Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Closest I'll Ever Get

The Rev. David Weissbard was  chosen by his colleagues to speak for the ministers who marked their
50 year ordination anniversary. This was at the 25/50 UUMA service on Wednesday morning at Ministry Days, right before General Assembly. Being chosen is a high honor, and people pay attention to the sermon.

So, I was honored that Mr. Weissbard quoted me in his sermon. It's as close as I am ever going to get to that 50 year honor. (I will be 100 when I have stacked 50 years in ministry, and while some people make it to 100, they are most likely skinny at 66. Not me.)

Here is the paragraph of mine he quoted.

The "language of reverence" is now our vocabulary. President Sinkford was roundly criticized for suggesting that we needed to break out of the straitjacket of humanist language, but then, we did. We're all about "calls", "faith", "mission", "prayer", "spirit", and "soul". Admittedly, we are probably sloppy in our usage, but everyone kind of gets what each other is talking about, and goes along with it.

It's from an August 2014 post called: The Emerging UU Consensus.  The turn toward theistic language was one of 8 points of consensus that I listed in that post.

Mr. Weissbard emphatically declared that he was NOT part of that consensus, which is certainly his prerogative. He seems to think that the reason why Unitarian Universalism has not grown has been its movement away from humanism and its drift into being a mild form of liberal protestantism. He pointed to the Sunday Assembly movement as what was possible down the road we have not taken.

There are several theories out there why Unitarian Universalism has underperformed its aspirations and potential. They are varying answers to the question "what is wrong with us?", which has been the animating question of all our thinking for decades.

I am in the Robin Williams school.

Monday, June 29, 2015

We Never Talked About It Again

Me -- a long time ago
I remembered the moment clearly for years. 

It was back in the day, which for me was 1969 or 1970; I was a student in college, the George Washington University in Washington DC. And there was a big national antiwar march of some sort coming up. Honestly, they all blur together in my mind at this point. 

Anyway a group of us had decided that we wanted to have our own march, marching as a contingent from our neighborhood, up by DuPont Circle, down to the Mall where our little contingent would join the masses there assembled. We decided to call it “a community march”. We did all the things you do get a march going — tweeted, facebooked, emailed — no, we mimeographed leaflets and stapled notices on telephone poles and spread the word by word of mouth. We had a meeting planned to talk about it. 

And I was chosen among the organizers to lead that meeting. 

We gathered, the room was pretty full. 

And joining us, unexpectedly, was a contingent of African Americans who were from, you know, “the community” — the community of people who lived in our neighborhood, and were not students, or used-to-be-students or just free-range young white people.

They let us know that it was presumptuous, and indeed, racist, to declare what we were planning a “community” march. 

We were not the community, we were not community leaders.

They confronted us with our racist assumptions.

I was twenty years old, with no real experience in political organizing beyond my college campus and I was the leader at that moment. I think back on all the things I could have done right then that would have been more helpful, but none of those were what I did.

Instead, I got defensive. I explained again with great care what our intentions were and how they were really good intentions. I talked a while, you know, as you do, when you just keep talking in the vain hope that something useful will eventually come out of your mouth. 

I knew they were right, and so I was embarrassed.

I was angry because I was embarrassed. 

I just want to be calm, and in control of myself, succumbing to neither embarrassment or anger. I was so self-focussed, that I can remember exactly how I felt, but can remember nothing and nobody else. 

I don’t know how the meeting ended. I do know that we had no special march down to the Mall. I think the whole thing died that night. 

But my friends, my fellow organizers, we never talked about what happened at that meeting, never talked about it again. 

Have you had a similar experience?

Or, Have you had the experience of being the people of color in that room, and watching the white people retreat into themselves, like turtles, to avoid making a response or even starting a relationship? Protecting themselves and their sense of dignity above all?

I have carried that experience for now 40 plus years, as this unresolved chunk of experience and I mostly try to avoid being in that situation again. 

Only recently has someone given a name to that fear of the powerful emotions of moments like that. They call it “white fragility”. 

Segregation has meant that many white people don’t have much interaction with people of color, and when we/they do, we want those interactions to be “post-racial” or “color-blind”, like nobody sees race.

So, a lot of whites are emotional fragile about racial differences.  We whites don't think that we live in a post-racial world, as much as we really want to live in a post-racial world, where we never had to think about race again. But it’s a multi-racial world. We're anxious about making mistakes. We're anxious about being called out for offending someone. 

Of course, people of color don’t have the option of operating as though race didn’t matter. So, I have seen named something called “racial battle fatigue” — the accumulated stress on people of color having to interact with white people who are avoiding the whole subject of race, and are thus, clueless, careless, and damaging.

My friends and I never talked again about what happened at that meeting, and so it has lived on, unhealthily for many years. 

We can’t keep doing that…

We have to imagine a new way; we have build a new way.

Let’s imagine that we can create communities, ways of being together whether face to face or in a network where white fragility transforms into white vulnerability, and white vulnerability creates white resilience which leads to white authenticity which then flows into genuine solidarity. Let’s create spaces where we are unafraid of criticism, and free of self-focus, and able to stay in the room. Let’s build a new way where the feelings of white people, their fears, anxieties, and shame, are not the center of our collective attention. 

Our religious and spiritual communities have always been places of imagination and hope; let them become places where we break down the emotional imperviousness of white fragility. 

Shakespeare, in Othello, creates this wonderful metaphor of emotional vulnerability and honesty. He has a character say, “Let me wear my heart upon my sleeve..” Out here, where it is less protected, less cushioned, but where it can be seen, and touched.  Let us wear our hearts on our sleeves, so we might join heart to heart, and move forward together. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Inherent Worth and Clarence Thomas by Karen G. Johnston

Karen G. Johnston is a Candidate for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry.  She lives in Western Massachusetts.

So, I think this may bring the reign of plagues down upon me, by both a progressive, justice-seeking god and my colleagues, but I think I may be coming to the defense of Clarence Thomas.

In his odious dissent to marriage equality granted by the United States Supreme Court -- SCOTUS -- Supreme Court Justice Thomas wrote this:

"The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away."

My social media feeds are awash with outrage at this statement, as are other progressive opining sources.  For some of these folks, it is as if Clarence Thomas were evil incarnate.  Certainly, for progressive-minded folk, Thomas does not offer up much to love or with which to find resonance.

That said, I think I agree with this statement -- even as I must vehemently and without a shade of doubt express my disdain and disgust for his steadfast resistance to acknowledging full humanity of so many people, especially the marginalized and oppressed, while siding with the powerful.

Weird, huh? I'm finding it hard to believe that I am writing this myself.  But stay with me.

There is this thing called "the inherent worth and dignity" of every human being, which Unitarian Universalism affirms. It is central to our faith.

If there is inherent dignity, I think this means that there are other kinds of dignity.   In fact, since inherent dignity is intangible and invisible, there must be other kinds of dignity that allow us insight into this elemental version. 

I think of inherent dignity as the core and around this core, or center, there are the visible or knowable expressions of human dignity.  These are kinds of dignity that are earned or assigned.  These are socially constructed and culturally determined. They are malleable, rather than innate and unassailable.  

For instance, off the top of my head (and I am sure that my college thesis advisor, an ethicist, could come up with a longer list in a shorter time) I offer this non-exhaustive list: social dignity, psychological dignity, spiritual dignity, physical dignity.  These dignities are related to inherent dignity -- in fact, they gain their power from inherent dignity, but are distinct from it as well.

These are the ones that oppression can assail.  And does so on a regular basis.

Inherency, at its elemental core, is beyond our human creation and beyond our human destruction.  This is what makes it inherent.  It cannot be taken away or denied based on the whims of history or culture or bias or belief.  Especially our Universalist theology tells us that even immoral action cannot take this inherent dignity away from the very perpetrator of the immorality.  It is one of the most vexing, and spiritually rigorous, aspects of Unitarian Universalism.

Following this logic, my faith says that though slavery did attempt to damage the social dignity of those enslaved; though it attempted (and tragically succeeded in some cases) to damage the psychological and physical integrity through trauma and torture, doing so in ways that left a legacy engrained in our society's systems and that shadows our relations with one another; it did not touch the inherent worth and dignity of the enslaved.  It did not and could not.  Whatever aspect of dignity that slavery was able to damage, destroy, or distort, it would not have been the inherent (elemental) part.  It is, by definition, not possible.

Nor is it politically or theologically or liberatively expedient for us to claim it did. Without that core of inherent dignity, the power of resilience in the face of oppression is weakened and undermined. Sometimes, in order to properly describe how heinous something is, we can overstate its power to destroy, thus removing the capacity for resilience, for endurance, and resistance.  While it is necessary that we name the ways in which evil institutions such as slavery, such as mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow impact social or psychological or physical dignity, it strikes me as seriously dangerous for us to cede that any human-created evil can erase inherent dignity.

Since inherent dignity is not visible and defies most human attempts at reliable measurement, the way that we affirm it is to ensure the other forms of human dignity -- those malleable ones that systems and individuals can erode or erase -- are protected. And this is where I, and likely most if not all Unitarian Universalists, part ways with Justice Thomas.

Because our faith asks us not only to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, it calls us to action to protect those other socially constructed ones.

So I want to amend Thomas' statement: "The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away."  Instead, I offer this 

The government cannot bestow inherent dignity and it cannot take it away.  But it damn well better bestow social dignity and protect physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual dignity through its laws.

May it be so.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Yelling at the Vegetables

Ever since the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, some very effective essays have been written to challenge the complacency and shallowness of white liberal support. From tweets to long thinkpieces, people of color have called upon whites to step up and be effective allies: to put aside feel-good platitudes and vague expressions of support and tone policing. And the tones taken in these essays have been impatient, demanding, cutting or sarcastic and stinging.

These words have been smelling salts to the drowsy.

But when white activists take the same tone with other white people, does it have the same value? And increasingly, I see essays that are just that: white people angry, shocked, disappointed and impatient with other white people who are insufficiently down with the cause.

I ask: by what authority?

As a white activist struggling with white people against white racism, you are going to run into three types of white people.

You are going to run into people who implacably opposed to this movement. Unless you already love them because they are like family, let them go and move on. Why waste your time?

You are going to run into people who are ready to step up. What do they need? They may need a little information, or to be hooked up with some activists, or a little encouragement. Of course, they need some education. You do, too. So, organize them.

But mostly, you are going to run into people who have not yet seriously engaged with the issue of white racism. Their thinking is within the bounds of conventional thinking; they don't know the history; they accept without thinking the perspectives that their privilege affords them. They have not decided yet whether to support or oppose this movement. They are uncommitted. Hey, they look and sound like you six months ago, or a year ago. So, your role is to engage, organize and educate them. If not you, who else? After all, somebody organized you.

But, you have no authority to be angry with them. You're not Martin Luther King, Jr. sitting in the Birmingham jail.

After all, if the white people who are frustrating are so unchangeably committed to white racism that they make you angry, you should probably just move on.

If you are a gardener, you pull up the weeds, pick the crops that are ripe and cultivate and feed the fruits and vegetables not yet ready for harvest.  No gardener yells at their unripe vegetables.

Friday, June 19, 2015

"Race War"

Dylann Roof wanted to start "a race war."

Racists believe that if African Americans are sufficiently provoked, they will retaliate with an orgy of indiscriminate violence against white people. This is why Roof went to Emmanuel AME; to kill black people in a particularly sacred spot. He had done his racist homework: how many 21 year old whites would have understood Emmanuel AME 's historic importance?

The racist faith is that a sufficient provocation would ignite massive black violence. It is their hope, because it would then
justify their own massive anti-black violence. That's what they are stockpiling all those guns for.

(That African Americans don't respond to these provocations as the racists expect seems to never sink in. Race War just does not seem to be the African American fantasy.)

The racists expect that eventually the federal government would intervene to protect African Americans. Their anti-black pogrom would morph into an insurrection against the US government. Some state governments, they expect, would join them. That's why they never let go of that confederate flag. They want to fight that war again.

Texas mobilizes its National Guard in response to a US Army training exercise. Texas brings its gold back to Texas. I doubt such moves are actual indications of secessionist planning in the Texas government, but they indicate the grip that these insurrectionist fantasies have on rightwing mind.

So, on the one hand, the attack on Mother Emmanuel was a terrorist act, in that it wanted to frighten, humiliate and intimidate African Americans generally. But it was also a terrorist act in that, like the attack on the World Trade Center, it desired to provoke a response, to start a war.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Credentialing: What I Think

The problem of credentialing is matching the credentialing requirements with the actual work we need from religious professionals. If we don't require the right things to be credentialed, the leaders that come from the process will not meet the needs. If we require too much to be credentialed, the credentialing process becomes expensive and a bottle neck. If we require too little, then we end up with poor quality leaders in the field.

Our credentialing system is actually a system to assess the integrity, character, accountability and emotional intelligence of candidates for ministry. One of the tests for the candidates' willingness to be accountable is the difficulty and expense of the formation process. Are you willing to study? Are you willing to conform to a process that isn't crystal clear? Is your call strong enough to lead you to sacrifice?

So what do we need our credentialing system to do?

Overall, I think that UUism needs to pivot toward the social movements that are rising in the country.

We need to be an accessible and holistic movement for personal and social transformation.

To be that kind of movement we need to credential and deploy hundreds and thousands of new leaders who can provide leadership to rising social movements.  Some will be working through our existing congregations; others will be leaders in new formations; others will working in communities and schools; others will activists and leaders in existing movements.

They need not be ministers, nor even ministers in formation. For the lack of a better term, I will call them "UU Credentialed Community Leaders"  They represent Unitarian Universalism and have been attested by us as to being of good character, accountable, and emotionally suitable for spiritual leadership. They have trained to think religiously about our values and the social political environment. (I would even mark them with a distinctive clergy shirt.)

The costs and the time requirements of becoming a UU  Credentialed Community Leader should be low. People should not quit their day jobs while in this formation process. And once in service, they will have to deal with their income needs either through part-time work, family support, stipends from churches and organizations.

Some will choose to go on to become credentialed and move into preliminary fellowship, after meeting additional requirements, including a more extensive theological education, etc. Some
will not.

I hope that we can gather a broad pool of future religious leaders as UU Credentialed Community Leaders. The country needs lots of them, and soon.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Generosity and Debt

At the Summit on Economic Sustainability of the Ministry, the discussion inevitably turned to "generosity."

I was a bit crabby at that point in the discussion; maybe my blood sugar was too low or too high. I do worry that sometimes the only time we talk about generosity is when the church is asking people for money. "You should be more generous, and give me more money" is not going to wear well over time. The call to be generous is for all parts of life, not just for the religious institution.

My reflection since the Summit has been about student debt loads, and that has turned my thoughts to the role of debt for all of us. We are an indebted people. Not only student load debt, but credit card debt, auto loan debt and mortgages. And we are disciplined by our debts. We all know that parody version of the seven dwarves' song, "I Owe, I owe, It's off to Work I go." We see this, in our little UU context. Newly fellowshipped ministers are disciplined by their debts away from risky, experimental, missional ministries.

We are disciplined as a nation by our national debt, even though the majority is bonds held by US financial institutions. It is because of the national debt, we are told, that we cannot fix our infrastructure, rebuild our cities, lift all out of poverty. And consider the people of Greece, who are being forced into brutal austerity because of their debt.

Being in debt puts a person on the precipice of shame. You had to borrow money, which proves that you are in need, which is shameful, just to start. Now you have a car, a pair of shoes, a house, an education that you didn't really pay for, so you are kind of pretending to be more than you are, which is shameful. And finally, you made a promise to pay the debt back, so until you do, your honor is in question. To fail to pay it back, that is really shameful: a shame that goes deeply to your fundamental character. You are not a good person anymore. And asking other people to help you get of out debt also makes you morally suspect.

Indebtedness is the emotional landmine of people's personal finances.

First of all, we have to speak the truth about this and break the link between shame and debt. Debt is a fact of life now. Indebtedness is not a sign of personal failure. I would even go so far as to say that indebtedness is most pervasive form of economic exploitation in our country today.

Secondly, we need change the way we talk about giving and generosity. And our talk of generosity and giving does not acknowledge indebtedness at all. Our giving guides talk about giving as a percentage of what a person makes. But the most important fact about people's situation is how much they owe.

Perhaps we should be looking a giving in relationship to people's debt/income ratio, which measures how much of one's monthly income is dedicated to debt service. (There are other ways of measuring indebtedness; mortgage companies do this all the time.) Most people run between 10% and 25%, although some younger people in high real estate markets run much higher.

Perhaps asking for percentage of people's income after debt service would be more realistic, and acknowledge people's real situations.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

OWL Access, Part 4 -- Cooley & Landrum

This is part of a four-part series on making OWL more accessible by Dawn Cooley and Cynthia Landrum.  Our first post shared the expense of OWL and the importance of OWL.  The second post, by Cynthia Landrum, explored the problems and work-arounds for one small congregation.  The third post, by Dawn Cooley, explored how one mid-sized congregations does OWL.  Our fourth and final post in the series will share some possible solutions to making OWL accessible.  

The Our Whole Lives (OWL) comprehensive sexuality curriculum is one of the flagship programs offered in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Many youth have described it as life saving.  But it is financially out of range for many of our UU congregations.  So how do we maintain the standard of excellence while also increasing accessibility?  How do we remove barriers to participation?  Here are just a few ideas and possibilities:
  • Go virtual. Online classroom models have come a long way in the 16 years that OWL has been around. This might look like a weekly webinar/discussion, or it could utilize the flipped classroom model, or some other model.  There could also be a hybrid of online and in-person training, reducing the amount of time (and expense) necessary for congregations and participants.

  • Create levels of training.  The current standard for facilitators would be considered fully approved, but an online course could be used to give people a preliminary approval which could then be finalized with an interview or something similar.

  • Lower the number of approved facilitators needed for sessions.  If there were different levels of facilitation, this could look like having one facilitator with the full training, and others who are supplemental/preliminary facilitators who can be teacher assistants and lead break-out groups.

  • Make the training modular. Instead of being approved to facilitate particular ages, perhaps facilitators can be trained to lead specific topics and modules at multiple levels.  Another model might have a core OWL facilitation training that is in-person, and then add-on modules for each age level that are online.

  • Create simplified add-on OWL components/modules that could supplement other sexuality education (such as those offered by schools or Planned Parenthood).  These might focus specifically on the areas that other sexuality educations typically don't cover, from gender identity to how sexuality relates to our principles.
Utilizing the ideas above would help remove barriers to congregations offering OWL, but there are also ways to remove barriers through the administration of the program:
  • The UU Funding Program, or district/regional Chalice Lighter grants, could provide grants to small congregations to allow them to get their first facilitators trained and their program up and running, after which point it would be expected that tuition for participants would be able to continue to fund the growth of the program (charging tuition also increases the commitment of participants to attend).

  • The UUA keeps a database of trained facilitators but does not share it in order to maintain facilitator privacy.  This database could be made accessible to an OWL coordinator-type person in each congregation/district/region so that congregations who need a facilitator at a specific age range could find (or be referred to) an approved facilitator who lives nearby, increasing the possibility of congregations sharing facilitators.

  • The UUA, or districts/regions could strive to make sure that each year there are trainings for each level  within 5 hour drive of most congregations.

  • Reduce the required annual commitments for those who become facilitator trainers. This would allow more trainers to become available. It could also reduce the total cost of the trainings on both the host and attendee sides.
None of this has to mean lowering our standards for who teaches OWL.  Online and modular classes can have the same high standards of references and background checks, and, indeed, should.  We can even increase standards, if necessary, for online classes.
  • In order to continue to maintain the quality of facilitators, potential facilitators could be required to get a recommendation from their DRE or Minister (or something similar). 

  • Facilitators could also be required to take refresher modules after a certain amount of time or when a new edition is available.
OWL has been around for sixteen years now, and has proven itself to stand the test of time (with some necessary updates).  The problems around accessibility have always existed – these are not new issues. However, as society becomes more polarized around issues of sexuality, consent, gender identity and more, we are getting a better understanding of the beacon of hope that OWL provides to those who participate in it.  As such, we believe it is time to make OWL accessible to as many congregations as possible by removing these barriers.

Monday, June 08, 2015

OWL Access, Part 3 - Cooley

This is part of a four-part series on making OWL (Our Whole Lives) more accessible by Dawn Cooley and Cynthia Landrum.  Our first post shared the expense of OWL and the importance of OWL.  The second post, by Cynthia Landrum, explores the problems and work-arounds for one small congregation.  This third post, by Dawn Cooley, will explore how one congregation has successfully implemented OWL but still struggles to make it work. Our fourth and final post in the series will share some possible solutions.

The other night I was at a dinner to celebrate the newest graduates of our middle-school (MS) OWL curriculum.  It was inspiring to hear the kids talk about how they had grown as individuals and as sexually healthy people.  And the facilitators have my undying respect for guiding these kids through thick and thin on some of the most difficult issues the kids are currently facing: what does consent mean? what is sexual orientation? what is gender identity? how can we express ourselves in oppressive environments? how can we be good allies? how do we deal with social media in a healthy way? And so much more.

The Religious Institute says that one of the hallmarks of a sexually healthy congregation is that it offers comprehensive sexuality education at every age level.  I am proud that the 190-member congregation that I serve hits this marker.  By most measures, we have a very a successful OWL program.

I wish I could take credit for this, but I can't - the congregation had been sending people to OWL training for years before I got here six years ago.  They have sent 26 people in the congregation to one training or another.  Right now, however, only about 15 of these facilitators are active because people move, or they decide to invest their energies elsewhere, or they have to step back for a while.

This number may sound like a lot of facilitators, but let's break this number down.  Here is our 2-year class rotation, which we use to ensure that every child has a chance to attend in their age range:

Year 1: K-2 in the Fall, MS(7-9) in the Spring
Year 2: 4-6 in the Fall, HS (10-12) and Adult (combined with Young Adult) in the Spring

OWL requires us to have 2 trained facilitators in each classroom, each of a different gender.  Offering 5 levels of OWL means requiring at least 10 trained facilitators.  If we were to break out Young Adult and Adult, that would be 6 levels, requiring 12 trained facilitators.

However, for most of these sessions, if you only have 2 facilitators, this means that a) you can't do breakout sessions and b) the facilitators never get a break (which is especially important in the time-intensive MS program). So we try to have at least 3 trained facilitators in each class, along with some non-parent volunteers in children and youth classes who can help us live by our child safety policy of 2+ adults in the room for breakout sessions.  Suddenly, we are up to 15+ trained facilitators.

Now, we do have some duplicates. In fact, all our MS trained facilitators are also HS trained. However, 2 of them are parents of kids in the MS/HS range, meaning they are out of commission until their children age out.  This puts a burden on the rest of the MS/HS trained facilitators, because it means they have to teach every Spring. This is what most of these wonderful facilitators do: they give up any other volunteering and just facilitate OWL.

My DRE and I estimate that we need to be training 2-3 new facilitators every year so that we don't burn people out.  But getting training is not that easy.  It means straining our budget to come up with between $1000 - $3000+ depending on where the training is held. Since congregations schedule the training  themselves, there is no promise that there will be a training nearby that we can send people to.  And even then, we don't know if we will be able to line up suitable facilitators-to-be with the training dates available! Sometime the dates aren't announced far enough in advance for people to make the work and family accommodations necessary to allow them to attend. At one point, my DRE was looking at the OWL schedule and all the trainings on the schedule were for places to which she would have to fly, and she was weighing between Texas or Alaska.  Thankfully more trainings have since gone on the schedule, but there was no guarantee that this would happen.

Each year at these celebratory dinners, I hear both adults and youth testify to how OWL had changed their lives. It is one of the most life-saving, flagship programs that our faith tradition has, and yet it is so resource intensive that most mid-size or smaller congregations simply can't manage it. The congregation I serve does, barely, but it comes at a cost. Not all congregations can make the same choices we have made.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

OWL Access, Part 2 - Landrum

This is part of a four-part series on making Our Whole Lives (OWL) more accessible by Dawn Cooley and Cynthia Landrum.  Our first post shared the expense of OWL and the importance of OWL.  This post, by Cynthia Landrum, explores the problems and work-arounds for one small congregation.  Our third post, by Dawn Cooley, will explore how one mid-sized congregation has successfully implemented OWL but still struggles to make it work. Our fourth and final post in the series will share some possible solutions. 

In my small congregation, we've been unable to find both the money and the volunteers to make OWL possible.  That has left us with a few choices: attend another UU church, partner with the UCC churches, or work outside the box.

Option one is to send our youth to a program at a nearby church.  But few parents seem to want to drive a 45-minute drive (one way) to another church to put their youth in a class where they won't know the teachers.  The youth may be reluctant to take OWL in the first place, but to take it in a class where they don't know the other teens is asking a lot, particularly with teens who are at all introverted.  So this option, while viable, has never happened for us.

Option two was to partner with UCC churches.  There are two UCC churches in our town.  However, one church is about our size with few youth, and at the time we reached out to them had no real religious education director.  The other UCC church has more youth, but an interim minister.  Both churches didn't take the bait when we started fishing.  We tried talking to them, and to the Congregational (non-UCC) church in town, but none of them seemed ready to start partnering with us on what seemed like a controversial and peripheral program for them.  This may change, and there's still potential there, but it's a hard work of coordinating when none of us have much in the way of dedicated Religious Education staff.

So our third option was to think outside the box, and this is what we did.  I met with our local chapter of Planned Parenthood, and they have programs that are grant-funded for teens, and programs that were unfunded for younger children that they were happy to come and present at our church for our youth, provided we were willing to open them up to the public.  The youth program, being grant funded, we did not need to pay for.  The elementary school program, as it was not grant funded, they asked us to contribute for, and we raised the $150 they asked for plus some through a special plate pass that we were going to have anyways for Planned Parenthood.  Total cost to our congregation: $150.  Compare that with the $1270 cost to run OWL, and it was an easy sell. Our children got some sexuality education at church, and we built a stronger relationship with Planned Parenthood.  There were a lot of positives to this.

But it was not OWL, and not as good as OWL.  The Planned Parenthood series was much shorter than OWL -- only two or three sessions.  Planned Parenthood, because the teen program was funded from a Federal grant, was not allowed to discuss abortion -- at all.  I talked with the Planned Parenthood leader ahead of time about making sure that it included LBGT people, but I'm sure it wasn't as thoroughly inclusive of LGBT people as OWL would be.  I wouldn't be surprised to hear that the word "transgender" didn't come up in their presentation, although it might have.  I'm also pretty sure it wasn't as thorough about sex as OWL would be.  Planned Parenthood isn't abstinence-only; it is comprehensive sexuality education, but I get the feeling that it's less comprehensive, if only due to the shorter time frame. 

And lastly, OWL is presented from our faith perspective, and only we can do that.  I can't ask Planned Parenthood to understand Unitarian Universalism completely, much less present from our perspectives and connect things to our values and principles. 

There are answers to how we can do this better.  There are ways to make OWL more accessible.  We'll explore some of those in the final part to our series. 

Saturday, June 06, 2015

#sustainministry My Point (and I do have one)

We can't fix the problem of the economic sustainability of liberal religion, if we continue to think of liberal religion as we do.

We are in a time of rising social movements who are actively organizing for the values we espouse.

We should pivot toward those social movements and lean into them. How can we serve them? How can we be ourselves in them? How can we fulfill our mission with them?

Our evolution as a religious/spiritual movement and the present historical moment in US and world history are coming into synchronicity.  We have been growing toward this moment.

We know how to do some things. And one of those things is that Unitarian Universalism can do is to turn out leaders who have been assessed and tested for their integrity, depth and accountability. One of the reasons why our formation process is long and expensive is that filters out people who are more likely to unaccountable and damaging. It's why we credential religious educators and musicians and other professionals. It's not for the knowledge; it's for the integrity and character.

So we should be turning out the leaders that social movements need; leaders who are tested for integrity and are capable of accountability. Leaders who have spiritual depth and emotional intelligence. We should be turning them out as cheaply as possible and as quickly as we can. We should be doing all we can with all our resources and talents to "promote and affirm" the social principles we share.

We will be changed by the near future. If we are not, we will be closer to a terminal case of the "dwindles." So, let's be bold, and a little reckless, and think not of ourselves so obsessively.

Our boat is a bit leaky, and rusty in some spots, and needs some repair here and there. But it's time to put it into the water and head into the open sea, for the winds favor us, and we yearn for the journey.


I was a panelist at the Summit on the Economic Sustainability of Ministry, organized by "the people formerly known as the Department of Ministry"in St. Louis.  A couple of people livetweeted the event and the #sustainministry hashtag carries a lot of the most memorable things that we said by participants. The UU World was there and is preparing an article, and has already posted photos on the UUA's Facebook page.

I was given a chance to make two presentations to the group. I am going to break up my points into a couple of posts.

My first point is that the decline of the 'mainline' churches is, to some extent, political. When the country lurched to right in the 70's and 80's, conservative evangelical churches grew and the more liberal denominations shrank. (Recent years have shown their relative decline, but conservatism as whole is now shrinking as well.)

I have pounded on this point repeatedly here at the Lively Tradition. Contemporary Unitarian Universalism, in any of its dimensions, can only be understood in the context of the 40 year cultural hegemony of conservative ideology. For decades, conservative churches have done quite well; the more liberal mainline churches have done poorly. I believe that the only reason why the UU's have not had the same decline as the mainline was that we were welcoming LGBTQIA people while they were not. What a boost in energy, creativity, and clarity came about as a result !

So, when we look at the economic sustainability of our ministry, we need to remember that our problem is not just the sign of a generational shift in church-going habits, but also the result of the political trends in the country. Rosemary Bray McNatt commented that the African American church has not seen the same pattern of decline.  Carey MacDonald pointed out that the decline has mostly been in mainline white Protestant denominations and English speaking Catholics.

And we must remember that the political dominance of the Right has fostered economic policies that affect our situation: the concentration of wealth at the top and the reliance on individual debt to finance what used to more commonly supported endeavors, like higher education.

So my point is this: when we look at the precarious economic circumstances of liberal religion, which includes the economic sustainability of the ministry, we have to see it, in part, as the damage done to it by political forces which explicitly oppose our values. And therefore, we have to look beyond ourselves to the present historical situation for solutions, in part.

Keeping the Faith
(edited to correct stupid error: 6:58PM)

OWL Access, Part 1 -- Cooley & Landrum

This is part one of a four-part series about increasing access to Our Whole Lives, written by Dawn Cooley and Cynthia Landrum.  In the following pieces we'll go into more depth about the struggles and work-arounds of different-sized congregations, and some proposals for possible solutions.  Part One is by Cynthia Landrum with input from Dawn Cooley.

 Our Whole Lives (OWL), the UUA/UCC lifespan sexuality education curriculum, is a tremendously important program for our churches.  It provides the most comprehensive sexuality education available at all ages.  It sets our churches apart for their healthy attitudes towards sex and sexuality.  It literally saves lives, and it has the potential to transform communities.  We're justifiably proud of this curriculum.  When we point to what is ground-breaking, innovative, and cutting-edge in our movement, we can (and should!) point to OWL.  In a society with unhealthy attitudes towards sex and sexuality prevalent, OWL has a unique and important role in our movement and in our congregations.

Though OWL is an incredibly vital and important program, is is also the most inaccessible program for congregations to offer.  Its high pricetag for training and materials sets the cost above the reach of many of our small congregations.  This is the bulk of our churches -- in MidAmerica, for example, half of our churches are under 100, and 2/3 are under 150.  That inaccessibility for most churches then ensures that the trainings become less frequent, making travel more of a cost for the mid-sized and larger churches.  

How much does it cost to get OWL started in your congregation?  It depends partly on travel, but let's suppose that I was interested in OWL for my grades 7-9 junior high group, and I wanted to get training sometime between July and September.  I have five choices: Bozeman, MT ($250 plus lodging); Corvallis, OR ($225 plus lodging); Bellevue, WA ($250 plus lodging); Nashua, NH (unclear price); and Murray Grove in Lanoka Harbor, NJ ($375 including lodging).  Note that these numbers do not include travel to these locations!

Let's say I decide to rule out the ones at UCC churches because I want to be trained in the UU faith component of the OWL program.  So cross off Nashua and Bozeman.  From my location in Michigan, it's therefore cheapest to get to Murray Grove, where the lodging is included.  OWL requires two facilitators, so our costs would look something like this ( without counting incidentals, travel cost to/from the airport, and meals):
$750 - Registration and Lodging for 2 people
$400 - Air Fare
$120 - Books (curriculum, companion book, advocacy manual & parent guide)
$1270 - Total Cost
Keep in mind that is the cost for getting trained to facilitate one age group.  The 7-9 junior high training is the most expensive for materials, but also the most commonly offered.  Other age ranges would have lower material costs, but one might have to wait much longer for training or travel much further.  Regardless, a $1270 cost for offering the program would cut a pretty large-sized hole in my small-sized budget.  If we wanted to get a third person trained, allowing us to rotate facilitators so as not to rely solely on just two facilitators, the costs are even higher.

These costs also don't include the time off from work that is required for those who get trained - the training is 2.5 days, not including travel time. Most people would be required to take at least one, possibly more, days off work in order to attend.  This hidden cost further limits who can participate in facilitator training.

The UUA estimates that as of 2009, more than half of UU congregations had at least one facilitator trained at one level.  That means it's likely even fewer have two trained facilitators, and fewer still have two for more than one level of OWL.   

Compare this to another UUA program that UU congregations are encouraged to participate in, which also requires a substantial time investment with multiple leaders: the Welcoming Congregation program.  The vast majority of congregations across the country have become Welcoming Congregations.  In Michigan, for example, the number is 82% of congregations -- all but three.  The materials are all online, and no facilitator training is necessary.  This program has been extremely successful in helping our congregations become more welcoming to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. In part, its success is due to the lack of barriers to participation in the program, barriers which the OWL program unfortunately continues to have.  There are reasons for some of these barriers, but some of our thinking around them is outdated.

According to the Religious Institute, one of the hallmarks of a sexually healthy congregation is that it offers comprehensive sexuality education at every age level.  But too many of our UU churches don't meet this benchmark, or scramble to do so.  It's time to make OWL accessible for all churches.

Edited to fix a typo.