Dear Strapped Student

22 Nov

This post is regarding a controversy at Starr King School for Ministry, one of our Unitarian Universalist seminaries. You can read about the conflict at the New York Times, the UU World, and a recent letter from the new president, the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt.  I have heard people debating whether it is SKSM that is in the wrong or the two students who have not received their diplomas, but I am not hearing much talk about the Strapped Student or the person who leaked the documents to begin with. This letter is for those people.

**Update: Since publishing this blog, it was pointed out to me that back in August, President McNatt issued a message indicating that “the school uncovered through digital means the identity of at least one person responsible.” However, in reading the message it seems the school indicates that more than one student was involved, so this letter stands.**  

Dear Strapped Student and/or the Original Leak,

I would imagine it must be very difficult for you to watch what is going on at SKSM right now and not feel a huge mixture of emotions.

On the one hand, I imagine that you are grateful that the school is getting a spotlight shone upon it. You probably felt very angry at the secretive selection process, one that maybe felt very unfair. So you took it upon yourself to level the playing field and bring some secrets out into the light.

On the other hand, this has turned into an enormous hullabaloo – probably much bigger than you intended. The spotlight you intended to shine has turned into a search light that is revealing more than you imagined – indeed it is almost looking like a proverbial witch hunt.

The longer this goes on, the more difficult it becomes for you to step-forward. At this point, you no doubt realize that your future ministry, should you reveal yourself, is probably cut short. I would like to offer to you that your future ministry will be cut short even if you don’t’ step forward and reveal yourself, because this is a burden of guilt that you will carry with you and will cripple you over time. This secret, should you continue to keep it, will hang over your head everywhere you go. You will always be afraid of being found out and that fear may keep you from taking the risks that ministry, in all its many forms, requires. It will most certainly prevent you from bringing your whole self to your vocation. With each day you may find you have more and more to lose.

I am not talking about the burden of guilt from revealing confidential materials, though you may indeed feel guilt about that. Whether you felt it was justified or not, you did cross a line when you revealed them. But the break in covenant that occurred when you crossed that line could have been restored if you had stepped forward sooner.

Instead, it is the inadvertent side effects of your action that I imagine you feel the most guilt about: turning two presumably innocent students into the focus of this conflict, rather than keeping focus on the actions of SKSM that you disapproved of.

Two students who are asserting that they are taking the principled stance – that they should not be required to turn over their emails when neither have been charged with leaking the documents – have had their careers put on hold due to your actions.

Two students who, if you are a student, were in the trenches with you in seminary and through the difficulty of that formation process.  And if you are not a student, then these are individuals for whom you presumably had some responsibility, some important role, in their formation.

That has to weigh on you. To know that Suzi and Julie are now suffering – and at what cost? The president you probably didn’t want has been hired and is not going away.  While you may be enjoying the writhing that is going on in the school around you, I can’t help but think that it is not worth the continuing price.

Because the cost does continue to escalate. These students can’t get on with the careers they spent years studying for. Their emotional toil continues to increase, and so does their financial burden as well. And until you step forward, these costs will continue to accumulate.

And so I ask you, Strapped Student, I ask you as someone who has no affiliation with SKSM but who sees that there is indeed much dysfunction in this whole messy situation, I ask you to please look into your heart and imagine coming forward. Find someone you trust who knows you and will have your back, or find a lawyer to speak through. Come forward so that these two students can continue on with their lives, so that the burden of their futures is lifted from you, and so that you can do the work you really wanted to do in revealing those documents.

It won’t be easy. Ministry rarely is.

direct democracy in the UUA.

20 Nov

This post originally appeared at the Lively Tradition. Please leave any comments there. 


Assumption #1: That we want to bring more diverse voices to the table of governance at General Assembly.

Assumption #2: What we have been doing is not working.

Assumption #3: Continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

In a previous post (both on my blog and on the Lively Traditiondemoc4), I wrote that we may want to consider moving toward direct democracy (rather than indirect) in regards to who has a vote at General Assembly. In the thought experiment I proposed, some wise folks (tbd) would decide what UUA “Citizenship” means, and then everyone who meets those requirements would get a vote.

There were a variety of different responses to the post. Some people shared they like the delegate system as it is. To those of you in this camp, please refer to the assumptions above.

Other shared that they thought that when covenanted communities are given the right to vote, that this will bring more people to the table. This may be true, but I can’t help but wonder about scalability in this situation. If a covenanted community of 10 people gets 1 delegate, then a congregation of 1000 would presumably get 100, at which point it seems as though we might as well just give everyone the franchise.

Others leaned on our history in one of two ways. First, some felt that our system is “how we have always done it” and that therefore it should not be tinkered with. This is not actually accurate. At it’s formation, and until 1900, the AUA was only an organization with individual members. But this was before the internet, so people were not well connected to one another and this made the organization weak. The Unitarian universe was given an important boost in 1900 when the AUA merged with the National Conference of Unitarian Churches, which was congregations only. When the UUA was formed, the original bylaws had language in them around “Life Members” until the last of the Life Members died and that part of the bylaws were amended, sometime in the early to mid-90s (I believe).

The second way people leaned on our history was to talk about what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. In the early 90s and into the early parts of the 2000’s, there was a resurgence of interest in congregational polity. This resurgence contained within it the idea that you can not be a “real” UU unless you belong to a UU congregation. This membership argument proposed that those hundred thousand (or more) people who say that they are Unitarian Universalist but who don’t belong to a congregation, really aren’t UUs after all. This resurgence in covenant was important, because at the time we were really struggling to shift from a focus on who weren’t towards a more positive focus on who we are. By saying that covenanted community is what makes a UU, we were finding a positive (though very limiting) way to claim our identity.

Finally, when arguing against the idea of moving toward direct democracy, some people said that before we consider moving to such a model, we would have to have a better idea of what “citizenship” in the UUA meant. What would the requirements be?

I think I have a way to satisfy both the history folks and the “need a definition folks” in one big way. If we were to move towards direct democracy, I think that we could make “participation in a Unitarian Universalist Covenanted Community” a requirement.

Please note that I am using this term in the broadest sense: congregations are covenanted communities, but so are UU summer camps, and so are online communities, professional organizations such as the UUMA, and so many more. The UUA Board (with help!) would need to figure out how to define a covenanted community – I know they are working on it already.

In this model, Covenanted Communities would be able to define for themselves what “participation” meant, just as congregations can define for themselves what “membership” means. Some congregations have a financial donation as a requirement of membership, some do not. Some covenanted communities might have “participate in outreach once a year” or “volunteer in some capacity” or “show up” as requirements. This would be left to the covenanted communities to determine.

And I don’t think it needs to be too confusing. Tracking participation could possibly use the same system we use now. Congregations are supposed to update their membership information when new members join and when old members leave. This membership information means that they get the UU World but also places them on the mailing list for other UU-related issues as well. If our system is not robust enough for this level of tracking, well then we need some major technological upgrades because we should have a robust database that allows us to do all sorts of data mining.

Would this allow all the “free-range Unitarian Universalists” to suddenly have a say at General Assembly? No, because many of them don’t participate, and won’t, in any covenanted communities. But there are certain groups of people who would: young adults who participate in campus ministry, families who attend UU Camps but do not hold membership in a local congregation, DREs, community ministers and other religious professionals who often don’t get to be a delegate but who are very invested in the present and future of our faith tradition and who are members of their professional organizations (which definitely seem to me to be a covenanted community!).

Some might argue that these folks could/should just go join the CLF. For some, perhaps, this is a viable workaround. But it isn’t for everyone – and certainly not for religious professionals (for whom we have inadvertently created a second class of ministry). The UU Chaplain who works in a town without a UU congregation does not necessarily get to be a delegate if she joins the CLF, though other ministers who are serving or affiliated with congregations are still granted the franchise.

So, to summarize: I was originally proposing a move from indirect democracy to direct democracy as a thought experiment. While I am still open to considering alternatives, I am finding myself more and more excited by the possibilities. And I am deeply disappointed that this option was not discussed at all on the current “Re-Imagining UUA Governance” survey.

We have a history of allowing individual members, and the internet and social media are wonderful correctives to the disconnection that the AUA struggled with (and was weakened by) in the late 1800s. By requiring “participation in a covenanted community” as a requirement of UUA membership for individuals, we address the concern of the centrality of covenant to our relationships with one another, as it is in covenanted communities where we grow into our best selves and search for truth and meaning in our lives. These communities are where we worship, grow, share meals and serve together. They are where we explore and live our our values. Shouldn’t all Unitarian Universalists who have found such a community, whether it is a traditional brick & mortar congregation or in an emerging online covenanted community, be able to have a say in the direction of our faith tradition?


This post originally appeared at the Lively Tradition. Please leave any comments there. 

removing barriers to participation in governance.

21 Oct

Join me on a thought experiment, won’t you? In this blog posting, I want to explore an idea, not advocating a particular pathway; to think outside the box and see what happens.

Imagine with me that there is an organization called the Evolution Society. They have an important message about evolution that they want to share with as many people as possible – to really get it out there. They initially appeal to institutions of higher eduction, which join as members and provide funding. But other people want in – people who are not affiliated with the institutions of higher eduction. Some of those people have money they want to give to fund the expansion of the message. Some want to join because they want the snazzy brochures the Evolution Society puts out. Some live in areas where the Creationist Society is dominant and they want to keep in touch with people like them. These folks want in!

Credit: barebente

Credit: barebente

Now let’s say that some members of the Evolution Society really don’t want it to evolve. They want to keep their membership limited to institutions. They have agreed to expand the types of institutions that can join them, but these new types of institutions won’t be able to vote or participate in the governance of the society. And they encourage free-range members to join an institution, preferably a university or college. They are afraid of what might happen if they open membership up, and besides, doing it this way has worked for them for decades.

Fast forward 10 years, and the Evolution Society is struggling and exists only on the campuses of a few colleges and universities. They have become fringe. Instead of closing their doors, the Evolution Society lingers, slowly shrinking in both membership and relevance. Pretty soon, they are serving a bare minimum of folks and their message is not on the cultural radar. They are virtually extinct.

Meanwhile, the Creationist Society has been much less picky about who they let in. They they have established strongholds not only in the places where the Evolution Society already exists, but have expanded across the country and world. They have small groups, coffee clubs, and even bird watching groups that spread their message.


So here is my wondering: Is the UUA like the Evolution Society?

Yes, for a long time we have been the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

But a look at the cultural landscape tells us that that fifty years from now, religious life will primarily be lived outside of congregations. It might be lived in coffee houses or living rooms. It might be lived with smaller groups of people, seeking deeper and more intentional spirituality. It might be lived in yoga classes or birdwatching groups that connect their faith to the work they do to preserve songbird habitat. Congregations will, hopefully, continue to exist, but the number of people who feed their religious and spiritual needs that way will be small in comparison to the number 50 years ago.

So it was with interest that two pieces in the current UUA Board packet caught my attention. The Emerging Congregations Working Group submitted a proposal for the creation of Covenanted Communities, which are defined as claiming UU principles and sources, furthering UU values in the world, committed to being in covenant with the larger UU movement, etc.

I am excited about this idea, as it is a new way of addressing the Beyond part of Congregations and Beyond. At this time, the Working Group recommends that these Covenanted Communities not be member congregations – meaning they will not receive voting privileges. I understand why the Working Group made this recommendation – there will initially be vast amounts of confusion between what the difference is between”related organizations” and “covenanted communities.” By not giving Covenanted Communities voting rights (which related organizations also do not have), they are not privileging one group over another.

Perhaps, down the road, these groups will get the right to participate in our governance. I trust that the UUA Board and leadership will work through the complexities involved in making this happen.

But when I read the 2009 Fifth Principle Task Force Report, also included in the Board’s packet this month, it gave me pause, and I started to wonder.

Don’t get me wrong, the 5th Principle Task Force did an amazing job analyzing and laying out the issues with our current General Assembly process. Their conclusions advocate for a smaller, less frequent General Assembly, with fewer delegates but whose registration and room and board are paid for. Yay! This is great!

As an aside: They also express concern that “Substantive linkage and distant delegates participating through offsite voting are initially a clash of values” and so advocate that technology being used for learning and for observing, but not participating in the actual governance. As someone who was an off-site delegate this year, I disagree. It was such an amazing experience to be able to participate in our General Sessions from afar.

But getting back to the issue at hand. One might argue that both these reports seem to want to continue to put up barriers to participation in our governance, when perhaps we may want to consider the exact opposite. What it would look in the future if, instead, we opened up governance up to all Unitarian Universalist “citizens”?

I have heard the argument that one must be a member of a congregation to be a Unitarian Universalist, because we are a covenantal faith and you must be in covenant in a congregation in order to be a part of us. But people are demonstrating left and right that we can be in covenant with one another in ways other than through congregations. This means that requiring membership in a congregation has become a barrier to participation for many people who consider themselves Unitarian Universalist but are not members of a congregation. If we are looking to remove barriers to participation in our governance, might we want to look at opening the possibility of participation up to even more people, rather than further reducing it?

In this model, certain important elements would not change. We would continue to need a very strong Board of Trustees. We would continue to have an Administration and Staff that work to achieve the ends of the Association. The UUA would still provide strong support to congregations and other covenanted communities. I am only suggesting that we look at who can vote, and imagine what it might be like if we considered opening it up instead of locking it down.

We would need to work out some details, such as how to determine UUA “citizenship” – but that is an exploration for another time. I trust that our great minds can figure such a thing out.

I believe that we need a robust Unitarian Universalist Association that can serve stakeholders that may or may not belong to a congregation. A UUA where all who meet certain “citizenship” requirements are able to participate, whether or not they are affiliated with a congregation. We have more free-range Unitarian Universalists than we do congregation members. Many of these folks were raised in our congregations. Might we want to allow them to have a say in the future of our faith tradition?

I understand this sounds like heresy. As I said, this is a thought experiment. It seems to me that if we want to achieve our governance goals of greater and more diverse participation, direct democracy is going to be more effective than indirect (which is what we have now).

Culturally, younger people favor direct democracy. In addition, particularly as our technology continues to allow more and more off-site participation, more people would be able to participate. Direct democracy also gives privileges to marginalized voices – people who may not be their congregation’s delegate but whose lived reality adds important depth to the conversation.

We are moving into a post-congregational era of our cultural history. We see the signs all around us. Congregations won’t die out, I don’t believe that, but we won’t have as many as we have had, and more and more people who identify as Unitarian Universalists won’t belong to one. I want Unitarian Universalism to evolve with the times, and this means looking who we are.

What do you think? What are the pros/cons of direct/indirect democracy? And with these questions in mind, how might we best live our global end of “A healthy Unitarian Universalist community that is alive with transforming power, moving our communities and the world toward more love, justice, and peace in a manner which assures institutional sustainability”?


Unitarian Universalism’s relationship to Christianity, part 3.

15 Oct

In the first part of this post, over on the The Lively Tradition, I argued that whether or not we are Christian (which varies depending on how you define Christian), we are part of Christendom and that by saying we are not, we lose some of our power. In the second part, which I posted on this blog, I worked on some of the “so what?” issues.

All that being said, I also think Unitarian Universalism is moving toward something, as was mentioned in the comments on the original post.  Perhaps it is like cell mitosis, only instead of being an exact replica of the original cell, we are evolving into something different.

But I don’t believe we can move healthily in any new direction until we make peace with where we have come from.  Unitarian Universalists have had so many folks who came/come to us wounded and accepting “all religions except Christianity” for so long that, now, as our congregations embrace a more spiritual or theistic humanism it can look/feel like we are going backwards. But I truly don’t think we are – we are healing, which is absolutely necessary for us to move forward with strength and power.

Albuquerque UU, taken by Denis Paul.

Albuquerque UU, taken by Denis Paul.

A Universalist message of loving the hell out of the world is powerful.

A Humanist message that it is our responsibility to do so is powerful.

A Unitarian message of not having to think alike to love alike is powerful.

A Pagan message of we are all connected is powerful.

We need all this, and more.  Not one over/above another.  And not “all except this one…”

Indeed, if we look at our congregations, we see how they vary. Particularly if we break it down geographically, we find vast differences in how our message is incarnated in our congregations.

How wonderful that different aspects of our message appeal in different contexts, geographies, and congregations!  This flexibility, this fluency in a variety of different ways of being religious, gives us strength and power. It makes our faith tradition both unique and highly relevant to contemporary life.

giving thanks in all circumstances.

1 Oct

Dear one,

My heart ached for you when you got the phone call telling you that your child had suddenly died. It is a tragedy to lose our children, no matter how old they might be. We always love them, they are always our children, and we are always their parent.

But even more than the news, what broke my heart was when I gave you a hug and you whispered, because words were too hard to speak out loud, “Give thanks to Him for everything, right?”

I heard this phrase a lot when I was a chaplain in the hospital. Patients would use it in an effort to avoid their grief, to invalidate the uncomfortable feelings they were feeling. It is a phrase I find repellent. And so, off the cuff, I answered you, “No, you don’t have to give thanks for this. This is terrible. You are allowed to grieve, to hurt, to be angry and sad.”

But I don’t identify as a Christian anymore, so I know my words may not have brought you comfort. My words may not have been what you needed to hear. So I want dive into your tradition to help explain this phrase that is so often taken out of context and used in such a damaging way.

There are two place in the Christian Scriptures where the idea of giving thanks in all things occurs:

Ephesians 5:19-20

“as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”


1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

First, let us take a look at the verse from Ephesians. These days, this book is accepted to not be an original Pauline letter but is generally understood to have been written in Paul’s “name by a later author strongly influenced by Paul’s thought.” Because of this, and because the author probably had the Thessalonian letter in front of him, let us focus instead on that scripture.

1 Thessalonians is understood to have been the first letter written by Paul to one of the new Christian communities, around the year 52. This makes it, chronologically speaking, the oldest book in the New Testament.

Paul was concerned about the young church. There were some errors that existed between what he had taught them and how they were practicing, so Paul was writing, in part, to clarify. And he wanted to encourage them in their faith. In the section in 5:12-25, in which the verse we are dealing with resides, Paul is writing about how Christians should behave.

Notice that the wording is “Give thanks in all circumstances” – This does not mean to give thanks for all circumstances.

Rather than deny our uncomfortable feelings or try to cover them up with gratitude, we can take comfort from and be inspired by the writers of the Psalms. The Psalms are full of laments, both communal and individual. Indeed, a lament is the most common type of Psalm. In these laments, the writer appeals to God in times of distress. “They typically open with an invocation of Yahweh, followed by the lament itself and pleas for help, and often ending with an expression of confidence.

tears_of_sadnessThe laments in Psalms show us that our feelings of sorrow, grief, anxiety, worry, anger, fear and so much more – these feelings are not foreign to God. In fact, we are encouraged to take them directly to God, and that God will be with us through them all.

This is what Paul is entreating the Thessalonians to give thanks for – not the trouble or struggling that is visited upon them, but that through it all, they are not alone. God is with them, and will be steadfast no matter how messy the emotions may seem.

And so I encourage you at this time of deep, deep sorrow, don’t try to pretend to be thankful. No one expects that from you. Instead, take your grief to God. Know that God is there with you in the pain. Lean on God and know that in this darkest hour, you are not alone.

With much love and sympathy,


PS: In writing this, I came across an incredible resource. Amy Roberts put together a 30-day devotional after the death of her daughter. It is called Psalms for the Grieving Heart and it can be printed out or accessed online.

innovation and ministry.

18 Sep

This is a bit more of a personal post than usual. As I come up on the 25th reunion of my high school class, I am thinking about the amazing education I received, and how it has served me.

Some people are surprised when they find out that I have a Bachelors degree in Computer Science. And they become even more flummoxed when they find out that I was in the very first graduating class of one of the first STEM public magnet schools in the country, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Fairfax County, VA.

My spouse used to think it was strange that I take such pride in my secondary alma matter. But it is hard not to be proud to have been in that first class, particularly now that Newsweek has listed my school as THE top public high school in the country. Again. This is not an unusual distinction for the school.*

The detailed Newsweek article quotes Principal Evan Glazer sharing that the school is “preparing kids to go into fields that have yet to be invented.” A teacher is quoted as being excited about it being “a public school that allows us to try new things!”

Okay, you might be saying. So what? What does this have to do with anything except Dawn bragging?

Well, it turns out that my high school actually prepared me to be in the ministry, because this field is changing. Not as rapidly as technology, but it is changing in unprecidented and unforseeable ways.

There are two primary drivers for the changes that the church is seeing right now: timing and technology.

Phyllis Tickle points out that every 500 years, the church goes through a massive upheaval. Right now, she says, we are going through the Great Emergence. Watch the video for a quick summary of her arguments.**

Combine the timing issue with the radical changes in technology and in how we relate to one another due to social media, and church is not what it was even 25 years ago. There are a lot of folks who have written about this phenomena, I don’t have space to go over it here.

The point is that for a very long time, culturally speaking, church was about the same. Now it is not. This means that now, more than ever, we need leaders (lay and professional) who are willing to try new things, to experiment, to innovate. Leaders who will take the past, build upon it and then go in new places.

I don’t think I would have made a very good minister in the 1950s, or 60s, or even 1980s. But I think that my education and experience have predisposed me to be energized by these changes. So in many ways, I am doing exactly what my high school educated me to do 25 years ago. Who would have thunk it?


* The wikipedia article has a list of some of the many, many awards. As my spouse and I look into high schools for our kids, my standards are ridiculously high. And I think that ALL students should be able to have access to such an amazing opportunity.

**Granted, she is speaking particularly of the Christian Church, but as part of a tradition that is directly connected to Christianity, Unitarian Universalists cannot help but be impacted by these changes.

effort & inertia.

3 Sep

A huge part of my sabbatical is working on a book that reflects on lessons and experiences I had in Roller Derby and applies them to psychological, sociological, and theological topics. Each chapter has two titles: the first one, in capital letters is the basic concept, followed by a phrase or inspiration from derby.

I won’t promise to post all the chapters, but I will post many of the first drafts. What do you want to know more about? What should I write less about? I welcome all constructive feedback, questions, curiosities.

Towards that end, here is the chapter I am calling…

Effort & Inertia: Stinky Pads

It’s midway through practice and we are doing a hitting drill with full contact. It’s my turn, and as I chase after my teammate, I am breathing heavy and envisioning where I will catch up to her and how I will slide my hips in front of her and then sheriff her with my shoulder.

Midway around the track, I catch her and as I go to slide in front of her, the top of our arms touch. Her skin is so slick that my arm slides in front of her fast enough to throw off my balance. Before I know it, I am face down on the floor. My teammate has lept over me gracefully.

I get back up, and go stand back in line to try again. As I look at my teammate, I see she is covered in sweat. There are no dry spots on her shirt. Indeed, if she stands in one place too long, a puddle will form.

Roller derby makes you sweat, some more than others. Many sports make you sweat, of course, but many sports don’t have you wearing as much protective gear as roller derby does. Sweat gets into our helmets, our elbow pads, our wrist guards, our kneepads, and of course our skates themselves. At the end of practice, we throw all our sweaty gear into our bags and into our cars. If we are lucky, they will have time to dry out before the next practice. Many of us aren’t so lucky. So in addition to being sweaty, we stink.


Oh, how we stink. Even after cleaning my pads and letting them air out, two years after I last strapped them on, I can still smell them when I walk into that part of the basement. Since our sense of smell is the one most tightly connected to our memories, it’s not uncommon for me to stand and nostalgically remember my roller derby days whenever I have to get something from the basement freezer.

Sweat. Stench. Signs of effort.

I have come a long, long way.

There was a time – just after college when I began working in the “real world” where I would actively avoid anything that made me sweat. I had lost that part of me that enjoyed getting dirty while playing in a creek, playing tackle football in a field. I avoided anything where I might get dirty, or, heaven forbid, that might make me smell.

All around me were pictures of what being a woman meant – nicely coiffed, clean, in a pressed shirt and impeccably accessorized. This is what I thought I was supposed to be now that I was “grown-up”. I abhorred anything that might require sunscreen, or bugspray, or ultra-heavy-duty-deoderant.

Thank goodness for roller derby, which allowed me to reclaim my love of getting dirty. Now, like a kid, I revel in it (sorry, honey!). These days, if I am participating in a physical activity and don’t sweat, I feel like I have not worked hard enough. I haven’t put in enough effort.

So you would think that, given how much I enjoy the effort that I put into practice, and how good I usually felt when it was over, that getting me to actually get in the car and go to practice would not be such a insanely difficult endeavor.

But it usually was.

Most days, I just wanted to stay at home. I was tired after a long day of working, I had barely had a chance to say hello to my kids, much less knowing I would be missing bedtime again. With a job that has a lot of evening meetings, there were some days I didn’t even go home first – I would spend 10 hours at the church and then go straight to practice.

Most days, inertia set in. And it became a battle with myself to get to practice, even as much as I loved it.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about this process, now, so I know that I am not alone. For many of us, even if something is wonderful, fulfilling, exciting, challenging – all this good stuff – we still have a hard time getting off our butts and actually doing it.

This is one reason why new exercise routines fail, or new healthy-eating plans, or : Inertia.

Inertia is the tendency of an object at rest to stay at rest, or an object in motion to stay in motion. This fundamental principle of physics applies to the motion of objects, but the word itself actually comes from a Latin root that means idle or sluggish – words we usually use to describe human beings.

If we are going about our daily business, and then come home and plop on the couch, it is inertia that will want to keep us there for the next 4 hours. It is inertia that tells us that it is too hard, too difficult, too time-consuming to get out the equipment of our old hobby that we loved to do before we get derailed from doing it regularly a few months ago. Particular to my field, it is inertia that keeps someone from going to a religious service, even if they know they will love seeing their friends and worshipping with their community.

It is also inertia that can keep us going even when other resources have failed. It was actually easier for me to get practice on those nights I worked late, even though I entered practice pre-exhausted. It was easier because I had been in motion all day and just allowed it to carry me along. Whereas if I had gone home first and slowed down, it was harder to resume activity.

A friend of mine recently shared a quote with me, from Lucille Ball. She said “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” At first glance, I thought my friend meant “Ask a busy person, because obviously they can’t say no!” but the quote continues: “The more things you do, the more you can do.” Inertia works both ways – it is harder for us as human beings to change our state than it is to keep doing what we are doing.

So how does one get over the inertia that may prevent her from participating in something that will be fun, exciting, and fulfilling, and actively recalibrate her activity level? Marelisa Fábrega, author of How to Live Your Best Life – The Essential Guide For Creating and Achieving Your Life List, recommends the following in her blogpost entitled “Seven Ways to Overcome Inertia and Get Yourself Unstuck”:

1. Shock Yourself Into Action
One way to get the bump to move us from resting to activity is to shock ourselves into action. This may be by asking ourselves pointed questions, such as ones that might focus on the consequences of not engaging in an action. “What happens if I don’t make it to practice tonight?” I might ask myself. The answer: Not only will I feel worse for not going, and not only will I neglected to engage in a healthy, stress-reducing activity, but I also won’t be eligible to play in the next bout if I don’t earn these practice points!

2. Secure Short Term Wins
Sometimes, overcoming inertia is giving ourselves enough quick wins that we become energized, which can then help us get motivated in the longer-term. For getting out the door for practice, I would create short-term wins like “I am just going to pack up my gear and put it in the car” often followed by “I am just going to get dressed and put my contacts in” – with no requirement that this meant I would actually go to practice. Of course, by the time I had done all this, I was pretty much ready to go and so usually did.

3. Dangle a Carrot In Front of Yourself
Reward ourselves! Both long-term and short-term rewards come in handy when trying to overcome the inertia that keeps us idle. Short-term carrots for me almost always involved chocolate after practice. A longer term carrot might be qualifying for the roster for the next game.

4. Use a Stick
Fábrega points out that “not only do we have a tendency to move toward pleasure, we have an even stronger tendency to move away from pain.” So then how can we use this to overcome inertia? Denial is an effective technique – I have found the denial of chocolate to be quite effective. Another one she recommends is charging yourself money. “For example, you could ask a friend to charge you $5 for every day that you fail to take action toward the achievement of your goal.”

5. Fill Your Gas Tank
I think this one should probably really be number 1. How often can we not get started on something because we don’t have enough energy? This might mean taking a nap, getting to sleep earlier more regularly, or having a healthy snack. It might also mean going for a walk, light job, or doing some yoga – something that helps get our blood flowing.

6. Create a Clear Vision of What You’re Trying to Achieve
Visualization works wonders. We were often told in practice that, in order to master a skill, several times a day we should visualize ourselves mastering the skill. Combining this with some of the other tools can yield particularly powerful results when overcoming inertia: I would visualize eating that lovely piece of chocolate when I got home from practice. When my mouth started salivating, I was out the door.

7. Stage It
We can also remove physical obstacles that might prevent us from getting done what we are trying to get done. For instance, if I hate going into the basement to get my gear, I could set it up closer to the door that I will go out. I might make dinner in the crockpot that morning so that lack of something to make for dinner is not my excuse for not going to practice. Fábrega says “Set the stage for the action that you want to take.”

Sometimes, the rewards of putting in a good effort are not quite enough to overcome our inertia. But when we do overcome it, we can be extra proud. One sign of that effort in roller derby is how much our pads stink. Roller girls are secretly (and not so secretly) proud of them. Still, just to be safe, if a roller girl hands you something and says “Hey, smell this”…don’t.

a possible new approach for congregations to organize around their mission.

25 Aug

I have read quite a bit about congregation dynamics, organization, and governance in the past few years in addition to serving an historic, urban congregation. As our world and culture changes, so too must our congregations. We cannot keep doing things the way they were done in the 1950s. So what do we do, and what might that look like? Here is a model I have been tinkering with.

It is in our congregations that our mission and vision is best incarnated. It is through our congregations that we change ourselves, our communities and our culture. Please note that I am not using the traditional definition of “congregation” here, but am expanding it to include any community of faith. For these purposes, a congregation might be a covenanted community or other emerging organization that does not fit the traditional definition.

I propose a 6H Approach for congregations to use to serve their mission:

  • HEALING those participants who are spiritually wounded and struggling, providing resources (such as pastoral care and counseling) to those in spiritual need who choose to participate in the life of the congregation. So many people come to us desperate for our message of love and acceptance. And so many of those already with us have crises in our lives during which we need a community of love and support. Before any of the other steps can take place, people need to be spiritually rejuvenated.

  • HOLDING participants in care through providing opportunities for them to make connections with others in the congregation; and through worship and religious education opportunities that help them deepen their faith. This step must continue through the rest of the process, as it grounds participants in the congregation and its mission.

  • HEARING and honoring the the stories of participants, recognizing that each person and each story is unique and brings something to the table. An important part of this step is to create space to encourage participants to discern how they are called to minister to each other and to the world. There are deep discernment and spiritual direction components to this step.

  • HELPING participants to gain the skills/training/experience necessary to live out their ministry. It may mean saying “This does not fit with our mission” and returning to the HEARING phase. Provided the ministry does fit into the mission of the congregation, it may mean connecting them with an existing ministry. It means holding participants accountable and helping them create a plan for the ministry. It means helping a participant to learn/discover the risks/cracks in their plans. In this step, the congregation might provide leadership training, or grant writing training. Or perhaps the congregation would help connect participants with others in the local/extended community who are interested in or already doing similar work.

  • HANDING OFF the mission to the participant(s). Provided the ministry fits with the mission of the congregation, the congregation needs to trust the participants and not micromanage every level of detail of their ministry. The congregation should give the participant(s) access to the resources of the congregation (newsletter, facebook page, copy machine, etc.) with clearly defined policies, limits, and expectations.

  • HOMECOMING provides the essential accountability and ongoing connection between the congregation as a whole and the various ministries in which participants are engaging. Is the ministry effective? Does it continue to fit with the congregation’s mission? What might need to be updated? What is working that other ministries might be interested in replicating? This phase is also a time for people to review and renew (or change) their connections with different ministries – perhaps an individual will want to re-enter the Hearing phase for additional discernment.

With the 6H Approach, congregations could structure themselves around these different steps. There would still need to be strong governance of the congregation, but this would help organize the congregation’s ministry around its mission. In this way, with the mission at the forefront, congregations can better be about the work of transformation.

In the interest of transparency, I haven’t yet tried this out in a congregation but I hope to have a conversation around these lines with my congregation when I return from sabbatical.

I welcome feedback and thoughts/suggestions.

feeling impotent about Ferguson.

20 Aug

As a human being in general, and as a minister in particular, I am called to pay attention; to pay attention to what is going on in the world around me, particularly when I would rather focus on much easier topics. To bear witness to the highs and lows of human life.

I have been struggling with that this week. I don’t want to pay attention. I am on sabbatical, the kids just started school, I finally have time to myself. I want to work on the book I have in my head. I want to tackle that enormous reading list.

I open the book I am supposed to read for my study group in November, and this is what I see.

In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Ferguson, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all America. No American is without responsibility. All are involved in the sorrow that rises from Ferguson to contaminate every crevice of our national life. The people of Ferguson will struggle on for the soul of the nation, but it is fitting that all America help to bear the burden. I call, therefore, on clergy of all faiths to join me in Ferguson…In this way all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Ferguson is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land.

The original is the telegram issued by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on March 8. 1965. I changed “Selma” to “Ferguson” because that is what my heart read. And as I read it, my throat closed and my spirit cried out.

Fifty years, and we are still viciously maltreating our citizens, and sorrow rises to contaminate every crevice of our national life.

I know so many of us feel similarly right now. So many of us are hurting, overwhelmed by the issues going on in Ferguson and elsewhere around the country.  We may want to just ignore it, but since it is not going away, we get drawn in.

Our pain is a testament to our interconnection. We hurt, seeing and hearing about these events, because we know we are connected to those who are suffering, in Ferguson and beyond. We have an innate capacity for compassion, to want to reduce suffering if we can. And right now, many of us feel impotent.  “What can I do about it?” we may ask ourselves.

I find hope in the increasing intensity of what is happening – not just in Ferguson, but around the country. The longer people are demanding justice and are showing up in Ferguson and in solidarity in our own towns, then isn’t it more likely that something must change?

This is the start of something big, something hopeful but not without pain. The best way to address that pain is to do something that has meaning. No matter how impotent those of us at a distance may feel, there are things we can do to help out. This list that the Huffington Post put out is the best I have seen.

So hang in there with me. Pay attention, but take breaks. Take care of yourself. Step away from the computer and take your dog for a walk. Hug a loved one. Call a friend. Go see a movie.

Then, when you are rejuvenated, read through that list again and do something about the next item on it. In this way, instead of going out in a blaze of existential impotence, we might keep the flame of justice and compassion burning within us for as long as it takes to see this through. May it be so.

book chapter.

19 Aug

A huge part of my sabbatical is working on a book that reflects on lessons and experiences I had in Roller Derby and applies them to psychological, sociological, and theological topics. Each chapter has two titles: the first one, in capital letters is the basic concept, followed by a phrase or inspiration from derby.

I won’t promise to post all the chapters, but I will post many of the first drafts. What do you want to know more about? What should I write less about? I welcome all constructive feedback, questions, curiosities.

Towards that end, here is the chapter I am calling…

RISK / Liv Fearless
I sat there in the car and I could not help but wonder what on earth I was doing. Even though my family was at church, it was one of my Sundays off. And there I sat, outside a roller rink, wondering if I would get out of the car and go in. Surely, I did not belong there. The other women who I saw go in were much younger, in better shape, and infinitely more hip than I had ever been in my life. So there I sat.

As the sun streamed down on the beautiful morning, I thought about what had gotten me to this parking lot in the first place. I was still new in town, having relocated my family nine months earlier so that I could take my first full-time settled ministry position. I wasn’t having a lot of success creating a community of friends around me – something that I was not only used to but that I craved. Ministry was lovely and wonderful and I was having an amazing time, but a part of me needed to just let loose every now and then. I was feeling wound up. I knew I needed to find some way to release this pent up energy, and soon.

We had previously watched the movie “Whip It!” and I had loved it. It was an interesting experience for me, because I realized that though I liked Bliss, the main character played by Ellen Page, I did not relate to her the way I would have even 10 years ago. Watching then, as a mother with 2 elementary school kids, with a career of my own, I could remember what it was like to flounder to find my own way in life. And yet now I was engaged in a different kind of finding my way, trying to prove myself in a new place and a new job. I related more to Kristen Wiig’s character Maggie Mayhem, a mother who was trying to juggle the many needs pulling on her. But it was not the human characters that so fascinated me in the movie. It was the Roller Derby.

Prior to watching “Whip It,” I had no idea such a sport existed. I vaguely recall there being a televised games on after pro-wrestling, but neither were something that appealed to me at the time. And it never would have crossed my mind that the sport might be going through an enormous growth spurt.

I quickly determined that there was a flat-track Roller Derby league in town, and we went to a bout. The music was loud, and the hits were hard. As I sat there watching these women skate around the track, colliding with each other, falling, getting up, skating more, I yelled over the music to my spouse “I want to do THIS!”

Just a few weeks later, we were at the local St. Patricks Day parade, in which the team was participating. Like a scene from a movie, one of the skaters came right up to me, shoved a flier in my hand and said “Have you ever thought about being in Roller Derby?” Why yes, yes I had.

The flier indicated that the information session was on a Sunday, and that bootcamp training was on Sunday mornings. This caused me a moment of despair, since Sundays are a prime workday for me as the sole minister in a congregation – definitely not something I could just work around. But I looked on the calendar and saw that the information session was on one of my Sundays off, so I thought maybe I would go and check it out.

So there I sat.

And sat. I worried about what people would think if I actually went through with this. I worried about how my congregants might react. I worried about what the skaters might think when they found out what I did for a living.

But then I began to think about all the times fear and anxiety had kept me from doing something, whether it was something relatively small like trying a new restaurant or talking to someone new, or something larger I had always wanted to try, like skydiving or doing a study abroad in college. I thought about my daughters, and what I wanted to model for them. And I thought about what I would say to a congregant who came to me with a similar quandary: “Will you regret it more if you don’t check it out?”

Finally, it was almost time for the session to begin. I knew it was time to get out of the car and walk through those doors. But those first steps into the unknown? They are so difficult. They can be the most difficult steps we take.

I remember those steps. I remember getting out of the car, and closing the door behind me. I remember my heart, pounding with anxiety as I walked across the parking lot towards the doors of the rink. I remember that the first door I tried was locked, which was almost enough to make me give up. But I had seen other people going in, so I tried another door, which thankfully opened.

And then I heard something that instantly made me more comfortable. A woman cried out “Yay, Rookies!” as several of us looked around confused. She pointed to where the orientation session would be and off we went.

I am often my own worst enemy. As I sat in the car, I had been telling myself a story about how I didn’t belong there at the rink because I was too old, or too out of shape, or too whatever. And that story almost stopped me from doing something that would turn out to be one of the most formative experiences of my life. Almost.

Instead of letting that voice of anxiety be the last voice, I managed to gather up my inner resources and get out of the car and walk in. It may sound crazy, but it was one of the hardest things I have ever done by choice.

Someone once tried to describe to my child what it means to brave. “It means not having any fear,” she said. But that is not right. Bravery is not about the absence of fear, it is about overcoming fear.

Was I being brave the way soldiers are brave when they go into battle? No. Was I being brave the way a parent is forced to be brave when dealing with a child with a terminal illness? No. But that does not mean it was not a form of bravery nonetheless. I was taking a risk. And risking is a way of being brave.

Taking a risk means doing something even though you know you might fail. It means being ready to not only accept, but embrace failure. It is in taking risks that we experience some of the most profound growth as human beings as we learn about the limits of what we are and are not capable of.

When we are afraid to take risks, afraid that we might fail, we are often telling ourselves a story. The fear of failure comes because we don’t want to be seen as vulnerable, or as lacking somehow. We don’t want others to see our limitations, to see that we are only human after all. So often, we want to project this image that we have all our shit together, that we are strong and capable. We shy away from anything that might threaten our ability to project such a mirage.

The paradox is that we can not get all our shit together, develop strength and resilience, become the amazing people we are capable of being without knowing what it is like to fail. Which means taking a chance, taking a risk.

One of my favorite quotes ever, perhaps one of the most influential quotes in my life if I were to think about it, is from author Marianne Williamson. She writes:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

It might seem like a stretch to say that getting out of my car that day was a way of letting my light shine, but it was, even if no one saw it other than me. Everyone who sat there during that orientation was nervous – some more so, some less. None of us knew what to expect. And yet we had managed to overcome our fear.

I have found that, at times of deepest fear or anxiety in my life, times when I feel almost immobilized, I am able to recall those minutes in the car. If I can do that, I tell myself, I can do anything. I choose to try to live my life, not without fear because that is impossible, but constantly overcoming my fear.

It was on that day that Liv Fearless was born – on that walk from the parking lot to the doors of the rink. She was born during the orientation, when I saw that the bootcamp practices were Sunday morning and I resolved to ask if I could get some sort of special dispensation due to my work schedule (I did, and I did!). She was born to help me overcome my own anxiety, to take risks, to let my own light shine so that others might do similarly.


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