Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Long Night

by the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff

A few years back, I dropped cable television service and haven't gone to the trouble to figure out non-cable television options. For that reason, I sometimes miss the visuals that make it into our national news cycle.

I hadn't seen the video of Eric Garner's killing until of the day of the grand jury decision not to indict his killer, police officer Daniel Pantaleo. My Facebook feed filled up with reactions from friends and acquaintances near and far. I watched in utter horror at the sight of a completely non-combative man being surrounded by police and choked to death on a city street in broad daylight.

What could be more terrifying than being attacked by the very people one should be able to call for protection from such violence? And then to know that there would be no deeper investigation as to how such a thing could happen?

I couldn't think. Unlike Eric, I could breathe, but the air around me seemed very thin. And I could feel: my heart racing, my throat going dry, the tears spilling onto my cheeks. I couldn't write, but I shared a picture of myself from those moments on Facebook, as I changed my cover photo to one of Eric just before he was wrestled to the sidewalk, in the last seconds of his life.

As my ministerial colleagues have written and preached, I have struggled to find words to compose that capture even a fraction of what I feel. This is my first attempt.

Like Eric, I have literally been in the cross-hairs of the police, my life at risk simply because I was a black man at the wrong place at the wrong time. One night in the late 1980s, as I was waiting for a bus on Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC, a car pulled up toward me slowly. The next think I knew, the lights of the car were shining on me, and a police was leaning out of the car with a firearm pointed at me. "Get your hands up, mother-f**ker!" he shouted. I did as I was told. In moments, I was surrounded by police cars.

One of the officers pushed me onto the trunk of one of the cars. I was frisked and searched. I was asked what I was doing, why I was standing there. I told them the truth: I had just gotten out of church choir rehearsal and was trying to get home. The searched my coin purse, presumably for drugs. After they were done, I asked why they had chosen me. One of the officers said that they were looking for someone in a black jacket and blue jeans who was carrying a concealed weapon. When one car rear-ended another and fled on the opposite side of the street, they all sped away in pursuit.

I cried that night too ... Grateful to still be alive, that I hadn't made a false move, and that the cops had not been trigger-happy.

After the non-indictment in the Michael Brown case, I wondered what an appropriate response would be, one that might make a difference. I'm unsure of the efficacy of tactics used in the past. I understand boycotts and public protests, but I wonder if those of us today have the fortitude of the Montgomery bus boycotters, who forewent public transport for a year until their demands for equality were met. While I appreciate the commitment to keep these urgent concerns in the public eye, I have difficulty seeing what it will matter over the long-term.

I do believe that younger generations -- as Dr. King and his contemporaries were in the 50s and 60s -- hold keys to progress and need to be empowered by those of us who are older to lead. And I do believe that, as during the civil rights era, change will come as a result of the persistent efforts of courageous people working over a variety of fronts over time. I believe in the power of partnership and relationship -- as we say in one of our mottoes for the Southern Region, "We are better together."

With that in mind, I am co-facilitating a Region-wide conversation with Elandria Williams, a member of the Education Team of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee. It was there that Rosa Parks received her training before becoming the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Elandria is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist and a passionate activist. I am grateful to have her as a colleague in justice work.

Directions for joining that conversation will be posted in the next Southern Region newsletter, and on the Southern Region Facebook page. We look forward to being on that call with you.

Also, in conjunction with our congregations in East Tennessee, I will lead a weekend workshop on Marshall Rosenberg's approach to Nonviolent Communication, also known as Compassionate Communication, January 30-31. I believe that compassion for all people is going to make a difference in this present confusion. You can learn more and register for that event by clicking here.

My prayer is that love will guide us through this long, hard night in our nation's history. May we be willing to be saviors to each other, now and always.

God bless us, every one.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tradition and Change

by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

My Christmas tree is up and decorated. The trimming of the tree has always been a part of my culture. I grew up in the Midwest in a house with high ceilings and expansive rooms, so we always had a very big tree. Another tradition started with my relationship with my husband: putting the tree up on Thanksgiving weekend. He traveled a great deal in December for work and we also traveled back to the Midwest to visit both of our families, so if we wanted to be able to enjoy the tree, we needed to put it up early. We would put it up on Friday, let the branches fall out, then, on Saturday, put the lights on in anticipation of a few guests joining us that evening for the “trimming.”

Revisiting this tradition every year reminds me how much of the tradition stays the same, and how much I have changed. Our ceilings are lower, our rooms are smaller, and the kids are no longer here to add their touch, but we still get the largest one we can, and it still goes up on the holiday weekend.

The beauty of the ornaments and the overall effect of the tree used to be so important to me. Now, what resonates is the story that my tree tells. The new ornaments I added this year are from the new places I have visited this fall: The Blue Ridge Parkway and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. In addition to these two, the ornaments that took the front spot this year are the ones that represent the people of my life. They were given to us or placed on the tree at one of our tree trimming parties. I relive memories from the past with every one I hang.

I think it appropriate that these are at the center of the tree, as relationships are at the center of this faith that I love so dearly. While it is true that this time of year evokes a flood of memories of the past, it is only the present that is truly before us. For now is the time that needs our attention.

It is easy to say that relationships are important to us, but they need tending. I need to pay attention and give care to my current relationships in order for them to thrive. This is often not easy to do, as they take time, and I must often put my own desires aside in order to be truly present to others. One of the biggest gifts we can give to one another is listening. We so often listen with only half our attention as we are thinking about what our response will be…so, therefore, we are only partially listening.

Lynne Baab, author of “The Power of Listening” says that “healthy congregations are comprised of people who listen well.” I could not agree more. This care toward listening shows up in all sorts of places from one-with-one conversations and committee meetings to larger conversations. A congregation that understands the value of listening will invest dearly in “the process.” A good process for discernment and exploration is critical to navigating change.

I believe that if we can listen deeply with open hearts and minds, we have a good chance of making the world a better place. In order to do that, we have to be willing to have our hearts and minds changed. Some of us took so long to figure out what we believe that it is a scary prospect to be willing to give up some of those beliefs. But how else can we be in deep relationship with those who are different than us?

Our world is quickly becoming smaller and more diverse. In the Information Age, we can be in relationships all around the globe. We need to adapt to this constantly changing world. I cannot write here without acknowledging the pain of our sisters, brothers, and cousins across this nation in the wake of the turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri. What will it take for us as a nation to truly listen to one another? How can we let our assumptions be questioned without becoming defensive? Can we risk being wrong? Can we let ourselves be vulnerable in order to learn how to appreciate each other? Can we let go of what makes us comfortable in order for us all to benefit? Are we willing to sacrifice something of ourselves so that others may live a life in more humane conditions? Can we ask our best selves to come forward to live into this faith where we put relationships at the center, even if there are no guarantees what the future will look like?

We humans long for deep connection. We must tend to these connections. The tree in my living room is smaller than the trees of the past but it represents my journey from my past to my present. I do not know what the future will bring, but I will hold onto my my values, my relationships, my truth, if you will. I will hold on loosely, for I will have to let go of some things, and make room for others. That is the complexity of this wondrous life.

I wish you all blessings during this time of memories and hope.

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


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.


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


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:


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.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Looking for Those Lazy Days of Summer

by Natalie Briscoe, Congregational Life Staff

When I was a kid, summer meant long days of sunshine, spending time exploring the great outdoors, reading trashy novels, sleeping in as late as I wanted, and, most of all, being really, really bored. I remember hours and hours of lying in the back yard or on the floor of my bedroom, just staring into space. Not really thinking, not really day-dreaming, just BEING. As my family used to say, “You're just up there occupying space.” I could not agree more; I was practicing the fine art of resting. I was really, really good at it, too. I also spent time painting, writing, exploring, learning, and becoming more myself. It was an incredible luxury to have such time.

I seem to have forgotten how to rest. Over the years, I have become haunted by my never-ending To Do List. It lurks in every corner of my house, it finds me in the shower, it even chases me in my dreams. I can't get away from it, no matter how many times I try to slay the beast. There is always an email to answer, a phone call to make, a teleconference to participate in, an event to build, or travel arrangements to make. I also have a toddler screaming “MAMA!” in the next room, and a baby who has yet to come out and greet the world (who somehow manages to take a lot of time and energy, anyway). I pass a guy I once knew as my husband in the kitchen occasionally. And friends? You mean those people to whom I send thank you notes? I sure hope they remember me fondly.

Luckily, I have a plan. When I was pregnant with my first child, Ian, I was in the middle of changing jobs and moving 2500 miles across the country. My To Do List could not have been longer. I wanted to make sure I had everything written down before I left my old position while preparing for the new one. I also had a house to pack and clean. My due date came and went. A week passed, then two. I continued to scramble to get all of my work done, thinking I was being gifted with extra time. I also started to think I was never going to have that baby!

One day, though, I just stopped. I just stopped working and went into my bedroom. My husband asked if I was going to come out, and I just said, “No.” I had no intention of coming out. Four weeks past my due date, I was done. I surely wasn't finished, but I was utterly and completely DONE. So I allowed my body to remember those lazy days of summer (it was June, after all), and I went into my bedroom, laid down, and just stared at the ceiling. I just rested. I let go. I became more me. And then a miraculous thing happened: I went into labor! Soon I had a beautiful baby boy in my arms, and everything melted away but him and me. It was a blissful, lovey, exhausting, beautiful time. He and I spent tons of time just lying around, staring at the ceiling or at each other, and it was perfection.

All of that work I had to do was magically finished somehow, at some time. Some of it waited weeks, and some of it waited months, but it all got completed in a satisfactory fashion. And no one was seriously hurt in the process. The world did not end, and even though I had a newborn to take care of, somehow I felt like I had more resources than I did before. Once I rested, the tasks seemed smaller and more manageable. More importantly, even without regular sleep, my creativity returned in ways I couldn't have imagined before.

Now it is July, two years later. Again, I am in the same position. The due date of my second child is approaching in a few weeks, and I continue to struggle with my To Do List, making sure every item is crossed off, forgetting completely how to rest. Every night I wake up in the middle of the night remembering something I didn't have time to get to, not to mention the dirty dishes in the sink and the laundry that needs folding. I also know that soon, it will be time to be done, and I will stop working and let the labor begin. I will trust that things will get done, and I will rest.

A few weeks ago, I put these questions out on Facebook: How do you rest? How do you rebuild? How do you gather your resources for work? Among the most common answers were sleep, art, music, or exercise. All wise choices. By far, I believe we all need spiritual practices in our lives---those activities we do with intention, regularity, and depth---to give our brains a chance to rest, to stare at the ceiling metaphorically (if not actually), and to gather our internal resources for the work that lies ahead of us.

We tend to vilify idleness by saying that it is laziness. As the old saying goes, “Idle hands are the devil's playground.” Science has shown, however, that taking time to rest and rejuvenate regularly and often actually improves our productivity and our creativity, allowing us to be better problem solvers and stewards.

Soon, I will be resting and I hope to rest very, very well. From July 7 (at the latest) until September 1, I will be taking maternity leave (list be done or not!). During that time, any congregation or leader who is used to working with me can contact The Rev. Susan Smith, whose contact information can be found on the Southern Region website. I will be using those weeks to lie in bed with my new family and wonder at all the work it took for them to get there. I promise to return to you having slept much less, but rested much more.

I encourage you to take a little time this summer to find those Lazy Days. We all need to recognize when we are DONE, if not finished, and when we need to end our work so the real labor can begin, whatever that labor in your life may be. The importance of stopping the day-to-day business in order to give birth to more creativity cannot be overstated. The To Do List will, in fact, wait.

***Editor's note: Ayla Rose Briscoe was born this weekend! The Southern Region staff sends wishes for rest and every other blessing to Natalie and her family.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Same-Old-Same-Old Is Different Every Time

by Rev. Susan M. Smith

I’m about to say the same things that I’ve said before and yet I don’t know what I will say. It is summer in the Southern Region which means that we will be having some of our biggest events. Volunteers are lined up and being oriented. Boxes of books have been shipped. The online registration system is buzzing. We’ve got multiple online work platforms where we are storing and refining documents. Every day someone asks me to look over just one more schedule or packet. I understand the need to plan and prepare, but I know deep in my bones that we will not know what we will do until we get there.

We don’t call Dwight Brown Leadership Experience and Southern UU Leadership Experience “experiences” for nothing. I will embark on that very first lecture about the historic roots of our covenantal tradition as I always do but the spirit of the moment, the spirit of inspiration, perhaps even the Holy Spirit will ultimately determine what happens when we are gathered there together as part of the living tradition which is being co-created in so many extraordinary ways in our time. Along the way, congregational teams will bond and relationships will be formed among leaders of very different congregations. A shy leader will step up. A less confident leader will be strengthened. Someone who is mourning will be comforted, and more than one “Aha” moment will occur about something going on back home that now makes total sense with new tools in our leaders’ tool belts.  And who knows what amazing things these leadership teams will create once they go back home?

We’ll hold four simultaneous Presidents Convocations, and at the one in Dallas I will again say that your regional staff has resources to help these presidents, president-elects, and vice presidents as they serve. But only as the year progresses will these leaders work with us by phone or Skype or in person on stewardship or growth or professional transition and see that we are willing to be right there beside them time and time again. Moreover, as we convene I will learn things myself and see more clearly the concerns and inspirations of these leaders once they are all together sharing their challenges and their joys.

As usual at our Southwest UU Summer Institute, I will provide the Monday morning worship looking out over a sparkling Oklahoma lake nestled in the heart of Native American nations. And as usual, I will tell those UUs of literally every age that this is a week to rest, to play, to create and to revel in being together. And too many things will be going on at the drumming circles and the workshops and the shared meals and around the jigsaw puzzle and bridge tables for me to possibly know how the days have been used to nourish souls, bond families, and create new friends.

UUs are theologically unique in our insistence that revelation is not sealed. The true, the beautiful, the inspirational springs out of us constantly if we will but make the time for it, gather together with others and take the risk to make a start and see where we will go.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Becoming a Keeper of the Questions

by Kathy McGowan, Congregational Life staff member

Several years ago I ran a program in which I trained and supervised citizens to advocate for children involved in abuse and neglect proceedings in family court. The volunteers needed to interact with many different types of people and various large systems. These advocates had the most challenging volunteer job I have ever known. They had to collaborate with lawyers, judges, social workers, foster care parents, parole officers and psychologists, in addition to the parents of the children, who were usually poor and often had mental health and/or addiction problems. The extensive months of training I provided were often inadequate.  When they were struggling I often found myself saying to them, “Remember, you are the keeper of the questions.” As long as they kept the long term health of the children in mind and kept asking the important questions in a timely manner, they were doing their jobs; they were keeping others on track.

I like the title, "Keeper of the Questions." In the fantasy world of Kathy McGowan, the Keeper of the Questions has a place of high status. It is a position to be respected and honored. In our congregational lives, this role falls to our leaders. In order to be a Keeper of the Questions in our Unitarian Universalist context, we are required to get up off the dance floor, so to speak, and move onto the balcony where we have a better view of what is happening. Once we have acquired a balcony view, we can then find out which questions need to be asked.

Leaders are often involved in decision-making that requires this kind of exploration. It takes a solid leader to be able to stop and say, “Are we asking the right questions?” Often we come to the decision-making process from something that happened on the dance floor. It can seem like a logical next step to make a decision, but if we have not gotten that “bird’s eye view,” it is likely that we have missed a key element about how this decision might effect the entire system of the congregation.

Once the good questions have been asked, you might be surprised at the answers you get. If the questions are strong enough, and the process clear and thorough, the thinking generated can take you far. Do not be afraid of the creativity that is unleashed. Embrace the Keeper of the Questions.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Greatest Gift of All

by the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff
I don't cry often while watching television, but this morning the tears fell as I saw the dedication of the 9/11 Museum at the site of the World Trade Center Towers. Hearing and seeing the survivors and the first responders, listening to the last voice messages of those who perished in flight ... I was moved beyond words.

If I were certain my life was ending in a few minutes, who would I call? What would I say? If someone I loved called to say they were about to leave forever, what would I say? What would I do? I ask these questions, then multiply them times the hundreds and hundreds of lives lost on that clear September morning.

I was living in Boston at the time of the attacks. My partner called me from his office and told me to turn the television on. I watched transfixed until both of the towers collapsed, then I was completely overwhelmed and turned the news off, feeling the weight and the loss of those lives that day.

Seven years later, I began an interim ministry at the Central Unitarian Church of Bergen County in Paramus, New Jersey. It was there that I met long-time members Herb and Andrea Ouida (oh-WEE-da), whose 25-year-old son Todd died at the World Trade Center. As a child, Todd suffered with debilitating anxiety disorder. After his death, his parents founded The Todd Ouida Children's Foundation (www.mybuddytodd.org), a nonprofit organization that supports psychological services for children from low-income families and works to end the stigma of depression. The Foundation has raised more than a $1 million to date for projects such as an art-therapy center and a summer camp for children who lost loved ones on Sept. 11.

Some of the conversations that take up our time and energy seem abstract. As we debate about the value of a new UUA logo or the advantages of moving our Association's offices off Beacon Hill in Boston, the work of saving lives, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and loving beyond belief goes forward. While we attend our meetings, join together in worship and advocate for justice, may we remain aware of the fragility of each of our lives. Every day, we have the chance to radiate as much love as possible to each person we meet. When tragedy strikes, may we follow the example of the Ouidas and reach out in love to others who are in need, just as we are.

Life is the greatest gift of all the riches of this earth

Life and its creatures great and small, of high and lowly birth

So treasure it, and measure it, with deeds of shining worth*

In faith,

*Singing the Living Tradition, #331

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Racism = Bigotry + Power

by the Rev. Kenn Hurto, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff Lead Executive

The infuriating news regarding the LA Clippers basketball team owner's racist remarks combined with the ranting Nevada rancher -- the one with perverted notions of freedom for poaching on public land -- who argues that slavery was a good thing is an appalling insult to human dignity. The bad news is that this is old news. The good news is it’s not being put up with.

We Unitarian Universalists are sometimes glib when we invoke our 1st Principle regarding human worth. We should not be. This teaching is at the core of our theological commitment. It's the Universalist teaching: We are all -- all humans! -- children of the Divine and therefore worthy of being treated with respect. This stands in direct opposition to the Calvinist legacy, claiming that some people are saved (worthy) and others damned (unworthy).

Sadly, Calvinism, not Universalism, is the prevailing theology of American society. Everywhere you turn you can hear people dividing the world into two classes: those like me, who are good, and everyone else. I once knew a man who believed, "There are two ways to do things: my way or the wrong way." It is hard to know how to be in the same room with such folk. It is even harder to live in a society where the habit is to play "I'm OK, You're Not!" games at every turn.

Most people have negative attitudes toward differences. Prejudice seems to come instinctively. Could it be, we are still very tribal creatures, easily frightened, thus threatened by difference? Although we are all pretty much the same, we make big deals of minor differences. For the most part, we still get along. It becomes a problem, though, when one group has or tries to have power over another and justifies that power in terms of differences. That is when bigotry turns to racism. It is said that slavery and its legacy is the great sin of American culture. These two news stories, as I say, are old news.

Most Unitarian Universalists are not glib; we do more than affirm, we seek to promote the worth and dignity of all. Many of our congregations are committed to being and becoming intentionally anti-racist and anti-oppressive. That's why our Standing on the Side of Love efforts are so appealing. Candidly though, we struggle to know just how to do that well. We have much to learn along the journey to spiritual, inter-personal and institutional wholeness.

One thing we have learned is that effective counters to racism require positive action. Writing off bigots as lost doesn't help (and contradicts our theology). Hence, more Unitarian Universalists have embarked on a deep exploration toward becoming multi-cultural. We need to learn how to deal positively with differences of attitude and values, of styles and manner to become interculturally competent. What is multi-culturalism?

"Multiculturalism means that we create religious homes where encounters between people of different cultural identities intersect with Unitarian Universalism to create a fully inclusive community where...all people are welcomed as blessings and the human family lives whole and reconciled.” This definition comes from our UUA.

Embracing a multi-cultural ministry is the long-term corrective to racism: Together we can learn how to love the mosaic of diversity and to appreciate each other's life experiences and the unique gifts we each bring to the table. This is what we are called to do, to build the common good all the days of our lives. When we begin with self-awareness and self-examination, we nurture the beloved community. As we build the beloved community, we show our people how to engage difference free of prejudice. If we can be a highly functioning non-creedal faith community -- that humbly admits no one of us has all the truth and therefore we need to listen and learn from one another -- if we can do that, then we can also actively choose to learn from our various cultural identities and ways of being in the world. From there, we can then learn how to bear effective witness to our core values in our everyday actions in society at large.

Our UUA has wonderful resources to help. See: http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/index.shtml. The field staff are also ready to show the way. Please contact us directly if you are ready for this ministry.

May universal love prevail, every day in every way.

Blessings, Kenn

Monday, April 14, 2014

At the Core Is Love

by Maggie Lovins, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

Amid all the noise in our lives,
we take this moment to sit in silence—
to give thanks for another day;
to give thanks for all those in our lives
who have brought us warmth and love;
to give thanks for the gift of life.

It’s that time of year again! The flowers are coming out of their long slumber, the days are warming up a bit, the sun is sticking around longer in the afternoon... and one of the surest of signs to a Unitarian Universalist that it truly is spring - the annual canvass/pledge drive! This is the time of year, for many of our congregations at least, where we pledge financial support to our congregations, and they in turn pledge to our Association. I don’t need to go in to whys of the process, we all know why we need to pledge. Yes, the lights need to stay on, the mortgage needs to be paid, the Administrator, DRE and Minister need to be fairly compensated, but beyond that, our pledge is another aspect of our covenant to one another- we promise to help take care of our Faith in all aspects and to be good stewards of it for the next generation of Unitarian Universalists.

This is also the time for District Assemblies and Congregational Meetings. Time to vote on new officers, bylaw changes, new long range plans, for some it might be time to vote to call a new minister, but for all of us it should also be a time to remember why we come together “amid all the noise in our lives.” I mean, why do we give 2 hours or so most every, if not every week, to our chosen Faith? Why do we sit in committee meetings, board calls, canvass trainings and the like when our daily lives have become so hectic? Now in reality, some folks really do love meetings, the collaboration, the brainstorming, the governance, the challenge, and there are some that enjoy a good argument as well. Others are not so much like this, but they give freely and openly of their time, treasure and talents just the same. You all give of yourselves, you chair our RE committees, serve coffee on Sundays, edit newsletters, visit our members when they are unwell, and the list goes on and on. We need all of you and so many more to help move us towards the Beloved Community! But we still are left with the question of why we do it? Why do we come together as we do not have a guilt driven ‘do it or else,’ punishing type of Faith.

We know we are on our pilgrimage here but a brief moment in time.

I wonder, could it be as simple as Love? A little four letter word that I personally hold to be my only capitol ‘T’ Truth, could that be the unifying reason we gather? Our congregational and Associational polity declares we need not hold shared beliefs, but I would venture to say that this is something we all believe in. Not the pie in the sky,
Pollyanna type of “All you need is love” (sorry John, Paul, George and Ringo, I still love ya!) but one of the most basic elements necessary for a healthy human existence, the one thing everyone seeks and some are blessed to know, what I would say is at the core of who we are as Unitarian Universalists.

So if Love is at the core of who we are, why we are, and what inspires us to gather, how do we enact that Love to reach out? Do we take it to the streets? Do we take it to our schools? Do we take it to our government? Do we take it to our prisons? Do we take it to every corner of the world and let everyone we come in contact with know that this is who we are and what we believe? YES! Yes, we do- we ARE the Love people remember?! Now, how do we give it away to every single soul in need, to every single person in pain, to every single human being paralyzed by anxiety? We do it together. One step at a time, one social justice outreach at a time, one food pantry at a time, one piece of legislation at a time, one humanitarian effort at a time.

Let us open ourselves, here, now,
to the process of becoming more whole—
of living more fully;
of giving and forgiving more freely;
of understanding more completely
the meaning of our lives here on this earth.

~Tim Haley, Worship Web UUA.org

To do this work will take the hands of many, and our continued gathering in and outside our congregations. Why the continued gathering of our congregations you ask? Because that is where we manifest and synthesize the Love to take to the world! That is where the never empty font of Love, Justice, Compassion, Equity and Interdependence lives, in our Unitarian Universalist communities! I invite you to summon Love in to your everyday life, in to your every action, in to your every word. I invite you all to be the change you wish to see starting now! I invite you all to gather in a spirit of “Love Reaches Out” and join your fellow Unitarian Universalists in our first ever simultaneous Southern Region wide District Assemblies starting April 25th. May you know Love, may you give Love, may you become Love.

Maggie Lovins

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Smart Church: All the Difference

By Connie Goodbread, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

I call that church free which enters into the covenant with the ultimate source of existence. It binds together families and generations, protecting against the idolatry of any human claim to absolute truth or authority.
- James Luther Adams

For a long time we thought that we should focus on how Unitarian Universalism was like other religions, what all religions had in common.  When we taught about our faith we looked for the likenesses we shared with other faith traditions.  For a long time people who came into Unitarian Universalism defined themselves by what they were not.  I am not a Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, or Baptist, or I am a recovering Catholic, etc.  For a long time we have been unable to teach Unitarian Universalism.  We suffered from the Buddhist idea that if you name something as big as God you diminish it.  So how could we say what Unitarian Universalism is without diminishing it?  And yet, how can we have deep discussions about our faith with one another, let alone with people of other faiths, if we cannot talk about what Unitarian Universalism is?

That is the struggle isn’t it?  What is Unitarian Universalism?  What is the truth, the wisdom and transcendent value at the center?  What makes it different?  What makes it great?  What makes it important?  What makes it worth your dedication?  What makes it worth sharing?  What is in Unitarian Universalism that we hang onto in times of joy and times of sorrow?

Ours is a living tradition. As a living tradition we are asked over and over again to reexaime our path, our faith, the truth, our assumptions and our work.  Do we love deeply enough?  Are we not merely tolerant but accepting?  Is our service to others or for our own glory?  Who cannot hear us because of the way we speak?  What is the next challenge, mine, yours, ours?  Are we supportive and not enabling?  Are we kind, trusting, forgiving, humble?  I know that can be exhausting because there is so much change.  I know there are times when we are tempted to look for what is sure, what is solid and never changing.  But - life is change, how it differs from the rocks. - Jefferson Airplane.  Because ours is a living tradition we must hit the refresh button often.

Ours is a pluralistic faith.  We do not believe there is only one way or one path to truth and goodness.  Rather all paths that lead to a loving heart are good paths.  There is no fundamentalism in Unitarian Universalism.  There is not one right way.  We covenant to walk  in the ways of love.  We covenant to uphold our values and support one another in the struggle.  We covenant to build the world we dream about.  We covenant to accept different ideas and theologies and to allow room for doubt.

In our living tradition there is no orthodoxy.  Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal not a creedal faith.  Therefore, there is no demand for people to adhere to one way of relating to the holy, the divine, or the wonder of creation.  Unitarian Universalism does not insist that to be a part of the faith all must be bound together by belief.  Rather we are bound by our deep and abiding promise to support one another and care for the world.  We are bound by love to serve.

Unitarian Universalism is a faith that teaches that revelation is open and ongoing  We do not believe that revelation is sealed.  We believe that each of us has a relationship with the divine and anyone can be touched by divine thought and inspiration.  We believe that all are worthy and all are saved.  We believe that life is sacred - all life.  We are not waiting to be saved.  We think that what we have here and now is important and that how we live together on this lovely little planet matters.  Everything is holy.

These four pillars of Unitarian Universalism (living, pluralistic, covenantal faith - that teaches revelation as open and continuous) speak to the difference between our faith tradition and some others.  While we have much in common with what is at the heart of all great religions (love), we differ with each on at least one of these Unitarian Universalist ways of manifesting love in the here and now.  Our good news of hope and love is worth sharing.  Our way of living out that hope and love is also worth sharing.  It needs to be given away with open and generous hearts.