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

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Youth Programming: You Might Be Doing it Backwards

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

I became a Unitarian Universalist as a Youth, at the age of 14, through a local congregation’s Our Whole Lives Program. That congregation in a suburb of Dallas, Texas and its youth group of about 20 Youth between the ages of 14 and 18 taught me a lot about leadership, respect for self and others, responsibility, integrity, and friendship. Those early experiences of leading worship, engaging in justice work throughout the community, and participating in the life of the congregation set me up for a lifetime of success both inside and out of the Unitarian Universalist world. I am still in touch with many of my Youth Group friends, some of whom are now Unitarian Universalist ministers. 
Ten years later, I began volunteering at another Unitarian Universalist congregation as an Advisor for Middle School Youth. Shortly after I began volunteering, I was hired as that congregation’s Director of Religious Education and, as an aside, met my future husband at a conference for Youth Advisors that same year. During my time as a Director of Religious Education, the greatest joy in my work was to administer the Coming of Age Program for fifteen year olds, which culminated in a heritage trip to Boston. The minister of that congregation and I always chaperoned the trip alongside a team of dedicated volunteers, and every year the Youth would reduce me to tears as I saw them grow into self-assured, confident, responsible, and loving young adults. It was here, in this class, year after year, that I felt a call to Unitarian Universalist ministry and, in particular, ministry to and with Youth. 
As your Congregational Life Field Staff, I sit on the Youth Ministry Roundtable, a body of national staff from the UUA Headquarters, other Regional Field Staff, and staff from the College of Social Justice at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, who gather to discuss and imagine exemplary, meaningful, and relevant ministry to and with youth. Throughout our work, themes have emerged about the kind of support congregations are looking for when it comes to youth ministry. 
First, small to mid-sized congregations are always searching for the elusive “Critical Mass.”  They have a few teenagers in their congregation who attend sporadically, thus making it difficult to convene a class offering on Sunday Mornings. The youth do not have a consistent group to be involved with, and therefore many of them find other activities outside of the church to be involved in. 
Second, many congregations of all sizes are struggling with retaining their teen involvement after graduation. Young Adults often fall away from the church through a variety of reasons from moving to a new city to finding a real lack of motivation to be involved. Many Young Adults have simply not been taught as Youth to participate in the wider congregation and, in the absence of a Youth Group, feel lost and marginalized in the wider community. 
Third, many congregations of all sizes who have been running youth programs for many years are struggling to keep them relevant and engaging to Youth. Even with the most dynamic of Youth Leaders and staff, the congregation and its Youth Ministry are competing for the Youth’s attention with so many other events and activities. From school to sports to jobs, Youth are pulled in many directions, and the church often falls to the bottom of the list. 
I have been working in congregations and thinking about these issues for nearly two decades now, and I have come to the conclusion that the solution to all of these issues is that we have been doing Ministry to and with Youth completely backwards. 
All of these issues stem from a core assumption that there should be a class for youth that meets on Sunday morning, usually during worship, just like every other religious education class. If that class doesn’t “make” for whatever reason – sporadic attendance, lack of participants, lack of adult leadership – then the congregation usually uses its limited resources in other areas and resigns itself to “not having anything for Youth.”  If the class or group does exist, sometimes the class is used as a springboard for other youth programming, such as trips, justice work, or social outings. In some circumstances, the class or group will form and encourage leadership, where Youth may be able to participate in opportunities within the larger congregation and the wider UU Community. 
But what if we’re doing that backwards? What if the class or youth group is the LEAST important thing we can offer? 
We know that Youth need a meaningful relationship with at least five adults who are not their parents in order to feel secure and valued. I firmly believe, instead of thinking about Youth Ministry in the large group sense, we should begin by thinking about how we can foster relationships between adult members in the congregation and every youth. Instead of starting with the class or youth group, let’s start with a comprehensive mentoring program. 
Select members of your congregation who have an interest in spending time with Youth. Background check them. Train them to be mentors, not teachers and advisors.  (Not sure how to recruit and train your mentors? Email me.) After that, match your mentors with youth who have similar interests. Maybe one of your youth really wants to go into broadcasting as a career, and you have two members of your congregation who work in that field. Maybe one of your youth likes to garden; I’m willing to be there are more than a few gardeners in your congregation. Perhaps one mentor could take on two or three youth mentees. 
As the mentors get to know their mentees, mentors can be a bridge for the youth to get involved in other areas of congregational life. The mentors can help the youth become a valued member of the social justice committee, the worship associates, or the membership committee. The mentors can see where a youth is passionate and has leadership potential, and also help the adult members of the congregation listen to and value youth input. In this way, we create even more connections between youth and adults in a congregation, help youth to feel valued and empowered, and help the entire congregation shift its culture toward one of inclusion for all ages.  Hopefully, we will not even be able to count the number of meaningful cross-generational relationships a youth has on one hand. 
After these relationships have been established, you can host gatherings of mentor/mentee groups at the congregation on days that are NOT Sundays. A monthly dinner, a quarterly bowling game, or yearly pool party work well. In this way, all of the youth who are having similar mentoring experiences can gather, meet each other, and get to know one another. They may even start to want to do things together, apart from the mentors. 
And then - BAM! -  you’ve got a vital, meaningful, and relevant youth group that emerged organically from the relationships between youth and adults.  The youth group is in covenant with the rest of the congregation, it includes youth who feel invested in and valued by the congregation, and it will be led by a group of youth advisors and youth leaders who work cooperatively, through healthy relationship, to provide meaningful and relevant learning and spiritual growth for all members. (Need help recruiting and training Youth Group Advisors and Youth Leaders? Email me.)

As the product of the Youth Ministry of the last two decades, which has started with the idea of the Sunday Morning Youth Group, clearly we have done a lot of wonderful work that has touched a lot of lives. And yet, as a wise man once said, “Times, they are a changin’.” If the youth group model is working for you, wonderful! And if it’s not, I might suggest turning the whole thing on its head and starting from the end. The Congregation is the Curriculum, so let’s give ourselves to the youth before we expect them to give their precious talents, time, and treasures to us. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

History in the Making

by Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith
 
When I was a child, I thought that the real history-makers had all finished their work. Thanks to leaders like my parents, the barriers that would have kept me in legally segregated schools had come down. Because of those who went before me, I was able to eat in any affordable restaurant, stay in any hotel, and ride any bus, train, or plane I chose. Because of Ella Baker and Dr. King and James Meredith and Shirley Chisholm and Rosa Parks and many others, my peers and I could dream much bigger dreams for ourselves than our forebears could have imagined.

In spite of the many ways Dad and Mom shielded me and my brothers from the terrors they had grown up knowing about as Negro children in rural Tennessee and small-town Mississippi, my brothers and I were well-acquainted with our status as second-class citizens that informed significant aspect of our lives. Who we went to school with, where we lived, what we learned, and what we didn't learn all had to do with the remnants of slavery, de facto segregation and Jim Crow -- sharp and brutal cuts even when invisible to or denied by many.

We're in the waning days of Black History Month now and on the back side of Valentines Day. Similar to Dr. Howard Thurman in his reading about the work of Christmas in our hymnal (SLT #615), we are right to say that the work of Valentines Day -- the work of love -- begins after all the chocolates have been eaten, the flowers wilted, the heart-shaped balloons deflated and the greeting cards tucked away. I venture to say that the work of love is the same as the work of Christmas in Thurman's poem, that is, to "find the lost / to heal the broken / to feed the hungry / to release the prisoner / to rebuild the nation / to bring peace among the brothers / to make music in the heart."

We can see, too, that black people are constantly making Black History. Though the modes and styles continue to evolve, black people within our Association and beyond are creating beauty, meaning and justice through the power of courageous love. 

The tasks before us are daunting. Some of us are calling for prison reform while others are calling for the complete dismantling of the prison industrial complex. Some are making the case for reparations to be given to the descendants of enslaved Africans, while others want to abolish affirmative action measures. Some are calling for more stringent policing of our national borders, while others are calling for amnesty for undocumented residents. And we are all over the map on these and many other pressing issues. Finding a way to move forward together is a constant challenge, but we embrace the chaos, knowing that our ancestors help guide our way with their examples of resistance, agitation, commitment and self-care.

Our UUA General Assembly will have an historic quality this year, as our engagement around Black Lives Matter moves from the margins of our religious movement toward the center. You can learn more about what we have planned here:


We are never not making history. With every day-to-day choice, with our shouts for justice as well as our treacherous silences, we are giving shape to the futures coming generations will inhabit. I dream of a day when our collective history is not color-blind but color-full, and every day of every month is a chance to celebrate the depth and breadth of our shared humanity.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Stand By This Faith

by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

To Begin Anew … To What End?

The Reverend Kenneth Gordon Hurto, Southern Region Lead Executive

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

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

In our work with congregations, we often ask:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For instance: 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, January 4, 2016

Congregational Resolutions for 2016

by Maggie Lovins, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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