Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Technology and Ministry: Put Your Purpose First

At the 2009 UUMA Ministry Days I attended an excellent workshop by the Rev. Nate Walker, of 1st Unitarian Philadelphia, about our relationship with technology, especially emerging communication, presentation and social networking tools on the web.  I made a last-minute decision to attend this one instead of my pre-registered choice, hoping that it would not make me feel bad about my slow adoption of new technologies and overwhelmed by all the new stuff coming out.   His workshop met my hopes with grace and inspiration.

In the “introductions” segment, we all spoke about our relationship with tech as if it were a person.  It helped to see the range of comfort levels and that as many of us are late adopters as are early adopters.  He noted:  we are all in this together.  

He said we should not forget our spiritual natures, roles as spiritual leaders and commitment to spiritual practice.  Given all the other things ministers must manage and navigate, we do have it in our power to have an intentional and not harmful relationship with new technologies.  

Some people have a rule of not looking at email sooner than 12 hours since the last time they read or wrote emails.  Before we knew what had happened, Nate swore all us ministers to give up email for Lent next year.  We will need to alert and remind parishioners and colleagues well in advance of Ash Wednesday.   This doesn’t mean we can’t phone people and ask them to phone us or to meet with us in person.  (And, I might add, handwritten notes are still gratifying.)  I’m writing it here so I can remember my commitment.

He gave examples of how he and his church have used YouTube for pastoral messages (as when he was out of state last July when news came of the shootings in the Knoxville UU church), as well as for worship and religious education presentations.  They replaced their membership photo directory with an online directory (with Flicker, I think); this can be password protected as well as more easily updated.  

The most exciting project:  they provided video cameras and mikes to church children and youth, who conducted a series of interviews with church elders and other adults, asking questions like “What religion did you grow up in?”  All the clips were brief, which kept every one interesting.  This was a great tool for connecting children to adults in the congregation. 

He showed us the opening scene from the movie “Crash,” which was used for a dialogue on race and ethnicity.  Notable line:  “We miss the touch so much tha twe crash into each other just to feel it.” 

 Of course, many churches now post and podcast sermons and other parts of worship services.  

The Mail Chimp program shows who comes to the church web site and why.  Google can track which pages of a web site are visited most frequently.  First Unitarian gets visitors from all states as well as 77 other countries.

His own Netiquette guidelines:

Real life does apply online.  Practice deep listening and loving speech, just as we try to do in person.  No expectations for a timely response on email.  Put out “flames” and do not participate in conflict by email.  Recognize conflicts but don’t try to resolve them online unless there is no other way to reach someone or have a conversation with them.  Respect people’s privacy.  Avoid sarcasm.  

We need to use the technology to help us enhance our ministries and not become slaves to technology for its own sake.  Hence, he asked us to identify and articulate our own sense of purpose.  When we are clear on that we can avoid being buffeted by all the new options and tools.


Why Sunday Schools Are Closing in the USA

I recommend this article from the June 26 Wall Street Journal.  But here is a good summary from The Rev. Dr. Martin E. Marty’s online “Sightings” column:  Charlotte Hays in her “Houses of Worship” column reports on the decline in Sunday School attendance and the number of Sunday Schools nationally.  Is this because God is dead?  No— while boring experiences contribute, social factors are bigger.  Parental divorces unsettle Sunday arrangements for the children’s schedules, and soccer wins out over Jesus almost always.  Sunday sports and public celebrations are thus other phenomena which show that there are other sanctuaries for the “real religion” of millions.

My Reflections:

She notes that even when Protestant Sunday Schools were attended more regularly, they were unlikely to convey all the content and reflection necessary for a genuine formation in the faith.  Indeed, the youth with the highest level of religious literacy (both Judeo-Christian and of other world faiths) are those (of any faith or of none) who have attended private Catholic schools.  

I’m not sure that one year of a confirmation class (or Coming of Age in the UU faith) can make up for the absence of in-depth content and formation in  all the other years of youth.   Mormons instill loyalty and content by focusing on family life and making the family unit the basic one in the local church, or ward.  By maintaining a “bubble” of Mormon life and ownership of the Mormon heritage.   Jewish congregations have offered Sunday school Hebrew school or other courses for those preparing for their bar mitvah or bat mitzvah.   

Yet there are promising developments, such as Spirit Play for UUs, which is based on Godly Play.  It is a story-based method which does not depend on week-to-week continuity of attendance.  It promotes spiritual reflection, love of ritual and community-building.   Also, many congregations have done the hard work of promoting community across the generations–in worship attendance and leadership, in fellowship activities (i.e., fun), in social witness and service, and even in small group ministry.  I believe this cultivates an identity as a beloved member of a faith community and provides cross-generational experiences for elders, children, and parents, many of whose own family members are far away.

New UUA President elected

This is a press release that the UUA’s communications director just released.  I was surprised at the margin and sad at my candidate’s loss, as were all the others at the thank-you party Satuday night after the Ware Lecture.  Peter Morales is a dynamic and experienced leader, and both candidates have raised important issues in this energetic but respectful campaign between two accomplished ministers.
Note how significant is the number of absentee votes as a fraction of all votes cast. In some past UUA elections the winner has “won” even before showing up at GA because his campaign has locked up so many absentee votes in advance. Note also the “transition” period–less than 24 hours from election results to installation!  All other nominees were running in uncontested elections

Press release:(June 27, 2009 – Salt Lake City, Utah) – Rev. Peter Morales, senior
minister of Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado, today was
elected to be the eighth president of the Unitarian Universalist
Association of Congregations (UUA) at the Association’s General Assembly
in Salt Lake City.
Morales received a total of 2061 votes, 1020 of which were cast as
absentee ballots. His opponent, Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman, formerly senior
minister of the First Unitarian Church of Dallas, Texas, received a
total of 1481 votes, 827 of which were absentee ballots. Morales’
margin of victory was 580 votes.
Speaking of his aspirations for Unitarian Universalism, Rev. Morales
said, “I want to grow our faith, to reach all those people who are
looking for non-dogmatic, liberal religious community. I look forward to
working with partners in many other progressive and justice-seeking
religious groups. There are tremendous issues that we’ll be facing in
the coming years and we’re going to need one another.”
Rev. Morales, the first Latino leader of the UUA, will be installed in a
ceremony which concludes the General Assembly, at 6:30 PM (MDT) on
Sunday, June 28. Rev. Morales will succeed Rev. William G. Sinkford who
has served two four-year terms as President of the UUA.
See for the
complete story on Morales’ election. For’s coverage of the
Morales election, see

Tuesday report from Salt Lake: Ministry Days

The first day of our UU Ministers Association meeting (Ministry Days) has been devoted to continuing education for about 25 years. That will change after this year, when UUMA ceases trying to pack so much into one day. The plan is to establish a series of residential retreats for several days each for in-depth work on a variety of ministerial themes; for example, a week at Asilomar near Monterey. This will involve a near doubling of UUMA dues, but the rate will be more progressive, based on one’s salary.

Our speaker for the morning was Sonia Sanchez, the African American poet, teacher, activist, now from Philadelphia. It was a rather stream-of-consciousness talk interspersed with poetry. Many colleagues resonated with her words, and I copied down a few choice sentences, but I left at the mid-morning coffee break.
In the afternoon I attended an excellent workshop called “iMinistry,” in which the Rev. Nate Walker, the new young minister from First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia (oldest Unitarian church established as such in America).  We first spoke about our relationship with technology with regard to our ministries, and learned we were not alone–whether early adopters or those who need lots of hand holding, like me.  He gave several great examples of the use of internet tools for pastoral care, all-ages community building, social witness, administration, and worship.  But the point was that our ministry should use technology; we should not let the technology use us.   As with any relationship, boundaries are important.  As with all other aspects of a demanding occupation, spiritual practices are important to keep up. 


More soon.

Mission to Utah—UUA General Assembly

I am staying in a big old lovely house 2 miles from the downtown hotels and convention center.  My  former intern has always been resourceful, and she and her husband found this house to rent online and recruited several other ministers to stay here and share the cost.  An added temptation is that she is a chef and maybe some day she will want to cook while we are here.  There are two straight clergy couples and four other people.  One couple is a mixed marriage:  he went to Starr King School for the Ministry  and she went to Meadville Lombard Theological School; he supports Peter Morales for UUA president and she supports Laurel Hallman.

Yesterday I went for a ride around Salt Lake City with collegial friends Barb and Bill, who served the South Valley UU Church till 2006.  They showed me Salt Lake City’s century-old, New England-style First Unitarian Church (closer to where we are) as well as the neighborhood they used to live in.  The church is in a capital campaign to raise a few million for an expansion.  Sort of makes the small goal of $17,000 for the Entry Way Project back home seem very small, and quite doable.

Today, Tuesday, is the day for the continuing education programs of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association.  Gotta catch the bus!

Barb was invited once by a female state senator from SLC to give the opening  blessing at the Utah legislature, thus being the first woman clergy person to do so.  On top of that, the senator told her afterwards that it was the first time the words “gay and lesbian” had been spoken publicly in that chamber!  Now there are at least two openly glbt legislators.

Days 4 and 5– UU Youth Heritage Trip to Boston


Instead of the same old boring but free breakfast in the hostel kitchen (where you have to wash and rinse your dishes afterwards!) this breakfast was a special outing–to the corner Dunkin’ Donuts.  I rose early enough to have the hostel’s fair trade (and cost free) coffee and cereal and a read of the Boston Globe.  I met up with our card-playing or stone-staring pilgrims and the other two adult leaders at that popular and ubiquitous New England-based breakfast place.  

Green line train to Park Street, Red Line all the way to Alewife, end of the line.  Wait for a 62 or 76 bus, ride through the lush, green countryside (suburbs) and get off at the Museum of the National Heritage, a free museum in Lexington, run by the Masons (a fraternal service organization with lots of dead presidents as members).  Some of us went to a clock exhibit, some to a flag exhibit, some to “Lexington and the Revolutionary War.”  David and I saw a traveling National Archives photo exhibit about work and workers in America, including mostly black and white pictures.

 There were a few from ca. 1900 by Lewis Hine, who celebrated the image of laboring men but also documented the atrocities of child labor in the US, leading to controversy and legislation for reform.   There was a picture of the near completion of the US Capitol dome in Washington, 1863.  It had begun in the 850s.  The caption said the man who engineered the placement of the statue on top  of the dome (whose name escapes me) was a slave; the statue is called Freedom.  There were shots of color- and sex-segregated 1940 US census workers typing (or punching computer cards–but maybe I’m mixing up two of them).  

A charming picture:  a man sitting in a chair just over the heads of men rolling cigars.  He had a newspaper in one hand and cigar in the other.  Spanish-speaking immigrant workers in Florida and Eastern European immigrants working in NYC would pool their money to hire one of their own to read to them as they rolled cigars. They would read newspapers and political tracts.

We hopped a tourist trolley to see Lexington and Concord and had a lively, fast paced narration by the period-costumed Marsha (“Masha, like Sasha,” she joked).  As we gave her the tickets in the driveway, she became ebullient on finding out we were UUs.  “There are so many Unitarians and Unitarian sites in this tour,” she said, “and nobody knows what it is.  It’s so great to have Unitarians here!”  She was so happy she told the folks on the trolley this good news.  An older, straight white couple was sitting in the front row; the wife said, “What’s that?”  Marsha gave a quick historical summary, making reference to “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” and saying the Unitarians had read the Bible and didn’t agree with that.  “They said God is one.”  The woman huffed:  “I believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!”  Marsha said, “That’s great. And I’m Jewish and others have their beliefs.  I love the differences.  That’s what America is!”  

We learned about Paul Revere and William Dawes (who alerted individual people, and did not shout it out from horseback that the Regulars were marching).  We heard about the central role taverns in the towns and about the stored munitions that the Red Coats were hoping to seize Concord.  We passed the Emerson house and heard a bit about Emerson’s history and Transcendentalism.  All three of our stately white churches in the area (2 in Lexington, 1 in Concord) looked very nice in the gentle rain as we passed by.

 Marsha explained the unplanned, inadvertent battle at the Lexington green and then took us to Concord’s battle site, where the head of the militia did in fact order “fire!” to kill and chase away the Red Coats on the other side of the little bridge; his order to fire made this second battle the shot heard round the world, as Waldo wrote and as the monument there reads.   As Marsha read the words aloud by heart and I looked over the bridge I got choked up at all this heritage.   It was also quite moving to hear her speak with compassion for the beleaguered Red Coats–Welsh, Scots, Irish, English troops of the King; their hard, poor lives back home made the cranky colonists’ lives look pretty nice in comparison.  

An hour later, Marsha and I were walking together, away from the rude bridge that arched the flood, toward the trolley.  “Can you believe it?” she asked, noting that the Trinitarian couple had never looked her in the eye after that theological moment and the woman had seemed upset as she talked to her husband.  Later, when the couple got off at their stop, Marsha said goodbye and wished them safe travel, urged them to come back, etc. and she got nary a nod or a word from them.  She looked back at me and we grinned.  (Of course I had already become familiar with that kind of non-look, non-word response from our youth, even though they are not Trinitarians.)

Tina and I made a side trip to the Alcott family’s “Orchard House” while the rest strolled into downtown Concord for window shopping–but first I made them come and look at the replica of the shack Thoreau had built for his retreat of two years and two months at Walden Pond, just a couple of miles away (the pond, not the replica, which is at the museum).

 I had forgotten that Bronson Alcott (Louisa’s dad) asked children in his classes what they thought, using dialogue instead of lectures, and using more questions instead of corporal punishment for an unruly child.   The idealistic, sometimes utopian Bronson introduced the use of child-sized furniture in his own home as well as in his teaching; he cut down the legs of the school benches so each child’s feet could touch the ground.   This got him fired–again!  (The Catholic educator Maria Montessori, M.D., born in Italy in 1870, also introduced the concept of child-sized furniture and child-eye-level conversations in her progressive teaching methods.  Our UU Spirit Play method in Sunday School has its origins in Montessori’s method and philosophy.) 

The Alcott family moved 20 times in 22 years, avoiding home ownership to avoid foreclosure for debts and to find new work after Bronson lost his teaching jobs.  They had little money and Louisa’s successful writing career was a great help to her family.  She died of mercury poisoning after it was used to treat an infection.  

I had never known that Louisa’s sister, May, was the first American female artist to be invited to show a painting in a French salon.  She was an art teacher in Massachusetts; her students included a boy who started by carving a sculpture in a turnip and who later on would make the Concord Minute Man statue and the Abraham Lincoln statue for the memorial in Washington–Daniel Chester French was her student!  She took her art toinsane asylum patients, thereby practicing art therapy before it had a title. 

Back to Boston, for an early dinner at Legal Seafood near the Harbor.  It was expensive but delicious and it was our last night out, so Cruise Director David let us all have more than a cuppa chowda for dinna.  I tied Tina’s lobster bib on her as she wondered what to name the cute and red  main course.

After dinner we took another trolley tour–Ghosts and Gravestones–a corny and campy ride through the North End and Beacon Hill with Minerva, a buxom but long-dead opera singer.  In one burying ground we met her ghost friend, Seamus, who told us ghost stories about the cemetery and the Athenaeum (library).   Parts of the tour were unsettling to me, given the campy and fun backdrop.   We learned about the Boston Strangler, who may not have been caught after all (DNA testing showed no connection between the confessed and asylum-committed killer and the last victim).  We learned that 1 in 10 of burials in times past may have involved people who were not dead but only seemed so; the exhumed coffins of some people have shown the signs of frantic agony when they had come briefly back to consciousness underground.  We learned of long-ago hangings in the Boston Common, and saw how a longer knot could avoid snapping the neck of the condemned, so the crowds could have the fun of watching him or her strangle for up to an hour, and how a shorter knot could decapitate the person, also a crowd-pleaser.   This kind of stuff is not creepy in a ghost-story way–to me it’s ugly, unsettling and disheartening, and it takes the fun out of the jokes in the other parts of the tour.  

Curfew in the UUSS hostel rooms was 11 PM, as we had to get up at 4:30 AM for a 6:30 flight.  We had gotten great mileage out of our $15 MBTA weekly passes, but we couldn’t get to the airport in time, since the T doesn’t start till 5:15.  Did I say Boston’s is the first Subway in America?  

Before bed I did some haggling in the hostel’s lively lobby with an independent shuttle van driver; five weeks in India taught me that the starting price almost never is the final price.  When I told him it was a morning ride, he said he didn’t work the morning shift but said it was nice to meet me anyway.  Shortly he got  a friend on his phone and quoted me $60 for us all.  He translated into Arabic for his friend, to whom I offered $50.  “Let’s call it even and make it $55” was the reply.  I said two taxi cabs would be cheaper than that! H said no, “Not from here to the airport.”  I decided to chance it, and was happy this morning to see I was right about the taxi fares.

 It was a rainy but short ride to Logan.  Inside the TSA security-line employees as well as the US Airways’ gate agent showed themselves to unused to hearing or replying to the phrases “thank you” and  “good morning.”  This gave me some perspective on the youthful silences that I had been taking so personally near the end of the trip.  

The youth were even less talkative at the airport and on the plane than usual, if that is possible, and most of them slept a ton on the 5 1/2 hour flight to Phoenix; they were livelier on the connecting flight.  The parents were glad to see them and us back home, and vice versa.  

Thus ended the pilgrimage; thus did we spend the revenues of four Sunday bake sales and an all-ages talent show, the gifts of several church benefactors, a grant from the endowment trust, and family contributions.  Thank you all!

Day 3 — UU Youth Heritage Trip to Boston

The young men did not bound out of their bunks at 7:00 AM and I merely stumbled out.  But I fortified myself in the hostel’s kitchen with two mugs of coffee.   Most everyone made it down to eat but one was missing.  I ran up to grab my jacket and found a towel-clad member of our room sitting in the common room nearby, waiting for one of us to show up and let him in.  He had left his key-card in the room, something I have feared doing in the middle of the night every time I stay in a hostel.

We took the MBTA Red Line train across the beautiful (thanks to sunny and clear skies) Charles River and arrived at Harvard Square.  We met our generous guide, Gloria, a UU lay leader from First Parish Cambridge and librarian at the Divinity School’s Andover-Harvard Library.

First stop was her church, founded in the 1600s as  Puritan Congregational church so students at the college could worship and hear Christian preaching, and Unitarian since the 1830s.  In 1648 the parish hosted a conference of churches at which they adopted the Cambridge Platform, establishing the form of polity (governance) as congregational (i.e., autonomous and not subject to a denominational hierarchy); this is why UU churches have congregational governance.  The college (then university) held commencement in the church till there was not enough room.

Across the street is a large statue of Charles Sumner, a non-Unitarian and the most abolitionist US Senator of his day, who was beaten by a colleague with a cane on the Senate floor and disabled.  Yesterday we saw a standing sculpture of Sumner in the Public Garden.  There had been a contest for a statue to commemorate this great man.  The judges selected the seated statue but then discovered that the sculptor was a woman (Unitarian, I think).  It was inappropriate for a lady to sculpt a man’s legs, they thought, so the runner-up statue was the one placed in Boston’s Public Garden, and Cambridge got the real winner.

Gloria walked us to Harvard Yard (where we rubbed the bronze shoe of the “John Harvard, Founder” statue, though the likeness is of one of John’s relatives (nobody knows what John looked like) and he was not the founder, just the donor of Harvard College’s first library books.  We visited Memorial Church, the campus church whose current Preacher is Peter Gomes, the liberal Christian scholar and author.  Plaques commemorate alumni lost in the Civil War.

We saw three buildings of the Divinity School and entered two of them, Divinity Hall, the original building.  Inside and upstairs is a small chapel where the 1838 graduating class invited recently-resigned minister Ralph Waldo Emerson to give the Address.  (The students and faculty were all Unitarian Christians by that time, as the Orthodox Christians had built their own school after losing control of the faculty).  His challenge to the staid and stale church scandalized the faculty and the community; the faculty felt the need to distance themselves from him in order to assert their own Christian bona fides.

Gloria took us in the library and into an archives room where a major current project is the cataloguing and digitizing of the records of the Unitarian Service Committee, especially its early work in helping to rescue European refugees of the Nazis, even before WW II was officially declared.  We saw many black and white pictures, including those of children in orphanages.  the youth seemed to be most interested in a display of a few pages from a Medieval illuminated manuscript of a Catholic order of Mass.

Gloria was so generous with her time, and so enthusiastic and informative, and it was great to meet her.  She sent us off toward a burrito place for quick lunch, as we were headed to a 12:15 worship service in King’s Chapel back over in Boston.  We made it just in time for the flute and organ prelude and slipped into two of the pew boxes.  It was established by King James II in 1686 as an Anglican Church, but things got heated as the Empire became more oppressive.  King George’s Governor General sat in one pew box and Paul Revere sat nearby, as did George Washington when he was worshipping there.  After the colonists won the War of Independence the church lost half its members, the loyalists.  They hired James Freeman to be their minister and wanted to ordain him; he was a Congregationalist and theologically a unitarian, and the Anglican clergy and bishops refused to participate in his ordination.  This drove the church fully out of Anglicanism and on its way to Unitarian Christianity.  Freeman revised the Book of Common Prayer (the worship manual), taking out prayers for the King and inserting prayers for the U.S. Congress, and taking out references to Jesus as God rather than as God’s holy prophet.  But that manual hasn’t been revised much since the 1780s, and its language is a bit antique and beautiful (though hardly gender inclusive).

Without us and an Episcopal youth group from Dallas, there would have been about 15 people at the  the half-hour service.  A hospital chaplain and church member gave a short homily on the Pentecost reading from the Acts of the Apostles, and spoke directly to the youth present at one point, hoping that they honor the spirit within each of them and nurture it.  I was pleasantly surprised that the youth were engaged in the hymn singing and responsive readings (“versicles”).  Today is the third Wednesday, so it was the day for communion at the end of the service; of course this is a ritual meal “in remembrance of Christ,” not in assertion of his divinity.  I had told our group in advance that I likely would get in line for communion and most of them went up too.  Most of us knelt together against the communion rail and received it together.  It was only later, during our personal tour, that we learned that Paul Revere had made that communion silver for this church–his church.  He had also melted down and recast its bell after a crack, making it the largest bell in Boston.  Kristin, tour director, gave us a fabulous history of the church and some of its famous and/or colorful members, not hiding the fact that it had been a socially elite congregation for much of its history.  Indeed, it was only in the 1970s that the church ended the family ownership and inheritance of box pews, and it did this through a buy-back program.  Also, there are plaques on the inside front wall commemorating 14 of the 16 members lost in the Civil War.  One of the missing (unmemorialized) members is Col. Robert Gould Shaw, of “Glory” fame, whose 54th Regiment is sculpted in bronze relief by Saint Gaudens on a wall in the Boston Common.  She said that his family had not given enough money to the church for him to score a mention on the plaque.  How embarrassing it must have been when he became so noted for having led the first African American army regiment.

Kristin showed us the downstairs crypt (which non-UU tourists can’t visit), including one with a brick out, and we could see an adult coffin, a child coffin, and  a collapsed coffin and some famous person’s femur  and pelvis.  I think it was Thomas Bullfinch, of Bullfinch’s Mythology.

We headed out to the burying ground afterwards; it was established in 1630, and part of it was encroached upon in the 1680s when the Chapel was built. It holds the remains of the  English colony’s first governor, John Winthrop and a bunch of his descendants, as well as Elizabeth Pain, the wife of a sea merchant.  She was one of the two women who inspired the character of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s Boston-set novel The Scarlet Letter.  Incredible serendipity:  Tina had just begun reading the book on the plane, having just picked it up Sunday in our church’s used book store.   This cemetery is smaller and down the street from the one that holds Paul Revere and Ben Franklin.

After a shopping/wandering spree (which I spent napping on a park bench in the Common) the group re-grouped at the Chapel, headed back to the hostel and then out for dinner (Wendy’s for some, Thai for others).  Then we headed to the theater district to see the Blue Man Group, a long running and lively show of multi-media performance art, cultural commentary and music, audience participation, and craziness.  Well worth seeing, if you haven’t yet.  It’s been around the US for at least 15 years and I never had.  We all loved it and nobody got sprayed on (by paint or twinkies), but Nate did get recruited to come and do one task, which was to shut off the circuit breaker and cut the power.

It took place in the Charles Playhouse, a theater that was built in 1839 by “renowned architect Asher Benjamin” as the Fifth Universalist Church!  In 1864 it became the first Synagogue in Boston and during the Prohibition era it was a speakeasy.

Thursday morning we head to Lexington and Concord and at night we go on a Ghosts and Graveyards tour of Boston.

Okay, now go back to the link above and and read the Divinity School Address!