Discovering who I am through Unitarian Universalism

I gave this talk in January 2014. I’ve been thinking about it again because this Sunday is Music Ministry Sunday and it is also when I am running for President of the Board. You can learn a lot from singing and singing with others. Here is some of what I’ve learned.

Give yourself to love
Love is what you’re after
Open up your heart to
The tears and laughter
And, give yourself to love
Give yourself to love

I learned this song many years ago when I lived in Columbia, MO. The church I attended at the time, Unity, had an annual women’s retreat. At the retreat, along with other things, we sang to each other and this was one of the songs we sang year after year. This song helped “create the space” if you will, for deep sharing and listening. While I was thinking about this sermon this song came back to me as a metaphor for what happens when you give yourself to leadership, to service. Service, done well, changes you and, in my experience, makes you a better person. When we serve in a leadership position, I’m sure we don’t think of it as love. Our work tends to be tied up in things like agendas and meetings. However, I believe that in actuality if we allow ourselves to, we will experience love.

My goal in giving this sermon today is to encourage more participation in our community, to help people see the value in contributing their time and energy to UUCG. In thinking about this sermon, I realized that there were many lessons that I’ve learned about leadership through my involvement in choir. The choir has a choir guide but none of these lessons are written in it, these are things I’ve learned along the way that I feel can make us better leaders both as individuals and in the community at large.

I began attending UUCG in 2005, became a member in 2006 and in 2007 I became a member of the board and served as a trustee for three years. I have also served as a teacher in the Religious Education program and as co-chair of the Fellowship Team, and I currently serve as chair of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender subcommittee of the Justice Action Team. In 2012 I became Vice President and serve with the members of the board to strive towards effective operations of our church. I believe I’ve sung in the choir since 2005, there was no official joining date.

I love to sing although I have no musical training to speak of. I sang in the choir for one semester in high school and I played the flute during the seventh and eighth grades. From this training, I learned about notes and rhythm. The first year I played flute my band teacher gave me a flute and instruction books and had me in a back room by myself because she said she didn’t have time to teach someone from scratch. So I learned how to count and what pitch sounds like through playing the flute. And, of course, I can’t leave out that my mom used to sing around the house all the time so from her I learned to match pitch. I’ve never asked her but I’m sure she’s a soprano II, just like me (or rather, I’m just like her). That’s it, my entire musical training before coming to UUCG. Before coming to UUCG I also had never taught 3-5th grade or served on the board of any church but that didn’t stop me from trying when the opportunity arose. I responded to a request and my life is better because of it.

Which brings me to the first lesson about singing that I think is really important: the courage to start. Believe it or not, this can be a major stumbling block. Not knowing the right note and the right rhythm can derail a piece before its even begun. But you know what’s trickier? When we do a song that a section stops in one part and then starts again later. No one wants to be the one who begins too soon. If you notice, we pay close attention to Mark, specifically Mark’s eyebrows because they tell us when to “enter.” One of the benefits of months of practice is that hopefully since we’ve sung a song many times, we’ve developed “muscle memory” in our brains so that when we finally perform the piece it flows right out of us, without having to worry about what is going to happen next.

Sometimes leadership can feel the same. I ask myself, “Is this the right time? Should I go for it? Should I say something now or later?” And sometimes I wait for outside signs. But without risk, when will we know what the right time is? I believe that leadership requires both risk taking and practice. You don’t get better at something by not doing it, you have to do the same thing over and over again to finally get comfortable with it. The same goes for service and leadership. The first time Mark introduces a song to us, we stumble through it and over time we improve. Because Mark is always introducing new music to us, we get better and better at reading new music. By taking leadership risks over and over again, we get better at it. Each time you try something new as a leader, your “muscle memory” improves, you gain confidence, and you realize that the next time will be easier. You just have to have the courage to start. And starting can happen at anytime. Even if you’ve been attending UUCG for years, there is no time like the present to decide that you are going to run for a particular office, serve on a committee or team, or be an RE teacher. Anyone can decide to become a leader at anytime. As we say here, all are welcome.

For whatever reason the culture at this church is that people don’t get involved unless they are personally asked. I understand the hesitancy to take part in something, but truthfully I think this comes down to our own insecurities, including mine. “What will they think of me if I do this?” I’m sure is in the back of our minds when we choose to sit on the sidelines. The thing is, people get asked to do things when they have a history of being involved. How will others know what you can do if you don’t step up? What can we learn from you, how we can we hear your music, if you don’t say, Here am I? Our Religious Education program needs teachers. Having experience teaching is not a requirement. A desire to open your heart to the teachings of Unitarian Universalism and to just be with our children is all that is needed.

I’m going to call out a newbie member of the choir, Jeff. If he hadn’t joined the choir, we wouldn’t know he has an amazing voice. He recently sang a solo, which, believe me, takes a lot of courage! The choir is a better place because he joined us. I know he was nervous when he first came to the choir and on his first Sunday, which is completely understandable. Sitting in the choir loft can be a scary place, but over time it gets easier.

But sometimes, an important thing to know is when not to sing. Not singing can be just as important, sometimes more so, than singing itself. Don’t sing when it’s not your turn! Don’t sing when it’s somebody else’s moment. For the choir this can translate to “don’t sing over someone else’s solo.” In leadership this translates to the importance of knowing your role. When I began singing with the choir, I joined the alto section because I thought I sang that part. For a brief time I sang with my church choir in Missouri (I discovered that the choir director’s style didn’t fit with mine so I quit) and the choir director told me I was an alto. I believed him. Within a few months of singing at UUCG I discovered that I was definitely not an alto because I had a hard time hitting some of the low notes. I learned that you have to sing in the section that has a range that is comfortable for you – not too low, not too high. A soprano would never sing the bass line, the basses would never sing the soprano line. We are very clear where our boundaries are and what our role is in the choir and we don’t sing outside our ranges.

In leadership, the same truth “know your part” also holds true. Never in a million years would I attempt to do Lonnie’s job as treasurer. He does an amazing job of keeping our current numbers in line while also keeping us updated about projections for the future. We ask questions, but we also know that he knows what he’s talking about in regards to our church’s finances. Whether we are board members, RE teachers, or part of the hospitality team, we each have a part to play. Some of our church’s biggest conflicts have been when there has been confusion over roles and boundaries. Rev. Ann Marie is helping us learn the differences between governance and ministry and gently reminding us when the board is crossing into the ministerial functions of the church. We are all learning, slowly but surely. Each of us learns from each other but we also respect each other’s roles and do our best not to overstep our boundaries.

Our church’s role in the community could also be looked at through this lens: what is our role? How do we make sure we are only doing what we are called to do? What do we do well? What do we do, how shall I say it, not so well? What do we really need to focus on? What is our church’s role within Unitarian Universalism and within our community? These are big identity focused questions that we have been trying to resolve. I have faith that we are going to continue exploring these questions over time. Over the last few years our adult RE program has had several UU history classes that remind us of our roots. We also have our Strategic Planning work that we’ve done last spring and this fall and we have our archives to remind us of our church’s history. We might stumble at times, but thankfully we have each other to gently guide our church along the path.

Something that we in the choir work on a lot is mindfulness, although I don’t remember us ever talking about it. The thing is, if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on around you, you could be singing by yourself. Not fun. Believe me, I’ve done it. Singing requires constant attention to the notes, the words, the rhythm, the intonation, and even the meaning of the song. It’s a lot to keep up with! If you’re not paying attention you could lose your place and end up singing at the same time. But if you’re truly paying attention while singing, you can’t be doing anything else. No other thoughts are in your mind, only the music. That is one of the beauties of singing. This moment, right here, right now, is all there is.

Leadership also requires mindfulness. When I’m in meetings I pay attention to not only who is speaking and what they’re saying, but what is happening in the room and how people are interacting. I try to listen to what’s being said – and not being said. I’m certainly not perfect at observing and responding but I do try. This is an area that I work on continuously.

Good performance requires preparation. At choir rehearsals, Mark has a white board that he uses to list the songs we are going to practice that night. It is the responsibility of the choir members to review the list before the rehearsal begins to see if they are missing any of those songs, and if so to get them from the music box and add it to their folders. If choir members don’t get the new music before choir begins, the rehearsal can be disrupted many times with people getting up and down to get music. Before the Sunday service, many choir members put the songs that are going to be sung that day at the front of their choir folders so they don’t have to look through them during the service.

Leadership requires preparation. There are things like getting agendas out on time, showing up to the meeting space early, setting up the room, reading reports ahead of time, and responding to emails. This makes it sound really boring but I look at it like it’s a way of showing respect to the people on the team, committee, council, or board that I’m attending. Being prepared is a way that I show that I care about good use of our time and resources.

In terms of spirituality, I think of it in terms of, “How am I preparing myself for new possibilities in my life? What am I doing to lay the ground work for new challenges and opportunities?” As a church, we have been preparing ourselves for a new settled minister for several years now. We have reorganized our organizational structure and we have done regular assessments of our operations and how we interact with each other. This will lead to being prepared when an opportunity comes our way. If we get a call to partnership with another local church or community organization, we will know how to respond; we will know who within our church are the right people to be part of this new partnership and we will have the structure in place to make this happen. We have made huge progress over the years.

My final lesson about singing I’d like to share today is, I think, the most important: It’s not about me. When we as individuals come to rehearsals or to the Sunday service we know that, unless we’re singing a solo, most people will not hear individual singers, which is how it should be. Each of us sings our part but if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, the congregation hears us as one body, one voice. Choral singing, done well means that we are not drawing attention to ourselves as individuals but to the whole experience of singing with others. I rely on those around me (remember what I said earlier about my lack of musical training?) but I try not to stand out on my own. We are all in this together. Each one affects the whole. We need each other and the experience of practicing together repeatedly to perform a song well.

It is the same in leadership. I did not decide to run for vice president because I wanted to call attention to myself but because I wanted to do what I could towards improving our church. It is not my goal for people to remember me as an individual but to remember the feeling of the church running smoothly and efficiently. My hope is that with each of us doing our parts, without making it about us as individuals, we can accomplish so much more together. When the community sees our church involved in a project or event, my wish is for them to see us as a whole, not as specific individuals. When our church marched in the Crop walk in October, we were one of many churches and organizations who contributed to the whole. I see our work as a constant balance in this area. Yes, we would like to be more visible in the community, but if we are doing our work well, people will remember that this is a place where all are accepted and loved just as they are. We don’t do good works in the community to say, “Look at the good works we’ve done,” instead we do them because it’s the right thing to do.

I want to end with telling you about the last women’s retreat I attended at Unity. I was co-chair of this event and was actively involved in the plan. The planning team had put together a really great retreat. But we learned quickly, when our keynote speaker was late on Friday night, that sometimes things turn out better than expected when we just let them happen. So we improvised and spontaneously created a new event for that evening which turned out better than any of us could have imagined. And on the closing morning of the retreat, just when we were about to sing together for the last time, a deer walked by our building. You could say that the morning did not work out the way we had planned, it turned out better. We had the courage to start the planning (the more I think about it, the more audacious I think it is to think you have what it takes to create an event like this), we prepared for months, we delegated tasks to others and did not try to take over their tasks, and when the time came, we got out of the way.

Friends, we all have a part to play. Whether the work you do has a position title or not, it matters. We all need each other. Here at the very beginning of 2014, ask yourself what you can do for our church, and what our church can do for our community and the world.


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