Friday, November 21, 2014

Ministry and Beyond* [by Rev. Cynthia Landrum]

 Our UUA President, Peter Morales, wrote a well-known position paper titled "Congregations and Beyond," in which he talked about how our Association can cultivate organizations beyond congregations that share and spread our Unitarian Universalist message.  Scott Tayler, Director of Congregational Life, has been talking about congregations and between, or about connecting congregations to share important staff and resources.  These are two important approaches for our association and our churches facing the "new era" (as we like to call it in MidAmerica).

 What I want to address is a third area: ministry.  Now there is much implication for ministers in Scott Tayler's work, in particular.  Ministers are freed up and allowed to focus in areas of excellence by working in ministry teams across congregations.   So this goes hand-in-hand with that vision, and is not contradictory to it. 

But what I want to suggest is that we need a new understanding of ministry, shared by our congregations, that includes as a major part of the minister's work two things: (1) working with the larger movement in some way, whether through our association, regions or districts, or the ministers' groups, and (2) working outside of our church walls to spread our message and work for social justice.

There's good work out there about the missional church.  (See Red Pill Brethren for some examples.)  But only a percentage of churches really want to be missional.  It's often fighting the culture of a church, and taking people away from what they really wanted in the church to begin with -- a safe space of like-minded people, a family, warmth and connection.  What we need, then, is for the non-missional church to understand that part of what a church does is fund a missional ministry, not for them, but for the world.

We are already do those things as part of our ministry, but it's not what congregations are often conscious of looking for, or wanting.  And so sometimes doing those things can feel like taking time away from our "real work," or taking time away from time off and family.  This is what needs to change.  We need congregations to embrace the idea of a missional ministry even from a sanctuary church.

 I often get questions from colleagues about how I manage to do as much as I do for our larger movement.  I'm one of three Good Offices representatives for our UUMA chapter, I"m on the MidAmerica board, I blog and write occasionally for other sources like the UU World, and I'm in a study group.  And the real reason I can do all this is perhaps because I have an awesome church, that over the years has come to understand that one thing a small rural church can be, other than a small rural church, is a position from which a larger ministry beyond the church can be funded.  It's true, they don't think I do everything perfectly, and they think I could spend a lot more time in pastoral care.  But they also do really get how their role is to not just provide a liberal religious presence in East Liberty, but to be a part of our movement.  And while they're not fair share, one way they can give to our movement is by giving some of me. 

One secret of this is that in the small church they understand that they really do know how to run the church and keep it running, even if I'm away.  Take, for example, last weekend.  Our church service is at 11:00 in the morning.  At about 10:15, my husband got a phone call from our guest speaker, saying he was very ill and couldn't make it.  At some point prior to the church service, our Religious Education Coordinator found out from both of our RE teachers that they were also sick.  And I was gone for the MidAmerica board meeting and couldn't rescue them.  And none of them called me in a panic.  They organized quickly and found a lay member who had a sermon he'd been thinking of, and my husband and the RE Coordinator stepped in and led RE, and many people in the church had no idea what all had happened until afterward. With less than an hour preparation, they pulled off Sunday morning. 

I'm not saying that ministers should give up doing Sunday morning.  What I am saying is that we should cultivate in our churches, particularly our sanctuary churches, an understanding that we are giving up some of the work inside our four walls to go serve either our larger movement and/or our social justice calling.   Our movement, our calling, needs us to be ministers in our congregations and beyond

*This post comes out of a conversation that was held with Tom Schade, Nic Cable, Yvonne Shumacher Strejcek and myself this week, so I want to acknowledge that while words here are my own, and this is building on something I've been saying in other places, I would not have put it in this way without this group, particularly Tom, helping to shape my thoughts.  

What I Want in a UUA President [Landrum]

The call for applicants for the next UUA president from the Presidential Search Committee is happening, and it has a lot of people talking about who should throw their name in to the PSC, and what things we're looking for in our next UUA president.

I took a little time recently to crunch some numbers.
Name Birth Year Start Year of Presidency Age at beginning of Presidency Years in Ministry Prior to Presidency Years at UUA Prior to Presidency Total years UU prof. experience
Bill Schulz 1949 1985 36 3 7 10
John Buehrens 1947 1993 46 20 0 20
Bill Sinkford 1946/7 2001 54 0 7 7
Peter Morales 1946 2009 63 8 2 10

The last four presidents were all born at the beginning of the Baby Boomer era.  By the end of Peter Morales' presidency, they will have governed for 32 years.  And they are all men.  We've made great strides by having our first African-American president, and our first Latino president.

I think it's time for a woman or transgender president, and it's time for Generation X to step up to the lead.  Generation X ministers now have 10-20 years of experience, so we're right in the bracket of what we expect from a UUA president.  The oldest Gen-Xers are now turning 50; with ages in our thirties and forties now, we're the right age to govern, if our history is any marker of what we're looking for. 

Of course we should look for the right person with the right experience and a sense of vision and ability to govern and a deep theology and deep social justice commitment.  We should look for a president who can lead.  But there's no reason why this person can't be a woman, or someone gender-queer.  And there's every reason why it might be a Gen-Xer. 

I'm clear that this is not something I'm looking to do personally, and least in this stage of my career.  I have too many holes in my skill set -- soliciting large donations, just to name an obvious one that this small country church pastor lacks.  But I still hope it's a Gen-Xer, and am ready to think outside the male box of what president looks like.  I'm looking to my cohort and seeing who inspires me, challenges me, and who has shown leadership already in my generation.  They're out there; they're ready to lead; and they will be amazing. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Direct Democracy in the UUA? by Rev, Dawn Cooley

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.

In a previous post (both on my blog and on the Lively Tradition), I wrote that we may want to consider moving toward direct democracy (rather than indirect) in regards to who has a vote at General Assembly. In the thought experiment I proposed, some wise folks (tbd) would decide what UUA “Citizenship” means, and then everyone who meets those requirements would get a vote.

There were a variety of different responses to the post. Some people shared they like the delegate system as it is. To those of you in this camp, please refer to the assumptions above.

Other shared that they thought that when covenanted communities are given the right to vote, that this will bring more people to the table. This may be true, but I can't help but wonder about scalability in this situation. If a covenanted community of 10 people gets 1 delegate, then a congregation of 1000 would presumably get 100, at which point it seems as though we might as well just give everyone the franchise.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"This Changes Everything"

says the title of Naomi Klein's book, subtitled Capitalism vs.The Climate.

"Universal Salvation" is part of the everything that it changes.

Framing the goal of life as "salvation" comes from the Apocalyptic era, when people thought that God was about the destroy humanity, because the human world was so screwed up. After all, when things are terrible, and seem to be getting worser and worser, just follow the trendlines to God's all-consuming fire.

To be "saved" was to be set aside at the end of time and spared.

When the apocalyptic age ended, the focus of death and salvation was moved to the afterlife: God's all-consuming fire was the fire of Hell and salvation was Heaven.

When the afterlife ended as a governing religious concept for religious liberals, salvation became an ironic joke. "Why do I need a savior? After all, what do I have to be saved from?" After all, our goals are nothing more than a long life of love and a good death.  And the satisfaction of knowing that we will be remembered well.

But Capitalism versus the Climate has changed everything, including salvation.

We now measure the "fire next time" in annual average temperature increases. The scientists say that an increase of 4 degrees centigrade means that human civilization will be dramatically degraded.

But not everyone will die. Some will survive; human beings are adaptive.

So, who survives the apocalypse? Who are going to be saved?

The global elite will survive. When resources necessary for survival, like water, energy, dry land, food, clean air, get scarce, they will be priced according to the market. Those who hold the wealth that humanity has heretofore created will have access to those resources.

We are on a course in which the global elite will survive while most of the world's poor will die premature deaths amidst squalor and suffering.

It's a process already underway and it is the very opposite of universal salvation.

Universal Salvation has a new meaning in the 21st century. It now means that we try to save everyone. That the power over our future is dramatically restructured and everyone has a place at the table. It means the death of black children is an important as the death of white children. It means that we fight Ebola in Africa, and not just wall if off from North America.

Universal salvation is not just a goal; it is also a spiritual awakening to the reality of interconnection. It asks of us to develop an emotional commitment to match our reality: solidarity with global humanity, an all-consuming love.

Monday, November 17, 2014

What I Want in A UUA President Part 2

I said this elsewhere, but I want to get it here.

I want a UUA President who will say forthrightly that she (presuming a younger, female UUA President) is unable to fix the problems of the local congregation.

Mostly our local congregations need money and members, and the UUA is not going to be able to supply them.  Yes, some need advice and training about  church governance, membership policies, and creating spiritual development programs. The UUA staff does a good job at providing these, and there are lots of other sources for that information.

And I agree that the UUA should provide more administrative support for local congregations through a centralized service bureau for fees, and the UUA President should be committed to making that come about.

That said, I don't the UUA President is the key to success in those efforts.

I also don't think that the UUA President will ever be a source of theological clarity. Theological clarity will arise through the common discussion of UU thinkers, writers, ministers, lay people and even humble bloggers. It will be a long slow messy process. So the many UU's who believe that we will not succeed until we "have a theology" will not have that issue settled in the UUA Presidential election.

The Presidency of the UUA is the supreme #thanklesstask.

What the UUA President can do provide religious leadership: indicate to people what is most important in life and living, what is of ultimate concern.

UU's believe that living ethical, moral, virtuous lives is the most important thing that a person can do. We also believe that ethics, morals and virtues have particular meaning in the world as we now understand it. We use to call it "salvation by character" -- not that we had good character and others did not, but that developing the habit of doing the right thing was our best hope.

We are called to live ethical, moral and virtuous lives in a world that is divided by oppression and privilege, where the material necessities of life are distributed unfairly, where the basic humanity of most of the planet's people is ignored, and where the basic life support systems of the planet are being willfully destroyed for short term profit.

Those that have power today are proceeding on a path that will result in the premature death of much of the planet and its people. The powerful are counting on the fact that they, their families, and their class will survive nonetheless.

Their vision is the very opposite of universal salvation.

What I want from the UUA President is leadership: a skilled effort at persuading by deed and word what is important and what is necessary to do now. I want to see the UU President preach universal salvation in today's context. Our nation needs visionary leaders and progressive religion is one of the few places where that leadership can grow.

Friday, November 14, 2014

First Response to "Normalized a Vision of a Nation at War."

The premise of the Ian White Maher's essay is our internal focus. When I say, "internal focus" what I mean is the assumption that what matters to Unitarian Universalism is how each of us responds to each other: how each of us experience our work together.

The hook of the essay is Ian's response to the 2014 Service of the Living Tradition. The tension in the piece is between the strength of his antiwar commentary and the honor and dignity of the UU ministers who serve as military chaplains.

As I read it, I held my breath, fearing that somewhere Ian would go over some undefined line and devalue our colleagues' ministries and work. And you can see his earnest effort to avoid that, as well.

Is that what is most important now?

Part of why we are happy to honor our military chaplains is because having them shows that we are recovering from an earlier period of class-based moralistic judgment. It seemed that for many years, we thought, "People like us don't do things like that." We are pleased that we seem to be becoming people who do.

And then along comes Rev. Maher. The question raise make us ask, "Are we managing this transition well?" and  "Is he just being resistant to change?"

That's how all of this looks inside the "internal" frame.

But look instead at the whole subject with an external lens.

Yes, we have military chaplains, who do their work.

What's going on though, out there, independent of the Unitarian Universalist Association, is that the US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan appears to have stalled, because of the perceived threat of ISIL/ISIS/Islamic State. The US is sending more troops back in, rather than pulling them out.

What do we think? What do you think?

People, both within and beyond our congregations, look to us (of course, among others) for a signal as to what is important about question like this. It is not clear-cut.

We bring our history and tradition to it. We have been mostly anti-war since Vietnam; we have lineage of more conscious pacifists as well, as well as pro-military folks. Now, there is a more highly developed anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism worldview that some bring to bear. It is the latter that Ian represents.

So what guidance can we offer? Out of our mixed and contested history, what wisdom do we have to share? How is our tradition alive now?

An external focus makes us think about what message we are sending to the people out there.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Normalized a vision of a nation at War" [Ian White Maher]

The Rev. Ian White Maher, who serves the new congregation "Original Blessing" in Brooklyn, New York, sent me the following essay. It's important, but irritating in a good way. Let's say challenging and prophetic instead. 

So read it carefully yourself. I am still trying to sort out my response. 

Ian White Maher
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

I walked out of this year’s Service of the Living Tradition in order to play with the cute two-year-old sitting next to me. Like my young friend, I found myself fidgeting in my seat, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the ceremony, and finally I decided that playing with this bundle of joy was more in line with where my life is these days. Although I really love playing with children and will take just about any opportunity to do so, this was not a decision I took lightly. I believe in the ministry and, more specifically, I believe in our ministry as Unitarian Universalists. Serving as a minister in our tradition is one of the great honors of my life, and I am proud to stand in what I consider a beautiful and noble lineage. 

Each year, as we welcome new colleagues into the fellowship and say goodbye to those who came before us, the sermon outlines a vision for Unitarian Universalist ministry. No single sermon can hope to capture the depth and meaning of the ministry of our movement and every preacher will always encounter criticism for what they say (or don’t say) during the service. We accept this limitation when we get up to proclaim a vision. However, this year’s sermon, mostly through omission, normalized a vision of a nation at war that is inconsistent with who we say we are as a religious movement.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Before the Storm

The announcement of the Grand Jury in the case of Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, is due any day now.

Everyone is getting prepared. The Ferguson community and activists are conducting direct action trainings and recruiting medics, and clergy, and legal workers.

Governor Nixon had a press conference promising state violence and repression if private property is threatened.

The police are training and gathering the weapons of war around them.

Around the country, solidarity networks are being strengthened and actions are being planned.

How should I prepare my heart?

My fear is that I will be driven by my fears, and not by my resolve for justice. 

Given my background, if I give myself over to fear, I will drift into being more afraid of the anger of the protestors than the violence of the police. I will end up wanting things to get back to "normal."  I will be motivated by a desire for peace and reconciliation and what I call "love."

I am preparing for the storm by reminding myself that:

The anger of people of color over police killings is a good thing, not an unfortunate event. The more forcefully, persistently, and insistently it is expressed the better it is.

This is a time when there will be clear choice: Conservatives will demonize the protestors as thugs and rioters. Our mission will be to "re-humanize" them. They are ordinary people angrily fighting back against injustice with great bravery and resolve.

I have to remember that the only things that will stop police killings are anger, protest, and resistance. The only things that will motivate politicians to implement those first steps toward controlling police violence (things like a national database of police killings, Justice department reviews of every such case, vigorous prosecution of killer police) are, again, anger, protest, and resistance.

I have to remember that I don't have a satellite observation platform, where I can stand and look down on what is happening from a safe distance, detached and objective. My distance from the communities where the fear of being killed by police is ever-present does not make me more objective about what is coming, but it actually makes my perceptions less trustworthy.

I don't know what is coming to St. Louis. I pray that no one is harmed. But mostly I pray that this can be a turning point for our country, a time when forceful anger, persistent protest, and insistent resistance compels real change and a new system of justice.

We who believe in freedom must carry the flame.