Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Who Is My Neighbor?

by the Rev. Susan M. Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff member

One of my favorite parts of doing vision/mission/strategic planning work is all that we discover by investigating our “mission field.” Sometimes we spend all of our time focused on who we are as a congregation and identifying our shared values and passions. Those are vital steps in shaping a compelling vision, but we can’t forget that we minister in a particular place at a particular time.

There is research work that suits every personality. For those who are gregarious, I ask them to pose this question to everyone they meet from the grocery store clerk to the mayor, “I belong to a congregation that is open to a variety of beliefs and focused on making this world a better place and I was wondering what you thought a congregation like that could contribute to our city/town/neighborhood.” In my experience, everyone has an opinion.

Those who like to work with data have some really exciting tools to explore. My favorite new one is at http://projects.nytimes.com/census/2010/explorer in which Dustin Cable from University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service has compiled racial identity info from the 2010 census. With the racial groups represented by differently colored dots, you can see at a glance the radical separation of races in most of our cities. Take a very distant view and the predominance of African Americans in the South and Hispanic/Latino Americans in the borderlands can be seen in glaring clarity. However, in working with congregations, I’ve used this tool to find some amazing locations of racial diversity as well as the intersections of racial enclaves. Using http://www.census.gov/2010census/popmap you can get analysis at the county (or parish) level on race, ethnicity, age, income and housing.

I think the most helpful tool is a Ministry Area Profile available online at http://www.perceptgroup.com. Percept Group has done area studies for congregations since 1987. I saw one for the first time when I was in parish ministry and doing UUA “Extension” training. It used to take weeks to get one, but now they are available on the web in just a few minutes. You get maps, charts, and tons of analysis particularly helpful to congregations including preferences in worship style, church architecture and programs. You find out the social justice and quality of life concerns of your neighbors as well as their preferences for making charitable donations. While reading one of these for a congregation recently, we discovered over 3,000 households in a 5-mile radius of the congregation with a higher than average tendency to be UU.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that our neighbors are not like us or don’t share our concerns. I suggest that you get some actual data to insert into your system while you are visioning and developing plans. It is inspiring to see that as many as 30% of people surrounding your congregation are very concerned about race relations or that 20% of them are looking for spiritual growth. It is sobering to discover that a growing demographic in your neighborhood is unemployed female heads of household with children under the age of 5 or that 12% of your neighboring adults don’t have a high school education. We can be more respectful of the uniqueness in our multi-cultural environment when we know that there is growth in your area from Mexican Americans, Vietnamese Americans and East Indian Americans rather some non-existent generic Hispanics/Latinos or Asians. 

Theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” What if we thought of those who live and work next door to our congregations as not merely a coincidence but a calling, an opportunity and a blessing?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Thirty Days of Gratitude, Rolled into One

by Carlton Elliott Smith

I noticed that some of my Southern Region colleagues are participating in "Thirty Days of Gratitude" on Facebook, a month-long practice of thanksgiving during the month in which we have a holiday that's all about appreciating our blessings.

The last full weekend in October was the 20th anniversary of my ordination into Unitarian Universalist ministry at the Hollis Unitarian Church in Queens, New York -- another occasion to contemplate the years gone by and remember how I arrived at this point. With these things in mind, I offer you, Unitarian Universalists of the Southern Region, my own Thirty Days of Gratitude, Rolled into One.

I'm grateful for
1. The extraordinary Southern Region team, program staff and administrators alike. For whatever I am able to accomplish in my role, I know that is woven through-and-through with their support, dedication, and encouragement.
2. The congregations of the Southern Region, with a special fist-bump to those who faithfully support the GIFT program -- Generously Investing for Tomorrow (and Today!). There would be no Southern Region team as it exists now without your financial contributions.
3. The "Three I's" of our UUA Congregational Life Staff -- Interconnection, Innovation, and Impact -- which help us prioritize projects.
4. The relatively smooth transition to regionalization, with the legal dissolution of our four Southern Districts last April. We have entered a new era of what is possible for Unitarian Universalism in our region, and the devoted leadership of district presidents and other officers has given us a great place to start.
5. The elders in our congregations, with whom we staff collaborate in our service to our faith. The work we do is ever-expanding, such that it requires our ongoing partnership. 
6. The work of writers, church leaders, and scholars such as Gil Rendle, Patrick Lencioni, Edwin Friedman, and many others that we draw from in the presentations and lectures we create.
7. Our Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, which drew me into this faith some 24 years ago and continue to be reference points that I visit again and again.
8. Our religious professionals -- ministers, religious educators, musicians, and administrators -- who are entrusted with the responsibility for building and maintaining sacred spaces.
9. Our many ancestors in the faith -- Viola Liuzzo, Sophia Lyon Fahs, Susan B. Anthony, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper -- whose lives testify to the power of our faith and the possibility of transformation.
10. Our congregational polity, that empowers each church, fellowship, and society to chart its own course with regards to its ministry and its resources.
11. Our covenantal faith, which binds us together by the depth of our relationship and commitment to one another rather than by any creed.
12. Our small and mid-sized congregations, that often represent our faith on backroads and in underserved communities. 
13. Our larger congregations, which are the source of most of the numerical growth within our region.
14. Our teaching congregations that provide new generations of ministerial leadership.
15. Our dying congregations, that have faithfully served our tradition and hung on as long as they could, but are now ready to give their remaining wealth toward the growing, emerging communities of faith.  
16. Our emerging congregations, that are daring to try new ways of being in community, of doing worship and service, that are giving us insights into what the contours of congregational life might be in generations to come.
17. Our multi-site congregations that are partnering with one another and using modern technology to shrink the miles between them.
18. Our struggling congregations, whose leaders are boldly facing crises of faith and showing what can be done when belief in the power of community remains strong.
19. Our visionary congregations that embark upon ambitious building campaigns and community outreach projects that transform local communities.
20. Our bold congregations which, in the face of anti-blackness and white supremacy, dare to declare that #blacklivesmatter.
21. Our resilient congregations, who continue to serve and minister in spite of devastating tragedies and losses.
22. Our environmentally-conscious congregations, which show us that care for our planet is as much a part of our ministry as anything else that we do.
23. Our Welcoming Congregations, many of which were on the forefront of the marriage equality wave that finally(!) swept across our country this June, which are leading the way for transgender inclusion and lgbtq employment and housing protection under the law.
24. Our accessible congregations, that are making adjustments to their facilities so that more people will have access to the love we offer.
25. Our congregations in transition, that are saying goodbye to ministers completing their service and rediscovering their own identities distinct from those leaders.
26. Our justice-seeking congregations, who show up again and again, standing on the side of love in yellow shirts and otherwise :-)
27. Our congregations that consistently support leadership development through participation in our Leadership Experiences, Presidents' Convocation, SW Fall Harvest, and the like. You are increasing the capacity of our region and of your own congregations at the same time!
28. The sources of our faith, which ground us in the ancient past and guide us toward the horizon, giving us roots and wings.
29. The Association of Unitarian Universalist congregations, and of Unitarian Universalists, that provides the over-arching umbrella for all that we do as a liberal religious movement.
30. The forgiveness that is there for me regarding anyone I unintentionally omitted or offended with this gratitude list. 

For all that is our life, we sing our thanks and praise
For all life is a gift that we are called to use
To build the common good, and make our own days glad.* 

In faith and gratitude,
Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith  |  Congregational Life Staff, UUA Southern Region

* from "For All That Is Our Life", Singing the Living Tradition #128