Protected: Mission, Calling, and Livelihood

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Crowd Funding a life of Ministry

In the last few years, what started as an attempt to clean up my Facebook feed for the benefit of my non Unitarian Universalist friends has become a personal ministry that reaches thousands of people a week. My desire to live up to the support I was getting has lead me to learn the basics of graphic design and to deepen my own faith and connection to liberal religion. Now, each week, the things I write, design, and research are shared by dozens of individuals and congregations to be seen by their communities and shape the way people think about Unitarian Universalism.

It is a job that I never dreamed I could have, and I am honored to have the kind of community that has built up around this work.

That being said, when you start something like this as a personal project, you do it for free. When you follow it and let it grow organically based on personal effort, you end up with a full-time job that doesn’t pay anything at all. I put a lot of work into original content, and part of what makes this project so valuable is that the content is freely available to the people who need it the most: excited individuals and small congregations that need to make an impact in their communities. I am proud of having done so much to help share Unitarian Universalism with the world, and more so to know that there have been a few people who learned about us through my work and chose to start visiting their local congregation or the CLF (to which I owe so much!). I am proud, but I am also human, and I have needs that cannot be met with spiritual growth.

So, I am working on building a crowd-funding campaign to fund my life, so much of which I have given over to this work. I am hoping that Unitarian Universalism will express the value of my work in dollars, which I can turn into food, shelter, and opportunities for further education and development. I am inviting people to let me know what they think of the goals I have worked out, and will follow the progress here on my blog.

I appreciate you taking the time to read this, and I look forward to reading your thoughts.
Thomas

Everyone else is doing it: Logo edition

This is a short post with my fairly unrefined thoughts on the new UA Logo.

Firstly, it is the corporate logo of the national organization. I like it less than the current logo, which I like less than the previous one. It feels like we are visually moving further from the Universalists, which is where our core message is these days. I do appreciate that it looks less… forced than the last logo, which seemed like someone was told to take the Flaming Chalice and Circles and make it look “clean”. It wasn’t at all inspiring to me. This one isn’t either, but it at least looks like this was designed from the start to look like a logo, rather than taking the existing image and making it look corporate. It isn’t moving, but it is eye-catching.

I wish it looked more like a chalice (I see a torch) and the circle was our nod to the Universalists old image, and I will miss it. I do like the font, and I like it in red, though I am not sure how I feel about the fading color gradient. It was pointed out, and I cannot now ignore, that it looks rather like a tongue.

There has been much made that this is just the first release in a wave of new outreach. We are targeting the millennial generation and those who have never been part of a religion before, to tell them how we are different. That is a good thing. They need to be told, and I’ve devoted a LOT of my time over the last few years to trying to get the word out. I am eager to see what else they have planned. I hope it is more inspiring than this image is.

Finally, though, I worry about the text. Not the font, but the actual words. It says “Unitarian Universalist Association” down at the bottom. That, to me, misses the mark in one very real way, and one that is complete fantasy. First, the organization that this new image represents is the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. That last part matters. The UUA is not the leading end of Unitarian Universalism. Our religion starts in the hearts of the individual, is shaped in the congregations, is mobilized by the covenant between the congregations, and the UUA is there to moderate that covenant. Without those two final words, we miss the chance to tell people that their involvement at the congregational level is the driving force behind Unitarian Universalism. We miss the chance to make it clear that our congregations each have their own way of doing worship, and just because you didn’t like one 5 years ago shouldn’t stop you from visiting another, or even the same one again, because they are each empowered to find their own tone and tempo, and to change it as needed.

The other thing that I wish they had spent energy and money on, which they have no real power to do (as outlined in the last thought) is to look at the real hurdle we face in communicating who we are. The real albatross is that name; those two long, technical sounding, non-descriptive words. What does “Unitarian Universalist” mean to us at this point? We need to either take the time to define that term, or to come up with a new name that can mean something to the movement we’ve become. It may take some time before we can find words that fit well enough to please people, but maybe that would have been a better use of resources if our goal is being approachable and inviting.

Is Unitarian Universalism a Transformative Faith?

Hello to my few faithful readers. I am honestly sorry that I have not been publishing much here lately, but I have honestly been doing a lot of writing. I am taking 2 on-line classes and I just helped to launch a new website for the I Am UU Project for Unitarian Universalist evangelism and outreach. I’ve been reading, writing, and designing images for the I Am UU Facebook page, which has really taken off in the last 6 months. I’ve got a few other things up in the air, and while I am very excited about them, I am not ready to talk openly about them all just yet.

I was inspired to write this week because Tandi Rogers of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Office of Growth Strategies30 days what faith changed her profile picture, a few days ago now, in celebration of the 30 Days of Love, an annual event from the good folks at the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. Now, we are on day 15, and this was posted by the folks at the SotSoL Facebook page for day 6. It is god to know that I am not the only person who is falling behind on the 30 Days of Love. I did see it before, but I was busy with my own projects, and I didn’t let myself think much about it, I guess, because when I saw it this morning, I knew I had to answer it.

I had to answer it because over the last few years, my faith has transformed me, my life, and the lives of the people around me.

Back in 2008, my life fell apart. I won’t go into the real details, but I was homeless, unemployed, recently divorced after a long separation, and had come to the realization that the friendships of my early 20s were not supporting me in my early 30s. I moved away from those friends and my now exwife and our children, not so very far, but 40 miles is a long way to go when you don’t have a car. I moved in with my ailing mother to take over for my younger sister, who was not managing Mom’s finances and affairs well. I showed up at their door with more food than they had in the house at the time.

I knew I needed a lot of change. I needed a new social life. I needed some direction. I needed change. I had been involved with a Unitarian Universalist church back in college, and while I had stopped attending, I still remembered the joy I had felt in learning about their Principles and mission. I reached out to the UU church in town, and everything changed.

I was contacted quickly by a member who was part of the web-team. While I never did get onto the web-team, her friendship was vital to getting my life back and getting involved with the rest of the church.

I volunteered for everything that I could get a ride to. I let my participation in church make up for the lack of direction in the rest of my life. I knew I was helping make good things happen in my community, both the congregation, and the greater community that we serve. People were being fed, houses built, and we marched for equality. I wasn’t feeding, and I wasn’t building, but I was supporting the organization that made sure those things got done. It started me on my way out of a funk I had fallen into.

After about 2 years of being active, I decided that I was going to take my skills in technology and communications that I couldn’t find a market for, and I used them to reach out to other Unitarian Universalists. I started a Twitter account devoted to sharing positive stories of Unitarian Universalists and the work they were doing to promote our Principles in the world. I connected to other UUs on social media, and they helped me expand my understanding of what the Principles really mean in practice. My understanding of my own privilege became more clear, and I was able to be a better ally for those who had different needs because of their culture, language, their physical limitations, and even their gender (or lack there of).

I also came to terms with many of the negative associations I had for the religion of my childhood. I now feel that I have an even better understanding of the wisdom of the Bible, and the teachings of Jesus and his followers. Understanding that the Bible wasn’t a single book, and that it was ok that there were parts written by different people who didn’t have the same message or story to tell. Each story could share something important on its own; they didn’t have to agree.

I learned to give simply because I had something to give. I didn’t have money, so I gave time. People appreciated that, and it made it easier to give. I realized that even when most people didn’t notice that I had done a thing, they appreciated that it had been done, and I could be proud of making things seem so smooth for everyone else.

My faith has transformed me to be a better person. I firmly believe that. It has made me more accepting. It has made me more patient. It has helped me learn to let go of my frustrations, and to see that all of us humans are just trying to get by, trying to cope with our own desire to be vital in a universe where we are so small. I make my vitality by trying to live up to my faith.

Missional Unitarian Universalism: a layman’s persective.

At the turn of the 19th century, Universalism had a vibrant and passionate voice in Hosea Ballou. Having converted to Universalism in 1789, he also came to reject the concept of the Holy Trinity, making him a Unitarian Universalist long before the consolidation of the UUA. He wrote many sermons designed to empower Universalists to talk about the unconditional love of God. He also established Universalist publications, and was known to welcome public questions of his beliefs.

One of the constant questions he faced was along the lines of “How can you believe God saves everyone, no matter how much they have sinned. Ballou confronted the idea of damnation, saying that love required salvation at all costs. He asked, given the Christian assumption of a fatherly creator:

“Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? or, Did you wash it because you loved it?”

He did not make these declarations to shame people. He was not trying to lure them to his pews for prestige or tithes. He wanted people to feel loved. His desire was to save people; not from damnation at the hand of God, but from the condemnation of the society they lived in. He argued against Calvinism and the idea that bad things happen only to bad people, and good things only to good. He had more than faith, and more than a message. This was a man with a mission.

This is what Unitarian Universalism needs; not more “social action” or “welcoming” language. We need a mission to actually change the world, with our faith in humanity and the power of love and knowledge, as the core of that mission. We don’t need more people to join us because of how we do politics; we need people to feel compelled to activism by our message that people deserve to be treated with respect and empowered to live lives that make them happy.

To reframe the question posed by Rev. Ballou: Do we embrace our faith because it promotes things we want to do, or are we doing things to help the world because we have a loving and humanist faith? Do we love the world because we are making it better, or are we making it better because we first loved it?

There are people in the world who are lonely, who have been hurt, and who are angry. They don’t want to talk about religion, and they definitely don’t want to hear about divinity and love. They are the people who need us the most. We can reach them, because our divine love doesn’t come after you are dead. Our religion doesn’t even require that you believe in gods, much less worship them. We can offer them a community and a home for their spirit to heal, so that they can find the path that makes them happy and healthy again. We have that, and we shouldn’t be at all afraid to tell people about it. They may say no, but that isn’t a reflection on us, and it isn’t an insult. The insult is presuming that they don’t want the invitation or might not deserve one.

There are people in the world who have been oppressed. Our movement is overwhelmingly made up of people who are white, educated, and middle-class. As a group, we have a lot of privilege. As a religion of love and justice, we owe it to the world to use our individual privilege to work for equality and justice. In effect, our mission should be to leverage our political, economic, and intellectual power to reduce our own impact, much as Jesus said to his followers to give all their goods to the poor in order to follow him. If the poor are elevated, then poverty is eliminated; if cultural privilege is shared, then oppression can be eliminated. Both are essential to achieving social justice and giving everyone an opportunity to contribute their best back to society.

We need to love the world enough to want to change it. Too many Unitarian Universalists seem to come from the other end; operating from a place of dissatisfaction or even disgust and a desire to change things so they are tolerable. We need to care about more than what we can personally stand to allow. We need to make sure the mission is about making things as positive as we can for as many people as we can help. We need to make sure that we are building an all-inclusive community, that makes room for everyone who truly desires to join in our spiritual and social work.

I’ve previously argued that our creator must love us all, and must either have one final destination planned for all of us, or be a being unworthy of my personal reverence. Now I am making the point that our churches must do the same. We have to actively embody that belief, encoded in our Principles, that all people have an inherent worth and dignity that needs to be nourished, and deserve the chance to build a life that makes them happy so long as it doesn’t harm others. It needs to be rooted in our shared belief and a desire to build a better world. We also have to tell people about that mission, because there are people who want to help us, and we need them. There are others who just need the hope that they might have a place in the community; that we are working to have their dignity recognized and respected.

That is missional Unitarian Universalism, to me, and it leads me to be evangelical about our faith. Even those who have no desire, even those who truly have no need, for a religious community do need to know that we are different, and that religion can be a force that helps unite society and undo the idea that God has picked winners and losers and that the oppressed don’t deserve better from their society.

Human Relations, Spiritual Growth, and Beloved Community

Unitarian Universalism is about relationships. At their core, all religions are. They tell us how to react to the universe, to the divine, and (possibly most importantly) to each other. Many outline proper relationships to animals or to plants, both how to raise them and how, when or if we should eat them. Unitarian Universalism isn’t so much different in scope, though we don’t the same level of detail about any of it that some other religions provide. We have ideals, and it is up to each person to live up to them the best they can in their own way. We focus almost exclusively on positive outcomes.

We don’t feel that almost every person is born with some sense of community. We have an inherent sense of self worth and dignity, and we are driven by a need to have that recognized by others. We feel that when we honor that worth and dignity, we give a person the freedom to be who they really are, and we encourage them through positive relationships and encouragement.We try to lead them to understanding, though no one can hand spiritual growth over to another; it must be sought and earned individually.

In much the same way, no one can tell you what your relationships ought to mean to you, or how to create or maintain them. You have to choose the people who support you. You have to build the life that makes you happy. You are responsible for your love, your fear, your anger, and your sense of responsibility. There is no better judge of who and what is important to you, and you have to form personal relationships with each person in your life, and no one else can dictate who they are with, what they are, or how they make you feel.

Your relationship with each person is different than the relationship that person has with anyone else. You parents don’t have the same relationship with you that they have with anyone else. Neither does your significant other or your boss. You are such an essential part of each of your relationships that you make them each personal for the other person, or you choose not to.

The same principle holds true for your relationship with the congregation as a whole, or the grater community. You have the right to share your time and talents in a way that is fulfilling to you. You also have the right to withhold your contributions if you don’t feel that they are appreciated or if you just would rather not do the same thing for the church that you do for a paycheck. It is up to the congregation and the community to value you. They have a responsibility to communicate their needs and to give you positive feedback and respect. You have the responsibility to stand up for yourself when they ask too much. No one else can know your limits as well as you, and you can reasonably expect to have them honored if they are clearly communicated. That give and take is what makes a good community work in the long run.

Your relationship with the divine is also personal, and no one can feel the pull on your heart and mind. You know what name feels right on your tongue and what rituals calm or excite you. We can help you explore the possibilities, but you have to know God on your own terms. Just as your relationship with each member of your family and community reflects your contribution to that relationship, the divine relationship is tailored to your gifts and your perspective. No one can tell you how to feel about the rest of creation or our mutual source.

The Unitarian Universalist congregation has pledged to encourage your spiritual growth, and to aid you in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning in your life and in the world. We want to be good for you. You deserve to have your worth and dignity acknowledged and nurtured. We are a better community when you are a healthy part of our community, and that can only happen if there is honest communication about your needs as well as what is needed of you.

There are oh, so many, who say that the 7 Principles of Unitarian Universalism are only a covenant between congregations, and need not mean anything to individuals. I strongly disagree; we need to understand that some of them are clearly promises congregations make to members, and thus that members make to each other. A congregation is, after all, only a group of people who share a covenant with one another. If we do not believe that those Principles have value in our lives, to help us create healthy and enriching relationships, then what purpose do they serve? If they are simply a promise from one non-profit corporation to other corporations, then doesn’t that reduce our churches to mere office buildings?

Unitarian Universalism is a religion, or it is nothing at all. If it is a religion, then it must advise us in our relationships. It must direct us to create relationships that improve our communities. It must inspire us to reach out to one another, in times of trouble and triumph, and support one another in our quest for truth and meaning through encouragement to spiritual growth. Our heaven is a community, here on Earth, where there is justice, equity, compassion, and peace; a beloved community that includes every person and values every living thing.

The Principles of UU Evangelism

When was the last time you said to someone, “I had lunch at the best Italian place today”? Have you ever said to someone, “There is a farmers market every Thursday over off the highway, if you want better, local produce”? I can’t be the only person who has tried to convince people to visit at a small, locally owned business instead of a box store or chain restaurant. Have you ever let someone know that there is a local charity that needs the kind of items they might have otherwise set out on the curb? Have you ever talked to someone about an issue that they seemed misinformed about?

Evangelism isn’t foreign to many UUs. We just don’t apply it to our religion, which is a shame, because we are often driven to tell people about things that are exciting to us because they promote our Principles.

Part of the difference is that we have let Evangelism be owned by fundamentalists. People tell me that the definition of the word is to talk to people about Jesus and the Gospels of the Bible, and that it has no relation to Unitarian Universalism. Do we really believe that we have no place for Jesus in our religion? That would be a painful thing to hear for our great theological fore bearers, of whom we are so proud. When did we stop teaching “love your neighbor”? What would Unitarian Universalism be without non violent protests, where we “Turn the other cheek”?  Our Biblical message is part of our larger religious message; is it not as worthy of being shared as any other?

Some people have said that it goes against something fundamental in our Principles or beliefs to be excited and talk to people about why being a Unitarian Universalist matters in our lives. I would like to counter that, by saying that, just as we pray differently, worship differently, and fellowship differently from most Christian churches, we can evangelize in a way that still honors our Principles. Just as we haven’t, as a movement, given up those other words (nor should we), we shouldn’t give up the idea that we have a great message to share through personal evangelism.

We affirm and promote the idea that we honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Doesn’t that mean that we should be telling people that our church accepts who they are? Shouldn’t we make sure that they know where to find a community that will make room for them, as they are, and let them grow into the person they were born to be? Valuing their worth and dignity means wanting them to know that we offer something different in a church. It means telling them that, if they need it, it is there for them. Inviting people, warmly and sincerely, to join us honors their worth. Letting them choose for themselves honors their dignity. Shouldn’t we make sure they are aware of Unitarian Universalism as an option?

Unitarian Universalist congregations also covenant to “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”. How can we grow if we are never challenged? How can we grow if we allow our churches to stagnate and age without seeking out new members? Our mission requires fresh ideas and new talents every year, to tackle fresh obstacles and meet changing needs. Our growth requires that we hear other perspectives and that we consider new information. Our mission requires that we engage people in conversation, and that we seek out people who hold different ideas than those already represented in our congregations.

The most likely sticking point, I think may be in our commitment to “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. As I said last week, “I believe that we can’t convert people to Unitarian Universalism; you have to come to it already knowing that it is right for you.” I also believe, though, that we can plant the seeds by talking about our Principles, and I am proof that those ideas will stick with some people, and they can come to accept them, even if it wasn’t their first reaction. I have never advocated for beating people with copies of “On the Origin of Species” or “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith“. It wouldn’t do any good. Instead, let us lead good lives, do good in our communities, and make sure people know that we are expressing our faith and living out our Principles. We can tell people about how our congregations are families that accept and embrace our uniqueness. It isn’t about conversion or convincing people of anything other than that our church helps us be better people, and that we have a place in it for them, too.

It isn’t against our Principles to talk to people, to educate them and try to influence their decisions. Our Principles actually call on us to try to change our communities for the better. It cannot run contrary to those saving, loving, accepting ideas to share them with others, to widen and strengthen our beloved community. We cannot proselytize in the manner of fundamentalist. Ours is not a faith that comes with answers, and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. We can talk people through that, if they are willing to listen, but only if we are wiling to share. There are people you encounter every week who need to know that they can be loved for who they are. We need to extend an invitation to join in our work, because our beloved community is incomplete without them.

Evangelism isn’t in opposition to Unitarian Universalist Principles. It is required by them. As with so many other religious terms, we just need to come to our own understanding of what it means to evangelize. We can do it in a way that respects the personal quest for truth, while still proclaiming the worth and value of each person we encounter. If we have something great to share, how can we claim to better the world while keeping it to ourselves?