Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Core Issue of Ministerial Nervousness

The Commission on Appraisal laid it out in their report "Who Is In Charge Here."

UU ministers have very little positional authority: authority that comes to them simply because they are the minister. What authority a particular UU minister will have will come to them through the relationships they have built with congregants over time, usually through pastoral care.  It takes years, in many cases, for ministers to accrue much authority.

Therefore, for a long, long time, UU parish ministers are working to develop authority in the
congregation. That sounds noble, but mostly it means pleasing as many people as possible, and not irritating those with power. It's tap-dancing as fast as you can. And it takes its toll, even if it never shows.

As ministries get shorter, more of our ministers never develop enough authority in the congregation to really go out on a limb. Most never get the authority to turn their attention from the congregation to be an inspirational voice in the community, as A Powell Davies was in Washington DC.

It's a cycle which helps no one. To the extent that the urge to people please is visible in the minister, it undermines their authority. Yet people pleasing seems to be the only way to gain authority.

Our ministers could be a thousand or more clear voices ringing out for a new spirit in these nations of North America. They could be inspiring and empowering tens of thousands of more voices, and moving hundreds of thousands of hearts toward reverence, openness, solidarity, self-possession. We need to stop stifling ourselves, and that starts by encouraging our ministers to be brave and confident.

What Makes Ministers Nervous

I recently posted that the one thing that UU Congregations could do to grow the faith was to stop
making their ministers so nervous.  Nervous preachers preach mush-mouthedly, and religious communities grow when they have a powerful and engaging message that mattered. I've gotten some pushback that tells me that some think that I am against discussion, debate and reasonable differences of opinion. Hardly.

I don't know of any UU minister who is not open to congregants expressing disagreement with them. We know that we preach to opinionated people who know how to speak up for what they believe. Most of us enjoy a little give and take on the content of our sermons, although coffee hour is not often the time for in-depth dialogue: too many other obligations and our own immediate post-performance tenderness.

And I don't know of any UU minister who is not anxious to hear of life experiences that were not included in our sermons. One Mother's Day, I met a man whose mother died at his birth and his father never re-married and he could say that he never had a female parent-figure at all in his life. He didn't really get Mothers' Day, at all. I was informed by his experience, and happy that he shared it with me.

What makes us nervous are kinds of criticisms:

One starts with "I'm offended that .... " To be offended is to be mocked, or scapegoated, or personally diminished, or disrespected. It's not that we don't think that we ever offend, and we want to hear about it when we do. Giving offense is a serious mistake on our part. Many of us define the work of the worship service as creating, with words, an inclusive community. We work hard at it. Saying that you were offended by the service is like telling a surgeon the patient died on the table. It's a terrible failure, the nuclear weapon of criticism.

Ministers get nervous when the language of offense is used too lightly.

After all, disagreeing with the content of a sermon is not the same as being offended by it. Even having the position that you hold on a public issue satirized is not being offended. Being disturbed by prophetic preaching and made uncomfortable is not grounds for offense. Hearing religious language, music and rituals that you don't subscribe to is not the same as being offended. A sermon that doesn't include your life experience does not offend, per se.

Ministers are sensitive to the possibility that we might offend people. Because of that, the accusation packs an emotional wallop; it gets our attention. To escalate into the language of offense makes a minister nervous.

The other trigger for ministerial nervousness is the response that starts with "I don't think you have the right to ...."

I know that we all have authority issues. Authority in UU congregations is fluid and conditional. It is constantly being negotiated, which tends to make every week seem like candidate week, but without the optimism. And that there are times when authority is not clear. But most of the time, what is really meant by "I don't think that you have the right to ... " is "I don't agree with what you did or said..." Ministers who have to defend their authority over and over again feel endangered.

I am defining "Making a Minister Nervous" as using language that escalates differences of opinion into areas that seem threaten a minister's call to that congregation. It's conveying the message the ministry is on some sort of double-secret probation. Imagine your bosses reminding you every time you failed to meet their expectations that you have a job only at their discretion.


Monday, April 21, 2014

The Only weapon against Big Money in Politics

The Supreme Court has been enabling rich people to spend as much money as can be spent in the political system. It now appears that there are really no limits. And the activities of the Koch brothers shows what the wealthy can do, if they choose to be aggressive about promoting their interests and ideology in the political process.

Is there any way to stop this? Is there any way to fight back? After all, if the wealthy can buy the legislature, how can the legislature regulate the wealthy?

But look more closely: what does big money in politics really do? It goes to campaigns who spend it on television commercials, that seem to have a diminishing impact on how people vote. A lot of modern campaigning is a money flow: big donors give money to candidates who give that money over to the campaign consultants who create and place television commercials with media companies. For a media mogul like Jack Welch, owner of GE and NBC, it is a perfect circle.

Is there any series of television commercials imaginable that could have persuaded you to vote differently in the 2012 elections?

For almost all readers of this and other blogs, the answer is "no". Your vote was not in play, by any sort of TV commercials.

Why? It's not just because you are educated and informed and interested, although that is part of it. What seems crucial is that you have made decisions, long before the election itself, that guide your participation in the political sphere. You decided who you were, and what people like you need, and who your allies were in the public sphere. You had come to a conclusion about your own interests and loyalties. And you had become convinced that political participation mattered to your interests and loyalties.

There is nothing more powerful than a made-up mind. 


There is an emerging multi-racial progressive electoral majority in this country. It's coming together because people on the ground are coming to understand their interests and their allies. Given the wholesale embrace of white nationalism on the part of the GOP, it is not surprising that the core of the progressive electoral majority are African-Americans, Latinos/as, Asian-Americans, and others. They know their interests and their allies. They are made-up minds.

In addition, we have reached a tipping point at which enough white voters have identified their interests and allies sufficiently to know that they need to vote with the emerging multi-racial bloc to meet their needs. They, too, are made-up minds.

The counter-weight to the political power of big money are the millions of made-up minds who know that the interests of the super-wealthy are not the same as theirs.

Liberal reformers are pessimistic because they underestimate the potential for the 99% to make up their minds sufficiently to neutralize the power of big money in politics. They tend to think that the many are too gullible, too uninterested, too easily manipulated to figure out the brutal facts of life.

We need to worry less about limiting the power of big money, and more about the making up of minds.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Breaking Out of a Closed Circle

Church planting in Unitarian Universalism has been slow, anemic and pitiful.  In a cultural environment where increasing numbers of people seem to be not interested in the churches that are, planting new churches has to happen.

Congregational systems like the UUA are hamstrung because it is hard to start a church without funds and hard to raise funds without something solid on the ground.

Crowdfunding is one solution. People from throughout Unitarian Universalism give money to help support a church that they don't ever plan on joining.

Can it work? Can it work without lots of institutional fundraising, but with contributions from ordinary people like you and me.

Rev. Ian White Maher and the Original Blessing Congregation in Brooklyn, New York are giving it a try through a crowdfunding platform.  Let's make this work. Take a look at the materials, and I urge you to make a contribution.



Saturday, April 05, 2014

A life lived according to love

" In everyone there sleeps   
A sense of life lived according to love. "

-- Philip Larkin

"Liberal spirituality" is the awakening of that sense of life lived according to love. "Liberal spirituality" wants to love as a way of life.

It feels like a yearning for a life of compassion, openness, reverence and awe, humility, generosity and appreciation. It's an instinct toward keeping an open heart. 

But growing into a loving life from a yearning to love is a process. It is a learning process, learning about others, learning about the way the world really works, learning about oneself. It is a process of community, practicing and reflecting with others, being witnesses to each others attempts to live a life according to love, supporting each other when it's going well and when it's not. It's thinking about and sharing what makes you afraid to love. It's sharing inspiration.

Unitarian Universalism is religious tradition for whom this question of how to live a life according to love has come front and center. 

Through our long history, we have come to some essential truths that guide us: 

One is that humanity, indeed all of life, is connected, interdependent, related. None of us stand alone.

The second truth is that the way that we are all interconnected and interdependent is not fair and just. Humanity is joined together in interlocking systems of oppression and privilege. 

Our third truth is that every single person is possessed of an inherent worthiness, and deserves to live with dignity. This truth is not a platitude because it contradicts the way that the world is. 

And so we have a holy discontent. 

So for us, the choice is life so often comes down to love or indifference. (Elie Wiesel defined indifference as the opposite of love.) 

Indifference puts the concerns of others out of our thoughts, and lets the world continue on its unfair way. 

To choose love is to honor that sense that sleeps within us all, and to honor the source of that love, however a person might define it. Currently, we call it to take a stand on the side of love. 

How to turn a person's yearning of the heart into a habit of their heart? And then, to make a holy discontent effective in the world, and yet bearable for a lifetime, a source of joy and strength. And further, to make institutions that can contain both our comforts and discontents. These are the tasks of the institutions of liberal religion. 


Monday, March 31, 2014

The One Thing Every Congregation Could Do to Grow

Stop making your preacher nervous.
Not Me! It would have been JLA in my hands!

Your worship service is the most important effort you make right now to persuade people to a life of the liberal spirit.  The sermon is probably where the content of the service is, at the present. Your preacher articulates liberal religion every week.

(Sidebar: I know that this whole scenario is problematic in a lot of ways. If you want to do church a different way, I am not stopping you. But if you are like most of the readers of this blog -- doing congregational worship as UU's have in contemporary times, this is for you.)

Folks want a clear, understandable and memorable message when they come to church, especially if they are not regular church-goers. They want it to have some bite, and some challenge, and to be clear. They want it to be emotional congruent, that the message and the affect of the minister seem to match.

Is your congregation's practice to encourage brave and forthright preaching? Or is your congregation's practice to make the preacher nervous?

When you rush to let the preacher know every place you disagree with the sermon, or with the examples, you're creating anxiety.

When you send the preacher an email, correcting grammar, or the odd fact, or the misplaced attribution, your making the preacher nervous.

When you let the preacher know that the experience that the sermon reflected on was not your experience, and so you feel offended or left out, you're making it hard for the minister to be clear. (There are a small group of people who really didn't like their mothers; they can reduce the Mother's Day sermon for a nervous preacher to mush-mouthed mumbling.)

The nervous preacher projects an eagerness to please that comes across as insincerity and a lack of integrity.

Unitarian Universalism needs wise, brave, forthright, prophetic, perceptive, and provocative preaching on a wide variety of subjects. Above all, preaching needs to interesting and memorable.

Does your congregation encourage great and brave preaching, or does it make the minister nervous?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Another Baby/Another Bathwater

A long time friend of a Unitarian Church, who hasn't joined in the three years, explains why over at Patheos blog. A key paragraph, which contains a quote:

What holds me back, I think, is this: I don’t believe in it.  Perhaps it is a remnant of my being raised in the Mormon church, but it does not seem like enough to want to be a part of the local religious community; I feel like I need to believe in the mission of the UU.  And I just don’t.  I can’t help but look at the UU as a failure — not my local congregation, but the UU as a whole.  It’s a great place to go on Sunday.  It’s a refuge from religious intolerance and a necessary waystation for many on their way out of their religion of origin.  It does good work in promoting social justice.  But as John Trevor wrote in 1910:
“My respect for individual Unitarians is unbounded. And yet their religious position as a denomination is one which I have always deeply regretted. For want of something, I know not what, all their freedom, all their knowledge, all their generosity, all their high personal character— everything which seems to mark them out as the one denomination to lead the van of religious and social emancipation—never comes to the point of making them a great reforming power. People, with qualities in many respects far inferior to theirs, are moving the world to-day; while they, perplexed and pained as they are, and anxious to find the road by which they may march forward, are scarcely able to maintain the status of their own churches.”
"For the want of something, I know not what" is the "great white whale" of contemporary Unitarian Universalism.

Note the contradiction that Trevor bases this on: unbounded respect for individual Unitarians vs. Unitarianism's inability to becoming a great reforming power. And Trevor's prescription somehow matches up to Halstead's dilemma: he likes his local church but doesn't 'believe' in Unitarian Univerasalism as a whole.

Halstead says that the wanted "something" is missing because Unitarian Universalism has stripped away the irrational from religion, hence his title: the baby is the bathwater. The magic, mythic elements of other religions which provide the emotional ooomph that binds the believer to the faith is not there.

One of the commentators says that the search for the great white whale takes her up to a solid brick wall.

And if we going looking for a story from anyplace other than our own history, of course, we will be thwarted. We have to understand our own story, in all its historical and personal significance, testify to that story and let go of the outcome.  We may become a great reforming power, or we may not. It might be a liberation story for the whole world; more likely, it is our testimony to what has been revealed to us by time and history and that creating, sustaining and transforming power at work in the world.

We have to re-claim the story of the Enlightenment. After all, both Unitarianism and Universalism were forms of Protestantism trying to accommodate the truths of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a great moment of human liberation. (This is where I bow to the Calvinists who will point out the many sins of the European establishment that was the site of the Enlightenment. I will also point out that causation and correlation are not the same thing, and that just because two things happened in the same time doesn't mean that one caused the other.)

But the Enlightenment and the emergence of secularity were not radical breaks from the hegemony of Christianity in Europe. Secularity is the fulfillment of radical strands of Jewish and Christian theology.

You don't believe me?  Go search the UU archives for the biblical verses that UU ministers cite. They come down a distinct body of texts that come the length of the book and have an internal theological coherence.  They go from Jacob's assertion that "surely God is in this place" when he standing by a stream in nature, to the prophets disdain for sacrifice, to Jesus' claim that the sabbath was made for us, and not us for the sabbath. Jesus says that someday we will worship "in spirit and truth".

There is a strand of the Christian tradition that says that religion is not about beliefs, temples, sacrifices, and rules. It is about building a world with a moral foundation, ethics, morals, and a sense of awe and reverence in daily life. I call it the Kenotic tradition in Christianity and we are its heirs and practitioners. Theodore Parker said it quite well:


“Be ours a religion which, like sunshine goes everywhere; its temple, all space; its shrine, the good heart; its creed, all truth; its ritual, works of love; its profession of faith, divine living.”  
One of the liberating aspects of kenotic Christianity is that creates a basis for Christians to meet the non-believer in a positive relationship, and we have been trying to do that work for over a century, even to the extent of creating interfaith and non-faith worshipping communities.

And when they work, they work to nurture people in faith, hope and passion and spirit.

That is the story that we have to tell. We are asking people to understand themselves as part of a great millennium long struggle for the liberation of the human soul. We have some truths to share.

The turn that we have to make, RIGHT NOW, is to turn away from talking about the kind of religion we want to be, the kind of religion we are failing to be, what's wrong with us, and our dreams for a better future. We have to stop worrying about why people write articles about why they haven't joined a UU church. I am reminded of Emerson's comment in the Divinity School Address: "The village blasphemer sees fear in the face, form, and gait of the minister."  People everywhere perceive our desperation to please, justly, as a lack of integrity.

We have to tell people what we know; our testimony of reality: that the path to health and healing and planetary salvation is each of us living with reverence and awe, honesty, humility, gratitude and generosity, openness, solidarity and self-possession, in communities of justice and faith.

We will not convince the world until we convince ourselves.



Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Re-Organization, Evangelism and #UUPublicTheology

I have argued that Unitarian Universalism needs a major, once in lifetime, reorganization, a dramatic restructuring of this creaky system that was put in place at the time of merger in 1961.  After 55 years of unresolved internal conflicts between 'congregationalists' and 'institutionalists' (name them however you want), we need to create a structure that will allow us to respond creatively to the rapidly shifting demographic and cultural realities of nation we live in.

 We need to reorganize to create the capacity for evangelism and public theology in UnitarianUniversalism. We exist mostly as congregations, which are culture-bound, inward looking and largely absent from all the spaces where cultural ferment, exploration and networking are going on.



The present division of labor in Unitarian Universalism is that the local congregation does everything of substance and content. The denomination is authorized to speak only on those political and social issues that have been approved by the General Assembly. They may also develop services to serve existing congregations. Not surprisingly, the denominational structure is criticized persistently for being too political and too inward-looking.

The difference between public theology and public witness is that witness speaks, in theory, on behalf of the people to the powers that be. We want Congress to pass Immigration Reform. We want states to end the denial of marriage rights to LGBTQ people. Witness demands, lobbies and protests.  Public theology is a conversation with the people about essential reality and the moral/ethical choices that each of us have to make. Public Theology asks whose lives are we indifferent to. Public theology asks how we should live when the civilization we are part of is unsustainable and heading toward the death and suffering of billions of the world's people. Public theology challenges the tendency to go it alone and avoid community in daily life. Liberal public theology challenges the dominant discourse of demonization, and is a voice for humanizing our culture. (Discussion question: how is "standing on the side of love" a demand on government and how is it an ethical demand on ourselves, and on others?)

Again, we are not doing public theology well now, and we are not doing it relationally. We are not finding the people who share our views and developing relationships with them. This is the work of evangelism. We need to reorganize to create the capacity to have that conversation out in the public networks where the people are.