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.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

I Reach Out to You; Will You Reach Out to Me?

by Connie Goodbread, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff

Come on people now smile on your brother, 
everybody get together, try to love one another, right now. 
--The Youngbloods

I wrote this blog three days before the mass shooting at Pulse in Orlando.  I read it through and it is still what I want to say.  However, I cannot let our newsletter go out without saying something about this horrific act of violence that happened in the heart of Florida.  We humans are born out of a violent past and into a violent world.  The violence of nature cannot be tamed but we could try to curb the violence that is in our control.  If violence is preached about as the way into heaven, as one person’s right over another, as the only way of being heard, as a good way to make others bend to our will, as a true path to riches - we just end up with more and more violence.  If we do not look at how The United Stares of America contributes to this culture of violence, not only here, at home, but all over the world, the violence only continues.  My questions are - how do I contribute to this culture of violence? What do I need to change in myself?  Am I brave enough to make those needed changes?  

In a workshop last month I was asked by a participant - “What can we do to fight against the radicalization that is going on in the world today?”  This participant went on to say that what seemed to be at the core of this radicalization is the marginalization of segments of the world’s culture that seems to leave people oppressed and feeling powerless, with nowhere to turn.  Hate is easy when you are unloved and think that you have little to lose.  What I said back was, “Radical love.  We need to be who we say we are and, therefore, be truly counter-cultural.  We need to radicalize love.”

Where do we begin to radicalize love?  What’s the first step?  It seems to me that the only place we can begin is with our own hearts.  Am I willing to allow love into my heart?  I mean to really let love in.  Am I willing to look at creation lovingly?   Am I willing to manifest more love in the world - be loved and be love?  And when I fail to be as loving as I should be - am I willing to forgive myself and begin again, in love?  

How might this love help me to be a better person and partner?  How might this love help me to work toward deeper community?  To be in genuine community I must be willing to give part of me to become the we.  What am I willing to give, share, work at, discuss, compromise, take responsibility for, change, process and take part in - so that me becomes we and we are community.  It is only in community that we will have the greatest impact.  I am not talking about a community of like-minded people - or a social club or a discussion group.  This would be a full soul, body and mind community and experience. 

In a different workshop a participant asked me – “Then what?  What would happen if we succeeded?”  I laughed and said that I didn’t know but it would be fun to find out - maybe we would just lift off the Earth.  Someone yelled Rapture!  We all laughed.  I don’t know what would happen next.  I don’t know what it would be like if fear and greed and jealousy were not driving the bus.  If people were not oppressed by other people, if we really cared for one another, understanding that if one is oppressed all are oppressed.  I don’t know what that would be like - but I think it would be amazing.

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

The Beloved Community - I went on line and looked it up. I found a wealth of information.  Josiah Royce is quoted, as is Dr. King.  There are sermons from all across our Association.  Faith development programs are doing discussion groups and classes.  Progressive religious blogs from many Denominations discuss its merit.  It is compared to The Kingdom of God, Utopia, Nirvana and the harmony of all life.  It is used as an invitation on congregational website - Come into our Beloved Community.  In this invitation it is implied that this congregation has indeed achieved becoming a Beloved Community.  I would like to see that because far too often we mistake the Beloved Community for the walled city on the hill.  They are not the same. I want to suggest that we have not built the Beloved Community yet.  Even if we have the greatest congregation in the whole wide world, we are not there yet.  We do not sit at the welcome table.  We are still struggling to find more love somewhere and we have not found, nor have we formed, the Beloved Community.  

We hunger and long for it and because of our hunger and our longing, when, for the briefest of moments, we get a glimpse of it, a twinkling, a sparkle, a perfect harmonious note - we think we have found it.  But we have merely gotten a glimpse, a twinkle, a sparkle and a note of perfect harmony.  Because of that - because of having had that moment, we know what it feels like - it feels like home.  Home, that place where you are warm, understood, loved and cherished for who you are not what you can do or give or even what others want you to be.  Home, where there is love and trust and all are welcome.  Home, where there is empathy and support.  

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision. We cannot be there in small pockets.  If one is oppressed all are oppressed.  Therefore, the Beloved Community cannot happen merely inside a congregation - because our congregations do not exist in isolation, in a vacuum, all alone.  Our congregations, no matter how great they are, exist in this world, this imperfect human world.  This imperfect human world that is far too often driven by fear, greed and hatred.  This imperfect human world where oppression is the water we swim in.   

So - in this world of imperfection - what can we hope for?  What is to be done?  How can we make a difference?  Where do we begin?  What can we change?  Again, we begin with ourselves as we are.  We begin with a change of heart.  I reach out to you; will you reach out to me?

Friday, June 3, 2016

Whole Church

by Natalie Briscoe, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff
In my last article for our Southern Region news, I wrote about a model of youth ministry that is relationship centered and based in a mentorship model rather than a group or class-based model. It would be an understatement to say that I received  some strong reactions to that article. I received calls and emails from around the country asking for more information about how to implement a program such as this in their congregations.  It was wonderfully exciting to see how many congregations throughout our Unitarian Universalist Association are ready and willing to experiment with new ideas of serving our Youth.  I was so grateful to be a part of those conversations. 
I thought for many weeks about how to write a program that detailed exactly how to build mentoring relationships into the youth program. I considered writing about safety policies, how to handle communication with youth, and how to select and train your mentors. I thought about writing a detailed list of topics to talk about in mentor/mentee conversations and how to structure and plan these meetings. I thought about writing ceremonies which recognize these relationships in your congregations and detailing how to foster and celebrate these relationships over the course of your church year. 
I would begin again and again, and over and over I would completely hit a brick wall. Something was missing, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Something bothered me about this work, and I couldn’t understand what it was. 
I finally realized that the first article had some pretty large assumptions in it, and I don’t think we can continue to build programs for youth – or for anyone in our congregations – until these assumptions are spoken.  Writing a program of this nature – in all its glorious detail – is something that I absolutely love to do, and will do. I worry, however, that this program will become a technical solution to an adaptive issue. If the underlying philosophy of youth in the congregation is not addressed, a program such as this will surely fail. We first have to look at the congregational culture around children, youth, and even young adults before any structure can be imposed. 
My first assumption in that first article is that some, but not all, youth programs are not “working” in congregations. By not working, I mean failing to maintain attendance, interest, and energy. I also might mean that they are not serving our youth, not helping them become more spiritually healthy and grounded individuals, and not giving youth a spiritual community which helps them navigate the choppy waters of adolescence.  I think the response to the first article tells me that this rings true for many.
A second assumption is that youth need those things I just mentioned: the opportunity to grow spiritually as individuals and a community that grounds and supports them.  These are two of the main reasons people come to church at all, and we forget that youth are looking for these things in a church as well.  I believe this assumption also strikes many as true, both in their personal experience and with regard to research on the subject. 
A third and final assumption is that our goal is for our congregations to be whole communities where all people are welcomed. I believe most Unitarian Universalists would also affirm this statement, but the shadow side of this remark is the underlying assumption that our congregations are historically segregated places. It was a large advancement in religious education when we realized that children and youth are not mini-adults, and that they have unique needs and desires. We made church a significantly more welcoming place when we gave people of all ages an opportunity to be together in cohort groups which catered to the particular developmental needs of a certain age group. This culture change was nothing short of a revolution, and it served our communities well. 
As time went on, however, our churches came to rely on the model where children went one way, youth another, and adults a third. We came to see – and implicitly teach – that RE is for kids, youth group is for youth, and worship is for adults. We started to come into church to drop off our kids to receive their liberal religious education and to have our “adult time."  Church became more and more segregated on the basis of age, with fewer and fewer opportunities for the whole community to be together and create meaning.  Somewhere along the way, we forgot that church was meant to be one whole community, where people of all ages learn and teach together and figure out what it means to live a Unitarian Universalist life. Since Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal, not creedal, religion, the way in which we are in covenantal community with one another is how we practice our religion. If we are not doing that as a whole community, then I would venture to say we are broken. 
We have seen so many of the harsh implications of this model play out in our congregations and in our larger communities. Youth who are segregated into youth groups – no matter how high-functioning and engaging those groups are– bridge into young adulthood and realize that the church they have grown to know and love does not exist beyond high school.  In fact, it is often the case that the better the youth group, the harder it is to transition to congregational life. Where once youth were leaders in their youth groups, they find their voices marginalized in the larger congregation, both as youth and as young adults. So, unable to find a place, they leave.  And hopefully, if we are lucky, they return when the congregation serves their needs again – most often when they have families of their own. 
As communities of faith, we are not whole. By marginalizing youth and young adults, and by failing to change our very specific culture to include their voices and help their spiritual needs to be met in the context of the larger community, we are breaking ourselves over and over. I, for one, refuse to accept this brokenness  as the inevitability that I was taught it was. 
I believe in Whole Church. I believe in whole community. I think it is time for the pendulum to swing back toward spending more time together as a complete community. It is time for us to remember – as we once knew so well – that everyone, regardless of age, needs to come together to make sense of the world (worship), to learn about ourselves and others (religious education), to create community and break bread together (fellowship), to get in touch with the deepest part of ourselves and to listen to that still small voice (spiritual practice), and to be of service in the name of Love (justice-making).  And we need time to do those things together, because it’s all of our responsibility to pass our religion to our children and youth. They need us, they need our communities, they need our knowledge, and they need our love. And we most definitely need theirs. 
Whole Church means that all people are welcomed and accepted into our community. It means that we recognize that people of different ages have different needs, and we seek to be in relationship with them as they go about their journey of becoming. It is the idea that not just the perfect parts of us are welcome, but the parts that we are still working on are welcome, too. We are free to be ourselves in our communities, even if that means sometimes our shared space is quiet and sometimes our shared space is loud. We are free to be ourselves here, even if that means some of us want to pray and some of us want to sing and some of us want to cry and some of us want to dance. All of our expressions of faith are welcomed  because that is how we see the sacred beyond our own hearts. 
Whole Church means that we support families and not just individuals. It means we help parents and grandparents talk to children about what is most important. It means we give youth the meaningful relationships with adults who are not their parents to ensure their healthy development. It means that we see the community as a place where we build the world we dream about, one child and youth at a time. It means that we step into teaching and mentorship roles for children and youth because it’s hard to be a parent, and we can support each other spiritually and emotionally by being the village we all so desperately need.  It means that saving the world starts with raising children who know boundless love, and church is a place where we can go to intentionally do that. 
That is not to say, however, that  Whole Church means we are together all the time. Of course we still have time for children to run on the playground while adults drink hot coffee and talk about things other than Thomas the Tank Engine. Of course we have time to be together in developmentally appropriate ways, with information and conversation that is geared for a particular age. But it also means that our whole selves are welcome wherever we are on the path, and we join our lives together in covenantal community.  It means we are intentional about our time together and our time apart, and we live our lives in the balance between the two. Whole Church calls us to be co-creators of our faith communities, not consumers of it. If we desire a community where all are welcome and encouraged on their spiritual journey, then we are called to be the welcomers, even when that call makes us uncomfortable or the community transforms into something that we weren’t expecting.  
So, going all the way back to the way this article began, I can’t talk about mentorship programs in a congregation without talking about Whole Church. We have to think about having authentic relationships with youth where they are included in the fabric of the community for the gifts they bring and the needs they have right in this very moment. If we don’t think about the overall culture of our congregations and how welcoming they are to all people, no matter what their age, then the mentoring relationship has little foundation. It will be unsupported, and it could end up being just another program. Could it succeed without widespread culture change? Maybe. But isn’t it one of our promises to one another that we don’t have to do all of this hard work alone? 

To be truly transformational in our relationships and the lives of our Youth, I urge us to think about the larger congregational culture that supports and sustains the spiritual development of all people in the community, and how we do that through our authentic and personal relationships with each individual, regardless of age, religion, beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical ability, ethnic and cultural background, or income level. No matter how you got here or where you came from, no matter how long you’ve been traveling, Unitarian Universalism welcomes you. We must be those people for our Youth, so that we can all continue to be those people for the world.