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removing barriers through transitioning away from a membership model.

8 Apr

As we explore what it looks like to remove barriers to participation in brick & mortar congregations in a changing religious landscape, we are seeing a shift in our dominant operating paradigm. In times past, a congregation would look at how many members it has as a measure of health and “success”. But with declining membership numbers, congregations are now shifting to looking instead at how the reimagine participation in the congregation.

The Old WayIn the old model, the vast majority of the congregation would worship together on Sunday morning. After a certain amount of time, visitors would become members, and then they would be invited to participate in the structure of the church by joining one committee or another. If someone came into the church via one of the church groups, such as a book-group or a CUUPS group or a meditation group, they would be encouraged to come to worship and eventually join the church. People who did not participate in the communal worship of the church frustrated leaders who wanted these people to “count” as members and to then support the church through their volunteer efforts and financial contributions.

The New WayThe new model turns this old way on its head. Instead of a pathway to membership, there is a new focus on multiple avenues of participation. Perhaps someone wants to come to a particular Adult Religious Education class, or they are interested in the book club. Or they want to volunteer for the soup kitchen or they turn out for the public witness march. These are people who may be involved in the church in several different ways but who may only rarely (if ever) show up at Sunday morning worship.

Until now, we would try to get these folks to come to worship, with the goal being to get on that pathway to membership. Today, we recognize that these ways of participating are valid and valuable as the church can (and should!) touch lives outside of worship as well as inside.

This new focus on multiple avenues of participation has an impact on how we do things: Faith development should not only happen in worship, it should happen at the church group level as well, whether that group is the soup-kitchen servers, the book group, an RE class, or beyond. Stewardship is the same – we can’t just “hit up” the people who are in worship but must approach the whole of the congregation.

Churches are removing barriers to participation by considering folks who engage in these other avenues and groups as community members because they are, whether or not they participate in worship or have formally signed the book. Besides, they may have very good reasons for not attending on Sunday morning. For instance, they may have to work! This leads to the issue I will discuss in the next post: utilizing technology effectively.

removing barriers through diversifying worship.

7 Apr

As we explore what it looks like to remove barriers to participation in brick & mortar congregations in a changing religious landscape, one question that quickly comes to mind centers on worship: In a world where people can easily find exhilarating TED talks, stirring UpWorthy videos, what does a congregation have to offer that makes worship unique?

People come to experience in community something that we cannot get by ourselves – whether it is joy of joining together in communal song, or the shared experience of reflecting on an inspiring sermon, or the struggle to understand how we should live knowing that we will die – whatever the reason, we come to experience something we cannot get by ourselves. Millennials, in particular, come to our congregations seeking authentic emotional connection. If a church is not giving the shared experience people crave, then the spiritual needs of the people are not being met.

6TyopBbkcTo prepare effective worship that meets today’s needs, it is important pay attention to vast array of people coming to us, knowing we are going to attempt to minister to someone who is walking in the door for the first time as well as to someone who has been coming for their whole life. We try to meet the needs of the person who has never sung a song communally before and really likes popular music, as well as the needs of the person who thirsts for more traditional hymnody. Utilizing Gardner’s multiple intelligences, we understand and try to meet the needs of the visual learner, the interpersonal learner, the intrapersonal learner, the linguistic learning, the bodily learner, the musical learner, the logical mathematical learner and more!

A challenge arises in congregations with only one worship service a week: creating an experience that can touch such diverse varieties of people in only one hour is difficult. This is why so many congregations have added a contemporary or innovative worship service to their offerings – to try to meet the needs of a greater variety of people. The Faith Communities Today study from 2010 indicated that having innovative worship is a marker of spiritual vitality in a congregation because it removes barriers to participation. But in 2010 only 3% of our Unitarian Universalist congregations reported having such a service!

There is another reason congregations are diversifying their worship portfolio- not only can a congregation offer different types of services, but they can offer them at different times of the week and through various formats. This allows a congregation to connect with those who are not able to attend a Sunday morning service. This diversification of worship allows the church to touch more lives effectively, which I will cover in the next blog.

removing barriers to participation in congregational life.

7 Apr

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We accept one another and encourage each other on our spiritual journeys. These two statements combined mean that we strive to meet people where they are. Not where we wish they would be, not where we think they should be. It means meeting people in the lived reality of where they are.

The more we understand this, the more we realize that it is our calling to confront and seek to do away with whatever it is that prevents people from feeling as though they have a place at the table. This means intentionally looking at what accommodations a congregation can make to remove barriers to participation for all those who might find a home with us.

removing barriersThough we cannot, and should not, try to be all things to all people, through being intentional about our worship, through providing multiple avenues for participation in the life of the congregation, through the use of technology, and through thinking creatively about finances, congregations can remove barriers to participation and thus walk the talk on living our first principle (affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of each person), our third principle (acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations) and other core values.

But what does this look like in practice, particularly in today’s changing congregational landscape? Traditional brick and mortar congregations are in transition. The previous era is behind us – the old ways of doing church no longer work the way they used to, with worship being the central function (sometimes the only function!) and committees populated by volunteers doing the brunt of the church work. People are busier than they have ever been. There are fewer families with only one spouse employed, leaving the other the freedom to be a professional volunteer. There are fewer people going to church than ever before (fewer than 20% of the US population on any given Sunday), and there as been a rise of what are called the “nones” – the people who claim to be spiritual but not affiliated with any religious tradition.

In the next four posts, I am going to examine what these changes might look like in practice in traditional congregations as we work to remove barriers to participation by:

Certainly, there is no way that I can summarize all the possibilities, but hopefully this is enough to get your creative juices flowing as you figure out how to navigate your congregation into a new era.

Direct Democracy and UUA “citizenship” – part 3

1 Apr


My final (I think) post in a series on exploring what direct democracy might look like if we implemented it at the UUA is now available over on the Lively Tradition.

I am thinking it would be worthwhile to set up a few google hangouts on this topic, so if you are interested in having future conversations about this topic, please let me know!



from Selma to #BlackLivesMatter

22 Mar

Listen here:

Though the song does have its detractors, when Glory won the award for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards last month, not many people were surprised.

When Legend and Common performed it during the award ceremony, they featured a replica of the Edmund Pettus Bridge – a bridge iconic for the events which occurred there fifty years ago and which are brilliantly captured in the movie Selma, for which the song was created.

Coretta Scott King,John Lewis,Fifty years ago yesterday, on March 21, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. led thousands across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march that spanned from Selma to Montgomery, AL. The governor of Alabama, George Wallace, would not provide protection for the marchers, so President Johnson sent in thousands of Army and National guard soldiers, FBI agents and federal marshals. On March 25, over 25,000 people entered Montgomery in a show of support for African-American citizens to be able to exercise their constitutional right to vote – a demonstration that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

The march was the culmination of events that started, really, before even the colonization of this country, but was brought to immediacy by the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson , in nearby Marion, AL. Jimmie 03Lee had been participating in a peaceful march for voting rights, when police attacked marchers. When his mother was being visciously beaten, he tried to get the state trooper to stop. Instead, the trooper shot Jackson in the stomach and began beating him in the head. Jackson’s death outraged the black community. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, came into town and gave the eulogy for him, and local organizers decided to funnel that outrage into action.

The successful march of 50 years ago was actually the third attempt. The first attempt occurred on March 7. John Lewis led the gathered crowd across the bridge where they were met by state troopers 04who attacked them brutally with clubs and tear gas. When I was on the Living Legacy Pilgrimage a few years ago, a poignant moment for me was being on the bridge and listening to a woman describe how the marchers were chased down by police on horses, riding even up church stairs miles away hunting people down. The day became known as Bloody Sunday.

Martin Luther King, Jr, assessed the situation, came to Selma, and put out a call for clergy to come. 05On the 9th, he led another march, but as they got to the line of state troopers, King stopped and prayed, and then turned the marchers around. This became known as “Turn around Tuesday.” That evening, three white Unitarian ministers were attacked and beaten on the street by white segregationists. 06The Rev. James Reeb died of head injuries two days later. Again, King delivered a powerful eulogy for Reeb at the memorial service.

Between March 9 and March 21, King worked hard to get protection from the federal government for the marchers. Reeb’s death had shocked the nation in a way that Jackson’s had not, and so eventually President Johnson relented and provided the protection, which allowed the march to finally be successful.

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Sasha Obama, Sasha Obama, Amelia Boynton Robinson, John LewisTwo weeks ago, on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, an estimated 80,000 people crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. President Obama and his family were there, and he spoke at the event. “Fifty years from Bloody Sunday,” he said, “our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer.”

08There is a French proverb that says that the more things change, the more they remain the same. On the Friday before the commemorative march, Tony T. Robinson Jr.,  an unarmed 19-year-old black man was shot dead by a white police officer in Madison, Wisconsin, sparking protests.

09Earlier this week, Martese Johnson, a black University of Virginia student, was bloodied during an arrest near the campus. Johnson’s attorney relates that “Just before handcuffing him, police took Martese to the ground, striking his head on the pavement and causing him to bleed profusely from the gash on his head. ” The lawyer continued by listing the numerous leadership positions on campus that Johnson holds, ending his statement with “He has no criminal record.”

“He has no criminal record.” His lawyer had to share this with us, because time after time, for each story heard of a black man brutalized by police, white people sit around and look for excuses. “Oh, he was drinking” or “Oh, he had a criminal record” or “Oh, he was a drug addict.” because, apparently, these character flaws somehow make it okay for someone to be the victim of police brutality?

We see this in the death of Otis Byrd this week in Mississippi. He was found hanging by a tree, a bedsheet wrapped around his neck. Some reports indicate that a skull cap was pulled over his head, and that there was nothing nearby for him to stand before taking a suicidal step forward. The FBI is investigating and should know more in the coming days whether this was a lynching or a suicide, but in the meantime every report the news has made has been sure to share that Byrd was convicted in 1980 of murdering a woman and had served almost 26 years in prison before his release. Because, I guess, if he was lynched, then this would make it less horrible???!!!

10Kenny Wiley is the director of Religious Education at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church in Colorado, and a senior editor of the UU World magazine. Writing in response to Johnson’s experience earlier this week, Wiley wrote on his facebook wall:

Over time the illusions of black respectability I grew up believing–that if I was smart enough, nice enough, nonthreatening enough, that nothing could go wrong–has been shattered.

In general, that’s a good thing. I needed to wake up to the racial realities of the present. But I need to say publicly that all this violence hurts. It hurts to know that, if any violence ever happened to me, the first question some would ask is what I did to deserve it.

Listening to a podcast just yesterday, I heard a mother talking about how she is teaching her 5 year old son how to properly pronounce certain words because she wants people to know he is human. She wants people to know that he is human! I have never, ever, not once had to worry about whether my children would be considered human. And I am betting that neither have most of you. But mothers of black sons do. Constantly.

The black experience in the United States may be better than it was 50 years ago, but it is still an extreme experience. The recent Department of Justice report on the situation in Ferguson, 11MO, where Michael Brown was killed in August, illustrates this numerically. With a population of only 21,000, 16,000 in people in Ferguson had outstanding arrest warrants. This means over ¾ of the population were wanted by police! 12Though African Americans represent only 66% of the population, police used force in their arrests much more often than in the case of other races. 85% of the people subject to a vehicle stop were African American, and 93% of all people arrested in Ferguson we African-American! Ferguson issued 9000 criminal arrest warrants, or one for every 2.3 citizens. For comparison purposes, Boston, with a population of over half a million, only issued 2,300 criminal arrest warrants, or one for every 280 citizens.
Now we can say that Ferguson is an anomoly, but with over 19,000 municipal governments in our country, “the chances that Ferguson happens to be the worst are extremely slim.

We know that it is not just police brutality from which blacks disproportionately suffer:

  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.
  • One in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.
  • 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.
  • African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as Next bullet whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months)!!
  • Every 28 hours a black man, woman, or child is murdered by police or vigilante law enforcement.

In The New Jim Crow, published in 2010, Michelle Alexander says:

If Martin Luther King Jr. is right that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice, a new movement will arise; and if civil rights organizations fail to keep up with the times, they will be pushed to the side as another generation of advocates comes to the fore. Hopefully the new generation will be led by those who know best the brutality of the new caste system—a group with greater vision, courage, and determination than the old guard can muster, trapped as they may be in an outdated paradigm.

Enter the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM-text-logo1-1024x116Thanks to social media, particularly Twitter, racially unjust events are being dragged from the shadows into the light of public scrutiny. Originally started as a twitter hashtag, the Black Lives Matter movement “was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime… Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist [their] de-humanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.”

Today, Black Lives Matter is an organized movement “working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” They ask those of us who are non-black to stand with them in solidarity.

I know some of you have trouble with Black Lives Matter. To you, I gently, but firmly remind you: This is not your movement. As white people, we are being asked to be allies to a powerful claiming of black humanness. We are not being asked to lead. We are not being asked to weigh in. We are being asked to listen, to show up, to walk, to stand shoulder to shoulder, and to speak out against injustice when we encounter it.

Because, in this country, we have proven time and time again that black lives don’t matter as much as white lives. Because Jimme Lee Jackson’s death was not enough to bring the world to Selma, but James Reeb’s was.

And so we protest against those who act like Trayvon Martin’s life didn’t matter because he was wearing a hoodie and “acting suspicious”,

We protest against those who act like Michael Brown’s life didn’t matter because he did not obey the police officer or because, heaven forbid, he was walking down the middle of a street,

We protest against those who act like Tamir Rice’s life didn’t matter because he shouldn’t have been playing with a toy in a playground (??!!)

We protest against those who act like a black life only matters if they have never committed a crime, speak well, are educated, and whatever other new bar gets set that denies their inherent worth and dignity.

We protest against all those who act like black lives don’t matter. We say no: All lives matter, and because of this, black lives matter, too. We make it explicit, so that there can be no confusion.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR, sitting in the Jefferson County Jail, in Birmingham, Alabama, 11/3/67. Everett/CSU Archives.In 1963, Martin Luther King sat in the Birmingham, Alabama jail and wrote a famous letter. He was not allowed pieces of paper, so we wrote it on scraps, on whatever he could find. A part of that letter reads:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

As white people, if we sit still and nitpick the name of perhaps the most important movement in our country right now, or, even worse, if we counter it by saying we should instead hang a banner that says “All lives matter” we become the white moderate over whom King lamented. We effectively would be paternalistically saying “We know better than you what you should name yourself.” We would be acting as white supremacists.

As white people, if we are not stepping up in white society to challenge racism and racial prejudice when we see it, we are, by defacto, agreeing with the status quo rather than challenging it and are aligning ourselves with white supremacists.

As white people, if we are waiting for Black people to tell us it is okay or to give us clear instructions, “The reality is, Black people have been calling on whites to step up for decades.” As Unitarian Universalist author of Towards Collective Liberation and recent White Privilege Conference speaker Chris Crass wrote recently on his facebook page: “In all my years of working alongside Black organizers and activists, I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘we’ve got too many white people fighting racism’.”

This is why we have our new Black Lives Matter candle at First Unitarian Church.  This is why we are talking about replacing our “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right” banner with a #BlackLivesMatter banner when the Supreme Court hopefully legalizes same-sex marriage this summer: Because it is, and will be, a symbol of our humility. Of our willingness to listen. Of our willingness to follow. Of our willingness to stand in solidarity. Of our willingness to speak out, and lend our bodies to the cause of justice.

Much has changed in fifty years, though much has remained the same.

In his concluding remarks two weeks ago at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Obama reminded us that what happened fifty years ago proved “that love and hope can conquer hate…that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals…We know the march is not yet over,” he said, “We know the race is not yet won. We know that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth…Fifty years…our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer.”

Hard fought inch by hard fought inch, we are getting closer. It isn’t easy. It isn’t pretty. In fact it is pretty messy. We will fall short in this work. We will fail at times. And we will break each others hearts over and over again. But we know that if we remain in the struggle, this is what enables us to grow. May we not have to wait another 50 years to get to the glory.

Go South, dear colleague, go south!

8 Jan

When I was in search for a congregation a few years ago, a number of my colleagues expressed surprise when I shared the area of the country I was most interested in. I had no desire to go to New England, nor to the Pacific Coast. Instead, I was looking for something in the South. “Isn’t our faith most needed in places where liberalism is so far from the norm?” I thought.  I was surprised at the prejudice that I heard from my colleagues.

I can’t help but feel a bit vindicated reading the new Metrics Dashboard contained in the January UUA Board packet. This brief document, full of helpful graphics, shows that, over the past 10 years, the South has been a growing hotbed for Unitarian Universalism. Check out page 2:

10 Year Comparison by Region

Between 2004 and 2014, the number of members of UU congregations, and the number of kids enrolled in our RE programs (detailed on the first page, not included here) has remained virtually the same. But a look at the chart above shows that this stasis has not been the same across the country. Some regions, like New England and the Central East region, have dropped in both adult and children participation. The MidAmerica region and Pacific West have grown slightly in adult participation, but dropped in children’s participation. Only the Southern region has gained in both adult and children participation over the last 10 years.

In the mid-19th century, Unitarian Horace Greeley is said to have declared “Go west, young man, go west.” Updated for today, let me say “Go south, dear colleague, go south!”

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.

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