Harder to return to blogging

I’ve only written one blog post since before General Assembly, and is was of a “what do you think” format. It’s been for a number of reasons:

  1. There’s been lots of work at work, and sometimes writing this blog seems like added work.
  2. This is my family’s season for birthday and anniversary celebrations, plus a family wedding this year. That’s more fun that blogging.
  3. Selection_153I’ve spent the last month “conquering” (their term) the Duolingo Esperanto course. Mi skribas kaj legas Esperante pli bona ol unu monato antaŭ, and the gamified process was quite fun and rewarding. I even got a certificate.
  4. I didn’t have much to add to the discussion of the vital issues of the day, except that, at some points, I thought that writers were lost in delusional or self-serving arguments. And I decided to keep my own counsel.
  5. Oh, and I think that Unitarian Universalism has a grim future — as bad or worse as the mainline — and that forward progress is likely to look like a salvage and reconstruction exercise.

So it’s a bit hard to get back into blogging.

After the killings in Charleston

The grief and horror Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church must now be facing is hard to get my head around, but the killings are not themselves inconceivable.

Brother Roger, Oscar Romero, and the “troublesome priest” Thomas Becket were each murdered in worship. When I was in seminary (and just after) there was a spate of church killings. And we can’t forget the shootings at a Unitarian Universalist church in Tennessee, with one fatality two fatalities. Each one was a bit different, all devastating. I remembered not feeling personally safe when alone at church in my last pastorate. But Emanuel lost four ministers, including the senior pastor…

Churches are supposed to be welcoming and outward-facing, but that feeling makes them vulnerable, sometimes to malicious people, sometimes to predators, sometimes to the violent and murderous. It’s a tough balance between mission and safety. For nine people to die… I’ll just have to leave it there for the moment.

What then can we do? First, this is assumes there can do. I’m avoiding online commentaries that suggests that these murders can be addressed by study, or progressive action or better ideas. And I’m double-avoiding any notion that adds a burden to that church, Charleston or the increasingly beleaguered African American community. If you can’t help, take a pass. Words are nice, but contact is better and (since a casserole is impractical) a gift of money is better still. It adds heft to those nice ideas. Lots of gifts big and small reminds us — us Southerners particularly — of the outpouring of gifts to The Temple in Atlanta when it was bombed. (That was a plot point in the film Driving Miss Daisy, in case it sounds familiar.) Gifts of money will cover costs the church will have. Maybe help the survivors. But that’s for the church to decide; I have faith in them.

I got a little, unexpected windfall today. I thought it right to tithe it to Emanuel AME. You can give at their church website; it’s easy to do so.

If you don’t have the money to spare, that’s fine, too. But if all you have are ideas that make things harder, just keep them to yourself.

A page full of handbooks!

So, I was talking with a couple of people: what would we do if the Unitarian Universalist Association ceased to exist? Not a death wish, but contingency planning. And a way of identifying what’s a must-have and not just a might-want.

Someone mulled, “what does the NACCC do?” That’s the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, made up of churches that did not join the United Church of Christ on polity grounds. I’ve been long interested in them, as some of the Universalist churches that didn’t join the UUA “went NA”. Also, First Parish, Plymouth, and Universalist National Memorial Church, both members of the UUA have honorary membership. And the Council of Christian Churches in the UUA has — I believe — “fraternal relations.” In short, they’re close to us. Sorta.

And famous (or infamous) for having a lean administration. The kind that the UUA might back into, or be replaced-by.

So I was just browsing their site and noticed they have a single easy-to-find page with helpful handbooks ready to download.

That just made my day. Something to emulate.

Source: Handbooks (NACCC)

Why Sunday?

A quick thought.

Why should the principal worship service be on a Sunday, particularly late Sunday morning? There are reasonable arguments for Christians, as it commemorates Christ’s resurrection. But that argues for a weekly sunrise service, and — let me tell you — if that were an option, I’d gladly take it. I don’t have to get up to milk the cows then walk miles to the chapel. The customary 11 a.m. service breaks up one of my day’s off. But I’ll gladly do it. Others won’t.

And for Unitarian Universalists, most of whom aren’t Christian, the remaining reasons are customary or cultural.

For new churches, who (1) have to appeal to people to take time to meet and (2) need to find a place to meet, Sunday morning must be the worst time, particularly since some of space best suited for worship are churches, and these are occupied then.

As I said, quick thought.

A Unitarian Universalist wish list

Sometimes it helps to ask: “what would you like to see? what resources do you wish could exist? what connections do you wish existed? what problem would you like to resolve?” Think about issues that might concern many congregations, but may or may not be normally handled by denominational staff. I’m thinking within the Unitarian Universalist milieu, but not exclusively. I’ve got a bias towards “projects” (read that loosely) that others can build upon or modify to suit particular circumstances.

Ideas, anyone?

What do you think churches should do?

While some of your favorite sites are down — a very severe storm blew through metro Washington, D.C. last night, disabling an Amazon cloud computing center in the ‘burbs — let me ask a question that has been bothering me since the UUA General Assembly: just what do you think the purpose of a church is? Not the UUA, but the particular church. Opinions requested.

If you got a huge amount of money earmarked for Unitarian Universalism…

The pop news is buzzing about the current $540 million Mega Millions jackpot so many people hope to win. I don’t play the lottery because the odds are stacked against you and the life stories of those who win never seem that happy. But in our imaginations, we can imagine that much fresh money arriving for Unitarian Universalism. Or not: perhaps that too would feed dysfunction.

But what might be done with another $54 million.

Or what might you accomplish with $5,400 to do something new? Or $540? $54? It seems to me you need a goal and a plan before the resources do any good. But what might that be?

A good (humanistic?) “sermon” with fish and loaves

Software Freedom Law Center executive director Eben Moglen lays it down about the freedom of ideas and the stewardship of human minds and the free access those minds need to information. Also, a fascinating review of the development of United States copyright law with respect to early immigration and religious freedom. (Made me think about proto-Universalist George de Benneville.)
Eben Moglen

Eben Moglen on Origins of Copyright and Patents” (Oggcast, 2009) You may jump past the prolog and start listening at 4:13.

Do listen: a model of visioning for religious humanists and food for thought for producers of cultural goods (like preachers.)

Who’s really central in the UUA?

After a quarter-century as a Unitarian Universalist, I can say with conviction that our largest problems have little to do with money or even membership, but with deep unresolved issue of identity. The continual plaints — and curiously distributed — circle about who is or is not welcome, with tones more fitting for a Dickensian workhouse door. Mewing and poormouthing is sure to bring a comfort SWAT team — which even more obvious online — which soothes the complaint but (1) doesn’t discover if it was based in fact nor (2) does it resolve the underlying tension.

Nor do I intend to; indeed, I think the Ship of Simple Solutions sailed a long time ago.

The question I ask above — Who’s really central in the UUA? — is quite literal and is a response to calls for selling the UUA’s historic and central properties and finding other accommodation. One failed idea would have kept the offices in metro Boston, but other calls would have ’25’ move to the less-expensive middle of the country. I don’t advocate for this, considering the disruption to staff and their experience, the doubtful cost savings and the loss of morale from a move (however framed) made from lack.

But I also like to fiddle with UUA data and want learn more about optimization and mapping. So using this method, I figured out the geographic center of the UUA membership. That optimal point, as the crow flies, for all UUA congregation members to meet up. Well, not all. I’ve only included the North American congregations and have excluded the non-local Church of the Larger Fellowship for obvious reasons. And the data’s a year old. But that shouldn’t put us too far off.

So where? A field outside of St. Anne, Illinois, about 75 miles due south of Chicago. (But I suppose Gary and South Bend are more economical options.)

Western Conference Unitarians are entitled to say “I told you so.”

And that then would make the congregation at the center of the UUA the Unitarian Universalist Community Church, Park Forest, Illinois. Congratulations! (But is there room for 160,000-odd people for coffee?)

On curation

The historical approach to data the liberal churhes take — certainly an approach I’ve seen in my own life — begins and ends with collection. The liberal religionist is commonly described as a seeker, and the faithful life of such a seeker is to collect. Collect ideas about other religions, collect experiences, collect options and — oh my back! — collect books. Collect these things as proof of the endeavor, and perhaps even as a social marker to show you’re moving up. (A feature of class re-location within Unitarian Universalism, but that’s another subject.) The older concept was to distill the best of what you found and apply the finding as Good Living or Applied Ethics or Pure Christianity. The Capital Letters signal a Guiding Light. (Wait, that’s also another subject.)

Today that’s almost completely unraveled. The age of ministers who led that kind of thinking is (almost) gone. Postmodern thinking and identity politics makes it suspect, at least in our circles, though there are still feel-good preachers, lightly draped in historic Christianity but preaching Prosperity Gospel who show the power of the phenomenon. But it isn’t ours.

Instead the collection feeds on itself, like an episode of Hoarders. For the better part of a generation, new Unitarian Universalist congregation have been expected to be collectors of collectors: an esoteric mass of esoteric seekers. In theory, this might be fine, provided there are the resources and leadership to let people grow and mature, but that would be a mammoth undertaking, even with the best planning. For years, new congregations have grown to peak at a scant few dozen members with little evidence of sustained on-site professional development help.  This model isn’t working, and the failings are at the roots.

The new successful restaurants in D.C. have certain common themes: they’re well-designed for ease of access, are inexpensive but are driven by volume and have stripped-down menus. If you don’t want a hamburger or cupcake or rice bowl or frozen yogurt and you’re at that kind of eatery, then you’re out of luck.

When I think of good websites at which to learn or get information, I recall certain themes: they stick to a core offering, it’s easy to register and other content is kept to a minimum. Good ones get talked up.

Both examples deal with curation, which I promised to speak on. I suspect the role of religious leadership is no longer to stack the rafters with great ideas, but to project a compelling religious vision, and guide people through that vision as cleanly as possible.

It isn’t your responsibly to illumine every side-path or option. Your responsibility is to keep the main path clear and guide as many people as ably and well as possible through it, while respecting their overburdened calendars and wallets. It’s your responsibility to talk down junk and uplift mature ideas. Preach a gospel, be able to describe it in simple terms, defend it and stick to it.

If that means two or three Unitarian Universalist congregations in close quarters with different — even conflicting visions — so much the better. People will figure out there they need to be.