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