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.