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.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

UU Growth: Alternatives 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 One: 

The purpose of our congregation is to your point of deep connection to the global movement for justice. Your UU congregation will be place where you will hear serious talk about the issues of global justice in all their intersected forms: on a local level, regional, national and global level.  Here you will be invited to participate; here you will challenged, inspired, and educated; here you will sing songs and clap your hands and here you will meet other people in your community who are similarly motivated. Here is where your children will grow into global citizens. We cultivate the virtue of solidarity.We are an institution with a purpose: to contribute to the global movements for justice.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

UU Strategy: How that Working for Us?

For 40 years or more, UU’s have based on their strategy on this proposition: there is a deep hunger for community out there, and that if we built genuinely inclusive, democratic, welcoming communities, we will grow because we would be feeding such a deep hunger.

How many church websites feature a group picture of the congregation: cheerful smiles, many matching tee-shirts, a visual invitation "to come join our group"?
Abraham Lincoln UU Congregation

How many congregational missional statement explicitly say that their mission is to build a community where all sorts of good things happen?
UU Church of Nora 

How many sermons and worship services directly address the life problems of being in community?

Isn't our transformation strategy that we build a global Beloved Community by building a Local Beloved Community?
The Purpose Statement of the Unitarian Church of Calgary

You can see why UU's of the 70's/80's took up this particular organizational strategy. It is a strategy of the lowest common denominator and the path of least resistance. There was no way to resolve the  theist/humanist argument, without a higher value which could contain both. We needed a strategy that let us put that argument to rest and let us move on. The congregation as "community" was the goal that could contain both theists and humanists..

And in the 70-80's, UU's could not make social transformation that higher value.  We were not going to go all in on a prophetic social justice strategy. Too many Boomers in our congregations were suffering from a form of PTSD about the late 60's/early 70's. They were withdrawing from social movements en masse.  And younger people of the era, the emerging GenXers, were also repelled by the anxious combativeness of that early period. Being "stuck in the sixties" was seen as a kind of mild mental disorder.

And the aggressiveness of the cultural conservative movements had pushed us onto the defensive.

An organizational strategy of building communities/congregations fit with our non-creedal and congregational traditions.

Creating covenanted, healthy, spiritually nourishing, genuinely inclusive, peaceful, and safe communities became our evangelical and ecclesiological method. But now, the strategy of community-building has become so pervasive, it is unseeable.

My question is "How is that working out for us?"

Size-wise, we are about in the same place as we were when we adopted this strategy.

Demographically, we have not broken out of our particular culture. Creating a truly welcoming community turns out to be very hard; the prevailing culture of the founders inevitably shows through and either attracts or repels people who are different. 

It's true that we constantly take in new members, but more come and go than stay.

Further, it doesn't seem that people are actually eager to join the kind of high-commitment community that a typical UU congregation is. We like to think that our congregations are low-commitment communities, but actually they are not. To be a full insider member, you need to commit a lot of time, energy and money to the congregation. I would suspect that a majority of congregational members feel that they are too busy to fully participate in the life of the congregation.

We believe that there is a deep hunger for community out there, but is that really true?

Building community has its own value, but maybe it's time to reconsider whether, as a strategy,  it is enough to change our anemic growth trends.

In the next couple of posts, I will suggest some alternative organizational strategies. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Climate change and the Apocalypse: Who shall be saved?

As a global climate crisis bears down upon us, religious thinkers return to the questions thatdominated the Apocalyptic age: Is the present age doomed, and if it is, who shall be saved?

Salvation did not always mean eternal life in heaven after death. The redefinition of "salvation" as "healing" is even newer.

For a long time, salvation meant who will be spared from God's wrath when God writes the final chapter of human story, in fire and ice and blood.

Some scientists believe that the human
population was reduced to
a few thousand people
100,000 to 70,000 years ago.
There will be human beings who survive even the most disastrous collapse of human civilization. Human beings are creative, and adaptable, and ingenious. Even in the warm and watery future, some humans will survive, and their children will survive.

Who shall be saved? 

Armed Guard outside Davos Congess
Center, the site of the ultra-elite
conference, high in the Swiss Alps.
As it now stands, it is the global elite that will survive. They will migrate to the most habitable places; they will monopolize the resources needed for life; they will deploy the arms to protect themselves from the increasingly desperate masses. Everything we know about the modern arrangements of power tell us that this is true.
 The gated communities in our suburbs are emblems of the global future.

Consider the moral implications of believing that only a few will survive. Does it matter really then, if they die now, or later? If we imagine that even God is indifferent to their suffering, why should we care?

Unitarian Universalists are heirs to a religious tradition that disagrees. We believe in Universal Salvation: all of humanity is a single unit. Our faith is that we share a common fate. For us, the climate crisis is a struggle for global justice and solidarity.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Longed-For Tidal Wave of Justice"

This is the rough text of the Institute Sermon delivered in Asilomar on Tuesday, February 3rd, to the 2015 UUMA Institute for Excellence in Ministry.

"The Longed For Tidal Wave of Justice."

I am retired; so many things fall away when you retire. You no longer have to be the most mature person in the room, whatever room you are in. You get Saturday night back. But mostly you give up your special chair on Sunday morning. Where should I sit? Sunday morning, I can sit wherever I want. I don’t have an assigned place. I found this so disturbing at first that I joined the choir, just to get my own chair. I like it because, now, I still get to sit up front where people can see me, and, I get to watch people’s faces.

I go to Ann Arbor congregation in Michigan where the issue of marriage equality is still a hot issue. My congregation (and now I am allowed to call it “my congregation”) is served by a minister, Her Holiness, the Rev. Gail Geisenhainer and his Associate Holiness, the Rev. Mark Evens.  Gail is a community leader in Ann Arbor for marriage equality. My congregation is my link to that issue. And, because the rights denied to gays and lesbians intersects with many other oppressions, my congregation is now a link to all of them.

We are a singing congregation. And so, on Sunday, among everything else that goes on, I am given the chance to take a stand with the great struggles of the day, even if all I can do some weeks is stand as “I am willing and able”, sing out with gusto, and clap along. Worship gives us all a place to sit, a place to stand if we are willing and able, a place in the wide world.
We are finding our place, not only in the context of the progress toward marriage equality, but now also in the midst of the “black lives matter” movement, the current phase of the African American liberation movement, the present incarnation of the anti-racism movement.

The BlackLivesMatter Movement is feeding into an open-ended reformation of our ethics: what we do day to day with the people around us, and the demands of this moment in history. Reformation movements are RE-Formation movements. We have been formed by our society; and now we must be Re - Formed (Formed Again!) to live with justice.

30 years ago, in the middle of the Reagan Presidency, UU’s codified our social ethics in six, and then seven, principles.  We made a covenant among our congregations to uphold — we made a promise to each other — that we would promote and affirm those principles.

Those Principles are summaries of our ethical hopes; they are about how we hope to live, how we hope our congregations would be. They are our hopes for the world we want to live in. But,they were not just our hopes, but the hopes of many, many people. We didn’t invent them, we only named them.

At the time we adopted them, UU’s were anxious to define themselves as a distinct identity, how we were unique, that we were Somebody in a culture that thought liberalism passé and ridiculous,and where the conservative megachurches were flourishing and we were not.

The principles we named then can seem pious and wishful thinking, platitudes that a Rotary Club could adopt without controversy. As bold statements of our unique identity, for many UU’s, the seven principles are a little disappointing. 

But time and history changes the meaning of words and statements. 

Those seven principles are not bland generalities anymore.

Today every one of those principles, first six and now seven, is highly controversial. There are actively contested in the public square. They may have been written in a committee, but they are paraphrased on picket signs in the streets all across this country. 

They are no longer, our unique trademark. They summarize the aspirations of millions of people who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism. But we have spent 30 years gathering communities around them; we have taught them to hundred of thousands of people, including children.

Go down the list of the seven principles:
Is not the affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity” pressed upon us by the reminder that “black lives matter.” 
Are not the fast food and minimum wages workers asserting “justice, equity and compassion in human relations”
Isn’t the acceptance of each other and the encouragement of spiritual growth what the effort to calm Islamophobia is all about?
Aren’t climate change denial and creationism attempts to refute of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning?
Fifty years after Selma, aren’t voter rights still a live question in upholding the democratic process in society at large?
How can we square America’s policies of constant war with our commitment to a world community of peace, liberty and justice?
We promised Respect for the interdependent web, and our government considers whether to permit the Keystone pipeline.  

I am not just saying that our principles have some theoretical application to some of the issues of the day. I am saying that real people from all strata of society are out there fighting for the principles we named, and that we have promised to affirm and promote.


They are our public theology, 

Some people say that Unitarian Universalism lacks a firm theological foundation. Some have said that our extensive social and political activism needs a firmer theological underpinning.

I think that we have more than enough theology; what we need is more theological reflection on what we believe and what it requires of us at this moment of history.

I want to take a minute to talk about the metaphors we use to talk about justice and history. 

Today, walk talk about the arc of the universe. Our Theodore Parker started the story. Think about it. Parker says that somewhere out there, further than he can see, and beyond what he can figure, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. Somewhere out there. 
But listen to Seamus Heaney talk about justice and history in a different way.: “But then, once in a lifetime, there comes a longed-for tidal wave of justice, and hope and history rhyme.” 
The Universe bends somewhere out there; but tidal waves come to you. You stand on the shore, and it comes to you. And if you are not ready to turn and sail, or surf, or swim with it, as it tumbles toward you and breaks over you, you will be destroyed. 

There it is: that’s my whole sermon right there. I could sit down now. 

But we are on the forming edge of our lives, so let’s reflect on our promises as this tidal wave of justice tumbles down upon us. 
As I have said, The culture is in the midst of a reformation in social and personal ethics. The reformation in ethics is surfacing as questions of privilege: white privilege, male privilege, cis-privilege, heteronormativity.

It’s personal. It’s about how you, as a person, relate to other persons.

To whom do you defer? 
From whom do expect deference? 
Who do you see as “like yourself’ and who do you see as the other. 
Whose lives matter? 
Remembering that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, whose lives do you regard with routine indifference?

We must allow ourselves to be re-formed, re-made at this most personal level of habit and identity. 
But many people lack the spiritual resources, to move beyond just protecting the small relative advantages they have. They are feeling the challenges. But they need to hear many messages of affirmation and love. They need communities that support them, and challenge them and forgive them. They need companions. They need a place to stand as they are able, to clap and sing along.

The Mission and Vision of the Liberal Church in History

A little historical essay about mission and organization in liberal religion: 

For most of its history, the mission of the liberal church was dogmatic and apologeticRead through Channing's arguments with Calvinism; they are designed to educate and persuade. Religious liberalism had some very specific positions on the great theological questions of Christendom. Those questions were important to the people in surrounding communities. The mission of the church was to engage those questions and promote the liberal positions among the members of the community. The method of fulfilling the mission was the weekly worship service, which was primarily an adult educational program. The minister explained the liberal position on the most important questions of life (the theological questions) through the sermon; it was both teaching and preaching.

The authority of the minister was based on his knowledge about theology, church history and biblical interpretation. The minister was the religious educator in the congregation, and he taught the faith. This is why the early Unitarian and Universalist sermons seem so boring and useless to us today. I was thrilled to find a copy of a book of sermons left by Aaron Bancroft, the first minister in Worcester. I was disappointed to find in it a deadly dull series of sermons on his take on the traditional theological questions — not an inspiring word anywhere. In Bancroft's time, they were challenging and exciting, questioning the conventional wisdom of the day. The were dogmatic and apologetic, in the best sense of those words. 

This understanding of the church and the teaching/preaching role of the minister prevailed up to the very recent past. In the liberal church, it had two different forms:

  • In the East and in New England, liberal preachers reinterpreted the Christian tradition for their congregants, constructing new and unorthodox understandings of Christian systematics. One significant reinterpretation of Christian systematics was the Christian Social Gospel. 
  • In the rest of the country, liberal preachers questioned the truth of Christian systematics and constructed a humanist theological tradition.  Humanist preaching was teaching/preaching will still instructional and persuasive. 
What unites these forms was their common purpose in educating the community. Both assumed that the minister was knowledgable and informed about liberal theology and had the role of persuading people to take that point of view.

I want to contrast two possible understandings of mission: one is to disseminate a point of view in the community and the other is to create a congregation of people who share a particular point of view. Of course, neither excludes the other.

In Worcester Massachusetts, the founders of the church said that their goal was "to hear liberal preaching." They formed a church to create a platform, a pulpit, to promote liberal religion. It is interesting that creating, and supporting, the pulpit was much more on their mind than creating a congregation. The church was the joint enterprise of the pew owners, who were the owners. They did not create a general membership list of the congregation, nor write by-laws, nor conduct a joint pledge campaign until more than a century later. 

In the contemporary UUA, the idea that the liberal church was primarily an educational institution teaching liberal religion to the community through the preaching of the minister fell out of favor. The focus of the liberal church shifted to the gathering and sustaining the congregation.

The liberal religious institution morphed into something new: a liberal spiritual co-op, a self-sustaining, self-governing, and self-serving enclave. Its way of being together, its internal functioning, is its message. Its process was its content. It harkened back more to the utopian communities of the 19th century than to the teaching/preaching church. This conception of the church is so dominant now in liberal religious circles as to be unseeable.

We framed the mission of liberal religion as the creation of congregations, an organizational form, rather than the dissemination of liberal religious ideas, values and practices.

Some of the results: insularity, a lack of focus in our educational programs for adults, reduction of social and public ministry as secondary concerns of the congregation, the missing "there there", the intractable financial crisis of congregations, circularity in mission definition, and ultimately, I think, slow growth and stagnation.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Case for Reparations

The Department of Justice report indicates that the Ferguson city government deployed its police forces to extort money from its black citizens. Over the years, millions of dollars in fines were collected through the unequal administration of justice. Court records indicate exactly how much money was extorted from specific citizens.

And what happened in Ferguson, happened in numerous other municipalities in St. Louis County, all of which was equally unconstitutional and equally documented.

The people from whom those dollars were taken are owed them. All of the dubious charges, all of the fines, all of the fines levied because the original fines were not paid on time, all the penalties and interest and court fees need to be returned. Not as a matter of "development funds" or "community investment" or "public policy", but simply because stolen money must be returned from the criminal to the victim, to be used by victims for whatever purpose they choose. It's their money, end of story.

In most states, local governments are the legal creatures of the state government. What level of government chartered the little town of Ferguson, gave it permission to collect taxes, hire police, and set up a court? That level of government owes the people of Ferguson their money back. The city government of Ferguson, and all the other similar towns, need to be put out of business and the reparations they owe their victims (and their heirs) need to be assumed by the state of Missouri. New local governments need to be established that are rationally sized, democratic and constitutional in their place. Call it another Reconstruction. Call it Reparations. Call it Justice and Accountability.