Sunday, April 26, 2009

What would make our churches healthier?

The UU faith would be healthier if there was less unkindness. Most of the time, UUs are kind to each other. But every once and a while, good people get their ears burned off by their angry co-religionists. Linda Laskowski quotes from a letter by Gini Coulter

At the 2007 General Assembly, I invited leaders of then-current and former affiliates to meetings to try to help them imagine what they could/might do next because I knew there was lots of frustration about the changes. The UUA trustees who had been most closely involved with implementing the new criteria wished me luck and said I shouldn’t expect too much from these meetings. I’m an optimist, but they were right to be skeptical of the results of my efforts. I was verbally abused and treated in other totally inappropriate ways by leaders of some of our former independent affiliates.

A friend who works at the district level told me a similar story, about bringing some unwelcome news to a group of (adult) YRUU facilitators, and being shocked at the level of verbal abuse she took. I've also know a whole series of past congregational-presidents who don't come around so much any more. Several of them have said that the level of verbal abuse they took in the position had shocked them. I've heard the same from at least one treasurer. And I've received a few doses of it myself over the years. A common theme was that this over-the-top criticism had come from people who were usually temperate, mild mannered and kind.

What would make your faith community healthier? asks Rev Matt Tittle. I've stated the answer in the double negative: less unkindness. By that, I mean that more kindness isn't really the solution. No matter how much kindness we've received over the years, it can be greatly undone by a single angry heated tirade.

I don't know if we're better or worse with this than other denominations are. But I know we've lost some good people over the years to it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Splitting the parents group

One of Parents Covenant Groups has a great problem - too many people. It meets monthly at members' homes for a potluck and a parenting-discussion, with paid sitters riding herd on the kids for the discussion time. Usually we've got about 10 adults and as many kids. But recently we've had as many as 18 adults. Too many -- people can't really talk, so the attendance falls back.

Splitting groups is the "Here there be dragons" of the Covenant Group map. But it was clearly time. The leaders polled the group. They decided to meet at the church for a while for a large-group potluck supper, and then break into smaller discussion groups. Had the first such meeting yesterday. Just in time, too. Four new families showed up(!)

We needed somebody to let us into the building; one of the grand old men of the church showed up with a key. He looked at the ~15 adults and ~18 kids milling around when he arrived. He shook his head and laughed. "I recall when we called our first minister to this church." He waved his hand at the crowd. "We didn't have this many people in the whole church back then."

All dogs go to heaven, ETC.

ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN says the sign on the Catholic Church. ONLY HUMANS HAVE SOULS - READ THE BIBLE retorts the sign on the Presbyterian church. Read the whole thing at Nancy Rommelmann.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ones that stick out like a sore thumb

I talk to strangers. In particular, I try to be extra outgoing to the first-time visitor, to the guy with the paper nametag who is sitting by himself 10 minutes before the service starts. Just a gentle greeting, "Have you visited here before?", or "How did you come to know about us." Some want to talk. Some don't.

Some stick out like a sore thumb. Every once in a while, I get a sense that a visitor is extraordinary fragile, or angry, or awkward.

In an article, Shootings give rise to church security concerns, Christian Century discusses several recent acts of violence at churches, including the one at UU Knoxville.
After that, [church security consultant] Anderson suggests assembling a team to look for "preincident indicators," such as a stranger who appears nervous, avoids eye contact and cuts casual conversation short. Attention to the unordinary, coupled with strategic placement of team members around the sanctuary, can help reduce the risk of an incident by making it harder to pull off.
I laughed when I read this; nervous strangers avodding eye contact are pretty much our weekly fare.

Still, after thinking about it, I sort of nodded. Yes, we get our regular stream of introverts who won't look anybody in the eye. But every once in a while – much less often than once a year – I meet a visitor who sets of alarm bells.

"Hmmm.... very troubled person. Very, very troubled. Might be trouble." Do you have visitors like that? What do you do?

Monday, March 23, 2009

British law to restrict preaching

I note that the British Humanist Association is supporting legislation which would make it a crime to preach against homosexuality – if the preaching exceeded certain limits:
Why the British Humanist Association supports Clause 58

There is an extremely high threshold for the new offence - preaching that homosexuality is a sin, criticising homosexual practices or calling somebody names are not covered by this offence. The act must be demonstrated to be both threatening and intended to stir up hatred.

Religious organisations or people with religious convictions who intentionally stir up hatred on grounds of sexual orientation on the basis of their beliefs must not be exempt from this new offence. The right to manifest a religious belief is not absolute, and it is acceptable for that right to be restricted in some circumstances.

Though I'd agree that 'the right to manifest a religious belief' must be restricted in some circumstances, those circumstances don't include supressing speech. I can't imagine how the law could draw a bright line between, say, calling something an abomination and stirring up hatred.

This is a petard with which the British humanists may well find themselves hoist some day.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Not quite Christian; not quite atheist

There are folks who don't believe in trinity, or in God, or in an afterlife who still call themselves Christian. They don't hope for a resurrection; they don't think about Jesus much. But they still call themselves Christian and often identify with a particular denomination. Who are these guys, and are we welcoming them? Peter Steinfels reports
The many nonbelievers [Zuckerman] interviewed, both informally and in structured, taped and transcribed sessions, were anything but antireligious, for example. They typically balked at the label "atheist.” An overwhelming majority had in fact been baptized, and many had been confirmed or married in church.
Zuckerman wrote from Scandinavia, but I've seen the same attitudes in the USA. I had lunch with with a guy a few years back. By my lights, he was completely atheist. Didn't believe in the God in Heaven, didn't believe in God as the ground of being or God as infinite love. A "Physics is All There Is" bumper-sticker kind of guy. Except that he was chair of the Evangelism Committee of one of neighboring mainline churches. He didn't strike me as a hypocrite; he felt little contradiction between his private views and his office.

For me, if I'm a member of a church, it is very important that the doctrine I hear espoused from the pulpit be consonant with what I believe. So I'm a UU. But some other people ... well, I wish I understood better what these folk mean when they say they're Christians and not atheists.

Who are Our People?

UUs show subtle class markers that exclude some from our churches. But they are also part of the way that we bind ourselves together into a coherent community. Therefor, evangelizing UU beyond enclaves we already serve is hard and tricky work.

Lizard Eater started a discussion of UU Classism, which ChaliceChick continues. I opined that
Individual attitudes aren't strong class markers, but collections of them are. Our averaged UU attitudes towards NPR, abortion, Sams Club, vegans, water rights, Fox news, polyester, reparations for slavery, handing out condoms in OWL, Lincoln Towncars, Mexican immigration -- this constellation of concerns is a class marker just as much as is driving a Lexus, wearing Prada or having a fancy zipcode.
Surely, UUs have no completely uniform opinion on these matters. It's more like we're (usually) interested in talking about these things, and it doesn't seem weird to us if these matters are coffee-hour conversation. We may disagree, but we don't walk away disgusted or bored.

Class isn't just a top-to-bottom scale. Within US culture, pluralistic and diverse as it is, there are many little tribes of interest and identity. Between any given pair, neither may obviously outrank the other in status / dominance / prestige. But they're still different. Describing UUs as white-collar, and the people we exclude as blue-collar, is waaay to broad a brush, and not even that accurate. Plenty of white collar workers visit us and turn away thinking "Nope, not my people" and some blue collar workers feel right at home from day one. I wrote
Years ago, a woman named Debbie attended my church for about a year; then she fell away. I ran into her at a store. She said that she'd felt welcomed in our church, but that she never felt like she fit in. She had an engineering degree and a civil servant job, but somehow that didn't make her feel like she was in her element. I've seen other folks like Debbie come and go from our churches.
Let me underscore this. Debbie felt welcomed. She was on board with us theologically. But, somehow, she didn't feel like she belonged. How can we include Debbie and her kindred in our churches?

I think this becomes easier as a church gets larger, if the church does it right. When a church hits the 200-250 member plateau, it doesn't feel so much like a family any more. Lots of churches get stuck at this level; the steady stream of new members balanced by the folks leaving because it doesn't feel like home to them. To break through this growth barrier, a church must become a community of communities. If I have 10 peers in the church - folks who I look at and say "Yeah, they're like me," then I can still feel at home, even if the class markers of the larger congregation still seem kind of weird to me.

Having a group in which Debbie feels at home can be hard for a 120 member church. It can be feasible when you're up to 300 members. Especially when you've got an expanding small-group ministry.

I hope I run into Debbie again. I'd like to invite her back. There are some people I'd like to introduce her to.