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the dangers of all gender restrooms?

27 May

It has been a year since the church I serve (First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY) converted all our first floor restrooms into All Gender restrooms. Since children are more likely to be molested in churches than in bathrooms, I figured what better place to weigh in on the current bathroom controversy than from what must be a hotbed of child abuse and molestation? That was sarcasm, by the way.

The reality is that there have been no reported cases of child abuse in our church bathrooms. And no women have reported seeing peeping-toms over the stall doors. Our experience has been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, the biggest issue has been that many men seem to have been raised in a barn:  there is often tinkle on the seats and on the floor. Come on, guys! Who wants to drop trou when your trou will be mopping up the pee? Ick! But as disgusting as that is, it is pretty minor as far as safety goes. And we are working on retraining everyone to be more considerate of what it means to use an all gender restroom.

So how did we avoid the “inevitable” dangers? Did we put police by the doors? Did we install secret cameras? No. It was quite simple. We had two gender specific restrooms and put on signs to indicate that they are both All Gender restrooms. We took the men’s room and turned it into a handicap-access family restroom by replacing the urinal with a diaper changing table and putting a lock on the outer door. The women’s room was even easier: we took the 3-stall restroom and simply lowered the stall walls to the floor.

In truth, it did take some getting used to. As I dashed in right before the service, sometimes in full liturgical garb, it was a little startling at first to run into a patriarch of the congregation. But these brief moments of weirdness have disappeared as the experience has been normalized. Now, we smile and nod, and usually laugh a bit.

I think most people would be willing to put up with a little (temporary) weirdness when they see the wide array of benefits it has produced at our congregation:

  • The single dad with two daughters under the age of 5 now can take them into either restroom safely and without weird looks (and without exposing his young daughters to men at urinals);
  • The mother with a grade-school aged son (who tends to act out and likes to play with rolls of toilet-paper) can go in together and he can be supervised;
  • The elderly man who is the caregiver for his wife as she descends into dementia can lovingly help her with her toilet needs;
  • And, of course, our trans and gender-nonconforming and gender-queer folks feel welcome and safe, too.

On the whole, this has been an amazingly positive experience for church members and for the hundreds of people our building serves throughout the week. It has been a point of conversation and curiosity, and it has become a way for us to share our values that all are loved and deserving of respect. Would that there were more areas in life where issues of respect and safety were as easy to address.

an angry God.

27 Mar

Easter Sermon delivered March 27, 2016
First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY


So, let’s say that I am at your house. We are sitting down, talking, drinking some tea. We are talking about something and I am getting passionate. I tend to gesticulate quite a bit when I speak passionately, so my arms are flying all over the place, and I knock over your favorite lamp, which shatters. Of course, I am apologetic! And so now you have two options: you can either demand that I make restitution and pay you back for the lamp, or you can decide to forgive and forget.

Forgiveness has been our theme this month, and as Linette shared, we have looked at it from a variety of angles: forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, and what forgiveness could look like when practiced in public schools. And so we come to Easter. Among other things, in the Christian tradition Easter is about forgiveness and reconciliation with God. It is about atonement – that is, how to put right the relationship between God and humanity when humanity has sinned, has fallen short. There are many different atonement theologies that look at how the life and death of Jesus allows or assists us becoming reconciled, at one, with God. Some atonement theologies deal with original sin – the idea that from the time of Adam and Eve humans have carried with us the stain of their actions. Some atonement theologies deal more with individuals and their relationship with God. Some understand Jesus as a model for an at-one-ment with God, while others believe that his blood and his suffering were necessary for salvation.

It is one of these latter atonement theologies that I want to address today, and from which the lamp metaphor comes. It is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or PSA. After I break your lamp, if you decide to forgive and forget, then PSA says you end up paying a cost: either you do without the lamp, or you have to buy a new one.

Now, imagine that you are God. And I have not broken a lamp, but I have sinned. PSA says that just as you as a lamp owner had to pay a cost if you decided to forgive and forget, then God, too has to pay a cost if God decides to forgive and forget our sins.

A demonstration of how seriously this is taken by some churches...

A demonstration of how seriously this is taken by some churches…

In the lamp-scenario, I would probably offer you the money to buy a new lamp. But according to PSA, as sinners, we “are not capable of making a sufficient payment to rectify our sin problem because our righteous deeds are filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). Since we are not capable of making a sufficient restitution payment, the only one left to do this is God.”i And not only that, but the only restitution God will take is not money, but death. Someone has to die.

PSA sees humankind as unworthy and our natures as inherently sinful. Our sinful natures keep God from allowing us into heaven when we die, and doom us to an eternity of suffering in hell. Salvation can only come from some form of restitution. It says that God can’t break God’s own law, since God is just, and so God took our sinful debts, piled them high on Jesus, and had him killed instead of us. And so the law is satisfied, our debt is repayed, and we are forgiven.

This theology looks at the cross, at Easter, in purely legal terms. “You and I are the criminal, God is the blood-thirsty judge and executioner, and Jesus becomes the one who steps in between us and lets the angry judge beat and kill him in our place. Having killed an innocent person, this judge is somehow satisfied and a little less angry, so he sets friends of the innocent dead man free…”ii

I know a number of us came to Unitarian Universalism in direct reaction to our horror at this merciless, angry theology. Many former-Christians have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, when the water is tainted with PSA. But believe it or not, PSA is actually a relatively new theology of atonement, and it is not what the Christians originally believed. And our history as both Universalists and Unitarians demonstrates that we have been in opposition to this faulty theology since the very beginning.

The PSA theory began to emerge approximately 1000 years ago. Before this time, Christians didn’t focus on the death of Jesus at all. In researching their book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker found that images of the crucifixion did not even appear in churches until the tenth century. Instead, the early church focused on “how Jesus’s teachings and the practices of the early church affirmed life in this world as the place of salvation. Within their church communities, Christians in the first millennium sought to help life flourish in the face of imperial power, violence, and death.”iii

It was in the 16th century, in the Reformed Church, led by John Calvin that PSA really blossomed. Reformers found that the atonement theologies of the time stressed a merciful God rather than a just God. And so it is not surprising that PSA has legalistic overtones. “This idea is also called the ‘satisfaction’ theory because it asserts that’s God’s righteous requirement for justice was satisfied by Jesus’ death.iv Calvin even claimed that it was “necessary for Jesus to suffer through a judicial process and to be condemned as a criminal (even though the process was flawed and Pilate washed his hands of the condemnation).”v

Today, PSA is the dominant atonement theology for Evangelicals. Al Mohler, of Southern Baptist Seminary up the road, has emphasized the significance of PSA for galvanizing “the Conservative Resurgence that took place within the Southern Baptist Convention in the last quarter of the twentieth century.”vi Mohler tells the story of how, when he attended the seminary in 1980, his “first early morning class was with Frank Stagg on the Gospel of Matthew. Professor Stagg repeatedly and emphatically rejected what he called ‘bloody cross religion.’ He vociferously denied the necessity of the cross, insisting that ‘God did not have to arrange a killing at Calvary in order to forgive sin.'” Mohler disagreed, and now Southern Baptists are known for their belief in PSA.

Outside of the Southern Baptist Convention, one can see PSA’s influence woven in to the weft and weave of our country. Benjamin L. Corey is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. Writing for Sojourners in 2014, he said:

“For 500 years we have focused our understanding of God and God’s justice as the need for punishment instead of the need for reconciliation, and this has led to a broken framework in our country in regards to justice. When we allow this broken framework to influence the application of justice (as we have) we see criminal acts in terms of “need to punish as justice” instead of “need to restore as justice” …Yes, there are many criminal acts that require a person to be removed from society for their protection and for ours, but this theological framework has caused us to view “justice served” when a person receives what we feel is an appropriate sentence instead of seeing “justice served” when both the offender and the offended (even if that’s just society in general) have had their lives reconciled…

Justice becomes punishment, not healing and restoration.

And so, our prisons are overflowing. Why? Because our theological framework has told us that justice can only be satisfied when someone has been properly and fully punished, instead of telling us that justice is most fully satisfied when a life has been restored .”vii

Brock and Parker agree, and they are astonished how, in retrospect, they never questioned the centrality of this theological framework to contemporary Christianity. They write “The doctrine of substitutionary atonement uses Jesus’s death as the supreme model of self-sacrificing love, placing victims of violence in harm’s way and absolving perpetrators of their responsibility for unethical behavior.”

Theologian and activist Brian McLaren see’s the influence of PSA in our demonization of people who don’t agree with us. He writes that his “special concern with the theory comes up in relation to our attitude towards ‘the other’ – people of other faiths. If God’s default mode is ‘against’ all in hostility, then those who identify with this vision of God will find it too easy to justify a similar attitude towards ‘the other.’ ”viii

And if you believe in an angry God, how far of a leap is it to follow an angry man? Indeed, a powerful, angry man might seem God-like. Cognitive scientist and author George Lakoff found the theological connections between Strict Father Figure conservatives and Nurturing Parent liberals years ago. In a recent article examining why Evangelicals are drawn to Trump, Lakoff writes:

Those whites who have a strict father personal worldview and who are religious tend toward Evangelical Christianity, since God, in Evangelical Christianity, is the Ultimate Strict Father: You follow His commandments and you go to heaven; you defy His commandments and you burn in hell for all eternity. If you are a sinner and want to go to heaven, you can be ‘born again” by declaring your fealty by choosing His son, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior.<ix

White evangelicals are drawn to someone who represents a strict father-figure identity, and who does that more than Trump? He is authoritarian, he says the things they wish they could say, he operates in moral absolutes – there is no grey area. Something is right, or it is wrong. There are winners, and there are losers. Losers, and wrong-doers, must be punished. Strictly. In fact, because PSA removes all mercy from God, “sin must be paid for, even if an innocent person must die. It can never be simply forgiven.”x So it is not a far leap to see how those with a penal-substitution view of atonement could be drawn to an angry, hate-filled, authoritarian rhetoric.

But PSA is not the only or final way to understand the Easter story. Far, far from it. Remember, as Brock and Parker found, the early Christian church focused on creating paradise, here on earth. It wasn’t for 1000 years that PSA evolved.

An earlier atonement theory is called moral influence view, and this is one in which both the Universalists and the Unitarians have their roots. “The moral influence view of the atonement holds that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was to bring positive moral change to humanity. This moral change came through the teachings and example of Jesus, the Christian movement he founded, and the inspiring effect of his martyrdom and resurrection. It is one of the oldest views of the atonement in Christian theology and a prevalent view for most of Christian history.”

In the 16 century, as PSA was being developed by John Calvin and the Reform tradition, Fausto Sozzini, an Italian theologian, was advocating instead for a moral influence view of atonement. Socinianism, as Sozzini’s theology was called, was an early form of Unitarianism.

Sozzini wrote a pamphlet supporting a moral influence view of atonement that came into controversy with PSA because the two systems have very, very different criteria and definitions of salvation and judgment. PSA says that the blood of the cross saves us from an eternity of suffering in Hell while Socinians rejected the concept of original sin, rejected the concept of Hell, said that Jesus was fully human, and that his sacrifice serves to inspire us to abandon our sins.

Fast forward a few hundred years and, we find that “as a result of these conflicts, a strong division has remained since the Reformation between liberal Protestants (who typically adopt a moral influence view) and conservative Protestants (who typically adopt a penal substitutionary view).”

One of those liberal preachers who had a strong moral influence view of the atonement was Hosea Ballou. Ballou was raised in a the Reform tradition, in a Baptist home that was very Calvinist. But he could not reconcile his “belief in a loving, all-powerful God with the idea of eternal punishment for most of humanity.”xi And so he searched through the Bible, and ended up at the concept of universal salvation.

In 1805, Ballou published his Treatise on Atonement, which outlined his beliefs on atonement and universal salvation. In celebrating the 200th anniversary of this pamphlet, Charles Howe wrote in the UU World:

Orthodoxy [that is, the set of doctrines approved by the Church] considered humanity’s punishment for its infinite sin as separation from an angry God. Ballou, by contrast, saw [people] struggling to turn toward moral good and away from the sins that separated them from a loving God.

Orthodoxy required Christ to take on the burden of humanity’s sin by being sacrificed on the cross, thereby atoning for sin and making it possible for an appeased God to be reconciled with humanity.

Ballou, on the other hand, contended that Christ’s death released a great spirit of love into the world, making [people] who were receptive to this spirit better able to atone for their own sins and be reconciled with God.

This is so different from what we normally hear about the resurrection, isn’t it? The idea that in that final act of forgiveness on the cross, Jesus’s death released a great spirit of Love…??? Howe continues…

Thus Ballou argued that the orthodox had things backward: It was humanity that needed to be reconciled to God, not God to humanity. Moreover, this atoning spirit of love was available not only to Christians, but to all people, irrespective of “names…denominations, people, or kingdoms.” In no case would anyone be sent to eternal punishment by a loving God. No sin was that great; salvation was universal.xii

Ballou detested PSA and the concept of eternal suffering. It was repugnant to him. In his Treatise, he wrote “A false education has riveted the error in the minds of thousands, that God’s law required endless misery to be inflicted on the sinner.” Instead, Ballou saw God as a nurturing parent, who loves us unconditionally.

And again, you can hear Lakoff’s theory about the difference between conservatism and liberalism. Ballou was firmly in the nurturing parent view, even 200 years go. In his Treatise, he wrote “There is nothing in heaven above, nor in the earth beneath, that can do away sin, but love; and we have reason to be thankful that love is stronger than death, that many waters cannot quench it, nor the floods drown it; that it hath power to remove the moral maladies of [humankind], and to make us free from the law of sin and death, to reconcile us to God, and to wash us pure in the…life, of the everlasting covenant.” We see a modern interpretation of Ballou’s theology in our affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Today, the divide between those who believe in PSA and those who take a moral influence view of the atonement could not be more strained, or more obvious. Liberal theologians ask, “how can justice and mercy be achieved through an act of injustice? If God is just, how can an innocent person be punished?” We ask this of theologians, and we ask this of our court system.

Others point out that the problem with PSA is that it is based on a faulty premise that sin needs to be punished, that God “cannot just sovereignly decide to forgive us, he also has to punish sin.” xiii Once this premise is dismissed, PSA makes no sense logically.

Additionally, going back to the metaphor of the loss of a lamp, if one believes that God is infinite, one assumes God could just write off the loss. If God is infinite, then “infinity minus five million billion trillion is still infinity. In the words of St Therese of Lisieux, even the worst sin in the world is like a drop of water in the burning pyre of God’s love.”endnotes

These days, as much as we still seem to love the themes of peace, love, and hospitality embodied in the Christmas story, Unitarian Universalists have a mixed relationship with the Easter story. We love the idea of hope and rebirth. We connect it to Spring, and renewal. We like the bunnies, and egg hunts. But talk about the cross and watch us squirm. I think the reason why is because the metaphor and magic of Easter have been lost to penal substitutionary atonement. PSA has become, in some ways, the loudest, if not the dominant, view of atonement. And so we want to make sure that we are not celebrating THAT view of this important, culture-shaping, story.

Our own history provides an antidote to the toxicity of penal substitutionary atonement and it’s angry God. And it is an antidote that the world desperately needs. Like the early church, in the face of imperial power, violence and death, we believe that salvation is something for this world, for this life, here and now. As inheritors of a tradition of a moral influence view of atonement, we understand Easter to be inspirational rather than a form of punishment. That Jesus’ final act of forgiveness of the imperfections of humanity is something we can aspire to for ourselves and for others. And as our early forbears taught, we know that the divine, by whatever name we call the numinous, mysterious wonder of the universe, is love – the very spirit of life itself. May we share this saving message, broadly, with a world so in need of it, and in this way love the hell out of the world and love one another out of hell.Blessed Be!

















faith & abortion.

25 Feb

On Tuesday, February 23, I spoke at a rally at the state capital organized by Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky. Though a Unity Prayer was included at the end, I was the only speaker to take a faith-based approach to the current issues facing the state.

Photo by Del Ramey. Proof that not only was I at the rally, I spoke quite expressively!

Photo by Del Ramey. Proof that not only was I at the rally, I spoke quite expressively!

None of the coverage of the event even mentions that there was a faith-based speaker present. I was not quoted. I was not listed among the speakers. And there are no pictures to show I was there, either. Nothing in the Courier Journal. Nothing in the State-Journal. Nothing in the coverage at either WDRB or WHAS. While others have been left out here and there, the teen Planned Parenthood Peer Educators and I are the only ones left out of the coverage entirely.

One might argue that this is coincidence, but I don’t think so. I think that just as people are uncomfortable hearing that teenagers actually have sex (*gasp!*), people are also uncomfortable hearing a religious leader speak frankly about the need for reproductive justice.

Being religious does not mean being against reproductive justice. Far from it. So here I offer my remarks.

Friends, We are under attack these days. Under attack as women, as parents, and as people of faith.

As we heard from the previous speakers, women are under attack. We are being told by politicians that we are neither moral enough nor intelligent enough to make the best healthcare decisions for ourselves, our families, and our communities. How are we still having to fight this fight?

We are also under attack as parents. Our young people are not being given the information they need to make informed decisions. As a mother, I see the onslaught of false messages teens get about sexuality. Where can teens go to find trustworthy information? We know knowledge is power, so Shouldn’t all people be given the opportunity to learn about healthy sexuality?

And as people of faith, we are particularly under attack by a small group of people who claim to lean on their religion when passing legislation around women’s reproductive health, when they impose their faith and values upon others who do not share their minority religious views. This is unjust!

People of faith believe sexuality is a gift. Many of us have been taught that we are made in the image of God. We celebrate the goodness of creation, including our bodies and our sexuality. Our faiths teach us that all persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure. When we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity, we participate in a life-giving and life-fulfilling gift.

And it is important that we understand this gift! This means supporting science-based sexuality education programs that are age-appropriate, accurate, and truthful. Sexuality education that respects and empowers young people has more integrity than education based on incomplete information, fear, and shame.

Because our sexuality is a gift, our faiths teach us that we also deserve the tools to safely engage in it’s healthy expression. This means access to basic reproductive healthcare. But by closing or putting tight restrictions on facilitates, like Planned Parenthood, that provide access to inexpensive reproductive healthcare, politicians are reinforcing the message that our sexuality is something shameful, something that they should control rather than us as individuals.

My faith not only tells me that sexuality is a gift, it also tells me that that a woman is capable of making moral decisions about her sexuality. By taking these decisions out of the hands of women, the state is continuing a patriarchal, misogynistic practice. Once upon a time, religions taught that women were inferior to men, but that viewpoint has been out of touch for generations now and we must never go back. Each of us are created in the divine image, each of us given agency over our own bodies. Women must have the right and the ability to make decisions about our reproductive and sexual health. And abortion can be the best, most moral decision, a woman can make. In these instances, a women should not be shamed, subject to an invasive procedure, or forced to take additional days off work in order to have access to safe healthcare.

These measures are not compassionate. And yet compassion is the foundation for many of the worlds religions! Our legislators must develop Compassion for women in difficult times, making difficult decisions. The cruel, shaming legislation before our state now targets women who already have the least access to medical care. It forces women to schedule travel, take time off from work and pay for child care over the course of multiple days. How is this compassionate?

As people of faith, we stand in opposition to legislation that seeks to impose one small religious minority perspective on to all women in this state.

As people of faith, we affirm the moral agency of women and affirm that sexuality is a gift to be celebrated and cared for.

As people of faith, we affirm that all people should have the opportunity and the power to control their reproductive lives.

As people of faith who hold compassion, and not judgment, to be perhaps the most important religious tenant, we demand laws and policies that protect the rights and abilities of a woman to make decisions according to her own beliefs and conscience. All people must have the economic, social and political power to make healthy decisions for themselves and their families. May it be so.

And just to prove that I am not alone, here is the prayer that was delivered before the opening session of the legislature that same day by my friend and colleague, the Rev. Lauren Jones Mayfield:

Come and dwell among us, holy source of vision. We confess that we need you now as much as we have ever needed a stabilizing presence of compassion, empathy, thoughtfulness, and rational discourse. Into this session of legislative activity, I pray for these elected officials as they continue their deliberations. May the business that they conduct, the policies they support, and the notions they follow take steps in the direction of broadening your transformative and inclusive spirit.

Let them not be held hostage by the conventions of Republican or Democrat, but may your spirit of collaboration and gentleness bring them to new understandings of themselves as one body called to protect the vulnerable and uplift the downtrodden.

Come and dwell among us source of peace. When we are afraid or anxious we narrow our definition of your character and claim your presence as our own. Empower these law makers to rise above fear and retaliation. Help all of us to forego the easy road of blame and self-preservation; so that together we can unearth unity. The simplicity of viewing you and Jesus and other prophets sitting on lofty thrones in the heavens, looking down with contempt or joy, wrongly exemplifies the miracle of grace.

Instead, you call us to take seriously your engagement with your beloved children…in the streets of our cities and across the farmlands of our counties. You are living and active, as close as our breath. May these leaders breathe in your love and exhale your expansive and radical presence of generosity and inclusivity.

May these legislators work toward preserving the dignity of women in the quest for reproductive justice; may they honor the needs of those who are wrongly imprisoned.

May they demand equality for all Kentucky residents regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. May they believe that black lives matter. May our work be for those who are unable to be here to lobby and speak for themselves.

Come and dwell among us source of justice so that the democratic activity of today will bring liberation tomorrow. Inspire us to embody courage, wisdom, and empathy. These are qualities that you teach and long to return to us favorably. Amen.

an ultimate optimism.

19 Aug

As I was walking with a friend, he started talking about how he didn’t understand optimists at all. “How can optimists get out of bed when, day after day, they can see how things are falling apart around us? How can they see their good ideas and hopes fail again and again and not succumb to despair?”

He was surprised when I shared that I am an optimist. “You seem too realistic and pragmatic to be an optimist!” Thanks, I guess.

But I continued: My optimism isn’t focused on the short-term but on the long term. As a whole, I feel like I am improving as a person, that my family is improving as a unit, that my community is becoming more compassionate and that humanity is becoming smarter, stronger, more resilient, more authentic, more loving, more just, and so-on. Slowly, perhaps, but we are on our way to something better.

And, I said, as we are on our way to something better, we will fail – that is a given. But that doesn’t mean that the entire endeavor is a failure. Indeed, often times the best stuff comes out of what, at first, appears to be a failure.

I am inspired by the wisdom tale (either Zen or Taoist, I am not sure which) of the farmer. In this story, a farmer’s horse runs away, which seems like bad luck. Maybe, the farmer says. But then the horse returns and brings back another horse (or two) with it, which seems like good luck. Maybe, the farmer says. But then the wild horse injures the farmer’s son (bad luck, maybe) which causes him to miss the draft (good luck, maybe)…you get the picture.

Theologian James Luther Adams once wrote that “liberalism holds that the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.”  My optimism is grounded in my liberal faith.  It is not dependent on everything working out the way I think it should in the present moment. Instead, it tells me that we cannot know in the short term whether something is good luck or bad luck, but in the long run things will, somehow, eventually, work out for the good.

As Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker wrote in 1853:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

If one’s optimism is dependent on things working out in the short term, despair can (and does) easily set in. However, if one has an attitude of a more ultimate optimism, one need only look at the larger picture for affirmation.

Was it good luck that I developed this ultimate optimism?  Was it bad luck?  Maybe. It’s hard to say. But I’ll take it.

clash of the worldviews, or, sources of miscommunication.

24 Jul

It happened again recently.  I was at a gathering of Unitarian Universalists and the person leading worship used some God language, without explanation or qualifications.  As is usually the case, some people loved it, some people got angry, and some people didn’t know what all the fuss was about.  As I watched the interaction, I saw a repeat of a situation that seems to becoming more and more prevalent in our UU congregations: a miscommunication that stems from a clash of worldviews.

Here is what it looks like when leading worship:BWI-WorldviewCultureCircles

When Modern Pat uses “God” in worship, it is rare, and usually something that Modern Pat is against.  Modern Pat sees God in a very specific way: the old man in the clouds, pointing His finger at human beings. However, Modern Pat will use all sorts of euphemisms instead of “God”: ground of our being, the Ultimate, etc.

When Postmodern Chris uses “God” in worship, it is with an important invitation:  Postmodern Chris will always invite the listener to interpret “God” in whatever way works for them.  Postmodern Chris might then refer to some of the euphemisms that Modern Pat uses.

When Neomodern Riley refers to God in worship, there are no quotes, and there are no conditions or qualifiers. There may or may not be any euphemisms, because Neomodern Riley understands that all these words point to the same unknowable place.  Neomodern Riley assumes that the listener will interpret God in whatever way works for them, that the listener does not need to be told to make such a translation.

The trouble arises when Neomodern Riley is trying to communicate with Modern Pat, because Modern Pat does not feel included, and often feels explicitly excluded, and Neomodern Riley is not sure why.  There is a clash of worldviews.

So what does this mean for our relationships and interactions with one another within our faith tradition?

Modernists, you are beloved members of our faith community who are not intentionally being excluded. I invite you, the next time you hear words you don’t agree with in your UU congregation, ask yourself if you and the speaker are coming from similar, or different, worldviews.

Neomodernists, you are also beloved members of our faith community. I invite you to remember that some of us have not caught up with your radical inclusion – it might be helpful to add some euphamisms or qualifiers occasionally.

Postmodernists, you are also beloved members of the our faith community, and you have the advantage of being able to understand and bridge the other two worldviews. Rock on!

our whole lives (OWL).

10 Jun

The Rev. Cindy Landrum and I have been blogging over on the Lively Tradition about removing barriers to the Our Whole Lives (OWL) comprehensive sexuality curriculum used by Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Go read it!

Part 1: The expense and importance of OWL, by Cindy and Dawn

Part 2: A small congregation’s experience, by Cindy

Part 3: A mid-sized congregation’s experience, by Dawn

Part 4: Ideas on how to remove barriers, by Dawn and Cindy


show me the money!

1 Jun

money-tree-images-Image-Money-Tree-IllustrationMoney. In particular, managing it. Like many congregations, this is something with which the congregation I serve struggles. We utilize a large regional bank for our multiple savings and checking accounts, a different service to manage our endowment, a payroll service for staff paychecks, etc.

When we needed to make some necessary repairs on our paid-off building, no local bank or credit union would give us a loan unless our board members ponied up their homes as collateral – we chose to borrow from our endowment instead, but how many congregations have the capability to do that?

And we try to keep track of it all with a complex church database that this former database programmer finds unwieldy and virtually incomprehensible.

Wouldn’t it be great if some organization with similar values could step up and provide our congregations with these types of resources, all in one place?

UUALogoThe UUA has the Common Endowment fund (which I love and wish my congregation would move it’s money into). I can also imagine the UUA creating a credit union that could perform many of these other functions, too! It could provide checking and savings accounts for congregations, as well as mortgages. We could even set up an unified account with a payroll service.

The UUA could also support one centralized church database software program which congregations would be given access to. Due to the large number of users, we would get premium support when our congregations had issues or needed training in how to use the program. Plus, this would provide a more accurate number of unique members of our congregations because it would not count Jane Doe as 4 different people, even though she is a member of 4 different UU congregations (those of you in urban areas where people hop from church to church know what I mean!).

We are stronger together, and centralization has its perks. We have seen this with the Common Endowment, and with the UUA Health Plan. Why not expand the resources that the UUA provides to our congregations? Of course, due to our polity, no congregation would be required to use any of these resources, but I bet many would!

people are not hot potatoes.

28 May

Last week, I officiated at the memorial service for a 99+ year old woman. Though raised Methodist, she and her first husband found the Unitarian faith when they were young adults, and they immersed themselves in the life of the church. Prior to a devastating fire in 1985 at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, there was a room in the building named after them.

Her husband died, too young, and she remarried. She ended up being the mother of 5 children. Her new husband would not come to church, so when she could she would schlep her brood to Sunday School all by herself. She spent her spare time in the churchyard, weeding and tending it.

Very few of her contemporaries are still alive, even fewer attend church regularly. When I was talking to her children, they talked about how important the church was to her.

“When, and why, did she resign her membership?” I asked, curious to understand how someone who had been so involved and cared so much was not on my radar at all after 6 years of being the minister of the church.

“Oh, she never resigned,” her kids told me. “Some years ago, they took her off the roles so they wouldn’t have to pay the Association for her to be a member.”


How many people have our congregations done this to? People who have dedicated their lives to a congregation, loved it, nurtured it, but when, due to age and financial constraints, they are no longer able to pledge or show up, are dropped from the membership role like hot potatoes so that we don’t have to count them when our Fair Share contribution to the Unitarian Universalist Association is tallied?

This is no way to treat our co-religionists. Our financial stewardship Fair Share amount to our Association should not be based on membership because that encourages us to not count those who are unable to contribute at a particular level. And, after time, these folks who are not counted become unseen as well. They fall off our radar as leadership changes. And we don’t even realize what we have lost.

The Southern Region of the UUA utilizes G.I.F.T. to calculate Fair Share for UUA Stewardship.

So what are some alternatives? In the Southern Region of the UUA, they are trying out a new program that bases a congregation’s Fair Share contribution on a fixed percentage (7%) of a congregation’s certified expenses. These expenses are based on a congregation’s general operating expenses, but the calculation does not include things like mortgage principal payments (mortgage interest payments are included) and some other capital expenses. There is more detailed information available online.

Reports are that about 40% of congregations have seen their contributions go higher, some but a bit but others substantially. This means that approximately 60% of congregations have seen their Fair Share amount lowered or remain the same. And there is the added benefit that utilizing GIFT combines into one amount a congregation’s district/regional contribution with the national contribution, meaning one less thing for congregations to keep track of.

Though I am sure it has its detractors, utilizing a method such as GIFT seems a much more equitable way of determining what a congregation’s Fair Share contribution to our Association is – with the added benefit of not encouraging the abandonment of longtime members when they are unable to remain connected at previous levels.

I just wish it was available to those of us outside the Southern Region.

removing barriers through getting creative about finances.

10 Apr

money-tree-images-Image-Money-Tree-IllustrationAs we explore what it looks like to remove barriers to participation in brick & mortar congregations in a changing religious landscape, one can’t help but wonder about money. At this point, many of you are probably wondering how on earth we are supposed to do all these things. With the economic downturn finally resolving, congregations are often still struggling to make ends meet.

Some congregations have instituted a fee for service payment method, where activities are broken down and participants pay for them separately. This might look like having fees to participate in RE classes, book groups, CUUPS rituals, possibly even worship. The trouble with this method is that it puts up barriers to participation instead of removing them. Instead, I believe it is time for congregations to get creative.

One way congregations can remove barriers to participation around money is to utilize technology more effectively. This might look like having hardware, such as the Square, available to accept credit cards on site at the church. It might also look like enabling online donations during the service, either though a sharing a website, or through having a QR code on a card in the pew or on the order of service that can quickly take someone to your online donation page (remember, younger people don’t carry checkbooks, or cash!).

No discussion of funding would be complete without a mention of crowd funding. Crowd funding is the use of the internet to attract funding for commercial and nonprofit projects from countless individuals. You have probably donated to some crowd-funding projects through GoFundMe, KickStarter, IndieGoGo or one of the other platforms. And we have our own special Unitarian Universalist crowd-funding platform now: Faithify. From youth group trips, to social justice workshops, to building additions, video projects, and much more, thousands upon thousands of dollars have been donated through Faithify for specifically Unitarian Universalist projects.

Though congregations will likely still rely on your annual pledge as the primary means of support, I also believe we will begin to see more congregations applying for more traditional grants. There are thousands upon thousands of dollars available out there that congregations could be plugging into: from making our building more accessible to funding a new staff position, to a variety of social service and social justice projects that congregations could be taking advantage of. These grants are available from local organizations, state and national organizations, and, if a congregation has been a UUA Fair Share Congregation for two years, from district/regional chalice lighter grants or from the Unitarian Universalist Funding Program. Grant applications are particularly appealing to deciding bodies when congregations partner with other area organizations, including other local congregations.

sharingWhich leads to another way to do more with less: sharing resources with other congregations. It may be that you could share a staff position, such as a bookkeeper or a membership coordinator, with a nearby congregation. Or maybe share a webmaster with a congregation in a different state! Not only does this help lighten the load on an individual congregation, it creates jobs that are more likely to provide both benefits and a livable wage – making the position more appealing to a larger array of candidates!

Congregations need to start getting creative when it comes to finances. The money is out there for compelling projects, it is just a matter of tapping into it.

removing barriers through effectively utilizing technology.

9 Apr

As we explore what it looks like to remove barriers to participation in brick & mortar congregations in a changing religious landscape, the utilization plays a very important role, from streaming services to having welcome videos on their websites, to projecting video, presentations, having google hangouts in the service, and more, during the service. Having a podcast or video-cast of the service allows people to access it whenever it works for their schedule.

technology2But integrating technology into the life of a congregation is not limited to Sunday mornings. Video conferencing can be used for meetings so that people who have difficulty driving at night, or have children at home they need to be with, can participate from the comfort of their own home. Google Docs and DropBox can also be used to share work amongst groups of people – I know they have revolutionized how we get work done at my congregation! For instance, we have a shared google spreadsheet for maintaining the Sunday Services schedule which lists everyone who is involved in any capacity in making each service happen: from speaker to chalice lighter to ushers to board host, sound booth, tech deck and more. We also use DropBox for group editing of the presentations that get shown during the service on Sunday morning. This way, the work is shared amongst a number of people, cutting huge jobs down into more bite-sized ones. We average about 110 adults on Sunday morning, so this is not something just for larger congregations!

It was not that long ago that congregations could get by without having a website, but that is absolutely not the case anymore. And a website is just the beginning. A congregation may have many more “likes” on Facebook or followers on Twitter than they do members – my congregation has 3x as many “likes” as the membership number, 6x as many “likes” as the number that shows up on Sunday morning. These are people whose lives the congregation touches in some capacity. Congregations need to be on social media, and they need to know how to use it. For instance, on social media information is processed differently than it is in print, or even in email. Chunks of data have to be smaller, discrete. They have to grab the viewer immediately with relevant details in case they don’t read past the first sentence. The use of imagery is important, too, not just because it will appeal to those of us who are more visually oriented but because the facebook algorithm will also show a post to more people if there is an image attached. The ubiquitous use of social media necessitates a shift in how we share information, as we maintain the old era ways of the newsletter and printed orders of service while moving to the new era ways of using social media.

Congregations can also use technology to see what people are interested in at the church or how people are finding the church. Using customer relationship management software like Constant Contact to distribute the newsletter and then tracking which links get clicked on and which don’t allows us to see who is reading the newsletter and what parts of it people are most interested in. Google analytics can track what search terms bring up a congregation’s website, as well as where the majority of the clicks come from. This is important data that can then be used when deciding what to promote, as well as how and where to spend advertising or marketing money. Which leads to the final changing aspect of congregational life I want to explore in this series: getting creative about finances.

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