Monthly Archives: March 2005

Memorizing bylaws?

For those of us who do religious education and church administration, this is the time of year when we’re deep into planning for the coming church year. As a result, I’ve been reviewing lots of church school curriculum books so I can make some recommendations to the Lifespan Religious Education Committee. And one small thing has begun to bug me.

I’ve noticed that a number of Unitarian Universalist church school curriculum books spend a lot of time on the “seven principles.” For example, Free To Believe, a newish curriculum book for second graders, has this sample dialogue:

“Do you remember our third principle? (Show the third principle page from the ‘What Do We Believe?’ coloring book. Have the children say the third principle together: ‘We believe that we should accept each other and learn together..’)…”

Notice that what the children are asked to repeat is actually a watered-down version of the seven principles, that ultimately means something rather different than the original. Other church school programs are worse, and even try to get children to memorize the seven principles.

As always, I think this is basically misguided. The “seven principles” are a fairly short section of a much longer section of the UUA bylaws, Article II, the “Principles and Purposes.” But if you read the entire section, the really interesting stuff comes after the “seven principles” — I’m particularly fond of this subsection of the complete “Principles and Purposes”:

“The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.”

That’s the kind of thing I want children to know about our church. I want them to know that they are actually expected to change their behavior because of their faith. But do I want them to memorize it, as if it’s a kind of holy scripture? Well, no, I really don’t.

Long-time DRE Ginny Steel used to say that it’s good to ask children to memorize things — they’re already memorizingdialog from TV showsand bits of video games, so we should get them to memorize more important things. I have asked children to memorize short poems by Unitarian poet William Carlos Williams (some of the kids I knew in Lexington, Mass., still remember “This Is Just To Say”). Occasionally, I’ve had older children memorize bits from various sacred texts — the Hebrew Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Christian scriptures.

Here in our church, we definitely want children to memorize our covenant (but never in some watered-down version) and the words to the song of praise and the doxology. This way, children can participate more easily in the first part of the worship service, even if they’re not yet fluent readers.

But memorize or discuss excerpts from the UUA bylaws? That’s pretty low on my list of priorities for children. And if I did ask them to memorize such material, I would have them memorize the original text if I did it at all. And if I had them memorize anything from the UUA bylaws, I would have them memorize the following section of the principles and purposes first:

“Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.”

Don King takes on Emerson

The following appeard in the church newsletter for the Geneva church back on January 18, 1976. It was written by Don King, minister here for many years. I offer his words without comment one way or the other. What do you think?

“I like the quiet church before the service begins.”

Emerson did say it and it is quoted voer and over as an admonition to people to come into church and sit quietly waiting for something to start. Why?

Do you come to church to sit alone and meditate? Or to greet your friends and to participate in a common activity?

I like the active church before the service begins — the coffee committee running back and forth, parents bringing their children to the nursery, friends speaking to each other, Alliance or church officers catching each other to talk business — the whole feeling of people with something to do. Let the children wander around; go speak to your friend.

When the prelude starts is time to settle down.

I like the active church before the service begins.



At his request, today I’m turning the blog over to my alter ego, Mr. Crankypants. While he is not my favorite person in the world, it’s really hard to turn down a request from your alter ego (just ask Dr. Jekyll). Without further ado, then, please welcome my alter ego, Mr. Crankypants….

Humanism. Theism. God doesn’t exist. God does exist. Mr. Crankypants is sooo bored by Unitarian Universalists who have endless debates about whether or not God exists. It is just too early-20th century. Yawn.

I mean, for pete’s sake, thirty years ago already William R. Jones pointed out that the real divide isn’t between theism and religious humanism. It’s between the religious right who blame everything on God, and those of us who actually take some personal responsibility for the world. Why, in his essay “Theism and Humanism: The Chasm Narrows,” Dr. Jones sounds even crankier than Mr. Crankypants:

“For these reasons [says Dr. Jones], I see the coming encounter and dialogue between humanism and theism not as the occasion for sour-tempered vendettas, but as another of those recurring interludes in the history of the race when the search for truth pits conscientious antagonists on the battleground of human thought. The issue is not who wins, but whether the combat enlarges our understanding of ourselves. And as future generations review the coming clash, the verdict may well be that the adversaries were, unknowingly, not-too-distant relatives.”

Although the bit about “conscientious antagonists” is a little too earnest for Mr. Crankypants, and “enlarges our understanding of ourselves” is a little too pious, he does love the phrase “sour-tempered vendettas.”

Not that Mr. Crankypants has anything against sour-tempered vendettas. No indeed! He engages in them on a daily basis. But he is mortally offended by boring sour-tempered vendettas like humanism vs. theism. Let’s focus our energies on fun and new sour-tempered vendettas — perhaps a pitched battle about the way Unitarian Universalists market themselves to the world. What’s that you say? How delightful! Something new to get cranky about!

Spring watch

Back in early March, I mentioned the Great Horned Owl I had been hearing all winter. I had only ever heard a male, and wondered what his breeding status was. At coffee hour after the Saturday evening service, someone mentioned seeing the owlets. Owlets? Yes, the male owl I had been hearing did find a mate (apparently I just never heard her calling), they nested in a tamarisk at the northeast corner of the old court house, and the owlets had recently fledged. It seems likely that the adults are the same pair that used to nest in the tree in front of the church, until that tree came down late last spring.

I went over last night and found the tree. It’s easy to find because of the droppings, feathers, and bones under the tree. There was even a fairly complete skin of a small rabbit (gone as of this morning). I heard the male calling, but it was too dark to see anything else.

This morning I got over there early. It’s pretty foggy right now, but I did see the two owlets huddled together on a branch on the north side of the tamarisk, about a third of the way up, sound asleep. One of the adults was perched far up in the tree, but I did not see the other. If you’re over by the church in the next couple of days, it’s worth taking a look.

It may feel cold, and there isn’t much green yet, but fledged owlets means spring is definitely here.

Later note:

Craig and I went over between the two worship services. The sun was out by then, and we could see them quite clearly. The owlets don’t yet have their ear tufts, but their primary flight feathers appear to be grown in. We talked with an experienced birder who estimated the owlets have another week or two before they fly off. (He also let us look through his scope, so we got a real close-up of them.) Perhaps fifteen or twenty people from church made it over to see the owlets after the second worship service today. Don’t miss them if you’re in the area!

Good Friday for kids

Sometimes adults are curious to know what happens in church school. Here’s a summary of a recent church school session I led.

Lindsay Bates, the parish minister here in the Geneva church, does a Tenebrae service every year. I did a concurrent program for kids on Good Friday. The theology I used is pretty similar to that expressed by Carole Fontaine in a lecture on human rights at General Assembly in 2002: “I like Jesus. He’s my guy. The fact that he’s executed on trumped-up political charges — I mean, he’s the Stephen Biko of the first century. We can work with this!”

We had five children, ages 5 through 11, show up — a good turnout considering that the Tenebrae service was from 8:00 p.m. to just after nine, past many kids’ bedtimes.

The kids and I went off to Pioneer House, along with Yuri, one of the regular child care providers. We built very tall block towers for a while, and then it was time for the story of Good Friday.

My main learning objective was that these UU kids would know what “Good Friday” means. They had all heard Craig’s story of Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem in last Sunday’s worship service, so we went from there. I used excerpts from Sophia Fahs’s Jesus, the Carpenter’s Son, pp. 127-131. I gave them the story of Jesus challenging the commercialization of the Temple, framing this as a tale of a religious challenge to the politicized Temple hierarchy. We looked at pictures of the Temple at Jerusalem from UCLA’s Urban Simulation Team, to get a sense of the scale of action Jesus was involved in. Then I briefly told how Jesus was betrayed to the Roman military police by one of his followers, and then executed on what we now call “Good Friday.” I did not go into details of the means of execution — not with a five year old and a six year old present.

One girl made the obvious comment: “‘Good Friday’! — but it wasn’t good at all, they should’ve called it “Bad Friday.'” Needless to say, we also discussed (at an age-appropriate level) the inherent ambiguity of the story and the attendant difficulties of understanding it fully. The kids were also fascinated by the idea that live animals were sacrificed in the Temple at Jerusalem in Jesus’s day, and we spent a little time discussing this alien notion.

We ended by sharing a snack of cinnamon grahams and apple juice, and then everyone helped clean up.

This just in from the Youth Office…

The following letter was posted publicly on the UUA Youth Advisor email list. I’m posting it here for the benefit of many in the Geneva congregation who don’t subscribe to any UUA email lists.

March 18, 2005

Dear Friends,

The UUA Board directed that a consultation on our ministry to and with youth be convened. We (Bill Sinkford, UUA President and Megan Dowdell,youth trustee at large) were asked to serve as co-conveners. The first step of that process occurred February 25th and 26th in Essex, Massachusetts. We gathered thirty youth and adults from across the Association to outline a process that would help Unitarian Universalism redefine and recommit to youth ministry. Participants included youth members of the YRUU leadership, youth who do not take part in YRUU activities, parents, youth advisors, ministers, religious educators, and UUA Administration, Staff and Board Members. A complete list of the participant and their roles are attached to this letter.

Working intensively over two days with an outside facilitator, the group identified five priorities to be addressed. These are:

* Youth Ministry needs to be served at a more robust, flexible, diverse level than YRUU currently offers.
* Denominational youth work needs to serve local congregations and their youth ministry.
* YRUU and UUA administration need to define an authority structure that respects the rightful role of institutional youth and adult leadership at the same time that it supports the growth and empowerment of all UU youth.
* Anti-racism and anti-oppression work is an important part of youth ministry, although there is not only one way of doing it, and the “right” way depends on individual identities. We need to move this work ahead.
* There needs to be more and better communication among continental, district, and local levels, and within congregations.

Together, the group generated preliminary ideas for how these five issues should be addressed and who should be involved in addressing them. A smaller group was charged to synthesize the ideas into one coherent plan. This subcommittee will meet in late April to create a draft plan. Key stakeholder groups will then have the opportunity to respond to the proposal before it is finalized. The goal is to have a viable process finalized by August of 2005. It is expected that implementing the process will take one to two years to complete.

Information about each stage of the process will be shared as the work moves forward.

In Faith,
Rev. William Sinkford and Megan Dowdell


Youth Participants:
Jova Vargus YRUU Steering Committee
Lehna Huie YRUU Steering Committee
Sean Fletcher YRUU Youth Council Member
Sean Jones YRUU Youth Council Member
Al Jensen YRUU Youth Council Member
Sara Eskrich Non-YRUU Youth
Dana Dwinell Non-YRUU Youth
Jessica Potts-Mee Non-YRUU Youth
Kelsey Pitcairn Non-YRUU Youth
Michael Salandrea Non-YRUU Youth
Julian Sharp Youth Observer to the Board
Brian Kuzma YRUU Program Specialist
Beth Dana Incoming Youth Ministry Associate
Megan Dowdell Youth Trustee to the Board / Co-Convener

Adult Participants:
Paul Richter UUA Board Member
Rev. Makanah Morriss LREDA and UUMA Representative
Mandy Keithan LREDA Representative
Janice Marie Johnson DRUUMM Representative
Emily Mitchell Parent
James Buckner Parent
Phillip Pike Canadian Youth Advisor
Frank Filz Non-YRUU Youth Advisor
Rick Roehlk Adult YRUU Steering Committee Member
Dori Davenport UUA District Staff
Judith Frediani Director of Lifespan Faith Development
Jesse Jaeger Youth Programs Director
William Sinkford UUA President / Co-Convener

UT Saunders Independent Consultant

Ethan Field Youth Office Assistant

Unitarian Universalist “iPod” strategy

You can check out “Coffee Hour — Where UU Bloggers Mix It Up” for a discussion of how to keep Unitarian Universalism from slipping into decline. They pose the question this way:

“So it’s time to put your imagination caps on. Think big about what “big changes” you’d want to see in UUism. What would your “iPod strategy” for UUism look like? What would it take to get there? And would any of your “iPod buyers” end up “making the switch” (and give up their old PCs for new “UU Macs”). Or would that even matter? Would a bunch of new “UU iPod” owners be enough?”

Feeling crankier than usual (which is pretty cranky!), I couldn’t resist offering my own answer, which I will paste in below…. Those of you here in the Geneva church have already heard versions of this tirade, so feel free to skip reading it once again here.

In some ways, we are like Apple. We already have a great product — an open, liberatory theological message which is not based in creedalism. We know from looking at the demographics that there are millions of people out there who would fit right in. It’s even pretty clear that we are getting more curious visitors than many other religious movements.

I believe our problem is that most of our congregations actively reject newcomers. At one level, it’s a sociological problem. Most of our churches are so-called “pastoral-size” churches which would rather die than give up the sense of false intimacy that arises when you have less than 150 active members (i.e., less than 150 average weekly attendance at worship and church school).

Perfect example — try telling many UU congregations to give up the sharing of joys and concerns, and you’ll cause an enormous uproar. Yet joys and concerns clearly turn off many (even most!) newcomers, because joys and concerns represents the congregation as a small, tight in-group, where if you don’t know everyone’s first name and if you don’t feel comfortable sharing personal problems in front of a group, you just can’t fit in. (Yeah I know you like them, but you’re one of the few that stayed.)

I’m of the opinion that congregations of about 300 active members represents a good, stable size that balances between the ideals of our polity and economic reality. Wouldn’t it be great if we had such congregations scattered throughout the United States, no more than a 30 minute drive apart? Of course, when you suggest to most UU congregations that once they reach their goal for growth they could do new church starts thirty minutes away, again you meet up with enormous resistance, as if such a thing were unthinkable. It’s that false sense of intimacy again — “Why, then I couldn’t see my friends!” — but if they’re really your friends, you’ll figure out a way to stay in touch that needn’t involve meeting at church once a week.

Rather than Apple, we’re more like Wang — remember them? They produced the first commercial word processors. But they got too attached to their mini-computer platform which died when micro-computers came along — they didn’t understand that mini-computers were just a means to an end, not an end in itself. Just so, we Unitarian Universalists have become attached to this false sense of intimacy, mistaking it for the real work of liberal religion.

Our real work needs to take place on the congregational level. We have to start taking a hard look at ourselves, understanding which of our behaviors actively reject newcomers. All the ads in the world won’t work if we reject people once they arrive! Having a great theological “product” is useless if we scare people away before they can hear our theology!

So yeah — it’s up to each one of us — we each have to take full individual and personal responsibility for the fact that Unitarian Universalism is fading out. We have to stop blaming our decline on the UUA, or on the surrounding society — our fate is in *our* hands. So what will you do, personally, to make sure newcomers are actively welcomed and integrated into your congregation? Will you actively support an additional worship service? Will you help with new church starts? Will you rein in joys and concerns? Will you talk with newcomers at coffee hour instead of just your friends? It’s up to you and me, my friends, no one else — and we *do* have the power to turn things around, if we choose to.

Church as place

An interesting discussion developed last night in my monthly discussion forum on interim ministry matters. We have this church building dating back to 1843 — to what extent does it limit us, and to what extent is it a strength for the congregation? We talked briefly about the “big box” churches which you can find interspersed with the strip malls on Randall Road. Should we be out there, in a new, spacious building that could accomodate growth?

That discussion has gotten me thinking about what it means to have a sense of place. The “big box” churches seem to me to have no sense of place. They could be anywhere in North America. I feel there may be a theological message there — no need to worry about a sense of place here on earth, because the ultimate goal is to get to another place.

But do our Unitarian Unviersalist church buildings need a sense of place? Mike Durrall, in the final chapter of his recent book The Almost Church, seems to argue that we should aim for placeless big box churches. I love nearly everything in Mike’s book, but here I have to disagree with him.

I am coming to believe a sense of place can be a real asset to a congregation, with obvious caveats. Here in Geneva, our historic building creates obvious and problematic limitations — it’s so small we have to have three worship services, renovations are limited by the historic character of the building, the much-loved pews are not comfortable for tall people like me, etc. Yet our building also creates a deep sense of place, which has both theological and practical value.

As for the practical value, the historic building has proved attractive to newcomers. One of the “Mystery Visitors” who came and evaluated our church in the fall summed it up, saying: “As an artist and a lover of architecture, I found the building itself to be astonishly beautiful both inside and out. I was truly moved by the loving care the building has obviously received. I was impressed with it as a visual and physical symbol of our Unitarian Universalist heritage.” Our building is the oldest building west of the Alleghenies that has been used continuously as a Unitarian or Universalist church — it is a visible reminder of how liberal religion moved westwards. Dave Karcher calls it “a Unitarian Universalist shrine,” and he’s right.

But I believe there’s theological value in our old building, too. The more I explore ecological theology, the more value I find in having a sense of place. A sense of place means setting down roots, it means awareness of my human interdependence with the surrounding natural world, and awareness of how I fit into the surrounding human culture. A sense of place also means connections with ancestors, and connections with the generations to come. Care for a historic building like ours forces us to think about the hands that laid the stones for the walls seven or so generations ago, and to plan ahead seven generations or more so that this building (and the surrounding ecosystem!) will still be here.

While not every church building will have this deep rootedness in the surrounding place, I’ve come to believe more and more that our congregations should be thinking about the theological role of place.

(Those of you who read this blog from afar can find a picture of the Geneva church at 102 South Second St., on a Web site of pictures of historic Geneva.)

Don’t forget to vote April 5

…in the upcoming elections in Kane and DuPage counties.

For those of you living in Kane County or Du Page County, don’t forget that we have an election coming up on Tuesday, April 5. I don’t care how you vote, but we Unitarian Universalists have long been supporters of democracy and this is one of your ministers telling you — make sure you get out and vote!

You can find information about Kane County elections on the Kane County Web site. Du Page County residents can find election information on the Du Page County Web site.

For Geneva residents, I see the most recent issue of the Geneva Sun has a letter from our own Steve Hanson. Steve supports the referendum for a 20-cent tax rate increase. If you don’t happen to agree with him, you still have a chance to write your own letter to the Sun to express your opinion.

Once again, I don’t care what your political position is, or whom you support, or how you vote — just vote. No excuses, now!!