Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I'll Have What (S)he's Having!

A minister I respect deeply has written his third blog post expressing his disquiet about the "Whose Are We" training.  I share his misgivings and more.

"Whose Are We" is a training taking place during UU Ministerial Association (UUMA) chapter retreats around the country, starting in the Fall of 2010.  The training starts with a sermon by Sarah Lammert (now Director of Ministries and Faith Development at the UUA), followed by a series of exercises. 

The Introduction
Rev. Lammert tells of attending a UU summit meeting focused on lay and professional ministerial formation.

We started with a worship service, and the very first words uttered were those of Rev. Jon Luopo, the minister of the University Unitarian Church of Seattle. He told this story:

It seems that in Seattle the interfaith clergy organization has a tradition of asking senior colleagues to share their life odysseys. On this particular occasion, a Roman Catholic Priest was telling his story, and he said that his life had been in large measure a failure. He remembered the heady days of Vatican II and how hopeful he and his generation of liberal priests had been that real change was coming to the church he loved so dearly. And yet; these many years later he felt that the church had if anything become hardened and deeply conservative, and his dreams had not been realized.

Now, this priest was someone who was valued among his interfaith colleagues, and they were somewhat hurt and stunned by his revelation. And yet; one colleague noted, despite the severity of his words, his demeanor seemed quite peaceful and content. “How can you claim that your life was a failure, and yet appear so calm and serene?” “I know whose I am.” replied the priest. “I know whose I am.”

The priest knows the ground of his faith - even though the institution of the church has let him down, his God is still there, permanent, reliable, and certain.  Most UUs don't share the God of the priest.  Even among UU theists, few pray to a personal God.  And no UUs inhabit the certainty conferred by two thousand years of tradition.

The UU ministers are like the woman at the next table in When Harry Met Sally:  "I'll have what she's having!"  In an attempt to find the priest's spiritual peace, they have taken a shortcut.  Skip the path common to many faith traditions -- years of religious practice and submission to God and Church.  More importantly, skip the Certainty.

The certainty that underlies the priest's response is fundamentally inconsistent with Unitarian Universalism.  Inherent to liberal religion is humility with respect to the certainty of our beliefs, our experience, and our conclusions.  Whether willingly or not, we left the comfort of certainty behind in the Enlightenment.  Certainty is the price we paid when we turned away from revealed truth to accept religious plurality -- and gained the freedom to find and follow our own spiritual path.

The First Exercise:  "Whose are You"
The participants split into pairs, and sit facing each other.  They take the role of Questioner and Responder.

Questioner:  "Whose are you?”
Responder:  a short phrase or word that comes to mind
Questioner:  “God be merciful. Whose are you?”
Responder:  another short phrase or word that comes to mind
Questioner:  “God be merciful. Whose are you?”

They continue in this way until bell rings, after about five minutes.  (If you have every done an exercise like this, five minutes can be a long time.)

When I read this, my immediate reaction was "Oh no - I know this exercise!"  This is straight out of various Mind Dynamics trainings.  I have been in it.  To sit across from someone and focus on them for an extended period of time evokes a powerful emotional response.  It is not something we normally do.  Depending on your perspective, it is a powerful method for getting deep inside the participants, or a cheap psychological parlor trick.  You can evoke the emotional response, but you don't get deep answers out of cheap parlor tricks.  This exercise is fundamentally manipulative.  I'm not sure if it has any appropriate use.

Then I recognized the words of the Responder.  It is the Kyrie!  Kýrie, eléison:  Lord have mercy.  These words have power - so powerful that they have been used for over a millennium in the Catholic Mass.  Like the exercise, the Mass uses the Kyrie in a repetitive fashion.  So the UU ministers have reached out to an ancient liturgy and put it in a training exercise.  (Talk about cultural and religious misappropriation.)  After a few repetitions of "God be merciful," where is the Responder's mind expected to go?

Take note - I do not have problem with God language.  But I think the story and the exercise go way beyond God language - it's hard to work with the story and exercise without evoking theism - which is a different thing entirely.  And there's the problem.  Unitarian Universalism, as understood by a great many of its congregants, allows for a non-theistic stance.  But this training does not.  It comprehends spirituality in a dualistic theistic fashion - God as an entity not identical with the world, who acts in the world.

This training has chosen a cheap answer.  The broader culture understands a deity.  Many who have come in to Unitarian Universalism also understand a deity; they just don't like the one in their old religion.  "Whose are We" takes the approach, to bring back spirituality, let's bring back a deity.  A personal, dualistic God is a short path to spirituality - but it is not the only path.  And it is a path that Unitarian Universalists left with Theodore Parker's search for the Transient and Permanent.

Liberal skepticism was not totally absent.  In some trainings, the participants revolted - they resisted the "God be merciful" response, and chose their own less theistic response.
After the Training (1)
The ministers were encouraged to write sermons relating to the Whose Are We training.  Many did so. 

One esteemed minister here the in Bay Area gave such a sermon.  She named who she belonged to - her family, her partner, her parents, her ministerial colleagues; the body of the earth, whales, dolphins, and her watershed.

Missing from the list was her congregation.  Later that year she left her church for a fund-raising job at the UUA.  I guess we know whose she wasn't.

After the Training (2)
The Pacific Central District of the UUMA held their training in Fall 2010.  During the same three day retreat the ministers "heard each other's pain" about their relationship with Cilla Raughley, the District Executive, and wrote a letter effectively requesting her firing.  I question the professional wisdom of mixing a training session designed to evoke emotional response with what should have been a thoughtful discussion about a covenantal relationship with District staff and lay leadership. 

God be merciful, indeed.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Movie Review: "The Heart of the Game"

Four thumbs up.  The plot twists are unbelievable, except it's a documentary, and real life is sometimes like that.  The film follows the coach and players of a Seattle high school girls basketball team for six seasons.  Heart-warming but not sappy, thought-provoking but not polemical.  Get it, watch it, you'll be glad you did.

Documentaries that span long time periods always make me wonder about the world of film-makers.  When they start, they have no idea that the process will go on for years.  For every one of these multi-year documentaries that go where no one could have seen, there must be many more that just start and stop, and maybe turn into some short documentary.

It reminds me of two other multi-year documentaries that you should watch:

"The Congregation", about a new minister in a Methodist church.  Events go places no one could have expected.  (

"Preacher's Sons", about the Unitarian minister Greg Stewart, his partner, and their five adopted sons.  (

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Minister Says "Go Get Your Own Denomination"

Holy Grail or Sacred Cow?  Perhaps both.  A respected UU minister asserts that if you are not on board with Policy Governance, you should find another denomination.

In the Policy Governance mailing list, some participants have questioned aspects of Policy Governance and whether it is the only or best approach to church growth.

Minister X, referring to a previous post extolling Policy Governance, writes
…  I kind of think it should be the last word for this chat group, which could now be split in two--one chat for those who want to move forward with a kind of governance that will bring us a brighter future, and one chat for those who want to bitch and moan about the loss of what was comfortable.. Those of you in the latter group, please go get your own chat, if not your own denomination.
First, consider what this means coming from a UU minister.  Is your higher calling really to reorganize the church and be sure that those that dissent leave?

The pros and cons of Policy Governance and or any organizational structure are unimportant.  What is important is what these debates say about the state of the movement and its leadership.  There is no mission, no vision.  If there was, how we organize would be a minor task.  We would choose some approaches that work and move on - it would not be such a large subject of Board and congregational focus.  The UUA is on a quest for salvation by re-organization.

What lies behind the contempt for dissent?  The dismissive tone fits a widespread UU pattern of first characterizing someone as resistant to change, negative, or anti-clerical, then shunning them.  Maybe two centuries as the Standing Order in Massachusetts runs deep in the Unitarian cultural DNA.  (The Unitarians were the state-sanctioned, tax-supported church in Massachusetts until 1835.)  This is not a pastoral voice.  It is a management voice - and a rather harsh one at that.  It puts Policy Governance as its doctrine, and the quest for organizational efficiency as its sacrament.

Folks, this is a church.  As a free-thinking, non-creedal community, we are supposed to care for all, even the dissenters.  We are in business of saving souls - all of them, not just the ones that agree with you.  And if you don't understand that, maybe you're in the wrong line of work.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

What Did Your Church Do This Sunday?

We are going through the greatest economic disaster in most of our lifetimes, one that is taking a huge human toll all around us.  Was it appropriate last Sunday (Labor Day) to reflect on issues like the value of work, the history of the Labor movement, the massive injustices in the distribution of income and wealth in our country, the pain in the lives of so many of our fellow citizens, and what our response should be?

This Sunday is one of those Round Number anniversaries of September 11, 2001.  One of our cultural rituals on these special anniversaries is to pause  and take stock of where we have been.  The 9/11 attacks provide a host of spiritual, moral, and social issues on which we could reflect.

In the midst of the Great Recession, and a Sunday that falls exactly 10 years after the attacks of 9/11, you might think that the choice of sermon topics was compelling, even obligatory.  What did UU churches choose to celebrate or commemorate on the first two Sundays of September, 2011? 

While two thirds of our Bay Area churches had in-gatherings and Water Communion, less than half commemorated either Labor Day or September 11th.  Out of 20 churches, only three addressed  both.

What world do Unitarian Universalists live in and what do they hold important?

Yes, we have friends and neighbors who have lost jobs and lost homes, but the Great Recession hasn't fallen as hard on us as on most Americans.  Most UUs have college degrees.  As of August 2011, 76% of those with a college degree were in the labor force, compared to 60% of those with a high school degree.  And the college educated are mostly finding jobs:  their unemployment rate was 4.3% versus 9.6% for those with a high school education.  This is Somebody Else's recession.

Our usual religious language is completely inadequate to the task of confronting 9/11.  The Seven Principles don't say anything about suffering, sin, evil, or a moral framework to judge good and bad responses to 9/11.  Most of our congregations have few members in the military, police, or firefighters.   We don't see the face of those who bear the burden of our government's decisions in responding to 9/11.

So we once again look inward after taking the summer off from religion?  The past two Sundays offered the opportunity to give witness to important moral issues of the day and, perhaps more importantly,  to minister to those to who come to us seeking comfort .  What would a visitor think we are about?