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.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Learning into a Multi-Cultural UU World

Another question posed by the UUA staff in their strategic plan for ministry was this:  What can we learn from our community ministers about living into the promise of our multicultural world?

Interesting question which I hope some folks with more experience in community ministry will chime in to answer.  But I have  (what a surprise!)  a different bias on this question, which comes from my experience of modest effectiveness in diversifying congregations.

I believe that multi-cultural congregations are like happiness.  You don't become happy by setting that as your goal and going towards it full-tilt.  You get happy by making relationships, developing interests, lending a helping hand, dealing with your inner demons and so on.   Happiness, in other words, is a by-product of life effectiveness.

I think that multi-cultural congregations are similarly a product of congregational effectiveness, rather than goal-setting or learning,  especially effectiveness in reaching the Gen X and Millennial generations, where "multi-cultural" is the name of their game.   Sometimes it seems to me that our fantasy is that if we learn enough about being a multi-cultural congregation, we will enjoy great waves of 50 and 60 year old persons of color who have been patiently waiting for us to get our act together.  I doubt this.  If we achieve our goal of multi-culturalism, it will be because we have attracted young people to our church and welcomed them...their music, their visual learning style, their multi-culturalism, and most of all, their desire to explicitly address their spiritual lives.

It seems to me that Community ministers might have something to teach us, but that our RE community has more to teach us and that they should be consulted, too.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ministry and Internet

Another question from the UUA Staff's Strategic Plan for Ministry

What are the implications of social networking for the future of our bricks and mortar ministries? As Philip Clayton put it in his article Theology and the Church after Google, “Do we really inhabit two different worlds: those who text, Twitter and blog, and get 80% of our information from the Internet, and those who are “not comfortable” with the new social media and technologies?

In the article mentioned, Clayton follows this question with another question:  Could we today be facing a change in how human society is organized that is as revolutionary in its implications as was the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg over 500 years ago?

I answer the second question,  "Yes!"  although, we are not "facing" that change, we are "living" that change.  How it will all play out in changed lives and societies is a big question.  Clearly it has changed leisure among the wealthy and revolutions among the poor.   No doubt there is more to come.  Those of us who care about liberal values will have to be light on our feet and deeply thoughtful to work on the right causes in such a climate.

But because I answer the second question,  "yes!",   I am impatient with the tone of the first question.  Those who are "not comfortable" with new technologies will get more and more out of the mainstream and it will be harder and harder to work with them.  Frankly I think that one of the great favors that a church can do for it's elderly or otherwise challenged members is to entice them into the digital world.  

I am not ready to think that the digital world will be the end of the bricks and mortar world, however.  I could be wrong, but I believe that there will still be church buildings in 2061.  I believe that people will still enjoy worshiping. learning,  and eating together, that staffs will still work together in offices, and that much will be as it is now.  What will have changed is how we attract people to church; that will be almost 100% digital (It is nearly that already.), and the fact that we will have the option to have  on-line groups, trainings, and meetings, and that the resources we provide for spiritual development of our members (which will be the only reason people join churches in the future), will be available on our website as well as in sermons and classes.  A church doing its web ministry well will reach many more people, dispersed all over the globe, than any one church ever could before.  Helping those folks contribute to the upkeep of those resources will be a challenge, as we have all come to expect that the best things on the internet will be free.  

As always I welcome your comments!   And just as an example of how quickly things have changed,   most of the comments from the blog post, will be left on my Facebook page, where this post shows up automatically.  So if you want to see the discussion,  friend me on Facebook! 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ministerial Credentialing: from the UUA Staff Strategic Plan

The UUA Staff's strategic plan for Ministry (posted here) makes one recommendation about ministerial credentialing, which is a creature of the Fellowship Committee which, by bylaw, reports to the Board, not the staff.  They recommend that the RSCC get out of the gatekeeping business and act in a support and advisory capacity.  I have to agree with this recommendation; it's clear that, for all the good intentions this program started with, it has just become a second MFC.  I hope that the MFC takes this up.

The staff appends a set of questions to their recommendations which they feel need more and wider discussion.  One of which is:

 Do the various credentialing programs mold the leaders we need for the future,  or are they based on outdated models of ministerial excellence?

This is an interesting way of stating the problem, which, I believe is one of  the most important problems we need to solve as we face the future.   I've made no secret of my doubts about the effectiveness of our system; if you search this blog for the tags,  "credentialing" and "Excellence in Ministry", you will see lots on the subject.

but back to the question, and about it, I have a question.  Should it be the task of a credentialing program to MOLD leaders?   That starts to smack of "teaching to the test", which appears to be the current bane of public education.   Given the general lack of accountability in our current system with the MFC, which keeps no statistics about its effectiveness and does not publish its standards, and their overwhelming work load, perhaps we need two bodies, as a denomination; one to ask the question,  "What do we Want in our Leaders?" and another to be the gatekeeper, using those standards.

But my overall reaction to this question is that the problems I see with the MFC don't have to do with outdated models of ministerial excellence, but rather with outdated models of professional formation...which assume that a person should not enter a profession until they are fully qualified.   I would say that that model doesn't fit ministry...probably it doesn't fit most "wisdom" professions.  I think that the best we can do is make judgments about safety, rather than qualifications.  Is this a person who is mature enough and moral enough to avoid doing harm?   Are they minimally qualified?  If so, let them try, because frankly, we can't tell at this stage how effective they will be...and it is too expensive for everyone to wait until we are sure!

If I could wave my magic wand over the UU World,  we would have a system whereby new ministers were screened (probably by the staff) for basic competence (by which I mean, they have passed their academic work and have raised no red flags in the minds of their internship and CPE supervisors, and have a clean background check).  These new ministers would enter into a probationary period during which they were actively mentored by UUA staff as well as colleagues.  (the current once a month phone call with a self-chosen and usually far-away "mentor"  is completely inadequate to the task of ministerial formation).  The congregations who hired them would be mentored and watched as well. (because it is not unknown for congregations to choose a "green" minister in order to keep the balance of power in the lay leadership and remain complacent)   During this time their ordination would be local and temporary.  When a new minister completed three years of full time ministerial work (or its equivalent in part time work), they would be eligible for Final Fellowship and a "tenured" ordination.  Their task at that point would be to present the actual results of their ministry, rather than the results of their experience in seminary, which is really quite a different thing.  Much of this would be a matter of portfolio review.  Not everyone would be asked to interview with a committee; it's obvious after three years who is succeeding in ministry, and who has never gotten a job or who has failed. It's an expensive thing we do, interviewing virtually everyone who asks us.  

Just a thought, and I welcome comments!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Another Question from the Strategic Plan for Ministry

(Which you can find at the website)

Is the Masters of Divinity still the best pathway to the ordained ministry? What alternatives might we explore?

This question could have a couple of meanings.  The first involves the degree itself, which is actually not required for our ministers if you can show you have equivalent preparation.   The M.Div is one of the few generalist masters degree programs left in the educational pantheon, and a UU minister certainly needs that broad preparation; academic, religious, spiritual, and practical.  We want our ministers to have knowledge of religious history, theology, UU'ism, world religions, psychology, social theories, the multi-cultural world, scriptures, literature.  We want them to be mature and have basic management and leadership skills, not to mention wisdom, writing and public speaking skills, and church smarts.  Most of all, we need them to be theologically and spiritually grounded and able to assist others (of different theological and spiritual bents) to be grounded.   The M.div attempts all of that.  When added to clinical work and church internship, I think it covers all the bases.

But I have a feeling that the question really means,  "is seminary education as we used to know it still the best pathway for ordained ministry?"  That is to say, is the best preparation for ministry embedding oneself in a community of persons preparing for ministry, probably within an interfaith/academic context?

The answer to that question is that even if it is the best, it is probably unaffordable, and even then, only by mooching on the Methodists (and a few other old-line denominations) who endowed their seminaries with scholarship funds which they are generous in sharing with UU's.  I myself took advantage of this generosity and got a fine education.  After a semester of sabbatical, watching our Seminary at Meadville re-make itself for a more affordable and sustainable future,  I believe that we will feel this loss, and will have to find ways to compensate for it.  The graduates who will not come into ministry in debt to their eyeballs will, it is hoped, be able to continue their ministerial formation more easily in their early years of ministry.

Meadville has gone to a distance-learning model which embeds those preparing for ministry in local congregations and gathers students for intensive learning experiences during the year.  I think that it is possible that these students will get something out of their seminary experience that traditional students don't get; a long-term view of ministry and congregations.    Students are also involved in learning groups which meet by telephone and with their professors via email and teleconferences, and it is clear that they form deep bonds in these groups.   They have some brief experiences of traditional seminary during the intensive course month of January, but the coursework they are involved in is, well, intense.

I hear that Starr King is also reaching out in distance-learning, although it still offers a more traditional resident community.  And I believe that about 2/3 of students studying for the ministry are studying in seminaries of other denominations, either because they are near where they live or because they  want that traditional seminary experience and have been offered scholarship help to afford it.

If the question means,  "Would it be possible to do as the Evangelicals do, to self-educate ministers within congregations?"  I think that the answer is "no."    The Evangelical model of ministry is different from ours.  It is deeper in some ways, and considerably narrower.  The areas in which it is deeper, such as spirituality and biblical study, can be taught within a large church (quite a bit larger than any of our churches...) The breadth that we expect in our minister's training can only be gotten within academia, and probably within a program specifically designed to prepare for our kind of ministry.  The distance-learning models that, in different ways, ours and other seminaries are exploring, will probably be the "new way" that people prepare for ministry.   What we should be exploring is how churches and the support of ministry need to change to produce fine ministers, given the reality of this distance-learning preparation.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Should Unitarian Universalists Have Deacons?

The UUA staff has released a strategic plan for professional ministry, which has some important, needed changes and plans in it (not all of which can be staff driven, and must get buy-in from others) in this document.

More interesting to me, the end of this document poses some very interesting questions that they feel the UU World (that is, all of us, not the magazine) needs to discuss and think about.  So...I thought I'd do that and start conversations on this blog and other places.   Here's the first question:

Given that many congregations now and in the future will struggle to afford full time ministry, should we open up our ministerial credentialing system to some variation of a deaconate – a lay leadership program to serve in entrepreneurial and part-time ministry settings.

I believe that if we are serious about being a religious body; that is, a faith that helps people deepen their spiritual lives, we have no choice but to have a program which trains and authorizes lay people to be agents of deepening spirituality in their lay-led congregations.  Otherwise, not only will the religious needs of people in lay-led congregations be largely un-met, but there will remain a substantial minority of UU's who will be resistant to this focus because they themselves can not benefit from it.   (And it is my opinion that if we don't embrace this focus, we will not survive the next century.  Hardly anybody, anywhere,  is going to join our congregations in order to experience freedom from religion any more.)

However, it is also true that authorizing lay ministers make professional ministers very nervous, and should make us all a bit nervous.

  • There is the issue of possible competition.  A Lay Ministry program would probably seem to some ministers as hampering their ability to get a job.  It would no doubt happen that some congregations would opt for talented and energetic lay leadership over an ordained minister who might not, in their opinion serve them as well.   (in my opinion, we ministers have to let this one go, for the good of the whole.)
  • There is the issue of congregations choosing Lay Ministry because they don't want to be challenged to be the best UU congregation they can be.  (I think this objection can be met by a good training program)
  • There is the issue of creating a group of people who do not have the training or boundaries of professional ministers "acting like" ministers and doing harm.  (I think that this objection can be met by only authorizing "local" ministers, ie, you're a lay minister when you are doing the work of ministry your congregation has asked you to do, nowhere else, and no longer than that work  lasts.) 
  • There is the issue of determined lay people forcing themselves on their overwhelmed, lay-led congregations,  creating a situation where a close-knit group  doesn't feel free to say,  "no" to an aspiring lay leader.  (I think that this objection can be met by carefully created criteria of authorizing lay ministers).  

There are  probably other issues and I look forward to hearing what some of them might be.  Just to throw out a proposal, here's mine

Authorization for Lay Ministry would begin by a person's successfully completing several very substantial weekend RE directors, for instance, have had in their Renaissance program.

It would continue with an inquiry from a local congregation about bringing this person on as a PAID (even if only at "honorarium" or "expense-only"  lay leader in some capacity.  (nothing like budget implications to give a group good boundaries!)  That congregation would be helped to put good personnel practices into place and form a "Lay Minister" committee which would help this person continue their formation. (like an intern committee)   Training opportunities would continue, the aspiring lay minister would be assigned to a peer group, and to a professional minister-mentor.  If all went well after a trial time, the lay minister would acquire an official title; perhaps with an installation service.  However, that title would only be valid in that place.

I would not start this program by allowing lay ministers to serve in entrepreneurial (self-gathered) situations.  There is a substantial extra burden of risk of dysfunctionality  which we should avoid, at least at first.  However, I do not think we should preclude full-time work by lay ministers, especially in large congregations.

Ok, readers, go to it!  I look forward to seeing your comments and programs you lay out on your blogs!

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The last questions

from the staff are...

Who are we? Who are we becoming? To whom do we belong?

You all have been such good readers, I'm going to let you answer these questions.  Comment away!

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Supporting Visitors with Google Maps

Traveling on Sabbatical, I've been visiting UU Churches, and the way I find them is with Google Maps, which gives me addresses, map placement, street-side pictures, websites, and directions using car or transit.  (the transit directions are particularly valuable; Google knows when the trains run and tells me how long it will take to walk from the train station to the church.)   

Did you know that you can personalize and add information to your church's Google Map listing?  The person in charge of every congregation's web presence (you do have someone in charge of your web presence, don't you?) should check on the accuracy of Google's guesses about you, upload a logo, and make it look like you've paid attention.

And then some folks who cares about that church, members and visitors alike, should write a review of the church on Google Maps.   Nothing like 10 reviews to make a hesitant visitor think that this is a going concern!  

It's the best sort of publicity, and it's all free!

Abq's who follow this blog:  we've only got one review at the moment....

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What Hospitality Really Means

Is simple: welcoming the stranger by attending to their needs first.
I have been visiting churches during this sabbatical.  (This is always the most fruitful activity of sabbatical).
And not been too impressed with the welcome, frankly.   Tools seem to be in place, but the spirit is all wrong.

For instance, a friend and I showed up in a UU church where one came out of the cold into a foyer.  Ushers stood in a line perpendicular to the doors, and handed us programs with a perfunctory smile....but didn't catch on to our  "what now?" looks.  It wasn't at all clear from them, from architecture or signage where the sanctuary actually was.  We looked around, bewildered, and nobody rescued us.  Finally I turned back to the usher and asked him which way to the sanctuary.  "Oh, are you visiting?" he asked.  "Here, here's the welcome table".  He handed us over to a woman standing behind the table.  Nothing was clearer than that her only sense of what she was supposed to do was get  our information....and entire page of information.  She handed us a notebook and a pen and then remembered to say good morning.  She pointed out name tags.

I'm from out of town.  I didn't need to be followed up on or to get a newsletter.  I came to worship that day.  That's all I did, and that's all I wanted to do.  It happens that I'm a UU...I knew I'd be in tune with the message at this church.  .  If I'd been a seeker, I'd have been even less interested in giving my information to these people...until I was sure I'd want to come again.  But short of being rude, it was impossible.

The moral of the story:  Smile and guide visitors on their way in.  Give them whatever information they ask for.  Get contact information on their way out....when and if they want to give it to you.  Better Yet, put a "Thanks for Visiting Us" link to your website in the order of service explaining that at this site, visitors can give feedback, leave contact information, and ask questions.  (if you have lots of elderly visitors, you can also invite them to do this after the service at the visitor's table.)

For a humorous look at things from the visitor's perspective, check out this little video which comes to us from the Evangelical world...but parts of it are oh, so, pointedly true of us, too!
What if Starbucks Marketed Like a Church?

P.S.  Architecture and signs are really important in giving newcomers a clue as to what they are supposed to do. If you are not blessed in this way, your greeters and ushers can be on the look out for the bewildered or even standing in such a way that they make clear where a person is supposed to go.   For most people, nothing gets them started off quite so badly as feeling like an idion...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

UU's and God

When someone tells me that they don't believe in God, I usually say,  "That's interesting.  Tell me about the kind of God you don't believe in."   When they get over their surprise, they quickly warm to their task and tell me about the God to whom they were introduced as children...the guy in the sky; possibly angry, sometimes spying, always meddling.   Sometimes they worked out for themselves at a very young age that sitting in the clouds was an impossible feet.  Sometimes they came early to the conclusion that no God who could be called, "good" would cause them such pain and anguish.  Sometimes they believed it all for a good long time, and then met science teachers or loving non-believers and then felt that they had been duped.

There are many good reasons for not believing in God.  But there is no good reason for a grown up to insist that the guy in the sky is the only kind of God and that all believers in God believe in that kind.  That's a patent falsehood about theology and about people, and UU's, dedicated as we are to truth, have no business espousing it.  

For a quick and lively run-down of  other kinds of God you might or might not believe in, check out this article,  Got God?   from the Winter UU World.