My Life as a Muppet

Last winter, Amy and I decidedBruce+Amy to go to a movie in a real theater. It was the season when Oscar nominees were much in evidence, and there were several films of seriousness and worth to choose from. We didn’t go to any of these. Instead, we chose The Muppets, a new movie that brought the old gang back to the screen.

            The story is that the original Muppets have moved on to other things. Kermit the Frog is living a quiet retirement in his dusty, spider-webbed mansion. Miss Piggy is working in Paris as Vogue Magazine’s editor for plus-sized fashion. Fonzie Bear is appearing in Reno with a group of Muppet impersonators called the Moppets. Gonzo owns a big plumbing company. Animal is in a celebrity anger-management clinic.

            Thanks to the intervention of a character named Walter, who is presented the world’s biggest Muppet fan, Kermit learns that the old Muppet Theater, site of their former triumphs, is about to be torn down. Oil has been discovered underneath the theater and an oil tycoon named Tex Richman is determined to get at it. The only way to save the theater is to raise $10 million quickly, and so Kermit is convinced to put on a show. He goes out in pursuit of the former Muppets to produce the show and save their theater.

            I liked the movie a lot; no regrets about the choice we made. It brought me back to the days when the Muppets were in their prime, hosting a weekly television show. And I remembered a segment of the TV news show, Sixty Minutes, that included a feature on the Muppets.  I remembered Morley Safer trying to interview Miss Piggy and not doing very well.

            So when I returned home, I did a search and, sure enough, that segment is readily available online. There was Morely Safer starting his interview with Miss Piggy but not getting far before dissolving into giggles. Miss Piggy complains, “I thought he was a good interviewer—could have fooled me!” He tries again, but again loses his composure. Miss Piggy quips, “What’s the matter with the man? I thought 60 Minutes was a high-class show! The man breaks up because he’s talking to a star?”

            This 60 Minutes segment featured the originators of the Muppets and the Muppet characters. There was Jim Henson, who was Kermit and started everything. Also Frank Oz who was Miss Piggy and Fonzie. Plus the originators of such characters as the Great Gonzo, Scooter, and Beauregard. It characterized a typical Muppet show as a scene of happy chaos, just on the verge of being out of control.

            Morley Safer, when safely out of the grasp of Miss Piggy, commented that among the various men who created Muppets characters, there is a trait that they all hold in common. Each of them is extremely shy, tongue-tied without the Muppets close at hand. Jim Henson, who is Kermit the Frog, says, “Kermit is more outgoing than I am, certainly.” And Kermit butts in, “I can say things that he can’t.” They both agreed that Kermit can be outrageous while Jim Henson doesn’t do outrageous.

            That struck a chord with me. Because I am probably about the shyest person you will ever meet. If I am just being myself, I too tend toward awkward and uncomfortable. I too struggle to find words for what I want to say. But here I am, doing this, seeming pretty much at ease, don’t you think? So how does this happen, given how shy I am?

            I’m thinking that maybe this person you see up in front of you is kind of a Muppet. I mean, I’m not made of foam rubber, but by having the role of minister, I am able to be more than I would be just as myself. The real me would not be able to speak in front of a group of 80 people or 300 people or 3 people. But the me who is a minister can do it pretty easily.

            It turns out that many public people are quite shy. To name a few: Brad Pitt, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett, Tom Hanks, Lucille Ball, Kate Moss, Elton John, Sigourney Weaver, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga. Well, the list goes on and on. Each of them has found ways to be in the spotlight when their natural inclinations would have them be more private people.

I walk into the role of minister, and it enables me to do things I wouldn’t ordinarily. It sets me free to be more than I would otherwise be. As Kermit said of his creator, Jim Henson, “I can say things that he can’t.”

*   *   *

            It strikes me that a church can play a similar role. It enables us to do what we might not ordinarily do. This does not mean that everybody in the church is naturally shy—far from it. But it does suggest that being in the church can help us realize possibilities, become more than we might otherwise be.

            I have seen people step into roles of leadership who didn’t think they were leaders. I have seen people stand behind a pulpit—and speak and offer their thoughts—even though they didn’t think they were cut out for that. I have seen connections formed among people, with a depth that has surprised the participants—connections that have sustained people through bad times and good.  I have seen people discover the power of caring and ordinary kindness. I have seen people initiate projects and bring them through all manner of difficulties to a successful conclusion. I have seen people become active in a cause they believed in, testify before committees, stand up to those on the other side. I have seen people who thought they were timid become brave, people who thought they had trouble speaking become articulate, people who were reluctant to share feelings reveal themselves as deeply caring individuals.

            A church at its best empowers us, enables us to be more than we have been, perhaps more than we thought we could be. It makes us all into Muppets, in the best sense of the term.

            Since this is my last sermon here at Davies, I’ve been thinking about the time we have spent together, which started as a two-year interim and then became an extended three-year interim. (And by the way, I think that this three-year interim, even though unconventional, has worked out just fine. It’s been what we needed.)

            During these three years, you have done a lot. You have achieved many things. You have tapped your inner Muppet.

            You created a mission statement and a vision statement and a covenant aimed at defining how you will be together. You participated in a process of considering what you want this church to be, what you want this congregation to stand for. Maybe the mission and vision and covenant statements are not perfect. Well, they need not be forever. They do help define who you are, at this point, and who you seek to be.

            During this interim period, you have worked to become more accountable as an institution. You have clarified the procedures by which things are done at the church. You have aimed for more transparency and participation in decision-making. You have balanced the budget. You have put the church on a firmer foundation as an organization.

            During these three years, you have also worked through mixed feelings about ministry, let go of some feelings of anger and hurt, opened yourselves to trusting a minister—letting him or her become a central part of the life of the congregation. You have established a strong foundation upon which Natalie Fenimore’s ministry can begin.

            You have addressed a culture in which projects have tended to stall. Something would get started, an obstacle would be encountered, maybe some opposition. And it would stop. This time around, you haven’t let that happen. The biggest example was in the search process. Last year, you hit a speed bump. That whole process could have stopped, but you kept on going, ultimately bringing results that everyone yearned for.

Another example is the work that has been done on the building. This building looks a lot better, works a lot better, feels and smells a lot better, than it did three years ago. This is the church’s home. This is your congregation’s face to the public. This is the setting where you observe some of life’s most significant occasions. The condition of a congregation’s building expresses the condition of the congregation, itself. So in raising money to make improvements and repairs, in putting in an enormous number of hours during these three years on refurbishing the building: it all matters.

            During these three years, you have come to celebrate who you are. Davies is a lovely congregation. No apologies are necessary. You care for each other and support each other. You are committed to this church. And this church makes a difference—in each other’s lives and also in the larger community. As you well know, this is an area of big, fundamentalist, mega-churches. Fine. But Davies provides an alternative, a place where those for whom the mega-churches do not speak can find a home. Furthermore, Davies provides leadership. You take positions and make stands on issues before the establishment organizations will risk it. Such as, affirming the human rights of gays and lesbians. Such as, opening yourselves to families that are non-traditional but families nonetheless, families of love and caring. Such as, finding ways of addressing conflict that reject violence, that respect the worth and dignity of all concerned. Such as, extending the concept of civil rights to all whose lives have been diminished, not because of who they are but because of the categories in which society places them.

            You have affirmed and maintained the diversity of this congregation. Davies is unique in the Unitarian Universalist Association because of its cultural and racial diversity. For me, it has been an honor to be among you. Not only that, it has been fun. And I have learned what Unitarian Universalism can be when given some freedom from our white, European, New England, Puritan, uptight roots. If I had the choice, Davies is what Unitarian Universalism would look like in the future. I don’t have that choice, but I can still affirm what and who you are.

            You have had to make some difficult decisions, decisions that I wager nobody is completely happy about, particularly decisions this past year about staffing. As one person noted, there have been some sleepless nights. I know that’s true because I was one of those whose sleep did not come easily for awhile. Nothing wrong with that. Difficult decisions should not come lightly. Point is, though: you made the decisions. You didn’t push them off to the next year, and the next, and the next. That’s a mark of a strong and courageous congregation: to make difficult decisions and move on.

“Moving on.” That’s key. Acceptance: “It is what it is.” Working with what we’ve got. Refusing to get romanced by “what if’s…” Refusing to visit and revisit and revisit old decisions. We make a decision; we move on. That’s a mark of a successful congregation.

            The feeling I sense throughout Davies today is of hope and cautious confidence . Best not to get overconfident; there are challenges ahead. But hope. Foundations have been established. Possibilities are before you. The best years of Davies may well yet be ahead.

            Next year, there will be awkward moments as you figure out how to get the tasks of the church done—times when things will be missed, when you aren’t sure who is responsible for what, when things get forgotten. It’s just part of the process, and I hope you will be gentle with each other when such occasions occur. A sense of humor helps a lot. A willingness to go forward without blaming. An occasional shrug of the shoulders too: It is what it is, let’s do what we can. Caring and compassion for each other. That’s what it takes.

*   *   *

            Looking forward, I think that the essential issue for Davies to address is that the congregation is too small. The church membership is just over 100, too small to support the programming and the staff that people in the church desire. This building and the parking lot can easily support a congregation of 150. A congregation of  150 could offer possibilities in programming and staffing that are not now available—it is a reasonable goal.

            What’s keeping Davies from reaching that goal? It’s not a lack of people who are interested in what Davies has to offer. Davies has an important role to play by offering a faith community based in the liberal religious tradition that affirms openness to a diversity of beliefs,  affirmation of human worth and dignity, and a commitment to social justice. Davies also has good publicity. You can always have more, but lack of publicity is not a problem—somehow people find this place, even though the building can’t be seen from the road. The issue for Davies —what keeps Davies small—is organizational. Davies is organized as a small church. Its present organization will keep it a small church until adjustments are made.

Churches come in different sizes. Churches of different sizes operate in different ways: small churches work differently than medium-sized churches than do large churches. The size of a church determines its style. And the style of a church determines its size. I’ll say that again: the size determines the style; the style determines the size—style and size are linked—which is why it’s so hard for churches to change.

            Those who study this sort of thing identify four basic sizes of congregations. They are, from largest to smallest: corporate churches, program churches, pastoral churches, and family churches. Corporate churches have large professional staffs, support many different groups under the umbrella of the congregation. Indeed, a corporate church is sometimes described as a collection of smaller churches. A program church revolves around its groups and committees: the programs that it offers. A pastoral church is centered around the parish minister. He or she is the person most likely to be in touch with the various elements of the church. In a family church, the minister tends to be marginalized. He or she mostly provides professional services: Sunday worship, weddings, memorial services, counseling. The church is actually run by a few key people—families—who make the  decisions.

            I am very familiar with the dynamics of the small church: I grew up in one. Moreover, my family has been active in that church since the 1930s. Ministers come and go, but my family helps hold the place together. This is not ideal, but when the community in which the church is located has about 40,000 people, and it’s a conservative Midwestern town, it’s probably as good as it gets. This is not the case with Davies. You have a large potential constituency. The challenge is to make this church available for those who are already interested in what you have to offer.

            The next step, I think, is to move Davies from a family church to a pastoral church. A pastoral church supports a larger membership, which enables you to do more. In order to become a pastoral church, there are two basic things which need to happen. The first, establish a strong relationship with your new minister, make sure Rev. Natalie is included in the decisions the congregation makes, make sure she has access to information. This sounds basic and it is, but in a family church, the minister is sometimes the last to know what’s going on. I will say that this has not been a problem for me here at Davies; I have been included every step of the way. But I’ve always been a temp—it’s easy to slip back into old patterns once the temp is gone. Long-term, the best indicator for a growing church that meets the needs of its members is a strong and lasting relationship of mutual trust and support between minister and congregation.

            The other step is to be intentional about sharing leadership throughout the congregation. Family churches fall into patterns in which people do the same things, forever. Short-term, this is a good deal: things get done and they tend to get done well. Long-term, it keeps a congregation small because it restricts points of access. New people have a hard time finding a meaningful place in the church, and they drift away. The process of sharing leadership can be tricky because you can easily go too far in the other direction. It’s just  as easy to dump so many jobs on new people that they get exhausted and flee. Successful congregations find ways for new people to be involved to the extent that they desire to be involved. One key is to try to look at it from the perspective of those coming into the church, not from the perspective of the needs of the institution. That is, the issue is less what the church needs, more meeting the needs of those who are entering the church.

            Sometimes there is a concern expressed that if a church grows larger, it will lose its warmth and intimacy. This is a misplaced fear. Large churches are not necessarily cold and impersonal. Indeed, sometimes large churches become large because they are so good at warmth and intimacy. Growth does mean change, but it does not necessarily mean giving up what you most value in this church.

            My role now becomes that of letting go, turning the reigns over to Natalie. During July, I will be around and available, though I won’t be here on Sundays. In cases of need, you are welcome to be in touch. As of August 1st, Natalie should be the person you turn to first. I will still available through the month of August, but any requests for me to be involved must come through Natalie and with Natalie’s consent.

Several of you have asked me , “What comes next in your journey, once you leave Davies?” Some parts we know, at least for the immediate future, some parts we don’t.  We will stay in Silver Spring. We moved to the DC area for Amy’s job, and that hasn’t changed. We also like it here and hope we can stay. I will remain as the UU chaplain at Riderwood Village, a senior residence center in Silver Spring. And I’ll be open to whatever else might appear—things do turn up. Maybe it will be ministry, maybe something else. As I observed in one of my sermons: “nothingness” is unstable. Something will turn up.

            For Amy and me, it has been a privilege and a pleasure to spend these three years with you. We appreciate your openness to us, your support, your caring. There will always be a fondness in our hearts for Davies.

            To close, I return to the Muppets creator, Jim Henson. “Please watch out for each other,” he said, “and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it.”

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