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 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.