Kids, mental health, and social media

Last year, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, issued an advisory report on social media and the mental health of kids:

“The current body of evidence indicates that while social media may
have benefits for some children and adolescents, there are ample indicators
that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health
and well-being of children and adolescents….” — Social Media and Youth Mental Health (U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, 2023)

Since then, Dr. Murthy has called on Congress to place health warning labels on social media sites.

This is not just a public health concern. It’s also a religious concern, or should be. In a recent opinion piece, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes:

“A religious temperament might mean questioning our utter reliance on such technology: creating islands of time, like the Sabbath or Sunday, when we would liberate ourselves from technology and being more self-aware of how we use our tools, which have become our toys…. That [old] rabbinic statement that has become a cliche: ‘Whoever saves one life, it is as if they have saved the entire world.’ If regulating access to social media will save the life of one kid, it will be worth it.”

We now know that social media has serious adverse effects on adolescent and pre-adolescent health. So let’s do something about it.

COVID, again

Carol came back from a conference a week ago feeling a little under the weather. Last Sunday, she tested positive for COVID. Our apartment is too small and is not laid out properly for quarantining, so I moved into a hotel. But yesterday morning, I tested positive for COVID.

Neither one of us is especially ill; we both feel like we have a head cold. But with COVID, it doesn’t matter how you feel, the main issue is that you don’t want to spread the disease to someone else. So we’re staying in quarantine until we’re sure we’re not going to spread the virus to others.

Which meant that I could not preach this morning. I emailed the sermon text (and everything else) to Worship Associate Eric, and then all I could do was sit at home watch the livestream. Eric did a fabulous job leading the service, with help from Worship Associate Nancy.

Prior to COVID, I almost never missed a Sunday. You just always showed up on Sunday. (I remember preaching when I had bronchitis. I think the only Sunday I missed was 15 years ago when I had a norovirus and had to be near a toilet.) But these days, if you have COVID or any respiratory ailment, the CDC tells you to stay home. I feel guilty staying home, but I’d feel way more guilty if I gave someone else COVID.

More copyright-free hymns

This week someone contacted me about the copyright-free hymns I’ve posted online. This prompted me to look in my files, where I discovered I had another ten hymns ready to upload. Those ten new hymns are now online here. I’ll include info about these hymns below the jump.

Four of the newly-uploaded hymns are patriotic hymns. Unitarian Universalist hymnals used to include patriotic songs, but that ended with the 1993 gray hymnal. This was a short-sighted policy. Today, U.S. religious conservatives wrap themselves in the mantle of patriotism and maintain that theirs is the only patriotism. Well, Unitarians and Universalists were key players in the founding of the United States, and we need to reclaim that part of our heritage so that we can inject our own religious vies into contemporary political discourse — our views being that the U.S. is a democracy (not an autocracy) and is not a Christian country; that our country is founded on the separation of religion and the state; and that the revolution continues through our ongoing efforts to make sure all persons are treated as equals. With the approach of the 250th anniversary of the singing of the Declaration of Independence, it’s time for us to show our patriotism again. I’ve uploaded America, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and The New Patriot, all taken from pre-1993 UU hymnals. I also uploaded Chester, a patriotic song actually written during the Revolution — it’s of limited use, but can be useful for Massachusetts congregations that recognize Patriots Day.

The other six hymns include African American spirituals, a hymn allegedly by Rabindranath Tagore, a South African song, etc. After you read the descriptions below, look for the songs on my music website.

Continue reading “More copyright-free hymns”

Where do we learn from?

Carey Nieuwhof is the founding pastor of Connexus Church — a conservative Christian church that would probably give hives to most Unitarian Universalists. Carey Nieuwhof also has a leadership podcast that’s insanely popular, and a website and blog that reaches tens of thousand of people.

I may not agree with Carey Nieuwhof’s theology, and he’d probably call me a heretic or an apostate (I’m never quite clear on the distinction between heretic and apostate). Nevertheless, I read Nieuwhof’s tips on leadership. For example, I’ve found that his “Post-Modern Church Leader’s Survival Checklist” has given me some good food for thought. One of those tips, by the way, goes like this:

“The challenge for many of us in church leadership is that we listen to the same voices over and over again. You become a fan of a certain preacher, a certain theologian, and you read and listen to only them. I find I often learn the most from people who are least like me. Sometimes the answers to your problem lies outside your discipline, not within it.”

One of my concerns about Unitarian Universalism is that we’ve become an echo chamber. We are a tiny group. There are fewer Unitarian Universalists in the U.S. than there are members of the Living Faith Church in Lagos — fewer people in our whole denomination than there are in one single church.

Yet even though there are so few of us, we often seem reluctant to look for answers outside the ranks of Unitarian Universalism. If one Unitarian Universalist (UU) comes up with an idea, we all get on the bandwagon, and that becomes the only idea to consider. I saw this happen fifteen years ago when Thandeka challenged the prevailing UU opinion on anti-racism, and was ignored or even attacked. I’m actually quite critical of Thandeka’s thought in general, but I read her material anyway because I learn from it. And I agree with Carey Nieuwhof, with whom I have many profound disagreements, that we often learn the most from people who are least like us.

I see this dynamic also playing out in religious education. I learn far more from the Religious Education Association (REA), an international interfaith group of scholars and practitioners, than from the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA). Sure, the REA has its own problems, and like LREDA it has its own little insider group of people who seem only to talk to each other. But the REA is making a distinct effort to include a diversity of viewpoints in its journal; for example, I learned a lot from an article about Korean American Christian religious education. By contrast, LREDA seems to focus almost exclusively on what’s going on within Unitarian Universalist religious education. The REA casts a much wider net than does LREDA.

Most recently, a friend pointed me to an article in Science of Mind magazine, telling about the Mile Hi Church in Lakewood, Colorado. Mile Hi Church, affiliated with the Centers for Spiritual Living (formerly Church of Religious Science), is huge by UU standards. Yet like the rest of us, in the aftermath of the pandemic, Mile Hi Church is struggling. Their “sanctuary is half full.” Instead of giving in to gloom, though, they say this:

“Five years ago, you simply counted the people in the seats. Today, you count the in-person attendance, the online live attendance, the people who watched the online recording over 24 hours, those who watched the message during the week, and the folks who listened to the podcast on Monday morning. And guess what? That’s OK. In fact, it’s exciting.”

I think it’s great to communicate with other Unitarian Universalists. But we can’t live in a UU echo chamber. One of the reasons I no longer attend General Assembly (GA) is that it feels like a UU echo chamber. I don’t learn as much at GA as I can learn by getting out into the wider world beyond Unitarian Universalism.

Most UU congregations are struggling in the aftermath of the pandemic. We can do as we usually do, and look inwards, listening mostly to other Unitarian Universalists. Or we can look outwards, and embrace the wild diversity that is the wider world.

Healthy youth programs

On Wednesday and Thursday, I attended a training in “CampWell,” a new wellness program that’s being developed by the Alliance for Camp Health (ACH). Created in cooperation with the American Camp Association (ACA), CampWell emphasizes training front-line staff “to identify, understand, cultivate, and create a community of well-being.” The training I attended was aimed at program directors and leaders, so they can train their staff to promote well-being both in themselves and in the campers they serve.

I wish this program existed when I was active in Unitarian Universalist (UU) youth ministry at the district and continental levels. Around the year 2000, I had a contract with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to write training materials for youth advisors and youth leaders, and while I did the best I could with the scanty resources I had, the CampWell program makes me realize how inadequate those UUA trainings were.

CampWell benefits from a quarter of a century of research into social-emotional learning, MESH+ (mental, emotional, and social health), psychology of emotions, play, and more. CampWell is also much better funded than UUA youth ministry ever was, and the quality of the training materials is very high. Plus, ACH is engaged in ongoing research in how CampWell is implemented, which will lead to ongoing revision of the program.

While most UU organizations won’t be able to afford to send staff to CampWell trainings, here are some free or inexpensive resources on their website that could be useful in programs such as OWL, youth groups, summer camps, etc.:

MESH+ resource page — Scroll down for links to a variety of online resources. The links connect to other websites, such as ACA’s “Healthy Camp Toolbox” (wish I had this when I was helping plan overnight youth conferences), Search Institute info on fostering connections for positive youth development, and more.

MESH Pocket Guide — Meant to go in the backpacks of camp counselors, this 12 page folding guide gives tips for active listening, tips for when to seek help, tips for self-care, and more. While it may seem expensive at $8 each, the Guide is waterproof and tough, meant to stand up to hard use. I’ll be purchasing a couple to use in our congregation’s summer camp, and I also think it would be a great resource of OWL facilitators and youth advisors.

MESH Resource Guide — At $50, this is not cheap, but there’s lots of good material in here that could be shared with youth advisors, OWL facilitators, day camp staff, etc. Some of what’s included: an excellent overview of trauma in youth; causes and prevention of bullying; interacting with different types of parents; assessing youth participant behavior issues; and much more.

One final resource I learned about from the CampWell training — Mental Health First Aid. Given the epidemic of teen mental health issues we’re all seeing, this should be something every UU congregation learns about. Their motto is “Let’s make mental health first aid as common as CPR.” I completely agree. Now I just need to find a course near me.

A heads-up for congregational marketing

Cory Doctorow lays down an obvious marketing rule for 2024:

“If there was ever a moment when the obvious, catastrophic, imminent risk of trusting Big Tech intermediaries to sit between you and your customers or audience, it was now. This is not the moment to be ‘social first.’ This is the moment for POSSE (Post Own Site, Share Everywhere), a strategy that sees social media as a strategy for bringing readers to channels that you control….” (Here’s Cory’s blog post — just be aware the title of the post is Not Safe For Work.)

This applies to congregations, too. If you’re relying on Facebook as your central marketing strategy, that’s probably not a wise thing to do. Sure, it’s fine to use a Facebook account for marketing, but Cory’s point is that you really want to use that Facebook account to drive people to your own website. Which you control. So it cannot be censored, or walled off, or otherwise controlled by Big Tech.


I received a long email today from a research group called “Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations.” The email began:

“Dear Pastor, Greetings! This past spring, you or your church completed a survey for the national study entitled Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations.  At that time you were willing to be contacted for follow-up questions. In that survey, we found that 51% of clergy had thought about leaving the pastoral ministry. This was a considerable increase from our earlier survey. Because of this finding, we wanted to better understand the challenges clergy were facing. Religious leaders have suffered especially hard due to the pandemic and the many other challenges in our changing society. This short survey specifically addresses clergy health and well-being….”

So I took their survey. First they asked a lot of questions about the congregation (e.g., our average annual attendance went from 68 in 2018 to 48 in 2022). Then they asked questions about me: Am I employed full-time or part-time? How’s my financial well-being? Do I doubt that I am called by God to ministry? (Left that one blank, that’s not my theology.) Am I part of a clergy support group, do I see a shrink or spiritual director, do I still pray as much as I did before the pandemic? (Yes, and yes, and I pray as much now as before the pandemic which is not at all.)

The survey ended with two open-ended questions: What’s the biggest challenge in my ministry right now? and: What do I find most satisfying in my ministry? I was able to say that my biggest challenge, and also the most fun part of my job, is coming up with creative ways to respond to the rapidly changing world around us while maintaining the integrity and traditions of a 275 year old congregation. Then I was able to say that pretty much everything is satisfying, because I love my job.

Yep, I love my job. I was surprised at how positive I felt. I know that quite a few Unitarian Universalist ministers have left pastoral ministry, and that many others are unhappy with the way pastoral ministry has changed. Not me. I feel excited and energized.

Huh. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.

Screenshot of one of the questions from the online survey
Questions from the survey. Have I ever doubted that I was called by God to ministry? I left that one blank. Have I ever seriously considered leaving pastoral ministry? Not since 2020. Have I seriously considered leaving this congregation for another one? This was kind of difficult to answer, since I just started serving this congregation in 2022, and I left my previous congregation for reasons unrelated to COVID — so I answered “never.”

Confucian quiet-sitting

I’m slowly making my way through a 19,000 word article on Confucian quiet-sitting — “A Study of Cheng Yi’s Quiet-Sitting Meditation and Other Contemplative Practices in the Confucian Context” by Bin Song, Mandala Texts (2023), 1-46 ( Accessed October 6, 2023.)

Not only is it a fascinating article, it might have a real-world effect on the way I think about my own contemplative practices.

I’ve tried the the usual sitting meditation practices taught in North America, and I haven’t felt comfortable with them. Most of the sitting meditation techniques we learn in North America are based on Buddhist sitting meditation, or less often on meditation techniques from the Indian subcontinent. Both Buddhist and Indian meditation techniques are based on distinct end goals (e.g, nirvana in the case of Buddhism). Buddhist and Indian meditation techniques also presume a certain social orientation, often involving some kind of retreat or separation from society. So if you’re like me, and you don’t buy into the end goals or the social orientation of the usual sitting meditation, you’re likely to wind up not wanting to do sitting meditation.

The Confucian — or, to use scholarly jargon, Ruist — technique of quiet-sitting offers another type of contemplative practice. Quiet-sitting differs significantly from Buddhist sitting meditation. Bin Song writes:

“The term ‘sitting at ease’ is used in Chinese Buddhist texts to refer specifically to the Buddhist style of cross-legged sitting meditation. These two quotations suggest that [Ruist scholar] Cheng Yi had reservations to this style for two reasons: first, it encourages Buddhist practitioners to talk about miraculous but impractical deeds and events, and second, it detaches meditators from their everyday human affairs. Cheng Yi aimed to distinguish his contemplative practices from Buddhism and Daoism….”

In addition, Cheng Yi taught that quiet-sitting was just one of several contemplative practices that would achieve the same goal. Bin Song describes several of these. I was specifically interested in the one called “beholding the vitality of the myriad things,” which Song calls “among the most emblematic of Ru contemplation.” Here’s how Cheng Yi and his brother Cheng Hao describe this practice:

“By beholding pattern-principles in things, one can examine oneself. Once able to illuminate pattern-principles, there is nothing that cannot be understood. All things in the world can be illuminated by pattern-principles; if there is something, there must be a norm, and every single thing must have a pattern-principle.” — Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi, The Collected Works of Cheng Brothers (1981), 193.

Based on this description, “beholding the vitality of the myriad things” sounds like it has a family resemblance to the contemplative practice that Henry Thoreau did while living at Walden Pond. As in this example:

“In front of Cheng Hao’s window, the lush grass covered the pavement. Some people advised him to cut it, but he refused, saying that he wanted to witness the vitality of the creative universe. He also kept a small pond and raised a few small fish, which he beheld from time to time. When asked why, he said he wanted to behold how all things remain content in themselves.” — Huang Zongxi et al., Learning Cased in Song and Yuan —– vol. 14 (the He Shaoji print, 1648): 8, accessed March 30, 2023,

Not the same as Thoreau, but you can see the family resemblance — close observation of the non-human world as a way of deeper understanding.

Bin Song begins the article by pointing out that, in the West, the field of contemplative studies has pretty much ignored Confucian, Jain, Jewish, and Sikh contemplative practices. Popular culture never gets much beyond Buddhist and Christian contemplative practices. Learning more about Confucian quiet-sitting might help all of us better understand the strengths and weaknesses of Buddhist meditation and mindfulness — just as happened a generation ago, when learning about Buddhist meditation helped us in the West better understand the strengths and weaknesses of Christian prayer. Not that we all have to go out and start pretending to be Confucianists — but another perspective might help us better understand ourselves.


Back in 2015, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) developed a WordPress theme for congregational websites. It was one of the best things the UUA has done in the past 25 years, because the theme made it super easy to build an excellent website in just a few hours.

Unfortunately, the UUA WordPress theme hasn’t been updated in three years, with no indication that it will ever be updated again. The design is beginning to look outdated. The theme relies on plugins that are now outdated, making it difficult to use the latest improvement in WordPress such as the Gutenberg block editor. We’ve been using the UUA WordPress theme in Cohasset, but it’s getting to the point where we feel like we have to start looking for an alternative.

So I’ve been looking at congregational websites to see what others are doing. I looked at the website of Temple Beth Israel in Northfield, N.J., because an old friend is rabbi there — love the site, but they hired a web design firm to make a custom WordPress template for them, which we can’t afford. Ditto with Grace Cathedral in San Francisco — another great site, but again we can’t afford a custom WordPress template. For a minimalist look, Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., uses a customizd version of the Kale WordPress theme. The Kale theme is free, but I’m sure they paid for the customization, which we probably can’t afford. The UU Congregation of Atlanta, Georgia, uses the Divi theme, which costs $89 a year. We can probably afford that, but it looks like Divi is complicated enough that we’d have to hire a WordPress developer, which we probably can’t afford.

Turning to websites we could maybe afford, Second Unitarian in Chicago uses the Cream Magazine theme, giving their site a nice straightforward look. The theme is reasonably priced at $49.

Um. Yeah. That’s it.

That’s the only UU congregational website I’ve found so far that looks good, and seems affordable.

But if you know of a great congregational website using an inexpensive WordPress theme, please put the URL in the comments….

Why we should follow the URJ’s lead

The Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) is in the middle of a restorative justice effort around various forms of misconduct. They released a message for Yom Kippur this year talking about how they will “make amends for the harms endured by victims/survivors” who have experienced “bullying, harassment, discrimination, sexual misconduct, abuse, and more” in URJ congregations and related programs.

This follows the release and online publication — in full, with no redactions — of a third party investigation into misconduct in the URJ. That report was followed by a restorative justice effort which focused on survivors’ needs. This restorative justice effort began with a written report summarizing a long series of interviews with victims/survivors of misconduct. Additional efforts aimed at meeting the needs of survivors is ongoing through 2023.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) should follow the URJ’s lead. Just like the URJ, we need a third party to compile as full a report as possible on the decades of misconduct, especially (but not limited to) sexual misconduct, much of it perpetrated by clergy or other persons in power. A UUA report, like the URJ report, needs to name names. And it needs to be published on the UUA website with no redactions.

Then the UUA should follow the URJ’s lead and carry out restorative justice aimed at meeting the needs of victims/survivors. In the past, the UUA’s efforts to address misconduct have, all too often, minimized the impact on the misconductors at the expense of victims/survivors. To give just one example: when Rev. Jason Shelton was disciplined by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, he was granted the privilege of writing an explanatory email that was sent by the UUA to all UU ministers and congregations; but the alleged victim was not given that privilege.

The UUA took a baby step towards restorative justice when they finally published a chronological list of ministers removed from fellowship. But soon — in a classic example of how the UUA considers the needs and feelings of alleged misconductors more than the needs and feelings of victims/survivors — the UUA changed the list. Now there are two lists on one webpage, one list for ministers removed from fellowship, and one list for the ministers who resigned from fellowship rather than face charges. The message to misconductors is clear — if you get caught, just resign from fellowship, and you get put on the less damning list. And if you resign from fellowship, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee will drop your case and never adjudicate it. Worse yet, from what I’ve seen, male sexual misconductors in particular are carefully protected from having their misdeeds brought to light, while their victims/survivors are tossed to the curb.

I sincerely doubt that anyone in the hierarchy of the UUA (and it is a hierarchy) has the gumption to propose a process like that the URJ has undertaken. For example, can you imagine the UUA publishing a report that names Saint Forrest Church as an alleged sexual misconductor? Neither can I. Patriarchy is still alive and well in the UUA.

As I read the URJ report of their interviews with survivors/victims, this passage stood out for me: “Again and again [the authors of the URJ report say], we heard that the most harmful institutional betrayal is the disjuncture between the direct and indirect harms that occurred despite the stated values the URJ seeks to uphold. One said, ‘You don’t practice what we [in the URJ] preach’…”

I wish we in the UUA would follow the URJ’s lead. Would that we, too, would attempt to practice what we preach.

Cover of the URJ report