The Church is Dead, Long Live the…?

Traditional church is becoming less relevent in the lives of young Americans.  Yet, the values and perspectives of one third of American young people — those who identify as “nones” (as in “no religious affilitation”) — align beautifully with the values and perspectives of Unitarian Universalists.  So why aren’t we growing at an exponential rate?Slide2

Here’s the good news (although it may feel a bit flat at first): In comparison to other mainline Protestant denominations that share our demographics, we are doing relatively well.  (See this report on Religion and Spirituality in a Changing Society from CBS News.) We are maintaining our numbers while our Christian counterparts are hemmoraging members.  I believe this is because we do have the core values that align with the core values of many Millennials as they enter emerging adulthood.

Why aren’t we growing at a higher rate?   Well, I would argue that we are growing at a higher rate — that is, nearly a third of our congregations are.   During roughly the same time period shown on this graph, 31% of our congregations grew by 10% or more.   Looking over the list of congregations in the latest growth report, I see the names of growing congregations from every district and of all sizes. (16% of UU congregations grew 30% or more — see a sampling below for examples.)

What are these congregations doing differently?

The ones I am familiar with are living into authentic ways of “doing church.”

They focus on living into a compelling, outward-focused mission, not on maintaining a institution that is valued by and caters only to the needs of existing members.

They are not just welcoming to visitors.  They also offer a path to membership and into a faith community with opportunities for spiritual development and deepening.

hyporcrisyMy understanding of the people who claim to be “spirtual but not religious” is not that they have a resistance to commitment or to institutions, but a resistance to committing to something unless it is really compelling and worth ones commitment.  Many of our churches don’t meet that higher bar.

To become worthy of commitment, we need to live into the promise of our core values:  of covenantal relationship, of living into genuine diversity, and of cultivating an openness to change and being changed.  Until we have a critical mass of members in our congregations who are skilled at intercultural interactions, who are curious rather than dismissive toward theologies and political views that contradict theirs and who can articulate their own beliefs with humility, we won’t look much different than any other stagnant protestant denomination to the unchurched or unaffiliated.

We know that we are different, but we need to show that we are different.

In this video, UUA President Peter Morales claims we need to change the way we practice our faith and break down the barriers–not only when people walk through our doors, but also when those “nones” meet us outside our walls.  (Here is a link to the full keynote address.)

This is a sample of growing congregations from different parts of the US, though not necessarily the largest or fastest-growing ones. This list is by no means comprehensive! I tried to show congregations of different theologies, sizes and communities. 



We Pray….

To Unitarian Universalists, Boston is normally the shorthand for the “center” of our faith.  candleThis morning we wake with grief and mourning in our hearts over the tragedy at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  For me, this is a reminder about one of the most important roles of a faith community: to provide a container for private grief and public mourning.

For me, these are the times where I hope we can grow into a spiritual maturity that makes space for words that are not always welcome in some of our congregations.  God.  Prayer. Lamentation.   Perhaps we might read from the book of Psalms.

There Is a Balm in Gilead

African American Spiritual


Sometimes I feel discouraged

and think my work’s in vain,

But then the Holy Spirit

revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.





To Lead, Sometimes We Need to Get Out of the Way

There are times in congregational life when a program or project seem to take on a life of its own.  People are energized and engaged, and the creative synergy propels the original plan far beyond the leaders’ plans or expectations.

This can be a little overwhelming, especially for people or congregational cultures that are comfortable with a high level of order and control.  And yet, once the dust settles, we are reminded that there is much that is beyond our control, and that’s not always a bad thing.

The notion of Starfish Leadership acknowledges the “magic” that can happen when people are in the kind of “flow” described above.  You set and articulate clear organizational values, purpose and direction, then let people loose to bring their own creativity.  (This has become much easier with the interactive tools of social networking and other aspects of Web 2.0.)

Once recent example is the response by Unitarian Universalists all over the country to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy on the Mid Atlantic States.  Here is a video telling the story:

Outrage, Not Anger

As election day is approaching, I’m noticing that many Unitarian Universalists are out in the community helping to hold the integrity of the democratic process, a value articulated in our fifth principle; The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.  Voter suppression has been a big concern this election, especially in the swing states, and in states with large populations of people of color.  Many UU leaders are volunteering to be poll observers, to help make sure that the right to vote is protected, especially in places where they are expecting possible intimidation of Latino and African-American voters at the polls.

How does one keep calm in a situation where a gross injustice is happening?

I recently re-read an interview with veteran and peace activist Paul Chappell in The Sun magazine (April 2011) and this quote has stayed with me:

What do Buddha, Jesus, Sun Tzu, Seneca, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Schweitzer, martial-arts philosophy, and West Point  all have in common?  They all taught me that anger is dangerous. Outrage is my conscience saying, This is wrong! When outrage is not supported by a foundation of patience and empathy for both sides, it quickly descends int yelling, resentment, and a shutting down of reason, which doesn’t effectively advance the cause of peace.  … The way you get rid of anger is through understanding.   As Gene Knudsen Hoffman, founder of Compassionate Listening, said,  “An enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard.”

So how does a leader maintain their “center” in situations that can easily provoke anger?  Here are some tips borrowed from Chappel (and from a few others):

  • Be ready to challenge the underlying myth.  In the case of poll observing, know that voter fraud is rare; disenfranchment is less so.
  • Remain calm.  Chappel recommends the practice of developing empathy for the person you are dealing with–to understand the suffering that is eliciting their behavior.   Respond to their anger with compassion.  Repeat the mantra, I am standing on the side of Love.  Imagine them as a small child, before the experiences that brought them to this place.
  • Speak your truth. Our words are seeds in the world.  Some will take root, others will fall on hard ground. But change starts with tension, and our words can help to introduce that tension.  I still have phrases spoken to me years ago that annoyed me at first, but still influence my current thinking.
  • Don’t attack the other’s worldview. Ours is not a faith of coercion, but of mutuality and persuasion.  (And seriously, have you ever seen it work?)
  • Change the conversation. Learn to understand the worldview of the other well enough to find a place of common ground or a common story.  Once there you can introduce your own competing worldview in a way that they might be able to hear.



Owing Your Soul to the Company Store

As Unitarian Universalists, we understand freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to be basic to our congregational polity as well as to our understanding of democracy.

The first amendment of the Bill of Rights articulates this right:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Faithful congregational leaders are committed to transparency and to processes that make space for dialogue from the minority as well as majority–from the margins as well as the center.  We bring this ethic to the public sphere as well, in our work–as individuals–in the political arena.  This comes from our theological belief that the will of God (or the movement of the Spirit, or the Arc of the Universe) is best discerned by a group of thoughtful and committed people in dialogue.

In my recent visit to West Virginia’s Coal Country, I toured the Whipple Company Store. Hearing the stories of what it was like living in a company-owned town brought to mind this classic folk song:

But the stories of control were not limited to the economic hole that coal miners found themselves in. We learned how the families were treated by the coal companies.  The pastors and school teachers were all on the company payroll. The companies hired private police agencies (who acted more like uniformed thugs) to patrol the town.  The women were not allowed to handle real money.  Since the company store was only open when the men were in the mines, the women had to shop with company scrip–which was worth less than cash–to buy the goods they needed at the prices set by the company.

The women were not allowed to talk to one another in their yards or homes.  When they were molested or raped, they had no recourse.  They had no privacy: Window shades had to be kept open during the day.  If their husband was killed in the mine, the family had to vacate the company house within 24 hours after the burial.  The only place women could talk to one another was the company store, where their conversations could be monitored.  The store at Whipple was designed like a fortress on the outside with guards posted at all of the entrances.  The inside of the store was designed in a round, so that the acoustics allowed a guard posted in the center to hear every word spoken in the space.  Any open talk or action toward unionizing was dealt with harshly.  Women learned to speak in code, using flower names or quilt patterns to let the others know about clandestine union-planning meetings.  Two of the main demands of the union organizers were to protect the privacy of the women, and to decide on their own preachers.

Unitarian Universalist leaders have often been champions of the human rights codified in the First Amendment.  My favorite story is of A. Powell Davies (minister of All Souls UU Church in Washington D.C.) criticizing the red-baiting of Senator McCarthy back in the 1950s. But it is always helpful to remind ourselves of the need to protect free speech and free assembly to allow the free flow of ideas in service of the Beloved Community.


Taking a Stand on the Mountain Top

I am the keeper of the mountains.
Love them or leave them,
just don’t destroy them.
If you dare to be one too, call…
-Larry Gibson

This past week I visited Kayford Mountain in Raleigh County West Virginia with a group of students from Dalton State College and a group of Unitarian Universalist ministers from the Ohio Meadville District. The visit was part of a coal county pilgrimage organized by the Rev. Rose Edington and the Rev. Mel Hoover, co-ministers at the UU Church in Charleston, WV.

We were supposed to meet Larry Gibson, a well-known mountain top removal activist, but he died on September 9th of a heart attack, less than a month before our trip.   Instead,  Julian Martin and Wess Harris–both authors, historians and environmental activists–showed us around the mountain ridge where Larry’s family–the Stanley clan–have lived and been buried for over 200 years and shared the legacy that Larry’s leadership created.
Until 1986, the ridge was overshadowed by the surrounding tree-covered peaks of Kayford mountain.  Today, what used to be a low ridge is now the highest peak, and the views upward have been replaced by views downward toward bare dirt and earth-moving equipment. The Stanley family ridge is also being coveted for the coal that lies underneath and they have been offered large sums of money for it.  An aerial view of the mountain shows that the green ridge is surrounded by swaths of raw dirt.

Without money, Larry found other ways to preserve his family’s land. He couldn’t actually live on the mountain, because there is no drinkable water, but he built a cabin and encouraged other family members to do the same and to spend as much time as possible there.
He built a visitor’s center and arranged tours so that groups could visit and witness the destruction of the surrounding mountain peaks–one of the few places in Appalachia that can provide such a view without being in some sort of aircraft.


After the desecration of his family’s cemetery when nearby coal extraction intruded on his family’s land, he (and others) tried to get legislation passed to preserve family cemeteries…but to no avail.

Larry faced personal danger as he took his stand.  He received personal threats. His cabin is riddled with bullet holes.  Two of his dogs were killed.  The buildings on the family’s ridge were vandalized.  Supporters raised $10,000 to install a security system.

Like many activists in the spotlight, (Rosa Parks comes to mind) Larry allowed himself to be the public personality that served as the lightning rod for an issue–in this case mountain top removal.  But his death has revealed that there are a network of activists dedicated to continuing his work.

As we Unitarian Universalist leaders look for ways to lead change on social and environmental issues, we can learn some good lessons from Larry Gibson.

What Is Our UU DNA? Part 6 – Faithful Hope

This is the last part of a 6-part series.

The final stone is the stone of hope.

This is not Pollyanna optimism but a sense of trust in our capacity and our ideals.

It’s being willing to step blindly into the unknown future, trusting that doing so together, as covenantal community, will enable us to meet any challenge.

We have the seeds of the Beloved Community within us.

We catch glimpses of it in song and poetry.

We articulate it in our covenants.

We advocate for it in our social justice work.

As Unitarian Universalist communities both old and new form and reform, I suggest we use as touchstones the following two questions:

    • How is this community contributing to our vision of the Beloved Community?
    • How will the members of this community hold ourselves accountable to both our values and our commitments?

The words are available here.

What Is Our UU DNA? Part 5 – Working Faithfully for Justice

This is the 5th part of a 6-part series.

The fourth stone is the heaviest one for me. Virtue and goodness depends on you and me, on our integrity.  An integral part of our freedom is choosing how we respond to our changing context. How does our process reflect our values of shared ministry and transparency?

How do we model our vision of a Beloved Community?

A group of low income young adults in an expensive metropolis might start a housing cooperative.

A group of parents who want to offer a summer camp alternative to Adam and Eve walking with dinosaurs might start their own camp with Charles Darwin as inspiration.

A church without walls uses the latest technology to share the message of love across the miles, whether that technology is a mimeograph machine or an iPhone app.

People with privilege learn to partner with and be accountable to minority organizations rather than try to start their own.

This stone is in tension with the second stone of free and mutual consent.  How do we invite others into our vision of the beloved community while honoring difference and diversity?  We must guard against letting persuasion slide into coercion.

One way that I think we do this well is when we patiently hold someone in care when they have lost their way. This means we firmly point them in the direction of what we believe is the right while being true to our 7 principles.

There was a recent story in the news that exemplified this ethic about Connie Schultz, a price winning newspaper columnist. She received an email from a blogger from a conservative organization, stating:

We are doing an expose on journalists in the elite media who socialize with elected officials they are assigned to cover. We have found numerous photos of you with Sen. Sherrod Brown. In one of them, you appear to be hugging him.  Care to comment?

She replied:

Dear Mr. [Name Deleted]:

I am surprised you did not find a photo of me kissing U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown so hard he passes out from lack of oxygen. He’s really cute. He’s also my husband. You know that, right?

Connie Schultz.

In a post on her Facebook page, she shared more of the story.

To those asking for (the blogger’s) identity: I figured him to be an intern, as I couldn’t find his name on the staff list of the blog he represented. I’m a mom. I want him to learn the right lessons from this, which won’t happen if I out him.

I don’t know Ms. Schultz’s religious affiliation, but this is a fine example of holding someone both accountable for their actions and in care at the same time.


What Is Our UU DNA? Part 4 – The Source of Human Good

This is the 4th part of a 6-part series.

The third smooth stone makes explicit that our purpose as a liberal faith community is to actually work toward making the Beloved Community a reality. Not to just talk about what’s wrong with the world, not to just form committees and discussion groups,  but to actually do something that makes a difference.

Though this is a foundation of religious humanism I find I use metaphors of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

  • We are the mouths of God in that we provide public witness against injustice.
  • We are the hands of God that help to feed and clothe the poor.
  • We are the embodiment of the Holy Spirit as we tend to the sick or visit the prisoner.


What Is Our UU DNA? Part 3 – Our Relationships

This is the 3rd part of a 6-part series.

The second stone that articulates UU DNA is that our relationships must be free and mutual, not coercive.

The word freedom is a tricky one. One kind of freedom is libertarian, what I like to describe as: “You are not the boss of me!”

The freedom of Unitarian Universalism is in the context of our covenantal relationships—with one another and with the divine. It is freedom coupled with responsibility.

Our freedom must be mutual. One cannot flourish at the expense of another. We set limits and expectations and hold ourselves and each other accountable to them. We articulate our shared aspirations in our mission and labor together to achieve them. At our best we forgo selfish motives and work to create our vision of the Beloved Community. This ethic provides the foundation of the Our Whole Lives (OWL)  program. But it also implicit in all of our covenantal relationships.