Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Cause is Not Enough

The cause of Unitarian Universalism, as we now understand it, is not sufficiently compelling to generate the resources to continue itself.

There are not enough people sufficiently motivated to give the time and money needed to sustain our liberal religious institutions, as we now think of them.  Stuck in survival mode, we cannot gather the capacity to grow. The evidence is the declining pledge levels in many congregations.

Our cause is too small and too safe to ignite sufficient passionate engagement, the kind of commitment that we need. On the one hand, our cause is too big: all things to all people. And on the other hand, it is too small: this particular little organization in your town, this building, this minister, these people in all their particular ways.

To put in terms of our survival, the only thing that can make the difference is the passionate engagement of more people. 

We have to look beyond the people who are presently passionate about Unitarian Universalism. There is a much larger group of people we would reach IF they could see that we would directly connect them to the transformation that they are anxious to see in the world.

It means that our congregations must be more clearly purposeful. I recently wrote a series of posts on alternative growth strategies to the present "community building" strategy. Each proposal I floated was a variation on the theme of creating more purposeful congregations.

A lot of the recent conference of ministers in the MidAmerica Region (a name that sounds like a chain of tire stores) focused on multisite ministry and new start ministry. Those methods do not address the question of purpose. Multisite, especially, is a vision of stretching our resources by eliminating duplicate expenditures. It makes us more efficient; it doesn't help us grow.

Can we imagine a multi-site church which contains satellites with very different purposes and appeals? A parent church where one satellite is a young adult oriented new start? One satellite is an Earth Church? One satellite is a Co-Op Children's Church? One satellite is an activist church? One a missional project in a particular neighborhood? All robust network connecting them? A single back office, performing all the financial and database functions


Monday, April 13, 2015


We may be entering a divisive time for the Unitarian Universalist movement. UU ministers are responding to the great issues of the day: racism, climate change, reproductive justice, the religious counter-attack against GLBTQ people now that marriage equality seems inevitable. 

But then there is "congregational pushback."

I think it makes a difference that we are in a different historical era than the era that most of our experiences have come from.

Most of our thinking about congregational life was shaped during the period of conservative hegemony in US Culture.  Now, I think that we are living in new era as the more liberal and optimistic Obama era evolves into an era of more radical and militant social movements.

If we are truly the early stages of a major social movement, we face an inevitable time of shedding and growth in UU congregations. I hope that we are able to see that the soul of our denomination depends on gaining those who are most truly aligned with our values, and losing those less so. 

How that will develop will depend on how ministers negotiate the triangle between themselves, their congregants and "history",  which is my shorthand for the demands that our faith makes upon Unitarian Universalists in the present day. 

The three legs of the triangle:

  1. There is the relationship between ourselves as liberal religious leaders and "history."
  2. There is the relationship between our congregants and "history."
  3. There is the relationship between ourselves and our congregants. 

When social movements are quiet, the relationship between our congregants and "history" is less pressing. More people are concerned with other things: their jobs, their hobbies, their children and their education, sports, their own personal spiritual development, their intellectual pursuits, popular culture. Many UU's with significant relative advantages in the world can keep a distance for the demands of the day. 

When social movements are quiet, the relationship between ministers and "history" is less robust, as well. But UU ministers tend to be more aware of the demands of history then many of their congregants. So the clergy tends to be teachers, alerting the laity to issues that many are not aware of.  Prophetic preaching tends to be trying to get our congregants to care about something that they don't have on their horizon.

But the situations are different when social movements are active. Congregants have their own relationship to what I call "history."

Everybody has their own relationship to the
Black Lives Matter movement.
There are not many people in our congregations who don't know about the Black Lives Matter movement. They have seen the news coverage; many have heard contending opinions about it; most have an opinion, or a leaning for or against. Those opinions are all over the map.

They have their own relationship to it; and one of the first rules is that 'you can't fix a relationship that you are not in.'

I think that our role, as ministers, changes in a period of heightened social movements. We move from being teachers, informing our congregants about the issues, to being models, showing how we are responding to the demands of history. Our ability to persuade people is less; our ability to inspire people is greater.

UU ministers have to lead out of their own convictions, placing their primary emphasis on their own relationship to the social movements. We have to do what we are called by our faith to do; we have to lead by example.

The temptation is to focus too much on the relationship between the congregants and their minister.  What that does is bring all their (the congregants') confusions about the social movements into the pastoral relationship with them.  The minister becomes where they project their anger and discomfort at having their relative advantages named and challenged. They then think that minister has brought the social divisions "out there" into the "peaceful circle" of the congregation. The minister is at fault for not "balancing" the needs of all the congregants.

All of their discomfort, anger, fear and resentment would still be there, even if they were not members of the congregation. White people are being disturbed now everywhere.

The minister needs to be keep turning the question back to the congregants: "how are you going to relate to this social movement? This isn't about me, and it isn't about the church, and it isn't about the number of prophetic sermons I preach in a month. This is about how you respond to this social movement.  I can tell you how I am responding; I can explain my process, but in the end, this is about how you respond." 

Rev. Dawn Cooley's Four Challenges

Rev. Dawn Cooley, who serves the UU congregation in Louisville, KY, has written a series on "removing barriers to congregational participation." She challenges the conventional wisdom in four areas:

1. Congregations need multiple worship services with different styles and at different times to make it more possible for more people to worship with them.
2. Congregations need to provide more avenues for participation in the work of the church; attendance in worship should not be the only path to membership.
3. Congregations need to extend their reach with technology and social media.
4. Congregations need to develop more ways to ask for money than the annual pledge campaign.

Any of these would be a tall order for many congregations. Unitarian Universalists stick pretty close to one model of organized religious life: Building + Minister + 1 Liturgy + Congregation that does many small projects and programs.

Implied in Dawn's 4 challenges is a vision of a different kind of liberal religious movement: a network of people that engages each other and the surrounding community in many ways, but is held together not by a building, but through social media, and which provides many ways to participate in the functions of worship: gathering, inspiring, sustaining, dedicating, holding.

Reading through Dawn's series, the question occurs to me. What if we asked ourselves this question: What are the barriers to our congregation participating fully in the life of our wider community?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Direct Democracy and UUA “Citizenship” by Rev. Dawn Cooley

I continue to play with the idea of direct democracy and how it might be applied to our Unitarian Universalist Association. There have been 3 assumptions driving my ideas:

Assumption #1: That we want to bring more diverse voices to the table of governance at General Assembly.

Assumption #2: What we have been doing is not working.

Assumption #3: Continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

My first post on the subject was a thought experiment that engaged the idea that direct democracy might be possible and the benefits it could bring. The second post was about how participation in a UU covenanted community would be one criteria of how to determine “UU Citizenship.”

So what might other criteria for “citizenship” be? Let's add one more assumption:

Assumption #4: One-size-fits-all solutions don't really fit everyone.

With this assumption as an addition to the other three, I propose that we could create several different categories, with individuals being able to choose a subset in which to engage in order to achieve UUA “citizenship”.

For instance, there might be these three categories:
1) Participation in a UU Covenanted Community
2) Financial Contribution to the UUA (at some capacity, tbd)
3) Volunteering 40+ hours per year to the UUA (including regions & districts)

In order to achieve the bar of citizenship, one might need to achieve 2/3 of these categories. Or perhaps #1 would be required and then a choice of #2 or #3. So I might participate in a UU Covenanted Community and then also volunteer on a UUA committee.

It might also be that we have additional criteria and requirements. We are limited only by our imagination.

The central core of this idea is that there would be a list of potential qualifications from which an individual could choose a smaller subset in order to achieve the bar of “citizenship”.

In addition to the benefits already discussed in previous blogs, this methodology for defining citizenship would encourage people to get engaged at the district/regional/national level. With so many of our folks disconnected from such issues, this could be a great advantage to engaging around the issues with which our faith tradition struggles.

Of course, we would need to make sure the bar is high enough that a whole bunch of counter-UU types can't infiltrate the Association and take over – I know this was (is?) a worry for some of our congregations. I have confidence we could find a way to set the bar high enough without being so high as to become a barrier to participation, as well as put in proper precautions to prevent such an occurance.

Some of you might be saying “That is a whole lot to keep track of!” Since I come from a database and programming background prior to going into ministry, I think it is doable and that we should be tracking most of this type of information anyway! Particularly if the UUA were to recommend and provide standardization to covenanted communities for data management, tracking this information could be the least of our worries.

Another objection might be centered around technology from a different perspective: How would we allow these thousands of folks to participate at General Assembly? Technology for offsite participation in our governance is not quite there yet, that is true. But it will be soon – sooner, probably, than we could put this system in place and implement it. And of course, the structure of General Assembly would have to change. Instead of mini-assemblies on-site, for instance, such conversations should be taking place online in the weeks and months leading up to GA, possibly using the same teleconferencing software with which so many of us are rapidly becoming familiar. Possibly even using something akin to the flipped classroom model.

I continue to get more and more excited about this possibility and would love to talk to more of you about it. In the coming months, I hope to be engaging in online conversations about these ideas. If you want to participate in such a conversation, let me know! I look forward to some robust and exciting conversations around what future of participation in our faith tradition might look like.

Monday, March 30, 2015

UU Growth: Alternative #5 to Community Building Strategy

Disclaimer: We are never NOT building a community. Building up the community around what we are doing is an essential part of organized religion. However, we don't have to make that the central piece of what we do, and how we describe what we are doing, and what we are asking people to join us in doing.

Alternative Strategy Five:

We are a church that invites you to make the profound spiritual commitment to the health of the Earth and her people. The planet is in the midst of a catastrophic ecological crisis and she needs people to organize their lives around making a difference in that crisis. So the people in our congregation are doing what they can.  We are involved in public social movement building and legislative advocacy. We've installed solar panels and windmills on our property. We do clean-up projects in our community. Our children take part in scientific experiments and learn about where our tap water comes from.  We partner with communities, often communities of color, who are on the frontlines of pollution and contamination. We reflect on the ethics of earth-care and the spiritual sources of global solidarity.

When we worship we celebrate the interdependence of all life of which we a part. We read the writers who draw meaning from the natural world. We reflect on the ethical requirements of stewardship and the sin of seeking dominion over the Earth. We praise; we lament; we seek inspiration.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Alternative Growth Strategy Summary

The strategy of "building religious community" was based on the observation that there is a hunger for community, and it UU churches and congregation built a truly welcoming community, people would want to join it.

While it may be true that there is a deep hunger for community, the invitation to join UU communities has not been compelling enough to get a large response. So we have accepted slow and small growth as the best we can do.

Why shouldn't 1% of the US population be involved in some way with UU Congregations?

We need to be making a different invitation to people. Understand that the invitation we make to people is not the same as our overall mission. Reiterating that our overall mission is help people develop spiritual depth and make the world a better place is not the same as a specific invitation to a particular group of people to do something together.

As a way to think about this, I would recommend the following:

(1) Look at your mission statement and strip out of it all talk of being "a community" that
t has certain characteristics or does certain good things.

(2) Think about your congregation and name one or more things that it, or some of it, does well. Does it have a great Faith Development program? Is there a group that shows up for racial justice? Do you worship well? Is your Green group active and vibrant?

(3) Think about those successful ministries. Are they succeeding because they point to unmet needs in the larger community? Are there people out in the community who need them?

(4) Redefine your mission statement as an invitation to the people in your community who want or need to be involved in such ministries. The point is to cut through the clutter and noise of the contemporary culture, you must send a specific invitation. A general statement about who you are will not do. All of the alternatives in this series involve defining the church's ministry more specifically, so that people in the community who share those specific concerns, will want to get involved in the work.

(5) This is the hard part: organize your congregation's programming to make that invitation and to meet the expectations of the people who will respond to it. All your programming: your worship, your children's Faith Development, your adult programming, your youth and young adult programming, your music.  Place Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition in the context of the invitation you are making.


A Growth Strategy aims at inviting people in the surrounding community (the largest lavender circle above) into the the congregation's network (the blue circle).  


UU Growth: Alternative #4 to the "Community Building Strategy.

Disclaimer: We are never NOT building a community. Building up the community around what we are doing is an essential part of organized religion. However, we don't have to make that the central piece of what we do, and how we describe what we are doing, and what we are asking people to join us in doing.

Alternative Strategy Four:

We are a theological center of religious liberalism. Our purpose is to challenge all theologies and interpretations that oppress and bind the spirit, especially the dominant religions in our community. We teach the long history of insurgent theologies and equip people intellectually and emotionally to declare themselves independent of shame-based, punitive religions. We do not avoid the theological message that conservative religion is aggressively promoting, but engage it head on. We build allies with other religious liberals in other traditions and learn from them. Our culture has always conducted its most important arguments in the language of theology, and our purpose is to be in that conversation and our goal is to change minds. We are not humanists fighting against faith and belief. We are religious liberals fighting against oppressive forms of religion.

Our worship takes many styles: old-school, contemporary, participatory, contemplative, but the purpose is the same: to inform people, including children and youth in age-appropriate ways, about liberal religion, and to prepare them to make meaning out of the events of their lives from that perspective.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

UU Growth: Alternative #3 to Community Building Strategy

Disclaimer: We are never NOT building a community. Building up the community around what we are doing is an essential part of organized religion. However, we don't have to make that the central piece of what we do, and how we describe what we are doing, and what we are asking people to join us in doing.

Alternative Strategy Three:

Our congregation is where you go if you want your children to grow up to be morally and ethically strong and clear AND open-minded and curious about the world of differences. We are really one big, all ages cooperative Sunday School. Our primary purpose is to help families form themselves around spiritually progressive values: multi-culturalism, gender equality, healthy sexuality, right relationships, arts and sciences, etc. Every member, adult, youth and child, contributes to our educational activities. We offer that education/growth experience to every family in our community, regardless of their religious affiliation or none.

Most weeks, we have family worship. Some weeks we have a group field trip. Some weeks we engage is a work/service project or an arts project with an artist. But everything is for families and children and the future. All ages and generations are welcome.

Friday, March 27, 2015

UU Growth: Alternative #2 to Community Building Strategy

Disclaimer: We are never NOT building a community. Building up the community around what we are doing is an essential part of organized religion. However, we don't have to make that the central piece of what we do, and how we describe what we are doing, and what we are asking people to join us in doing.

Alternative Strategy Two:

Our church serves the community in which we live. People come to our church in order to work with the people of our community as they struggle to live and survive where they are. We run food pantries, and free stores, and build houses. We get involved in the local schools and the local library, if there is one. We know our neighbors and everyone knows our minister. Some Sundays we worship in our building, which we have turned into an incubator for community groups, grass roots businesses and other local faith groups trying to get started. Some Sundays we worship in a local park and some Sundays in a vacant lot. Some Sunday we worship with another church in our community.

Our children learn about the realities of their communities and the skills of service.

We don't count members and we don't count attendance on Sunday morning. We count acts of service, acts of kindness, lives touched and people drawn into service. We are more interested in activating volunteers than in converting people to Unitarian Universalism. We don't hide who are, and we always happy to explain our faith.