Sunday, November 16, 2014

Talking about Democracy in our Congregations

by Maggie Lovins, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff

With the current election cycle coming to a close, the divisiveness in our nation’s politics, and gridlock in Washington, talk of democracy is everywhere. It has been a topic of conversation in the news, social media, and in our congregations, as well. I have conversations with our congregational leaders quite often about what it means to be a representative democracy. I am often asked how the Fifth Principle, “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large,” applies to congregational life. To have a voice and be heard, to feel a part of the decision making process, and to have a vote in our church home are key components of our polity for sure, but what that really means can be fuzzy around the edges. Sometimes we forget to apply relationship to the equation. Our Principles are not "siloed" statements; they are meant to go hand in hand, much like nesting bowls. They build upon one another, and should not be selected individually to suit our agenda of the day, or we can miss the beauty, depth and meaning in the full message.

Our congregational polity states that our congregations are self-governing and set their own bylaws, policies and procedures, but there are always questions and struggles around board authority and decision-making.  So tell me if you have heard something like this, “Well, I didn’t vote on that! Who made that decision?” or “Who gave them the authority to make that decision?” I bet most of you have heard that in your congregations about one thing or another. Sometimes it’s a really small thing like rearranging the chairs of the sanctuary or changing the brand of coffee being served, something slightly bigger like changing the color of a wall, or maybe even a big thing like professional ministry or a second service. No matter what the issue is, I’m willing to gamble that you have uttered or heard some combination of those words. Queries like those beg the question---where is the relationship in statements like that? Where is the trust that we are all serving our congregation's mission and moving toward the building up of beloved community?

I often see leaders try to ‘fix’ an adaptive relational issue with a technical solution, AKA a vote. Voting around an adaptive issue only polarizes the situation. If you have 50% that wants to paint the fellowship hall yellow, and 50% that wants it painted blue and you put it to a vote, what do you think will happen? Maybe by some strange happenstance you get a winner by a vote or two, but there will still be many members with very hurt feelings who are left feeling unheard. Yes, you might have a resolution, but no relationship. As I am known to repeat often, it’s all about our relationships! How will you reestablish communication between those two groups? How could this issue have been rectified before coming to this division of people who love each other? A few conversations around why the yellow paint people are so passionate about their choice of color might have been a good start. And what about the blue paint people? Why are they so passionate about their choice of color? There is a chance that the blue walls might make the yellow paint people feel closed in. Or maybe the yellow walls cause a glare that hurt the blue paint people’s eyes with the florescent lights in the room. I’m willing to bet there is a solution here that doesn’t involve a vote! Changing out the light bulbs to a softer tone might help the blue paint people adjust their eyes better to the yellow walls, or changing the shade of blue would make the room feel bigger to the yellow paint people. You will never know that if all you do is put it to a vote.

We are the people of democracy, but a representative democracy, which means we must have faith in and trust those who we vote into our church leadership to represent the whole of the membership. This is especially hard when we are so very discouraged by what our leaders are, or are not, doing on the national stage. Serving your congregation is hard work; I thank you for giving of your time and talent! For those courageous enough to step up to the call of service the least we can do is empower them to do the job we have elected them to do---lead us to the betterment of our congregational mission. You cannot vote a relationship in to being; you can only work on it a piece at a time, day by day. This is what it is to be in covenantal relationship.

Theodore Parker said, ‘Democracy means not “I am as good as you are,” but “You are as good as I am.” I would like us all to remember our leaders come from a place of congregational greatest good. Our leaders want the greatest good for their members and for our faith just like we do. Why else would they serve? If you don’t feel that your leaders are moving your congregation in that direction then there is always the next election cycle to voice your opinion via your vote. Democracy and voting cannot ‘fix’ a relational issue; only genuine conversation and deep listening can heal a divide and find a way forward.

Please don’t beat up your leaders with the Fifth Principle, or use it as a bullying stick! Instead, support the greatest Faith we can imagine by supporting and empowering your elected leaders to lead you and your congregation in to the next phase of being. And to our leaders---lead us! If you are working for the greatest good of the mission, you have nothing to fear. Be bold, and lead us in to the next stage of building the beloved community!

With Gratitude and Appreciation,
Maggie Lovins

Monday, November 3, 2014

Commentary


by The Reverend Kenneth Gordon Hurto, Southern Region Lead Executive

“Revelation is not sealed;…Truth and right are still revealed”
Light of Ages and of Nations by Samuel Longfellow, 1860

“New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;   
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth.”
The Present Crisis by James Russell Lowell, 1845

These two poems are part of our musical tradition. They appeared at a time when the nation was needing to face the tyranny of slavery and envision a new America, a land where all would be free.

About that time, another Unitarian, Emerson, wrote in his essay Nature, “the sun shines today also.” He was concerned with “hand-me-down” religion. In that same vein, another Unitarian Transcendentalist, Theodore Parker preached eloquently distinguishing between the “Transient & Permanent” in religion, arguing how we live is the true test of any religion. Together, they argued that we not become captive to out-dated ideas and forms, but keep always open to new possibility.

“Revelation is not sealed” is the 1st of the Smooth Stones characterizing the Free Church. This is true for you and me personally. We are souls-growing, ever maturing in our understanding of what truly matters.

Likewise for institutions. If our forms and procedures are not to calcify into the seven last words of a dying institution (“we have always done it this way”), we need to embrace change in all its opportunity and its anxiety and confusion.

Change is certainly afoot around our UUA and in the four Districts of the Southern Region. New occasions certainly do teach new duties. Over the next few months, our District Boards will offer recommendations for restructuring how we do our work together in the Southern Region. Congregational representatives will decide on those ideas at concurrent Annual Assemblies of the Districts to be held the third weekend in April, 2015 (17th to 19th) in Greensboro, NC, Montgomery, AL, New Orleans, LA and Orlando, FL. The Reverend Jeanne Pupke, senior minister of the 1st Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond, VA, and former UUA Trustee, will be our keynote speaker.

Some background:

Our District Leaders have been working carefully since the adoption of the “Orlando Platform” in December, 2010. This document put into words a heartfelt desire — after nearly 50 years since the UUA’s founding — to rethink how District ministries with congregations could make better use of our resources and tap the creative love of our volunteers for growing our faith.

Since then, there have been many institutional and management changes:

  • The Boards have consolidated all programmatic and financial operations into one Southern Region. Each Board has been reduced from as many as 14 members to 5. The four Presidents, along with the Regional Lead, serve as an executive committee for the Region.
  • The professional field staff are now fully UUA employees, supervised and accountable to the Director of Congregational Life and the UUA Ends. We hope this year to include our three administrative staff as UUA employees, as well.
  • Economies of scale have allowed us to add one full time professional consultant, providing now seven people to serve our congregational leaders.
  • Separate “dues” payments to each District and the UUA Annual Program Fund (APF) assessment have been unified into GIFT (Generously Investing for Tomorrow). This single “Ask” is based on a more equitable percentage of congregational expenditures (in contrast to the traditional “head tax” of per member dues).
  • There have been countless dotting of “i’s” and crossing of “t’s” to re-vision the shared work. Among the most important has been designing a way to empower the gifts of our lay volunteers. The Boards envision a ministry of relationships, led by an “Elder Council.” This group of volunteers will work with the professional staff going forward to increase our capacity to link congregations together in new “cluster” formations and direct service to unique leadership development concerns.

The emphasis of all these changes has been to become more robust in our service delivery to congregations, more nimble and adaptable to a rapidly changing cultural context, to grow our faith by doing more ministry while stepping out of governing four small business enterprises.

The Boards’ Communication Task Force will keep you apprised of the next steps. They and the staff all recognize change can be confusing, sometimes disconcerting. We eagerly seek your input and are committed to being fully transparent.  It is a high priority to ensure our democratic process is honored and intact — indeed, we plan to expand that by utilizing remote voting procedures at the Annual Assemblies.

The theme for the Annual Assemblies is “We Are Building a New Way.” This is taken from the popular new hymn of similar name (#1017 in Singing the Journey). Indeed, we are — so much so that I often say we are creating something we’ve not ever seen before, an expansive, inter-twined, inter-connected set of ministries linking Unitarian Universalists across the Region as never before.

As with any change, I know some fear losing what’s familiar (the current system of District governance) to a vague promise of what might be. Thus, we need to remind ourselves of a few things: to assume good intentions, that we are truly stronger together than apart, that we share a common aspiration to see love and justice grow, that we want our congregations and ministries to be effective as never before. To embrace the changes involved in that requires creativity, to be sure, but trust and courage as well. So, I invite you …

Come, build a new way … free of hate and greed, that feeds our every need, and cultivate peace and freedom. May it be so. May we be so. Blessings, Kenn

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What are you afraid of?


by Connie Goodbread, Southern Region UUA Congregational Life staff

“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance…”

                                                                                                                           ---John Lennon

Remember, on a dark Halloween night when the moon is on the wane, if someone comes knock, knock, knocking at your door, whatever you do - don’t let them kiss you!  This was the end of the Half Dead Joe story that was told by Jim Barefoot every year at the Halloween party for the congregation I served.  As the story goes, Joe was a member of the congregation who had been kissed on a dark Halloween night when the moon was on the wane by Mavis, who was half dead. This story was a great hit with everyone but it was especially important to a group of 5 year old boys.  They had all heard the story the year before but at 5 they knew it was real.  At 5 they were really scared.  They screamed at all the right moments in the story.  They hid their eyes and peeked out between their fingers.  They hunted for the clues that would prove that the story was real.  They played Half Dead Joe on the playground all year long.  They asked all kinds of questions. 

Two of the parents of these boys came to me and asked me to explain to all the boys that it was all a big fake, a lie.  I have to admit that I was taken aback by this.  I could tell that they were concerned about how afraid their son was.  I struggled with what to say to them. 

Here’s what went through my mind; This is the safe place where each of us should bring our fears, not run from them.  This is the safe place where we should explore them and come to grips with them.  This is the safe place where we should struggle with them, learn more about ourselves because of them.  This is the safe place where we should not get in the way of the the struggle but should support and honor that struggle. These children were thrilled by this story.  They loved being scared by it and here were their parents asking me to tell them “the truth”.  

I began by asking them what they were trying to do.  They, of course, wanted their son to be less afraid and less obsessed with the story.  They thought his fear was over the top.  I talked with them about what I saw in their son.  I saw a child coming to grips with his fear in a very real way.  I saw a child exploring his fear, play acting all the parts in the story, learning what each character was like.  I saw a very healthy struggle.  I also said that it went against every thing I think that is right to do with and for the children.  To get in the way of their struggle would be to tell them they can’t do it.   We should comfort them, teach them, be honest with them about our fears and our struggles, but we should let them have their struggle in this safe and loving community. 

We went on to talk about the truth.  What is the truth?  The truth is that the Half Dead Joe story had hit a chord with this group of boys.  The truth is that stories reach down deep into our hearts and souls and pull something up out of us that we can all learn from.  Children understand this about stories.   Adults often forget. After our talk we all decided that we would let it play out.

When this band of boys turned 7 they came to me and told me that they had written a play that they wanted to present at the Halloween party right after Jim told the Half Dead Joe story.  They were in charge of the props and the sets.  The whole church school helped them put the set together.  They kept the plot to themselves as a surprise.  Although we did practice with the microphone and showed them how to make sure that everyone could hear the lines and see the action.  We closed off the social hall and let them practice in private. 

The big night came.  Everyone came in costume.  We had blood punch, giant’s fingers and meatballs that looked like eyeballs.  We had scary music that we danced to and a haunted graveyard put on by the teen group.  Jim got up and told the story.  A new group of 5 year olds screamed at all the right moments.  The boys got up to do their play.  It was a sweet play about how scary things can be and that even when we are afraid there is always a right and a wrong way to treat those we love.  Half Dead Joe was a member of our congregation.  We love him and we need to help him, support him and be more understanding.  It was one of the sweetest moments of my service with that congregation. 

If only we adults could work through our fears with such openness and honesty.  How much better might the world be?  How much deeper might we love? 

What are you afraid of?

Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

No Cannibalism!

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

Many, many moons ago, in my first year as a Professional Religious Educator, I found myself in the Youth Room for the first time, complete with hand-me-down couches from the 70's, writing on the walls, a set of homemade, eclectic chalices, and the smell of incense hanging thick in the air. I introduced myself and asked to be invited into their covenant since I was going to be joining their community for the day. In response, one of the Youth dutifully read their covenant out loud, after which a large blue marker was lobbed in my general direction, and I was invited to sign. But something gave me pause. The third line of the covenant, right after “Respect” and “One person speaks at a time,” was printed in large block letters: No Cannibalism.

Huh?

In my inexperience, I chalked it up to the randomness and delightful silliness of Youth. I figured it was just something someone said during the creation of their covenant to break the tension in the room or provide a light moment in the heaviness of what I hoped was a very spiritual ritual for them. So I didn't think much more about it, signed my name, promised to deeply abide by the principle of “no cannibalism,” and moved on.

The next year, I wanted to be present for the Youth's covenant creation so I could be of service if they needed any help. We went through an opening ritual of telling one another what parts of the church and our Faith are most important to us, and then we began to make promises to one another. It began, as usual, with “Respect one another,” then it once again moved on to, “One person speaks at a time.” And then, like clock work, someone said, “No cannibalism.” I expected laughter. I expected eye-rolling. Instead, everyone nodded, it was dutifully written on the covenant, and the process continued.

Again, Huh?

After the covenant was finished for the day, I raised my hand. I just had to ask. “What does 'no cannibalism' mean?” I said.

“It means we don't eat each other.” said one of the teens. Now there was laughter. I felt a little bit like the butt of the joke.

“Well, yeah, it means that.” said one of the other Youth. “But it also means that we don't tear each other apart, we don't take each other down from the inside, and we support each other in our different positions within the group. It means we don't take each other out. We build each other up. Even when the situation gets really, really hard.”

Oh. Well, I learned a couple of really good lessons about leadership that day, lessons that have only deepened and made more sense as the years have gone on.

First, obviously, I have learned that Youth can be, and often are, very wise. Many of them, especially those who were raised in our Faith, are already Elders, and have so much knowledge to give each of us. Our Youth already are leaders; we should encourage them to blossom as leaders in our congregations and beyond.

Second, I have learned that there might be people who want you to fail as a leader, or there might be a system that is distrustful and suspicious of leadership. But you can fight back. You can follow your passion and be a great leader anyway. You can be vulnerable. You can be authentic. You can practice self-differentiated leadership. You can risk getting eaten. In the end, it is this brave and genuine leadership that will move the Faith forward.

Third, I have learned that increasing your leadership starts by increasing your "followship." Even if a leader is willing to be vulnerable and put their great ideas out there to be devoured, nothing will happen without the first follower. We are much stronger as leaders when we are able to recognize great leadership in others and support those ideas and endeavors. It is much harder to be eaten when there is a herd protecting you! And when it is your turn to be the one with the big idea that makes it possible for others to take a big bite right out of you, those whom you have followed will become your first followers, too.

Fourth and finally, I have learned that the Southern Region is made of people! PEOPLE!!! Hardworking, honest, loving, soulful, brave, brilliant, flawed, amazing, colorful, broken PEOPLE. And when each of us takes a risk to be a true leader, it is an act of extreme generosity and good-will. I think the most important part of the No Cannibalism rule is that we always assume the best intentions of one another, and we live into the reality that we really are all in this together.

So I make this solemn and faithful promise to you: No Cannibalism!

Monday, September 15, 2014

It’s Ingathering Time! Thinking About Spring Yet?


Bill Clontz, UUA Stewardship Consultant

It’s that time of year. UUs all over the country are “coming home,” catching up with each other from Summer adventures, and starting to think about the coming holiday season. If you are part of your congregation’s stewardship team, now is the time you should be thinking still further ahead.

If your primary budget drive or similar activity takes place soon after the first of the calendar year, you should already be well into your planning cycle. If your campaign begins in the Spring, now is the time to start laying the ground work. Why plan so far ahead? Let’s take a look.

Some congregations go into their campaign with two handicaps that need not exist. Don’t let yours be one of them.

First, they start too late in their planning cycle, resulting in a rushed program that is exhausting for the stewardship team, amateurish in the eyes of the congregation, and unsatisfactory in results. Do the math when looking at the calendar; it may appear that there are weeks and weeks ahead of you. But subtract holidays, other church activities that make demands on volunteer and leader time, personal and working obligations of key people – before you know it, there is little or no time available to carry out a good campaign.  A good rule of thumb is to start planning 6-9 months out before your campaign begins. Allowing enough time changes everything – better results, better energy, better everything.

Second, some congregations suffer from what I call the “One Year Syndrome.” They don’t have 10 or 20 years of experience (or however long the congregation has existed). They have 1 year of experience 10 or 20 times. Every year seems to carry some surprise in what a good campaign requires. This is not unusual in volunteer based organizations, but it’s not all that difficult to ameliorate.

Start a good information capture process by ending every campaign with a team session (including at least some of your visiting stewards if that was, as I hope it was, a part of your campaign) dedicated to a lessons learned review. It need not be a long and complex review. Just review the components of the campaign, what went well or less than well, what needs to be preserved or changed, and who will own the process of ensuring its right next year. When the planning for the next campaign starts, begin with reviewing these notes.

Now, institutionalize those lessons learned by building a reference book over the years. Review the set every few years to isolate trends, both good and bad. This provides institutional memory and builds on success.

Follow these guidelines and you can expect to have a better campaign, have more fun doing it, and help institutionalize excellence in your congregation. Enjoy!

Bill Clontz is the Southern Region’s UUA Stewardship Consultant and a member of the Congregational Stewardship Network. You can reach Bill through the CSN, through the Southern Region staff, or at bclontz@uua.org. Learn more about the CSN at http://www.uua.org/finance/fundraising/index.shtml.

This blog has a new posting each mid month. You may add it to your RSS feed. Comments and discussion are always welcome; share your experiences with us.

More Programs, Less Committees

by the Rev. Susan Smith, Congregational Life staff member

Does your congregation have too many committees and too few programs? Since I’m out on the road doing ministerial start-ups this time of year, I am repeatedly explaining the work done by Rev. Arlin J. Rothauge in his foundational 1986 book Sizing Up a Congregation for New Member Ministry about how congregations function at different sizes of attendance. Many of you have seen this at our Leadership Experiences, a workshop on mission/vision/growth or maybe at a training held in your own congregation. It is both a sociological model about how homo sapiens organize themselves according to the number of people of all ages gathering at one time and a developmental model in which the lessons learned when we are smaller will make or break us when we attempt to serve more people.

In brief, Rothauge identified:

Family or Matriarchal/Patriarchal (0-50) congregations operating literally as a family where newcomers must be “adopted” and ministers serve as family chaplains;

Pastoral (50-150) congregations in which the minister becomes the nucleus of the congregation and the touchstone for all members even as groups within the main body develop their own identities;

Program (150-350) congregations which attract new members through their various mainly lay-led programs and where the minister can no longer have a personal relationship with each member and primarily assures that all of those programs are of high quality and aligned with the mission; and

Campus or Corporate (300-up) in which the minister is CEO and head of staff and a significant public figure while other professional staff manage programming.

Susan Beaumont has gone on to further parse the organizational lives of larger congregations in her book Inside the Large Congregation.

What I’ve noticed is that it is difficult for Unitarian Universalists to understand these models because we tend to be so focused on committees. We see the word “programs” which means softball teams, study of sacred texts, Habitat for Humanity work days, women’s and men’s groups, dinners for 8 and small group ministries; and we interpret it as “committees” like finance, fundraising, membership, faith development, socials, social justice, etc. Often when we break down what the congregation actually does, we find that the needs of members to see their friends, hear about what is happening in congregational life, and feel that they are making contributions to and have a say in the work of the congregation are being fulfilled by going to committee meetings. When this happens, leaders may avoid participating in small group ministry or attending worship because they have already been at the congregation 3 times this week and need to get on with the rest of their lives. In so doing, they fail to participate in the very things that would energize, feed and deepen them, but this is a path to burnout. Also, we might forget to plan actual programs so that the only way a newcomer can participate and get to know people is by serving on a committee.

From our “congregationalist” background through our Unitarian forbearers and by observing our cousins on the tree of American religions today, we know that any size congregation can actually be operated with only two committees. Our ancestors called these “deacon” and “elders” by which they meant those who are stewards of the congregation’s resources and those who are stewards of the congregation’s spiritual life and covenantal commitments. All of these positions were elected and ordained to their particular ministries. Some of our “congregationalist” cousins have added a committee for faith development and/or one for social justice and philanthropy over the years.

So, I recommend that you take those 13+ committees that you have (I’ve never found a congregation with less than 13) and first figure out which are actual programs. Divide all of them up into four teams:

Worship (including music, lay readers, rites of passage);

Membership Inreach and Outreach (including caring, socials, new members processes);

Faith Development (including social justice, affinity groups, small group ministry); and

Stewardship (including finances, fundraising, building and grounds, communications).

Have them all meet at the same time on the same night. Remember to provide child care and supper so that a variety of folks can serve more easily. In small congregations, you can even do this at separate tables in one room. This will keep overfunctioning eldest children from spreading themselves too thin. (You can only sit at one table at a time and must make a choice.) It brings together those one-member committees into team of persons with very similar interests. It also allows one group to immediately ask a question or arrange an event with other groups. Have the Board members and staff do some floating about or assign them to a certain table as observers. They should serve as resources and encourage the teams to make all possible decisions that can be made at their level of ministry. Have a brief gathering to coordinate calendars. The board meeting held after this need only be 30 to 45 minutes since all decisions that can be made at a lower level have been made by this time, and there is no need to dabble inappropriately in programs since the need to feel connected to and knowledgeable about what is going on will have been satisfied.

Having knocked out what usually takes many, many, many hours of the congregation’s leadership, everyone can proceed to participate fully in the kinds of programs that will enrich our lives, spread our values, lighten our hearts and strengthen our mutual ties.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Fall: A Time for Rituals and Reconnections

by Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith
Congregational Life Staff


I can feel the intensity in the air. Now that Labor Day weekend is over, we dive headlong into the fall and the new program year for the Southern Region and for our local congregations!

From my years as a parish minister, I remember the rituals of autumn: new and seasoned religious educators attending teacher trainings, ministers returning from vacation and study leave, and choirs rehearsing special music for Ingathering Sunday, which, for many congregations, includes a Water Ceremony/Communion. We, as Congregational Life Staff, will be out among you, leading start-up weekends for ministers and congregations beginning their journeys together, as well as ceremonial occasions, as our budgets and schedules permit.

We hope lay leaders and ministers alike will avail themselves of the programs being offered by and within the Southern Region. You can increase leadership capacity within your congregation through learning from UUA staff and experts, while building relationships with your peers in other congregations near and far. Please register early! Early registration helps us plan and prepare the best programs possible.

We offer for your consideration:

The Southern Region Fall Multi-track Training Events

This year, we are building on the success of the Southwest UU Conference’s annual Fall Harvest conference by offering similar intensive experiences in the Mid-South and Southeast. We encourage teams from congregations to come and spend a weekend delving into track themes such as the fundamentals of congregational leadership, ‘hot’ worship, personal stories as tools for social justice, and the spiritual dimensions of personal finance. Specific tracks vary by location. See our events page for additional details and to register.

Multi-track Training Event, October 10-12, 2014 – Gallant AL
SWUUC Fall Harvest, November 7-9, 2014 – Glen Rose TX
Multi-track Training Event, November 7-9, 2014 – Richmond VA


Also please note that the Presidents of the Four District Boards (Florida, Mid-South, Southeast and Southwest) voted recently to offer scholarships so that more members of small congregations can be a part of these multi-track events. You can apply for scholarship assistance as you complete your online registration form.

LREDA Fall Conference, October 17-20, 2014 – Decatur GA
While this is not an event sponsored by the Southern Region, we are thrilled that the site of this year’s largest gathering of Unitarian Universalist Religious Educators is within our borders and will be convenient for many of our own. This year’s theme is “Best Practices of Shared Ministry.” Topics include staff relations, finance, continuing education, radical hospitality, self care and pastoral care. Look for our Executive Lead Staff for the Southern Region, Rev. Kenn Hurto, and me in the hallways. For additional details and to register, click here.

In addition, check our calendar for other leadership development and retreat opportunities, including those at The Mountain.

Here’s to a season of inspired beginnings, renewed covenants, deeper connections, and reaffirmed commitments to justice, equity and compassion for all.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Generosity

by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff member

One day, I noticed an opened letter from our local public radio station on the kitchen counter. It was a thank you for the $10.00 donation. Upon further inspection, I saw that it was addressed to my seventeen-year-old son. I was surprised, as we had never discussed this. When I asked him why he had donated, his answer was simply “Mom, its NPR.” For him this act of generosity was that simple; it is just what one does.

When I start my workshops on Stewardship I begin by saying, “Giving and generosity are matters of the spirit and at the heart of stewardship. Giving is a spiritual discipline, a practice that reflects one’s religious values, spiritual depth and maturity. Becoming a generous person involves a lifelong developmental process which begins in infancy and evolves with each experience of receiving and giving.”

You see, in order to become a generous person, one must have opportunities to experience giving. After my lecture on Stewardship at our Southern UU Leadership Experience (SUULE), one of the staff members and I were chatting about this lifelong process, and she shared this story with me.

“When the time came to plan the annual auction at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett we began the usual brainstorming on possible dates, themes, etc. but then someone had the idea to redefine the event by changing the format to make it an all-inclusive, family-friendly, multi-generational affair.

Because we recognize that not all of our members had the financial means to fully participate in past auctions, we decided that this year we would have what was more of an “auction-themed party”.  Guests would offer their donation at the door and, regardless of the amount given; they would receive an envelope containing a predetermined amount of ‘play money,’ which would constitute their bidding capital for the evening.  We intended to create a more inclusive event that families and those with limited financial means would feel comfortable attending, and to keep everyone attending from being concerned about budget limits and overspending.

The auction is our biggest fundraiser of the year, so when this model was proposed, many elements of the idea were met with skepticism:  'Why should I donate something of value if it could possibly be won by someone who had paid less than it's worth to receive it?'  'How will we raise money if people aren’t actually buying things?'  There was reasonable, widespread doubt.  Given that the church depends on this event to fund its operating budget, this was a risk, to be sure. As expected, there were some who did not initially jump for joy at the idea of changing the way we’ve always done things. The congregation was given the opportunity to hear the reasoning for the proposed change, voice their concerns, and ask questions during the town hall meeting.

But someone had faith, and planted those seeds of faith, over many weeks of planning and sharing with the leaders and the congregation the vision of a welcoming community this new model would cultivate.  And as the larger community began to get on board, something amazing began to grow.

The theme was to be 'the 70’s.' On event night, the congregation turned out decked in all their hippie and flower-power finery, and had a wonderful time. UUCG’s 2014 auction was a huge success! It exceeded the expected amount by the end of the night, and continued to bring in donations well after it was over. The youth of the congregation were able to participate by being able to fully engage in the auction, and also served as cashiers and runners during the night.

We took a big risk going against what has always worked, but in the end it was well worth it.”

When Nathalie and I chatted about this successful new “fun-raiser,” what struck me was the multi-generational aspect. The entire community was involved in giving at this event. I am sure that new connections between people were created and fostered. Not only were there opportunities for giving, but the giving was celebrated, helping to create an environment where giving to our congregation is “just what we do”.

(With contributions from: Nathalie Bigord, Christiana McQuain and Paige Varner of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett, GA)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Technology to Fuel the Faith

by Maggie Lovins, Congregational Life Consultant

We all know technology moves at the speed of imagination, and church…well, church moves at the speed of church. This is ‘old school’ thinking. As we delve deeper into collaboration in our Southern Region and across our UUA, we have many hurdles, potholes, and speed bumps to traverse. Familiarity with tech tools will make these maneuverings a bit smoother and less overwhelming. Let me share a few examples with you.

I hear many questions like, "How do we get to know our regional family if we are so spread out?" and, "Can you suggest another meeting model? It is so difficult to find times that all committee members are available for meetings.” My response to such inquiries may sound like a foreign in language to some. I say, “Use the tools and resources readily available online!”

For example, if you are having trouble with schedules for board meetings, committee meetings, RE meetings, etc., find a time most, if not all, people can attend an online meeting from their homes, and try a Google hangout or Skype meeting. Google hangout is easy to use, easy to access through a Gmail account, and free! For those who need a more low-tech option, freeconferencecall.com it can be used in phone in only mode, and its easy to use. You could try a service that is a hybrid and allows both phone-in and online web meetings like anymeeting.com or fuze.com. These services are freely available to all with a computer and internet service, and are easy to use. There are simple 'how to' videos on YouTube to get you started.

Now, getting a bit deeper, have you ever thought of how you could revamp your adult RE? Make it a more relevant part of your congregation’s life through use of online technology! Instead of spending many hours on a Sunday at church, how about a Thursday night session of Tapestry of Faith online? How about inviting your neighbor congregations to join by hosting once a week learning sessions for your locational cluster? How cool would that be?! Sharing the load of facilitating AND getting to know the other members of Unitarian Universalist congregation? That sounds like a win-win to me!

To include the youth, there are many educator sites out there such as edmodo.com that could help our DRE's reach our youth throughout the week by putting faith development curricula online or assigning shared online projects that could turn in to multigenerational services. There are blog sites like edublogs.org to give the kids a place to write about their faith, fully articulate what they believe, and share it with the world. There are animation sites that they could use (and the adults too!) to make cartoons about what they are learning in Religious Education. The list goes on and on!

In this age of technology we still have one Great Wall we have not overcome: the need for electricity for all our gadgets. This is felt deeply when tragedy strikes, such as a hurricane, a tornado, or an unexpected flood. The days of 'phone trees' and email groups are almost gone, and are mostly ineffective in a time of emergency. For situations such as these, I introduce wiggio.com. From this site you can set up a 'text tree.’ When phone lines are down and the power is out, you can usually still get text messages…if you charged your phone before losing power, that is! You can send mass text messages, emails, set up online meetings, share files, and so much more! You can even update all of your congregation’s social media sites at once. How great is that? Again, Wiggio is just one example of a site that offers a service like this; there are many platforms online which can meet your congregation's needs.

How will you use technology to fuel our faith? You could set up monthly online meetings to enable congregations in your area working on social justice issues to share information, the state justice ministries to share strategies, the three women's retreat groups of the Southern Region to share inspiration, DREs to share resources, stewardship teams to share successes and pitfalls, and Board presidents to help one another run more efficient and productive, less stressful meetings. Now those sound like great ideas to me!

I hope this gets your creative juices flowing, inspires you to see what is available to help enhance your worship and congregational experiences, and gives you confidence that you, yes, YOU, are fully capable of utilizing any or all of these online tools!

Be well, and I'll see you online!

Maggie Lovins
Congregational Life Staff
UUA Southern Region

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Mr. President, Tear Down This Wall

by The Reverend Kenneth Gordon Hurto, Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
The New Colossus, 1883;  Emma Lazarus (1849–87)

In her 2012 UUA GA Ware lecture in Phoenix, NPR journalist Maria Hinojosa spoke movingly of “two Americas,” one which moved about freely and another always in fear of being detained, harassed, or arrested because of color or accent. A Mexican born American, she noted having a New York drivers license was not sufficient to prove her citizenship. She then asked the assembled whether we felt the need to bring our passports to travel to Arizona.

A line stayed with me: No human being is illegal. Entering our nation without a visa is an illegal activity; it violates our law. However, she warned, breaking a law is an action, not a state of being. To say you are an “illegal” means you have no dignity, no rights. Hinojosa spoke of Nazis declaring Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals “illegal” to provide legitimacy for hatred, violence, and murder. She warned this was happening in our immigration debate.

“No human being is illegal.” I confess: I am no expert on immigration. I respect the notion that a nation ought to have borders that ensure its integrity. Yet, seeing the faces of thousands of children yearning to be free of violence or poverty, risking death in the desert — truly the wretched refuse of central America’s dysfunction — troubles my soul. These are kids, not “illegals.” Truly, these are the huddled masses? Do we welcome them to our shore?

Our nation’s immigration history has always discriminated as to who is “ok” and who is not. Immigration quotas are biased toward white, northern Europeans, less welcoming of southern Europeans, let alone Africans. If you are Cuban, you are granted amnesty the moment you set foot on US soil; if you’re from Haiti, you’re sent back asap.

We value people differently. No doubt, this is a sign of “my tribe” in opposition to yours. At its best, “my tribe” is a source of identity and pride. At its worse, “my tribe” leads to spiritual xenophobia and justification for treating those different as of less or no worth. Our immigration policy is driven by such fear.

President Obama has deported more people than any other President, ever. The pressure to seal our borders with a ghastly, thousand miles long fence is immense. But it does not address the problem of global inequality. My ancestors left Norway in mid-19th century seeking a better life on the prairies of the Dakotas. So, too, today, with any poor and oppressed. As long as we are a free people, others will want to come here.

Secure borders, compassion for the poor? There are competing goods in this debate; it is cheap grace and cheaper law to ignore that. Finding a balance is what we all must seek.

Immediately, Unitarian Universalists can stand on the side of love and argue compassion as a first value in the immigration debate. We should work to ensure those who cross our border be treated decently. We should confront the oft-repeated, obfuscating use of “illegals.” Our compassion should include those trying to cope with the immense challenge of what to do with the over 50,000 unaccompanied children who have arrived in Texas.

Good news, if there is such, is that faith-based groups from around the country are pulling together to lend a hand and a heart. True reform of our fear-driven policies will not come soon or easily. I have no “do this now" prescription for my fellow Unitarian Universalists, save to encourage your engagement in the debate and to lend a hand where you can.

In her 2014 Ware lecture last month, lawyer, poet Sister Simone Campbell — organizer of the “Nuns on the Bus” protest decrying the effects of the so-called “Ryan Budget” on people in need — called us to “walk towards trouble” as a core part of our spiritual life. She offered this poem to encourage us:

INCARNATION

Let gratitude be the beat of our heart, pounding Baghdad rhythms, circulating memories, meaning of the journey.
Let resolve flow in our veins, fueled by Basra’s destitution, risking reflective action in a fifteen-second world.
Let compassion be our hands, reaching to be with each other, all others to touch, hold heal this fractured world.
Let wisdom be our feet, bringing us to the crying need to friends or foe to share this body’s blood.
Let love be our eyes, that we might see the beauty, see the dream lurking in the shadows of despair and dread.
Let community be our body warmth, radiating Arab energy to welcome in the foreign stranger—even the ones who wage this war.
Let us remember on drear distant days, we are a promised Christmas joy we live as one this tragic gifted life— We are the Body of God!


Love is our core teaching. It calls us to tear down walls, to reach out. May we do so.