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.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

So Those Growth Numbers...

In some of my posts, I've been talking about church growth and decline patterns across religious traditions.  Religious Educator Steve Caldwell just posted about another factor in growth and decline patterns: region.

I am so glad that Steve brought up the regional patterns because I think they have the potential to help us tease out a more accurate picture of the conditions that are currently creating growth and decline.

I am reminded, upon review of the stats Steve has brought forth, of something I learned from Alice Mann at the Alban Institute.  She indicated that when looking at factors involved in growth, understanding demographic trends is important in terms of being responsive, but that a congregation needs to be clear about what it can and can't control.  In looking at the issue from this angle, I suggest that the response to decline might vary regionally.

"The Missional Church"

A thought-provoking video for discussion, thanks to Lizard Eater, but sorry about the screen size/cutoff of screen.  Blogger/YouTube issues today:

Saturday, May 8, 2010

While I Am At It...

...on the subject of computers...

faith-based institutions such as churches should plan for computer upgrades just like a hospital, private company of any type, library, or other institution.

Computer upgrades should happen every two to four years (two is probably not attainable for most and in many situations would be overkill), and this should be a planned budget item. One way to do this is to plan to buy one to two computers or upgrades per year, and replace the computers (or significantly upgrade them) on a rotating basis. The alternative, of course, is to build a fund that is used in significant amounts every two to four years when everyone's computers are upgraded at one time. The advantage of the former is that it provides a litle flexibility if someone's computer fails before the two to four year mark is reached...they can simply get a boost in line for the upgrade. That said, emergency money for computer fixes and unexpected replacements should be possible.

I am a big advocate of laptops, tablets (if personally preferred), or convertibles instead of PCs for members of professional ministries, who tend to spend their days in meetings and on the road.  These are also people who tend to have home offices in addition to whatever office spaces they use in their congregational facility.  I would like to see faith based organizations expect to pay the sometimes slightly higher cost of laptops, and in cases where *presence* is being emphasized among leadership, convertibles.

Lay leaders, check your church budgets. Is there a plan? If not, can you advocate for one in the next budget cycle?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Taking Notes in Meetings (and a little fluff)

Sara, from Curriculum of Love, had an interesting conundrum to explore in her comment under my recent post on mobile devices.

She was posting about her ipod touch with which she has tried taking notes in meetings.  She is concerned that she is getting critical stares when she uses it.

I'm definitely in the category of people who appreciate technology. I was among the first of DRE colleagues to carry a laptop with me to professional meetings. At that time, it was me and my then-DRE sister, sitting at the back of professional meetings taking notes.  I loved taking my notes that way because I could go back home and copy and paste relevant quotes, etc. into anything I was writing (emails, newsletter articles, curricula, sermons, you name it).   I never had to transcribe anything, and all my notes were in the computer and not floating around on paper in various notebooks.  Still, I was usually among only one or two other folks with a computer out, and most folks with their computers out were getting ready to make presentations.

A lot has changed just over the last five or six years.  These days when I go to professional meetings but don't have my laptop, I feel the odd man out.   

However, laptops are a physical barrier between people, and tend to diminish a sense of presence. For a long time, I wanted to use my laptop at many meetings in the congregational setting in order to take notes (which is one of the reasons I decided to move from primarily using a PC to primarily using a laptop), but I rarely actually got it out because it seemed to detract.  The smaller the meeting, the more shy I was at taking it out.

Then I discovered the amazing thing that is the laptop-tablet convertible (the one pictured is not mine...I have a Gateway, and obviously not an educational model).  It comes with a tablet pen and the standard tablet software that converts handwriting to typed text. Cue the choir of angels!  It is a wonderful thing!

I have been using my laptop-tablet convertible for several years now, and I love it! I can type on it like a normal laptop in a setting where it is appropriate, and when I want to give a more clear message of presence, I flip it down into what is basically a notepad and take my notes with the tablet pen. No one finds it distracting (except to the extent that they fall in love with it), and no older folks-- or anyone else for that matter-- give me the stink eye for using it. hard drive has continually crashed with my particular convertible, and the tablet no longer reconizes the pen, which defeats the whole purpose of the tablet.  After taking it into the repair shop for the billionth time recently, I realized that I might be out of options.  I just haven't had the funding for something new.

When the ipad came out, I started to lust.  But then the second-thoughts began to creep in:

1.  I'd still have to "tap" for notes (no pen).  I think what makes my tablet so inconspicuous is that to a large extent, I look like everyone else in the room: a pen in hand and a pad (even if an electronic rather than paper one) in front of me.  Furthermore, the sound of taps, even those sometimes on phones depending on the keys, is distracting.  I'd like to stick with something that has a pen.

2.  There is also the fact that the ipad can't be used in the sun (both because it is not sun/glare proof for ease of viewing and because, apparently, it overheats).  I sometimes meet with folks in outdoor venues, and I was looking forward to buying a new device that is friendly with the fact, before the ipad buzz started, I had specifically been hunting for a convertibles with this feature.

3.  The ipad doesn't offer the full benefits of a laptop, including multi-tasking, which might be fine (as long as I can still read Word docs and stuff that people send me).  To some extent, I'd happily trade the full laptop experience for the benefit of an e-reader.  I've been lusting after those for a while, and with school on my horizon (even though my purchase would be mostly for work), it seems like something that could prove useful.  On the other hand, given the combination of this issue with #1 and #2, the idea of the ipad is leaving me cold.

4.  Then there are the highly mixed reviews for the ipad.  And just to add some straw to the camel's back, though a total fluff item, there is that nagging issue of the lack of a built in camera.  I don't need a built in camera, but since the device is basically designed to be a near combo-everything, I hope they will add it to the next generation just for fun.

The good news is that since I don't have funding right now, I have time to figure this out.  I may see how the next ipad comes out, or I may go ahead and get another convertibles in anycase (though the good ones cost a small fortune and who knows how I'll pull it off!).  Just to torture myself a bit, I'd been looking at a crazy expensive Toughbook convertible that addresses a longstanding problem with my tablet around broken hinges, and adds the increased benefit of a little more "tough," among other things.  But the Toughbook has a pretty negative reputation for its laptops, which makes me a little less hyped up about it.

All this to say, I am taking recommendations for options for notes in meetings.  Because I believe in electronic note taking options.  With all the technical advances available to us, I think handwriting notes onto paper ought to become a thing of the past for those of us who want it to be.

Which brings us full circle because Sara wants to be able to take notes on a device, but she is encountering looks that are making her feel like she needs to put her device away.  Suggestions, readers?

What I would say about small devices, is that anything that gets closer to the size of a phone has the potential of saying "I am going to text while we talk."  It might help just to let folks know at the start of the meeting, "I would like to take notes while we talk. Would it be a problem if I get out my iPod touch for note taking?"  That way everyone is clear that you are taking notes and not goofing off, and who knows, you may even get feedback that will let you know whether you were interpreting those looks correctly by thinking they were critical (I remember those potentially-critical looks with my first laptops, which is part of what pushed me into the world of tablets).

Thursday, May 6, 2010

When the Anxieties of Others Frame Entire Conversations

A lay leader in a church was feeling nervous about a congregational meeting in which she had a special role. Some congregational meetings are ho-hum, but this congregational meeting was about something important, and the "what if" scenarios were beginning to loom. "Where is my non-anxious presence when I need it," she asked rhetorically (probably in some other words, but memory doesn't usually serve me).

We've all been there, haven't we? Scenarios playing out in our heads as our worries grow, and meanwhile, we know we are the ones who will set the tone, create the frame, or steady the ride.  Worse still is when the meeting involves something that feels personal: decisions we've made or helped to make, programs we've created or helped to create, situations in the community over which we perhaps have some but certainly not all control but nonetheless by which the congregation is partly measuring our "success," or people or programs about which we deeply care.

In this case, I said to this religious leader what I tell myself when the going gets rough, "Non-anxious presence can simply be a behavior.  It's normal to have anxiety.  The key is to do what one might do with their thoughts in meditation: watch your anxiety and all your emotions as if you are watching a river.  Let them be.  And let them flow as they will.  They can exist, but what non-anxious presence is, is not submerging yourself."

A mantra might sound something like this:  "I am not my anxieties.  I am not my fears.  I am not this situation.  I am not my ego.  Those things are passing.  God [or love, or...] is with me."

But here is the tricky thing...

Sometimes the river we wade into is not our own.  It can be so subtle and so unexpected.  One moment I might be in an everyday committee meeting talking about an everyday thing, and the next minute someone brings up something about which they are anxious and I haven't fully considered before.  I enter into the conversation without investing in the anxiety, trying to be open to new information and insights, and slowly my feet begin to slip down hill.  I might not take on their anxiety (since I am practicing my non-anxious presence regularly), but I let it frame the conversation for me.

Trouble is, once I am in the water, I am trying to make sure my own feet stay steady and I keep my own head above the water.  I lose my presence of mind for the person to whom this river belongs. 

I have noticed that we leaders often value our own mental agility, our ability to respond to new information and to be flexible and creative enough in our thinking to stay out of ruts.  Indeed, this is a wonderful characteristic that can be essential to our effective leadership, but it also can get us into trouble.

While at times our ability to "try out" varying perspectives is what allows us to do things such as integrate disparate information, solicit unique voices, or seek creative solutions to complex challenges, we must also be able to recognize when we have accepted a perspective and taken it on as our own.  Are there underlying assumptions about a situation that we have accepted wholesale?

Some signs to look for:
  • Unpredictable Responses: Are we finding ourselves deviating from a value or previous position?  This isn't a bad thing (often it is good), but if we are deviating, an important question to ask is whether we can identify our reasons for the deviation.
  • Immediate Solutions: Are we finding ourselves throwing out solutions to the issues?  Many of us are not "process people" and prefer to offer solutions rather than explore perspectives, but sometimes by doing the former too quickly, we accept one particular perspective in order to move to quick resolution.  It may be that the perspective we've adopted in our rush is the anxious one.
  • Speaking Up: Are we mostly speaking or are we mostly listening?  Once we start speaking, unless we are asking questions, it is usually true that we have at least narrowed down our perspectives to a few possibilities.  What are the perspectives we've taken on as "plausible," and what assumptions are behind these perspectives?
When we recognize the above signs, it may be time to take a step back and look at the frame for our conversations.  It may be that we've moved to the stage of having a useful frame, or it may be that we have either prematurely adopted a frame or even more likely that we have been using the anxious frame for our conversations.

If a premature or anxious frame has been applied, we have a number of options to help us get our feet back on land (sorry to do my usual mixed metaphor thing) before continuing our contribution to the conversation.  Some examples include:
  • "This is an important issue, and I don't want us to shortchange the conversation in the time we have this evening.  Can we put this on our agenda for our next meeting instead of continuing with this tonight?"
  • "I wonder what other possibilities exist?"
  • "I wonder if we need to test some theories here?"
  • "I'm listening.  I think I'll need some more time to process this, but I appreciate everyone's contributions."
  • "I hear you.  Can we talk more about this sometime?  I'd like to carve out some more time for this."
  • "I think this issue deserves some serious study."
What are some of your techniques for stepping back from a frame for a bit or buying time to get your feet on land?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Peter Mayer "Holy Now"

Friends, everything is holy now. This is why we do it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mobile Devices and Presence

It pains me to write this post because (1) I find it incredibly sad that it needs to be said at all, and (2) I don't want this blog to be "lecture posts" but this is worth writing about.  I am amazed at the number of young folks in religious leadership who are entering the scene without basic mobile device ettiquette.  Since I am a fairly young person myself, this reflects badly on my own cohort. 

In short, mobile devices -- no matter how wonderful they are in so many ways -- communicate partial presence.  In most cases that is because they DO detract from presence, even though we are so accustomed to them that we can't fully recognize their detraction. 

Religious leaders: model presence!  Be radical.  Whenever you are spending time with others, seriously consider turning off those devices.

If you must have a cell phone on, put it on vibrate and keep it close to your body (not in your purse) to reduce the sound when it rings.  Do not answer when it rings until you have fully excused yourself from the room and the door is shut behind you.  Then look at the number on the phone and think, "Do I need to be available right now?  Can I check my messages later?"  A helpful policy is to leave a message on your voicemail letting folks know you do not answer the phone, but will call them right back for immediate needs if you are available.  Then you don't have to answer at all.

And please, please, whatever you do, do not text in meetings, even if you think nobody is noticing (fat chance).  It may be countercultural to say so, but it is, in a word: rude.