Thursday, March 31, 2016

Fear Is Real, but so Is Hope

by Maggie Lovins, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 14, 2016

Deepest Meaning by Connie Goodbread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rev. Hope Johnson

* Does God Have a Big Toe? by Marc Gellman

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Youth Programming: You Might Be Doing it Backwards

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

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

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