If I Ran the Zoo

If I Ran the Zoo
9-26-04
Douglas Taylor

Theodore Geisel was a Unitarian Universalist author better known around the world as Dr. Seuss.  He revolutionized children’s literature with his early reader books like The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and my personal favorite, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.  My sermon title is a direct rip off from one of his book titles.  In his book, If I Ran the Zoo, a young lad whose name is McGrew is leaning against a fence dreaming about what he would do if he ran the zoo.  He imagines all kinds of attractions and animals that he would feature if he were in charge.  It is a great idea for a fun little book, and it turns out to be a great idea for a sermon about the first major step in a congregation’s Long Range Planning process: the dreaming phase.  The first step in planning out where we want to be in fifteen or twenty years is to lean back and dream for a little while about what the ultimate Unitarian Universalist Congregation would look like.  It is to see the glimmers of possibility and imagine them in their fullest potential.  It is to let go for a little while of what is really going on right now and contemplate what could be.  What would this zoo look like if they put you in charge?

A few years ago, my older son received a delightful computer game for Christmas called Zoo Tycoon.  In this game with its really good graphics, you build a zoo from the ground up, creating the cages, choosing the size of each exhibit, what trees to put in, and how many of each animal to adopt.  The game is more than just learning about different animals and what sort of exhibit would work best for them.  It also gives you a glimpse of what it would be like to run an organization of this nature.  You have to keep an eye on the happiness of your animals and of your guests.  Your guests restrooms and trashcans and hotdog stands, and you can follow them around a see what they think of your zoo.  You also have to watch your finances.  As witnessed by the trouble Ross Park Zoo is experiencing, a good zoo program is not cheap.  So you build your zoo and get it just right and then one of the lions gives birth to a few cubs and pretty soon the cage you built is too small and what are you going to do about it.  You have to keep your eye on so many different things.  You can’t just set it up and let it go.  Did you hire enough zookeepers to take care of your beasties?  And now look, you bought the wrong kind of fence for the monkeys and they just escaped, and they’re running all around the zoo!

They make an Aquarium Tycoon game and an Amusement park Tycoon game, and I got to thinking:  What if we had a “Church Tycoon” game.  I mean, ‘tycoon’ is just the wrong word there.  But if we could fix that glitch, I think we’ve got a potentially hot ticket here for the upcoming Christmas season!  Just imagine, great little computer graphics showing you the different sorts of pews and hymnals and carpets you could get.  You’d have to buy a couple of coffee urns but maybe forgo the little communion cups for now.  Where should you put your front door?  In the front, facing the street or in the back facing the parking lot?  Or forget the front door altogether and just have a bunch of side doors like most UU churches do!  You would want to hire a zookeeper, (I mean a minister,) and other staff.  Now think about your music program: should you get an organ or a piano or both?  How about a jazz trio?  What about your Education program and your Pastoral Care program and your Social Justice program?  You could fund a controversial justice ministry and watch to see if the neighbors come out with picket signs.  Just imagine the fun you could have with this little game!  Create the church you’ve always wanted!

I know computers and computer games are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I bet our Long Range Panning Committee would love to have a copy of “Church Tycoon” or whatever we end up naming it!  Our Long Range Planning committee was formed in the spring and have been preparing for this first major step in the process, which begins now.  They will be gathering your thoughts and ideas, your dreams and visions for our congregation using a delightful survey.  Not all surveys are delightful, but I think you will enjoy this one because it the midst of its questions about what you think about the current stuff going on it also asks you to dream a little and imagine new possibilities.

Imagine what the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton might be like in fifteen years.  What would you want it to be like?  What do you hope it would be like?  Perhaps you could imagine particular programs or events that you remember loving from the church of your childhood.  Perhaps you hope to see a program here that your friends from another church have told you about.  Perhaps you have a favorite group or event currently happening here that you could see growing into something more.

After the Long Range Planning Committee has gathered, complied, and analyzed the survey results there will be more steps involving the whole congregation such as expanding and developing ideas gleaned, focusing the ideas into an actionable 5-year plan, and then voting on the plan.  So your input at this and subsequent steps will help shape the plan we develop for the future, and indeed, you may find yourself creating the church you’ve always wanted.  Your input will help me, and the board of trustees, and the various committees, and indeed all of us to discern where to put our energy.

As you move through the survey and as you dream up ideas, I offer one guide to work from: keep an eye on our mission.  We do well to always hold our mission in mind as make decisions.  Our Mission states why this community exists.  We have a beautiful mission statement that has the tone and form of a poem.  I can sum up our mission statement in one sentence: “We gather in a supportive and nurturing community to create opportunities for all to grow and to serve.”  Our goal is transformation, both personal and social transformation.  This community exists to change lives.  When we forget that, we become a social club. Our reading this morning highlighted the danger of not being mission-focused.  I’m not saying I think we are in danger on that count, I’m just offering a guide you can use to raise your horizon and pull you toward more radical dreams and ideas

Ideas for programs and events will come out.  Ideas about how to best allocate our money will come out.  Ideas for new ministries and opportunities will come out.  The biggest (though maybe not the most important) idea that will come out centers around either moving from our current location or staying put.  The work of the Long Range Planning Committee is not to resolve that, but neither will it ignore it.  The fact is, in the near future we will decide to either leave 183 Riverside Drive or commit to stay for the foreseeable future by making significant capital improvements and modifications.  This has obvious implications on any strategic plan we develop.

I invite you to entertain both sides of this quandary.  One the one hand moving could be very exciting and invigorating and our current space is showing its age.  On the other hand, our current space has great attributes, and real potential hidden in those worn out spots.  But then again, moving would allow us to design and build a place that meets today’s needs rather than those of a few decades ago.  But on the other hand it would be very expensive to try to move.  Am I coming off as too diplomatic?  (I’ve heard that if you tie a minister’s hands behind his back you get a shorter sermon because there’s none of this “On the one hand …and on the other hand” sort of stuff!)  I must admit I am ambivalent about moving or staying.  I haven’t been here long enough to fall in love with the place or develop deep resentment for its limitations.  So at this point I haven’t formed a strong opinion, one way or the other.

Now, I do have some opinions, some relevant ideas about this Long Range Planning that I will share with you.  I offer these ideas in the spirit of fostering your dreams rather than asking you to share mine.  What are my dreams for this community?  If I ran this zoo, what it would look like?  Let me offer five quick ideas.  I have many more, but I offer these five ideas and dreams in the hope of provoking your ideas and dreams.

1) Shift the entrance to the obvious spot.

2) Make the children’s chapel into a dedicated Chapel Space

(I’ll expand on these in a minute, let me just read them all out first.)

3) Spin off regular Social Responsibility projects such as the Rivermede Adoption

4) Create and maintain a Labyrinth

5) Increase the number and variety of the wonderful programs we offer here.

Let me unpack each of these briefly.  First off, my dream for our future is that we will 1) Shift the entrance to the obvious spot.  This is just one of my little pet peeves.  Most Unitarian Universalist churches hide their main entrance, leaving visitors to guess as to how best get in.  Right now, we do have a sign as you come up the steps from the parking lot that says “Welcome” and points toward the left, implying that the main entrance to the church is down the path to the left.  Imagine if we moved that main door to the arching wall directly facing the parking lot.  If you look, you’ll notice that behind the organ there is a wall with a window strip back there identical to this wall up front.  Under that organ loft is a spacious coatroom.  Imagine if that space were our foyer, our entryway, our greeting area.  As we have it now, people enter into a hallway that gets crowded too easily.  With minimal effort, we could create a warm and inviting first impression of our space.  This is assuming we don’t move, of course.

My second idea also assumes we stay here for a while.  2) Make the chapel into a dedicated Chapel Space.  In practice, the children’s chapel room is not used as a classroom or a meeting room very often.  Why not put some effort into making that space look like a dedicated worship space rather than a classroom converted into a worship space.  We have nice benches and a matching tree in there.  What if we could convert that room into a space where you might want to hold a small wedding or a private child dedication ceremony, or even just sit quietly and meditate.

3) Spin off regular Social Responsibility projects such as the Rivermede Adoption.  I really like the way this happened.  Members of this congregation noticed a problem out in our community:  The Rivermede Nursing Home is struggle in part because it accepts Medicare and Medicaid insurance.  Many of the residents are lonely and isolated and the nursing home administration has little resources to meet the needs of its own residents.  Members of this congregation looked at the resources we have among us to help this situation.  Members of this congregation decided to adopt this nursing home, which we did, meaning, several members visit people there and we bring magazines and other things of that sort.  We saw a problem in our local community, recognized the resources we have among us, and stepped forward to help out.  The Rivermede Adoption project is now more of a Caring Committee project then a justice project, but who knows yet what the next project will be: help at-risk youth downtown, or partner up with Lourdes hospital on an issue.  Who knows yet what the next project will be.  Perhaps you know.

4) Create and maintain a Labyrinth. The idea of a labyrinth has bounced around this community a couple of times.  I enjoy labyrinths.  A labyrinth is circling pattern laid out on the ground that you use for a walking meditation.  It is not like a maze, there are no dead ends or wrong turns.  As you wind your way into the center, you shed your worries and concerns and thoughts.  At the center you meditate or pray or bask in the glory of life and nature.  As you wind you way back to the outside of the labyrinth again, you “pick up” again all the pieces of your life that you let go as you went in.  The goal, of course, is that now you hold those worries and concerns and thoughts with a quiet center.  I think it would be powerful to go through the process of creating a labyrinth.

5) Increase the number and variety of the wonderful programs we offer here.  I would love for this congregation to be known for having a range of quality programs going on.  Creating and maintaining a labyrinth would be a program.  Programs are almost anything that happens around here that isn’t a committee meeting.  Choir, Parents group, Building Your Own Theology class, Intergenerational ice cream social, Viewing and discussing a video about depleted uranium, Coffee house, Small Group Ministry, Animal blessing.  That’s just what we have now.  I want to see more.  If I were in charge, if I were running this zoo we would have more music, more intergenerational stuff, and more adult religious education courses.

These are five ideas, five dreams of what I see in us, of what I believe we are becoming.  These are not all my ideas or even my five best ideas.  They are just a sample to provoke your ideas and dreams.  If I ran the zoo, this is what we would do.

But I don’t run this Zoo.  Such is the nature of our Unitarian Universalist congregations: there is no one person who runs everything.  As we saw in the Role Call we did early in the service, the mission of the congregation is made real by the work of a whole host of individuals.  It is not me, it is not the board, it is all of you who do the committee work who see to it that our mission is alive.  And it will be all you who take the time to give voice to your dreams and ideas who will see to it that our dreams expand into reality

Lean back against the fence and imagine what this place might be like with a few little changes or some monumental changes.  Lean back and dream our future into being.  Dream big.

In a world without end,

May it be so.