with integrity, to genuinely be in covenant with each other, and to be held accountable for helping to create a better world. We are setting the bar high, and we are committing to forgive ourselves and each other when we fail, and to begin again, and again, and again in love.
Welcome isn’t, in and of itself, about growth. And yet, we know that people in our culture and in our city are crying out to find real relationships where they can be truly known, where their souls can grow, and where they know that they are making a difference in the world. As long as there are people who are seeking the kind of community we are trying to create, and as long as there are people who are looking to become part of our mission to awaken love and justice in our lives and the world, our commitment to “welcome everyone with warmth and openness, and broadest possible access” will also be about growth. Because when people want to be part of what is happening here, and when they are not held back by physical or financial or cultural or any other kind of barrier, then we will grow. Because when more people are part of living out our mission in the world, we will be more effective at living out our mission in the world, we must grow. But we do not seek growth for growth’s sake. We attend to growth for the sake of our commitment to welcome.