Three times per year First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City (“The 1UC in OKC” as we like to call ourselves) holds a new member welcome as part of our worship service. These welcomes usually occur early in the service, the Sunday after we hold our “Path to Membership” course—which is offered either as three weekday evenings over three weeks or a half day Saturday,
The ceremony acknowledges the covenantal bonds that connect the congregation with new members affirming their intent to stand with the members of the church and existing members acknowledging every new member changes the church. During this ceremony, we also “open” the membership book to others in the congregation who have been attending for a while and think that this is the right time for them to make a commitment.
After we have opened the book, welcomed new members and acknowledged our covenantal bonds, we do one more thing that lifts up an important part of church life. We offer the new members, and the existing members, something of a warning. “Churches are not perfect,” we tell them. “Neither are the members who fill its pews, staff its committees or work to bring to life the vision we hold in common.”
What does this mean? We tell them that, “If you hang around this church long enough, one of two things—and likely both—will happen to you. Eventually you will disappoint the church or the church will disappoint you.” I used to tell people that eventually the church would “break your heart or you will break the church’s heart” but I softened the
language at the urging of some our longer-term members—but the sentiment remains. It is entirely likely that at some point, the church will fail you or you will fail the church.
“A time may come when the church doesn’t do something that you believe is important. We may fail to act on an issue or even act in a manner opposite of what you would desire. At the same time it is possible that you won’t do something that the church asks of you or you will not do it in the way that other church members hope and expect.”
This is quite natural, we tell them, and while it is sad, it is part of being imperfect people banding together in an imperfect way to create an imperfect institution. The most important part of this message is what comes after this warning. We tell them, “It isn’t that what happened isn’t important (pardon the double negative). It is, but what is more important is what happens next. If our covenanted community stands for anything, it stands for being together, through our imperfections and working to improve our church and world with every opportunity. If we can live in this kind of community then the church we build together, new and old, is alive.”
The Reverend Mark W. Christian serves the “1UC in OKC,” aka First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City. When asked how long he has been there, Mark answers “Somewhere between 14 and 57 years.” He returned to lead the church he grew up in back in 2001. Mark has a long list of UU leadership positions serving as a Congregational President (before going to seminary), Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Chapter President, on the SouthWest Unitarian Universalist Conference Board (twice now), on the UUMA Exec as Secretary and as a Ministerial Settlement Representative. He takes great pride in the 1UC’s youth programming and community organizing work.