Leaving a Congregation.

1 Jan

goodbyeAs the ministerial search season kicks off for Unitarian Universalist ministers, I thought I would share my recent experience of leaving the congregation I served for seven years. Leaving is difficult, and I am proud of how the congregation and I navigated the process together.

A little background. The congregation I served had gone through a negotiated resignation after four years with their previous settled minister. Then had a “failed search” – so three years of interim ministry. Prior to that, their previous two ministers had both had tenures of more than 10 years.

It was with this history in mind that I determined that my final ministry to the congregation would be for me to leave well. I have often heard that ministers tend to leave either a year too late, or a year too soon – I wanted to hit it just right. Towards these ends, I read the required texts: Running Through the Thistles and Mark Morrison Reed’s Berry Street Lecture After Running Through the Thistles the Hard Part Begins. I talked to the Transitions office of the UUA, and to my regional staff.

My story is different than most in that I did not take a position with another congregation. Also, I did not move out of town and my family continues to attend the congregation I used to serve (something that the congregation has a history with so is not quite as strange as it may sound). But while there are aspects to my leaving process that may be unique, there was much I learned from talking to colleagues who had recently left congregations that they served. This blog series is an attempt to formally share my experience. It contains both personal reflections, as well as some logistics on how I did things.

I have found it helpful to utilize the structure provided by Jane Jordan-Meier, in her book The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management, outlined below, with an added “Stage 0” for the discernment process and an epilogue. Each link below will take you to a separate blog containing reflections and resources.

All that said, this is my experience and yours will undoubtedly be different. But sometimes it is nice to have a place to start. I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to take any/all of this material and edit it to suit your needs.

Stage 0: Discernment
A minister leaving a congregation precipitates a crisis for the congregation. But before I even announced that I was leaving, I had to decide that it was time.

Stage 1: Breaking News
This stage details how I shared the news of my departure with the congregation and their initial reaction.

Stage 2: Drama
After breaking the news, the focus quickly moved from the initial shock to wondering how this could have happened.

Stage 3: Blaming
I was determined to avoid finger-pointing (either my own, or from the congregation.) Jordan-Meier suggests it is best to skip this stage if possible, but I think that intentionally managing it was more effective in my case.

Stage 4: Fallout/Resolution
As the congregants and I came to terms with my departure, we were able to move into a new way of being together – one characterized by a lot of joyful tears, hugs, and celebrating what we had achieved together.

Epilogue: Having Left
I thought the leaving process was done on my last Sunday, but I was wrong.

If you are leaving a congregation you have served, I hope you find my experience moderately useful. Leaving a congregation is hard work. It is emotionally draining, whether you are leaving on good terms or not. Take care of yourself, approach the task with intention, and know that you are not alone.

a letter to Democratic Party leadership.

19 Dec

Power to the People

This letter was written after I sat in the Kentucky Statehouse today (12/19/2016) with my teenage kiddo as the Electoral College voted. In that room, I heard the Governor say he didn’t understand why people were protesting. I heard the head of the GOP party in the state talk about how Republicans have a mandate in the state. I watched the old white men who were the Electors (one woman out of 8) sign away our future as my child asked me what happens now. When I reached my car, I broke down in tears, and then wrote this letter.

Dear Democratic Party Leadership,

What happened? Where did you disappear to?

When HRC was running, you seemed to be all over the place trying to defend her. But since the election, it is as if you have been sucked into a vast black hole.

We need you. Our children need you. The entire country needs you.

We need you to be on the TV news, on the radio, and in the papers, boldly asserting that THIS IS NOT OKAY. It is not okay that HRC won by nearly 3 million votes and Trump is proclaiming a mandate. His selections for cabinet positions are not okay. His business conflicts of interest are not okay. Bringing his children to State meetings is not okay. Not getting intelligence briefings is not okay. Being infiltrated by Russian propaganda is not okay!! Having election results stand, knowing the Russians tampered with the election IS NOT OKAY!

Others have written about this – about how, if the situation were reversed, the GOP leaders would be pitching a fit. They would be everywhere: they would be filing lawsuits, they would be gathering committees to examine WTF is going on, they would be giving press conference upon press conference stating and restating ad nauseam their horror, disgust, and how THIS WILL NOT STAND.

And yet from you, crickets.

I know you are shocked. I know you don’t understand what happened. And I don’t care. YOU MUST LEAD US.

For years now, you have been moving to the middle, thinking a centrist position would serve you best. And now you know how wrong that is. Now you know that we are well divided between left and right and the center is kinda lonely. So get out of there and come to where your people are!

I hear the cries for leadership amongst our people. We are afraid. Immigrants are afraid of being deported, whether they are here legally or not. Black people are afraid of not being able to vote, and of continued violence. Muslims are afraid of having to sign up for a registry. Same-sex couples are afraid to lose the rights they have gained in the last decade. Trans people are afraid they will be beaten or killed for going to the bathroom. Women are afraid of being treated as incubators for lives that are apparently more important than ours. The working poor are afraid they will never achieve a livable wage. College graduates are afraid that they will never be able to pay off their educational loans*. And across the board, we are afraid that our government has been usurped by the Russians**.

Progressives have a compelling message, if you would just claim it. Claim your voice, proudly. Claim your values. Stop being so wishy-washy-wait-and-see because there is an army of us who are behind you and who will put our bodies on the line for our cause.

And if you realize that maybe we are actually too bold for you, if you find yourself confused by how upset we are and how scared we are and HOW ANGRY we are, or if you don’t have the courage to speak up, then may, just maybe, you need to get out of the way so that others can step up.

Sincerely,

Me, and probably a whole lot of other progressives desperate for leadership

 

* College enrollment has been steadily dropping since 2011.

** Russian popularity among Republicans has been skyrocketing, as shown in the tweet below.

Gratitude for the Department of Energy

14 Dec

I post a #DailyResistance item on my personal facebook page. This is the one for today.

Today’s #DailyResistance focuses on the Energy Department. As you may be aware, Trump has nominated Rick Perry to head the Energy Department, which totally makes sense since Perry once said it was one of the agencies he would kill. If you haven’t noticed the trend of Trump choosing people who HATE the institution they are being asked to head, then this is your clue-brick of the day.

Department of Energy

Department of Energy Website

But other news about the Energy Department might have missed your radar.

ABC News reports: “Last week, sources at the Energy Department said the agency received a 74-point memo, which was obtained by ABC News, from the Trump transition team. The questionnaire asked for information on several Department of Energy programs and asks twice for lists of the names of staff members who worked on specific projects. One line item asked for names of any staff or contractors who attended international meetings on climate change run through the United Nations…A second question in the memo asks for names of personnel who attended domestic interagency meetings focused on the ‘social cost of carbon.’”

Scary, right? We thought the Muslim registry would be first, but it looks like it will be a Climate Scientist Registry. And no, that is NOT me joking.

BUT! Yesterday, the Energy Department refused to comply!!

Eben Burnham-Snyder, director of public affairs at the Energy Department said “We will be forthcoming with all publicly available information with the transition team,…We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team.”

YES!

Dr. Ernest Moniz, Secretary of Energy

Dr. Ernest Moniz, Secretary of Energy

So today’s action is to contact the Energy Department and THANK THEM!!!

Ernest Moniz is the Secretary of Energy. You can tweet at him, or email him at The.Secretary@hq.doe.gov or call the office at 202-586-5000 .

I tweeted, and this is what I said:

@ErnestMoniz Thank you for refusing to provide the names of climate scientists in a fascist request that has no place in our democracy.

You might want to email – you get more room to go into just how terrible PEOTUS’s request was.

#DailyResistance

14 Dec

In a blog a few weeks ago, I said “I won’t promise to post an idea for something you can do each day.”

And yet, I find that is exactly what I am doing.

Over on my personal facebook page, which you can follow without friending me, I am posting a #DailyResistance action.

Sometimes these are items that are going around. Sometimes I write them myself. Sometimes they are pretty quick. Sometimes they are longer.

I am wondering if I should also cross-post them to my blog.

Let me know what you think!

 

 

 

resisting twitter trolls.

29 Nov

I’ve been thinking about Trump, and his tweets, his weak spots, the phrase “when they go low, we go high” and what it means to resist. It is a mixed jumble.

Here is what I know:

a) Trump is a narcissist. And the best way to piss off a narcissist in real life (irl) is to ignore him. By this standard, when we pay attention to tweets, we are feeding him and giving him more power.

b) On twitter (not necessarily irl), ignoring Trump means that the only people he will hear are those who worship and praise him. Which will feed him and give him strength.

c) If someone says he is going to burn a school down, we don’t want to ignore him just because he is a narcissist. We need to watch him, and watch the school, to make sure he doesn’t make good on his threat.) We know Trump is a master manipulator and that he is using his tweets to distract us from other, more important issues. Perhaps it is his business dealings, or his cabinet choices – whatever it is, there is a new one every day.

d) Tweets are a window into Trump’s frame of mind. He can easily be drawn into a tweet-war. This may be his achilles heel.

Based on all of the above, I am wondering if we would be more effective if we followed the 6 Ways to Fight Trolls Instead of Starving Them.  That said, I am not yet ready to sacrifice “We go high” so my plan (and suggestion) is to ignore tactic #1 (mock mercilessly) and focus instead on adopting tactics 2-6:

Troll-Fighting Tactic #2: Cite Real-Life Sources

Troll-Fighting Tactic #3: Retain Some Humility

Troll-Fighting Tactic #4: Give ‘em the Snark

Troll-Fighting Tactic #5: Be Creative

Troll-Fighting Tactic #6: Feed the Trolls Until They Explode

I invite you to do so as well.

What might this look like?

When Trump tweets something ridiculous or offensive, I will try to respond utilizing the above tactics of being creative and snarky. And I will always include a link to something I think that he is trying to distract us from. I will probably respond a whole bunch of times, with different links in each tweet response.  I did this earlier today (minus the creativity) in response to his flag-burning tweet. This is what it ended up looking like:

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-2-14-24-pm

 

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-2-14-36-pm

 

screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-2-14-46-pm

 

Even if Trump doesn’t see them, perhaps others will.

Maybe, maybe, if we utilize the above tactics to poke him to the point that he fights back, it might eventually cause Trump to implode to such a degree that even Republican leadership can no longer deny his unsuitability to lead this country.

Maybe.

One can hope.

And in the meantime, we can take comfort in annoying the hell out of him as we go high, creatively and with a side of snark.

Resisting the Complacency of Privilege

22 Nov

I want to talk about privilege and how it can give us a false sense of security. In order to do so, I need to locate myself: I am a person with a high level of privilege. I am a white, cis-gender woman. I grew up in a white-collar family where going to college was the expectation. I was entitled, and my parents paid for it. I was assured that I would be a success. In a family with 2 siblings and 2 cousins there are 2 doctors and a lawyer. All five of us have at least a graduate degree. I was told, and shown, that my gender shouldn’t be an impediment to achievement. I have been married to a man for over 20 years so present as heterosexual. We have two children.

The only debt we have is our mortgage. We paid for seminary out of pocket and so don’t have that debt. Our children go to a private school and I am putting myself through another graduate degree. We are saving for retirement. That all said, we have made plenty of tough decisions: our two cars are both more than 10 years old and our house needs quite a lot of work. But we live in a well-to-do neighborhood, and money is not an issue we worry about daily. And, if worst came to worst, we have the safety nets of parents.

When I walk into a room in a professional situation, I expect people to listen to me. That expectation is expressed in how I carry myself, how I meet people’s eyes, and how I shake their hands. My expectation of respect, and how it is sometimes perceived by others, was made clear to me by a CPE supervisor who asked if I was a “blue-blood” – I honestly had no idea what he was talking about.

So you see, I have loads of privilege. I don’t say this to brag. And, frankly, it feels vulnerable to share all this with you. But you need to know where I am coming from because right now, I want to speak to my peers: other people who find themselves in a similar boat.

keep-calm-and-check-your-privilegeLet me describe this boat. This is the boat of “Well, the country may be entering scary times, but I will be fine.” We are not usually people of color, and maybe everyone in your family is white, like mine. We are mostly heterosexual. We are educated. We have professional jobs in fields that require specialization.

You know who you are.

To you, I confess: I am tempted, every day, to put my head into a hole in the sand and just ride out the next few years. Because, for the most part, I could. It feels like my life is not going to be directly impacted by most of these changes: no one in my family is getting deported, no one my family is being denied their right to vote, no one my family is being profiled by police, no one’s marriage is at risk. And if we end up with a pregnant teenager, we have the means to travel somewhere where abortion is legal.

I know the seduction of privilege. I have to fight it every day. It tells me that I “got” mine and that I should just hunker down to protect it.

So why don’t I?

Because I learned, intellectually and in my heart of hearts, that it is true that no one is free while others are oppressed.

I remember pieces of this shift. One occurred when my spouse and I were attending the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, VA. It was the height of the 90s tech boom. We were in our mid-twenties, no kids, and had bought a house. Property values in our county were on the rise, though, and I complained about it at church one time. “We don’t have kids!” I moaned. “Why should we have to pay property taxes to support schools?”

An older man in the congregation responded with love and patience. It didn’t come with judgement for if it had I never would have listened. He talked about how having good schools benefits an entire community. He listed ways – a list much larger than the scope of this blog posting – that child-free individuals benefit from supporting schools. My mind was changed.

My heart was changed by a woman at church. She was the primary guardian of her grandchildren, and was usually on welfare. I remember the bind she found herself in: the system required her to get a job after a few months of benefits. But that job wouldn’t pay childcare, and her benefits would stop once she was employed. And so she would work a few weeks, then get fired or quit because the (inexpensive) unreliable childcare arrangement wasn’t working out and without someone to watch her grandkids, she couldn’t go to work. If something happened to her car, she had to decide between groceries and repairs – and if she was working but her job wasn’t on the bus line and she couldn’t get there, she would lose the job. In addition to the on-again-off-again job situation, her food stamps wouldn’t pay for necessities like diapers. At one point, she was so desperate for money, she considered selling drugs. I could not sit in my tower of privilege and judge her because I knew she was doing the very, very best she could.

I saw this woman struggle every day to get by. She was my friend, and from her I learned about the cycle of poverty and how impossible it is to get out of it. I learned that the system that so benefited me was slowly killing her. Literally. She had health problems from all the stress – but whenever she sought treatment, she got further into debt because, of course, she had no insurance. Which made her more stressed…

Do you see this cycle?

My heart shifted.

I realized that I was not inherently deserving of the privilege I had. I learned that it was absolutely not fair that my friend had not only been born into poverty, but also could not fight her way out of it.

And like the older member who talked to me about how communities as a whole benefit when they have good schools, I learned from my friend that I, personally, benefit, when people do not have to fight tooth and nail for every scrap we toss them. My friend wanted to work. She wanted to be a productive member of society. She wanted to contribute, to be of use.  And she also wanted her grand-babies to grow up in a safe, loving home, and for them to not go hungry. She was smart, and a hard worker – someone I would hire any day. The workforce was losing out by not having her in it.

connectedSo my mind and my heart have been changed. I understand now that my privilege requires that I be a good ally in the fight for equity and justice. Because I know that men are harmed by sexism, that white people are harmed by racism, and that heterosexual people are harmed by homophobia.

So that story we tell ourselves that we won’t be effected? It is a myth made up to keep people artificially divided, to make it easier to target vulnerable communities. To keep us from using our privilege for good.

So please, oh privileged peers of mine: Resist the desire to hide your head in the sand. Resist the complacency of privilege. They need us in this fight. And we need them.

Resisting.

21 Nov

Thoughts and ideas have been stewing about in my mind for 2 weeks now. This is how I grieve – I get angry and I think a lot. And rant a lot. My family is a bit tired of it, I suspect. Though I am on twitter all the time, and I am posting more publicly on facebook, the reality is that neither of these formats are ideal for concepts that require much depth. And so I am inspired to start a new blog tag: Resisting. You can follow these themed blogs by clicking on the tag over there → (don’t worry, it will get bigger as I post more).

Why a special category for Resisting?

Well, as you may be aware, due to a messed-up system that makes the vote of someone in Wyoming worth 3x that of someone in California, we have elected a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic compulsive liar to our highest office. Someone who has no political experience. Someone who is already trying to parlay his election into a business win for himself. Who is a threat to our freedom of speech. Who is appointing men to his cabinet who are more famous for their hate than for their leadership experience.

Don’t kid yourself – this is not “just like when <insert candidate you didn’t like> was elected.” This is not about partisan politics. Not even close – I don’t know about you but I would gladly take Mitt Romney right now even though I have some major disagreements with him. No, this is much bigger. As a friend of mine told me on the phone, the “Great American Experiment” is collapsing. Democracy itself is at stake. The ideals of one person-one vote, government by the people & for the people, self-determination, freedom and justice are in the crosshairs. Fascism is in sight.

You still don’t believe me? Look at Trump’s reaction to Pence’s Hamilton visit or his reaction to SNL’s recent skit – he doesn’t like freedom of speech when it means he gets criticized. He threatened months ago to remove libel laws so he could sue the press when they print something he doesn’t like.

Or how about this: Though he has not released his tax statements, we know that Trump owes millions to Deutsche Bank. This same bank is being fined for $14 billion by the Department of Justice for mis-selling bonds in the run-up to the financial crisis. As President, Trump will appoint the Attorney General, who heads the Department of Justice. Trump will be the AG’s boss, which means he can tell the AG to drop the case against Deutsche Bank, maybe in exchange for, say, Deutsche Bank forgiving all that Trump owes them.

When has there ever been a President with this obvious, enormous conflict of interest? But don’t put money on Trump somehow recusing himself – the “blind trust” he put his business affairs into is anything but blind and is being run by his kids. The same kids he is trying to get security clearances for so that they can be his political advisors, not just run his businesses.

If he feels he stands to gain, nothing will stop him. Trade Agreements, International Treaties, Civil Rights. Human Rights. Do not kid yourself: everything we believe and love about this country is at stake.

Beloveds, we have a lot of work to do. We must resist.

But this is not a weekend project. Or something we do between now and the inauguration. No, this will be a long road. Two years, at least, some say. Or four. I suspect it will be much, much longer. Studies have shown that the effects of Nazi propaganda lasted more than 50 years on those who were exposed to it. This will be a long, long road. And the longer it lasts, the longer the recovery.

So we must have endurance. We must be resilient and find ways for resistance to become our new normal. Something we engage in on a daily basis. We can’t go around panicking all the time, even though I know it comes upon me regularly in waves these days. We must build resistance into our routines and find communities that will sustain us and support us. This is the only way to move forward, to fight our own panic and to struggle against the threat of fascism.

One example I have for you is a friend of mine who spends every Monday lunchtime on the phone with her legislators, state and local. It is a part of her routine.

One of the things I will be doing is trying to blog more regularly. I won’t promise to post an idea for something you can do each day, or a list of organizations you should give time or money to – others have already done that and I highly suggest you look them up if you haven’t already.

What I want to do is let you in on my processing. What am I doing? What am I thinking? What am I struggling with? Because I am doing a whole lot of all of those right now. I hope you are too and I hope you join me.

Vive la résistance!

And in the spirit of freedom of speech, and because someone told me I was too serious the other day, and because I would gladly welcome Canadian overlords right now, I leave you with this.

the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.

7 Nov

My good-bye sermon, delivered at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY on October 23, 2016.

As we all know, today is a very special day. Today, we celebrate the Cubs making it into the World Series.

Just kidding. Unless you are a Cubs Fan.

No, today is special because it is the last time I will stand before you as your minister. At the end of today, I will turn in my keys, say my final goodbyes, and take a week off before I start my work for the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

rebuilding-wayside-pulpit

The wayside pulpit at First Unitarian Church on the night of a devastating fire in December 1985.

Last sermon for you. Oh my goodness. There are so, so many things I want to say. When I write a sermon, I usually throw out a rough draft or maybe two, but this sermon has had at least 5 different versions. At one point, I thought I’d do a narrative: tell my story, tell your story, tell the story of our time together, and then talk about your future and what hopes I have for you. Another version had me listing all your ministers – I was going to ask you to raise your hand or stand up for each minister you remembered. I wanted to demonstrate that though my ministry with you is transient, the ministry continues. This is why ministers generally cut off contact with congregants when they leave – to make room for the next minister to fill the role.

I even made a spreadsheet with all your ministers – settled and interim (I am number 28!) – and I included not just their start and end dates, but how old they were when they started. It was pretty neat to discover that in terms of length of ministry and age when I started, I’m actually a pretty average minister for you! But as fascinating as spreadsheets and data mining are to me, it is not a suitable topic for a last sermon. And, truly, this last sermon – it’s not about me. It’s about you.

I want you to walk away from today uplifted, hopeful, and grateful for our time together. I want you to walk away emboldened and energized to live your mission. No, I won’t be with you, but again, it’s not about me. It’s about how First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY embodies our saving faith in this neighborhood and beyond. I want to remind you that you are a beacon!

So many of you have told me, these last few weeks, how this church has saved you – not in some other life, but in this life, here and now. In a world that tries to convince people otherwise, you shared with me how healing it is to be told, each week, that you are lovable and that you are loved.

So many people are looking for a place where they are accepted, no matter their educational background, their theology or lack thereof. People are looking for a place where their gender identity and sexual orientation are not only accepted but celebrated. People are looking for a place where their quirks are tolerated, where it’s okay if they’ve served time, where their family structure is supported, where they will be told that black lives matter, and where they can get into and out of and around the building independently whether on wheels or on legs.

There is so, so much pain in this world. So much “othering” of anyone who does not fit society’s arbitrary standards. So many people are looking for ways through the confusion, looking for the transformational power of love that First Unitarian Church offers. And then, once you experience it and begin to heal, it is natural to want to give back. To serve this congregation that helped to save you.

This is what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist – that you know it is your responsibility to love and help others once you have experienced that love and acceptance yourself. Mark Morrison Reed wisely wrote that it is in being loved that we learn to love. We cannot, must not, hide our light under a bushel – it is not only irresponsible, but it is wrong. Wrong to keep this saving faith to ourselves.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to put ourselves out there. To help bind up the broken, the love the hell out the world and to love each other out of hell.

How will First Unitarian continue to do this? How will you continue to embody and incarnate your mission, even in these few months before the interim minister arrives?

When I look back, I see that we have done great things together in the last 7.5 years. We’ve worked on what it means to welcome people – the welcoming statement that’s on every order of service and the website is a living document that is constantly being added to, expanded. We joined CLOUT in an effort to use our privilege to amplify the voices of those too often silenced. We made our bathrooms accessible to all genders. We gave Religious Exploration its own hour and welcomed children into worship. We have used this building as outreach to the community: offering affordable space to Central Louisville Community Ministries, FORward radio, and two other worshiping congregations! We have strived for excellence in worship and in all we do. We have argued, debated, and even changed positions when we thought we were entrenched.

We have done amazing ministry together.

Now you are at an intersection – my ministry with you has reached its end. We each will go our separate ways.

Which way will go you?

Will you turn inward? Let any anger or frustration, or even fear, or sorrow about my departure cause you to pull back into yourself? Will you hide your light so that only those already here will see it?

Or, will you use this time to flourish? Will you continue to be a beacon of liberal religion here in Kentuckiana? Continue to share our saving faith with those who need it? This, this is my hope for you.

But how do you do that between now and when your next minister arrives? I’ve told the Board and leadership that the #1 thing that I think you need to, in order to continue to be the beacon you ought to be, and indeed, even to help you figure out who to call as your next minister, the #1 thing you need is a plan. A strategic plan.

You need goals. Priorities and objectives that you can measure against – priorities that can drive your budgeting choices – whether that budgeting is financial, or even when you are budgeting how much volunteer or staff energy you have. Because you can’d do and be everything.

One thing I do not recommend you put in that plan is to grow your membership. For too many years, Unitarian Universalist congregations were told that they were only successful if they were growing. What we know now is that the vast majority of congregations, Unitarian Universalist and otherwise, are dying. Growth in membership, for the sake of growth in membership, is an unrealistic target. And then it feels like a failure when it doesn’t happen.

But there are other important ways you can grow: you can grow in how you incarnate, embody, your mission and vision. You can grow in spiritual depth. You can grow in your organizational capacity.

The reality is that your options are not limitless. They are bounded by your financial capacity and the amount of energy needed to accomplish something. But you are are so rich both in terms of finances and in terms of volunteer and staff energy, you certainly have many, many options!!

Yes, you are financially very well off. I’m taking a Finance Management for Nonprofits graduate class right now – we are learning about debt ratio and assets. Let me tell you: no one should ever claim that there is “not enough” here – because there is abundance! You have no debt, you are generous pledgers, you have an amazing endowment and you are wrapping up a wildly successful capital campaign.

And yes, you are very well off in terms of volunteer and staff energy. You are a congregation that knows how to support your minister, that strives to be fair in how you pay your staff. You are a congregation that says “yes” to ideas that members come up with. You are a congregation that has learned how to rise above conflict to do the right thing, even when it is HARD. You have abundance, in finances and in the amount of talent, skills and energy people have to get the job done.

What you don’t have, yet, is a plan against which to measure your decisions. You are reaching out in every direction – a mile wide and an inch deep. This applies to how you do your finances, how you do your social justice work, and it applies to pretty much everything. This is the shadow side of being a “yes!” congregation without a plan: everything gets stretched too thin and it feels like there is not enough. But if you focus, if you know where you want to go and can set goals and objectives, then you will know how to prioritize your resources and how to better utilize and manage them. There is abundance here. It just needs to be be harnessed properly, and pointed in the right direction.

Of course, this means change. It means potentially sunsetting programs that don’t energize people, programs that don’t measure well against your plan or your mission. It means change, and change means loss. But it also means growth and possibility. A new day.

I want you to shine. I want you to pick a direction and point your light that way, and start moving, confidently and with conviction.

I will be watching. And rooting for you. And talking you up to my colleagues. You are an essential part of my ministry – your sap runs through my veins. You taught me, gave me confidence in myself as a minister, helped me grow my gifts and talents. You allowed me to take risks, and to fail, and to know that that is okay. James Keller pointed out that “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” I burn brightly because you lit my flame. And so I take you with me wherever I go.

But I am not the bright light of this church. You all are. You own the ministry. You light the beacon and keep it burning. If you think I hung the moon, it is only because you built a ladder for me to reach it. This is my final task for you: seek to embody your mission, relentlessly, and First Unitarian Church will continue to shine, as it has for nearly 200 years. I love you. Thank you for allowing me to serve you.

when compassion seems like a stretch.

19 Jun

The Opposite of Compassion
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on June 19, 2016

Listen:

Back in April, when we sat around the table at our Worship Planning meeting for this month’s services, there was a lot we knew, and a lot we didn’t know. We knew the theme for the month was compassion. We knew we wanted to integrate that theme into the service each week: we had Linette kick off the month by connecting our flower communion to the Flower Sutra in Buddhism, which links compassion and mindfulness. Last week, we had a sort of primer on compassion that got us thinking and reflecting about it in our own lives. For today, we planned on presenting a service on the opposite of compassion. And then we decided to round out June next week by having the chance to practice embodying compassion for youth across the sexual orientation and gender identity spectrums.

We had no idea that there would be an immediate example of the opposite of compassion that I could utilize today. And no idea how urgently our service next week for young people would be needed.

947a732ac5e8f78f057f5328d70b50baacb1f551But now we know. Last Sunday, in the early morning hours, a male, American-born citizen – raised in our country, claiming allegiance to ISIS, choose a holy time of day, in the holy month of Ramadan, to go to gay bar that was celebrating Latinx night – a gay bar which the shooter had frequented many times and at which he was known. He went in with an assault weapon and pistol – and he proceeded to kill 49 innocent people and injure more than 50 others before he was finally brought down and killed by police.

And so we add another chapter to our country’s stories of sanctuary being defiled by gun violence: the sanctuary that the GLBT community finds in these few, rare spaces, that are theirs, where they can dance, hold, and enjoy their loved ones without fear of reprisal.

The cynical side of me supposes that was to be expected. There really is no safe place – senseless violence occurs anywhere these day – schools, churches, movie theaters; and now gay bars. What’s next? Hospitals? Plays? Concerts? Sporting events? Probably.

Meanwhile, President Obama gave another anti-gun-violence speech. Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show, pointed out that Obama has hosted 12 state dinners but has had to give 16 mass shooting addresses during his tenure.

Meanwhile, after sending thoughts and prayers to Orlando, the GOP House Chair blocked an LGBT protections bill. And even after a filibuster, there’s still no deal for either gun control proposal on the table right now – one that keeps people who are on terror watch lists from obtaining guns, and another that requires background checks for sales at gun shows and online.

Meanwhile, much of the media ignores that the victims were mostly people of color. This tragedy is a poster-child for intersectionality, a concept used to describe ways in which social constructs like -isms & -phobias are interconnected and not magically separate issues. The reality is that queer people of color still have the highest fatality rates for transgender murder, HIV/AIDS, and youth homelessness. They are often rejected by both communities.

The blaming has been intense, if not surprising. Blame guns, religion, sexual orientation. But there are some things we don’t want to look at – like the fact that the shooter was raised in this country. He was one of ours, a byproduct of our culture, our educational systems. The reality is that it’s very difficult, and complicated, to have conversations that look at all the intersecting factors in this tragedy. But as Chris Hedges points out, “A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, and fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”

Have we reached the point where our civilization is condemned to die? My colleague, The Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, summed it up beautifully on her facebook page: “Let’s be clear: In our current national climate, Islamophobia, Xenophobia, White Supremacy, Misogyny, Homophobia, and Transphobia are at a loud, fever pitch. One of our presidential candidates explicitly spouts all of them and STILL BECAME A MAJOR PARTY NOMINEE.”

And not only has hatred personified become a major party nominee, but there are tens of millions of people in this country willing to vote for him. Tens of millions of people to whom his message of hate appeals.

Mr. Rogers, in the moment for all ages, said that in scary times, to look for the helpers. There we will find hope, and comfort.

And I love Mr. Rogers – I really do. I was shaped by his theology as a young child and continue to be inspired by him today.

But looking for the helpers is not cutting it for me right now. I don’t think it is enough for any of us. Fred, I want to ask him, that is great, but what about after the urgency of a crisis? Then what? Where do we find hope in the ongoing struggle? And, more importantly, how can we fight this rising tide of hate, of dehumanization, of oppression?

Now, here is the point where you might expect me to get all ministerly and say that we need to be more compassionate, that we are called to love even our enemies. Yadda yadda yadda. But frankly, right now, that type of response feels trite. Insufficient. Unrealistic.

The reality is that there is no one single answer, no one theological exercise, no one piece of legislation, no one solution that will bring all this pain and suffering towards healing. As Rev. Gordon points out, “We cannot, cannot, cannot decry one [of these forms of oppression] without actively and passionately resisting all of them. They are inextricably linked and rooted in a basic failure to recognize both our common humanity and the beauty of our unique differences.”

But for many of us right now, the idea of passionately resisting all of them, heck maybe even passionately resisting one of them – well, it makes us want to crawl into a cave. But there is something we can do that is not as overwhelming as compassion or passionately resisting, and not as insufficient as crawling into a cave. And that is this: we must not allow ourselves succumb to the hate and dehumanization of those who brought us to this point.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, and I know many of you know this quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We often focus on the last part – that we need love to drive out hate. But if we are not in a place of love, then, perhaps we can be in a place of not hating.

I am not talking about hate in the way I would say, I hate beets, or I hate predictable movies. No, I am talking about hate that dehumanizes. Hate that is born of judgmentalism. Judgmentalism that is, at its root, the opposite of compassion.

Judgmentalism tells me that I am better than someone else. That I am more worthy. It leads to a belief that my rights are more important than your rights.

Terry D. Cooper, in his fabulous book “Making Judgments without being Judgmental” lists a number of characteristics of judgmentalism.

When we are judgmental, he says, we are not concerned for others. We presume to know people’s motives without reasonable evidence rather than trusting someone else’s motives unless we have reason to do otherwise.

When we are judgmental, we cling tenaciously to moral and religious concepts with disrespect and intolerance for those who differ, rather than being respectful and tolerant of differences.

When we are judgmental, we denounce the personhood, the humanity, rather than the behavior of those to adhere to erroneous ideas or destructive behavior. We refuse to recognize problems or limitations with our own viewpoint and we insist on absolute certainty rather than having humility.

It is judgmentalism, in part, that leads fundamentalist Christians to focus on the passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that peripherally deal with homosexuality rather than focusing on Jesus’s call to love one another, and to judge not, lest ye be judged.

It is judgmentalism in the form of white supremacy that allows Trump to say that Mexicans are rapists, and that we are going to build a wall to keep them out.

And it would be judgmentalism to blame all Muslims, or all gun owners, for what happened in Orlando.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely believe my morals are superior to those of the shooter. And I absolutely believe that our liberal religious values are superior to those who preach or teach hate.

But while we can condemn behavior, if we are to condemn people, to see them as less than, or unworthy as human beings, then we are likely to fall prey to the same dehumanizing behavior that we find so troublesome. Cooper points out that “Reactivity begets reactivity. It’s hard to keep our balance when we’ve been clobbered by [someone else’s] judgmentalism.” And so, rather than calling for compassion or love, I ask that we combat the judgmentalism in ourselves that might leads us to hate. The judgmentalism that is the opposite of compassion.

Perhaps, if we are able to not succumb to judgmentalism and hate we might find a way forward that works for us all. And, one day, we might better embody the compassion of the Samaritan, who helped out a broken man on the road, simply because another human being was in pain. For there is a twist in this ancient story – one that not many people realize. Jews and Samaritans – they did not get along at ALL. For generation upon generation, over 500 years, the two cultures were at odds. And so it was absolutely relevant that Jesus, a Jew, talking to a Jew who asked who our neighbors were, told a story in which other Jews passed the injured man by, but it was a Samaritan, a despised Samaritan who not only stopped to help, but paid for the injured man’s care out of his own pocket.

If we cannot be compassionate, then at least may we not succumb to hate, to judgmentalism. For perhaps, as we heal, as we seek comfort, we might eventually get to that place of compassion after all. As Rev. Gordon writes “It is each of our job to listen to the experience AND the pain of others, and to stay open to the pain that we ourselves feel- not to harden our hearts in fear or defensiveness. It is only then that we can collectively turn our pain into resistance, solidarity, compassion, and a more just community.”

I give the final word this morning to Greg Zanis, who built 49 wooden crosses then drove 1,200 miles from Illinois to Florida to place them outside the Orlando Health Medical Center. “My message today is love your brother, love your neighbor. Don’t judge ‘em.” May it be so. May we make it so.

the transient and permanent in UU ministry.

14 Jun

Delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long
June 4, 2016

You can watch the entire ordination below. Sermon starts at 31:00.

Imagine the scene, 175 years ago, at the Hawes’ Place Church in South Boston. May 19, 1841, was, like tonight. the night of an ordination. The ordinand was Mr. Charles C. Shackford, a mere 26 years old. He would go on to serve the Lynn church for 19 years. The preacher that evening was Rev. Theodore Parker.

Delivering the sermon at an ordination is an honor in our tradition. Then, and today, the sermons are generally not particular to the ordinand but instead address either our larger Unitarian Universalist faith tradition or the institution of our professional ministry. Ordination sermons are a time to stand up on the balcony and survey the view – to look at trends, or challenges, that we are facing, and to offer our observations.

175 years ago, Unitarians were facing a challenge – the theological challenge of Transcendentalism. Parker had heard Emerson give his Divinity School Address three years earlier and had been powerfully moved by it. In that address, Emerson had defined many of the tenets of Transcendentalism, comparing it to a more traditional Unitarian theology. The Divinity School address had begun a major controversy within Unitarianism, a fire to which Parker’s sermon added fuel.

The title of Parker’s sermon was “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.” His main idea was that, in Christianity, there are some things that are permanent, enduring through the ages – such as what Jesus taught: Love your neighbor and the meek shall inherit the world. And there are some things that are transient, changing over the passage of time – such as how particular Biblical passages are applied, an even, Parker said, the authority of the Bible! Hearing his sermon, some declared, “If that is Unitarianism, I am not a Unitarian!” Sean Dennison writes that “Parker’s main point at this particular ordination was that the Christians of the day were missing the point. They had confused what was transient, changeable, and impermanent for what was enduring in Christianity. He challenged them to look at their habits, their rituals, their practices and their doctrines and let go of much that was more about fear than about the core message of their faith.”

So it is with some trepidation that I take my title today from that historic ordination sermon Parker gave 175 years ago. I am not Theodore Parker. I am older than he was when he gave his address. And a woman. And I doubt history will take notice of me the way it did this man who could turn a phrase – the moral arc of the universe and “government of all, by all, for all” are both his.

And at the same time, I believe we are at a turning point not unlike the turning point that Parker found himself in low those years ago. I believe we are at a time when the old ways are rolling away, and the new ways that are coming in are scary, unknown, overwhelming, and challenging to how things have been done in our lifetimes.

But while the crisis in Parker’s day was a theological one, the one today is a crisis around the sustainability of religious life. Church attendance is at its lowest rate in the history of our country. More and more people understand themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Not only are there fewer people in the pews on Sunday morning, but many of those who are there have less time to volunteer to help make the church function. The volunteer bench is not as deep as it used to be as retirees are often finding part-time jobs to help make ends meet, and many families with two parents find that both are needing to work. This might all be fine if people were able to give more financially, but church giving is not increasing at pace with other charitable giving – certainly not at the rate needed to fund positions that used to be filled by volunteers. So we are at a critical juncture within our religious institutions: how do we adapt to this changing religious landscape? I’ve written about some ways congregations might adapt – tonight I’d like to explore what this might mean for our professional ministry.

For there’s no doubt about it: our ministry is changing. I entered seminary in 1997. The ministry that I do now is not at all what I expected going in less than 20 years ago. Speaking with colleagues with more experience than I, I know that I am not alone. One colleague boldly told me that ministry used to be much simpler – more scholarly and more pastoral, not like today with all the distractions.

What might the future hold for the beloved vocation of parish ministry? During the recent summit on The Economic Sustainability of Unitarian Universalist Ministries, many religious professionals (parish ministers, community ministers, directors of religious education) shared that they live paycheck to paycheck, as hours are cut, student loan and seminary debt increases, and salaries don’t keep pace. There is much debate within our professional associations about bi-vocational ministry – professional ministers who have other jobs outside of ministry. In truth, because we are not yet certain how congregations will adapt to the changing religious landscape, it is hard to predict what professional parish ministry will look like 50 years from now. Things are changing. Quickly.

Reverend Khoren Arisian addressed this onslaught of change in his 1998 Berry Street Lecture, which had the subtitle “The Transient and Permanent In Life And Ministry.” Arisian shared that, “As time goes by in this marvelous, maddening world, things get more and more complicated, events move faster and faster, so that we need more than ever to have a reliable point of view, an existential epistemological compass, as it were, by which to discriminate one thing from another.”

In this time of great change in our religious landscape, when events move faster and faster, I am inspired to take a page from Parker and look at what is transient, and what is permanent, in our Unitarian Universalist ministry, for this can provide us with the “existential epistemelogical compass” Arisian mentions. I don’t have the luxury of an hour long lecture or 45 minute sermon, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view – I hear those sighs of relief!), so there is much I don’t have time to address. My hope is that the five points that I touch on here become fodder for further thought and exploration – something (perhaps) to be expanded upon, particularly for those of us engaged in, or contemplating, the professional ministry.

And so: the transient.

Example number one, appropriately enough – the sermon, or, more specifically, how we deliver our message. If it is true that today’s people have a shorter attention span than a goldfish, I can only imagine what it would be like to magically transport Parker through time to be here today – his hour long sermon, bereft of stories and full of academic theology – would undoubtedly find many minds wandering. When I entered seminary, the ideal was a three point sermon, 20ish minutes, logically and coherently arranged. Today, sermons are shorter, and many experts in homiletics recommend one point. One. Ideally, that one point is made through the use of stories. By todays standards, this sermon this evening is dry, long, and uninspiring. Sorry, folks!

There is nothing wrong with this shorter, story-telling style of sermon – the stories keep the listener engaged, and with just one point it is easier to be clear, and go deep. Sermon style falls into the transient category. But I would also propose that the sermon itself may, as well. As we begin to gear our message to a wider audience, with more educational diversity and neurological diversity and generational diversity, we may find that other ways to share our message become more useful and have greater impact. Time will tell.

What hasn’t changed – what is permanent – is how we arrive at the content of our message. In the Divinity School Address that so inspired Parker, Emerson said that it is the role of the preacher to deal out “life passed through the fire of thought.” Whether it is three points, or one, full of stories or full of academic quotes, the role of the minister is to take our experiences – our educational experiences, our life experiences, the catalog of our lives and of the world around us, and to examine them deeply – to take the personal and use it as a lens with which to reflect on the universal. Whether we share that message through a sermon, or a blog posting, a facebook post, or a tweet (hashtag “jordinnation”), a snapchat story or a self-published novella – the medium of the message transient, but passing life through the fire of thought is permanent.

This leads to the next area of the transient: the tools we use. Once upon a time, it was letters and personal visits via horseback. Then it was phone calls and car-rides to the hospital. Today, it is email and facebook. The amount of email needing to be read is never-ending. Facebook presents us with boundless opportunities for positive connections with colleagues and with congregants. The shadow side is that digital connection sometimes has replaced, not enhanced, in-person connection. I vividly remember the time facebook was the method from which I learned that a congregant had died. But facebook is choosy about what it shows. This can cause problems when congregants believe that the minister has seen and been made aware of something that we are clueless about. The relationship between a minister and a congregant can end up broken when a congregant relies on social media to inform the minister of important events in their lives. And the relationship, the connection between the office of ministry and the people we serve while in that office, is something that is permanent.

Those whom we serve want the minister to know them, to see them, to walk with them in times of crisis and sit with them in times of need. With multiple generations in a congregation, this means some will want us to call them, some will prefer email, some prefer facebook or texting, others, well, you’ll have to ask them. The tools of relationship are transient, but the need congregants have for a relationship with their minister is permanent.

Our connections with people both within and outside the congregations we serve, combined with our reflections on our lives and relationships, will lead us to an awareness of the vast injustice present in our world. Which brings us to a third example of the transient and the permanent in our ministry. The specific nature of an injustice we see may be transient since even as we make advances in one area, another arises – racism, sexism, homophobia, fat-phobia, ablism. Our capacity as human beings to turn someone into “other” seems to have no end. And so, while a particular type of oppression might be transient, oppression itself is permanent, and so too is our responsibility as ministers to call out oppression when we see it. We may say that we work to create God’s kingdom here on earth, or say that our role is to “endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few.” We may say that we are putting our hands upon the moral arc of the universe and bending it towards justice or that it is our job to love the hell out of the world. How we phrase it changes with the generations, just as the form of oppression changes. What is permanent is our role, as liberal ministers, to hold and proclaim the vision of a world made fair and all her people cared for – to call humanity to its best self.

Prophetic voice, staying in relationship, sharing our message- it can all get overwhelming. Rev. Sharon Ditmar, preaching at my installation at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, shared something that has stuck with me and that I have held onto for years. Ministry, she said, is a marathon, not a sprint. She was talking about how it is necessary to pace ourselves, to understand that we can’t run mile after mile at a sprinter pace or we will burn ourselves out. And she is so right! Trying to juggle church life, family life, personal life – it can be exhausting. But this is also misleading, because unlike a marathon, there is no line that we cross where we suddenly say to ourselves “We have ARRIVED!” Or at least, I haven’t found one.

Instead, ministry is like trying to drink from a firehose – there are hundreds of little things that constantly need to get done, so that as ministers we can try to guzzle it all, or to take little sips. And sometimes we need to pull away from it entirely, lest we drown. Jordinn, I promise, when you miss a Board or Committee meeting, or neglect to answer every email within 72 hours, the church won’t fall apart. This is the message I tell myself every year, especially this time of year when my energy is low after Easter, the pledge drive, the annual meeting, and a year’s worth of guzzling from the firehose.

And so these trappings of ministry, these things, events, activities – they are a fourth aspect of the transient in ministry that distracts us from the permanent, which in this case is that ministry calls us to be our whole selves. To be authentic human beings. And for me to know, at my core, that I am enough. For you to know that you are enough. That ministry is not something we do, it is something we are. Ministry, this call to be in the world, to speak truth in love, to meet people where they are, to challenge the world to be better, to walk with those in need, and to model all this for those we serve – this is the permanent, and my imperfect, insecure, constantly falling short self is exactly enough to live this ministry into life. And so is yours.

I am enough. You are enough. But it is not about me, and it is not about you. In fact, the reality is that as individual ministers, WE are what is transient. This is the fifth and final observation of the transient and permanent in ministry. Us. We live our lives, we do the best we can, we hope to make a difference- and I think that we usually do. But our ministries end, and someone comes behind us to take our place. As Mark Morrison Reed observed in his Berry Street Lecture from 16 years ago, we must die so that the ministry will live. It is our duty to fill the jar and leave it for the next traveler. And this is as it should be! This is what it means to be part of a living tradition that grows and changes with each generation. What is permanent, what is lasting, is this tradition that we are a part of. We have beloveds who came before us, paved the way and broke through barriers and ceilings; beloveds who will come after us and drink from the wells we tend; and beloveds who are on this journey with us, who can encourage us when our energies flag, who can call US to be our best selves. One generation passes over into another and our ministries will end. But the ministry continues.

Indeed, from time immemorial there have been shamans, priests, wise-women, and elders who have been the voice of the divine, the keepers of wisdom, the face of God for those in need interpreting the mysteries of the universe and what it means to be human. Those in this role have buried the dead, welcomed the newly born, told the stories, kept the rituals, communicated with the divine, and shown the people where to go. The specific manifestation looks different in each cultural incarnation, each human epoch, but the need for such religious leadership itself remains constant. People will always needed ministers, in some capacity.

The transient changes, with time and generations. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad – just that it’s shifting sands upon which to build a ministry. It often demands our attention, urgently. It can distract us and we can get lost in it’s cacophony: read this email! Write a blog entry! More stories in your sermon! Go to more community meetings!

As ministers, we sometimes get caught up in what is transient and lose sight of what is permanent. And so it behooves us to look at our habits, practices and the stories we tell ourselves about ministry – and let go of that which demands our attention so that we might dig deeper and remember what is enduring about ministry.

When we pause and listen, we can discern that which is permanent, hear it whispering to us, sustaining us. It tells us that we will be neither the pinnacle nor the nadir in this ageless institution, but that we are enough just the same. It tells us that our vocation is about relationship, paying attention, and speaking the truth as we know it. We are called to watch where we are going. Lean in toward love. And when in doubt, tell our truth. May that which is permanent sustain us, and may it set us free. Blessed be.

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