What’s Faith Got to Do with It?

I’m sometimes asked about the difference between leadership development in the business (or not-for-profit) world and in the faith world.

I’ve been a regular subscriber and reader of The Nation magazine for almost 30 years.   I love the fact that they are independent of most of the news conglomerates and that they break stories that no one else will touch.  The articles are skillfully written and their politics are unapologetically progressive.  And yet…

There was something missing for me, something that I found when I first walked through the doors of a Unitarian Universalist Church.  Issues in the political world (and in the press) are often treated as silos or as competing areas of concern.  As a faith community, we are called to approach all of our justice work holistically.  The means are as important as the ends — both must reflect our core values.

Even the governance and management of the congregation should be grounded in core values.  Our budgets should reflect our mission or purpose statements.  Our commitment to diversity should call us to seek ways to become antiracist, antioppressive, multicultural, multigenerational institutions.  As a living tradition, our institutions must be flexible for new ideas and new cultural expressions to take root.

Most importantly, I see the need to articulate transcendent values and commitments, so that as we–as religious humanists–bend the arc of the universe, we are doing so with integrity and shared vision.

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.

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.

Twilight of the Lectern

Walking past the local Habitat for Humanity Re-Store, I noticed a portable oak lectern sitting next to the dumpster, which was overflowing with broken parts of old dressers. “Wow!  Should I ask them if I could have it?” I thought to myself, flooded with memories of class presentations from similar wooden stands.

But then I realized that I probably would never use it.  The only time that I read from a lectern any more is when I am preaching a sermon.  Most of my seminars and workshops include visual aids, music, activities, case studies and games.

In some ways the lectern is a symbol of the classical learning model of knowledge being something that we transfer mechanically and only in one direction, like a pitcher of  water filling the vessels that are our brains.  But we now understand–from American Pragmatist John Dewey–that learning is a process that is best done relationally and interactively.  More recently, education experts such as Howard Gardner have encouraged us to engage with a range of intelligences and learning styles.  Our Tapestry of Faith curricula reflects this understanding.   As Unitarian Universalists, we aspire to a wholeness of our humanity, paying attention to our bodies and our creative expressions as well as to our acquisition of facts.

But there is still resistance and a clinging to the old model, symbolized by the lectern:

How can we be intentional about moving our church communities away from the habit of the lectern?

Bored with Board Retreats?

Are you planning a board or leadership retreat for the fall?  Do you want something engaging and relevant to the challenges you are facing this upcoming year?  Here are some ready-to use resources for you!

Team Building Exercises

Sharing our Leadership Stories (from the Harvest the Power Tapestry of Faith curriculum)

Connections and Belonging (from the Harvest the Power Tapestry of Faith curriculum)

Leadership Discernment

The Ideal Congregational Leader  (from the Harvest the Power Tapestry of Faith curriculum)

What Leadership Is and Isn’t   (Gil Rendle video from 2007 UU University)

Leadership and Management Case Study Exercise  (from the Harvest the Power Tapestry of Faith curriculum)


Kite Strings and Clotheslines: Learning to Value Difference (Ablan Institute)

Working and Coping Styles  (from the Harvest the Power Tapestry of Faith curriculum)

Mattering and Marginality   (from the Harvest the Power Tapestry of Faith curriculum)

Leading Change

Moses — An Ancient Leadership Story  (from the Harvest the Power Tapestry of Faith curriculum)

Applying System Thinking  then Your Congregation’s Systems  (from the Harvest the Power Tapestry of Faith curriculum)

Leadership as a Spiritual Practice

Erik Walker Wikstrom’s book Serving with Grace  (There is also a free online webinar using material from the book)







Team-Building: Insiders and Outliers

Back when I was a mechanical engineer, I received lots of calls from headhunters because I was a woman.  I thought this was because of some quota system, but this was not the case. Apparently, some of the more progressive companies realized that they needed to have a a wide range of experiences and ways of looking at things if they were going to develop creative engineering solutions.

There are certain teams or committees in our congregations–governing board, strategic planning, committee on ministry–where you want to have a diversity of members.  I like to think of these kinds of teams as “balcony view” teams…ones that try to look at the big picture of what is happening. The more points of view you have, the closer you will get to the big picture.

Diversity is also important in determining how the congregation should respond.  Jonah Lehrer, the author of  Imagine: How Creativity Works, describes in this video how seemingly intractable problems are often solved by people who are outside of a discipline.

In the “Foundations of Leadership” model that I am currently using, there are four “sensibilities” that I suggest leaders need to develop, which are meant to help leaders appreciate how we need many lenses to help expand our “balcony view.”