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.