Are You an Isolated UU? Here Are Five Things That Can Help You Stay Connected

Maybe two or three times a year I get a call from an isolated Unitarian Universalist interested in starting a congregation in their area. Sounds like a good idea, right? There’s bound to be at least a few other people nearby who would benefit from a UU community.churchblueprint1-jpg_1_20160329-633

Thing is, given the changes in the religious landscape of the United States, being part of a church (or congregation or fellowship) is not a high priority for more and more people. As UUA Outreach Director Carey McDonald says,

We can’t assume people are already looking for a church on Sunday mornings, because in fact we’re competing for their time and attention against sleeping in, talking a walk, soccer practice, Facebook and brunch.

Even if our Association had loads of experience with starting new congregations (and we don’t), 2017 isn’t really the best time to be trying to do so. Which still leaves us with the presenting issue of “What’s an isolated Unitarian Universalist to do?”

Get Some Idea About What You Really Want

The first thing an isolated UU should do is get a little clarity about what they want when their say they’re interested in starting a congregation. People come to church for a lot of different reasons. My guess is that most people who ask about starting a congregation have maybe two or three main reasons in mind.

One of my favorite ways for looking at the needs religious community might fulfill is from John Ortberg, senior pastor of Menlo Church. Ortberg identified these seven spiritual pathways that people might follow:

  1. Intellectual Pathway
  2. Relational Pathway
  3. Serving Pathway
  4. Worship Pathway
  5. Activist Pathway
  6. Contemplative Pathway
  7. Creation Pathway

Some people come to church in need of intellectual stimulation, for others it’s the relational opportunities.

Serving others is another reason a person might want to participate in religious community, while many people come for the worship experience.

Some are looking for ways to be involved with social justice, some are seeking a spiritual home where they can contemplate life’s big questions, and some want opportunities to share their environmental concerns because their spirits are nourished by spending time in nature.

So my first question for an isolated UU yearning for a nearby congregation is, “What need would you like to have fulfilled?”

Depending on the answer, one of these five strategies might help you get your needs met.

Get in Touch with the UU Congregations Closest to You

If your needs don’t necessarily include attending a worship service every Sunday morning, then you can still benefit from being part of the UU congregation nearest you, even if it’s an hour or two away.

Odds are that there are members of that congregation who may be living close by, maybe half an hour or an hour away. Talk to the congregational leadership and see if there might be the possibility of offering some activities in your area.

Not worship, necessarily, but maybe a small group, or a book club, or a circle supper. If your needs are primarily relational or intellectual, being able to occasionally gather with a group of people from the closest congregation could go a long way toward making you feel less isolated.

To find the nearest congregation to you, visit http://www.uua.org/directory/congregations, enter your location, and see what comes up.

A Unitarian Universalist Congregation Without Walls

If the closest congregation is still too far away, consider joining the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a Unitarian Universalist congregation without walls. As they say on their website,

Wherever you are in the world, wherever your truth takes you on your spiritual journey, the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) is there to keep you connected with Unitarian Universalism (UU). Our 3,500 members, with their children, live all over the world. What brings us together is the desire to connect, seek, share and grow within Unitarian Universalism.

The Church of the Larger Fellowship could be especially helpful for you if your spiritual interests are centered around worship and relationships. You can worship with other members online live Sunday evenings or Monday afternoons.

CLF also offers online small groups, so if you feel the need to spend time with other UUs on a regular basis, this could be the format for you.

For more information about the Church of the Larger Fellowship, visit https://questformeaning.org/clfuu/.

Make Friends with the Friends…

Or the Congregationalists…or the Disciples…or another group that shares many of our values. While Quaker, United Church of Christ, or Disciples of Christ communities come in a wide variety of theological orientations, some are quite liberal (as are some of the other Mainline Protestant denominations).

Maybe there’s a non-UU congregation near you that could fulfill some of the same needs a UU congregation could, for relationships, intellectual stimulation, or social justice. Ask around and see if one of your friends or neighbors might be attending a congregation that you’d be comfortable in.

And remember, if your main needs don’t include worship, then you could still attend a variety of activities, from potlucks to lectures. To find a Quaker meeting near you, visit http://www.quaker.org/meetings.html; for a UCC congregation, try http://www.ucc.org/about-us_conference; and for a Disciples of Christ church, see http://disciples.org/regional-ministries/.

Use Meet Up

Some UUs have found some luck using meetup.com to get small groups together. Maybe there’s already one near you. Just go to https://www.meetup.com/, enter your location and the kind of group you’re interested in. Start with “Unitarian Universalist.”

If no UU groups show up, try entering “Welcoming and Affirming Spiritual Community.” You might be surprised by what you find!

If you can’t quite find what you need, consider starting your own group. And remember, people aren’t necessarily looking for religion or church these days, but they might have some of the same interests you identified from Ortberg’s seven spiritual pathways.

Think about starting a book club, or a hiking group, or a meditation circle. You might even find some like-minded people who would be willing to explore forming a group that might meet even more of your UU needs. Like a…

Covenanting Community

Once upon a time, there was only one way for a group of people to be part of the Unitarian Universalist Association—become a full-fledged congregation. But as I mentioned earlier, fewer and fewer people are looking for that kind of church these days.

As we’ve seen, however, folks are still gathering together for a variety of other reasons. Maybe you can identify just a few other people who’d like to meet regularly as Unitarian Universalists, but you doubt you’ll ever see the kind of numbers that would qualify as a congregation.

In that case, the Covenanting Community status might be right for you. This program is just coming out of the “pilot” phase and is currently being revamped. But very soon we’ll be able to give you full details on what it means to be a Covenanting Community with the UUA.

For more information on the current Covenanting Communities program, visit http://www.uua.org/association/emerging/covenanting-communities. And if you’d like to know what the future of Covenanting Communities might look like, feel free to email me at plund@uua.org for more information.

Now That Love Is Reaching Out, The Question Is “To Whom?”

I’ve been going a little overboard with this “Love Reaches Out” thing. By “thing,” I mean the workshops that UUA Outreach Director Carey McDonald has developed. And by “overboard,” I mean asking at the end of almost every conversation I have with a congregational leader, “Would you be interested in a ‘Love Reaches Out’ workshop?”

lroActually, we’re all pretty excited about these workshops here in the MidAmerica Region. They’re a great way to engage congregations large and small in the process of “discovering who they are, what they do, and why it matters.” And we get to share the UUA’s cool branding resources, too.

If you’re not acquainted with these workshops, here’s what they’re about. Carey’s put together three ninety-minute workshops designed to help participants wrap their hearts and minds around these goals:

  1. Understand how the American religious landscape is changing and how UU congregations can respond to that reality,
  2. Examine who we are as Unitarian Universalists, both in our congregations and as a faith movement, and whether we are effectively communicating this to the wider world, and
  3. Develop a plan for getting started with your congregation or group reaching out into the community while staying grounded in your core identity or mission.

Friends, I’m here to tell you that these workshops deliver. Every time I’ve offered a full day of these workshops, participants leave with a lot of energy, a fistful of good ideas, and a renewed sense of how our faith can bring more love, justice, and peace to their communities and the world.

Truth is, these workshops couldn’t be more timely. Carey created them over a year ago, but in many ways, it’s like they were designed specifically as a response to the presidential election. Why? Because one of the final exercises in the last workshop asks participants this question: What are things about your community that truly break your heart?

I think we can all agree that there’s a lot of heartbreak in our communities already as a result of the election, and unfortunately, there’s the potential for even more. So when participants get to this exercise at the end of the day, the lists they’re making are pretty long.

So at this point in the workshop, I like to have people think about what Jim Wallis, president and founder of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners, calls the Matthew 25 Test. Wallis asks,

How do we decide where and how to focus our ministry, energy, staff, time, and gifts? How do we be good stewards of our calling? I think that Matthew 25:31-46 provides the answer. The key moment in the passage is when Jesus says:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me … Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Speaking in Washington, D.C., last month with a group of clergy and families protesting against Trump’s cabinet appointments, Wallis said that this “test” has become a “simple pledge”: I will protect and defend vulnerable people.

I will protect and defend vulnerable people.

Say it with me: “I will protect and defend vulnerable people.”

When the leaders of any of our congregations—large or small, urban or rural—look beyond their sanctuary walls and ask “To whom should love reach out?” I believe the the answer should be, first and foremost, to the vulnerable people in our communities.

No matter where a congregation is located, there are undoubtedly countless vulnerable people to protect and defend, to reach out to in love: black, brown, native, Muslim, immigrant, LGBTQ, folks with records, folks with disabilities, and poor communities.

That list is from Opal Tometi, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. She says, these are the people we should show up for in the wake of the election, and I couldn’t agree more.

Now, more than ever, we need each and every one of our congregations and communities reaching out in love to protect and defend vulnerable people.

What Are You Seeking?

One of the things I love about reading books on spiritual direction is that I always—always—learn something new. Take this excerpt from Rabbi Howard A. Addison’s Show Me Your Way: The Complete Guide to Exploring Interfaith Spiritual Direction for example:

  • If you are interested in learning about the beliefs, observances, and texts of a religion because you want to know more or seek to more fully identify with that faith community, you are seeking religious education or formation.
  • If you want to relieve your anxieties and learn how to understand and deal with their causes, you are seeking psychotherapy.
  • If you want insight into how the wisdom of religious tradition might help you understand and respond to your problems, you are seeking pastoral counseling.
  • If you wish to deepen your relationship with God so that you can recognize how God’s spirit might be calling you and moving in your life, you are seeking spiritual guidance.

While I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out the difference between spiritual direction and pastoral counseling, I haven’t been able to come up with something this succinct.inwardsprings-1

And even though I consider myself a religious educator, I’ve never really bothered to think about where, exactly, religious education or formation fits into the scheme of things.

As always, my Unitarian Universalist friends, feel free to replace “God” with language that’s consistent with our religious tradition. My go-to phrase is “transcending mystery and wonder.”

So I’d change the last bullet point to

If you wish to deepen your relationship with the transcending mystery and wonder so you can recognize how the spirit is moving in your life, you are seeking spiritual guidance.

And speaking of spiritual guidance, I’m current accepting a limited number of directee’s (not thrilled with that word, by the way) in my spiritual direction practice. You can find out more at inwardsprings.com.

What’s Your Congregation’s #100DayCounterAgenda?

A week or so a go I wrote about a post by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, called “Now Is Liberal Religion’s Moment.” In it, Yoffie suggest that liberal religious communities need to “strengthen the ritual and liturgical elements of your congregation’s religious life” in response to the coming administration.

A week later I read another post that is a perfect illustration of what that might look like: “Joining the resistance: A 100-day counter-agenda for the Church,” by Cody Sanders, pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Harvard Square and American Baptist chaplain at Harvard.

Sanders asks,

How might our congregations seize this window of time as an opportunity to develop a prophetic vision that ruptures the taken for granted status quo of the world-as-it-is with a compelling vision of the world-as-it-ought-to-be?

100daycounteragendasslHis response? Use “the first 100 days of the Trump presidency” as a “time to develop our own ‘100-day counter-agenda’ in our congregations.” These 100 days encompass “most of the season of Epiphany, all of Lent, Easter Sunday and the following two Sundays of the Easter season. That’s 15 Sundays during which our worship and work can explicitly witness to another way.”

In his congregation, “this 100-day counter-agenda is beginning to take shape around the themes of sanctuary (Epiphany), reparations (Lent) and resurrection-as-resistance (Easter).”

Note that while Sanders is using the standard liturgical calendar for Christians, he’s also added themes. What would it look like if Unitarian Universalist congregations using theme-based ministry took these same 100 days to offer “a compelling vision of the world-as-it-ought-to-be” through “liturgy, hymns, holidays, and festivals” built on those themes?

I checked out some of the theme-ministry resources I’m aware of and found some intriguing possibilities. The Soul Matters Sharing Circle, for example, is exploring the following themes during the same period: Prophecy, Identity, Risk, and Transformation. A lot can be said about our vision of the world-as-it-ought-to-be using with them.

Unity Church-Unitarian in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is covering these themes in January, February, March, and April of next year: Resistance, Prayer, Sin, and Redemption. And the themes at All Soul’s Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, are Creation, Freedom, Religious Authority, and Redemption. The Church of the Larger Fellowship has its themes for the first quarter of next year ready as well: Change, Embodiment, Covenant, and Creativity.

I could see any and all of these themes acting as starting points to “prophetically worship and work in the space between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-it-ought-to-be.” If your congregation is already using themes, consider how they might work as a #100DayCounterAgenda to the new administration.

And if you’ve never used themes, consider this: there are 15 Sundays during these 100 days. What would it be like to take three of these themes and do 5 Sundays on each one? Resistance, Risk, Embodiment. Prophecy, Prayer, Creativity. Identity, Covenant, and Transformation.

I’d love to hear your ideas about what this might look like! So please share in the comments or on social media using the hashtag #100DayCounterAgenda.

4 Essential Posts for Religious Progressives, Part Four

So to recap. Post one suggests that the first thing progressive congregations need to do in response to the results of this election is to fortify the faith of their congregants by ritually and liturgically reinforcing the most progressive and compassionate aspects of their tradition.

In post two I say that along with fortifying the faithful, progressive religious communities need to make some very specific commitments, commitments that lift up a progressive vision for the world: striving for social justice, embracing different beliefs, extending warmth and welcome to everyone, showing up for civil rights, LGBTQ equality, immigration reform, environmental sustainability, reproductive justice, racial justice, and more.

The third post offered some suggestions on how a progressive people of faith can respond as individuals: defend an institution, stand out, be courageous, speak the language of faith, etc.

For this last post, I’d like to cover what may be one of the most difficult things for religious progressives to do: have a care-frontational conversation with a neighbor, family member, fellow congregant, or stranger who voted for Trump.

I was just about to get started writing this when I found John Gehring’s An open letter to white Christians who voted for Donald Trump. Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, closes his letter with these words:

Even as I speak up for what I believe in and what I think this country stands for I’m also going to try and lower my voice. I’m going to listen to you. We should meet. The words between us will not be easy. Let’s keep faith and stumble ahead together through the fog.

“I’m going to listen to you.” That’s the last of the 10 commitments Jim Wallis makes to the readers of Sojourners, too. “We will listen to you,” he says, “and we can all listen to each other if we desire healing—and we all should.”

But as Gehring says, it “will not be easy.” So how do we begin to do this?

Thanks to Jacqui Lewis, Senior Minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York, for giving us a place to start. Her blog post “Tools for Table Talk” offers four simple questions to get those conversations going.

  1. static1-squarespaceWhy did you vote the way you voted?
  2. What were you hoping your vote would accomplish?
  3. How are you feeling right now?
  4. Is there anything we can do together?

Lewis closes her post with these words: “And then listen. Really listen.”

Amen to that.

4 Essential Posts for Religious Progressives, Part Three

[This is the third of four posts on the topic. You can find the first two posts here and here.]

lawn-sign-of-loveBack in the 80s my go to source for all things left was In These Times, which Wikipedia describes as “an American politically progressive/democratic socialist monthly magazine of news and opinion.” I really hadn’t thought much about it recently (like the last 25 years or so), but my appreciation for it has been renewed by Timothy Snyder’s article, “20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America.”

Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, originally published his 20 Lessons on his Facebook page. It’s proved to be so popular that In These Times republished it. And I’m glad they did. Snyder begins with these words:

Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are 20 lessons from across the fearful 20th century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

And while these 20 lessons are written from a secular perspective, I think that many (most?) of them speak directly to people of progressive faith. Here’s a quick rundown:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend an institution.
  3. Recall professional ethics.
  4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words.
  5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  6. Be kind to our language.
  7. Stand out.
  8. Believe in truth.
  9. Investigate.
  10. Practice corporeal politics.
  11. Make eye contact and small talk.
  12. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  13. Hinder the one-party state.
  14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can.
  15. Establish a private life.
  16. Learn from others in other countries.
  17. Watch out for the paramilitaries.
  18. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  19. Be as courageous as you can.
  20. Be a patriot.

Let me first point out that much of what Snyder says here reminds me of the work of James Luther Adams, arguably the most important Unitarian Universalist theologian of the 20th century. Take a look at Snyder’s lessons, then check out Chris Walton’s excellent review of Kim Beach’s Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams.

So let’s take a look at the lessons I think most directly speak to religious progressives.

Defend an Institution. Snyder pulls no punches when he says, “Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.” Now is the time for us to defend the institutions of liberal religion. Go to church. Increase your pledge. Tell your friends. If we don’t do it now, our beloved tradition may not be there when the world needs it most. (See my first post in this series for what religious institutions can offer to be worthy of supporting.)

Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. Think equanimity here, “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” People of faith need to be the least anxious presence in society when terror strikes.

Be kind to our language. Snyder says, “Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying.” This is even more true with the language of faith. Use it thoughtfully, authentically, compassionately. (See the second post in this series for some examples.)

Stand out. “Someone has to,” says Snyder. Our friends, neighbors, fellow citizens need to see and hear people of progressive faith answering the call of love.

Believe in truth. And help others believe. It’s the free and responsible thing to do.

Practice corporeal politics. “Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.” Again, it’s what we do. Show up!

Make eye contact and small talk. “It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust.” It’s also how people know they can trust you. And there are a lot of anxious people out there wondering who they can trust.

Take responsibility for the face of the world. The signs of hate are already appearing (see White Nationalist posters appear at Purdue). “Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.” And replace them with signs of love. (Here’s another one: www.hnpca.org.)

Give regularly to good causes, if you can. This is in addition to supporting your congregation and denomination. “Pick a charity and set up autopay,” says Snyder. I say volunteer your time, too, especially in those unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Don’t forget the eye contact and small talk!

Be as courageous as you can. It takes courage to give courage. Bravery is contagious. I love the language the UUA is using to describe us these days: “We are brave, curious and compassionate thinkers and doers.” Emphasis on brave.

Snyder also encourages us to “Establish a private life.” He’s talking mainly about privacy here. “Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.” I would also suggest we double/triple/quadruple down on our interior lives.

Cherish your interior life, is how I’d put it. Make regular spiritual practice part of your daily life. I love John Ortberg’s definition of spiritual discipline: “A spiritual discipline is simply an activity you engage in to be made more fully alive by the Spirit of life.” It reminds me to take Howard Thurman seriously: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Next up, Care-frontational Conversations.

4 Essential Posts for Religious Progressives, Part Two

In yesterday’s post I quoted Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, who wrote in The Huffington Post that for “liberal religion in America, this [the election of Trump] is our moment.” I also shared Yoffie’s belief that religious leaders need to “strengthen the ritual and liturgical elements of [their] congregation’s religious life.”

we-are-uusI think this is especially important in light of what Jim Wallis says in his article “10 Commitments of Resistance in the Trump Era,” published in Sojourners, the magazine Wallis founded in 1971. Wallis says that “the election revealed the deep racial divide in America with a majority of white voters—of all economic levels, genders, and even religions—going for Trump.”

He goes on to say that

America’s Original Sin clearly still lingers in America, and the repentance of that sin clearly calls upon us to replace white identity with faith identity—the reversal of what happened in this election among the majority of white voters who voted together as a tribe.

I’m guessing that the Unitarian Universalists who went for Trump also voted from a white identity (or from the white identity part of the Unitarian Universalist tradition) rather than a progressive faith identity.

What would it be like if liberal religious communities used “the ritual and liturgical elements” of their tradition—the “liturgy, hymns, holidays, and festivals”—to relentlessly reinforce the most progressive and compassionate values of their religion?

Imagine if we used ritual and liturgy to ceaselessly lift up the kind of commitments Wallis makes to the readers of Sojourners:

  1. We will go deeper in faith.
  2. We will lift up truth.
  3. We will reject White Nationalism.
  4. We will love our neighbors by protecting them from hate speech and attacks.
  5. We will welcome the stranger, as our Scriptures instruct.
  6. We will expose and oppose racial profiling in policing.
  7. We will defend religious liberty.
  8. We will work to end the misogyny that enables rape culture.
  9. We will protest with our best values.
  10. We will listen.

Imagine progressive congregations proclaiming these commitments in the context of their faith traditions. For Unitarian Universalists, that might mean using not only the language of our Principles and Purposes (e.g., we reject White Nationalism and embrace “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all”), but some of the UU brand identity language recently developed as well.

  • Boldness—From striving for social justice to radically embracing different beliefs, UUs have been a bold people of faith since the beginning.
  • Compassion—Our hearts call us to invest in the welfare of our fellow human beings, and our communities extend warmth and welcome no matter who you are, whom you love, or where you are on your journey.
  • Reverence—We unite in spirit through communities of meaning, grappling with the big questions and learning how to better live our values each day.

So rather than “We will welcome the stranger, as our Scriptures instruct,” we might say, “We will welcome you no matter who you are, whom you love, or where you are on your journey.”

Or rather than “We will go deeper into faith,” we say, “We will grapple with the big questions and learn how to live our values each day.”

By making a similar commitment to the progressive religious values Wallis proclaims, and by using a language that is authentically ours, we achieve two things: we let the world know who we are as a people of faith, and we build a bold, compassionate, reverent faith identity as Unitarian Universalists.

Next up, a post on Timothy Snyder’s “20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America.”