A Sermonic Test Drive

Hi All,

This Sunday, March 11, (at 10:30 a.m.)  I will be the guest preacher at the Westwood Unitarian Congregation here in Edmonton (11135-65 Avenue).  The topic, not surprisingly, will be the material explored in this blog.  It is the main theme of my sabbatical inquiries after all.  I guess this is the sermonic test drive of my ideas before an audience that might not be as switched on as you, dear readers.

Happy to see you there if you happen to be in the area.

It will be an interesting challenge.  Should I try to do something new?  Or perhaps,  more wisely, should I use this as a chance to reflect on what I have learned so far in these past two months?

It seems to me that one of the flaws inherent in this world of instant information is the erosion of reflection time.  The pressure on journalists, serious writers and even amateur bloggers like me is to produce new content all the time, to keep mining the topic for fresh thoughts and images.  But the quest for the new leaves little room to go back and review.

I think that’s as true for information consumers as it is producers.  We don’t get time to think about what we have seen, read or heard unless we impose a strict kind of discipline on ourselves.  Even the ’24 hour news cycle’ is fast becoming a relic in this age of give me something new and exciting.  As I wrote in an early post (Stillness), our society -if not many individuals within it – have lost our taste for silence and contemplation.  If something doesn’t go so well, we increasingly just drop it instead of analyzing it, turning it over and trying to rework it into something more successful.

Three generations of Kielys ran a machine shop in Montreal.  It was a viable and often thriving business for over a century, but its doors were closed about four years ago.  It was the last of its kind in the city at the time.  Why?  the world had changed.  People replace, they don’t repair.  When a machine fails, we get a new one, or a large pre-formed replacement part that snaps into place.

The age of review or re-do or repair seems to be largely in the past.  And as the old proverb says: I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Looking for a way to decide to ‘go new’ or ‘go review’ in this sermon, I copied all the previous 25 posts into a single document.  So far there are about 15,000 words excluding the various video clips and the 80+ comments.  Surely some of that deserves a second look, eh?  So far I haven’t reviewed old posts much except to check a reference now and then.  Now is the time, a chance to check to see if a ‘mid-course correction’ is in order, so that’s what I will do.

I’ll let you know what I come up with after some pondering time.



“The Church is Falling!”

In my last post What’s a Congregation? I promised to talk about the role of the religious professional in this era of changing church, ‘free range’ church and ‘spiritual, but not religious’ (SBNR).  But as usual, I will get there indirectly.

"The Church if Falling! The Church is Falling!"

Well, no, the church is not falling, but there is stress and anxiety in the system.

I love our free religious tradition.  I love that the decisions about faith and moral values ultimately rest with individuals.  I love that our religious professionals only have the power to suggest and persuade, not to prescribe and require. And as I study these cultural shifts and their potential to affect the shape and life of our congregations, I feel both excited and anxious.

I’m excited, because I believe that new communication avenues are allowing us to spread our message both more widely, and in a more targeted fashion.  Interested people can explore our net presence and find messages about our faith that match their experience.  Perhaps it will be found in a local congregation or perhaps it will be found far away.  The new ease of information access gives us so many more options for exploring our faith.  That’s great.

In my role as President of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), I am happy to say that much of our growth around the world has come from individuals and groups finding our religion on the internet.  At last month’s Council Meeting in the Philippines (our largest ever) we welcomed Kenyan and Burundian churches into membership.  They found us through the internet.

ICUU Council Meeting Group Photo, Dumaguette, Philippines, Feb. 2012

Still, I’m also anxious.  I have been a minister for 24 years and have grown fond of a steady paycheque that comes not from the net, but from members of a congregation who voluntarily support the church and by extension, the work that I do in their name.  It is not hard to look at the shift away from institutions implied by this new digital reformation and wonder how secure the future … OK, MY future… will be.

But I’m not a Chicken Little thinking the church will fall and here’s why.  At some point even the grazers at the Spiritual Buffet of World Religion need someone to work in the kitchen and prepare the meal.  That role falls in part to the religious professionals: the lifespan educators, the musicians, the other church staff and yes, even us ministers.  The reality in this age of the declining volunteerism is that even more of the work is falling onto those folks who are paid to go to church.

Sure there are a lot of talented amateur ‘chefs’ in our movement who organize the nourishment on many Sundays, but even they need support.

There is something gained by having leaders who are trained to think in religious terms – to think in UU religious terms, who have taken the time to study in depth the ancient and modern traditions of religion, who have learned their craft and who strive to perfect it constantly.  One of the joys of being a religious professional is that I get paid to think about the church, its well-being and its needs for all of my working day.  That’s not something volunteers have the time or energy to do.

It is the professional who often (not always) puts out or shares the ideas that are the topic of conversation around the movement, who helps to shape the communities of support, who works to keep congregations healthy and true to a  tradition and not just subject to the current vogue ideas.  We are the ones who look at society and interpret today’s events in terms of a beautiful and caring religious tradition. And, sometimes it is the professional who shovels the snow and makes the coffee, too…who does the jobs that simply have to get done whether its part of the job description or not.

I have known fellowships that have survived well  and proudly for decades without ministers…but most of them have had paid religious educators, Lay Chaplains (in Canada) and often musicians and administrators.  Very few thriving congregations have no paid professional support.  Someone has to do the work the good-hearted volunteers can’t get done.

And while you don’t necessarily have to be a minister to perform rites of passage: child dedications, weddings and memorials (or as we say in the biz: “Hatch, match and dispatch”), I can’t tell you the number of times people have expressed relief at having the support of a professional to help them organize meaningful family rituals.  And I can’t tell you the number of times that church members have been proud to have a professional speak on behalf of the church at social justice events, or in press interviews or at public ceremonies.

People love their congregations, and they take pride when the minister (or educator or musician) they call or hire represents them in the wider community.  It’s part of belonging – belonging over time – that I don’t think can be fulfilled by an ever-changing free range church.  I’m not knocking these other exciting approaches to religion and spirituality – I think they are important.  They provide entry points to our UU tradition for folks who would never likely darken our doors.  But they won’t be the whole answer.  And some people will come through those groups and eventually come into our congregations when they find they would prefer some deeper connection.

I don’t think congregations are in danger of extinction, friends.  I do think they will have to evolve, and so will the religious professionals who serve them.

The challenge will be to keep our congregations strong enough and financially viable enough to support a large enough core of professionals to keep our beloved Unitarian Universalism strong, vibrant and focused.

I would love to hear from ministerial students and how they see our ministry evolving from the perspective of those just starting out.  What’s exciting for you?  What makes you anxious?

Thanks, all.

What’s a congregation?

In late January, the UUA hosted a conference in Florida discussing some of the issues covered in this blog.  They established a Facebook page which has seen very active conversations during and since.  You might want to visit.  I have fallen behind and have to catch up on it myself, but I plan to share the ideas that interest me the most here.

A current thread discusses the very nature and structure of congregations, the fundamental building block and unit of organization in our Canadian and American associations.  And excellent comment comes from New Mexico, colleague, Christine Robinson:

 The big “aha” moment for me at the conference was realizing that, while congregational polity is a given, we could redefine “congregations” to encompass a much larger set of spiritual activities. Let’s say a congregation is defined as a group of people, meeting regularly for spiritual conversation, ritual, or worship in the free religious tradition, which wishes to affiliate with the UUA. There could be a couple of categories of congregations, perhaps “supported” congregations, which get benefits of voting, DE’s, ministerial search etc, and “Free range” congregations, which would pay a much smaller fee and would allow the group of men who meet for breakfast every other week to talk about their spiritual lives, or the group of women who meet early Saturday mornings to do rituals, to affiliate and those folks to become “real” UU’s. We could further create a congregation of the unaffiliated and let those people who pay individual dues belong to that group.

How will we define a congregation as we go forward?  For example, this modest blog has over 125 people following it, which makes this group as large or larger than most of our Canadian congregations.  In one small sense it does function like a congregation…the ‘person in front’ puts out a message every now and then and a bunch of people follow the ideas.  During the discussion phase a few folks offer their thoughts on the topic at hand.  I bet even a few of them are sipping coffee while they read.  Maybe we should light a virtual chalice!

And like a Sunday service, not everyone reads every post, and probably some tune out half way through if the topic isn’t all that interesting.  As I’ve mentioned several times…I’m a preacher.  I’m used to people tuning out.

But that’s as far as it goes.  There is no sense of community.  Followers only know who else is following by accident – someone they know mentions it or recommends it or comments on a post.  Heck, I only know only a handful of followers identities.

So we may enjoy the ideas discussed (or not), but there is no sense of community, no sense of mutual support.  As Gertrude Stein famously said of her hometown, “There is no there there.”

Christine offers an interesting idea about “Free Range” congregations that would recognize non-traditional groupings of Unitarians and UU’s who gather around a smaller founding principle…but the point is that they gather.  There is a community connection, a mutual caring and sharing, whether face to face or on-line.  I am struck by one potential drawback: it might be that we really do need to preserve our traditional congregations, for it is these bodies that carry the tradition and support the ministries of educators, church musicians and yes, ministers both serving in the parish and to an extent, the community.  I want to talk about the role of the religious professionals…but I will save that for the next post.

As always, your thoughts are most welcome and valuable.



The heresey of “spiritual, but not religious”

We’ve all heard it.  perhaps many of us have said it:  “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”  I suppose we can divine many meanings from the statement.  I translate it as: “I have deep feelings that draw me to something beyond myself, beyond the merely human -call it God…or don’t.  I want to experience it, I want to feel that connection, I want it as part of my life.  That said, I don’t want some ancient (or new) institution defining it for me.  I don’t need to be part of some once a week club, with rules and pre-digested beliefs and expectations that will put limits on my beliefs and my explorations.  I will look where I want to look, believe what I want to believe, take the parts of religion that speak to me and leave the rest.”

OK a bit wordy, but then I’m a preacher by profession.  Some people think we get paid by the word. 😉

And if my translation is accurate to any degree, that makes the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) seeker a heretic.

“Ooooh!  What a mean guy tossing nasty labels like that around!”

Well, no, actually.  Heretic mean someone who chooses.  It has been co-opted by some institutions to mean someone who has turned their back on an established religious tradition, but that really is only a person who chooses to believe something different from the required beliefs of the church.

I prefer Dictionary.com’s #3 definition:

“Anyone who does not conform to an established attitude, doctrine, or principle.”
I think “SBNR” would qualify…although one might argue that this popular statement is almost becoming an established attitude, doctrine, or principle all of its own.
By using the word heretic, I am meaning no disrespect to anyone by the way. I have proudly worn that label for 35 years, ever since I became an apostate Catholic and joined the Unitarian Church.  I made a choice to believe something different from the teachings of my childhood church.
Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist churches are full of people like me, people who have chosen to reject teachings of childhood.  For many others, there was no childhood church to reject, but they have chosen to formulate a personal system of beliefs inside a flexible, respectful and open church community.  We are joyful heretics who embrace the same radical personal freedom implied in SBNR.  At the same time we also find value in a sense of a community, in actively working on those personal beliefs in the company of others.
And some of us even like to hear folks organize Sunday mornings around topics that challenge or reassure us in our thinking.  Perhaps we find going it alone a little daunting.  Perhaps we enjoy knowing that there are people who share our values and who care for us.
SBNR implies a choice to go it alone, or at least in an ever-evolving, ever-shifting community of the moment.  Nothing wrong with that if it suits you.  I’m not like that.  Truth is, I’m kind of lazy.  Left to my own devices, I might not work on my beliefs and values as much as I do in a formed community.  If I didn’t have church, I would have to find someplace to talk it out.
I would love some SBNR folks to tell me how and where they do that.  This isn’t a set-up.  It’s a genuine question respectfully asked.  Do you need a community fix like I do?  If so, where and how do you get fed in this way?
The Unitarian Church is a model that works for me, and I think our liberality and openness might work for you…but maybe not the congregational go-to-church part.  So how can we be of service?



Chimpanzee Church

Hi folks,

Getting over the jet lag and re-entry after the Philippines and turning my thoughts again towards this topic.  But for today, I want to ‘forward’ (read ‘steal’) an excellent blog post from my Meadville student colleague, Liz James of Saskatoon.  It is most definitely on the topic and deserves your attention.  Check out her Sunday service video invitation at the end of this post and read more of her stuff at: http://www.sacredlego.com/sacred-lego/  

Chimpanzee Church

DateSunday, February 19, 2012 at 04:23PM

So, my friend who is not named Anna graduated from high school recently with fantastic grades.  She attributes this not to her sizeable intelligence but to the fact that “a reasonably smart chimpanzee could get good grades in high school“.

“Right, of course,” says me, trying my best to appear as though my high school grades would have differentiated me from a non-smart Chimpanzee.

“Really,” she continued, “you’d be amazed at how easy high school teachers can be to impress.  Like my history teacher said one time that history repeats itself, and I said a spiral would be a better metaphor.  History spirals out, coming back to the same things but in different, broader ways.  He made this big deal about how brilliant that theory is–can you believe it?”

“Ah”, I said, now trying to appear not impressed by her theory, and still smarter than a chimpanzee.

But the more I think about it, the more I love it.  As “web 2.0” takes off, I’m struck more and more by the ways in which we are circling back to old ways of doing things.  People criticize the modern attention span as a product of the internet–“people never sit and read the classics for hours any more”.  To which I have to respond that I, for one, never did.  And, it’s not natural to sit for hours at a time absorbing a message from one source without interacting with it.  Sure, if you discipline kids strong enough you can get them to do that–but the high rates of trouble paying attention in school indicate that something is being forced.  We Chimpanzees can attest to that.

In the cultures we evolved in, we learned by conversation.  Information was interwoven with it’s source, with relationship, and with the co-creation of meaning. But, beginning with the alphabet, information became divorced from relationship.  As media became more and more “mass”, this continued until millions of people sat glued to footage of the exact same moon landing.

Web 2.0 isn’t an extension of mass media, it’s circling back to a village paradigm in which we interact as we learn.  The conversation is the heart of things again.  Reputation matters.  Viral spread of information mirrors patterns of gossip that are present in villages.   Learning happens through exploration.

“We spend so much time working to make this community.” a friend of mine who grew up in a Masai village once said of our congregation “And then we don’t spend time being a community.  It doesn’t make sense.”

It doesn’t make sense to him because he’s not steeped in the product mentality of recent decades in our culture. He thinks in “village” mode and doesn’t understand the point of institutions.  Doesn’t trust them.  Kind of like the occupy people.

Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that the heart of church was the structure and the product.  The professional worship service, the polished website, the thriving committees.  I’m not sure that’s true.  First of all, there’s a lot of “product” out there, and we’ll never do a better job of invoking awe or brilliant insight than mass media can afford to do.

Time and time people say that they are in our congregations for the community.  If that’s true, it’s not what we say that matters nearly so much as how well we listen.  If we viewed ourselves not as offering a religious product” but as “hosts of a spiritual potluck supper”, how would that change our focus and priorities?

I was pleased to post the following comment on her blog: Good comment, Liz, worthy of a High School grad for sure. You point to how whatever is dominant in culture becomes the acceptable norm. Let’s remember to be cautious about that, since slavery, sexism and communist witch hunts were all once norms, as is the mass consumption of fast food today.

And speaking of Liz’s ideas, she has just posted this invitation to services on the Unitarian Congregation of Saskatoon’s website.  What a great way to say hi.

A different kind of wired.

Hi Friends,

Wired – Manila style

I am just back from the Philippines where I participated in the events surrounding the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists meetings.  As noted earlier, that meant suspending activity on this blog for awhile.  I had expected that the demands of the conference would make that true, but there were other issues worthy of reflection in a blog on the digital age.

Access: The South Sea Resort in Dumaguete City, Negros Island, did have high-speed wireless, but not always and not everywhere.  There was occasional loss of service and what signal there was never did reach my room – a very nice room, by the way!  And even when I went to the open air lobby, I found I could not access this blog site.  I never did figure that one out.  By the way, if you ever get a chance to visit, the setting of this inexpensive resort is lovely and the food outstanding.  I have helped organize many conferences but never have I experienced one with not one single complaint about the food.  Wow!

South Sea Resort, Negros Island

Culture: Visiting the Philippines was a good reminder that this discussion about the Digital Reformation really does belong to the developed world and largely – maybe even only, to North America.  Shopping in Robinson’s, the giant mall in Manila, I found a whole raft of tech stores.  While you could find computer equipment there, it was greatly overshadowed by photo, audio and video equipment and overwhelmingly overshadowed by mobile phone products.  The developing world is dominated by mobile phone technology, probably a big reason why so many web designers are now looking at web 3.0, technologies that will deliver web sites effectively to mobiles.  The template for this blog is such a technology, I am proud to say.  Pride might be the wrong word, of course,…I just accidentally picked a template that was 3.0 ready. Check it out on your smartphone!

Culture, Part Two: It was more than just technology that was different.  In the Philippines, church is more closely tied to community.  Villages are not the kind of self-selecting communities we form in North America.  Here, any one of us tends to participate in many ‘villages’, perhaps tied to work or a shared activity like sports or crafts or politics.  Some of our villages have a neighbourhood quality to them, but most do not.  Our villages tend to be permeable and fluid with changing membership and relatively weak bonds.

In the developing world, the village is more like a village of old.  A UU church in the Philippines is often the center of its small baranquay or village.  It is often geographically isolated from neighbouring communities separated by poor rutted dirt roads.  While there is some public transportation, it is unreliable and infrequent.  Villagers may well all work in the same cane fields or mango plantations for most of their lives.  Only a few ever manage to leave for education or, perhaps, to work overseas.  Relationships and kinship ties are generations deep along with subsistence living.  Forget wireless.  We’re talking about basic electricity and running water.  The church may well be the only public meeting space within many kilometers.

The joy of an ICUU meeting is being able to chat with Unitarians from around the world.  The Philippines situation is not so unusual.  Much of Transylvania, though in much better economic straits, is still tied to this traditional idea of the village as well.  The same is true in Africa.  People in all these parts of the world may be experiencing change in their religious lives, but it’s different from what we see on this continent.  I can’t be more exact than that, but perhaps it’s enough to note that our issues are rather more local than we might think.

Anyway, I just thought I would share a few reflections based on my incomplete experience before getting back to the main topic of this blog.  Comments on your developing world experiences are most welcome, for I know I am just scratching the surface here.

Thrilled in Manila

Hi folks,

I know this is off the topic of the blog sort of, but I’ll gte to the justification in a minute.

Yesterday I preached to a small impoverished outreach fellowship in Manila.  The venue was an open air garage crammed with women and children and about 20 of us visitors from the ICUU (International Council of Unitarians and Uiversalists).  Edmonton folks: Sylvia Krogh and Alan Boyle were there too.

It was utterly joyous!

So here’s my justification:  this event was pretty cool, but as we try to puzzle out possible models for church in the future, it’s wise to think about far away cultures and what they have to offer.

The service leader this day was 12 year old Irish, a wonderful and confident young girl.  The children were fully integrated into what we would think of as an adult service from beginning to end, and all of us first worlders were inspired by them.

And here’s a clip, amateurish to be sure, but my first try at editing about 22 minutes of clips into one package.  Old dog, new tricks.  Cheers!

Of Preachers and Parodies or, I like to Think “Real” Still Counts

You may have run into this YouTube video already.  It has certainly been making the rounds.  It’s a parody of the service formats of the high end Christian Churches, the ones many of us have secretly admired and envied because of the production values (read $)  they can bring to bear.  I have a few comments, but first check out the clip if you haven’t seen it.

Those of you who know me, know that I am a pretty strong advocate for good quality presentations.  Religion and theatre are inseparable, and as such there are lots of theatrical techniques that can enhance the Sunday morning experience.  It starts with leaders and preachers speaking clearly and keeping away from annoying habits that get in the way of people hearing them.  It continues with making sure people know their responsibilities and executing them well, especially in the beloved rituals.  It involves the sound system working properly and the hymns being played at a reasonable speed, etc etc.

Good technique enhances a message.  It does not replace it or make up for a weak message.

So when the service bar can be raised with excellent music or powerful visual presentations, well so much the better

But what this parody challenges, and what bothers me just a little, is the victory of style over substance.  I figure the folks who put so much effort into this slick clip  have been disappointed by experiences where the message was lost in the devotion to style and self-promotion…when the preacher and the musicians and the service-leaders placed their performance high than their message.  And yes, we have all seen that at one time or another.  I probably have been guilty of it myself now and then.

Arlington Street Church, Boston

Back when I was a seminarian sometime in the last century, I came across an idea from a long respected UU preacher who spoke of always being afraid every time he climbed into the pulpit.  (Climbed:  it was one of those high New England pulpits).  It wasn’t that he feared mistakes or preaching badly.  Rather he was afraid of allowing his own ego to get in the way of the divine spirit.  If how much work I put into researching and writing my sermon, if the hours I spent rehearsing and adding cool visuals becomes more important than the chance for the congregation to make some kind of direct contact what that they value the most, then I am getting between them and the Most High and the sermon – or the service – or the ritual- is destined to fail.

This parody attacks those kinds of ego driven choices that place style over substance, that makes “I” more important than “Thou”.

(OK- that was a Martin Buber theological reference just to prove I went to school.  It was about the proper relationship between God (in Buber’s world) and the human.  Some UUs would choose a word other than God, but the importance of the relationship abides.  The “I” is seldom the most important part, especially in Sunday Services.)

What leaves me sad, about this clip, is the idea that perhaps these folks can only see style and dismiss it, never taking the time to look for what might be there that is of value.  Their criticism is no less empty that the people they mock.

Religious experience, spirituality or whatever way you prefer to describe it is NOT a consumable product.  It’s not just given to us.  We each must be a willing participant, bringing our strengths and our weaknesses, our grace and our sinfulness to the table.  Contrary to the way many people see it, preaching is not a monologue.  It is a series of dialogues happening between the speaker and every person who participates by listening, by responding within themselves and maybe in conversation later.

This Digital Age promises to bring changes to the way those experiences and those conversations happen, fine.  But those kinds of interactions will need to happen no matter whether they take place in a church or a pub discussion group, or an on-line chat.

At its core, religion is about connection, about linking things together and about being in relationship with something more than “I”.  There’s a lot of ways to do that, and no one is necessarily better than another, but without relationship, there is no real religion, no real spirituality.

Heading for Gate 22 in HKPS  Wrote and posted this from the Hong Kong airport on a lay over en route to Manila and the International Council of UU’s Council Meeting.  Ain’t this Digital Age truly cool?  BTW, the Illy stand her pours a perfect latte, complete with one of thise lovely little milky hearts drawn in the foam!

You May Not Hear From Me…

Although I hope to have a couple of posts scheduled over the next week or two, I will, in fact, be attending to my International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) duties at our Council Meeting in the Philippines until February 15th.

If you would like to follow that story, I will be blogging at UU Without Borders.  There are already a couple of posts and sometime tomorrow I will be showing or writing about the two congregations I will get to attend services with on February 5th.

Brian Kiely, Jill McAllister and a whole bunch of UU Kids from Negros Island in the Philippines.

Response to Peter Morales by My Brilliant Student Colleagues

I began this blog while participating in a class at Meadville/Lombard.  This past weekend, the students registered for credit decided to reply to last week’s Peter Morales “Congregations and Beyond” document based on their new learnings.  Since I was only auditing (and had three children’s birthday parties to deal with!) I chose not to participate.  I am mightily impressed by what the seminarians wrote and want to help them share this widely. so here it is:

A couple of weeks ago, we were part of a Meadville Lombard class that changed us dramatically. “Digital/Spiritual Literacy: Finding the Sacred in Virtual Space”  was our first significant window into the digital liberal religious world—Unitarian Universalist and otherwise.  We are newcomers to that world, and as such we feel we have a perspective that might be useful to you in your discussions.

Meadville/Lombard’s Digital/Spiritual Literacy class, January, 2012

Our class included self proclaimed “neo-luddites”, bloggers and Facebook addicts, an age range spanning from Millennial to Boomer, first-year seminarians to someone who had been a Minister for almost two decades,  people who weren’t  Unitarian Universalists at all, people who are involved with the UUA, and people from other countries. Yet, our responses to the class material were remarkably similar–delight, discovery, and definite surprise.

To organize our thoughts, we’ve borrowed (and altered the order of) the three main goals/ challenges for UUism outlined elsewhere by Rev. Peter Morales: Get religion, cross borders, and grow leaders.

Getting Religion

Many UU “immigrants” from other religions remember the exact moment when their eyes filled with tears and they thought “There’s a home for me here, even though I do/don’t believe ____”.  Finding out about our religion reaching out digitally had that same feeling for us, even though we didn’t initially understand why.

It was a feeling that directly translated into immediate action.  Some of us blogged about what we learned.  Some of us signed up for a Facebook account.  Some of us organized a phone meeting to craft this response, motivated both by the class itself and  Rev. Morales’ “Congregations and Beyond” white paper.  We got immediately active, in ways that had nothing to do with our assignments.

This is not our usual response to class work.

It was a feeling of “Getting Religion”.  Not in the way we might think of the term negatively–to mean hopping on to a ship with someone else at the helm.  Not the way we often use it in Unitarian Universalist circles–to mean beginning a debate on what we should mean by religion and creating a governance structure to decide how we will steer the ship.  We did not primarily “get religion” in our brains, but in our hearts and immediately following that our hands.

As a small group, we were able to find a common passion, and start living it in community immediately.  The fact that we didn’t need approval from all (or any) UUs  was a key part of the magic.  We beta tested our own experience as we went along.

The digital world has changed our culture from one of big structures in which people campaign to spread information and change direction, to one of small structures where a greater number of people have influence (but over a smaller pool).  In our discussions of culture during class, we repeatedly noticed this shift from institution-as-center to relationships-as-center.

One time  we were looking at websites, and our teacher commented about one guy who does great Facebook posts.  Three class members nodded, and the rest of us, seeing those nods, wrote down the name.  Rev. Morales’ memo came to us not via institutional channels, but through personal connections.  Then there’s the amount of times that the phrase “get religion, cross borders, grow leaders” was repeated, all over seminary, and the realization that it’s power came partly from the position of the man who spoke it.  But equally, it’s power came from the number of people “re-tweeting” it–literally or metaphorically.

As a movement, we are used to this.  Universalists were “going viral” long before computers were invented.  Unitarians were questioning authority long before it was easy, and even before it was allowed.  Word has always spread, and people excluded elsewhere have found a home here.

Crossing Borders

Why did that stop working? Why aren’t the people who are pouring out of other religions pouring into Unitarian Universalism?  Don’t we have what they want without restrictions? We have no checkpoint where we insist you believe a certain thing or adopt a certain identity.  The only thing we check for is… allegiance to the structure of church and of religion.

The first checkpoint for a new person is the search to find us.  If you think to yourself “I want a spiritual community” and your history has taught you that “church” is the word for that, we’re visible to you.  If, however, your history has taught you that church is the word for social pressure, boredom, empty platitudes, homophobia, or self righteousness, the language and structure we use will shut you out.  By so often “branding” our activities as Unitarian Universalist, we make ourselves visible only to those who think of religion a certain way.  To others, we make our activities (and ourselves) invisible.

The second checkpoint occurs within our walls.  Put simply, you must be looking not only to have religious community, but also to have it within the paradigm of church.  Which means:

1) You have to like a specific style of Sunday Morning (or be willing to just sacrifice the time and tune out);

2) You have to be willing to group by geographical location rather than common identity;

3) You have to be willing to sort yourself into tight categories of “Member” or “Not” and adopt an extremely prescribed role; 4) You have to understand pretty intuitively why all of that is a good idea.

When the price of membership is conformity to a structure that is culturally foreign or negative, people might say “I’m a UU but not a church person”.  Unfortunately, “not a church person” currently translates into “nearly completely shut out of the movement.”

If we are to do what we have always done and make room for the people who have no religious family, we will need to meet them halfway.  We will need to treat our intersection as a cross cultural experience, and find out how they do church rather than just invite them to do it our way. “Church” can change structure without losing its core or its meaning.  Family did.

Growing Leaders

As seminarians, we are well acquainted with the process of “growing leaders.” We are waiting for the day when we will be considered ready to lead.  In our class and in the discussions following it, ideas kept coming to us.  As a movement, we could use a liturgical research and development team, for example.  As congregations try out new methods of liturgy, we need to share and publish that.  We could use a social media sudden response team–people who have the expertise and motivation to create Youtube videos quickly in response to what is happening in the world.

We had idea after idea, and no idea how to pitch in.  Then, we realized that these things may be happening already. We don’t know.  We don’t keep track of everything the UUA does because, like most people, there is way more information available to us than we are ever going to pay attention to.  Which begs the question, if the movement is going to grow leaders, how can it get people to stop and listen long enough to learn what they need to know?

Via relationship.  In a world where “going viral” is the our culture’s democratic broadcasting device, we need to create highly contagious messages, and lots of them.  We need to recognize that people hearing our message are listening as much to who is talking as they are to what the content of the message is.  It is not a matter of only selecting and growing a small percentage of people into highly effective leaders, but also of facilitating a broad base of interconnected people who lead in all kinds of ways.  It is about assuming people learn by leading, and that they are already leading, and about facilitating “points of contagion” for information and enthusiasm to spread.

Getting Religion, Crossing Borders, and Growing As Leaders

At one moment on Thursday afternoon, a passerby might have thought that our class had completely deteriorated.  One student was giving a presentation on a technological tool, and only three or four people were paying any attention.  Two people were working on their computer, and there were a couple of side conversations.  The presenter kept being interrupted, and at one point someone was drawing a side diagram on a whiteboard.

Except, one of the people working on their computer was posting a key insight from the class onto his blog, and another was looking up a question that the presenter hadn’t been able to answer.  The side conversations were made up of spontaneous pairings of people who were too advanced for the presenter’s content and people who weren’t advanced enough–a way to help people along at their level without sidetracking the class.  And the presenter, understanding this paradigmatic shift, was fine with being the center of focus and not the center of focus—at the same time. Like the spread of the Congregations and Beyond document, learning was happening by combining the traditional “wisdom from the front” model with a more relationship based and spontaneous way of working.

We’d like to think that someone walking by would have been able to see this–that the electricity and involvement of everyone in the room would have been palpable—and enticing.  We’d also like to think that this is but one small beginning step, and we look forward to a day when we will look back on that class as “when we first started to see what was possible”.

Get religion.  Cross Borders.  Grow Leaders.

In whatever format(s) work.

BTW some of these folks have their own blogs worth looking at: Liz James, Lyn Betz, Chris Jimmerson, Ed Proulx