— Are Many Hurt-Free, Working Professionals Turned Off In Our Churches?

May 23, 2013 at 11:26 am | Posted in Online Ministry | 11 Comments

In the last three years, I’ve talked to many professionals (40ish to 50ish in age) about their moral and ethical values and why they aren’t members of a church – particularly a UU congregation.

“You might find that UU communities are filled with people just like you,” I tell them with as much of an objective, non-evangelical tone as possible.

“I was married by a UU Minister!” says one psychiatrist in Maryland. “I send depressed clients to UU churches!” she says trying to acknowledge the good works that UUs do.

“My kids go to RE but I just can’t relate to the Sunday worship. They are so out-of-touch,” says the CEO founder of a multi-million digital dollar company in Virginia.

“All I hear is that we are all broken,” says a well-regarded author and academician. She continues: “I get it that people who are hurting are attracted to the church. I want to go but I’m not hurting. Everything there arises from some kind of hurt and, well, problems that seem so insurmountable. There’s a malaise despite all of the talk about joy and happiness. I even tried to volunteer but there was so much disagreement in the group. I get more done in one day at work with volunteer work there than in the church.”

I have been surprised that many of my colleagues and friends have walked into UU churches over the last few decades but never returned. Stripping away time management issues, queasiness about religion in general and other typical factors, more often than not, people I have known – highly functioning individuals- say they just don’t fit in.

Which brings me to question the power of the word “broken” and how it is not a soothing or believable acknowledgement of the human condition, for many people. Is the definition of an alternative church culture one that assumes everything outside of it is broken? Is this one reason why nearly all faiths are having trouble attracting attendees?

I’ve tried to explain how I came to realize that the language of religion – even its syntax – is easily misunderstood if you don’t recognize that on some level it’s like professional jargon. The difference between this “jargon” and other types is that it speaks to the soul and its source is compassion. –Sometimes my explanation works but other times it compounds the problem because it sounds like Greek to many.

I wonder how my friends and colleagues external to the UU world will experience their 60s – death phase of life. They appear to be on paths that lead to alternative types of living that center on community but have nothing to do with attending a church such as co-housing; group houses; Golden Girl inspired homes etc.

Another question of late that keeps popping into my head, and I’d love to know what pops into yours, is:

If the president of the United States was a practicing, devout UU, who would he turn to in our world for religious counsel? Who in our UU world could meet the unique challenges of advising the most powerful man in the world?

To answer, click the “Comment” link that appears just under the title to this blog post. Feel free to say why.

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  1. I’m a newbie, and I find this post puzzling, because I don’t find an emphasis on “brokenness” or a sense of malaise in either of the congregations I attend. I find an atmosphere of acceptance of both the joy and the pain within oneself, and within the members of the community. I’d also like to point out that those who are “hurt-free, working professionals” today may not be so tomorrow. (In fact, they’re getting close to that dreaded “60 – death” slide.) And are these 40-50ish “unbroken” professionals somehow more desirable church members than those who are younger/older/blue-collar/unemployed/suffering?

    • I agree. I haven’t found my New UU experience to be one of brokenness either – though I was hurting in my first year but have healed from those times. I think Mark Perloe’s comment below is what I’ve tried to convey using the words of the speakers themselves – not mine. In the case of the people I’ve spoken too, they are loving compassionate people. The CEO is one of the most progressive employers I know. I think that “hurt” and the spirit of “brokenness” that they have expressed doesn’t mean they aren’t compassionate or that they haven’t hurt before and won’t again. Depending on the time of year and what a congregation is discussing, “hurting” of all kinds may be the focus. Each of the four years I’ve been a member of a UU congregation has brought new learning that reveals aspects to language, worship and community that expresses the joy of the faith to me. I have made the time to be on a religious community journey. Other working professionals can’t always do that. Meanwhile, for me, I’m in pieces all the time — but not hurting all-the time.

  2. From Christopher Buja, a UU religious educator in New Jersey and New UU reader: “Hmmm… Thought provoking blog post and great thread unfolding. A similar sentiment came up in a recent gathering of UUs I was at and I shared some of my perspective on the matter. My perception and experience of three UU congregations all are quite similar in this respect- it has felt to me that in order to “fit in” one must “have it all together”- or at least appear to have it all together. It seems when challenging life circumstances arise- divorce, job loss, addiction issues- is when people tend to be less present in congregational life. While addressing such struggles may inevitably impinge upon time available in the faith community, I wondered if it were because people didn’t feel they could share that part of their lives with the UU community. This is not to say that the whole congregation should be privy to a person’s struggles but that a faith community should be where a person can bring their whole self- joys and sorrows, strengths and weaknesses. I also disagree with those who think it is only the world that needs changing and not themselves- he who would transform the world must first be transformed himself. And even when personal transformation is achieved, it takes work to not only maintain that transformation but to also keep growing in that transformation- and sharing with others, being there for others, so that they may also experience transformation. This concept lies at the heart of many 12 step recovery models. Many express great relief when at last discovering a UU congregation- “I’ve thought/felt like a UU for so long I just didn’t know it etc.”- but that is not the end of the journey, it is only the beginning. If there is no difference in a person’s life before they were UU and after they became UU- or any difference from being a younger UU to an older UU for the lifers- then I think something is amiss…”

  3. I think the discussion is not addressing the title for this post. I think the blog post asks if we are offering an attractive spiritual home for those who don’t feel broken or overwhelmed. There are plenty of opportunities for people who feel called to recognize and address the struggles of others, yet if you are lucky enough to be able to celebrate the gifts that are part of your life, are you only welcome if you choose to accept the burdens of others?

  4. I can only speak for myself, personally. I have most felt alienated from Unitarian Universalism (the faith of my childhood, choice of my adulthood, and medium of my vocation) when it has focused on such brokenness, raising victimhood to sainthood.

    I am most attuned to Unitarian Universalism when it is an encouraging catalyst of empowerment toward greater fulfillment (individual and collective) founded on the strengths and resources, not the deficits and weakness of people.

    Whenever I have dared says this, I have felt the hard edged accusation that as an educated, white, male in America, I am privileged not know brokenness. I could detail for you my life drawn in terms of so-called brokenness aplenty – relationships destroyed by racial and religious prejudice, children lost to illness and death-as-youth, stage 3 melanoma when I was 26, house fire, divorce, and so much more — which no status of privilege could ever overcome or mitigate.

    BUT, if in any of those times the Unitarian Universalism I call home had focused on the experiences as some form of innate brokenness, or offered me anything other than encouragement to find and explore my inherent strength, I would have felt abandoned, betrayed.

    Alas, too often of late, especially at General Assembly, I have felt like we were more operating a triage unit for the spiritually impaired rather than a spirit-tank (the religious equivalent of a think-tank) seeking to proclaim the power of possibilities.

    One of the comments I hear often from visitors to the congregation I serve is that it feels so healthy, from the reception they receive to the content of the service to the setting in which we gather. I suspect too many of the people described in the blog experienced Unitarian Universalism like many experience a hospital — lots of good ideas and possibilities but too much of an emphasis on illness rather than health.

    Randy Becker – Key West, Conch Republic

  5. I don’t know about other UU congregations, but we don’t have much “broken” language. In a search of our site, the first sermon with the word “broken” comes from the poem “Broken Goddesses” in a sermon by a young adult on “Women and Toilets” about being a female electrician. We need to embrace a variety of diversities. Including those in “their 60s” who do not feel like they’re in their “death phase” and feel full of life.

  6. What I run into, both within my congregation and in the wider community, is a super-self attitude: I can do anything! We can do anything! I don’t need anyone else! And yet in the same people I see an utter inability to cope when they develop a painful condition or a terminal illness. Their worldview instructed them that that wasn’t supposed to happen. I see others who are desperately lonely and isolated; they haven’t made connections with more than a couple other people for decades, and suddenly they are out of a job or divorced and they realize that they can’t do it alone. I see many who seem to think that aging is someone else’s problem. Then, when their bodies stop being capable of the things they did in their youth, they are unmoored.

    What must they think of people who are in desperate straits? We know what a lot of the American, New Age, and even Christian ethos says: “It’s their own doing.”

    One person at my church disliked our mission of “transforming ourselves, each other and the world” because she’d worked on herself a lot and liked herself as she was and didn’t come here to be changed. I like her as she is too, very much, and I agree that one thing we come for is to be affirmed in who we are. And yet I don’t see a single soul coming through our door that isn’t in need of some kind of transformation, starting with myself.

    Harping on brokenness is not my thing. But anyone who looks around at this world and doesn’t see devastation as well as beauty needs to open their eyes a little wider. IOW, they need a religious community that will gently show them the world’s suffering and help them to do something about it. I get tired of hearing about overwhelming problems, too, but if I had your friend here I would ask her how she thinks we ought to respond to climate change, the earthquake in Haiti, child abuse, poverty, etc. as a religious community. Ignore them because they’re so depressing and they’re not our problem? Isn’t that what perpetuates them? Talk about depressing. I would rather engage with them with open eyes and some kind of hope and determination.

  7. I’m not sure that your final question begins to answer the issues posed by the opening scenario, and it’s the issue of what do we UUs as a denomination offer to the younger members, the ones who believe we are out-of-touch and broken? I can only say that my congregation has been told so often recently that we are ‘broken’ that we have almost come to believe it, and who wants to fly on a broken wing? I place responsibility on a prevailing denominational attitude which luxuriates in the past rather than learning to soar into the future.

  8. Posting for Cynthia, a NewUU reader:

    I think the feeling of “brokenness” comes when a person has successfully created a persona that “works” and feels real and good, and then, owing to major changes in one’s self or one’s environment, no longer works well. The persona, excellent as it was, may then be broken through by deeper layers of the spirit, body or mind. The Jungians used to say, maybe still do, that it’s an inevitable and positive stage of growth, usually after 40. One became successful by drawing on all the strengths and talents given at birth and in growing up. Then we experience new life demands, and a new growth phase with deeper creativity, accessed ONLY because the surface layers crack open. That’s how humanity progresses, person by person. It’s not clear to me whether most UUs are bound to a self-image of success, or whether they can go deep and accept the emergence of a new self.

  9. Who? Well, it depends on what sort of advice such a president was seeking. If you’re thinking of pastoral care for a burdened prince of the world (which is the role we’re speaking of, when talking about the presidency), I might seek out one of our military chaplains–say, Rev. David Pyle (who’ll probably kneecap me for this)–because they’ve got a full taste of what the kinds of decisions are that have to be made, and the very brutal and real consequences for people (Americans and not) of such decisions. And for offering support for someone in a command role who has to live with the burden of such decisions. If we’re looking for someone who’d be the voice of moral considerations and vision against the pressures of the knuckle-dragging, let’s be brutally pragmatic world… maybe Rev. Bill Schulz.


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