Presidential Job Description

The Unitarian Universalist Association, within which I am a longtime covenanted gadfly, has posted a job description for its next president. I had been ignoring this news, partly because my life is already overfilled with personal joy and work, and mostly because I feared sliding back into the black hole of polity, which tends to leave my house in a mess and my body in pajamas all day. However, someone whose opinion I honor has asked me for some thoughts. Trusting her compassion, I will answer briefly — and then get dressed and clean the kitchen.

First, let me reiterate my strong moral antipathy to the foundational vision of our current structure. Rather than emphasizing Policy Governance and Prophetic Voice, my highest requirement would be for someone with a vision for transforming and empowering our regional bodies, in keeping with the vision of Henry Whitney Bellows and the National Conference of Unitarian and Other Liberal Churches, or the Universalist National Convention. The top-down homogenizing elitism of our current model has an odious history, from Joshua’s invasion of Canaan to Vladimir Lenin’s “entering wedge” reinterpretation of Karl Marx. Seeing ourselves as a movement means willingness to tear up the landscape; I prefer a polity which begins with a commitment to living with, on, and from said landscape. Our centralizing polity traces to Samuel Atkins Eliot, whose stated goal was to transform the entire continent to the Jeffersonian ideal of educated householders. This led him into good works, such as personal tutoring for incarcerated people and their families, but his primary personal “prophetic vision” called him to leadership of the stated ethnic genocide performed by The Bureau of Indian Affairs. I cannot support a polity which has not cleansed itself of those foundational assumptions.

Secondly, I do not support corporate structures in which the Chief Executive Officer sits on, or leads, the Board to which she or he is supposedly accountable; this is how the One Per Cent propagated itself. This means that I support a shift from vaguely unicameral to clearly bicameral leadership. Our Board of Trustees structure has little to recommend it, according to either private sector or religious sector analysis. Politywonk urges ALL UUs to study the reforms instituted by the Council of Trent to make local bishops (Roman Catholic, now also Anglican/Episcopalian) more familiar and accountable to those they serve. A bishop is required to visit every congregation, in its setting, in person, every year or two, on an occasion announced in advance and open to all attenders. This openness includes dialogue time, not just with leadership but also with the individuals. Where the number of congregations is too large for one bishop to visit on this basis, secondary bishops are instituted, accountable to the primary bishop, but again, accessible on a regular basis to all the people. Here is where we see the wisdom of Bellows’s polity: regional leadership with enough personnel to be both reflective of, and accountable to, the many sacred voices shaped by each local historical and geographical ecosystem.

So, then, given those concerns about our Bylaws, is there good to be found in this job description for our next president? Each UU must answer that question for her or himself.

First, go through and look for all the stuff that speaks of an egotistic, arrogant, triumphalist public profile, either to outsiders or within our community. Both our Christian and our Buddhist theological leaders have good noses for this kind of stuff. Take it out.

Second, look for stuff that calls for administrative competence. Are these elements in conflict with each other? I don’t know — and I really mean I don’t know — whether the ability to foster and lead centralized efficiency occurs in the same person who can inspire, support, and empower regional power centers. Historically, this has not been the case, but hey, what has history to teach us? In my own case, I would line up everything that smacks of prophetic voice and make it accountable to listening and delegation, rather than preaching and teaching. I suspect that this item, “Impressive leadership skills, including especially the ability to manage a complex organization, delegate to others, and assess and plan for effective work” is humanly impossible. I mean, what would be this person’s MBTI sorter?

The phrase, “Be a faithful risk-taker in service to a compelling vision” easily explains how Dana MacLean Greeley wound up shifting the Theological Fund to things he considered more important. People who see this as the primary purpose of their president make a point we have to address: how do we establish a counterweight to religiously oppressive charisma? This is especially important in the era of Pope Francis and Joel Osteen. But note that the Quakers have done this without giving away their polity. My own family includes a story of how this got done, because we are mostly Friends. During the era when my sister’s Yearly Meeting did not support equal marriage, her local meeting had to separate itself from this, their regional community, in order to witness their vision. But to the credit of both levels, the separation did not require a schism; instead, for several years, the local meeting stepped from voting to observer status. Active dialogue continued behind a publicly-stated “concensus.”

And how could they do this? Because the Friends maintain vital and accountable regional organizational structures, with annual face-to-face raw honesty among themselves. How could the Episcopal Diocese of little New Hampshire become the first to elect, install, and maintain an openly-gay bishop: because New Hampshire is a place where people can, if they choose, know each other by character rather than category. Because Bishop Robinson entered a polity structure in which his flock knew they would see him regularly, openly, they could take the risk of prophetic vision for themselves. 

As to fund-raising, I am on record, and will repeat that assertion again, that the UUA needs to move out of Greater Boston, further west and south, to the place where land prices are smaller and despair is greater. For is not the first call of Universalism to bring hope to the hopeless?

How Dandelions Changed My View of History


When Unitarian Universalists sing our beloved hymn, “Spirit of Life,” one of the lines of its prayers is, “Roots, hold me close.”

And what we’re probably picturing is the shallow, wide-reaching structure known as “Grassroots.”Image  Note that the fibrous, or grass root, system spreads widely, equally, but also, fairly fairly close to the surfaces. Its new growth springs up pretty readily on a side-by-side basis. That explains why my recent lawn-recovery technique, of raking out all the old dead blades, leaving aerated soil bare to the sun, has resulted in fresh patches of cheery green.

Note, also, that this is completely different from a tap root. At first glance, of course, if you’re working at shallow depth, you can’t tell one from the other. But any lawn-keeper can tell you that pulling up a dandelion from just below the surface doesn’t work. Removing the branch roots is at best, temporary, and at worst, productive of new growth.

One of the first gardening jobs my father ever taught me was to get a pitchfork, or a taproot trowel, and dig them out, one by one, from way deep inside the earth.

Watching the news lately, as certain patterns of both oppression and response spring up from place to place all over the landscape, I got to looking past evil gardeners (the Koch brothers, the NRA) and asking if Aljazeera was showing me tap roots. They crawl along under ground, unseen, drinking from deep layers, and popping up where no one realized conditions might apply.

And the only conditions that apply is a soil, light, air, and water combination that suits this tap root.

What are the tap roots of our oppressions and responses?  My first thought was, “family systems.” Generation after generation doing what it learned as grandparents played with new babies.

And where did the grandparents learn it? Of that, I am not sure. But my guess is this: the original culture from which your grandparents issued. My fiancee and I get along so well in part because we both come from the Germans and Quakers of a certain part of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We don’t spend a lot of time explaining ourselves to each other, we just naturally tend to do the same thing. She loves the leaven of my English paternal line — but that, in itself, reflects a Germanic outgrowth.

So here’s my curiosity: where have German roots — the largest, and least discussed part of the US European mosaic — blossomed or poisoned (it depends on where you try to poke through) our regional patterns of behavior?

Post UU Memorial Services

So if this blog no longer concerns itself with Unitarian Universalist polity, what will be its new center of gravity? This is not so much a blog question as a ministry question. 

Spiritual liberals and progressives no longer see a value in organizing themselves into parishes or congregations, and it’s about to slam up and hit them — the free rangers — in the face. This is my experience in Vermont, which has the highest per capita UU self-identity, and an anomalously large UU society. Its meetinghouse is the not only the most identified landmark of the major metropolitan area, but the most widely trusted for the numerous “I’m not religious” lefties who have re-rooted our once-barren landscape and blossomed into a national arboretum of left-wing courage.

Here’s where my ministry comes in: I have no position on the staff of the Society. I have no formal UU ministerial affiliation, other than “retired community minister.” And yet, in the ceremonial seasons of spring and fall, my skills are needed for formal celebrations of a departed life. We are not yet off the old divinity school chart, in which one axis is “worship style” (high or low) and one is “theological style” (formal or informal). when I substitute “polity” for “theology,” I can see the same issue: people who have never “been to church” in their lives still know good liturgy — and they want it when it’s time to commemorate someone’s passing. They just don’t want formal polity to extend its timeline.

That makes total sense, because “liturgy” means “work of the people.” Lately, I find myself crafting memorial services which give more and more space for speakers from the family and community — no more eulogies, at least not many. What they want from me is structure: a framework of readings, silences, music to stop their thoughts from rambling, their tears from exploding, the throats from choking closed. On the day itself, my carefully-chosen selections have no more weight than the way I call the names of the participants, standing calmly beside them, a little way off, as they speak or play. Make sure there are tissues on the podium. The microphone picks up their voice.

No longer are there any particular words which can universally signify the comfort that “life remains as we intend.” There probably never were. But now we acknowledge that each individual death requires different readings — from global literature and world scriptures — to celebrate the life which has brought us together. As an avid secular reader, I’ve begun to let myself delight in finding the right passages, even as my Jewish-Christian spirit mourns the ebbing of a once-revitalizing tide. And the wider I cast my net, the more delighted are the fish stuck in my boat.

The problem is: how does one tie off all this shared passion? It’s rather like trying to decide whether to settle into sleep after a passionate one-night stand. Are we ready to face each other’s disheveled morning grunge, deal with who likes to talk over coffee and who just wants to listen to NPR? What do you say to each other when there is no, “What time will you be home tonight?” available? the Reverend Richard Leonard performed hundreds of weddings at The Unitarian Church of All Souls, and he used to send a card to each couple on their anniversary. I can’t do that at this age, although if I were starting out, I might try it.

Once I admitted I couldn’t be Dick Leonard (and no one else can), I understood the beauty of “C & E’s”. “High Holiday Jews.” The Membership Committee, the Canvass Chair, they are squinting through the candlelight to figure out who are all these strangers. In synagogues, I am sure the leaders are fighting off Yom Kippur hunger to see who might be ready for more than the annual ticket.  In the departure line, regular Sunday worshipers fidget impatiently as unfamiliar faces draw the cleric’s lingering conversation. What is happening is that the regulars are seeing the free rangers. The umbra and penumbra are uniting briefly into one shadow with a distinguishable shape. Beyond the boundaries of covenant, edges which bear its shape cut into the barren terrain exactly as the original fills the air inside the sanctuary. Every time I am done with one of my services, I passionately wish there were a C & E, High Holiday calendar in this religion, because then we would all know when we would meet again… maybe not just this year, but in five years. Maybe just next time someone dies.

But what is the value of this to the regulars? Free rangers (which is not the same as wanderers who stumble through ) know they have a vested interest in the regulars who covenant. On special occasions, the free rangers probably want to be asked to help out. In my favorite book about Hindu village culture, the long-ago anthropological study, “Behind Mud Walls,” William H. Wiser and Charlotte Vail Wiser describe how, on routine days, it’s just a few women who show up at the temple each day to do puja. But when the temple needs repairing, suddenly the entire village — and all the men as well — present themselves ready to work and donate. It’s a wonderful productive week, and then everyone goes back to normal life. Once again, daily puja draws only a few women and the priests. But that work week has shown that even though a lot of people don’t appear to feel a need for the temple very often, they keenly feel the need to know it will be there once in awhile.

This works better for supporting buildings than supporting clergy. I am starting to suspect that my profession — community ministry — needs to negotiate a radical restructuring of fees with the cremation industry. As caskets have gotten smaller, and usually disappeared into urns. the ceremonies have gotten larger and more complicated. No more does the cleric just pull down the standard text and appear at the appointed hour. “Attention must be paid,” as Arthur Miller wrote, in “Death of a Salesman,” and that attention comes out of our lives. It’s take-out dinners instead of the slow-cooked economy model. It’s gas for the home visit, hours to read through all the old familiar quotes, the ceremonies that worked best, for elements that start the crafting of this one unique ceremony.

As I say, with all this beloved work, when these ceremonies end, the good-byes can be a little awkward. I’m not good at closure anyway, which is the main reason I want to get out of this industry. That’s what I liked about parish work — the stable, ongoing relationships.

But perhaps a lot of folks feel this discomfort — both the mourners and the clerics, the free rangers and the regulars.

So instead of just saying, “I quit, ” I’m putting it out there. What are other folks finding, both in settlement and beyond? 

Greetings from the Trust Capital

Once again UU leaders are despairing about the lack of trust and mutual respect in our denominational culture. It reminds me a great deal of earlier discussions about sexual attraction: if you don’t name the positions of power and vulnerability, you’re not really talking about sexual attraction. Pure desire rests on a foundation of dynamic equality.

Which brings me to the worry about “trust.” Here in Vermont, our culture displays exactly the kind of trust and mutual respect these bloggers and thinkers long for. 

And what do we get in return? The nation’s highest rate of embezzlement.

And who’s #2?  The state that sends us bumper stickers saying, “Practice Aloha.”

I can’t speak for Hawaii, but in the article that brought this data together for us, the analysts blame two factors:

1) Too much trust

2) Too many small businesses (and small towns, to judge from the local news) that operate according to who they know and reject outside interference. In other words, “mutual respect.”

This is one reason I call for denominational officers who spend less time on vision and more on nuts and bolts.

When it comes to trust and mutual respect, I’m a pure Reaganite:

“Trust, but verify.”

One Last Drip: To Better Associate

Never say you’re never doing something anymore, because ocean liners don’t stop on small dimes. Anyway, while making tea this morning, my mind lit on one of my top pet peeves in UU culture — and came up with a potential help.

The gripe: when worship leaders ask visitors to identify themselves, to further clarify whether they are first or second time callers in the particular congregation — and then fail to ask if anyone has been part of a UU congregation before.

The reason I know I like this is that I have seen it done. I love having people shout out the name of someplace that previously has only been a boldface pattern of letters is UU World. Suddenly, here is part of that church –the real church, not the building — right here among us! Marvel.

Maybe denominational affairs committees could work with this in some way. It feels very different to shift from one UU congregation to another. And while some change sites of worship for religious reasons, many do not. They treasure their UU polity knowledge, their traditions. They are grieving and hoping this new place will have some of their favorite features. So why not just ask?

It is said that doing this intimidates visitors who come in from other, or no, religious traditions. I can’t imagine that our huge store of inspiration and training lacks the ability to frame agreeable words of equality around this diversity.

The purpose of the pulpit rotations of the old Standing Order was twofold in evidence, but single in purpose. While it appeared to maintain a clerisy –a learned ministerial class — each with knowledge of many congregations, its real purpose was to persuade both congregants and clergy that they were not “lone rangers.” Proof that the clerisy was not the primary goal is that when a congregation called a council for its highest functions — usually election of a new minister — delegates from neighboring congregations might well be non-ordained laity. These councils were investigative and empowered gatherings, giving congregations real power over each other. Indeed, they ended because congregations attempted to meddle in the theological or political choices of neighbors by who they sent as delegates.

So there’s a real danger in welcoming guests from other congregations. But our current polity, with its nominating committees, its search processes, its covenants of right relations, bears no resemblance to those “once in a lifetime” councils which now have been gone for at least 150 years. Inviting people to call out the beloved name of a sibling congregation during worship — to lift it from a page or screen into our hearts while validating theirs —  keeps only the positive residue of those long-ago years — the sense that we belong to each other.



There. It’s come to me. NOW I would like to be done.

I Think We’re Done Here

Yesterday was my sixtieth birthday. Today we finally got enough warm sun for me to get into the raised bed and pull out all the little trash tree sprouts the leaf mulch left behind. Calming. Centering. The next time the sun reaches one of its heavenly markers — on the Solstice — I’ll be heading into church to marry my sweetie. After a lifetime of journeying, hiding, running, hiding, questing, craving, my heart has found a home. It had other chances, but now it hears the call, feels the embrace, rests on the smallness of it.

Fewer and fewer are the occasions, the durations in which denominational efforts inspire equivalent energy. Love, yes, for religion is key to our life. But not so much with the cultivation and care of institutional religion.

So Politywonk is leaving. My mind returns to that last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner, when everyone knows that Christopher Robin is leaving. Hopefully my changes will not result in the decades of detached neglect that Christopher Robin inflicted on his stuffed menagerie. That always used to be my fear — that if I didn’t do this stuff, no one else would. Nowadays, it’s the opposite: I do it less because so many others do it so much better.

(There might still be posts using this title until after the wedding. And I’ll probably continue some commenting. But fading… fading…)