What Is Our DNA? Part 2 – A Living Tradition

Along with the 7 Principles, another expression of the DNA of our liberal faith comes from Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams. In an essay titled Guiding Principles for a Free Faith he names five smooth stones of liberal religion.  These five qualities have been informing my understandingof what it means to be a faithful Unitarian Universalist.

The first is that revelation is continuous.

The word revelation, used theologically, is an articulation of how we discern what we believe is the right way to live, what is good….or true….or beautiful.  To say that revelation is continuous means that we are always, unrelentingly, called to engage with our surroundings, our own assumptions, our own foundations and be willing to adjust and learn and respond creatively and with integrity.

We were early embracers of feminism, of reimagining the role of women in our congregations. We have engaged with the expanding definitions and expressions of sexuality and gender. And we struggle with issues of oppression and racism that are embedded in our lives and institutions.

We are open to learning that even concepts like goodness, truth and beauty have different expressions depending on one’s culture and experience.  Our faith communities must be intentional about being learning communities, enabling us to probe and question our assumptions and those of one another around questions both big and small.

I also believe continuous revelation is a call to radical hospitality, to invite and include all voices, especially those that have been at the margins.

Our creative interchange, our reaching toward our transcendent ideals, is enriched by diversity.  Creative events like Annapolis’s Camp Beagle or summer family camps like SUUSISWUUSI or Ohio Meadville District’s Summer Institute,  feel magical when people are able to contribute and collaborate with their diverse,  inspired gifts with a high level of freedom directed toward a common purpose.

The challenge is to keep the creative energy going, making sure that we don’t allow today’s innovation to become tomorrow’s entrenched tradition.   We–after all–are the living tradition.

Next:  Our Relationships

What Is Our UU DNA? Part 1

When I think of a Unitarian Universalist community, my thoughts first turn to our congregations–gathered communities with common values.  Together, members sing and reflect, they celebrate and mourn, they support one another and serve those beyond their walls–all  in a shared liberal faith.

A little history

We are free from bishops and distant councils of elders, free to form our own understanding of and relationship with the transcendent because our form of church, called congregationalism, began as a response to the information revolution of the mid-1400’s when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.  As copies of the Bible became readily available, the Church of Rome was no longer the sole distributor of religious truth. Suddenly, lay people could read the word of God for themselves and draw their own conclusions. Martin Luther described the change as an opportunity for “the priesthood of all believers.” In other words, the priests no longer had a monopoly on religious truth.

But the potential chaos of unlimited interpretations precipitated new protestant church hierarchies with new dogmas and doctrines. This is where our Congregational ancestors took a different path. Instead of reacting to the potential of theological chaos By vesting power in a central authority, they created a structure that relied on mutual accountability and shared values as they—as a community—discerned the word of God. We call this way of being together a covenantal relationship.

When I use the word faithful, I mean it in this context –that we are faithful to our shared values and faithful to our promises to one another and to the transcendent values that are worthy of our ultimate commitment.

Back to today

Let’s fast forward to today, where we are experiences huge societal shifts. One shift is an even greater information revolution than the printing press, the advent of the interactive internet, what is often referred to as Web 2.0. We can interact in real time with people all over the globe, from sharing cute kitten pictures, to editing an article on Wikipedia, to practicing a foreign language with a native speaker using Skype, to organizing a political revolution. You might say we’ve gone from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg.  (groan!)

The other is the shift of Americans away any organized religion. The fastest growing category of religious affiliation is “none” and more and more people are identifying as “spiritual, but not religious.” Our UUA president Peter Morales wrote a white paper called Congregations and Beyond as an invitation for us to address these challenges head on.

This blog series (adapted from this sermon) is part of that conversation.

I agree with Rev. Morales that Unitarian Universalism is uniquely positioned to respond to these societal shifts, because our organizational DNA has developed in the spirit of being our being connected, yet decentralized.   Just like dogs come in all shapes and sizes yet are still dogs, our faith communities also come in different sizes, temperaments and cultures, yet are still Unitarian Universalist.  You can see it in all sorts of Unitarian Universalist communities that are not congregations. Check out Camp Beagle at the UU Church at Annapolis, or the Lucy Stone Cooperative in Boston or the Church of the Larger Fellowship with their online worship services and their smart phone apps.

As the possibilities expand for different expressions of faith communities, I believe it is important that we identify the metaphorical DNA that a faith community must include in order for it to be Unitarian Universalist. You might call it mapping the Unitarian Universalist Genome.

The first place Unitarian Universalists usually go is to the Seven Principles and Purposes.  These are a careful articulation of our shared values. But I don’t think they completely reflect our complete genetic code. I also don’t think they go deeply enough as an expression of a faith.   In the next five posts in this series, I’ll share what I believe should be included in the DNA of any UU community.

The Free *and* Responsible UU

I spent last week at the Ohio Meadville District’s Summer Institute, a lovely multi-generational camp held at Kenyon College.  Unitarian Universalists from the all over the district (and beyond) spend a week there in intentional community.  We have historically given our children and youth a lot of latitude and freedom at this event, but recently the volunteer planning committees tightened up some of the rules and policies to align with recommended Safe Congregations practices.

The rule changes surfaced the perennial tension UUs have in the balance between freedom and responsibility.  Freedom tends to gets the most press and elicits the most passion, especially since the tumultuous 1960’s.  Authority is treated with suspicion, and sometimes with outright contempt.  Responsibility can be a spoilsport, a bummer–as outdated and curious as buggy whips and button hooks.

Rumors flew that the new rules were imposed by “those in authority.”  The youth articulated their desire for “more freedom” in the Youth Vespers they presented to the community. Their theme emphasized that the adults should let them make their own choices and learn from their mistakes.  The topic heated up and petitions started to circulate.

After that Youth Vespers, as I was heading back to my room, I saw a older grade-school-age child climbing on a 15 foot tall sculpture.  I went over, saying to him “Hi!  I’m the grumpy adult that is letting you know that it is both against the rules and dangerous to be up there.”  He politely descended.  At that point a younger child–maybe 7 or 8–rode up on her bicycle and asked, “Were you at Youth Vespers?”  “Yes, I was!” I replied.  She then said, “Didn’t you get the message that you adults need to back off?”

When I told this story to my college-age son, he replied, “It sounds like they should be heading for the Island of the Lord of the Flies.”  I laughed, but because his statement hit a little too close to home.  When our congregations lose their way, when covenant and mission are displaced by factionalism and inertia, we repel the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd that we should be attracting.

This story at the OMD Summer Institute had a happy ending.  Skilled leaders arranged for an open discourse for all of the youth about the new rules and how they were developed.  The reasoning of the youth planning committee was shared, understood and affirmed.  Those involved trusted the process and the process worked.

My experience reminded me of the importance of articulating what makes any particular community Unitarian Universalist.  I believe we need to intentionally yoke the values of responsibility and freedom as interdependent equals.

I was also reminded that making time and space for good process is essential even when it might seem redundant and inconvenient.

To Be “Bona Fide”

There has been a lot of press lately about Generation Y—often referred to as the Millennials—since they started to come of age around the year 2000. It’s a generation that doesn’t fit the old stereotype of rebellious youth that began with the Baby Boomers; articulated in the movie Rebel without a Cause, or by slogans like “don’t trust anyone over 30.”   The early Generation Xers rebelled against the idealism of the Boomers (my favorite example being a line from a Sex Pistol’s song: “never trust a hippie”).

In his book American Grace, sociologist Robert Putman points out that the Millennials are less likely to have been raised in a particular religion than any previous generation, and they are even less likely to believe that any one religion holds exclusive access to the Truth.  Religious affiliation has been has been dropping off since the mid-1960s, due to religious intermarriage—which tends to negate exclusive truth claims—and cultural shifts on social issues—which make church dogma appear quaint and irrelevant.

As someone who has one foot in the Boomer generation and another in Generation X, I’ve been watching my children’s generation with astonishment. Although they are the first generation that will probably have a lower standard of living than their parents, they are not nihilistic. Instead, I see a combination of cynicism and conservatism.  They are cynical because they have been immersed in a culture of hyper-consumerism that is more promise than substance.  In other words, traditional advertising doesn’t work on them. They are conservative in that they are less willing to jump into debt or marriage unless they feel confident about the reasons for doing so.  They yearn for authenticity and have little patience for hypocrisy…i.e. when someone says one thing and does another. They certainly don’t want to affiliate with a religion that will embarrass them. They are also firmly post-modern: they don’t buy into the grand, triumphal stories that only serve to reinforce existing power structures.

I find it interesting that bona fide, the Latin phrase for genuine, is directly related to bona fides, the Latin phrase for good faith.  A good faith is a genuine faith. It’s saying who we are, and then being who we are.

Other religions are experiencing this same shift with their younger adults.  A recent book by David Kinnaman called You Lost Me explores some of the reasons.  (There is a short video on the Amazon page.)

I believe this is good news for Unitarian Universalism. The promise of our faith is the promise of a living tradition, not the dry bones of old, irrelevant texts.  The promise of our faith is the promise of personal wholeness; from our identity-based ministries to our anti-racism, anti-oppression and multi-cultural work. And the promise of our faith is the promise of being connected to something greater than ourselves—whether we call it the universe, the Spirit of Life or the interconnected web of all existence.  The best gift we can give each generation is to embody that promise, to invite each new generation to join us, to nurture them as they become a part of our communities and grow in their own faith and commitment, and—most importantly—to step back and allow them to transform our living tradition as generations before have done.

May our good faith be this kind of genuine faith, where the way we act in the world reflects our highest aspirations.

How would you tweet your mission?

Having a clearly articulated mission statement helps to guide a congregation’s leaders in deciding where to put their energy and resources.  But often such statements are put together by a committee and can be a bit….(I hate to say it)…wordy.

Last year I visited Western Michigan, where the rest of my family still lives. The area has strong Dutch Reformed roots.  Grand Rapids (where I grew up) is the home of Calvin College, several Bible colleges and a some well-regarded Christian book publishers. The Grand Rapids Press has a weekly religion section (not just a page) and there are three full pages of church advertisements vying for the attention of the unchurched.

Most of the churches who advertised articulated their mission—who they were in the context of the wider community—in a clear, short statement; one that could easily fit into the 140 character limit of a twitter message. The theology of the congregation wasn’t always apparent in the mission statement.  I thought it might be fun to look at the different mission statements removed from their denominational affiliation.

  1. A Multi-Ethnic Church
  2. Rooted in Truth, Reaching Out with Grace
  3. The Church on the Hill
  4. We Welcome and Celebrate Diversity
  5. 96 years in ministry
  6. A place where devotion and compassion meet
  7. Alive in the City – Embracing the World
  8. An Inclusive, Progressive Community of Faith
  9. Authentic Church for the Modern World
  10. Be aware. Be grateful. Be kind.
  11. Classic Worship, Liberating Theology
  12. Come and enjoy our traditional style worship services.
  13. Come Share the Spirit
  14. Cultivating Religious Freedom, Diversity, Inquiry, and Community
  15. Free the Mind…Grow the Soul…Change the World
  16. From 1849 to today.
  17. Join us in worship this weekend
  18. Seeking God, Following Christ, Serving Others
  19. Spiritual Growth, Fellowship, Support and Service Opportunities for All Ages
  20. Spiritual without being religious
  21. The Church with a Heart
  22. Your church home

What assumptions might you make about each faith community?

What is their mission—i.e. the work that God is calling them to do in the world?

Is it their mission one that calls to you as well?

May we find ways to articulate our own missions (whether on the church website’s homepage, a church Facebook® page or even in a newspaper ad) in a way that those who are not yet a part of our faith communities are inspired to join with us.

(For the curious, here are the denominational identities of the churches whose mission statements I shared above.)

  1. Assembly of God
  2. Christian Reformed
  3. Congregational
  4. Church of God in Christ
  5. Lutheran
  6. The Salvation Army
  7. United Methodist
  8. Trinity United Methodist
  9. Undenominational
  10. Interfaith
  11. Reformed Church in America
  12. Baptist
  13. Lutheran
  14. Unitarian Universalist
  15. Unaffiliated Liberal
  16. Congregational
  17. Undenominational, Bible-based
  18. United Methodist
  19. Presbyterian Church
  20. Unity
  21. Presbyterian
  22. Assembly of God

Leadership Development – “It’s Complicated”

“Get Religion. Grow Leaders. Cross Borders.” This has been the theme of our president Peter Morales since last year’s General Assembly.  As the only UUA staff member who has leadership development as a full time portfolio, I’ve taken seriously the second item. For such a simple sentence, “Grow Leaders” is a complicated proposition.

How might we develop a common understanding about how to develop the needed skills and sensibilities for lay leaders, without creating a new credentialing program? Credentialing offers a certain appeal to those who value standards and consistency, but such programs can be inflexible, burdensome and expensive.

Having recently gone through the preliminary ministerial fellowshipping process, I felt a certain attraction to the idea of competencies.  However, in conversations with seasoned lay leaders, the word has an implication of mastery that would be hard to measure.  Instead, we’ve identified and are in the process of describing and refining 12 areas that should provide a solid, faithful foundation for leadership development, which is found under one of the tabs at the top of this blog.

I’ve already been using this list to design workshops, webinars and other programming. It is my dream that existing and aspiring leaders would use these building blocks to design their own learning/serving plan and that congregations would help their leaders to do so.

This is a model of leadership development that is used by evangelical church planters, because it is designed to equip and send leaders in a way that enables them to respond creatively to different contexts. The ideas are well-articulated in the book The Starfish and the Spider by Pri Brafman.  I talk about using these ideas briefly in this workshop excerpt:

What I love about the starfish model is its potential faithfulness to the ethos Unitarian Universalism.  We are the Living Tradition. We believe that when we come together in covenantal and accountable community, our expressions and acts of faith can be creative and life-affirming.


Kicking the “Blue Pill” Habit

“Unitarian Universalists sometimes revere the past, debate the present, and ignore the future.”   At a recent regional gathering, Metro NY District president Ted Fetter shared this statement, but then talked about his optimism about the possibilities that our faith offers for the future.  I’ve asked Ted to share these thoughts as today’s guest blogger as part of our red pill/blue pill series.


By guest blogger, Ted Fetter, President of the Metropolitan New York District

(Note: This is an excerpt from a talk Ted gave at the Central Nassau Congregation in Garden City, NY in April 0f 2012.  It’s a little long, but I couldn’t bear to edit it.)

The future of Unitarian Universalism is not assured.  There are issues and concerns, but there are also great possibilities.  I’m on the side of optimism.  I am confident we can succeed, seize our opportunities for growth, be able to get our message out to all kinds of people and make them glad they found Unitarian Universalism.

Let me first share some sobering trends.

In the way we traditionally count our numbers, we’re a shrinking faith.  Not by a lot, but we’re not growing.  As many of you know, each congregation reports their membership number and other data to the UUA each year, and for several years in a row we’ve been declining in membership.

You know, as UUs we are mired in tradition.  Now, many of us, myself included, love a lot of that tradition.  Our humanist heritage, our passion for justice, our openness to diverse religious paths, our embrace of multiculturalism, our work to overcome the blights of racism and sexism and homophobia  — all these are the very things that bring so many of us to the faith.  We dream about a time that we’ll come together in one strong vibrant religious community as one, rejoicing in our diversity and learning from each other.

But there’s another side of tradition, too.  We often like things as they are.  We can be insular and isolated.  In fact, I think sometimes we revere the past, debate the present, and ignore the future.  We revere the past, and celebrate our heroes who did great things for religious freedom and for historic causes like civil rights.  We debate the present, and you may have your own list, whether it’s children in the worship service or maintaining our physical plant or funding outreach programs.  And we ignore the future, by just not thinking much about the demographic changes in our congregations and wider communities, not asking much about the needs of our youth and young adults, and not doing much in leadership development in our own congregations.  I think those things are part of our tradition, too, and they worry me.

Okay, that’s enough about our problems, because I believe our potential outweighs our problems by a lot.  What are some of these great opportunities?

A major report came out about three years ago called “Faith Formation 2020.”  Maybe you already know it.  The report cited eight major trends or driving forces affecting America’s religious outlook over this decade.  At least five of those driving forces, it seems to me, actually support the potential for vigorous growth in Unitarian Universalsim as distinct both from traditional denominations and from the evangelical churches.  Here they are:

  • Fewer persons identify as Christians, and there’s a marked increase in persons who report no religious affiliation.  Between 1990 and 2009, the number of Americans reporting no religious affiliation doubled.  And for those between 18 and 29 years of age, that percentage is 25%.
  • More people described themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  Again, the survey responses grew by 50% just between 1998 and 2008 to 14%, especially among young adults.  A direct quote from the report is “Individuals mix their own spiritual potpourri.”  Does that sound like us, or what?
  • The report cited increasing diversity and pluralism in the country, giving rise to a lessened sense of “truth” in any particular denomination or dogma.  Sound right?
  • They worry about an increasing influence of individualism in American culture, a feeling that no one should tell the individual just what they should believe.  Now let me ask you, who’s more individualistic than UUs?
  • And finally the report notes the changing patterns of marriage and family life, with later marriages, fewer children, and more religiously-mixed marriages.  They don’t even consider issues of marriage equality!

My point is that if these are the major forces affecting religion in America right now, we should capitalize on them!  The ball is in our court!  We ought to be able to attract thousands of these folks — the religiously unaffiliated, those who have spiritual feelings but don’t want to be part of a traditional denomination, those who reject a simple truth from any one source, and so on.  We want the individual thinkers!  We want people to “mix their own spiritual potpourri!”

Beyond the Faith Formation 2020 findings, other trends are positive for us.  More recent surveys show that people think religious teachings are getting too political, priests and ministers are directing their congregants on how to think in political campaigns.  This trend is especially important when some church leaders are reopening policies that most of us thought were decided decades ago — women’s rights, access to birth control, reasonable immigration policies, health care rights, to name a few.  I’m very sure that thousands and thousands of churchgoers are rejecting the pressures of these clergy to vote the right way.  People want a religion that will respect their political and social views, and let them decide these things for themselves.

Another big observation for me is the very clear trend among younger Americans.  People under 35 or so are so much more open and tolerant on issues that we UUs care about — LGBT rights, marriage equality, environmental sustainability, and so on.  The people who are coming into their prime right now are much less fearful of “the other,” the person not like themselves, and they are much more willing to support their demand for full participation in American life.  These younger persons, when they search for a religious home for themselves or their families, will be more likely to want to find a faith like ours, one that respects everyone.

A related point is that I’m convinced Unitarian Universalism has staked our claim, made our presence known, in the key human rights and social justice issues of this generation.  I’m thinking specifically of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, the clear priority of fair and compassionate immigration reform, and the all-important emphasis on building sustainability into our use of the Earth’s resources.  There are lots of other issues, of course, and all of them are crucially important.  And UUs are involved in them.  We can name some of them just to make sure they’re not forgotten — antiracism, economic justice,  education, peace.  UUs are present for these, but so are many other faiths, many coalitions.  My point in SSL, immigration, and Green Sanctuary is to say that here our faith is known, we’ve made these campaigns especially our own, and I believe that these are three of the crucial issues of our time.

Finally, I believe we’re on the right track in faith development and spirituality.  Now I can’t claim any special expertise here, but it seems to me that in an era of growing religious pluralism, of people wanting to find answers to their deep questions and find support in their own spiritual journeys, our faith is ready to respond.  We offer them a free faith, an opportunity to explore, to share ideas and test out beliefs.   We do this more easily and more naturally than any other faith I know.  And, we teach their children to explore for themselves as well.

So, if these are some trends that look hopeful and promising for UUs, how can we capitalize on them?  What should we be doing to brighten the future of Unitarian Universalism?

First, we need to look seriously at updating our worship style and our music.

The future is with the young.  We need to find ways to bring them into our worship community.  A few congregations are experimenting, becoming more interactive, with participation well beyond just the responsive reading.  A few are using video technology to make the service crisper and more open.  And a lot are moving into a wider range of music, with more rhythm, more participation.  Even when I think I might not want all of that, at least not all the time, I should join in and spread my own wings.  So should we all.

We need to focus on social justice and outreach works that attracts followers to our programs.

As I said, I think the Standing on the Side of Love campaign and others are right for our time.  We need to be fully engaged in them, showing our commitment to greater justice for every person.  But we need to be careful about how we advocate.  Just as I’m convinced the Catholics and evangelicals are losing adherents by making their message too political, we can’t go the other way and make our message of liberal religion too political either.  We should firmly root our advocacy in clear moral principles so it’s easy to see how we got to our positions.  And we should refrain from directing anyone else to see that one solution is the best one or the only moral one.  In our tradition of an open faith we need to make room for those who come to other conclusions.

We need to make much greater use of social media.

That’s how the younger folks communicate, how they find themselves in groups.  Virtual communities are full communities, and we need to learn about them and find ways to offer UU virtual communities in Facebook and twitter and so many different vehicles.

We need to redesign much of how we operate.

For example, the role of districts in our governance and service delivery is changing.  The districts are combining for many services into regions, which allow specialists with greater expertise to serve our congregations.  And in governance there is more and more a sense that the whole Association needs to get on the same path, with a smaller middle piece making policy decisions.

We need to develop an intentional and focused statement on faith development.

As a whole Association we should agree on how to foster adult RE programs and how to respond to the needs of young adults for their spiritual support.  Individually we can be focused as well.  To me the idea of an “elevator speech,” a quick summary of our own beliefs and approaches to life’s big questions is excellent.  Each of us should practice an elevator speech so we can share our own faith — the most vital parts of it to us, knowing they might change — with our friends and co-workers.

We need to get beyond our congregations, beyond the bricks and mortar of our buildings.

There are about 160,000 UUs who are members in our congregations right now.  But there are about 600,000 persons who identify as UUs, who call themselves religiously-affiliated and see themselves as UUs.  Who are they?  Where are they?  Why aren’t they part of our congregations?  Could it be that we are recognizing only about a quarter of our fellow UUs?

We’ve tried lots of ways to get those wanderers into our congregations, and not much seems to work.  We should keep trying, I’m sure.  After all, the congregations are at the center of how we come together, how we identify ourselves.  But maybe in addition to urging them to come to us on Sunday mornings, we need to think of ways to partner with them, to bring them into a wider grouping, where they can find community — in campus groups or in virtual communities or in partnerships that work in the wider community.  I don’t know what the potential is here, but I’m sure we should be open to ways to attract these hundreds of thousands of our fellow UUs.

Friends, we have a saving faith.  We offer a message of openness and welcome, of giving and forgiving.  We are compassionate and inquisitive and caring.  We don’t necessarily offer eternal salvation, but we do offer joy and redemption right now, a sense of worth and dignity, of service and calling, of mutual support and comfort.  We have a life-affirming, positive message that everyone should get to hear.  One of my favorite quips comes from Gini Courter, the Moderator of the UUA.  I’ve heard Gini say that we as Unitarian Universalists aren’t sure about life after death, but we are sure about life before death.  In other words, we want every single person to live their lives fully, with all the potential and all the joy and all the love they can bring.  It’s this eternal message, a message about life that we offer.  How can we not share it, now and in the future?

Ted Fetter is the president of the board of the Metropolitan New York District.  He has led the national District Presidents Association and chaired the UUA Moderator nominating committee.   Ted earned his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1974 followed by a 34-year career in judicial administration. He is a member of the UU Congregation of Princeton, NJ.

A “Red Pill” Response – Walking Away

How many of our congregations offer programming that isn’t working, or has only a very small group of the “usual suspects” participating?  In a recent article in The Christian Century, LeeAnne Watkins.  Titled This Just Isn’t Working: When PeopleDon’t Show Up,  the article describes how her congregation has tried different ways of offering programming:

Over the years I’ve found myself seduced by whatever the latest idea is for getting people to flock to church. And every single time I’ve been disappointed. What’s more, in the last few years I’ve developed some inner snarkiness toward the people who don’t show up, even though I otherwise adore them. I worry that I inadvertently pass this resentment along to them. Great—as if what people really need is more shame about the status of their spiritual lives.

Finally, she realized that–instead of resenting the people she was serving–she needed to be honest with herself about the changing context of congregational life.  As much as she was attached to what her vision of programming should look like, the reality was that–in her church community–mid-week activities had gone the way of the dinosaur. In an earlier post I talked about how leaders need to pay attention to their mental models, and this is a great example.

Identifying and engaging with our mental models is only half of the challenge.  The other half is responding.

These challenges are adaptive challenges, that is, they are challenges that don’t have technical fixes.  (Ronad Heifetz explains the difference in the video below.) One part of an adaptive strategy is designing low-risk, high-learning experiments. If people aren’t showing up in the building during the week, perhaps they might be interested in a webinar format where they can participate from home.  Maybe they would like to have a discussion in a closed Facebook group.  Try something, and if it doesn’t work, try something else.  And even when something does work, be prepared for the reality that it may stop working in a few years.

Note: Tandi Rogers talks about why the UUA “walked away” from the Breakthrough Congregation program in this blog post.

It’s All About You – Mental Models, Part 2

As  leader, it is all about you, just not in the way we usually use that phrase.

As leaders we must always be finding ways to improve our own understanding of what is going on around us and how our personal functioning–good or bad–is contributes to the situation.  As I mentioned in a previous post on mental models, we need to be aware of our own biases, limitations and assumptions.  We could be stuck in a way of thinking that is keeping the congregation from going forward.  We could be responding to a symptom rather than a deeper root cause.

The best way–and I would argue the only way–of testing our own mental models is to truly hold our ideas accountable to critique by others.  A key part of the scientific method is peer review, a method used in academia to maintain standards, improve performance and provide credibility.

Our congregational polity has this same ethos.  Our forebears believed that the will of God, (those of us who operate out of a process theology might call this the persuasive direction of the Holy Spirit) was best determined by a community of people of good will and forbearance, bound by covenant to each other and to God.

Faithful leadership becomes a covenantal relationship when congreational leaders become–as Peter Senge states in his book The Fifth Discipline–fearless in their openness.  Senge quotes former Harley Davidson CEO Rich Teerlink:

You have to believe in your heart that people want to pursue a vision that matters, that they want to contribute and be responsible for the results, and that they are willing to look at shortfalls in their own behavior and correct problems whenever they are able.  These beliefs are not easy for control-oriented managers, and that is why there remains a big gap between the “talk” and the “walk” regarding developing people.  (pp. 262-3)

Our theology and p0lity were founded in resistance to the corruption inherent in hierarchical structures that include bishops and presbyteries that one might describe as “control-oriented managers.”  To be faithful leaders in the congregational tradition, we must create and nurture communities that have a clear mission and that encourage their members to hold themselves and each other accountable to that mission…and to do so in love.

Still, it takes much courage to allow ourselves to be vulnerable in this way, but the results can be transformative.


The Red Pill – Mental Models, Part 1

The world around us is changing at an exponential rate, so it is often difficult to respond to the new reality.  What is true for individuals is even more true for institutions, including our “living tradition” Unitarian Universalist congregations.  I’m not saying this to scold or to shame, but to point out that responding to a changing context is hard….really hard.

Brain science helps us to understand that we create and use mental models of our reality that help us to filter and make sense of our experiences.  But our mental models aren’t always accurate or helpful.  As a white middle-class female, I grew up with a mental model of the world operating in a way that gave men privilege that they didn’t see, especially in my previous career as a mechanical engineer.  My mental model did not enable me to see that I had my own privilege–being white.

I find that metaphors can be helpful in helping us to articulate things that can’t be articulated using rational prose.  The modern metaphor for mental models that resonates with me is exemplified in the movie The Matrix, especially in the Red Pill/Blue Pill scene:  (Thanks to the Red Pill Brethren for inspiring my use of this metaphor!)

Congregatonal leaders who choose the “blue pill” don’t want to challenge their current mental model of how their church is functioning.  They are comfortable with continuing being a church that meets their needs, offering them:

  • community-building social events
  • pastoral care provided by the minister
  • inspiring Sunday services
  • forums for lively discussion
  • space and programming for their children and youth

What we are learning is that most of the churches that continue to operate in this comfortable mode are declining…including Unitarian Universalist congregations.

My invitation is for our congregational leaders to be willing to take the red pill and open themselves to challenging their own mental models of what our congregations could and should be.  We have many Unitarian Universalist congregations in CERG that have done just that and are now vibrant and growing.  Some are new, such as the Wellsprings Congregation in Chester Springs, PA. Others have been around for much longer, such as First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY, organized in 1829.  And some started as fellowships back during the post WWII baby boom, such as the UU Congregation of Fairfax, VA.

Here’s a short list of qualities that these vibrant congregations all share:

  • A clear and inspiring mission that guides their ministry
  • Paying attention to the changing cultural context and responding by staying relevant to younger members
  • A commitment to individual spiritual growth–and most importantly–depth
  • A commitment to a high level of lay leader training and meaningful service
  • A commitment to serve needs beyond their walls

I know there are other congregations in CERG and the other regions that are doing similar work!  I would love to hear about them in the comments.