field of dreamsIn a scene from the movie, Field of Dreams, the protagonist Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner and the fictional writer and social activist, Thomas Mann, played by James Earl Jones, are at Fenway Park in Boston.  They’re talking about the reasons why Mann dropped out of mainstream society when Kinsella asks him, “What do you want?” “ I want them to stop looking to me for answers”, Mann responds. “Begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. And I want my privacy!”

Pointing to the concession stand, Kinsella hesitantly says, “No, I meant… what do you want?”

“Oh!”, Mann laughs, “A dog and a beer.”

Similarly, when congregations contact me asking for assistance in growing, now my first response is “What do you want?”  Do you want to grow in numbers?  Do you want to be free from conflict?  Do you want to make a difference in your local community?  Do you want members to be more involved in congregational life?  Do you want a greater sense of spirituality in your worship services and in your interactions with each other?  What do you want?

Often, looking to their mission as a guide for determining what a congregation wants is ineffective.   Many mission statements try to say so much that they wind up saying virtually nothing about what the congregation wants.  Here’s one of my favorite samples: The mission of name withheld to avoid possible lawsuit or at least having that congregation angry with me  is to build and sustain a welcoming, caring, inclusive community for all ages that nurtures each person’s lifelong journey of faith informed by reason.  Dedicated to peace and celebration, our sacred space provides a supportive environment in which we can create lives of integrity, service, and joy.  We call upon ourselves and one another to live our Unitarian Universalist principles in our communities and in the larger world, striving for social justice and caring for our planet Earth.

Huh?  I’m sorry. What is it you want???

The concept of congregational polity as a Unitarian Universalist concept doesn’t just mean that congregations have the right to govern themselves as they see fit.  It also means that they can be whatever they want to be.  That’s why there is no pat answer to the question, “How can we grow?”  The question that congregations must wrestle with is, “What do you want?”

The answer may not be as simple as “a dog and a beer”, but it doesn’t have to be much more complicated.



About the Author
Mark Bernstein
Growth Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA. I believe that when congregations grow in strength and vitality and spirituality, they grow in numbers. It doesn't work the other way around. More information about me can be found on the CERG regional website