Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

“Cats, Collies and Well-Tended Gardens”–an Interim Minister’s Farewell Sermon

Minnesota Valley UU Fellowship
Sunday, June 8, 2008, Bloomington, Minnesota

In one short year, the spirit of this Fellowship has touched me, and your way of being together has impressed me, taught me, and reminded me of some important lessons.
For example, with you I have been reminded that all of us are fallible. Human beings let other people down, and feel let down by others. We disappoint ourselves, too. It’s such a relief to remember that you can count on this–all through your life! To any of you who have felt let down, or even hurt, by my words, actions or lack of them, I apologize and ask for your forgiveness. I ask you to have compassion for me in my imperfections and compassion for yourself in your experience of hurt or of disappointment.
Another example: I have had my faith restored about this: while ministers may be called or hired to serve congregations, the ministry is not reserved for professionals alone. If the members of a congregation had no sense of ministry to one another or to the wider community, no professional’s talents would make a whit of difference. You have been talking this year about sharing the ministry, about minister and lay leaders working as partners. You have the talent and you have the spirit to make shared ministry blossom and flourish.
In my final reflections I’d like to leave you with some concepts I learned in a book. The book is Looking in the Mirror, by Lyle Schaller. He’s a church consultant for Mainline Protestant congregations. He’s written over 20 books and some of them are favorites with UU ministers.
Schaller explains how differences in church size affect congregational dynamics and personality, and how size differences relate to professional ministers. Schaller says that a small church is a very different animal from a mid-size church. What kind of animal, you might ask. Well, a small church is like a cat. There are lots of cat congregations in Protestant America: one-fourth of all churches have fewer than 40 people on any given Sunday. How many of you have ever owed a cat? [HANDS.] No, no: If you answered yes, then you “don’t understand cats,” Shaller says. Nobody “owns a cat. You may keep a cat. You may work for a cat.” But they are “independent” and “self-sufficient creatures,” Schaller says. They live by instinct and do not want to be trained. Do you think this Fellowship was ever a cat?
Cats don’t like big groups. They’re fine by themselves or with a few others with the same temperament—but a houseful of cats? You can hear the growls: “That’s too many.” Cat congregations don’t have much need for ministers, except in a limited role. They know that ministers come and go. The cat’s main concern is: When am I going to get fed? The professional who doles out the spiritual kitty chow might be different from week to week or the professional might change every few years. A cat may even decide there’s other ways to get its needs met than with a professional cat-sitter. The cat says: “So long as I can hear the whirring sound of that can opener when I expect it, I’ll be fine.” Cats “rarely seek advice on improving their [skills,] performance and behavior,” Schaller says. He asks: “Have you ever [known] a cat that wanted to be transformed into a dog?”
The next category is a dog, as a matter of fact, but not just any dog: a collie! Collie congregations have up to 100 people attending on a given Sunday. Has the Fellowship been a collie? Well, collies are cheerful and loyal. A collie congregation likes everybody to be happy. It does want to be fed, of course, and to be looked out after. Often a part-time minister can provide that for a collie. What a collie wants, most of all, is to know: “Do you love me?” It wants to be loved, and it likes to spread the love.
Let’s say the minister goes away for a few weeks, and the feeding and the walking for the collie have been arranged in advance. There may not be a backlog of work when the minister returns; a well-behaved collie does not create much new work. But even though little has changed around the house and things went well in the minister’s absence, the collie is darn glad to see the minister come home! The cat, one the other hand, says, “Oh, you’re back. I didn’t realize you were gone.”
The next size category is the church that receives 100 to 175 people on a Sunday. This church is such a complex thing that it can’t be compared to an animal or to any single organism–it’s a system. In Schaller’s terms, the mid-size church is a garden. Has the Fellowship become a garden in some ways? In most garden congregations, there’s a lot going on. To thrive and be fruitful, gardens must be planted with intention and tended and protected. In such a garden there are different things to feed many different kinds of people. Nobody is expected to like everything in it, of course. People can focus on their favorite garden foods, though now and then you might have something new. In general, though, the eggplant folks generally hang around with others like themselves, and the rhubarb crowd sticks together, and the zucchini people—well, don’t they have a lot of stories!
Garden churches usually have full-time ministers as well as a few other staff leaders to watch over and water all the growing things, and to nurture the seeds of new projects. In a garden, the work is never done. If a key staff person or a key lay leader goes away for a few weeks, coming back is not so easy —weeds grow, things crowd together. Sometimes the garden gets out of hand all together. So gardens need regular tending. With planning, a garden congregation can grow very much in size and in scale. Garden congregations are more comfortable with numerical growth than the other ones. Cat and collie congregations can grow, of course. Beyond a certain level of growth, however, dogs and cats get quite uncomfortable, maybe even ornery. Of course, if a church has grown a lot over the years–from a cat to a collie to a garden– you can be sure that the cat and the collie are still aspects of its personality; the church will have traits of its earlier identities.
And what do collies like to do with gardens? Dig and play in them, mess up those orderly rows. Cats, on the other hand, have little use for gardens—too much work, too structured and organized for a cat. They’d “rather not,” thank you.
If you’re at a garden church, it’s easy to look around, to sample what’s nearby, and to get a feel for the garden as a whole. But not in a house! This is the next size category: the house. Will the Fellowship become a house someday? A house congregation gets around 200 folks on a Sunday. The house has special rooms–that is, well-organized programs. People can come and go in any of the rooms, but they don’t need to go to all them. In fact, it’s not possible to be in every room at the same time. Without attentive hosts in this house, newcomers may not find the rooms, or programs, they’re looking for. The house may have within it a collie congregation from days gone by and maybe a cat or two—the earlier identities of its history.
The cat tries to find a couple of rooms to claim as its lair. And the collie? The collie is frustrated that it can’t get into every room, can’t share the love with everybody at the same time.
I won’t detail the other size categories from Schaller’s book, except to say that the next one is a mansion, and after the mansion is a ranch.
In discussing these categories with me, a UU minister friend made this important point: Some of the stresses of growth in a church have their origin in the earlier identities of a church’s life story. Different folks joined it at different stages in the story: Some joined a cat, others joined a collie, some now are looking upon a garden. Nearly all of us join a particular church because we love it. We join the church we love. The ideal church, for many of us, is the church as it was when we found it. Consequently, changes in its identity can threaten our sense of comfort and familiarity.
You hear questions and worries: “Do we have to keep expanding the garden?”
“Oh, my, now some are dreaming about getting a house! God forbid we ever become a mansion!”
In a changing congregation, it’s important for us to be honest about our feelings and and have compassion for ourselves and for others in the midst of change. None of us is foolish for loving the church as it was when we joined it. It is natural to fear the loss of what we have loved.
It is possible, fortunately, to meet many of the needs of the cat and the collie that continue to live in a church that’s becoming a garden or a house. With planning and good programs, it is possible to serve many of the needs that were met by the earlier identity of the church. However, the shape or the scheduling of the programs that aim to meet those needs may not be identical to that of programs and structures in days gone by. This is known as change by addition instead of by subtraction.
The last metaphor I have for you applies to congregations of all sizes. A congregation is a parade. Unless a congregation is stale or stagnant, it’s moving and changing all the time. New folks come, others leave, babies are born, and volunteers hand on the reigns of leadership. I observe that this Fellowship is not the same congregation I met last August. You have made some big decisions and implemented a new board structure. You’ve grown closer to other churches in the local community. A good number of regular visitors have decided to make the Fellowship their church home. The parade goes on–always.
After I arrived here in the fall I heard phrases like, “We always…,” “Everybody likes,” “Everybody knows…,” “What we want is…” But then I began hearing a variety of preferences and hopes voiced among you and a variety of assumptions about what the Fellowship can be. I learned that making a claim or an assumption about what “everybody” is, or wants or knows is not very helpful in planning for the future. Who “everybody” is, is diverse, and it’s always in flux. “What we are” is changing all the time.
This is not the same congregation I met in August. Yet it has the same spirit. And however much it grows in size, I have confidence that it will grow in spirit.
In the coming years, whatever metaphoric identity this congregation might morph into, I have faith… that your love and care will endure, your witness for freedom and justice will grow, and your practice of compassion and generosity will thrive. Whoever “you” become, and no matter how many become part of it, I believe that this congregation will continue to provide insight, inspiration and hope to all who choose to call it their community and their home.
So may it be. Amen.


Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: