It would be powerful just to be in a worship service with thousands of other UU’s. But the quality of worship at General Assembly is just off the charts. Our best preachers. Our most gifted musicians. Liturgies that somehow make us feel ‘as one’ with those thousands of UU’s. It really has to be experienced to be understood. Each service is a peak experience. I think, “it can’t possibly get any better than this.” But then the next service comes along, and I’m just as moved.

The worships at this GA seem to be building on one another thematically in a more coordinated fashion than I’ve seen in previous years, and so the effect is cumulative. Though all the services are livestreamed, they are, of course, on East Coast time, and so it’s probably a little early for most of you. But tonight’s “Service of the Living Tradition” will be at 4:30 PDT, and Sunday’s worship is a little later (11 East coast, 8 am PDT.) Here’s the link so that you can watch if you’d like: http://www.uua.org/ga/virtual/2014/index.shtml

One of the challenges of attending General Assembly is that there are so many different workshops and programs, you can’t possibly attend everything you are interested in. Each of the program slots has literally 20 different options. So you can imagine the odds against bumping into Peggy Jenkins, the one other UUCP member able to attend this assembly in Portland. But that’s exactly what happened!

We both chose to attend a workshop led by “AWAKE Ministries.” Sponsored by the Annapolis church, this is a cross-denominational ministry that worships in a really compelling way. First of all, they have a praise band. yes, you read that correctly…a UU praise band, made up entirely of incredibly gifted African-American musicians. They were AMAZING.

In between rockin’ songs, there was a talk show type interaction, where they pulled someone out of the audience, spun a wheel, and when it landed on “hope,” had a little conversation about what that volunteer knew about hope. It was pretty cool. There was also a time when a long row of ministers stood up and people were invited to go, take the hands of one of the ministers, and be prayed for. There were a lot of tears.

The service closed with “We Shall Overcome” and “Lean on Me.” It was uplifting and emotionally powerful, and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it was clear that some people had finally found what they are looking for. A young adult attendee commented, “Please, let this be part of the future of our faith!”

The Thursday evening service is the “Synergy” service. This is a bridging service for youth from across the nation. It seemed like about 100 of them were there. There was also a huge crowd of young adults welcoming them on the other side of the bridge. I had a vision of our congregation supporting next year’s bridging seniors in attending GA so that they can all participate. What do you think?

Talking about abortion

June 27, 2014

Brief break from the GA blog:

I got an e-mail from our local Planned Parenthood rep, asking me to respond to a letter to the editor written in support of pro-life demonstrators (http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2014/jun/25/unfairly-characterized/).

Here’s what I wrote:

I am responding to the letter by Leonard Johnson on June 25th. All of the labels typically used (pro-life, pro-choice, anti-abortion, pro-abortion) have been used as weapons, and as a result, many people carry scars. Johnson implies that the scars borne by those labeled “anti-abortion” by the media are particularly unfair.

However, the damage done to people walking into a clinic worries me far more. Women who are already making an incredibly difficult decision are frequently traumatized by graphic and disturbing images and bullying behavior. Protestors use shame and guilt and sometimes even physical violence, believing that their ends justify extreme means. Meanwhile, the medical professionals who are trying to support those women are also attacked.

The truth is that we are all pro-life. However, some of us believe that sometimes life is best served by terminating a pregnancy, while others believe that it never can be. Some us believe that the people best equipped to make these difficult decisions are the people most directly impacted. Others believe the government should have hard and fast rules.

We will likely never agree on these difficult issues. Might we, however, agree that all people deserve to be treated with kindness and compassion?

With General Assembly coming to Portland, OR next year, we are hoping to bring a large group from the UUCP. Of course, a lot of people have no idea what general assembly is! And so, I will blog several times to give you a window. You can also download the free GA app (go to the app store and search for “UUA General Assembly 2014”) or catch some of the highlights, which will be livestreamed.

Let’s begin with the basics: General Assembly is a national gathering of Unitarian Universalists from all over the world. There are literally thousands of UU’s here, which is a big part of the experience. We can often feel as is we are small, almost insignificant. But the tangible power of being in a huge stadium that is filled with people who are grounded in our values and fired up by our faith gives me a giant infusion of hope.

Before the thousands descend, the religious professionals gather. For me, that means the UUMA…the UU Ministers’ Association. The UU Musician’s Network, the Association of UU Administrators, and LREDA (Liberal Religious Educator’s Association) meet concurrently. Because of my doctoral work, I haven’t been able to attend GA for the past few years. Ministry days, then, offered me a chance to reconnect with friends from seminar days and beyond. We all have a lot more gray hair than we used to. As one colleague put it, “We are not the young turks anymore.”

I arrived at ministry days early in order to attend a training for Good Office Persons. GOP’s work with UUMA members who are in conflict with their congregation or the organization they serve, with one another, or with the staff members of the UUA. We accompany, advise, and, if the worst comes to pass, help to negotiate a separation. The training focused on NVC, intercultural conflict styles, and covenanting. However, for me, the most interesting part was a conversation with UUA leaders.

The director of ministry, the director of congregational life, the settlement director, and others generously gave us a good chunk of time and brought us up to speed about some pretty big changes at the UUA. The biggest is regionalization. For years, we’ve been organized into districts. However, scarce resources mean that each district has a limited capacity to support staff. By combining districts into regions, teams are formed, and members of these teams have a greater ability to specialize.

This sounds very logical…in theory. In reality, though, as part of the “Western Region,” our team is expected to cover everything West of the Rockies. The boundaries for the regions were based on number of congregations rather than geographical distance. I imagine it will be very hard on Western Regional team members to travel such huge distances, and so they’ll be forced to conduct most of their business via Skype, phone, etc. And personally, I think nothing takes the place of face to face interactions.

It feels like unequal distribution of resources, and suddenly, I understand where the Canadians were coming from when they broke off from the UUA. Meanwhile, it also had me wondering why there are comaratively few congregations on the Western side of the country. One colleague offered an explanation: many of our Western congregations were planted at a time when there were limited numbers of Unitarian or Universalist clergy willing to move to the “wild west.” Apparently, there used to be far more, but when the original clergy person moved on, no one was available to take their place, and so the Methodists quite helpfully stepped in. Huh.

On Tuesday, we typically have a keynote speaker followed by collegial conversations. Our keynote this year was Marshall Ganz, a community organizer and social scientist from the Harvard Kennedy School. He was fabulous, and gave us some tips on more effective advocacy. On Wednesday, we begin with the “25/50 Service,” which celebrates ministers who have completed 25 or 50 years of service. Each “class” chooses a speaker. The 25-year speaker was Victoria Safford; the 50-year speaker was Judith Walker-Riggs. This was the first year both speakers were women. And both speakers brought me to tears.

Wednesday afternoon brings the Berry Street lecture. This year’s lecturer was Lindi Ramsden, the minister who founded the California Legislative Advocacy Network. She also gave us some incredibly helpful ideas on how to be more effective in our social justice work. Weekend long trainings for activists on specific issues? What a great idea! A youth corps, like AmeriCorps, but just for UU’s? Even better! With a child considering options for a gap year, I thought that suggestion was particularly brilliant.

And then…the crowds arrived, including my family. I’ll share more in my next post.

So about a week ago, UU’s were buzzing about the article “Selling God” in Boston Magazine:  http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2014/05/27/unitarian-universalism-selling-god/

I chose not to share it because it made me pretty uncomfortable, and I felt like it required a longer and more thoughtful response than I could offer on Facebook.

The article describes an attempt to “re-brand” Unitarian Universalism with the help of professional marketing consultants. Pointing to a decline in numbers, the author implies that religion, itself, has become a ‘bad brand,’ and shares the attempts of recent seminary graduates to be religious in new, experimental ways, as well as the work done by UUA leadership to create a new logo and, perhaps, a new slogan for our faith.

Several other UU bloggers were faster off the starting blocks than I was. The Rev. Tom Schade at “The Lively Tradition” (http://www.tomschade.com/2014/05/the-thanklesstask-of-re-branding.html) and the Rev. Cynthia Landrum (http://revcyn.blogspot.com/2014_05_01_archive.html) both shared their responses and reactions. Sometimes I wait a while to see if what I have to say is going to be said by someone else. So far, I haven’t seen it.

Here’s the thing. I am an institutionalist, and will likely embrace whatever logo, slogan or ‘branding’ they come up with– mostly because I don’t think it’s going to make that much difference one way or the other. What drives growth isn’t advertising, or slogans, or cool logos. That might get people through the doors, but it doesn’t lead them to stay.

People stay when they find what they need.

Media coverage being what it is, I have hopes that the conversation which the article reports on isn’t really about marketing strategy, but an attempt by our national leaders to thoughtfully discern what people need from us as a faith. It’s good and appropriate for the folks at headquarters to be asking the question, “Who does the world need us to be” on a bigger scale. Meanwhile, every congregation needs to ask itself “Who does our community need us to be?”

The folks who have joined the congregation I serve in the past two years talk about appreciating the music, the sense of community, and the way we step up to the plate and work to make the town we live in better for everybody. They appreciate the fact that we give our plate offering away to local organizations, write letters to the editor, show up at demonstrations and forums, and generally live our values in the wider world.

My folks are proud of the way we accept a wide variety of beliefs and choices, and don’t judge one another. They like having support in being good parents and good people. One member says she comes on Sunday for her “hit” of good energy, inspiration, and love.

In other words, people are looking for places to be healthy, kind, human, and aware together. In a time when any number of things are falling apart, our job is to hold on to what is good and valuable in religion and the wider culture, and to lift those things up, sort of like finding jewels or time capsules in the rubble of building that is being demolished. The world needs us to be honest and real, and to respond compassionately and pastorally to the challenges of being alive in this era.

Several of the folks who have found a home at our congregation report leaving other congregations, unhappy about conflict, dysfunction, and having to deal with people who don’t practice what they preach. And yes, some have complained about former ministers; apparently, we have some mediocre ministers in our denomination. I believe that the folks at the UUMA are working hard to provide resources to help with that.

There is a strand of UU lay identity that comes across as, “This is a church where I can do whatever I want, and no one can call me on it.” This is not attractive. There’s an equally unattractive strand of UU clergy identity that is defensive and unwilling to do the work necessary to answer our calling with skill and excellence. I had to pluck that strand out of my own identity, so I know how difficult it can be. These are deep issues that won’t be impacted at all by the work with the marketing consultants. Until we address them, our numbers will continue to decline- so perhaps another question worth asking would be, “How do we hold both dysfunctional congregations AND mediocre ministers accountable?”

I say this as the (I hope) non-mediocre minister of a healthy congregation. We are not in decline; quite to the contrary, the place feels alive and vibrant, and we’re starting to have crowding problems in the sanctuary on Sunday. Not only that, but a large portion of our new members are Millenials, who seem to appreciate our fairly traditional protestant-type worship service. It’s not that I don’t appreciate experimentation and new forms of religious gathering. When it comes to healthy religious community, the more the better. But I am saying that it’s the function, and not the form, that matters.

We need to stop focusing on growth and just do church well. Do community well. Do worship well. Do religious education well. Do social justice work well. Do governance and stewardship well. Do fun well. Do church well, and people stick around. They want to be a part of something that works and feels good and makes a difference.