Friday, February 20, 2015

A New Fellowship Movement (by Cindy Landrum)

During my time in ministry, I've seen a few congregation-growing initiatives from our association.  I was a minister in the Extension Ministry program, which partially-funded ministry in select small congregations in an attempt to get them to grow.  There was the large-church start-up that the UUA attempted in the Dallas area.  Now we have multi-site, which I am a big fan of, and hope it works.  But arguably the greatest of such programs was the Fellowship Movement from 1948-1967, which started hundreds of congregations.  About 30% (323 in 2008) of our current UU congregations started in the Fellowship Movement. 

The problems with the Fellowship Movement, if you ask ministers, was that they produced congregations that were lay-led and often hostile to ministry, and as a corollary, insular and small and resistant to growth.  They often resisted words like "worship" and "sermon" and held services that were more like lectures.  The pluses are self-evident: it created a lot of congregations where there were none.

In Gordon Gibson's new book, Southern Witness: Unitarians and Universalists in the Civil Rights Era, he describes a typical Southern Fellowship beginning (Kindle Locations 276-283):
So there we were, circa 1951. Someone from the AUA, I think it was Fellowship Director Munroe Husbands, noticed that six or seven of us here or nearby were members of the Unitarian Church of the Larger Fellowship. (AUA started the CLF in 1944 to be a “church by mail” for isolated religious liberals.) Munroe wrote to inquire if we were interested in starting a fellowship and asked what prospects we thought a fellowship might have. Several of us said we were interested . He then placed an ad in our local newspaper describing Unitarianism and asking people to respond if they would like to come to an informational and organizational meeting. He set a date to come to town, asking one of us to book a function room at one of the leading downtown hotels. He submitted a couple of more newspaper ads about the meeting at the hotel and encouraged all of us who’d responded from CLF and from the first ad to talk to our friends about the meeting. He got to town a day early and phoned all of us. The evening of the announced meeting arrived, and we were excited to see the sign outside our meeting room saying, “Unitarian Fellowship.”
Six or seven families and a newspaper ad, and one devoted staff person organizing -- that was the genesis.  And many of those fellowships grew into full-size congregations that exist today.  Where I live in Jackson, Michigan, there was one such fellowship.  It eventually folded into the Universalist church after the merger, and there are some Fellowship members in the Church I serve today, and we recognize now the Fellowship's history as a part of our own history.

I think it is time for a new Fellowship Movement.  I'm sure these are words that have been uttered before, but I also think the time is ripe.

We have a "new era" upon us, and we're floundering as to how to respond.  We know that fewer people are coming to brick-and-mortar churches, and the "nones" are on the rise.  We know that ministry is becoming more and more expensive for churches to support.  We know that bi-vocational ministry is on the rise.

I think the answer looks something like multi-site and and something like a Fellowship.  The folks that are not attracted to a traditional church and its worship as the central focus might be attracted to something that is Unitarian Universalism in another package, like the Fellowships were.  And these entities might need to be largely lay-led, like the Fellowships were, because the entities with six or seven families can't support ministry.  Some of the Fellowships didn't meet weekly -- that might work better for some of today's families to be on a bi-weekly basis.  But it needs institutional support, like the Fellowships had through the UUA staff and the mailings from Boston that provided the Fellowships with pre-prepared worship services and programs.

Today, it won't be an ad in a newspaper, but something spread by social media.  And maybe the staff person isn't from Boston but rather, like the multi-site model, supplied by the nearest congregation.  But the model being so fixed and clear and authorized and organized centrally is what made the Fellowship model so successful.  We need that clear vision and mandate to grow these new entities, the new Fellowships.

Here in Jackson, there could be a Fellowship again, of people who are not likely to go down to my church 10 miles South of town, and who maybe aren't looking for a traditional worship service, or who want a different style of music if they do, or who in other ways want something different from what we're already providing.  In Albion, 25 minutes away, there is a core group of families ready for something in their area who could be a Fellowship, too.  Maybe Grass Lake or Adrian also has a critical mass.  Maybe Chelsea or Dexter folks don't want to commute to either Jackson or Ann Arbor on their weekends and have a handful of interested families.  And that's just how it looks from my area.  These smaller towns are ready for something like a Fellowship Movement.

But here's the thing.  In my small church, I'm the only full-time staff person, and I'm pretty busy.  Starting up a program like this isn't as high on my agenda as it could be.  And it'll tax my time and my resources to do it.  I know the potential is there, but I don't have the model, the canned program to hand them and the database of who the interested people are that the Fellowship Movement had.  I don't have money in my budget to do the advertising or rent the hall, either.  It's going to take a lot to get me to do this.  It's going to take a Movement.

More Theology?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Question for Which We Don't Have an Answer

Change comes when a people face up to a question for which they don't have an answer. And "to face up" means that a people stop settling for non-answers for that question, and admit that they don't know. Then they can start to think, experiment and find their way.

To me the unanswered question is this: How do religious liberal leaders lead in this country at this time, given the scale of the task and the historical moment?

How can we change more lives? How can we change enough lives to fulfill the mandate "to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to comfort all who build up ancient ruins... [and] raise up the devastations of old."

My observation is that clergy anxiety about their income support system has narrowed the possible answers to the question. In effect, the question changes into "how do religious liberal leaders lead in this country by creating local parishes of sufficient size and stability to support professional ministry?" Or, "how can we lead by doing more of the same, better?"

Narrowing the question down to the problem of building up local congregation doesn't answer the larger unanswered question. If we don't know how to lead, then we won't be successful in leading in the particular organizing project of building up local congregations.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Nostalgia for Inequality

Liberal religion is committed to the proposition that men and women are equal, and that relationships between them should be equal partnerships. That principle has been extended to same sex couples, and even multi-partnered relationships. No matter the configuration of a relationship, we believe that everyone comes to it as a voluntary and equal partner.

There is a lot of dispute about the origins, but the ideas of the equality of the sexes is only several centuries old. The norm that sexual relationships should be voluntary, mutual, consenting, reciprocally pleasurable is quite new in human history.

"Let's Go Crazy"
Which brings us to BDSM and "50 Shades of Gray".

There is controversy as to whether the film depicts "healthy" BDSM or the abuse of a young woman. Both sides of that debate, though, accept, in principle, that sexual relationships ought to be voluntary, mutual, consenting and reciprocally pleasurable.

BDSM positions itself as a kind of sex play within the norms of sexual egalitarianism. And like all play, it has an "as if" quality. Let's have sex "as if" I were your sexual slave, "as if" I had unlimited power over you. Let's have sex "as if" all the roles were reversed, and men were completely subservient to women.

Your pour the wine; I'll light the candles. Make sure the kids are asleep.

And most BDSM sex is even more playful. I'll pretend that all this is really happening to me, by me, through me, while I have sex with myself. It's playful thoughts.

It is also the eroticization of power, of domination and subordination.

Later on, when the play is over, we can go back to the real world, where men and women are equal, and sexual relationships are mutual and voluntary, and where we are horrified to read real stories of kidnapped women kept in dungeons and sexually abused. The world, also, of international sex trafficking and forced prostitution. The play world of voluntary BDSM and the real world of sexual abuse co-exist.

It's play, but it's atavistic play, deliberately recreating social arrangements of a previous, pre-feminist era. And it depends on a degree of privilege; all play does. Unless one is a person with sexual agency, autonomy over their sexual self and activity, one cannot give it up in play.

I am not here to judge other people's sex play and fantasy lives. They have their own sincerity and authenticity.

But I do want to know why. Why this, at a time when the hidden codes of domination and subordination between people are being interrogated and exposed as never before. Is it like ethnic joking, a seemingly playful subversion of new multicultural sensitivities?  Is this nostalgia for the old ways of being human in which unequal power and sexuality were welded together?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Statement from former SKSM student Edith Love

My Beloved Starr King Community,
    I am writing to you to offer a confession, and an apology. When I first came to our school, I felt like I had come to my spiritual home, a place I had longed for all my life, a place where justice, equity and compassion were among our highest ideals.
Being admitted felt like a dream come true. As soon as my acceptance letter came in the mail, I pinned it to the wall by my desk. However, I found to my great dismay, that the institution was not all I had hoped. I began to hear stories from other students about negative outcomes for those who spoke out about perceived injustices within our school.
     When Dr. Parker announced her retirement, I was sad, as I had great admiration for her wisdom and her gifts. As the time came to select a new president, I was encouraged and hopeful that this would be the beginning of a new era. When student leaders called for an emergency meeting, only a handful of people were able to attend on such short notice. At the meeting, I discovered that some students had possession of documents they felt proved that the presidential search process had been flawed.  My friends told me that the school was about to announce Rev. McNatt as the new president. In these documents were the results of a survey, including responses from the current students, faculty, staff, and even Dr. Parker. When I looked at these responses, I was shocked. I saw overwhelming support from the student body and others for Dr. Ritchie, but highly negative responses towards her from our Dean, Provost, and current President. I did not understand why their responses seemingly weighed so heavily against all the positive responses from the others.
     I questioned whether it was common practice in hiring a new president of a theological school to allow the current president to have so much influence on whom their successor should be. It seemed unethical, and I was very upset. The negative words said about Dr. Ritchie seemed mean-spirited as well as untrue. I wanted so badly to believe in my school, and I felt like our faith had been betrayed. It seemed to some of us who had access to the information in the search process documents that the president, dean, and provost were using the private nature of the survey to say things that were not true. I thought it was urgent that the entire student body be able to access this information, as it was extremely relevant to our interests and the long-term best interests of our institution itself.  Starr King has long struggled with a culture of mistrust.  How could such a pivotal decision be made in such a trust-breaking way? It was my hope and intent that collectively, we students could address these issues, and help our school more fully enact the values we cherish as Unitarian Universalists.
     At the time, I did not believe that the administration’s interest in withholding the results outweighed the students’ interest in access to the information. As a student, I felt that this information belonged to the entire student body, and the survey results called into question the credibility of the presidential selection process, at least as it had been originally presented to us. I had hoped that sharing the documents would spur the other students to the same sense of outrage that I felt, and then, united, we would be able to enter into meaningful dialogue about the selection process.
     A trustee of a religious educational institution has not only a legal duty, but also a sacred responsibility, I believe, to safeguard and defend the school’s best interests, even if those interests conflict with personal or individual interests. While I hope and trust that those ultimately responsible for the outcome of the presidential search acted in accordance with their own understanding of their duty, I felt strongly that the presidential search process was carried out in a manner that seriously conflicted with the core values of our school.             
     Therefore, I was one of the people involved in the email attributed to ‘Strapped Student.’ To protect others’ privacy, I removed the names of all the students, staff, and most of the faculty from the survey results that were released. At the time I did not believe that the redacted results of the survey were confidential. As a student at Starr King, we had often filled out queries on surveymonkey, as this one was. The results of those surveys were then usually released to the entire student body.
The only names remaining in the documents belonged to the candidates, and to the administration of the school. In the heat of outrage at what was perceived to be injustice, there was insufficient consideration of the implications this release might have for the new incoming president, or for the school. I am not the person who sent out the email. It was not my idea to share the information outside our school. The information had been previously sent to several students, I was far from the first, and the original leaker is unknown to me. What I can say is that Julie and Suzi did not send that email, either.
     I have held my silence up to this moment, because others close to the situation have asked me to, and because I was very scared. As has previously been stated, there are long-standing issues of mistrust and fear at Starr King, between the student body and the administration. I was extremely frightened of the potential for retaliation.
     In the board’s response to the Strapped Student email, I had hoped for an examination of what went wrong.  As the days have gone by, and the situation has escalated, each time my heart has sunk further. I wish there could be a chance at genuine dialogue. Rather than examining what might have led us to this point, the school hired private investigators and a law firm. Sadly, my fears of retaliation were not unfounded.  All three professors who signed a letter of support for the students have left the school. All of the original faculty except Dr. Lettini and Dr. Farajajae were placed on adjunct rather than core faculty status.  Julie and Suzi were denied their degrees, months after everyone else has graduated.
     Even putting out this statement, I am taking a huge risk. My spouse is concerned that speaking out will give the school an opportunity to come after me with a lawsuit. They have a lot of money and power for a sustained legal fight.  I do not have much money, and could not defend myself as well, should they decide to take that course. I only had an attorney for a few weeks last fall before the money allocated for me in the student’s legal aid fund ran out.
      Though I have been immobilized by fear, I shall be afraid no longer. I am now choosing to come forward publicly in hopes for engaging the leadership of our school in a constructive way. I will not allow the dread of consequences to myself or others prevent me from speaking my truth. I have been grieving heavily since I was compelled to leave this school that I love.  In September, I approached school leadership, wanting to tell my part of the story.  But they were unwilling to engage in dialogue, unless I agreed to disclose all the participants I knew of involved in the “Strapped Student” email.  I was not, and am not, willing to share the identities of other people.  I will speak for myself, not about what anyone else did or did not do. On September 5, an email from my academic advisor said the school is giving me these choices: I could withdraw, or wait to be expelled from Starr King, or else I could come forth, take responsibility, and begin the process of self-reflection toward making amends.  I was willing then, as well as now, to take responsibility, and to work toward making amends.  But, in Starr King’s eyes, taking responsibility meant naming names, nothing less.  So, my heart breaking, I withdrew from the school.
I did not want to leave. I love this school with all my heart. 
       Since then, I have continued to reach out to the school for resolution, but to no avail.  I was not successful when I spoke directly to the head of the Ad Hoc Committee in October, nor when my UUMA Good Offices colleague approached the Ad Hoc Committee in December, what they wanted was for me to name others. As long as they could not move from their position, nor I from mine, we have been at an impasse. Recently, I spoke directly to Rev. McNatt and Rev. Betancourt, and we were unable to find common ground. What I took away from that conversation is that the only path forward for me with Starr King is full disclosure for every person I know who may be involved. I am not willing to do that. If there were assurances given to the community that no litigation would result, maybe other involved people will feel safe enough to speak up.
      When all this began, I considered the release of the information as whistle-blowing. In hindsight, while I maintain a healthy critique of the process and my school, I can see how we could have made other choices. I wish I had been braver, and spoken out publicly about my concerns then, as I am doing today.
      I very deeply regret any harm that may have resulted from my participation in the release of information as well as my fear of coming forward to acknowledge what I did. Suzi and Julie have suffered greatly, Julie lost an internship, and both of them have been denied their degrees. I’m sure this situation has had a severe impact on their careers and their finances. Other students have been deeply hurt, and many have left the school entirely. Dr. Ritchie, Dr. Kuhwald, and Dr. Blake, and Mr. Packenham have all made individual decisions to resign, at what I can only imagine is great personal cost.
     I understand that these actions brought pain to people I had admired: Dr. Parker, Dr. Ritchie, Dr. Lettini, Dr. Farajajae, and others.  For that pain, I am deeply sorry.
Additionally, the release of the email hobbled the first chapter of Rev. McNatt’s presidency at Starr King. I would like to apologize to her. Coming into such a situation cannot have been easy for the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt. I humbly beg her forgiveness for my part in any harm that has come to her, for which I am truly and profoundly sorry.
     Since 2001, when I feel that God called me, I have worked very hard toward the dream of ordained Unitarian Universalist ministry.  First, this meant working, for years, toward my undergraduate degree in social and racial justice.  Then, it meant more hard work at a local seminary, and then these past two years at Starr King.  I still believe God is calling me to ministry.  I realize that, in light of my actions last spring, some may believe this mistake disqualifies me from ministry entirely. I can see that part of my professional development will be reflection and growth around institutional ethics—how to uphold a prophetic vision of justice-making while working within systems of power.  I’m a student.  I’m still learning.  I know I have a lot to learn in this area. I had hoped for a community-wide conversation about the dynamics of secrecy and power at Starr King.  Instead, our actions sparked conflict that has consumed thousands of precious dollars by Starr King, and a lot of attention and energy at our school and throughout the UUA that could have otherwise been directed outward, at pursuing our mission in the world.  One of my worries now is that others will judge me poorly, based on my actions of last spring, and that my long path to ministry will be cut short, as my participation in that email last April might overshadow all else I have done in pursuit of my dream.  But, regardless of my concerns, it is time to speak out.  I can’t stay silent any longer. I care about this school, and it has felt like my heart being ripped open, as this has dragged on and on.
     To those I have hurt, I ask your forgiveness.  This includes Rev. McNatt, Suzi Spangenberg, and Julie Brock, as well as others who have suffered in the wake of this crisis.  To everyone who has been hurt by my part in this situation, I am deeply sorry. My zeal for exposing what I perceived to be injustice does not excuse my part in what transpired, and I offer my deepest apology and profound regret. If a conversation would help, please reach out to me, so I can understand how my actions impacted you, and we can talk with each other, so that I can find out what I amends I could make.
       To the board of Starr King School for the Ministry, I am asking if we could engage in some process of reconciliation.  I had hoped that Starr King would live up to its potential and the fullest expression of its values, as an anti-oppressive, anti-racist, multi-religious institution. I think we have a real opportunity here for each of us to confess to any wrongdoing, and humbly work on our faults. If we try to move forward without examining how we got here, I’m afraid it will only be a band-aid over a bleeding wound.Even though I am now enrolled at another seminary, my heart will always be with Starr King.  It is my hope that in making this statement, others will also be able to speak up. I know some have called for a truly independent mediator to be brought in by the UUA. Perhaps if we did that, an atmosphere of safety and trust could begin to form, where once there was fear.
      To the wider Unitarian Universalist community, to the extent that my actions have broken trust with you, I ask for the opportunity to re-build it.  I deeply desire to serve as a minister in the name of our faith, and know that a lot will be asked of me toward that dream.  If you know how I could gain your trust, over time, please let me know.
      While I no longer have the idealism I began with at Starr King, my ever-present intention has been to act out of love for our school. Because I am determined to the path of self-reflection and growth, I feel certain that at some point in the future, I will look back on these events, having learned how better to handle conflict, and how to navigate difficult conversations. Is seems ironic that I began this past fall semester enrolled in a family systems course. I have now learned the benefit of direct address, no matter how intimidated I may feel. Knowing that this is a very painful moment in the history of our school, it is my prayer that the coming days will also be a time of reflection and growth, both for myself and for my school, so that we may all continue to serve the same vision of a place that lives up to the ideals of Unitarian Universalism.
     When I began this journey, being accepted as a student at Starr King was a dream come true for me, I felt it was my spiritual home. I share all of this with faith that, even though I came to it slowly, the spirit of courage and love is the path that leads to healing and justice.  I extend sincere appreciation for all who labor long hours in the name of our faith. My hope is that with this confession and apology, maybe, just possibly, we can have conversations about what happened last spring, as well as about the underlying issues that contributed, and healing can finally begin. Lifting up words by Starr King graduate, Rob Eller-Isaacs. “we forgive ourselves, and each other, we begin again in love.” Can we please try, for the future of our school?  
With all the love in my heart,