Showing posts from March, 2014

The One Thing Every Congregation Could Do to Grow

Stop making your preacher nervous.

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 m…

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, …

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 be…

#UU Public Theology - Powers not made by human hands

The piece I put up yesterday invoked "a power at act work in the Universe, a sustaining, creating and transforming power not made by human hands."

Predictably, I was asked, in so many more words, if I was referring to the deity formerly known as God.

To which, I would answer, "yes and no, depending on whether you are a believer."

I was asked if I was channeling James Luther Adams, and of course, I am. The phrase is Adams'. And as such, I am within the tradition of Paul Tillich, and his approach to religious vocabulary.

I think that it is indisputable that there are powers at work in the world that are not made by human hands: some creative, some destructive, some of which are personified in language. Ask anybody from New Orleans about Katrina's powers.

I spend a big chunk of my life as a Marxist, and really, philosophically, I am still a dialectical materialist with a religious vocabulary and, I hope, better ethics. And so, I have long identified powers at w…


There is a power at work in the Universe,
a creating, sustaining and transforming power, 
not made by human hands.

You can trust that power.
It will uphold you 
whenever you take risks 
for love
for justice
for peace
for life.

It will carry you when you fall,
and revive you when you fail,
forgive you when you err
and give you another chance.

You can trust that power with your life, 
so live with hope and courage.

Evangelism and Congregations

If you're going to read me, you need to know what I mean by evangelism: the purposeful introduction of the ideas, values and virtues of liberal religion to people who are unaware of them. Spreading the word. It is also convincing people who are observers of liberal religion to become actively involved with it, to mentally affiliate with it, specifically to make a covenant with others to orient their lives to it. After that, moving people from more passive supporters to active advocates, isn't really evangelism anymore, but spiritual development.

Look at this chart:

Contemporary UUism's growth strategies have been mostly about convincing visitors to join the congregation. President Peter Morales once described it as growth by "repelling fewer visitors".  In the terms of the chart: congregational visitors are a subsection of observers.

We will grow, as congregations grow.

How's that working out? Not too well.

O look, another naked emperor!

I wonder if there is …


Reorganize the UUA by:

1. Creating a fully functioning Contact Relationship Management system at the denominational level, with a professional marketing staff, which would be empowered to use a full-range of marketing strategies to initiate people into relationships with Unitarian Universalism, and to fundraise through that system. The CRM system would start with congregational membership lists. That system should be function at the prevailing standards of security of commercial on-line business and non-profits.

2. Creating a service bureau at the denominational level which provides back office functions for local congregations (bookkeeping, payroll, website design and production, even pledge accounting) on a profitable fee-for-service basis. It should seek clients in other denominations as well.

The point is not to do what we are now doing more efficiently, although that may result. Freeing local congregational resources now devoted to routine institutional maintenance should help co…


I think it is time that we reorganized Unitarian Universalism. Not one of those "every two years" reorganizations, but one of those "once-a-century" reorganizations. A reorganization on the level of the ending of the pew rental system in the Unitarian Churches in the latter half of the 19th century. It was then that churches instituted our present system of voting members and the member canvas.

Or even earlier, a reorganization on the level of the creation of the General Assembly after the Civil War.

I would call the new system "Congregationalism in the Cloud".

UU churches and congregations should put their back office functions into the cloud on systems managed and maintained by a centralized IT staff. Churches and congregations would put their member databases into the system. To some extent, they do this already as UU World subscriptions. Those combined lists would be the start of a Contact Relationship Management system.

I am imagining a single contac…

Systems, structure and software

To review:

1. UUism is underfunded because it relies on the local pledge campaign, both for congregational operations and for APF funds for the UUA denominational operations. And the local pledge campaign is a fundraising amateur hour.

2. The fundraising and growth problems in the local congregation are linked, and visible if we look at them using the ladder of engagement tool.

Most congregation are not introducing themselves to people in their community who are unaware of them, but should know them. They are also not bringing enough people who are observing their congregation from afar into active support. Without a constant flow of new people up to the supporters rungs, the natural process of attrition slows the income stream. 
3. The way to introduce the congregation to previously unaware people, and activate the observers is to offer them ways to act on the values they share with us, and establish a relationship with them, out where they are. Most congregations do not establish a …

First Rungs on the Ladder of Engagement.

Most UU Congregations, and the UUA, are feeble when it comes to engaging the people who are "unaware" of or "observing" UUism.

One reason is that the "unawares" and "observers" are younger, and therefore, best reachable through social media, and UU's are less experienced with that form of communication.

But the biggest reason is that we have not thought through how we would want to engage them, and why? How is making the effort to engage them ministry?

Ethical engagement comes from establishing a relationship with people in which you work with them to achieve their goals or meet their needs. This is true whether you are working in person on the local level, or through social media on a national, or even a global scale. You may be providing a direct service, but more often ministry means creating opportunities for people to participate in doing something they see as worthwhile. An appropriate goal is make a connection, and to get enough info…

A new frame on church membership

Stepping back from our customary ways of looking at membership, what if we used a frame that other non-profits use: "the ladder of engagement?"

Some definitions and an application to the congregational environment:  Unawares are people who don't know about the congregation, but who should.Observers are people who know about the congregation, observe it with friendly interest, but are generally uninvolved. They might come on Christmas Eve. Supporters are people who know about the congregation and support it. They are the rank and file members. Advocates are people who champion the congregation: they actively work for the congregation and its programs.
How this maps to our membership schemes.
Customary UU schemes of sorting people would map supporters and advocates into members/friends, a category which covers a wide range of engagement. There are a lot of misperceptions that come from lumping these two groups together. For example, advocates often think that if everyone pl…

Non Profit Technology and the sad state of churches and denominations

OK, I am just back from the National Technology Conference (#14NTC) put on by NonProfit Technology whatever whatever (NTEN) and I am, of course, psyched. You all know that I am easily aroused by energy and promise and the new, so 2000+ techno-saavy do-gooders is going to jazz me up.
But really folks in local UU churches and in the UU denomination! We have to change how we do things.
Let's just talk about money and fundraising.
We have capital campaigns on the local and on the denominational level. And we have the annual pledge drive in the congregation which feeds the Annual Program Fund which funds our programs at the denominational level.

So, a big chunk of our operational money, both at the congregational and at the denominational level, is raised through the time-honored, tried and true method of the church pledge campaign. Is it working?
No, we are broke in the local church. And No, we are broke denominationally. And we are not a poor people.

Now, don't come crying to me th…

What does a Prophetic Church Do?

I believe in central heating and in winter coats. I would be crazy to never go outside between Thanksgiving and May Day. It would be also crazy to turn off the furnace because I own a warm jacket.

A liberal religious congregation has to be both a religious community and a prophetic voice.

We need to think a little more seriously about what the prophetic church does. The dismissive vision of the prophetic church, one that you can hear or read many places in UULand, is that it is social club for leftists, a collection of political activists, the chalice wing of the Democratic Party.

What does the prophetic church do, according to this stereotype? It signs petitions and passes resolutions. It listens to stirring sermons about how other people are evil and up to no good. The most important part of the worship service is the announcements, where all the picket lines, teach-ins and demonstrations for the upcoming week are urged upon the congregants. The prophetic church is filled with strid…

#PublicTheology Again

Yesterday, I posted a little rant about the self-blame that progressive liberals take when talking about the persistence of things they protested 'back in the day.' I think they blame themselves for the lack of progress and ignore the hegemonic power of the elite, working through a rightwing movement.

Predictably,  in the Facebook feed, I have been accused of conflating UUism with 'leftism' which is 'inappropriate.'  So, let me explain again, and in more detail, how I view the relationship between UUism and progressive liberal politics.

It's empirically true that many more UU's are political progressives than political conservatives.

I rely on this fact in my analysis of modern UU history. Subjectively, most UU's have ridden the same emotional roller coaster as political liberals since merger. Our sense of where we fit in the social order, whether we are surrounded by a friendly or hostile culture, are intertwined with the fortunes of the political …

One Sided Self Blame

Just got off the weekly VUU -- the CLF video show I do with some colleagues where we casually discuss news in UULand and talk with interesting guests.

I didn't want to interrupt the flow of conversation there, but there were at least two occasions there where speakers blamed backward motions in history on the inattentiveness and the shallowness of progressive people.  In one case, the rise of new Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration slipped by folks because we thought we had won everything already.  Or the many new restrictions on reproductive rights happened because we had thought Rowe v Wade fixed everything.

Start listening carefully and you will see this type of thinking everywhere.

Come on kids, let's get into Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine and go back to 1968.

In much of the progressive world, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey were the Rightwing. Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy were Centrists and Bobby Seale and Tom Hayden were the Left. Richard Nixon was off the chart…


I don't write about personal spirituality here very much, except in very general terms. Everyone has different work to do. What is necessary for one might be harmful to another.

So when I talk about "kenosis", I am not really thinking about it in personal terms.

One friend argues that its personal application still has merit; to her, it means surrender and emptying of the will. Submission to what is larger than ourselves is good stuff for some people to learn.

Another pointed out the downside of surrender and emptying of the will; it is an ethic that leads one to accept powerlessness. It has been used to reinforce situations of oppressions. In general, doesn't it seem that urging someone to emulate, in their personal life, Christ's response to his impending execution is problematic?

Most people do not claim to have the power of God in any way other than metaphorically. But Christian religious institutions have made that claim for millennia. The church has claimed…

Kenotic Religion in a Branded World.

Jake Morrill, who thinks I am a blogging jukebox, writes:
Here's a blog post request: how does your read of UU-ism as a kenotic tradition inform your expectations for any shared symbols--logos or otherwise--going forward? I agree with the need for a brand; I agree with your diagnosis of kenosis; but they seem at odds. Related: George Tyger says the double-circle chalice will continue to go on gravestones of military UU's, as the new logo goes on UUA letterhead, etc. what does this suggest about the function of each in our faith? In an earlier post, I suggested that Unitarianism and Universalism, especially here in North America, was an unarticulated experiment in kenotic Christianity, a Christianity that claimed no special access to God's divine power.

I am generally in tune with the whole notion of kenosis, the theological term for the self-emptying of Christ, who emptied himself of all divinity in order to suffer and die on the cross. Kenosis answers the question, "…

Correction: Oops

I have been reminded that Diane Olson was the Moderator between Denny Davidoff and Gini Courter.  Patsy Madden was the unsuccessful candidate in that election.  My apologies to all concerned.

Here is the post in error. I have also corrected it.

Jake's Tribute to Governance

Jake Morrill posted a longer comment on Facebook in response to Tandi Rogers call for suggestions for new ways for churches to measure their success. 

Jake Morrill To my brothers, sisters, and siblings who don't like metrics, let me say something. In the past, congregations had "their" District Executives and staff, overseen by "their" District Boards--authority and accountability were based in trust and personal relationship. It was a small, pinched, and disjointed way to do things. But congregations let go of that, with the benefit to staff of more creative freedom--more authority. What our system has not yet developed is how, in turn, the UUA staff will be accountable to member congregations, from whom their authority flows. When Districts no longer do governance, this means accountability happens through the President's reports to the UUA Board (which represents the GA through the year), saying "In light of the Ends, X is our standard for 'good…

I am not your "Both/And" Friend.

I know that the correct answer to all dichotomies, contradictions, oppositions, polarities, and competing ideas is "both/and". It is truer, and more spiritually evolved. It avoids nasty binaries. "Either/Or" (which is the opposite of "Both/And") is the cause of everything that is wrong, plus being Western, linear, Newtonian, Enlightenment and Modernist. It's a yuck.

But I am not your "Both/And" friend.

What I do is tease out oppositions and isolate them, so I can look at them and their relationship to each other. To pose choices, and paradoxes and conundrums. Because I think doing so will make us smarter and better at what we are trying to do.

For example, I recently noted that our thought that "the community precedes the individual" does not exactly line up with a commitment to being "anti-oppressive."

After all, sometimes communities oppress individuals. In fact, most Unitarian Universalists are Unitarian Universalists …

"Individual vs. Community" and Anti-Oppression

Unitarian Universalism, in the main, has broken with the mythology of the Enlightenment: that, in some prehistoric dream time, free individuals voluntarily made a social contract to create society to serve each other's mutual needs with justice.

Unitarian Universalism, in the main, has turned to the more realistic understanding that human beings have always been, and will always be, in a social context. No human being ever decided to enter it social life; every human being has been born into a social context, part of a social group. 
Therefore, we now say that humans are creatures of community before they are anything else. To the extent that our theology, anthropology, and ecclesiology have all placed the individual first, they have been mistaken. 
Hence, some UU's argue that the first should be last and the last should be first, at least when it comes to the order of the seven principles. "Interdependence" precedes each person's inherent worth and dignity, or…