It’s Always Something

Rev. Chris NeilsonThis past week I was diagnosed with Acute Myeloblastic Leukemia and will be admitted on Monday for several days of chemotherapy followed by weeks of recovery from the effects of the medicine. It’s a scary time, and I’ve barely had a chance to catch my breath. I face an uncertain future, and a lot of days in an isolation room.

I only have about four days to get the district affairs in order before I’ll be plagued with “Chemo brain,” and while I’m willing to keep trying to keep all of my balls in the air that I’ve been juggling, almost all of what I do will need to be shared with the rest of the regional and district staff team as I face this illness. I’m sure many of you with whom I’ve been working will wonder- now who do I call? Where can we turn for help? What happens now? Many of you are still in the middle of a ministerial search. Many have completed searches, and will want to set up a start up with a new minister. Several of you are negotiating conflicts- trying to turn the congregation around to a healthy place.

Many of my projects have been reassigned- so If I’ve been scheduled to be somewhere, someone else will be doing the workshop, conversation, or whatever we had scheduled. Some things may be deferred for now. Some things may have to be cancelled.

Our lead staff consultant, Rev. Joan Van Beceleare will be the primary contact for me right now. She will delegate my duties for the short term. Karen Lobracco is on staff through June, and of course Sue Tabone is ever present in our office. Our district board will also work with Joan to see what additional resources may be needed.

I’m sorry to be off the scene so quickly and urgently, but cancer doesn’t wait for a more convenient time. If it’s not one thing, its another, but we’ll do our best to meet the needs of our congregations. It’s always something! I hope to be back before you even know I’m gone.

In faith and with love,
Rev. Chris

Editor’s Note: The staff and leadership of the Central East Regional Group and its districts wish Chris a speedy recovery and assure her we will take on what needs done in her absence.

Share on Facebook

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

Share on Facebook

“Nones” on the Bus

People often ask me, “How can we attract more young adults and families?  The key to answering that question lies in understanding the Millennial generation.  They are children born to the post WWII boomers, between 1989 and 2000, also called the Gen Y generation.

Here are some critical differences:  40% are mixed race.   They can’t relate to the racist attitudes of their elders.  They see everyone as mixed.  At least 20% have an immigrant parent.

Raised by affluent parents, they are the first American generation to do less well economically than their parents.

Sometimes they are also called the “Net” generation.  They don’t recall a time when there was no internet, and are the most technologically savvy to date.

Many are staunchly Humanist or Atheist, and will look you in the eye defiantly and tell you that they don’t need church.  They grew up without church as the center of their communal lives, a have been labeled the “nones.”

But this is what they do want:  a sense of spirituality, and a place to exercise their ethics in action.  They don’t want to sit on a pew- they want to get on the bus and  into the world to make a difference.  If they have children, they want them engaged in justice too.

OMDSI LogoCase in point.  My millennial niece knows that I am a minister, so she always says, “I suppose you’re going to drag me to church.”  I said, “Yes, I may do that, but what I thought you might enjoy more is to go to “church camp” with me.  So I took her to a week long family camp in Ohio called “Summer Institute, ”  similar to the Unirondack camp in New York.  It was life altering.  She felt accepted by her peers, she felt popular, she felt included, and freer than she ever did anywhere else in life.  (Even with the supervision that is part of the camp, she didn’t even notice the rules- and not because there were none.  Any parent could feel confident that they were monitored and safe.)  She even participated in the youth worship service.

Later when her school required a service project, she wanted to volunteer at the local Unitarian Universalist church.  I almost wept.

My recommendation is that churches do some fundraising to send the youth and families to camp.  It will solidify their UU identity, and give then a needed break from the financial and other stresses on their lives.  They may be so grateful that they return to church, renewed, refreshed, and ready to serve.

Rev. Christina Neilson
Congregational Life Consultant, CERG Stewardship Consultant

Share on Facebook

Deeply Woven Roots

RedwoodsRecently I spent the Christmas holiday in Northern California, our home for many years, for some time with my friends, the beach and the redwoods.  When I see those majestic trees, so much diminishes in their presence.  They have withstood the pressures of the ages, survived the drought and the ravages of the sea.  Yet they stand as the tallest and oldest trees in the world.

They have one weakness- very shallow roots.  Standing alone, the roots can not support the weight or the height of the tree.  One storm would knock it to the ground.  These trees survive because their shallow, tangled roots weave into the tree near it, another shoot from the mother tree, that forms a circle of interconnected trees that together can sustain any force of nature- earthquakes, tornadoes, fire, storms- none of it can destroy them. These “Kings of the Forest” are respected world wide for their strength and beauty.

Redwood RootsAnd I think of how Unitarian Universalism used to be the “Great American Religion,” now no one knows who we are.  It brings me profound sadness when I see how we destroy ourselves- through conflicts that we avoid until they blow up and cause great pain.  Through a lack of stewardship to fund our mission.  By allowing our own lives to be so full with busyness that we neglect our spiritual lives.  We have the power to change this.

John Muir says, “Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot defend themselves or run away. Through all the eventful centuries since Christ’s time, and long before that, God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand storms; but he cannot save them from sawmills and fools; this is left to the American people. “

Take care of our faith.  Remember that we are connected and can help or destroy each other.  Stand tall and link arms with your neighbor.  We are better together.

Rev. Christina Neilson
Congregational Life Consultant SLD

Share on Facebook

The Season of Generosity


The holiday season is in full swing with Thanksgiving and Hanukkah already behind us.  Black Friday has corrected the market, and everyone sighs some relief as Cyber Monday seals the deal.  Everyone, that is, except many Unitarian Universalists who interpret our principles in a way that clashes with the commodification of our values in a consumerist society.  We shun the early morning black Friday deals in exchange for shopping at small businesses.   But at the end of the day,  we still feel empty because those purchases still feed the consumeristic nature of giving rather than the generous giving from our hearts.  We may make this turning to some extent in our family, but still have to face the relatives who feel the need for a gift exchange, even if they know it burdens family members who may not be able to afford this.  And we are often caught in the middle of unrealistic expectations, high demands and competing needs.  We gather with friends and families to eat and drink too much, and by January, we are exhausted and purge the holiday memories through a new strict diet and exercise regimen.

We work hard in our church communities to resist this trend, and I’ve seen some real success. Southwest UU in North Royalton, OH, formed a simplicity circle a few years back where people exchanged concrete ideas on how to handle the holidays.  One of these ideas still stand out to me:  instead of exchanging gifts, they give the gift of “experiences.”  Now it may involve some cost, but they may have bought tickets to a movie that they could see together, or a concert, or art museum- some interest that was shared that they could talk about after the event.

Children at First Unitarian Rochester display collected gifts

Other successes involve people- First Unitarian Rochester involves the children in generous giving.  The Youth was selling soup to support one group, while another table was staffed to fund microloans to the community and food to the area food shelf.  What is their secret to success?  As Rev. Tina Simpson says, “There are two parts to giving. There is the generous heart that gives and also the generous heart that receives. Both are equally important.”

Knowing the needs of the receiver can make a huge difference.  The best gift I ever gave?  Cleaning my grandmothers house from stem to stern when her mobility limited her from cleaning the way that she would like.  She didn’t want presents, she wanted to make the food, but she sure did appreciate a clean house when company came for Christmas.  Somewhere deep inside us, is a holiday spirit that matches a need that we can meet, and makes us feel good and generous.  That is the spirit in the season of generosity.

Rev. Chris Neilson
Congregational Life Consultant, St. Lawrence District

Share on Facebook

The Great Awakening

“Resolution One: I will live for God. Resolution Two: If no one else does, I still will.” Jonathon Edwards

I preached my first sermon when I was 14.  I was in confirmation class, and one requirement was that we had to memorize various books from the bible.  I chose 1 John Chapter 1 because it is the shortest chapter in the new testament- ten verses.  I deeply questioned church doctrines, but confirmation was important to me so I slogged through the requirements in order to complete the class.

Communion SetI remember our class was discussing how we have to confess our sins so that we can be saved by Jesus, and I thought, that sounds so distorted from this intensive study I had just done.  I didn’t say anything at the time, but later I gathered up some friends and started preaching to them about what I thought the texts meant, and how God’s forgiveness and love was given to us.  It wasn’t so much that confession was the key, but acknowledgement- a very different judgment in my view.  Confession spoke of cleansing the soul, something that I thought that God did rather than us.  Our part was simply to see that which was given to us.

It started a trend of analyzing and perhaps overanalyzing the creed and other doctrinal studies we had begun.  When I was confirmed, I knew I didn’t believe the doctrines, but I had developed a very deep appreciation for God and the church.  My confirmation was a commitment to God and to church, not to the doctrines we were taught.  I think of it as making a pact with God.

My Universalism started there in the basement of that Lutheran church.  It was a “Great Awakening” to realize that I had left behind the church of the angry God, and had discovered a faith of love and forgiveness that transcended the worst thing I had ever done and was better than the best thing that I could imagine.  It was years later until I discovered that there were Universalists who thought the same way.  And my prayer is that our church stays strong and our faith is secure for all the legs of our faith journey, so that all who need us, may find companionship in our communities.  May we keep our eyes open to that possibility.

In faith,
Rev. Chris Neilson

Share on Facebook

“Boston” is Everywhere

Rev. Chris Neilson in her car9/23/13
By Rev. Chris Neilson
Congregational Life Consultant for St. Lawrence District
Stewardship Consultant for CERG

Often I hear comments when I am on the road about “Boston” or the “UUA” as being very far and removed from the everyday life of our congregations.  We hang on to this image of elitism from our past, where rich white men rule the UUA at our headquarters in Boston.  One church member even asked me to “ask the rich people in Boston to send some money our way because our church is really struggling.”

The view of the road from our traveling staffArguably, we do have this image that still taints us, but I want people to understand that “Boston isn’t Boston” anymore.  We do still have the headquarters there, but it is moving to the Innovation District, which invites a whole new way for how we practice our faith.  One main difference is that many UUA employees do not live in Boston, and only occasionally do they show up for meetings in the headquarters building.  Yes, the administrative side lives there, but the programmatic core is everywhere- like I am- living in Rochester, NY, but on the road much of the time. Our Congregational Life staff does not live there, unless it’s their region.  Even President Morales does not live there, or Harlan Limpert our Chief Operating Officer, or Terasa Cooley, the Program and Strategy Officer, not even Scott Tayler, Director of Congregational life.   Technology has opened a vast opportunity for us to be in all corners of the United States, enabling us to stay in touch in ways that were not possible before.

We know that churches are struggling.  Only innovation will aid our struggles.  We have to do church differently, moving beyond the safety of our walls.  We are doing that in Boston, and we need to do it in our churches as well.


Share on Facebook