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. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Gather in Peace, Gather in Thanks

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

Gather in peace, gather in thanks
Gather in sympathy now and then
Gather in hope, compassion and strength
Gather to celebrate once again

Since I joined our Unitarian Universalist Association as a ministerial candidate in 1995, "Gather the Spirit" (#347 in Singing the Living Tradition) has continually grounded me in what inspires me about our faith. Written by our faith's own Jim Scott, it is a contemporary Unitarian Universalist song that echoes both the open-heartedness and the broken-heartedness I know from the black churches of my youth. It speaks to one of the our mantras on your Southern Region Congregational Staff that resonates deeply with me: "We Are Better Together".

I grew up at Asbury United Methodist Church, the black United Methodist congregation in my largely de facto segregated hometown in North Mississippi. The fact that white Methodists and black Methodists go to different churches in different parts of town underscores the long legacy of white supremacy that still plays out among us today. Our black church was a kind of haven for me and other families, a place where we were acknowledged for our full humanity and not judged as black, and therefore inferior and untrustworthy, as was the case at the dime store and other establishments. Our overwhelmingly black schools, churches and businesses served as a refuge from the ways we were seen by white townspeople.

Our Unitarian Universalist congregations -- especially in the Southern Region -- often serve a similar function for liberal religious and non religious folk. That is, they are places where people gather outside the gaze of the religiously conservative people who dominate the social and political landscape. When Unitarian Universalists gather here, it's an opportunity to affirm and celebrate the value we hold dear, which distinguish us in some ways from others in our surrounding communities. Paradoxical to our inclusive intentions, a deep sense of community can thrive among excluded people *because* we are excluded.

A month from now, Unitarian Universalists from all over the continent and beyond will begin to arrive in Columbus, Ohio for our annual General Assembly. We will gather as people with a common commitment to treating each other well, emphasizing 'deeds, not creeds.' We will affirm our traditions and our culture. As it turns out, there are ways in which UU culture tracks with white supremacy (How could it not?), such that we Unitarian Universalists of color often find ourselves marginalized in the places we turn to for spiritual sustenance. 

This year's General Assembly will reflect commitments large and small to bring Black Lives to the center of our liberal religious movement, and consequently create more space for all Unitarian Universalists to be fully and unapologetically themselves. Some of us are convinced that all lives will matter when #blacklivesmatter. To learn more about some of the distinguishing features of this GA, visit

So let us look forward to this year's General Assembly, and to all the many occasions we will have to gather over the summer -- The Point, Presidents Convocations, DBLE, SUULE and more. Let's gather to celebrate, again and again and again.

In faith,


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Differences Are Here to Stay

by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff

I have been in many conversations recently about difference. Differences really do matter. Unfortunately, they go unnoticed or are used to divide us. I envision a place where differences not only matter, but can be a reason for us to come together. 

We live in a time of brokenness and disconnection. One of the joys of being part of a Unitarian Universalist community is that we can find connections to begin to heal the broken parts of life.

One place where our divisions are obvious is our current political landscape, where the complexity of issues has been reduced to “us vs them.” There is no room for nuance, complexity or strategy discussions.

Let’s turn to our congregational landscape. Differences abound in our congregations, but you may not know it at first glance. There is often an expression of “we are one" or “deep down we are all the same;" all part of the human family. Really? Is that as deeply as we can see each other? I hope not.

We like to think of our congregations as places where we welcome everyone. But when we have an attitude of “we are all the same,” we actually are not making room for differences. We become exclusive; the opposite of our spoken goal. 

When we are unaware of our own congregation’s unique identity, we are implying that we expect assimilation from those who wish to join us. When we don’t know why we do what we do, we allow “that’s just the way we do things around here” to become our default. In other words, when we can’t see our own congregational culture, that very culture becomes what is “normal,” and we adopt polices and practices that fit with that “normal”.

The implication is that if I am looking for a spiritual home to be an antidote to the disconnection that surrounds me, I must assimilate to the culture of the congregation. That often means giving up part of my own identity in order to “fit in.” I will “go along” to “get along”. 

Is that fair? If I am the vulnerable one; the one who took the risk of walking in the door and opening myself up to trust the people of the congregation, should I be the one who is expected to give up part of myself?

What would the generous and welcoming congregational approach be? Would we be willing to give up some of the things that make us feel at home and comfortable in order to be the place that truly values equity for all?  Instead of expecting others to change in order to become one of us, can we change?  

Moving from brokenness to wholeness is a long road. We cannot fix our oppressive world in a short amount of time. However, isn’t it our responsibility to do the shifting so that others can find a home to heal the disconnection that is breaking our hearts?

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Complexity and Careful Leadership

by the Reverend Kenneth Gordon Hurto, Lead Executive, UUA Southern Region

We all use tools. That is a defining trait of being human. Tools are good. Yet, as this adage from Abraham Maslow suggests, it is important to have the right tool when faced with a problem.

We on the Region’s field staff like tools. We are eager to make them available to congregational leaders to help them cope with the challenges of the modern church. Here are a few:

We like “small group ministry” as a way to help our people go deeper with one another and in their understanding of life values and commitments.

We think “program budgeting” is a necessary tool to align a congregation’s Mission with its resources.

Oh, Mission: we believe it vitally important to have and review every few years a congregational “Statement of Mission.” We really want it to be short, memorable, and reflective of the congregation’s core values.

Perhaps more than others, perhaps, our team needs to review congregational web sites. We know they are better tools if they are fresh, colorful, addressed to the next guest who may look you up before coming to worship, and if address, telephone number and directions are prominent on your splash page!

In the same vein, we have learned the good results from an active, well-monitored Facebook page. Learning how to effectively use social media is a must have tool.

Our work often includes congregational transitions. We have tools to help recruit your religious professionals, to work out letters of agreement, or lead a “start-up” workshop for clarifying roles and responsibilities.

Leadership development is a large tool we use in many settings. The Southern Unitarian Universalist & Dwight Brown Leadership Experiences (coming July 24-29 & August 7-12) and the annual Presidents' Convocations (July 8-10) are mega-tools, at which participants learn in depth about faith development, self-differentiation, conflict management, and congregational growth. This is in addition to the daily consultation our team provides Board Presidents and clergy. We also have a tool called “Extended Leadership Experience” which utilizes area clusters over several months of engagement.

We also like to use something called Appreciative Inquiry, another, Polarity Management, or Compassionate Communication to help congregations move forward in times of change or when tensions build. More recently, we’ve added a tool for inter-cultural and multi-cultural competence called Differences That Make a Difference (May 21) to further our ability to be more inclusive and manage diversity well.

As the song suggests, these are just a few of our favorite things in our tool kit. But make no mistake: tools are of no value when wrongly applied — either because the tool is not apt for the problem or it is used with the wrong intent. This is why I often tell leaders, “how” you lead is more important than anything you do! I am also fond of saying most any tool will work if there is mutual trust, respect and good will, but no tool will work if those qualities are absent.

A growing congregational leader will expand the repertoire of responses (i.e., tools) for addressing problems.  

So, don’t be a one-hammer slammer. Think of yourself as a multi-tool. It will help you in the complex role of leading your congregation.  

Friday, April 1, 2016

Florida's Spring Gathering 2016

Florida's Spring Gathering A Chance for Hearts and Voices to be Heard

By Margie Manning, Southern Region Regional Elder Development Team

Unitarian Universalists from throughout Florida turned out for our first Florida Gathering - a chance to worship, learn and grow our spirits in community, while having a great time catching up with friends.
Rev. Kenn Hurto, our Southern Region Executive Lead, and Congregational Life Staff Members Connie Goodbread and Rev. Carlton Smith, as well as Rev. Vail Weller, our UUA's Congregational Giving Director, joined the ministers, congregational staff, lay leaders and all those seeking connections who spent the full day Saturday, March 12 at Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater.
It was the first all-state gathering since April 2015, when congregations in the Florida District and throughout our UUA Southern Region voted to dissolve our district governance. Although we no longer have annual assemblies, and the business that comes with them, such as voting on district officers, we know how important it is to keep our relationships strong, and the Florida Gathering allowed us to do that.
"This was a great opportunity to meet and socialize with UUs from all over Florida," said Elizabeth Anthony, a lay leader at Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville. "I think events like this are awesome times for intercongregational fellowship and learning, and I hope to see more of them in the future."

Rev. Carlton with Jacksonville and Buckman Bridge UUs and friends
The entire group took part in the morning session, which focused on covenant, in a presentation that also was a demonstration of our commitment to shared ministry. Connie walked us through the basics on systems theory, which helps us understand how each of us are connected to our congregations and our congregations are connected to each other. We talked about the importance of trust and the historical roots of covenant in our faith tradition. I - as a member of our Southern Region's Regional Elder Development team, or RED Team - talked about my own experiences with developing a covenant, examples of covenants, and how congregations can deepen their covenant to each other.
Building on the importance of the solemn promises we make to each other, we heard from Rev. Weller about the Generously Investing for Tomorrow (GIFT) program in our Southern Region (the Annual Program Fund elsewhere), and how our congregations' gifts allow our Unitarian Universalist Association to provide the resources that make a difference in people's lives.
For the afternoon, we broke into three smaller groups.
Carlton's workshop, "Social Justice/Witness/Black Lives Matter," was both empowering and refreshing, said Terri Neal, who describes herself as a lapsed Catholic/agnostic who is drawn to Unitarian Universalist churches by our commitment to justice and freedom of thought. As a Black member of a diverse but predominantly White Catholic parish, Terri said she experienced resistance for taking part in social justice actions and found few allies, and she has Black friends who have felt the same in other integrated congregations.
"It was so validating to hear Rev. Smith discuss UU work for racial justice. And, it was incredibly healing to voice frustrations, fears, and suggestions to a mostly White audience genuinely open to listen and act," Terri said. "My heart, as well as my voice, had been heard."

It was enlightening to hear how other Unitarian Universalists understand - or don't understand - the Black Live Matter movement, said Elizabeth. "This was a reminder to me of how we have to make sure that we are taking the initiative to make sure we understand the causes that we choose to support."
Connie led a discussion of "Leadership as a Spiritual Practice," touching on many of the topics explored in much greater detail at the Southern Unitarian Universalist Leadership Institute, and the Dwight Brown Leadership Experience.
Kenn's workshop, "The Zen of Stewardship," helped participants understand that there's much more than asking for and receiving money involved in successful stewardship efforts. We need to share our stories to build the relationships that are the foundation for financial success. Kenn also showed us how to make a budget that helps everyone understand how our contributions help our congregations live their missions.
This Gathering was made possible by lots of people who worked behind the scenes to make it happen seamlessly, including Harriet Ha-Sidi, a member of Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater who pulled together a team of volunteers for registration, setup and food service. Our thanks to UUC for hosting, and to all who took part, for helping Unitarian Universalism continue to grow in the Sunshine State.
-Written by Margie Manning, a member of the Southern Region Regional Elder Development Team and a member of Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater

48 participants representing 17 congregations attended the 2016 Florida Spring Gathering event. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Fear Is Real, but so Is Hope

by Maggie Lovins, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

One need not look far these days to see people living in fear. This fear is being spurred on by many in the political arena of our country and internationally. Its flames are being stoked by vast quantities of unknowns, and the fear is palpable even to innocent bystanders. One might ask, “Is the Boogieman real?” Has he ever come to visit you when all is still and dark? Some would like us to believe in this legendary creature meant to instill irrational fear; they just serve it to us with a different name, from various locations, and with religious beliefs that might be different than ours. When we are faced with so much antagonism, fear mongering and senseless hatred how do we get our loving, compassionate and covenantal voices to be heard above the din? How do we reach out to our neighbors of varying beliefs and lifestyles and say to them we support you and are here for you like the Bay Area congregation did in Texas a few months back? 

Better yet, how do we start on an even smaller scale with our own congregational members? How do we build meaningful relationships within our walls that give us the strength, skills and stamina we need to do the work of Justice Making and building the Beloved Community in our hurting world? There are many ways we could name here, but I want to lift up an almost invisible way, a way so mundane that it is usually overlooked and not even considered a foundational piece of congregational relationship building - and that is with our congregational and Associational policies and procedures.

Now, I’m not talking about our Principles, or our Polity, or our fervent use of democracy though those values are employed in the crafting of such policies. I am talking about setting safe space for all peoples to feel welcomed, to address some of the what if’s before they become oh, no’s. I have spoken before in my blogs about safety and how it is a necessary foundational component of a healthy congregation, so forgive me as I repeat myself for the sake of safe policy making and holding each other accountable and responsible to do this needed, though not particularly exciting work, for the greater good of all and for our relationships.

One of the ways your congregation can work on some foundational safety guidelines is by participating in the Sexually Safer Best Practice Initiative. The UUA and the Religious Institute are partnering to launch this new initiative to help our congregations be free from sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual misconduct. Several features of this website can assist our congregations to do this work by suggesting policies be in place for staff and volunteer screening along with training and education for congregational members of all ages. The website and congregational program give examples of effective policies for incorporating persons with history of sexual offenses, something many congregations have no experience with and they are often caught unaware of what to do if a situation arises. The program asks for on-going commitment from the congregational leadership and members in helping maintain a place of sexual safety. Check out a short video explaining more about this program here.  I am pleased to be the Southern Region’s project manager for this program and would love a chance to work with any and all of our congregations to achieve the certification of Sexually Safer Best Practice Congregation. Drop me an email to start the conversation!

Those who know me, know I tend not to ask anyone to do something I am not willing to do myself, so in that spirit, the Southern Region is implementing changes to its own safety measures and is requiring limited background checks for the volunteers working with or on behalf of the UUA’s Southern Region staff. We are also rolling out a new Volunteer Code of Ethics that is like a working covenant between our UUA staff and volunteers. Nothing about these two additions is drastic or meant to be limiting or make volunteering inaccessible. We do not have rampant abuses to point to, but with fear being what it is and recognizing the world we live in today, this is a small display of due diligence and care on our behalf for those we are serving and who are being served. There will be more changes to our safety policies in the near future and I promise to keep all of you up to date!

We cannot stamp out fear for others, but we can work together on our relationships and being in covenant with one another. With real relationship in place in our lives the fears of the world seem a little more manageable simply because we know we are not alone. And being better together means that there is assurance that someone will be there for us if the Boogieman ever does come to visit. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Deepest Meaning by Connie Goodbread

I am not interested in working for the Unitarian Universalism that does not work for justice. 
Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen

Justice-making is an inherent and non-negotiable part of being a Unitarian Universalist. 
Rev. Hope Johnson

I witnessed this brilliant exchange.  It sat me back in my chair and I thought about it.  I thought about it for days. I thought about it so much that I asked both Elizabeth and Hope if I could use their words in this blog article. The three of us had another welcomed exchange over email when they gave me their permission. What was it about their words that sat me back and made me think?  

The three of us were in a working group and our focus was justice. We were in the Board Room at 24 Farnsworth - the new digs for our UUA. The building is welcoming and friendly, modern and clean. We were attending the BAM - Big Alignment Meeting. It includes all the Congregational Life Staff plus many of the Boston based staff. It was delightful in so many ways. It was great to be in our new building and see it live. It was great to see the office of our President. It was great to attend a live chapel. It was great to work as a large team. Each of us was assigned a different working group. While I might not have chosen the justice group for myself, I was deeply grateful for have been assigned to it.  

We, as an Association, are experiencing some pretty dramatic change. As an example - we sold the headquarters building at 25 Beacon Street - our headquarters since 1927. That does not happen often. We have dramatically downsized the UUA Board of Trustees. We have moved into policy governance. Regionalization is happening in several parts of the country. In evolution, there seems to be evidence that some change happens gradually while other change happens in jumps - fits and spurts. As a living faith, there is the reality that, at times, we are a little too ready to jump to the next big idea, but there is also the brilliance that we adapt, become, evolve and seek useable tools which will help us to do our work. Where are we about to jump? What are we to become?  

As I sat in the justice working group I kept thinking, “Why? What’s important, now? What is the deepest reason we are doing what we do?  Is there a way for us to move forward, differently?” As a group, we moved through our assignments. The exploration and discussion was honest and deep. Like all good Unitarian Universalists we had trouble following the rules, we went off track several times and wanted to come up with a good product in the end. Our final working question was - What will Justice look like in three years?  We had been asked to present our findings - our product - to the rest of the staff.  But wait -   I am not interested in working for the Unitarian Universalism that does not work for justice, says Elizabeth. Justice-making is an inherent and non-negotiable part of being a Unitarian Universalist, adds Hope.  

We could just do the assignment, do a show and tell, come up with a list of programs or ideas to present to our colleagues, but that is the way we always do it. This is important and we are at a moment it our own evolution. We don’t have all the details. We lack clarity. The path is unclear. Still, we need to present something….Rev. Carlton Smith and Rev. Hope Johnson pointed out that at this point we do not even have enough diversity at the table to have the discussion. That’s big. How do we fix it? If the first question we need to answer is, why? The second is, who? Why justice? Who is missing in our discussion and exploration?  Who are our partners and are we in real partnership with them? Who is left out and why?  To whose glory are we doing this work? What is most important at this moment? What is Unitarian Universalism uniquely qualified, positioned and prepared to do? What gift(s) do we have for the world? How will we widen our circle to be more inclusive?  How will we do what we do for the greatest impact? 

This is the diagram we drew to explain our concepts.  In three years we if we are able to explain to any and everyone why Justice-making is an inherent and non-negotiable part of being a Unitarian Universalist, we will have achieved much.  

Now don’t get me wrong, we all know that we should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. That works if you know what the right thing is. Are we doing the right thing for the right reason and not for our glory or to make us look good? 

In three years, if we know the deepest reasons why, we will have made a great jump forward. Knowing the deepest reasons why will help us to make even stronger bonds with the partners we have now. Knowing the deepest reasons why will help us to identify other partners. Knowing the deepest reasons why will help us to listen to the needs of the people who are the most affected by the injustice we see. 

If in three years we have worked on ourselves and identified what we are willing to give up for there to be more justice in the world, we will have made a great jump forward. What we do will depend on the voices of others. How we do what we do will be the attempt to live up to our promise - that is, after all, what it means to be a covenantal faith.  

We will do justice tempered with love. We will practice loving justice because we stand, roll, sit, sleep and fight on the side of love. You cannot have love without justice - you cannot have justice without love. That is what sat me back in my seat and made me think. I thought this before this conversation, but Elizabeth’s and Hope’s words made it real.  What are we to become? I don’t know. Go ask my partners.*

I am not interested in working for the Unitarian Universalism that does not work for justice. 
Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen

Justice making is an inherent and non-negotiable part of being a Unitarian Universalist. 

Rev. Hope Johnson

* Does God Have a Big Toe? by Marc Gellman