A House Which Becomes a Home

I want to tell you about a meeting that happened yesterday, here at UUCA. Five people and myself in the conference room, meeting with the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Director of Ministerial Transitions, the Rev. Keith Kron. He came all the way from Headquarters in Boston, because it was important. We were talking about our next settled Associate Minister, the person who will succeed Rev. Thickstun and begin his or her work in August 2015 and hopefully stay for years, stay with us and grow with us for a good long while.

With me in the room: people all well-respected in this congregation, representative of key diversities relevant to the nature of the position, and keenly committed to our vibrancy: Rebecca Kaye, Chair of the Children’s Ministry Team and also a Lay Minister. Tony Stringer, Lay Minister and member of UUCA’s Inclusivity Ministry called EnterCulture. Mary Ann Oakley, Lead Lay Minister and Chair of the recent Long Range Plan Task Force. Karen Martin, current Board member and a go-to lay leader in our Religious Exploration program for something like 15 years. Lyn Conley, two-term Board President, who likes to call herself a “church lady” and what it means is that her heart is big for this place and she knows practically everything and still has a sense of humor. All these people, who I called together to partner with me in the search (because I’m not going to do it alone, top-down—not my style); all these awesome people, me, and Keith Kron in the room, and the room is buzzing, we are energized, we are talking possibilities, we are filling up the whiteboard with lists and charts and arrows, we are talking timeline, we are talking what needs to happen now, what needs to happen next, as we enter into this exciting time of search.

Exciting especially because of the kind of minister for whom we go in search: The Associate Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth. The express purpose of the job is to “hold and fulfill the vision of a congregation that nurtures people’s spiritual health, growth, and healing from cradle to grave.” This language is from the formal job description, and here’s a little more: “The Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth is fully conversant in the psychological, developmental, interpersonal, and spiritual issues and challenges of people across the lifespan. Based on this, the Associate Minister works with staff and volunteers in sustaining and enhancing our Pastoral Care and Religious Exploration programs which, combined, support people’s wellness and wholeness in holistic, integrated, and innovative fashion.”

That’s a lot of words. I know it. But they are also aspiring words which leap up off the page and become a vision in our minds. A compelling vision. A vision of our collective future and where it’s taking us, why it’s so important we go, why we want to do all we can to make it happen.

That’s what I want to talk about today. The vision. The spirit of Unitarian Universalism alive and well and stirring among us.

One place we can feel that Spirit is in our UUCA Ends Statements and Long Range Plan Aspirations (which are both readily available on UUCA.org). Through such statements, the congregation has spoken. It has declared what it sees this Unitarian Universalist community creating in Atlanta. And as your Senior Minister, I’m listening very carefully.

A vibrant faith community for spiritual seekers that worship together, embracing lifelong religious learning and respecting different spiritual journeys.
A loving community that provides support and care for others through both the best and the most difficult of times.
A safe and welcoming community where all are valued.
Children and youth, centered in the values of our religious community and nurtured in love, who are compassionate leaders in seeking justice and peace.

That’s not all of the UUCA Ends Statements, but these are the ones that the work of the Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth is most in alignment with, most in sync with. The very name of the position borrows from the language of the first Ends statement: “A vibrant faith community for spiritual seekers that worship together, embracing LIFELONG religious LEARNING…”

Your Senior Minister is listening. Listening also to a more recent expression of the wisdom and will of this congregation: the Vision 2016 Long Range Plan. “We will be among the most engaging and enriching congregations in Atlanta,” says the first of four main aspirations; and underneath it, we have several more specific goals areas including these:

EXTENDING educational offerings for congregants and the larger community;
NURTURING fellowship among congregants and providing pastoral care; and
OFFERING opportunities and experiences that nurture the spiritual growth of each congregant.

Again and again, I am hearing the hope for—the commitment to—people’s spiritual health, growth, and healing. Again and again, I hear how we want the span of this to be lifelong, from cradle to grave.

And so comes the basic vision for the Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth. It comes from us.

So we should not be surprised when I say that, like the overachievers we tend to be, this position will shine a bright light on some places where the escalator is broken, and we need to get off and move on to something better. It’s going to challenge us to be bold.

Here’s what I mean.

Take the “cradle to grave” focus of the position.  It flies in the face of what the current pattern in UU congregations is, says Karen Bellavance-Grace, the 2013 Fahs Fellow for Innovation in Multigenerational Faith Formation. Some of you might have come out to hear her speak when our Interim Director of Religious Exploration, Mr. Barb Greve, invited her to Atlanta. I was there. She’s one of the wisest and most respected voices in Religious Exploration today, and she said, “Our curricula and Religious Education ministries have been largely created and supported with a goal of helping children and youth grow into Unitarian Universalist adults. At the same time, we know that an excellent indicator of youth and young adult religiosity is the consistent religious practice of their parents.” Which would imply that, at the very least, for the sake of the kids, we want our adults to be on the religious exploration journey too. But we are not set up for that, not really. Says Karen Bellevance-Grace, “Most of the explicit Adult Faith Formation opportunities favor a traditional teach/learn paradigm, and privilege academic learning styles and preferences. By and large, we have not treated the faith formation of parents and other adults with the same priority as the faith formation of children and youth.”

I am particularly struck by how Karen Bellevance-Grace puts her finger on the “traditional teach/learn” paradigm of our usual adult religious exploration fare. In other words, adult RE classes are very often structured like graduate school seminars. This is exactly what another UU leader, concerned about the state of adult faith formation in our movement, picks up on: the Rev. Christine Robinson, Senior Minister of the UU Congregation of Albuquerque, a sister large congregation. Listen to what she says: “We have to help people understand that the tools of college debate teams and scientific laboratories are fine for those enterprises, but they are problematic around matters of faith and spirit. It’s hard enough to put the largely wordless spiritual life into words. The shy, wild soul doesn’t respond well to being chased, questioned, hounded, and there is still too much scorn in our discourse about faith.” Isn’t that interesting? How can we create adult learning spaces that are more welcoming to the shy, wild soul? If we did better at that, would more adults participate more regularly?

It’s critical that they do. Most if not all of us know the procedure on an airplane. If it’s a time of distress and the oxygen masks appear, adults need to put their masks on before helping children or others in their care. If the caregiver runs out of oxygen, he or she cannot assist others. If the caregiver is exhausted, hungry, anxious, or spiritually empty and depleted, they suffer and the children suffer.

This is just one reason why the “cradle to grave” vision is key. Religious exploration programs that focus mainly on the children and youth aren’t effective. But the tendency is nevertheless to focus just on the children and youth. Adults don’t think it’s relevant to them. The programming for adults is not where it needs to be.

It’s just like the video we saw earlier.

We’re on the escalator, things seem to be moving on and up.

But then we come across the statistic of the high percentage of adults who grew up Unitarian Universalist but eventually left because they didn’t feel Unitarian Universalism in their heart and soul…

That’s when the escalator goes GLNK!

“Whoa,” we say, “that’s not good”

We say, “Oh, I don’t need this! I’m already late”

We say, “Anybody out there!”

“Somebody!”

“Hello!”

“There are two people stuck on the escalator, and we need help. Now, would somebody please do something!”

Well, we are doing something. We’re getting off that stuck escalator. The Associate Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth is going to be a part of the solution, with the focus on “cradle to grave.” Lifespan. Challenging the sense that adults don’t need to be integrally involved as learners themselves. Increasing the different kinds of opportunity for being involved; ensuring that it’s easy to get involved; ensuring care for our shy, wild souls.

The escalator is stuck, and we need to get off.

Here’s another stuck place. Keeping Pastoral Care and Religious Exploration programs separate, siloed off from each other.

Now to me, conceptually, that makes no sense. To me, Pastoral Care is about spiritual health in the crisis care mode, whereas Religious Exploration is also about spiritual health, but in the prevention mode. What I have in mind here is the public health model, which the Centers for Disease Control folks in the room will immediately get. Religious exploration is about growing in Unitarian Universalist faith which is about growing in spiritual resilience which is ultimately about the prevention of pastoral care crises, as far as possible. Don’t wait until you’re sick to seek help. Far less expensive, far less trouble, to practice all the good things that keep your soul healthy and resistant to all the yucky spiritual bacteria out there. That’s what our Religious Exploration programs are doing when they support our natural spiritual feelings and teach us how to celebrate our lives and help us understand our religious heritage and help us develop and act on our values and help us affirm our differences and help us affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all. They help us. They naturally partner with Pastoral Care programs, which cover the other side of things, when we’re not feeling so good and we need crisis care.

But, again, this is not the way things are now. As far as I know, the two programs have never been led by the same person. What I’ve seen is that a great deal of the pastoral care for children, youth, and families has been provided within the RE program, whereas pastoral care for the rest of the congregation has happened through our Lay Ministry program. When Pat Kahn was our Director of Religious Exploration, just a little under three years ago, I saw her out there pastoring all the time. It just goes together. You can’t keep Pastoral Care and Religious Exploration separate.

So why not bring them together more intentionally, more intelligently? A Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth represents an opportunity for UUCA to improve Pastoral Care support for its children, youth, and families while, at the same time, enriching its Religious Exploration programs by grounding them more fully in an understanding of the psychological, developmental, interpersonal, and spiritual issues and challenges people across the lifespan face.

When congregations don’t have that in place, people fall through the cracks. Listen to the voice of one person for whom this is true, as she speaks about her struggle with her Mom’s mental illness and how church didn’t help, made things harder. “My family,” she says, “has always been very involved in church … but we did not receive the help and support we needed…. Like other families, we were affected by stigma and a sense of shame that kept us mostly silent about our problems. And church leaders who wanted to help us, for the most part, didn’t know how to help. I don’t blame them for this; they must have been as confused and uncertain as most people are when it comes to mental illness. In my own experience, what churches have done wrong is mostly remain silent—just ignore mental illness altogether. As a young teenager, I would have been helped tremendously by discussion of mental illness within the church and even within the context of my youth group. My whole family would have benefited from extensions of friendship and offers to help when we were at our lowest. Instead, we felt pressure to pretend as if everything were fine and to put on our best face at church” (Amy Simpson).

Let me say it like this: Robin Williams is here among us. Are we able to love him and his family the way they all need? Of course we want to; but can we? Are staff configured in such a way to support programs and people who could provide real help? Religious Exploration programs are key places where the needs of the children and the family will be most evident, but do we have the kind of leadership and vision in place that can meet this need and so many others.

The escalator is stuck.

“Anybody out there!”

“Somebody!”

“Hello!”

And we’re answering back. Getting off, and moving on.

You know, when an escalator breaks down, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. But when things break down in more complex systems, or are close to breaking down, you don’t necessarily know. Frogs in slow-boiling kettles don’t know. The signs can seem ambiguous. Or we interpret them through biased lenses and bend the meaning in a way that satisfies our agenda but is not faithful to the truth. How else to explain the millions of people who have been witnessing the event of Ferguson, Missouri and they still don’t see the racism, they still don’t get it. How else to explain that?

Perhaps the most controversial claim coming from Karen Bellevance-Grace—that wise and respected voice in UU Religious Exploration circles—is that with the changing patterns of family life today, the amped up speed and stress and time crunch, we may need to reimagine in radical ways how we do Religious Exploration. What the programs will need to look like if they are to thrive.

The status quo is an experience focused around Sunday morning. In sheer terms of exposure time to classroom activities and discussions and crafts and whatever else is going on, we are talking a maximum of 30-40 touch points per year. Factor in absences for illness and other family obligations, and what our religious educators end up with is around 40 hours of opportunity, per year, to impact the spiritual growth and development of our children.

40 hours out of a total possible 5,110 waking hours per year.

Eight to eighteen-year-olds spend on average seven hours a day, seven days a week plugged in to their smart phones, the Internet, video games, TV, music, and other forms of media. That’s 2,555 hours per year.

The picture is this: 40 hours of dedicated soul-deepening experiences vs. 2,555 hours of who knows what.

Just that is enough to make us pause. Doesn’t matter how good and amazing those 40 dedicated hours are. We still pause. We still ask: Is the standard way of doing Religious Exploration like the stuck elevator? Is it?

Karen Bellevance-Grace says yes. She is by no means alone.

Listen to this—a rather extended quote but all good:

“We know from research,” she says, “that family religiosity can be a powerful predictor for youth to remain religious themselves as they enter adulthood. We know that Unitarian Universalists who come to our churches as adults have had little, if any, exposure to our religious education curricula, theology, or history. We know that a number of writers in the mainstream Christian community identify a focus on Family Ministry as one faithful response to 21st century realities.In light of all this, incorporating an intentional strengthening of family ministry seems a faithful direction to lean.”

“Family Ministry identifies the role of the church as a chief support in the spiritual development of congregants of all ages. With particular respect to children and youth, the congregation’s role is to provide support and partnership to parents, who own the primary responsibility for their children’s spiritual growth. It requires us to live into a belief that our religious education programs are supplemental faith formation programs and not intended to be the sole system of delivery.” And then she says, “Changing the Sunday School-centric model of religious education creates space for our churches and religious professionals to intentionally and explicitly equip parents to be their children’s first and most consistent religious educators all week long.“

The question essentially is: How do you make a house into a home?

How do you infuse bare walls and spaces with love and hope and forgiveness and courage?

This is just not about parents. This is about all of us, trying to keep on showing up to our lives with an open heart, with continued curiosity and hopefulness no matter what. But we know that kids are going to struggle if the adults aren’t modeling this. Religion is a thing more caught than taught. So how do we support our parents in their awesome task? How to help them put the oxygen mask on themselves, first? The parents, who on average are with their kids 3000 hours each year, and so they have plenty more opportunity to influence their children than the 40 hours per year of church classes. So how can congregations like ours truly prove their relevance and worth by guiding and strengthening the adults for their awesome work?

I want us to collectively wonder about this. Is more of the same truly going to take us in the direction of UUCA’s Ends Statements and Long Range Plan priorities? Or does more of the same amount to staying put on the broken escalator?

Saying, “Anybody out there!”

“Somebody!”

But WE are the somebody we’ve been waiting for…

All I know is that I see the Associate Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth ministering with and among us as we figure out what’s next. What’s next, friends, is critical. We cannot afford a sagging, lagging, sappy, unhappy Religious Exploration program. In the wake of that, everything becomes saggy and laggy and sappy and unhappy.

So join me and join the Task Force I’m partnering with in our excitement and resolve. Stay tuned to our progress—we’re going to keep you regularly informed. And when stewardship time rolls around and you are asked to make your annual pledge, go above and beyond. We must be able to afford the best. Weu can’t build a bold and bright future on the cheap.

On of my favorite poets, Rumi, says,

Why do we stay in prison
when the door is so wide open?

Why indeed.

Let’s walk on through.

I’m inviting you to walk on through with me.

Let’s go.