Posts Tagged transformation

Social Incarnation

“There’s no such thing as a good individual in isolation; rather there is a good individual in relationship: the decisive forms of virtue are socially incarnated.”  Here’s my reflection on hope in dismal times.

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive MillardRev. Andrew Clive Millard

“… and so we light the Candle of Hope.  May its flame remind us of the eternal hope of the human spirit: that each person may grow for themselves a life of meaning; that this congregation may be a beloved community for all who seek it; and that our world may both celebrate our common humanity and embrace our human differences.”

Candle of Hope lit on an Advent WreathIf you’re familiar with our tradition of the Advent Wreath, you’ll know that we lit the first candle, the Candle of Hope, on Sunday morning.  This Sunday we’ll relight it and also light the Candle of Faith.  The Sunday after that, along with the first two, we’ll light the third candle, the rose-colored Candle of Joy.  And the Sunday after that, once all of the others have been relit, we’ll light the Candle of Love.  So by Christmas all…

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Thank you, Michael Piazza, for restoring my faith in church.

Dear Michael Piazza,*

Thank you for restoring my faith in church.

Oh, I don’t mean “a church”.  I have great confidence in the congregation I serve, after all, and I know there are other good faith communities out there, too.  And I don’t mean “the church”, in the larger sense of organized religion.  Rather, I mean “church”, as short-hand for “the institution of congregational life”.

You restored my faith in the institution of congregational life when I attended your workshop at the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s “Institute” at the beginning of February.  Your title was “Preaching and Worship for the Future Church and the Future of the Church”, and though in the course of our three days together you certainly talked about good preaching and good worship, what came through most clearly was your passion for doing church well.  It was clear that you so dearly want to do congregational life well — and that you sincerely wanted every UU minister in that lecture hall to do like-wise, too — because you believe that congregational life really, really matters.  It was your passion and your heartfelt belief that restored my faith in church.

For anyone following religion news these days, it’s not hard to see and hear a lot of doom and gloom about “the future church and the future of the church”.  Oh, the demographic shifts are real enough, combining the generation-spanning decline in trust of institutions generally with younger generations’ rejection of religion that is judgmental, exclusionary and irrelevant.  And it would certainly be foolish to do church as if credit cards and social media didn’t exist, or with notions of “sacred music” limited to what was written by a few long-dead white men.  But the doom and gloom seem to go beyond noticing that congregations can’t keep pretending it’s the 1950s, to declaring that the congregation as an institution not only has no future but is already on its death-bed.

I can handle the seemingly endless stream of articles with titles such as “Nine Reasons Why People Aren’t Coming To Your Church” or “Seven Ways You’re Repelling Newcomers”; for all that their titles are sensationalistic, the articles themselves do make some valid points.  But I have been disheartened by the apparently exclusive emphasis on other forms of religious group-making, including the earnest promotion of ministry as a vocation that in the future will require either independent wealth or a submission to poverty.  The cynic in me says that we’ve given up trying to find the formula that will magically make congregations perfect, only we did so not by accepting that there are no such things as “magic” or “perfection”, but instead by abandoning the congregation as a viable way of doing religion.

The fact is that it takes hard work for people to actually be in community, particularly religious community.  And when a congregation is doing well, by which I mean when it’s doing community well, then more people will want to be a part of it, which means it will grow, which means it will change, and then it will take more hard work to respond to that change in healthy ways so that the congregation continues to do well as it grows.

Now I’ve spent fifteen years figuring out that simple fact, thanks to my experiences first as a lay church member, then as a seminarian, and now as a minister serving a congregation that really values community and hospitality.  But in the last couple of years, following in particular the publicity around “the rise of the nones”, it increasingly felt like I was being told that I was on a fool’s errand.  I so want to see the congregation I serve thrive and grow and fulfill its considerable potential, but again and again I’ve seen the consultants and the experts gleefully preparing a casket for the idea of church.  (Last year, you may remember, the Alban Institute even shut its doors!)

That’s why I’m thanking you, Michael.  You made it clear to me that what I and my colleagues in parish ministry are doing really does matter.  You made it clear that church really does matter, not because any of us might think we have the right theology or the right music or the right programs, but because congregational life matters.  Church is where we listen to one another and support one another and help one another, where we can respond to the deepest of human needs to know each other and to be known.  The forms and trappings of church may change with the times — and, indeed, they must change — but the core reason for being of the institution of congregational life continues, because our human need for comforting, encouraging, transforming community continues.  Thank you for showing me that I’m not the only one who still believes that.  Thank you for restoring my faith in church.

Yours, in faith and service,

Andrew.

~)<

* Piazza started as a Methodist preacher and then moved to the Metropolitan Community Church when he came out.  In the 1980s, he began serving an MCC congregation in Dallas that was dying.  Literally dying.  It was the height of the AIDS crisis, there was little understanding of what AIDS was or how to treat it, and while gay men were dying across the country, the White House press corps was laughing about it.  Piazza turned that church around, and, as the Cathedral of Hope, it’s now the largest LGBTQ-friendly congregation in the world.  And it’s in Dallas, Texas.

Four years ago, Piazza began serving a United Church of Christ congregation in Atlanta.  It was dying, too, given the age of its members. But in those four years, that congregation has quadrupled in size, and it’s now racially diverse, too.

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Soul Repair: a Social Practice of Love

(I preached this sermon for Memorial Day at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 26th 2013.  Other than where indicated, my source for this sermon was Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini.)

Shortly after the end of World War II, United States Army combat historian S. L. A. Marshall published a report claiming that, of the U.S. troops engaged in actual combat, a full three-quarters of them never actually fired their weapons at the enemy, even when their own lives were directly threatened.  Marshall concluded in 1947 that “the average and normally healthy individual — the man that can endure the mental and physical stresses of combat — still has such an inner and unrealized resistance toward killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility. […] At a vital point, he becomes a conscientious objector, unknowing.”

Marshall recommended to the Army brass who were understandably alarmed by his conclusions that they should develop new training methods to overcome their soldiers’ reluctance to killing.  In the following decades, such “reflexive fire training”, as it is known, raised the percentage of soldiers willing to fire directly at the enemy from twenty-five in World War II to more than fifty in Korea to almost ninety percent in Vietnam.  In that sense, the training program was very successful.  Some veterans, however, have noted that reflexive fire training bypassed their’ own moral decision-making processes — and did so without providing any preparation for dealing with the emotional and spiritual consequences of having killed another human being.

While there is training to prepare for war, there is no equivalent process for returning to civilian life.  In generations past, going home would be a long process; today our soldiers go from active combat to the civilian world in fewer than three days — and then only to be deployed again.

During our Ministry to Military Families potlucks, this was a frequent topic of conversation. It’s also the subject of the book Soul Repair by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, which brings together the stories of veterans who experienced what they call “moral injury”.  Different from post-traumatic stress disorder, which “occurs in response to prolonged, extreme danger and is a […] reaction to danger [that] produces hormones that affect [the parts of the brain] that control responses to fear, as well as regulate emotions and connect fear to memory”, moral injury “results when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they can no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings.  They may feel this,” Brock and Lettini explain, “even if what they did was warranted and unavoidable.”  “Seeing someone else violate core moral values or feeling betrayed by persons in authority can also lead to a loss of meaning and faith.”  As combat-trained U.S. Army chaplain Herman Keizer Jr. discovered when ministering to soldiers in Vietnam, he would sometimes hear what amounted to confessions of “profound, searing shame” as well as feelings of betrayal by senior officers and the government.  “From these conversations, Herm concluded that something profound and soul endangering was the source of their suffering, not just ‘shell shock’ or what was later called PTSD.”

Let me back up and saying something about why I’m preaching on this topic.

Two years ago today, this pulpit was filled by Pat Owen, who is herself a twenty-two-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force.  She is currently Director of Membership for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond as well as a student at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, which is our Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago.  Pat is amply qualified, then, to preach on the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and the military, and in her sermon she specifically charged us to “consider it part of our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.  As Pat said, with so many military facilities in this part of Virginia, not to mention the shipyards, “this congregation finds itself in the perfect position to create an exemplary program connecting with service members.”

We’ve spent the last couple of years trying to begin figuring out how to do that.  One of the first things we did was bring together a number of veterans, active duty personnel and military spouses who are members of the Fellowship, to ask them what they need.  A safe place to share stories and memories and experiences with others who would understand was one of the needs that was expressed, and so we began a series of regular potlucks to try to meet that need.  Something else that was mentioned was being better understood by members of the congregation who have no military experience, so last Veterans Day I invited some of our members to speak to us on what it means to be an enlisted UU, what it means to be a UU military spouse, what it means to be a UU and a veteran.

Now in that Veterans Day service I mentioned a program developed by the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which is the three-and-a-half-thousand member “congregation without walls” that includes Unitarian Universalists who have no local church to attend as well as many UUs who are serving in the military.  At first glance, this program seemed ideal, offering a way to bring together our members both in the military and not and engaging them in mutually enlightening conversation around topics of military service, peace, war and ministry.  As we took a closer look at the program, though, we realized that it was really intended for congregations experiencing conflict around these issues, and that’s not us.  One of the things I very quickly realized about this Fellowship is that while it certainly includes people holding widely differing opinions on matters of war and peace, there is a deep atmosphere of respect and appreciation and love that makes this, unlike some Unitarian Universalist congregations, a place where all of us can be proud of our military personnel and veterans and their spouses and families, where we can thank them for their service.  And it’s not hard to see how much these military families add by being here, so it’s always sad to see them go as and when they are transferred to other posts elsewhere in the country.

The question remains, then, as to how we can respond to Pat Owen’s charge “to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.  There’s no one way, of course, but I was struck by something that came up at that first meeting — and came up again and again at the subsequent potlucks — namely the fact that the move from active duty to veteran — from the structure and discipline of military life to the uncertainty and ambiguity of civilian life — can be one of the hardest transitions anyone is ever expected to make in their life.  It’s tough for those of us who have never served in the military to understand that, but journalist Sebastian Junger provides one insight we can appreciate.  He writes, “The classic story of a man throwing himself on a hand grenade — certain death, but an action that will almost certainly save everyone else — is neither a Hollywood cliché nor something that only happened in wars gone by. It is something that happens with regularity, and I don’t think it can be explained by ‘army training’ or any kind of suicidal impulse.  I think that kind of courage goes to the heart of what it means to be human and to affiliate with others in a kind of transcendent way.  Of course, once you have experienced a bond like that, everything else looks pathetic and uninteresting.  That may be one reason,” Junger concludes, that “combat vets have such a hard time returning to society.”

So how does the U.S. Army, for instance, help prepare its personnel for going home?  Well, here’s one comment on a debriefing as experienced by Iraq veteran Camilo Mejía: “A twenty-minute session centering on the admonition Don’t commit suicide doesn’t do much to ease the anguish of a soldier dealing with the horror, for instance, of having killed a child, just as a group session with a combat stress team isn’t much help if your life is at risk twenty-four hours a day.”

And how well do such debriefings work?  Consider the fact that veterans make up about seven percent of the U.S. population but represent twenty percent of all suicides.  The Veterans Administration estimates, in fact, that veteran suicides average one every eighty minutes.  And between 2005 and 2007 alone, the suicide rate among veterans under thirty increased by more than a quarter.  Veterans are also disproportionately divorced, unemployed, homeless and imprisoned.

Now while this is known to VA researchers, getting to VA services and benefits is another matter.  Brock and Lettini open their book by telling some of the story of Clay Warren Hunt, the “twenty-eight-year-old former marine corporal who earned a Purple Heart serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  In 2009 he was “a model to other veterans of a successful return home”, married, taking college courses, advocating for veterans’ rights and working in disaster relief.  In 2010 “the VA lost his benefit application papers and [his] payments were delayed for ten months.  Frustrated, he lobbied Congress on behalf of veteran’s benefits:  ‘You fight for your country,” he said, “then come home and have to fight against your own country for the benefits you were promised.’”  Then “his marriage ended, he left school, [and he] went into treatment for depression”.  In 2011 Clay killed himself.  “Over a thousand people attended his funeral.”

Clay’s experience with the VA is far from unique.  Pamela Lightsey spent time in the military, worked in civil service positions associated with her husband’s continued career in the military, and her son, Dweylon, joined the Army and was posted to Iraq.  Eight years after coming home, Dweylon had still not received the help he needed, and Pamela worries about him as only a mother can.  “What he has achieved at home,” she explains, “is especially miraculous in the face of VA services that are not only just awful but also require veterans to have to fight their own government for the disability support or financial compensation owed them from serving in war.  It can take many years going back and forth filing and responding to documents for disability pay. Some even have to hire an attorney to help them back their way through all the red tape.”

I’ve heard from some of our own members here about the problems with the Veterans Administration, particularly our local VA Medical Center in Hampton.  It’s even been a recurring segment on The Daily Show, which is not known for taking current events entirely seriously but has been reporting on the horrendous backlog of benefits applications at the VA, to the extent that the weight of hundreds of thousands of paper claim forms is buckling the floors of the building where they are waiting to be processed.

Unfortunately, even if the VA were able to process the applications in a timely manner, it is “not prepared to help [those] in emotional pain and deep anguish.”  As discovered by U.S. Marine veteran Mac Bica, “about all the help the VA offered [him upon his return from Vietnam] was some group therapy and heavy medication like Thorazine to ease depression and anxiety.”  Recognizing that he could not simply put the war behind him, as some well-meaning friends advised him, Mac found himself challenging “modern therapeutic approaches to the suffering of veterans as afflictions of stress and trauma, clustered under the umbrella of PTSD[, approaches that deem] moral and spiritual considerations irrelevant, or even a hindrance to restoring psychological health.”  As Iraq veteran Camilo Mejía explains it, “PTSD and moral injury are two different hidden wounds of war.”  “PTSD is a breach of trust with the world” — he found he could no longer trust roads not to explode nor trust children not to throw grenades at him.  “Moral injury, however, is the violation of a moral agreement he had with his own internal world, his moral identity.  Camilo broke that inner agreement by violating his most deeply held moral beliefs”,  killing unarmed civilians and allowing prisoners of war to be tortured.  The fact that he did those things under orders is of little comfort.

Now some of you may know that the Army has attempted to address the impacts of combat on its soldiers’ health and well-being by instituting a program called “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness”.  Primarily directed at helping its soldiers to be resilient — in other words, to be able to “bounce back” after trauma and stress — the CSF program identifies five dimensions of resilience, which are physical, emotional, social, family and spiritual.  The spiritual dimension of fitness is defined as “strengthening a set of beliefs, principles or values that sustain a person beyond family, institutional, and societal sources of strength”, which makes it little more than an “everything else not included above” category.  Furthermore, the spiritual fitness part of the program has come under criticism as a back-door means to promote Evangelical Christianity, with non-Christians and particularly atheists experiencing discrimination.  And as Brock and Lettini note, the Army’s definition of “spiritual [fitness] fails to contain any moral content or to acknowledge the basic existence of moral conscience, which is the key to distinguishing a healthy person from a sociopath.”  The irony, in fact, is that the CSF program seems to promote a spirituality that would rule out empathy and ethical concerns, meaning that veterans with moral injury are actually stigmatized as being spiritually unfit.

What is to be done about all of this?  Well, there’s what might be called the “top down” approach, but that’s problematic.  Iraq veteran Kevin Benderman originally chose a career in the Army in order to defend his country, but, horrified by what he had already witnessed, he refused to redeploy as a way to uphold “the honor and integrity of military service, which taught him to respect the truth.”  His application for Conscientious Objector status was supported by a chaplain but was eventually denied, and he was court-martialed, demoted and sentenced to fifteen months in a military prison.  Studying the politics — and the economics — of war, “Kevin believes that ‘protest demonstrations to stop wars are useless.  People are still driven by their fears to believe propaganda rather than to challenge the lies that send people to war.”  Rather, the civilian public needs to “demand justice for those who fought and those who died.”  “Until the public demands an accounting, Kevin is certain that the country’s leaders, trusting in military power, mesmerized by weapons systems, and oblivious to the cost of war on ordinary people, will fail to use intelligence, moral reasoning and common sense in dealing with international problems.”

But there’s also a “bottom up” approach.

My reading this morning came from Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way, a work of fiction that described a nonetheless real Navajo practice known as “the Enemy Way”, an extensive, difficult process to purge the harmful effects of war, fatal accidents and other encounters with death from the soul.  VA hospitals in the Southwest even promote ceremonies such as the Enemy Way to help Native American veterans, so there’s some hope on that front.  Along the same lines, “Christian churches in the first millennium required anyone who ‘shed human blood’ to undergo a rehabilitation process that included reverting to the status of someone who had not yet been baptized” and required them to spend at least a year re-developing their faith.

Whether we consider the extinct practices of primitive Christianity or the continuing practices of the Navajo Nation, the work of soul repair is a deliberate, arduous tasks.  As Brock and Lettini note, “We must resist offering hasty forgiveness to absolve ourselves and others.  If we can take the time, instead, to listen to what veterans say to us, to befriend them as we journey together toward a different world, we can together discover how deep transformation leads us toward the moral conscience that is the deepest, most important dimension of our shared humanity.  In doing so, we can come to understand the honor and integrity of military service and the importance of the moral criteria for war, which the military itself teaches, and what it would require of everyone one of us to send any one of us to war.”  I think this is getting at what Pat Owen meant when she challenged us to “consider it part of our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.

Now Soul Repair is not a “how to” manual.  There is, unfortunately, no program in here that we can simply adapt and adopt.  This is new territory — one barely appreciated by the Veterans Administration and still essentially denied by the military hierarchy and the government.  The Soul Repair Center, of which Rita Nakashima Brock is co-director, at the Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth is working on programs and materials for congregations, theological schools and community organizations that want to support the recovery of veterans and others from moral injury, but it’s still very new.

But I really dislike, if I can at all help it, ending a sermon by having described a problem and yet offering nothing about what we, as a congregation, might do about it.  To even frame the topic of moral injury in terms of the phrase “soul repair” is to imply that there’s a significant spiritual dimension to it, and that ought to align it with the bread-and-butter of every religious organization.

More veterans look for help from ministers than from psychiatrists, and it’s no accident that many of the veterans whose stories are told in Brock and Lettini’s book sought to deepen their faith as a way to repair their own souls, some becoming ministers.  Moreover, there’s clearly an important rôle for non-Christian faith communities, particularly Unitarian Universalist congregations when it comes to pagans, humanists, atheists and so on who feel excluded by the military’s capitulation to Evangelical Christianity when it comes to matters of spiritual fitness.

For example, Army veteran and chaplain Herman Keizer Jr. wants religious communities to create, in his words, “a place of grace” that supports recovery from moral injury.  When few “social institutions teach moral integrity, courage, personal discipline, humility, a sense of purpose and responsibility, and commitment to the lives others better than” — no, not churches — but the military, then “people of faith [are called] to wade into the complex moral questions of war and social responsibility and discern the meaning of spiritual life after war [so that we] can engage the conversations that matter deeply and, in doing so, save lives.”

So what would characterize “a place of grace”?  What is needed to support soul repair?  Brock and Lettini do describe a few requirements, and they fit right into the mission of any decent church.  First, there needs to be friendship.  “Friends,” they explain, “probe and question and challenge each other to make each other more complete.”  “With friends, we discuss intimate questions, hold each other’s confidences, learn to tolerate disagreements, support each other through life’s struggles and joys, and explore the profound questions of life’s meaning.”

Second, “conversations about moral injury require deep listening.  In being open,” they write, “we must be willing to take in what we hear as part of ourselves, to be moved, even by what is difficult or painful to hear, and to struggle to understand profound questions about moral conscience.”  “Deep listening requires us to set our own needs aside and to offer, simply, respect.”

Third and fourth, “recovering from moral injury also requires a renewed sense of life purpose and service.  A society that ends a war with a parade and returns to its entertainments, consumerism, celebrity worship and casual commitments in order to forget its wars offers no purpose worth pursuing,” they argue.  “Whatever we think of a war, the crucial responsibility is to accompany the journey home of those who return and remind [ourselves] that, as a society, we don’t just leave wars [or our warriors] behind.”

First, friendship.  Second, deep listening.  Third, life purpose.  Fourth, service.  We enjoy and promote those here, don’t we?

Time and again I hear in the testimonials that our own members give from this pulpit how much they value the friends they have made here.  And many of our members enjoy the opportunities offered by Fellowship Circles to deepen existing friendships and make new friends through the practice of deep listening.  And if there’s anywhere that we can talk about life’s purpose and the values claimed and manifested by our society, it’s in church.  And as part of being people of faith, we encourage one another to engage in service, whether it’s within the congregation by being an RE teacher or by offering hospitality or beyond our walls by volunteering with LINK or St. Paul’s.  We may not have them perfectly, but all of the aspirations and skills we need are already here, gathered up in our Fellowship’s mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, bound together in our Unitarian Universalist covenant to walk together in the ways of love.

Addressing moral injury is a religious task and as a religious community we have a vital role to play in helping even those who may not consider themselves religious to find healthy ways to express themselves and engage in the arduous work of soul repair.  There’s important outreach we can do — that we must do — as part of a non-dogmatic faith tradition that speaks up for the rights of religious minorities and encourages the covenanted social practice of love.  For it is our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans, to military families and to everyone who seeks spiritual wholeness, who seeks to transform themselves and one another such that this world may be filled with beauty, and we the fortunate souls who walk together in it.

So may it be.

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From Where I Stand

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 2nd 2013.)

There’s a story about someone who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed one Sunday morning and immediately starts complaining.

“I don’t feel like going to church.  The hymns are always boring, the readings are so pedantic, the sermons are too obscure, and then, after it’s all over, I get the feeling that nobody there really likes me.  That’s it, I’ve decided: I’m not going to church today!”

“But sweetheart,” her spouse gently replies, “the people do like you and the service isn’t all that bad.  Besides, you’ve really got to go: you’re the minister!”

Well, though I need to get up extra early on Sundays — and though I’ve never been a morning person — I always look forward to being here.  I might be tired or sick, I might not feel as on top of things as I’d like, the weather might be dismal and dreary or swelteringly hot, but I look forward to seeing familiar faces, meeting new people, singing our hymns and sitting in silence together, and always noticing, as if with fresh eyes, how much of a difference this community makes in so many people’s lives.  (And, as much as it’s important for me to practice good “self care” by honoring my Sunday off each month, I freely admit that I am sad to miss the wonderful services that are offered on those Sundays.)

It’s hard to believe that I’m coming to the end of my third year here, my third year as minister to this Fellowship.  The time has gone by very quickly, but it’s been very fulfilling, and I feel privileged to be serving such a congregation with so many wonderful people and with such tremendous promise for the future of our faith.  With Olivia’s birth, of course, my own life has changed considerably, and so I’m particularly glad of the support that Allison and I have received from Fellowship members as we’ve fumbled our way into parenthood.

Now I’ve realized — as have others — that in reaching this three-year point, I will soon have been at the Fellowship as long as any previous minister.  Your last settled minister, Buffy Boke, was here for three years, and Paul Boothby was interim minister before her for two years.  So moving into the fourth year of my ministry will be a new experience for all of us, and I’m excited that we get to navigate this uncharted territory in the life of this congregation together.

Perhaps it’s not too surprising that there’s been just a bit of anxiety as we prepare to cross this threshold.  Some of that comes from a general fear of the unknown, and perhaps there’s some worry about what changes might come from a minister who’s been here more than a few years.

Some of the anxiety is more specifically based on the Fellowship’s history, manifesting in concerns that I might be planning to leave.  I remember the song written by Joanne, and sung by our children and youth to the tune for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, that lists the many part-time ministers that the Fellowship had before finally making the leap of faith to full-time ministry, and then lists the settled and interim ministers who followed: this congregation has had more than enough practice saying goodbye to its ministers.

So let me put your minds at ease.  I have no plans to leave.

It’s said that there are two mistakes a minister can make: first, staying too long; second, not staying long enough.  Over the last decade, the Fellowship has known life as a church in short cycles — the usual one or two years for interim ministry, but only two or three years for settled ministry — and though there have been major accomplishments — such as buying the office building and funding the mortgage for it ourselves — it’s hard for a congregation to feel like it’s making much headway when the clock keeps being reset on ministry.  (It’s really hard on the Fellowship’s savings, too, when it keeps being spent on finding a new minister.)  So, as I shared with the Search Committee when I first met with them a little over three years ago, I am a firm believer in the transformative effects of long-term settlements.  After all, I’ve seen first-hand the power of Christine Robinson’s twenty-plus year ministry in Albuquerque, something that has transformed First Unitarian there into a thriving, dynamic, boldly imaginative, willing-to-stretch-itself congregation, making it, in fact, one of our faith’s flagship congregations.

I also shared with the UUFP Search Committee that I was looking for a congregation that would grow with me at the same time that I grew as a minister.  And I was told — by the Search Committee, by your former ministers, by other local ministers and by district staff — that this was a thriving, growing congregation with the potential to do great things, by itself as well as in cooperation with our sister congregations in Norfolk and Williamsburg.

Well, all of that is still true. And we’ve seen that it’s not just a matter of potential for some imagined distant future, either.  At the end of February we held the first Hampton Roads Unitarian Universalist Revival, using every chair that Christopher Newport University could give us and filling the CNU Ballroom with fabulous music and singing and speaking and fellowship.  We caught the attention of the Unitarian Universalist Association, too, with a write-up in the latest issue of UU World.  We’re also poised to make ourselves known in Richmond, since, after taking the lead in getting the Tidewater Cluster started, we’re now building a progressive legislative advocacy network amongst Unitarian Universalists in Virginia.

speakingSo, coming to the end of my third year as your minister, and looking forward to the possibilities of the years still to come, this seems like a good time to reflect on where we are and where we’re going.  I’ll touch on a number of different areas, so keep in mind that all of these interlock with one another in many different ways, but of course I can only speak about them one after another.

Something I’ll mention first is that, after a year’s dedicated work to seek out, gather, process and refine an incredible amount of information, the Planning Committee has issued a report that I ask all of you to read.  It’s on the UUFP website and it’ll be sent out by e-mail next week, too.  Soon there’ll be a survey to collect your opinions about the Fellowship’s future, to help us craft a vision and a plan for the next five years of our congregational life together, so please take a look at the Planning Committee’s report when you can.

Well, the place to start, I guess, is with Sunday morning worship, what we’re doing right now.  It’s most people’s first chance to experience what this congregation is really like in the flesh.  Oh, they know what we claim to be, because almost everyone who visits us for the first time has already seen our website and our Facebook pages and our blog, but there’s no substitute for actually walking through those doors and seeing the people who are already here.  From the friendly smiles of the greeters to the smell of coffee and snacks, from the helpful guidance of the ushers to the uplifting music, we try to make people feel as welcome as we can.

And just as the movement from front door to Sanctuary seat is a unified whole, so are our services, with hymns and readings, music and spoken words coming together to support the message.  Sometimes, a traditional sermon is not the only way to get that message across, or even the best way, so when appropriate I like to share the pulpit or include multigenerational dramas, or tell a story or project pictures or invite you into a hands-on activity.  Sometimes I don’t exactly know how it’s going to turn out, but Unitarian Universalism is an experimental faith, after all, and if there’s anyone who should have faith that things will go well, I guess it’s the minister.

This Summer, by the way, marks the latest stage in the evolution of this congregation from where it was — and where most other UU churches were — not all that many years ago, namely being closed on Sundays, with no services, during July and August.  This year, as has been my intention since starting here, I shall be doing services in the Summer months just as if they were any other month.  It’s well known that a lot of people, particularly families with young children, do their “church shopping” during the Summer, and I want to be here for them.  The religious need inherent in being human, the need of people for community and transformation, doesn’t take the Summer off, and neither should ministers.

Next we come to lifespan faith development, which is a fancy way of saying religious education for children, youth and adults.  This is, frankly, an area in which I’d like to be able to do more, but since my place is here on a Sunday morning, I can’t also be part of Adult RE or Spirit Play or the Youth Group.  Of course, for the last ten months I’ve found that I’m doing a lot of another sort of teaching at home, though I think I learn more from Olivia than she’s picking up from me, something I’ll talk about in a couple of weeks’ time.  In any case, I particularly treasure those opportunities I do have to lead classes or offer workshops or participate in youth and young adult events, whether it’s working with and supporting our Fellowship Circle facilitators or helping our Coming of Age students put their faith into words and write elevator speeches about what they believe.

Now when it comes to Unitarian Universalism as a faith, you’ve heard me say before that it doesn’t really matter what we believe; rather, what matters is what we do with those beliefs, in other words how we behave toward others and the world we share.  A good number of my sermons touch on issues of social justice, and this congregation has a long and proud history of good works.

Recently we’ve gone through a transition with a restructuring of the Social Justice Committee to be more of an umbrella group, bringing together task forces and groups working on different issues from hunger and homelessness to LGBTQ equality to environmental stewardship so that they can encourage one another and share ideas and resources.  I think that’s great, and I strongly support their efforts to develop more ways for people to get involved with the sort of well-defined, time-limited volunteer opportunities that prove consistently popular at the St. Paul’s Weekend Meal Ministry and the PORT Winter Shelter Program.  Given the busyness of life today, most people aren’t willing or aren’t able to commit themselves to the on-going requirements of committee work or organizational responsibility, but offer them a chance to spend a couple of hours making a tangible difference in the lives of others, and they’ll be there — and they’ll bring their children and their friends to help, too. That’s how we show what our faith means.

This brings me to another area, starting with my take on the “hospitality teams” idea that many of you heard about at last month’s annual meeting.  To quickly summarize, the idea of hospitality teams is that the entire congregation, plus any non-members who want to be involved, is divided up into groups of forty or so people.  These teams take it in turn being responsible for everything that happens each Sunday morning between the front door and the Sanctuary doors — from greeting to ushering, from getting the coffee brewing to putting out snacks, from unlocking the doors and setting up the social area to cleaning up after everything’s finished and making sure the building is closed and locked again. There’s something for everyone, since the tasks — which are not always to be done by the same people: well-defined, time-limited volunteer opportunities work best, remember — the tasks range from simply making sure there’s a fresh carton of half-n-half in the fridge to preparing an entire spread of baked goods, since I for one am not willing to get in Sandra’s way of doing that for us.

I’m excited about the hospitality teams idea for a couple of different reasons.

First, when Cyndi Simpson, who has been minister to the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, offered a workshop to our UUFP leadership a few months ago, she talked about the needs that people have to connect with one another at a variety of levels.  (It’s important to know this, because one of the fears that people often express when talking about congregational growth is that they won’t know as many people or won’t know them as well.)

So people need to connect with one another individually, which is one of the reasons why, over the last three years, we’ve been trying to implement a new way of doing congregational stewardship, where every member or couple or family has someone assigned to them to at least check in with them a few times a year.  People also need to connect with one another in small groups of about a dozen people, which is one of the reasons we offer Fellowship Circles in particular and other programs such as the Book Club and Goddess Circle and Resist Apathy and Fifty and Better in general.  But people also need to connect with one another in larger groups of about fifty people and, other than perhaps EarthRising’s most well attended rituals, we don’t really offer anything that meets people’s needs for connection at that level.  Hospitality teams would do that, and do it intentionally, with each team getting together regularly for purely social events.

And I’m excited about hospitality teams for a second reason, and for this insight I’m grateful to Joanne.  Up until last year, we had a Nominating Committee that, just after New Year’s, would start talking to the UUFP leadership about who was willing to continue serving on the Board or as a committee chair and who wasn’t.  They’d figure out which positions needed to be filled by election at the annual meeting and who they had as potential candidates for those positions.  Then they’d panic, and they’d continue in that state of panic for about two months, and that’s why a large chunk of the UUA ministers’ retirement plan is invested in the companies that make Tums and Pepto-Bismol.  The problem is common not just to churches but also to almost every volunteer group, namely that it usually comes down to re-electing the people who’ve already served many times before or the people who’ve just joined the congregation and made the mistake of telling us that they’re good with numbers or words or plumbing.

That’s why we now have a Leadership Development Committee rather than the old fashioned, gastrically ulcerated Nominating Committee.  I’ll come back to this at the end of the month, but leadership development ought to start when someone first walks in that door, continuing with everything they ever do as a member, and rather than culminating in their election to some leadership position continues after that, too, since the primary responsibility of anyone in leadership is to train their own replacement.

Obviously it’s much easier to find people willing to be elected if they first have some positive experience of the work that’s involved, and it’s much better to have people on a committee organizing some program if they first have some positive experience of participating in that program.  Hospitality teams can do just that, helping people who may well be brand new to the congregation to immediately make a difference in the life of this community, putting them on the very first step of the path toward bigger leadership responsibilities in the future, if that’s something that, in time, they choose to pursue.

And this gets to the heart of what I want you to take away from here this morning.  This community is built by all of us.  Our lay leader wasn’t exaggerating this morning when she spoke the usual words to introduce our offering, that “All that this fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it”.  Growing this beloved community is a ministry in which each and every one of us is involved, a ministry that is found whenever we bring our best selves, whenever we share our joy at the good we find here, whenever we boldly grasp the imagination, whenever we lift up the inspiring work that we’re doing together.

I’d like to finish, in fact, by doing just that, lifting up the good work that each and every one of you is doing, whether you’ve been here for decades or have walked in the door for the very first time this morning, for everything you do is helping to grow this beloved community.

So, if you currently serve in an official leadership position — whether elected or appointed — please stand.  Let’s give them a round of applause to thank them!

If you currently serve on a committee or a planning group or a task force, please stand.  Thank you for your service!

If you help with a program — being an RE teacher or a greeter or an usher or a lay leader or a steward or providing hospitality or music or items for the yard sale or being part of the Casbah or PORT or the buildings and grounds clean-up crew — please stand.  You are truly doing the work of this congregation, so thank you.

And if you are present here this morning, having brought yourself as you are, whether troubled or happy, whether content with your life or searching for something missing, whether curious or tired or hungry or lonely or at peace, please stand.  Thank you for giving us the biggest gift of all, the gift of your presence among us.  I invite you to look around at everyone else standing with you and to give yourselves a round of applause.

All that this fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it.  May we always seek and find new and greater ways to live this gift and this promise.

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Called to Abundance

People with a scarcity mentality tend to see everything in terms of win/lose.  There is only so much, and if someone else has it, that means there will be less for me.  The more principle-centered we become, the more we develop an abundance mentality, the more we are genuinely happy for the successes, well-being, achievements, recognition and good fortune of other people.  We believe their success adds to — rather than detracts from — our lives.
— leadership consultant Stephen Covey

Long before I became a driver myself I noticed something curious about driving: red lights are far more memorable than green lights.  Trying to make an appointment at a particular time, every red light adds to the anxiety that we’ll be late.  As for green lights, well, they all ought to be green when we’re trying to get somewhere on time, shouldn’t they?

It’s easy to adopt a “scarcity mentality” when it comes to our time, as well as to finite goods such as food and material possessions, not to mention money that is, after all, a surrogate for every other commodity, tangible or not.  It’s easy to get into that competitive frame of mind, that if someone else has more — wealth, respect, power, friends, shiny stuff — then there must be less of it for the rest of us.

Churches can fall into that competitive way of thinking, too.  We can look at the local population and talk about increasing our “market share”, as if the complicated people looking for comfort, community and transformation are merely customers to be enticed by billboards and bumper stickers.  Once we embrace the perspective that churches serve many more people than their own members, however, then interfaith cooperation becomes possible regardless of theological differences, as is the case for many of our outreach efforts including the Living Interfaith Network (or LINK) of Hampton Roads and the meal programs at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Now the Fellowship’s big news right now is that we’ve been growing!  The Sanctuary has often seemed filled to capacity on Sunday mornings, our children and youth are growing (and not just in faith!) before our eyes, and we have some great new programs going on during the week and on the weekends as well.  Our annual membership reports to the Unitarian Universalist Association over the last few years show that not only did we pass the 150-member mark, we burst through it!

Does this mean we’re in competition with our neighboring Unitarian Universalist congregations in Williamsburg and Norfolk?  A scarcity mentality might say yes, that there are only so many prospective UUs to go around.  An abundance mentality on the other hand would note that Unitarian Universalism in Virginia as a whole has been growing, and that growth here on the Peninsula helps our faith in other parts of the 757 area code, too.  Our efforts to change lives and to transform society will be multiplied in their effectiveness as our congregations grow together.  A scarcity mentality would hardly have permitted February’s Hampton Roads UU Revival!

Al Smith

William Alfred “Al” Smith
(1931-2011)

And we’ve only scratched the surface of our potential for transformation.  A couple of Decembers ago the Daily Press included an obituary for William Alfred Smith, who lived and for most of his life served as a lawyer in Hampton, often fighting for civil rights and racial equality.  Though you wouldn’t have known it from his obituary, this was the same Al Smith who was part of the newly chartered Fellowship in 1959 and who challenged society’s bigotry by bringing mostly white teenagers down the street to his law offices for religious education classes.  Al planted the seeds of love and justice for an abundant future, a future that still calls us to help bring to life today.

How are you answering that call?  How are you moved to help grow the Beloved Community that offers life abundant to everyone?  And how is our Fellowship changing your life?  I look forward to hearing your answers to these questions.

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Doing Justice as Faith-in-Action

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 28th 2012.)

Reading: from “When Love Speaks in Public” by Kate Lore, from A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists

My sermon theme this month has been “Works”, given the simple message expressed in the Biblical Letter of James that “faith without works is dead.”  For me the takeaway message from James is that “faith should be neither quietly hidden nor displayed ostentatiously, that salvation isn’t something that happens privately, individual by individual, but only happens when faith leads to service to the greater community and when such service is a natural expression of that faith.” [from my Oct. 7th sermon]

For its part, “Unitarian Universalism[ …] draws a distinct contrast between deeds and creeds[ precisely because, when you get into the nitty-gritty,] everyone believes something different, [and yet] it is possible to come together with common goals such as clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.”  Moreover, if we are able to live our “commitments to see past the specifics of creedal differences and to participate in good deeds,” we find that “Unitarian Universalism doesn’t really distinguish between faith and works.  We recognize that it goes deeper than the truth that ethical action must be based on faith for it to be effective, so we speak of the hyphenated ‘faith-in-action’ instead.”  “This is neither faith as a list of prescribed beliefs nor works as a set of empty observances,” I said, “but faith-in-action that calls us all into salvation in this life, bringing heaven into being here on Earth.” [from my Oct. 7th sermon]

Well, that’s all well and good.  It sounds nice, it rings the right bells, but how do we actually do it?  “Justice is what love looks like when it speaks in public” makes a nice bumper sticker, but what does it mean for how we actually live our lives, how we work together as a congregation, how we grow the Beloved Community?  It needs to be fleshed out, and put into practice, to actually make a difference.

Now Kate Lore is right that “a set of best practices”, an extensive collection of detailed recipes for what has worked in some other place, isn’t much use outside of the congregation in which they were developed, any more than the weather forecast for Portland, Oregon is helpful for deciding what to wear here in Newport News, Virginia.  (And vice-versa: nobody in Portland should be preparing for a hurricane!)  There are ways, though, in which we can think about faith-in-action that can help congregations and their social justice committees to figure out their own practices, without trying to shoehorn in some other church’s policies and procedures.  There are, as it turns out, some types of ways of putting faith into action that, when congregations take a balanced approach to all of them, can help produce the sorts of social justice programs that make First Unitarian, Portland the envy of the whole denomination.  There are, in fact, six such ways, and I remember them using the acronym S-E-W A-C-T, only “so” is spelled “S-E-W” not “S-O”.

The “S” stands for Service, something that generally comes pretty naturally to churches and other religious organizations.  Service is about meeting the immediate needs of people facing hardship.  It’s about the obvious ways in which we can alleviate the symptoms of poverty, such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, things that we do here at the Fellowship through the Weekend Meal Ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as well as the Winter shelter program known as PORT organized by the Living Interfaith Network or LINK.

Service also includes efforts such as after-school tutoring, teaching English as a second language, and visiting the elderly, hands-on activities that address a particular social need while also affirming the inherent worth and dignity of those we are serving.  For that reason, the most effective forms of service are those where the people providing services are accountable to those being served, as is the case at both St. Paul’s and LINK where past and present clients are involved in running the programs.

What’s more, service not only meets the immediate needs of people facing hardship, but it also meets many people’s need to feel useful, that they can make a difference in the world.  I’ve seen time and again, in congregations of all shapes and sizes, that while visitors and new members are cautious about joining committees — and understandably so! — they will happily sign up to help out at a food pantry or a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.  They do it not out of any fanciful expectation of recognition but simply to feel good about doing good.

And there’s nothing like the hands-on engagement of service to gain a much better understanding of social problems.  Spend even a little time with a veteran who’s unable to find work or a homeless person who can’t pay for diabetes medication or a single mother who works two minimum wage jobs but still needs to line up at a food bank to feed her child and, if you’re fortunate never to have been in such a position yourself, you’ll gain a whole new appreciation of the strength of the human spirit in spite of disadvantages and even oppression.

The next way of putting faith into action, then, is education.  Well, this one seems to come pretty naturally to Unitarian Universalists.  Our religious education for both children and adults lends itself quite readily to talking about social issues, and as well as classes we have fairly regular services on topics from marriage equality to environmentalism.  Over the last four months alone, we’ve had sermons on religious freedom, compassion, war and peace, slavery and civil rights, LGBT equality and immigrant justice.  Include M—’s sermon on compassion, which is another form of faith-in-action, and more than a third of our services since July have been about some aspect of social justice.

That trend will continue next month, with services honoring the commitments and struggles of our military service personnel and families, services about the work of the UU Service Committee and a special service in observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance.  Then in 2013 I’m going to be doing some joint sermons with our Share-the-Basket partners, including the Sierra Club, LINK and Planned Parenthood.  We’re also planning a Friday evening and Saturday daytime workshop on Social Justice in mid-January, so keep an ear open for more information about that as it develops.

So imagine you’ve been exposed to the daily reality of some injustice through your involvement in hands-on service and then through classes, sermons and workshops you’ve educated yourself even more about the issue.  What’s next?  Obviously talking about a problem can only take us so far, and there comes a point when we must take action on it.  That brings us to the next way of putting faith into action, which is witness.

Witness is a way of taking what we know about a social issue and expressing our desire to change it.  Going to demonstrations, holding vigils, writting letters to newspaper editors, creating short YouTube videos for Facebook — all of these are ways of bearing witness to our values and speaking up about an injustice that we believe needs to be addressed.  If the media takes note, so much the better.

The more obvious examples of witness, of course, are the rallies and protests that take place each year at General Assembly, particularly the Phoenix GA’s massive vigil at “Tent City” that J— talked about last Sunday.  It’s hard to come up with an image that appeals more to the media than thousands of people wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts!  Closer to home, the Fellowship has been a part of public demonstrations on issues such as women’s rights and health care reform and has held vigils right here in response to problems such as global climate change and violence toward transgender individuals.

Now rallies and protests and demonstrations and vigils are great for raising the wider social consciousness, but sooner or later any group that wants to bring about social change must engage in the next way of putting faith into action, which is advocacy.  This is a matter of direct engagement with legislative processes in order to impact public policy, something that is particularly effective when lawmakers receive letters and even delegations from churches that can provide a clear theological basis for their moral positions.  (And, for that matter, when those lawmakers realize that not all people of faith stand for regressive, oppressive social policies.)

This is, though, an area where both congregations and ministers need to be careful, given the considerable privilege that has already been extended to us in the form of religious freedom.  While we, as a church, are free to discuss social issues and to promote particular positions on those issues within our own membership, we are only free to engage in advocacy for or against specific pieces of legislation as an “unsubstantial” portion of our overall activities.  (The IRS doesn’t define “unsubstantial”, but in cases where they have ruled on the lobbying activities of non-profits, the rule of thumb is no more than five percent of money, staff time and volunteer effort.)  In no way shape or form, of course, may we take positions for or against candidates for public office, something that we need to remember at around this time of year every four years!

There is, of course, only so much that any individual person or any individual congregation can do by her-, him- or itself.  And that’s why the fifth way of putting faith into action is community organizing or, equivalently, coalition building.  We can be much more effective in just about every effort, from service and education to witness and advocacy, if we can work with others who care about the same issues of neglect, injustice or oppression.  We don’t have the resources to help every person who comes to our office door asking for, say, money to buy food, but we can help by combining our resources with other congregations in supporting LINK.  We don’t have the resources to do much advocacy for policies that promote environmental sustainability or women’s reproductive health just by ourselves, but we can make a difference by partnering with the Sierra Club and with Planned Parenthood.  There’s power in numbers, but there’s also synergy that comes when different people and groups come together around a common cause.

I’ve now described service, education, witness, advocacy and coalition building.  The sixth way of putting faith into action is the T in S-E-W A-C-T, namely transformation, by which I’m referring to the transformation of ourselves, or our own house of worship.  This is a necessary result of humility — which tends to be forgotten as one of the often core virtues in just about every religion — in that we can’t assume that everything that’s wrong and unjust in the world is only outside our own walls.  So we are called to transform ourselves to live up to our own standards, to walk the talk with integrity.

That’s why we worked to become a Welcoming Congregation a few years ago, to begin a process of being more intentionally inclusive toward LGBT individuals, and it’s why we’re working to become a Green Sanctuary, to build environmental awareness into everything we do.  There are two more examples of transforming ourselves that I want to mention as well, both of which touch on matters of accessibility.

Last month, B— and J— installed in this Sanctuary a hearing-aid loop that S— had donated to the Fellowship.  It’s basically a wireless transmitter that allows anyone with the right sort of hearing aid to patch directly into our sound system.  The loop was installed in the overhead light fixture, so the best signal is in the center section of seats within the footprint of the light; then, activating the T-coil or telephone program on hearing aids will let the wearer pick up the signal and hear what’s being said more easily than relying on the loudspeakers.  This means that all of us really need to make sure we use microphones when we speak, not only for those sitting in the library and listening through the loudspeakers in there but particularly for those using hearing aids to listen to the service right here in this room.

The second example of how we are transforming ourselves into the people we want to be is part of our effort to pay for the mortgage on the Office Building.  Rather than sensory accessibility, it’s about fiduciary accessibility.  You’re probably all aware that we’re selling mortage bonds, to raise the funds we need to pay off the short-term, high interest, interest-only, private loan on the Office Building, with the bonds being repaid over time at an interest rate quite a bit better than any bank offers.  In other words, we’re asking our members to collectively loan our congregation the money to pay the mortgage, with our congregation then paying that money back to our members with interest.  What you might not realize is that you don’t need thousands of dollars to participate in this.  (Though, of course, if you do have thousands of dollars to invest, you probably won’t find a better place right now to do that than the UUFP!)

You see, there are also bonds available in smaller amounts, amounts like ten dollars, amounts such as a child might get as a gift in a Christmas card from a grandparent.  I remember, when I was growing up, getting Post Office Savings Bonds from relatives, just five or ten pounds that would slowly accrue interest until I received the money a few years later, and it taught me important lessons about patience and the value of money.

When it comes to paying for our Office Building, though, these small denomination “participation bonds”, as they’re called aren’t just for children!  Any of us can be a part of owning our own property here at the Fellowship, since the feeling of satisfaction in being a part of advancing our mission and ministry should not depend on the amount of money we have.  Everything we do is an opportunity to grow the Beloved Community, and it’s the most difficult, most inconvenient, most important, most life-giving task any of us are called to do.  In fact, compared with creating a dynamic community, being an investment bank would be a walk in the park!  But we’re a congregation, a church, a religious home for diverse spirits, and all of us have an equal right to participate in this community regardless of personal circumstances.  Making these participation bonds available is an important way in which we are transforming ourselves into the people we dare to be.

And, really, that’s the point of the whole shebang.  When we serve others, educate ourselves, witness to injustice, advocate for change, build coalitions with allies, and transform ourselves for the better, we are becoming our best selves, growing the Beloved Community, putting our faith into action, and showing the world what love looks like when it speaks and acts in public.  So let us bring the warmth of community, the light of hope, the beckoning of the holy, the comfort of companionship, the dancing of the spirit, the energy of faithful action, and the fire of commitment to a world that still waits for our good news, for our faith-in-action.  It’s the most difficult, most inconvenient, most important, most life-giving task any of us are called to do.

So may it be.

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Adaptive Leadership, Pledge Drives and Resilience

There’s a lot of discussion amongst today’s Unitarian Universalists about “adaptive leadership”.  It’s been the subject of workshops at the UUA’s General Assembly and was one of the tracks at last year’s UU Ministers Association “Institute for Excellence in Ministry”.  It’s the focus of much of the First Year Ministers’ Seminar in Boston, and it was the main topic for a recent Southeast UU Ministers Association Retreat at the Mountain.  It’s also a significant part of the UUA’s “Harvest the Power!” program on lay leadership development for congregations.

Many of the problems facing us in everyday life might be considered technical challenges, in that it’s simply a matter of acquiring the knowledge or skills needed to resolve each problem.  Should one of the tires on my bicycle develop a puncture, for instance, it’s either a matter of taking it to a bike shop for the tire to be replaced or buying a new tire and then replacing it myself.  I come out of the process pretty much as I went in, at least once I’ve washed the dirt and grease off my hands!

An adaptive challenge, though, isn’t about acquiring knowledge or skills, at least at first.  Rather, it requires, in the words of Ron Heifitz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “developing the organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to meet problems successfully according to our values and purposes.”  Many of the problems faced by groups of people — from a congregation to human society — are actually adaptive, not technical; addressing them can be messy but doing so is always transformative, for individuals as well as for their culture.

At this time of year, most UU congregations are doing their annual pledge drives, and the congregation I serve is amongst that number doing its canvass.  Now it might seem like ensuring there’s a healthy budget is a technical challenge: it’s simply a matter of finding the right way to ask members and friends to submit a generous pledge and that’s all there is to it.  Well, no.  For one thing, very few people get excited at the mere thought of a balanced budget!

In Heifitz’s terms, we’ve been developing our organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity by embracing an understanding of stewardship that goes beyond the pledge drive.  A few times a year each of our members is invited by a “steward” to a friendly meeting — over breakfast or lunch or afternoon coffee — to simply talk about what it means to them to be a part of our Fellowship, reflecting on where their shared hopes for the congregation overlap the dreams of their hearts.  As part of the pledge drive, of course, the next round of such conversations will include a request to our members to complete their pledge cards.  Then, future stewardship meetings will return to more general discussions of connection and caring as we develop our stewardship ministry together.  UUA Consultant Frankie Price Stern says that we may well be the only UU congregation in the country taking this approach to stewardship, so the rest of the denomination is watching us closely!

Turning to another spiritual topic of interest these days, it’s perhaps not surprising that in developing our capacity to respond to adaptive challenges, we also deepen our resilience.  After all, it isn’t usually technical problems that call for resilience; a punctured bicycle tire shouldn’t affect my own sense of identity and who I am trying to be in the world!  Rather, it’s adaptive challenges that call into question our purpose, our attitudes towards risk and difficult decisions, our comfort (or lack thereof!) with disequilibrium, distress and change.  So, when it comes to the problems that we all inevitably face in our lives — whether as individuals or in families, as a congregation or in the wider society — may we support and encourage one another in our efforts to draw upon our cultural and spiritual resources for resilience, finding within ourselves and through each other a deepened capacity to respond to life’s challenges.

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