Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Leaders: Say Less

One of the double-edged swords with blogging is that it is a written form of communication in the public sphere, and it is simultaneously a fairly spontaneous form of communication.  We can all write whatever we want on our own blogs and any blog accepting comments, at any time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

On our own blogs, we can go back and edit, or if we object to editing, write lengthy follow-up posts clarifying or changing our positions.  On blogs that don't belong to us, once we make a comment, it is out of our hands and continues to live on the internet for as long as the blog author feels the blog should exist.  I say this is a double-edged sword because it is indeed both a "blessing and a curse."

On one hand, we can regret something we say and not have the control necessary to go back and make it right.  On the other hand, it can also be a record of our growth, our changing thoughts, and most importantly, *what was really said.*

Last spring, I walked into the center of a heated debate on a blog.  Though I tend to process information through conversation, I also often prefer to do so in small gatherings of company rather than in the public sphere.  For this reason, I am usually fairly careful about what I say out loud while trying to make sense of things.  I definitely didn't mean to end up in the center of the debate, to say the least.

Once I said what I said in this particular blog debate, however, the focus shifted to me and my arguments, and I couldn't extricate myself.  I was in the center.  The blogger wrote what I felt was a scathing post in response to my comments.  At the time, I was hurt.  I felt what I said had been misconstrued.  I felt false assumptions had been made about me.  I felt misunderstood, misrepresented, and humiliated.  I felt like I'd received a verbal lashing...and I still felt *right*!

I tried to respond, but my comment ended up being too long.  I hadn't saved it, so I couldn't paste it into my own blog and post a comment on the other blog with the link.  I thought about writing it again on my own blog, but my energy had been sapped, and I decided to just be done.

Some things really are best left unsaid.

Something a close friend mentioned to me today reminded me of the debate, and I had a tiny temptation to email her a link to my "lashing" to show her how terribly I'd been treated (Who me?  Licking wounds?!).  I knew that was something of a triangulation-type response to hurt feelings, though, so I decided not to give into temptation.  Instead, tonight I got online and pulled up my original comments and the response post.

You know what?  What had been said wasn't unfair.  It was super harsh, maybe even a tad unkind, but it wasn't unfair.  There was something I needed to learn from the rebuke that had been offered, and it wasn't until my feelings weren't so raw that I was able to see it.

When I read the response again, I found it a well-reasoned set of arguments.  I didn't agree with everything said, but I could understand why the blogger had come to the conclusions she had and why she felt so strongly about them.  In one or two cases, the arguments she made were in fact stronger than my own, and the points she made more important.  In other words, in at least a thing or two that I had said originally, I was wrong.

Thank goodness my response to the blogger's response was rejected by her blogging program as being too long.  It would have sounded defensive and fearful.  If I wanted to write a new response now (I don't!  I've moved on to other debates LOL), it would be a more knowledgeable, more thoughtful, more complete and better reasoned response because of the things the blogger had said. This is a good reminder for me in my relationship with my congregation.

Good leadership, to me, is in large part, deep listening.

In the church, there can be a lot at stake.  Liturgical issues, theological questions, budget decisions, staffing matters...the list goes on.  Religious leaders are bound to feel strongly about a thing or two!  We could, of course, through the sheer brilliance of our arguments demand the solidarity of others...win people over to our points of view.  Surely then, if everyone did things exactly our way, the church could be saved, the people of the congregation all the better for it.  Right?!


But that is not the kind of leadership to which we are called in the religious setting.  In the religious setting, leaders nourish discernment in people of faith.  Discernment is fostered through the thoughtful back and forth that occurs when a leader says, "what is so urgent that we cannot slow down and truly hear one another?"  Discernment is fostered by leaders who do not allow themselves to be seen as the "go-to answer people."

Leadership is not lawyership.  Winning people over isn't a sign of good ministry.  In fact, you don't have all the answers and nor should you.  Leaders: say less and less frequently.  God can't be heard when your own voice is doing all the talking.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Economy and Church Part III: Who Among You Is In Need?

This is part of an ongoing exploration of the economy and church.  To see part II, where I cover some fundamentals of American economics and the current American economic condition (some of which may be applicable in some form outside of the United States) click here

Let's now talk a little about "class."

First, the "knowns."  My source(s) here is not a primary source and is six-years-old, by the way, but my blogging practice is to post sources if (1) they are either primary or can be backed up by primary sources if I took the time to do so, and (2) most of what is said in the source still applies at the time I am posting it.  Here is some of what we know about class, as outlined in a 2005 New York Times series called "Class Matters."  I especially recommend that first full article in the list.
  1. There is a class system in the United States.
  2. The "American Dream" of upward class mobility is more dream than reality.
  3. Upward class mobility is declining such that my generation became the first generation that will probably and almost uniformly make equal amounts or less than our parents, unlike the generations that have come before us for quite some time.
  4. The chasm between rich and poor is indeed growing.
Now let me add to the above list the following, all of which I have not yet but at some point I hope to come back and backup with sources.  In the meantime, I think some of the videos in part II of this series are good starting sources.
  1. Consumer debt is rampant among all classes.  In fact, in some cases it may be how we Americans have tried to equalize ourselves among class levels (just compare average house sizes from 1950 to 2004).
  2. Lenders have historically preyed on folks in vulnerable positions.
  3. Across the country, individual rates of debt have far exceeded our rate of savings.
Okay, so let's consider the above in relation to the economic state with which our country has been struggling for a few years, most of which is talked about regularly on the nightly news.  Consider this:
  1. In many areas of the United States, unemployment is still a big problem.
  2. Even in places where there are jobs, economic contractions from the recession have not lifted.  People who have jobs are often working fewer hours, at lower rates of pay, for fewer benefits, with reduced levels of compensation for costs such as health insurance. 
  3. Despite some loan modifications, for the most part, the great many people who have jobs but who are working fewer hours, at lower rates of pay, for fewer benefits, with reduced levels of compensation still have their pre-recession mortgages or close to pre-recession rental costs.  They also have greater health care costs (not only have benefits lowered, but prices have continued to increase).  And the cost of food is up.  So as a whole, we are trying to stretch less into more.
  4. Folks are shouldering these burdens on top of their high rates of consumer debt and low rates of savings. 
In our congregations, we must sustain our commitment to those most vulnerable among us.  This is even more true now than it ever was, as the poorest folks got hit the fastest in the economic troubles of recent years, and in many cases the hardest.  Social programs, meanwhile, that help folks when money doesn't cover the basics (food banks, utility assistance programs, and so forth), have in many cases a decreased level of funding since Americans have had to tighten our belts more collectively.  So the resources for those in greatest need are stretched even more thin at a time when they are more needed.  That's not new news, but it continues to be critical news.

Making our responsibilities even greater, in addition to that, there is an emerging need among a whole new group.  This need is found in the middle class folks, especially the lower-middle class folks, who have gotten themselves in over their heads with house payments and so forth that they can't support with post-recession levels of income and inflated costs of living.  Even if our country recovers and we can eventually return to the "status quo" (which I questioned in part II of this series), it may very well take years.  Though the need is probably less urgent than among the "working class," the suffering is largely silent.  The reasons for this include:
  1. The problem surfaced in part as the result of high debt levels, and people feel ashamed.  While high debt levels have never been part of good financial management, the truth is that what seemed to be reasonable debt to the majority of Americans five or six years ago no longer seems reasonable.  Consider the mortgages some of us were willing to pay (hey, even me just back in 2007, which is after the "bubble" started to burst).
  2. Because the issues are so entwined with debt for this particular class level, these are people who are not qualifying for the safety nets available to the "working class."  Until they lose their jobs, despite lower incomes than pre-recession and higher costs, they can't get foodstamps, their children don't qualify for free or reduced lunch programs at school, they won't likely receive utility assistance even when the power is turned off or the oil company refuses to deliver, and the food banks may not serve folks from their zip codes.
There is a lot of shame and regret tied up in the struggle of a declining middle class right now.  It is entirely possible that without anyone else knowing it:
  • A committed, pledging single member or family (with or without children) of your church has bounced checks trying to make a pledge payment.
  • Someone you know in a middle class profession is skipping lunch to make sure their kids can have dinner.
  • A seemingly middle class family in your church has had the electricity or heat turned off or nearly turned off sometime in the last month, and fears CPS would be called regarding their children if anyone finds out.
  • A parent you know in the so-called middle class isn't eating fruits and vegetables (is putting their own nutrition at risk) in order to ensure that produce is available for their children.
  • Someone in a middle class neighborhood near you (maybe even your own) is calling the water company to make payment arrangements this month so they can afford to pay enough of the natural gas bill that it won't be turned off.  Meanwhile, they haven't paid the phone company in two months and are waiting for the inevitable cancelation notice.
I realize, of course, that folks spent more money on "Black Friday" than expected, and that we're all supposed to feel good that this means the above issues are unlikely as we continue our so-called economic "recovery."  But I've seen enough suffering going on with folks I know and love to trust "Black Friday" as a good indicator.  I also think our spending shows an unfortunate willingness to return to the status quo, to continue increasing our debt at the first signs of economic recovery.  This isn't a good sign.  This is a sign of more and greater trouble to come.

If I am right, what does this mean for us as a people of faith?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"Sympathy is our strongest instinct"

I think this video gets really interesting around the 2 minute and 50 second mark.  I am looking forward to exploring this very soon in a newsletter column or sermon.

It's worth watching, religious leaders.  Pay special attention to what is said at the 4 minute and 30 second mark, and then consider possible implications for religious leaders in the church context.  What do you think?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Why I Can't Wait To Be An Usher

Good ushering is church leadership.  Most people don't think of it that way, but it is.  Ushers are spiritual leaders in the church by modeling religious hospitality.  Ushers can really set the tone of a church.

While I am taking a break from my professional work in the church to attend grad school, one of the things that I am looking forward to doing in the church I attend is ushering.  When I say I am looking forward to it, what I mean is that I am doing a happy dance about it.

Why?  Here are some reasons, both semi-silly and serious:

1.  I won't know anybody, and I will want to get to know them.  Ushering is an easy way to come to know the church regulars, and a good way to meet the not-so-regulars.  Within a few months, I may not know everyone's names, but I will know whose names I "should" know (this way I don't have to worry so much about accidentally introducing myself to someone I've met five times already).

2.  Ushering isn't labor intensive in the least, and yet it is high reward. 

3.  Ushering doesn't require a longterm commitment like many volunteer jobs, and since I know I am going to be overcommited in school, I am eager for a way to contribute my volunteer time to a church without getting myself in over my head.

4.  Ushering will help me achieve my goal of being one of those people who has laugh lines in the mix of her wrinkles.  Smiling is good for me.  I am glad for the opportunity to be forced to spend a half hour stretch on Sunday morning just smiling away.

5.  There is no view of the congregation that replaces that of the viewpoint of the usher. 

Can I make a suggestion?  I think everyone should usher -- even ministers, music directors, and religious educators, every now and then.  It is true that not all ushers are leaders, but all leaders should sometimes be ushers. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On Economy and Church Part II: Some Fundamentals For the Conversation

Click here for part I of this blog series on economy and church. 

In part one of this blog series, I referenced an economic "Crash Course" website.  In this post and probably other posts that follow, I am going to include some videos from that site because talking about the economy and church requires a foundational understanding of what is happening economically beyond our awareness that we are still trying to recover from a recession that has been hard to shake, and we're all feeling a little vulnerable and unsure. 

I want to say that I recognize that in referencing this particular "Crash Course," I'm using a reference point with some particular assumptions behind it.  However, I think the author of the "Crash Course" does a pretty good job at distinguishing between facts, beliefs, and opinions as he states is his goal in the first video.   I also think the "Crash Course" is the most accessible explanation and history of the United States economy for non-economists available, which is the primary reason I use it as my reference. 

The "Crash Course" website consists of twenty very short videos that are as short as one minute and 46 seconds to no longer than twenty minutes.  The entire course is 3 hours and 20 minutes long, and I think this subject is important enough to call upon that length of time, whether by short spurts or sitting down with the videos for an evening.

However, knowing that we need some common information right now on which to base this conversation, I am going to include some of the video segments here and hope that the lack of context won't unnecessarily confuse the issues.

First a couple of the fundamentals of what our congregations are facing in terms of a massively shifting economy.  If you don't have a lot of time, and feel pretty confident about your knowledge level regarding assets and debt, I'd say it starts to get most interesting around the eight-minute mark:

I show that video first because those are not unfamiliar economic realities, especially given the economic strains of the last couple of years.  Somewhat more vague for most of us are the concepts related to the intersection of energy and economics.  It takes "Crash Course" author Chris Martenson seventeen chapters to work up to them, but these concepts may be some of the most important:

Around the five-minute and twenty-second mark in the video above, Chris Martenson makes a particularly heart-wrenching educated prediction.  He says: "The status quo will be preserved at all costs.  Politicians will hide the truth, economic statistics will become even fuzzier, and central banks will continue to throw more and more money at a system that at its core is out of tune with reality."

I want to stop here for a minute and say that it was in October 2008 when Chris Martenson completed the "Crash Course" series.  However, I believe I first was introduced to the series in 2007, before its completion, and only in what seemed like the early phases of the recession.  By that time, Mr. Martenson had apparently been giving workshops and working on the course for several years.  I've been stunned but unsurprised to watch President Obama, a president who had my vote and who continues to have my general support, do exactly what was predicted in his response to what some call "the great recession."  That is, he has maintained the status quo at all costs.  Again and again.  ("Quantitative easing" anyone?)  I do not believe this would have been any different with any other politician in the office, nor do I believe it will be any different with any politician who comes after him. 

What we are facing is the possibility of deep change:

My basic question is, if there is even a 50-50 chance that such a change is occurring under our feet, what is our religious and moral call to the people in our congregations, our communities, and the world?  Who are we called to be at this turning point in history?  And how can we actually survive to live out that call?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Haven't We All Heard Enough About Church Websites: The Discussion

Thanks so much to all who engaged in the conversation about church websites.  We definitely all had different sensibilities about website content.  That said, while people will always have varying needs and interests in a website, establishing general trends is useful.

I'd argue that congregations that want to remain vibrant should consider tracking those trends particularly as they relate to "upcoming generations..." because in terms of technological stuff, often the trendsetters tend to be younger, and older generations eventually fall in (think Facebook).

Based on the discussion sparked by part II of this series of blog posts, if I was going to summarize suggestions for someone looking to design or redesign their website, I would say:

1. Photos of people are absolutely key. Especially of ministers and staff but also "candid ones" from church activities or worship. We all agree on that.

2. Sermons are important. Posting just a few of the best ones is useful. Posts should include text. Additional audio (or video) is helpful for those who like what they read and want to follow it with audio or share it in audio.

I still argue that more and more with people my age and younger, the audio and video will be important.

3. Go ahead and include your calendar if you would like, but be sure on your homepage to highlight what is happening with "happening this month" type lists that include the highlights.

Prioritize keeping calendars and lists updated so that newcomers don't ask about that book group, etc. only to find out it is defunct. People want to know what you are really doing.

4. Folks say that they really like to have congregational business online. I will not sway from my position that this stuff is more appropriately placed online somewhere other than your billboard for the world (website). However, as evidenced in this conversation, people do feel it is important to have this stuff online, so by all means, put it somewhere...I recommend private or public blogs, google docs, Constant Contact, etc. A single "congregational business" link should suffice if you want to link it from your website. Link to directories, password protected, if you need to, but I hope you will consider whether there are alternatives.

5. Know yourself well enough to keep your "headlines" clear in that "about us" link.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Adding a Blog

I'm adding a blog to my list of blogs.  My latest blog will be tales from downsizing with children.  Just FYI:


I will of course continue posting here on all things related to religious leadership. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Haven't We All Heard Enough About Church Websites? Part III

Here is a link to one of the church websites I've recently been admiring: UU Church of Charlotte.  Considering the amount of content they have on the site, it is easy to navigate and engaging.  I did notice today that I have to scroll the site, which I don't like, but check it out because it's pretty great.

Here's a screenshot:

So now that I've contributed my voice to the many out there calling for better church websites, I want to go back to my question, haven't we all heard enough?  Why are there still so many bad sites out there?

Here are some of my observations:

In all the churches I have been in, as either vocational staff or congregant, since the time that churches started having their own websites, I have noticed one problem that seems to be common among them, and it inevitably results in bad websites.

The problem is as follows.  A website is generally considered a one-person project, and for good reason.  While a "communications committee" or similar body can help with planning and design, one person -- a volunteer with website building experience, an administrator, and sometimes even the minister -- needs to be the webmaster.

The webmaster has to play the role of the gatekeeper.  It's a necessary function.   And yet, if the gatekeeper doesn't have enough time for the job, nothing ever gets through the gate.  No changes or improvements, and only the most minimal updates.  The most common problem I see is that churches don't ever have someone doing the job who has time for the job, or for whom that particular job is top priority.

Sure, there are plenty of other reasons for bad church websites too: lack of vision, uncertainty about whether the website is for members or for folks just learning about the church, poor graphic design, and so forth.  But I really think that all the problems would be much easier to solve if the gatekeeper was doing more than just standing in front of the gate. 

(By the way, sometimes the pressure starts to build outside the gate, so the gatekeeper opens the gate a little to relieve the pressure, and every idea the congregation has ever had comes through like a flood.  I have seen more than one church website go from fine to terrible as congregants excitedly chatter on about how great it would be to, for example, get meeting minutes up on the website, even though those really belong in another medium such as a blog, Google Docs, or something like PB Wiki.)

What are models that eliminate this challenge?  Do we have to have webmasters on staff for that purpose, or are resources like Cloversites able to take away enough of the website design challenges to provide more time for actual design?  What of these models, if any, would be sustainable in a problematic economy?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Haven't We All Heard Enough About Church Websites? Part II

So I am probably going to be moving this summer, and for the first time in ten years, I am looking for a church not for vocational reasons, but to be a member.  I'm looking at church websites with fresh eyes, and friends, it is a frustrating world (wide web) in which to be a seeker.

To be clear, I am not church shopping.  Well aside from one thing.  See, my children have been happy participants in a Spirit Play ministry now for two years, and it has made a tremendous difference in their spiritual lives. I really, really want them to have that ministry for at least another year or two. So yeah, in that way, I am shopping for a program (largely unsuccessfully I might add, since it seems the closest church with a Spirit Play ministry is about an hour's drive away).

No, I'm not church shopping, but seeking.

I am seeking a tribe. I am seeking a band of folks with whom my family can join for the next three to six years. Though three to six years is a relatively short-term prospect, it will cover the span of my children's lives all the way from ages five and six to ages eight and nine at least, if not to ages eleven and twelve.  Those years of their lives will be significant.

It's a big deal, this finding a tribe for my family thing.


So, religious leaders, how can I say this delicately? When I visit a church website and can't find a photo of the minister or the professional staff, or real photos of real members, I can't really envision myself in the tribe, you know?

When I click on "leadership" and your website takes me to a list rather than a series of photos, I am just a hop, skip, and a jump away from closing out the window. I'm still browsing a few sites.  I don't really care what your names are yet. I want to see some faces behind all that text on your site because it is actually true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

When I click on "sermons," I need to hear something so I can imagine myself sitting amongst the other members of the tribe, hearing what you are hearing.  Better yet, I'd love a You Tube video (parceled into parts) so I can see and hear as if I was there.  This isn't a research project. I don't want to sit and read your sermons, I want to hear your voices.

And friends, I know you all want to have a photo directory on your website but can't make it public for safety reasons, but truly, those "for members" links and password protected parts of your site that I stumble upon so easily communicate to me that I am an outsider. Even though I totally understand the reasons you do it, I find that somehow it still feels terribly uninviting to me, this person who is considering bringing up her family among your people.

Calendars are similar.  Please, when I go to find out what is going on in your church, I don't want an actual calendar.  I know you've done that cool thing of actually putting links in for each calendar entry so I can click to get more information.  And truly, that's better than the way things used to be.  But it's cumbersome, it's boring, and it doesn't inspire me to imagine myself with you. 

Actually, the ever-fabulous Andover Newton Theological School provides a fantastic example of an alternative to a calendar.  Stay on their homepage for a few seconds and you will see the primary graphic on the page as a slideshow with events advertised.  Each one has a "headline" and a way to click for more info.  Then, look over to the right side of the page.  The first thing you see is "new and current."  Your eyes naturally lower and then you get "fall 2010: key dates."  Now that's the kind of thing that says, "join us."

Here's a screenshot:

Another issue is that if you can't tell me in three or four sentences who you are, I get the feeling that you don't really know, and then how can you expect me to imagine myself as one of you? Yes, I will want more information, but you would do so much better to keep the headlines clean so I can settle into your picture of words for a minute.

If you have links to your bylaws and your meeting minutes, I am like "whoah, TMI." We've just met one another. I feel like you are airing all your laundry, clean or dirty, and it blocks my view of you the people.  When I picture myself walking with you, I see myself carrying a big pile of laundry by your side. Not too inviting.  (By the way, your members rarely if ever use those links themselves, anyway, no matter how much they say they want them.)

That's actually the crux of the issue.  Are our websites invitational?  Do they inspire imaginings about joining our tribes?

We as religious leaders need to continue to revisit our websites again and again, asking ourselves these three simple questions:

1. When people visit our website, is it clear what kind of tribe they've stumbled upon?
2. Oh yeah, what kind of tribe is that? Is that an accurate reflection of the tribe we actually are?
3. What sights (photos of members and staff) and sounds (sermons) do we have on our website that help people imagine themselves walking with us?

Haven't We All Heard Enough About Church Websites? Part I

First, a video just for fun.  I've been reading a ton about easy church website creation through both Cloversites and Wordpress.

Church consultants, blogs, and books have given us an earfull about bad church websites.  We know we are supposed to do better.  Here are "just a few" examples: 
See what I mean?  The talk is everywhere!

So why are there still so many bad church websites out there?

This quick post series (and yes, I am still going to return to the theme of church and the economy) will contain my recent thoughts about church websites.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Response to "Fighting Bullying With Babies"

I will return to the subject of church and the economy soon, but today I have come across something that is too powerful not to talk about right away.  It is this opinion piece from the New York Times:

Fighting Bullying With Babies

This is really powerful stuff ya'll.  We need to take note.

For religious leaders I have a few special comments:

1.  This is one more argument for multigenerational, family-style church communities. Older kids and teens *need* opportunities to interact with babies (and it probably is a good idea for plenty of us adults too, to interact more with babies).

2.  The church could be a powerful agent in lowering all kinds of community violence.  The project described in the article actually started from the need to reduce in-home violence, not bullying.  I'm dreaming up an empathy-building ministry for a whole community as we speak!

3.  I think that this program likely benefits the babies too.  Babies who have empathetic interactions with older kids have been given a powerful gift.

4.  Related to the above #3, it is so easy as a church to stay out of the conversation about how to care for babies.  After all, everyone has their own philosophy of parenting, and parents of babies are often inundated with well-meant but irritating unsolicited instructions from busy bodies about how to care for their babies.  None of us wants to be an irritating busy body. 

On the other hand, if our churches have a calling to live out God's love in the world, we need to really be there for parents as they navigate their way through all the cultural roadblocks to children's development of empathy.  That starts before folks have even had babies yet, or when babies are just babies.  Reassuring parents who are making choices that build empathy -- such as responding to baby's cries rather than letting baby cry it out -- is an important part of raising kids together with parents as a church community.

What do you think?

Friday, October 29, 2010

On Economy and Church: Part I

Less in the collection plate this year? In a survey of Protestant pastors, 57% said the poor economy was hurting their church.

Here are some of my observations:

1.  The economy is still on shaky ground.  I am far from alone in questioning whether the economy is sustainable.  I still find the following link really interesting, even if I don't agree with a lot of what is on the website, and I hope others will as well (it is over 3 hours, but soooo worth the time and extremely thought-provoking): http://www.chrismartenson.com/crashcourse.  I especially find it interesting that I watched these videos long before the election of President Obama, and I am witnessing the predictions of his actions, as our next president, come to fruition, as I now believe they would have with either a democrat or republican in the White House.

2.  If the above is true, that there is a fair chance that the economy is not sustainable, then our churches need to prepare to see our communities through some rough seas ahead.  Many of our churches as they exist now could not survive those seas themselves. 

3.  Currently, environmental activists and fiscal conservatives are seen as warring parties.  Bridges need to be built between the reality that economic resources as we currently know them are not going to be available forever, and perhaps not even in the near future, and the reality that our use of those resources to date has been tremendously destructive to our shared home, the earth, and that this also is a threat to us and our children.

4.  One advantage of the economic difficulties of the last several years is that many actions toward sustainability became more mainstream.  I don't have research to back it up, but I have a good feeling waste levels on the individual plane have been reduced.  At the same time, however, because sustainability is currently a largely individual or small group action, in order to survive, many families had to resort to environmentally harmful and economically unsustainable action. 

For example, Americans benefit from what is seen as a highly efficient agricultural system and food manufacturing and shipping system.  The prices we pay for food do not reflect the food's ultimate cost, to the environment, our health, and so forth.  However, our entire sense of the cost of living is built around the availability of this system.  People own the houses that they can afford because of this system. 

The shaky foundation underneath it all, as the environmental and health costs are more and more visible, however, is also contributing to initial signs of breakdown.  Food prices have been driven up and up from what was comfortable for the majority five or six years ago.  Those of us who own homes or pay rent based on what we can afford because of a lower cost of food, especially in a time of job loss and jobs at risk, aren't able to keep it all balanced.

Because of the higher cost of food, for instance, my family can't afford to eat anymore except to the extent we shop for the vast majority of what we eat at places like Pricerite (discount grocer shipping food in from all over just like BJs, Costco, or Walmart).   With the exception of organic milk, no organics are available.  We've thus reduced the organics we eat to "occasional foods" when we can afford local.  With the exception of locally prepared pita breads, this is not local food.  We've thus reduced our locally grown and prepared food (we couldn't afford even a half share at a CSA this summer) to "occasional foods" (though to our credit, we buy very, very little pre-prepared foods, and cook nearly entirely from scratch).  On the individual level we can't afford the sustainable practices that will ultimately save our community.

5.  While questioning sustainability is more accepted now than it was even a few years ago, questioning sustainability is not yet seen as mainstream.  Those who question sustainability are largely still seen still as alarmists and millenialists.  Those who are preparing for a major economic shift are marginalized as if they are preparing for "the end of the world."  Even within "green churches," we have not yet reached a tipping point of preparation for a new economic era.

6.  The status quo has been maintained just enough that as communities, we have largely been settling back into a place of comfort about things.  Economic distress is still high, but the stress levels have been reduced just enough that we aren't questioning the entire system.  Even as recently as a few weeks ago, I was still functioning under the illusion that I can hold onto my house that I really need to sell in order to move into a position more sustainable on the individual and community level.  I was still thinking I could get a renter and downsize to a small apartment, and that everything might still be okay. 

7.  One tension: in what might turn out to be a major shift in the entire world economic system, the things that are good for us in the long-run do not feel attainable in the short-run.  Just as in my example above regarding the cost of food and the way my own family is surviving on the cheap stuff from the discount grocery outlet, our churches are also finding it difficult or impossible to choose a way of being in the world that is best for the long-run.  Our churches have staff people and ministers who need these jobs in an economy where jobs are scarce.  These jobs serve an important function for the things that churches do currently, even though those things may not be what is needed to help our communities through the rough seas ahead in the next 10, 20, 30...years. 

On the institutional level, we don't know how else to structure ourselves, and we are afraid to make any changes based on predictions of an unknown future because what if those predictions don't turn out to be true?  Won't we then just be irrelevant?  Major change is needed, but every incentive is toward the maintenance of the status quo (to understand this, please, please take the time to check out the link in observation #1).  The chance of popular support for critical changes in our churches seems remote at best.

We look at churches like those of the Rev. Ron Robinson, and we say, "Oh, that looks interesting.  What great stuff.  I want to support what they are doing.  But that is not what my own church's unique identity is all about.  That wouldn't fit us at all.  I wouldn't feel at home in that church.  Here at my own church, we're about Sunday worship..." etc. etc.  It's scary to reimagine ourselves.  And it's scary to reimagine ourselves in a future that seems uncertain.  And it's scary to imagine ourselves taking actions now based on what seem like potentially alarmist predictions, especially when those decisions involve tough issues like the jobs and the position descriptions of good people who have done good, important work and who need jobs in an economically difficult time, and whose current job descriptions make sense to what we feel like we need right now.

RSS Feed

So if you look to the right, above "followers," there is an RSS icon and a way to put this blog site into your RSS feed if that is your preferred way of keeping up with blogs.  If you are not familiar with what RSS can do for you as a blog reader, check it out:

RSS is called such because it is "really simple syndication."  The implication is that anyone can do it, which makes someone like me -- who has not been able to figure it out easily -- feel really silly having so many questions ;-).  If you have questions, you are not alone. 

Edited to add: Fortunately, my questions have been very kindly answered by the very helpful person running UUpdates, so I have deleted the question originally in this post.   

I have given my site address (now that I have done multiple things to try to make sure I have the required RSS capacity) to http://www.uupdates.net/, a great aggregate of UU blogs.  If you are not familiar with that site, I highly recommend it.  You can go there to see who has posted what within the last 24 hours, few days, or weeks, etc. on their UU blogs. 

Edited to add: The helpful person running UUpdates also tells me that if you prefer to use your own RSS feed reader and don't want to have to also go to UUpdates, you can simply subscribe to the recent additions feed of UUpdates and get a list of newly added blogs that way.  Fantastic stuff!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Characteristics of a 21st Century Pastor

While searching for something unrelated, I came across this article from the highly respected Alban Institute. 

I generally like the sound of the twelve listed characteristics for the "21st century pastor" (for much of the list, I'd say more broadly for "21st century professional religious leadership").  But I am curious.   Is this the inspiring list toward which we should aim as 21st century religious leaders?  Is the list complete?  Is it accurate?  Does it seem to encapsulate all that we are moving toward in a new century?  Is it inspiring? 

I'd love to hear what folks think of the list. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Another Prayer

I want to get in the habit of posting more.  Today's post, however, will simply be a prayer.  I'm worried about my son right now, and it is really all I can think about tonight.  By the way, Lizard Eater wrote yet another great post this weekend, this time about "praying aloud."  Some other UU bloggers have begun to respond (and can I just say that I am so glad to have found the Deep River blog tonight?).
Let us pray together:

Today the sun rose and set.
The air was crisp and autumnal.
God in your greatness, we give our thanks.

Today there were lonely hearts.
There was illness and grief.
There was helplessness and powerlessness.
There was pain and cries unheard.
For those suffering, we pray for relief,
and we offer ourselves as the ears for those cries yet unheard.
God in your mercy, hear our prayer.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Staff Management as Open, Innovative Systems Part III

Here are several more organizational management principles for supervising staff teams in the church setting. These are, of course, just some ideas I have, and they are in development...nonetheless, here they are, for whatever they are worth:
3. Our life experiences don't come in boxes, nor should our contributions. First, a necessary preface: certainly I have an area of expertise on my staff team, as does every other member of the team. I am of course only human, and I would probably resent it if another member of the team felt they knew how to do my job better than I did. We all want to be respected for our hard-won expertise.

For this reason, no matter what opinions I have, I am not going to go around the staff team telling the Parish Minister how to preach or provide pastoral care, the Music Director how to direct the choir or play a piece of music, the Administrator what database she should use and how, nor the Bookeeper how to keep budget records or work with auditors. On occasion I share my personal experience of something if it seems that it would be a useful part of a conversation, but I have become wise enough to avoid telling people how to do their own jobs, in which they surely have far, far more expertise than I.

Folks who head staff teams are wise to keep this in mind. Ministers are usually responsible for the supervision of church staff and yet are not, as a whole, particularly thoroughly-trained themselves in all  aspects of administration, education, and bookeeping (as I am making my way into seminary, the proof is in the curricula at both the school I am attending this semester and the school I will begin attending next year). There is a reason experts are hired.

When my assistant -- who despite being "just an assistant" (as if there is a "just" in that) has tons of education and life experience in all kinds of areas that enhance our "department" -- asks me what I want her to do, I don't usually tell her how to do it. I simply tell her (1) either the outcome I am shooting for, or (2) the issue at hand. Often, she contributes a way of doing things that is way better than what I would have come up with on my own.

That said, when supervising a staff team, including volunteer staff, I expect everyone to bring their expertise -- that earned both through education and life experience -- to the table.  These don't show up in neat little boxes.  The manifestation of that is not as much that I direct certain questions to certain people (I do that sometimes too, but that isn't what I am talking about here), but that I ask questions designed to provoke collaborative innovation, and then I let the expertise come out in the way people approach the questions. In this manner I don't unnecessarily box people in and prevent good ideas from surfacing because I haven't opened up the system for the input.

Blessed is the Church Administrator I once worked with who was (and I am sure still is) the master of gathering large amounts of information. She read books, magazines, and the internet like crazy, and still found time to get out to the movies! While she could have technically done her job simply by maintaining databases, printing reports, and similar tasks, she didn't limit herself to that. She was a tremendous asset to the staff team by showing up at every staff meeting with an interesting blog or church website she'd stumbled onto, or a clipping of something interesting from "Congregations Magazine" or "UU World" or other similar resources, or a paragraph from a book, or even an idea she got from a tv show. I think she was able to do that because as a staff team we were ever-striving for an open, innovative, collaborative way of working together toward the good of the church.

4. Staff meetings are important. Some of the funniest moments in the tv show "The Office" come from bad staff meetings. I know that there are plenty of awful ways to run a staff meeting out there. I know that a bad staff meeting can be an irritation and time waster for the staff. The solution to that, I think, is not for staff teams to abandon staff meetings altogether, but to learn how to run great staff meetings. Staff need time together that goes beyond visiting one another's offices, bumping into one another at the water cooler, or even eating lunch together every day. Isolation among staff members doesn't cultivate creative, innovative collaboration.

Supervisors should not mistake their own sense of how well they are keeping up with what's going on with staff members as the fulfillment of staff meeting needs. That is, the staff meeting isn't for the supervisor. It is for the team. The more teams meet as teams, the more they will work as teams, so staff meetings should be frequent, regular, and effectively run. Because of the way most Unitarian Universalist churches are structured, it makes sense that there is a need for all-staff meetings as well as meetings just for "program staff."

5. Staff, down to the support staff, should have a part in determining the strategic direction of the congregation. Yes, it's about buy-in.  Chances are, if staff stick around for a while, they will be assisting the congregation through at least a couple iterations of strategic efforts.  While the congregation belongs to its members -- and the strategic direction of the congregation ultimately is a decision of members -- a strategic plan in which the staff have no personal investment will not be properly supported by staff, no matter how much they are willing to bend to congregational desire.

Staff who believe in the strategic mission and goals will work twice as hard to achieve them. In contrast, staff who simply bend to the will of the strategic mission and goals will spend more time trying to keep their head above water in meeting the new goals on top of everything else they do than creatively collaborating.  Creative collaboration requires effective prioritization, which requires some buy-in and a feeling of being an active, empowered part of the process.  The goal is creative collaboration.

Staff Management as Open, Innovative Systems Part II

Here are two organizational management principles for supervising staff teams in the church setting. These are, of course, just some ideas I have, and they are in development...nonetheless, here they are, for whatever they are worth:

1. Every single week of work together, church staff teams should have at least one opportunity in which they come together to innovate around a common "big picture" issue. It doesn't really matter what the issue is in any given week, but the opportunity must be nourished on a regular basis. The point isn't as much the resulting innovations (some may be quite good, but many will fail to get off the ground or to succeed), but rather the cultivation of a collaborative approach to innovation. Critically, this should not be framed as problems to solve, but rather "themes of innovation."

These themes or issues should also be "big picture" issues because especially in teams not yet accustomed to collaborative innovation, "little picture" stuff is often too easy to break up into individual-sized pieces that are then -- by habit and for ease but at the cost of innovation -- removed from the collaborative environment and taken on as individual pet issues at which to hammer away. That has a role too, but not in this principle. Here, it is all about the collaboration.

2. Relationships should be cultivated on the group level between staff and congregants, particularly lay leaders in the congregation. Individual staff members will naturally make individual partnerships with congregants with whom they work closely out of either necessity or affinity. This is generally good and most of the time quite healthy. It certainly shouldn't be discouraged. However, if you look at your church staff and see that each individual member of the staff has a narrow subset of congregants with whom the staff member works nearly exclusively, you can say with some certainty that your staff work in silos.

An innovative environment, as demonstrated in the TED video, is one in which collaboration is at the center. For this reason, since the Unitarian Universalist church really belongs to its members and not its staff or even its ministers (and thus the most fruitful innovations will come at least in part from the congregation itself), collaborative partnerships between staff and congregants should be nurtured in collaborative formations. Those leading staff teams should assist in nurturing between the teams as a whole relationships with sets of congregants.

I once served a church in which the staff meetings were attended not only by every staff member, but also by one of the older, retired volunteers who, among other things, spent most of her days at the church, serving folks from the congregational food pantry. While certainly she could have done her work in the food pantry without attending the staff meetings, she was a very important volunteer in the church, not to mention a mover and a shaker in the larger community. The staff team was enhanced by every member of the team having a solid relationship with her as a team. When I worked with this volunteer on a project or issue together in partnership with other staff, my relationship with not only the volunteer but my fellow staffer was enhanced. Meanwhile, our sense of "being in it all together" as a congregation was strengthened by this and other relationships with groups of volunteers in the congregation.

Staff members should not only have the opportunity to work with one another as a team, but to include on the team (and those are the operative words) multiple volunteer leaders from within the congregation.

Staff Management As Open, Innovative Systems Part I

One subject about which I am deeply passionate and interested is organizational development and "management" in religious settings.

If it were an option, rather than choosing between Community Minister, Minister of Religious Education, or Parish Minister, I would seriously consider a speciality in Minister of Organizational Development. One of the reasons that many faith communities are in decline in the United States is that religious organizations are not keeping up their development in pace with society's development.

Society is changing at an increasingly rapid rate. Meanwhile, religious organizations are for many good reasons on "glacial time." This serves no small number of important religious purposes (and I firmly believe that many religious leaders can improve their relationships with the folks in their organizations by slowing down on many levels), but in adapting ministries for changing populations, moving so slowly does nothing but hold us back.

For this reason, I think we would be well-served to expand our thinking about types of ministries to include the ministering that goes on at the organizational rather than individual level of any faith community. (That's my percolating argument for adding another type of ministry to the UUA ministry categories, if such categories must remain.)

I share all this to say that my interest in organizational development has led to some thinking recently about staff development and management in churches. In particular, I am interested in how staff teams can function in such a way that promotes innovation and outreach. My dad recently posted this TED video on the Facebook page for his coffee house (you'll see why), and somewhere around the six or seven minute mark, my ears started to perk up:

In the church in which I currently work, daily lunch table discussions are important for this reason. The tradition has long been that when folks are around and available, we eat together at noon. At lunch there is talk about everything from politics to the personal, but on occasion we talk a little business, and that serves a healthy purpose. The Director of Music is unfortunately rarely present, as he does not have an office nor "office hours" at the church, and neither myself nor the minister seem to be able to attend lunch on a daily basis, so the administrative staff and "support staff" are the most regular lunch attendees. Nonetheless, there are periodic occasions in which conversations over lunch are particularly fruitful in our work together.

Yet creating an innovative staff team, I have come to believe, takes more intentionality. Just being in the same room is as likely in the church setting to create a culture of camaraderie in the status quo, or even a place to vent and affirm fears about change, as it is to nurture the kind of open, collaborative systems of innovation that Steven Johnson is talking about in the TED video.

People want to have a meaningful part in something meaningful. All too many folks working as staff in churches come to find that they don't have a meaningful place in the life of their churches unless they inextricably link themselves to maintenance of systems. I'd like to see more churches breaking this mold and moving in the direction of properly supporting good, healthy, current, and relevant systems while also giving staff a meaningful place in something beyond the maintenance of those systems.

That's what I want to explore in part II of this (two part?) post series.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Self-Doubt and Religious Leadership

As a leader, there are days when the work has a "buzz" to it.  There is an energy that comes when things you work for pay off, when you strike the right chord for your community, when group dynamics produce generative community, and basically you feel like "you are on a roll."  You know why you've been called.

There are also days like I had today.  You feel off-step.  You work hard but it doesn't show.  Your errors set the tone.  You haven't found the pulse of a new group with whom you are working, and your contributions are "off key."  You fumble.  You stand in front of a group like I did today and miss the mark.  You lose your place.  You can't get a stride.  You start to wonder why on earth you, of all people, have been called.

Self-doubt (especially but not exclusively plaguing women).  There are, of course, all kinds of biblical examples of unexpected people being called.  Why them, of all people?  Were they really equipped?  But as a Unitarian Universalist, the calling to religious leadership ultimately must come from our faith community, so references to odd calls in the Bible aren't always comforting. 

A calling to Unitarian Universalist religious leadership is a largely a mutual exchange of trust.  I've heard folks say, along these lines, that church is "a heartbreaking institution."  We're humans, and we mess up, and we break each other's hearts.  The truth, however, is that my heart is broken less often by the church than by my own foibles as a church leader, my own stumblings, my own desire to offer my church something more than I can at any given moment in time.

What do you do to get your head back in the game when...oh, I don't know...say that overplayed song "Bad Day" runs through your head like a soundtrack? 

Lately, I tell you it's funny, but I seek any book or movie or tv show in which the characters are struggling like me, and I relish it.  I especially like comedic takes on the struggle.  It reminds me of my own humanity, and I am able to treat myself with compassion again.  I've never, ever been able to recover from a stumble by beating myself up over it (and I tend to do too much of that), so the older I get, the more I realize that I learn best when I build on my strengths.  Even on a day like today, there are strengths that I can take, and say, "So when nothing else falls into place, here is what I can draw on to get me through until my stride comes back."

It is dangerous to set ourselves up with unrealistic, inhuman expectations.  This week I wasn't able to spend a whole lot of time with my family because in the cycle of my work, this is the busiest time of my year.  So when yesterday my kids and I both melted down to tears over time lost with one another, it makes sense that I started to stumble, and that this stumbling carried over into my day today.  It is unrealistic to think that when I am missing my family, that this won't impact my work.  But I also was reminded that I have a loving community that brings its goodwill to our relationship, and I have gotten much better at providing opportunities for the community to shine...especially in those moments when I am not.  So today my strength was in my ability to invite others into leadership and to empower others to shine from their own strenths.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

If You Work With Families

If your role in religious leadership means you work with families that include children, take note:

It looks like I am probably going to start the Parenting on Track program, per the recommendation of my sister.  I am doing it in order to review it and decide whether to bring the program to the parents in my congregation and the larger community via:

1.  A half-day workshop; or
2.  Getting a few congregants trained as Parenting on Track facilitators who can present the program to our families here on a regular basis; or
3.  Getting church library copies of the program or helping some families get the program.

I will definitely let ya'll know if this turns out to be a resource you too should bring to your religious communities.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Bit More About Generations

I'm writing a sermon this week relating, at least loosely, to Faith Formation 2020, so I am thinking once again about generational aspects of our faith. Coincidentally, today Sara over at the Curriculum of Love wrote a blog review of the book Generations of Faith: A Congregational Atlas.  It's the book Sara recommended to me here in a comment a few posts back. 

It looks like it was published in 2002, so it makes sense that the hypothetical committee meeting Sara recaps from the book did not include Generation Y/The Millennial Generation.  But now in 2010, this generation is entering young adulthood and even the workforce, so let's revisit that.  There are summaries of each generational type here.  (Do you think the depictions of the different generations fit?)

So what does it look like to attend meetings or work on projects with folks in the Generation Y/Millennial Generation?  Here are my initial observations:
  • Generation Y is, as a whole, closely bonded with the Baby Boomer Generation.  I find that though Gen Y folks may have more of a "let's pull together" attitude, folks in Generation Y have picked up many of their sensibilities about organizational functioning not from Gen X, but from the boomers.  I also find Gen Y and Baby Boomers great partners to work together on projects, in a way that Baby Boomers and Gen X are not quite as much so (I've noticed that Gen Xers are increasingly interested, as a whole, in the sensibilities of the Silent/Homeland Generation...just as one example, check out some of the blogs among Gen X mothers right now, who are even returning to the hobbies of the Silent Generation...interesting stuff).

  • Gen Y folks do not have the same sense of boundaries of space and time that previous generations have had.  A room does not just include those who are in it, but also folks who are available via mobile technology.  A meeting time is not exclusive for meeting business, but is rather another multi-tasked item on the whole day's agenda.
  • I had read in another source that Gen Y folks will be big on volunteerism and will volunteer more hours than any generation in recent history (is that part of where "civic" came from as a descriptor?).  While I know Gen Y folks who volunteer, and there is still time, I have not as of yet seen the generation, as a whole, surpass previous generations in terms of volunteerism.  In fact, Gen Y folks started coming of age while the "learn to say no" self-care movement was still peaking for the boomers, and I see Gen Y folks mirroring that sensibility.  That is not to say, however, that I think Gen Y folks have abandoned civic responsibility.  Gen Y folks seem to have a fairly decent understanding of corporate accountability, and seem to want to work for and patronize corporations that at least give an impression of being "more responsible."  Members of this generation also tend to be attracted to projects and activities that simultaneously provide a "self-discovery"/quest opportunity and a philanthropic benefit.

  • Perhaps related to a differing sense of space and time, Gen Y folks currently seem less apt to meet deadlines and adhere to timelines.  The tradeoff is that they often approach things very creatively, and they are quite forgiving of others who fail to meet deadlines and adhere to timelines (a good thing for Gen Xers and Boomers who tend to carry more guilt in these matters).  Gen Y folks also do not seem to have the same level of self-guilt that previous generations have...at least not yet.

  • Perhaps because they are still coming of age, Gen Y folks seem to be looking for opportunities to have their voices heard.  They are insecure in their value, and even though they are a very large generation, do not see themselves as the dominant voice in society.  However, because they tend to think "out of the box" of current generations, they have an entrepreneurial spirit that allows them to innovate without depending on validation from others.  They seem driven toward this innovation, and seem to shy away from more traditionally collaborative opportunities in which they may not feel so heard. 
What are your observations?  Are you in Gen Y?  Have you been in a meeting or worked on a project lately with someone from this generation?  What do you think this means in the church?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

UU Bloggers Survey Responses

The "Best Practices for Unitarian Universalist Blogging Report," originally published in August of 2008, is being updated, and bloggers who promote Unitarian Universalism are asked to respond to this survey via a blog post.  This blog is new to the scene, but here goes:

1. Why do you blog? What goals do you have for your blog?

I blog to explore a variety of topics in an interactive forum.  I blog because I enjoy reading the blogs of others.  I like blogs and other forms of online communication because they are available whenever I am, and always waiting for when I have the time, but they are also dynamic and conversational.

I write about whatever I find interesting.  The goal of my current blog, "Called: Musings on Religious Leadership" is to explore topics related to religious leadership with UUs and non-UUs alike*. 

*Note: I am thinking more and more that if I could, that is what I would do for a living right now :-).  I am increasingly interested in studying systems and people and helping my faith community grow into its future in a healthy and positive way. 

2. Who is your intended audience?

Anyone who is interested in religious leadership.  The blog is definitely informed by my perspective as a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, but I hope many of its topics will speak to a broader audience of religious leadership.  I suspect it will end up speaking most strongly to UUs (and perhaps a few religious leaders in some liberal/"progressive" mainline denominations). 

3. Who owns your blog? Does it belong to you as individual or to your congregation or other organization?

It belongs to me.   I keep another blog that belongs to the congregation I serve as religious educator, but it is currently used for newsletter announcements and wouldn't have much appeal to those outside the congregational circle.

4. How frequently do you post?

I am currently posting about once monthly, but this is a fairly new blog for me.  Having written several different blogs over the years, I know that as my readership grows, I become much more motivated to post regularly. With a regular readership, past experience indicates I blog on average about once per week.

5. What is the tone of your blog?

Professional but not without personality, frank, and reflective.  I can be critical at times of our association, but it is because I feel loving and passionate about our faith.  I hope that love and passion is abundantly clear to my readers. I like to ask questions to try and engage others (the whole interactive forum thing), but without having built my readership much, I am not yet getting responses. 

6. What steps do you take to make sure that your blog is a safe space, both for you and for other participants? Do you have a code of conduct?

I don't yet have the readership to worry about this much.  I do moderate comments, and I try to stick to a professional tone, as I see my blogging to some extent as an extension of my professional life into my personal life.  I also try to write from a place of compassion and love.

I do not use my real name in my blog, not because I am trying to hide behind the anonymity of the internet in order to write things I wouldn't otherwise, but for a number of reasons including the fact that as a foster-adoptive parent, I have some special concerns around family safety. 

7. What kinds of boundaries do you observe around confidentiality?

When I name individuals, which is extremely rare, I use only first initials.  (Note: on the church blog I keep, I use first names with or without a last initial, when I name folks, which I usually don't.)   I try to write about me and own my perspectives and experiences, as a general rule, so normally this isn't an issue.  I also don't write things I wouldn't say, which means some stories will never be told on my blog.  I certainly wouldn't post confidential information. 

8. How do you respond to comments and email from readers?

I haven't received any emails (I don't think I have an email address up).  Sometimes it takes a little while, but I always try to acknowledge comments, and I try to do so in a way that keeps the conversation going.  As I said, I am really interested in blogging because of its potential for interactive exploration of topics. 

I have been known to write an additional post when responding via comment gets long.  I do sometimes worry that it is too directed, especially when I am questioning something, so I am not sure how much I will do this in the future.

9. What are the most challenging aspects of blogging in your experience?

I find it really encouraging to have readership, so with a new blog that has only a few readers, it is hard to get motivated.  When people don't respond, I tend to wonder if I am not writing about things that interest others or if I am not writing in interesting ways. 

It is easy for me to start writing about what I think people want to hear about, even if I am not "feeling it" in the moment, which makes my writing far less interesting.  So the challenge is staying true to who I am and keeping up with it, even if it takes a while for the thing to get going*.

I also am working on word economy, but I have to be really gentle on myself about that one or I lose all confidence to write at all :-).

The other big challenge is that sometimes I will start down a train of thought, and it will branch out into several tracks.  This is fine, but (1) I often get too long-winded, and (2) I don't always have the energy to follow through, so I have a lot of abandoned tracks out there.

*I admit I feel small twinges of jealously toward bloggers who have loyal readership and lots of comments :-).  How do they do it?

10. What are the most rewarding aspects of blogging in your experience?

I like when a conversation opens up that is interesting and engaging, and people start picking it up on their own blogs.  I like watching conversations develop, and watching folks take a stab at things from different perspectives, so it is a good feeling to be a part of that.  I learn a lot and engage in helpful discernment through these experiences.

11. What advice would you give to Unitarian Universalists who are new to blogging and want to get started?

Stay true to who you are and keep at it.  Also, if you are looking for conversation, don't be afraid to self-promote, and don't forget to make yourself a regular reader of other folks' blogs.

12. How do you evaluate the success of your blog? What have been your most successful blog posts or series?

I'll feel really good about my blog when it is a place for really engaging conversation with other folks out there who are interested in this stuff.  I want people to come to my blog because they are looking forward to those conversations.

So far my blog only has a few comments rolling in here and there, but with other blogs I've really appreciated it once that ball got rolling. 

It isn't really a sign of "success," but I admit that I find it gratifying when folks "subscribe."  It feels like a placeholder, indicating that they plan to come back for more conversation.  That always makes my heart sing. 

13. What do you wish you had done differently in your blogging?

This is a new blog, so I feel like I am using a lot of lessons from previous blogging experiences.  Primarily, I am more focused now.

I also spend less time making promises (promising to write on a particular subject later on or promising to start writing more often, etc.).  I let the blog speak for itself, and I just keep working on the stuff that I know I want to improve. 

14. What other online tools do you use to promote your blog? (i.e. social networking sites, Twitter, social bookmarking tools, etc.)

I'm starting to use Facebook for promotion.  It took a while to gain enough confidence about what I was writing, and how I was writing, to feel comfortable promoting it in such a way that folks from my own congregation might see it, which is why I previously never posted on Facebook.

I haven't done any other promotion except to post comments on other UU blogs that I read regularly, and to make sure to link to those blogs periodically.  I have done that for years, through many blogs. 

Since I am looking forward to having more conversations going on my blog, I guess I need some advice (and encouragement) on the front of blog promotion, perhaps with step-by-step instruction :-). 

15. Do you use an Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed? How many subscribers do you have?

I haven't looked into it, but I may already be doing it (?).  I use the subscription feature on blogger.  Tell me more.

16. Do you track site traffic? How many unique visitors do you have per day (on average)?

I have done that with previous blogs, but I found that I read too much into the numbers, and it made me dull.  I think the number of comments I eventually get will be my best indicator of readership, even though I realize folks often read without comenting.

17. Do you find Unitarian Universalist Association resources helpful to you as a blogger? What additional resources could we provide to Unitarian Universalist bloggers?

I haven't checked out the resources, but you know, it is funny because I have blogged openly as a UU for years and never really been acknowledged for it, so I guess it is reciprocal :-). 

18. Please write any additional comments or suggestions.

I bet there are way more UU bloggers out there who are not "in the loop" of the UU blogosphere. 

I also have to agree with others who have answered this question by saying "I’d like to find active UU blogs more simply. Many of the lists online contain numerous inactive blogs, which is discouraging to the reader just looking for a place to start reading UU writings."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Many Forms of Devotion to the Religious Life and a Challenge For UUs

Off and on throughout my childhood, I wanted to be a nun. I am sure to some extent I had a romanticized notion of the monastic life, but on the other hand, the desire was also likely an early manifestation of my calling to the religious life. I don't remember exactly when it happened, but at some point, someone said to me "You can't be a nun. You are not Catholic." My heart broke a little with those words.

It is not that I had been unaware of my religious position. By this time, I was old enough to not only have a sense of my religious community's shared understandings, but also my own beliefs. I was envious of the Catholics in several regards, from the daily worship services to the prayer candles and even the opportunity for confession, but I was clear that my own beliefs did not match the Catholic dogma. I did not desire on any level to convert, or to abandon my own faith, but I felt a deep desire for the rituals and practices of sustained, focused, and supported devotion.

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, our theological diversity does not easily lend itself to communal devotional practices.  But we are spiritual seekers, and religious history the world over is ripe with religious seekers coming together for the practice of devoted religious life.  Sure, any of us has the option to give up our worldly goods and devote the entirety of our lives to spiritual work, but there is a reason that most people who do this usually enter into a community in which they can do it.  It makes a big difference to have support, to be in community with others on the journey

Even the Buddha spent much of his own search in such community.  Though the story also says that his life among other seekers brought him close to death through intentional self-starvation and dehydration, perhaps if he hadn't done preparatory work in community, the Buddha would not have been able to find his path to enlightenment. 

In fact, while even in the Catholic tradition, few people take up the monastic life, those who seek a life less intently focused on the spiritual still often come to church looking for the community of seekers.  This is especially true among Unitarian Universalists, who tend to cite "the community" as having prime importance among the many reasons to come to church (by the way, Lizard Eater wrote some interesting reflections on this in March on her blog, particularly on two interdependent posts on March 5th and 8th). 

So we understand the value of religious community, and as a community of seekers, we can respect those who, in their search, feel compelled toward a focused and sustained set of practices and even a life fully devoted to religious practice, service, or study.  My experience as a Unitarian Universalist is that most of us can understand and honor the choices of those who choose monasticism.  What I think is interesting, however, is that as a community, we do not anticipate that any of our own children will feel compelled, or called, to such a life.  And we seem to think that if they do, the reason would be dogmatic or creedal in nature, rather than an extension of their lives in search.  We bless those among our children who grow to convert to Catholicism or Buddhism, and who in doing so, choose monastic paths.  But we do not provide a path for our Unitarian Universalists who do not convert to have the same opportunities within our faith. 

As an associational body, for those Unitarian Universalists who wish to devote their lives to the religious, we offer an almost singular path.  That is, we offer the opportunity for religious leadership.  We offer some opportunities for service or "mission," but the vast majority of these are nearly completely intertwined with leadership.  As a general rule, we do not allow some folks to choose service alone, but we nearly always ask them also to be leaders.  We ask them to be Father Abott.  It is only a mild exaggeration to say there are no sheep in our flock, only shepherds. 

This fact struck me this week when I found an old "Drive Time Essays" CD for Unitarian Universalist lay leaders, and popped it in my CD player for another listen.  In a description of Unitarian Universalist youth groups, and in explanation of why most youth groups do not use curricula, one UUA essay writer stated matter-of-factly that the primary focus of these groups is leadership development.  This contrasts greatly with the expressed needs and understandings of more than one youth and parent of youth in my programs.  One parent, for example, has said to me repeatedly: "our kids can get leadership training in so many other places; that should never be the primary purpose of our youth groups."  And yet, the essay's claim does fit with my observations of youth groups around the country.  As just one illustration, with long-held respect for lay preaching, we ask all our youth to know how to lead a worship service.  But we only occasionally ask any of them to become well-practiced as worshippers. 

This pertains not only to youth, but also to adults.  Among adults who feel compelled to devote their lives to the religious, we do not support serious, focused and sustained religious study, with the exception of the study for ordained ministry (for which we provide almost no financial support, some structure and limited instruction and encouragement).  I have met more than one person who studied for the ministry only to discover after a large financial investment in this study that they were not suited for that type of leader role.  I have also met a shocking number who never made the discovery, and who either had it painfully divulged to them through the MFC, or worse, who made their way into ministry anyway.  Did this not diminish their light, their gift, and also that of our faith?

Having read about it on iMinister's blog, I watched the visual documentary "Into Great Silence" tonight, and it left me with a question for my faith community.  I can't have been the only Unitarian Universalist child who felt the call early on to the religious life but who did not want to covert in order to experience its depths.  Is it really realistic or fair to think all these children should grow to be religious leaders?  Do we not risk diminishing the light of these children if we try to mold them all into future ordained ministers (where, furthermore, parish ministry in particular is often the only financially viable option)?  Can we not cast a net wide enough for these children too, wide enough to bring their gifts into the light?

Where is the home we make for the most dedicated, most serious seekers among us, young and old alike...not just those who have the ability to lead, but also those who are compelled only toward religious practice, service, or study?  If the answer is, "there is none," and I think that is indeed the answer, then we have work to do.  Let us do it, friends, and let us have gladness in our hearts for the need to do it.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Gen. Y and the Future

I've been working on a project for my congregation that involves thinking about the church's ministry not twenty years from now, but 1...2...3...4...and 5 years down the road.  As a part of this, I have been taking a closer look at generational cohorts within our congregation.  I've found these videos on Gen. Y useful in shaping my understanding of the generation just after mine.

I also learned that even though I am a Gen. X member, I am much closer to the cusp of Gen. Y than I thought (according to at least one table of who fits where). As much as I tend to question some of the behaviors among folks in this generation, I do relate to most of the workplace trends in the third video.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

For UUs, this may be the most important discussion happening right now

What is holding us back? <--Click this first.

(Read it and weep!)

Sometime last year when I first decided to take a second look at Yale Divinity School, I went out to their open house and decided to attend a workshop on a program they have on religion in schools.  The consultant was a consultant leader of the program and not Yale faculty.  Afterward, I stayed to chat with him about "Godly Play," "Spirit Play," and Montessori.  It turns out that he does not share my enthusiasm for Montessori, but it got us into a good conversation about educational methodology and religious implications.  So then he-- who is by the way, an Episcopal priest in his seventies or eighties-- asked me about my faith tradition.  I told him that I am Unitarian Universalist, and he proceeded to "school" me on the problems of my faith tradition.  I think he was surprised when I not only didn't disagree with most of what he said, but I in fact contributed to the conversation.  I've been a UU my whole life and I am confident enough in my experience of the tradition not to be defensive about it. 

So we both stood there talking, getting passionate, and really agreeing with each other, and then our conversation began to wind down, and he looked at me earnestly and said, "I hope you remain a UU," with the tone of, "your voice is an important one."  I looked at him and said sincerely, "me too," and then he said the words I most needed to hear: "I've been saying I might leave the Episcopalians for 60 years [or some big number I can't remember specifically]."

The prophetic voice is not an easy one to carry, but when it has been given, there is little choice.