Tag Archives: Church Life

clash of the worldviews, or, sources of miscommunication.

24 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

welcoming all genders.

19 May

Listen Here
Part 1:

Part 2:

 

Moment for all Ages

 

Sermon
Imagine with me for a moment. Imagine that someone asks you what happens if you decide to no longer be whatever gender you are – if you change your mind. For most of us, that must seem like one of the strangest questions in the world. We know what gender we are, we’ve always known what gender we are, and while there are always pluses and minuses, we’re probably pretty okay with it.

But for others of us, this question is one that gets asked on a regular basis. “Are you sure that you’re really the gender you claim to be?” people ask. On a regular basis, some people have to defend who they know they are at the very core of their being. All because they don’t fit into the prescribed gender boxes that society wants them to fit into. There is a great interview with Jazz where the interviewer asks Jazz this question, and Jazz astutely responds “That’s like me asking if you are sure you’re a woman. That is what is like for me too,” she explains.

chaliceAs Unitarian Universalists, we want to be welcoming to all those who might find a religious home with us. We understand that each of us has worth and dignity, and that that worth includes our gender. We value diversity and see it as a spiritual gift. We understand that all of who you are is sacred. We want to be a safe community where everyone is told that you are lovable and you are loved, and that all of who you are is welcome here.

I know, beyond any doubt, that we would want Jazz and her family to find a religious home with us were they to come here. I know, beyond any doubt, that we would want them to feel the warm embrace of a loving, respectful community that would stand by them and be their allies in a world that too often feels like a war against their very existence. I know, beyond any doubt, that this welcoming is something that is very, very important to our core sense of who we are.

And I know, beyond any doubt, that we often do not do enough to make what we want, and what we say, a reality. I know this because I’ve heard it. And it usually sounds something like “I’m just not sure I’m safe here.”

So how do we bridge this gap between the type of religious congregation that we so desperately want to be, and where we are in reality right now?

Step one is education. And in order to get to the other steps, we need to do a little bit of education right now. For some of you, this might seem old hat, but for many of you this is very confusing stuff. That’s okay – especially since as society grows in our understanding and awareness of gender identity, this stuff is changing. Rapidly.**

5bodyThe first thing to understand is that there is a difference between biological sex and gender identity.

Biological sex is the purple circle in the picture to the left.  It refers to what genitalia you are born with, and there are not only 2, but at least three possibilities: male, female, or intersex.

Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of being a man, a woman, a girl, a boy, none of these, both, and so on; it’s about one’s inner sense of being, and is represented by the grey brain in the picture. Everyone has a gender identity, even if it is not a common one.

When a person’s gender identity and biological sex are the same, they are said to be cisgender.

When a person’s biological sex and gender identity are not the same, the individual may identify as transgender, queer, or gender-nonconforming.

Gender expression, the green box, refers to how we present ourselves to the rest of the world in terms of clothing, communication patterns and interests. A person’s gender expression may or may not be consistent with socially prescribed gender roles, and may or may not reflect their gender identity.

For most of us, our biological sex, our gender identity, and our gender presentation all line up with one another. But for others of us, they don’t.

Gone is the time where we thought there were only two genders: man and woman, boy and girl.

Today, we reject this gender binary and recognize instead that gender is a spectrum.

GenderBinaryWe see this change at a variety of societal levels. Forms that people fill out are starting to move from check boxes to blank spaces where a person can identify their gender themselves rather than being confined to the usual two.

Just this past week, the Oxford English Dictionary officially added “Mx” as an honorific (like Mr, Mrs, Ms, or Mz) for those who either don’t identify as being a particular gender, and for those who are transgender.  And Facebook now has 56 new possible gender identities that you can select from beyond the gender binary.

Transgender (which, by the way, is never “transgendered”) can broadly mean anyone for whom their biological sex and their gender identity are not in alignment. This can encompass:

  • 2 people someone who is transitioning from one gender to another,
  • someone who is not transitioning and may feel trapped in the “wrong” body,
  • as well as those who consider themselves queer or gender-non-conforming, meaning someone who does not follow other people’s ideas or stereotypes about how they should look or act based on the biological sex they were assigned at birth.

And these words and definitions are still in flux.

Notice, though, that none of these have anything to do with sexual orientation (the heart in the image above) – that is another can of worms entirely, as it relates to who you are attracted to and who you love. Anyone, of any gender, can be of any sexual orientation. Today, we’re not talking about welcoming people of all sexual orientations – that would need a sermon of its own. Today, we’re talking about welcoming people of all genders: men, women, trans, queer, gender nonconforming, androgynous, pan-gender, two-spirit, and more.

Now, this is such a new awareness to many of us that we may still find ourselves trying to categorize someone: is that person a man, or a woman? We human beings are drawn to patterns, to solving puzzles. We want people to fit into the gender binary box, and we have a tendency to impolitely stare and puzzle until we think we figure out which box a person belongs in.

And there are two very serious problems with this:

First, we cannot make that determination for someone else – instead, we affirm each person’s ability to judge for themselves who they are and express themselves in the way that is most authentic to them.

And second, it dehumanizes the person in question. We objectify them. Actress and trans activist Laverne Cox summed this up beautifully in her interview with Katie Couric, after Couric rudely asked Cox about her genitalia. Let’s watch:

By focusing on bodies, we don’t focus on the lived realities of the oppression and discrimination that Trans, queer and gender-nonconforming people experience every day. And there is nowhere that this oppression and discrimination is more obvious than when it comes to where we often feel most vulnerable: the bathroom.

Cisgender people often ask: “Why do trans issues always seem to revolve around the bathroom?” It is such a cisgender privilege to not have to worry what sort of reception we will experience if we are perceived to be using the wrong bathroom – cisgender people don’t have to worry: will someone call management? Will someone beat us up? Will I get killed? But this is the reality for trans, queer and gender nonconforming people.

And this is a huge issue in our country right now. The more stories hit the media about people like Bruce Jenner and now Miley Cyrus, the stronger the backlash against trans people becomes. For instance: the Bathroom Bully bill here in Kentucky, sponsored by a state senator who wanted to allow cisgender students using bathrooms and locker rooms to sue their school for $2,500 if they caught a trans or gender-nonconforming student in the “wrong” restroom. The State Senator says he wrote the bill in response to a Louisville high school’s decision to allow a transgender student to use female facilities, but that incident is really just the prevailing excuse. In reality, the Family Foundation of Kentucky, a conservative think tank, requested the State Senator to submit the bill. And in fact, similar bills applying to both schools and public restrooms were also submitted this year in Texas, Minnesota, Missouri, Florida and Nevada.

In fact, so many states are dealing with this issue, or related ones, that there is now a hashtag on twitter, #WeJustNeedToPee, for trans, queer and gender-nonconforming people to share images of themselves in bathrooms that may match their biological sex but not their gender identity. Which can be dangerous for them. But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s hear from someone here at First U who regularly deals with this issue, our music director Christe.

So Dawn has presented a lot of information this morning. For some of you processing all this is no big deal, others may find you are confused with the ever changing terminology. You are not alone. When I began my community activism at 18, we marched for “gay rights”. Gay rights. Not GLBTQ rights. Neither lesbians nor any of the others were acknowledged. And homosexuality, meaning men, was still a part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a mental illness. Gender identity was staunchly on a binary. Any new gender identifiers were trying to fit somewhere in the middle of that male/female binary.

Things change over time. And here we are in this social climate where a day doesn’t pass without a story somewhere in the media about gender issues., stories about people like me, who have never fit on the binary and are trying to live an honest open life, proud, healthy… authentic.
You see by today’s definition I am transgender. I however prefer to be considered gender non-conforming, partly as respect for friends who are seeking full Male/female or female/male gender transition. Here at First I have had no one question my gender or my gender presentation.

But out there, beyond these walls – at the grocery, the home improvement store, the theatre… I am seen as a man, even when I am not in a suit and tie. And about 95% of the time I am addressed as “sir” or Mr….. as they quiz me for a name for the waiting list.

I am perfectly okay with this because it tells me where that person is coming from… if they only have sir or ma’am to choose from. They choose based on where they are, what their perception of me is at the moment. Would that we could move beyond the need for identifiers at all.

So 2 years ago I attended General Assembly here in Louisville. On the very first day it was announced from the pulpit that the restrooms were to be considered all genders and you would find them marked as such. You would find male and female gendered restrooms on the floors open to the general public.

I took the announcement in stride… this was new – living in a way that was radically welcoming. I got more and more comfortable with each session of GA, letting my guard down and being my authentic self. It was not until Saturday night when Dianna and I went across the street to the Marriott Hotel to listen to kRi and hettie that I was again confronted with issues I have lived with all my life.

I needed to make a quick stop in the restroom before going up to the ballroom, and Dianna said she’d wait in the lobby. I found the first restroom marked women’s and stepped in…. Upon leaving the restroom while washing my hands a woman opened the door, saw me and stepped back out of the room to look at the sign. She then re-entered the room and in a very pointed voice she proceeded to tell me I was in the wrong restroom and she was going to get management.

I assured her she was mistaken and excused myself from the room. When I met up with Dianna, I shared the experience. We had a brief discussion about how this kind of thing happens all the time for me… it’s just a part of life.

Because Christe is okay with Christe… but the world at large has no way of defining her or him. I don’t fit on the binary and the world at large continues to see gender as male or female. Me being my authentic self, challenges that assumption.

I was not fully aware until that Louisville GA how much stress I carry about my gender. There are little adjustments, snap decisions that I make every day to keep myself and my loved ones safe. These choices are so very ingrained in me … like waiting to use the restroom where there is only one stall or waiting till I get home even if that means having to leave a gathering early.

You see if I get that kind of aggression in a women’s restroom… what awaits me in a men’s room? I have a friend who is in transition from female to male who fears being gay bashed in the men’s room for his outward appearance as an effeminate gay man. I can’t blame him, history and the media has shown us too many cases of gay bashing for it not to be a valid consideration. And aren’t we all going to the restroom for the same reasons? It is a basic human function.

There are a multitude of things this congregation can do to show that we are not willing to live in “gender jail. By “gender jail” I mean where the male/female binary is used to put us all in the “proper” box .

It makes me proud to serve a congregation that is committed to being radically welcoming to people of all genders.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to being radically welcoming to people of all genders, and we understand that part of that welcome means that everyone deserves a safe place to use the restroom.

Right now, at First U, we have one all genders restroom. It is upstairs, and you have to walk through the choir room to get to it. It is not handicap accessible. And it is not always available, because the choir room door is often locked.

Most of us would say “Well, a trans, queer or gender-nonconforming person should feel free to use whatever restroom works for them!” – and this is certainly true. But how will they know this if we are not explicit? How will they know that this is a safe place unless we make it clear, to both trans AND cisgender people, that we welcome all genders here at First U?

They can’t know it if we don’t tell them. The reality is that most religious institutions don’t welcome all genders. If we don’t explicitly say that we do, if we don’t provide the appropriate markers, then people will assume we are like so many others that don’t – and they won’t risk it.

And having a bathroom hidden away upstairs, which may be locked, is definitely neither safe, nor welcoming.

This issue, combined with the upcoming move of our nursery to the second floor, has lead the Ministry Council, with the full support of the Board of Trustees and the staff, to reorient our restrooms on the first floor.

What is now the men’s room will become a single-stall, handicap accessible, family-style lockable restroom with a changing table. Anyone, of any gender, can use this restroom.

What is now the women’s room will remain a three-stall restroom, but the stall walls will be extended to the floor. This will also become an all-genders restroom, meaning that anyone can use it anytime.

The leadership, in their wisdom, understand that the 3-stall all genders restroom will make some people uncomfortable, especially in the beginning as we get used to it. This is one reason to extend the stall walls to the floor. It is also the reason that the second floor restrooms will remain binary gendered restrooms: men’s and women’s.

So to reiterate: soon, anyone, of any gender, can use either of the 1st floor restrooms. For those who prefer a men’s or women’s room, the upstairs restrooms are right outside the elevator doors at the top of the stairs.

These changes are beginning this upcoming week and we hope to have them implemented fully by the annual meeting. You will notice new signage when they are completed – rather than using the traditional male/female images which we know do not represent the gender spectrum, we will be using the universally recognized symbol of a toilet.

Of course, we know that our welcome must go beyond our restroom configuration. And so you might notice other changes, though they will be more subtle. We will be endeavoring to use inclusive language in our communications: instead of saying “this event welcomes men and women,” we will say “all genders welcome”; rather than talking about “men and women” or “boys and girls” we will use the words “people” or “children”.

DSC_0151_originalWe also invite you to write your pronoun preference on your name-tags.  Perhaps for most of us, this will be the traditional he/him/his and she/her/hers. But American English has a problem in that we don’t have a commonly accepted gender-neutral singular pronoun except “it” which, since the whole point is to stop being dehumanizing and objectifying, is counterproductive. Several alternative gender-neutral pronouns have been tried, however, the singular use of “they” seems to be what is getting picked up most often. So for those of you who are grammar junkies, please know that we will be using “they” intentionally instead of he or she, and that this is now an acceptable usage! And of course, you are free to choose whatever pronoun you would like for yourself, and we will strive to use it correctly.

And finally, as a part of renewing our Welcoming Congregation certification this fall, we will be having adult education curriculum on alternate Sunday mornings that will continue to inform and educate us about the issues trans and gender-nonconforming people face and how we can be both welcoming and good allies.

We don’t do this in anticipation of hundreds of trans, queer, and gender nonconforming people storming through our doors when they hear how welcoming we are (though that would be great). This is primarily for us – it is for the trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming people who are already here, several not publically, and those who might find a religious home with us in the future. We do this in order to live our mission to be witnesses for progressive faith and to nurture our community. This is for us, to help bring our actions in line with our highest ideals, values and beliefs.

Because we understand that each of us has worth and dignity, and that that worth includes our gender. Because we value diversity and see it as a spiritual gift. Because we want to be a safe community where each of you is told that you are lovable and that you are loved, and that all of who you are, including your gender (whatever it may be) is sacred, and is welcome here. May it be so. May we make it so.


**To demonstrate how in-flux our understanding of trans and gender-nonconforming issues are, I have recently been made aware that some members of the trans community believe the distinction between sex and gender is no longer a preferred lens through which to understand trans issues, as it has been used to defend anti-trans bigotry. There is not general consensus on this issue, however. My apologies to those in the trans and gender-non-conforming communities for any harm that my use of this lens might have caused. 

sex, secrets and the “p” word (power/polyamory, you choose)

26 Apr

Note: This sermon deals primarily with the struggles of a particular congregation from the period of 2000-2005. I share it here so that current and previous congregants might be able to reference it, and with the hope that it might be helpful for other congregations struggling with similar issues. Be warned: it is very, very long. During the service, I divided it up into 3 parts, linked to here for easy navigation:
Part 1: Sex
Part 2: Secrets
Part 3: Power

Listen here:

Part 1: Sex

Americans, at the very least, are obsessed with who has sex with whom, and when, and how. Some of us wonder how far we have come from the Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and taking place around 1650. In this classic, Hester Pryne has a child outside of wedlock and in punishment is shunned by the community and forced to wear a scarlet A on her dress at all times. Those Puritans embraced sex inside of marriage, but heaven help you if you indulged pre or extra-maritally. But by the 18th century, Americans had come a long way. In fact, by many standards, we’re actually more puritanical than we were then. At that point, American men loved telling dirty jokes and playing sexual pranks, “they sang outrageously ribald songs, they drew scandalous cartoons, and they masturbated in the churchyard when they thought the sermon was boring.” – Please do not take that as a suggestion! “They spied on each other through the cracks in the cabin walls, they had sex in haylofts, and they told everybody they knew when they got laid. There was no expectation of privacy” in 18th century America. Of course, one on one heterosexual sex was the norm – no one was doing anything like this around same-gendered sex. And I doubt it was as much fun for women.

Thankfully, we are a bit more civilized than they were back then. Certainly we’ve come a long way in understanding the equality of genders, privacy, consent, and same-sex relationships. But there’s at least one thing that we’ve brought forward from 300 years ago: our undying curiosity with who is having sex with whom, and how they do it.

In our hetero-normative society, where male/female sexual pairings are considered the norm, the curiosity is pretty basic. But add some variety in there and our curiosity has a tendency to move into the realm of dehumanization: we no longer see the people involved as human beings with inherent worth and dignity. Instead, we sexually objectify them and see them as no more than the sum of their genital parts and what they do with them.

This was played out on the main cultural stage during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s – people assumed everyone who had AIDS was gay and had therefore indulged in anal sex, which, apparently, was reason enough for you to be shunned by society. Those who were diagnosed were dehumanized in such a way that Hester Pryne would have felt like her sentence was pretty light in comparison.

Straight people in power reduced the gay community to a single sex act. There was no room for being a whole person, for forming loving relationships, for living as a human being with all the attendant messiness, wonder, pain, struggle, joy – the whole kit and caboodle of life. Even today, though many of us struggle to change the standard, for much of the population calling something “gay” is still a put-down.

Thankfully, the tide has been turning on the dehumanization of gay & lesbian people for quite a while. As same-sex marriage becomes more recognized and accepted, the cultural mind doesn’t immediately go to a sexual act when they hear the term “gay couple” but instead are beginning to picture a family where the adults happen to be gay.

Bisexual and pansexual folks are often still often sexually objectified, though – people seem to assume that these descriptors mean that you are unable to be in a committed relationship because you must have sex with everyone you see. Which is ridiculous. It simply means that you have the capacity to love people regardless of their biological plumbing.

Unfortunately, the cultural jury is also still out on whether intersex or transgender people are really human beings. I haven’t yet seen Diane Sawyer’s interview with Bruce Jenner which aired earlier this week, but the interview Katie Couric did last year with Laverne Cox, a trans woman who is phenomenal in her role, as a trans woman, on Orange is the New Black, demonstrated this cultural sexual objectification. Rather than focus on Cox’s activism, or her character on the show, or any of the other successes and trials in her life, Couric focused on her genitalia, in an effort, she claimed to “educate” people. Cox’s response was wonderful. “By focussing on bodies,” she said, “we don’t focus on the lives realities of [the] oppression and discrimination of transgendered people.”

And it’s not just sexual orientation and gender identity that raise the cultural eyebrows when it comes to sex. Women who have had an abortion, or who are raped, are in a constant battle against a society that objectifies them by erroneously labeling them as “promiscious” or suggesting that they must have been “asking for it”. It wasn’t long ago that divorced women were thought to be promiscuous simply by nature of not being in a marriage anymore. Single women who chose to have children without being married had their sex lives placed under intense public scrutiny as recently as the early 90s, when the TV show character Murphy Brown stirred up a controversy when she decided to have and raise her child alone after the biological dad decided it was too much trouble.

By focusing on bodies – on biological plumbing, or on how people have sex or whom they have it with, we dehumanize people and disregard their inherent worth and dignity. And the reality is, for the most part, it is none of our business! Consensual, informed, and welcomed relationships between adults should not matter to anyone else.

 



Part 2: Secrets

Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying: “”You’re only as sick as your secrets.” And they are so right. Though decorum and civilization require a certain amount of privacy – we certainly don’t need to share everything with one another – there are some truths that if we keep them bottled up inside become like a poison, eating away at us and making us sick emotionally, spiritually and even physically. Yet out of shame, or because of a family rule, there are things in many households and families that get permanently swept under the rug and that you just are not allowed to talk about. The same is true for churches.

Ten years ago, this congregation effectively institutionalized a secret. And it has eaten away at us ever since.

On April 24, 2005, First Unitarian Church called a special congregational meeting. This was not the annual meeting, but a separate meeting that was called to discuss and vote on one particular motion.

The motion had several parts:

  • first, that the congregation would not be affiliated with polyamory or any group chiefly concerned with polyamory;
  • second, that no group at the church that is “chiefly concerned” with polyamory would be allowed to become a special interest or affiliate group, a status that gave groups certain privileges;
  • third, that no group with polyamory as its chief concern would be allowed to use First Unitarian Church in its name or in any way “otherwise purport to be affiliated with the church.”; and
  • finally, no such group would be permitted to advertise itself or its meetings through newsletters, orders of service, distribution of materials, bulletin boards, brochure racks, etc.

This motion overturned existing Board AND Council decisions that were in contradiction with the above.

There were 141 people at this special meeting, and they narrowly ruled in favor of passing the motion. Though it was never in the text of the motion, this meeting became known, and talked about in shorthand, as the day it was decided that we just don’t talk about polyamory. It was the day we swept the elephant in the room under the rug.

How did we get to that point?

First, a primer on what polyamory is. Polyamory is the potential for romantically loving more than one person at a time. Another term for it is “responsible non-monogamy”. Polyamory is a general term covering a wide variety of relationship styles, including polyfidelity (which means group marriage), open marriage, expanded family system, intimate network, and some kinds of intentional community. It means having the potential for a serious, intimate, stable, affectionate bond with more than one person.

Polyamory is not cheating, as honesty and forthrightness are crucial between all partners. And it is not swinging. Swinging is an expression of recreational sex, whereas polyamory is about relationships and sharing lives together.

If you would like more information about what polyamory is, there are brochures about it on the table by the doors as you head out. (readers: I invite you to check out the UUPA website).

So how did we get to the point where the church took such an adamant stance which, in retrospect seems to be not so much on the side of love, certainly not on the side of multiple loves? How did we get there? It all started about 8 years before that meeting in 2005. At that time, eighteen years ago now, the first discussion about polyamory was had at the church in an adult religious education class. I wasn’t there, but I would guess that the conversation had something to do with what polyamory is about, and how it is about a lot more than sex.

Three years later, in 2000, upon request, the Board of Trustees approved the creation of a local UU’s for Polyamory Awareness (UUPA) group. Bless that board – they certainly had NO idea what they were getting into. This was back in the time when we had announcements before the service, and so the first UUPA group meeting was announced, and the group meeting apparently went well. But people immediately complained to the Board, enough so that the Board asked UUPA to not make announcements anymore – they didn’t revoke UUPA’s group privileges at that time, but began to set boundaries on what the group could do. UUPA protested the restrictions, which were eventually lifted.

Within 3 months, a special Board meting was held just to discuss the polyamory group. At this time, the previous restrictions, plus some more, were put in place. Primarily, these restrictions had to do with what the group could call themselves and how they could publicize their meetings. Meanwhile, the minister was on his way out, and really didn’t want to deal with this issue in his final months. Remember, this is 2000, five years before the congregational meeting of April 2005.

In March of 2001, there was the first all-church meeting about the issue. Discussion continued, an interim minister was hired in the summer and in November 2001, the Board voted to designate UUPA as an outside group, which would disallow certain privileges such as publication and room usage. By March of 2002, however, the poly group was being asked not to use either a chalice logo OR the name of the church on their brochures and publicity. UUPA was tenacious, though, and would not let the matter drop.

In August of 2002, the new settled minister started, and in March of 2003 he told a representative of the poly group that polyamory was not a problem for the church, and that he would not discuss either polyamory or UUPA anymore. But by June 2003 he had recanted and announced that the problem was killing the church.

September of 2003 had another special congregational meeting on the topic. The next day, the Council, the programming arm of church governance, denied UUPA’s application for special interest group status, but they invited UUPA to reapply after a year. Which UUPA did. In November of 2004, the Council decided to postpone the decision on granting special interest group status to UUPA until June 2005, at the annual congregational meeting.

UUPA appealed the Council’s postponement to the Board. The Board chose not to rule, but in January 2005 the Council reopened the discussion. They surveyed the congregation on their opinions, and got mixed messages. In February 2005, the Council approved granting UUPA special interest group status. Within a month, there was a congregational petition to call the April 24 special congregational meeting.

During those years of controversy, there were a range of concerns expressed about why there should not be a polyamory group at First U. There was concern that the church would get to be known as “The poly church” in the larger community, which some felt would sacrifice 175 years of built up social capital in the community.

There were concerns expressed about the children – what would it be teaching or modeling to them? Would the children be at risk of predatory behaviors from the poly folks?

There were arguments that the church was not in the business of sanctioning lifestyle choices. And there were concerns that more of “those people” would show up at the church.

Perhaps these arguments sound familiar to you. Many of them are the arguments that were made against embracing GLBT people in our congregations many years ago. (FYI: I am using the abbreviations from the time period, not the currently accepted alphabetic string that indicates people on sexual orientation & gender identity spectrum.) And, indeed, they are the arguments that were made against incorporating the Pagans into our churches many years ago.

These arguments don’t come from facts. Neither gay men, pagans, nor poly people have any higher incidence or predatory behavior towards children! And, frankly, we sanction lifestyle choices all the time, though usually they’re the lifestyle choices that are already sanctioned by our larger culture and so don’t stand out.

Instead of a place of facts, these arguments come from a place of fear: fear of safety, and fear of loss of prestige. And, really, First Unitarian had good reason to fear, particularly around issues that connect, even peripherally, to sex. We have some troublesome history.

In 2000, it had not been long since the youth group had been disbanded due to sexual encounters and drug use on church premises. Many in the congregation could still remember a minister who engaged in what today would be considered sexual misconduct with a congregant. The 70’s era free-love key swapping that swept through Unitarian Universalist communities landed here as well, and caused harm to several marriages. Divorce was thought of as “catchy” as people saw their friends ending long-term marriages and were afraid it would happen to them, much like some people today are concerned that same-sex marriage will somehow hurt traditional marriage. Fear is not always rational.

And the church was no stranger to conflict: there had been intense debate around ultimately deciding not to join the Sanctuary movement in the 80s, which would have provided safe-haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict. Plus there was the fire in 1985, which in church life was just yesterday to those in 2000 – we now pride ourselves on staying downtown but many didn’t agree and left the church over the decision, or over the decision to worship in the West End while the church was rebuilt. And I’ve heard several times how difficult the rebuilding process was.

Add to these factors a lack of trust in the congregational lay leadership, 3 ministers (none of whom handled this well), and a push to grow, grow, grow because congregations during this time were told that if they were not growing then they were not healthy or, even, worthwhile.

Combine all these factors and you get a powder-keg that was ready to explode. It almost didn’t matter what the issue was. Meanwhile, polyamorists were starting to come out all over the Unitarian Universalist Association, with some of the leaders being from this congregation. Across the country, UUs were having a hard time discussing polyamory because we were afraid. We were afraid we would lose prestige. We were afraid what it would mean in regards to our firm stance on sexual orientation and gender identity justice. We were afraid that “they” would take over.

And so we sexually objectified practitioners of polyamory – we focused on who was sleeping with whom, or what the sexual logistics and mechanics of their relationships were. Here at First U, there were even multiple incidences of different poly women being sexually objectified by the male minister. We sexually objectified polyamorists, rather than focus on whether their relationships were consensual, informed, and welcomed covenants between adults.

There was almost no way that the church could have handled it well. Let me say that again: given all these factors, there was almost no possible way that the church could have handled this situation well. And we didn’t. I don’t say this to shame those of you who lived through this era, I say this with love and deep compassion, knowing I truly cannot comprehend how tumultuous and painful the time was.

After five years of intense conflict in which everyone was on a side (even those who purported to take no side), the congregation was exhausted. In many ways, the congregation needed to pass the resolution 10 years ago just to move on – it was getting nowhere. The church was being ripped apart.

And what was the result of the resolution? We effectively institutionalized a secret that would slowly poison us over a decade. The problem with a “keep the peace no matter what” attitude in the wake of the congregational meeting was that it forced people to leave quietly rather than stay and continue the hard work of community. Many people on both sides of the issue left the church. As I recently listened to the tape recording of the meeting, I was struck by how I’ve never met approximately half the people who spoke, and I arrived only 4 years after the meeting.

At least 3 board presidents left the church right after their tenure, as well as many others in leadership. A large number of those who left the church were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender folks, who heard the poly people being talked about as “those people” – an othering phrase that had been used on them in the recent past.

Interweave, the GLBT group at the time, absorbed the poly folks. Meeting twice a month, it would offer a GLBT-focused program one week, and then a poly -focused program the next time. Some of the poly folks stayed. Most left.

Four years and two more interim ministers later, and I arrived in 2009. The poly conflict was all throughout this congregation’s materials. My first reaction when reading the information about this congregation was, honestly, pity – y’all seemed so down on yourselves. But the poly issue didn’t scare me, because I had written my thesis in seminary about it. Some friends of mine had asked me to solemnize the union of the three of them and I’d had to do some heavy thinking about whether or not I would. In my research, I learned that the institution of marriage had changed throughout human eons, and in fact was still changing. Who was I, I decided, to judge the rightness or wrongness of a consensual, informed, welcomed relationship? I realized my friends came to me, knowing that their union was far outside the norm, wanting someone to uplift them, to see them, to support them. Don’t we all want our love of another person to be honored by our community?

elephant under the rugSo I was not afraid to become your minister. And pity rapidly changed to deep love and appreciation for the many, many wonderful things here. And over the past 5.5 years we have done much, so much, healing together. The congregation is in a healthy enough place that on this, the anniversary of that special congregational meeting, it is time to address the elephant that we swept under the rug ten years ago.

 



Part 3: Power

For the past 10 years, there’s been an elephant under the rug. No, there are no official sanctions against talking about polyamory, but the unofficial line is that we don’t do it much. Those of you who are newer probably had no idea that there was such a time of intense conflict at the congregation not that long ago, though I would guess you might have suspected something.

Some of you, undoubtedly, wonder why I am bringing it up now. We settled that 10 years ago, right?

Not really. We settled it for the short term, but that resolution was not one that contributes to the longterm health of a congregation.

That resolution prevents us from being a truly sexually healthy congregation because it does not permit exploration of the whole range of healthy relationship possibilities. We offer OWL to the whole spectrum of ages here because we want to be a sexually healthy congregation.

We also want, need, to be able to talk about hard stuff, to take a stand on difficult issues, but we can’t do that if we can’t talk about this. We cannot claim our power in all areas of life if some areas are considered off limits.

And we need to recognize that there are steadfast, loyal, loving poly people and their allies within this church who are still suffering from the pain this controversy caused them personally. These are people who have been and are leaders in our congregation, who are valued members, who are raising their children here and their grandchildren. Do we tell beloved members of this community that they can only bring part of themselves here?

We do not. In fact, on our order of service each week we proclaim that we are a welcoming congregation, and this means that we “embrace all persons equally, no matter their sexual or affectional orientation, gender identity or expression, age, race, ethnicity, neurodiversity, social or economic class, education level, family structure or abilities.” We proclaim that we welcome all to participate fully and openly in our congregational life. This means you should not be afraid to bring your whole self, and your whole family (no matter the configuration) for fear of how you might be treated or objectified.

Being welcoming also means the ability to connect with others who are in a similar situation so that you can support and accept one another and encourage each other in your spiritual growth and faith development, whether that would be a group for widows, a group for alzheimer caregivers, a UUPA group, or a group for parents of autistic children.

I am so proud of this current Board of Trustees, who just passed a policy removing all special interest group and other group designations. From now on, anyone who wants to start a group or organization simply will need to justify how the group fits into the congregation’s mission. If that is done successfully, the group will have full access to the congregation’s resources. You can check out the new policy in the members section of our website.

And there is more that we can do to continue to move forward into health. Our Ministry Theme for this month is Freedom. Science fiction novelist and screenwriter David Gerrold says that if we want to be free, we need to understand that “freedom is not about being comfortable. It’s about seizing and using opportunities, and using them responsibly. Freedom is not comfort” he says, “It’s commitment. Commitment to the willingness to be uncomfortable.” As we engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning in this congregation, there will be times when we are uncomfortable. This is the difficult work of building the beloved community. It is hard, but it is worth it.

In the next few weeks and months, we will have ample opportunity to explore the discomfort that freedom brings, the discomfort that being witnesses for progressive faith brings. We will be talking about, and taking action, on a lot of things that there are disagreement around:

This fall, we are engaging in a renewal of our Welcoming Congregation certification. This is something that has not been undertaken in over 10 years, even though it is supposed to happen every five years. Much has changed in society since the last time we went through this process – I have no doubt that there will be much that makes us uncomfortable!

Before even this fall, though, there is much to challenge us. Two weeks from now, we will be talking about welcoming people of all genders, and what that looks like in regards to creating all gender bathrooms.

This spring, we are talking about joining a social justice organization that is currently Christian and that will require us to partner in areas of agreement with other local congregations with which we perhaps have much disagreement.

We will also be talking about what it would mean to hang a BlackLivesMatter sign on our building and how we would know that the time had arrived when we could take it down.

I suggest that we might even choose to step into the discomfort, to step into right relations with one another, by, at our annual meeting on June 7, repealing the motion made 10 years ago on that fateful day in 2005.

I do not believe we can talk about these issues with integrity and good faith until we acknowledge our history and commit to holding each other in love and care.

I ask this of you in the coming weeks. First, trust your leadership. They are, frankly, amazing. Each of them have educated themselves on the issues they are raising, they have done the internal work necessary to understand the nuances involved. They don’t press us into these areas just out of intellectual conviction but out of a desire to truly live our mission and to honor the interdependent web of which we are all a part.

Second, I ask that you recognize that negotiating our various differences is an essential part of building community. When we are confronted with someone or something with which we disagree, I ask that we first remember that we all want what is best for this congregation. I ask that we look for solutions rather than focussing on the problem – for instance, if this were ten years ago I would suggest that, rather than focussing on what imagined harm a UUPA group might cause the congregation, we recognize that the polyamorous folks in our congregation would like to have a group that explores how their faith is expressed through their family structure and focus on ways to make that happen.

I also ask that we make sure that this issue is not personalized. Each of us is so much more than one thing: I am a minister, a mother, a spouse, a daughter, a friend, a colleague, and so much more. We are each more than our views about polyamory, or about any other individual issue.

And. And I know this is hard. And I know I am asking so much of you. But you are ready. I know you are. You are such a healthy, vibrant, loving congregation. You want to be a force for good in the world and in the community. You want to be welcoming. You want to be healthy. You want to be whole.

For ten years, we have been walking around the elephant that was swept under the carpet. It is time to no longer be held back by the pain in the past, to move forward in loving covenant with one another, and to claim our power together and in the larger community. May it be so. Blessed be.

removing barriers through getting creative about finances.

10 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

removing barriers through effectively utilizing technology.

9 Apr

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

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

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

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

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.

bridging eras.

19 Feb

Bridging Eras
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on February 15, 2015

Listen here:

chesapeake-bay-bridge-tunnel-05

Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel

bonner

Bonner Bridge

Arthur Ravenel Suspension Bridge

Rope Bridge to King Kong Zipline

Rope Bridge to Zipline

 

 

I have been thinking about bridges quite a bit recently.  Traveling to visit my in-laws, I crossed over the Bonner Bridge which connects Hatteras Island to the North Carolina mainland, as well as the Chesapeake Bay bridge and tunnel. When I was in South Carolina in December, I saw the beautiful Ravenel suspension bridge. And last summer, while doing a zip-lining course, I had the opportunity to  walk up a rope bridge before zipping down 1200 feet.

That will get your heart pumping!

Rope bridges, suspension bridges, truss, draw, lift, and so many more. Bridges are built in a variety of ways, but no matter what type of bridge we are talking about, the purpose of the bridge is always the same: to connect two places in a traversable manner. By their nature, bridges are liminal spaces – we cross the threshold of one place, journey across the bridge, and then enter a new space.

Metaphorically speaking, religious institutions are on a bridge right now. We are in transition. The previous era is behind us – the old ways of doing church, with worship being the central function (sometimes the only function!) and  committees populated by volunteers doing the brunt of the church work. We know those old ways aren’t working very well anymore – 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 religious. We have left behind the old era and have stepped onto this bridge on our way to a new era, a new way of doing church. And that can be scary, indeed. Especially since we are not quite sure what it will look like. Some might fear doom and destruction – that the bridge will collapse or that we never should have stepped on it to begin with. Others might dream about the utopia that is waiting for us. Likely, it is something in between.

The problem with this bridge metaphor is that it leaves us just plodding forward, expecting the deck of the bridge to magically appear and rise to meet our feet as we cross. We have no responsibility, and can be totally passive. So perhaps instead of a metaphor of merely crossing a bridge, we should consider that we are building it, from one era to another. And so we have an opportunity to not just dream or dread the future, but to design it. To intentionally work to build this bridge to the future that we envision.

bridge-to-nowhereBut where to start when building this bridge? The first step is to attach one end to the ground. Wherever we go, we will have this connection to the previous era, anchoring us to the past. Though they are no longer suitable for the world in which we live today, the old ways served us well for many a generation. Then, as we design and build the span, it is important to take into consideration the elements of the terrain we will be going over. Are we crossing water, or a valley? Is the bedrock stable or shifting? How far will we have to go? As we survey the religious landscape, there are four specific changing characteristics of traditional brick and mortar congregations like this one that I would like to address this morning.

The first characteristic of the surrounding terrain I see are the changing expectations around worship.  In a world where people can easily find exhilarating TED talks, stirring UpWorthy videos, and so much more, people are not coming to worship to learn as much as they come to experience.
6TyopBbkcPeople 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 to struggle to understand how we should live knowing that we all will die – whatever the reason, we come to experience something we cannot get by ourselves. If a church is delivering uninspired lectures, no matter how excellently crafted, but not giving the shared experience people crave, then their spiritual needs are not being met.

To prepare effective worship that meets today’s needs, it is important pay attention to multiple styles of learning, 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 here for the whole of her 90 years. 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 person who thirsts for more traditional hymnody. A challenge arises in congregations like this one: With only one worship service a week, creating an experience that can touch such diverse varieties of people 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 diversification of worship allows the church to touch more lives effectively, which leads us to the second change in the terrain around us that we must take into consideration as we design and build our bridge to the new era.

The Old Way

The Old Way

There is a changing tide of looking at how many members a congregation has to looking at how the congregation touches lives, both within the church and outside it. Up until now, there has been a stress on membership as the way to measure the health of a congregation. In this 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 ministry 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. People who did not participate in the communal worship of the church frustrated leaders who wanted these people to “count” by joining as members and helping to support the church through their volunteer efforts and financial contributions.

The New Way

The New Way

The new model for the future turns this old way on its head. Instead of a pathway to membership, there is a focus on multiple avenues of participation. Perhaps someone wants Religious Exploration for their children, 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) darken the door 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. This new focus on multiple avenues of participation has an impact on how we do things. Faith development cannot only happen in worship, it must happen at the group level as well, whether that group is the soup-kitchen servers, the book group, an RE class, or beyond. Stewardship is the same – you can’t just hit up the people who are in worship. Congregations 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. Besides, they may have very good reasons for not attending on Sunday morning. For instance, they may have to work!

technology2Which leads to the third change in terrain as we design and build our bridge from the old era to the new: technology. Congregations are beginning to utilize technology in a variety of ways, from streaming services to having welcome videos on their websites, to projecting video, presentations, having google hangouts in the service, and more, during the service. But integrating technology into the life of a congregation is not limited to Sunday mornings, it can also be a way to remove barriers to participation. Video conferencing can be used for meetings so that people who have difficulty driving at night, or have children at home they need to be with, can participate from the comfort of their own home. Having a podcast or video-cast of the service allows people to access it whenever it works for their schedule.

It was not that long ago that congregations could get by without even having a website, but that is absolutely not the case anymore. And a website is just the beginning. Congregations not only need to be on social media, they need to know how to use it. Over 600 people have “liked” the First Unitarian facebook page – that is more than 3x our membership number and 6x the number of people we get on Sunday morning. Another 50 people are following the church twitter feed. These are people whose lives this congregation touches in some capacity. On social media, information is processed differently than it is in print, or even in email. Chunks of data have to be smaller, more discrete. They have to grab the viewer immediately with relevant details in case they don’t read past the first sentence. This necessitates a shift in how we share information, as we maintain the old era ways of the newsletter and printed orders of service while moving to the new era ways of using social media.

Congregations can also use technology to see what people are interested in at the church or how people are finding the church. Using customer relationship management software like Constant Contact to distribute our newsletter and then tracking which links get clicked on and which don’t would allow us to see who is reading the newsletter and what parts of it people are most interested in. Google analytics can track what search terms bring up a congregation’s website, as well as where the majority of the clicks come from. For instance, from this data I learned last night that our website was clicked on more often by people looking for Pagan communities in Louisville than from any other online search! Google analytics can also track demographic and geographic data of people visiting a website, as well as the total amount of time between clicks, which can give you a sense of whether or not they are reading what is on the website. This is all important data that can then be used when deciding what to promote, as well as how and where to spend advertising or marketing money.

money-tree-images-Image-Money-Tree-IllustrationAhh yes. Money. At this point, many of you are probably wondering how on earth we are supposed to do all these things. Not surprising, financing is another area in which the terrain between the old era and the new era is shifting and which we need to take into consideration as we design and build this bridge. With the economic downturn finally resolving, congregations are often still struggling to make ends meet. I know many of you are tired of hearing our pleas week after week that our finances are not enough to keep up with not only the promises we have made in the present, but also our vision for the future.

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

One way congregations can remove barriers to participation around money is to utilize technology more effectively. This might look like enabling online donations during the service, either though a website or through a hardware technology solution such as the Square.

Though we will still rely on your annual pledge as the primary means of supporting First Unitarian, I also believe we will begin to see more congregations applying for grants. There are thousands upon thousands of dollars available out there that congregations could be plugging into: from making our building more accessible to funding an OWL coordinator, to a variety of social service and social justice projects that congregations could be taking advantage of. These grants are available from local organizations, state and national organizations, and, if a congregation has been a UUA Fair Share Congregation for two years (and we were last year, so we are so close!), from regional chalice lighter grants or from Veatch grants from the Shelter Rock congregation. Grant applications are particularly appealing to deciding bodies when congregations partner with other area organizations, including other local congregations.

sharingWhich leads to another way to do more with less: sharing resources with other congregations. It may be that we could share a membership director staff position with Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church down the road, or we could share a bookkeeper with the Bloomington congregation. Not only does this help lighten the load on an individual congregation, it creates jobs that are more likely to provide both benefits and a livable wage – making the position more appealing to a larger array of candidates!  We can share resources with other congregations!

Worship, multiple avenues of participation, technology, and financing – these are just 4 aspects of the changing terrain that we need to take into consideration as we design and build this bridge between the eras. And underpinning it all is a practical theological exercise. Did you notice it? There is a phrase that I repeated in each of these areas: “removing barriers to participation.” removing barriers

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, such as only offering worship on Sunday morning (a time when many people have to work), removing a barrier such as not amplifying sound during worship, or such has having manually powered doors that are not wide enough for a scooter to get through. It means taking down barriers so that parents feel welcome to bring their child with autism who gets overwhelmed easily by providing a quiet place for the child to calm down when overstimulated. It means having toddler seats in addition to high chairs so that people with toddlers feel welcome to stay for lunch, and it means explaining what is going on throughout the service for those who are new or who cannot read the order of service. Though 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, through the use of technology, and through thinking creatively about finances, congregations can remove barriers to participation and thus walk the talk on our core values.

lastBridgeBridges connect one space to another, traversing a changing terrain. Our theological values provide the decking of this bridge that we are designing and building and traveling. Our values connect us to the old era, anchoring us in history and tradition, and will see us through to the new. Though the terrain may be unfamiliar, we trust that we will get to the other side together, and in the meantime, we design and build, travel and dream about what we might create together along the way. May it be so.

Sabbatical Epiphanies

15 Jan

A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on January 11, 2015

Reading Excerpts from Turtle by Gayle Boss

Sermon

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he is not the same man.” This wisdom comes to us from the greek philosopher Heraclitus, around 2500 years ago. As old as it is, I am feeling it in a new way right at this moment. I am not the same minister that stood here six months ago, and you are not the same congregation. And yet here we are, with me putting my foot in the water once again, getting a gauge on the temperature, the current, the turbidity. And boy-howdy, this river did NOT stay still while I was gone. As I have heard over the past few days, and as many of you saw in the wonderful videos shared in the service last week, this congregation’s current carried it along at a healthy pace – not too fast and wild, but no chance of getting stagnant, either.

But I am getting ahead of myself, which I hope you will forgive since I am a bit out of practice at this. Since today is the first Sunday of Epiphany in the Christian tradition, it is fitting to share and celebrate our revelations with one another- particularly those of a spiritual nature. So I would like to begin by talking about my understanding of where I was six months ago, then share not only what I did on sabbatical, but what I learned, and then explore briefly about where we are now and what moving forward might look like.

There is a saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person. Not only because a busy person likely has issues saying “no” to things, but also because a busy person knows how to get things done. They are already moving sixty miles an hour, so bumping it up to 80 isn’t as difficult as it would be for someone who is cruising along at a more conservative 30.

But just as going faster in cars means fewer miles to the gallon and a shorter distance until it is necessary to refuel, so too do busy people need to be attentive to creating space and time for refueling. By the time June rolled around last year, my fuel tank was empty and I was running on fumes. My inner resources had been depleted to the point that my creativity was gone, my enthusiasm was gone, my ability to think outside the box was gone. I did what needed to be done, checked tasks off my to-do list, but experienced very little joy in it. I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t eating well, I wasn’t exercising and taking care of my body. After five extremely satisfying, growth inducing, challenging, wonderful, thrilling years with this congregation, what was once a groove had turned into a rut. I had hit the point where I needed to refuel. And so it was that I took a deep breathe and swum deep, burying myself in the mud, like the turtle in our reading.

But going still does not come naturally to me, and so it took some time for me to figure out how to apply the breaks. I know some of you are wondering what I did on sabbatical, not just what I learned, so let me give you the scorecard, of sorts, to show you what I mean:

I traveled. In the course of the sabbatical, I traveled to the Arc of Appalachia Nature Sanctuary, to the Washington, DC area; Atlanta; Kingston, TN; Dayton, OH; Charleston, SC; and Des Moines, IA. That doesn’t include the family vacation we took prior to the sabbatical beginning!

I learned. About policy governance, about family systems and creative leadership, and about the history of race and racism in our society and in our congregations. I learned about cortisol, the stress hormone, and the damage that it does to our bodies and the damage that we then pass down genetically to the next generation. I learned about third places, endocannibinoides, neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, and about microaggressions. And I learned about the changing religious landscape in our country, and what it means for traditional brick & mortar congregations.

I wrote. I wrote 10 chapters in a book I am working on that takes my experience playing roller derby and uses it as a lens through which to look at various sociological, psychology and theological aspects of life. And I wrote 13 blog entries – many of them looking at how the way we “do” church needs to change as the old ways no longer work.

I ran. I have always hated running, but in early July I read something about how many runners hate running. Once I realized it was really a mind game, I decided to try it. Prior to sabbatical, I had never run anything more than a 5k in my entire life. In November, my sister and I ran a half marathon together – 13.1 miles.

And I focused on my family. We ate dinner together almost every night. I cooked healthy meals. Our eldest started a new school and we loved it so much we moved our youngest over a few weeks later. And we enjoyed this strange concept of weekends that I had heard so much about.

I traveled, learned, wrote, ran, and focused on my family. In the beginning of the sabbatical, I created a structure for myself. I wanted to write two chapters and a blog entry every week. And so that is what I started doing. I knew that I had a tendency to be addicted to my to-do list, but I learned that I have a tendency to be a slave to my goals, as well. When it comes to achievement of goals, I can be a force of nature. This has a good side, but as with most characteristics, it has a shadow side as well. By the time October rolled around, I was just as tired as I had been before I went on sabbatical! A dear friend said to me, in the way only dear friends really can “Good grief, Dawn! If you return to church and aren’t rested from your sabbatical, something is wrong.”

Her words went straight to my heart. So I put down the book, and the goal of writing each week. My new goal was to practice living a less structured life. To slow down. I began to practice slacking off – something I had not done for over 20 years.

It takes a lot of energy to go from 0 to 80 miles per hour, but I had been cruising along at 80 for a long time and so any slowdown felt strange. I learned that it takes quite a bit of energy to slow down – something that the engineers understood who created my hybrid vehicle, which recharges the battery whenever I break, but that I hadn’t quite gotten my head around. So it took time for me to learn how to slow down, to learn how to relax. As I did, the focus of my sabbatical shifted.

I began to read more. I read 17 novels in the last six months. For comparison sake, the previous year before that I had read about 3.

I nested. Without a million bajillion things hanging over my head, I was able to tackle little projects that called to me. I organized the pots and pans cupboard in the kitchen, and I organized the ubiquitous junk drawer. I weeded the back yard and painted and ran the electrical for a new home office space up in our attic.

And I rested. I resumed practicing guitar. I took up coloring mandalas. And I slept. A lot. I learned that my day goes so much better when I have time to just lay in bed, stare at the ceiling, and think for 10-20 minutes before I am forced to get up.

Like the turtle, slowing down was my work, and deep within at the heart of my stillness, I trusted that one day the world would warm and my energy stores would be refilled and that I would be able to return to ministry. And so it became. It wasn’t my writing or my learning that refueled me, but the radical simplicity of rest.

I stand before you here today, rested, rejuvenated, excited to be here. I have already seen the shift within myself – I am once again able to think creatively, outside the box. I have energy around planning and preparing worship. I have hopes, ideas. And more patience. And deeper compassion.

So now what? Do we just go back to the way things were before the sabbatical? I don’t want that, and I don’t think you do either since you have learned and grown during this time as well. So how do we navigate this new territory?

John Cummins, who served First Universalist Church in Minneapolis for 23 years, spoke to several of us seminary students years ago. He shared with us students (who could never imagine serving a church for 5 years, much less 23!) that over the course of his time at First Universalist, he served not one church, but several. And that he was not one minister that whole time, but several. There is much wisdom in this understanding.

Six years ago, I had my first interview with the search committee here and I fell in love with this congregation. I came as an idealistic new minister, still a bit green around the edges. You were looking for someone to help you out of a difficult time – for over a decade the congregation had been in conflict and transition. You needed someone to love you to pieces and that was absolutely something I was prepared to do.

Over those first years together, we worked out a system to our relationship. I think it was a system that was necessary to get us through one crisis after another, one fire to fight after another, but it was not a sustainable system. It burned me out and left you lacking confidence in your own ministry.

And so it is time to together again to begin a new chapter in our shared adventure. I come to you today as a different minister than I was 6 months ago. Calmer. More grounded. I have a greater understanding of how I use goals and busy-ness to distract me from the real, difficult work of reflection and contemplation. And I come with an appreciation and desire to continue to do “big picture” systems thinking. You are more confidant in your own abilities to handle details, to put together inspiring worship, to take care of yourselves and one another. We get to start over, taking the best of what we had and writing a new chapter together.

Truth be told, it probably won’t be easy, as happy as we are to be back together again. There will be bumps in the road. If we don’t want to resume our old ways, it will take intentionality and work. For instance, I know I have a habit of picking up details I shouldn’t. I would appreciate your help as you continue to handle details, and your help in calling me on it when I try to do what is yours to do.

It is exciting, and maybe a little nerve-wracking, as we renegotiate our relationship. My colleagues have shared with me that returning from sabbatical is often more difficult for the minister and for the congregation than the sabbatical was itself! Some of you might want me to pick up where I left off, with a massive to-do list and I won’t be doing that. My job right now is not to jump right in and start all these new programs or take on any work that has been waiting for me. My job is to reconnect with you, to listen to your experience, your learning, your hopes and your dreams. Your job is to keep doing your vital ministry, and to formalize all the amazing vision that is here into a plan that will give insight in how best to prioritize our time together. Our job together is to build a new relationship, taking what we like from the old as we find a new balance that incorporates all the epiphanies we have had and that will take us to that new place where we can live our mission more fully.

What a gift a sabbatical is – for a minister and also for a congregation. We reunite now, re-joined in common pursuit of our mission to one another and to our world. We bow and bend towards one another, because we know that this is a relationship that is full of love and delight. It is a pleasure to be back with you. I can’t wait to see what the future will bring!!!

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