Unity - A Mission-centric Ministry
Adapted from an article by Rev. Barry Lennard.
Why the evolution of the Unity movement from “minister-centric” to “community-centric” to “mission-centric” holds great promise for us all.
The Early Minister-Centric Phase of the Unity Movement
The Unity movement was started in the later part of the nineteenth century by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore who were primarily answerable to themselves (and, of course, to their experience of Truth). They held and exercised virtually all of the early decision-making authority for the movement. They were the undisputed leaders of Unity. And, they became influential voices in the emerging New Thought/positive thinking movement that was gaining popularity in our culture.
Soon other individuals, inspired by the Fillmore’s, sought to replicate their work by starting Unity centers and spiritual communities in other cities. People were attracted to these ministries and to the Unity message delivered by a Unity minister. Like Charles and Myrtle, these ministers held almost exclusive decision-making power and authority over the operation of these local ministries. People attended and supported the ministry because they liked the message delivered by the Unity minister—or, they simply didn’t attend. Many of these ministers were very successful due partly to the growing popularity of the positive thinking/New Thought movement and the fact that there were very few other places this message could be heard. This minister-centric approach was essential and successful at this stage of Unity’s evolution.
The Community-Centric Phase of the Unity Movement
As these founding ministers aged and retired (or died), the ministries they served were forced to take responsibility for the continuation of the ministry. If they hadn’t already done so, they established a voting membership who elected a board and basically took ownership and responsibility for the ministry. Usually the board was assigned the responsibility and authority to hire (and terminate, if needed) ministerial leadership.
As these churches entered the community-centric phase, they took on a new sense of identity that was no longer tied to the founding minister. With that change, decision-making responsibility and authority was spread out in the community among the voting members, the board and the Unity minister they hired. Some Unity ministers, who had experienced Unity in minister-centric churches, had difficulties with this new structure. The formal distribution of decision-making authority and responsibility among the members, the board and the minister became very challenging.
These challenges often triggered informal, and often unspoken struggles for influence and control within the spiritual community. It was these struggles for influence and control that often led to divisive and damaging conflicts. Many people left Unity, disillusioned by their experience of resentment-filled conflict (politics) in a Unity community that taught peace, love—and unity.
Also, during this time the basic Unity/New Thought message was rapidly becoming available through many other channels. Unity ministers were now required to not only deliver a high-quality Unity message, they were also required to provide a higher level of leadership that would unite the diverse and often conflicting voices of the spiritual community. The challenge of ministerial leadership became much greater. Many Unity ministers rose to the challenge, however, some were unable to. History reveals that these conflicts around influence and control devastated many Unity congregations as well as the careers of some dedicated Unity ministers. In many cases, even the best intentions of those who sought to intervene in these conflicts and bring peace failed. Yet, the shared ownership that emerged through community-centric ministry was, I believe, an essential step in Unity’s evolution.
The Emerging Mission-Focused Ministry Phase of the Unity Movement
Mission-focused ministry has the potential to transcend the struggles for influence and control that trigger divisive conflicts. That’s possible when there is a divinely inspired, greater mission that is adopted and owned by the membership, the board and the minister. It has the potential to unite people in an environment where mission fulfillment efforts and initiatives are more rewarding than the competition for influence and control.
Mission-focused ministry happens when there is a clearly identified, divine calling and greater purpose that enlivens, inspires, motivates, compels and unites people in a Unity ministry. The mission to advance the shared spiritual awakening movement has those qualities. It is based on the idea that God’s answer to the prayers and needs of humanity will emerge through people joining together who are spiritually awake to their oneness with God, each other and all creation. In Unity we would call that the Christ potential. It is based on the belief that awakened people joining together in mutual transformation can create the world our hearts know is possible.
The shared spiritual awakening to our oneness with God, each other and all creation can be understood as an individual and collective threshold of consciousness that humanity must choose if it is to survive as a species. Failure to do so will likely result in the continuation of humanity making choices that reduce nature’s capacity to sustain life. Anyone who understands evolution realizes that nature will not tolerate that for long. Thus, the mission of advancing the movement that calls us to spiritually awaken to our oneness with God, each other and all creation is critical to humanity’s future.
Nothing is more important—or more promising! The good news is this mission speaks to the hearts of virtually everyone on this spiritual path. That heart connection with others who are committed to the mission can transcend the petty likes and dislikes we can have for each other. It calls us to awaken to a new realization of the presence of God as the essence of both our individual and our collective selves. It presents a new threshold of divine/human power as we realize that the shared spiritual awakening of humanity is truly God—as us—answering our prayers. Jesus knew that, lived that and taught that!
We in Unity are also realizing that we must support, and possibly lead, in helping humanity make this collective conscious choice. That’s what mission-focused Unity ministry is all about. A first step could be the adoption of Unity Worldwide Ministries’ vision by local Unity ministries. Second, would be the identification and adoption of a local ministry’s mission statement that reveals its commitment to the vision. Third, the adoption of the Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love Covenant representing the local Unity ministry’s commitment to demonstrate the truth, beauty and goodness that emerges through the shared spiritual awakening experience.
Minister-Centric Ministry: Decision-making responsibility and authority are vested (almost exclusively) in the minister who provides spiritual teachings, support and direction to the spiritual community and its congregation. The minister and his or her message is the primary driving factor of the ministry and his or her performance is usually the measure of success.
Community-Centric Ministry: Decision-making responsibility and authority are shared among voting members of the spiritual community, their elected board, and the minister hired by the board. The goal (or mission) is the creation and maintenance of a healthy and harmonious spiritual community that inspires and supports its membership. Success is determined by how well the members feel their spiritual and community needs are being met. That usually includes the leadership provided by the minister.
Mission-Centric Ministry: Conscious engagement in a well-defined greater, humanity-wide vision and mission that includes and transcends the wellbeing of the spiritual community is the driving force of the ministry. The ministry organizes itself into mission-fulfillment teams. Expanding the number and scope of leadership and congregant engagement opportunities is a high priority. Success is determined by evaluating the effectiveness of the mission-fulfillment activities and teams and the spiritual growth, development and community experiences they provide for an increasing number of people.
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Clive deLaporte, LUM