Tag Archives: Mission

all in it together.

30 Oct

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
October 18. 2015

Listen:

RollerDerbyI used to play competitive roller derby. And I’ve found it to be a useful lens through which to examine sociological, psychological and even theological concepts. But in order to understand it as a metaphor, I need to give you a bit of background on how the game is played.

Each team puts 5 skaters on the track at a time, for a period of play called a jam. A jam can’t last more than 2 minutes, so there are a lot of them during the game. Of those 5 skaters that each team puts out, one is called the jammer, and she is the offensive skater – the one who scores points. The other four are the defensive players, and they are called blockers. In short, the jammer earns a point for every blocker from the opposing team that she passes.

So jammers are trying to get past the blockers to score points.

Blockers are trying to both prevent the opposing jammer from passing them, as well as making holes for their jammer to get through.

That is the gist of it.

I played both positions, but I really loved playing the jammer – mostly because she gets to skate really, really fast.

But I had a problem as a jammer – one that is pretty common to those of us in the position: I paid almost no attention to what my blockers were doing. I was a lone wolf, trying to get through the pack of skaters on my own so that I could score points.

It wasn’t long before I began to feel an almost overwhelming sense of responsibility. It was my job to score the points. The pressure started to get to me. The nervous butterflies that I would get at the beginning of each game got worse and worse, until I was almost having an anxiety attack. At that point, I decided to quit jamming and stick with blocking.

A teammate, a fellow jammer who had been doing it for a lot longer than me, sat me down to talk. She explained to me that when a jammer feels like she is a lone wolf, that the burden of responsibility for the game falls to her and her alone, then she is not acting like a team player. This experienced player told me that she had been in a similar situation, and she had learned that she needed to trust her teammates: both the blockers on the track with her and the other jammers on the team when they got on the track for a jam. She said that she had to learn that the responsibility was not all on her.

With this shift in understanding, I was able to return to jamming – and I became a better jammer. Because we are better together. The lone wolf jammer needs to develop trust in her teammates.

So what does all this mean for those of us gathered here? As individuals, and as a faith tradition, many of us struggle with liberal guilt. We feel like it is all on us, and only us, to create justice in the world, to save the planet, to “insert your cause here”. We have a deep sense of social responsibility, one that, at times, becomes a burden of responsibility not unlike that experienced by the jammer.

This burden of responsibility comes, in part, from a misinterpretation in our theology. We can find this misinterpretation when we look at the 5 smooth stones from James Luther Adams. Let me explain.

James Luther Adams was a Unitarian minister, social activist, scholar, theologian, author, and divinity school professor for more than forty years. “Adams was the most influential theologian among American Unitarian Universalists of the 20th century.” According to Adams, there are five smooth stones that are hallmarks of religious liberalism. They are:

1. Revelation and truth are not closed, but constantly being revealed. We are always learning new truths.

2. All relations between people ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion. We choose to enter into relationship with one another – it is not forced.

3. Liberal religion affirms the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community. It is our responsibility to work for justice.

4. Good must be consciously given form and power within history. That good things don’t just happen, people make them happen.

And finally,
5. The resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism. There is hope!

Let’s go back to the third and fourth ones for a minute. These are the ones that say that it is our responsibility to work for justice, and that good things don’t just happen, people make them happen. When we hear these two together, we may mistakenly get the idea that it is ALL up to US to make these good things happen – that without our hands, without my hands, without your hands actively working all the time to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice, it won’t bend and we won’t get there. It is UP TO US!

This can lead to a paralyzing sense of responsibility, both in our individual lives and as a faith tradition. There have been times when I have stood for 10 minutes in front of the canned tomatoes at the grocery store, trying to figure out whether I should buy the organic ones, or the low-salt ones, or the ones grown in the United States, or maybe I shouldn’t buy the canned tomatoes but the jarred ones instead because then I can reuse the glass jar, or maybe what I should do is by the fresh ones and cut them myself, but do I buy the local hydroponically grown ones, or…

It can be paralyzing.

And not only paralyzing, it can mean we are afraid to take risks, because so much is on our shoulders that we DARE NOT STUMBLE.

So we end up stuck in place, not moving, afraid to go forward. Crippled by our sense of responsibility.

Adams, or JLA as he is most often called, was a huge proponent of voluntary associations. He never would have said that hope rested on only one small group of people – he was talking about all liberal religionists, not just Unitarians. JLA was famous for recasting Jesus’ saying, “By their fruits you shall know them,” into “By their groups you shall know them.” He did this to “emphasize that our ethics are revealed not in our intentions or even in our individual actions but in the relationships and institutions we commit ourselves to.”

So it is not our individual or collective actions that will save us, but our relationships. And so, interestingly enough, the solution for our overwhelming sense of responsibility to save the world and everyone in it is exactly the same as the solution for lone wolf jammers in roller derby: Trust. Trust that we are all in it together.

We don’t have to do this work alone, and it does not rest entirely on our shoulders. Far from it!

Instead, we can be part of a larger team of folks working to love the hell out of the world, working to bring about the beloved community, working to bring heaven to earth. There are many different ways of expressing it – and we do say we need not think alike to love alike, right? We can partner with folks who may be compatible on one issue but very different than us on another.

We are living this reality right now at First U by having joined CLOUT – Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together. We are the first non-Christian entity to join them, but I don’t think we will be the last. We are partnering in areas we agree on: access to jobs & transportation, the destructive nature of payday lending, and affordable housing. When we gather for meetings, I hold an awareness that several of the congregations we are partnering with do not believe that I should be a minister because I am a woman. And some have taken active stances against same-sex marriage. But we join together to work on the issues upon which we agree because we are stronger together.

And then, we partner with the local LGBT Fairness organizations to work on issues with them. And we partner with the local grassroots organization working to end mountaintop removal. We are constantly looking for organizations to partner with, not so that we can lead but so that we can be faithful allies, standing in solidarity. It not only helps these important organizations, it helps us!

To build trust, we must find partners we can be in relationship with so that we know we are not in it alone. Once we have done that, we will find we have more energy free’d up to take risks, to step into the discomfort, knowing that even if we fail, our partners will be there working towards similar goals. Having partners frees us from the paralyzation we feel when we think we are carrying the burden alone, that it is all on our shoulders.

I experienced this first-hand at General Assembly a few months ago. After a very difficult floor session debating the wording for a Black Lives Matter Action of Immediate Witness, there was a Black Lives Matter rally held outside the convention center. Rev. Sekou, a noted Ferguson, Missouri, activist, called on those of us gathered, mostly white, to “be more than allies, but to be freedom fighters.” He gave us directions for how we were going to conduct a die-in – that most people would form a circle around a nearby intersection, blocking traffic. In the center, a smaller group would lay down and perform a die-in, lying on the ground for 4 minutes – one minute for each hour that Michael Brown’s body lay on the road in Ferguson.

I knew I wanted to participate in the die-in, that I wanted to be a part of what I felt was an important “walk the talk” action with my fellow co-religionists. But I was scared. I turned to my colleague, the Rev. Jan Taddeo, minister at our congregation in Lawerenceville, Georgia. “I want to do this, but I am afraid!” I said. “Me too” she said. And so we clasped hands, and went and lay down in the road for 4 very long minutes. We held hand the whole time. I could not have done it without her.

We are better, stronger together. And we are able to take risks, do things, that we would normally not be able to do.

Whether it is the obligation the jammer feels to score as many points as possible, or the feeling that if we don’t save the world, no one will…No matter where the overwhelming sense of responsibility comes from, when we find trusted others with whom we can partner, we are able to recover from our belief that it is all on us.

And as JLA’s fifth smooth stone tells us, the resources available justify an attitude of ultimate optimism. There is hope. May we remember that we are not alone, but instead are in it together.

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.

bragging, just a bit.

27 Jan

The congregation I serve is so cool. Here are some short videos they made about what they did, and how they did things, while I was on sabbatical. It almost makes me wish I had stuck around! I am so glad to be back with them now.

First Unitarian On The Loose
This video is about a group of adventurous people on an amazing journey exploring new ways of doing the same things while I was on sabbatical.

To Speak The Truth In Love
This video describes the way they worshiped together while I was gone.

Sharing Our Time, Talent And Treasure
And this video describes some of the ways they shared their time, talent and treasures.

Aren’t they amazing?

 

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

25 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I welcome feedback and thoughts/suggestions.

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