Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


New UUSS Family Pledge Drive Testimonial from February 24 service–Sustaining Our Vision From Year to Year, From Generation to Generation

Every Sunday during the pledge drive we have been hearing what this UU community means to people, and why they support it with their financial pledge.  Our pledge drive ends soon.  So far we have received 98 pledge forms for the 2013-14 fiscal year.  Only 300 to go!!

This is from Amanda, a mother of two little ones who is new here and already on the Religious Education Committee.  Her husband, Darrel, has been here on Saturdays working on the grounds of our church campus.  Their kids are quite charming too.  You can tell that the words she quotes are from a few decades back, as now our baby dedication ceremonies use gender-inclusive language, but clearly the sentiment and heart were there in 1979.

Testimonial
It was a cold morning in March in the year 1979. The place, My Grandfather‘s “old” Unitarian Church on North Broadway, New York. The minister spoke, “When one baby is born it is the symbol of all birth and all life, and therefore all men must rejoice and smile, and all men, must lose there hearts to a child.” The words spoken and heard there were the words that have traveled with me in the depth of my heart wherever I have gone. This was my dedication ceremony at two months old, as a Unitarian.

Given that I was dedicated as a baby in the church, one might assume I have been in a Unitarian congregation throughout my life. But the truth is the furthest thing from that. I cant say for sure, but I am pretty sure I hadn’t stepped foot into another Unitarian Church until I arrived here at UUSS. This isn’t to say I wasn’t involved in any religious movement at all throughout my life. We regularly visited the Self Realization Fellowship, the church of Science of Mind, and whatever other alternative form of seeking my family interested themselves in.

But here I am back where I began. It was about a year ago, after a major move here to Sacramento, I found myself wondering about reconnecting to these roots. I was a transplant. My roots were in major need of some good wholesomely rich natural nutrients to grab a hold of. So, I returned.

In my dedication ceremony the minister said, “In the church the child will be introduced to his world, there he will learn meanings men has found in the skies, the fields, the hills, the valleys, and the cities of men. There he will be able to count the number of his days and weigh their meaning, to gather into his mind the wisdom of his ancestors, to know why men call one thing right and another wrong, to treasure beauty, mercy and justice in the deep places of his being.”

I am a mother now. I have been given two amazing children to guide and help grow. But I believe children are guided not only by their parents but by the people surrounding them; their friends, their family, their neighbors, and their elders. What the Unitarian Universalists are and are not, what they stand for or against, what they consider, what they notice, what they act on or not at all, is what I want my children to grow up around.

And I don’t want to stop there. What I want for my children, is what I want for all children. I want all children to grow up learning how to stand up tall. I want all children to grow up learning how to use their minds. I want all children to grow up knowing they can make a difference. This is why I think it is important for this congregation to stay strong, keep growing, and be the force for healing in the world it already is for many generations to come.

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Inspiring UU Family Testimonial for the Stewardship Pledge Drive: Sustaining our Vision from Year to Year and from Generation to Generation

Sustaining Our Vision:  From Year to Year and From Generation to Generation.  

Good Morning, my name is Chris, this is my wife, Tamara, and our son Nicholas.  We’ve  been members here for a little over a year now. Shortly before joining UUSS, we moved to Sacramento from Massachusetts, the birthplace of Unitarian Universalism in this country. It was in Massachusetts that we first learned about this unique spiritual community. From what we read on the web, the values and principles of UU’ism aligned closely with our own, so we promptly joined a local congregation.

Each town around where we lived had its own small congregation so there couldn’t have been more than 50 of us on a busy day. Services were held in an old historic church with a tall white steeple typical of every New England town. The building belonged to the congregation but had deteriorated over the years from lack of maintenance. The paint was pealing off the walls and the steeple leaked in several places. The cost just to maintain the building was beyond the resources of our small congregation, so repairing it was not an option. Instead, we had the steeple removed and a cap placed over hole left in the roof. As a result, the building stood out like a sore thumb next to Baptist and Episcopalian churches across the way.

You can imagine our surprise visiting this place for the first time. We couldn’t believe how many members there were and how peaceful the campus was with its large oak trees. Attending Sunday services in this place helps us connect with a spiritual community and re-energizes our souls.  After our experience in Massachusetts, we appreciate what it takes to create and maintain this special, nurturing environment, both today and for tomorrow. As our covenant emphasizes, it requires a commitment of time, talent, and support.

We support UUSS in this pledge drive because we understand the importance of investing in the things we value most. UUSS, through its activities both here on campus as well as in the broader community, represents our values. As busy working parents, financial support of UUSS is an important piece of our family’s time, talents, and support.  We view our pledge as an investment in the future, for ourselves and Nicholas, to help realize the world we envision and strive for.  Thank you.



Congregational Blessing for Alice, Departing for AmeriCorps

I wrote and led this ritual for our all-ages service last week, so the kids were present along with elders and other adults to say good bye to one of our younger adults.

Sunday, February 10, 2013, at  the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

Words by Associate Minister

Alice  [standing here] and her family have been members here a long time.  This week she departs for Vicksburg, Mississippi, where she will begin a year of service through AmeriCorps.   Adults from age 20 to age 24 are trained in large groups at one of one of the five AmeriCorps campuses, and they travel out with smaller teams on service projects like disaster relief, trail and park cleanup, tax preparation services, so the working poor can obtain their Earned Income Tax Credit.  In exchange, volunteers get room and board, a little spending money, and a small scholarship for college when their year is done.  They also gain tons of experience, according to a young woman I know in AmeriCorps in Sacramento.  She told me that Vicksburg’s AmeriCorps campus is the most beautiful of them all.   Alice, good luck.

-Words by Alice

Thank you.  This year I hope to find my place in the world and grow as a human being. I will take with me the memories and experiences I have made here with all of you.

Thank you for all your love and support over the years, it has helped me to begin the slow process of finding out who I am and what I can do with the life I have been given.

-Words by the Lead Minister

 Alice, we have watched you grow up here with us. …(and a few more sentences)

-Words by Associate Minister

Alice, I know you gain invaluable experience and you will make new friends.  Also I hope you will eat your veggies, and get a good night’s sleep—at least once a week.  Stay in touch!—

Now, everyone, please join with me in reciting what is noted as  Words by the Congregation.

Words by the Congregation:

Alice, you go with our love and our prayers.

As you share your gifts in service to this nation, we know that you will continue to learn and grow.

Take your Unitarian Universalist values with you on this journey.  Let your heart open and your light shine.

Keep in touch. Remember that you will always

have a home among us.

Blessings to you, Alice.  Blessed be!



UU Teenager’s testimonial during church for the 2013-14 Pledge Drive: Sustaining Our Vision: From Year to Year and From Generation to Generation

A young woman from our UU Youth Group delivered this testimonial on Sunday at both services.  The congregation was quite responsive!  I look forward to the Pledge Drive Kickoff this Sunday, Feb. 17.  I also look forward to training our Pledge Visitors this Saturday (for those who would like a home visit to give feedback and make a more personal connection to UUSS).  Enjoy…

Why should the UUSS community be around for future generations?

I know a lot of people who have been coming to UU churches since before they were born. They have always been familiar and comfortable with their church. Or there are people on the other end of the spectrum, who hadn’t started coming to this church until they were well into adulthood.

           Neither of these were true of me. I think most of the people here come to church willingly. I can see why. We are what I would consider the ideal church. But I did not come to church willingly by any means for a long time.

When I was younger, my mom would decide my brothers and I were inadequately holy, and pick a church at random that we would attend for about a month. Then she would have a disagreement with somebody or be offended by something the minister said and we would never go there again. I grew to despise churches. I did not like how looked down upon questioning that which was preached was. I did not like being compared to a lamb because lambs are invariably dumb. I did not like the painful christian rock that was played before or after church, even though the musician had a cool beard. I did not like that God’s love or a vast eternal plan we weren’t allowed to know about could explain away every mystery in this world. And I certainly did not like that the minister referred to the children as “cherubs”. I knew I was anything but a cherub, and I was convinced my little brother was a little ball of evil.

In hindsight this church was not that bad. It was open-minded, as churches go, and not everyone considered original thought slanderous. The minister was well intended. But the assumptions and stereotypes had solidified in my mind, and to me church had become nothing more than getting up way too early on a weekend to go listen to people I don’t like talk about things I neither cared about nor believed in. I had lost any interest I’d previously had in learning about other people’s beliefs or culture.

My mom has since given up on making me go to any church. It helped that I no longer stay at her house on weekends.

    When my dad announced that we were going to church, I was horrified. He was supposed to be the sane one. And what person who wasn’t crazy would want to go to church? I fought this new, alien hexagonal church with my entire being. The people here only want to tell me what to think and what kinds of people are okay and all about this great God and how much he loved me and wanted the best for me and whatnot and about how those other churches who were saying the same thing were utterly wrong.

I didn’t want to hear any other opinions about this church. I would not hear it. I had developed the same blind insistence that what I believed in was all there is that had made me so intolerant of religion in the first place.
But slowly I began to warm up to this new church. It wasn’t like the others. I was never told where we came from or what entity was out there or what happens before or after this life. Those were all questions for me to determine the answers to. This church had values, not strict beliefs, and I recognised after reciting them for a few months how much I agreed with them. They seemed like perfect ideals. There was no judgement of those who strayed from our moral views. There was no judgement, period. We were welcoming, and open. Recognising the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Who needs a heaven when you’ve got that?
I know there are a fair number of people who don’t like churches for the same reasons I had. And church isn’t right for everyone. But there will always be people who question. There will always be people who traditional religions don’t approve of. But if there is always a church like ours available, there will always be an option for these people.
A lot of what we preach isn’t contradictory to what is preached in other churches. But what I like most about us is that big questions are left to the individual to answer, because everyone has their own truth or lack thereof, and a right to decide what that is. It’s okay to believe the same things as other people, but it should also be okay not to.
And our values are that of acceptance. Everyone deserves to be accepted in a community, regardless of who they happen to be or what they happen to be like. The people in unitarian churches are, as a group, incredibly accepting. Everyone is welcome. That is amazing. I would previously have thought it unachievable.
And UUSS is the biggest UU church in the area. It has amazing ministers and youth leaders and coffee people. It is an incredible community as a whole. There are few people who would not fit in among us.
That is why UUSS needs to stick around and grow. Future generations will inevitably be in need of a church like this, and they deserve to have it available. Thank you.



Liberal THEOLOGY IS NOT for the faint of heart–essay

My colleague Jay Atkinson, now retired from our ministry, has long been a minister-scholar.  Last August he held a UUSS  group spellbound as he charted the origins and subsequent development of our liberal faith tradition and theologies.  He spoke for 90 minutes from a bare outline! 

Here is an essay he gave us as a handout. This is the Epilogue the from the book of another UU colleague, Paul Rasor, who is a professor in Virginia.

Liberal THEOLOGY IS NOT for the faint of heart. It points us in a general direction without telling us the specific destination.  It refuses to make our commitments for us but holds us accountable for the commitments we make. The liberal religious tradition is an invitation, not a mandate. It invites us to live with ambiguity without giving in to facile compromise; to engage in dialogue without trying to control the conversation; to be open to change without accepting change too casually; to take commitment seriously but not blindly; and to be engaged in the culture without succumbing to the culture’s values.  Liberal religion calls us to strength without rigidity, conviction without ideology, openness without laziness. It asks us to pay attention.  It is an eyes-wide-open faith, a faith without certainty.

This book has been both descriptive and critical. At the descriptive level, I have sought to provide a basic introduction to liberal theology. I have done this not simply by describing liberal theology’s identifying characteristics, but also by locating it within its historical, intellectual, and social context. Liberal theology—like any other theology—is not merely a collection of free-standing ideas. It exists in specific places and times, and it belongs to an ongoing and multi-faceted religious tradition.

A vital feature of the liberal theological tradition is constructive self-examination. This is an important process. It helps keep liberal theology relevant to the needs of each succeeding generation. It guards against staleness and rigidity. It becomes a method of built-in accountability. In this spirit, then, I have addressed a few of liberalism’s internal weaknesses and contradictions, and at some points have been quite critical. I have also tackled head-on the difficult issues of race and class that continue to confront liberal theology and sometimes cause us to stumble over our own best intentions. In each case I have offered some constructive suggestions as well. At the same time, I have tried to bring liberal theology into conversation with other currents in the contemporary theological stream. Some of these, such as liberation theology and postliberal theology, are highly critical of liberalism. My working assumption has been that while liberal theology need not adjust to all its critics’ complaints—it could not remain liberal if it did—there is nevertheless much we can learn from them.

Critical self-examination also points to liberal theology’s great strengths. These include its principled open-mindedness, its intellectual honesty, and its commitment to social justice. These are among the hallmarks of the liberal tradition, and they are worth preserving. Today’s theological landscape is highly pluralistic. Many voices struggle to be heard. Some seek dialogue and engagement; others seek merely to shout the loudest. It is precisely in these circumstances that liberal theology’s prophetic and mediating voice is most needed. The early twenty-first century in the United States is a time of increasing dogmatic rigidity in both politics and religion. We are confronted by a worldview of simplistic dualisms. Dissent—even asking hard questions—is seen as a threat; data that do not support pre-set ideas are ignored; deeper analysis of complex issues is avoided. Liberal theology rejects this way of being. It seeks deeper and more nuanced explanations. It understands the inherent complexity and interrelatedness of things. It has learned to live with tensions and ambiguities.  Liberal theology’s willingness to engage in ongoing and thoughtful critique offers an important corrective voice in the public dialogue.

This is important work. But none of us can do this work alone. As much as we need constructive self-examination and critical dialogue, we need each other. We may never come to think alike or to act alike. I hope not. But by participating in each other’s faith journeys, by reaching out to each other and sharing in each other’s struggles to name and claim our theologies, we can strengthen our public prophetic voice and deepen our sense of community and our commitment to a shared faith tradition.

May it be so.

Epilogue from Paul Rasor’s Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century (Boston, Skinner House, 2005)



Long Paper: Congregational Ministries in the Changing Religious Landscape

 

 

Roger Jones                                                                                           January 4, 2013

Pacific School of Religion:  SRC-9999:  Dr. James Lawrence, Fall Semester 2012

Malibu Study Group (Unitarian Universalist), Reader: Rev. Michelle Favreault, March 2013

Introduction:  Decline in the Mainline

Faith Formation 2020 cites “a steady decline in the number of people attending worship and participating in church life.  In 1990 about 20.6% of the U.S. population was in church on any given weekend, today only 17.3% are in worship.  If current trends continue, by 2020…. more than 85% of Americans will be staying away.” (LifeLong Faith Associates 2009)

Most of the students at Pacific School of Religion (where I am in a D. Min. program) are in M. Div. programs to become clergy in various Protestant denominations.  Many of these ministers-to-be are inspiring, bold, brave and creative.  I would be happy to have them as my preacher and pastor.  Yet all their denominations have had major declines in attendance and membership in the last few decades, leaving fewer full-time pulpits.  A United Church of Christ official told us in chapel that he urges aspiring clergy to be prepared for bi-vocational ministries, or for entrepreneurial ministries outside churches, as fewer congregations can pay a full-time minister.  (Of course, many African American clergy have needed to be bi-vocational and entrepreneurial for years.)

Many mainline congregations are close to closing their doors, or selling their now-oversize facilities, or merging.  Similar trends affect UU congregations in New England, whereas overall we are stable or declining less rapidly.   In the last few decades, the largest mainline denominations have lost more people than even exist in the 160,000-member Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.  Pentecostal and evangelical churches did grow in the same period but arguably are leveling off.  Catholic congregations have grown mainly from immigration of Catholics from other countries, which has more than offset those who have left the faith of their upbringing.

Thinking about Larger Trends

 

The “Faith Formation 2020” report from LifelongFaith Associates was published online in 2009 and later in a book.  Chapter 1 urges congregational leaders struggling to respond to shifts in the religious landscape to follow three principles:

  1. “Take the Long View” beyond one- to three-year horizons.  These trends were long in the making; just because we’ve noticed them now does not mean it is wise to react too fast.
  2. “Think from the ‘Outside-in”:  Stop looking inside the church for all our answers.  Try to understand our external context, and learn how sociological and other factors create profound change and give us “new risks and opportunities.”
  3. “Embrace Multiple Perspectives”:  Challenge our assumptions and habits; expand our peripheral vision and note new threats and opportunities.

The FF 2020 report (first published in 2009) cites 13 trends of the changing religious landscape.  (Its current website lists Eight Driving Forces.  I list all 13 Trends below, as the last two are not explicitly listed as Driving Forces list.)  Here is a summary, with some notes in brackets. (LifeLong Faith Associates 2009)

Trend 1. Declining Participation in Christian Churches [conservative as well as moderate/mainline, which is sociologically where UU churches fit]

Trend 2. Growth in No Religious Affiliation

Trend 3. Becoming More “Spiritual” and Less “Religious”

Trend 4. Influence of Individualism on Christian Identity and Community Life

Trend 5. Increasing Social, Cultural, and Religious Diversity in the U.S.

Trend 6. Growing Influence of Hispanic/Latino Religious Faith

Trend 7. Identifying a New Stage of Life: “Emerging Adulthood”

Trend 8. The Rise of a Distinctive Post-Boomer Faith and Spirituality

Trend 9. Changing Structures and Patterns of Family Life in the United States

Trend 10. Rediscovering the Impact of Parents and Families on Faith Practice

Trend 11. Living in a Digital World

Trend 12. Educating in New Ways

Trend 13. Increasing Numbers of Adults 65 and Older

Depending on whether these trends continue, and on how congregations and other religion-based organizations respond,  the Faith Formation 2020 report imagines possible scenarios.  In other words, the U. S. religious landscape might look like one of these four:

Scenario #1. Vibrant Faith and Active Engagement in the Church Community

Scenario #2. Spiritual, but Not Religious

Scenario #3. Unaffiliated and Uninterested

Scenario #4. Participating in Church Activities, but Faith and the Spiritual Life Are Not Important [maybe religious, but not spiritual?]

UUA Growth—and Decline as a Share of U.S. Population

In October 2012, USA Today gave Unitarian Universalists a bit of publicity:   “Unitarian Faith Growing Nationwide.”  (Smietana 2012)  Yet in May 2012, our UU World reported that we were not.  In fact, while adult members in UUA churches increased a bit from 2011 to 2012, non-adult nreligious education enrollment declined again. (Bates Deakin 2012). To me, this is not about losing “the church of the future,” as many of us fret sentimentally.  That is, few participating adult UUs grew up in a UU church, and few others will stay in the denomination of their upbringing. This could be, however, an indication of lost opportunities to minister to families, kids and youth.

The Rev. Stefan Jonasson, UUA Director of Growth Strategies, reports that in the past decade a third of our UUA congregations have had net losses:  12.7% reported declines of 10% to 20%.  Another 22% declined in membership by more than 20%.   Since 1960 the United States population has nearly doubled (from 179 to 309 million people), but UUA congregations have declined or stayed the same.  From 2011 to 2012, 28% of our congregations reported growth in membership of 3% or more and 33% reported a membership decline of 3% or more.  Most of the growth was in “larger mid-size” (i.e., program-oriented) congregations (like mine), which have more volatile membership numbers.  Jonasson says that recent losses and gains may not indicate much:  losses are “nibbling around the edges, ” and recent gains may reflect only that a few members invited their friends to go to church with them.

A quick study of the Congregational Records posted online by Unitarian Universalist search committees from congregations now looking for a new minister shows many vital UU faith communities.  Yet most of them have fewer members now than they did 20 or 30 years ago.  Many of them have 150 members or fewer.  Many of them are offering only 3/4 time or ½ time ministry positions, even 1/2 time positions.

The Rise of the “None of the Aboves”

In 2007 Pew Research Center surveys, 15.3% of U.S. adults answered a question about their current religion by saying they were atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” The ratio of the religiously unaffiliated now stands at 19.6%.  That is, the largest change in religious participation as a share of our population has taken place among atheists, agnostics, and nothing.  I don’t speak of this group as the “The Nones” — it sounds like “The Nuns.”  I call them the “None of the Aboves.”

The aggregate category of “other faiths” has grown from 4% to 6% of our population.  So the “unaffiliated” are more than three times as large as the grouping of “other faiths.” Who are they, and where do they come from?  About 74% of the unaffiliated report having had a religious background.  Hence, they left something.  According to Pew, the share of Christians in our population has declined from 78% to 73% even as the overall population has grown.  (This category includes Catholics, Protestants of both Evangelical and Mainline streams, plus Mormons and the Orthodox.)  (Pew Research Center 2012)

Yet here is an analysis contrary to the idea that religious decline is a new trend.  Historian Molly Worthen says the “religiously unaffiliated” have been significant in American and European history.  In a recent article, she writes: “Today’s spiritual independents are not unprecedented. What is new is their increasing visibility.”  Rates of church attendance, she says, were never as good as the Christian Right likes to assert when attacking our secular generation. Before the Civil War, for example, “regular attendance probably never exceeded 30 percent.” It rose to a high of 40 percent around 1965 and fell “to under 30 percent in recent years — even as 77 percent still identify as Christians and 69 percent say they are ‘very’ or ‘moderately’ religious, according to a 2012 Gallup survey.”   Worthen says:  “We know… that the good old days were not so good after all.” (Worthen 2012)

The Pew Forum gives a detailed picture of the None of the Aboves:

In terms of their religious beliefs and practices, the unaffiliated are a diverse group, and far from uniformly secular. Just 5% say they attend worship services on a weekly basis. But one-third of the unaffiliated say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives. Two-thirds believe in God (though less than half say they are absolutely certain of God’s existence). And although a substantial minority of the unaffiliated consider themselves neither religious nor spiritual (42%), the majority describe themselves either as a religious person (18%) or as spiritual but not religious (37%). (Ibid.)

Pew says “the growth of the unaffiliated has taken place across a wide variety of demographic groups,” i.e., education level, income, and geographic region.  However, the most striking aspect of the unaffiliated is age-related.  As shown below, the 2012 Pew survey charted people with “no affiliation” by the generational era in which they were born.

Younger Millenials      (born 1990-94):          34% of them are unaffiliated

Older Millenials          (1981-89):                   30% unaffiliated

Generation X              (1965-80)                    21% unaffiliated

Baby Boomers            (1946-64)                   15% unaffiliated

Silent Generation        (1928-45)                    9%  unaffiliated

Greatest Generation    (1913-27)                    5%  unaffiliated

There is no earlier statistic than 2012 for those born in 1990-94, but in every other category shown, these percentages are higher in 2012 than they were in any year back to 2007.

Politically, twice as many of the “None of the Aboves” say they are liberal (but there are still conservatives among them).  Nearly ¾ of them support abortion rights and same-sex marriage equality.   What can we conclude from this trend?  Here are two opposite perspectives:

a)     The growth in the “None of the Aboves” is a cautionary trend for all religious congregations:  it reflects a growing loss in the decades-long American tradition of going to religious services and turning to congregational institutions for spiritual guidance, fellowship, and inspiration.  We should manage our extinction wisely.

b)       The growth in the “None of the Aboves” may hold promise for a spiritually inclusive, religiously eclectic, non-dogmatic and socially progressive congregation.   A UU congregation may appeal to some of those folks.  After all, many of them are not drawn to strict or traditional views about God, human sexuality or gender roles.  Many identify as “spiritual but not religious,” though there is no shared agreement on what that means.  We have special opportunities for ministry now.

Might both conclusions have some truth?  True, religious participation is declining.  Whatever brand of religious community we’re selling, we cannot count on a reliable market for it.  However, as the landscape changes, we have more opportunities for ministry.

The question “Are you looking for a religion that would be right for you?” was asked of the unaffiliated survey respondents.  While 88% said no and 2% didn’t know or refused to answer, 10% did say yes, they are looking.  So if 10% of an estimated 19.6% of American adults are unaffiliated yet looking, I think that means 1.9% of the population is at looking, or least open to participation.  Unitarian Universalist communities would grow enormously.  The same goes for any denomination, but since we are smaller than the Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Jews and the UCC, it would be a bigger boost for the UUA.  Of course, this “looking” question does not even count those who might be surprised to find a religious community about which they can say, “I didn’t know how much I needed this until I found it,” or “I had no idea a congregation like this even existed!”  Both statements come from adults who have joined UU congregations, but I can imagine a happy “seeker” might say the same thing after finding a congregation that has another brand name.

In Reframing Hope, Carol Howard Merritt explores how the signs of decline in the main line denominations “fit into a larger narrative.” (Merritt 2010, 3)  Merritt is now about 40, but has many years of ministry experience as a younger adult in rural and urban Presbyterian churches.  She writes the Tribal Church blog (named after her 2007 book) for Christian Century magazine.

A politically and socially progressive Christian, Merritt cites with joy the decline in the power and growth of Evangelical mega churches.  She celebrates the potential for small and midsize mainline churches to promote nurturing and authentic relationships across generations and to feed the spiritual hungers of younger adults.  She finds younger adults longing for and responsive to the spiritual and liturgical resources of the mainline heritage.  Not impressed with the big scale and production values of mega church life, these folks are progressive and justice-minded. They need mentors who respect who they are and show patience for who they are becoming.   As a progressive woman, she notes that evangelical churches look for people who fit a type:  white, male, conservative, charismatic and corporate.  Hence, she gives thanks for the patience and mentoring she has received in denominational churches, where she discerned and tried out her call to ministry.  She calls herself one of the “loyal radicals”—loyal and grateful to her denomination, but not willing to do business as usual in congregational ministry.

While many conservatives have attacked the struggles over diversity, inclusiveness and justice that have roiled mainline denominations, Merritt implies that such efforts make denominational churches the right kind of community for today’s progressive spiritual seekers.  In other words, if mainline churches can survive a bit longer, they can thrive with a new ministry.  However, it’s unrealistic to expect our congregations to grow to regain their former glory of attendance, finances, or social prominence.  Pastors already must be more entrepreneurial now; many will need bi-vocational ministries to survive.  Merritt points out that African American clergy have long needed to do both of these things to conduct their ministries.

Visits to Rotary and Yoga:  Lessons from the Larger Culture

Last fall I attended a local Rotary Club’s weekly luncheon meeting.  A century-old international service organization, Rotary has led efforts to eradicate polio from the globe and launched numerous local civic-improvement projects.  My friend, 33, is the chapter president and is half the age of most other members.  I was impressed with the group’s warm welcome, the varied careers, and their level of philanthropy and volunteer commitment.  They strike me as familiar, decent mainline Protestant and liberal Catholic stock—as good citizens.  And in my observation, familiar cracks are emerging.  Older retirees are less able to help at hands-on work projects.  Young working parents are not up to the requirement of weekly attendance (if you can’t make your chapter meeting, you can get credit at another time of the week at a local chapter or anywhere in the world).  This chapter often can’t meet its contracted minimum number of meals at its weekly restaurant.

With good cheer my friend led the meeting, cuing all the traditional rituals that may not have changed since the 1950s (Pledge of Allegiance, an invocation, “Happy Bucks” announcement time, which makes me think we should not kill Joys and Concerns in church but add a price tag and make it a fundraiser.)   The crowd included several past chapter presidents—nice that they don’t burn out and run away, but my friend says they don’t fail to correct his mistakes and remind him, jokingly, of the right way things are done.

He says his wife would be an ideal Rotarian (haven’t you heard church members say that about prospective UUs?).  Of course, as a working mom she can’t get away so often.  A promising national Rotary program is called “New Generations.”  Through this, a new chapter can have less stringent requirements, such as only a monthly gathering over a meal (perhaps with children and spouses present) and inter-generational work projects.  I don’t feel drawn to attend weekly luncheons, but I am curious about New Generations and perhaps could help my friend launch a chapter.   As a “not very religious” person, he has expressed interest in coming to hear me preach, but with a new baby the two working parents have not had a free weekend.  That’s okay.  They have local relatives, so they are not isolated.  They have jobs and volunteer work in which they can give to their community and learn leadership skills.  I can’t figure out why they’d need us.

Back in the old days, church was a place where you could meet eligible singles.  I don’t think of church as a social scene anymore, and online dating surely trumps it and most other scenes by now.  Yet at my booming local Yoga studio there was a lot of youthful energy and a mix of singles and couples.  I visited for a few months in 2010, when I was 49–an outlier.   Every session’s teacher was cheerful and encouraging; near the end of a session she or he would offer a talk that could have been a homily; I remember a relevant message before the holidays.  At the end they led us in a blessing.  In the lobby near the merchandise stood a decorated box and a small tree for donations to the local food bank.  In addition to sessions at all hours in the week, the studio offers introductory Yoga classes, teacher training courses, and Yoga-based group travels, all for a fee.   I don’t recall if it was asking folks to sign up for local volunteer work, but a nearby local coffee house does recruit reading tutors for a public school.  To me, all this adds up to a church substitute.  Surely this is the dwelling of some of the “religiously unaffiliated.”  What unmet needs would these clients yet have for what my church can offer?

Merritt offers a “new frame” to see hope in this new landscape.  She suggests our mainline congregations offer grounding in tradition and historical awareness, some tried and true practices of prayer and other spiritual disciplines, and the opportunity to practice relationships in covenant.  We provide spiritual and practical support to one another.   We possess wisdom and experience in social analysis and prophetic proclamation.  We can provide a location and an invitation to fellowship and friendship across generations.  I can think of a single woman in her 40s, new to the area and the church, who has quickly glommed on to a pair of active older women; she jumped in to help at the Thanksgiving dinner at church.  A few years back a shy African American woman in her medical residency joined the church.  Desperately homesick, she worked in our community garden and thrived on the mentorship of two retired members.  It was a pastoral conversation with her that led me to launch a prayer class for several weeks.

Faith Formation 2020 describes Trend #7 as that of “emerging adulthood,” which means that “the transition to adulthood today is more complex, disjointed, and confusing than it was in past decades.  The steps through and to schooling, first real job, marriage and parenthood are simply less well organized today than they were in generations past.”  Citing a 2006 book by Anya Kamenetz, Carol Howard Merritt notes that “the median job tenure of workers from 25 to 34 is just 2.7 years.” (Merritt 2007) They change jobs and industries more often and “have more frequent periods of unemployment and underemployment.”  This rings true with my experience with younger adults in church, nearly all of whom are smart, creative, compassionate — and living with large debts, poverty-level incomes or both.  I know plenty of congregants, colleagues and my own relatives whose adult children are living at home—still or again—or depending on regular financial support of their parents.  Financial-advice columnists worry that most younger workers have saved or invested little toward their retirement needs.  Stagnant incomes and frequent changes in jobs mixed make this hard.  So does the merchandizing of our consumer culture, and the rapid upgrades on expensive technology.

The Faith Formation Trend #8 is “the rise of a distinctive … faith and spirituality” in the post-Baby Boom generations.   Along with much “uprootedness and change,” this life stage involves what social scientist Robert Wuthnow calls “religious tinkering” among people in their 20s and 30s.  While the “tinkering” image shows curiosity and experimentation, it does not necessarily imply commitment to a religious institution or even longevity in any one location, which we still identify and expect as an aspect of commitment.  This is not a realistic expectation.

Carol Howard Merritt calls younger adults a “nomadic generation,” in her 2007 Alban Institute book Tribal Church (which is also the name of her blog).  “Tribes” typically form “around a common cause or belief… tend to the basic needs of one another… celebrate and remember traditions.”  Tribal churches depend on relationship and are “not pastor-centered, polity-driven, or program oriented.”  They do not focus on the latest trends or try to be “edgy.”  Rather, they focus on “developing an intergenerational network.  The members of a tribal church work to counsel, guide, train and enable young leaders.”  (Merritt 2007, 8)

Changes in Ministry:  Living in a Digital World

Though less prolific than Merritt, I spend hours online every day for my ministry and friendships, and less than an hour per day on the telephone.  Some of this is exciting, but I do miss the old days. To make these high-tech changes I’ve needed handholding from others.

Merritt mourns the loss of the frequent home visits of her early years in a small, older parish, but admits the practice was not a guarantee to attend to the greatest needs in her ministry.  Sixteen years ago, I had a paper stack of phone messages every day and returning or answering calls kept me on the phone for hours.  I shuttled around visiting folks at lunch, over coffee, at in-home committee meetings, or in the hospital ICU. (Another notable change:  parishioners are seldom in the hospital for more than a day unless they are gravely ill.)  Even now, I welcome chats with retired or unemployed church volunteers who stop in on a weekday for some task, if not for an intentional pastoral meeting.  I miss the longer encounters and meetings which helped to draw me into parish ministry.

We can mourn, Merritt says, “Yet the need to minister in our current reality is more compelling than nostalgia.”  The latest Internet wave brings more interactive encounters rather than just sending information.  It “allows communities to form across continents, and even around the globe,” as well as for local commitments to deepen.  The Internet has given her fellowship with people of differing religious and political views, and has helped her to hone thinking, conduct sermon research, exchange prayer requests, and reach a broad audience with her insights.   We must recognize, she says, that “time on the computer is real ministry.”  (Merritt 2010)

“Missing” Unitarian Universalists:  Where Did they All Go? 

There is a Unitarian Universalist diaspora, and it is in our own back yards.  The Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association writes:

[The] number of people who identify as UUs is about four times the membership of our congregations (about 160,000 adult members and about 650,000 people who identify as UUs). In other words, for every adult member there are three non-members who say they are Unitarian Universalist.

The second largest gathering of UUs, after General Assembly [which draws about 4,000 registrants to a different convention city every June], is the Southeast UU Summer Institute (SUUSI). A significant number of people who attend SUUSI year after year do not belong to any UU congregation. There are other UU camps and conferences that draw similarly large numbers of unaffiliated people. (Morales 2012)

Some of us may think this trend means our death knell as a brick-and-mortar denomination.  How can we keep our churches going if people stop going to our churches?  How can we embody our values if we have no institutional embodiment of our tradition?  This is a valid concern. However, the fact that our message and values live and breathe in camps, conferences, on-line communities, and friendship networks raises a question:

Do we want to preserve our church only for the sake of its preservation, or do we want to explore new forms for ministering to and making an impact on the larger society and world?

I have not attended a UU summer conference, but some lay and clergy friends do.  One couple of old friends dropped out of active lay leadership in their home church.  They did this out of despair at persisting patterns of unhealthy congregational conflict and behaviors that undermine trust.  It seems they have been driven away from their congregation by its lack of faith, and not by their own loss of it.  Indeed, their family keeps to their spiritual practices and maintains fellowship with UUs through a summer camp.   As their kids reach adulthood, I can’t imagine they will lose the UU values with which they have been reared or their commitment to community involvement.

Speaking of kids and youth, Morales says:

The majority of children raised as UUs do not join UU congregations when they are young adults. However, they continue to identify as UUs and share core UU values. Often they have close friendships with fellow young adults they met at church or at “youth cons.” (Morales 2012)

I’ve known UU teens who were continent-wide youth leaders but now don’t attend church, but I know of others who became UU ministers. I know many children of UU ministerial colleagues, now young adults, who do not belong to a church, even though they might attend a service occasionally.  Yet there are preachers’ kids (PKs) who go to seminary.  I don’t know many PKs who make up the middle ground between the poles of minister and lapsed UUs, that is, younger adults who are regular UU church members and lay leaders.  It could be they are easy to overlook if one is looking only for the disaffected on the one hand and the cradle UUs who are now clergy, on the other hand.

Did we drive younger adults away from us, or did we fail to hang on to them?

Or is this a fair choice to pose?   Recall that 74% of all the “unaffiliated” adults surveyed had a religious background.  Perhaps this fluidity is a just a persistent aspect of the American religious landscape now.  Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville first came to observe and write about Democracy in America, we have been known to have a marketplace of competing congregations, all with their own traditions, spiritual styles, ways of outreach and hospitality, and programs.  As Americans have become increasingly transient and less rooted in one place for the long term, it seems natural that congregation-switching would accelerate.  So would withdrawal from participation.  As we move around, it can be harder to establish a new church involvement after leaving one where you had a sense of deep roots and connection.  Yet this geographical transience, and the personal isolation that often comes with it, points to an opportunity for ministry.  Instead of hand wringing over denominational statistics, we can get curious about needs that we might be poised to serve through our local congregations.

Presbyterian seminary professor Michael Jinkins describes the pejorative attitudes and stereotyping that some older adults display when talking about lower church participation by younger generations, with such accusations or labels as slackers, entitled, short attention span, no ambition, and lacking the idealism, civic duty or activist spirit of earlier young adults (as the older adults remember their generations).   Jinkins attributes this to the sense of anxiety that many older adults in congregations feel regarding the loss of numbers, resources and prestige in the past few decades.  Yet, Jinkins warns, “Anxiety makes a poor counselor, and age alone makes no one wise.”  (Jinkins 2007)

The Dark Night of the Church

Peter Morales, citing organizational scholars and consultants, told the 2011 General Assembly that human organizations decline or fail not so much because of problems they face but because they hold on too much to past success.  Of course, for mainline, mainstream Protestant denominations, successes from the Baby Boom era, like church expansion and prominent social action, remain in living memory.  The founding stories of our faith movements are the stuff of legend in seminary history and polity courses and in an inspiring sermon now and then.  Spiritual writer Frederick Buechner says that “dreams of fame and fortune die hard if they die at all.”  L. Roger Owens and Anthony B. Robinson quote him in their recent article, “Dark Night of the Church.”  They give this summary of decline in mainstream denominations and congregations:  “Loss of market share.  Conflict.  Absence of young adults.  Financial crisis.”  (Robinson 2012, 28)

Whether we are facing the fast plummet of moderate Protestantism or the less frightening plateau of Unitarian Universalist membership numbers, the present moment is a spiritual in-between time for mature organizations.  For churches, it is like the “dark night of the soul” which St. John of the Cross identified as part of our individual spiritual journeys.  The dark night is not death and not necessarily depression, but it is a time of uncertainty and of discomfort.  This calls for enough detachment to explore, consider, and create.  It calls for humility.

We are humbled in our presumptions that we always knew how to do this church growth business very well.  We are humbled in our presumptions that our congregations could operate as we always did and continue in our size and social prominence even as the landscape around us has been changing.  Perhaps, Robinson and Owens write, we have allowed external measures of identity to define us—numbers, money, social prominence, and proud peak moments in our history.

In this “dark night of the church,” we can continue to work and serve, and to be confident that creativity is a key resource for congregational communities. We can continue to discern our primary mission as congregations, and practice that mission.  To be the church.  To be the religious society.  To be an authentic religious community in the world in which it now exists, and to be an alert community as the world around us continues to shift and change.

Final Questions:  Surviving or Serving?  Growth or Hospitality?

In 1985 I was 24, in a new city (Springfield, Illinois) and in a first job in a new career.  In retrospect I see that I was starting a spiritual search that included participation in four very different kinds of denominations and traditions.  This journey has included friendships with ministers and members of all four.  (Eventually I put down roots in one of those four traditions–Unitarian Universalism–and found a call to ministry here.)

In that new city, I paid only one visit to a church of the mainstream Protestant denomination in which I had grown up.  It was an elegant, large limestone building with familiar music, dark wooden pews, and reassuring stained glass.  As I slipped into a pew behind an older male-female couple, the lady turned around, smiled at me and gave me her welcome.  “I hope you stay,” she said.  “We need young people.”  I smiled back.  I’ve heard this kind of outreach referred to as the vampire approach—we reach out because we need fresh blood.

Ten years ago, at a district workshop on outreach and hospitality, a UU colleague in his late 50s spoke about his first time in a UU community.  At age 16, having had a Catholic upbringing, he learned about Unitarian Universalism.  Intrigued and interested, he found the local church in his Florida town.   He rode his bicycle there one Sunday.  Perhaps they had no “youth program.” If they did, but I don’t remember that from his story.

After service he visited the church bookstore and met a woman there.  As she got to know him, she learned that he was curious about our approach to religion and that he liked to read.  She handed him a book, asked him to read it, and invited him to come back to tell her what he thought of it.  On a future Sunday he brought the book and himself back to the church on his bike.  He and his adult friend discussed his thoughts about the book.  She gave him another book, and said she looked forward to another conversation.

This routine continued; this friendship developed; this young man later grew into a minister and an esteemed coach and consultant in our movement.  This was not the result of an organized outreach campaign, an advertising blitz, or a sermon series on UU evangelism.  It was a simple, one-to-one gesture of curiosity, patience, and the gift of time.  This is true hospitality.

When I was 16 I had a driver’s license and could easily drive to Indianapolis, 30 miles away from my home.  I’ve wondered:  What if I had found out about All Souls Unitarian back then and taken Mom’s car up there on a Sunday?

            Would I have received the kind of warm welcome—the gestures of curiosity about who I was, what I cared about, what brought me there? 

Perhaps, after shaking someone’s hand, I would have been directed to the staff or a volunteer leader of the “youth program.”   [Message:  This is where and how you fit in.]

Or maybe I would have heard an apology that they did not have a “youth program.” [Message:  Sorry that you don’t fit in.]

Or maybe I would have heard:  Maybe you could start a youth group here; bring your friends!  [Message:  What can you do for us?]

Every time I hear, in a congregational setting, some innocent and well-meaning questions—“How can we attract more [x] people?”  “How can we appeal to them?”—I want to ask Why?   We value diversity, and we value everyone’s individual outlook and personal journey.   If we start with a practice of true curiosity about whoever is standing in front of us in the moment, it will matter less whether they are x or y, whether they like the majority of the congregation or are different in some way.

To me, this is the question about younger generations and our congregations:  Are we looking for what we can offer, and the ways we might serve real people with real needs? Or are we looking to survive as a congregation in the forms and habits we are used to?

Is our goal to serve, or to survive?  Do we wish to pursue growth or hospitality?

Some may ask:  Can’t we do both?  Probably so, but we need to determine which motivation is driving us, which purpose is calling to us.

If we are drawn mostly by nostalgic longings to perpetuate the church we used to know (or to create the one that matches our ambitions or our idealized memories), I fear we will continue to be frustrated and confused, and to miss out on many creative opportunities to enrich our souls and serve our larger community.

If we are drawn mostly by the opportunity to be of service as a community, and we approach that with curiosity, patience, flexibility and perseverance, I am confident we’ll find and summon the resources to follow this calling.

Works Cited

Worthen, Molly. “One Nation Under God?” New York Times, December 22, 2012.

Bates Deakin, Michelle. “UUA membership and attendance declined in 2011. Over last decade, membership has increased, but religious education enrollment is dropping.” UU World, February 2, 2012.

Jinkins, Michael. “Foreword.” In Jinkins, Michael.  “Foreword” to Tribal Church:  Ministering to the Missing Generation , 2007, p. viii. , by Carol Howard Merritt. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2007.

Jonasson, Stefan. Growth and Decline: A Numerical Snapshot. April 23, 2012. http://growinguu.blogs.uua.org/numerical-indicators/growth-and-decline-a-numerical-snapshot/ (accessed December 27, 2012).

LifeLong Faith Associates. Faith Formation 2020. 2009. http://www.faithformation2020.net/uploads/5/1/6/4/5164069/ff_2020_chapter_1.pdf (accessed January 2, 2013).

Merritt, Carol Howard. Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2010.

Merritt, Carol Howard. Tribal Church. Herndon, VA, 2007.

Morales, Peter. “Congregations and Beyond.” uua.org. January 15, 2012. http://www.uua.org/documents/moralespeter/120115_congs_beyond.pdf (accessed December 31, 2012).

Pew Research Center. “‘Nones’ on the Rise.” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. October 9, 2012.

Smietana, Bob. “Unitarian Faith Growing Nationwide.” USA Today, October 2, 2012.

Robinson, Anthony B. and Roger Owens. “Dark Night of the Church.” Christian Century, December 26, 2012: 28.



Priceless! Notes from an Outsider’s Perspective — Associate Minister’s February Newsletter Column

            Ah, remember the day you installed me! 

            A member of my doctoral class at Berkeley had something to say about it.  He is Korean and a Protestant minister.  He had come to that ceremony.  He’d brought his mom, also a Korean Christian immigrant. 

            During our seminary course recently, I was talking about Unitarian Universalism to my religiously mixed class.  He said, “I didn’t know much about UU theology, and I still may not understand it all.  But what I felt at Roger’s installation really impressed me.”

            In particular, he said, was the sense of inclusiveness in the service and from our congregation.  Priceless!

            He was struck also that the service had beautiful music, eloquent liturgy, dance and other arts, and a woman’s deep and powerful preaching.   He noted the participation of children and youth in the service and congregation.  The reception food was generously abundant and flavorful.

            Most of all, he said, “I could really feel the love there.”  So could his mother.  She told him that if she lived close to UUSS, she would want to come regularly.  Whatever the theology, he said, the message they felt was deep and impressive—the love.

            It was great to have an outsider’s fresh perspective.  Priceless!

            Isn’t this the reason you are here?  We long to experience the gifts of depth, beauty, love and hope in this place.  This place to belong and be cared for—this is why we keep coming back.  These are priceless gifts.  You could NOT put a price tag on what this community creates. 

            The combined gifts—all that we do here—are indeed priceless.  Yet providing all of this congregation’s component parts every year does call for cold, hard cash. 

            To sustain Religious Education and music, put on services, support our hardworking staff, and reimburse dedicated committee volunteers, we must raise money, year after year.  To pay utility bills, support our denomination, produce newsletters and host the web site, we must raise money. 

            By paying our way year after year, we sustain our vision from generation to generation. 

            That’s why we have the annual Pledge Drive for the operating budget.

            I hope to see you during this year’s brief pledge drive:  February 17 is Kickoff Sunday.  February 24 is a Pep Rally (an Appreciation Reception for all ages).  Then March 17 is Touchdown Sunday.  Thank you for pledging your financial support, year after year.  

 

With gratitude,

 

Roger  

 

P.S.—The pledges we make this month will enable the board to present a budget proposal to the congregation to fund our programs and staff needs in 2013-14.  Our budget year starts July 1 but we need to plan ahead every year.  Thanks again.