Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Major Cost of Entering MInistry

The UU World published an article on this topic here,   It's a very important issue which affects our future as a denomination, but it doesn't talk about an important part of the problem.

There is another solution to the high cost of ministry besides forgiving debt and adding a new class of lay ministers, and that is to pare down the requirements for preliminary fellowship to those which are essential to a beginning minister, can’t be easily acquired when not in school, and which can be reasonably accomplished in three years.  When I entered seminary 40 years ago, almost all students finished their seminary work, their internship, and their Clinical (chaplaincy) training, met the Fellowship Committee (credentialing)  AND completed a search for their first ministry, all in three years.  Part time work in churches, work-study, and a couple of summer jobs was a part of those three years, making the process much more affordable.    

My experience with intern applicants and seminary students these days tells me that, besides the 250% increase in the cost of seminary, a major contributing factor to the expense of preparing for ministry is that this is now at least a 4 year long process, which sometimes extends to 5 or more. That’s almost twice the amount of prep time ministry used to take, and that time, for most candidates is time out of a living –wage income.   While seminary itself is still a three year degree, the list of competencies to prove, experiences to have, and books to read has grown longer and longer over the years.   The  MFC meets half as often as it used to, meaning that students often complete all requirements for ministerial fellowship and then cool their heels for months waiting for their interview.   And if they don’t happen to perform well enough in that interview,  they wait at least 12 months for another chance to prove their merit before they can begin to even look for work in ministry.  (This happens to even well-prepared candidates who go on to success in  ministry.)  The high stakes nature of this interview itself encourages candidates to delay their appointment and increase their preparation time.   All this adds incredible stress and expense to the work of preparing for ministry. 

If we assumed that our new ministers would continue to be learners throughout their career, we could ease up on the requirements for preliminary fellowship, discarding some and perhaps moving some  to the second stage of Final Fellowship, allowing new ministers to “finish” their ministry preparation while being employed.   Let us look again at that high stakes interview that is the key to the ministerial credentialing  process (which has not been seriously reviewed since merger, and which is very different from any other professional credentialing process) and ask ourselves if this is really the best way to assure that ministers are prepared for their work, and if it is worth its many costs.   

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Beloved Community?

My mother, who lives in a senior community which is a ministry of the United Methodist Church, told me today that she had a religious question.  What, she asked, was the meaning of the term "Beloved Community?"  It seems that this phrase is turning up all around her and she doesn't really understand what is being described, is not sure she will approve when she knows and is feeling generally cranky about the whole thing.   Forgetting something which I used to know, which is that this is a term that Martin Luther King used to describe a community in which people were treated fairly,  I blithered a bit about beloved community being a community where people were good to each other, took care of each other, and so on.   She was all for that sort of thing, but hated the term and wanted to know if I used it.

As a matter of fact, although I hear the term a lot, I am not particularly comfortable with it either, but I had never stopped to ask myself what my problem was and finally said,  "I guess I just think it's a bit over the top."  My mother liked that.  "I'm glad to make friends here," she said,  "but 'beloved'....really...that's my husband."

I think she has a point.  This big of jargon might be best used only with church leaders who can appreciate its history and unpack its meaning.  Less committed folks might feel like they are being sucked into something more than they bargain for or, alternatively, may discover that the church actually can't promise them the level of help and intimacy which is implied by that term, "beloved."

In the same vein, I counsel the leaders in my church to be very careful when they use the word "family" to describe the church.  While it is true that people take care of each other here, sometimes to an almost "family" extent,  for most people in this large church, their relationships here are "neighborly" not "family-like", and to wax too eloquent about family is actually pretty scary to lots of folks and misleading to others.  It's no accident of economics that most people don't live in large extended families any more; we escaped them gladly, by and large, finding them suffocating and time consuming and not really worth the energy.  I'm always touched which I see evidence that the church has become family for some people, but I don't want to promise, and I don't think that that is what most people want from church.

Monday, May 06, 2013

On the Board and Administration of the UUA: Metrics and Vitality

Last month the UUA Board, once again disappointed that the administration was unable to satisfy it's reporting requirements in justification of its budget proposal, took the extraordinary step of going into executive session (never a trust-building move) and deciding to (1) approve the budget with a (2)  $100,000 line item added for consulting.  What that consulting is for, exactly, seems to be not 
completely clear to all parties.   You can read Peter's and Gini's takes on the matter Hereon Tom Schade's Blog, and the Board's explanation here, in their informal report on their meeting.    

The crux of the matter seems to be that two groups of smart, dedicated UU's have not been able, over four years of massive effort and expense, to figure out how to ask for (the board's job) or produce (the administration's job) reports that guarantee, document, or specifically plan for denominational growth and vitality.   This has been variously called a failure of understanding of Policy Governance, a power struggle, and even a personality conflict.

My guess is that it is some of all of those things but mostly it is impossible.  More and more this conflict is reminding me of the conflict between politicians and educators over accountability which has resulted in the disastrous educational experiment called "No Child Left Behind," which could perhaps be better named,  "No Child Left Untested" and "No Teacher left Unshamed." 

There are some situations in education and religion, those notoriously messy people-activities, which are to most eyes, vital and exciting.  There are some situations which are obviously under-performing and limiting.  Replicating the first and fixing the second are very interesting, very complicated issues which don't turn out to be very easy to do no matter how many supposedly neutral "metrics" you have or how many perfect reports you write.    Budgeting for vitality and growth is a matter of guesses, hopes, and projections.   Strategic planning is a matter of courageous guessing, not of reassuring a skeptical boss who wants guarantees of outcomes.  

I know this from experience.  My congregation in Albuquerque has doubled in size in the past 25 years, outperforming the Methodists (30% decline), the UUA in general (flat), and the population of the city (up 50%)  And could I tell you, even in retrospect, how my budgets each year contributed to that growth?   I can not.  The best I can do is make some educated guesses.  Bringing on a second minister, for instance, was clearly a part of our growth, although it had to be not only the right line item but the right minister to work.    Funding a church band was probably helpful.  On the other hand, our numbers of children have gone up and down without regard to the money we have poured into our RE program.   All my prospective guesses about what might bring those elusive guests, growth and vitality, into our church have been just that.  Guesses, Hopes, Optimistic plans; just the sort of thing that the administration set forth in the document called a strategic plan (you can see that yourself by following the link in Peter's letter, which is on Tom Schade's blog.

I do know one thing about growth and vitality, however, which has nothing to do with reports and budgets, and that is that growth and vitality do not co-exist with the kind of conflict that the board and administration have engaged in over the past four years.  A local church that sanctioned this kind of  fighting between Board and MInister would be in decline, and the only hope of health would be both a consultant and the uprising of the people of the congregation saying,  "Stop".  

We live in a cultural era unfavorable to the health and vitality of religious institutions, which are shrinking, threatened, and dying all around us.  This is no small matter and we are so tiny that we can not afford to waste our time on conflict.  The mutually acceptable consultant is now agreed upon.  The anguish of the people, even at a distance is being heard ever-more clearly and loudly.  What is set before us is life and death for our faith.  Let's choose life. 

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Cult of Free To Be You and Me

Last Week, Steven Colbert, commenting on how Billy Graham endorsed Mitt Romney in spite of the fact that his website calls Mormonism a cult, also commented on another "cult" Graham doesn't like, the cult of Unitarianism.  (The Graham organization has taken this part of their website down since).

Colbert comments that the "dangerous cult of Unitarianism is so loose
 that their sacred texts are the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Free to Be You and Me.

Free to Be You and Me, some will remember, was children's album created by Marlo Thomas and a cast of stars with the explicit goals of loosening up gender stereotypes and empowering children to be themselves.  It's high spirited, freedom-loving, worth-and-dignity displaying and mostly pretty forgettable.  It came on Colbert's radar because it just had a 40th anniversary.

I owned the album when I was in my 20's...purchased with some thought of playing it for my own children, but by the time that child came of age, not only had technology morphed twice but so had society, and when I heard the Colbert piece I could only dredge up one song on the album in my memory and had to go to the internet to remember the rest.

After a trip down memory lane, I have come to the conclusion that a religious movement could do worse than be guided by the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Free to Be You and Me.   It beats the heck out of Atlas Shrugged or 19th century notions about race, family, and sexuality, the "third books" of way too many Christians.

My favorite, "William Wants a Doll", an ode to masculine caring, anti-bullying, and grandmotherly wisdom, which made me tear up.  It  can be heard, in all it's scratched-vinyl glory,  here

You can view the Colbert segment here.  It's about 7 minutes in...  I have to agree with Colbert that one good thing about this election is the de-cultification of the Church of Jesus Christ of the latter Day Saints.

Friday, July 27, 2012

More Blogging on the ARIS Survey

Tom Shade, at the Lively Tradition, has his own interesting interpretation of these same survey results here

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Westward Ho!

 I don’t know if the ARIS Survey puts exactly the same boundaries on US Regions as the UUA does, but regional findings from this survey  are pretty interesting.
In 1990, the Northeast contained 21% of the American Population and 26% of the UU’s.  (Remembering that this survey counted as UU anyone who claimed that, which was a lot more people than are actual members of churches.)    The Northeast area shrank in population, and in 2008, contained 18%  of the population and 19% of the UU’s.    The Midwest lost less population (2%) but more UU’s (6%).   The South gained 2% of the population and 3% of the UUs, and the west gained 3% of the population and a whopping 10% of the UU’s.    Still…that’s a lot of growth.  The upshot is that, as of 2008, this chart shows regional distribution of those claiming UU identity.  

We have a lot of history and heritage in New England.  And there is a lot of current life and vitality in New England.  I went to Seminary there and was fascinated for three solid years. But I was glad to leave because even 35 years ago, New England UU'ism seemed dull, dug in,  and old fashioned to me.  My ministries have been in the South and the West.    And I don't think I am alone among southerners or westerners in chafing at the New England Mindset that so often rules our denomination.  At this time of year, it is particularly irksome, as the privileged  UU calendar which involves churches and ministers taking the summers off because churches are not air conditioned and "everybody" is at the beach or in Maine until Labor Day, after which school and Church start up for the year.  Those of us who manage year-round, full service programs in modern buildings and start our program year Mid-August with the rest of the West and South, especially notice that we're outsiders in the UUA at this time of year.   But really, we're not outsiders!   Further, we westerners are doing quite well, capturing the hearts, if not the membership, of a significantly larger percentage of the population than other regions.  Not all of that is our own doing, of course; the south in particularly is known as a haven for conservative religions and the Northeast is nearly European in its disdain for religion of any kind.  Still, something is going well in the west that we should take note of!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Congregations and Beyond

In my last two posts, I have discussed research findings about Unitarian Universalists from the American Religious Identification Survey.   Now…what does it all mean? 

More than half of those who tell researchers that they are UU’s don’t belong to a UU church.  Some are probably peripherally involved with a UU church,  but it seems more likely that the majority of this group consists of people who were raised UU.  (This can be inferred from the large number of people who identified as UU’s who said that they had never changed faiths, ie, were raised UU’s.  Over 50% reported of the sample claimed this, whereas I have never been in a group of UU’s over age 35 where more than about 20% were raised UU’s; the usual figure is 10%.)   So it appears to me that a major question we should be asking is,  “What could we do to get our kids back?”  (most of those “kids” are now over 40, of course).  The answer to that question will have to be found by discovering ways we can serve the religious needs of adults who were raised UU’s, still think of themselves as UU’s,  but are no longer participating in a congregation.  

A second, more general question would be,  “How can we serve the religious needs of those who tell researchers that they are UU’s but are not members of our congregations?  (In some polling situations, three times as many people tell researchers that they are UU’s than are members of our congregations)    What’s up, here?  Are there solvable issues with current congregations that would bring more folks in?  (maybe most of our congregations need to find ways to offer Saturday worship? Maybe what people really want is small groups?)  Is the problem that we’ve conflated legal membership in the corporation with membership in the religious community? (We need to ask the Puritans how that worked for them!)   Are there ways to meet needs on a fee-for-service basis that would allow non-member UU’s to feel a part of things and offer support without joining? (Retreats, RE, Small Groups, etc?)  Do we want to do that?    This discernment is the work that is being called “Congregations and Beyond”. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

More from the Religious ID Survey

The American Religious Identification Survey is done about once a decade and involves a large number of Americans (about 50 thousand) in a telephone poll about their religion.  The third such poll, done in 2008, was just released, and has a number of interesting points for UU’s to ponder.   The information can be found here:

Besides the points I covered yesterday (That fewer than half of those who identify as UU’s actually belong to a congregation, that that group is growing in number rather significantly and growing in diversity even faster than the American population is), here are some more points of interest in this survey.

1.  We’re migrating just like the rest of the population.   In 1990,  26% of us lived in the northeast and 23% of us lived in the Midwest,  while 21% of us lived in the south and 30% lived in the west.   In 2008,  only 19% of us lived in the NE and 17% of us lived in the Midwest,  while 24% of us are southerners and 40% are westerners.   We are only historically a New England congregation these days!  The great majority of UU’s live elsewhere.

2.     We’re aging faster than the population at large.  The median age of the population has increased from 40 to 44 years old over the study period, but increased from 44 to 52 years among those claiming to be Unitarian Universalists. (remember, half of these people don't belong to congregations.  However, most of our congregations appear to have aged in this time period.)

3.     We are more monolithically Democrats than we were in 1990, when about 18% of u were Republicans and 37% were Independents.  In 2008, only 6% of us were Republicans and 30% independents.  In 2008, the percentages were 6% Republicans and 30% Independents…a significant loss of diversity.  We have also seen this in congregational life. 

A small  percentage of respondents were asked  more detailed questions of their religious beliefs. The following data is suggestive but based on very small numbers of respondants, so is not statistically significant.

  1. 1.        77%  of self-identified UU’s told researchers that they believed in God, but of those, few believed in miracles or that God helps them in any way.  While this is very surprising to most UU's, it actually is not very far off from surveying I've done over the years in several congregations. 
  2. 2.     Fewer than half of the people researchers spoke to said that they were legal members of a UU congregation.  This is similar to what they found among other liberal religious groups.   
  3. 3.     About ½ of the sample UU’s had switched religions at some point in their lives.  (common wisdom among UU’s, however, is that 90% of UU’s  “came out” of some other faith.  This gives us a strong hint, it seems to me, about who identifies as UU but is not a member of a church…that is, the adult graduates of our RE programs.
  4. 4.     This study estimates that there are 100,000  people in the US who used to be UU’s but who are now something else, mostly, none.  (so the old joke about how Unitarian Universalism is a way station between the Mainline and the Golf Course seems to be true.)
  5. 5.     Over half of UU’s in this sample were in interfaith (or UU/no faith) households. 

In the last post of these series, I’ll comment more on the significance of these statistics.  

Friday, July 20, 2012

Unitarian Universalism: Beyond Congregations, Growing, Diversifying!

In 1990, 2001, and  2008, researchers funded by the Lily Foundation randomly dialed  up about fifty thousand  Americans and asked them,  “What is your religion, if any?  Then, they asked follow-up questions.  In 2008, 192 of those fifty thousand identified as Unitarian Universalists, up from 182 in 2001.  The following is an extrapolation and analysis of this data.  The whole report can be found  here  This study gives us some interesting information about ourselves and comparison to other religious bodies.

The single most interesting, but not surprising fact is that this study suggests that there are more than a half a million adult UU’s in this nation.  Fewer than half of these self-identified UU’s are legal members of UU churches, but they think of themselves as UU’s.  Furthermore, this group is growing robustly…as a matter of fact,  nearly keeping up with population growth.  (the group of self-identified UU’s grew by 26% between 1990 and 2008, compared with 30% population growth)

            Here’s a happy surprise:  The UUA has done a little better than the nation as a whole in increasing ethnic diversity.   In 1990, non-Hispanic Whites were 90% of the  UUA. (compared to 77% in the US as a whole)  These days, non-Hispanic whites are 75% of the UUA. (compared to 66% overall)    We are still lagging behind our nation, but not by as much.   Our success at this is largely due to an increase in Hispanic UU’s, however, while most of our diversity "angst" over the years has been the small number of African American UU's.   

 11% of the US population is Black,  but only 6% of this sample of people who claim to be Unitarian Universalists is Black.  However, even on this point we have notable success.  In 1990, we lagged 8 points behind the nation in percentage of Black members.  These days, we lag only 5 percentage points behind.

This study has more interesting things to say about us.  Stay tuned to this Blog for more! 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Who cares if Zimmerman is a Racist?

It seems very odd to me that the news/opinion making has focused on whether or not George Zimmerman, who shot Trayvon Martin in Florida last month, is a racist.  Seems to me it makes very little difference.  The important point is that he shot and killed a young man who scared him...a young man who was doing nothing more alarming than walking home from a trip to get snacks, while talking to his girlfriend on the telephone and had nothing more alarming on his person than a bottle of iced tea.   What's clear from 911 calls is that Zimmerman was hostile to Martin, followed him in spite of being told not to, that there was some kind of a scuffle, and Zimmerman felt so threatened he shot the boy and killed him.

Maybe instead of arguing whether or not Zimmerman is a racist, we should be speculating on whether he is a bully, (he outweighed the kid by 110 lbs)  or a coward (threatened by iced tea?) or a vigilante (the police told him to stop following this kid..)  

Even more importantly, we should be arguing about what kind of law is so poorly written that it doesn't allow the police to distinguish between someone who was jumped and used lethal force to protect themselves, and somebody who picked a fight with a person, then claims he felt threatened, and shot the guy.  

Not to mention wondering what would have happened if, by chance, Zimmerman had picked a fight with the kid but in the scuffle, Zimmerman had ended up dead.   We don't actually have much doubt in our minds about that, do we?   Martin would be in the klink.  

Monday, March 26, 2012

My Hoodie

Who knew that hoodies had such massive symbolic weight?  This item of clothing has been in the news since the killing of Trayvon Martin and the comment by Geraldo that the hoodie was just as much to blame for his death as the gun.  (Guns don't kill people.  People kill people, especially people who are so foolish as to wear a hoodie.)  Talk about blaming the victim!

Boy was I clueless!  I who have not been without a hoodie since my college years, when I discovered that they are perfect for a certain kind of weather and are easier to wash than sweaters for casual indoor wear.  Even worse, clueless mom, whose 21 year old son is so hard on his favorite hoodie that he gets a new one every Christmas, like some men got ties or socks.  We white people, it seems, can wear whatever comfy piece of clothing we like, while others have to be careful not to be threatening...especially in the 18 states where "being threatening" is a capital offence if the person feeling threatened happens to have a gun and feel like using it.

I am a hopeful person by nature, and I hope that justice will be done in this case...and that national attention will assist the clear thinking of the officials in Florida.  But it is a tragic state of affairs we've gotten ourselves into in this nation.  It lifted my spirits to have about 1/3 of the attendees at church yesterday wearing their hoodies in solidarity with this matter.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Welcome

There's an interesting article in the UU World this month, about beliefs that UU's don't tend to have.  You can find it here.   But the editor was apparently confused by the first paragraph and added a pull quote in big letters that is a dreadful misunderstanding of the concept of "Welcome."   ("Signs by doors say,  'Everyone welcome here,' but we know it's not true.  If you hold some beliefs, you may not like it here.')

But whether a person feels welcomed to a congregation and whether they like it there are two very different things.  Although a poor welcome lessens the chance that a person will like the congregation, it is not only possible but likely that some people who feel fully and warmly welcomed will also, after a time, decide that this is not the right community within which to nurture their spiritual life.

That was actually the point that the author was trying to make, and she went on to list 10 beliefs that a new person might have which are dissonant with some understandings of UU Principles or with commonly held beliefs in UU congregations.  (Although I must say that I have known individual UU's who have held  one or another of the 10 beliefs discussed and didn't leave.  Some went so far as to insist that they not only were not in the minority, they were "real"  UU's.  But that's another story.)

The confusion in the pull quote mirrors a confusion I have heard often enough, which is a confusion between "Welcomed" and "Happy".

 The two are very different.  To welcome someone is to say,  "We are glad you are here."  Welcome requires the basics of hospitality; that we let strangers in, share what we have, treat them with dignity.   This is hard enough and we don't do it very well and should work on doing it better.  However, hospitality does not require that we bend, pinch, and change ourselves so that everybody who comes to us will like us and feel well served by what we have to offer.

The difference between a creedal and non-creedal church is that when there is no creed, it is up to each individual person to decide for themselves whether they belong here and are well-served by our way of doing religion.  No outside force will say,  "Because you believe this, you are not welcome."  (Sometimes the congregation has to draw lines about behavior; that, too, is another story.)  Instead, each person looks around and says to themselves,  "I think I could grow in spirit here.", and stays, or "This is not for me,"  and goes.  This may (or may not) signify a failure of mission for the congregation, but it does not necessarily mean that their welcome was deficient.

The Signs by the door should say,  "Everybody Welcome Here!"  but that doesn't mean everybody will decide that this is the right place for them.  And that's OK.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Psalms P.S.

I'm twittering the Psalms, these days, and invite those interested to follow me on Twitter @revCRobinson.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Praying with Your Iphone

(an article written for Journey, The Journal of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Scranton, PA)

When I was a very little girl, I gathered…I’m sure nobody taught me this…that in order to pray, one had to have a particular posture; head bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped.  It was also clear to me that those prayers always had to have words, either recited or extemporaneous. And while I was always drawn towards the idea of prayer, I ever felt very good at those wordy exercises.   When I discovered the meditation practices of the East, I had no idea that many of these same practices would be called “prayer” by contemplative Christians or Jews.   It was a revelation that brought me back home, so to speak, to the practices of my own Christian heritage, and in that exploration, I discovered that all kinds of things that I had found myself to be useful spiritual tools; journaling, walking, art, chant, and picturing loved ones in my mind’s eye, could also be considered prayer.  For someone who had always felt a bit spiritually backwards, it was wonderful to discover that  I had been praying all along…but with things in my hands, or a spring in my step. 

Last year, I spent a few sabbatical months in a faraway city.  I had only a couple of suitcases with me, my Kindle for books, and a new smartphone, which I had purchased mostly for its map capability.  I had a book to write and a city to explore and time for silence and prayer.  And that’s when I learned to pray with a Smartphone.

Away from my landline, my phone was my lifeline to the world. It was never off, I was careful to take it everywhere with me, and I found all kinds of capabilities besides phone and map!.  I discovered quickly why it is that the younger generation is said to check their messages before they get out of bed in the morning!   (While I was discovering smart phones, that younger generation was discovering Ipads and Tablets, which do everything except make phone calls even better than a smart phone. While I have no direct experience with tablet computing, everything I’m about to say about phones goes for tablets, too.)

Having learned to take pencils, journals, books, and art supplies into my prayer time, perhaps it was inevitable that I started taking my phone. That might seem off-putting to some, but a smart phone is, after all just a tool, as a pen and paper or a printed book might be.  All tools take getting used to, and none work for everybody, but I’m certainly not going to put a limit on what tools God can use to get through to me!  I encourage you to try some of these suggestions and see if they work for you.  Even if the old ways feel better to you, those of us who advise that younger generation should keep them in mind. 

Praying with Photos

Those of us who keep a prayer list can, of course keep that list on a memo in our phone, but I have loved praying with photos I’ve taken or downloaded.  For me, seeing faces helps a lot!  You can even have folders of pictures for days of the week, and besides faces, you can snap photos or download pictures from the web to remind you of situations you want to pray for.   

Especially if one has the larger surface and better resolution of a tablet or Ipad, it would be possible to download images of icons or other evocative religious symbols for meditation.  You can even download a video of a flickering candle!  Perhaps none of these are “as good” as gazing at the real thing, but the “real thing” is not always available.    

Using the Clock

For those who find it easier to sink down into meditation if they know they will be called out of it at a particular time, (Or who don’t want to be distracted wondering how much time has passed), there are lots of meditation timers available.  The virtual ones can be downloaded from the phone’s app store, but many phones come with a clock/stopwatch/timer function built in.  Often it is possible to change the alert tone to something more gentle than an alarm beep.  

Using the Music Player

Smart Phones often double as MP3 players, which means that it is possible to download all manner of chants and prayer services.  This can be especially useful for prayer/meditation in a distracting environment.  Pop in your earbuds, press play, and you can create a spiritual space wherever you are.  (This tool is also useful in the dentist’s office, the waiting room, and on the bus!) 

Lectio Divina

Most smartphones and all tablets allow you to download files, so the day’s scriptures, poetry, or whatever you study as your spiritual practice is readily available.  Multiple languages and translations and even notes and commentary can all be at your fingertips with a little advance work. 

Social Media

The meat of my spiritual practice during that sabbatical was a version of Lectio Divina, which I was practicing with daily chapters of the Tao Te Ching, and I summed up each day’s study with a sentence which recapped the message I wanted to take into my day with me. Then I learned about Twitter: which is a very quick and easy way to share very short messages…144 characters or less.  That limit was a good challenge for me, and although I didn’t seek out any followers,  I eventually developed quite a few.  I also learned how to get my twitters to automatically appear on my Facebook page, where commenters encouraged me to compile the Twitters into a book.   Twittering one’s spiritual practice turns out to have a downside; it take discipline to keep this a spiritual practice and not a performance.  But it is another way to share.  Twitter has another spiritual benefit.  If you “follow” the right people, you will find an unending supply of  uplifting quotes, scripture passages, and links to poems. 

I expected to return to paper and pen in my spiritual practice after that sabbatical was over, but it didn’t work that way.  Now I pray with my phone in my hand every morning.  Hello,  Is that you,  God? 

Christine Robinson is the senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the author of The Twittered Tao and co-author of two books for small group ministry,  Heart to Heart and Soul to Soul.  She Twitters as RevCrobinson.

Psalms and the Small World

Years and years ago, when iMinister was just learning how to blog. she was experimenting with blogs and, needing a body already written short works to populate her blog with, used some adaptations of the Psalms which had been slowly coming out of her morning spiritual practice.  She was so new to blogging that she didn't quite understand that anybody could find a blog, and they would, and, did.  She was very surprised that anybody would be interested in her agnostic version of the Psalms,'s a big world, and the internet brings special interests together! Having so many interested readers, some of whom wrote from all over to comment and compliment, motivated iMinister to complete the project.  What she ended up calling "Improvisations" on all 150 Psalms can be found here.

The Psalm Blog gets just as much readership as iMinister, although  I have posted only a few times a year in the past 5 years.  And some of those readers have asked permission to publish, or told me about musical settings they'd created or just written their appreciation.  It's been fun.  

A Psalm acquaintance asked if I would write an article for her community's journal, and she happened to ask on a day that I had been thinking about praying with one's smart phone, so I did it.  The actual article will come soon.  

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

What's a Unitarian Universalists

1. Technically, a Unitarian Universalist is a person who is a formal member of a UU congregation.
2. Popularly, a Unitarian Universalist is anybody who calls themselves a UU, whether or not they belong to a congregation  (Group #2 is three times the size of group #1).
3.  Beyond Congregations is a conversation about how we might serve/include/claim  more people in group 2 and, by extension, some of the "spiritual but not religious" who would say, when they found us, "I've been a UU all along and didn't know it!"

4. It is an interesting fact of our UU life that lots of people seem to know exactly what Unitarian Universalism is, including Beliefnet, three quarters of a million polled persons, and that "I've been a UU all along" new member, but the official UU's do a very poor job of articulating this.

I think this is at least in part because we're so afraid of creeping creedalism that we won't articulate our shared theology.  So..let's be clear. A creed is a statement of beliefs which is used AS A TEST FOR MEMBERSHIP.  ("Believe this or go elsewhere.")  We don't have those.  But we do, it seems to me, have a theology.  The theology goes something like this.

Life is good, and so are you.
Reason and Intellectual Faculties are good.  You can trust them to understand life. 
However it's a Very Big Universe out there, and many important things can't be known through reason and intellect.  For this we have intuition, heart, spirituality, and other faculties which are useful but don't lead everyone to the same conclusions.
Truth on these Very Big matters is best found in conversations, actual, virtual, literary, and internal.  It is to be expected that there will be differences.  They enrich us.

That's what we do as Unitarian Universalists...grow in spirit, together.  

Many Unitarian Universalists have much more specific theologies...beliefs about God, the afterlife, and so on.  And this is NOT A CREED.  People can join our churches who think that science is a bunch of baloney.  But they won't hear their view extolled in sermons and there will probably not be any adult classes on the subject.  We don't determine membership based on our theology, but we do figure out what "fits here" based on it.

I go into detail about this because it is going to be hard to figure out whom we can serve among the "spiritual but not religious" unless we can describe ourselves and what we offer more clearly than we do.    

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

3 of 4 UU's Don't Belong to Congregations. Why?

Of course, it is technically true that all UU's belong to UU congregations, because technically, there is no way to be a UU unless you belong to a congregation.  But don't tell the people that.  (It makes them mad!)  And,  of the people who tell pollsters that they are UU's,  3 out of 4 DON'T belong to a congregation.

Why would that be?  Let me count a few ways.

1.  Some of them don't have a UU church in commuting distance.  Above is an old map,  but it shows huge swaths of our nation (anything not pink or purple) where there is no UU church in the county. Not much has changed in 12 years.  Some people who are out of range of a brick and mortar church belong to the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and more may now that this organization has really beefed up its on-line resources, but most apparently don't.

2.  Some live in range of a UU church but don't belong because they can't find a place for themselves theologically, or they don't like the minister or the leadership group,  or they have become discouraged by church politics or burned out by the incessant demands of lay leadership.   We are a denomination of small congregations...and small congregations are hard, hard work.  There are very few communities outside of the East Coast between Washington DC and Southern Maine which offer any real choice of UU congregations.

3.  They may live in range of a UU church but be busy with other things in their life right now.  Many college students are near UU groups but don't join up, for instance.  Their lives are rich and interesting and busy on campus.  It would take a huge effort of outreach and support to get them interested in belonging to a UU church.  (I get this.  My son belongs to this group)

4.  They may have grown up as UU's and not continued to belong to a UU church, although, if asked, they would say they were UU's because they generally agree with what they were taught as children.  That is to say, they may be among the between 80 and 90% of children of our church schools who don't join UU churches ever again in their lives.  If the goal of our RE programs of the past 50 years had been to innoculate children against church, we'd consider ourselves quite successful.  Ouch.  My two siblings belong to this group.

5.  They may be kind of interested in being a UU but when they visit they discover nobody like them.  Nobody under 40.  Nobody who didn't graduate from college.  Nobody who is not white.  Nobody who is not Anglo.  They look around and see that in this congregation, they'd be by themself.  So...they stay by themself.

6. Then there are the ones who don't want to be asked for money but don't mind taking advantage of the fact that some people will give for them.  But this is, in the end, a pretty small category.

Put all these folks together, and it is easy for me to believe that 3 out of 4 people who think of themselves as UU's would not actually belong to a congregation.

How about you?  Can you add other reasons UU's  might not belong to a UU church?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Congregations and Beyond

Peter Morales' paper,  Congregations and Beyond  (found here)  raises some interesting issues for UU's and other religious people, especially those in small denominations and those which practice congregational polity.  (polity is church governance.  Congregational Polity is the form of government that makes congregations the basic unit of the denomination.  So, for instance, technically, you are only a UU if you belong to a congregation which belongs to the UUA.  You can't be an individual member of Unitarian Universalism.)

The basic problem is that the institutional category,  "congregation", once virtually a pillar of American society, has become less and less interesting to younger generations.  (Congregation is still a pillar of society in a few places, notably the South, or in Utah.  You can tell this is the case when the first question asked of a newcomer to town is,  "What church do you belong to?"  Some newcomers to town take this as a rather agressive evangelizing effort but it probably isn't.  It is probably just a social locator.  "Oh...he's an Episcopalian.  Got it.")

There's no doubt about the declining fortunes of "congregation".   To recap, here's a paragraph from my part of last year's Minns Lectures. (find it here)

Just to give you a sense of how the market share of all religion has changed over 50 years, let me go over some statistics.

Researchers  have been asking 20 year olds about their religion for several generations, so we know that 3% of young people of the WWII generation said they had no religion, and about 6% of the next generation…my parent’s generation…persons now in their 70s and 80’s.   About 12%  of the Boomers in the 1960’s and 70’s claimed “no religion”  20% of gen X’ers who were 20 years old in the 80’s and 90’s and a whopping 26% of the Millennial Generation now claim “no religion”.  From 3% to 26%...and rising.   

Now, there is a difference between  "no religion" and "no congregation."  There are actually a fair number of people who do have a religion but don't belong to a congregation.  But there will not be very many people with no religion who DO belong to a congregation.  So, for those who are interested in congregations, these statistics are even more dire.  

When you notice these overall statistics, you have to remark that the ability of Unitarian Universalism to hold its own over the past generation is a show of strength, not weakness.  And, indeed, most denominations have done much worse than we have.

Peter is asking what we should do.  It's something we should all be thinking about.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Counting the Audience

*This is one of several responses to UUA president Peter Morales' white paper on congregations, which can be found here:

There's a theory of congregations that says that each congregation has three kinds of constituents.  They are called by different names but the picture is the same.  At the center of the life of the church are its most committed members, formal and informal leaders, contributors, workers...the people you see more than once a week and who give and get.  This group could be called "leaders", or "core members" or "most committed", or any number of other phrases.

The middle group are the members, constituents, the  people who come some, participate some, and give some, who identify with a congregation but don't put it at the center of their lives.   There's another group that is further removed from the center of the congregation, sometimes called the community, (as in, the community we serve), but perhaps better called the audience.

The audience includes the people who come to services but don't join or contribute, sometimes just on Christmas Eve, or when they are between relationships, or when their mother comes to town.  They are the people who use the church parking lot as a staging ground for group hikes, who rely on the food pantry,  whose children go to the child care center which only pays it's direct expenses in rent, but not the cost of the capital investment in the physical plant.  The audience includes the people who read the op-ed's which the minister produces, whose organizations meet for free in the meeting rooms, and those who are considering membership and getting involved.

The audience is hard to count and easy for the leaders to resent.  After all, these are the people who use the infrastructure, physical and emotional, which the church leaders have worked to provide, but they don't usually want to be part because their experience with the entity "congregation" is that it will try to suck them in, make them feel guilty, and ask them for money.  So they make themselves scarce when counting time comes.

On the other hand, they do a lot of wonderful things for a congregation.  How good does it feel to have a full house on Christmas eve, after all?  As the TV ad says,  "priceless".    We church folks do what we do to serve...and not just the folks who pledge.  Watching our resentment level is a good spiritual discipline.  It's a congregation and not a club, after all.  The audience is a given.   Plus, if we are good listeners, our audience keeps us fresh.  They are our outside audit, if we let them be.  And some of them will be enticed into the second or even the first circles because they come to notice that good things happen inside the circle.

Discovering a respectful  name for folks that I had thought of as "hanger-oners" or, on my bad day,  "free-loaders", was a wonderful day in my ministry.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Contemporary Worship

Some of us at First U Albuquerque have set ourselves to really figuring out what contemporary worship is all about.  Since the churches which feature this new religious art form tend to be big, evangelical churches whose mission is to meet people where they are and lead them to Jesus, they tend to have worship at times other than Sunday morning at 11.  That makes it a lot more convenient for people who serve on church staffs to visit and learn.  (and the first thing we might learn is that a LOT of people prefer to worship on Saturday afternoon.)

Last Fall, we visited the home base of a multi site congregation of about 8,000 people.  We noted

1. That the order of worship was dead simple.  Singing, Prayer, Sermon, prayer,  singing, and greet your neighbors.  No affirmation, no responsive reading.  No announcements (although the pastor sprinkled some announcements in at the beginning of the sermon).  No offering (there was an offering box at the end of some rows).  No story for was all pretty much for adults.  There were plenty of kids in attendance and a full posse of teens, but there were kids classes at the same time.  The kids present seem to have been giving a goodie bag, but in no way was the sermon or the music "for" them.  They were a passive audience, helped to behave well, and those who didn't like it had another alternative.)

2. The congregation was predominately  what I would call "established" young adults in their 30's and 40's.   However there were plenty of baby boomers and more than a few elders, many of whom seemed to be a part of three generation families attending together.

3. The music was Christian Rock.   Sound levels were kept out of the painful range.  (in two churches we went to the poor drummer was seated in a clear plexiglass  box to keep the sound level down).  The most interesting thing to me about the music was that it was clearly conceived of, not as a message, but as a prayer.    A lot of it was a Christian Rock equivalent of "Spirit of Life, Come Unto Me". was repeated enough that it became, not a reminder of what we believe, but an actual prayer.

4.  The messages were skillfully presented  but quite thin.  Not to mention covering things we didn't believe, like,  that 90% of the people of our good state are going to Hell.

5.  Did I mention that there were LOTS of people there, at this second of 5 worship services offered at that site that weekend?

6.  Some of those people are someday going to say to themselves,  "I just don't buy this!"...and walk.  If this has been their experience of worship, they are not going to find my church's eclectic but more formal music interesting, no matter how much freedom they are looking for.  Nor will it sound like "home" to them.

7.  Therefore...we are experimenting with contemporary worship.  So that we can be hospitable to the next generation of seekers, most of whom attend churches with bands, not organs.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Facebook: A Time Sink?

A ministerial friend was complaining lately about the time it can take to wade through the dross of Facebook posts to get to the good stuff.  Most of this post is a re-post of my tips on this matter from 18 months ago, and since then I have gleaned another tip.  Up in the top line, where you can click "most recent" or "top news", you see that the "most recent" has a drop down menu, whereby you can choose what KIND of news you want...status updates, pictures, games, or linked articles.

If you've decided to use Facebook in your ministry, then you will want to use it efficiently.  The most important way to do this is to use the "hide" function.

If you hover your mouse to the right of any post, the word "hide" will appear.  Notice the two "Egg" posts to the left.  The word "hide" is not there until you point your mouse to that place.   Click and you will see a menu.  You can hide a person...someone who posts utter trivia 10 times a day, for instance, or you can hide an application.  If you don't want to see the news about your friends'  high scores in Bejeweled Blitz or their levels in Mafia wars, just hide that application.  The person who has been hidden doesn't know they have been hidden.

(You can unbefriend people, too.  No notice is ever sent to them, but they they might study their friend list and discover that you are gone.  That might be considered a risky pastoral move.  Unless you object to them seeing your posts, just hide them.)

Live Chat is also a time sink.  If you don't want to chat, click the "off line" option in the Chat window.  If you don't do that and somebody tries to chat with you when you don't want to chat, close the window and ignore them.  For all they know, you are away from your computer.

Use "like".  You can click "like" to any post, or you can comment.  Like is faster.

Your Home Page on Facebook can be set to give you "top news" or "most recent".   In "top news", Facebook will give you only the posts it thinks you will be most interested in.  That's probably a must for folks with hundreds of  active friends.  For the rest of us, scanning "most recent" is most likely to give us all the news we really want.  Unfortunately, you have to select this  every time you log in.

Like all new technologies, Facebook has a learning curve.  This one is a little less user-friendly to newbies than, say, Google products are.  Be patient with yourself, and ask questions of your FacebookFriends.  After you've learned, Facebook is much more manageable and much more fun than email.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Radical Growth Idea for UU's

Begin Rant:

Let's quit privileging the practice of closing churches for the Summer.
This idea, which comes to us straight out of the pre-air conditioned centuries past, has it that it is necessary, ok, or even refreshing to close UU churches from Mid June to the week after Labor Day, that ministerial life-style must be centered around "summers off", and that it is funny to joke about how God trusts us to do this and assume that it does no harm.

I'm not saying end the practice...just quit catering to it.  Churches are free to do what they wish.  No doubt there are some old buildings which are insufferable in the Summer and just can't be updated.  However, we should feel sorry for those folks and see if we can help them upgrade to 20th century technology rather than letting them set the mind-set of our association.  No doubt some ministers' contracts are set in stone and can't be changed.  But instead of letting those folks drive ministerial practice, let's ask ourselves what's good for the people and communities we serve.

Last Sunday, the second week of August, was our Back to School Sunday in started here today, as it did in school systems all over the west and south.   We had a lively time of it, and...we had about a dozen visitors.  Some were traveling UU's, (who expressed their pleased shock at finding that the UU church was holds two services all Summer, and three starting the third week of August), some were people (UU's and newbies) who had just moved here and were looking for a church, some were just visiting.  Some will become members because, hey, we were actually open on a Sunday when they needed us.

Why has this church grown from 400 to 750 members in the past 20 years, a time when the rest of the denomination has barely held it's own?  Maybe because we're open when people are looking for a church?  Maybe because we give off the message, in this and lots of other ways, that we think that the religious quest is so important that we make it a year-round occupation to help people grow this way? Maybe because we know that people vacation year round and not, as they used to in New England, just go away in July and August?  Maybe because we aim to serve a population that includes working women, singles of all ages, people with only two weeks...or NO vacation, and the sort of working folks who don't get the Summer off?  Maybe it is just because, when they happened to brave their first visit to a UU church in August, there was a well-crafted worship service and a minister to meet.

Now, of course, UU churches can have any schedule they want to, so there will be no pressure to conform to this startling growth strategy.   But let's quit pretending that it's a good norm and sort of freeze it out of existence.

Let's quit talking about "start up Sunday" as if we all do that the Sunday after Labor Day.

Let's re-think the extraordinary idea that ministers, unlike any other class of workers except some University professors, should have two months of vacation and a month of accrued sabbatical leave each year. (UUMA Guidelines)

Let's put out a hymnal which has as many resources for Summer as for Spring and Fall.

Let's get enough sermons and worship materials on video, and enough churches video-prepared that one-minster and lay-lead churches can realistically have a high impact worship service every Sunday of the year.

Let's quit acting as if those UU ministers who work during the Summer are foolish martyrs and instead help the ministry conceive of work patters which give them time for study, preparation, and vacation, all through the year.

Rant Over

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Breaking Up With God

·            The Author of the book by this title, Sarah Sentilles, talks about a story which was left out of her book: 
 The founder of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit that uses the resources of design to solve social problems, visited my brother’s class in architecture school and described one of the first design contests he held. He asked people to come up with the best design possible for a mobile AIDS clinic for a town in a country in Africa. He posted the deadline, and he waited. He didn’t think anyone would submit anything, but on the day of the contest’s deadline, a delivery man from Federal Express rang the doorbell to his tiny studio apartment in New York City. He was carrying a huge bag stuffed with envelopes. “Wow,” the founder said. “Are all those mine?” “No,” the delivery person said. He pointed to three giant Fed Ex trucks lined up on the street behind him, their hazard lights blinking. “All those are yours.” I really love that story. I think it reveals how human beings are waiting to make the world a better place. We just need to enter the contest.

Monday, June 27, 2011


OK, so I'm not, fundamentally, a pep rally type person.  Not for sports...I'd rather play.  Not at GA, either; I'd rather be talking to people, helping out, learning new things.  And only in a few cases, at rallies and demonstrations.  There's a time to take the the streets.    The "planned two years in advance" sort of demonstration that UU's do strike me as tickling our egos more than making change.

But that's just me.  Clearly lots of UU's, especially GA going UU's, like to put on a show of strength and make the local newspaper.   And I'm all for GA 2012 being a major display of yellow shirts.  But it is probably not going to be my kind of GA.

I was warming up to the idea until I went to the pep rally for GA 2012 at this year's GA.  I was actually on stage for most of it, because while I was on sabbatical, my colleague Angela Herrera started an immigration study and action campaign to lead up to GA 2012, and that was being showcased.  It was her honor, but she wanted me along, so went up with her.

And the message I got was that  we are going to go to Arizona next year and tell those Arizonans that their laws are bad, hateful, racist and inhumane.   Apparently we will be working with local partners to do that.  If we are not very careful...not all of the speakers at the pep rally were, the people of Arizona are going feel that we are calling them bad, racist, hateful, and inhumane.    Which will annoy them and make them glad when we go home.  

It was a pep rally, not a program meeting, but from those who spoke and the examples given, and the too-oft repeated words, "racist" and "hatred" make  me guess that my views on immigration, which start with the duty of governments to regulate their populations and labor forces in favor of the needs of their people, and my guesses about the only practical solutions to the complex problems that 200 years of terrible immigration policy have left us with, and my desire to learn so that we can be a part of the solution instead of just carping on other people's solutions....that that's not going to be welcome, possibly not even tolerated.

The  UUA website gives a much broader picture of plans for GA 2012, so it looks like there will be opportunities to learn, hear from experts, and think about the intersection of Social Justice and Faith.   But what I gather from the website and what I heard at the rally were disturbingly different and I'm afraid I'm inclined to imagine that the ethos of the rally will prevail.

Which means that we won't be pondering complexities or solutions as much as we will be railing against people whose solutions we don't like, and that a lot more passion than thoughtfulness, a lot more name-calling than relationship-building will be on tap.  It looks like we'll spend a lot more time feeling good about how good we are than we will be thinking about the sacrifices that we will make if anything like comprehensive immigration reform is ever on the list of political possibilities.

I'm keeping my calendar open and awaiting developments.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Theological Grounding

Another question from the Staff.  (second to the last!)
 How can we ever satisfactorily respond to a call for more theological grounding
with all of our diversity?

I have spent the past semester on Sabbatical at our Meadville Lombard Seminary, and more than once I've listened to the theological talk around me and thought, with Dr. McCoy of Star Trek, who proclaimed in the midst of his tech-topped sickbay,  "I'm just a country doctor, Jim!"

I'm just a simple parish pastor.  I've got a hunch about "calls for more theological grounding".  I think what it really means is,  "I just want to be able to explain my faith to my friends and family and myself."

Doing that is not the task of theologians, it is the task of preachers.

The theology which is at the core of our freedom and our diversity (which is the big difference between ourselves and the other denominations around) is actually simple, fun to talk about, and has been around for a long, long time.  I first heard it from Bill Schultz, but it resonated because it had been the underpinnings of my Sophia Lyon Fahs sunday school lessons, one year of which was called, if I remember correctly,  "Miracles Abound!"  (which was basically a natural history curriculum whose goal was to elicit wonder.)

We enjoy our theological differences and benefit from discussing them openly because we believe that the world is intricate, complex, beautiful, multi-faceted ....too much of all these things for one simple set of words to express The Whole Truth.  Therefore, we enjoy multiple sets of words, practices, and structures and a dollop of irony as we talk about them as if our words could ever embrace them.  Our story is the story of the blind men and the elephant and we rejoice in what we can do together. Our practice is that of respect for the worth and dignity of all beings, starting with the conversation partners we find challenging.  

That's the "Torah standing on one foot" version.   I think it is enough if it is preached consistently and creatively, and of other programming lives it out.

There will be some who want to parse that more deeply and theological study is the way to do that.  Most of the rest of us just need different versions of the same basic theology.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

UU's and the Bible

To clarify the previous post (found here: Most of the conversation about the Bble is in the comments.

I say that "post-denominationalism"  applies to the social trend in which Orthodox Christians don't pay much attention to denominational labels any more.  (Lutheran, Methodist,etc).  When it comes to what is taught in a Christian Church, they are interested in whether the church is "Bible Believing" or "Bible Interpreting".    I say that UUism, even our Christian wing, lies outside of this social trend, because we are not an Orthodox, creedal church.

.  Almost all  UU's are Bible Interpreters.  (There are a few UU's who insist on taking the Bible literally and rejecting it.)  While we don't have a creed, we do have practices.  In a few of our churches, the practice is to focus on the Bible. In some the practice is to include the Bible.  In some, especially lay-led congregations, the practice is to ignore or reject the Bible.  Ministers who serve the Biblically focused churches are mostly in the New England Parish system, which is, after all, pre-denominational.  However it is still covenant rather than creed which determines church membership and if I were serving such a church, I would shout that to the rafters, because it is a point that is important to younger generations.  I would also broaden the focus, beginning with the Biblical text but bringing in other faiths, philosophies and scriptures, because that is also attractive.  Also,  I'd preach and preach and preach the good news of Universalism!

Finally, I believe we should claim our UU'ism and celebrate its heritage but not make it the focus of our life together, especially with newcomers.   The worship of chalices, principles, assemblies and famous people is unseemly.  

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Post-Denominational World

Another interesting question from the UUA staff:

Are we entering a “post-denominational” world? What does that mean for our
faith as it relates to our Association?

It seems to me that our current religious landscape  (no "entering" about this.  It's here) is a landscape where very few people (and almost all over age 60) care about the differences between Methodists and Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Disciples and Northern Baptists.   Nor do they care much about the differences between Southern Baptists and other conservative denominations like the Church of God.  The Protestant landscape, it seems to me, has been reduced to the "Bible Believers" and the "Bible Interpretors", with the Episcopalians and Catholics standing a bit outside.  (I know that Bibles Belivers do interpret.  But they don't think they do.)

There are only a few UU churches who fit into this mash-up, and I don't think it is in our best interest to pretend that we do.  I totally get it why you don't find a denominational label on the Willow Creek Megachurch.  Their constituents don't care.   They are a bible believing Christian church; that's all that matters.

Most UU churches, it seems to me, benefit from being much more forthcoming about their denominational label.  Ours does signify something unique.  Now, I'm all for our new churches having more contemporary sounding names than "First Unitarian Universalist", which is way too long anyway.  But it's my humble opinion that we are best served by keeping our denominational affiliation as a second line.

When it comes to ministry and post-denominationalism, I think it is all to the good that many of our ministers are educated in "Bible Interpreter" seminaries.  I was myself, and it was a rich experience.  As a "stay inner" UU, it gave me an important opportunity to understand the religious landscape so many UU's come from.  I taught me a lot about what makes us unique and in what ways we are just the same as everybody else.   I believe that new ministers who are less steeped in UU culture do better in our denominational seminaries.  But these days, most people make these decisions based on geography and financial aid.  That's a reality we are not going to change.

And why can't we convert people to UU?

Two more questions from the UUA Staff's Strategic plan for Ministry

 Why aren’t we able to convert more religiously defined “none of the aboves” to
Unitarian Universalism?
 Why don’t the neighbors who live near our churches attend them?

The second question is easier.  It remains the case that most people who want to be religious are perfectly well-served by orthodoxy and wouldn't be well-served by a UU church, no matter how well it was doing at outreach and welcome, program and social justice.  We're a niche market in the religious world!  Most neighbors of any church will never be members.  We can only hope that they can at least say about us,  "I don't believe what they believe but they are good neighbors and do interesting things." (that is a lot more than most of our churchs' neighbors can say about us.)

Now, about those "none of the aboves"  (as in, not Christian, Jewish, Moslem or any other world religion).  This group, 3% of the twenty year olds in the WWII generation,  6% of 20 year olds in the next generations, has increased since then and is a whopping 26% of current 20 somethings.

Here's what has changed in 50 years.  Fifty years ago, people who were not comfortable in orthodoxy went looking for other congregations to belong to, because congregations held a privileged place in the social structure.  When I was a kid nobody mowed their lawns on Sunday mornings in my suburb and there was no store open bigger than a 7-11.    This has changed.  Now people who don't want to be religious are free not to be in all parts of society (although in the southeast and Utah, church still has social privilege).  Most people who define themselves as "none of the above" are perfectly happy with their non-religious lives.  They don't go to church looking for freedom, they use their freedom to shop, play sports, do chores, work, and spend time with family on Sunday mornings.

There is a group of folks who say that they have no religious preference BUT are spiritual.  They don't like "organized religion" because they don't agree with the creeds, because they think church fights about homosexuality are really lame, because they don't believe in Hell, and because they don't have much experience with churches anyway, and when they go they are usually faced with music they can't sing, rituals they don't understand, websites which are not kept up to date, and a lot of talk, talk, talk which, if they are under 40, is completely foreign to their experience of the visual world.

Now, if they knew about us, they might like us because we don't fight about homosexuality, don't believe in Hell, and encourage folks to find their own theology.  But we also talk, talk, talk, sing from books in the foreign language of "musical notation" (not to mention German, Latin, French, and Cree), and in general don't do a very good job of living in the young adult world.

They might even brave all of this; learn our tunes, get PDF newsletters, and learn to love sermons full of quotations, except for this one little thing:

When people who are "spiritual but not religious" go looking for a religion, they go looking for spirituality; for heart, depth, warmth, spiritual practices, lessons in prayer, clues to a relationship to god.

These things are not easy to get in UU churches.  If we focused on them more, trained our ministers to provide them, helped lay people to tolerate, if not enjoy them....THEN we might attract some of this group of folks to our churches.  But not before.

Monday, April 25, 2011

More on Congregational Diversity

Here's another question from the UUA Staff, appended to their strategic plan for ministry.

 Given that we operate within a system of congregational polity, how might we
help the lay leadership of our congregations understand and embrace the
imperative of becoming radically hospitable to a diverse world? How might our
ministers find willing partners in this work rather than resistance to change?

Since this question appears on a strategic plan for ministerial development, I'm going to reframe.   It seems to me that this is a more interesting question:

How might we create a corps of ministers who can lead congregations into the work of becoming radically open and hospitable to an ethnically diverse nation?  

Now, we've been asking and trying to answer this question for at least a decade.  The answers put in place have involved requiring ministerial education to focus on this question in virtually every area of study, and to include competencies on leading this sort of change.

As I watch new ministers and view theological education, it seems to me that we have excelled at the work of  teaching the reality and skills of multi cultural work to new ministers.  They come out of school assuming that this is the future and gung ho to be a part of this change, and feeling that they have a good deal of knowledge about what should be done and how to do it.   And it is true that they meet resistance from congregations. (hence the first question above, which could be rephrased impolitely as, "how can we change congregations so that ministers can do the job we have trained them to do?)

 Congregations are, by their very nature, conservative (as in, conserving the values of the past) institutions.  Theologically liberal congregations tend to be even MORE institutionally conservative than theologically conservative ones.  This counter-intuitive claim shocks UU's, but here's the reason.   Theologically conservative congregations have a very carefully defined corps of belief, doctrine, and mission which serve a unifying function in times of institutional change.  Theologically liberal congregations, NECESSARILY don't have this corps of unified belief and doctrine and it is therefore HARDER for us to change less centeral matters such as worship style and social assumptions, and HARDER for us to reach out to "the stranger".   Our center is squishier.  As an example, imagine the minister of an evangelical church, who says to his members,  "Jesus told us to take the gospel to all nations, and that surely includes the "nation" of young people who only know rock music, so we SHOULD have a contemporary music service.  Yes, it will be change of music but the gospel that we all believe in demands this."    That minister might meet some resistance, but he will have the congregation's core beliefs on his side.

A UU minister trying to do the same thing doesn't have the same advantage.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't do these things, but we should not beat ourselves up quite so much if we are not first to accomplish them in the religious world.  And it means that our ministers have to amass MUCH more "ministerial capital" to be change agents in congregations.

So once again, I am wondering about the usefulness of making multicultural congregations our number one goal and heading directly towards it, full tilt.   It might be that focusing our new ministers on the skills and motivations required for long and fruitful ministries (which have built that ministerial capital required to successfully urge major change on congregations) might be, in the end, a quicker path to the future we all desire than  impressing on new ministers that multiculturalism has to be first on their list.  That tends to create a corps of ministers who are eager to produce quick change, who think that they should be able to do that fairly easily, and who blame congregational resistance for their failures.

And that's not a step forward, it is three steps backwards.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

More Questions on Multiculturalism in UU Churches

In its strategic plan for ministry, the UUA staff left some open questions for discussion.  Here's another one.  

Even if it is a moral and religious imperative for UUs, does becoming more multiculturally welcoming and competent necessarily mean that our congregations will grow?

The way this question is stated highlights the confusion in the UU World about the issue of multicultural competence and welcome, because it places this factor, not only at the top of the list of factors influencing growth but suggests that it alone might trump everything else.  

It's easy to imagine a scenario in which UU's perfect multiculturally welcoming and competence but still don't grow.  If, for instance, we don't find ways to reach the Gen X and Millenial generations (who are far more skeptical about religious institutions than their elders), it won't matter how competent we are as we age into oblivion.   If we have nothing to offer the world except our multicultural competence we'll attract fewer and fewer people.  I devoutly hope that

Our values demand that we welcome everyone with skill, and it can hardly hurt us to make sure that our doors are really open to all people and not just white people.  If we don't do this work, we will surely flounder, if only because muilticultural INcompetence won't be tolerated by younger generations.  This work is necessary but not sufficient; part of a plan that also has to include a focus on spirituality and a willingness to become multi-generationally competent and welcoming.