Thirty-six years ago, my mother called up her best friend Dorothy Lob, and asked Dorothy if she would come help with some sewing. I was about to head off to college, and my mother wanted to sew name tags into my clothing, and on all my sheets and blankets.

I was not allowed to help with the sewing. For all that she was a feminist, my mother never taught me to sew, never let me learn how to use her sewing machine, washing machine or dryer, or her iron or her ironing board. My sisters were allowed, even required, to learn how to use these things, but I was a boy, and boys mostly didn’t work with cloth and fabric. I was, however, allowed to hang out laundry to dry on the clothesline upon occasion, and in this I suspect that my mother was more progressive than her mother.

Although I was not allowed to sew, I did have to sit with Dorothy and my mother while they sewed on the name tags. We sat around the dining room table one bright summer day, and Dorothy was her usual cheerful self, chatting away and making my mother laugh and smile. Dorothy had a musical German accent; she had grown up Jewish in Germany, and had fled to America to escape the Nazis. I never heard her talk about it, but my mother said that was why she wanted nothing to do with organized religion, and that was why she could not believe in any god who could let something like that happen.

I vaguely remember helping fold clothes, and handing things to my mother and to Dorothy; mostly I probably just got in the way. I definitely remember that Dorothy was faster at sewing on name tags than my mother, and even I could see that she took less care at it. My mother took small careful stitches, securing each end of the name tag, while Dorothy sewed in big, bold stitches that quickly circled the entire name tag.

Although all the clothes I brought with me to college have long since gone to the rag bag, I still have some linens and bed clothes with those old name tags sewn in. I just found a comforter with a name tag sewn on by Dorothy:


And I found an old towel with a name tag sewn on by my mother, so you can compare their stitches:


Their sewing reveals something about each woman’s personality: Dorothy, bold and unafraid and exuberant; my mother, cautious and careful. After they had finished sewing and Dorothy had gone home, my mother looked at Dorothy’s sewing with with some disfavor, and worried aloud that the stitches would come out and the name tags would fall off; thirty-six years later, I can say with some assurance that her worries were unfounded.

With two children in college and another in middle school my mother never had time again to sew name tags on my clothes or linens. Both women are now dead, and the dining room in which we sat is gone because that house was torn down to put up a McMansion. I get a little catch in my throat sometimes when I catch sight of one of those old name tags: you can still see something of those two strong personalities in those stitches.

The mess at Starr King

The mess at Starr King School for the Ministry (SKSM) continues to be an absorbing topic of conversation among Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministers in the Bay Area. The mess can be summarized as follows: Someone sent an anonymous email to a number of people inside and outside SKSM alleging that the then-ongoing search for a new SKSM president was marred by “ethical violations.” Attached to that anonymous email were documents that the SKSM board alleges were confidential. The SKSM board responded by hiring a law firm and private investigators to determine which student sent this anonymous email, and demanded that all students turn over all their email some students turn over their email files files to this law firm. Two students who were about to graduate did not turn over their email files, and their diplomas have been withheld. (UU World magazine offered good coverage of the story here. Deletion and correction thanks to Lindasusan’s comment below.)

If you’re a UU minister it is also a fascinating topic for conversation. The ethical implications alone would fascinate any minister. On top of that, any minister is going to be interested in how a theological school is training new ministers — your future colleagues. And finally, given the decline and financial struggles of theological schools, this matter makes you wonder about the future of SKSM.

Ethical implications of securing electronic communications

Let’s start with the ethical implications. I was talking to D., another UU minister, and she made the obvious point: if confidential documents were truly “leaked,” the most obvious source for such a leak would be the search committee. I doubt that any member of the search committee played Edward Snowden and deliberately released documents. But I’m willing to bet that the search committee was naive, and had poor electronic security protocols in place (I mean, I seriously doubt that someone hacked into search committee members’ computers). So from an ethical point of view, the SKSM search committee is at fault for having poor security.

If you’re a congregational leader, you should pay attention to this. Email is not secure — it’s way too easy to choose the wrong address when you send email, too many spouses and partners have access to each others’ email accounts, too many people are careless with their passwords. Storing sensitive material on something like Dropbox or Google Drive may be slightly more secure — as long as everyone remembers to keep their password secure. Storing sensitive documents on a computer in the church office is only mildly secure — more than once I have seen a church computer sitting unattended, with the main user logged in, and a sensitive document open on the screen. Most congregational leaders and staff are just like the SKSM leadership — way too careless about how they use electronic communications. Continue reading “The mess at Starr King”

Classrom dynamics

(At the Pot of Gold religious education conference today, I led a workshop on classroom dynamics. As promised to participants, here are three key concepts from the workshop:)

When we talk about classroom dynamics, we are talking about managing the relationships in a group of learners (i.e., classroom management). One of the key issues facing any teacher is the issue of classroom management — which is a nice way of saying, helping the participants behave well. To help minimize behavior problems, here are three key concepts to consider:

(1) Make sure each child (or teen, or adult) is noticed and is heard. We did this today in the opening: everyone said their name, and told a little bit about themselves. Especially when new to a class, kids need to feel that they are noticed, that their voice can be heard, and that they belong.

(2) Make sure all participants at least hear each others’ names. They don’t have to memorize all the names (though that would be best). They don’t have to be best friends with everyone (though having one friend is good). But they at least have to know the barest minimum about who else is in the room.

(3) Be clear about the purpose of the class. It makes a big difference if everyone knows why they are there. (For example, I did this in today’s workshop by stating the purpose of the workshop at the very beginning.) If there’s a stated purpose, most participants will buy into it — and those who don’t will at least understand when you reprimand them for deviating from the purpose.

Other notes from today’s class: Rules of the Grocery Store Game may be found here. Rules for Zip, Zap, Zoop may be found here. (Scroll up and down on this same Web page for more icebreakers.)

UU political priorities

I long ago figured out I’m not one of the UU cool kids. Here’s one example of what I mean:

My local UU congregation is participating in a week-long nationwide peacemaking campaign from September 21-18, sponsored by Campaign Nonviolence, a “new movement to mainstream active nonviolence and to foster a world free from war, poverty and the climate crisis.” Beginning on Sunday, Campaign Nonviolence will have events in all fifty U.S. states; they are one of the sponsoring organizations of the People’s Climate March, a nonviolent action taking place in New York City.

In Silicon Valley alone, our local organization Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice is organizing a forum on poverty and structural violence, a youth workshop exploring conscientious objection, a film on climate refugees, a class on ecojustice and peacemaking (which I’m leading), participation in the Northern California People’s Climate Rally, a forum on gun safety with representatives from police and religion, a talk by the mayor of Sunnyvale on the city’s new gun control law, a nonviolent action against Lockheed Martin, and more.

But if you search the Web sites of the UUA or UU World, you will find no reference to Campaign Nonviolence. Because, you see, all the cool kids in the UU world are going to the People’s Climate March. I’m all about reversing global climate change, and environmental justice work more generally. I just wish Unitarian Universalism had a broader vision of social justice work.

Star Island RE handouts

Below are the handouts from the workshop on teaching I led at this summer’s Star Island religious education conference. (Yes, it took me almost two months to proofread these handouts and finally post them — this gives you an indication of how very busy this year’s church start-up has been.) These handouts are aimed at more experienced Sunday school teachers, religious education committee members, and religious education professionals.

Developmental stage theory handout

Educational philosophies handout

Multiple intelligences handout

RE theologies handout

Session plan form

Beyond average attendance

A recent blog post by David L. Odom, Executive Director for Leadership education at Duke Divinity School, argues that “average attendance is no longer a sufficient measure to predict congregational behavior. In the past, says Odom, if he were given average worship attendance he “could predict the size of the church staff, the informal patterns of decision-making, most of the stresses on the pastor’s time, the leadership required for small groups, and more.”

But this is no longer true, according to Odom, as congregational culture is quickly changing and evolving. So, for example, today when denominations mass-produce curriculum materials, “teachers are often dissatisfied with their options [and] obligated to write congregation-specific material for children, youth or adults, requiring a huge commitment of time and creativity.” This same problem holds true in other areas — average worship attendance is no longer an accurate predictor of a congregation’s needs for staffing and funding.

Odom recommends tracking “all the ways that a person engages a congregation — joining a small group, attending group meetings and social functions, contributing to social causes and to the church’s budget, reading semons or other resources online, volunteering in a missions project, teaching a class, and more.” Once you start tracking all the ways individuals get involved, Odom then suggests looking for patterns that lead to deeper engagement, and patterns that lead to great growth. Odom also suggests that engaging an outside marketing consultant would be a good way to start asking these kinds of questions, and organizing and tracking this kind of data.

In our congregation, we continue to track average Sunday attendance, although we track attendance at all Sunday programs, not just worship services, including Sunday morning Forum, children’s programs, and Sunday evening youth programs. I also find it useful to look at seasonal trends in attendance; this is useful information because if attendance drops off when there is no program offered for a given constituency (e.g., no Sunday school or Forum in summer), this appears to be the time when we lose newcomers to those programs. I also pay attention to space use on Sundays — how many rooms are used at a given time for congregational groups and events?

We also track attendance at non-Sunday events and groups, such as support groups, classes, lectures, etc. It is more difficult to collect accurate data for these events, especially since small groups and classes tend to change more quickly than Sunday morning programs. But at the same time, I’m seeing a growing importance of non-worship related activities. Our congregation has a number of programs that attract people who do not go to worship services, including a bias-free scouting program, our OWL sexuality education programs, the Sunday morning Forum, etc. Plus we are planning a week-long day camp next summer that will deliberately reach out to people not otherwise affiliated with the congregation.

The next big step for us will probably be to track patterns of engagement for individuals. We are in the process of moving to a new church database, ACS Realm, which has built-in small-group management software in it. We believe that we will be able to use Realm to track individual engagement across multiple ministry areas.

Odom’s blog post ends with him wishing that he “could go back to the good old days and track a couple of different numbers.” I don’t share his nostalgia — I’m fascinated by the ongoing evolution of congregations, and I love the opportunities for creativity we now have.

How about you? What metrics would you use to figure out how your congregation is doing?

Adventures in solar cooking

Yesterday in Sunday school, two groups of kids started making solar ovens. While they were working, we had solar s’mores cooking in the solar oven I made on Saturday. However, it took a long time for the solar s’mores to cook. First problem: the morning clouds didn’t begin to clear until halfway through Sunday school. Second problem: thin clouds persisted most of the morning, and even the thinnest of clouds caused the temperature to drop at least ten degrees inside the oven. We started cooking the s’mores at about 10:00, and they weren’t really done until just before noon — after most of the kids had already gone home.

The clouds finally cleared away completely, and I left the solar oven outside my office for several hours in the early afternoon. The inside temperature rose to over 200 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees is as high as the meat thermometer goes), with outside air temperature in the high 70s. I heated up a mug of water, to over 170 degrees, and made a nice cup of tea. While I was making tea, Fred Z., from the Green Sanctuary Committee, stopped by and suggested trying cast iron cookware in the oven — it’s dark and absorbs heat well, plus it provides a good thermal mass to even out cooking temperature.

So this morning I dug out a small cast iron frying pan, and decided to try cooking a fried egg in the solar oven. The air temperature was about 65 degrees, but in spite of clear skies I couldn’t get the inside temperature over 190 degrees — which suggests I need better insulation in the oven. I cooked a fried egg, over easy:


It took about twenty minutes, and was really more of an egg baked in butter than it was a fried egg (it tasted good, though); obviously there is a lot more to be done to improve the efficiency of the oven.

Solar oven prototype

Tomorrow, the middle school ecojustice class in Sunday school is going to make solar ovens. So of course I had to make a prototype:


I started with a basic design made out of carboard boxes, a design that is sometimes called the “Minimum Solar Box Cooker.” But instead of just nesting one smaller box inside another box, I took the smaller box, cut out the ends, and turned it 45 degrees:


While this reduces the amount of cooking space inside the oven, it also reduces the amount of air that has to be heated. And then, too, it’s easy to run a couple of dowels through the inner box to make a support for a cooking pot.

In preliminary tests, the oven worked reasonably well. I set the oven out at 2:45 p.m., stuck a meat thermometer in one end of the oven, and within twenty minutes, the thermometer was reading between 190 and 200 degrees F. (the thermometer only goes up to 200). At about 3:10, I put in a cup of water in a glass container. By 3:40, the water temperature was 155 degrees F., and the glass container was more like 190 degrees F. (Air temperature is 75 degrees F. this afternoon.)

Tomorrow comes the real test: we’ll set the oven out at the beginning of Sunday school and see how quickly we can make solar s’mores.

Update, one year on: This solar oven prototype proved to be only marginally effective. After using it fairly extensively, it has one big problem: when you open the lid, much of the hot air escapes; there is very little thermal mass, aside from the heated air. At the very least, I need to provide a significant thermal mass (preferably black in color, to better absorb heat). In addition, it would make sense to place the door low on one side of the oven, to minimize the loss of heated air.

Happy Labor Day

To cheer you up on Labor Day 2014, here are some reports on labor issues from various sources:

Yesterday, the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out that most tech companies in the Bay Area neither support nor oppose the proposal to raise the minimum wage in San Francisco, because they don’t bother hiring minimum-wage workers in the first place: “Large tech companies, whose workers make an average of $156,581, are mostly indifferent on the issue. They employ few minimum-wage workers, often contracting low-wage positions to outside providers.” [“Low-paying jobs may get a boost,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 31, 2014, p. D1]

Today, an editorial in the San Jose Mercury-News bemoans the disappearance of the middle class. The editors reminds us of the recent news that, to no one’s surprise, tech workers are overwhelmingly male, and white or Asian. Then the editors go on to report that a recent study by Working Partnerships USA, a San Jose organization, found that there is plenty of racial and gender diversity in the maintenance and support staff of Silicon Valley companies: “The ethnic and gender divide parallels the economic divide: the service workers make a fifth of what tech workers make.” [“Middle class’ demise needs our attention,” San Jose Mercury-News, September 1, 2014, p. A11]

Finally, I am reading Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships by Tim Otto, a member of the Church of the Sojourners, an intentional Christian community in San Francisco (no connection to Jim Wallis’ Sojourners Magazine). The fifth chapter of Otto’s book is devoted to a theological reflection on how our current economic principles impact our families. He writes: “Consumer capitalism undermines the family by:
“1. Giving us less incentive to create strong families.
“2. Promoting [geographic] mobility, which weakens support for the family.
“3. Training us to see ourselves as consumers and other people as products.”

And if this kind of thing — the demise of the middle class, the sexism and racism of the big tech companies — makes you feel bad, might I suggest that you should go out and buy more consumer goods, which will help keep those low-wage workers in China fully employed. Happy Labor Day!