— What’s The Vision? Need One Before We Go Beyond

February 2, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Posted in Online Ministry, Unitarian Universalism | 13 Comments

Upate: The text of a blog I wrote in response to the Congregations & Beyond white paper by UUA prez Peter Morales follows this video update. Rev. Morales preached at my church, http://www.uucava.org, on Sun. Feb. 12. The sermon is a vital companion to the white paper. Our social ministry team kicked into action to record the video and post that evening.

Here it is to further the conversation that is in the Comment section.

Original blog:
The whitepaper, “Congregations and Beyond,” is a discussion document that outlines a strategic direction for UUism.

But a direction for what? What is the vision for UUism? A call to action to consider ourselves as a movement is not a vision, IMHO. It’s a tactic that hints at a mission in search of a vision. But it has the makings of some good tactics, which I’ll discuss later in the blog. And, it opens up a conversation about how we address a variety of trends.

But first: Here’s one example of a vision I can hold dear and spend blue boat loads of heart beats on:

The vision: For UUism to be the lead liberal religious voice seated at the table of local and global moral issues; a voice, a faith that is easily understood and called upon to create heaven on earth.

Elevator pitch: We live moral lives based on human hearts and inquiring minds and through a filter of faith, compassion, kindness and respect. (21 words; 126 characters, acceptable for tweeting!)

With a vision such as this, we then can outline a strategy and a tactical implementation plan whose mission is to manifest the vision over time.

I’m not saying this vision is anything close to the right one. I offer it to stimulate an exercise in this blog. It’s written a certain way because it generalizes who we are, what we want to be, and what our purpose is.

My reflections here come from the following perspective:

I am a two-year-old UU toddler in a 50-year-old woman’s body.  I am a GenXer; not a baby boomer. My generation was the first to work without pensions, the first to be told to rely on market-based 401ks for our frail years. (We’ve also been told we won’t be able to retire.) I’d love to be able to leave a legacy donation to the church to keep it going into the future. But who knows how likely that will be? I have lived UU values since childhood not knowing they added up to a religious identity. Had I known, I may have realized there were many people like me who intentionally seek relationships with one another as members of something larger than themselves.

I was chronically disconnected, self absorbed and hurting. My family practiced faith in concert halls, theaters, museums, bookstores, and occasional holiday dining table-based rituals. The rituals functioned as memorials to my grandfather’s flight from pogroms and nothing more. They masked emotional trauma and distrust – translation: an inability to connect meaningfully with “strangers” to form communities. I had never heard of St. Benedict. And Jesus? Well, my family enjoyed deciphering the “H” in Jesus H. Christ. My father’s choice, Herschel, won the family vote.

When I think of what the word “secular” means, my mind jumps to these holiday gatherings and my disconnection. My facebook religion statement, at the time, was: “Love, compassion, kindness, empathy, courage and contribution.”  It now reads: “Love, compassion, kindnenss, empathy, courage, and contribution = UU.”

I have had to work hard to understand what “doing church” means. It was a foreign culture. Like Chinese, its language seemed to have more than 5,000 characters with considerable nuances implied by pronunciation. The role of clergy seemed like a mixed message.  When I signed the church’s book, the adult education programs were ending for the year. I had to ask ministers, church staff, and members literally thousands of questions to decipher everything I encountered. I read books recommended by lay people and clergy and sought out seminary syllabi for more guidance. I watched many sermons and services on Youtube. I intentionally visited UU churches while traveling for my corporate job.  I’ve had to do all of this to graduate from UU 101.  It was laborious and unnecessarily difficult.

I’m glad I did it. I’m grateful to my ministers and my congregation. UUism is my home, my family. But I’m still not fluent.

Rev. Morales’s white paper cites 500,000 self-identified UUs who don’t participate in the “organized” part of our religion.  Translation: They don’t step into our brick and mortar churches. If you take Beliefnet.com findings seriously, there are also 100s of thousands more who are theoretical UUs.  Beliefnet told them who they are. Without it, they might not know how to recognize their religious/spiritual identity.

Faith development appears to be on the minds of many secular thinkers. What’s interesting is how atheism, in particular, might be willing to consider it.

Recently, a YouTube aired TED talk given by Alain de Botton, Atheism 2.0, has many unchurched thinking about how to be good secular human beings. He’s published a book by the same title. He’s eloquent and believable.

He chaps my chops a little. Much of what he says about Atheism could be said about humanist UUs.  But nary a double U utters from his lips as he cites the religious traditions we draw from. His conclusion: Draw from them, atheists, there’s incredible wisdom there. Okay, nothing wrong with that. But when he says that “all organized religions” fall on their knees to a super-natural god, I wanna pull out some lip balm.

His live audience was a large group of technology related professionals. His YouTube audience has reached even more. It’s this particular group, my homies, the professionals involved in our digital revolution, who stand to feel and identify with much of what UUism is. Many of them are practicing our principles in total and yet they don’t know how to connect the dots. So when de Botton does, I wonder what effect it has on their work and innovations.

Like the me-before-UU, I bet many of them are profoundly disconnected from the mystery of life and are longing for something they cannot describe. (IMHO, if you encounter or experience over time something you cannot name but you can feel, taste or smell, it’s either a personality disorder or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, a sacred aspect of the mystery of life. Perhaps some people think they are interchangeable. )

The white paper highlights community ministry. Yes, I believe that community ministry can reach these masses and work together to hold up the foundations of humanity as its arc bends toward justice.

Through community ministry the unchurched could experience pastoral care and for some, a foreign sensation known as love and kindness. They could join marches along side us. Our chaplains would continue to lovingly tend to them in hospitals, battle fields and the Maine wilderness. [Here’s a thought: Let’s put chaplains in the offices of corporate America. If corporations are persons, lets get them some pastoral care and some liberal religious clergy tending them. This is a subject for another blog post coming soon.]

But will the masses take those community experiences and then act in the name of our faith, in the name of a liberal religious, moral voice?

Will those 500K self-identifiers “apply forward” the compassion and empathy that fuel a commitment to liberal religious values and action? Maybe. But I wouldn’t count on it.  I think the experiences, the conversations, might end up being fragmented and not ongoing.

They’ll help but will they pave the wave for a thriving, lasting UU denomination? I doubt it. Congregations provide routine, consistency and sanctuary. A word which I believe is becoming more widely understood as a safe place for anybody, not just the dispossessed.  [We need Interfaith chaplains and sanctuaries in Corporate America to heal the damage of capitalism and transform it into right relationship with humanity. – Yes!].

By now you may think that this toddler UU is probably extraordinarily ignorant and naive. Maybe the comments of this 50-year-old seasoned faith fool of a marketer and innovator reek of arrogance.

I’ll agree with you.

I’ll take a stab anyway at outlining a FEW prongs of a strategy to meet the vision I offered. The prongs identify roles of various components — not all components, just a few. I’ve chosen these because they are highlighted in the white paper.

  • Congregations would be at the heart of the strategy. However, how church is done in situ deserves an overhaul: one that keeps best practices, objectively studies what isn’t working and change with out-of -the box thinking. Many individuals, churches, and groups are experimenting already. Do they have the infrastructure to support the change? We should accept that many congregants will resist the change. Knowing how to lovingly move them in that direction is the way to go. And, ministers shouldn’t be shunned or penalized in any way for taking risks on these matters.
  • The UUA: Continues to provide guidance and support systems but allows congregations great flexibility in their choices without potential adverse consequences. We could have extensive third-party objective review of the policies and practices that our clergy follow in the field and also for how our congregations find new ministers. There should be any sacred cows. There are times when I’ve wondered if many of these policies and practices are based on worst case scenarios and not best case ones, meaning those that result in a quantifiable improvement for ministers and congregations.  I’m concerned that those well-intentioned practices and procedures are a de-stabilizing force.
  • Clergy: It seems to me that several ministers have begun to shift paradigms. Their shifts stand on the side of best case scenarios and embrace risk taking. Let’s take another risk:  Let ministers be ministers and administrators be administrators. Why not consider emphasizing a track in seminaries to become religious non-profit administrators. Here’s another one: How about requiring continuing education credits, similar to other professions we entrust ourselves to: lawyers, doctors, law enforcement, psychologists and educators. Even after fellowships, let’s consider CE credits as a credential for holding on to fellowship. – Remember, no sacred cows in the discussion!
  • Seminaries: We need to ask our seminarians how they envision aspects of community ministry as integral parts of congregational life. What would it take to make parish life appealing to them and younger generations? Let’s ask them to assume that those under age 40 WILL come to church. Let’s ask them to envision how they’d get the newbies.  How can we integrate community ministry into our congregations? For example, why not expand the Faithful Fools  ministry in San Francisco to cities nationwide and formally offer to them affiliations with congregations. Those churches would devote clergy time and financial support. Meanwhile, do seminarians consider co-ministry with people other than spouses and partners? If this already happens, lets find ways to strengthen that path. Such an arrangement could  open up more opportunities for our seminarians to be employed creatively. Co-ministry would also benefit congregations — two people, two different sets of complimentary strengths.
  • CLF and online ministry: In the grant work I’m doing, I’ll offer models for social ministry at the brick and mortar congregational level and at denominational level. I intend to ask whether CLF should be the center of the denominational level; or should a third-party UU-related organization, not unlike the UU Service Committee, be formed to manage the denominational level? I don’t know. But I want to think way out-of-the box and try to express a few ideas.

In the UU Social Media Lab group on facebook, many of its 845 members have listed 100s of reasons why people aren’t going or staying in congregations. I’m paying attention to what the reasons are, but I’m trying to understand the layers of emotion under them.

I sense the reported comments come from individuals who do not understand why it’s so hard for UUs to act quickly to erase these barriers to “commitment.” If they were removed, I believe many would be prone to stay longer.  And we’d see improved retention very quickly.

The white paper cites societal trends that appear to be great opportunities. But right now the question for me is: Are they lost opportunities without a vision, an aligned strategy, and an implementation plan?  I’d like to see plans that prioritizes and create an infrastructure for UUism that support a clear identity and sustaining vision. I’d like to see milestones and developmental phases that get us closer to the vision within the next 10 years.

I’m grateful that the white paper opens up the conversation. We need a follow up that goes a little more in depth and is aligned with a vision to start turning the conversation into real deeds. And is it possible to get footnotes and a bibliography on our UU white papers?


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  1. Grateful that you take risks and experiment Naomi and that you are leading the digital call in so many ways. J

  2. Yes, being able to name our calling together is important. I think that’s part of what we’re doing right now, together, in a pretty cool and interesting way.
    Naming our calling belongs to each and all of us. There’s not only a lot of energy for change and experimentation right now, but there are lots of easier ways to do that and reasons to go ahead and try, and lots of great changes and experiments to share in, to encourage, to learn from and about.
    We all share the responsibility to shape, name, and live the mission, and share the responsibility to risk faithfully, to fail faithfully, to learn faithfully, and to risk faithfully again. If we aren’t risking and failing faithfully together, graciously and with great encouragement, then we won’t succeed faithfully, either.
    Part of our big mission, as articulated by our Unitarian Universalist Board of Trustees, is to help one another find and live into our ministries – as individuals, families, faith communities, and a faithful people.

  3. Frederick Glaysher left this note as a comment to this blog but on my facebook page:

    I stumbled on your UU blog and found your recent post quite interesting. I recently read Morales’ Statement, and have been reading for some months a UU reverend’s blog at http://peterboullata.com/ so a lot of connections with your thoughtful article occurred to me.

    I respect the rich conversation that UU is able to engage with.
    February 3 at 5:10pm

  4. Perhaps if more time had been spent on vision in the years you were a young minister, our denomination might have had more focus and an identity. Just a thought. Nobody’s got a crystal ball. Though I keep a bottle of windex to help see emerging trends and counter trends on cloudy days. Answer to your question: I don’t know. Or maybe I’m just apprehensive about answering in a way that reflects backwards and then up to this point. All I can say is that it seems to me that “lingering and listening” can be an expertise in itself, and a must have foundational element to being prophetic. In my world, these variables are key to innovation — which has some prophetic aspects about it. The word “enthusiasts” makes me pause. I know I fall into that category. But I was one of the unchurched. And I have thrown myself into self study for two-years for faith development. Several professional religious individuals have said I can get all my questions answered in seminary. I don’t understand why I need to go to a school to develop faith. I also want to understand some aspects of walking in minister shoes to ensure that I am in right relationship with them and that my questions reflect that.

  5. June, this is good stuff. And thank you for modeling some electronic organizational clarity, which I’m struggling with. My response is to remind us that the opposite of moving forward to achieve a vision is holding back to listen to the least able, least ambitious, least clear. At least, that’s what experts in ministry kept saying when I was a young minister and they thought I spent too much time on vision and not enough on pastoring.

    So here’s my question: I experience this denomination as a wrestling match between “experts” who say ministry is about “lingering and listening” and enthusiasts who say it is about “divining and achieving big visions” — usually not for us, but for others. So why is anyone surprised that we keep going around in the same damn circles and people get on and off the merry-go-round according to their own overall perception that we’re just one ride in the amusement park?

  6. “Let ministers be ministers.” That will happen when we actually practice our polity and restore the congregation’s role in the calling, mentoring, maturing and credentialing of ministerial candidates. Instead we farm out spiritual formation to the seminaries, have centralized vocational readiness into the hands of the few rather than the many, and rendered ordination an impotent afterthought. Of course, this would require that congregations have stellar religious education strategies (not programs) so that folk don’t have to go to seminary to find God. Our current system doesn’t train ministers to be ministers; like No Child Left Behind, it trains us to be test takers. Spirit-led leaders cannot be formed only or primarily in the classroom and vocational readiness cannot be reduced to a rating system. The gift of discernment in these matters dwells where it always has–at the center of congregational life.

    • Dear Greg: Thank you for articulating aspects of a few suspicions I’ve had. I love the analogy to no child left behind. I have been asking many questions about professional training and development in my travels. One question I ask is: In seminary training are you required to experience pastoral care with a minister who is not on the school’s staff? I ask because we preach and teach our kids the song about “walking in someone else’s shoes.” So far I have not met a minister who was required to do this in seminary. And I’ve met many who never sought pastoral care when they were lay members — of any religious organization. –Time to pause and say I love my current and former ministers. — It is because I love them and because I believe it is my responsibility to be a part of shared growth that I have asked these kinds of questions to help me understand what ministers do. (My church will be in search very soon for a Sr. minister and I wan to be an informed participant in our process.) Many professions require future colleagues to experience what a client or a patient is going through. These requirements exist and were created by the professionals themselves to strengthen the integrity of their vocations. If you know of ministerial training that requires pastoral care (not therapy in general) to be experienced as the recipient, please share it here. Gratitude -June

  7. Darrell, tx so much for a next iteration of the example vision statement. I can appreciate your discomfort with some of the words you cited. I have some discomfort with the term Social Justice. I’m just not sure that it’s easily understandable to the average person who is not a UU, or a UU not going to a church. Maybe I’m nuts. Maybe that’s the marketer in me that wants everyone, regardless of creed, deed and political leanings, to know who we are. Lots to think about. If I conducted conversations and surveys of our citizenry, we’d have a terrific sense of how to talk about ourselves. To further this fantasy, I’d call upon chaplains and community ministers who tend to individuals who don’t/can’t go to church and who are living under difficult situations. And I guess, I really believe we need to allude or literally use religious language in some way in the vision.

    I hope more people continue to comment here. And perhaps the commenters would like to do a google+ hangout chat to talk in real time.

    Whaddya think?

    • I can easily agree that ‘social justice’ is not the best understood wording for my meaning.. perhaps more like true individual equality and quality of life..

      for me, looking from an agnostic/atheist/skeptic view (while a practicing pagan), the allusion or literal use of certain and most common religious terms can be off-putting.. i think we need to stop preaching to the choir..

      real time chats sound ideal if perhaps somehow scheduled to have a working number of participants… can we perhaps use SGM (small group ministry) and cell dynamics to create small cells of chats, limited to a maximum number, with a dedicated moderator, always prepared to split/evolve as the discussion grows?.. oh,, maybe not.. is a bit complicated.. hmm..

      • Okay we’ll figure out how to have the chat. See what others recommend. Only issue is: Are there more readers of this blog out there who’d like to do this?

  8. This is a great conversation because while I see and experience great things happening and important changes occurring in our religious movement, I also see some disintegration. I’m troubled by clergy who point fingers at congregations in blame for not rising to a more evolved form. Because, as you evidence, so much of our denomination consider the discovery of a UU church as the end of the rainbow of spiritual seeking, they are glued to their seats.

    An additional change in clergy and seminaries is how to LEAD a congregation toward its vision and mission. UUs don’t respond positively to threats and criticism. Clergy must use their prophetic voices to show us the way. They, along with DREs must be leaders in Faith Development so UUs can grow and evolve and deepen our faith. Members and laity must commit to lifelong learning and be open and responsible in their commitment to being changed – not being reinforced by sameness. We need a humility that allows us to listen to the people we’ve chosen to listen to and lead us.

    I realized that all the businessof church that takes our focus isvreally Preparation forvthecwork we must do in the world. And we need to engage with one another in a spirit of shared values – we may argue over how to get there, but we ALL want to get to Beloved Community.

    • Thank you Carrie. I particularly appreciate your insistance that congregants can be coached by ministers (and lay leaders too) into understanding how, and what it means, to practice growth and openness. I’ve been thinking about stewardship of late. And it occurred to me that one ingredient of a new member education program could be a Commitment Class that one takes when declaring a status of “Friend” or when transitioning to “Member.” And another class when Membership is achieved would be on Stewardship. It could explain what those who came before us did to ensure our congregation had a future. So the order of new member classes could be: New To UU; Commitment; Stewardship. No demands on the students at all to pledge or donate in these classes. None. But in the case of a member, at least, a minister could have a follow-up chat 4-6 months later. The conversation would have the effect of a soft sell but not be delivered in such a way.

  9. Thank you for your considered words. I read this from a link posted by CLF Senior Minister Meg Riley on facebook. I am grateful you are discussing some relevant and necessary questions. Below is my amended version of your proposed vision and pitch, based on my nearly half-century life of wearing many hats.

    I specifically have trouble with the use of the words; UU, UUism, liberal, religious, moral, faith, heaven and the concept of a separate heart and mind. I believe much needed change could be heralded by a necessary relabeling of who we are.

    The vision: for us to be the best organization for social change; a relevant voice to build a global beloved community.

    Elevator pitch: We live examined and virtuous lives and work toward a better future for all.

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