Thursday, December 24, 2009

Call to Worship for Christmas Eve

Time to turn off the cell phones.  Time to put the pagers on stun.  It’s even time to put a piece of duct tape on the face of your watch.  It’s Christmas Eve and time is standing still for a moment. 
It is the time, maybe the only time of the year, when here and now drift away and we fall under the spell of story-time. 
Tonight we are both here, AND on a lonely hillside outside of Bethlehem.
Tonight, we are with each other, friends and family, returning students and relatives from far away, AND we are also with the Magi, on a journey and such a hard time for journey. 
Tonight we listen to our choir, AND we listen to choirs of angels, a whole heavenly host of angels we have heard on high. 
Tonight, like every night, is new, a never happening before moment in onrushing time, AND yet, we have been here before, done this before, told this story before, and heard it before. 
There is way that the story we tell tonight is always happening: birth and death and taxes, weary travelers with no place to stay, babies born, sudden signs of grace and glory and surprising generosity. 
The past and the present are closely woven tonight, and we sense the presence of our own eternal selves, our souls perhaps, with our everyday selves tonight. 
And when, at this evening’s end, we pass a visible sign of grace, the light of a candle, from hand to hand, we will see, the radiance and beauty of one another, as seen through the eyes of a timeless love.  
Come, it is Christmas Eve, let us worship together. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Keeping the X in Xmas

Are we to be Wise Ones, with our eyes fixed on the star in the inky night sky, always looking up, each riding on our own camel, swaying under the starry sky?

Or are we to be shepherds, a band of what were surely brothers, who come and go out of the Nativity story as a group? 

The story reminds us of the two dimensions of religion – the vertical dimension that links each one of us with what is above us – what some call our Higher Power, God.  And the other dimension is the horizontal – the relationships between people, the community. 

The horizontal and the vertical.

Christmas is both vertical and horizontal.  On the one hand, we are to look up and see Jesus coming down from heaven and entering into the life of the Earth.  We are to look up and see the angels gathering to sing, and we are to look up and see the star as it leads to the stable the Christ child lays.

On the other hand, Christmas is horizontal – the gathering of friends and family – over the river and through the woods we go – horizontally out from our homes and hearths to meet one another.  It is to see one another again, to break bread together and gather around and sing some songs together.

Christmas has been an uneasy combination of the Christian high holy day of Christ’s birth (the vertical dimension) and the old pagan village Winter festival (the horizontal dimension.) 

We call the vertical “the religious” and the horizontal “the secular” and when the religious folks say that we need to remember the true meaning of the season and keep Christ in Christmas, it is because they feel that the vertical dimension of the holiday is getting shorted.

When it comes to Hanukah, those whose tastes run toward the vertical, the religious stories, weave a tale about light in the darkness and faith in God, trying to reconcile these two very different holidays together.   Such talk always seems a little forced to me.  I do not think that the vertical ladder of meaning between Christmas and Hanukah reach from the same place and go to the same place.  These holidays come together in the horizontal.  If this is a season of fun and festival, let us leave no one out, and whether it is latkes or Christmas cookies, let’s all have another, and just be glad that we are friends. 

Let us keep the X in Xmas: the extra cookies, the exceptional frivolity, the extraordinary festiveness, the exquisite music, the exotic foods from faraway places, the extravagant gifts, the excitement, the expectations, the exorbitant and the exuberant, the expensive, the expansive and all the other forms of excess that makes this season ours.  Let  us keep the X in Xmas.  Let us keep the horizontal dimension.

There is a religious point to all of this.  The story of the Nativity is this: according to the Christian story, when God chose to make his presence known on the earth, he did not come as stone tablet, nor as a scroll in the temple, nor as a dictated manuscript.  God came to earth not as an idea, or a principle, or a truth to be chiseled in stone.  God came not as an article of faith, or a point of doctrine to be disputed and analyzed.  God came as a person, as a baby, as a child, as a man.  And what do you do with a person? You relate to him or her?  You talk with, and walk with, and touch and console, and hold hands with, and laugh with, and cry with, and be with.  With. With. With. With. With.
On Christmas we celebrate the moment that God got horizontal with us.  

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Blue Dog with a Blue Nose

OK, I am able to comprehend that Kent Conrad, the only Unitarian Universalist serving in the US Senate, differs from me on the question of the public option in the health care reform debate.  It is not a matter of faith, after all.

But why on earth does a Unitarian Universalist vote $50 million for abstinence-only sexuality education programs in an amendment proposed by Orrin Hatch (R-Mormon)?  This really creeps me out.  I thought that it was a matter of faith to us that we told our kids the truth and gave them real information.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

UUMA Politics -- 1000+ members & 3 hour annual business meeting

The UUMA is an organization of over 1000 people, with an volunteer board.  The organization meets for business once in a year in a business meeting that lasts a couple of hours in a hotel ballroom.  The members of the organization pay it fitful attention for 362 days a year.

The Exec is going to make proposals for how to go forward on a range of issues. They are going to publish them, and few people are going to read them.  But organizational democracy depends on people reading them and preparing their response.

The Exec this year did so for a dues increase and hiring an Executive Director.

When the organization gets to the business meeting, the proposals are pretty well set; there will be no opportunity for extended discussion and devising new proposals on the fly.  Really, there are only two alternatives available if you don't like the proposal presented by the Exec.  (1) Urge a "No" vote -- and have your arguments ready (2) Be ready with some amendments or substitutes that you try to pass.  Those could include delaying implementation, restricting implementation, and calling for further clarification on certain parts until more study has been done.

If you just think that the proposal is half-baked, and needs more consideration, voting "no" sends it back for more work.

Preparing a strategy for influencing the decision of a 1000 member organization operating in a 2-3 hour business meeting is not "bringing boxing gloves"; it is appropriate self-differentiation and self-assertion.

The Exec's proposal for a dues increase and an Executive Director passed.  Some people registered their disagreement but did not have strategy and tactics ready to be effective in the situation of decision-making process of the organization.  (It seemed to me that those opposed had the tactics appropriate to a small group decision making process -- they announced that they had concerns about the proposal and were opposed to it and they assumed that the process would be extended long enough for the whole group to explore their concerns and devise a compromise.)  Predictably, they lost, for which they blame the UUMA Exec for a bad process.

Since then, the Exec has hired an ED.  There are questions about the process of that choice, but was it contrary to the instructions given by the organization through the proposal that passed?  I don't know; that's a good question.  Someone could look into that.  But the next point of decision will be the next business meeting.   Members of the organization can give further instruction to the Exec on how to move from an Acting ED to a permanent ED at the next business meeting, if they come prepared to do so.  In the meantime, figuring out how to tell whether the ED is doing a good job or not is much more important. 

The UUMA is going to grow into a larger and larger organization.  It will have subgroups with different interests, and maybe even competing interests and concerns.  Counting on an Exec is move us along by somehow reconciling and balancing all these interests and concerns through their goodwill and pastoral skills is childish and dependent.  

And after having our congregants project that kind of parental authority onto us all year ("please take care of me, I am not happy with the way the church is going and feel sad and lonely.") it is perhaps tempting to do the same to the UUMA Exec.  

But democracy in an organization requires work and preparation, not only from the leadership but from the rank and file.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

End of Life Issues

End of Life issues have become politically hot again. Last time, it was Terri Schiavo's sad case. This time it is Section 1322 of one of the Health Care Reform bills that permits doctors to bill Medicare once every five years for a consultation with a patient on end of life issues, including living wills, durable powers of attorney, dnr orders etc. Much of this discussion is outright lies and opportunism, willfully leaping from that relatively prosaic issue to the issues of assisted suicide and euthanasia.

But there is a religious dimension to these discussions. Some Pentecostalists believe that to discuss end of life issues at all is to deny the power of God to work a miracle and heal even the most mortally ill person. And, according to their faith, God does not arbitrarily heal some and allow most to die, but is guided by the purity of the faith of those praying for the miracle. To entertain the slightest doubt that God can and will save your loved one from death demonstrates the lack of faith that condemns your loved one to death. For the believer who prays by the bed of a loved one approaching death, you still can hope for a full complete and miraculous recovery IF you are successful in pushing out of your mind any thought that death is inevitable, or is a welcome relief to suffering, or even the working of God's will.

Within such a faith construct, to have a matter-of-fact discussion of end of life issues is to renounce a vital element of one's faith.

I was confronted with faith while working as a hospital chaplain in Dallas, Texas, among both African American and Anglo Protestants. Less so among Roman Catholics.

What struck me though was how things changed once the patient died. "Thy will be done." As much as believers fervently prayed for a miracle before death, they accepted that God had not chosen to save their loved one at the moment of death. "Thy Will Be Done." "God wanted her more than we did." etc.

Such a faith stance is not held by every Pentecostalist, of course. Who knows how many? But I think enough do that any discussion of end of life issues will always strike a nerve, and generate a reaction, which can be picked up on by opportunistic organizers.

People are entitled to their religious views; they just cannot expect that the state will institutionalize their views.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Going Away

I am heading out of country for a couple of weeks. I will not be accepting comments on this blog starting tonight until I come back. I may post a little, but probably not, and certainly not about UUA politics.

Factions Create Democracy

I have called for the creation of continuing groups of UU's to recruit candidates for District offices and Board Trustees: factions. I think that they are what we need to increase democracy in the UUA. I think that they are a better way than focusing our democratic energy into highly symbolic campaigns for the UUA President and Spokesmodel.

Factions create policy alternatives, through a process of competition with others and criticism of existing decisions. Policy alternatives create choices and choices create interest.

Factions orient voters to the overall situation. What I hear is that most UU's think that there are really just two factions: the insiders and the outsiders, and you can't tell one from the other. Actually, I would suspect that there are several groupings of people who have different priorities for the UUA. It would help everyone participate if we were to know who saw each other as allies, and rivals. Most of us use party affiliation as a tool for figuring who's who and what's what in politics. Once you get beyond a small town in which everyone knows each other, people need to know the teams before they can connect to the politics of a community.

Factions create independent non-official voices. Right now, almost all of the media content about Unitarian Universalism comes from official sources. People like blogs because they are independent voices from observers' points of view. But blogs are individual and personal and are not instruments for getting enough power to make something happen. If there is anyone out there who thinks that I make sense, what are you going to do to make what we agree on happen? Nominate me for UUA office? Not a good idea.

Many people are repelled by the state of party politics in the USA, and would wonder why we would want that in the UUA. I have not a shred of fear that UU's would rapidly form themselves into two factions that engage in that level of conflict. My guess is that for every person that aligned with a faction, there would as many that aligned with none and as many who joined them all. Remember we are the religious home of people who seriously describe
themselves as Humanist-Christian-Pagans, Rational Mystics, Christian Atheists and Eco-Feminist Buddhist Jews. Over identification with a group is not our problem. Factions would operate less like gangs, and more like think-tanks.

I think a good model is the religiously identified UU groups. They represent points of view, create material, enrich our theological discussions and make it possible to have panel presentations. They have not gone to war with each other.

Factions break down the insider-outsider dichotomy. I don't think that there is an inner club that is motivated by their particular self-interest. (There was one at one time, when Unitarianism was a Boston Yankee institution, but those days are gone.) There are, of course, insiders, in that there is a group of people who are experienced and knowledgeable about the institutions at the core of UUism. And there are outsiders, people who have not been interested in the past and are just getting involved. And yes, race and class and ethnicity work to keep people who want to be insiders (and some who have been around long enough to be insiders) on the outside, which we work on. But a faction, united around a common goal, is an alliance between some insiders and some outsiders.

My argument for a Single Candidate Search Process

The proposal now floating around for reforming the UUA Presidential election process is for a Presidential Search Committee to put forward, after deliberation, at least two candidates for the UUA Presidency. Then the campaign begins.

I argue for a single candidate, chosen by the Search committee.

Why is one better than two?

1. The problem in the process is that campaign -- time and expense. Having two official nominees does not solve that problem. That problem will be solved to some extent by online and electronic communication.

2. The necessities of the campaign itself limits who can run. Prospects must be in a place in their career that they can devote that amount of time and energy. Others have identified who is in that pool: ministers in multi-staff churches, national staff, the retired and the independently wealthy. A more subtle inhibitor is also at work: the risk. A candidate in a multi-staff church, the national staff person essentially risks their present position for the Presidency. You can't always go back to your old job if you lose.

3. Two candidate races create and exaggerate polarities. Growth vs. Depth, for example. As if, those two are somehow in contradiction to each other. It's unfortunate when two self-selected candidates and their supporters draw these kind of contrasts, but a Presidential Search Committee who has to choose two candidates will be consciously shaping these contradictions, giving them life. I am troubled by this. I don't want the Presidential Search Committee to decide what the most important unresolved issues are; I would rather they choose the best person, on balance, for the job.

Gini Courter on the Election Process

On Election-L email list, there has been a discussion about the present method of electing the President and other officers of the UUA. Gini Courter weighed in with this statement, that I am reproducing here.

Friends -

A number of people who've posted recently assert that the current method of selecting the UUA President or Moderator "isn't broken" so it doesn't need to be fixed. The list of people who know that the current process IS broken includes Bill Sinkford, Peter Morales, and Laurel Hallman. I agree with them, and with the two candidates for Moderator in 2001 who were also critical of the current process. As far as I know, no one who has run opposed for President or Moderator in the past thirty years thinks the current nomination-campaign-election process is just, equitable, or compassionate, or that it truly reflects our values. (Perhaps some candidate fully affirmed the current process, but if so, they weren't vocal about it during the campaign.)

The people who have run for President and Moderator think we should be willing to consider the possibility that our election process is too long, too grueling, too costly, and/or too disconnected from congregational life and leadership. We should consider whether the barriers to candidacy might be inappropriately high, or in some cases, just inappropriate. We should discuss whether a more transparent nomination process would be more inclusive and more in keeping with our values than our current highly opaque nomination methods.

We might even wonder why we require candidates for President and Moderator to raise tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaign to serve our Association. I don't know this year's finances, but in 2001, both Moderator candidates and one of the two Presidential candidates ended their campaigns with outstanding debts that they had to cover personally.

At the April Board meeting, your UUA Trustees made a commitment to Bill, Peter, and Laurel that they would bring a set of amendments to the election process to GA in 2010. The draft amendments offered by the Board describe one possibility; the amendments were published in this year's GA agenda so that congregations could begin discussing them now and provide feedback for a final version that needs to be ready by mid-January 2010. The trustees would love to hear our congregations' best thinking on this. I know some trustees are on this list, but you can also contact them directly. You'll find your trustees' email addresses on this page:

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Can't have it both ways.

On the one hand, it is widely agreed that the Unitarian Universalist Association has not, in its 40 years of existence, lived up to the potential of liberal religion in this country. We believe that there are at least a million people out there whose religious views are in sympathy with ours, but as a collective body, we cannot manage to put a welcoming, inspiring, inviting, culturally appropriate center of liberal religion into their path. We are an underperforming organization.

On the other hand, efforts to actually change one or more feature of the organization runs into a solid wall of "if it's not broke, don't fix it!". Our governance is fine the way it is. (But our inability to perform well stems from our governance !) The main definitional statement of who we are is fine the way it is (it has not communicated effectively for sustained growth for 15 years now !).

This dichotomy (we are great; everything we do is the very best that we can do vs. we are small, failing, repelling people as fast as we are attracting them, demographically isolated.) is a sign of defensiveness and anxiety.

We need to change what we are doing if we want a different result. And we need a different result because we are not fulfilling what we know that we are capable of. And that means being open to different ideas about how to do things. Really, suggesting a different way of electing our President on a blog is not quite taking an axe to the foundations of our faith.

More Democracy

To increase participation in elections, and help clarify the choices before the electorate, the UUA Board ought to recognize groups whose purpose is to recruit and support candidates for District offices and boards, and for the Board of Trustees.

People who wish to influence the UUA as a whole should have the opportunity to organize themselves, promote their views, and become part of the official leadership of the Association. Yes, we need factions and parties.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Another Process for the President

Let's elect the next President the same way that we call ministers in our congregations.

1. Elect a Search Committee that is broadly representative of all of Unitarian Universalism.
2. Give them lots of time to work, and consult with people in all areas of the UUA.
3. Let them interview prospective Presidents, looking for the one that seems to match what most people seem to want in the next leader.
4. Let them make a recommendation.
5. Let the people affirm their recommendation through a supermajority.

The result of that type of process in our congregations is that we usually end up with a leader who enjoys broad support in the congregation. The process of ministerial transition increases the unity and sense of common purpose in the congregation, rather than dividing it.

Our present election process exaggerates our differences. Whoever wins starts out with a sizable minority of UU's regretting the way it turned out, and skeptical of the new President's efforts.

If you imagined a congregation choosing their next minister the way that the UUA chooses its next President, most congregations would splinter.

We do need a way for people who are frustrated with our present course to be able to act through the democratic process to change it. For example, a person who thinks that we should do less social action, but more evangelism, should have a way to change the priorities of the denomination. They should be able to run candidates who have those priorities and make a case to other voters.

I think that should be what happens when we elect our Board Trustees. Those elections should be the place where individuals and groups put forward candidates that promise to the move the UUA in one direction or another. Those elections are closer to home and offer more chances for lots of participation. They should be more political and competitive, and as a result more interesting.

Under policy governance, the Board is where the vision and the direction of the organization is set. The Board should be where specific and competing points of views are reconciled through decision and compromise. The President becomes less of visionary, and more of a person who can spark the staff and volunteers to fulfill our common goals.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Frank talk 3

KJR in the comments offers this analysis of power in the UUAoC:

I think the President and staff set UUA priorities --- with the main limitation being finding donors willing to fund the priorities.

The obvious question that comes to mind is "where does that leave the Board?" And the second question that comes up is "What about congregations?"
And the third question: "When you say congregations, are you talking about the ministers of congregations, or the laity?"

All these questions circle around the most important misalignment in the way that things work. On the one hand are the ministers of the larger congregations, who one could say are the most successful UU religious leaders among us. On a day-by-day basis, they lead the institutions in which a large proportion of UU's experience UUism and they are successfully meeting people's religious needs. The affairs of the association, however, are a part-time concern of these leaders. And frequently, to the laity in the larger churches, the association and the district are not as interesting or involving as the local parish.

On the other hand is the staff. UUA affairs are their daily work, and they are in regular contact with many lay people and ministers across the country, the UUA activists who attend district conferences and GA, and serve on various task forces and committees of the Association. They are viewed as the leaders of the UUA. Their career path does not necessarily lead them through larger congregations.

I think that there is a consensus that the staff needs more direction. Someone else needs to set the priorities and direction. Morales believes that the solution is for the President to be a better manager and administrator. I am not sure of what happened, but this seems to be what he took away from his experience on the national staff.

Hallman and Courter both believed that the problem was not management but governance and the solution was to strengthen the Board of Trustees in relationship to the President. Courter's emphasizes the Board as serving the congregations. Hallman based her campaign among the ministers of the larger congregations. But both saw developing a countervailing center of authority in the Association to the President and Staff.

In my never humble opinion, I agree that the Board represents the best vehicle to bring the concerns of the congregation into a position of power in the Association. But neither the election process of the President, nor the election process of the Board seem to work to represent genuine congregational (and ministerial) concerns very well.

I have two questions now.

1. What are the best practices of denominational affairs committees, especially in larger churches? How do we overcome the tendency of larger church congregation to be uninterested in UUA affairs?
2. What are the relationships between UUA Trustees from the Districts and the District UUMA chapter? Does it matter if the Trustee is a minister?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Frank Talk 2

Philocrites in the comments offers the kind of concrete analysis of the powers that are at play within the UUAoC.

I am looking for some frank talk because I see that two stories out there about how the UUAoC is governed. One is the story that says that there is some shadowy group of others who actually run things while the story-teller is not powerful. The other is a Kum-Ba-Yah theory that emphasizes that everyone involved, no matter their position in the structure and their thinking, is a good person trying their very best and deserves our emotional support.

Somewhere in between there is a concrete analysis over who has power over what and why, and who wants some of that power to achieve different purposes and ends.

I would like some frank talk about some of these issues:

1. who controls our public presentation of ourselves as a national religious body? Ministers are frequently not on board with the themes and contents of our advertising campaigns, which pretty much guarantees that they will not coordinated with what people are hearing in the pews. The "standing on the side of love" is better -- how did that come about?

2. who sets the priorities for our growth strategy? I think that one murky issue in the last campaign was the Pathways experiment, which revealed all sorts of rivalries and resentments among churches over money -- national level investment in growth.

Who's got some other issues that need some frank talk and real analysis?

"We Can Become the Religion for Our Time"

I don't think that the Dalai Lama talks like that about his mission in the world.

I think Unitarian Universalism is honest and authentic. I think that it has changed my life, made me happier and made me a better person. I recommend it to everyone.

But its value, and its mission, is not dependent on its success, or even its relevance to the overall culture.

Frank Talk

I have teed off on the Kum-Ba-Ya Campaign as part of a general atmosphere which discourages frank talk within the Association about the Association.

For example: I had a brief talk with Gini Courter in one of those GA parties about a history of competing theories about UUA governance. There's a "Weak President/Strong Board" approach and a "Strong President/Weak Board" approach.

Who knew?

Just as an exercise in beginning to map out the politics of the UUA, do the following:

1. Rank the following groups in terms of their political power in the UUAoC. The Board of Trustees, The Moderator, The UUA President, the Staff, The UUMA Exec, The Senior Ministers of the Largest Churches, the Ministers of Mid-size and Small Churches, The regular GA attendees, the body of ARAOM activists, the District Boards, The Large Donors.

2. What do you think each of the groups named above want for the UUA, beyond finding the unicorns of growth, abundance and relevance?

3. Who are you? What do you want?

Hissy Fits

We all remember the time that Move-On ran an ad directed at General David Petraeus asking him to not "betray us" when he testified to Congress about the surge in Iraq. The GOP disingenuously interpreted that as an accusation of the General as being a potential traitor to the country. Oh, the hue and cry that went up, and the Democrats in Congress who were trying to stop war funding disavowed and condemned the antiwar group as being beyond the limits of decent Americans.

Some commentators, especially Digby at Hullabaloo, called the GOP response a "hissy fit." Manufacturing outrage at deliberately misinterpreted comments to change the subject of debate.

I think that what I call the Candidates Covenant for a Kum-ba-Ya Campaign provided the cover and context for a whole bunch of hissy fits, from the Morales campaign. People will want examples, and frankly, it is too tiresome to get down into the weeds of the particularities (which is the point of the tactic -- to bog debate down into these kind of detailed reconstructions of the precise wording of this or that statement.), so I will just ask you to recognize the tactic when you see it.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The UUA Election

Nobody knows what the UUA President is supposed to do, so nobody knows how to choose a candidate for UUA President. I think that this was the small little fault at the heart of the recent election process.

A bigger problem, in my eyes, was that the wrong candidate won, but that's just me, and I'll get over it.

The biggest problem of all is the big wet blanket of sweetie-goo that smothered the life out of the campaign and cut off any process of real debate and challenge to the underlying logic of each campaign. It was a Kum-Ba-Yah campaign. As far as I could tell, the rules were that all speech about the campaign had to start from the presumption that each candidate was equally wonderful (and thus, essentially the same), and that one could state a preference only in terms of your own personal preference, based on which one inspired you more, but without making any real comparison.

You have wonder about the level of anxiety in an organization which tries to keep conflict and differences of opinion so safely contained and walled off.

I'm Back!

I never have time to blog during the church year, so I blog in the summer. Beats going to the beach or having fun.

I am overflowing with opinions right now, on such subjects as the UUA Presidential election and all, so let's get this party started.