Friday, December 28, 2007

N. Hawthorne on Concord MA

"Never was a poor little country village invested with such a variety of queer, strangely dressed, oddly behaved mortals, most of whom took themselves to be important agents of the world's destiny, yet were simply bores of a very intense character."

Can't even remember where I originally saw this, but I jotted it down in my diary at the time, and now I share it with all of you. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Some Early Morning Reflections on the Longest (and Darkest) Night of the Year (and Soul)

I've been thinking a bit more about some of the issues I've been ruminating over lately regarding privilege and entitlement, now that I've had a chance to sleep on them a little. Perhaps "afflicting the comfortable" really is just part of the job description of a minister, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel to all concerned. But (to quote a former parishioner) “who comforts the afflicter?” Clergy talk and talk until we are blue in the face about the importance of self-care and spiritual renewal, but when push comes to shove, who among us is truly brave enough to look to our own needs first when our people really need us?

I once believed that Ministry was a profession just like any other profession: grounded in the mastery and practice of a particular body of knowledge and set of skills. But after 25 years, I’ve come to understand that ministry is really about a set of relationships. A relationship with God (or whatever passes for “God” in your particular understanding of Universe), along with a calling to a higher purpose in service of a larger good. A relationship with an institutional organization, and to its historical traditions and values. A relationship with a community of people who have invited you to become their leader, teacher, coach and caregiver; and to individuals within that community, each of whom is continually making up their mind about whether or not they are willing to call you THEIR minister. It is a tremendous privilege to be addressed by the title "Reverend." But it's not a privilege we are entitled to by virtue of education or credential or expertise; rather, it's a title we have to earn again and again every day by being worthy of people's reverence. Which is certainly not a burden to be taken lightly.

Likewise, these relationships can be incredibly fulfilling, and profoundly rewarding in their own right. But like any relationship, they are also often destined to disappoint. Destined perhaps even to break people's hearts (including our own). It’s merely a natural consequence of the fact that nobody’s perfect. I know full well that my people aren't perfect, and that I’m not a perfect minister either. And even if I were, that still doesn’t mean that I’m going to be everyone’s cup of tea. No minister is. But that still doesn’t keep me from being a very good minister (or at least doing the best that I can)... even when I disappoint, or can’t quite live up even to my own expectations for myself.

In his book Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First, Bill Easum talks about the dangers of a "high mercy gift." UU's are probably more comfortable talking about healthy boundaries, the dangers of co-dependence, and developing "serviceable Ministerial relationships," but I think the issues are pretty much the same. In my own mind, it's about finding the proper balance between "service" and "leadership" in the role of Servant Leader. This may just be my wise cynicism rearing its ugly head again, but I'd venture to guess that an awful lot of conflict between clergy and members of their congregations boils down to different expectations about who is going to lead and who is going to follow, and who expects to be served by whom. And I’m afraid that an awful lot of ministers I know tend to exude an aura of privilege and entitlement when they would really be much better off practicing humility and sacrifice.

But Privilege and Entitlement are not the exclusive property of ordained clergy. Not by a long shot. I’ve also seen way too often with my own two eyes how easily a minister’s willingness to sacrifice and serve humbly is subtly transformed into a kind of humiliating servitude. Not through malice or design. But by the unrealistic and unrelenting expectations of affluent, educated, “successful” people who are accustomed to getting what they want and to having things their own way. They come to church (when they aren’t doing something more important) for their weekly dose of inspiration and “intellectual stimulation,” and leave feeling good about themselves and all that they believe they stand for. But how many of them really practice what we preach? Or am I just naive to believe that this is any different than it should be?

What does it truly mean to be people of faith, serving as leaders in communities of faith, and practicing a particular faith tradition? That word “faith” is often interpreted as “belief without evidence,” but it’s so much more than that. It means confidence. It means trust. In Latin, it is “fidelity” -- a word which we have imported directly into English with nary a varied nuance. When we are unfaithful, and trust is broken, people lose confidence in us -- and it can happen in a heartbeat. Building Trust, on the other hand, often takes a great deal of time and effort and shared experience. Clergy can’t MAKE people trust them, although the role itself these days comes with both a great deal of implicit trust and a great deal of cultural suspicion built-in as standard equipment. The best we can do as individuals is to endeavor always and in all ways to be Trust-Worthy, and hope that those around us will see that for what it is.

And then comes the hardest part of the business of all: learning to trust ourselves. And funny how that phrase works both ways: learning ourselves how to trust others, and learning as well how to trust our own skills, abilities, knowledge, insights, motivations and “faithfulness.” This is where the discipline of learning how to give ourselves over to something larger than ourselves comes into play. And it isn’t easy. But who ever said that anything in life that is truly worthwhile is ever easy?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

That's just the Cross-Eyed Bear...

One of the challenges I've been wrestling with recently, both in my ministry and my own spiritual practice, is moving beyond the “wise cynicism” I’ve developed in more than a quarter-century of this strange and wonderfully frustrating work, so that I might somehow reconnect with the optimism, idealism and passionate enthusiasm which originally called me to this vocation in my youth.

Over the years I’ve managed to develop a pretty thick skin, and (at times, at least) a pretty jaded attitude. I’ve learned the hard way that “no good deed goes unpunished,” and how to remain so “non-anxious” and “non-reactive,” “non-defensive” and “self-differentiated” that people sometimes wonder whether I’m even paying attention. I’ve learned how to take criticism seriously without taking it personally, and that there are lots of things, both in life and at church, that I just can’t fix no matter how hard I try, and am better off simply learning how to live with and accept. I no longer harbor a lot of illusions about the true nature of my work. And yet in the midst of this "disillusionment," I sometimes find the work itself more and more difficult to do “in good faith.”

For example, I have become SO tired of feeling like I have to harangue, cajole, browbeat or shame basically good and decent people into doing the right thing simply because they are too stubborn, lazy, self-satisfied, comfortable and content to do the right thing on their own. This was basically the problem with my last congregation, and it was unpleasant for everyone concerned. And yet, for a lot of people, this is precisely what preachers are SUPPOSED to do, which is also, I suspect, the reason so many of them stay away from church in droves -- because they find the experience “too preachy.” Let’s face it, nobody really LIKES being preached to. Much less being preached at.

Likewise, one of the most difficult conundrums facing any leader is determining how quickly to try to move people forward. No matter what pace you choose to set, there are always going to be some folks who feel you’re going too fast, and others who feel like you’re not going fast enough. Getting everyone lined up, facing in roughly the same direction, and moving along the same path at approximately the same speed (more often than not when they aren’t even looking at the same page of the guidebook) can feel like an impossible chore. Is it best to try to lead from the front, holding high your shepherd’s staff while setting a brisk pace in the hope that the others will keep up on the journey to greener pastures? Or is one better off herding from behind, barking and nipping at the heels of the stragglers while keeping a wary eye open for the wolves in sheep’s clothing?

I know it’s a stereotype, but at least more "traditional" preachers had both a big carrot and an even bigger stick. Do the right thing, and you’ll be going to heaven; do something different, and you can go somewhere else. More recently, proponants of the so-called “prosperity gospel” have added promises of worldly wealth, success, health and happiness to the menu of pie in the sky when you die. It may seem a little hard for some of us to swallow, but a lot of folks are apparently gobbling it up with a spoon. Indeed, the traditional metaphor of "the shepherd and their flock" implicitly reinforces these stereotypes. "Sheep" who are incapable of thinking for themselves need a strong and decisive Pastor to tell them what to believe.

But if anything (at least in my experience) the typical members of UU congregations more closely resemble goats: frisky, nimble, curious, aggressive, highly independent, natural escape artists, and willing to swallow just about anything they can get their mouths around if given an opportunity. Yet even a herd of highly-heretical goats occasionally requires the services of a faithful goatherd:to keep them safe from predators, and properly groomed and fed; to track them down when they get loose and become lost or hurt; and ESPECIALLY to keep them from running amok in the neighbor's garden...which is (as you will well know if you've ever kept REAL goats yourself) their absolutely favorite activity of all, but doesn't really do much to improve relations with the neighbors. And even though you're doing it for their own good, even goats generally resent being led on a leash back to the goatshed, when they could be running free.

But getting back to the subject at hand, I understand perfectly well the importance of expressing a positive attitude and creating a positive message: that you “catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar,” and how important it is to give basically good people a good reputation to live up to. I know that internal motivation is a more powerful incentive than external pressure, and that it is better to inspire than to scold. What I DON’T really understand is why I find it so difficult at times to inspire myself, and why I have come to expect so little, and yet so much, from this “divine profession” to which I have devoted my entire adult life.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

In Praise of Dyslexia

A soon-to-be-published study by Cass Business School professor Julie Logan reports that 35% of successful American entrepeneurs exhibit signs of dyslexia. "The broader implication" according to the article, "is that many of the coping skills dyslexics learn in their formative years become best practices for the successful entrepreneur. Children who chronically fail standardized tests must become comfortable with failure. Slow readers learn to extract only vital information, so that they're constantly getting right to the point. Dyslexics are also forced to trust and rely on others to get things done -- an essential skill for anyone working to build a business."

If true, this is a fascinating illustration of the concept of "different abilities," as well as the notion that many so-called "disorders" are socially constructed (which is to say, that society finds certain behaviors disorderly, rather than there being anything inherently wrong with the person).

Of course, this also reminds me of all the speculation early in his administration that our President is dyslexic, which explains both his mother's interest in literacy, and his own routine butchering of the English language.

Then again, he could just be stupid. I also seem to recall him saying that the underlying problem with the French economy is that they don't even have a word for "entrepeneur."

But I think the main lesson I take away from all this is the distinction between intrinsic ability and hard work. Sure it's nice to be gifted and talented, or to possess "natural" abilities of above-average whatever. But it's persistence and hard work that always seem to make the real difference between success and failure. No matter how smart you are, there is always someone smarter...and everyone you meet knows something that you don't.

It doesn't matter how big or strong or fast or even beautiful you may be either...there is always someone bigger, and stronger, faster and more beautiful.

And luck? Everyone knows that hard workers make their own luck.

Here's another interesting article from Scientific American about the Secret to Raising Smart Kids. Guess what the secret is? Don't tell them they're smart. Tell them that effort is more important than ability, and to find confidence in their ability to weather failure rather than easily achieve success.

So next time you're feeling down and discouraged, take strength from your disappointment and remember that anything worth doing is worth doing badly...at first. But if you just stick with it, things will indeed get better. And so will you.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Auto-blog II -- My New Focus



I notice with some amusement that my colleague from Portland OR, Marilyn Sewell, is also blogging about her new car, after her faithful old Honda was first stolen out of her driveway, and then missing for a month (during which time she replaced it with a used Volvo), only to later have the Honda recovered by the police. By that time, of course, the Honda had been stripped of anything valuable (which did not, apparently, include her CDs), and Marilyn had fallen head over heels in love with her new Swedish ride anyway, so the Japanese import was released into the custody of the Insurance company, who will no doubt find it a good home.

My story isn't nearly so dramatic as Marilyn's. Having made the decision to replace my 10-year-old Ranger pick-up with a smaller, more fuel-efficient and city-friendly (i.e. easy to park) vehicle, rather than paying $2500 to have the four-wheel-drive repaired and the rest of the vehicle brought up to where it would pass inspection, I basically only considered three options: the Escape Hybrid (because someone told me that I ought to buy a hybrid), the Subaru Outback wagon (which is a very popular car in my neighborhood, and also I've noticed among Unitarian ministers in general), and the Focus (which is the model Ford created to replace the Escort, and, as you have no doubt already inferred from the title, is the vehicle I eventually bought).

I'm not really certain how I became such a loyal Ford customer, but since this is my third one in a row now (and I've basicly driven nothing else for 15 years) I guess I qualify. Bought the original Escort wagon in part because we realized that we could buy two Escorts for the price of one Outback; and the fact that I drove it for nearly a quarter of a million miles before it finally gave up the ghost (in protest, I think, over having to leave its home in the Pacific Northwest) certainly did a lot to cement my loyalty to the product. The Ranger was not such a bad ride either, and my appreciation for that vehicle was reinforced early on by the fact that the only car dealership on Nantucket sold and serviced Fords, which pretty much gave them a Mircosoft-like competitive advantage when it came to selling to and servicing Island residents.

When I eventually moved back to "America," to an affluent little faux-rural New England town just over the river and through the woods from Walden Pond, my dirty, dented, decade-old pick-up made a nice contrast to the Escapes, Priuses, Saubs, Subarus, and BMWs I generally saw all around me...not to mention all the various SUVs and Mini-vans (of every make and model) and more Hummers per captia than anywhere else in the Commonwealth (although none, I don't think, were owned my members of the congregation). And since it was a fifteen minute drive in any direction just to get gas or groceries, I ended up spending a lot more time in that car than I would have chosen to otherwise.

But here in Portland ME it's a very different landscape. Although I live a half-mile from church (as opposed to only 40 yards in Carlisle, and maybe 40 feet on Nantucket), just about everything I could ever want or need is within easy walking distance of my apartment, and public transportation is readily available. Still, as a minister, I feel compelled to keep a car in the city, even though on some levels at least I would be delighted not to have to. My Aunt in Seattle has lived without a car in that city ever since she returned from the Peace Corps in the mid-1960's -- 40 years during which she has also traveled all over the world (including India and Pakistan, South America, and widely in Europe and Africa)using only public transportation, a bicycle, and her own two feet. She doesn't even like to RIDE in cars if she can avoid it. And I admire her independence in doing so.

But it's different being a minister. Even when gasoline and rubber were being strictly rationed during the Second World War, clergy and physicians received priority status, since society recognized that they needed those resources in order to accomplish their jobs. Nowadays MDs rarely make housecalls, the status of ministers is somewhat less exhalted, and if anything our society is more car-dependent than ever. But the importance of "auto-mobility" to the work of ministry is essentially unchanged; we travel at odd and unpredictable hours, are often needed in a hurry, even more often need to be two places at the same time, and are even at times required to provide transportation for others who cannot transport themselves.

Yet at the same time, the style of automobile a minister selects suggests an awful lot about their theology, and needs to be undertaken with great discernment. If I'm going to be making my parish visits in a Mercedes, a BMW, or a Porsche...it had better be AT LEAST a decade old, and preferably a vehicle that actually belongs to (or perhaps was bought by and handed down from) my extremely successful attorney/physician/corporate executive partner. Foreign compacts (like the Subaru or Marilyn's Honda) are generally good, while American cars (it seems to me, at least) are a little more of a mixed bag -- it's nice to buy domestic and support the jobs of unionized American Auto Workers, but is what's good for General Motors REALLY what's good for the country anymore?

Likewise, my heart may long for a little red convertible, but my brain tells me I'm a lot better off picking a sensible blue or green or white or gray sedan or compact wagon. Or maybe a small SUV or Mini-van...expecially if I have young children in the household. And if I REALLY want to make a statement, then I'll get a hybrid...assuming I can afford it. But God forbid that I should ever find myself behind the wheel of a Hummer...unless I'm accompanying a National Guard unit to the location of a natural disaster.

And so it came to pass that armed with this set of sensibilities, I set out in search of a new car to replace the Ranger. Ruled out the Hybrid Escape on grounds of cost, as well as the realization that both the Subaru and the Focus got just as good gas mileage with conventional technology. Flirted with the Subaru...and if I'd been willing to make the effort I probably could have found a good, low-mileage used Subaru wagon for only a few thousand more than I ended up paying for my Ford. But people who own these wagons tend to like them so well that they hold on to them for a long time, and besides, the Ford dealership is a lot closer to my home, and I already had a good relationship with them based on the work they'd already done on my truck. So that's where I started, and that's where I ended up...mostly because I didn't want to have to put any more time into this entire process than I absolutely had to anyway.

So I zeroed in on a Focus, and then began the even more complicated process of finding MY particular Focus out of all the possible Foci (or maybe in this case, it really is "Focuses") potentially available to me. And the reason this turned out to be more complicated than I'd thought is because I made it so. My first thought was that I would go with some sort of used "program" car -- a former rental a year or two old, which can generally be picked up for about two-thirds the price of a comparable new car. But those cars all come with automatic transmissions, and I'd decided that I really did want a standard five speed manual shift again, as well as cruise control if I could get it (since I'd also enjoyed that option on my previous two Fords, and have grown rather accustomed to it). And then (and this really was my one true concession to having turned fifty) I really wanted to have a moonroof if they could find one, just so I could still potentially open up the top and feel the wind blow through what's left of my hair on a sunny summer day once in awhile. But to compensate for that indulgence, I also insisted that there be no spoilers or flashy trim, and that the car could be any color but red.

The bad news was that there was only one vehicle with that particular configuration of equipment anywhere in New England. The good news was that it belonged to the dealership only five miles across town. Then we learned that it wouldn't arrive on the lot for another week. Then came the blizzard, which delayed things even more. By this time I was already starting to rethink my decision about buying a new car at all -- $2500 bucks to keep the Ranger on the road through another winter was looking like a pretty good idea after all. But my dad, bless his heart, came through with some very sensible fatherly advice: you tend to keep these cars a long time Tim, (he told me), and you can afford to buy the car you want -- so bite the bullet, spend the money, get the car and ENJOY IT! for a long, long time.

So that's what I did. Even so, after fifteen years without a car payment, the sticker shock was pretty intense. Doubled the cost of my insurance, and the state excise tax alone is a dollar a day. Add in the payments and the cost of off-street parking, and I'm into this alligator nearly five hundred dollars a month before I've bought a single drop of three dollar a gallon gasoline. All told, I'm estimating that the "privilege" of owning and operating my own vehicle is going to cost me about 12% of my annual gross income. Thats a helluva lot of cab rides, frankly. And if I lived in a community where flex-cars were available, I think I'd be looking awfully hard at signing up.

But then there's the clergy thing. Suburban nursing homes, evening potlucks and circle suppers, hospital visits, ministers meetings...a car may not be an absolute necessity, but it sure does make things easier and more convenient. Although let's not forget the greatest irony of all. Now that I've actually purchased this beautiful new car, I'm afraid to drive it in the snow...and so mostly I try to leave it parked in the garage, and walk everywhere I can anyway. So we'll see. Maybe by this time next year, somebody out there will get a great deal on a low-mileage, high MPG standard shift, cruise-control equipped Clerical Black Ford Focus sedan with a moonroof. Or maybe by then I will have simply gotten over all this automobile angst, and will be loving my new ride....

Monday, December 10, 2007

Auto-blog I - Remembrance of Rides Past

So it finally happened. Rather than waiting for my '97 Ranger to take things into its own hands, last week I broke down and bought myself a new vehicle. This is actually the first new car I've owned in 15 years, and only the third I've owned in my entire lifetime of driving. And while I've started to give myself permission to feel happy about owning a new car (which is, after all, supposed to be a happy occasion), I'm also feeling a little funny about it...which is really what I want to write about.

But first a little history. My very first car was a hand-me-down 1962 red Plymouth Valiant station wagon (with a push-button automatic transmission)that had belonged to my mother for a dozen years before I finally got my hands on it. Picked up three tickets and was involved in three accidents with that little beauty, the last of which finally killed it outright on a sharp curve on a steep hill on a rainy day in a suburb of Seattle about two weeks before I started college at the University of Washington.

But by that time I already had another ride: an even redder 1968 Triumph TR-250 convertible which my father had bought for me as a reward/bribe in order to get me to study a little harder so that I could get into a decent college in the first place. It's funny how quickly a basically bright but lazy kid can become a straight-A student when there's a sports car as incentive, and although my father complained miserably about that little two-seater roadster, I suspect in retrospect he would say it was the best $2,000 he's ever spent in his life.

And it did double duty; because once I actually started college my younger brother got to drive the TR, and I didn't get back behind the wheel until the start of my Junior year, when HE was a freshman living in the next dorm over, and I could finally afford to insure the thing myself. But of course he kept a duplicate set of keys, and more than once I stopped by my parking space only to discover nothing but an oilspot waiting for me. But at least he always had the decency to return it with a full tank of gas!

When I went off to HDS for graduate school (at the start of his Junior year), the TR once more came into my brother's keeping, and eventually passed from our lives on his watch. I lived quite contentedly carless in Cambridge and Boston, and remained car-free until the start of my internship back in Seattle, where I spent $300 for a 1974 lemon yellow Volkswagen Dasher. That car burned about a quart of oil for every tank of gas, but it got me everywhere I needed to go for a year an a half, before finally perishing in a snowstorm 10 days before I was scheduled to begin my first settled ministry in Midland, Texas.

It was in Midland that I purchased my first-ever new car: a 1985 Toyota Corolla. Of course, being from the Pacific Northwest, I didn't really appreciate how few and far between Toyotas were in Texas in those days; my "new" Toyota was actually delivered to me from a dealership in New Orleans, with 800 miles already on the odometer. I didn't care; I drove that car for eight years (including back and forth between Texas and Seattle three times), while my wife went through four different vehicles in that same period (a used GMC Hornet-which was her vehicle of choice before we were married; a new Ford Escort; a new Dodge Omni; and a slightly-used Dodge Shadow, which she came home with one day after taking the Omni to the dealership to have a headlight replaced, and discovering that she could actually save nearly $100/month if she simply traded it in and bought the Shadow instead).

In 1993 my wife had just finished Law School, and I was about to start back to school myself to study for a PhD. She had a good job, we had come into some money, and so we paid cash and treated ourselves to his and hers Ford Escorts: a little red coupe for her, and a forest green wagon for me. I put 237k miles on that car in the eight years I drove it, commuting back and forth between Portland, Corvallis, and Eugene...as well as all up and down the I-5 corridor from Bellingham to Roseburg preaching on the weekends (just for the record, in that same eight-year period she only put 42k miles on the coupe).

In the summer of 2001, I'd completed my PhD and was about to begin an interim ministry on Nantucket Island. What to do about a car on the island was a frequent topic of discussion among my family. At first I thought I might be able to get by without a car, but I was assured that this would not be the case -- that even on an island, a minister still needs to be able to make those parish visits out to 'Sconset; and in winter there are no buses and bicycles are a little problematic. Then I thought I might swap cars with my daughter, who was then living in Massachusetts but planning to return to Oregon in the fall. But she refused to take the Escort under any circumstances. Finally, when the folks on Nantucket also assured me that the island was an excellent place to have an old car (since when it DOES finally break down, you don't have that far to walk home), I decided to try my luck and try to drive my trusty wagon cross-country.

In retrospect, having lived so much of my life behind the wheel of that vehicle for the previous eight years, I had a lot of emotional investment in getting my CLERIC car to a nice round quarter of a million miles before allowing her to retire gracefully on Nantucket. Meanwhile, my family started a pool about how far backwards along the Oregon Trail I would make it before the car finally expired permanently. The winning bet was that I would never make it out of the state; climbing the Blue Mountains on I-84 I suddenly lost 5th gear, and so I coasted down into Baker City and within four hours had traded in my Escort for a used, 1997 white Ford Ranger X-cab 4x4 pickup.

Unpacked the Escort, repacked the Ranger, settled the dog safely into the passenger seat, and we were back on the road again. Drove that truck for two years on the Island, and another four in Carlisle...and learned to love the four-wheel drive and the big cargo space, but never really did get used to the poor gas mileage (19 mpg), or how tricky it was to park in tight places. Big blind spot too, especially trying to glance back over my right shoulder through both a tinted rear window and the canopy. Put a big dent in the passenger door my first day on the Island, trying to squeeze into my driveway past an inconveniently-located telephone pole; and over the years picked up a few more dents and dings as well...but for some reason it didn't really bother me, because, after all, isn't that what trucks are for?

That Ranger also came in awfully useful moving up here to Portland, and I'm sure I could have happily driven it for many more years, since it only had 134k miles on it and still seemed to be going strong. But I also noticed last winter that it was making funny noises when I put it into four-wheel drive, so last month when I took it into the dealership to have it serviced and winterized, I asked them to take a look. Sure enough, I needed new hubs and a U-joint, plus brake work, a new thermostat, as well as an aftermarket brakelight kit to bring the canopy into confomity with Maine law...$2500 worth of work (which the service manager quickly offered to discount 10% on account of me being clergy).

And I was almost ready to get that work done, when while driving back down to Massachusetts on the day after Thanksgiving I suddenly remembered that burnt-out headlight on the Dodge Omni. Why, I asked, should I sink another $2500 into a beat-up ten-year-old gas-guzzling clunker when I could be driving a new, compact, fuel-efficient 21st-century automobile instead? It just didn't make sense to me. Or perhaps I should say, all of a sudden I just didn't feel like nursing along my old truck from one mechanical crisis to the next, and started looking forward to owning something with a standard 3 year/36k mile bumper to bumper warranty, free road side assistance, passenger-side airbags, and all the rest.

And so the search began. To be continued in part two....

Sunday, December 09, 2007

I Just Can't Weight!

Over at Beauty Tips for Ministers, my buddy PeaceBang is launching an "On-Line Ministry Posse" for "Ordained Compulsive Overeaters." I'm no doubt eligible for a charter membership, but having just glanced at the Harvard study about the social contagiousness of obesity, what I'm really wondering is whether I could do more good simply by placing myself in quarantine instead. Like PB, I also weight about a hundred pounds more than I did when I graduated from seminary, although in fairness, after three years of living on coffee, cigarettes, Top Ramen, tunafish, and contemplative prayer, I looked an awful lot like an internment camp survivor on the day of my ordination.

A little home-cooking and a more family-friendly lifestyle quickly cured that. Then came the occupational hazards of our vocation: wedding receptions, covered-dish dinners, coffee hour, tea and cookies during pastoral visits, not to mention the countless bags of food handed to me through drive-up windows as I rushed from one place to another. They quickly started to take their toll -- an extra 300 calories a week comes to about five pounds a year, which over the course of a 25 year ministry...well, you do the math. It's not enough just to hang a "Please Don't Feed the Minister" sign around one's neck. Frankly, I'm astonished that I'm not a lot heavier than I am!

Of course, I could always simply tell myself that being a "weighty soul" merely gives me more gravitas. But I also worry about the health risks of having a BMI over 30: diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke (not to mention all of the day to day aches and pains of simply moving around in the world)...not exactly the kind of "live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse" death-style I'd envisioned for myself as a kid. The truth is, I've never really seen myself as "heavy" (despite my constant joking about my weight); in my mind's eye I'm still that svelte, limber, well-muscled twenty-something with a full head of hair who could play full court basketball all afternoon, shower, down a whole pizza and a pitcher of beer, and still do it three times before sleeping the sleep of the just after. And I suspect like a lot of us who saunter in these circles, I know a lot more about HOW to lose weight than I actually seem to be able to bring myself to DO. But for what it's worth, here are a dozen tips for dropping the lbs. Maybe if I write them out like this, I might actually feel inspired to practice what I preach.

1) Eat Positively, not negatively. I'm now trying to organize my eating around foods that I like and that are good for me, rather than merely what's fast, tasty, and convenient. Healthy eating is a lifestyle choice: slow food, "locovore," vegan or semi-veg, or even just a few "fast" days to go with the feast days. I want to think of it as a cuisine rather than a diet. And even more importantly, as something I enjoy rather than a source of depravation.

2) Eat a big, healthy breakfast. I'm not talking steak and eggs here folks. I mean things like oatmeal and granola, yogurt, fresh fruit, maybe ONE boiled free-range, high-Omega 3 egg. And for God's sake stay away from Starbucks or the Dunkin' Donuts! That's not breakfast; it's dessert.

3) Eat your main meal at mid-day. And eat whatever you want, within reason. If you're already following Principle #1, this should be no sweat. My nutritionist had a great rule of thumb: 1/2 the plate with vegetables, 1/4 protein, 1/4 starch. And then pay attention to the size of the plate!

4)TWO Apples a day... My nutritionist also taught me that if I planned eating around four servings of fruits and vegetable first, it makes it a lot easier to control the fats and starches. Of course, it also helps to know that one good-sized apple is TWO servings of fruit....

5) Watch what you drink. One of the most astonishing things I discovered when I first started keeping track of everything I ate was how many calories were in my beverages: fancy coffees, sodas, beer and wine, even fruit juice. Now I'm trying to keep it to black coffee, herbal tea, and plain old H2O...with maybe an occasional glass of beer or wine (as it says in scripture - 1 Tim 5:23) just to help with the digestion. I've even forsworn diet sodas, which some studies show despite their zero calorie reputation simply stimulate the appetite for other sweets. My experience was that even when I was having a hard time watching what I ate, it was relatively easy to cut back on what I drank. So put the water bottles in the fridge where the diet cokes used to be, and if you still need a little caffeine pick-me-up in the middle of the afternoon, try a good iced coffee instead.

6) No noshing after dark. This is a hard one for me...which became a lot easier when I also made the decision to stop watching TV. Of course, I wasn't able to stick to that resolution for very long either. But at least now I try to keep my pantry clear of foods beginning with "C" - cake, cookies, candy, crackers, chips, Cokes...you get the picture. And thanks to TiVo, I can watch a little of whatever I want when I get home from church, and still get to bed at a reasonable hour.

7) Shop one day at a time. This is a little more eccentric, since ideally what one would do is shop once a week with meal plans and a list, and put nothing else in the cart, and eat only what you'd planned. But since I don't have that kind of foresight or self-control, I've gone to the other extreme of trying to keep very little food around the house and food shopping every day, just like the French. It's too soon to tell how it's going to work out. But if for some reason I don't get to the store, I still have a pantry full of Top Ramen and canned tunafish!

8) Get out of the car. This is kind of ironic for me, since after six years of driving a beat-up old pickup, I finally broke down and bought a new vehicle...the first truly NEW vehicle I've owned in 15 years. And that in itself is worth its own blog entry, but the bottom line is that now that I own a new car, I don't like to drive it in the snow, so instead I tend to keep it safely parked in the garage and try to walk everywhere I can (including the small grocery store just up the block). Behind America's sedentary lifestyle and national obesity epidemic is a "trinity" of demons: TV, the automobile, and high-fructose corn syrup. Just think how much better we all would be if we could just exorcize those three things from our lives.

9) Lift weights to lose weight. OK, I admit it -- I come from a family of three boys, and sports were always a big part of our lives. But as much as I love the gym, I've always hated the weight room -- because lifting weights is WORK, not play. But the fact of the matter is, pumping a little iron does a lot of good things for a body: builds muscle, burns fat, shapes and tones...it's really miraculous. So join a gym, find a partner or hire a trainer, and just do it! As unpleasant as it can be, minute by minute and pound for pound, it's a helluva lot better than the treadmill....

10) Pay cash when dining out. OK, maybe this is a little extreme. But living all alone right in the heart of a small city known for its great restaurants, I tend to eat out a lot. And for some inexplicable reason, I always tend to eat a little less (and a little less often) when I know I'm paying cash....

11) Never clean your plate. I know, it goes against everything my mother taught me. But clergy tend to have a lot on their plates, and people keep bringing us heaping second helpings. So just make it a rule to leave those last few bites for Jesus, who God knows was a scrawny little guy who could have used a little fattening up. This works metaphorically as well as nutritionally, BTW.

12) Always talk to strangers. Do you remember your mother also telling you not to talk with your mouth full? Well, here's a thought -- talk first, and eat between ideas rather than talking between bites. Have you ever noticed how chatty Cathy always seems to send half her meal back to the kitchen, while the strong, silent types (like me) are nibbling off their plate, and nodding while we chew? It's just an observation...

And here's a final thought, to make it an even Bakers Dozen. Don't try to swallow all these things at once; they'll just make you sick to your stomach. Rather, pick one or two and nibble on them for awhile, and then add a third, and a fourth...and keep going from there. I know I put this weight on one bite at a time, over a period of 20 years. It's going to have to come off the same way...although hopefully, a little faster....

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Justice Making

Now that I've come out of blogospheric hybernation, I suppose I ought to catch up with a few other loose ends. A few months ago I attended a day-long training session with Marie Fortune around the issue of working pastorally with survivors of domestic abuse. As part of that training, she spelled out a seven-step process (or perhaps paradigm is a better word) for Justice Making, which I thought was extremely insightful and relevant to a much broader set of situations and circumstances. So while it's still relatively fresh in my mind, I thought I'd flesh it out a bit and share it here.

* Truth-Telling -- Justice-Making begins by creating a safe space where people can tell the truth about their experience. Perpetrators depend upon the silence of their victims in order to hide their behavior from the scrutiny of others. Creating opportunities for people to find their voice again, and to offer their testimony, is the first step from victimization to survival.

* Acknowledgement -- Once people have found the courage to tell their truth, it is also essential that we listen to them, hear what they have to say, and acknowledge that what happened to them wasn't right or fair. Victims typically blame themselves for their misfortunes; survivors are able to distinguish between the things they had control over and the things they didn't, and need to be affirmed in their understanding that they are still OK even though what happened to them wasn't.

* A Compassionate Response -- Often the temptation when we hear a story of injustice is to want to "fix it" -- to become angry, to want to do something, to forget about the person while we focus on the problem. But the person should always come first. Compassion means literally "to suffer with." The Compassionate Response to injustice is basically that same old "ministry of presence" we were taught about in CPE: a person-to-person connection that lifts up our common humanity and holds it in relationship regardless of what may have been suffered.

* Protect the Vulnerable -- Safety for victims and potential victims is the sine qua non of authentic justice making. If injustice can not be "arrested," then attempting to establish justice in an atmosphere of uncertainty, insecurity and vulnerability becomes very difficult indeed.

* Accountability for Perpetrators -- In its essence, the call for accountability is an invitation to repentence. It asks (and insists) that the perpetrator(s) of an injustice recognize that their actions and choices do not take place in a consequence-free environment, and that they take responsibility for the consequences of their own behavior. To frame this in a religious context, without repentence their can be no atonement, and without atonement there can be no forgiveness.

* Restitution -- Domestic abuse, like any other abuse of power, is ultimately about broken covenants, the violation of boundaries, and damaged relationships. Religious professionals in particular often have a bias for attempting to repair those relationships prematurely, before first attending to the more fundamental issues of safety and accountability. Likewise, often times these relationships are broken beyond repair, at which point the work of ministry becomes one of shared grieving rather than attempted healing.

* Vindication -- OK, so maybe it does have the same root as "vindictive," but vindication is not about revenge; nor is it reconciliation, forgiveness, or even atonement. Rather, it's about being liberated from the burden of something that was not your responsibility in the first place. Or to put it another way, it is the public recognition of an injustice rather than the "acceptance" of one, which in turn releases the victim from those insidious feelings of shame and guilt regarding their own victimization, and sets them solidly on the path to healing, wholeness, and "survivorhood." It is the public affirmation of a private truth, which "justifies" the survivor and sets them free.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Right or Liked?

First snowstorm of the season last night. Forecast was for nine inches, but so far we've been disappointed in that regard. Not that I really consider it much of a disappointment. Good numbers in church yesterday for the first Sunday in Advent; nearly 200 souls (children and adults) at worship, and over 40 for the "Newcomers Luncheon" after church, where we introduced some of the church officers and talked about the next steps in the Path to Membership. Lots of energy and enthusiasm for the start of the holidays. Makes it a pleasure to get up and come into work in the morning, even when it's snowing.

Not that I harbor any illusions that anyone had actually noticed, but until Linda Laskowski discovered (and resurrected) an old post I'd written last summer describing her "Congregations Count" workshop at General Assembly, it had been several months since I'd last posted here. Part of the reason for my absence has simply been the distractions of other, more important concerns as I begin my new ministry here in Portland ME. But mostly it involved some serious soul-searching, after I violated the integrity of one of my oldest and most fundamental principles as a writer, and pulled down an earlier post about my transition experience out of the congregation I was serving before being called here, as a result of having received an angry (and, the truth be told, somewhat threatening) e-mail from one of my former parishioners, berating me for having publicly "denigrated" in this blog both that congregation and (more accurately) the affluent and privileged community where it is located.

Frankly, I didn't really see it that way myself. From my point of view, the post was honest, candid, and (to be sure) at times less than completely flattering...but it also acknowledged both some of my own shortcomings in that situation (since there's no way I could possibly have listed them all), as well as many of the positive things I learned from and enjoyed about the experience.

But since I'm not in the business of gratuitiously pissing people off (or at least I don't THINK I am), I decided to pull down that previous post anyway, at least for awhile, while I thought things through, and sorted out my own feelings and opinions on the matter. After all, from my perspective, the real "soul work" took place in the writing itself. The sharing of my thoughts on this blog was only an afterthought, so that others might potentially benefit from the wisdom of my experience. Even so, I also really hated the idea of censoring myself simply because someone else took offense at my honest opinions. It's called a "heckler's veto," and it really pisses me off -- especially when used as a weapon by powerful people who desire to silence their critics.

And the great irony, of course, is that the principal barrier to that congregation ever achieving everything it has the potential to become is its own inability (or maybe unwillingness) to see itself as it truly is (which is what made my experience there so frustrating to begin with). Which is also, of course, now entirely their problem, and no longer any real concern of mine. In fact, until I received that angry and intimidating e-mail, I felt like I had pretty much achieved closure with that situation, along with all the attendant disappointment that accompanied it, and was moving on to something far more congenial and satisfying. But afterwards, for awhile at least, I suddenly found it difficult to think about anything else!

So thanks for that little gift, former parishioner. If you were afraid that I was going to tell the truth about your smug, sanctimonious little "City in the Woods," maybe you should have treated me a little better when you had the chance.

At the end of the day, the Truth (or at least MY truth) is that, notwithstanding my former congregation's routine and habitual institutional parsimony, I actually liked (and still like) the people there quite a bit -- even the ones who sometimes made my life difficult or challenging (and believe me, UUs are very clever and intelligent folk, and can often be quite creative in this regard). But it's also true that when, after four years without a raise (or even a COLA), I finally started to complain, rather than addressing the situation responsibly, the treasurer's husband (who also, surprise, surprise, just so happens to be the same former parishioner who wrote me the nasty e-mail) took me to lunch and strongly suggested that I might actually be a lot happier working somewhere else. Which, of course, turned out to be true. Which is why I feel so grateful now that things worked out the way they did, and so delighted have been called to this pulpit here in Portland.

UU clergy are often charged to "preach the truth to power." This, or something like it, is pretty standard language in most ordination and installation services, and a responsibility which I have always tried to take to heart in my own ministry. At my installation service at that former congregation I pledged myself "with God's help, worthily to maintain the freedom of this pulpit, speaking the truth in love both publicly and privately." And yet one wonders, what does it mean to speak "with love?" Does it mean telling lies or keeping secrets, in order to prevent someone else's embarrasment or disgrace? Or is it actually more loving to tell the truth honestly yet without joy, knowing that the danger of keeping secrets is always worse that the truth plainly spoken?

Unfortunately, the challenge often gets reduced simply to a more rudimentary conflict between personal intellectual integrity and interpersonal social graces: Would your rather be Right or Liked? But this is really way too simplistic. Most folks, I think, would like to be both right AND liked. The real problem is that a lot of folks simply don't like to hear the ugly truth. And so to avoid being unpopular, we refrain from sharing it with them. Yet ultimately, the issue of "being right" has nothing to do with one's own ego-driven needs to be liked, or even the natural human desire to avoid appearing foolish (as in "I'm right and you're wrong"). Rather, it is sustained by the underlying and uncompromising conviction that Truth Really Matters, and that we should seek it even at the price of both being unpopular and at times discovering (and admitting) that we were wrong.

The REAL ethical dilemma for me always boils down to the whole Prophetic/Socratic/Cassandra issue: how long should one remain silent about something they KNOW to be wrong, simply to avoid becoming unpopular and disliked?

The word "courtesy" originally refered to a style of manners appropriate to the royal court, where it was often difficult to speak the truth to power without having one's head chopped off. Because let's face it, powerful people typically don't like hearing the unvarnished truth (much less being made to appear foolish or told they are wrong) any more than the rest of us do. Which is why it is so easy for them to grow ignorant and out of touch with the factual situation "on the ground" and "outside the bubble." When we habitually replace candor with euphemism, and...well, I don't really need to spell it all out, do I? Or maybe I do. After all, these days our leaders often aren't exactly the brightest bulbs on the marquee....

"Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Try not to BE mean when you say it." Clarity. Sincerity. Sensitivity. This is the challenge we clergy face when we lovingly attempt to speak the truth to people who have power over us. We need to embrace the values of honesty and candor, while at the same time trying as best we can to take our own egos out of the equation, and make ourselves servants of Truth itself. But keeping secrets simply to spare someone the shame of their own bad behavior is, at best, an act of co-dependent enabling, and at worst bad behavior in its own right. To put it another way, "All that is required for Evil to triumph is for Good to remain silent and do nothing." I think it was Winston Churchill who said that. Or something like it anyway.

Then there remains the delicate question of being sensitive to other people's feelings, even when you know they're wrong....

The Truth often hurts enough simply on its own. There's rarely any need to rub it in by saying "I told you so." Defensiveness and denial are difficult enough barriers to hearing and understanding Truth; we don't need to make it any worse by getting our own egos involved. By embracing an attitude of empathy and compassion, our desire to be liked, along with our willingness to care for others (whether they "agree" with us or not), can help to make "the Truth plainly spoken" a little easier to hear as well.

I calculate that my four-year sojourn with my former congregation easily cost me over $100,000 in direct compensation. And if that sounds like an awful lot of money to you, it's because it is. Of course, 80% of that was simply the difference between the low-ball offer I agreed to accept from them, and the six-figure salary I turned down at the time from another, larger congregation just down the road. Another $19k had to do with the way they chose to handle the utilities at the Parsonage: basically neglecting to inform me beforehand that they were not included in the "Fair Rental Value" they had provided in their Congregational Record, and then deducting that money from my paycheck instead. Finally there's the four years without a raise or a COLA, and the nearly six grand they decided to stiff me by refusing to pay me through the entire three months of the contractual 90 day severence period. Oh yes, and they'd also promised me equity sharing and a sabbatical after five years service (as per the Guidelines), and of course I never heard anything more about that either. But you know, as my daddy used to tell me, we pay a little tuition for every lesson that we learn. And since we generally can't afford to make ALL the mistakes ourselves, it's a blessing sometimes to be able to learn from the mistakes of others.

As for my former congregation, the truth be told, I'm honestly hoping that they will thrive under new ministerial leadership. I hope that their big anniversary celebration this year goes well, I hope that the cellular tower contracts we'd been pursuing for the past two years are at last approved by the foot-dragging town government (contributing some much-needed additional revenue to the bottom line), and I also hope that they will finally figure out that if they want to keep their next pastor happy, they need to be attentive and faithful to the UUA's Fair Compensation Guidelines, and increase their average pledge above its currently shameful level in order to make that happen. And if they can just do those few simple things, they might actually have a chance of becoming the kind of congregation they think they are, rather than continually building "castles in the air" without bothering to put the foundations under them.

Now, about that hundred thousand dollars.... Maybe once those cell phone dollars start rolling in, we could just split the difference?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Is Unitarian Universalism a Religion? [short and to the point]

Over at another blog-site, Dr Rieux asks:
Is Unitarian Universalism a Religion? [warning; long!] Tried to post a comment there, but found the registration process so tedious that I decided to post here and link instead.

Not to make light of everything that has been written here, but you are really asking all the wrong questions. Notwithstanding Sinkford's loose-lipped efforts to keep reverence afloat, and the rather depressing fact that "Unitarian-Universalism" is now a registered trademark, it seems to me that what really matters is figuring out whether "Our Liberal Movement in Theology" is best understood as:

1) An historically liberal Protestant Christian denomination and successor organization to two other historically liberal Protestant Christian denominations;

2) A post-Christian Protestant heresy open to the wisdom and inspiration of all the world's great religious traditions;

3) Its own "New Religion," with rather grandiose aspirations of eventually supplanting all of the world's more traditional religions;

4) Secularism in "religious clothing"...or as someone once put it (maybe me), "the Progressive Wing of the Democratic Party at...if not prayer, then some superficial imitation of same."

I'm not going to weigh in with my opinion (if it isn't obvious already which way my sentiments run), mostly because I think the REAL answer is "all of the above." But I'm not so sure that's the BEST answer. And that's what really concerns me about the future of our so-called "living" faith/religious tradition....

Friday, November 23, 2007

Monday, November 12, 2007

Congregations Count (Part Two)

Inspired by Linda Laskowski's discovery and comment on my earlier post summarizing her excellent GA workshop last summer, here are a few of the tools we've developed here at First Parish to assist us in our Membership Outreach process.

VISITORS LETTER: [this goes out from me personally to every first-time visitor to First Parish within 48 hours of their visit, and always concludes with a handwritten postscript. I'm not entirely satisfied with the letter itself (even though I wrote it); the tone has a little too much "sizzle," and not quite enough specific information for my taste. But since we are still evolving our other processes around Newcomers Conversations, the New UU Class and the like, it wasn't possible to be any more specific]

Name
Address
City State Zip

Dear Name:

Welcome to the First Parish in Portland! I’m so pleased that you decided to worship with us Sunday, and hope that you will find here the kind of active, liberal, free-thinking faith community you’ve been searching for. As minister of this congregation, I’m especially interested in seeing to it that your experience here is a warm and welcoming one, as you decide in your own way and at your own speed whether or not First Parish is for you. Many of us looked long and hard before we found a place we could comfortably call our spiritual home. Perhaps at First Parish, you will discover yours as well.

Some people think of a church merely as a building: a physical structure of granite and mortar, glass and plaster, standing tall in the center of the city as a visible landmark in the landscape of the larger community.

Others think of church principally as a religious institution: an organization with principles and purposes, policies and by-laws, and charged with the mission of doing God’s work in the world.

Theologians sometimes speak of “the Church” as a mystical body of believers: a spiritual community of faith, memory and hope, which transcends the boundaries of time or space.

But when I think of church, I think of people. Real people, like you and me, who inhabit the building, who embody the spirit, who are profoundly committed to doing God’s good works with their own two hands.

The First Parish in Portland is a spiritual community of real people walking together in covenantal relationship one with another, and devoted to important values and principles larger than ourselves. It takes each and every one of us working side by side to make our faith community everything it should be. If your experience of organized religion in the past hasn’t quite lived up to your expectations, I invite you to join with us in creating something worthy of your hopes and dreams and aspirations. It may well be that the only thing missing from this CH_RCH is U.

Faithfully Yours,

Tim W. Jensen, Parish Minister


***
[PATHWAY TO MEMBERSHIP - this is the "roadmap" which our Membership committee is using to help track, guide, and support newcomers through their journey to formal membership in our congregation]


The Path to Membership at First Parish

OVERVIEW: Often when churches begin discussing ways to “grow” their membership, they allow themselves to be distracted by the numbers, and forget that numbers are merely a marker for measuring how successfully we are performing our core mission, which is transforming people’s lives for the better.

Perhaps a better way to think of growth is as an expression of our “ministry of hospitality.” Our church is like a feast, a banquet, a party to which everyone is invited, and it’s our responsibility as hosts to make certain that everybody feels safe and welcome, and that they are getting fed, meeting the other guests, can find what they need, and are basically having a good time.

Research shows that first-time visitors to a church typically follow a predictable “path” to eventual membership, and that growing churches tend to be aware of that path, and take steps to help newcomers move along it smoothly as they decide for themselves whether or not a participation in the life and community of a particular congregation is going to be part of their own spiritual journey. The world may well beat a path to our door in search of a better mousetrap, but it helps if there are at least signposts pointing the way, so that they don’t accidentally become lost in the woods.

Step One: Attraction (Invitation & Recruitment) - “Come on in, the water’s fine!”

• This is typically the most difficult element to control, and the most expensive to influence significantly. But there are a variety of ways in which we can work to raise our profile and enhance our reputation in the wider community, and this goal should be pursued in an intentional manner.

• Our central location is also a valuable asset that contributes significantly to our public visibility. Small things like the Wayside Pulpit and our Reader Board can do a lot to attract people’s attention and invite them through the front door.

• Our Website is likewise a very important vehicle for encouraging “seekers” to visit our church in person. A “FAQ for Visitors” is being developed, and will be added to our homepage as soon as it is ready.

• Far and away the most effective method for attracting newcomers to our church is “word of mouth” combined with a personal invitation from someone they know. Thus much of our work in “recruitment” is actually creating the kind of environment where people feel comfortable inviting their friends, and creating the kind of institutional culture where that sort of invitation becomes normal.

Step Two: First Impressions - “Getting Your Feet Wet”

• This is VERY IMPORTANT! Although First Parish feels like a second home to many of us, visiting an unfamiliar church for the first time can be a very intimidating experience. Likewise, most first-time visitors to a church make up their minds within five minutes whether or not they will return a second time.

• Visitors and Members alike are warmly welcomed by a Greeter from the Membership Committee as they arrive in the Vestibule. Current Members are reminded to wear their name tags; visitors are invited to make a nametag, and also to sign our guest register or fill out a visitors card at the Greeters Table. The Ushers continue to distribute Orders of Service and the Sunday Bulletin (which now contains information specifically of interest to newcomers) as they have in the past.

• Visitors are explicitly welcomed to our church by the Worship Leader, and invited to coffee hour following the service. In the coffee hour, a “Newcomers/Welcome Table” containing information about First Parish and Unitarian Universalism is staffed by representatives of the Membership Committee. “Gold Cup Greeters” circulate through the coffee hour, introducing themselves to people they don’t recognize (something as simple as “Hi! I don’t think we’ve met before”), and personally welcoming them to the church.

• Follow -up postcards from the Greeters-on-duty are addressed and sent that same day to each first-time visitor. The names of these visitors are also reported to the office for inclusion in our “Prospective New Members” database.

Step Three: Returning to Explore - “Wading Right In”

• In addition to the postcard, a Welcoming Letter from the Minister is sent to each first time visitor, once again welcoming them to the church and inviting them to participate as they choose in a variety of activities designed specifically for newcomers (see below).

• If the visitor has indicated specific areas of interest on their visitors card, these are followed up separately by the appropriate volunteer in charge of that activity.

• “Permanent” nametags are made for each visitor, in order that we might more easily track those who return for a second time, and also so that each second time visitor finds something “belonging” to them waiting for them if and when they return.

• Approximately one Sunday per month there is a “Welcoming Conversation with the Minister,” where Newcomers have an opportunity to ask their questions about UU & FP in a semi-structured environment.

• As needed, a three-session “New UU” class is offered for individuals who are specifically interested in becoming members of the church.

Step Four: Commitment - “Taking the Plunge” (formally becoming an “Official” Member of First Parish).

• Following completion of the New UU class, individuals are personally invited to become members of First Parish.

• Those who wish to become members sign the membership book, and are formally welcomed into Membership at a brief ceremony during the Sunday Morning worship service

• It’s important to recognize that the decision to become a member of a church is a very personal thing, and that some individuals will choose NOT to affiliate officially with the church, but will still participate actively in many of our programs and ministries. This is OK.

• SHORT CUT FOR “EXPERIENCED” UUs. Some individuals will arrive at First Parish already familiar with Unitarian Universalism, and perhaps having already been a member of another UU congregation. These individuals will be told that they are welcome to participate in the classes if they like, but may also simply join the church by privately signing the book after a conversation with the minister.

Step Five: Discipleship - “Going Deeper” (Making Your Membership Work for You)

• As part of their New Member orientation, each new member will be encouraged to find both some sort of program, activity, or “fellowship circle” which enhances their own spiritual life, and also to find some sort of volunteer opportunity which supports the larger mission and ministry of the church (see below). “One hand for the boat, and one hand for yourself.”

• It is important that a “catalog” of potential activities be visible and accessible to new members. Potential Fellowship Circles include participation in a covenant group or other Small Group Ministry, membership in the choir, enrollment in a life-long learning class, or participation in any one of the dozens of activities which take place here every year.

• The underlying goal here is not only to deepen and enrich the quality of each new member’s faith experience. We are also attempting to integrate them into our larger community in a meaningful and fulfilling way. A good benchmark for this process is the formula “Six friends in Six months.”

Step Six: Vocation - “Being Sent” by finding Meaningful Work that supports the larger Mission and Ministry of the Church.

• Often there is a great deal of overlap between “Going Deeper” and “Being Sent.” But it would be a mistake to assume that every committee is a “fellowship circle,” or that volunteer work alone is enough to deepen someone’s faith experience in a meaningful way

• At the same time, it is important that new members (and long time members as well) recognize that their contributions large or small are important and appreciated, and that they are (to continue the nautical metaphor) valued members of the crew and not just passengers along for the ride.

• A membership/volunteer coordinator should work with the nominating committee to try to find a meaningful job for every person in the church. It can be large or small, it should be self-selected if possible, it needs to contribute in a recognizable way to the work of the church as a whole, and it needs to be recognized and publicly acknowledged as well. Simply committing to attend services regularly (and, of course, to greet the people sitting around you and sing the hymns enthusiastically) qualifies as a “meaningful job,” provided it is done in a meaningful and committed way.

***
SO, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? [this is a little brochure which we use as literature targeted specifically at return visitors, which basically outlines the Path to Membership from the perspective of someone who is on it.]


If you’re still relatively new to First Parish, and trying to figure out how best to navigate the currents and eddys of our shared congregational life, here are a few handy tips to help you get right into the swim of things!

Get Your Feet Wet. Keep attending Sunday Services, and be sure to make time afterwards to join us for conversation and refreshments in the Parish House parlour. Fill out a Visitors Card, so that you can begin receiving and reading our monthly newsletter, “Stone Soup.” Stop by the Welcome Table in the Parish House and talk with the friendly people there. Take home some of our literature, or Google “Unitarian Universalism” on the internet. Attend a “Conversation with the Minister” (generally held right after church on the first Sunday of each month), and ask the most challenging questions you can think of. We may not have all the answers, but at least we can try to point you in the right direction!

Wade Right In. Sign up for our “Explorer Series” of Orientation Classes (starting in January), or enroll in one of our many other Lifelong Learning offerings. Participate in a Faith in Action event. Try out for the Choir. Join a Covenant Group, or one of our other Small Group Ministries. Come to a potluck, or a Circle Supper. Sign up to be a greeter, an usher, a helper in the Sunday School. Light a candle during “Joys & Sorrows.” Or just keep sitting in your favorite seat there on the aisle near the back of the Meeting House week after week until folks start to think that the pew belongs to you. Do as much or as little as you like; it’s all up to you.

Take the Plunge! Formal membership in a faith community means different things to different people. But if you should decide that you want to “sign the book” and become an official member of the Congregational Society at First Parish, we would hope that you would at least feel comfortable with all or most of the following:

• Be familiar with the basic programs and activities at First Parish, and feel at home thinking and speaking of this church as “your” church.

• Within the natural constraints of your particular lifestyle and whatever other personal obligations you may have, attend Sunday Worship as regularly as you can.

• Appropriate to your personal situation and financial means, generously support the work and ministry of this congregation.

• Find and join some sort of “Fellowship Circle,” so that you might enrich your own spiritual journey by sharing it with others, and forming durable and significant relationships of mutual accountability and support. A Fellowship Circle might be a Covenant Group, or one of our other Small Group Ministries; it could be an on-going class, a regular social group, the Choir, or even a working committee. The main thing is that your Circle consist of people you know and trust and see on a regular basis, and with whom you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts and feelings about “matters of ultimate concern.”

• Identify some sort of job, task, role or responsibility that feeds your soul and which you can think of as your “ministry.” Remember the old sailing rule, “One hand for the boat; One hand for yourself” – we want you to feel like you are one of the crew, and not just a passenger along for the ride. The ministry you choose doesn’t have to be forever. In fact, we encourage you to change and grow your particular ministry as you yourself change and grow.

• Become conversant with the basic history and principles of the Unitarian and Universalist faith traditions, and reasonably comfortable talking with others about what your experience at First Parish means to you.

• Meet six new and interesting people here at First Parish who you didn’t know before you came here, and become friends. And if you think your current friends might like what we do here as much as you do, invite them to visit us, so that we might get to know them too. This is how communities grow, one relationship at a time.

• Have Fun! It’s the sine qua non of life at First Parish. (If you’re not really sure what that means yet, don’t worry. Learning obscure stuff like this is half the fun anyway!)


***
[These are just some random thoughts I sent to my leadership team regarding our advertising/public relations strategy, and how I felt we might most effectively target those resources]

THINKING ABOUT OUTREACH




A lot of people have been expressing to me a desire to see First Parish do something more effective in the way of advertising, in order to attract more people to our congregation. But in my experience, effectively advertising a church can be a tricky business, where if you don’t know what you’re doing it is easy to spend an awful lot of money without much positive result (and in some cases, even a negative one). So here are some of my reflections on the subject, as we start to think about moving forward in this area.

• The notion that we can simply purchase more and better advertising and that more (and better) people will begin attending church on Sunday mornings as a result is deceptively naïve. We need to be very specific, targeted, focused and intentional about what we hope to accomplish in “marketing” First Parish, and how best to go about achieving those objectives in an effective and economical way.

• One specific starting place might be to examine more closely what we are already doing in the way of “static” advertising (our exterior and interior signage, our pamphlets and literature, our Yellow Pages ads, our Saturday newspaper ad, and especially our newsletter and website), in order to determine whether or not we are portraying a consistent identity (or “brand”), and how we might better use these tools to reinforce the identity we would like to portray.

• Likewise, rather than presuming that the purpose of a Public Relations campaign is simply to attract more newcomers through the front doors (who may or may not return and eventually join First Parish), we might frame our objectives in both a broader and a more nuanced manner, by asking:

--what might we specifically do to improve the image, reinforce the identity, and raise the visibility of First Parish in the larger community? [i.e. to increase our “brand recognition”]

--what can we do to promote specific events of interest to the larger community other than Sunday Services that are taking place here at First Parish? [i.e. to create and promote alternative entry points]

--what can we do to inspire our current members to become more deeply involved at First Parish, and to encourage them to invite their friends?

Finally, I just want to make it clear that advertising alone is not going to grow the church all by itself. It’s just not enough merely to get people through the front door; we also need to welcome them warmly, anticipate their needs and desires, and effectively satisfy those expectations so that they will return and bring their friends. If we FAIL to do these things, we are probably better off NOT advertising, since newcomers who are disappointed by their experience here will probably tell their friends as well….

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Transitions (long)

OK, it’s official: as of midnight August 20th I am no longer the settled Parish Minister of the [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], Massachusetts. And even though I’ve been out of the parsonage for several weeks now (at their request, so that they could prepare it to rent out to new tenants), living here in Portland and ramping up for the start of the new program year with my new congregation, I’m still feeling very much “in transition,” and trying to find closure on my four year ministry among the mosquitos in Thoreau’s “City in the Woods.”

But first, the Big Move. The crew of two strong, healthy young men and a rented truck was scheduled to arrive at 10 am two weeks ago Friday to help me finish packing what I thought would be “a few last things,” then load the truck for the two hour drive back to my new place here in Portland. A week earlier I’d rented both a lovely two-bedroom walk-up apartment on the second floor of an old Victorian house in the West End, and also a studio at the Eastland Park Hotel (which I’m planning to use as my study), and I thought I’d been pretty specific over the phone about everything that needed to be moved. But when the truck pulled into my driveway (at about a quarter of 11), the two strong, healthy young men took one look at the stuff I’d packed so far and said “We’re going to need a bigger truck.”

So they called their boss back in Maine, who arrived around 2 pm with yet another guy and a second truck, and between the five of us we managed to get everything packed up and loaded by around 7 pm. When we arrived back in Portland two hours later, we were met by two MORE guys, and still it took us until nearly 2 AM to get both trucks unloaded.

As they left one of the strong, healthy young men mentioned to me that there had been over 250 cartons of books alone (I’d lost count after the third trip to the store to buy more boxes), so if you figure an average of 20-25 books/box...well, you can do the math. And no, I haven’t read all of them; haven't even come close. I could probably start reading right now and do nothing else for the rest of my life, and still not finish them all before I died. So keep your eyes peeled for a “help me find my peace of mind by buying a piece of my mind” used book sale. I mean, do I REALLY need six copies of Walden? Simplify! Simplify!

I’ve also been thinking about my UUA exit interview, which for various reasons (time, distance, conflicting schedules, and intervening events like the death of my mom) I still haven’t completed. But at least I've seen the exit interviews from the previous minister and lay leaders of my present congregation, so I kind of know what I’m in for. The first two questions are “What do you see as the three most significant accomplishments during your tenure?” and “What were your frustrations and disappointments during this time?” -- and that little one-two punch alone is enough to lay me out cold. Because in many ways, my entire four year tenure in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], was simply one long ordeal of frustration and disappointment. And even though four years is the longest I’ve ever served any single congregation, it still feels like I accomplished very little there.

The reasons for this are complicated, but one key theme I’ve identified is that most of the other congregations I’ve worked with in the past were highly motivated to change and grow, and had contracted with me specifically to facilitate that change and guide them through it. But in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT, AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES}, as it turned out, the situation was just the opposite. This was a congregation which had pretty much done things the same way for so long (and already felt like everything was perfect and they could do no wrong), that over the years they had gradually lost touch with their growing edge in the surrounding community, as well as started to lag seriously behind their nearby neighboring UU congregations in terms of Programing, Stewardship, and Membership Growth. Many of them envied all the excitement and activity of the so-called full service "Program" churches they saw all around them, in Concord, Bedford and especially Littleton; but at the end of the day the stubborn minority didn’t really want to have to pay the price of change and growth...or for that matter, really change or grow at all.

I know it’s a cliché that New England churches are set in their ways, change-resistant and conflict-avoidant, reserved, tightfisted, and frugal to the point of parsimony, but I'd always thought that those were just stereotypes. And despite its "rurality" (a made-up word frequently used by [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES] to describe the attractiveness of their idyllic "faux rural" suburban lifestyle), [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES] is anything but your typical New England small town. Statistically, [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES] is the third wealthiest community in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (trailing only Weston and Dover). The median household income in this affluent and privileged bedroom community of two acre minimum zoning is $144,000/year (and the average closer to a quarter-million). Housing prices start at around a half-million dollars...for a tear-down. But the average pledge at the [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], was (and, unfortunately remains) less than $1000/year -- two-thirds of what it is in both neighboring Concord and Bedford. Correspondingly, my salary was only two-thirds of what a High School teacher with similar credentials is paid at Concord/[NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], High School. And, unlike those schoolteachers, I did not receive a single raise (or even a Cost Of Living Adjustment) the entire four years I worked there.

But enough of my whiney bad attitude. There were a lot of good things about my ministry in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES] too. In fairness, the faults of the congregation in many ways merely reflected the larger faults of the town itself, where taxes are high and expectations even higher, and nobody wants ANYTHING in their back yard (except maybe acres and acres of town-owned Conservation Land). The church itself was actually one of the happier and more humane landmarks on the landscape of that community, and one of the few places (apart from the Post Office, the Public Library, the little "Country Store" and the Transfer Station) where someone could actually sit down and speak with their "Neighbours & Fellow Cretures." I made a more than a few new friends there myself, did some especially effective one-on-one pastoral care, dragged the church kicking and screaming (and I do mean kicking and screaming, and at times even biting and scratching) through the Welcoming Congregation process, and was at least able to bring out into the open some of the (how should I say?) "less-than-optimal" institutional dynamics that were frustrating to everyone and holding the church back. Our All-Church "Open Space" Visioning Event last February was truly inspiring, and almost tempted me to stick around a little longer. But God was calling me to "a greater field of service," so once again this restless, peripetatic soul packed his library and migrated back to the sea.

And I guess I would have to say that this was my most important learning experience in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES. There is an awful lot of territory between perfection and catastrophic failure. Most leadership takes place somewhere in that ambiguous realm between “Sustaining Success” (and possibly even eventually “taking it to the next level”) and the painfully obvious need for a dramatic “Turnaround.” The [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES] could have been a textbook example of what Harvard Business School professor Michael Watkins calls a “Realignment” situation, where the greatest institutional challenges are not so much finding new technical solutions to glaring technical problems, but rather getting people to see and recognize that there are problems to begin with, and then creating the momentum (and sense of urgency) to build upon existing strengths in order to overcome those shortcomings. It’s about navigating institutional cultural and politics rather than providing professional expertise; or, more precisely, about changing culture by introducing new “external” benchmarks, and getting complacent people to buy in to re-evaluating old standards of success and performance which are now out of touch with evolving external challenges.

Once I’d figured this out, it became my mantra for the last year and a half of my ministry there, although by that point I already had one foot out the door anyway, so I’m not really sure how effective I was. I started out as a cheerleader, but I ended up a scold.... And I never really did get a chance to be the quarterback -- that would have just been too much authority for someone who basically earns less than a schoolteacher. In fact, I couldn't even get them to look at the playbook.

On a more positive personal note, I also arrived in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES]with an undiagnosed health problem (sleep apnea) that one of my parishioners noticed (since her husband suffered from the same issue), and since being effectively treated for that my quality of life and general energy levels have improved dramatically. And I still feel like [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES]was a good place for me to land after completing a very satisfying two-year interim ministry on Nantucket (which was unfortunately accompanied by the end of my 18 year marriage). And it did serve as the springboard for me being called to this pulpit in Portland, about which I could not be more thrilled. I’m sure as time passes and memories fade, the things I will recall most will be the happier times, and not the financial stinginess, the petty bickering, and (of course) the ubiquitous mosquitos. And it really is a very pretty little church. Always looked beautiful on my business card, or at the top of my Annual Christmas letter.

In any case, (and with a tip of the hat to the movie “High Fidelity”), here are the top five things I am going to miss about my ministry in [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES]...

5) Concord. And not just the “historic” Concord of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Old Manse, Little Women and Walden Pond, but the community of Concord...with its restaurants and bookstores, its active adult recreation program, its train connection into Boston, and all the other little cultural amenities which [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], lacks. I’m especially going to miss the Monday/Wednesday Over-35 pick-up basketball games at the Hunt Gym. Those guys were great fun to play with (with one or two exceptions) as those of you who have ever read my Obi-Wannabe-Kobe blog already know.

4) The Neighborhood of Boston. Harvard University. Davis Square. The North End. The Quincy Market and Fanueil Hall. The Boston Athenaeum and the Massachusetts Historical Society. Fenway Park. Beacon Hill and the Back Bay. Not to mention UUA headquarters and all my wonderful colleagues in the Mass Bay, Ballou/Channing, and Clara Barton Districts. Even though I grew up in Seattle and lived for fourteen years in Portland Oregon, Boston still seems like a second home to me. And I suspect this is true for a lot of Unitarian Universalist ministers.

3) The all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at the Bamboo Restaurant in Westford...now also served at their new location in Bedford. Fred Small (the minister in Littleton) introduced me to this place, and I’ve been eating lunch there practically once a week ever since. The Chang An in Concord has a pretty decent buffet too, but it’s nothing compared to the Buffet @ Bamboo, which features not only a fantastic assortment of both appetizers and main dishes, but also fresh Sushi and Ginger Ice Cream for dessert!

2) The Boston Sports Club in Waltham. Where the Celtics work out. One of the great things about this gym is that I was able to join in Lexington at a sharply discounted “clergy” rate, but then was allowed to upgrade to “Passport Premium” and work out at whatever club I liked (including those in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York) for just an additional $5/month. Or something like that. Frankly, it’s been so long I can’t remember. Fantastic facility. Olympic-sized pool, a wide assortment of cardio- and resistence-training equipment, a full-sized basketball court, a sauna, steam room, and Jacuzzi...plus an on-site masseuse. I just wish there were one in here in Portland (where it looks like I will be joining the “Y” instead).

And I guess this is all a little disingenuous, since NONE of the things on my list so far really have ANYTHING to do with [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES per se. But perhaps these these next half-dozen small things together will add up to one big thing worthy of the final spot on the list.

1a) Kimball’s Ice Cream stand. Of course, there is a bigger Kimballs in Westford. And another one right up the road in Bedford which is generally not nearly so busy. But at least I could walk to the one here, and if I was lucky and timed it right I could also sometimes stop and watch a ball game at [NAME REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT AND CONFOUND SEARCH ENGINES], on my way back home.

1b) Dribbling a basketball in the house whenever I wanted at any hour of the day or night without having to worry about disturbing the downstairs neighbors. Who were mostly mice, ants and silverfish anyway. With an occasional rat or roach thrown in.

1c) The Belltower. I know a lot of folks would find it annoying to live next door to a church clock which chimed the hour 24 hours a day. But I generally found it comforting to be routinely reminded of the time, except maybe on those Saturday nights when I was still up late working on my sermon, or perhaps just tossing and turning in bed trying to get to sleep.

1d) Huber Honey. Produced by local bees kept by local beekeeper and longtime choir member Ernie Huber. Available only at the annual Autumn Harvest Fair (and sometimes, if the bees have been especially busy that summer, at the Annual Christmas Greens Sale). It’s the best.

1e) The Annual Strawberry Festival. And OK, if the truth be told, also the Harvest Fair and the Greens Sale. But NOT Old Home Day (except maybe for the traditional firefighters community chicken BBQ)....

1f) ...being able to walk the dog off her leash without ever having to worry about picking up “lawn sausages” with a plastic bag....

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Crucifixion Redux

PB & J — PeaceBang and Jesus. One of my all-time favorites.

My pal Vickie Weinstein (who once made me famous for 15 seconds by giving me a fashion makeover on ABC's "Nightline"), has written a thoughtful reflection on "the way we treat the J-Man in the UU Church", which she's titled "The Meaning of the Cruxificion." I commented over on her blog, and now here's a slightly expanded version of that comment here on my own.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve taken a very simple and pragmatic view of anastasis — the Teacher is Dead, but the Teaching Lives On, and that everything that Jesus ever said or did or stood for still "stands up," and is just as True Now as it was then (or ever more shall be). And back when I was young and fiesty and preaching in West Texas, I often liked to blow away my more evangelical friends by suggesting that I was seeking a Christian Faith which I could still trust and live by not only if Jesus DIDN’T rise from the dead, but even if it could be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had never lived at all.

We live in a culture which, for better or worse, has been profoundly shaped by Christianity as both it and us have evolved together symbiotically over the past two millenia. It's true that nowadays we tend to see ourselves as a pluralistic society (and this "liberal/secular humanism" is itself very much a product of the Christian experience -- or perhaps I should say "the Judeo-Christian heritage"), in which values of dialogue, toleration, and respect for diversity are essential components to our self-understanding (even if they do sometimes bring us into conflict with less "enlightened" faith traditions for whom Zeal still trumps both Reason and Understanding). But unless we are also capable of understanding ourselves and how we came to BE this way, we still run the risk of falling back into the slimey swamp of sectarian self-righteousness out of which our forebearers so boldly crawled.

Our post-modern, post-Christian liberal Protestant "living tradition," which so enthusiastically embraces the Wisdom of ALL the World's "authentic" Faiths, also has a specific history and cultural context. We may like to THINK of ourselves as the most pure and perfect expression of 19th century Transcententalist minister Theodore Parker's "Absolute Religion." But we are really just a blister on the butt of the Body of Christ, where the Armour of God rubbed a little too uncomfortably around Christendom's expanding girth.

I won’t preach the whole sermon here, but if anyone wants to read more about my views (and assuming my html tags are OK), here’s a link to what a retired Methodist minister once told me was the best Easter Sermon he'd ever heard, “Easter, Again?” And a SPOILER ALERT!!! to the good people of First Parish: you're likely to this same message next Spring, when I deliver my first Easter Sermon for you.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

"Congregations Count"

Thought I'd take a break from the Herculean (or is it Sisyphusian?) task of unpacking books here at my new place in Portland Maine to post something I've been carrying around on my hard drive for over a month.

These are some notes and reflections from a workshop offered at General Assembly by Linda Laskowski, who as I recall (having long ago tossed away my GA program) is or was the Membership Coordinator at our church in Berkeley CA.

This was one of the best GA workshops I've attended in a long (and I mean LONG) time, because it brought together several different things I've been interested in almost my entire career and presented them in a very thoughtful and (more importantly) useful package.

So thanks Linda! (although in fairness I really ought to mention that anything here that doesn't quite seem to make sense was probably added by me).

***

Processes are things that happen over and over again. Process Improvement Techniques can be used to evaluate and improve them.

• break down each process into its separate and discrete steps

• measure each step and convert those measurements to a ratio

• track change over time, and

• compare your ratios to external benchmarks in order to measure your performance.

Sometimes just the process of identifying your "key processes" and analyzing their constituent steps will bring noticeable improvement all by itself, since this also encourages simplification, thus helping to make things that are done routinely as “routine” as possible. Simply creating clear and coherent “Standard Operating Procedures” (SOPs) which are transparent and measurable, easy to teach, and consistently repeatable, will often improve performance dramatically.

With respect to the processes related to Outreach and Membership Growth, Linda has essentially defined steps very similar to the ones outlined by Roy Oswald in The Inviting Church. So if you're familiar with that work, this will all make even more sense.


Generating Public Awareness (Oswald's "Attraction") -- Membership Growth teams often want to start with ways to do better publicity in order to create “increased visibility.” But from the perspective of process improvement, this is both a difficult benchmark to measure, and also the trickiest to significantly influence. Based on previous studies, only approximately two-tenths of one per cent of the general population are “aware” of Unitarian Universalism in any significant way beyond the level of a punch-line on “A Prairie Home Companion.” So one should assume low public awareness from the start.

More to the point, campaigns to raise public awareness are generally very expensive and yield only marginal results in comparison to their cost, thus making it at best a step to be taken later rather than sooner, only after you have already improved the portions of the process over which you have more effective control.


First Time Visitors ("Initiation" or "Orientation") -- Make it a priority to greet and welcome ALL visitors warmly, but track the local ones who are also prospective new members. Three most frequent sources of visitors are friends, family, and the internet. How do we know? We ASK right on the visitors card. The use of “check the box” rather than “fill in the blank” (i.e. “how did you hear of us?”) significantly increases the response. Also:

• Greet people AS they arrive...first impressions are formed in the first five minutes, and will generally determine whether or not a visitor will return.

• Ask how they learned about you. Ask what they are interested in.

• Help them create a handmade name badge, and use that time to collect their contact info.

• Send e-mail or post card within the week! (preferably within 48 hours).

Benchmark: growing churches have a 1:1 ratio (or better) of annual first time visitors to actual members (so, “each one bring one” really is true); churches which are NOT growing generally can’t meet that benchmark.


Return Visitors (Oswald's "Exploration") are three times more likely to join the church than one-time visitors. So focus on creating more of them!!! Have a permanent name tag waiting for them, as well as some sort of “coupon.” (coffee with the minister?) Then ask everyone to return their badges to a central location (like a basket) so you can measure attendance that way.

Track attendance for at least six months (Linda had several good ideas for doing this, but mostly it's a matter of paying attention) -- try to measure ratio of repeat visitors to total visitors (i.e. what percentage of first time visitors return within six months).

Also attempt to track the non-returnees. Try using the anonymous “Survey Monkey” for an informal "exit interview"-- What was your experience here? Why did you decide not to return?

Benchmark: growing churches report anywhere from 20-40% of first-time visitors return for a second visit.


Formal Membership (Oswald's "Commitment"): what percentage of visitors actually eventually “sign the book” (& pledge)...

Growing Churches: 15-20%+

Declining Churches: less than 10%


Active Membership (“Going Deeper; Being Sent”) “task, role, group” -- track this carefully! The point is to encourage everyone to do one thing for themselves (i.e. a class, or participation in an on-going Fellowship Circle like a Small Group Ministry Covenant Group) and one thing for the Church/Community (some sort of volunteer or leadership position).

Often these things overlap, but don't ASSUME that they will -- actively encourage people to think of their involvement beyond Sunday Worship in both of these dimensions (which are basically just synonyms for the old-fashioned practices of "Discipleship" and "Vocation" or "Ministry").

Also remember this: NO ONE in their right mind joins a church because they want to give away their money and serve on a committee. They do those things because by doing so they contribute to something larger, more meaningful and more important to them. So make sure that they aren't disappointed!

Benchmark: 65% or more (the higher this number, the less likely they will be part of your “back door”...


Attrition Most churches typically lose between 10-12% of their membership each year. Much of this is unavoidable -- perhaps 5% move away, and another 2-3% die...leaving only about a third of this number (i.e. 3-4%) up for grabs.

***

The nice thing about tracking these numbers is that they not only allow you to measure how well you are doing, they also force you to pay attention to the process itself, and to focus in on the places where you are either doing well or falling short.

But even before you begin to target your efforts this way, here are The Five Best Membership Growth Ideas Ever (i.e. the five more effective things you can do right away to improve newcomer hospitality and increase the likelihood that first time visitors will return and eventually become active members of your congregation).

• Hire a paid, part-time Membership Coordinator. Or (if you must) find someone who has the both time and the inclination to do the work of a paid, part-time membership coordinator without pay.

• Develop a highly visible, easy-to-follow “Pathway to Membership.” Some folks like to stick their toes in the water, while others like to plunge right in. But a well-defined path can accomodate both, and still allow them to move along it at their own most comfortable speed.

• Use Roving Greeters Effectively. You can call them whatever you like -- Hospitlers, Guardian Angels, even “Pineapple People” (as they are known in Berkeley) -- but meaningful, one-to-one personal contact is essential! So assign an adequate number of “roving greeters” for every service, and give THEM the Gold Coffee Mugs! Recruit your greeters from the demographic groups you hope to attract, and make sure they are knowledgeable about the programs that newcomers are likely to be most interested in.

• The Personal Touch. Greet newcomers as they arrive at the front door, make a friendly follow-up contact within 48 hours, and make a point of personally welcoming them again (by name if you can) when they return a second time.

• Website, Website, Website!!! Back in the day, the one piece of publicity a church couldn’t live without was a good Yellow Pages ad. Before that, it was a great sign or a sidewalk readerboard. And before that, it was a tall steeple, and a loud bell. But today it is a great webpage. So don’t ignore your web presence -- it is probably the first thing about your church people are going to see and notice. Make it user-friendly and easy to navigate, fill it with friendly and inviting images (rather than a lot of dense text), and make sure it gives newcomers the kind of information they will want to know (like what time church starts, what to expect during the service, how people dress, etc. etc.). You won’t regret it.