Monthly Archives: May 2007

More research needed

In tonight’s class for the Underground Railroad Tour Guide training at the New Bedford Historical Society, our teacher Joan Beauboin turned to me and said, “Reverent Harper [I can’t get her to call me “Dan”], you’ll be interested to know that Reverend William Jackson was converted to Unitarianism when — what was her name, now, something Watkins Harper….”

Surprised, I said, “Frances Watkins Harper came to New Bedford?”

Frances Harper was a well-known African American woman who joined the Unitarian church in Philadelphia in 1870, having been attracted to Unitarianism by the many Unitarian abolitionists she had met. Rev. William Jackson was the African American minister of the Second and Salem Baptist churches in New Bedford, known as the fugitive slave’s churches.

“Indeed she did,” said Joan Beauboin. “And she managed to convince William Jackson that he was really a Unitarian.”

Still surprised, I said, “But which church did he join? He didn’t join First Unitarian, did he?” In the second half of the 19th C., the Unitarian church in New Bedford had many of the most powerful and influential and wealthy white New Bedfordites as members; it was very much a white church.

“Well, I don’t know if he actually joined the church,” she admitted. “Perhaps he just considered himself a Unitarian.”

I find it hard to believe that socially-conscious First Unitarian Church would have allowed an African American to rent a pew or otherwise become a formal member. But even if Rev. William Jackson wasn’t a member of First Unitarian, he would have been the most prominent person of color in 19th C. New Bedford to have called himself a Unitarian. This is definitely going to call for more research on my part….

Summer hymns

Small congregations often face the problem of small budgets for music. Here at First Unitarian, we have enough money to pay a 3/8 time music director at American Guild of Organist rates for ten months a year, with enough money left over to provide guest musicians on most Sundays when the music director is off. But we have no money in the budget to pay for musicians in July and August.

We’re slowly moving towards becoming a year-round congregation (both because it’s the right thing to do, and because newcomers often drift away during the summer months if there’s a reduced worship schedule). This summer, we’re moving the summer worship services from the chapel, where we sit in plastic lawn chairs, back into the main church. I managed to come up with money to pay for a musician on one Sunday in July and one Sunday in August, and we have our annual jazz concert on the first Sunday in July. But on the five other summer Sundays, the summer worship coordinator will bring in recorded music to play following the prayer, and during the offering.

Even then, on those five weeks we also need music to accompany hymns. Here’s our latest scheme for summer hymn accompaniment:–

The worship committee has picked out a dozen of our congregation’s favorite hymns. I’m no musician, but with a cheap MIDI keyboard and audio editing software, even I (with my minimal keyboard skills) can piece together hymn accompaniments — I play each vocal line separately and at a very slow tempo, fix the timing, mix the parts together in the editing software, and then bring everything up to speed. The recordings I produce are kind of mechanical, but they’re good enough to accompany hymns. (Just to be on the safe side, we are not using any copyrighted melodies or harmonies.)

If I manage to get a dozen hymns done this year, and another dozen next year, we’ll have a decent little collection of recorded hymn accompaniments to use. Sure, we’d rather have live music, but this is something we can afford — and it’s easier than trying to sing a capella all summer long.

The perfect church Web site

I’m still searching for the perfect church Web site.

The perfect church Web site would have to have a lot of things going for it. It would allow committee chairs, staff, and others to directly add content to their pages on the Web site without going through the Webmaster; it would allow several levels of password protection including pages that can only be viewed by members; it would allow online payment of pledges, and online registration for events; it would support an online calendar of events; it would support a forum for congregational conversation; it would integrate staff blogs; it would allow easy posting of news; it would be inexpensive or free; it would be easy to navigate; it would be easy to maintain.

I spent today investigating Drupal, a free (and open-source) content management system. Drupal meets every single one of the criteria above — except the last two. It is not easy to maintain, and it’s easy to give it a bad navigation system. For example, it looks like it’s a pain in the neck to upgrade the software when security patches are released — and as for the navigation, you’ll have to invent it totally on your own. If you wanted your church administrator to maintain a Drupal-based site, you would have to send him or her to a substantial class in Drupal — and, outside of a few major metropolitan areas, where are you going to find such a class?

There’s a smaller subset of Drupal called Civic Space, which was developed in 2005 to support the Howard Dean presidential campaign. It’s now available for non-profits either as a free program, or a for-pay program with lots of technical support. However, it doesn’t look like it’s quite the right thing for a church Web site.

What I’d like to see is some Unitarian Universalist geeks commit themselves to maintaining a subset of Drupal (or similar content management system) for use by Unitarian Universalist congregations. This group of dedicated geeks would volunteer to be on-call via email for technical support (just as I make myself available to support a couple of WordPress blogging sites), and they would also come up with a basic installation of Drupal preconfigured with permission levels, basic navigation, etc. I’d say I’d take this on myself, except that it looks like the Drupal learning curve is pretty steep and I’d need a year (and training in PHP and CSS) to get to the point where I could do this. But maybe there’s some geeks out there who already have the knowledge?…

Blog nightmare

My sister Abby, who is a children’s librarian, writes a blog called “Children and Books.” She does book reviews, writes about the librarian’s life, and other good stuff. Everything was going fine — until a week and a half ago when her blog stopped working.

First, she wrote to her Web host, Deerfield Hosting, to see if something was wrong on that end. Dennis of Deerfield Hosting (who is wonderful to deal with — he administers my Web sites, too) said he could find nothing wrong on his end, and suggested reinstalling the blog. Abby asked me to see if I could figure out what was wrong. I worked on the problem for several hours, and came up with absolutely nothing. At last we decided to back up the old blog, and reinstall it, as Dennis had suggested.

Except that Dennis wrote another email to Abby saying that he thought he had found the problem. Abby had posted an entry on her blog that she had written in Microsoft Word format, simply cutting and pasting the Word document into the blog. But Word embeds all kinds of peculiar characters in its word processing documents, and it looks like some of those peculiar characters bollixed the blogging software and/or the MySQL database on the server.

To make a long story short, I installed an entirely new blog on Abby’s Web site, and now she’s going to have to laboriously move her old blog over, post by post, to the new blog. All because Microsoft Word is a horrendously flawed product. I’m now looking for a new word processor for myself. And if you use Word, please don’t use it to write drafts for blog posts or comments.

In the State House

Today was the third anniversary of the court decision that affirmed the right of same-sex couples to marry under the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry (RCFM) decided to hold a little ceremony at the State House in Boston. For the past ten years, RCFM has been gathering signatures on a declaration for same-sex marriage rights (the Massachusetts Delaration of Religious Support for the Freedom of Same-Gender Couples To Marry), asking clergypersons and representatives from congregations to sign. Over the past few months, RCFM made a big push and got a total of 999 signatures; they saved the one thousandth signature for today’s ceremony.

I got to the State House at a couple of minutes before eleven. I remembered to leave my pocket knife at home, so I got through the metal detectors quickly. Then I headed up to Nurses Hall (dedicated to Civil War Nurses from Massachusetts), which was pretty nearly full of RCFM supporters. Massachusetts being the kind of place it is, I looked around for people I knew. Across the crowd, the Unitarian Universalist minister in Medford caught my eye and waved. I made my way through the crowd to chat. Hank was there with Adam, the Unitarian Universalist minister from Natick, and John, an Episcopal priest, and David from the Unitarian Universalist Assocation. Hank and Adam both looked very Bostonian — Hank in a dark pinstripe suit with a white shirt and a red tie, Adam looking very natty in a seersucker sport coat and khakis.

“Hank, I’ve gotta hand it to you,” I said. “You’re standing on the correct side of the cameras” — a few videocameras on tripods faced a lectern — “and you’re wearing a power tie.” Hank grew up in the state and went to U Mass Amherst, which also means he probably knows half the people working in the State House.

Adam and Hank told me they would have to leave a little early. “We’re going to the annual meeting of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to the Indians,” Adam said. “You’re kidding,” I said, “that’s still in existence?” They informed me that the Society, founded in the Colonial era, still disburses money from their endowment to good causes, particularly to Native Americans in the state.

Then the RCFM speakers began. The original signers of the Declaration were recognized; the outgoing director of RCFM spoke; the incoming director spoke; a rabbi (whose name I missed) had us all say “Mazel tov!” to celebrate three years of same-sex marriage; and then Deval Patrick appeared unexpectedly.

Patrick briefly spoke to us, talking about the importance of protecting civil rights. “If we had voted on Brown vs. Board of Education,” he said, “Board of Education would have won, given the sentiments of the time.” Patrick was accompanied by House Speaker Sal DiMasi, who spoke about the importance of leaving the state constitution unchanged so we can maintain the right of same-sex marriage. And then Senate President Therese Murray came down the steps from her office, and she spoke, too. “I heard all the noise, and I couldn’t get any work done,” she said, “so I thought I’d better come down.”

(Patrick, Di Masi, and Murray do not look like politicians, they actually look like real people. You can tell Patrick comes from the wealthy Boston suburbs — wearing and immaculate suit and gorgeous yellow silk tie, he speaks standard College-Educated English. Sal Di Masi, representing Third Suffolk (i.e., Boston), is a classic Boston politician, a product of Boston College and Suffolk University Law School who speaks with a good solid Boston accent. Therese Murray represents southeastern Massachusetts, far from the centers of power in Boston’s suburbs — she looked like an ordinary working person, slightly rumpled from sitting at a desk, some roots showing. Compared to the interchangeable, indistinguishable white-men-in-dark-suits of the Republican presidential debate, these three Massachusetts politicians looked like human beings instead of Muppets.)

Oh, and somewhere in between the unexpected appearance of politicians, the the Right Reverend Gayle Harris of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts became the one thousandth signer of the Declaration. Having her was the one thousandth signer was a powerful statement in a number of subtle ways. First and foremost, Episcopalians in Massachusetts still include many of the wealthiest, most powerful people and families — so they’re definitely not some tiny powerless minority group, religiously and politically. Then there’s all the fuss the worldwide Anglican communion is having over same-sex marriage, there’s some risk in what Ms. Harris did. Then there’s the fact that Ms. Harris is African American, which helps remind us that this is a civil rights issue. It didn’t hurt that Ms. Harris is a powerful speaker — someday, I’d love to go hear her preach.

By this point, the whole event was hopelessly behind schedule. Adam and Hank slipped out at ten minutes to noon, when half the scheduled speakers hadn’t yet spoken. We heard some speakers from the United Church of Christ (UCC) and Unitarian Universalist (UU) speakers. RCFM probably has more UCC and UU ministers and congregations than any other denomination (but I have to admit that the oratorical abilities of the UCC and UU ministers were not up to the level of the other clergy who spoke). The camera crews left as soon as the politicians left, and now the reporters and still photographers started to leave as well. I had only allotted an hour in my schedule for this event, so I slipped out at two minutes to noon.

A fictional story

The following is a completely fictional account of a conversation that I never had. It’s a conversation I could have had many times over, and it’s true that I’ve had similar conversations over the years, but this one is fictional. Do not imagine that I am talking about you or your congregation — this is fiction.

It’s that time of year, the time when religious educators in Unitarian Universalist congregations are gossiping about who quit their jobs this year, and why. I happened to be talking to Sue, an old friend of mine who’s Director of Religious Education (DRE) at First Universalist on the Beach.

“So I talked with ——, and asked her why she’s leaving,” said Sue.

“What’d she say?” I said.

“The usual,” said Sue. “Low salary. When they passed the budget this year, she finally realized that they were never going to get her salary up to guidelines in spite of all their promises.”

“How about you?” I said. “Last time I talked with you, you were talking about leaving.” Sue has been working at her new DRE job for a year and a half now.

“No, I’m going to stick it out for a while,” Sue said. “It’s a pretty good job. The money sucks, but it’s better than I could make working retail. I have flextime, so I can be there for my kids when I need to. And the minister pretty much leaves me alone. When I started, he told me, ‘Technically I’m your supervisor, but as far as I’m concerned you’re on your own.'”

“Actually, that’s pretty cold-blooded,” I said.

Sue was taken aback. She had left her first DRE job because of a new minister who micro-managed everything she did. Which meant that she was perfectly happy to be working with a minister who left her alone.

“OK, but he’s your supervisor,” I said, “which means he’s supposed to be offering support and guidance. That’s what supervisors are supposed to do. And he should be going to bat for you in the budget process, trying to get your salary up to guidelines.”

No need to recount the rest of this (fictional) conversation. It’s a conversation I’ve heard before. Many ministers supervise the staff in their congregation — yet many ministers seem to think that supervision means either (a) abdicating all responsibility for the employees they supervise, or (b) micromanaging everything those employees do.

Not that I’m a good supervisor yet, but I’m working on it. Over the years, I’ve found that good supervision takes a lot of my time. In the short term, it’s quicker (and easier) to abdicate responsibility or to micromanage — but in the long term, either of those approaches will lead to fast employee turnover and poorly-trained employees who don’t have the training and/or the resources to do their jobs. On the other hand, even though it takes more of the supervisor’s time and effort, good supervision will make the whole staff much more effective and efficient — which means the whole church will benefit.

If you’re looking for reasons why so many congregations remain small and ineffective, look at the supervisory skills of ministers for one such reason. But if you find ministers who are lousy supervisors, don’t jump to conclusions and blame the ministers — maybe you should blame a system that forces ministers to be supervisors without giving them adequate training and without giving them the time to supervise the staff — maybe you should blame congregations who don’t allow their ministers the time to be good supervisors. Actually, instead of blaming anyone, why not change the system so that your minister has the time and training to be a good supervisor of staff?

Douglass in New Bedford

The New Bedford Historical Society is training volunteers to serve as guides for a walking tour of Underground Railroad sites in downtown New Bedford. I signed up, and attended the first training session this evening.

Tonight we got an overview of where we’ll take people on this walking tour. Generally, we’ll start out at the New Bedford YMCA, which stands on the site where Frederick Douglass and his wife Anna first came in to New Bedford on the stage coach, accompanied by two New Bedford Quakers who helped the fugitives on the last leg of their trip. Then we’ll take people to 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Plaza, named in honor of the first all-black regiment that fought for the North in the Civil War. From there, we’ll lead people up to the site of Liberty Hall, where many an abolitionist spoke. Of course we’ll show off the statue of Lewis Temple next to the library — he was the African American who revolutionized the American whaling industry by inventing the toggle harpoon, which increased catches fourfold.

And we’ll wind up at the Nathan and Polly Jones House, home of two of New Bedford’s most active black abolitionists, who welcomed Frederick Douglass when he first arrived here in 1838. New Bedford’s connection with Douglass is, of course, the center of this walking tour. Douglass, perhaps the greatest African American of the 19th C., first found freedom here in New Bedford — earned the first wages that he got to keep for himself — saw with amazement that the schools in New Bedford were integrated — walked and breathed for the first time as a free man. What a compelling story, really the most interesting moment in New Bedford’s history.

Just thinking out loud

We had a meeting of the Ballou Channing District Board at First Unitarian in New Bedford tonight.

“Hey,” said Don, one of the board members, “I was looking for directions on how to drive here, and I found your Web site. I like your Web site.”

“Yeah,” I said, “we’ve been working on the church Web site for some time and….”

“No, actually I found your Web site first,” said Don. “When you type ‘new bedford uu’ into Google, your personal Web site comes up first.”

“Oh,” I said. “My Web site comes up before the church Web site?”

“Yep,” said Don. “Oh, and I liked your church’s Web site, too.”

Hmm… my Web site isn’t supposed to come up before the church’s Web site. Unless maybe I’m thinking about this the wrong way. Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine has an article about how today’s pop musicians and singer-songwriters are building audiences with blogs and Web sites: “…this is a trend that is catalyzing the B-list, the new, under-the-radar acts that have always built their successes fan by fan.” Am I supposed to be marketing myself (and the church) the way the singer-songwriters are marketing themselves?

On the one hand, there is no doubt that Unitarian Universalism is a B-list religion and that Unitarian Universalist congregations don’t have the resources to mount massive media campaigns. On the other hand, I don’t think we can use the same online marketing techniques as the B-list singer-songwriters — creating a MySpace site, writing blogs, answering email, and then finding out which cities have enough fans to warrant staging a concert there. And I have to say I am a little surprised and uneasy that my personal Web site sometimes comes up on search engines before our church Web site — this blog is supposed to be a hobby for me, and I’m not sure I want it to become part of my job. I’m not quite sure what I think about all this. What do you think?


The youth group from First Unitarian spent Friday night visiting the youth group at the Nantucket Unitarian Universalist church. It’s a two-hour ferry ride out to Nantucket Island, and I spent most of the time on the upper deck, binoculars glued to my eyes, looking for birds. I saw dozens of Common Loons spread out over Nantucket Sound, looking very beautiful in their summer plumage; the ferry passed close enough to three of them that I could hear them calling to one another with that weird ululating sound they make. I watched Common Terns catching fish: cruising along until they spotted something; hovering for a moment; then plunging suddenly into the water, thrashing around, and more often than not flying up again with something clamped in their bill.

Then out of nowhere, a fast, dark bird flew at one of the terns, swooping up on the tern from underneath. It was a Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus), a bird that eats fish it can steal from terns and gulls. The jaeger attacked the tern again; I didn’t see what happened, but there was another birder on the boat who said that it looked like the tern gave up, dropped the fish so the jaeger couldn’t get it, and thus avoided being harassed any further.

I was tempted to think ill of the Parasitic Jaeger for being parasitic. From my moral frame of reference, I didn’t like the fact that one bird was stealing food from another bird. Yet when I thought a little more, I realized that I am quite happy to eat other mammals, and I don’t worry too much about the way my human needs destroy the habitat of other mammals — surely what I do to other mammals is more reprehensible, morally speaking, than the jaeger stealing an occasional meal from another bird. Nor am I entirely sure how to apply moral judgements across species boundaries — is swatting a mosquito the same, morally speaking, as killing another human being?

Even after thinking about it in this way, I still didn’t much like the Parasitic Jaeger; clearly my human morality lacks logical consistency. Whatever my moral feelings, it was quite something to watch the jaeger swoop up and harass the tern; it was, in its own way, spectacular and even beautiful.