Sunday, December 30, 2007

Fun Sunday

I've long thought that the "down Sundays" (the Sundays after holidays) are as much self-fulfilling prophesy as anything, and I always try to do interesting things on these weeks. The Sunday after Christmas is one of the hardest and most interesting, since we don't have RE that day and it has to be an intergenerational service. This year we tackled the Golden Compass. Both services were full and I think everyone had a good time. (Since someone asked, here's what we did. We talked a little about the story for those who had not read the book, I lead a guided meditation for the purpose of letting everyone find their daemons, after which people shared their experience with their neighbors, I talked about the UU values in the story (about thinking for yourself, and about being open minded to new understandings of words like God) Ron did a brief theology of Dust, and we ended with an "imposition of dust", inviting all who wished to come forward and get a smudge of glitter on their hand or forehead or just get dusted with glitter. We used the new, tiny glitter so I'm still in good with my janitor, and somewhat to my surprise, most of the people who came up wanted glitter on their forehead. It was great fun.)

Also present at the service was someone from my first congregation. She introduced herself as having known me from the days "of the church of Jesus Christ of the Air Conditioner." That got a non-comprehending laugh and took me back years and years, to the early 1980's, when the church I served in Columbia, South Carolina, owned a tiny church which had once been an Episcopal chapel in a Mill Village. it did indeed have a lovely stained glass window of Jesus in the back, and at some point, the bottom panel had been removed for an Air Conditioner. John Buehrens, later the president of the UUA, visited the congregation before I arrived and dubbed it with that name.

At the second service there were a couple of guys from Knoxville, a church which I served for a Summer as an intern and then for a year as a part time interim.

So many people told me they'd seen The Golden Compass for this service that if there is a sequal, I'm going to take credit for pushing this movie over the top.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Boxing Day at the Hospital

My husband had some elective day surgery today, so I spent a bunch of time hanging out in a nearly empty hospital, mostly, as it turned out, listening to staff chatter. We were there early, as folks were coming to work, and the conversation went like this. "Hi, how was your Christmas." and the answer, "Good, I'm glad it's over." The same thing happened in the cafeteria. I must have heard a dozen variations on that exchange. The nurse for the empty recovery bed next to us confided that she had awakened this morning to a broken clock that told her it was December 23...what a nightmare, she have to do it all over again!

It didn't seem that anyone had had a terrible experience on Christmas, it was just too stressful overall. It seemed as if the hospital staff's Christmas was a little like our Boxing Day... nothing awful, but we were glad that it was over with.

Christmas Celebrations are not completely voluntary, but this universal elective surgery response surprised me. I wonder what celebrations would suit people better? Is it just too much of a holiday for families with excited children aged 3-15? That's a relatively small proportion of us, after all. As a family with a 17 year old, we've noticed that it's not quite the same any more. (These days, parents put together the gifts in the morning. The teen now goes to bed after we do and gets up late, too!) But we had a very nice day yesterday, all working our our art projects for nearly a full day. That's a luxury! Late in the evening we made a quick Christmas Visit to drop off gifts at a friend's, which topped off the day nicely.

We have a few treats planned for later this week and a New Year's party to go to. Tomorrow's work is to get ready for the Golden Compass service on Sunday, which, we hope, will bring in the kids who usually don't come to church the week after Christmas. Since most of you, dear readers, can't come to church and discover your Daemon's wisdom, check out the movie site (, where, after a short personality inventory, you'll be assigned a deamon of your very own!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Certain Poor Shepherds

Christmas Eve Homily

Last year, someone informed me that when she was a kid, she thought that the Three Kings brought the baby Gold, Frankincense, and Mirth. I smiled for 24 hours. I wrote about it on my blog, and someone commented that when he was a kid, he had confusions about Certain Poor Shepherds.

The way this young person puzzled it out, “to certain” must be a verb, meaning,” to reassure,” so the angels came to reassure some poor shepherds in their fields. Which is not far from the mark, after all. This young person, when told the “real” meaning of the carol, that the angels appeared to “particular” shepherds, wanted to know why some and not others? A young Universalist in the making!

That got me to thinking about other meanings of the word “certain.” Here’s another possibility. They were not “reassured” poor shepherds, or “particular” poor shepherds, they were “confident” poor shepherds…sure of what they have seen and heard. They see an angel in the sky, and nobody says, “Ho, boy, it must be indigestion” or “I’m so stressed out I’ve started imagining things!.” They are certain: it’s an angel. The angel says “Go and See!” and nobody asks if by any chance this is the devil in disguise, or moans about a long walk into town: they Go and they See. They are sure that what they are seeing is their next king in that cold stable, and that’s good news to the poor.

Angels appearing in the sky with crystal clear messages makes for good stories, but it’s never happened to me that way, or to you, I’d wager. The times I’ve thought, maybe, I felt a nudge from God, the message was kind of…well, let’s just say, subtle. Easy to ignore, easy to miss, not at all clear. Never angelic voices. Mostly just a feeling; at a concert, on the bus, hiking, reading, listening to someone. The messages only come when I really need them. They often have a shine of good feeling with them, but no hosanna’s, no voices, no heavenly lights… nothing certain. Always a matter of “hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses,” as the poet T.S. Elliot complained

My experience, really, is much more like what the Magi’s experience must have been: You see a new star in the sky. What does it mean? Who knows what it means? Maybe nothing. maybe Everything. There’s an obscure prophesy about a baby or is it a king? Or is it just restlessness, boredom, avoidance?

Most people, even Magj, would have stayed at home by the fire. They’d have responsibilities, doubts, plans of their own to easily trump the lovely new star. The shepherds had it easy. Big voices. Bright Lights. Clear Instructions. Go and See the Baby! The Bible says they went, but there are any number of folk stories about the Shepherd who stayed behind. Someone had to tend the flocks, after all, and there’s always a skeptic in the crowd. That would be me. Maybe it would also be you.

Certainty or not, the task of our lives to follow the hints that come to us, whether in heavenly voices or, more likely, in the voices of friends, authors, musicians, teachers, and that still, small voice inside us.

They urge us to grow in love and spirit,

and remind us that the journey begins with single, tentative steps.

They urge us to open our hearts to what comes into our lives,

and remind us that it is the unexpected that is often the greatest blessing.

They urge us to look inward.

and remind us of the jewels beyond price that reside there.

They urge us to appreciate the world around us.

and make the things of the world our sacred teachers.

They urge us to give away what is precious to us,

and remind us that when we give in joy, we receive one hundred fold.

They urge us to test our voices and discern our best path,

but remind us not to turn away from new faith and new hope, waiting for a certainty that may never come.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Stumble Upon

Stumble Upon is a little tool for your web browser. Set up a few categories you are interested in (I've got knitting, alternative energy, on-line games, and religion going right now), and whenever you have a few idle minutes, click and get websites in those categories. I've found some wonderful knitting blogs, interesting alternative energy ideas, and browsed a world of religious websites. Every time you get a site, you say if you like it, and Stumble Upon gets better and better at entertaining and enlightening (and addicting) you. (more info and download here)

How do websites get chosen for this kind of dissemination? By vote of users. If you're a stumble upon user, and you click the thumbs up on your toolbar...right now, for instance, this blog would get a vote. If you don't use stumble Upon, I've provided a button at the bottom of this post.

We early adopting UU's can help get the UU word out by voting for UU websites in this way. The more web-users who stumble upon UU websites, the more people discover us.

Evangelism...and you don't even have to explain UU!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Gold, Frankencense, and Mirth

Reprise from Last Year.....

A woman at church yesterday said that when she was a kid, she thought that the three Kings brought the baby Gold, Frankincense, and Mirth. I've been smiling ever since.

Those three universal beings (in the folk tradition from which manger scenes are made, they are an elderly European, a middle aged Oriental, and a young African) on their strange journey to bow down before a baby and bring gifts, were supposed to have brought three items of financial worth, gold, a precious incense used in religious ritual and worship, and a precious spice used in, of all things, embalming. Some make something of the latter; a gift for a person whose life was destined to be short.

I'd rather universalize these gifts, making them symbolic of what we need for a good life; a modicum of financial resources, the spiritual resources symbolized by Frankincense, and the emotional and relational resources symbolized by mirth.

Food and fire, hope and spirit, love and community. May your Holiday season be blessed with Gold, Frankincense, and Mirth.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Showing Identification

There's been quite a bit of consternation about the fact that the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center, site of next June's GA, is in a Homeland Security Security Zone (vulnerable port, oil tanks etc. etc.) Everyone entering has to show ID.

Well, that's a bummer. It will be a constant reminder of all the unpleasant changes that have been a part of our lives in the past 7 years and (since no one imagines that terrorists can't get Government Issued ID) will, no doubt remind us of vulnerabilities we'd prefer to ignore. Some people are talking and writing as if it's the step before Concentration Camps, worth boycotting, protesting, and loosing large amounts of money to stand up for democracy.

That's the part that really bugs me. As one who pulls out her ID with every check, every airplane, every Credit Transaction (I sign my credit cards, "Please Check ID") I just don't equate ID checks with Fascism.

It is true that ID checks can be abused. If a government record was being kept of ID's checked, so that a list of people attending GA could be created (not that I doubt that it could be easily created in other ways), that would trouble me. If the ID's were being checked in ways that violated the civil rights of the young, the dark-skinned, or the scruffy, that would trouble me. Every time a layer of enforcement is added to a society opportunities are created to violate the rights of citizens...sometimes because of nefarious government policy, more often because human beings deal so poorly with power. Every local cop has the ability to violate Civil Rights in just the ways we are worrying about, and nobody is talking about observing them! But as I've watched the airport situation develop over 6 years, I have to say that I've been hugely impressed with how much attention has been paid to rights, to cultural sensitivity, and to training people who have a lot of power to use it well. As one who travels with a sometimes scruffy teenager who has looked like he could be over 18 for several years now, I can say that I think we ought to give governments some credit here. We are not the only people in the world who understand privilege and oppression.

The UUA has been assured that ID's will be only checked, not recorded, that everyone will be dealt with courteously, that they welcome observers of this process. One of the conventions they had lately was a Muslem group, and that apparently passed without incident, so I'm not actually very worried about our sometimes scruffy and defiant teens, or our persons of color; something they are actually pretty used to in South Florida.

It is true that those illegal aliens who have not been able to obtain Government Issued ID will not be able to attend our worship services, but I'm having a hard time getting very excited about this. I'm all for putting our force behind a sensible, enforceable immigration policy, but to say as some are saying that we simply can not have a worship service that not everyone can attend makes no sense at all. There are so many people who, for so many reasons can't attend our worship services, week after week, and we do so little about it that in my opinion, it would be the worst kind of hypocrisy to draw our line in the sand about ID checks.

I am still left with the bummer, about how the world has changed, about how much we actually have lost, about the huge expense of dealing with the world as it is today, but that's a post for another day!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

One Last Comment about Growth

I can't tell you for sure why this congregation has grown by 40% in the past 7 years. One thing about congregations, you just can't do controlled experiments on them. But their history goes something like this: 1949-60: slow and steady growth to about 200. 1960-1965: Rapid Growth to about 500 (not so rare in those days!) 1965-1988 Plateau/slide to 400 (considering that many of our congregations dropped by half in the late 1960's, this is not as bad as it sounds.) 1988-1992: growth spurt to over 500. 1992-2000, 500-550, which is a glass ceiling hard to burst through. 2001-2007: 489-720.

One thing we did in 2002 was add a second minister to our staff. This was a huge task which was paid for with every penny the congregation had in savings and aggressive fund raising for three years. In some ways a second minister is more expensive than a first minister, because in order to attract someone (outside of a Seminary city, anyway) you have to be paying everyone better than you probably are, you might need new office space, and so on. It's also a huge task because nobody will help you with it. A 100 member church looking for its first minister has everyone's sympathy. There used to be an entire extension program devoted to helping churches hire their first minister, and more than one chalice-lighter grant has helped a congregation over that hump. If they took that minister and grew by 50 members they were considered very successful. But the 400 member church trying to hire its second minister has nobody's sympathy. I said more than once in that near decade of plateau that if I could only have an extension grant for a second minister I could add a small congregation's worth of members to my congregation. I was wrong. With a second minister, we added a medium-sized congregation worth of members.

Other things were right. 9/11 happened. The senior minister (me) quit getting sick and needing months of recuperation time. In our case, a second minister not only did all the things a second minister usually does but changed some very unhealthy dynamics in the church about which I had no leverage by myself. Our city grew almost as fast as the church. Still, if I had to suggest one intervention for a 400 member church which was willing to become a large congregation, that's what I'd suggest.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Golden Compass: The Movie

Yep, they took liberties with the story and played down the anti-religion theme, and gad, was it loud! But if you kept your fingers close to your ears, it was a magical two hours, in many ways a better story than the book.

The whole church staff has seen it now, and we're planning an intergenerational service on it for that always awkward Sunday after Christmas. (I so want to throw gold glitter around to demonstrate Dust but the last time I did that the janitor didn't speak to me for weeks, so that's out.) I'm looking forward to the opportunity to talk to kids about this new way to think about God or the Spirit of Life.

Is anyone else planning worship or RE around this movie?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Guns and Tooth Powder

I saw tooth powder for sale yesterday. Hadn't seen it in years. Had it as a little kid. You use it instead of toothpaste. Pour a little into your hand, mush your toothbrush in it and brush. Very kid-friendly mess. Adults...they hated the stuff.

It's for sale to travelers. Tooth powder can be taken in one's carry-on luggage. The possibility that a terrorist might put a bomb in a toothpaste tube has changed our lifestyle.

Four people killed in church on Sunday by a suicide gunner. Six kids wounded as they got off a school bus today. This is happening a lot. Add these needless deaths to the ordinary gun related crimes; crimes of property gone wrong or crimes of passion gone all too well, and you have the daily reality of gun violence, right here, in our own neighborhoods, schools, churches, work places. It could happen to any one of us tomorrow.

Let's ditch the ban on toothpaste and put the ban on guns.

When will they ever learn?

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Thriving Branch Congregation

I visited our Branch congregation in Socorro yesterday. I preached"live" at the service their lay worship leader conducted, a member of the Albuquerque congregation provided music, substituting for their regular musician, our DRE told the children's story and then took the group of pre-schoolers off to draw while she gave their child-care provider some tips and materials for future classes. There were about 30 people there. Later that evening, I met with their core leaders and we talked about starting a steering committee, about the Covenant Group and the meditation class they are going to start in the new year, and about the details of their first "solo" service, which will be a Christmas concert gift to their small community. They are expecting about 100 people to pack the sanctuary of the little Episcopal church they meet in.

We also talked about tweaking their regular order of service so that the children will leave a bit earlier in the service. They are looking into getting a stretch of highway to pick up and are wondering how to be more involved with the town's food bank. They have two college students attending and one professor from the State University in the town and they have established a student group on campus. We talked about how they might organize any needed pastoral care, when to call for assistance, and a variety of other things. I brought home a pledge card, a new member's sign-up sheet, and a request by an elderly woman to know how to put the church in her will. (also an envelope with their offering coins, bills, and checks...we're having difficulty getting a local bank account set up for them.)

The core group in Socorro started meeting six months ago and they began weekly worship two months ago. They are a thriving, attractive congregation. They are enjoying each other's company. More than one person has said that this project has hugely enriched their life in their small town. It's been a great project for the whole church; we're all getting a kick out of being on a cutting edge of a new way to organize new congregations.

I've been a part of starting two other congregations, one in a similarly small town in South Carolina and one in the western suburbs of Albuquerque. The first one failed after its first year. The second has been 'on its own' for a decade now and is settling its second minister, but they have not been able to take advantage of the housing boom around them and remain quite small. I felt about both groups that they were fighting nearly impossible odds; they were abandoned babies left to fend for themselves way too early in a hard world. Years ago I promised myself that I'd never do that again.

Our Socorro branch, age 2 months, has access to a good sermon every week, an RE library, advice, training for worship and covenant group leaders, pastoral care, and moral support. It's such a pleasure to watch them take all that and thrive!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Golden Compass

No blogging lately; I've spent all my spare moments in the last week or so reading Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials. Pullman's books are not as long as the Harry Potter books, but they are substantial, and they are much harder to read. These are stories ABOUT children, not FOR children; they are complex, contain several threads, and there are so many mysteries to keep track of, and you don't know who the good guys and bad buys are for quite a while. My son says he tried to read them in Middle School and gave up; now, at a sophisticated 17, he likes them. We'll get to the movie sometime, and I'm planning a service the week after Christmas about the books, the movie, and the controversy.

There are more than a few potshots at the Catholic Church, although in this alternative universe, this institution seems to have been founded by Calvin, and so is clearly meant to be a diatribe against any kind of religion which represses human freedom and creativity. The church folks who are putting up a stink are damning themselves by their reaction...if I tell a parable about a bad guy and someone says, "How dare you make fun of me!" they have accused themselves.

The big irony about the book is that it's author is a Humanist who believes that all value resides in this world, but his book, for all that it's about a war against the Church, is luminously spiritual. Never again will I look at dust as merely the grit under my feet. In reality, it connects us all, and in parable, is our reminder that grace abounds. The children's values (and in spite of the fact that they've got the authorities in three worlds looking for them, their values are solid and good) are rewarded not only materially but spiritually. I hope to find something more about Mr. Pullman and his beliefs.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Multi-Cultural Growth

It is true that one of the trials of ministry is helping the institution as a whole proceed in balanced and healthy programming, and not letting tails wag dogs. For instance, here in New Mexico, where the issues of racial and cultural tension are not black and white and related to slavery, but are multi-hued and related to immigration, water rights, land grants, reservations, tribes, and other complexities. We've never done anti-racism training; it's just not culturally appropriate here. Sometimes people have been angry about that. (Not that I forbade it, you understand, I just didn't do it myself, and neither did anyone else.) There are those who would make a minister feel like a bad girl for this...that's a part of the pain. In spite of this fact, I would remark, that we have a notably multi-ethnic congregation. The reason might surprise you. We have lots of young adults. Multi-ethnic comes naturally to young adults. They've had it all their lives. When they bring their friends to church, they bring a rainbow with them. As to how we attracted the young adults, well...they are a pure gift. We watched for them, tried not to repel them, and helped them get organized so they were visible to each other and able to organize themselves.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ministerial Job Descriptions

Anon. has left a really insightful comment in the post below, well worth reading. Here's my response.

Thanks so much for this insightful comment. There are wonderful stories of good relationships among colleagues working on a staff together, but of course, those don't get heard as often as the horror stories. And every job description should have some of "shiny" parts of ministry, the creative, public aspects, and some of the "heavy lifting". Also each minister (really, this goes for any staff person whose job description can be negotiated) should have some things that really excite them. My experience in working with a number of colleagues is that it is hard to know, in advance, what that split of work is going to be and also that it changes with time. I think that it is best for church leaders to give the two ministers as much leeway as they possibly can to decide between themselves how they are going to split up the ministry and to expect them to tweak their division of labor every year. Much as they might like to only hear the senior minister preach, for instance, if the Associate likes to preach and you want a happy associate, you have to find ways to let that happen. (You do want a happy associate and a happy team. An unhappy minister is a menace to themselves and their church and a ministerial transition is a huge expense.) If all ministers have some basic HR training, (that includes training in how to be a good senior colleague) they will know how to negotiate and re-negotiate these things and why it is important to do so.

Some Things UU'ism can do for Growth

By UU'ism, I mean the system within which we exist, of which the UUA is one part. I mean UUA staff, UU Ministers and other professionals like musicians and RE directors, church leaders, and all the ways we all "just know" to do things.

There are some things that no one person or church can do on its own, and one is to create a culture in which staff can work productively together. When we fancied ourselves a denomination of small, lay-lead, one-minister, one-employee churches, we did have an employment culture; a culture that expected that committees of lay people would provide support and if necessary, supervision to employees and ministers. That had its inefficiencies and injustices, but one of the truly painful and conflict-producing consequences of growth was that once you have more than a couple of employees or have grown to need more than one minister, none of that works any more and the loudest voices clamor for impossible structures and a lot of free-for-all and unsupervised staff. That culture makes growth really, really hard, it makes excellence impossible, it makes working on a staff really hard, and it makes being responsible for the work of a staff impossible. So if I could wave my magic wand on the ministerial side of things:

1. I'd insist that every minister have basic Human Resources training. A minister needs to know how to hire, train, coach, manage, discipline, and fire people. Ideally this training would be offered by theological schools or the UUA because all these tasks are somewhat different in the small staff/church environments that we work in. This is particularly tricky when two ordained staff are working together and even more tricky when both ministers are called by the congregation, which vastly complicates their relationship.

2. I'd make serving on a staff a respectable option for ministers. Assistant and Associate positions and part-time program specialties are absolutely vital for churches of over 500 members. Right now, UU ministers are encouraged from several sources to think that these positions are not very respectable and that a "real" minister has his or her "own" church. The UUMA guidelines need to be changed on this point, and I hear that they are.

3. I'd create a group for ministers serving on staffs and assist with funding a yearly retreat for them, and I'd think of them when doing things like putting together groups of ministers to talk about growth. The Associate and Assistant ministers know things the Senior ministers don't know about growth.

Monday, November 26, 2007

How to Kill Growth

When we talked about church growth, we ended up talking about amorphous concepts like "buzz", "love", and "vision", and it may be that church growth just doesn't fit itself into a to-do list. But it's easy to make a to-do list if you want to kill growth. No matter how wonderful the sermons, growth can be easily killed simply by doing any one or two of the following.

  1. Get into a fight, don't end the fight, keep it going, let it permeate all aspects of a congregation, never tell the people who are fighting that they are hurting the church, and don't do anything that would tred on their sacred right to freely say whatever hurtful, horrible things they want to say to as many people as they can find. That will insure that the congregation's "buzz" is a matter of whispering in corners or raised and edgy voices. Big Growth Killer. Nobody comes to church to fight. Church fights leave ministers and lay people with Post Traumatic Stress. The people who join a church that's in the middle of a fight are either astoundingly dedicated, clueless or..worse yet, like to fight.
  2. Let your building and grounds get run down, looking like nobody in this supposedly caring, dedicated community cares.
  3. Pay absolutely no attention to the changes the churches around you are making in worship. You may have great reasons to do it your way, but if you're clueless (or look clueless) to the culture around you, that culture is not going to knock on your door.
  4. Pay no attention to your guests (aka visitors). Make sure they are uncomfortable from the moment they arrive on your property and don't see a sign or a greeter telling them where to go. Keep them wondering after the service...where is that social hall? Don't interrupt your important conversations about church business to say Good Morning or find out where they came.
  5. Make it clear to parents that you don't really care about children. Tuck them away in a basement. Rent your classrooms to a daycare center which throws sheets over all their cool toys so that the children who come to Sunday School feel like they are camping out in a graveyard of forbidden joys. Use hand-me-down games and toys. Don't sign kids in and out of classrooms. (Parents have been taught to be clinically paranoid about their children's safety. They sign their kids in and out of birthday parties these days.)
I could go on and on forever, and in excruciating detail, but it's too depressing. It's all too easy to kill growth in a church! I've seen all these things and had to find ways to get well-meaning UU's to quit doing them. I'm tired now and am going to bed.

Lots of Kinds of Growth

Someone wondered in a comment whether the growth consultation had talked about other kinds of growth, growth in service, in spirituality, inclusiveness of diversity, etc.

The focus of this Consultation was on numerical growth, and the assumption was made that excellence in programming brings growth in service, spirit, inclusiveness, etc, and that is part and parcel of numerical growth. We talked some about the role of the minister in discerning what kind of growth is most likely to benefit the church as a whole, and we talked about the pain and complexity of having to say "no" to or not support projects that some think will be growth-producing.

Since I'm from the "Growth is an outcome, not a goal" school of thought, my focus is always on those "other kinds of growth." Perhaps that's one reason I weathered a decade of non-growth without ever feeling that I was not accomplishing my goals. We were doing much needed renovations. We were re-building community after a church fight. I was working on bringing more spirituality into the worship service. It was very satisfying, productive ministry, and I honor myself and my congregation for it. We were just trying to be a good church...and look what happened, eventually!

Growth Consultation and Transition Wisdom

One of the truisms of Ministerial Transitions is that everyone...ministers and laypeople...take a minister's skills and preferences for granted. Therefore a search committee is likely to look especially hard for the skills and preferences the last minister didn't have, assuming that "everyone" has the skills the last minister did have. So when Rev. Johnson, the world's most caring pastor, retires, a search committee goes out looking for someone who is a little more comfortable with teens. They assume that all ministers love doing pastoral care, and even when they have a candidate who says that's not her thing, she's inclined to spend her time creating a really good youth program, the committee doesn't hear it. And six months later, when the honeymoon is over, the people of the church are adjusting (hopefully) to their new minister, learning to better take care of themselves, telling their new pastor that they want her to pay more attention to the elderly shut-ins, which the minister is hopefully meeting them halfway on. Everyone looks back to realize that they had been making assumptions.

The ministers at the Growth Consultation didn't have much in the way of "nuts and bolts" of growth to discuss. We talked about vision, love, spirituality, and other vast topics. That may say something about a ministerial skill required to grow a church; grand and vast thinking. It may say something about this particular group which didn't include ministers who imagine that they have the one and only growth plan for everyone. But it may also say something about skills and preferences this group was taking for granted. Maybe we didn't want to talk about nuts and bolts of growth because some of those nuts and bolts are too obvious to bring up in an august group of colleagues.

For instance, I have a feeling that growing churches collect data. They know how many people are in church on any Sunday, how many members, children, and teens there are. They know something about the trends they are dealing with. They know how many visitors they have.

(We have, for instance, seen a marked increase in visitors since the Time Ad campaign out.)

Now, nobody mentioned data-keeping as a technology of growth. Too dull. Too obvious. But I know that not every minister insists on keeping and using data like this. We didn't talk about how we convert visitors to members, although I'd lay my money that every church represented had a method of doing that. We did talk briefly about how we assimilate members and help them find their own ministry in the church, in the context of staffing....many growing churches have Membership and Social Justice coordinators, and I'm so jealous. Somehow we limp by with neither. (actually with those functions spread amongst staff and volunteers.)

Perhaps those listening, who kept commenting that this was a very different discussion than they often heard amongst ministers, are better able to figure out what we were taking for granted, and that will be a very interesting report.

Marilyn Sewell on Growth and Love

My Colleague Marilyn Sewell, senior minister of the Portland, OR, congregation was at the Growth consultation and has weighed in here

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Buzzing towards Growth

Last week we had a patio fair at coffee hour. (Last week it was warm enough. This week, not so!) There was a little arts and crafts sale, a local fair trade organization was selling gifts, and our Green Sanctuary Committee was selling light bulbs and had invited a representative from our power company to talk to people about their wind power initiative. It was a glorious Fall day and the social hall was deserted except for the folks serving coffee.

At the end of the morning, the Power Company representative approached our administrator, asking for information about the church. "There's great energy, here, " she said. "Everybody is happy!"

We called that, "the buzz" at the Growth Consultation, and we all agreed that (1) it existed and was important, and (2) that an unhappy or conflicted or depressed congregation produces a completely different "buzz". Our experience is that this is an often commented-on, very attractive feature of our congregation. Buzz is very valuable.

"Buzz" happens when the space is full, when people are excited about what and who they find in the space, when groups of people chatting are fluid and open to new people. (A group that is talking intently among itself and does not want to be approached or overheard...the sort of group that might exist during a time of conflict...makes a completely different kind of noise.)

"Buzz" is created by children, which is why we serve cocoa at Coffee Hour. Buzz is created by smiles, expansive gestures, and people calling out to their friends by name.

There comes a time as a church grows, that the members buzzing around at coffee hour don't know whether those around them are new any more, and taking care of those newcomers and helping them be a part of the buzz is really important. That's when versions of the Yellow Cup become important; we have to be able to identify a lot of newcomers in a short span of 10-20 minutes. That's also when some volunteers and staff have to keep firmly in mind that their job at coffee hour is to greet newcomers.

We do things to create buzz at our congregation. We encourage all our scouts to sell their wares, we invite groups to put out information, there are always tables full of sign-up sheets. And while we do wish that we had a larger social hall during the winter, we are glad that we don't have to deal with a cavernous hall, where it would be hard to create the buzz that helps people experience the energy of this congregation.

Friday, November 23, 2007

For churches not growing

I've been fortunate to serve churches which were willing and able to grow, and feel blessed to have been able to lead and assist that growth. But I've also lived out a period of non-growth; a decade in which we did mostly the same things we'd been doing and have done since, plus a building project, and the church see-sawed around on a plateau. There's no doubt in my mind that all the good intention and skill of minister and congregation together can't "produce" growth. I have a favorite reading on this subject, which is also a great reading for Mothers Day, Fathers Day, and to email to folks whose kids have taken an unexpected turn towards difficulty.

Do everything right,

all the time, and the child will prosper. It’s as simple as that, except for fate, luck, heredity, chance, the astrological sign under which the child was born, the order of her birth, his first encounter with evil, the boy who gilts her in spite of her excellent qualities, the war that is being fought when he is a young man, the drugs she may try once or too many times, the friends she makes, how he scores on tests, how well she endures kidding about her shortcomings, how ambitions he becomes, how far she falls behind, circumstantial evidence, ironic perspective, danger when it is least expected, difficulty in triumphing over circumstances, people with hidden agendas, and animals with rabies.” -Ann Beattie, from Picturing Will

Of course, it's all so important, our children, and our churches, that we do our best in spite of all the possible ways things might derail.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Saying Yes, Saying No

Side conversations at the growth conference convinced me that growing churches have what I've heard called a "permission giving" culture. That is, if you have an idea that fits in the church's vision, and want to give leadership to that idea, it is very easy to get permission to do that, to learn what you need to know about room use, publicity, and church policy, and get going with it. In our case most of this is encoded in policy; any staff person can help someone start a new program. We do a lot of saying yes. It may be that a growing church just has to manage this way; there's no way the staff and cadre of old leaders can manage demand by themselves; we just have to loosen up and (within reason) trust the the impassioned to go with their energy.

I have to comment here that I have learned that I'm a very poor predictor of which of these programs will "fly," so it's a good thing I don't feel the need to be controlling. Who would have thought that the group going to work in New Orleans would raise $7,000 by making one appeal on a Sunday morning? Who would have thought that the group splitting off of the young adult group and calling themselves the (old)parents of young children would grow to the point of having 24 adults and 23 children at their meetings? Or that the little group of techies who wanted to video-tape the sermon to put up on Utube and public access TV would morph into our current video ministry which serves two branches, a third service on our site, videos on our website and a sermon subscription service to lay-lead congregations?

But to some programs one must say, "no." Sometimes the program doesn't fit in the church's vision, or would compete with our core programming for space or use too much staff time or...this is the hardest...needs skilled or professional leadership to keep participants safe. There are any number of other times a minister has to just say no. It's one of the hard parts of the job. We started talking about this as the "fierce shepherd" role...the leader who loves the's people and its vision...enough to keep them on track.

Someone advanced the theory...and I think it's a good one, that the minister of a growing church must be such a fierce shepherd, and shepherds who won't do this spend all their energy chasing troubled and troubling sheep around. Some ministers have to learn to step up to this role, others have to learn to codify it with policy and share it with other leaders. But it's gotta be done.

We also commented that female leaders pay a much greater price than male leaders for stepping into this role; even UU's want their female ministers to be tender mommies not fierce shepherds. We wondered if one reason fewer women seem to apply for senior ministry positions in larger churches is that by the time they are experienced enough to think of serving a large church, they've been beaten down by the unequal price of saying "no."

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Well, this is fun! My blog tests out to a high school reading level. I think this is a good thing. We read blogs in our spare time, and too hard to too much like work. You can check out the reading level of any file on the web, so I checked out a few sermons from the church's website.
Mine run to Jr. High level. I think I should be pleased about this, too, after all, its an oral medium, but it's a bit harder...
cash advance

Growth: Goal or Outcome?

The most heated discussion our little group of 12 had, in the end, was over the question of whether church growth should be a goal, or is better thought of as an outcome of church health.

On the goal side are those who believe that our way of doing religion has a saving message for the world and we should make a goal of reaching more of those people. On the outcome side are those who believe that the goal should be a healthy church and a program which feeds the spiritual hungers of the community (not the church as it stands, but the larger community, however that is defined.) The "Growth as a Goal" folks are gung ho for setting growth goals, since you gotta have a dream, and we who have such an important message outta dream big. The "Growth as an Outcome" folks believe that you should only set goals about things you can control, and you can't in the end, control whether people visit and like you when they do. They were further somewhat suspicious of numerical goals; it sounds like a too-simple, "bigger is better" trip.

Ours was a multi-generational group of ministers, ranging from three to going on 30 years in ministry and twentys to fifties in age. This particular conversation divided starkly along these generational lines. Newer, younger ministers had growth goals for themselves and their churches. Older, more experienced ministers spoke for growth as an outcome of a healthy, serving church. There was some passion in both groups for their chosen style.

This could be more of a difference in language than substance (the "Growth as a goal" folks know that to get growth, you have to have a vital program, and the "Growth as an outcome" ministers had experienced plenty of growth in spite of not aiming for it.) It could be a result of sadder-but-wiser ministers who have endured plateaus and declines in spite of all the good programming and church health they could muster. It could be that the younger folks are braver and bolder and more willing to take the risk of setting goals.

An observer commented that it seemed that this group of ministers believed that Unitarian Unitarianism has a saving message for the world and that growth is a good thing. The stunned silence that greeted that statement was eloquent testimony to this group's unquestioning passion for our movement and what it has to offer our world.

What about you? Is growth a goal in your church? Why or why not?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Afflicting the Comfortable

It's one of the things ministers are supposed to do, along with comforting the afflicted. At its most simple, this 19th century aphorism reminds ministers to do their pastoral care and their prophetic preaching, 'cause their sick folks are afflicted and need comforting and their pew-sitters are too comfy and need afflicting with the world's injustices.

Young ministers quickly discover that that's way too simple. There are some people who are way comfortable with their afflictions and will soak up all the comfort a new minister can give and still need more. There are some pew-sitters who are in so much pain only an ogre would afflict more.

There are some UU ministers who feel uneasy ministering to UU's, who tend to be among the knowledge and professional classes. Way too comfortable by the world's standards, they all have enough to eat, shelter, and heat, the majority have health insurance, especially if they are over 30, and an awful lot can entertain themselves in all the ways their hearts desire.

The world's standards are very low, and frankly, I think of my folks (and myself) as afflicted in spite of their relative wealth. They are afflicted with all ills the flesh is heir to and are often rather isolated. Their lives are way too busy and terribly stressful, the younger ones often carry huge debt, and most are puzzled and uneasy, if not downright frightened, by the current state of the world. I call that afflicted. Most of my preaching is aimed, not at afflicting the comfortable but offering a word of understanding and healing to the afflicted.

We talked some, at the growth consultation, about how we deal with the prophetic side of ministry, and this was an area in which the 12 ministers of growing church clearly had different philosophies. Some do a lot of teaching about social problems and organizing of social change opportunities. Most of what you read about church growth suggests that this is crucial, but Social Justice has never been this church's strong suit, and it has grown anyway. I preach on social issues on the occasions when I think I have an insight to share. Sometime I just share my puzzlement and talk about how to live with fear. What I never do is just wring my hands, or wave my fists, sermonically. If I can't wring some hope and a to-do list out of a situation (the Iraq war comes immediately to mind), it's not fodder for a sermon, it's fodder for the prayer.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Other Side of the Story

I had imagined, as had the organizers of this growth consultation, that each of the ministers would have pet programs to share, tips about how to grow, and firm opinions about what had done the trick. This worried me because I wasn't sure what I'd say. I've got an interesting program going on now; our development of branches in small towns, but that has not yet been a very large factor in our growth. My church gets great marks for openness to newcomers and willingness to restructure, but we have not done anything to create growth, and which of the things we've done in the name of good ministry that have caused growth..well, who can say?

The session devoted to nuts and bolts was on the agenda but it turned out that most of the participants felt about like I did, and the conversation at that session turned to love. Our love for our churches, for this denomination, for our work. We all agreed on how key that was. Some of us told stories of our call to our churches that bordered on mystical. When called back to nuts and bolts, we mostly talked about worship, spiritual programming such as covenant groups (and Ken, do tell them about your month of gratitude!). There was some talk about the importance of staff work and how unprepared we all felt for the growing task of supervision, and how this always fraught subject is nearly impossible in our UU World. But then we returned to the relationship between minister and congregation.

I wondered what kind of a consultation this would have been if lay leaders have been invited, and if I were following up on this, I'd invite groups of lay people from churches which have grown to a special lunch at, GA, or the Large or Medium Sized church conferences. I'd feed them well, tell them how special and wonderful they are , and ask some of the same questions. I have a feeling they'd have an entirely different perspective.

They'd talk about good preaching much more than we ministers did, I'm sure, (it was a remarkably un-braggy group) but beyond that, I'm not so sure, and I think it's important to know.

What about it, lay readers of this blog? If your church has grown over the past five years, what has caused that growth? What do you think people come for and what keeps them? What has your hard work been devoted to and why have you done it?

Growth Consultation III-redevelopment

As we told our stories we noticed a stark pattern. With the exception of the brand new church, all of our stories were stories of redevelopment. Several churches, like mine, had been on a plateau for a generation. A couple had declined from previous highs. In one church the leaders had said to each other, "If this doesn't work, we need to think about closing."

A second set of stories, which I particularly resonated with, was told about trust, in particular, trusting the minister's leadership. This is not something that comes naturally to UU's, even less so when there has been difficulty between congregation and ministers.

I digress to tell a personal story. Before I accepted the call to Albuquerque, the retiring District Exec sat me down and told me about the difficulties my predecessors had had and had caused and said (to the 35 year old across the table from him), “You do know what this means, don’t you?” “Yes,” I said, in my most serious and grown up voice, “It means that it will be a long time before they trust me or follow me.” He looked surprised, and then relieved. “Well, he said, “As long as you know that, if you love them, you should go.” “I know it.” I said, and I went.

Now I look back fondly on my long dead colleague (he died within a month of that conversation). I wonder what he meant by “a long time”. I know what I meant. I’m embarrassed to report that I meant two years.

It was fifteen years.

Not that I didn’t do a good deal of leading in my first 15 years, but the lack of trust did make everything twice as hard and the toll on me twice as heavy. But about year 15, some of the invisible plasma that had impeded our life together fell away, and it has been so much easier since.

There is nothing like desperation to get an old guarde to grudgingly trust a new minister, and while desperation to grow can't show to the congregation at large, a little quiet desperation in the leadership is probably a necessary thing. It may be that a minister coming to a church that know itself to be in trouble is more likely to be allowed to help that church grow than a minister coming to a church that thinks it's doing a pretty good job already.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Growth Consultation II

The first question that was asked of us was to articulate the purpose or saving message of our church. I think we were all struck by the openly spiritual statements which were made. This group of 12 ministers of growing churches all believe that the purpose of their churches is spiritual growth of individuals and transformation of the world, in that order. Words like "community" and "like minded" didn't, as far as I remember, figure in the mix at all. The statement I made is my own purpose, I want to offer people an opportunity to deepen their lives within a theologically diverse community. I had considered this boldly spiritual but nearly all of my colleagues had even more specifically spiritual statements to make about the saving message of their church.

I've always had a hunch that one reason my church is a vital religious community is because our worship service, no matter who is leading it, is noticeably worshipful, our program is definitely heavy on spiritual growth opportunities, and our language spiritual, religious, and not dogmatic. I was hoping that that hunch would be confirmed in this gathering, which it was. It's an interesting experience to think you're "way out there" and discover that others of your successful colleagues are even more "way out." Very satisfying.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Growth Consultation

I’ve spent a couple of days now at this event, in Louisville. 10 ministers of churches which have had significant, sustained growth over several years, two ministers of churches we all hope will grow significantly, and a dozen lay and ordained members of the UUA’s growth team. The ministers were chosen to have a good mix of geographies, genders, generations and situations. I feel the honor and the responsibility of the thing, and I am very aware that a different dozen ministers could have been easily and productively chosen. Our conversation has mostly been trying to get at what causes churches to grow, how we encourage or cope with growth, and what qualities of ministry and denominational leadership make for growth. Although all of us, I’m sure, have thought about these questions on our own, read about them, and experimented, when there is only you and your church, there are no controlled experiments. My church has grown…from 400 to 500 members in the 90’s, and now from 500 to 700. My first church grew from 90 to 210 members. What did I do?

Well, gosh, and gee…I just did ministry and then struggled as open-heartedly as I could with the aftermath.

That’s no small issue. However growth happens, it is very clear that all it takes to stop or reverse it is inattention, exhaustion, a good church fight, unwillingness or inability to re-structure, unwillingness to relentlessly change old patterns, guide people in the paths of hospitality, mourn change and move on. In other words, growth is hard work. The observers have repeatedly commented on how much centered energy we 12 ministers seem to have. It’s a contrast to other groups of ministers that I don’t see as clearly as the observers seem to, but I trust them. Is the energy and centeredness the cause of the growth? It seems likely. But it also seems likely to me that the centered energy is a result of the growth. We’re shaped by what we do, and those of us who have managed, by hook or crook, to grow churches have, perhaps of necessity, developed an intensity by sheer dint of hard work and the focus it takes to lead a changing institution.

There's more. I've got lots of reflections and notes, which I'll be posting over the next week. A video is also planned.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Bus

November starts Air Pollution time in my beautiful city; the temperature inversions near our mountains keep all the car exhaust right down here with us and the smallness of our trees and the wideness of our vistas mean that (a) it doesn't get cleaned up and (b)it is all too visible. So starting in November we have to use more expensive gas and are invited to not drive to work one day a week. I'm lucky enough to live two blocks from a bus line that takes me right to church and have been taking the bus more and more often this last year. I bought a three month pass in July and today I sprung for a 13 month pass. Now I take the bus every day that I don't need a car.

It's a big lifestyle change. It adds a half hour to my work day, which has taken some getting used to, but I feel like I know my city and its people better, and I do get home more relaxed and somewhat better exercised. But mostly, it's my little bit, not only for the winter air quality in my city, but for the world; the island dwellers and polar bears and the African peasants who suffer the most from drought. It's a symbolic gesture which will do no measurable good, except to show that it is possible, even in a sprawling western city, to do a lot on public transportation.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Women in Ministry

A set of statistics has floated around lately; the results of the past two search years in the UUA. They go something like this: 3/5 of the persons in search for a new church are women. 35% of those women were successful in search, vs. 46% of the men. The larger the church, the more likely it was a man who was called to serve it. In congregations of 250 members and above, it seems, a man was twice as likely to be successful as a woman.

Ouch. This is disappointing. We UU's think that we're beyond this.

What does this mean? One possibility that there's a lot more sexism amongst us than we'd like to think. Another possibility is that male ministers pursue their career path more vigorously and are able and willing to move, to put in full time work while raising children, and to move into ministries where they must supervise staff and exert considerable, overt leadership. (ie, fewer of the women in search are applying for the larger churches)

It may be that women still have to be better than their male competition to get a job, and this phenomena gets worse the "more prestigious" the pulpit. It may be that churches and search committees have unconscious prejudices or that their expectations of their minister-to-be are so high that only a man with a wife to hold down the home front could possibly do them, especially if there are young children in the family.

It may mean that, these days, the average male minister (now a minority entity,) is more skilled and dedicated and "together" than the average female minister. (This is very politically incorrect to think, I know. But I'm sure I noticed the reverse when I was in theological school; the average women, though a minority, was more skilled and dedicated and together than the average man. This was much more obvious amongst my Methodist friends, where women were less welcome than in my UU circles. Why beat your head against the brick wall of minority-ness unless you're really good at this?)

Thinking about all of those women, many of whom are now retired, and their careers leads me to my own theory about sexism, women, and ministry. I'm inclined to think that search committees are fairly open minded on the subject of having a woman minister. I've been in conversation with a dozen or so over the years and I've only once thought I detected a real strain of sexism. But I think that the women ministers themselves have been beaten down by the difficulties of being a woman in ministry. It's not easy being a man in ministy, either, but to all those shared difficulties, women add the difficulty of the unconscious, unspoken sexism in our society, which means that women have to be twice as forceful as a man to be heard but are liked less and less the more forceful they are, and women ministers bear a burden of projection of people's "mother stuff". Male ministers get "father stuff", but in this society, "father stuff" is a lot less potent and troublesome than "mother stuff".

So a woman's first ministry is hard, the resistance is subtle, (and often from women, which is confusing and painful), and the line very thin between being a leader and being strident. It's extra hard for the woman minister to figure out, when she gets negative feedback, what's sexism and what she really needs to look at. Conflicts with others are always her fault...after all, women are supposed to get along, and women ministers are supposed to get along with everyone. So ministry for women is harder, more perplexing, not as much fun, always requires a kind of heightened survival instinct. Because of all that, it is easier to quit, harder to take career risks, harder to imagine oneself a minister of a large church.

So if it turns out to be mostly true that women are self-selecting less challenging ministries, that does not absolve us of sexism. And if we are making things harder for our talented women ministers, we're the losers in the end, after all. There are apparently not enough ministers willing and able to serve our larger churches; several very attractive larger churches didn't settle a minister last year. We can't afford to handicap 3/5 of our pool with the results of a sexism we don't believe in.

Monday, September 10, 2007


My grocery store closed. There's no grocery store within walking distance of our house any more. (well...there are two that are a half hour walk away. Abe Lincoln would have considered that walking distance. And there's Target, which sells safe groceries. No meat, no produce, mostly prepared things frozen, boxed, or canned... but no real grocery store close enough that you can get milk home before it turns sour.

My newspaper is going out of business. It's the liberal, evening paper. Albuquerque must be the smallest two-paper city in the nation, more. I'd go out of the daily newspaper business entirely, but my son loves the comics and we need old papers for the iguana cage.

My gym class got less and less satisfactory and I finally quit. Of the two classes that fit my life, one is so crowded that it's unpleasant and the the teacher of the second class moves so fast and includes dance steps...I feel incompetent. It's bad enough that I have to lift weights for an hour...oh, do I hate lifting weights...but to also feel is too much.

Yesterday a hurricane-induced front rolled through Albuquerque during church. The wind blew, the clouds rolled around and it was suddenly very humid. Some people clearly found this exhilerating. "Change is in the Air!" they quipped as the came on to the church patio. "Fall is here!" Others were clearly uncomfortable and uneasy. I was one of those. Too much is too much.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

First life Second life fame

The reporter from the Albuquerque paper said she'd been assigned to write a business article about the computer "game", Second Life. She'd gotten my name from google's UU World mention a few months ago, but was still quite hazy about Second Life and how it worked. So I tried to explain it to her. I gave her some names of other Albuquerque folks who were actually doing things on Second Life; it's been a long time since I was even there. I thought that would be the end of it, but a photographer called last week for an appointment; an article was to appear in the weekend paper, and they wanted my picture. Avatar and I appeared, top of the fold on the front page this morning.

News is slow in August.

My congregation was thrilled, and for whatever reason, church was packed this morning.

Here's the text. Considering the fact that I very foolishly let my "reporter-gard" down completely, I thought it came out pretty well.

People Do Business, Shop With Virtual Dollars, Even Worship in Internet-Based World

By Autumn Gray
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Assistant Business Editor
Members of a local Unitarian Universalist church know their senior minister as Christine Robinson. In her second life, she is Cathryn Cleanslate.
Albuquerque marketer Reid Givens calls his digital persona Reid Delaid.
And local software designer Lynne Whitehorn-Umphres assumes the name CoyoteAngel Dimsum in her virtual existence.
Each has taken up residency in an Internet-based realm called Second Life— a world of three-dimensional graphic design that imitates real life and has attracted 9 million users worldwide., created by San Francisco-based Linden Lab in 2003, offers a virtual society designed completely by its resident members. Members appear on-screen as animated representations of themselves, called avatars. They work, shop, play, dance— do practically anything they
can, or can't, do in this life. They even marry other avatars.
"It's fascinating how like real life it is," says Robinson, who has presided over a virtual wedding.
Second Life has also become a venue for business, networking and education. Even the University of New Mexico has property there, intending to expand its distance-learning capabilities.
International corporations like IBM, as well as small entrepreneurs, use the site to market their products and sell their wares— both virtual and real.
In one 24-hour period at the end of last week, Second Life residents had spent a little more than $1 million (yes, that's real money) on virtual purchases or activities.
The site has made national headlines recently due to its popularity. Last week, a Wall Street Journal story titled "Is This Man Cheating on His Wife?" wrote about concerns that users were neglecting their First Life to spend time with their Second Life.
That doesn't appear to be the case with Robinson, Whitehorse-Umphres and Givens— all appear to use it to enhance their real life.
Business opportunities are ultimately why Whitehorse-Umphres became a resident. Not only has she begun helping her spouse set up a jewelry store in Second Life, she also intends to begin her own high-tech, money-making venture.
Givens uses it as a continuing education tool— attending virtual meetings with others of similar professions to talk shop.
And Robinson says having a virtual church in Second Life gives her a chance to connect with a broader audience.
"We're basically in the business of helping people discuss their spiritual life," Robinson said of the church, "and this was just another way to do that."
Virtual worship
The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Second Life is an example of how the site works. It holds regular virtual services and has built a sanctuary on virtual property it purchased.
A three-dimensional visual wonder created by a UU artist, the church offers attending avatars cushioned seating, a flaming chalice, stone pulpit, lush plants and a waterfall flowing over rock walls.
Robinson found the church through a search engine on Second Life once she became a resident in the spring. On sabbatical from the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, she began ministering to the online congregation.
"They had worship services that were as real and as meaningful as anything I've felt in real life," she said.
Personally, Robinson says she has spent money for the virtual collection plate and has bought materials to make a virtual necklace for her avatar.
Be prepared to pay
Second Life has its own economy, based on the Linden currency, and real money gets exchanged. Roughly 275 Lindens ($L), which buy Second Life goods and services, can be bought with one real dollar ($US).
Registering for residency is free— if all you want is to exist and move about. Just create an avatar name and password, and you're in. A 3D graphics card, high-speed processor and broadband connection are helpful, too.
But, as in real life, property costs money, and if your goal is to start a business, own a home, or do anything of permanence, be prepared to pay.
Multinational corporations have gotten involved.
Pontiac and Nissan both have car dealerships in Second Life, and Nissan offers avatars a test-track to try out their driving skills on virtual cars; Coca-Cola recently launched a Hollywood-style premier there; and Microsoft has begun conducting interviews with the avatars of software engineers for real-world jobs, according to a recent segment on National Public Radio.
Avatars buy and sell everything from virtual sneakers at a store created by Nike, to textures for their hair and skin (avatars may have scales or horns, for example, as opposed to just looking human), to planes, and, yes, even sex. All are graphic renderings that can be used or worn or carried by avatars.
Software designer Whitehorn-Umphres is pursuing a job creating computer programs specifically for virtual technology.
She is also helping her spouse, Albuquerque jeweler Dana Whitehorn-Umphres, set up a gallery there.
The shop would allow avatars to try on virtual models of jewelry that exists in this world. An avatar could then purchase the graphically depicted item for wear online or a person might click an accompanying link allowing them to buy the real thing for the big bucks in this world.
Either way, Dana makes money.
"For people who are actual entrepreneurs, it's a brilliant environment to try this out," Lynne said.
Way of the future?
Futurist Lowell Catlett, a dean at New Mexico State University, has been speaking around the state about virtual worlds.
He says technologies like Second Life afford businesses one of the first living labs where social behavior can be watched and studied in real time.
Coldwell Banker earlier this year established an office in the virtual world, built more than 500 homes for sale and even purchased a helicopter to give avatars aerial tours of the subdivision.
Michael Wilsher, qualifying broker for the Rio Rancho offices of Coldwell Banker, has been encouraging his sellers— as recently as August— to create their own avatars and start networking and selling through the virtual land.
"I tell my agents, 'Guys, don't wait til everybody's doing it. Do it now. It's a no-brainer.' ''
"Yes, a lot of it is for fun," he says, "but people are actually buying things, and people actually make decisions (in Second Life)."
Educational uses
Second Life is also proving beneficial for education.
UNM's New Media and Extended Learning Department is interested in using the online environment to improve distance learning, says its director, Debby Knotts.
The department obtained property in Second Life through a national entity called the New Media Consortium, which bought an entire island in the virtual world for its members. UNM's plot sits adjacent to the Center for Digital Storytelling, Knotts said, though no UNM building exists yet.
Givens, who works in Albuquerque, uses Second Life more for continuing education than as a money-maker. He just became employed with a marketing company called MindSpace and says he attends a meeting called Coffee with Crayon developed by the marketing company Crayon.
The online forum attracts people in his profession nationwide.
"Everybody just talks shop," says Givens, who adds he also attends an occasional concert through a nightclub in Second Life.
"It is a tool," Givens says of the virtual world. "It's not going to revolutionize business and marketing, but it is going to have an impact. How much depends in part on the goal of the company."

By the numbers
9 million
Number of residents on
Number of people in-world in a recent seven-day period
$1 Million
Amount spent in a 24-hour period

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Happiness Is

My 18 year old apple tree, which had for several years been so overcome by coddling moths that we didn't get a single apple, has recovered to the point where almost half of the crop is worm-free and another quarter only lightly damaged. I had tried every organic thing I could try over the years; spraying is out because the tree overhangs our neighbor's narrow patio. In the end, I guess, the trick was several years of cleaning up under the tree (coddling moths bore a hole in the developing apple, eat the core leaving a disgusting mess, and when the rotting apple drops to the ground, burrows in the soil for the winter) and something called sticky traps; red apple-sized globes which are coated with the most remarkably sticky stuff ever invented. They're awful to deal with; the sticky stuff gets in everything, but they seem to be working, and I have apples again! I have such a sense of accomplishment: I've nursed a tree back to health. You don't do that every day! Joy, joy, joy!

Apple Sauce, apple butter, baked apples, fried apples, apple crisp, apples in hand, apple bread, apple cake, apple juice. Glory, Hallelujah!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Daily Prayer Books

mjae left a comment below asking about daily prayer books. The one I've used for years is to the right: Sounds of the Eternal by Phillip Newell. It's a non-Christian, Celtic Spirituality-based book, meant for interfaith worship. Phillip Newell is from Scotland, but spends a couple of months in residence at Casa del Sol at Ghost Ranch here in New Mexico, and after spending some time with him last Summer, I started working through Celtic Blessings..also to the right. It has daily Bible readings...beautifully rendered, about 6 weeks worth. I'm enjoying it as a structure to my morning time.

I'd love to hear more (see comments!) from readers about any daily prayer/meditation/reading they use!

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Postlude to Deathly Hallows

If you don’t want to know the ending of this book, don’t read on.

Several people in my church have told me how disappointed they were with the epilogue to Deathly Hallows, when Rowling relates the small doings of all the people who survived the era of Voldemort. What they named their children, what those children’s lives and anxieties were like, a few hints as to what the parents did for a living…it’s a domestic scene so utterly unlike the ferocious unreality of the body of the 7 books that, frankly, it’s a bit hard to take. All that blood, sweat, and tears, so that we’d know that 19 year old Teddy is kissing 18 year old Victoire, (oh, how I hate that Brittish expression “snogging”: I refuse to use it!) and that little Albus Severus is worring himself sick that he will be sorted into Slitherin House at school? It just doesn’t seem quite fitting. It just goes against our ironic natures; it’s a little too happy for UU’s, I think. It’s better suited to our neighbors in the Church of Religious Science from which we return, when we stray, shaking our heads saying, “They’re so….optimistic!” We want a few more scars, more PTSD, another generation family dysfunction. We think that is “realistic.” We UU’s didn’t fall very far from our Puritan tree.

I was disappointed too, but this odd little add-on is growing on me. A bit of a poem by my colleague Lynn Unger put it in perspective. She’s talking about the Lillies of the field and our obsession with our appointments. She ends,

Of course

your work will always matter.

Yet Solomon in all his glory

was not arrayed like one of these.

Life is supposed to be lovely and happy and free and focused on the small doings of our families and gardens. That’s what Jesus was trying to say. Lynn softens it to reassure us that the stands we take and the accomplishments of our appointments do also matter. But they are derivative. The lily itself is the important thing.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Wiki Wise

Yesterday, I had a little rite of passage; I edited my first Wikipedia article. (Wikipedia is a user-written, on-line encyclopedia) After avoiding Wikipedia for years because of its unreliable start up, and at the urging of my always correct (in matters of internet) 17 year old son, I started using it in my research and finding it useful and valuable. But then came a need to look up the details of the Half-way Covenant, an obscure piece of Puritan churchmanship which laid the foundations for Unitarianism. The Wikipedia article didn't explain the situation very well, and there was a banner at the top of the page begging for source material. So I got out of my chair, got my seminary American Religious History text down, looked up what I wanted, re-wrote the Wiki, and added chapter and verse. I wasn't absolutely sure I was doing it all right, but today when I checked, my edits and source were all there. It was a bit of a thrill!

Today's article comments that a web-based world might be good for liberalism in religion in the same way that the printing press was good for liberalism in it's day. When people started reading the Bible for themselves instead of just hearing sermons about it, it got them to actively thinking about what they believed and which church structures were biblical. Similarly, the information glut on the web and the user-activity of it all might get more people thinking actively about their faith. I hope he's right!

Friday, August 10, 2007


The book manuscript is IN!
All congratulations accepted!
Now the editors at Skinner House will do their magic on it. No doubt there's a bunch of work left, but this feels like a milestone. My co-author is celebrating with a vacation in England. I'm celebrating by getting back to blogging.

The book will provide resources for spiritual sharing groups, covenant groups, small group ministry, by whatever name. Most of the book consists of materials to help group members think about the topic, so that when they come to the group, they will not be speaking "off the top of their heads." Our title at the moment is Upon Consideration.

Now...back to the garden, the knitting, the reading, and the normal activities of Summer!

Monday, August 06, 2007

Hiroshima Day

The picture is the peace memorial in Hiroshima, depicting the child victim of cancer who died before she completed folding her 1,000th paper crane....which Japaneese folklore says gives the folder a long life.

It is so hard to hold two contrasting truths at the same time.

The suffering of Hiroshima was horrible, and the Bomb and its possible use has been a scourge on humanity ever since, hovering in the background of nightmares.

But it ended a war; a war which was justly fought against an aggressor. As my father (who, if I remember the story correctly, was boarding a ship for Japan when it happened) reminded me several times in my pacifist youth, if we hadn't dropped the bomb, I might not be here. The projected loss of life in the assault on Japan was very, very high.

It is hard, but it is possible, to mourn the terrible consequences of a thing that was rightly done. Indeed, I believe that if we are not to loose our humanity in the hurly burly of life, it is necessary to mourn the terrible consequences even of things rightly done.

Today is Hiroshima Day. With the now rebuilt city of Hiroshima, we must pray for peace.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Fruit Season

We're coming to the end of fruit season for the year. The blackberries are dwindling down to one serving a day. We've made our last blackberry sherbet for the year. The plums petered out last week, although the birds are still feasting on the remains. Peaches, cherries, and raspberries are long gone. The apple tree is heavy with fruit, but this tree is infested with coddling moths, so we'll get some apple juice out of it and perhaps one apple dessert.

We have several kinds of fruit pureed in the freezer, awaiting the smoothies which are a regular part of our diet. And we'll buy apples, oranges, and grapes through the year. I can't quite wrap my head around the experiment that Barbara Kingsolver made with her family and eat only in-season, local food, though I very much admire her values. (see side's a great book about food, cooking, gardening, and politics).

Still, the fruit season is a wonderful time of the year, and it's about over now.

Vegetable season is starting up. We have squash, peppers, and tomatoes, with cucumbers and beans on the way. But one does eat those last blackberries with great relish!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Deathly Hallows

My son and I had to spend 10 hours in airports and airplanes yesterday, so I bought us two copies of the new Harry Potter book. Most of the afternoon and evening we were within about 5 pages of each other, and he finished the 750 pages about five minutes before I did, an hour out of Albuquerque. Reading speed much be genetic. We were not the only persons on the plane reading the book, which caused me to wonder. On the outgoing trip we'd been told our plane was overweight and that one of us would have to get off. I had no idea that they calculated weight so closely, and I wondered if the excess weight of so many persons with 750 page hard backs rather than 200 page paperbacks would throw off the calculations.

I thought it was a better all around book than earlier ones, which could go off on boring tangents. This one held my rapt attention until the second to last chapter.

I'll wait a few days to give my review, as I realize that not everyone has been able to free up the day of reading required to get through this book. All I can say at the moment is that the book ended without saying anything about the damage done to the survivors of being on either the good or evil side of this epic battle. Only grief was mentioned. So in the end, it was a kids book, rather than a new mythology. It sure was a great way to spend a travel day, though!

I'll be preaching on the book in a few weeks; one of my preaching traditions is to give a kid-friendly and kid-topiced sermon the week after school starts. I think we'll tell the kids they can come in HP costume that morning.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Senior Exercise

I like to get my exercise the natural way, by walking places, gardening, and such, but it's not always possible, so I've belonged to a gym for about 20 years now, 15 of them the same gym (Sports and Wellness) It's changed owners since I started, and I don't like it any more. But there are not many other gyms on my beaten trails, except for a Senior Fitness Center run by the city which couldn't be more convenient. I told my husband that I was looking forward to getting old so I could use it, and he informed me in the nicest possible way that I was old and could use it.

It took me about 3 months to "get around" to checking it out. I walked in and asked the woman at the desk how one got to use this gym? And she, bless her heart, said, "well, you do have to be at least 50 years old." "Oh, I'm all of that," I said and...double bless her heart, she carded me! Made my day.

In spite of the fact that I've apparently been eligible to use this gym for half a decade, it was clear that if I did, I'd be about two decades younger than the average user. And frankly, I'm not really sure I'll be quite comfortable there. The people using the gym the afternoon I visited were, well, practically frail, gingerly treading their treadmills. And good for them for taking care of themselves! Still, I'm worried that it would feel like showing off to go through my paces. But since it only costs $18.00 a year, (about a third of the monthly rate at my gym), I decided to sign up and try it out.

But I haven't done it yet.

Nor have I been back to the gym I don't like any more.

I'm stuck between self-image and practicality.

Stay Tunned

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Farm Wife

I mowed my alfalfa field today, I'm drying apricots, making plum jam, and I've put up two batches of pesto. I also fertilized the vegetable garden. It's only 11am, and I've also put in a contemplative hour on my knitting.

I feel like a veritable farm wife, but the fact of the matter is that I live in a very suburban home with a back yard that is about 120*40, and includes a pretty big patch of grass and two patios.

Now that I have your attention I have to admit that the alfalfa "field" is a 3*3 plot, and I "mowed" it with grass clippers. The hay and green alfalfa is the iguana's fare. Like most humans, he prefers prepared, corn-based food, in this case, commercial iguana chow, but the alfalfa is good for him, and much closer to his native diet, so we insist.

Everything else mentioned above is "life sized", although the apricots came from another family's garden. We'll be returning the favor with plum jam in a bit, along with blackberries, which are my husband's project. Our little yard contains five dwarf fruit trees which provide a bounty of fruit for us , the birds, and the neighbors who live on the other side of the wall. Also, at the moment, 15 tomato plants, 12 pepper plants, squash, cucumbers, and a bean tower. The beans are not doing too well, but everything else is thriving, along with sunflower plants which will feed the songbirds once the fruit season is over. It's all semi-organic; we use no pesticides and half doses of fertilizer; other nutrients are supplied by compost, which is my husband's major contribution to the family farm.

I know that some people consider food growing and preparation (not to mention composting) to be just the sort of torture that the industrial revolution was supposed to free us from, but I ask, "so what were you freed FOR?" And at what cost? Every plum we enjoy from our own tree saves the world the carbon cost of the 1500 miles the average grocery item travels to get to our table. And of course, the taste of a homegrown tomato is simply unavailable anywhere else.

So I don't make it to the gym much in the Summer. I get my exercise the old fashioned way, and my tan, and my sauna, too. I'm a farm wife.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Carbon Off Sets

The UU World has an article about UU's going to GA and taking other trips with a clear conscience by using carbon offset payments. The essence of this scheme is that individuals and companies can go about their activities without guilt by paying a fee according to how much carbon dioxide they have created, with that fee going to projects that are good for the earth like tree-planting.

Although I can see the utility of this scheme as a way to force our capitalist system to recognize some of the costs of their activity which currently are going un-registered and will be paid for by future generations, I have some real questions about the moral value of carbon offset payments for individuals. I prefer actual offsets to voluntary activity like flying to GA or Transylvania. If you are going to spew tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by flying, how about taking the bus to work or lowering your a/c use or planting a vegetable garden? Getting a sticker for your name tag by paying an extra $6.00 at GA is, given the magnitude of the problems facing us, is better than nothing but so lame as to be evidence of denial.

I hasten to say that I was at GA. And I'll be going next year, apparently, as I'm giving a lecture and have a book due out from Skinner House. I'm planning to combine it with some vacation to maximize the benefit of the the plane trip and I plan to just say "no!" to all enticements to go to GA in 09. If our denomination was really serious about reducing carbon emissions, it would put major effort into regional gatherings and go to biannual GA's.

How then would the work get done? Already more than 1/2 of GA attendees are not delegates. They are attending for the workshops, worship services, and networking available at GA, and GA has gotten so big that these things are less and less satisfying. Time to downsize, regionalize, and virtualize both the business and the fun of GA.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Book of the Month

One draw of Ghost Ranch this week was J. Philip Newell, the chaplain of the month, whose little daily prayer book I've used for about five years. Now after a week of listening to him read from his adaptations of scripture, the Celtic Treasure, I'm planning to switch to this book for a while. Such lovely passages; Here's a piece from Genesis, about the seventh day of creation.

On the seventh day there was silence in heaven.
The mighty wind of life was still.
The sea was calm.
The morning stars glistened.
The Earth slept.
The work was finished.
Creation had been born.
And the Mother of all things rested.

The book includes scripture passages and prayers.

There's a link to this book at in the right column.

Ghost Ranch

I spent last week at Ghost Ranch. It is one of Earth's most beautiful places, and the Presbyterians, its current stewards, share it with all who come. I've been to many an off-season ministers' event there, but the accommodations used to be so rough and the service so iffy that we quit going. Reservations lost, no heat, that sort of thing. But a couple of years ago, traveling with a friend who was serving on a Ghost Ranch Committee, we stopped there and I attended her meeting (pretty sad case, aren't I? Attending somebody elses' church meetings in my spare time?) It turned out to be a soul searching sort of meeting and my take away message was, "I like these people. I like the way they think about their faith and their lives and their responsibility to the world. I ought to try coming here on vacation." It took a couple of years, and this year was the year.

I watched the scenery. I learned to weave and turned out a couple of pretty-good- for-a-first- try pillow tops. I found it so absorbing that I hardly thought about my church at all, and that makes for a very successful ministerial vacation. Their resident theologian/spiritual director, Philip Newell offered morning services which were just lovely and open to all. Even the communion service. "These are the gifts of the Earth," he commented about the bread and the wine. "They don't belong to this tradition or any other tradition. All are welcome." It's been a long time since I took communion anywhere except at the UU Christian Fellowship's GA communion service. It felt very good. The only disappointment: it was surprisingly hard to have a good conversation. There were plenty of possibilities for "Where do you come from and is this your first time at Ghost Ranch" kind of conversations, but harder to get deeper. It seemed that most people had come with friends or had been coming for many years. This is something they need to work on.

On the other hand, they've been doing some hard work on their accommodations and have some really lovely new residences, and their phone, computer, and reservations systems seem to be working now, too. Church retreat, anybody?