Friday, June 15, 2007

It really happened

So, I am presiding over a religious service at GA this year. And my lovely and faithful co-officient is a well-known blogger famous for her savvy advice about fashion, beauty and the importance of making the small sacrifice of looking like a religious leader.
So I mention that we will be robing for this event, inasmuch as it is a religious service. She says, in that little voice "Do I have to?" Sigh. Another Sigh. O, I guess so."
I swear it really happened. If I hadn't summoned a semi-stern look, but told her that a stole, a mu-mu and some crocs would have been OK, I think that she would have gone for it.
The meaning that I draw from this tale is: we all struggle with temptation, even those who lead.

Mercy Mercy Mercy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Don't try this at home

Michael O'Hare, at a site I like to read "The Reality Based Community" hits the perfect level of sarcasm in this post about today's political/media climate.

Once upon a time, people made their own music in their living rooms with friends, or went out in the park to throw a ball around. The music they made required a lot of practicing and was still never really good; no-one I knew could play any ball game as well as even a middle-rank NFL player. Now, thank God, we have a few certified specialist experts making wonderful music for our iPods, and playing superb ball for us all to watch, and we can do it alone, which saves no end of taking care of other people's feelings. How could anyone want the art, or sports, of a great nation to be mostly made ineptly, by anyone and everyone, taking a lot of time that could be spent on the job? Surely it's better for all of us to leave this kind of thing to the few stars who are better than we could ever be. Kids used to have to make their own stuff with blocks, and pretend a rag doll was crying, laughing, talking, etc., but now every kid can have brightly colored, really complicated electronic toys that each do one amazing thing as soon as the batteries are put in, toys that are made by real professional designers and engineers instead of clueless six-year-olds. How are kids supposed to know when a doll should cry? With today's toys, they don't have to.

In politics, opinions and judgments made by amateurs, looking with untrained eyes at actual phenomena, are as bad as the home-made piano-playing we used to suffer. Why would we do this when we have famous and (usually) attractive people to do that for us? A few paid professional conservatives and liberals can give their tribes really good opinions, cunningly packaged in quick witty hits with super production values. It's just truculent and wilful to want to read a book, or watch a debate, when real pros have already done that so much better than we can, and are happy to give us really excellent opinions and judgments. Why would anyone want to hear views about the surge, or Social Security, from some friend who's not at all famous, badly lit, unrehearsed, with home-made makeup - or none! - and with some random office or restaurant background and dirty dishes on the table?

Friday, June 08, 2007

Phil is perceptive again but what is next?

Philocrites puts a name to the long standing "parties" in UU politics: the "denominationalists" and the "congregationalists." These have been evident to me ever since I came back into Unitarian Universalism in 1989, after a 20 year absence. But this understanding of the competing groups is an elaboration and outgrowth of older contradictions.
I rejoice in the apparent victory of the "congregationalists". I think that it is super that the Board, the officers and the staff now remember that the role of the association is to serve the congregations. I have been pleased to see that the Commission on Social Witness process gives much, much, much more weight to the participation of congregations in developing our public stances and public ministry.
What comes next? Two things: one is looking beneath the rhetoric to where the power actually goes as processes change. The second is understanding how "congregationalism" means empowering the lay leaders of congregations in the national sphere vs. developing the leadership in the national sphere of the ministers of successful congregations. The rhetoric of "congregationalism" could and does mean both and either.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

One meaning of the Independent Affiliate mystery

Henceforth, all things, great and small, done in the world of official Unitarian Universalism will be done in the name of the "congregations." Just as every time the Secretary of State goes to a Mideastern capital, they do so "to advance the peace process", so will all decisions be done to "serve the congregations."

The disaffiliation of Independent Affiliates is between the UU Board and the Independent Affiliates. The concrete resource in contention comes down to the presumptive program slot that an IA has at the General Assembly. Just below the surface is the ability of an organization to claim some sort of official relationship with the UUA simply by mailing in a few words and a hundred bucks. The Board realized that was an invitation to potential embarrassment, a wise perception.

But I cannot see for the life of me how the congregation I serve has a dog in that fight.

Congregational Power has been on the banner of most of the people who have been critical of the path of the Unitarian Universalist Association since shortly after merger. This loyal opposition was centered primarily in Christian/Theist churches and many were aggrieved by the fact that they were humiliated by the fact that the founding documents of the UUA gave only the most grudging and stingy affirmation to our Christian background and the worship traditions of some of our churches.

After it became clear that the defense of Christian/Theist theology on the national level was a dead issue through the 60's - 80's, many of this traditionalist caucus took up the theme of "congregational polity" as defining their movement. It had many meanings.

It defended the local church and its worship tradition, which is where Christian/Theist theology endured.

It meant the local church did not have to go along with everything that came out of 25 Beacon Street, whether it was demands for funding, chalice logos, whatever new hymnal was coming out.

It was a powerful rhetorical brake on what was seen as the politicization of the Unitarian Universalist movement at the national level, asking whether the positions of the Washington office were actually representative of the congregations' concerns.

Over time, it became the overarching theme of a traditionalist caucus within Unitarian Universalism. It had a powerful history, was understandable by one and all.

Within the last 5 years or so, it has won the day. I think that such a circumstance came about because of the successive Free Church Conferences, the publication of Rev. Alice Blair Wesley's enormously persuasive Minns Lecture on congregational polity, the presidency of William Sinkford and the elevation of Gini Courter to Moderator. (I think that the pre-Sinkford anti-racism effort showed the limits of trying to change Unitarian Universalism by the national staff organizing to "train" the congregations; these events were part of the change, too.)

The result is that a rhetorical unity has been reached that "serving the congregations " is the highest level value of National Unitarian Universalism. And this is good, but it raises a lot of questions.

Alice Blair Wesley's argument was that first the AUA, and then, the UUA was and is organized, in fact, as a non-profit corporation, governed by its board. It is not really an association of congregations and the General Assembly is not truly a representative body of the congregations doing the work of the association. It appears to be, but it is not.

So, what happens when the Board and the National officers and staff adopt the language of working always on behalf of the congregations? The temptation will be that it will become an all-purpose slogan, and a language that justifies anything and everything.

I think that IA controversy indicates that we have reached just such a point. The language about engaging congregations seems to be so vague and elastic that it cannot point to a real meaning in anyone's head.

Evaluating IA's on the value that they provide congregations would be quite easy. Just say that in order to get affiliate status, an organization would have to turn in letters of recommendation from 5-10 congregational boards, with a check for hundred dollars from each board. You would find out real soon which have relationships with congregations and which ones don't. Tinker with the details all you want, but the Board went another way. A statement is being asked for, and the Board will decide on whether Party A is serving the needs of Party B. Who has the power in that situation? Party B? I don't think so.

Language that defines discourse has power. It has the power to clarify and it has the power to obscure. When it is obscuring the reality of what is going on, then people have to ask deeper questions, and the first one to start with is "what is at stake here?" and "where is the power going?"

Serving Congregations?

Well now, it seems that just everyone buys this new mantra that the purpose of the UUA is to 'serve congregations' and therefore, it makes perfect sense for the Independent Affiliates to show that they 'model interdependence by engaging congregations' or some such pile-up of verbified nouns and nounified verbs that pass as UU-speak. Everyone is buying the basic stated premise of the "Massacre of the Independents."

OK, I am being a bit strident, but I am feeling so ironic that it is causing narcissism in that all compasses point to me.

My point: organizations are complex environments and an interdependent web in which each part and parcel may have many roles and results. Precipitious change in the environment can throw the whole balance of nature out of whack.

So what role do the IA's play in the overall environment of the UUA?

1. They are intellectual centers. Congregations are not intellectual centers in which new ideas are developed, and old traditions reclaimed and revived. Congregations are united around their worship and tend to gravitate toward their own center. A GA in which there were unlimited congregationally developed workshops would have 500 sessions on how to grow and 500 sessions on how to avoid unnecessary theological controversy. IA's are portals in which new ideas, new perspectives and new associations come into our association. The former would document hopes and failures; the latter successes.

2. IA's play a role in developing the next generation of ministerial leaders. It's an entry point for seminarians who follow their interest into an IA, and then meet ministers already in fellowship. IA's give new ministers an opportunity to be involved in developing programs and presentations at GA.

3. IA's are content providers to the association -- turning out papers, position papers, pamphlets, programs, curriculums etc. Some of them are useful to congregations and some are not.

Who was it who first drew the distinction between foxes and hedgehogs. Maybe Isaiah Berlin? Anyway: hedgehogs know one thing -- the hedge that they live under -- and they know it very well. Foxes, on the other hand, know lots of things because they travel far and wide.

The whole "everything for the congregations" raises the banner of "All Power to the Hedgehogs." But we need foxes too. Bloggers, Independent Affiliates, the seminaries are all foxy people and organizations that bring in the new, cross-pollinate, spread ideas around, and keep things fresh.

I am afraid that the board is damaging our ecosystem by this large scale purge of our IA's.

BTW, I think that the focus on "congregations" and "congregational polity" -- which I have always been a fan of -- mis-states the central problem in Unitarian Universalism -- so almost anything can be done in its name. But that is for another post.