Thursday, November 17, 2016

Call for Clergy to Standing Rock - Unitarian Universalism on the Bridge

by Rev. Jim Parrish, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville, Arkansas

On November 3rd, 2016, more than 550 clergy from a variety of denominations participated in a demonstration of solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux of North Dakota. We symbolically stood with them in their opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline installation that endangers their water source, the Missouri River. The gathered ministers, rabbis, and other religious leaders answered the call of the tribal Elders and Father John Froberg, supervising priest of the Episcopal church at Standing Rock, to provide protective witness to the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and their water protectors. The action, I believe, put a spotlight on the inherent racism surrounding decisions about where the pipeline is now located, how it is being financed and built, and moral and ethical questions that are not raised adequately in our nation. These are deeply religious questions about our relationship to people whose history and sense of the sacred are not part of the larger culture; people who, in fact, have been marginalized, if not brutalized, since the beginnings of European occupation of this continent. The question about our relationship to our planet is one of exploitation as well. 

The Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, is being built across the upper midwest to bring crude oil from the Bakken fracking oil fields of northwest North Dakota to a shipping point in Illinois. It crosses a number of rivers and streams, most notably the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The easiest way to show the relationship of DAPL to the Standing Rock Reservation and its closest city, Bismarck, ND, the state capital, is with this map: 

The map shows the proposed pipeline route above Bismarck, and the present route just above the Reservation (still within treaty lands), and the encampments of protest camps, as well as the reservation and treaty boundaries. 

There are two questions that concern the Sioux people of the Standing Rock Reservation and its allies: that there wasn’t thorough vetting of lands that have sacred, historical meaning to the tribes, and even more important, that the pipeline is routed to tunnel under the Missouri river (Lake Oahe) just above their reservation, where an inevitable break and spill would ruin their water supply, further endangering an already economically and socially marginalized people. 

The proposed route above Bismarck, ND, would be across a narrower part of the Missouri, and I assume across private lands. It is easy to see that the good people of Bismarck, and the landed folk along that northern route, might be concerned about the possibility of spills into their water supply, as well as disruption of their farming and other commerce. But this becomes the moral question for our country and its corporate religious culture, and the reason to stand with our brothers and sisters of Standing Rock: why wouldn’t we, as a moral people, tell the corporation building this pipeline that all the people of Bismarck, along with the people of Standing Rock, that we would together risk this pipeline being built on their water supply if it was that necessary? That we, as one people, insist that the corporation invest their profits in building techniques that safeguard all of these people on the northern route, instead of implying that, “we will take the route of least resistance, and risk the lives of people we don’t care about?” I’m sure folks will point out that there were “hearings” and public meetings to determine all of this, but we know how those work, and how it is inevitable that our pipelines, power plants and landfills end up where people with the least power have to deal with their pollution, health risks and economic degradation. 

Now that sounds harsh, but that is the message that has been given to the people of Standing Rock. It is the message they have been hearing for centuries. It is a miracle that indigenous people are standing up now to say this is wrong, and it is an even greater miracle that the clergy of a number of prominent Christian and other denominations came to stand beside them. It is a miracle because our religious culture has been part of this kind of colonial oppression for a very long time. For Christianity, it became clear with the writing of the Doctrine of Discovery (Papal Bulls) and its religious permission for exploitation by colonial governments since the days of Christopher Columbus. Christianity and most of its variations, including Unitarian Universalism, have carried in their DNA this doctrine of “wherever we go, we have the right to raise up the heathen by any means.” Governments of colonial countries, like the U.S. in its sense of “Manifest Destiny,” are happy to have it in their corporate DNA as well. Native Americans have suffered from this oppression, genocide really, since the beginning of the European occupation, and a simple pipeline seems like nothing to most of the people in this nation. Put the pipeline where it “costs the least,” so we can make a profit from it. Done. 

But the people of Standing Rock, other native tribes, environmentalists, and allies just said no… this was too much, they’d had enough. The pipeline is a clear threat to their lives, to their culture, and they took a stand. They built camps on the pipeline route, they appealed to the government, they asked for time, they asked for help. They did not arm, opting for non-violent but admittedly active protest, and they were met with militarized police, corporate mercenaries with dogs, “non-lethal” bullets, sound cannons and pepper spray. Their camps are harassed by constant noise from helicopters, airplanes, drones, and floodlights. Their pleas to have sacred grounds recognized were bulldozed over, and their forward camps in the path of the pipeline were razed, with people hurt and property damaged. Standing Rock has became a front line between corporate United States, and people on the edge; people who have found a renewed pride in their history, and a sense of purpose in survival and preserving their culture and heritage. That is the most basic and powerful purpose we humans can have.

Corporate America and governments, national and state, were not responsive to the pleas of the tribes, allowing the standoff to continue, knowing that the pipeline would just “happen” since their “troops” had control. Even calls by President Obama to halt building until a new route could be assessed were ignored. So the Clergy Call to Standing Rock was made. Father John Froberg, in support of the Tribal Elders, asked for ministers of all denominations to come and show solidarity with the cause. To me, and others, this was not unlike the call Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made to Selma in 1964, a moral call of support to an oppressed people. I asked myself if this was on the same scale of the Civil Rights movement of that time, and the answer came back that is was not only a continuation, but a growth in scope and importance in ways that MLK was trying take the movement before his death. 

Our ongoing civil rights movement in the US has been revitalized by Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ gains, workers rights/minimum wage and immigration issues among others. The brutal reality is that marginalized people all over this earth are the the first to suffer from climate change. Standing Rock is on the front line, representing oppressed people of all colors and ethnicities, decrying doctrines and policies that keep them colonized and marginalized in our society. It is also a statement of opposition to one of the primary global warming industries, fossil fuels. Not only does the pipeline threaten a water supply, but oil extraction by fracking threatens water and life, pollutes the air, and contributes to our growing carbon footprint. Standing Rock is a global statement for civil and environmental rights. So I had to go… and so did many Unitarian Universalists. 

All of the above is to frame the questions, the wondering, the emotions that I felt as I traveled to the Standing Rock Reservation with eight other UU clergy, a Pennsylvania Rabbi and her student. We took one of four vans provided by the Minnesota UU Social Justice Association, who provided transportation and housing. MUUSJA (sound it out) played a central role in getting over 30 clergy to Standing Rock, and should be commended. Wednesday evening, November 3rd, Father John Floberg greeted us at the gymnasium in the little town of Cannonball, ND. Cannonball is just south of the forward camp, Oceti Sakowin, the small city of around 2000 water protectors. He explained to the crowd of over 500 that he had expected around 100 clergy to show up, so after a while he had to quit planning details, and just let it all happen. His organizing admirably fed all of us, and led us through a meaningful, powerful program of solidarity with the peoples of Standing Rock. 

John instructed us in the program, and we were reminded that we were there to be in companionship, in witness, to listen, learn, and state our solidarity with the tribes in their purpose to save their water and culture from DAPL. We would denounce the doctrines and policies that put people like the Dakota Sioux in harm’s way. We listened to native speakers who taught us local history, thanked us graciously, and reminded us that we were walking in a partnership with people who have felt alone, their stories not listened to, their lives not valued. Father John then directed us to gather into our different denominational groups to greet each other, and we discovered that Unitarian Universalists would likely have over 50 participants in the action, including the president of our Association. As we retired to our various hotels and tents,  I have to say I felt some pride in our gathered UUs, and I hoped it meant we were serious about this witness.

The next day we traveled to Cannonball once again, and then, with the 550, up the highway to the water protesters’ main camp, Oceti Sakowin. 

We gathered in a circle around the camp’s Sacred Fire, its heart, a fire to be tended night and day until the camp was no longer. We listened as Father John and representatives of denominations read from a document of denunciation of the Doctrine of Discovery, including our UU President Peter Morales. A copy of the document was offered to the Elders, asking if they might burn it in their Sacred Fire. The Elders deliberated, and declined to sully their fire with such an evil thing, but an alternate way was found to burn the copy, and we briefly celebrated the symbolism. It was time to move to the front line of the action.

We were smudged twice in purification as we left the circle to walk a mile or so north on highway 1806 to the Backwater Bridge over the Cannonball river, the edge between the Water Protectors and the militarized corporate and state police. At the north end of the bridge the police left two burned military style transports parked nose to nose blocking the highway. We gathered at the south end of the bridge to hear speakers declare solidarity, prayers, singing, hymns and chanting. At one point, a delegation of Elders, clergy and water protectors with banners and a US flag in distress position, walked north onto the bridge to meet the leaders of the police on the other side. They offered prayers of peace, chants and song, then returned to share chanting and song with our main group. The hours were full and went quickly, and in early afternoon our official witness was concluded with a Niobrara Circle of Life. Our 500 plus formed a circle, and the leaders started on the inside of the circle exchanging blessings with every one of the participants. The end person blessed then follows in line doing the same so the circle begins to shrink upon itself as the inner circle pulls the end with it. This was a powerful way to end the day, as each one of us was greeted and blessed by all. We looked each other in the eye, and knew that we had come to do sacred work.

Photo by Rick Danielson

When we completed the circle we ate lunch and went back to the camp, where many volunteered to do simple tasks, spoke to the camp through its central speaker system, or walked about to get know the people who were here. Several times I was thanked for our participation in the clergy action, some with tears in their eyes. It seems the tension in the camp had grown tremendously with the constant surveillance, sniper trucks parked on hill tops, helicopter and drone noise at all times, and flood lights at night, there was little time to rest and recover one’s balance. Our coming had given the camp a day to breathe, to relax, and feel supported… and I hoped it would last a little while longer after we left. This was posted on the Standing Rock Rising facebook page: 
Last night, Oceti Sakowin exploded with energy. The shell shock from the police violence of the past week had seemed to diminish, and electricity was once again in the air. Hundreds of people gathered around the sacred fire as songs filled the air all night long. Every time the low flying aircraft would fly over camp with their lights off, people across the whole camp would shine their headlamps and flashlights in the sky, cutting through the smoke of dozens of campsites to remind the pilot that we are here, and we are well! With clergy in town, and in solidarity, people from all faiths and cultures stood together to celebrate a unity not seen before on Turtle Island. A memory I will never forget. 

Nov. 4th, 2016

In the late afternoon, we left the camp for a potluck at the Bismarck UU church. I was still energized, feeling that we had accomplished something, taken part in something greater than just a demonstration at a bridge in North Dakota. All that I have written above begins to explore this feeling…feeling into knowing. To me, religion, no matter the forms followed and beliefs attached, becomes “how we live,” how I live. Good religion is that which forms and deepens relationships within an individual, to their family, to humanity, to the interconnection of all. It also protects that which is connective. Religion that is about exclusiveness and triumphalism, that is easily co-opted by power, by politics, by “corporate” or doctrinal interests, is corrupt, and can be evil, to be used to deliberately cause harm. We came to confront a deep, hidden evil within our religious structures, within ourselves and our surrounding culture. However small this action may seem, it is monumental in having a number of denominations like the Episcopal Church, UCC, Unitarian Universalism and others repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and hopefully begin another reformation---a reformation that opens our eyes to the structures of discrimination and oppression built into this nation’s culture, its very life. It may take centuries to transcend the doctrine and the manifest of destiny within us, to find a new spirit to follow. The people of Oceti Sakowin have called on us, from various religions of this country, to aid them in their fight for survival. In the end, if we pay attention, they may have saved us. 

So, Unitarian Universalists, where will this take us? We’ve answered a call to two bridges now, and the underlying corporate racism, economic inequality, and classism in our own system is only slowly being addressed. Add into this mix a need to revisit our understanding of relationship with Native Americans, while reeling from an election that tore the veil off of “middle America.” How will we take up the class and race issues that are built into our own denomination? Will we be able to find a new transcendence within our fiercely independent, educated white religion? What do we have to offer to the lost people of this country, the folks our corporate masters and government have left behind? What privilege, what objection to certain words, what part of “white” UU will we be able to let go of, so we might form a more perfect union? This is a question I ask myself… and I offer it to you, my fellow UUs, so that we may still be the religion on the edge of change, the religion that pushes our culture’s boundaries towards justice, in our small but influential part of the “arc of the universe.” What will our reformation look like to take us into the future? I’m hoping for a real rainbow, one with all the subtle colors, after all this rain. 

So May it Be,
Rev. Jim Parrish

Monday, October 17, 2016

History Made in Our Own Time: Our UUA and Black Lives of UU

by Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

The Board of Trustees of our Unitarian Universalist Association made history last Friday, and I had the privilege of being part of it.

My fellow Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU) Organizing Collective member Leslie Mac and I made a presentation to the UUA Board in which we invited the members to invest in "Black leadership within the broader context of an interdependent web that can hold us all." There were specific financial asks attached to the invitation: A short term ask of $300,000 for BLUU organizing activities through the end of this fiscal year, including our BLUU Convening March 9-12, 2017, and a long-term ask of $5 million to "create real change in our faith and to fully realize the potential of organizing ALL UUs for justice in the world."

The Board Secretary, Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, put forward a motion that included the Board's commitment to the funding requested. Board member Rev. Andy Burnette seconded. After an intense and thoughtful conversation, the Board affirmed its support and accepted our invitation, including the $5.3 million commitment. We broke for lunch, and Rev. Andy offered a blessing outside on the beautiful grounds of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, New York -- a prayer for the work of Black Lives of UU going forward. You can find the article published in UU World here, and the statement from Black Lives of UU Organizing Collective here.

As many of you know, I have been involved in Black Lives of UU since its inception 14 months ago. It emerged at mealtime gatherings of Black Unitarian Universalists at the Movement for Black Lives Covening (M4BL) at Cleveland State University in July 2015 and has become a powerful force for renewal within our larger UUA. You can learn more about BLUU at We are overwhelmed with appreciation for the the confidence the UUA Board has placed in our leadership, and we look forward to ongoing collaboration with them.

In our presentation, Leslie and I lifted up some of our courageous forebears in the faith: Egbert Ethelred Brown, Susan B. Anthony, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Martha and Waitstill Sharp, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo. We reflected on the legacy of the Black Empowerment Controversy of the late 1960s, and the places where Unitarian Universalists have not lived out our principles.

Through its action last Friday, the current UUA Board has gone a long way in manifesting its commitment to compassion, boldness and reverence. The BLUU Organizing Collective now has resources to build a platform for Black people to find their way inside our faith, as well as for better support for and service to current Black UUs. We look forward to our continuing work with non-Black people of color and white allies as we discern how to lift each other up and thrive together. Ultimately, we are working toward a world where we no longer need Black Lives of UU, because people within our UUA and beyond will affirm and agree that #blacklivesmatter. 

I offer thanks and appreciation to my extraordinary colleagues on the Southern Region Congregational Life Staff: Regional Lead Rev. Kenn Hurto, Connie Goodbread, Kathy McGowan, Natalie Briscoe, Christine Purcell, Kathy Charles, Jessica Curren and Maggie Lovins (on leave). Each of you, in ways large and small, have offered and provided support that allowed me to dive deep into the BLUU work when I needed to. That Black Lives of UU has had such momentum has a lot to do with how faithful you have been as teammates. I'm so grateful.

To my phenomenal Black Lives of UU colleagues -- Leslie Mac, Elandria Williams, Lena K. Gardner, Kenny Wiley, Royce James and Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin: What a journey it has been, and so much more yet to come! Dreaming and creating with you has given me so much life. You continually renew my faith in the traditions we share.

And to all friends and allies throughout the Southern Region: Thank you for your support and encouragement along the way! It's made such a difference, especially when things have been difficult.

You many be wondering what you could do to support Black Lives of UU's work. There are several ways, but the most significant way in the short-run is to sponsor a Black member of your congregation/your community to attend the BLUU Convening, March 9-12. I am happy to connect with you about this at We know that the economic legacies of slavery, segregation, wage theft, educational inequality, employment discrimination and the like make attending such events far more unaffordable for Black people. 

You might also choose to support the #ReviveLove Tour with Rev. Sekou & The Holy Ghost which we co-sponsored. Here is that link:

Keep an eye out for specific additional invitations to engage!

When the four districts of the Southern Region dissolved last year, our UUA Board became the Southern Region's Board. Our UUA's ends became the Southern Region's ends. So, in a very real way, the affirmation of Black Lives of UU's work by our UUA's Board is the affirmation of the Southern Region -- percentage-wise, the Blackest of all five UUA regions. I hope you will celebrate with me this moment of grace that has been generations in the making.

In faith,

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Thinking in Threes

by Rev. Kenneth Gordon Hurto, Lead Executive, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

“Until you can think in threes, you do not understand (leadership) systems.” 
                                               ---Dr. Murray Bowen

One of the major shifts in human understanding has been a move away from seeing ourselves as solitary, independent agents in charge of our destiny toward a more complex awareness that who we are is a direct function of who we are with. We are relational creatures. Everything about us is shaped by our connections (or disconnections) with those around us.

This begins, of course, when we are born. Indeed, it is the first question of faith: Will the world accept, honor, and care for me? Over time, depending on how others treat us, we learn whether we are OK or not-OK, whether we fit in, or can count on others. Every time we meet someone new or enter a new situation, we replay this big question: Is it ok for me to be, to stay here?

Our long childhood means we are especially affected by parents. Indeed whole generations of family “stuff,” for good or ill fills our emotional backpack. It is perhaps better to think of ourselves as “embedduals” rather than “individuals.” That the world may reject us, or leave us, or hurt us, or even love us is as much a source of anxiety as knowing we live but someday to die.

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm the worth of every person. We talk about accepting one another in our totality (warts and halos). But two people encountering each other soon will find there is tension between them. It is hard to keep a balance between being a Self and being Together. After all, each brings varying needs for closeness or independence. Each values things differently. Each has unique ideas and aspirations. This distinctiveness is often inviting and at times frightening: 
  • Can I be me if I am not wholly like you? What if I want something you don’t?
  • I want to be close, but I fear losing me in our “us.” 
  • Or, I fear losing our “us” if you get too independent. 

As a two-legged stool is easily tipped, tensions arise in any one to one relationship. Then, our first (and, Murray Bowen would argue, inevitable) step is to pull in a third party to stabilize things. It might be quite transparent: “Michelle and I disagree about (something), don’t you agree with me that it would be better (to do what I want)?” Or it might be a subtle attempt to shape your perceptions, as in “Hey, Nikkos, did you know that the Minister has a gambling problem?” Even groups get out of balance. Think of all the Hatfields & McCoys stories where one group feels deeply threatened by another, ends up in a fight of some sort, and pulls civil authorities into the middle.

Our Leadership Experience or Presidents Convocation leaders will recognize this as triangulation: An attempt to ease tension between persons and B, by getting another, C, to take sides. Triangles ease tension; hence, their ubiquity. For instance, I complain about my wife at work; I get irritations off my chest, and go home not even remembering last night’s tiff. Gossip is often like that, a kind of social grooming where we play out relationship games of “Ain’t It Awful.” The next time you read an Ann Landers-type advice column, you have a lab for watching triangles at work — think of all those letters complaining about siblings or parents or ex-spouses! All too often triangles become a way of avoiding one another or even for ganging up on those we dislike.

Leaders need to think systemically, relationally all the time. When a parishioner comes to a Board member with a complaint, the Board member will absorb some anxiety and begin to fret. Sometimes the member feels a need to “fix” things, particularly as it relates to church staff (even more so as it relates to the Minister). When you start carrying someone else’s emotional water, when you feel caught in the middle, you’ve been triangled. Now, no need to feel bad about that; as noted, it’s inevitable for leaders. 

The question is: How to manage and step out of the triangle? Managing triangles typically has some identifiable steps. 
  1. Let’s take a typical member complaint brought to you about another member or staff person. The first thing to notice is you are being triangled — that is, the anxious member wants you to alleviate some of that anxiety by siding with them or taking their problem as yours. Just noticing helps you manage.
  2. The second thing to ask is “Whose problem is this really? Is it mine?” Often Board leaders are sought out simply because the member does not know where else to go. Sending a member to someone who can actually address their concern is one kind of de-triangulation.
  3. A powerful way to step out of the triangle is to listen slowly, carefully, ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand what the issue is, and then to say, “What would you like me to do with this matter?” Quite often, the anxiety is relieved if the person just feels heard. “Oh, nothing, I just needed to blow off some steam about this. Thanks for caring.” We all do that sort of thing about our parents, children, spouses, co-workers, and so on.
  4. However, sometimes, the person needs direct help. That’s when to employ our usual litany:
    1. Have you spoken directly to A about your concern?
    2. If they say “no"t or don’t know how, you say, “Well, would you like me to come with you to talk with A. I’m confident we can work this out.”
  1. However, as triangles often overlap, a single issue can be part of several. Before you know it, a whole bunch of folk are worrying. As anxiety increases, we seek out ever more people to be on our “side.” This is the stuff of conflict in any relationship system. A good sign that you’re caught in messy triangles is that you are just plain baffled and feel unexpectedly anxious about what to do. Murray Bowen said, when that happens, don’t just do something, stand there. Here’s the truth: sometimes things work themselves out if a leader does not add to the confusion with her/his own anxiety — usually expressed as needing to referee, taking ownership of the problem, or offering lots of help.

I need to stop here; this really is the material for a whole day’s workshop. However, I want to lift up a good kind of triangle: It’s called consulting. When a neutral party is invited into a tense relationship and temporarily holds the tension until it is bearable, people can begin to think through their differences more effectively. The consultant does not absorb the anxiety, but holds ontology enough for people to take their problem back and begin working on a resolution.

Your UUA staff do this kind of intervention in matters small (how to effectively do a program budget) and great (major conflict). Our Southern team is comprised of individuals with considerable skill in many areas of congregational life. If you are feeling tension and are becoming triangulated, that’s a good time to pull us in. We’ll be your coach and help you find the way to an easier, more loving encounter in congregational life.

As always, breathe, deep and slow!

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Emotion Field

by Connie Goodbread, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

The emotional field is a medical term pertaining to the physical space around each of us that informs us about the world around us and how we should react to it.

The emotional field for organizations is the reality that each of us brings our personal emotional field into every relationship and every community we join.  The combination of all those individual emotion fields make up the larger emotional field of community. The individuals in every community are interlocked in a system of emotional processes.   

The same is true for nations and continents and a planet---at least this planet populated by human beings.  As the Earth gets smaller and we come to know a lot about each other, we find ourselves connected in ways that were impossible in the past.  

News, both true and false, screams at us all the time---look at me, look at me, look at me---and is maniacally focused on hatred, racism, and misogyny.  These ugly sides of humanity are pretty rampant and leave us all sad, exhausted, and wanting to run for cover.  Don’t think for a moment that the current emotional field isn’t having an effect on each of us and our congregations.  

There is an Elie Wiesel story about a wiseman in Sodom.  This is my version so I paraphrase.  He preaches love and justice from a corner at the same time every day.  In the beginning the people stop and listen.  Then they begin to jeer and laugh at him.  Then they begin to throw things.  Then they ignore him all together, walking by as if he does not exist.  All of this time there is a child who watches.  

The child says, “Do you know that no one is listening to you?”  

The man says, “Yes.”  

The child asks, “Why do you keep preaching?”

He answers, “I used to preach to change them.  Now I preach so they won’t change me.”

I share this story because if we are to stand, roll, sit, and fight on the side of love, then nothing can force us from that path. Therefore, even though the current emotional field is charged with ugly rhetoric and behavior, we stand on the side of love and we will not be moved.  

Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith.  Covenant is the binding of one to another in love.  Therefore, how we do what we do makes all the difference.

The writing of a Covenant is only the beginning and, quite frankly, the easiest part.  We are accountable to the deep abiding promises of love that we make to each other in Covenant.  The Covenant is tested in practice.  The test comes when the Covenant is broken.  In order for us to come back into Covenant we must lean into one another, stay at the table, and work it out.  If that cannot happen, someone is leaving.  

Ugliness and hatred is all around us.  Within our congregations, we should practice building the community that we would like to see exist in the rest of the world.  Within our congregations, we need to learn how to lean in, and to practice deep listening and understanding.  We should approach our differences (as the St Petersburg, Florida congregation says) with humility, curiosity, and humor.  We need to learn to set healthy boundaries and expectations.  We should not tolerate bullying, coercion, or manipulation---this is not the way of love.

We can make a great difference in the world, but don’t think that the work of making that difference won’t leave scars and test our courage each and every day.  Thankfully we have one another and this fabulous faithful path of just loving and loving justice.  I am grateful to have your hands to hold.  I am grateful for this faith and discipline.  

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Time to Make a Change?

by Natalie Briscoe, Congregational Life Field Staff for the Southern Region of the UUA

When we talk about change issues in congregational systems, we often mention two distinct types. First, we have technical change. Technical Change Issues are those challenges that have a clear solution which can be implemented rather quickly and directly. Technical Change issues can often be addressed with few decision makers who have appropriate authority, such as the board of trustees or the program managers. Technical Change issues also have clear boundaries within the congregation and require change in just one or two areas. Technical change issues might include revising the time of the Sunday worship service, installing a sprinkler system to comply with insurance requirements, and adding an elevator to a multi-level building. 

Adaptive Change Issues, in contrast, are usually more difficult to identify. They are often so difficult to identify that they become very easy to deny, ignore, or mistake for a set of technical issues. Adaptive change issues often require changes in values, beliefs, roles, relationships, pedagogy, working styles, or underlying philosophy of organization. They require change in numerous areas of the congregation which crosses internal program and departmental boundaries (involve ministry, religious education, pastoral care, justice making, etc). Adaptive change issues require visioning, experimentation, and discovery to work through. There may not even be any clear solutions, and change takes a very long time to both implement and measure. In essence, when we talk about Adaptive Change issues, we are talking about issues of meaning, purpose, and culture. 

Some change issues in your congregation may have both adaptive and technical aspects. They can be intertwined, making the adaptive issues even more difficult to identify. For example, your congregation may have a meeting space that is only accessible via stairs. The adaptive issue is the congregation’s commitment to being welcoming and the technical issue is installing a ramp or lift.

Not surprisingly, most individuals and congregations as a whole are generally receptive to and on board with technical change. Technical solutions are usually concrete, measurable, and relatively simple. Technical change requires some sacrifice, possibly financially or of convenience, but will not require any individual to adjust to long-term change or discomfort. Adaptive work, on the other hand, can be frustrating and slow. It may require the congregation to be uncomfortable for long periods of time, which is something that we usually don’t tolerate well in congregational life. These uncomfortable feelings are why visioning and defining a congregation’s core values are so important to the process of adaptive change. If a congregation can keep its values and vision in mind, then it can weather the storms that come with adaptive changes.

You may have heard your Congregational Life Field Staff encouraging the leaders of congregations to lean in to adaptive changes, even though they may be difficult, murky, or uncomfortable. Adaptive change is the real work of transformation, and we recognize that the feelings it causes may make some people want to move away from those issues. In situations where the adaptive issues have risen to the surface, focusing on technical change can make a congregation feel good and productive, but it can also be a distraction from the real issues at hand. It can be the band aid over a much larger chasm of issues. 

In all of this work, though, technical change issues tend to get a bad reputation. In our efforts to focus on the difficult adaptive change issues, we tend to think, “Oh, that is just a technical solution! That’s not the adaptive issue!” It’s very wise and healthy to be able to identify the difference between technical and adaptive change issues, and even wiser to see which solution you are looking for at any given time. It is wonderful when a group of leaders can see that they are focusing on technical change issues to avoid the adaptive ones. 

Some issues, though, do require technical solutions. Making a huge adaptive issue out of the fact that the dishwasher is broken is really just another form of work-avoidance. Avoiding the real issues at hand can go both ways, because, after all, there are just so many reasons not to do anything new ever. 

Technical change issues can also be steps toward adaptive change. For example, if you’d like to practice whole church community and your shared core values are leading you toward multigenerational worship, fellowship, service, and learning, it would probably be disastrous to declare that all worships are now multigenerational starting with the new church year. Surprise! It might be easier to chart a course of smaller technical changes that give congregants an opportunity to experiment and explore a multigenerational community in digestible doses. You may start with a multigenerational justice project once a year, an all-church dance or pot-luck a few times per year, an eight-week multigenerational religious education offering, an all-ages camp, or a weeknight offering where people of all ages get to form meaningful relationships. By gradually increasing these offerings and building on your successes, you can, in a matter of years, achieve the whole family church that you are yearning for! The technical change issues help to build you toward the adaptive issues that you long to see. 

In conclusion, as always, I invite you to contact your Primary Contact Field Staff member if you would like a partner in discerning the technical and adaptive change issues in your congregation, or if you would like help in determining what your next steps as a community of faith could be. There is literally nothing we can’t begin together! Finishing it, well, that depends on the adaptive issue! 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Measuring Impact or Counting Heads?

by Christine Purcell, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

At a recent cluster event, I had a chance to spend time with a congregational leader I haven't seen in several years. She---let's call her Pam--- is a leader in a small congregation in a rural area near a town with a few larger UU congregations. I know that Pam's congregation shows up for racial and social justice work, has the appropriate staffing for its size (including a part time minister), offers music and RE programs, offers opportunities for members to socialize, and has a good website and social media presence. Its minister frequently writes letters to the editor of the newspaper and is interviewed on the news. People in the community know about this small and mighty congregation.

I remarked on an article shared on Facebook which Pam's congregation's minister had written. I asked about the good things happening in her church community. She said, "I'm not sure any of that matters because we're not growing." She shared stories about stewardship difficulties and volunteer fatigue, and didn't mention any of the good things that I've heard are happening in her congregation.

I get it. When a congregation is small, lack of membership growth can feel like a ministry failure, but lack of numerical growth is not necessarily an issue to be fixed. Binary thinking with growth and failure as the only options does not serve congregations. There is a third option which holds tremendous benefits for the members of and community served by a small congregation: simply being a healthy, small congregation! 

Worrying about numerical growth can distract the congregation from its mission and vision. Well-lived mission, vision, and covenant yield maturity and the embodiment of our Unitarian Universalist faith and values in our congregations and in the world. I encourage smaller congregations to focus more on measuring their impact than on counting heads!

Visitors intentionally seek out small congregations for close relationships and the chance to make a difference. Congregational health increases the chance that visitors will return, be inspired, and get involved. Congregations which choose to work on health may find that numerical growth follows. They may not. In the case of Pam's congregation, I wonder if numerical growth will happen without a change in the demographics of the community. I am amazed and delighted that there are about sixty Unitarian Universalists gathering in that rural town! If the congregation's welcoming practices and new member integration are on track, numerical growth is probably not the best indicator of the success of its ministry. 

Here are some suggestions for congregations feeling the pinch of being small:
  • Consider a common read for your leadership such as "Doing the Math of Mission" by Gil Rendle to help change your congregation's focus from counting to measuring, or "Not Your Parents' Offering Plate" to rethink your congregation's approach to stewardship.
  • Consider consolidating some committees. You only need a few: worship, faith development, the caring community (includes membership support), and social witness on the program side, and property and finance on the administration side.
  • Try mentoring successors to leadership roles more effectively to reduce volunteer fatigue.
  • Use Appreciative Inquiry to focus on your congregation’s health and strength. Emphasize and build on 2-3 things you do well.
  • Equip your leaders by sending a team to a Southern Region Leadership Experience.
  • Contact your regional staff if you are stuck. We are here for you and with you.
Small congregations are on my heart because of my experiences last week as a staff member at Dwight Brown Leadership Experience (DBLE) in Little Rock. I worked with leaders from small congregations on applying systems thinking to a case study. Year after year, I’m inspired by the stories I hear from LE graduates who were challenged by what they learned, felt invigorated and called, and went back to their congregations prepared for the hard work of shared ministry. Teams leave Leadership Experiences with game-changing insights into elements of congregational health: covenant, mission, vision, faith development, systems thinking, small group ministry, governance, stewardship, and anti-oppression work. 

Did you know that more than half of our Southern Region UU congregations (124/208 certified) have fewer than 125 members? Your Southern Region staff understands the unique challenges and opportunities in small congregations. To support and encourage small congregations, we are offering an adapted Leadership Experience in central Florida: 05-10 February, 2017. Watch for announcements about the Small Congregation Unitarian Universalist Leadership Experience (SCUULE) in our newsletter, on Facebook, on our website, and in emails from your Primary Contact. I hope to see you there!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Moving from the ‘golden rule’ to the ‘platinum rule’

by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

August is a time when many people do “church shopping." Those of us who have already found our spiritual home have a responsibility to clean ourselves up and be good hosts to those who may be visiting us for the first time. 

We have gotten much better as faith communities about greeting our guests on Sunday mornings. We are more intentional about our efforts to notice when we have visitors to our worship services. We try to reach out in a warm and welcoming way; to treat others as we would want to be treated. These are good and important efforts. How could we be better?

I’m not convinced that we are being as generous with welcoming the whole person in all of their complexities as we can be. It is not just one thing that makes us who we are. I am not me simply because I grew up in the Midwest or lived in New York state for 27 years or any of the many other parts of my background. I have been formed by the many pieces of my culture and there are many pieces to my identity.

You cannot see by looking at me whether I have a disability. If I do, I will be wondering if I will be welcomed when I visit a congregation. You do not know if I am a person who grew up in a family that spoke a language other than English at home. You do not know what my spiritual practices are or how I prefer to worship. If I am not of the generation of most of the people I meet, I will notice when you treat me differently than you treat others. Even if your intention is to treat me better, I may just see you treating me differently. This happens with our youth all the time.

We make many assumptions about people in the first couple of seconds that we encounter them. If we were truly generous and welcoming to others we would let our curiosity and not our assumptions lead us. We have to know our own culture in order to be welcoming to those who are not like us. 

When I was growing up in Springfield, Ohio in the 60’s and 70’s, it was normal to seat 35 people or so at our family gatherings. When one of us got serious about someone we were dating, we would be asked “ When to we get to meet him?” or if that meeting was soon to happen,  “Have you warned her about us yet?” You see, we had enough knowledge about ourselves as a family that we knew an encounter with us could be overwhelming. We were loud laughers, big huggers, boisterous singers that sang at every gathering. We talked over one another, interrupted, gave our opinions freely and there seemed to be an expectation that you should be able to keep up. 

Having said all that, it was not just the extroverts that felt welcomed by us, some quiet introverts also found a family that accepted them just the way they were. Because we knew our own culture, we were able to understand that not everyone would be able to or want to “keep up.” We found ways to get to know the partners of our loved ones. We made room for them. We made room not just at the dinner table. We might invite them into the kitchen to help with the preparations. We would find a quiet moment to ask for thoughts about the planning of the next event. We asked what their experiences were and how that informed how they felt about things. We showed them that they mattered and that we were willing to try things differently if it was important to them. We were far from perfect but we made sure that conversion to “the way we do things” was not the goal. Integrating them, changing some things so that their needs were met too was important to us. We stayed true to who we were while adapting to who they were.

In our congregations we need to know who we are so that we can stay true to ourselves, not because we are most important---just the opposite. We need to know who we are, so that we can move aside and put others at the center. We need to make room for their leadership and be willing to find a place on the sidelines. That is the generous way. We need to move from treating others the way we would treat ourselves to the platinum rule of “treat others the way they want to be treated."

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Black Lives Matter That I Know

by the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff

As I write, the country has begun leaning into a backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, against Muslims, against immigrants. In the thick of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week, speakers there have made numerous appeals regarding the need for safety and for more armed citizens, more barriers between the US and Mexico, more action to block refugees from war-torn countries from entering the country.

The displays of hyper-masculine braggadocio, nationalistic xenophobia and outrageous farce at the Convention jangle my nerves. I also find them terrifying -- We are no longer in the realm of dog-whistle politics, but have made the leap into shameless, bold-faced racism and white supremacy that will live on, regardless of who wins the presidential election.

Many of us were already in shock from the murders by police of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., when an attack on police in Dallas left five officers dead. Our UUA Southern Region Presidents' Convocation went forward there, amid tears of grief, pain and disbelief. In a little more than a week, three more officers would be killed in the line of duty in Baton Rouge, not far from our Unitarian Universalist Church there, where Sunday services were in progress.

There is a campaign afoot to lay responsibility for the deaths of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge at the feet of Black Lives Matter and related organizations. Some media outlets and politicians seek to portray BLM as a hate group, not dissimilar from the way some Christians want to portray Unitarian Universalism as a satanic cult. It would be laughable, if it were not the case that actual lives are in danger at the intersection of ignorance and state-sanctioned violence.

So let me tell you about my experience of Black Lives Matter as a Unitarian Universalist minister, starting from a year ago this weekend.

Backed by my colleagues both on the Southern Region Congregational Life Staff and in the Multicultural Growth and Witness Office of our Unitarian Universalist Association, I took part in the Movement for Black Lives Convening (M4BL) in Cleveland, along with 20 other Black Unitarian Universalists. There were some 1200 Black people gathered at Cleveland State University that steamy last weekend in July from all over the continent with a few from abroad. We were there to support one another in the struggle against lethal police violence, and to also affirm the apparently radical proposition that Black Lives Matter as much as any other lives.

During the course of that weekend, I reached out to as many of the Black UUs present as I could to coordinate times for us to meet together. That wound up being dinner that Friday evening, lunch Saturday and breakfast Sunday. In particular, with Leslie MacFadyen, Lena K. Gardner and a handful of others at the table Saturday and Sunday, we began to form the foundation for Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism and Black Lives of UU. As we talked, stories emerged of how challenging it was for Black people in local congregations, so much so that several found it difficult to attend worship services regularly. We realized that we needed explicitly Black spaces within our faith, both in-person as well as through social media and electronic communication, where we could gather, reflect, organize and love one another.

It's been a whirlwind of a year, especially for the five of us who make up the Black Lives of UU Organizing Collective: Lena, Leslie, Kenny Wiley, Elandria Williams and me. From our commitment to Black folks inside our Association and beyond, we have created Facebook groups, issued statements, organized fund-raising campaigns, worked collaboratively with partner congregations and with our UUA staff, developed a track of workshops for GA, offered worship at GA, arranged for greater Black presence at GA, educated Unitarian Universalist in general about the Movement for Black Lives and much more. All of this started from gatherings around simple meals twelve months ago ... learn more at our website

What I want to lift up now though is what happened at the end of M4BL. I was already at the airport when the attendees poured out of the auditorium, uplifted by the closing ceremonies. On the street in front of them, the Cleveland police were about to take a disoriented black youth into custody. The group -- full of powerful activists, organizers, and protestors -- created a tight circle around the officers and demanded the release of the young person. Some of them were pepper-sprayed. Elandria, who was part of the Safety Team for the event, was in the thick of it all and effectively negotiated for the release of the young person into his mother's custody. All of that got accomplished without a gun, or a knife or any threat to the safety of the police whatsoever. As I followed the reports on social media from the airport, I began to cry -- I was so moved by the bravery, strength and discipline of those mostly 20- and 30-something Black people.

That's the epitome of what Black Lives Matter is all about -- Disciplined, effective resistance to random, state-sanctioned violence against Black people in the context of racism and white supremacy, with an over-arching commitment to the love, joy, freedom and thriving of Black people everywhere.

I am forever grateful to be part of the Southern Region Congregational Life Staff Group, which prioritizes Black Lives Matter as a central to its work. I am grateful for our larger Unitarian Universalist Association and its member congregations and employees who are also making new ways of being possible, based on taking our UU principles to heart and out into the streets. And I am grateful for the great web of existence that holds and connects us all, in spite of the many fears that would keep us afraid. In this time of great turmoil, I give thanks for comrades and partners in the struggle, who also seek justice and freedom for everyone.

I conclude with Assata Shakur's chant, which is often said, then shouted, then yelled at the end of Black Lives Matter gatherings:

It is our duty to fight for our freedom
It is our duty to win
We must love and support each other
We have nothing to lose but our chains

May it be so.

In faith,

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

We Are Better Together!

The Reverend Kenneth Gordon Hurto, Lead Executive, UUA Southern Region

You would think such a statement would be obvious. Working together in teams, committees, or groups is how humanity gets things done. Yes, we laud the notable individual — the first one across the line gets the accolades, the credit, or the gold medal. But everyone, directly or indirectly, benefits from foundations laid by those who came before or succeeded because of others backing them up, urging them on.

Our Southern Region team is operationally, ethically, spiritually motivated by the idea of “team.” We practice what we teach in all our work — with daily check-in, weekly what’s up meetings, monthly in-depth exploration of big ideas, as well as our twice yearly team retreat.

I’ve long thought (my goodness, 45 years this fall!) that preaching was mostly to remind people of things they already knew. Sharing of ideas and ideals, speaking to transform people’s lives works only if it’s well-grounded in the values of the listening pews. This note then is to remind our good, steady, often courageous volunteer congregation leaders of what may be obvious: 1) do not to try doing it alone, and 2) that you are never alone. In addition to your own congregants, the SR staff are just an e-mail or phone call away.

Many Unitarian Universalists enter the Free Church taken by our non-creedal approach, thrilled by an Emersonian “self-reliance” ideal: You are free to discern and live out your spiritual values and commitments. But Emerson meant self-responsible, knowing your experience and thinking, and always — now to borrow from Wm. Ellery Channing — to stand at the “bar of reason.” 

Too often, we have equated freedom of conviction with an indulgent believing any old thing you want. Nonsense! We are required to be disciplined and to work to discern the truth in all things, not merely to find what is congenial.

Soul-growth is tender work, sometimes with exciting liberation but often with a rude deconstruction of our illusions. For an individual to do deep discernment, s/he has to rest in the loving hearts of a shared community of seekers. None of us ever gets the whole story, sees the whole picture, grasps the entire complexity. We are not just better together, we need one another. We are incomplete and insufficient alone.

This is why our SR team often uses “listening circles” in our work as a way to allow the tenderness of discernment to take place. To know our faith, we have to learn from each other. Listening to learn rather than to dispute is a spiritual practice we commend. This is what former UUA Moderator, Gini Courter, had in mind when she admonished, “Come to love the faith, not the argument."

Over the summer months, many congregational leadership teams meet to sketch out the program year. Invariably, challenges feel daunting, resources of money and and people-power are insufficient, and sometimes there are out and out disagreements on priorities. Thus, it is all the more important always to listen with love.

As a non-creedal body, Unitarian Universalists embrace the perhaps quaint notion of “covenant.” We intentionally and freely choose to be together because we know the important work cannot be done singly. We are better together! Thus, the question becomes how shall we be together? What promises can we, will we make to one another so we truly can be better together? This is essential to being team-mates in our spiritual enterprise.

If you would like help with forming covenants for your team leadership or, indeed, for your whole congregation, give one of our staff team a call. Additionally, you might consider reading, Gil Rendle’s wonderful book, Behavioral Covenants in Congregations: A Handbook for Honoring Differences (~$14). As you go about your ministries, remember these words from an old union song:

Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won
Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none.