Power of Three

I heard of a brilliant idea that never quite got off the ground. I offer it up to you. Try it and report back.

One of the congregations in the Pacific NW had an Adult Religious Education chair and a Membership chair who worked closely together.  Their congregation was a mid-sized religious community with a fairly evenly stratified grouping of older members, middler members, and newer members (with regards as to when they joined the community.)

This congregation was also starting to feel the all-too-familiar rumblings of a pastoral-size congregation trying to break through to a program-size congregation.  Newer members couldn’t figure out how to get a foot in the leadership door.  Older members were tightening the reigns as they become more and more anonymous to the new members. And the middler members were the ones doing all the work and burning out.

The Adult RE chair and the Membership chair sat down with the membership book and divided the congregation into three groups according to when they officially became members.  From these three groups they made smaller groups.  In each of these smaller groups were a family unit of olders, a family unit of middlers, and a family unit of newer members.

These chairs contacted the social butterflies within the smaller groups and asked them to invite the others over for coffee and dessert. The only agenda for the meeting?  To explore the following questions and see what happened:

  1. What brought you to <insert congregation here>?
  2. What keeps you?
  3. What are your wishes for this religious community?

The experiment didn’t make it past a season.  But what they found in this one round was that the newer members starting taking more leadership off the shoulders of the middlings.  And the older members got to share the stories and history. The middlings and newers gleaned the larger context.  The community was noticeably transformed by this small, but organizing-intensive experiment.  I asked these two chairs why they only did it a season and they quickly replied that it was just a heck of a lot of work.

Keeping that in mind I did a modified version of this experiment at one of our smaller congregations.  In the middle of a worship service, I had the entire congregation stand up and put themselves on an imaginary chronological line according to when they joined their congregation.  From this long line, I divided them up into three lines standing shoulder to shoulder.  They reached out and grabbed the hand of the people next to them and then paired off in groups of three.  I invited them to explore those three magic questions.  The place was buzzing with energy and stories.  Their notorious curmudgeon came to me after worship and said it was the most fun he’s ever had at worship.

It also occurs to me that this way of choosing members just might work for small group ministry… Try your own version in your own religious community and report back…

Religious Education happens when we are woven in to all the diverse perspectives, contexts, stories, and gifts of religious community.  Woven into that fabric we become larger and more powerful than just our self.

Ain’t Misbehavin’. I’m Saving My Love For You.

I’ve been known to be a little passionate in my evangelism.  Here’s why.  When I open a newspaper and read the despairing headlines I wonder to myself, “If only <insert politician’s name here> had taken Our Whole Lives.”  Our Whole Lives is the lifespan sexuality curriculum offered in most of our congregations.  It was even featured in Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine! Many of you may be snickering, but I feel strongly about this. And it doesn’t have to do with sex.  OWL teaches consensus, power dynamics, communication, self-discipline, and being open to being transformed by other people’s point of view.  I wish the whole world got to take OWL.  OWL has the power to heal the world. That’s why I’m evangelical about Unitarian Universalism.

Many a visitor will walk through our doors seeking to be guided by Unitarian Universalist theology and held by Unitarian Universalist religious community.  And many of those visitors will leave, repelled by less than inspiring worship or an exhausting congregational conflict or our issues with power and authority…  This keeps me up at night.  So many of our congregations allow bad behavior in the effort to preserve “the inherent worth and dignity of all.”  More often than not, this bad behavior becomes part of the cultural norm: arguing the fine points of final reports at congregational meetings, using candles of joys and concerns for public service announcements, assuming there is one politically correct way to be Unitarian Universalist, triangulating and undermining leadership, using email for heated discussion, and using consensus as a weapon to get one’s way are just a few of my favorite examples. There is nothing worthy or dignified in this behavior. A loving intervention and firm, clear boundaries are the way to promote worth and dignity.

Some of the many reasons that I am grateful to work on the district executive team is that if I’ve eaten a spinach salad and some is stuck in between my teeth, one of my teammates is going to tell me. I can count on it.  And when I am particularly snarky on an email or totally flop on a project, I trust that Janine is going to lovingly point it out if I don’t see it and then give me the space and freedom to fix it.  Sometimes I’m at a loss as to how to repair a gaff and need help.  I have the support to ask for the help and receive guidance. This culture of safety, respect and constantly learning brings out my best.  There isn’t the pressure to be perfect.  Some of us weren’t born with a Manual of Appropriate Behavior and it’s helpful for others to shine light on the parameters when we simply can’t find them through the fog.

Most of our healthy congregations have a  Covenant of Right Relations.  This is could be thought of as the Congregational Manual of Appropriate Behavior. Here is a great example of one: Westside Unitarian Universalist Church in Seattle, WA.

There are policies that support a Covenant of Right Relations:  Conflict Resolution Guidelines, Email Guidelines, Policy on Taking a Stand on Controversial Public Issues, Procedure for Addressing Disruptive Behavior, and Safety Policies. You can find excellent examples from the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Pt. Townsend, WA under Part III of their Operations Manual.

I was leading a workshop this summer, and we co-created a covenant for that moment in time together. Someone raised their hand and asked me unpack the term “covenant” for them.  “Is a covenant a promise you won’t ever break?” they asked.  “Quite the contrary,” I answered.  It’s a promise you can count on breaking because it calls us to our highest selves and we are merely human.  I think the most important part of the covenant isn’t the “how to” but the “what happens when we fail and need to get back on track.”  The Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation has a Conflict Transformation Team to help with just that.  Ministers and/or Pastoral Care Teams may get involved to help people in their personal discernment of remorse and individual path toward forgiveness.  And there is always the district Healthy Congregations Team, which provides training, consultation and assessment for congregations who wish to embrace healthy communications and proactively deal with conflict.

This process is sacred religious education.  When I have failed and need to find my way back into right relations I have relied heavily on the Jewish process of repentance, teshuva:

1. Recognize and discontinue the inappropriate behavior or mistake.

2. Verbally confess the behavior, action and/ or mistake to the person(s) to who was affected.

3. Regret the behavior, action and/ or mistake. Evaluate the negative impact this action may have had on you or on others.

4. Devise a plan to rectify the behavior, action and/or mistake.  Sometimes something cannot be repaired, but you may be able to change a pattern or cycle so that the chance that a repeat offense will take place is minimized.

5. Then you may ask for forgiveness from those to whom you have done wrong.

What a process!  I crave this for our religious communities.  This is the hard, loving work of intentional religious communities living into our collective calling. When we live into our best selves as individuals and as a community love and joy are free to stream in.  We don’t have to get it perfect.  But it helps to know what the expectations are and to be given the freedom and support to fix it when we get it wrong. This is real transformational growth.  I want that for everyone.  It has the power to heal the world. And that is why I’m an evangelical Unitarian Universalist.

When we fall out of right relationship and/or break covenant there is an opportunity for Religious Education.  May we have the courage to embrace it with grace.

Note:  This article was published on the http://www.pnwd.org website in the spring of 2009.  It posted here by requested.

A Note About Gratitude

There were a couple years in which I felt particularly crafty.  I would print out blank cards with black and white chalices for my small children to color.  Or we would make chalice stamps out of sponges or reused Styrofoam.  The back of the card sported a simple chalice and the words:

Come recharge your spirit within our religious community.

<name of congregation>


<times of worship>


My children and I would keep these cards handy for times when we saw someone living out our Unitarian Universalist values and send them a thank you note.  Often we’d gather around the Sunday newspaper and search scavenger-hunt style for our values in action.  We’d make a list of people and note their good deeds or courageous decisions.  We’d look up their address, write a thank you note, and then pop it in the mail.  As our little project gained momentum we’d keep a stack of cards in our car and then leave notes in our wake whenever we were out in the community.

I noticed a positive shift in myself and in my children.  We found what we were looking for.  We found Unitarian Universalist values that we hold dear alive throughout our community.  And we started feeling powerful and supportive in our witnessing.

I figured these good vibes would ripple out in some way, but I had no idea of the impact magnitude until I was at a community gathering.  My towns mayor kept looking over at me throughout the evening and then final came over and asked, “Did I do something wrong?  Have I offended you?”

“What on earth?  No.  Why?”

“Well, everyone on City Council has received a note from you in the past year except me…”

I gave him a bear hug and assured him that my children looked up to him and appreciated his job.  I also made a mental reminder to send a note as soon as we could.

When the mayor notices, something is working.  Witnessing, appreciating, thanking is powerful and transforming for both the sender and receiver.

Religious Education is in the noticing and the appreciating.

Note:  If your social justice committee effort has become a checklist of issues, consider picking this effort as congregational justice making. It has real potential to breathe life and love back into a community.

Baby, tell me… I forget…

At the time I was pregnant with my first child I was also a caregiver for people living with AIDS. My husband and I had been the Tuesday night volunteer team for three years in a row. We passed out medications on schedule, changed bandages, made dinner according to dietary restrictions and cravings, logged behaviors and were present.

Three Cedars was an extraordinary place in the early 90s in that there were only four paid staff members and the rest of the 30 member staff were volunteers. Six hours would go by without a paid staff member being on the premises.  I think it worked because we didn’t know it couldn’t.  It worked because we were pioneers with deep, deep compassion and commitment to loving people.

No one at Three Cedars ever asked a resident how they acquired AIDS.  We honestly didn’t care.  We wanted to know what gave them life, what gave them joy and then surround them in those elements.  We did our best to reunite families, but most times families were estranged and we created our own. There was such misunderstanding about AIDS.

This was at a time when medicinal cocktails merely prolonged life or diminished pain.  We insisted that people came to Three Cedars to live, but at that time, once someone came to us, we knew that they would die here in the safety and love our arms.  Our goal was to make that transition as dignified and humane as possible.

When I was a volunteer, we couldn’t afford to take any moment for granted.  Man, could we celebrate! We’d lie out a special feast for just about any holiday and even make up some holidays. Anything to lift spirits and get our boys eating. We got supermarkets and restaurants to donate their finest food in order to entice our residents to eat well. The medicines at that time made people so nauseous that eating was usually laborious.

We also changed wounds, inserted suppositories, changed diapers… nothing phased the seasoned volunteers. I could change a bandage of a herpes lesion without batting an eye so gingerly that the person receiving my care would only moan slightly in discomfort.

As I became more obviously pregnant it became harder and harder for me to change people’s diapers or perform the heavy lifting required of some bandage changes.  But I’d cheerfully waddle around passing out medications, reading to people, or cooking up gourmet meals. The men loved touching my belly.  I think most people fight back the urge to fondle pregnant bellies, but there was a special, delightful inhibition at Three Cedars.

One of the men had dementia and his mind regressed to that of a small boy’s was especially fascinated with my belly. Martin would rest his head on my roundness while I read him stories.  We would curl up like that for hours.  When the baby moved he would squeal and trace the movement with his fingers.

Dementia is a very individual process.  My great grandmother had Alzheimer’s for years before she died, so I was familiar with the symptoms. But each resident was different.  Some would get nasty and throw food at me if the order wasn’t right.  Some would wander from room to room not quite knowing what they were looking for.  Some would become involved in deep philosophical conversations but could never recall anyone’s name. And some would go through the entire disease never experiencing dementia at all. Martin regressed to the mind and emotional state of a child about the age of six.

Martin was about 6 feel tall and weighed about 110 lbs. toward the end of his life.  I had to play games with his food to get him to eat.  I would make smiley face pancakes and fruit salad in the shape of bunny rabbits.  If he finished his plate clean I’d give him an ice cream cone treat.

On Christmas Eve we couldn’t get him to stay in his bed. He was overly stimulated with the all the festivities. I was huge by that time and tired in my last trimester.  My husband sweetly offered to clean the kitchen so I could rest. But as soon as I’d settle down in my favorite chair with my feet up, I’d hear Martin over his intercom singing children’s Christmas carols.  And then I’d hear Cecil, the man next to Martin holler for Martin to "shut up, I’m trying to sleep."  I pattered up to Martin’s to tuck him back in and gently ask him to be a good boy and go to sleep.  This went on for three or four times and I was getting awfully exasperated.

Usually Martin went to bed after his bedtime story, but the excitement of Christmas Eve was too much for him. I heard Cecil holler for me to "Put Martin’s ass in Time Out" as I trudged to the top of the stairs one more time.  I took a deep breath before going into

Martin’s room.  I was starting to get ticked off and question my readiness for motherhood. I was seriously weighing the wisdom of putting Martin in Time Out.

I pulled open the door with determination. Before me was a grown man in a diaper sitting on the side of his bed, bouncing up and down an, clapping his hands. In a sing-song voice he was repeating over and over, "Santa Clause is coming! Santa Clause is coming!" absolutely beaming with anticipation.

All frustration drained through my feet. Here was a man abandoned by his family with a brain so simplified it didn’t even register the enormous pain in which his body was immersed.  Here was a boy waiting for Santa Clause surrounded by a makeshift family with presents under the tree fulfilling his list of Tonka trucks and Legos and a stocking filled with candy that I just knew he’d shove in his mouth as quickly as he could unwrap.

"Martin," I whispered, "Santa won’t come unless good little boys are asleep…" Martin gasped, cupped his mouth, and then leaped under the covers.

"Rub my back until I fall asleep," he begged.  Before he rolled over he kissed my belly. I rubbed and hummed a lullaby until his breathing was a steady, slow rhythm. I wasn’t far behind him.

Two months later I gave birth to a strong baby boy.  On the way back from the hospital my husband and I came to Three Cedars before even going home.  I wanted to show the residents my baby before he got all baby-germy and therefore became a hazard to the health of the residents.

Martin was still there.  Busy with a Lego creation.  He leapt up and ran over when I came in with the baby. He was fascinated with the bundle I was gingerly holding.

I’d never held a baby that small, and I still couldn’t believe it he was mine. The staff and residents were all gathered around admiring our first Three Cedars Baby.

Martin leaned in and very quietly asked if he could hold the baby. I held out the tiny bundle for him to take, much to the dismay of the staff who was giving me The Look.  In a sense I had just handed my newborn over to a 6 year old boy capable of 6 year old temper tantrums. Martin shuffled out of the room and into his room.  I stopped one of the staff who was going after him.  I bent my head to the monitor in the dining room.  We could hear Martin with the baby.

"Baby, tell me what it’s like.  I forget…. Tell me again what it’s like."  There was silence except for newborn grunts and gurgles.  We all held our breath. Martin came shuffling back out with the infant in his arms and handed him back to me.

Martin died within 24 hours peacefully, surrounded by people who loved him and respected him.

Religious Education happens when we stare horrible tragedy down and respond with graceful love and acceptance.  Religious Education is the transformation we experience when we leap into justice work with faith as our safety net.

Spark in the Dark

In honor of all the mothers today…

I was curled up with the boys reading bedtime stories.  We were snuggled up with Spark In the Dark, a creation story with beautiful, simple pictures.  The book begins with the swirling gases of the Universe coming together and forming planet earth. Water forms.  Plants form.  Animals form. Humans evolve.

Four-year-old Owen interrupted and asked "what is that state’s name again?"  Having grown accustomed to his tangential interjections, I didn’t blink an eye.  I named off all the states he’s traveled: Oregon, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Washington.  He shook his head...  I started to name cities he’s been to with notoriety.  Still no satisfaction, and he clearly had a specific place in mind, but the lateness of the evening was wearing on him.  Finally he said rubbing his eyes, "No, the place I was before I was born.  What’s the name of it?"

Clarity took hold of and quieted my confusion. "I’m not sure anyone knows the name of it for sure. Do you remember being there?"

Again, rubbing his eyes and yawning, "Yeah.  I liked it.  When do we go back?"

I didn’t know the answer until it came out of my mouth, "When we die, honey."

Owen, "That’s right.  I’ll meet you there."

And then he snuggled into my arms and went to sleep. I was left holding sweet Owen as he went off to dream land knowing that I was holding one of the greatest teachers I will ever know.

Religious connection, Religious Education started before we were born.  It usually entails simply bringing us back to ourselves, to our Source.

Power of Seven

I used to teach at a school where the attendance rate was dismally spotty at best.  Until Principal Harry came with his camera and his belief in the Power of 7.

At a staff meeting he passed out a roster of all the enrolled kids at school to each of us.  He handed me my packet with a wink.  My name was scrawled at the top and then seven students who were not my own were highlighted.  Each staff member got a packet:  the janitor, the bus driver, the teachers, and teacher’s aides. Everyone on staff.

The instructions were simple.  Be out front first thing in the morning when the bus arrives and greet each of your seven by name.  Welcome them with a smile. Tell them that you’re glad to see them.  At the end of the day be sure to say or wave goodbye and let them know you’ll see them tomorrow.  If you see them in the hall or on the playground or in the cafeteria acknowledge them.  Ask them how their day is going.  Sounds innocuous, right?

We saw positive results that we couldn’t deny almost immediately.  Not only was attendance much more stable, but the morale at school was on a steady incline, as well.  I noticed that staff started taking an interest in the classrooms where their Power of 7 spent their day. As a result staff started collaborating cross-classroom and cross-department more.  Coincidence?  Maybe.  I doubt it.

And another act, simple on the surface, shifted the spirit of the school.  Principle Harry started taking pictures of the kids.  Close-ups of big grins.  And then he’d blow them up to 11×17, laminate them, and hang them in the hall at student level.  Beautiful faces lined the hallways like the finest art gallery. Parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles started visiting the school just to take a look at their students’ pictures.   Kids would proudly point out their portrait.  New photos would go up on the wall and the former pictures would be brought home to grace students’ domestic walls.  The school began to feel like a joyful community center.

I’ve always wondered how this could translate into congregational life. What if the board, Committee On Ministry, Program Council, youth group – whomever you deem as church leadership were to divide you members of all ages up into lists of seven?  Each congregational leader would then be sure to greet their special buddies each Sunday and check in with them. How was their week?  How are they feeling about this religious community?  How is their life going?  And if one of their seven was missing, perhaps an email could be popped their way just letting them know that they were missed on Sunday… I wonder if simple Power of 7 could transform our congregations into joyful community centers.

Please let me know if you try it out.

Religious Education is found in the simple acts that bind us closer together.