Tag Archives: UUA

safety, comfort, law and order.

22 Apr

As conversations around racial justice and white supremacy (both covert and overt) dominate our culture and my faith tradition, I have found myself thinking about the difference between safety and comfort.

In the past few months, I have been approached by numerous white people who want to share with me their discomfort over something a black or brown person has shared, usually (but not only) on the topic of police violence. “Is this a safe place for ME?” the white people are usually asking, even if there are only a few people of color in the room.

When white people do this, we put our own comfort ahead of the safety of people of color.

A while ago, Reading While White had a great blog post about this:

let’s stop worrying so much about creating comfortable spaces and worry more about whether our spaces are truly safe for all….creating a space that is truly safe for people of color and First/Native Nations people often necessitates making that space uncomfortable for White people.

Read the whole post. It’s a quick, powerful read.

What I really want to share with you today, however, is a connection to safety and comfort that I made while reading Chris Hayes’ new book A Colony in a Nation. Hayes uses his experience in Ferguson to discuss the concept of the second part of the phrase “Law and Order.” In Ferguson, Hayes experienced no law breaking, but the people in the street, backing up traffic, making a lot of noise, created a lot of disorder. Disorder that white people found uncomfortable. Worthy of having a police presence. Even though there was nothing unlawful happening where he was.

Hayes writes that over the 50 years since Nixon referred to black Americans as “a colony in a nation,” we have built just that. We have created “a territory that isn’t actually free. A place controlled from outside rather than within. A place where the mechanisms of representation don’t work enough to give citizens a sense of ownership over their own government. A place where law is a tool of control rather than than a foundation for prosperity. A political regime like the one our Founders inherited and rejected. An order they spilled their blood to defeat.

He says that in the Nation, which is made up of white people, “there is law; in the Colony there is only a concern with order. In the Nation you have rights; in the Colony you have commands. In the Nation, you are innocent until proven guilty; in the Colony, you are born guilty.”

Law and order are not the same thing.

Safety and comfort are not the same thing.

May our desire for order not outweigh our need for justice for people of color.

May our desire for comfort not outweigh the need for safety for people of color.

As we confront systems of oppression, I encourage those of us who are white to step into the discomfort, step into the disorderliness. Because it is there that we will begin to make progress.

missing the mark.

21 Feb

a sermon delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
on February 14, 2016


I’m not a fan of Valentine’s Day, so I’m going in a totally different direction this morning, inspired by this month’s ministry theme of “Good and Evil.” But perhaps the ideas are more connected than I originally thought. I leave that decision to you.

One of my most vivid memories is of excruciating guilt. I was around 9 years old, and had gotten into a fight with my best friend, Keisha. In my anger, I had intentionally vandalized the door of her home. When her parents returned home and saw the damage, they called my mother. I was, not surprisingly, afraid of the repercussions, afraid of the punishment I would endure, should my mother find out the truth. And so I lied. I said that it wasn’t me.

Wise as mothers often are, mine saw right through my lying. Knowing me to be quite pious for a child, she pulled out the family Bible and asked me to swear before God that I had not been the vandal. I collapsed in tears of guilt and shame. I knew I had sinned by committing the acts of vandalism. And I knew I had sinned by lying about it to my mother. I simply could not bear the guilt, the fear of how my soul would be damaged, if I tried to lie to God about it, too.

Growing up, my understanding of sin was pretty straightforward. It was a sin to disobey my parents, and it was a sin to break any of the 10 commandments (chief of which, as a child, was making sure to obey my parents).

As I grew older, the list of what was a sin grew longer. It was a sin if I cursed, a sin if I had sex before marriage, it was a sin if I was jealous of something my friends had, and on, and on. I was taught that each time I sinned, God was disappointed in me and I further separated myself from God. Since I wasn’t Catholic, and didn’t have the sacrament of confession to regularly wipe the slate clean, I instead found myself recommitting to God and Christ at regular alter calls, each time promising to be better. Hoping that my sins would not be so heavy that they would damn me to hell.

Not surprisingly, I gave up when I was in college. I could no longer believe in such a vengeful, mean-spirited God breathing down my neck, ready to abandon me to the fiery pits of hell for eternity for my transgressions. Transgressions which mostly felt like just being human. I realized that the concept of sin that I had grown up with used peoples’ fear of hell to control their behavior. I had not yet heard of the loving God that Universalists propose, who we heard about in our Moment for All Ages, from whom sin might temporarily separate us but with whose presence we will eventually be reunited. As is often the case with those of us who grow up in such rigid traditions, I threw out the baby with the bathwater.

When I entered seminary, I had to learn how to translate a whole lot of religious language that I had stopped using a decade before. I had to look through my own religious baggage and figure out which concepts still were useful to me at and which were not. I became excellent at translating. I can give you my Unitarian Universalist understanding of salvation, hell, prayer, God, redemption, atonement, evil, and so much more.

But at first glance, the concept of sin wasn’t something that I could easily translate. My former experiences got in the way. I found the concept both too small, in that it did not cover enough of the important stuff that I considered wrong, and too large in that it covered too much of the stuff that just felt like being human. As my colleague and mentor the Rev. Sharon Dittmar writes in her paper on this topic for the Ohio River Study Group group, traditional Protestant and Catholic “ideas about sin are literal (follow the Ten Commandments) and [they] notoriously skirt deeply concerning issues like domestic violence, child abuse and hate crimes.” This limited common theology has stuck around for years, because, as she says, “people like their truths easy” – easy enough to be explained with a checklist.

I am not alone in having difficult baggage around the concept of sin. Speaking with a number of my UU colleagues, some who were raised UU pointed out that that they were raised without a belief in sin, and that this did not match their experience of the themselves or of the world. They struggled with the disconnect between the world in harmony they were learning about in their religious education classes and the world in conflict that they experienced. My colleague, the Rev. Christian Schmidt, shares that “Telling people that they are sinful when they aren’t, what fundamentalists sometimes do, is harmful. But telling people they are sinless when they aren’t, the liberal heresy, is also harmful.”

missedbullseyeThe struggle with the concept of sin is not confined to Unitarian Universalists. Not even close! In fact, the translators of the original Hebrew and Christian scriptures must have had a tough time themselves! When we look at the original texts, there is not just one word being translated as sin, but several! In the Hebrew scriptures, 6 different nouns and 3 verbs are all translated as “sin,” as well as several different Greek nouns, verbs and adjectives. The original wordings range from going against God, to doing something which makes us feel guilty. They may mean to go astray, or to do something deserving of punishment. One of the most common Greek words, from which I took the title of this service, simply means “to miss the mark”, which is an archery term that means not hitting the bullseye of the target. You still hit the target, but just not the center.

For hundreds of years, progressive theologians have been redefining the concept of sin. After the Civil War, both Unitarian and Universalist theologians understood sin to be a violation of moral law. Rather than a checklist, it could be understood as anything that violated the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto do”. Building on this, at the beginning of the 20th century Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbsuch wrote that classical theology had neglected the social aspect of sin. He understood that while human beings sin against God, at the same time, we sin against fellow human beings because we are all connected to one another. His definition was that sin is essentially selfishness.

Reinhold Niebuhr, in the mid 20th century, stated that sin is “the consequence of man’s [sic] inclination to usurp the prerogatives of God, to think more highly of himself than he ought to.”

My Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleagues had a wonderful conversation about this recently. Our understandings of sin, if we choose to the use the term, generally follow more recent theological thinking. Like that of process theologian Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. She goes back to the Greek understanding of missing the mark. We also follow Liberation theologians who suggest that sin is found in injustice, in our inhumanity to one another and equates loving your neighbor with loving God. Many contemporary theologians also understand sin not as an action, but as a state of being – that sin is the state of living separate from God, from the divine.

Yet for all the debating over what sin is, and is not, the concept is still not something we talk about very much as Unitarian Universalists. Hollis Huston, writing also for the Ohio River Group, shares that we are “not now [at this moment] talking about sin. We’re talking about injustice, inequality, oppression, exclusion…When we speak of sin it is generally to ban the word.”

But this is to our own detriment. Dittmar explains: “so we have thrown out the baby (sin) with the bathwater (moral rigidity and illogical checklists) in an attempt to free ourselves. In doing so we have lost language to explore, bear, and act upon collective responsibility.” She goes on to explain that “People do wrong every day and the systems of evil revolve around us. And we need a way to say this and reflect this and make personal changes about this when possible so that we are not buried under the weight of collective wrongdoing, and, if we keep it secret, lies.”

Utilizing the concept of sin is a way to engage collective responsibility, to claim the prophetic voice. It is powerful to say that it is a sin for a police officer to beat an unarmed black man to death. It is powerful to say that it is a sin for legislators to vote for legislation that makes the lives of the poor and oppressed more difficult. And it is powerful to say that it is a sin to engage in something as seemingly benign as talking poorly behind someone’s back. To call these tragedies, or horrors, or crimes or just bad decisions is all true, but to call them sins does two things: first, it adds a theological dimension that calls to mind an ideal that is larger than the individual, an ideal to which the individual is responsible – whether that ideal is God or the divine, or the interdependent web.

Second, as strange as it may seem for some of us, the language of sin offers hope for change. Think about it: A tragedy occurs, and there is nothing that can be done about it. It is done. A horror implies some perversion that can not be made right. A crime is something that must be punished but makes no allusion to making things right for the victim. Likewise, even a bad decision does not include those who may have been harmed by the actions. To call these actions sins, however, means to enter into an ancient process, whereby a person may sin against another, but then may realize the pain they have caused, and thus have the opportunity to repent, to be sorry for their actions, and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Dittmar points out that “Saying that I am a sinner reclaims my role as someone with the ability to make change.” To call these and other actions a sin is to give hope that the sinner may yet still redeem themselves and right relations may be restored. And, as Huston points out: “Awkward is it to take a prophetic stance without language of judgment.”

In addition to calling ourselves to a higher standard, and entering a process that enables change, I see another advantage to restoring the concept of sin to our common vocabulary. That is, by eliminating the concept of sin from our theological language and constructs, we have reinforced the idea of human perfectibility and thus turned humility into a character flaw.

Let me explain. For generations, we liberal religionists have pursued the modern idea of humankind’s “onward and upward” progression. Though it is often left out, what is insinuated in this concept is the perfectibility of humanity – that we will continue onward and upward until we reach perfection.

When we apply this lens to our own individual lives, it means that we should be pursuing perfection. This then makes any flaw an outward indication of our lack of progress. It means we are obviously not good enough, not perfect enough. And so showing our imperfections becomes something to be ashamed of, something that is embarrassing. Something to avoid. Which then shoves all our failings, our struggles, our falling short, into the shadows as deep, dark, secrets. Something we want to deny not only to others, but to ourselves. Our imperfections becomes humiliating. Owning how we miss the mark, how we fall short, how we sin – against each other, against our best selves, against the divine – requires humility, it requires being humble.

It is impossible to call others to justice when we do not acknowledge ourselves how we ourselves contribute to injustice. Now, this may seem like quite a leap from the concept of sin, but think about it. If we understand sin as missing the mark, where do we miss the mark more than in our interactions with one another? We transgress. We microaggress, we contribute to systems of privilege and injustice and oppression whether we want to or not. But we can’t call out the speck in another’s eye unless we can acknowledge the log in our own. It is not surprising that our UU collective conversation around sin decreased as we continued to embrace the modern ideal of perfectability.

Though sin is not something we talk about very much in our tradition these days, it is fascinating to me that both authenticity and vulnerability are key words in our movement right now – because both of these start in being humble, in knowing and owning our not only our limitations but our humanity. Both of these require acknowledging how we have missed the mark. How we fall short. How we break each others’ hearts again, and again, and again. The increasing conversation and desirability of authenticity and vulnerability indicates a shift in our worldview, away from modern perfectibility and towards a more nuanced understanding of human nature. Schmidt says “we should regularly acknowledge that we are neither perfect nor awful, as is our world.”

And so I wonder if we might reclaim the language, the concept of sin. We can continue to talk around it, talk about our imperfections, talk about failures, talk about missing the mark and how we fall short. We can use all sorts of euphemisms, but the thing about euphemisms is that we often use them to soften the blow, to make something more palatable. And is this really what we want when we are coming clean? I can’t help but think about when I am cleaning grease off my hands – the nice smelling soft-soap won’t do it. I need the gritty borax.

Saying that I have sinned, that I have transgressed, that I have fallen short, does not mean that I am unworthy. It does not mean I am wicked. It does not mean I am going to hell. It simply is a way of acknowledging my humanity and setting the stage for reconciliation – with myself, with others, with the divine. In this way, the antidote to sin is not perfection, but grace. Grace that comes from those we have harmed. Grace that comes from ourselves. Grace, in the form of forgiveness and reconciliation. For as difficult as the concept of sin may be for some of us, what is so wonderful about it is that when we miss the mark, we can try again. We can be redeemed, we can begin again in wondrous love. And this is a form of grace in itself – that when we sink down, when the depths of our humanity are revealed, there is still hope. When we are lost in sin, in selfishness, obsessed with our own lives without a care for others, we can experience grace.

We all miss the mark occasionally. Heck, sometimes we miss the target completely. This is part of what it means to be human. If we want to be a prophetic people, perhaps it is time to consider becoming more comfortable with the concept of sin. Not because it makes us afraid for our immortal souls, but because it calls to mind the understanding that we are both saint and sinner, and it creates the opportunity to try again, to seek reconciliation, and to work for change. May it be so. Blessed be.

our whole lives (OWL).

10 Jun

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

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

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

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

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


show me the money!

1 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

people are not hot potatoes.

28 May

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Direct Democracy and UUA “citizenship” – part 3

1 Apr


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

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



Go South, dear colleague, go south!

8 Jan

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

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

10 Year Comparison by Region

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

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

Dear Strapped Student

22 Nov

This post is regarding a controversy at Starr King School for Ministry, one of our Unitarian Universalist seminaries. You can read about the conflict at the New York Times, the UU World, and a recent letter from the new president, the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt.  I have heard people debating whether it is SKSM that is in the wrong or the two students who have not received their diplomas, but I am not hearing much talk about the Strapped Student or the person who leaked the documents to begin with. This letter is for those people.

**Update: Since publishing this blog, it was pointed out to me that back in August, President McNatt issued a message indicating that “the school uncovered through digital means the identity of at least one person responsible.” However, in reading the message it seems the school indicates that more than one student was involved, so this letter stands.**  

Dear Strapped Student and/or the Original Leak,

I would imagine it must be very difficult for you to watch what is going on at SKSM right now and not feel a huge mixture of emotions.

On the one hand, I imagine that you are grateful that the school is getting a spotlight shone upon it. You probably felt very angry at the secretive selection process, one that maybe felt very unfair. So you took it upon yourself to level the playing field and bring some secrets out into the light.

On the other hand, this has turned into an enormous hullabaloo – probably much bigger than you intended. The spotlight you intended to shine has turned into a search light that is revealing more than you imagined – indeed it is almost looking like a proverbial witch hunt.

The longer this goes on, the more difficult it becomes for you to step-forward. At this point, you no doubt realize that your future ministry, should you reveal yourself, is probably cut short. I would like to offer to you that your future ministry will be cut short even if you don’t’ step forward and reveal yourself, because this is a burden of guilt that you will carry with you and will cripple you over time. This secret, should you continue to keep it, will hang over your head everywhere you go. You will always be afraid of being found out and that fear may keep you from taking the risks that ministry, in all its many forms, requires. It will most certainly prevent you from bringing your whole self to your vocation. With each day you may find you have more and more to lose.

I am not talking about the burden of guilt from revealing confidential materials, though you may indeed feel guilt about that. Whether you felt it was justified or not, you did cross a line when you revealed them. But the break in covenant that occurred when you crossed that line could have been restored if you had stepped forward sooner.

Instead, it is the inadvertent side effects of your action that I imagine you feel the most guilt about: turning two presumably innocent students into the focus of this conflict, rather than keeping focus on the actions of SKSM that you disapproved of.

Two students who are asserting that they are taking the principled stance – that they should not be required to turn over their emails when neither have been charged with leaking the documents – have had their careers put on hold due to your actions.

Two students who, if you are a student, were in the trenches with you in seminary and through the difficulty of that formation process.  And if you are not a student, then these are individuals for whom you presumably had some responsibility, some important role, in their formation.

That has to weigh on you. To know that Suzi and Julie are now suffering – and at what cost? The president you probably didn’t want has been hired and is not going away.  While you may be enjoying the writhing that is going on in the school around you, I can’t help but think that it is not worth the continuing price.

Because the cost does continue to escalate. These students can’t get on with the careers they spent years studying for. Their emotional toil continues to increase, and so does their financial burden as well. And until you step forward, these costs will continue to accumulate.

And so I ask you, Strapped Student, I ask you as someone who has no affiliation with SKSM but who sees that there is indeed much dysfunction in this whole messy situation, I ask you to please look into your heart and imagine coming forward. Find someone you trust who knows you and will have your back, or find a lawyer to speak through. Come forward so that these two students can continue on with their lives, so that the burden of their futures is lifted from you, and so that you can do the work you really wanted to do in revealing those documents.

It won’t be easy. Ministry rarely is.

direct democracy in the UUA.

20 Nov

This post originally appeared at the Lively Tradition. Please leave any comments there. 


Assumption #1: That we want to bring more diverse voices to the table of governance at General Assembly.

Assumption #2: What we have been doing is not working.

Assumption #3: Continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

In a previous post (both on my blog and on the Lively Traditiondemoc4), I wrote that we may want to consider moving toward direct democracy (rather than indirect) in regards to who has a vote at General Assembly. In the thought experiment I proposed, some wise folks (tbd) would decide what UUA “Citizenship” means, and then everyone who meets those requirements would get a vote.

There were a variety of different responses to the post. Some people shared they like the delegate system as it is. To those of you in this camp, please refer to the assumptions above.

Other shared that they thought that when covenanted communities are given the right to vote, that this will bring more people to the table. This may be true, but I can’t help but wonder about scalability in this situation. If a covenanted community of 10 people gets 1 delegate, then a congregation of 1000 would presumably get 100, at which point it seems as though we might as well just give everyone the franchise.

Others leaned on our history in one of two ways. First, some felt that our system is “how we have always done it” and that therefore it should not be tinkered with. This is not actually accurate. At it’s formation, and until 1900, the AUA was only an organization with individual members. But this was before the internet, so people were not well connected to one another and this made the organization weak. The Unitarian universe was given an important boost in 1900 when the AUA merged with the National Conference of Unitarian Churches, which was congregations only. When the UUA was formed, the original bylaws had language in them around “Life Members” until the last of the Life Members died and that part of the bylaws were amended, sometime in the early to mid-90s (I believe).

The second way people leaned on our history was to talk about what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. In the early 90s and into the early parts of the 2000’s, there was a resurgence of interest in congregational polity. This resurgence contained within it the idea that you can not be a “real” UU unless you belong to a UU congregation. This membership argument proposed that those hundred thousand (or more) people who say that they are Unitarian Universalist but who don’t belong to a congregation, really aren’t UUs after all. This resurgence in covenant was important, because at the time we were really struggling to shift from a focus on who weren’t towards a more positive focus on who we are. By saying that covenanted community is what makes a UU, we were finding a positive (though very limiting) way to claim our identity.

Finally, when arguing against the idea of moving toward direct democracy, some people said that before we consider moving to such a model, we would have to have a better idea of what “citizenship” in the UUA meant. What would the requirements be?

I think I have a way to satisfy both the history folks and the “need a definition folks” in one big way. If we were to move towards direct democracy, I think that we could make “participation in a Unitarian Universalist Covenanted Community” a requirement.

Please note that I am using this term in the broadest sense: congregations are covenanted communities, but so are UU summer camps, and so are online communities, professional organizations such as the UUMA, and so many more. The UUA Board (with help!) would need to figure out how to define a covenanted community – I know they are working on it already.

In this model, Covenanted Communities would be able to define for themselves what “participation” meant, just as congregations can define for themselves what “membership” means. Some congregations have a financial donation as a requirement of membership, some do not. Some covenanted communities might have “participate in outreach once a year” or “volunteer in some capacity” or “show up” as requirements. This would be left to the covenanted communities to determine.

And I don’t think it needs to be too confusing. Tracking participation could possibly use the same system we use now. Congregations are supposed to update their membership information when new members join and when old members leave. This membership information means that they get the UU World but also places them on the mailing list for other UU-related issues as well. If our system is not robust enough for this level of tracking, well then we need some major technological upgrades because we should have a robust database that allows us to do all sorts of data mining.

Would this allow all the “free-range Unitarian Universalists” to suddenly have a say at General Assembly? No, because many of them don’t participate, and won’t, in any covenanted communities. But there are certain groups of people who would: young adults who participate in campus ministry, families who attend UU Camps but do not hold membership in a local congregation, DREs, community ministers and other religious professionals who often don’t get to be a delegate but who are very invested in the present and future of our faith tradition and who are members of their professional organizations (which definitely seem to me to be a covenanted community!).

Some might argue that these folks could/should just go join the CLF. For some, perhaps, this is a viable workaround. But it isn’t for everyone – and certainly not for religious professionals (for whom we have inadvertently created a second class of ministry). The UU Chaplain who works in a town without a UU congregation does not necessarily get to be a delegate if she joins the CLF, though other ministers who are serving or affiliated with congregations are still granted the franchise.

So, to summarize: I was originally proposing a move from indirect democracy to direct democracy as a thought experiment. While I am still open to considering alternatives, I am finding myself more and more excited by the possibilities. And I am deeply disappointed that this option was not discussed at all on the current “Re-Imagining UUA Governance” survey.

We have a history of allowing individual members, and the internet and social media are wonderful correctives to the disconnection that the AUA struggled with (and was weakened by) in the late 1800s. By requiring “participation in a covenanted community” as a requirement of UUA membership for individuals, we address the concern of the centrality of covenant to our relationships with one another, as it is in covenanted communities where we grow into our best selves and search for truth and meaning in our lives. These communities are where we worship, grow, share meals and serve together. They are where we explore and live our our values. Shouldn’t all Unitarian Universalists who have found such a community, whether it is a traditional brick & mortar congregation or in an emerging online covenanted community, be able to have a say in the direction of our faith tradition?


This post originally appeared at the Lively Tradition. Please leave any comments there. 

removing barriers to participation in governance.

21 Oct

Join me on a thought experiment, won’t you? In this blog posting, I want to explore an idea, not advocating a particular pathway; to think outside the box and see what happens.

Imagine with me that there is an organization called the Evolution Society. They have an important message about evolution that they want to share with as many people as possible – to really get it out there. They initially appeal to institutions of higher eduction, which join as members and provide funding. But other people want in – people who are not affiliated with the institutions of higher eduction. Some of those people have money they want to give to fund the expansion of the message. Some want to join because they want the snazzy brochures the Evolution Society puts out. Some live in areas where the Creationist Society is dominant and they want to keep in touch with people like them. These folks want in!

Credit: barebente

Credit: barebente

Now let’s say that some members of the Evolution Society really don’t want it to evolve. They want to keep their membership limited to institutions. They have agreed to expand the types of institutions that can join them, but these new types of institutions won’t be able to vote or participate in the governance of the society. And they encourage free-range members to join an institution, preferably a university or college. They are afraid of what might happen if they open membership up, and besides, doing it this way has worked for them for decades.

Fast forward 10 years, and the Evolution Society is struggling and exists only on the campuses of a few colleges and universities. They have become fringe. Instead of closing their doors, the Evolution Society lingers, slowly shrinking in both membership and relevance. Pretty soon, they are serving a bare minimum of folks and their message is not on the cultural radar. They are virtually extinct.

Meanwhile, the Creationist Society has been much less picky about who they let in. They they have established strongholds not only in the places where the Evolution Society already exists, but have expanded across the country and world. They have small groups, coffee clubs, and even bird watching groups that spread their message.


So here is my wondering: Is the UUA like the Evolution Society?

Yes, for a long time we have been the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

But a look at the cultural landscape tells us that that fifty years from now, religious life will primarily be lived outside of congregations. It might be lived in coffee houses or living rooms. It might be lived with smaller groups of people, seeking deeper and more intentional spirituality. It might be lived in yoga classes or birdwatching groups that connect their faith to the work they do to preserve songbird habitat. Congregations will, hopefully, continue to exist, but the number of people who feed their religious and spiritual needs that way will be small in comparison to the number 50 years ago.

So it was with interest that two pieces in the current UUA Board packet caught my attention. The Emerging Congregations Working Group submitted a proposal for the creation of Covenanted Communities, which are defined as claiming UU principles and sources, furthering UU values in the world, committed to being in covenant with the larger UU movement, etc.

I am excited about this idea, as it is a new way of addressing the Beyond part of Congregations and Beyond. At this time, the Working Group recommends that these Covenanted Communities not be member congregations – meaning they will not receive voting privileges. I understand why the Working Group made this recommendation – there will initially be vast amounts of confusion between what the difference is between”related organizations” and “covenanted communities.” By not giving Covenanted Communities voting rights (which related organizations also do not have), they are not privileging one group over another.

Perhaps, down the road, these groups will get the right to participate in our governance. I trust that the UUA Board and leadership will work through the complexities involved in making this happen.

But when I read the 2009 Fifth Principle Task Force Report, also included in the Board’s packet this month, it gave me pause, and I started to wonder.

Don’t get me wrong, the 5th Principle Task Force did an amazing job analyzing and laying out the issues with our current General Assembly process. Their conclusions advocate for a smaller, less frequent General Assembly, with fewer delegates but whose registration and room and board are paid for. Yay! This is great!

As an aside: They also express concern that “Substantive linkage and distant delegates participating through offsite voting are initially a clash of values” and so advocate that technology being used for learning and for observing, but not participating in the actual governance. As someone who was an off-site delegate this year, I disagree. It was such an amazing experience to be able to participate in our General Sessions from afar.

But getting back to the issue at hand. One might argue that both these reports seem to want to continue to put up barriers to participation in our governance, when perhaps we may want to consider the exact opposite. What it would look in the future if, instead, we opened up governance up to all Unitarian Universalist “citizens”?

I have heard the argument that one must be a member of a congregation to be a Unitarian Universalist, because we are a covenantal faith and you must be in covenant in a congregation in order to be a part of us. But people are demonstrating left and right that we can be in covenant with one another in ways other than through congregations. This means that requiring membership in a congregation has become a barrier to participation for many people who consider themselves Unitarian Universalist but are not members of a congregation. If we are looking to remove barriers to participation in our governance, might we want to look at opening the possibility of participation up to even more people, rather than further reducing it?

In this model, certain important elements would not change. We would continue to need a very strong Board of Trustees. We would continue to have an Administration and Staff that work to achieve the ends of the Association. The UUA would still provide strong support to congregations and other covenanted communities. I am only suggesting that we look at who can vote, and imagine what it might be like if we considered opening it up instead of locking it down.

We would need to work out some details, such as how to determine UUA “citizenship” – but that is an exploration for another time. I trust that our great minds can figure such a thing out.

I believe that we need a robust Unitarian Universalist Association that can serve stakeholders that may or may not belong to a congregation. A UUA where all who meet certain “citizenship” requirements are able to participate, whether or not they are affiliated with a congregation. We have more free-range Unitarian Universalists than we do congregation members. Many of these folks were raised in our congregations. Might we want to allow them to have a say in the future of our faith tradition?

I understand this sounds like heresy. As I said, this is a thought experiment. It seems to me that if we want to achieve our governance goals of greater and more diverse participation, direct democracy is going to be more effective than indirect (which is what we have now).

Culturally, younger people favor direct democracy. In addition, particularly as our technology continues to allow more and more off-site participation, more people would be able to participate. Direct democracy also gives privileges to marginalized voices – people who may not be their congregation’s delegate but whose lived reality adds important depth to the conversation.

We are moving into a post-congregational era of our cultural history. We see the signs all around us. Congregations won’t die out, I don’t believe that, but we won’t have as many as we have had, and more and more people who identify as Unitarian Universalists won’t belong to one. I want Unitarian Universalism to evolve with the times, and this means looking who we are.

What do you think? What are the pros/cons of direct/indirect democracy? And with these questions in mind, how might we best live our global end of “A healthy Unitarian Universalist community that is alive with transforming power, moving our communities and the world toward more love, justice, and peace in a manner which assures institutional sustainability”?


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