Prayer for Growth

Oh, Holy Life Force that buzzes in every cell of our being and leaps through connections of hands in service and hearts in searching,


We give thanks for this opportunity to be together today. What a time to be alive, to create our shared ministries and embody our living faith tradition.


Grant us serenity so we may surrender our current expressions of Unitarian Universalism as the one right way. Helps us to understand that we do not own Unitarian Universalist, but rather it owns us.  We belong to this faith. Release us from the fear of change so we may embrace opportunity larger than ourselves, expression beyond our imagination.


Give us the courage to pick up what is really our work, our own transformation and evolution.  Give us strength and perspective when the road is unknown, and long and uncomfortable and not at all what we expected. Stir in us the commitment to build relationship outside ourselves, out on our margins as if our liberation depended on it, because we know it does.


Grant us the wisdom to discern what we can’t change in this generation, this lifetime and what is indeed our work to do.  Grant us the patience and love to sow the seeds of trees under whose shade we will never sit and whose fruits will nourish a people we will never know but love just the same.


Help us develop the spiritual discipline of consistently showing up in support of people whose values are close but not quite ours… and lead us into mutual transformation. Help us to develop an ever-widening circle of community as spiritual practice.  Because religious community truly is where we practice being human. 


Oh, God, may we become the people we’ve been waiting for and bring you honor and glory.  May we lean that much closer into your beloved community and kingdom of heaven on earth.



(Updated) 13 Steps to Start Your Church Year Strong

It’s that time of year, folks! Fall is in full buzz of possibilities. Are you ready? Here’s a check list to help you back into the swing of things.

  1. Bathroom sniff test. Yes, I’m serious. What’s the first room you clean in your own home when company is coming? I rest my case. Is your church bathroom up to “company standards?” I especially love those congregations that put out a basket of goodies like fragrance-free lotion, band-aids, feminine products, safety pins, diapers and diaper wipes. (If you separate by gender, provide baby needs in each bathroom.) It’s delightfully welcoming.
  1. Sound System. The only thing worse than a musty-dusty bathroom is a sound system that doesn’t work. Please respect your assembled community and the folks who lovingly put together the worship enough to make sure the sound system supports the service seamlessly. Make sure that a cadre of people know how to work technical magic and can step in when needed. Make sure the worship associates are comfortable using the equipment. Practice.
  1. Greeters as Ministry. Wouldn’t it be great to be greeted at the door by someone who knows you by name and says, “How are? I’m so glad to see you!” I’m convinced this is an under appreciated ministry. We all crave to be seen and known, and wanted. Blessed are the greeters who take special care with visitors. Remember your first day? Unless you were born into Unitarian Universalism, you were probably nervous your first day. Filled with questions. Am I in the right place? Will I be accepted? What if I have trouble following the liturgy? Who will be my Sunday School teacher? There are a couple of congregations who employ the talents of youth and child greeters to help all ages feel welcome and at home. Yes!
  1. Membership Tracking. As our U.U.A. President the Rev. Peter Morales says, “If you can’t count them, you can’t serve them.” I believe that. When I grew up, my church had us all sign in the Membership Book housed in each pew. If my family missed a couple of Sundays I knew I could count on someone from the church calling to make sure we were alright. How loving!  Updated materials on membership tracking, hospitality and belonging are here:
  1. Name Tags. They’re a matter of hospitality and good manners. Even in a family-sized congregation, newer members are not going to know everyone’s name. And here’s another purpose: tracking. Have a basket out by the name tags. After church ask/train people to put their name tags in the basket. Voila! Your membership counter knows who attended (see #4.) And you just might have a little helper learning their ABC’s whose job it could be to put them back in order for the next Sunday.
  1. Real Cream. We are so into our free-trade organic coffee and usually fumble on the nasty powdered milk substitute. It’s up there with stinky bathrooms and screeching microphones. Spring an array of real cream, skim milk, and some soy milk. It makes a difference.
  1. Projected Announcements. More and more congregations are using a computer and projector to post their announcements before the service. The community is often treated to pictures of church events that happened that previous week. Add captions with names and it is a powerful community builder. If you start running this ten minutes before the worship service starts, I bet people will start coming on time.
  1. Newsletters with Purpose. One of my current favorite newsletters is from the Cedars UUC on Bainbridge Island of Washington state. What sets it apart is how user-friendly it is. The contributors don’t assume I know acronyms or common phrases. Contact information is sprinkled throughout the articles and announcements so people can call or email right then. Their newsletter became my guide to getting involved with their congregation and wider community. Reread your newsletter with fresh eyes (pretend you’re a new member.) What does your newsletter tell you or not tell you?  Or better yet, reach out to another congregation and do a swap audit of materials.  Also, please send your newsletter out electronically as a link, not an attachment.  And use the full name of your congregation in the subject line.  This is especially useful for religious leaders who receive the newsletters of area congregations to keep connected (hint-hint.)
  1. Websites with Purpose & Ease. Most people seeking Unitarian Universalism will search the Internet to find their nearest church. Knowing that, does the front page of your site give clear directions? Offer a picture of your building so I know it when I see it? What time you worship? Does it tell people what kind of religious community you are and what you value? Is it inviting? Does it provide easy to find contact information for staff and church leaders? This last one is a sore spot for me.  If I have to search deep into your site for a staff/key volunteer contact information if tells me you’ve got a secret club on your hands or don’t want to be bothered.  If you use one of those email e-forms that I have to fill out to have a message sent to someone on staff that tells me your system is paranoid. Not attractive.
  1. Voice Message with Soul. Make me want to come to church! Tell me who you are and where you are with an upbeat, clear voice. And please, if you’re going to answer the church phone, make sure you will represent the congregation with a welcoming spirit and accurate information.  One of my favorite messages sported the clear voice of a teenager inviting the caller to their joyful, multigenerational congregation. Wow! Yes!
  1. Community with Soul. Fall is a great time to reaffirm your Covenant and what it means to be a member of your religious community. Lift up your vision and celebrate how you plan to build that vision. Need some help? There are great tools out there from the UUA: Vision, Mission, Covenant and the Membership Journey are two I recommend. Contact your District Staff for names of consultants who may be able to coach you in your process or offer a cluster workshop.
  1. Search Team of Possibilities. Skip a couple of Sundays this fall and go check out another church. What do you like? What good ideas could you bring back? What do you especially appreciate about your home congregation? I always thought it would be fun to have an organized team who went out and systematically went searching for possibilities to share with their own leadership.  (I promise I will flesh this out in future postings…)
  1. Have Fun. We’re in this for the long haul. If it’s making you anxious, angry, or resentful why not let someone else do <insert distasteful duty here> for a while. Or maybe it doesn’t get done for a while. Lead with love and creativity and fun. Abundance will follow.

Have a great year!

**This post is an edited reprint from an article that appeared on the front page of the UUA Pacific NW website a long time ago.  Still applicable, don’t you think?


Tandi’s Annual Tips to Make the Most of Your General Assembly Experience

Internet portal to all things GA:

Unitarian Universalist Association of  Congregations’ Blog:

  • Before you go to General Assembly (GA), skim the Pacific Northwest District of congregations ( under “Congregations”) or your own district.   Find congregations that are similar in size, and make a list.  At the General Assembly, seek out people from those congregations who are in similar leadership roles as you and compare notes.  What is working well?  What are challenges?  What are possible solutions?  Swap contact information and keep in touch.  There is a message board at GA where you can post and receive messages to people.
  • Even better – contact folks ahead of GA and arrange regular meetings (breakfasts?) to debrief the experience and start plotting collaboration and support once we’re back home.
  • Be extra-friendly to the folks working the General Assembly – they are all volunteers and our UU brothers and sisters.
  • Sing out at the Opening Worship and let the rush of celebrating with thousands of Unitarian Universalists from all over our continent sink into your bones. Let our collective energy feed your spirit. After each worship service ask what you liked best and how you can bring that nugget home to your own worship.
  • Seek out district board members and your Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations trustee and tell them what your greatest hopes are for our religion and your congregation.  Our boards set the vision for our collective ministry with long range dreaming. Tell them what your priorities are.
  • Seek out U.U.A. of C. staff with your questions.  Tell us what you need to build a vibrant, thriving religious community. During Plenary staff sit in a block to the front-left when facing the stage.
  • Go to a workshop that speaks to a need in your congregation. Before you leave General Assembly, create a plan for how you will apply what you learned back in your home congregation.
  • Go to a workshop that speaks to a personal passion or interest.  Before you leave General Assembly, create a plan for how you will apply what you’ve learned back in your home congregation and/or your personal life.
  • Keep some extra room in your suitcase for the wonderful Unitarian Universalist clothing and jewelry available in the display booth area.  Everyone should have at least one piece of UU jewelry to wear.
  • Keep the energy going! When you return to your congregation, schedule some coffee time with key folks to share what you learned. Give them copies of the hand-outs and your notes.  Write an article for your congregation’s newsletter.  Make yourself available at coffee hour for people who are interested. Seek out the next group of leaders who should go to General Assembly 2011 to represent your congregation and bring back inspiration, perspective, connections, and ideas to help your religious community be all that it can be.

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 website in the spring of 2009.  It posted here by requested.

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.

The Flowers That Saved My Life

The divorce separated me from my two small children, and the teaching job was more of a calling that I loved with all my being.  I was officially divorced in the morning and served my pink slip that afternoon.  Both identities were painfully stripped away… and the very next day was my birthday. What irony.

I spent weeks in bed.  My best friend would come over after work to make sure I was eating, which I wasn’t. She’d make me get dressed to come eat, but when that didn’t work she brought it in to me. And when that didn’t work she’d leave it on the bedside table to get cold.  It was certainly not one of my finer moments.

After a couple weeks I received a phone call.  It woke me up.  I had to wrestle the covers to actually find the phone hiding in my smelly nest. The gruff voice on the other end said, “Get out of bed, get dressed, brush your teeth, and come let me in.”


Not getting any more patient, “Get out of bed, get dressed, brush your teeth, and come let me in.”

“Bob? The door is unlocked.  Just come on in.”

“No. You stink.”

“Bob, I don’t care.”

“I do.  Go get dressed and brush your teeth and hurry.  This is getting very heavy.”

Just as he said the word heavy a big truck went whizzing by my window… and at that very same moment I heard a big truck go whizzing by on the phone.  I ran to the window and there was Bob across the street on the pay phone holding a huge, I mean huge, abstract painting of flowers.

This was no ordinary painting. This was the painting that used to hang in the hallway at church. I loved the painting.  It made me happy.  Bright yellows, reds, purples, greens. Evidently the Aesthetics Committee didn’t share in my appreciation.  It got moved to the bathroom. I simply took more bathroom breaks to visit my friend. And eventually it got relegated to the basement.  During a congregational Spring Cleaning I found it in the huge storage closet.  I was so sure the painting was lonely, and I would go gaze at her when I was feeling low. I was oblivious to the fact that Bob knew of my love affair with this painting.  And there he was on a street corner payphone with an armful of abstract flowers.

I dashed to throw on clothes. I tried to grab ones from the heap that weren’t too offensive to the olfactory system.  I rushed to the bathroom to brush my teeth – it felt soooo good!  As I was coming out of the bathroom Bob was barging into my bedroom.  He traipsed across my bed with muddy shoes.

“Oops.” He said flatly. “I guess you’re going to have to wash that bedding.”

He leaned the immense painting against the wall and pounded a handful of nails one by one into the wall above my headboard.  He balanced the painting on the cluster and stepped back to admire his work.

“There.”  He turned to me. “Kiddo.  I know you’re hurting.  You’ve been through a lot. But we need you.  We’re waiting.  The world is waiting.  There is work to be done.”

My eyes teared up.  I nodded.

“Tandi, every morning, look up at this painting.  And remember.  The world is waiting.  We need you.”

I broke down and sobbed like I had not been able to do.  Bob held me and rocked me until I was ready to come back.

By this time you’re probably wondering who Bob is.  Bob is the church curmudgeon.  All churches have at least one.  For most of his church career Bob has been the soul person on the building committee.  He was kind of pokey and contrary.  And there he was rocking me while I learned to cry.  I knew he was uncomfortable with this he’d just stepped into.  We were both practicing being human at this very sacred moment.

That is the kind of Religious Education I am all about.  The greatest thing we can give each other is our love, ourselves, and our presence. These are among the most potent curriculums.  Church is where we practice being human.

No matter where I live that painting will be prominently placed so it is among the first things I see each morning.  It is part of my morning prayers and spiritual practice.

Once my basic needs of being seen, heard, and loved were met I could rejoin the land of the living and get about my business of finding my calling and living my personal mission.  Sometimes I wonder where I’d be if Bob hadn’t noticed I was gone and tracked me done.  Who is missing from this religious community?

Religious Education teaches us to be present to each other.  Religious Education is community that sees us at our most vulnerable, loves us anyway, and calls us to our higher selves.

Request: This Sunday look around and notice who is not there. Please check in with them just to make sure they’re okay and to let them know that you noticed their absence.   And if they’ve been gone awhile, let them know they’ve been missed.  There are a myriad of reasons we each can slip away.  There is a main reason to reach out:  we are interconnected in love.

Cheese Fries

The previous year our youth group had 18 teens who made a joyful presence in our congregation.  16 graduated and there were no 8th graders moving up.  What to do?  Do two people make up a youth group?

Our congregation made a bold decision.  They funded the two-member youth group as if they were the rowdy 18.

And I have to say, that while the previous year was fun and eventful. It was the year of Ben and Justin that I found to be the most profound and worthwhile.

Justin was the popular, likable Prom King.  Ben was from a newly divorced family, in a new school, and had just gotten word that his father had seriously ill.  When I asked them each what they wanted out of youth group, Justin, said, “I just want to be myself without the stress.”  Ben said, “I want to do what normal kids do.”

“Ben, what do normal kids do?” He hesitated… “I think they hang out at Denny’s and eat cheese fries.”   

And that is what we did most of the year.  We hung out at Denny’s and ate cheese fries and just talked. And tried to grasp a sense of normalcy.

One night we hung out in the youth group room painting our toe nails (because we could) and someone had the idea of paining a nail polish chalice on the stereo.  We declared the stereo a Unitarian Universalist Only Zone (pronounced ooze) and our ritual became debating the UU appropriateness of current musical lyrics.  What could we play that upheld our faith tradition and principles?  Which songs would be tossed, at least while in the sanctuary of our black-light lit youth room?  Such conversations were continued at Denny’s over cheese fries.  Rarely have opportunities arisen to go that deep theologically for any of us. Ben, Justin and I were forever changed.

I’m still in contact with both Justin and Ben, who are in their mid-20s now. They look back at our youth group year with just the three of us and are grateful that the congregation saw them as legitimate and worthy of the effort.

Religious Education is implicit in the decisions we make as a congregation, including fiscal decisions. Religious Education is nestled in those leaps of faith and small actions that say, “We see you.  We need you. You are worthy.”

Involuntary Volunteer Sabbatical

I was one of those lay leaders in a smallish-midsized congregation who was on almost every committee.  I think I’ve held every leadership position except board in that church. Operative word being held.  I held leadership positions close to me without letting go, because with it came some semblance of control to keep the congregational structure and community just the way I liked it. I had standards.  There’s a certain way you do things.

Then one bright, sunny Sunday the president and minister called me up to the chancel during announcements.  The minister gave me a beautiful, carved chalice and the president, putting his hand firmly on my shoulder said, “Tandi, you have served this religious community well with your extended service.”  He went on to list all the committees I’ve chaired and projects I headed up over the most recent years. “We are giving you a volunteer sabbatical for an entire year.  You are not allowed to chair or volunteer for any committee.  You are not allowed to even make coffee.  This year we ask that you simple come and be fed.”

I have no idea what the sermon was that Sunday, because I spent the rest of worship trying to figure out what his “honor” meant.  They couldn’t be serious, could they? I can’t volunteer for a thing?  What will I do with this time?  What will they do without me?

Over the next couple of months I went through the classic stages of grief:

Denial: They couldn’t possible mean it.  I mean, who is going to know how to coax a paper jam out of the copy machine for the newsletter assembly?  Who knows how to make the canvass forms just right? No one else on the worship committee really knows our liturgical calendar. And they didn’t really mean I wouldn’t co-lead the youth group, right?  That’s different.

It turns out the entire congregation was in on it.  I’d turn up to a committee meeting and I’d be cheerfully greeted and then asked to leave.  I showed up at youth group like always.  The youth didn’t even let me stay for check-in.  They sang a song about “thank you” as if they practiced it.

Anger: You know, the youth seemed especially delighted to send me home. I bet this was their idea.  Why do they hate me? What a hateful place.  And they call themselves a religious community! Luckily I knew enough not to spew my venom onto the other members. I made an appointment with a spiritual director when the gym punching bag wasn’t enough.

Bargaining: I showed up to worship a little early and noticed one of the greeters hadn’t arrived yet.  I grabbed a stack of Orders of Service and slipped into place by the sanctuary doorway.  Someone came up behind me with a hug and slipped the OoS right out of my hand. “But surely this doesn’t count!” I pleaded surprised by the desperation in my voice, “It’s just a little thing, really… We don’t even need to mention this to the president.”  Our membership chair tenderly smiled and put an arm around my shoulders. “You’ll understand if invite a newer member to fulfill this volunteer gateway position. Go enjoy the quiet before it gets busy in here.”

Depression. And then the gloomy clouds moved in. I mean, who was I without my volunteering?  No one knew I was important anymore.  I was just… average.  I actually moped around the house and cried for a couple weeks.  Not only wasn’t I frequenting the congregational building for meetings during the week, I didn’t go to worship every Sunday.  Why bother? They don’t need me.  They probably don’t miss me.

Acceptance. A note came from our minister that simply said, “Thinking of you on your sabbatical. I hope you’re having fun with your kids and doing all the art projects you talked about getting to someday.  I hope this is your someday.”  I stared at the note for a long time, rereading it over and over. Oh, yeah.  And there is that stack of books by my bed that I’ve wanted to read… Like a veil lifting it finally occurred to me that this is my life, my time, my agenda. I get to choose.  Color came back to my cheeks as I spent down time dancing in the kitchen with my children.  I made home-made meals and started teaching them family recipes.  I picked up my sketch pad and filled it with images for my own personal amusement.  A calm emerged and I could easily locate my center.

Another calm, energy came into the congregation.  The worship committee not only experimented with additions to our traditional calendar, they also played with the format. And I liked it even better!  Two elders joined the youth ministry team much to the delight of the teenagers who were craving older mentors.  Someone else figured out how to tame the copier. The congregation figured it all out without me.

And I figured out that I really didn’t like doing all those things. Maybe I did at one time.  But I had grown to resent them and hadn’t realized it.  All the committee work had come to feel like a “should,” not a joy.  I would not have known this without the involuntary volunteer sabbatical.  And you know what I really missed? Making coffee for coffee hour and weeding the flower garden around the congregation.

At the end of my volunteer sabbatical the minister and new president invited me out for coffee.  The minister leaned in and asked, “Now that you’ve had a year respite, how do you really want to serve and be served?…”  And a new story began.

Grampa Sunday School

The congregation had been through a lot of transition and nobody – I mean nobody — had time or energy for religious education. The poor Director of Religious Education couldn’t get a soul to sign up for teaching duty.  And duty is just what it was feeling like.

Finally the Men’s Group, which consisted of the elderly gray-haired gentlemen in that congregation, shyly stepped forward and said that they’d like to do something with the kids. The Religious Education Committee didn’t quite know what to do with this. They were not the typical Sunday school teachers.  But okay, everyone else was profoundly burned out. The only stipulations were that the safety policy be honored with background checks and that if somehow the principles could be slipped in, then that would be great.

What transpired was a busy basement full of Grampas and kids.  There was Richard in the corner with a pile of kids reading stories and then acting them out with puppets he found.  Walter, a thick glassed engineering geek, was happily working out math problem with an almost savant brilliant boy that previously never quite fit in.  They were two peas in a pod.  Ron would take some kids by the hand into the kitchen, “let’s see what we can find to make today…” and goodies for social hour would be created.  Bob – he took some kids outside with Sam.  Sam was a developmentally delayed young adult who loved to play tag with the kids on the playground.  Bob would be nearby with a block of wood, a box of big nails and a small hammer and a group of kids that needed to get out some anger.  Matt and the teens listened to music and gave the lyrics UU ratings according to Principle Relevancy. That season stories were shared, large life questions were pondered, and a fabric of extended family was woven.

Soon after that summer the Religious Education Committee found the volunteers to go back to their traditional program, which was fine. It was fall and people were ready to get back into a familiar schedule.  But something really magical happened. When families came in before worship, the kids would often break from their parents to go sit with their Grampas.  Grampas started showing up at school functions to cheer for their smaller friends. The community began sharing the child-rearing and the Grampa-raising.

Religious Education nurtures intergenerational relationships and cross learning.  Religious Education builds community where we can contribute our unique gifts.