Sunday, November 30, 2008

The "excellence" problem

Here is a perspective on the use of the word "excellence" in church life from the blog, "out of URl"
It's an emergent church perspective. (Emergent church is out-of-the-box, youth oriented Christian church movement) It's an interesting blog... I always think it's nice to know we're not alone in our agonizing about churchy issues!

Just a few more thoughts of mine on this issue; firstly, I never thought that "excellent" and "perfect" were synonyms. secondly, I wonder what word between "competent", which we surely must expect of everyone, and "excellent", which is seen as out of reach, might we want to put forward? For myself, I'm leaning towards thinking of "excellencies", as a way of suggesting that there are many ways one can be doing high quality work and they are likely to look very different.

Finally, and most importantly, I do hope that we go forward with looking at how to move in the direction of "better" even if we have not found the perfect words to describe our initiative.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Full Disclosure

(Full disclosure. That's a funny phrase that's come into use around me the past three or four years. It means, "In case you don't know I have an interest in this's what it is.")

What should iMinister's readers know about her so that they can understand where she is coming from as she writes about the Excellence in Ministry Summit? Hummmm

Firstly, iMinister is a cradle UU*. When it came time for her to choose a Theological school, close to 30 years ago, she asked for advice at every turn. UU school or non-UU school? Someone said to her...if you go to a UU school, you'll be surrounded by people who think like you do and you'll really have to work at it to develop your own theology. And if you go to a non-UU school, you will be surrounded by people who don't think like you do, and you'll really have to work to develop your own theology!" Others gave practical advice. "Go to a UU school and you'll make friends and good colleagues and be in on the politics." and "Go to a non-UU school. They have better scholarships." The later proved to be very true. As to the former...iMinister knew even then that politics wasn't her great interest and it seemed to her likely that UU ministers would be willing to form post-seminary friendships across theological school boarders. That has been true for the most part. If she had known before she chose her school that she'd spend her career in the outback of Unitarian Universalism, she might have put more stock in Seminary relationships.

She chose Boston University School of Theology, where the ghost of Martin Luther King still walked the halls and where 25 Beacon Street and two theological schools full of UU students (and the right to cross-register into their courses) were a subway ride away. She got a fabulous education there, balanced between academics and practical education, and had the chance to work her way through school as a dorm director as well as do several kinds of field work. She graduated $500 in debt, a condition that allowed her to begin her career working part time in a promising small church and jump-start it into growth. The Christian world was quite an eye-opener to her, considerably widening her religious horizons, and being a stranger in a strange land was a character-building experience. The world of New England Unitarian Universalism was also an experience. She was mentored by wonderful colleagues, mostly UU Christian colleagues, to the further enrichment of her faith, and came to understand the deep differences between New England UU'ism and the post-Fellowship Movement Suburban UU'ism which was her heritage.

Those were also the four most severe winters Boston had experienced; the Blizzard of '78, the two successively coldest winters on some record, and the earliest onset of winter. South Carolina, and then New Mexico looked really good after that!

iMinister feels she had the best of all worlds by attending a non-UU school in Boston, but she knows that some students in non-UU schools are terribly isolated and have great difficulty amassing the variety of UU experiences that prepare one for effective ministry. She thinks there are a lot of reasons to have at least one UU theological school and hopes that proponents of those schools will make that case in the comments!

*cradle UU: Someone born or brought early into this faith. Sometimes called "birthright" UU, but that's an unfortunate phrase for several reasons. Not only did it get co-opted by the anti-abortion crowd, it really does have unpleasant overtones of privilege to the ears of those who found and chose us later in life. If we weren't so dang RARE in this denomination, we wouldn't have to talk about it so much.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Origins of Excellence

iMinister is not into politics, so she doesn't really keep up with the world of the UUA, but here's what she thinks is the origin of this conference, the Excellence in Ministry Summit.

There are two UU theological schools, Meadville Lombard in Chicago and Starr King in Berkeley. They are both small by Graduate School standards...they are probably both tiny by graduate school standards. They are too small to serve all UU's who want a theological education, and anyway, the majority of students who want a theological school education can't or don't want to go to those schools. They are also too small to be economically independent and they have been supported by yearly grants from the UUA. A few years back, the two schools got together to talk about joining forces, but decided that there were too many difficulties with that to proceed. iMinister only heard rumors about what those difficulties were but she noted a high degree of partisanship, not to say, polarization, in what she heard. (iMinister went to a Methodist Theological school herself. More on that, later.)

Further rumor goes that when the merger talks stalled, the UUA board got exasperated and cut down its yearly grants to the two schools. They defended their cuts by noting that most UU ministers are not studying at these two schools and it's not fair and may not be an effective use of the funds to give them all to Meadville and Starr King.

(IMinister is sharing these rumors mostly to get people provoked enough to start leaving comments which will help us all discover the fullness of truth.)

The Board used some of the money they saved to put on this Summit, and some to fund some innovative grants. iMinister knows about two grants; one which has created a pretty intense continuing education program for 12 ministers newly serving large or could-be-large churches to help prepare them for the special challenges of large church ministry(more disclosure; iMinister is a part of the program of this grant.) and one adding UU elements to the education of theological students studying at Illif School of Theology, a Methodist school in Denver. No doubt there are other interesting projects going on...once again, please leave comments!

Just to finish with the rumor-mongering, there was alarm and grumbling amongst some ministers about the name of this overall project, "Excellence in Ministry." Some people felt that they, or at least their colleagues as a whole, were being implicitly criticized by this title. "Are we not already excellent?" they asked. Keith left an excellent comment on the dangers of fostering excellence below.

iMinister tends to see excellence in a different light. It's a star we choose to shoot for; no one and no group has already attained it, and nobody will completely attain it. Nor is it any one thing. There are all kinds of excellences and any number of ways that an institution such as the UUA can foster them, directly and indirectly. And all kinds of ways that excellence can be hampered; unintended consequences of otherwise good ideas, programs, procedures, and goals. It's my hope that this will be the focus of our conversations.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Excellence in Ministry Summit: What's That?

The UUA will be holding a big meeting in a couple of weeks, called the Excellence in Ministry Summit. You can find a little more information here. Not much more information, however. Basically, it's a convocation of a variety of parties who are interested in Excellence in ministry through the ministerial lifespan, from recruitment through theological school through continuing education for ministers in place. Representatives have been invited from theological schools (UU and other) funding sources, UUA staff groups, UU Ministers groups, the Fellowship Committee, the UUA Board of Trustees, and Religious Education interests. The idea is to have an overall conversation about how to manage these tricky and expensive programs and institutions and produce that "you know it when you see it but can't really define it" product called "Excellence in Ministry."

More people wanted to come than could be included, and lots of people are interested or even concerned about the directions that might be discussed in this meeting so I was asked to attend and blog about it. It seems that I have a reputation for being an independent but sane thinker, grinding no axes but in no one's pocket...a designation that pleased me so much that I just had to say a three day trip in Mid December...just the busiest time of a minister's year.

I am crazy. But I do also care...I care a lot....about our denomination and I know of no single more important way to contribute to the health of our ministry than to be a part of discussions about fostering excellence in this profession.

After I said yes, I heard that the definition of "ministry" was expanded to include, not just the work of ministers but everything wonderful that UU's do in the world. I certainly hope that that's not the case. That would be a wayyyyyy to big subject for a two-day summit. I notice that the keynote speech will come from Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools, so I have hope that our discussion will stay relatively focused.

The Summit is a couple of weeks away, but I thought I'd start posting about it, giving others a chance to weigh in in comments and perhaps help me to be more oriented when I arrive.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Blogging Excellence in Ministry

IMinister has been asked to attend next month's Excellence in Ministry Summit as its official Blogger, allowing all who are interested to follow along in "real time.".
She is, therefore, testing out the technology that will allow her to post during the meeting, which will be held at the University UU Church in Seattle, which does not have WiFi. IMinister's thumbs are no longer limber enough to do much keyboarding on her Blackberry, so she's experimenting with a portable keyboard. IMinister's eyes may no longer be good enough to follow the itty bitty type on her Blackberry screen for long, so it's a good thing that the motel has promised wifi there!
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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Quick Notes

Yesterday I noticed a gas station selling regular gas for $1.99. Considering that it is the more expensive, environmentally friendly gas we have to use in the winter, that's quite a reduction in price from our Summer highs. I'm sorry to see this, frankly. It would be a lot easier for Joe the Plumber to focus on conserving if he didn't have the understandable suspicion that the availability of gas, like its price, is all a matter of market manipulation.

The good news? Bus ridership in ALbuquerque, which increased sharply as gas prices went up, doesn't seem to be going down.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Purple America

Several people have asked about the "purple America" maps I held up in church on Sunday, asking for the source. Here are maps for earlier elections, including a cool one that shows an animated change over time. Here are maps for 2008. These maps show county rather than state results and results in shades of purple according to vote count rather than simple red or blue. The map below further distorts geography to show population density in each county.

Monday, November 10, 2008


I gave half a sermon last weekend, ceding the other half to a visiting minister and his interesting comments about the election through Canadian eyes. My 10 minutes took half a week to write, and I finally settled on a "concession speech", ending my comical, run for presidency sermon of last month. There were, it turned out, an awful lot of folks to thank.

At the first service, I got choked up on the first sentence and never did quite regain my voice. It was better at the second service but I was still aware of being awash in feelings that were not all mere celebration. I didn't have time until today to wonder why, and I was helped by a NYT opinion piece by Judith Warner called "Tears to Remember,"
a Salon article called by Michael Lind called "Obama and the dawn of the Fourth Republic,",
and even a reading of the AP article by Alan Breed of what preachers had to say about the election, in which I was quoted. (One version is here)

Tears. I wasn't surprised on election night, but I was surprised on Sunday. They were not all tears of joy, either. They were tears held back over all these years of watching the ideals I grew up with withering away. Watching our nation re-learn the lessons of Viet Nam has been so painful. When will they ever learn? Ronald Reagan was elected a few months after I was ordained. My entire career has been spent in what seemed to be an increasingly threatened counter-culture. It's been hard.

They were mostly tears of hope vindicated, however. My faith in God IS faith in the arc of history bending towards justice. Lind's article documented an intuition which I'd been too scared to think; that Obama's election is as much as anything a symptom history grinding into a new gear. That's big enough to weep over.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

That Was The Week that Was

Any other old-timers remember that TV program? News and variety and, best of all (actually, the only thing I remember) was a Tom Lehrer singing songs like the "Vatican Rag" and "Whatever Became of Hubert (Humphrey)" and "Garbage."

Last week certainly lives up to that title. My ultra-blue church last week was anxious, this week was practically giddy.

It's not ideal, to my mind, for churches which profess to value diversity of opinion to be politically monolithic, but that is what happened to my church over the past 8 years. I was mostly aware of conservatives or Republicans leaving after being subjected to less-than-perfect tolerance on the part of their fellow UU's, or just weary of being a minority, but my co-preacher of the morning, Stefan Jonasson, pointed out that another thing that had happened over the 8 years is that moderate Republicans had become Democrats, or at least voted that way.

The end result is the same, however, which is that there's political talk but no real political discussion, and that's too bad. I hope we have entered a more moderate era.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Final Hand

An African American little girl is often on the bus I ride to work. She's about 5, cute as a button, and rides with her elegant and attentive mother. Extroverted to the nth degree, she seems to work at catching her fellow rider's eye and smiles radiantly at anyone who smiles at her. This morning her mother's need to put gloves on her little hands got in the way, but I still got my smile.

It was a special joy to smile at her this morning. She may never remember a time in which there was doubt in anybody's mind that an African American could be president. She'll have a wonderful role model to take her smile to whatever success she has it in her to achieve.

Barack Obama is an important role model for another large group of children and adults; those of any race who had a less-than-ideal childhood. Kids raised by single parents and grandparents, kids dragged all over the world, kids whose parents were not attentive to them. Unlike the hordes of celebrating African American youth we saw on the TV last night, that's a nearly invisible group of kids. I hope those who care about them help them take the point.

And on third hand...

The draconian abortion ban proposed for the second time in South Dakota was defeated. Now, here's a place where the Bradly effect (telling pollsters one thing and voting the opposite) might still be in effect. (It appears to be dead in matters of race).

Why did the abortion ban fail in a profoundly conservative state while gay rights failed in a notoriously liberal one? Perhaps because, while some sheltered folks can imagine that they don't know any gays or lesbians and therefore can't empathize with them, there are very few women and their male partners who do not face, sometime during their childbearing years, an unwanted pregnancy or unwanted pregnancy scare. Add that to the number of parents who face the fear that their teen aged children's lives will be derailed by a too-early pregnancy and you have a large group of people who in their secret heart of hearts, understand profoundly the untold side of the abortion story; what it would be like to give up the most fundamental freedom of all; the freedom to control to whom you give your body.

Need we say it again? It doesn't matter a whit whether a fetus is judged to be human or not. It has no more rights than any other human, and therefore does not have the right to use someone else's body unless that gift is given freely. People die every day for the lack of kidney, and liver donations...that's 'cause they don't have the right to commandeer yours. Nor does a fetus have the right to my womb. Case closed.

Yes, we need to say it again. Because you NEVER hear it, not from left or right.

But in our heart of hearts, most of us really do understand.

And on the other hand

It appears that California's Proposition 8 has passed in a vote that was polarized in two ways; coastal counties against by a large margin, inland counties for by and equally lopsided tally.

Proponents of this basic civil right, that gays and lesbians and their relationships deserve equal protection under the law took a hit amidst yesterday's celebrations; perhaps in part because of yesterday's celebrations. Most people can only cope with so much change at one time.

But the train on this track is picking up speed. This too, will change in time, probably in our time. I can envision watching the TV with my grandchildren as the first Gay or Lesbian president
is elected because he or she is simply the better candidate. Can't you?


What a night!
What a dawning morning!

My heart is full of images of celebration. Jessie Jackson's tears, and the image of the middle-aged administrator of Howard University who was with her cheering students but who, when the microphone was thrust at her was too overcome to say a word. And the cheering students and their peers, all over the world. Maybe it is this generation that will change the world! And John McCain's gracious, healing, dignity, and Obama kissing his wife and his girls and sending them back, it seemed, to safety before standing alone behind a simple podium and claiming his victory.

And the crowd scenes from Chicago. Maybe the bright lights were washing out a rainbow of colors, but they seemed to be mostly white faces, and I thought...

In the end, America voted for a Black president, not because he was Black but because they thought he'd be the best president, not because of the color of his skin but because of the quality of his character, and mind, and heart, and values, and the people he had gathered around him.

That may be the greatest triumph of all.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Purple America

My state of New Mexico was besmirched two weeks ago by the head of the Republican Women of Otero County, who wrote an op-ed piece full of, bigoted, anti-Muslem fury. She was asked to resign, and refused. So...

The rest of her board of Republican Women of Otero county resigned out from under her. Every single one.

America Vindicated.

W's Great Accomplishment

The Vote America Act.

I was in a bad mood when I went to vote in 2004, and when I set out to vote after a quick dinner, I decided to walk to my neighborhood polling place to get over it. Turned out, they'd changed my polling place. It was too late to walk to the new polling place a mile away. As I spluttered about my predicament, a poll worker consulted another and offered me a provisional ballot. I'd never heard of such a thing but they explained it all to me, I filled out and voted in what turned out to be an extremely close race in my state.

Vote America brought us accountable voting machines, accessible voting places, provisional ballots and a variety of other mostly good reforms to voting practice. It was a bipartisan effort which was the result of the disastrous 2000 election.

I have my electoral passions (and I'm smiling at the moment), but the most important thing that seems to have happened today is the most people were able to vote their conscience and feel that their votes would be accurately counted. That was a victory of democracy, and a victory for democracy.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

What will you be doing on Election Night?

They keep saying it's the most crucial election of the generation, and there are good reasons to be optimistic but there could be some tense moments. Not an evening to be alone.

Where are you going to be?

I'll be with my church extended family, or more accurately, they'll be with me, as we are gathering at our home with TV's, wi-fi, and NPR. I'm planning to serve Apple Pie...the kind you buy frozen and bake for an hour. I figure we'll have delicious smells for at least an hour to get us through the tense moments. Ice Cream and coffee...that should get us through. Eat your heart out, Plastic Manzikert; we'll miss you!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

21st Century Elections

In the days of yore, it was fun to go with the whole world to the neighborhood polling place on the appointed day, , to greet one's neighbors on both sides of the issues and sign in in front of people who probably knew you. You Betcha.

Those days are gone. They've been gone for a good while. They probably never existed in lots of places but they're gone now.

How to have free and fair elections in the 21st century.

1. Election Day turns into Election Month, during which the polls are open six days a week, from noon to 8 or thereabouts. County clerks rent vacant storefronts in accessible places. School is not disrupted, parking is easy, you can vote near your home or your work. If there are problems, there is time to fix them. If fraud is suspected there is time to check into it. If intimidation is charged, there is time to put a stop to it. Lacking a mad rush, there is time to do things, as the Methodists say, "decently and in order.". (Maybe that's the Presbyterians.)

If the weather is poor or a person gets sick, no problem. Fewer voting setups are required. There are fewer possibilities for "October Surprise". The only downside is the nostalgic's just not like the good old Election Day.

It is like the 21st century.

2. Settle on simple ID-checking rules. At my early voting site, I was asked for my name and address and given the most precious piece of paper in a democracy; a ballot. With a phone book and evil intent, I could have spent the past 10 days voting for every one of my (female) neighbors. I guess the poll workers were supposed to recognize their "neighbors.".

This is crazy nuts, 19th century idealistic small town foolishness.

I appeared to me from the signage that the poll workers had the right to ask me to tell them my birthdate, and to require me to take a provisional ballot if I didn't give the right answer. I wonder who they do ask? How can they ask some but not others without being open to accusations of prejudice.

I say, End This Foolishness! Require Voter Identification! You have to have identification to drive to the polling place and to buy decongestant at the drugstore. You need identification to cash a check and to use a credit card. You need identification to purchase a bottle of wine even if you are 55 years old.

I'm easy about what kind of identification. Drivers License, Utility Bill, Voter card...anything with your name and address on it. Liberals say that this will suppress voting because "lots of people" don't have these documents. Fine. Help them get these documents. They will thank you forever and remember you every time they vote.

Apparently there 's not much abuse of our current 19th century system, and requiring identification wouldn't change much. But it's not just the reality of sloppiness, it's the appearance.

And this is the 21st century.

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Election Anxiety

My seat mate on the bus yesterday was reading the paper. The editorial page headline was "Dems Seeing Ghosties and Ghoulies.". The point was that Democrats are so unaccountably anxious about their candidate that they don't believe the polls.

It's a conservative paper, and our liberal afternoon paper has closed within the year making that our only option, and I was annoyed at the innuendo. Then I got to church and all day the liberals in my congregation liberally shared their anxieties with me.

OK. Liberals are anxious. This doesn't have anything to do with their candidate and only a little to do with the worry that polls are wrong because of racism. It has to do with their belief that an election was stolen from them eight years ago and might be stolen from them again.

I don't share this fear, but I'm an optimist by nature and not very anxious as a rule about anything. I understand it. And of all the things that might happen Tuesday, it would certainly be the biggest disaster. Fair and Free elections are a defining feature of a democracy. I think a lot has been done in the past 8 years to solve the problems which surfaced then.

I have my private prayers for the outcome of election day. My public prayer is for our democracy.
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