Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 1

As we come to the end of the year, I’ve been thinking about the state of liberal religion in 2011. For once, I’m actually feeling kind of hopeful about liberal religion; for once, I’m feeling as though liberal religion might not die out in another 20 years. Mind you, it’s still touch and go, but I feel the odds of survival have gone up from two in five to three in five. And so I’m going to start a series of posts on the top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011.

10. The Great Recession

How can I possibly think that the Great Recession is one of the top ten best things to happen to liberal religion this year? Before I answer that question, I have to tell you a dirty little secret: the majority of Unitarian Universalist belong to a congregation with more than 250 members; yet half of all our congregations have fewer than 100 members.

Now I love small congregations, and have served three congregations with fewer than 100 members. But for the past forty years, while long-term economic trends have been forcing most of the non-profit world to become increasingly efficient, small congregations have, by and large, refused to change. Thus we see many small congregations that both refuse to grow to the point where they would be economically viable, and at the same time refuse to consider the possibility of cutting their budgets.

The Great Recession is forcing many congregations to face up to the fact that they are on the horns of a dilemma: they must either grow, or slash spending. After enduring nearly three years of a lousy economy, these congregations can no longer put off the inevitable: will they pass through the horns of the dilemma by cutting expenses, or will they wrestle the dilemma to the ground and vanquish it (at great risk of being gored) by learning how to grow the congregation?

Thus, for many congregation, the Great Recession has made their preferred third option — continuing to rest on the horns of the dilemma by changing nothing — untenable. This is actually fantastically good news: those congregations resting on the horns of that dilemma were actually stuck, going nowhere. It’s boring being in a stuck congregation, going nowhere. So with any kind of luck, the Great Recession is going to continue to force many congregations to get unstuck.

Mind you, getting yourself unstuck from the horns of a dilemma is not a pleasant experience. Those horns you’ve been stuck on are sharp, and when you pull off of them, you’re liable to start bleeding. But the horns were going to kill you in the long run: best to get the pain over with as quickly as possible, and if the Great Recession forces you to do that, then it is a fantastically good thing.

My only fear is that too many congregations will choose the easy way out: they’ll try to slide between the horns of the dilemma by cutting staff or building maintenance. Or worse, they’ll try to slide between the horns of the dilemma by increasing revenue in ways that allow them to avoid taking responsibility for raising their own money, e.g., excessive drawdown of endowment, excessive rental of building, involvement in harebrained moneymaking schemes, financial illegalities, etc. My hope is that the Great Recession is going to force a lot of congregations to focus tightly on their mission in the world, and to cut away all that is extraneous.

Next: 9. Dealing with race

Occupy Oakland at the port on Monday

This coming Monday, December 12, Occupy Oakland will participate in the West Coast Port Shutdown, which aims to close ports from San Diego to Anchorage. A number of Unitarian Universalist clergy and laypeople will be meeting at the West Oakland BART station at 5:30 a.m. on Monday — an unpleasant hour for a night owl like me, but I’ll be there to lend my support. Information is available at Occupy Oakland, including information about outreach events this weekend. Further information is available at the West Coast Port Blockade Web site.

If you’re planning on being there, look for me in the crowd!


Once when the sky
burst open and down
came creatures, twisting,
screaming, wings outstretched,
falling, falling,

a poet looked
up. He tried to turn
away, but could not.
Falling, writhing, down,
out of his sight.

He felt the need
to tell a tale of
what he had just seen:
the creatures, the screams,
the fall, the fall.

The creatures were
angels — he became
convinced of this fact —
falling from heaven,
exiles. Exiled.

They were rebels.
Hate-filled, overweening,
ambitious. God had
exiled them, forced them
out of heaven.

He turned away,
went inside to write.
Outside, flawless sky
and fertile warm earth,
perfect and still.


The day that lived in infamy

Seventy years ago today, U.S. ships at Pearl Harbor were bombed by Japanese military forces. President Franklin Roosevelt said it was a day that would live in infamy. Yet Pearl Harbor Day feels increasingly distant in time, and decreasingly important to most U.S. citizens. There are fewer people alive who remember December 11, 1941; for example, this will be the last year that Pearl Harbor survivors gather, since there are no longer enough of them left to keep on organizing the annual gatherings. That attack on Pearl Harbor almost seems to have happened to a different country: Pearl Harbor was followed by a military draft, rationing, tax rates of 94% by 1944 — all of which were politically inconceivable following the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. The terrorist attack of September 11 now looms far larger in our collective memory than Pearl Harbor Day: I’m willing to bet that the majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations won’t bother to recognize Pearl Harbor Day this coming Sunday, yet probably most Unitarian Universalist congregations recognized the tenth anniversary of the 2001 attack.

Thinking about this has put me in an Ecclesiastes mood: “There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.” And then I think about all the ancient battles that were fought by cultures around the world, and those who survived those battles said that their memory should live forever, and now those memories are gone. “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.”

The real revolution is not over

Gil Scott-Heron said:

“A lot of times people see battles and skirmishes on TV and they say, ‘Ah ha, the revolution is being televised.’ No: the results of the revolution are being televised.

“The first revolution is when you change your mind about how you look at things, and see that there might be another way to look at it that you have not been shown.

“What you see later on is the results of that; but the revolution, that change that takes place, will not be televised.” [recorded in 1982 at the Wax Museum, Washington, D.C., for the film Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax.]

I once thought that first revolution, the one in my mind, would happen once, and then I would be done. But it hasn’t worked out that way. I keep seeing that there is another way of looking at things than the way I was shown: consumer goods are not so good; the free market is not free, it is both expensive and restrictive; media are called that because they mediate, they get in between you and the world; and the ultimate goal in life is not to be contented.

The poem that you like best

A friend writes:
Which poem do you like best?
And he mentions Ezra Pound, who
said that less
is more.

I guess I
like the shorter one the best.
I want to sense the holes in
Less, less:

pare away
words, thoughts, images, and sounds.
Pare away feelings, and the
self, go well
past Pound.

Pare away
until nothing is left but
truth. And if truth is gone too,
is fine.

I wrote back:
I like the shortest
one best.

What, Christmas carols already?!

There are some good carols that don’t appear in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal. One of my faves, “O Tannenbaum,” isn’t in the hymnal, and I realized that I had made a PDF file of the sheet music (with a decent English translation of the original German words), sized to fit on a half-sheet, perfect for an insert in an order of service. There’s probably someone out there who could use this PDF, so here it is:

“O Tannenbaum,” PDF file

Creating a sustainable youth ministry

Many youth groups go through a boom-and-bust cycle: you have a few good years of youth ministry, and then things seem to fall apart and the kids all stop participating in any youth ministries. After a few years with a struggling youth ministry, things seem to miraculously get better, and you have a few more good years of youth ministry. That’s what we’re going through right now, here in our church. We’ve had a strong high school youth ministry for a while, but this year the program has gotten small. Meanwhile, our middle school youth ministries have been slowly growing for the past three years. Boom and bust.

So how do you create a sustainable youth ministry? According to the book Sustainable Youth Ministries by Mark DeVries, most congregations try the wrong approach to building up their youth ministry. They may look for that superstar youth director (or other paid staffer, e.g., DRE, MRE, etc.), or the young charismatic youth advisors. Or maybe they try to build or renovate dedicated space for youth ministries (a youth room, a basketball court, etc.). DeVreis says all these approaches are bound to be unsuccessful.

Instead, DeVries advocates taking a systemic approach to building a sustainable youth ministry. This is not as exciting or sexy or razzle-dazzle as hiring a superstar staff person, or building a new building. But it’s more likely to work in the long run, providing year after year of stable, sustainable youth ministry. There are no magical solutions; instead, you have to work steadily at building up board-based systems which will support your youth ministry.

I’ve been studying DeVries’s approach, and what he says makes sense to me. And I’ve slowly been working on applying his approach to our youth ministry here in Palo Alto. Here’s what I’ve been working on most recently, as I try to apply his concepts…. Continue reading “Creating a sustainable youth ministry”


Yesterday, I noticed that the Swiss chard and dandelion greens we had planted in the garden were wilting again. The soil was almost as dry as it gets in the summer time. I brought out a bucket of salvaged gray water, and gave them a long drink. Even though the rainy season has begun, the weather forecast for the next five days calls for sunny dry weather, so it looks like I’ll be doing more watering in the garden in the week ahead.