View from the Penthouse

In adaptive leadership training we often talk about the “view from the balcony,” and the view from the “dance floor.”  The balcony view allows you to take a step back, observe the dance floor and the immediate things going on.  It also allows you to take the long view, absorbing the context of all that we do.  In times of tension or struggle, it’s extremely important to step back, allow the stress to fall away, and change our perception of things.

Penthouse ViewRecently I encountered a meeting with a very infectious virus, which landed me in the hospital for five days of intensive treatments.  I had to be in a private room with a special filter, and everyone who came in had to gown, mask, glove and protect their eyes.  I wasn’t allowed to leave the room.  I was quarantined.

But I had a fabulous room on the 7th floor, the “penthouse” of the hospital.  There were tall window on both sides.  I had the best view in Rochester.  Everyday I watched the sun rise and set.  It was like living in a snow globe.

While in my bubble, I had time to think about the regionalization work that we are doing.  Are we going too fast?  Is it the right time and the right thing to do?

Then I read an article about the closing of the Alban Institute, and it really hit me- we have got to change or we will die.  People have instant access to anything they want to learn about on the internet.  Alban couldn’t compete with that.

We need to stay competitive.  I look around me and see all the staff, ministers and parishioners,  all the dedicated people in our faith.  How strong their commitment to growing our faith, to reaching each person who could be served by a liberal religious, life affirming theology.  And I know that we are going to make this work.  We’ll make it work in our churches and out in the community and across the internet and in every corner.  Love is a growth industry.  There is room in all of our spaces and in our heart to send a message of hope and love, of interconnection and belonging.  At least that’s what I see.

Rev. Chris Neilson
Congregational Life Consultant SLD

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St. Patrick’s Green

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I’m wearing green – how about you? And after a winter such as we have had, that green is a precious promise of spring. A promise of fresh green grass, new lettuce and peas in the pod. This is also the season of pledge campaigns, a plea and a hope for plentiful funds and healthy budgets. I don’t think the timing is coincidence.
Spring is a time of stirring and growth, of movement and hope. My church budget, my curriculum plan, my garden and indeed my life – all will do so much better with preparation, planning and inputs at just the right time. Yet I need to keep asking, is that budget, faith development program, garden or whatever looking at potential and not just maintenance?
I have a strong need for structure and planning, so this spring I will be mindful of mission as I plant my garden and budget my time and finances. Within that container of mission there is space for experimentation and risk-taking without abandoning all of what feeds my soul and body. Diversity and adaptation are the keys to thriving in the long run, so plant your UU church garden and program within that raised bed of mission and value. Hope and pray for adequate sun and rain, but sow with an eye to trying something new and different. How cool is it that every year we get another chance to grow!
Karen LoBracco
Lifespan Faith Development Consultant for Ohio Meadville and St. Lawrence Districts

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Stopping Congregational Darwinism

Although churches be distinct, and….equal and therefore have not dominion one over another; yet all the churches ought to preserve church communion one with another…The communion of churches is exercised in sundry ways. ( 1). By way of mutual care, in taking thought for one another’s welfare.”   (Chapter 15, Cambridge Platform)

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

The above quote is from the Cambridge Platform, the 1648 declaration by our Puritan New England ancestors that established the structures of church organization that we Unitarian Universalists call congregational polity.    When some of the New England churches because Unitarian in the early 1800s, they kept and reaffirmed their roots in congregational polity.   And we affirm these foundational roots today.

Though congregations are autonomous, the Platform affirms that there must also be a community of churches in relationship with one another, living in interdependent mutual covenant.  And the first duty of this covenant relationship is that congregations must seriously consider each other’s welfare when making decisions.

This mutual covenant stands at the deepest historically roots of our Unitarian Universalist way to doing church. And yet we tend to operate as if church autonomy requires a distorted form of congregational Darwisnism –- an assumption  that survival of the fittest is the way things are supposed to work and congregations compete with one another for scarce  resources  and members.   The strong survive and the weak are relegated to the sideline to wither.

In all of my years of attending congregational meetings, I’ve rarely, if ever, heard a discussion about how the decisions we make might impact other Unitarian Universalist congregations in the cluster or district or region.   Sometimes we reluctantly talk about our obligations to pay district or UUA fair share assessments, but we rarely discuss that financial obligation as part of the much larger covenantal duty we have to all of our sister congregations.

If our congregation is thriving, we rarely give thought about how we might help other congregations nearby that aren’t doing as well as our own.  We might express some sympathy in passing or we wonder about gaining some new members if the weaker church folds.  But we don’t see the other congregation’s fate as an essential concern of our congregation.

And if our congregation is not doing that well, we rarely think to ask for assistance from other neighboring UU congregations.  We think we are fated to face a harsh reality all alone and may develop an attitude of bitterness or resentment of other congregations.

Our Puritan ancestors knew better.   They believed in congregational autonomy in mutual covenant; not congregational Darwinism.   They knew they were all in it together  — and that the strength or weakness of one was the strength and weakness of all.

If we are concerned about the future of Unitarian Universalism and if we want to be true to our roots in congregational polity, we need to put a stop to congregational Darwinism – whether we find it on our boards, in our churches or in our districts.

Rev. Joan Van Becelaere
Congregational Life Consultant and CERG Staff Lead

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First CERG Regional Con!

Learning new games!
Learning new games!

The first ever regional con happened this year in CERG! On Presidents’ Day Weekend, sandwiched between two snowstorms, 64 high school youth and 23 adults, from 39 CERG congregations, gathered at Mainline Unitarian Church in Devon, PA. St. Lawrence and Ohio Meadville–already practiced at crossing district borders–had the highest attendances! (SLD sent 26 folks and OMD 25).

Betty Jeanne Rueters-Ward
Betty Jeanne Rueters-Ward

We chose a three day weekend to make room for special programming (it being a special con) in addition to lots of social time for youth and adults to get to know each other. On Sunday afternoon Betty Jeanne Reuters-Ward, who teaches a class called Dynamic Youth Ministry as adjunct faculty at Starr King School for the Ministry, led a keynote program on the history of Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist youth movements. It was inspiring to remember that at many points in our history, the youth have led the way. Not only merging Unitarian and Universalist groups almost a decade before the UUA merger, but forming joint programming before 1900.

We had a packed room for the workshop planning next year’s CERG con and it’s clear that the youth want this to continue. It gave youth leaders a chance to experience a con when they often run them, a chance to learn from each other, a chance to make friends with youth in leadership positions like theirs, and a chance to see Unitarian Universalism on a wider scale.

As always, there were challenges. The weather was one. Another is that the different districts, while similar, do have different cultures and different assumptions. Assumptions like the appropriate order of evening worship, coffee house, and if there should be dance and different ways of structuring things like meals and workshops. Being together meant we had to explain why each district does things one way and that meant reflecting and understanding ourselves better. It also meant we got a chance to form a new culture together. Try things differently. Experiment. And, we were testing out the new CERG Youth Events policy and rules that we’d hammered out between the districts.

Maybe all of that sounds scary, but the thing is, with a church full of youth leaders and experienced adults, things that would usually have been bumpy were smooth sailing. To me, that’s one of the best parts of events like this: letting our leaders be among leaders. We’re already working on scheduling the next CERG Con. Look for it on next year’s calendar!

Wall of mail bags to send each other notes
Wall of mail bags to send each other notes

And, I’d like to give special thanks to OMD youth leader Dalin Franz and SLD youth leader Lilly Kaharis who each served as one of the three youth co-chairs for the planning committee and co-deans for the conference. They did a marvelous job!

Evin Carvill-Ziemer, Program Consultant

Ohio Meadville and St. Lawrence Districts

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