Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Building a New Way by Erika Hewitt

Erika Hewitt, my colleague in Maine, published this on Facebook today. I have seen what she describes as "armoring up to proactively protect themselves from" criticism among others who produce projects and programs for Unitarian Universalism. UU's are tough to please. During l'affaire logo, I coined a hashtag #thanklesstask which I think describes much of the working conditions for many who take the lead in organizing UU life. An unnamed staffer of the UUA said that it would make a good tee-shirt.

Let's hear Erika.

Building a New Way
April 30, 2014 at 1:45pm
In December, a colleague and I began collaborating on a Very Large Project for Unitarian Universalists across the country. Eager to partner up and even more eager to bring our imaginations to the UU arena, we were buoyed by love, creativity, playfulness, and a fierce commitment to Unitarian Universalism.
Increasingly, we’ve caught ourselves “armoring up” — consciously and unconsciously — to preemptively protect ourselves from our people: Unitarian Universalists. The very people we serve.
Our people, who “stand on the side of love.”
Our people, who aspire to live in right relationship.
Our people, who have grounded themselves in covenant since 1648.
We find ourselves bracing for criticism not because our Very Large Project is controversial nor because we have paranoid temperaments, but rather because of the cultural patterns that we witness in the larger UU world (much of it online):
Often, our people respond to brave risk-taking by shaming the risk-takers.
Too often, our people respond to the vulnerable expression of creativity or vision by criticizing the creation or vision, and naming the ways it failed to suit their personal taste.
And far too often, our people respond to leadership — which is to say, an invitation to see, do, or experience something new — with crossed arms, narrowed eyes, and out-loud wondering what gives that person the right to extend such an invitation.
Unitarian Universalists, is this the people we want to be?
I’ve done all of these things, friends, and I’m ready to stop. It’s fraying the fabric of our faith.
Do we want to want to punish courage, diminish creativity, and shame one another into dimming the gifts that we bring to the world?
Or are we ready to cultivate a new way of being together?
I want us, as a people of faith, to make each other strong, not take each other down.
I want us to be a people who not only talk about trust, but express that trust by making room for one another's gifts.
I want my people to encourage creativity, with all the courage it demands;
to honor vulnerability rather than shame the vulnerable;
to respond to new ideas and invitations with curiosity;
to create connection -- and live from connection.
The culture change that I want to be part of is, like anything, a continuum.
It goes something like this*:
Criticism ——-> Assessment ——> Curiosity ——> Appreciation ——> Trust
Should you get tangled up in my labels, here’s what each of these sounds like internally:
What do I dislike about this?
How does this fail to meet my needs?
Why should I listen to them?
When do I get to tell them what’s wrong with it?
How can I disconnect from this?
Do I like this?
Does it suit my needs?
Does it satisfy my tastes and preferences?
Are they worth listening to?
Is it worth connecting?
What love/energy/time/vision went into this?
What would I lose by listening to them?
Are they taking a risk by sharing their gifts?
Whose needs or preferences matter as much as mine — or more than mine?
If this doesn’t serve me, who might it serve?
What would connection look like?
What can I learn?
What gifts can I see?
How does this invite me to be brave or vulnerable too?
Who’s transformed by this (even if it’s not me)?   
How does this strengthen the larger “we”?
I found a way to connect.
We’re all doing our best, all the time.
When one of us is fed, the whole is stronger.
Creativity and courage are contagious.
When others share their gifts, it gives me permission to share my gifts too.
I respond to vulnerability with my own.
Connection is already happening.
*Yes, I’ve been spending lots of time reading BrenĂ© Brown; much of her language is reflected here. And yes, I see the unfortunate acronym.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


I have been reading Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century. It's slow going, but valuable. It's not only about the 21st century, but also about the economic history of the West in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

One thing that caught my attention is the following fact: during the 1970's the ratio of national capital to the national income (both terms which Piketty has defined by this point in the book) was at its lowest point in decades. In other words, the owners of capital controlled a smaller share of the national income than earlier. The 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan in the US instituted policies to "correct" this situation. Those policies have not been reversed yet, and the result is inequality that we now see.

One of the concerns that I have about Piketty is that his economic analysis seems (at least as far as I have read) to be divorced from an ecological history. We know that Reagan made a significant turn in energy policy for the world. An alliance with the Saudi's was made to increase oil production to keep oil prices low, and to prevent more radical oil producers from using it as a political weapon, as they had during Carter's administration. The US government very visibly turned away from a conservation orientation to a policy of increased energy production. The result was an acceleration of energy consumption and waste, intensifying the damage done to the planet, and placing the world's poor in grave danger.

What I have been talking about are policy choices that were global in effect. (I emphasize the words because I think it is important to see these as conscious decisions made by political actors, not so-called "cultural trends". )

Closer to home, here in UULand, we remember these same years as a time of growth and influence for Conservative Christianity. They were perfecting their organizational form (the large non-denominational suburban program-rich mega-church) which also served as the "ground-game" for the Republican party. 1980 also marked the identification of the "Reagan Democrat," the Rust Belt Roman Catholics who were organized into the political coalition supporting these global policy choices, often on the basis of racial resentment and a defense of patriarchy. We felt small and weak.

Unitarian Universalists, I think, saw all of these developments. I think we understood what was happening. But despite the fact that the Caesars were tightening their control over the world's future, we didn't see that as really relevant to our mission and theology. I wonder why...

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.




We are all woven into a complex web of social interconnection. That web is not morally neutral, but a system of interlocking oppressions and privileges, domination and subordination, exploiters and exploited.  Some of this web is visible; some hidden. It is larger than any person's perception; no one sees and understands it all.

In some ways, the social web is a like a vast nervous system, a brain, filled with uncounted connections and neural pathways. It's organized in a particular way. It notices some events, like a sudden shift to colored shoelaces, while being oblivious to others, like child abuse. It values some people and ignores others.

People eat food, and are unaware of the people who grow it, and process it, and move it. There are few neural pathways along which that connection is communicated. How would a strawberry picker in Oxnard, California tell you about her life? The way our social system is structured, it is a violation of the norms for the person who brings the food to your table in a restaurant to mention her children, her anxieties or her dreams. 

Changing the social system requires re-shaping the social brain,creating new neural pathways, new connections.  And the social brain is re-shaped by expressions of solidarity.  

Expressions of solidarity, reveal and create, new neural pathways in the social brain. 

Take, for example, the UU Minister, Rev. Wendy Von Zirpolo, who serves a church in Marblehead, MA. She is in a fast for the families being torn apart by the immigration detention practices of the US government. Her actions reveal the connection that exists between the North Shore Massachusetts and detention centers. Her actions also create a connection between her and the people she encounters while fasting. Her actions will not create much material change. No one will be released from detention because Rev. Wendy fasted. Rev. Wendy will still not really know from the inside the experience of being an immigrant. But in the vast buzzing collective nervous system, a new neural connection has been revealed and strengthened. 

To change the system is to mobilize along the strands of interconnection to create and express power. It requires revealing the web of interconnections to one another; identifying ways in which the people over here are connected to people over there, and how each of us stand at the intersection of many social forces.

The system will change when the big social brain understands itself differently, when the connection between detainees and Northshore UU ministers is as present as the connection between me and Hollywood celebrities. I am made conscious of the conditions of their life everyday, while the detention system is invisible.

The mission of religion is to re-progam the collective human brain. Expressions of solidarity are not just the buzzword for social justice. Congregational worship and programming are all about solidarity: revealing, and strengthening, the strands of interconnection between ourselves and others. Between the hidden parts of ourselves and the hidden parts of others. The worship of God who is the creator of us all and knows our most secret thoughts and still loves us is another way to express that interconnectedness and webiness of human life.

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.