Wednesday, June 28, 2006

GA, NameBadges, and Change

It was by all accounts a great GA, but it was marred for some people because of that great demon, change. The change was that this year one needed to pay for a name badge to get in to all GA events except the Service of the Living tradition and the Sunday Service. In previous years, you could go to the exhibit hall and the Ware lecture without paying a registration fee. And because of past accusations of inconsistency in applying the nametag rules, in an apparently racist manner (white youth allowed to come to youth events without nametags but youth of color turned away...a painful story) the ushers were instructed to be absolutists on this matter. So some people who had left their name tags in their rooms were turned away from events.

Stories, furies, and disappointments were therefore a part of the GA experience of many. I turned my minister's badge over on my chest and rushed the ushers to get into the exhibit hall, I must confess, and I got away with it. In gratitude I spent a lot of money on books. But not everyone was so brazen or so lucky.

I'm with the planning committee on this one; we're too big to not require name badges, and consistency of enforcement is a good thing. I have just three little thoughts about polishing up next year's implementation. They are probably good general rules for making changes in general.

First, Publicize, publicize, publicize!

Change being hard and humans, even UU humans being dense, more publicity of the "We Really Mean This" aspect of name badge change needs to be a part of the registration experience, including the minister's registration experience. We ministers have been long accustomed to going to Ministry days and tucking ourselves in to the exhibit hall (to spend money) and going to a few early events without registering. If that's no longer going to be possible, that's fine (it may not be fine with the exhibitors, but that's another problem.) And we will all catch on eventually, but it will help with compliance if ministers (and everyone else) are told about this when they decide on registration. Not once, but three times. AND IN BOLD

Second, Take Human Failings Into Account

Because even UU's do silly things like leave their nametags in their rooms, there needs to be a publicized way for persons to slink into an office, confess their sin, and get a pass into the next event. Human nature being what it is, that's the only way to keep tender hearted ushers from unpleasant encounters and to keep at bay the human propensity to try to get favors through one's connections (a propensity that does not need to be confused with racism, as we seem to insist on doing.) If I forget my name badge and get to the Ware lecture without it, I'm sent to a corner to appeal to the head usher, who has a registration list to compare with the picture ID I will present, and will then escort me in. (And you can bet that tomorrow I remember my name badge.)

Third, You Can't Have Change without Changes.

I could rush the ushers at the doors of the exhibit hall not only because I worked to confuse them, but because they were trying to do the impossible; watch people's entry and exit in an uncontrolled space. If you are serious about checking name badges, you need to have entry-only and exit-only doors, you need roped-off lanes so that every person has to pass muster singly, and you need a sign that says, "Please show us your GA Badge!" All this can be done with efficiency and good humor; just go to Disneyland or your nearest airport for lessons. But as one with a soft spot for volunteers, I would also add that very difficult events such as, perhaps, youth evening parties which have a history of being crashed by outsiders probably need paid security.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Watching GA on Your Computer

How to do this? Go to the UUA Website, click on "Live webcast events." That will take you to a list. Pick what you'd like to watch, and select your media player (Windows Media Player comes with Windows, so you're likely to have it. Real Player can be downloaded for free. But if you have never done this before, start with the Windows Media file, and enjoy!

GA from Home -Service of the Living Tradition

I'm sitting in Albuquerque, but I've spent the morning at GA. I watched the Sunday morning service via streaming media, and the Service of the living Tradition which was actually held on Thursday night, via a media file. There are lots of workshops and a few business meetings that will keep me here this afternoon, connected to the great gathering. It's not the same as being there, but it's a lot less expensive and in many ways more comfortable. And I can get a lump in my throat as "Rank by Rank" is sung even at a distance of half a continent. Mostly, I suppose, because I have been there, many years, and that tune, even when the singers and organ are two beats out of synch, as they will be in a very large room, reminds me of years past, triumphs of my own, and the mourning of lost colleagues and mentors.

The SLT, as it is called, is the service in which new ministers are welcomed, those who attain full credentials congratulated, those retiring thanked, and those deceased are mourned. The service has been done in essentially this form for 61 years, although it's middle-aged spread has made it totally unwieldly. Nearly 100 persons traipse across a large stage and shake hands with dignitaries, while the congregation sits captive to ministerial ego and nostalgia, for a half hour of naming and shaking. Naturally in their boredom and enthusiasm for the few names they recognize, they make a ruckus and have to be repeatedly told to please hold their noise, although no one tells them why this is so important.

(This problem has been getting worse for at least 10 years. The first time it happened was at the Yale GA, a comparatively small gathering and the last non-Convention Center GA. David Pohl was calling the names that year, and finally stopped, stepped out of role, and counseled the congregation that one thing that is important in this service is the democracy and equality of ministry. All are equal here, whether popular, illustrious, successful, or not. That some are wildly applauded and others are not destroys this essential equality, so please, don't. It was a gracious speech that has stayed with me.)

Once the SLT was the Big Event at GA, but it has been eclipsed by the far more appropriate (for the venue and size of crowd) Sunday Morning worship. The SLT is increasingly a dinosaur, evoking the good old days when the SLT was held in a big church and had crowds numbering in the hundreds rather than thousands. The processionals, hand shaking, and slow pace worked when 20-30 ministers walked across the chancel. It doesn't work now. Some changes have been made in the past few years to tighten things up, but the transforming change it would take to make this ritual work for everyone is seemingly not possible. Now, there's a commentary on ministry for you!

I still got a lump in my throat, enjoyed a good sermon, saw a few great shots of our Albuquerque MRE, Eva Ceskava, who was singing in the choir, and cheered on three people who have had a relationship with my church: Jim Zacharias, honored as he formally retires, Lora Kim Joiner (wife of our intern, Meredith Garmon), who attained Final Fellowship, and Myriam Renaud (once a church member) who has attained Preliminary Fellowship.

But after two worship services, each 90 minutes long, it is time for lunch!

Saturday, June 24, 2006


GA is a huge family reunion, and that means that what you say most is, "How are you!' and "I'm great!". After that, what I heard most, however, was, "I hear your church is doing satellites, tell me about it. We're thinking of that."

Of course, we're not quite doing it yet. But we seem to be about a year further ahead in our thinking about this than anyone else is. But this amount of buzz about a project not yet started is kind of amazing to me. And it suggests not only that we should go ahead and do this but that we should share our inner workings as we do. The Board must vote next month to go ahead with this, as the next stage is fund raising and grant writing. I think we'll eventually set up a Blog; in the meantime, if you are interested in following the Satellite Church plan, leave a comment on this blog.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

GA06 Blogging UU's

Why do I Blog?, they asked, at the UU Bloggers gathering at GA.

Well, I started to give my congregation a way to follow what I was learning and thinking about during my sabbatical. It was something of a shock to discover that more than half of my readers were not in my congregation. (How do I know that? That "hit counter" at the bottom of this page tells me not only how many people have visited, but the city their server lives in.) Many were from New England. This week, a batch are from St. Louis, where the GA is. This suggests to me that many of my readers are UU's from elsewhere.

Amongst the pleasures of the Sabbatical Blog were the pleasures of writing in a kind of "quick and dirty" way about the things going on around me, passing them not, perhaps through the "fire of thought", as Emerson said sermons must be, but at least through the smoke. I anticipate reaching back into my blog for sermon illustrations and such. Writing about things helps me to process and remember. Having a readership is a sort of astonishing side benefit of what is essentially keeping a journal.

Of course, there are many matters only appropriate for my private paper and pencil journal, Spiritual Director, or close friends.

The wonderful volunteer setting up our church's new website set up a blogging option for staff members; beautiful templates, a much better spell checker, (Blogger's spell checker, for instance, doesn't know the word "Blog") and other features. But after thinking about it, I rebelled. This venue is just removed enough from the church that I can write a bit more freely and with a few fewer constraints than I feel when writing "as the minister." How the Website blogs will shape up is yet to be seen. This blog is mine.

And the most common question I've gotten this week from my colleagues besides "how are you," is, "I hear you are starting satellite congregations, tell me everything!" So I think I'll set up a blog for that Multi-Site Multi Venue as a tool for sharing what we are doing and learning about this.

GA06 "Cradle UU's"

President Bill Sinkford spoke to the ministers yesterday, as he does each year. He talked about some of his pet projects and mostly answered questions. Most of the questions were fairly predictable and he had good and candid answers for them. One question that stumped him: What is our strategy to keep "birthright" UU's?

Ouch. Can it be that no one has thought much about that important question?

The first strategy might be to ditch that terrible phrase, "birthright." In a denomination which prides itself on helping people grow into and choose their faith, a phrase that suggests that it has not passed on this value to its children (who are UU's by right, not their own choice) is unfortunate.

Call us Cradle UU's, perhaps. Here's the way to keep us. Offer us something beyond the "walk away skepticism" which so often passes for legitimate faith questioning in our congregational life. We don't have the hurt, or as much of it, that our elders have. We are ready to explore in our depths, to claim words and ideas that work for us and use them with confidence. This denomination has very little to offer us (although our individual churches often do) by way of resources for this deeper faith journey. Providing these tools would not only keep cradle UU's, it would keep those who come to us in a period of faith transition after they are finished with their pain and their anger and are, themselves, ready to move on.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Singed by God

A cranky commenter asked about my ministry, "Do you have any documents singed by God?"

Dr. Freud would have smiled. And I smile, too. We who believe in God do have some nerve, to ask that the creator of the Universe show up in our lives and in our hearts...something like plugging our ipods into the 220 line behind the dryer and hoping to hear nice music. The miracle is that we are not singed more often.

Some cranky non-believers seem to think that those of us who believe in God are claiming to see God's signature unmistakably, as if God were an egotistical artist who signed his art with a huge flourish. But the best art, like the best universes, has only the most subtle signs of authorship, and it takes an art lover with some knowledge and experience to know "for sure."

God and I have had a mostly distant relationship, even on the days in which I wish it were otherwise. For better or for worse, most of my singings (singeings?) have been from living all that has been my life, and my experience has been that when those times have been the most painful, I have felt a consoling touch in my heart that I take to be God's comfort and strength. This one-to-one correspondence between catastrophe and spiritual experience makes my prayer for more spiritual experience a bit half-hearted, I'm afraid, but it adds to my serenity as I face all that my future will bring.