Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Friday, 19 March 2010

Someone stole my bicycle

My dear, green, Trek hybrid bike - the one that pulled my son on his trailer-bike when he was too young to ride alone - the one that made the move from Boston to London without incident - the one I just had fixed up to a nice standard - has been stolen.

There is nothing unusual about having a bike stolen in London. Well over 20,000 are stolen in this city each year. The fact that it was stolen out of locked closet in my church does make it a bit more dismaying, but not much.

The police were surprisingly friendly on the phone, but they also made it absolutely clear that my problem was not sufficiently important for them to even bother stopping by whatsoever! My visions of CSI-like investigations were quickly dashed. There would be no fingerprinting. Checking for DNA evidence was not even in the realm of possibility. The police gave me the only thing they could give: a crime reference number. They offered no hope at all that the bike would be recovered.

You might expect that the rest of this post is going to be a tirade against crime and the deteriorating morals in this country that would allow anyone to steal from a place of worship... "What is this world coming to!!!  We need tougher laws, more police, and more prisons!!!"  Well, no...  It's not. I feel very uninterested in a tirade about this. In fact, it is my lack of anger and outrage that particularly interests me...

I discovered the 'theft' immediately before I was to lead a Sunday service. I went ahead as though nothing had happened. Indeed, it felt almost like nothing had happened. "OK, someone smashed into a locked closet inside my church and stole my bicycle. Ho hum..."

Certainly, part of my lack of outrage is related to the ordinariness of crime in the big city. Is it an indictment against humanity that it is so common? There are nearly 8 million people living in London and probably at least 2 million bikes. One in one hundred is stolen each year. It is a lot, but it is not as common as I might have thought.

There are also a few very practical reasons for my serene response to being burgled: I don't need the bike for my livelihood or to commute. I can do without it. Moreover, I am so fortunate that I can afford to replace it - even without the help I expect from my insurance.

More interesting and relevant though is how to think about and respond to this event from a religious perspective.

Traditionally, I suppose, the primary religious response is condemnation. Stealing is a major sin in the Abrahamic faiths, after all. Stealing from a church has got to earn you a special and particularly toasty place in hell... but, of course, that kind of religion is not my kind. I want to take a more nuanced view of crime. My view of evil and sin are not quite so black and white as that.

In my own faith, a central pillar is the conviction that every single person possesses inherent worth and dignity. As a result, we should treat each person with respect and work for fairness and justice. Of course, I was not treated with anything like respect by the thief. What if we look at the broader picture and ask about the worth and dignity of the perpetrator.

I don't know who stole my bike, of course, but it was almost certainly not someone like me - a person who has had a brilliant education, a loving family life, great role models, guidance in climbing the success ladder, and access to the levers of power. It was more likely a person who, by accident of birth, was deprived of the things that make it so easy to be a moral, compassionate, productive, and successful member of society. It would not be at all surprising if the thief had a substance-dependence, and desperate for the next drink or the next fix, was looking for the easiest way to get some quick cash.

I think also about the importance of having a sense of ownership and belonging in our society. I have such a sense because of the opportunities offered to me and the attitudes of the people who surrounded me in my formative years. My upbringing made it clear to me that I had much to gain from playing by the rules. Those who know they benefit from the system are unlikely to act antisocially. The feeling of having nothing to lose is dangerous for individuals and for the overall cohesion and health of society.

We are all part of a web of existence - interconnected inextricably one to the other. While the thief has responsibility to me [and he/she abused that responsibility big time!], I must also have a responsibility to him/her. 

Some will surely see what I am about to say as a weak and woolly liberal way to look at things, but I am reminded by this incident of my role in the systems that created the thief that stole from me. I am comfortable financially. I have had the advantages that got me where I am. The same institutions that helped me and made it possible for me to get where I am fail many others and keep them down. My success and comfort are built, in a real way, on the poverty of others. My religious orientation tells me that I must be uncomfortable - maladjusted, as Dr. King put it - to this essential unfairness in society. Thus, as one of those who is advantaged by the existing systems, I must recognize it as my duty to make the world a better, fairer place.

The loss of my bike is not a 'just payment' for my share of creating equality and a level playing field. Theft is still wrong and I would still prosecute the thief given a chance! But, I want this incident to be a wake-up call to me to become more aware of my blessings and my good fortune and of what I owe to those upon whose deprivation my comfort rests.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Thank you to the homophobe!

In March of 2008, my congregation became the first and only religious community in all of Great Britain to refuse to host legal unions for straight couples until we were allowed to treat same-sex couples equally. Recently, we have been overjoyed to see our cause moving forward as a decision of the House of Lords supported lifting the ban on registering civil partnerships in religious premises. There is still a ways to go before this becomes law, but the direction is worthy of celebration!

We can take some small amount of credit for movement toward justice. There are many others to thank. Baron Waheed Ali, who sponsored the move in the Lords is high on my personal heroes list at the moment. I am also grateful to the Quakers, Liberal Jews, and members of the Metropolitan Community Church who also took up the banner of this cause along the way.

And now, with movement in the right direction, it would be natural to sit back and relax, pleased with ourselves and our progress. And here I must offer my greatest and most profound thanks to Lillian Ladele.

You see, it was Lillian's refusal, supported by her handlers at the Christian Institute, to do her job as a Registrar in the London borough of Islington that awakened my congregation to the injustice in the Civil Partnership Act in the first place.  Lillian found herself asked to register same-sex civil partnerships. "No way", said the unwed mother and devout Christian, "I won't condone that sin!" as opposed to all the other sins with which she seemed to have no problem.

And now, just when the supporters of same-sex partnership justice are at risk of becoming complacent, Lillian has come to the rescue once again!!

As her latest appeal against her repeated losses in the courts failed utterly to interest Britain's Supreme Court, she is considering taking the issue to the European Court of Human Rights.

As apathy is the enemy of justice, Lillian Ladele has become its unexpected friend. By reminding us that there are people everywhere who would be happy to abridge the freedoms of anyone not like them, she refreshes our determination to struggle on!

Thank you Lillian! The struggle for justice could not succeed without you!

Monday, 15 March 2010

Salvation offered here!

Walk down a main street in any major city and there they are - ready to give you a free "personality test" or hook you up to the Hubbard Electrometer, to measure your stress level. They are the Scientologists. They describe their device, also called the e-meter, as "a religious artifact used to measure the state of electrical characteristics of the 'static field' surrounding the body," It is a simple a resistance meter. For the naive and lonely, however, it can be the beginning of a journey into a 'religious' group that has been criticized for its strong-arm tactics, and its tendency to drain your bank account far faster than if fills you with spiritual sustenance.

Scientology seems an easy target. Founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, some of its beliefs seem, well... silly. In addition, the Church of Scientology has amassed tremendous wealth. Numerous reports suggest that its leaders organize various kinds of harassment against detractors - and particularly against former members. In many ways, Scientology seems more like a successful, fiercely aggressive business than a religion.

Scientology and other groups were once described with the derogatory epithet 'cults.' Such groups are now usually described - at least by academics - using the more neutral term 'new religious movements' or NRMs. Some, but not all NRMs have the heavily manipulative character that we tend to associate with 'cults.' Some, but not all of them manage to amass tremendous wealth for their founders or gurus.

But then, the lines between 'normal' conventionally accepted religions and abusive groups are not all that clear. To those who don't believe in the basic tenets of Christianity, the notion that you are doomed to eternal damnation if you don't believe that a particular historical character was the human embodiment of the one true God can look pretty abusive too - especially when some of the more elaborate descriptions of hell get trotted out.

A rather uncharitable definition of Christianity has been making the rounds on the internet:
Christianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.
Whether or not you find Christianity believable or not, let's not forget the enormous wealth of the Catholic Church. And this religious group has been even tougher on some of its critics than the worst accusations against the Scientologists. Does the Inquisition ring a bell with anyone? Burning at the stake seems just a tad bit more severe than harassment... or is that just me?

But, my intention is not to make a mockery of any particular religious group. There are few who don't deserve at least some of the very critical treatment that we tend to reserve for 'cults.'

The question I really want to ask is what kind of behavior is acceptable.  I suspect that there will be a broad area of agreement in some key areas: We can probably agree that any religious group that is solely out for financial profit is illegitimate.  Most of us would also agree that any religious group that uses physical violence or other severe and harmful methods to enforce its rules or beliefs or to prevent the defection of its members is unacceptable.

But these are the exceptional circumstances. Much more relevant is the behavior of religions with good intent. What is acceptable action for a religious group that has no aim but to help others? What if a religious group truly and deeply believes that it has the answer and knows what is best for humanity. How far should that group go in trying to convince people to do what they believe is good for everyone?

Let's put aside the fact that it seems incredibly arrogant for any one group to suggest that it knows what's best for others. I will do that because the fact is that we all do this. I say that freedom is better than slavery. Why? It just is!  It's obvious!  Well, is it? In a post-modern world context, I don't really have a right to make that judgment. Well, yeah, but I'll do it anyway because I just know that I'm right!

How about the Alpha Course? This incredibly popular Christian program is advertised with the slogan "Explore the meaning of life." That sounds nice and appealing, doesn't it? Who, in this frantic, materialistic, fragmented world doesn't want to get a better handle on 'the meaning of life'? Well, Alpha Course is not the inclusive program that its slogan would suggest. By the end, the goal is for you to be speaking in tongues and accepting Jesus as your personal lord and savior! "Explore the meaning of life" is an attractive ruse to get you into the hopper of what is essentially an Evangelical Christian conversion machine. [Yes, I know that some people have had more open inclusive experiences in Alpha Course groups. It certainly varies somewhat from place to place, but as far as I can tell, inclusive is the exception.]

Perhaps what bothers me most about these tactics is that I'm not using them and that I'm not willing to use them. I'm intent on sticking to honesty in the way I present Unitarianism. And I stick to this even though I know that we could be helping millions to 'explore the meaning of life' and even though I believe with great certainty that Unitarianism could help reduce hostility and misunderstanding, and could help create a more peaceful world.

Part of the problem is that we're too ethical to trick people - even for 'their own good'! We're too respectful of other perspectives to say that we've got the answer... even though we do.  We have the answer because we recognize that many different perspectives - even ones that contradict each other - are true! We have the answer because the answer is that there is no single destination, but that journeying together in love is the 'right' way to be religious.

Well, do I put up a banner saying "salvation guaranteed here" so that I can later slip in the message that salvation is offered everywhere and anywhere and that the trick is in finding the courage to understand, accept, and love?

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

In praise of bigness

Vision matters. It is as simple as the fact that we can't get anywhere unless we have some idea where we want to go. Even though our destination will very likely end up different from the end we had envisioned, it still takes the vision to get us there!

I have a vision for my congregation. While the congregation has begun to cast a vision as a community, that work has, thus far, been at an abstract level - something like the vision for a car being 'fast' rather than 'a turbo-charged V8 so it can do 0 to 60 in 1.2 seconds.'  The elaboration of these high level visions needs to happen. In the meantime, my own vision continues to come gradually into focus.

The congregation is growing fast. We added 22 new members over the past year on top of a membership of 60-70. There is always turnover and we lost six people in the same time period. [don't worry - they're not actually lost, just moved on or away]  Thus, we grew by about 24% this year. It was similar the year before and the year before that.

If we continue on at this rate of growth, we could be 200 members in four years.

[Readers in the US: please note that everything in British Unitarianism is much smaller than you'd expect. You can generally divide US numbers by 10 to get a good estimate. About 5% of the population overall attends church regularly. Unitarian congregations average 15 members. Annual meetings include about 400 people. The largest Unitarian congregation in England has fewer than two hundred members.]

Is this growth a good thing? I think it's fantastic. I think so first because my sense of mission tells me that it is our moral responsibility to welcome people into a community that we have found so transformative. [Thanks to Peter Morales for the framing around an ethical obligation.] Thus, the fact that we are growing means we are doing the work we should be doing to help others and help the world.

I think it's wonderful also because of my vision for the congregation. My vision involves bigness - big bigness even! Why?

A Unitarian congregation is a very different beast from any other. Our ethos is to gather together people with very different viewpoints and perspectives - all under the same roof - and we believe that the intimate encounter with difference helps us all to grow in perspective, awareness, wisdom, and openness. We also recognize that different people can and probably should take different paths toward wholeness and meaning. What helps one grow more connected, centred, and deeply human is not necessarily right for another.

It takes big numbers to offer an environment with the variety of perspectives, influences, and experiences that can support a real diversity of paths. A very small congregation is able to provide very little more than Sunday services and the occasional social gathering. The truth is that - however good a preacher you've got - it is not possible to provide spiritual experiences in that setting that are both deep and broad. Thus, the small congregation has to choose between deep but narrow and broad but shallow - not a particularly appealing choice for a religious movement with aims such as ours.

With increasing numbers, we begin to be able to offer more programming and we naturally have the likelihood of including more diversity in their membership. We can begin to offer depth in more directions and support people along individual paths in a way that worship services simply can not do.

My vision is of a congregation big enough and diverse enough to offer breadth and depth. In this vision congregation, each person is introduced in worship and through discussion with others to a very broad array of perspectives. It is then immediately possible to drop into a wide variety of groups that are actively engaged in depth exploration in many different traditions, practices, and ways of being.

I imagine ten to twenty spirituality groups taking place at any one time. They may explore traditional and non-traditional paths. Some will tend more toward instruction and others more toward exploration. Some will be short-term and others will be ongoing established groups.  All will involve mutual support and the opportunity for authentic connection. Some people may remain in one group for many years as they settle into a path or practice that seems right for them. Others may move between groups more rapidly, as they continue to explore and also to change as their own needs change.

How big is big? I imagine that with 500 members [I hear gasps on this side of the Atlantic and yawns on the other], the potential is there to have depth in a very broad range of directions and approaches.

Of course, beyond the breadth and depth opportunities, such numbers bring many other blessings. A congregation of this size can easily support substantial programmes for children and youth, it can sustain support groups for a wide variety of needs, can have significant staff to specialize in different areas, can mount meaningful social action and social justice efforts, and can be a very significant voice for inclusiveness and justice in the larger community.

Yes, this vision is completely out of scale with what is currently happening in British Unitarianism. But, then again, everything that my congregation has done has gone dramatically against the flow...  That's how we like it!

Monday, 8 March 2010

Growth for growth's sake - NOT!

As someone who is passionate about the growth of congregations that make a difference in people's lives, I think that the derisive phrase 'growth for growth's sake' is easily the most irritating four words I have ever heard.

What would that even mean?  I suppose some of the nerdiest among us might like numbers for their own sake and enjoy graphing arbitrary quantities and how they change...  Maybe people with a statistics fetish could really get into this!  "ooh, yes, fit that curve baby! Oh yes, your third degree polynomial drives me wild!!!"

Let's imagine for a moment that we are talking about a hospital. After all, both congregations and hospitals offer healing - admittedly of a different sort, but healing nonetheless.

If the hospital is intent on increasing the number of people it treats, do we consider that a bad thing? Of course not. Increasing numbers means more people being helped. In my congregation, growth is sought because we know that each person who joins us is another person who gains the support and love that we offer and another chance to help make a better world. So, we try to grow. It's not because growth sounds good or makes us happy, it's because we have a sense that this is part of our moral duty - no less than to share plentiful food with the starving.

The phrase 'growth for growth's sake' is a form of sour grapes - discounting something because we are afraid of not being able to achieve it. Many congregations run away from the pursuit of growth because they know that failing will make them feel even worse that they already do.

People who use this ridiculous phrase usually want to say that growth doesn't matter and then follow that by saying something like "it's not how many people we have, but the quality of our experience. We should focus on perfecting our congregation and then people will come."

On the surface, that notion - perfect the product and people will flock to you - seems sensible. It has three fatal flaws:
  1. It is selfish.  If you have something wonderful that has changed your life and it doesn't cost you anything to share it, what kind of person are you if you don't try to share it as widely as you can?
  2. No product - no matter how wonderful - sells itself. No one would have an iPod without advertising. Imagine if Apple produced a great product and marketed it like many congregations share their 'products'! A tiny sign, no indication of when the product is available, no suggestion of what it's even good for!  Good luck!
  3. Finally, this is not a product that we perfect and then hope that 'customers' come. The product is made by the customers. Every new person who comes brings new life and new ideas and substantially changes and makes the product their own. 
We are not growing for growth's sake. There is no such thing. We are growing for the sake of the people who can be healed by being part of an accepting, engaging, enlivening spiritual community.

How to grow a congregation

The congregation that I lead - the Newington Green and Islington Unitarians - has grown extremely quickly over the past several years. What we have done is not magic. It depends on a variety of well-known and well-tested strategies. It depends on steps also that change attitudes from self-centred to 'other-centred' - an absolutely critical culture change.

I want to share what I have learned and what works.

I have outlined a scheme below. It offers a clear step-wise approach to congregational growth. It is important to note that these recommendations do not define the only path to growth, but any congregation that successfully follows this programme has a very good chance of achieving their aims.

Some of the more advanced steps may seem daunting. Any journey must be taken one step at a time. When climbing a mountain, it is best not to start out by focusing on the peak - focus on the natural next step for your congregation. Achieving the next step will give you a sense of accomplishment that will energize you for more.

And so, I offer this programme to you to do with as you wish. The programme is organized into four levels which correspond to levels of accomplishment in working toward growth.

If you want to use them, your congregation may choose to make achieving a given level a cause for celebration. I hope you will! Groupings of congregations (e.g. districts) may choose to adopt the scheme and create ways of recognizing and providing incentives for congregations that complete a particular level. You may use it as the road map for a growth group or growth leader.

I will also be very happy to answer questions and offer guidance and advice to any Unitarian congregation that is interested.


At least nine of the following:
  1. A friendly and welcoming person is always available to greet newcomers as they arrive or enter the chapel
  2. Signs at your building are clear and include welcoming language intended to draw newcomers
  3. Worship is held according to a regular, publicly-available schedule
  4. Newcomers are invited to attend at least one programme or event apart from Sunday services
  5. Instructions (e.g. when to stand and sit) are offered during Sunday services spoken from the pulpit and/or in writing
  6. Serve refreshments after services
  7. A welcome message to newcomers is given from the pulpit at each Sunday service
  8. There is a congregational web site, and it contains current, accurate information
  9. Keep records of attendance and visitor numbers. Make these available to the congregation.
  10. Evaluate the appearance of your building both inside and out with regard to how welcoming and attractive it is for newcomers.


All of the following:
  1. Launch a process for the congregation to explore its purpose/mission in the world (e.g. facilitated congregational meeting/meetings).
  2. Follow-up on the input from this purpose/mission process to move toward a clear, compelling statement or identify a consensus feeling from this process.
  3. Invite an objective person (or preferably two) to visit and attend a service and prepare a 'worshiper report' from the perspective of a newcomer. Share this information with the congregation and the leadership.
  4. Establish a growth group OR designate one growth leadership person to examine congregational practice and decisions with a view to promoting growth and to voice the perspective of the future members who have not yet arrived.
  5. Evaluate the appearance of your building both inside and out with regard to how welcoming and attractive it is for newcomers. Seek feedback from newcomers and make appropriate changes as feasible.
  6. Consider the impression given by your newsletter/calendar and make changes as appropriate so that it is attractive to, and inclusive for, newcomers.
At least one of the following:
  1. Begin to study the population within reasonable travel distance from your building with an eye to identifying a demographic segment that you will try to attract. List groups of interest (e.g. newly retired, young adults, families with children or University students)
  2. Examine your congregation's practices and literature and consider the sorts of people to whom are likely to appeal. Ask whether they are suitable for your context.


At least nine of the following:
  1. Develop a clear, compelling congregational purpose/mission statement with congregational approval OR prepare a consensus statement(s) of purpose/mission.
  2. Keep the purpose/mission in front of the leadership and membership (e.g. printed in newsletters, spoken at meetings and services)
  3. Place the challenges identified by the 'worshiper report' in order of descending priority. Take action on the top 5
  4. Select a demographic segment of the local population and compile a report describing this group (e.g. tastes, lifestyles, media used, and interests) OR estimate the number and location of the people in your vicinity who are likely to find your current message and practices appealing.
  5. Through a congregational process, develop and approve a set of expectations for how members of the congregation will be toward one another. Keep these expectations in the attention of the membership and leadership (e.g. in your newsletter and other appropriate literature)
  6. Develop and approve a process for dealing with disruptive behaviour in the congregation OR have key leaders trained in conflict management.
  7. At least one fourth of Committee members are new to the congregation (three years or less)
  8. Put a process in place to ensure that visitors newcomers are spoken to by at least three people before and/or after the service.
  9. Visitors to the Sunday service receive a welcome message (email, phone or post) by the end of the following Tuesday
  10. Committee creates and commits to a covenant for its own practices. The covenant includes the expectation that all decisions will be made in the best interest of the congregation and its future.
  11. The congregation is mentioned in the media at least four times in the preceding year.


At least eight of the following:
  1. Make a practice of asking new visitors for their honest impressions either in person, by phone, or using a written survey
  2. Begin at least one new programme/service/event geared specifically toward the preferences of newcomers
  3. Hold occasional newcomer orientation events intended to help them understand and feel more connected to Unitarianism and the congregation.
  4. Train welcomers to help newcomers feel comfortable and connect to the congregation
  5. Evaluate your congregation in light of your understanding of your target demographic group and list any identified challenges in descending order of importance. Take action on top 5.
  6. Identify and alter 3 long-standing customs that do not foster growth
  7. At least one third of Committee members are new to the congregation (three years or less)
  8. Hold at least one workshop directly addressing resistance to growth.
  9. The congregation is mentioned in the media at least six times in the preceding year.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Why I don't eat meat

As I child, I decided I would stop eating meat. It was one of those goofy things that kids do and I don't recall how long it lasted - it wasn't long. I went right back to my old ways soon thereafter and became a confirmed and unhesitating meat eater. One day, many years later, my son, then in his early teens, announced that he was going to stop eating meat. Without a moment's pause, I found myself saying that said I would join him. I have been a pescatarian (fish-eating vegetarian) ever since. It has been about five years now.

People often ask me why I chose this life style. Meat eaters want to know why I am 'depriving' myself of the essential pleasure of eating meat. Vegetarians want to know why I am such a wimp and not ethical or committed enough to go all the way to abstain from eating fish. [Vegans, who do not consume any animal products - including milk and eggs - are so far above me on the moral scale that they barely think I'm worth talking to.]

For a while, I would respond to the questions from carnivorous inquirers with a recitation of my various ethical rationales for avoiding meat. I could create a fairly convincing story when I tried. But the honest truth is that I had no reason for my choice - at least no overwhelming conscious one.

Now, there are plenty of good reasons to remove meat from our diets and all of them are made infinitely more compelling by the fact that meat eating is simply a choice: we do not need to eat meat to survive or to be healthy: 1) Meat eating is bad for your health - avoiding it is clearly better for your heart and circulatory system. 2) Farming meat is a very inefficient way to feed people - only one tenth as many people can be fed on meat than on the grain needed to produce that amount of meat. (This is hard to justify morally in a world where people continue to starve.) 3) The production of meat produces an enormous quantity of greenhouse gases, connecting our dietary preferences connecting to the acceleration of global warming. 4) The animals we eat are different from us in only subtle ways. To me at least, unnecessarily killing creatures with personalities and brains that work a lot like ours is just wrong. 5) Last, but not least, there is Bambi - the cuteness argument. How can you eat something with a cute face? [This is related to my rationalization for eating fish. Not nearly so cute!]

But the true basis for my decision was something different. I jumped at the opportunity to make myself a particularly awkward dinner guest because I wanted to be different. Not just different in the sense of odd or quirky [although those who know me will happily offer that I didn't need to eat differently for that.] What I wanted - without recognizing it consciously - was a way of living that connected to my broader spiritual choices and commitments.

In that, I was being anything but unique. Virtually every religious tradition has imposed some sort of dietary restrictions. Jews have the laws of Kosher and Muslims, in a very closely related system, eat only food that is Halal. Buddhists avoid all meat, Hindus do not eat beef, Christians have their fasts, and so on.

Many, many reasons have been put forward for religious dietary rules. From my own experience though,  the power of a dietary restriction is that I have had something to remind me every day of my commitments - of the person I am trying to be. And, it has some real advantages in that it is easier than never cutting my hair, less conspicuous than growing a huge beard, less painful than piercings, and much less permanent than tattoos!

The world we live in does not make it easy to be mindful and deliberate about our choices. We are bombarded by stimuli and dazzled with temptations at every moment. It is a tremendous challenge to recall our deeper commitments amid the many demands on our attention. The way I eat is just one small way in which I can keep myself present to the way of life I have chosen and the vision I have set out to reach.

Although my reasons for becoming a pescatarian initially had little to do with the good moral reasons for avoiding meat, I have since become convinced that this is indeed a good way to live responsibly on the earth. I have tried not to be militant about it, but I do feel very strongly that it is considerate of our fellow human beings, it is respectful to the other creatures that share our planet, and it is a way to live more lightly on the Earth itself.

And, by the way, I would really enjoy some barbecued ribs right about now and my home-made tofu jerky, while tasty, is not nearly the same...

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Spiritual evolution?

More and more, I am hearing the notion that we and/or the earth are 'evolving' to a greater spiritual consciousness. This is strongly in evidence in Eckhart Tolle's book, A New Earth, in which Tolle tells of a change that he describes as
...a more profound shift in planetary consciousness that is destined to take place in the human species. This is the spiritual awakening that we are beginning to witness now.
I came across this notion again recently in an encounter with EnlightenNext, the group that exists to spread the teachings of their guru, Andrew Cohen. They describe themselves as "dedicated to catalyzing evolution in consciousness and culture."

On the surface, the sense that we are evolving toward some higher state of consciousness is an appealing one. It feels as though it creates an opportunity to free ourselves of the restrictive dogmas and creeds of many traditional religions. After all, in a postmodern world, the appeal of a single 'right answer' or a single 'right story' is very limited. And indeed, an extent of freedom is present and offered in these ways of thinking.

But that freedom is somewhat illusory. It is more a substitution than a liberation as a new magical story is being substituted for the old. Somehow, we are told, human beings are becoming something very different. It is supernaturally coming upon us and we need to cooperate with this great impending change.  This seems little different from the prediction that the Kingdom of God is just around the corner, as the followers of Jesus of Nazareth began saying nearly two millennia ago.

I have nothing against a good story, as long as we recognize that it is a story - to be taken metaphorically rather than as a fact. The problem with false facts is that they are eventually revealed, leaving behind the wreckage of shattered faith and lives roughly stripped of the meaning that sustained them. The world that we are told is evolving spiritually is also the site of tremendous hostility and hatred, an increasing gap between rich and poor, and catastrophic environmental degradation. Will these contrary trends not rattle the new stories?

As a trained biologist and a trained minister, I have an unusual perspective on the prospect of combining  science and religion. I find it frequently in the air these days - particularly among people who would describe themselves more as spiritual than as traditionally religious. Talk of evolutionary consciousness or evolutionary spirituality falls in this category, as do attempts to equate some of the mysterious observations of quantum physics with various world scriptures. It was a liberating moment when humankind separated the concepts of science and faith. It left science free to develop unhampered by dogmatic restrictions. Religion benefited too... no longer would it need to contort itself to attempt to fit its stories to the scientific facts, with which it was so much at odds.

And now, oddly, both the most reactionary and the most adventurous in the world of spirituality
wish to bring faith and science back together. The former, to fit science into its old story and the latter to build spiritual structures upon scientific foundations. Neither is an advisable enterprise.

Spirituality and science should remain separate. It is not that they are inconsistent, but that they are different. Science analyzes the way things are. Spirituality and religion speak to our aspirations and our dreams. When we try to use science to support our spirituality, we are invariably building heaven on shaky ground.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

We have a hit - Bright Lights

It is so incredibly satisfying when you try something new and it works on the very first time out of the box. When Edison was trying to find a material that would be suitable as a filament in his invention of the light bulb, it is reported that he tried at least 900 different substances before hitting on one that worked!  

My congregation has been incredibly fortunate to have our new Bright Lights programme work the first time right out of the box!  Yesterday, we held the second in this monthly series of these gatherings for families and children. We started last month and had seven kids (plus their parents). Today, it was thirteen kids and lots of parents. It felt great!

What a very nice rate of increase! If we just keep growing at this rate, attendance will exceed 6,000 by the end of this year. Another year and we can expect just over 10 million... See the graph.  [Sorry - pathetic geek humour...]

Somehow, we've managed to hit on a formula that works. We begin with a quick craft project that the kids can start as soon as they arrive. Then, we all say together:
This is the home of the open mind,
The loving heart,
And the helping hands.
Together we care for our earth
And work for friendship and peace in our world
...and there are movements that go with each line that the kids just love to do!

Then there's a chalice lighting where one child each month gets to light the chalice - a truly awesome experience for the lighter and everyone else as they become silent seeing one of their own number allowed to do the hitherto forbidden magic of fire!
For the chalice lighting, we all say together:
We light this chalice for the light of truth.
We light this chalice for the warmth of love.
We light this chalice for the energy of action.

At about this time, they're ready to make some noise and the basket full of maracas and tambourines goes out in preparation for a rousing three verses of This Little Light of Mine accompanied by sometimes exuberant and often slightly confused child-hood maraca and tambourine artistry.

The centre-point of the event is a story with lots of participation, and an important message. Last month was 'we're happier when we help other people to be happy.' This month, we hit 'everyone is special' with a story about a very nice fellow whose appearance scared everyone until they finally got to know him.

Another song - from the canon of children's favourites - yesterday's was When You're Happy and You Know it.

And finally, we end with these shared closing words:
Walk softly.
Speak truthfully.
Love gently.
Breathe deeply.
Live wisely.
Go in peace.
And then the crucial time I like to think of as snacks and chaos - well, barely controlled chaos, as the parents chat, the kids scarf down food and run around together having a great time in our large space...  

Of course, it's not just the formula that makes it work. The team is essential! Without Amy, Deborah, Jenny, and Darren, this would not have worked at all. How we ended up with the perfect team is beyond me... It could easily have been a flop without any of these wonderful people and, at best, it would not have nearly the richness it has or be as lively and natural. Amy magically shows up with inspired concepts and brilliant materials. Deborah has the knack of creating craft projects that work for every age. Jenny smoothly and effortlessly creates a refreshment scene that welcomes and manages to be right for all ages. Darren is the lively and lovely musician... and I must say that yesterday, Darren was the most amazing piano-playing Mr. Big - the misunderstood gorilla! Awesome...

Finally, I think it's crucial that we're clear about what we're trying to achieve. Bright Lights is about a fun, engaging experience, but it's also about helping families to raise kids who are kind, compassionate, justice-seeking people - ready to play their part in a pluralistic world moving toward more peace, equality, and harmony. The values we aim to share in every session:
Each person is important
Be kind in all you do
We're free to learn together
We search for what is true
All people need a voice
Build a fair and peaceful world
We care for our Earth

Growing pains

The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order. ~ Alfred North Whitehead
Have you ever driven fast? Really fast? It's thrilling!  It's also terrifying. The steering that works so well and easily at lower speeds becomes dangerously inadequate. Road hazards and turns approach incredibly fast. A slight touch of the wheel causes sudden veering in either direction. Nothing works quite the way you anticipate.

My congregation has grown very quickly. It is a sports car among sedate sedans. It is arguably the fastest growing Unitarian congregation in Britain. It almost certainly has the youngest average membership. I should be very pleased, and I am. But I am also afraid - very afraid. The steering system that worked so well a few years ago will soon become dangerously inadequate. The challenge is how to continue zooming along under reasonable control at higher and higher speeds.

The growth over the past few years was associated with a very fluid organization. Individuals could get inspired and go off and doing something great. The excitement from some new initiative would interest a few more people who would then get inspired, feel empowered and do it again. Inspiration coupled with an environment that not only allowed but encouraged initiative and experimentation made for a place where anything could happen. In a small organization, where everyone knew what the others were up to, this was manageable. At low speed, the steering mechanism was quite adequate.

As I look around at other congregations, at our national leadership organization, and - in fact - at most organizations religious and otherwise that have grown beyond a certain size, there is a very different pattern. Fluidity is absent. Rigidity is the norm. Elaborate processes are applied to any and seemingly to every issue. From the outside, one is dumbfounded to observe the enormous amount of time and energy that goes into making even the simplest of decisions. This over-processing is often done in the name of 'building consensus' or  'getting people on board', but in reality, it fails either to build consensus or to allow progress.

And yet, the change from complete fluidity to something else is natural and necessary as organizations grow.  At higher speed, the leadership begins to get nervous. Where one could easily know what was going on at a smaller size, those systems are increasingly inadequate and leaders begin to worry about whether they might lose control and see the whole thing spin into a fiery crash.

With that worry in your gut, it is tempting to do just one thing: slam on the brakes! In the congregation, this is manifested by making sure that everything that happens has to go through the Committee (and often other processes) first, and furthermore, that the default answer to all questions is 'no' - if a proposal is not explicitly permitted and approved, it remains in the forbidden category.  After all, it is always 'safer' to say 'no.' No one can blame you for a crash if you never start rolling in the first place! The culture of 'no' will not not move you very fast - it may not move you at all - but it is indisputably safe.

Another reason this is attractive to many leaders is that it doesn't take too much time or expertise to say 'no.' Elected congregational leaders are usually chosen not on the basis of any particular expertise. They may (hopefully) have some general skills suitable for committee work, but they are leaders primarily because they are committed and willing to serve, so they rarely have significant expertise in the areas about which they are asked to make decisions. They also don't have time to gain the relevant expertise, devoting typically just a few hours a month to what is an increasingly complex undertaking. And so, the culture of safety and over-process and the culture of 'no' can readily take over.

Of course, safe is not at all the same as faithful, and the safe culture of 'no' is not the faithful culture. It is not the culture that makes for a dynamic community or a community that dares to reach out in bold ways to change the world for the better.

My deep fear is that the bold and faithful community that is the Newington Green and Islington Unitarians will become as hide-bound as most congregations are - moving along slowly and cautiously guided by an ethos that puts safety first and almost always finds a way to say 'no.'

Sadly, I see this culture dominating many of our Unitarian congregations and other Unitarian bodies. Often the fear is of alienating anyone, and so 'no' is a safe response that removes that risk. It also removes any chance of change. Dying congregations seem often to be the most conservative ones - keeping a firm hand on the wheel as they slowly, carefully, and deliberately drive straight toward the precipice.

To a great extent, we can be forgiven for taking the wrong approach.  Growing into a governance system that handles speed without hitting the brakes is not easy and good models for how to adapt are not prevalent.

Changes are most certainly needed with increased size. There is unquestionably an increasing need to systematize and routinize. Fortunate British Unitarian congregations have one staff member - the minister. Very often, that individual's efforts are divided among multiple congregations. With growth, it becomes impossible for staff to oversee everything that is going on.

The best solution I have heard to this problem is the 'permission giving church' model that has been promoted by Bill Easum, among others. As Easum describes:
Permission-giving churches have clear mission statements, vision statements, and value statements. They have a clear sense of purpose that allows people to perform ministry based on that purpose without having to ask.
Instead of adopting the top-down business model with its tight control and default of 'no', the permission giving model makes the assumption that we are a community of people each with our own ability to discern the direction in which we should move. [What could be more appropriate for Unitarians?] It makes decisions with a default of 'yes.' The critically important role for leaders is not to control, but to help the congregation to clarify its own core principles and dreams: its values, vision, and mission. With those well-defined and clearly (and frequently) communicated, the job of the leaders becomes to encourage and facilitate inspiration and initiative. A new idea develops and the leadership, seeing that it fits the core principles, asks 'how can we help?' The default of 'yes' becomes 'no' only when an initiative would violate the core values, mission, or vision.

The permission giving model clearly has its challenges. What if no one is inspired to work on the building? Do you just let it fall down? Clearly, the leadership needs to make sure that some essential functions are being covered. But when it comes to the ministry of the organization, it is the most trusting and faithful way I know of to help the congregation live out its calling.

We have seen the failure of the system of control and the system of safety as exercised in most of our organizations. As a faith committed to the the worth and dignity of every person - a faith that speaks of the power of human reason as the best way to discern the truth - wouldn't it make sense to allow for more inspiration to bubble up rather than to keep the cork on so very tightly? I know that it is frightening to move to a position where we are prepared to say 'yes' to most new ideas, but it should be even more frightening to observe the slow-motion shuffle toward extinction propelled by every enervating, vitality-destroying 'no'.