Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Stand By This Faith

by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

Olympia Brown was the first woman officially ordained by the Universalists. Reading number 569 in our grey hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, begins, “Stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it.”

I love this reading as it says so much about what congregational life is all about. The reasons we come into one of our congregations are varied but are often during times of tension or transition. We often come in because we have a need or desire. We may be hurting or broken in some way. We might feel that we are lacking in some of what life is demanding of us. So we take that courageous step and we come. We receive love, connection, friendship, care for ourselves and our family. This feels wonderful. 

When talking about membership, Michael Piazza, a United Church of Christ minister, said to a group of us last year, that there comes a time when we must “take off the bib and put on the apron.” This is a critical time for us; we move from guest to host. One can only be a host once they consider the congregation to be their home. The language moves from talking about “y’all” and “them” to “we” and “us”.

Olympia goes on to say “Do not demand immediate results but rejoice that we are worthy to be entrusted with this great message that you are strong enough to work for a great principle without counting the cost.” 

WE are entrusted; all of us. This is where we put on the apron. The congregation is the curriculum by which we teach. We can best teach our children, those new to our tradition, and those outside looking in by being good stewards of our faith. We cherish our congregations not because they are perfect or meeting our every need but because we are mindful of others' needs. We aspire to create a community for all.

Our relationship with the congregation, and thereby the faith, can begin to sour if we leave the bib on too long. If we fail to move from the language of “me”  to “we,” we can wander into “what have they done done for me lately?” territory.

Others learn about us by what we do and how we treat each other. This is the way to teach our true values. We live in community not because it is easy, but because we choose to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We believe that living in community is worth the work and the sacrifice. Our individual and family needs may not all be met, but we stay. We stay so that others can find a place when they need love, connection, friendship and care. We put on the apron.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

To Begin Anew … To What End?

The Reverend Kenneth Gordon Hurto, Southern Region Lead Executive

Well, we’re a few weeks into a new year. How go your resolutions? 

It is good to consider newness, to ask the question, "If I were to start this _____ (new resolve), how would I go about it?" But the more important question is, "Why would I do this?"

In our work with congregations, we often ask:

 If you were to start a new Unitarian Universalist congregation in this community, why would you? 

If you are already in an existing congregation, it is almost impossible to imagine it not being there. But too often we forget someone had to start things. We lose the initial passion, fidelity and vibrancy that gave birth to that new resolve.

Begin with Why! This is the first question of life and of ministry!

If Unitarian Universalist ministry is an answer to a problem in the human condition? If so, just what is that problem? There are lots of religious answers out there. What is uniquely Unitarian Universalist — in this day? What is our Why? I’ll be candid: it’s no longer to prove God’s one-ness nor the short-comings of the Trinity, central though that is in our name. Nor is it our purpose to assert salvation for all in a next life! 

In this day, our answer must relate to the post-modern world. Perhaps we could rename ourselves “the love and justice” church — that fits better.

Another way to get at Why? is to follow a classic planning strategy: Begin with the end in mind. That is, if our ministry were to succeed wonderfully well, how would we be different? How would those around us be different? And how might our society, even our world be different? If our answer is clear, then we can figure out how to get there.

I insist, every church Mission statement should be brief and read like this: 

Our ministry exists in order to _____ (accomplish a purpose) for _____ (whom)
 in _____ (where) so that _____ (the difference we hope to make).

For instance: 

Our congregation commits 
to becoming a beloved community 
for our children and adults, as free-thinkers and generous people, 
in our town — so that we bring 
more hope, more joy, more love and more justice in the world.

These are first questions of the religious life, of the faith community:

  • Why are we here?
  • To what end, ideal, or ultimate value are we called to serve?

In this new year, most of us will be distracted from our resolve by the sheer inertia of “the way things are.” We need our faith community, in the words of Howard Thurman, to “Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve.” Without the community to support and sustain us, well, life’s distractions will win. Say, when is the Super Bowl this year? (Oops, see what I mean!)

January is a time of church shopping. Checking to see if church today might offer seekers something they’ve not found on their own, many will come through our doors for help with their struggles. Will we take them in?

Ministry is hard. It is complex. It is filled with contradictions (do I want security or freedom — see Dostoyevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor for that one). We seek to be welcoming, but are anxious newcomers will change what is precious to us. We come with our own needs only to be called to serve others the moment we catch our breath!

At times ministry is overwhelming: What must we do to meet racial injustice head-on? What is our role around climate change? Ministry is also humbling: How can we be at ease when so much poverty yet abounds; what are we supposed to do?

It is time we re-define our purpose — not as an alternative to orthodoxy, although that need still exists — but as an alternative to greed, violence as a tool to deal with difference, and consumerism. We need to be and become a community that accepts people with love, guides them to the fullness of their humanity, without creedal dictate and then goes out to create justice everywhere.

I am fond of the hymn, Step by Step, #157 in Singing the Living Tradition:

Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won
Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none
And by union what we will can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none.

As we honor Dr. King this month, let us, too, be a people of a modern faith that affirms we believe “that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” The longest march yet can be won, but not alone. Make this then your New Year resolve: To walk with others on this road. Blessings on you and your ministries!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Congregational Resolutions for 2016

by Maggie Lovins, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

As we start the new year, may 2016 bring you, your loved ones, and your congregations the best year ever! While many of you are already busy at work on your new year’s resolutions—committing to new fiscal patterns, healthier eating habits, or a formal exercise plan—maybe our congregations could make a resolution or two, as well! I’m not talking about pie-in-the-sky resolutions to change the world on your own; I mean greater relationship-building and everyday nuts-and-bolts not often considered in our congregations. 

Though relationship building seems like the most difficult task, it is really the easiest! Try sending a note to your closest congregations inviting them to attend or take part in a special event at your congregation. Partner with them to address a local or national social issue. Make a new friend who does the same kind of volunteer work you do in another congregation, then share ideas and resources. There is a lost art to personal contact and welcoming. I’d like your help to revive it within our congregations. Can we do it together? I think we can. It might just spill out of our congregations and into our communities! How wonderful would that be?! 

Let’s not forget the day-to-day nuts-and-bolts I mentioned earlier, such as congregational safety and its many dimensions. I address this now because many of our congregations have been seeking advice on how to keep their members and spaces safe throughout the week and during Sunday service. Though it is not the most comfortable, exciting, rosy conversation topic, it is necessary to discuss and plan for the unique situations and qualities of each of our congregations. 

Let’s start with policies. Does your congregation have a Congregational Safety Policy? How about a specific Youth Safety policy? If so, is it up to date and being followed? If not, lets work on this in 2016 together! As the UUA’s safety webpage reminds us, “Although no policy or knowledge of the issues can absolutely guarantee safety in your congregation under all circumstances, congregations can take pro-active steps to create environments that are safe and prepared.” Our UUA’s Safe Congregations page is chock-full of great info and resources for creating your own set of policies. You can find that handbook here: http://www.uua.org/safe/handbook

Think about the basics of building safety. Are all exits clearly marked? Are your fires extinguishers properly charged and maintained? Do you have clearly marked evacuation plans? When is the last time the whole congregation had a fire drill? These things sound mundane, until they’re not! Your leadership can call your local fire/police department to request a building safety walk-through. A walk-through helps first responders to become familiar with your property and community, which could help in times of emergency. The next step is to contact your congregation’s insurance company and ask for the same walk-through. Usually, while they are there, they can do a quick policy check to make sure you are covered for specifics we might not have considered! More on building safety can be found here, with a link to a Church Mutual starting-point checklist to assess security and building safety needs: http://www.uua.org/safe/117545.shtml.

Other building safety issues have arisen this past year with global and national political verbiage ramping up fear and anxiety. Here is a link to assist with understanding factors that lead to gun violence, raising awareness in your community, and possibly advocate-ing for change: http://www.uua.org/liberty/guns. Here is a helpful link to Church Mutual’s page with videos on crime in congregations and gun violence: https://www.churchmutual.com/170/Crime-Prevention and one to FEMA: https://training.fema.gov/is/courseoverview.aspx?code=IS-907.
These videos and resources may be helpful for your safety or escort teams to review in training sessions.

Keeping our youth safe is a priority I think we all can agree on! Yes, we are religious organizations, and, yes, we want to believe the best in all people, but protecting our youth is firmly our adult responsibility and a key component of congregational safety. Make sure there are two unrelated adults with youth at all times, and that you have valid, current background checks on anyone working with youth for any amount of time. Make sure to have policies set up for social media and technology use with youth communications before an issue arises, as clear expectations give youth and youth leaders the freedom to be their full selves responsibly. When training teachers and youth advisors, please make sure everyone understands mandatory reporting in your state (or a state you will be traveling through) and the guidelines around clergy privilege (or lack thereof). You can check that info here: https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/sgm/index.cfm?&submit=1&topicName=mandatory%20reporting&audiencename=professionals. If your congregation or cluster is in need of Youth Advisor training or teacher training, please contact me at mlovins@uua.org or Natalie Briscoe at nbriscoe@uua.org. We have Youth Ministry Consultants specifically trained for this very thing!

Balancing Acts is a free online guide and coursework providing the essential tools needed for a comprehensive approach to safety and prevention to build a space where children and youth will be safe from sexual abuse: http://www.uua.org/safe/children. I also highly recommend looking into the Religious Institute’s newest congregational program, Sexually Safer Best Practices Congregation: http://www.religiousinstitute.org/safer-congregations/. Please feel free to contact me if your congregation is or would like to participate in that program or with any questions you might have.

These are just a few of the topics for discussion under the giant umbrella of congregational safety, but we need to start somewhere, right? And again, I know these are not comfortable conversations, but they are needed conversations. The good news is that they are conversations that you do not need to have alone! Call or write to me or your congregation’s Primary Contact http://www.uuasouthernregion.org/staff/primarycontact.html to receive assistance as your congregation goes through the somewhat intense, but rewarding process of setting policies for congregational safety. 

May 2016 bring us all Peace, Love and Compassion, and yet let us still plan for a tomorrow of uncertainty—together!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Beloved Community: Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All

by Connie Goodbread, UU Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

I bought my husband, Bob, a t-shirt at General Assembly which has printed on it, “God bless the whole world, no exceptions.” He got it for Christmas two years ago.

At this time of year, I am reminded of what could be. Even in the shadow of tragedy, there is a promise of hope and goodwill. On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary hiatus of the war for the celebration of Christmas. The warring countries refused to create any official cease-fire, but on Christmas the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial truce. The troops sang Christmas Carols together. They left their trenches and crossed no-man’s-land to offer up a Merry Christmas and Fröhliche Weihnachten. Afterward, many soldiers wondered it they could go back to killing. Might they go against orders and spare one another, lay down their weapons, and wage peace? It was not meant to be - officers’ threats of disciplinary action brought the idea to an end. Even so, this event serves as heartening proof, however brief, that beneath the brutal clash of weapons, the soldiers’ essential humanity endured. http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/christmas-truce-of-1914

It is so much easier to wage war than it is to wage peace. Waging peace means we must look at our role in the reality of what is going on around us. Waging peace means that we must take responsibility for the things of which we are not proud. We must try to make amends. Admit we've done wrong. This is true as individual human beings and as nations. What is our responsibility? What have I done and what have we done that has been less than helpful to a hungry, parched, weary, and hopeless world?

I have suggested on more than one occasion that we go forth and wage peace. I have had pushback on this suggestion. Mostly from folks who do not like the language of war. “Could you say that in a different way?” or “I wish you would suggest that we go forth and create peace or go forth and be the peace we wish to see in the world.” I understand that feeling and the desire to take the language of war out of the way we speak, yet other ways of saying this don’t convey the message I wish. I mean - go forth and wage peace with the same ease, commitment and passion that you would use to wage war. What would that look like?

My husband Bob and I live less than 2 hours from Disney World. For Christmas last year, we bought annual passes. We have never done it before, and probably won’t do it again for a long while, but it was fun for this one year. We have run over there for parts of days. When we drive by we just stop in and eat or watch the castle show in the Magic Kingdom. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XlRJxHwPnEY This YouTube video gives you an idea of what the show is like.

Because we can just walk in whenever we want, we have done several things that we would never have thought to do prior to this year. One example: we love the castle show so much, we just stop, camp out under the Walt and Mickey statue, and wait for the show to begin. 

Every time we have done this in the past year, a community of people gathers. It is a real community. We feed each other, watch over one another, make sure that the children can see, share wisdom and space. We sing all the Disney songs in English - even when our natural language is Portuguese, Japanese or Hungarian. We laugh, we dash away tears, we are amazed, transformed, as if by magic. In the end, it is always difficult to say good-bye. There is a longing to make it last. We want to hang on to the peaceful, caring community that has formed. We touch, we smile at one another, we are grateful for this brief time we had together. It is, for the briefest moment, perfect. It is beloved. It is community. It forms spontaneously and with purpose. It lasts for two hours at the most. It is touching and real and full of possibility.
A few weeks ago, the last time we did this, Yumiko, a young woman from Japan, made Bob and me an origami Duffy (a Disney bear). As the fireworks ended and the music faded, we all looked at one another with that longing of not really wanting to let go and yet knowing it was time. Yumiko smiled and bowed and pressed the bear into my hand. I looked down and smiled. I thanked her. I was touched. I didn’t think to open it until the next day. It is a thank you note. It says, “Thank you for your kindness. I spent special time!! From Yumiko (Japan)” It sits on my desk and looks at me. It will always sit on my desk. We waged peace with the same ease, commitment, and passion that we would use to wage war. We all did it together, everyone that was in our small community under the Walt and Mickey statue.

At this time of year, when we often take the time to reflect on what we have accomplished or failed at, when we just might open our hearts to people and possibilities, I wish that we would find some time to wage a little peace. “God bless the whole world, no exceptions.” Peace on Earth and goodwill to all - all the people - all the Earth. “God bless us, every one!”

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

by Natalie Briscoe

I woke up a few mornings ago to find myself in the center of the holiday season. I found count downs on every webpage I visited, heard carols at nearly every outing, watched the commercials filled with anxiety and pressure on television, and felt the palpable disorientation at Starbucks. The scurry and the bustle of the “Season of Joy” are definitely at hand, with all of the pressures and expectations that go along with it.

Many of us long for the perfect season, seasons of an older age when magic was real, anticipation was titillating, and peace ruled throughout each home and each land. We are told through a lot of advertising exactly how much that perfect season will cost, and how long we must stand in line to acquire it. We are told which holiday is the correct holiday to celebrate, which holiday might be acceptable to bring up, and which holidays are not to be mentioned. We are told that we are not only supposed to have elaborate decorations and elaborate meals, we are also supposed to have swarms of family and friends around us at all times, and that these waves of people will bring us good tidings and cheer and cause us to be ever-so thankful for the love in our lives, even when we are lonely and in pain and deeply hurt by those who would call us family. We are told that the holidays will bring up fond memories of days past, not memories of loss and disappointment. We are told that if we don’t have a festive and beautiful holiday season then there must be something wrong with us.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the holidays. I host a large Thanksgiving dinner at my home, complete with a gaggle of loud and messy children running around. I can’t wait to get the holiday tree up, the lights strung, and the decorations put out. I love holiday baking and gift-giving and extra time spent with loved ones. I had very happy holidays as a child, with a bounty of food, gifts, and family. I look forward to recreating many traditions each year with my children.

But the holidays are also filled with the pang of loved ones who are no longer with us, and the dread of family members who feel the need to impose all of their expectations and needs and wants onto me and my holiday plans. I scour the internet for lists of safe dinner and family gathering conversations for when the politics are different and the cider is spiked. I rehearse my speeches for clearly telling people that yes, it’s okay to swear around my children, but no, it’s not okay to tickle them or pick them up without their consent. I get ready for the pies to burn or the television to break or the schedule to be thrown out the window, and I try my best to let go of the things which I cannot control.

The holiday season is often a pressure cooker for our social interactions. Some irritations that would not be given a second glance are suddenly boiling to the top during the season. I am often reminded of the Ram Dass quote, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” The people we love most often have a tendency to push all of our buttons and stand on every last nerve we have.

I was listening to the radio in the car last week, and during one particular show on which so very many things are considered, the hosts of the program were discussing the effects of dating apps and social media on the cultural expectations of friendships, family, and marriage. One host said that we are “living the lie of uncomplicated connection.” His argument, which struck me so deeply, was that people expect our interactions with each other to be simple and free of any uncomfortable moments. Don’t like someone? Swipe left. Don’t want to listen to someone? Un-friend them. Simple. Clear Cut, Customizable. Easy.

And false. If everyone had a Facebook page that said we are “In a Relationship” with Humanity, the relationship status would be “It’s Complicated.” Human beings have two common but separate needs – the need to be an individual and the need to be part of a group. These competing needs create tension within each of us and within systems that we create and participate in. Throw in a heaping scoop of cultural expectations around the holidays, and you basically have a recipe for a meltdown.

We want to be seen as individuals who have grown, changed, and accomplished so much. We want to be recognized for our hard-won integrity. We also want to feel a part of something much larger than ourselves, to know that we are dipping our hands into the continuously flowing river of life. In our families, we want to know that we are loved and accepted and cherished. In our congregations, we want much the same thing.

In our congregations, however, our Faith Tradition of Unitarian Universalism gives us wonderful tools for navigating the tensions between being an individual and being part of the group. These tools are our Covenants. They are the way we practice our religion.

There is probably no more important statement of identity than a congregation’s covenant. It tells people who you are, what you hold most important, and how you agree to be with one another. Our foundational covenant, the Covenant of the Seven Principles, clearly states the need to be separate individuals (We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every human being) and to be part of something much larger (We covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part). The human condition is stated clearly in the First and Seventh Principles, and the tension between them is managed through the middle five Principles.

Our covenants are sacred and simple promises we make to one another about how we will be in the world. Bringing our covenants to life is both difficult and rewarding. It brings Unitarian Universalism and our values of hope, love, justice, courage, and joy into the world. It grows us as individuals as we learn how our own integrity calls us to manage these competing tensions, and it grows us as groups and congregations as it incarnates the Beloved Community.

Relying on your covenants can also be helpful to navigate these often treacherous waters of the holidays. We can ask ourselves, “What values do I want to incarnate in the world?” and “Is it possible to choose kindness in this interaction?” In these ways, our simple, deep promises with one another and the world can bring about great peace, no matter how small the effort. And after all, isn’t that the reason for the season?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Who Is My Neighbor?

by the Rev. Susan M. Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff member

One of my favorite parts of doing vision/mission/strategic planning work is all that we discover by investigating our “mission field.” Sometimes we spend all of our time focused on who we are as a congregation and identifying our shared values and passions. Those are vital steps in shaping a compelling vision, but we can’t forget that we minister in a particular place at a particular time.

There is research work that suits every personality. For those who are gregarious, I ask them to pose this question to everyone they meet from the grocery store clerk to the mayor, “I belong to a congregation that is open to a variety of beliefs and focused on making this world a better place and I was wondering what you thought a congregation like that could contribute to our city/town/neighborhood.” In my experience, everyone has an opinion.

Those who like to work with data have some really exciting tools to explore. My favorite new one is at http://projects.nytimes.com/census/2010/explorer in which Dustin Cable from University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service has compiled racial identity info from the 2010 census. With the racial groups represented by differently colored dots, you can see at a glance the radical separation of races in most of our cities. Take a very distant view and the predominance of African Americans in the South and Hispanic/Latino Americans in the borderlands can be seen in glaring clarity. However, in working with congregations, I’ve used this tool to find some amazing locations of racial diversity as well as the intersections of racial enclaves. Using http://www.census.gov/2010census/popmap you can get analysis at the county (or parish) level on race, ethnicity, age, income and housing.

I think the most helpful tool is a Ministry Area Profile available online at http://www.perceptgroup.com. Percept Group has done area studies for congregations since 1987. I saw one for the first time when I was in parish ministry and doing UUA “Extension” training. It used to take weeks to get one, but now they are available on the web in just a few minutes. You get maps, charts, and tons of analysis particularly helpful to congregations including preferences in worship style, church architecture and programs. You find out the social justice and quality of life concerns of your neighbors as well as their preferences for making charitable donations. While reading one of these for a congregation recently, we discovered over 3,000 households in a 5-mile radius of the congregation with a higher than average tendency to be UU.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that our neighbors are not like us or don’t share our concerns. I suggest that you get some actual data to insert into your system while you are visioning and developing plans. It is inspiring to see that as many as 30% of people surrounding your congregation are very concerned about race relations or that 20% of them are looking for spiritual growth. It is sobering to discover that a growing demographic in your neighborhood is unemployed female heads of household with children under the age of 5 or that 12% of your neighboring adults don’t have a high school education. We can be more respectful of the uniqueness in our multi-cultural environment when we know that there is growth in your area from Mexican Americans, Vietnamese Americans and East Indian Americans rather some non-existent generic Hispanics/Latinos or Asians. 

Theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” What if we thought of those who live and work next door to our congregations as not merely a coincidence but a calling, an opportunity and a blessing?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Thirty Days of Gratitude, Rolled into One

by Carlton Elliott Smith

I noticed that some of my Southern Region colleagues are participating in "Thirty Days of Gratitude" on Facebook, a month-long practice of thanksgiving during the month in which we have a holiday that's all about appreciating our blessings.

The last full weekend in October was the 20th anniversary of my ordination into Unitarian Universalist ministry at the Hollis Unitarian Church in Queens, New York -- another occasion to contemplate the years gone by and remember how I arrived at this point. With these things in mind, I offer you, Unitarian Universalists of the Southern Region, my own Thirty Days of Gratitude, Rolled into One.

I'm grateful for
1. The extraordinary Southern Region team, program staff and administrators alike. For whatever I am able to accomplish in my role, I know that is woven through-and-through with their support, dedication, and encouragement.
2. The congregations of the Southern Region, with a special fist-bump to those who faithfully support the GIFT program -- Generously Investing for Tomorrow (and Today!). There would be no Southern Region team as it exists now without your financial contributions.
3. The "Three I's" of our UUA Congregational Life Staff -- Interconnection, Innovation, and Impact -- which help us prioritize projects.
4. The relatively smooth transition to regionalization, with the legal dissolution of our four Southern Districts last April. We have entered a new era of what is possible for Unitarian Universalism in our region, and the devoted leadership of district presidents and other officers has given us a great place to start.
5. The elders in our congregations, with whom we staff collaborate in our service to our faith. The work we do is ever-expanding, such that it requires our ongoing partnership. 
6. The work of writers, church leaders, and scholars such as Gil Rendle, Patrick Lencioni, Edwin Friedman, and many others that we draw from in the presentations and lectures we create.
7. Our Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, which drew me into this faith some 24 years ago and continue to be reference points that I visit again and again.
8. Our religious professionals -- ministers, religious educators, musicians, and administrators -- who are entrusted with the responsibility for building and maintaining sacred spaces.
9. Our many ancestors in the faith -- Viola Liuzzo, Sophia Lyon Fahs, Susan B. Anthony, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper -- whose lives testify to the power of our faith and the possibility of transformation.
10. Our congregational polity, that empowers each church, fellowship, and society to chart its own course with regards to its ministry and its resources.
11. Our covenantal faith, which binds us together by the depth of our relationship and commitment to one another rather than by any creed.
12. Our small and mid-sized congregations, that often represent our faith on backroads and in underserved communities. 
13. Our larger congregations, which are the source of most of the numerical growth within our region.
14. Our teaching congregations that provide new generations of ministerial leadership.
15. Our dying congregations, that have faithfully served our tradition and hung on as long as they could, but are now ready to give their remaining wealth toward the growing, emerging communities of faith.  
16. Our emerging congregations, that are daring to try new ways of being in community, of doing worship and service, that are giving us insights into what the contours of congregational life might be in generations to come.
17. Our multi-site congregations that are partnering with one another and using modern technology to shrink the miles between them.
18. Our struggling congregations, whose leaders are boldly facing crises of faith and showing what can be done when belief in the power of community remains strong.
19. Our visionary congregations that embark upon ambitious building campaigns and community outreach projects that transform local communities.
20. Our bold congregations which, in the face of anti-blackness and white supremacy, dare to declare that #blacklivesmatter.
21. Our resilient congregations, who continue to serve and minister in spite of devastating tragedies and losses.
22. Our environmentally-conscious congregations, which show us that care for our planet is as much a part of our ministry as anything else that we do.
23. Our Welcoming Congregations, many of which were on the forefront of the marriage equality wave that finally(!) swept across our country this June, which are leading the way for transgender inclusion and lgbtq employment and housing protection under the law.
24. Our accessible congregations, that are making adjustments to their facilities so that more people will have access to the love we offer.
25. Our congregations in transition, that are saying goodbye to ministers completing their service and rediscovering their own identities distinct from those leaders.
26. Our justice-seeking congregations, who show up again and again, standing on the side of love in yellow shirts and otherwise :-)
27. Our congregations that consistently support leadership development through participation in our Leadership Experiences, Presidents' Convocation, SW Fall Harvest, and the like. You are increasing the capacity of our region and of your own congregations at the same time!
28. The sources of our faith, which ground us in the ancient past and guide us toward the horizon, giving us roots and wings.
29. The Association of Unitarian Universalist congregations, and of Unitarian Universalists, that provides the over-arching umbrella for all that we do as a liberal religious movement.
30. The forgiveness that is there for me regarding anyone I unintentionally omitted or offended with this gratitude list. 

For all that is our life, we sing our thanks and praise
For all life is a gift that we are called to use
To build the common good, and make our own days glad.* 

In faith and gratitude,
Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith  |  Congregational Life Staff, UUA Southern Region

* from "For All That Is Our Life", Singing the Living Tradition #128

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What Is Essential

by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff member

One piece of my job is working with new Unitarian Universalist emerging ministries. There are many ways of becoming a Unitarian Universalist group, including becoming one of the newly formed Covenanting Communities. See http://www.uua.org/association/emerging.

It is an honor and a privilege to work with these folks. Prior to my coming on the Southern Region’s Congregational Life staff, I was creating a new congregation in upstate New York. As with any ministry, there is so much work at hand. It is my job to help emerging ministries to focus. I have four areas that are critical in their formation.

The first is spiritual depth. Because there is so much work facing these folks, their own spiritual life will diminish unless they are intentional about tending to it. This involves self-care. I encourage all them to be diligent about their own daily spiritual practices, and pay attention to balancing family and friends, their work, and their congregational commitment. Beyond self-care is going deeper into the Unitarian Universalist faith. If they are going to create a Unitarian Universalist covenantal faith community, they must know what that means in a deep way. As leaders, they must grow in depth in order for the community to grow in size. They, therefore, must live with each other in a covenantal way. 

The second is Unitarian Universalism. In order to be able to grow this wonderful faith, we must understand our theology and heritage. We have values that have stood the test of time. We must know what those are and how others have sacrificed for them in order of us to have the privileges that we enjoy. We have a life saving and giving faith. We must be able to understand that relationships and how we behave (covenant) affects how we interact with the world. Our world is hurting and broken. We must know ourselves so that we can be in relationship with others who are different from us in order to search for wholeness.

The third is purpose. It is critical for new groups to have a sense of coming together for something larger than themselves. It is so easy to create the church for me. So many people get seduced into thinking that this is their opportunity to create the congregation that they have always wanted with the kind of worship that they like, etc. This is the thinking that will kill it. There must be a sense of creating a space for those that we have not thought about yet. I like to think that when the Martians find us, they will say, "Those UUs have it going on!" But we must be creating something special for others, not ourselves. Having a purpose beyond themselves must stay central. I ask things like how are you changing the world? And I expect real answers.

And, lastly, generosity. While each of the others leads nicely into the next one, generosity needs to be the lens through which they view everything else. Questions I might ask are: How are you being generous with yourselves? How are you being generous with Unitarian Universalism? How are you being generous with your local community, and how is that helping to define your purpose? Many well established congregations ask me how they can become generous. That is much harder to do later, but at the beginning you can tend to generosity and feed it. If you become a generous people from the beginning, it becomes part of your culture and your values.

These are the things that I hope to get into groups’ DNA as they are forming. If they can get these four things right, what could be more joyous? Really, in one form or another, isn’t this what we want for all of our congregations? How are you doing in these four areas? Let me know. I posted this to our Facebook group. Please post replies there (and join the group, if you haven't, already!).

Monday, October 5, 2015

Universalist Pragmatism & Courage

by Rev. Kenn Hurto, UUA Southern Region Lead

No doubt you have heard that many Unitarian Universalist congregations have posted signs on their property — Black Lives Matter — only to have them defaced or torn down, sometimes within hours, and often more than once.

What’s that all about? It is a sad sign of the fear and hatred abounding in our society. That the phrase “black lives matter” is controversial is a sign of white privilege. Yes, I hear the anxiety in the retort, “All lives matter.” And, indeed they do. But, why is it problematic to say “black lives  matter?” Are people of color not in the “all?” That’s just the point: black lives matter, too! Not more, but as well as all others!

 Black Lives Matter arose in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin murder and a sense that a great injustice had been done — again! For background, see A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement by movement co-founder Alicia Garza.

The need for a banner comes in part from the undeniable observation that all too often black lives don’t matter in our racially severed society. Indeed, to quote Alicia Garza, where black lives “are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”

The late Unitarian Universalist theologian, Dr. Ted Jones once quipped: “Black people get the most of the worst and the least of the best.” Slavery is the original sin of America. It’s legacy is everywhere and shows up in a pandora’s box of racist evils: From crime to housing access, from lack of educational opportunity to unjust policing, from health care to no decent neighborhood grocery stores, from employment barriers to every day slights, everything is harder if you are black. Black Lives Matter is one way of saying, enough and no more.

Unitarian Universalism has its roots in the spiritual struggles of white, European, Protestant descendants. Our faith has been defined mostly as an effort to come up with right belief, correcting the irrational tenets of religious orthodoxy. We have good reason to be proud of our critique of ill-founded, often superstitious beliefs. 

Beliefs do matter. Racism is proof of that. Yet, sadly, all too often our Unitarian Universalist yearning for purity in our belief truncates our ministry into an unending series of irrelevant arguments. This fussing is a bad habit. It keeps us distant from the daily struggles too many have just to survive. When you consider that 1 in 7 Americans face food insecurity every day or that more than 30,000 people die of gun shots every year, is the question of God’s unity vs trinity even worth discussing? 

Our sainted Emerson, preferring a well-grounded faith, famously cut down a pompous orator of right belief by saying, “Sir, your actions speak so loudly, I can barely hear a word you say.” Our Universalist ancestors — less preoccupied with religious argument than the Unitarians —taught  that God or what simply matters most is found in loving action and that all souls are worthy of such love. That side of our faith is the source of another banner we proudly display: “Standing on the Side of Love.”

In a recent sermon, I said, “Love is our teaching. It is our practice. It is our end.” Love calls us to be awake to the ways any lives do not matter. Love demands we speak up, step up when and where anyone is not loved. We Unitarian Universalists are at our best when stand on the side of love every day. We are at our best when our congregations assess their ministries by asking: Are we loving more broadly, more truly? If not, let’s get going; there’s work to be done.

I am proud so many Unitarian Universalists and so many of our congregations are showing up and standing on the side of Black Lives Matter. It is our faith at its best.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Widening the Lanes on Relationship Highway

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.
-- Rabindranath Tagore

This is one of my favorite quotes. It’s not because it is fun to say Rabindranath Tagore’s name (though it is fun to say!), it is because it is one of the truest statements I hold dear in my life and in my ministry. I know many of you have a fondness for this particular quote, and I also am aware that many of you find joy in serving your communities and congregations, just as I do.

We are on our way! Meaning we, as the Southern Region, have set sail, and are now seeing the horizon unfold before us, as the familiar territory of what was slowly fades into memory. We come to the never before navigated, uncharted territory of what it means to be in deep interdependent, covenantal relationship with our neighboring congregations, our Region, and our Association. We have embarked on a long term experiment of sorts, one that will challenge us, move us to the edges of our comfort zone, provoke us to boldly go where no Region has gone before! Sounds exciting, right?! What does it really mean though? For you and your home congregation? What does the dissolution of the SED, FLD, MSD and SWUUC governing boards and covenanting as a region mean in your back yard?

It means we have swung open the doors to building relationships with our neighboring UU congregations and Interfaith partners- we no longer have hard boundaries keeping us siloed, but nice dash lines (like those on the highway) to move in and out of the areas we are called to. It means we have to be intentional about our relationships and stepping up and in to new roles and saying “yes” when asked, or, better yet, seeing the need and pitching in without being asked sometimes. It means being open to and available to your neighbors when they are in need, as you hope they are for you when you are in need. It means asking how someone is and really listening to their response.  It means we must honor the feelings of loss some might have after being a part of their District structure for a long time, and reminding ourselves that our regional family has grown and we have many new friends we just haven’t met yet. It means looking outside of our own congregations and seeing how we can influence our whole Association and change the world, not just our own congregations. It means the change you have been asking for is here! YOU ARE IT, and this is your opportunity to help shape the next phase of our Faith movement!

There is great need for communication and relationship in our modern world - that is why many found our religious homes in Unitarian Universalism in the first place. I wish to inspire you to express your passion, and find others throughout the Region who share the same. The Regional staff is here to help support the founding of new ‘affinity’ clusters with tools, resources, and coaching. What are you most passionate about? What would you like to start or be a part of? Who knows what good things this could lead to? For example, maybe a passion of yours is knitting. I know we have many great knitters out there! Getting together with others in your area sounds like a grand idea, but what if you knew of several other groups around the Region with the same interests? And then, what if you were to have a Skype session or two to get to know one another and a plan is hatched. Your group decides to make hats and scarves for a shelter in each city in the new cluster. Tada - the Southern Region Knitters for a Warm Winter affinity cluster is born! It could really be that simple: meet new people, learn about them as they learn about you, and do good works for our communities and our Faith. That sounds like a potential brick in the wall of Beloved Community to me.

Please know all your efforts in faithful service to Unitarian Universalism are appreciated and needed even more as we carve our new pathways! My colleagues on your Southern Region staff team and I are so proud and blessed to serve the congregations of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas!  You can find your congregations’ Primary Contact by clicking the link here- http://www.uuasouthernregion.org/staff/primarycontact.html

And remember: We are Better Together!

With Faith and Hope for a Bright Future,

Maggie Lovins
UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff