Public service announcement

Unitarian Universalist congregations are receiving guidance from the denominational headquarters and regional staff to stay away from their buildings tomorrow, Sunday, January 17. The guidance says that right wing extremists are expected to be targeting state capitols with violent protests, and there’s a very small but non-zero chance that violence might spill over on to other targets. Regional staff says:

“If you have staff in your buildings over the weekend — perhaps to record your worship service — you may want to consider staying away for the weekend.”

Similar guidance has been offered for Wednesday, January 20, Inauguration Day. So if you were going to go down and sit in your congregation’s garden, or walk your congregation’s labyrinth — consider doing it on another day. Chances are really slim that your congregation’s building or campus will be targeted, but why take chances.

And probably best to not editorialize about this on your favorite social media outlets. The guidance we’re getting is — don’t engage in any way with the extremists. For that reason, I’ll disable comments for this post.

What’s in store for UUs in 2021?

My crystal ball is cloudy, so once again I’m unable to predict the future with any accuracy, but I have some guesses about what the new year has in store for Unitarian Universalist congregations.

(1) The pandemic will continue to affect Unitarian Universalist congregations through summer, 2021. Dr. Fauci says we’ll see widespread roll-out of the vaccine by May, but not only will there still be plenty of unvaccinated people in June, most Unitarian Universalist congregations will be heading in to their summer slow-down. And I’m expecting a big slow-down this summer for many congregations. Making the transition back to in-person worship and programs is not going to be easy, as staff and volunteers have to be mobilized in different ways. Key volunteers and staff are also likely to feel a little burned out, and will want some down time in the summer. I’m betting most Unitarian Universalist congregations don’t make a full transition back to in-person worship and programs until September.

And when congregations do return to in-person worship and programs, how many people will come back? On the one hand, people will be eager to see their old friends again face to face. On the other hand, we’ve all slipped in to now routines and habit; how many people will take the time to get up, get dressed, and drive to their congregation, when for the past year and a half all they had to do to attend worship was roll out of bed and turn on the computer?

So I predict we’re never going back to the way things were before the pandemic, but I’m not willing to guess what the future holds.

(2) Money will be tight. Financially, I’m expecting the majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations will be in worse shape after the pandemic than they were before the pandemic. Many congregations that own buildings depend on rental income to some extent, and a year and a half with reduced rental income will wreak havoc with budgets. All congregations will doubtless experience some reduction in income due to the depressed economy. For congregations with staff, I’m expecting staff cuts, layoffs, and/or salary reductions.

For staff, this has the potential to get ugly. Some hypothetical scenarios: Instead of seeing their position get slashed to part time, parish ministers will convince congregations to cut religious educators and administrators instead; good potential for inter-staff conflict here. Employees will watch their benefits erode; potential for conflict between staff and lay leaders here. Custodial staff will get laid off, and contracted cleaning services brought in to partially replace them; the loss of hands-on services provided by dedicated custodians could prompt conflict between lay leaders and members of the congregation.

So I predict we’ll see cuts in programs and services, along with an associated increase in the number of congregations in conflict.

(3) Generational conflict looms. Baby Boomers (my generation) have been running most Unitarian Universalist congregations for the past decade or two, after they took over power from the G.I. Generation. It’s been a good run for the Baby Boomers, but increasingly I’m seeing the Millennials questioning the way things get done in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Here are two obvious ways to question the Baby Boomer way of doing things: We all have a growing awareness of just how white our congregations are, and the old familiar answer we Baby Boomers gave for years — “There are so few people of color who live near our church” — just doesn’t seem adequate any more. We Baby Boomers have been dragging their feet about livestreaming worship services and other programs, and now that we’re all livestreaming it’s become obvious just how backwards we were.

Here’s a less obvious way we should all be questioning the Baby Boomer way of running our congregations: We Baby Boomers watched as second-wave feminism reshaped big chunks of American society. Unitarian Universalism got radically reshaped by second-wave feminism — with the seven principles and the flaming chalice and two new hymnals — and we Boomers were right in the thick of that reshaping. But now we’re all beginning to realize that second-wave feminism, while admirable in many ways, was also an elitist movement driven by a myth of hyper-individualism and a racist movement that left out women of color. We’re also beginning to realize that second-wave feminism sometimes has transphobic tendencies.

Will we Boomers be able to address the deep flaws of second-wave feminism? Given how defensive we are as a generation, I have my doubts. I’m looking to an alliance between Gen X and the Millennials to find creative, productive ways to move forward. But given how we Boomers cling to power (e.g., every U.S. president since 1992 has been a Boomer), I’m not expecting that the creative solutions proposed by the Millennials and the Gen Xers will suffer from either passive or active resistance by us Boomers.

No prediction here; in my view, this is a long-term trend to keep an eye on.

(4) The number of children and youth will continue to drop in most Unitarian Universalist congregations. The number of UU kids has been dropping steadily since 2005; and denominational and district/regional staffing and support for children’s programming has been dropping over the same time period. As children and youth programs shrink, congregations feel justified in cutting funding, leading to a nice strong feedback loop. Pandemic-induced budget cuts will only accelerate this trend.

There’s a bigger problem here. Families today want more options for their kids. Because of this, one-size-fits all programs are a non-starter. Yet that’s what Unitarian Universalist congregations mostly offer: one-size-fits-all programs for kids. The “conservative” congregations offer Sunday school, the “progressive” congregations offer intergenerational worship; but really both these approaches are hopelessly conservative, because they’re both the kind of one-size-fits all program that worked in the 1990s, but won’t work today. If we don’t offer choice in programming, fewer families will bother to show up.

So I predict the number of Unitarian Universalist children and youth will decline even more steeply over the next couple of years.

(5) Livestreaming worship services will continue. This is my only positive prediction this year: most congregations are going to keep livestreaming once the pandemic is over, and that has the potential for extending the reach of Unitarian Universalist in some really interesting ways.

I predict that congregations that devote some serious effort to continuing and improving livestreaming of worship and programs are going to reap major — but unpredictable- benefits.

Great virtual meetings

Harvard Business Review (HBR) has a couple of articles on virtual meetings. Back on March 5, they published an article by Bob Frisch and Cary Greene titled “What It Takes To Run a Great Virtual Meeting.” If you’re experienced at running online meetings, most of this will seem like good common sense, but you should read it anyway. Some of HBR’s suggestions should be obvious, like “test the technology ahead of time.” Others may be less obvious, but are still critically important, like “make sure faces are visible.” HBR suggests having a facilitator for meetings, someone who can take the pulse of the group; and one of their more innovative ideas is that the facilitator can use a parallel phone-based survey tool like “Phone Everywhere” to get that feedback.

An earlier article, published in 2015, by Keith Ferrazi was titled “How To Run a Great Virtual Meeting.” This covers much of the same ground, though with different emphases. Ferrazi spent a couple of years researching virtual meetings, and his article summarizes his research findings. One of my favorite points from this article: ban multitasking, because it doesn’t work and it slows down the team. I’ve been guilty of multitasking at virtual meetings, and it’s true: when I start checking email, I lose track of what’s going on in the meeting. That’s one reasons why Ferrazi says to leave video on: so you can see when someone is trying to multitask. (This, by the way, is a big drawback of Google Meet: depending on how you set up the meeting, you can only see 4 people at a time.)

An article by John Wimberly of Congregational Consulting Group got me started reading up on the topic. Wimberley titles his article “Will There Ever Be A Non-Virtual Meeting Again?” Wimberley says that once the COVID crisis ends, many urban congregations will keep doing virtual meetings because of the time it saves commuting to and from meetings. Actually, it’s not just urban congregations: congregations in suburban areas also have traffic problems; plus virtual meeting can include those who can’t travel at night (elders and people with young children); and for those of us in regional congregations, drawing from a big geographical area, virtual meetings allow our more far-flung members to participate. Before COVID-19 hit, our Palo Alto congregation was already doing hybrid meetings — some people in person, some people online — and I expect after COVID-19, there will be more committee and Board members who opt for the virtual option.

The bottom line: since virtual meetings are here to stay, we should learn how to run great virtual meetings.

Thank you, UUA

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) posted a notice today recommending that Unitarian Universalist congregations should consider NOT opening in-person meetings before May, 2021. You can read the recommendations here.

I’m glad the UUA has issued these recommendations. I had already come to most of the conclusions outlined in their recommendations. I’ve been trying to figure out how to gently break it to lay leaders and congregants who are already feeling weary of being stuck at home, already getting tired of Zoom meetings, that we really won’t be able to meet in person until there’s an effective vaccine and/or an almost universally effective treatment with incredibly robust contact tracing in place. Which means most likely no in-person meetings for at least another year — maybe longer in some areas.

The only thing I’d quibble about in the UUA recommendations is this statement: “It is the UUA’s strong recommendation that congregations plan for ongoing virtual gathering and operations through May 2021.” I would have added the phrase “at least” before “through May, 2021.” I don’t think there’s any guarantee that we will be able to resume in-person meetings by the end of May 2021; human beings are really good at false hope, and I wouldn’t want to encourage that human tendency.

That minor quibble aside, the recommendations are quite well done, especially in how they recognize that different congregations in different locales will face different sets of problems.

Best of all, now I don’t have to go through the trouble of summarizing all the research I’ve been doing. All I have to do is point to the UUA recommendations, and say, “This generally agrees with the research I’ve been doing.”

And then we can all say together, “OK, let’s plan for a year of online programming. How can we unleash our creativity, serve the needs of our members and friends, and make Unitarian Universalism in Silicon Valley serve the goodness of humanity?”

“Bad theology has consequences”

Religion New Service has reports on an important consideration before your church reopens:

You’ll want to talk with your insurer first.

Insurance companies, as you’d expect, are remaining “neutral on whether churches should reinstitute physical gatherings when restrictions are lifted.” Yet because they’re concerned with safety in general, insurance companies are offering concrete suggestions on how churches might one day safely reopen. According to Religion New Service:

“Guy Russ, Church Mutual’s expert on risk control, said his company’s recommendations include maintaining 6-foot distance from other parishioners in all directions, sterilizing all surfaces, using hard-cover seating options instead of fabric-covered pews to expedite cleaning, removing physical holy books or hymnals from use, and posting signage or projected messages to clearly indicate expectations for worship attendees.”

For our church in Palo Alto, that means reducing the seating capacity from 150 seats to about 50. Then since most of our chairs have fabric covers, we’d have to dig up 50 chairs with hard surfaces.

“Russ also stressed the need for religious groups to train staff and volunteers not only on cleanliness and social distancing practices, but also on how to address individuals who fail or refuse to comply with posted guidelines. In addition, he suggested houses of worship consider instituting some form of ‘contact tracing,’ whereby faith leaders either retain the contact information of people who attend events or use smartphone applications to help local authorities to trace the spread of the coronavirus if members of the congregation get sick.”

This means training a lot of volunteers. This also means taking attendance, including names and contact information, for all in-person services.

“‘If everybody has followed everything that you ask them to do and somebody who has attended an event at your facility becomes ill, what is your protocol going to be?’ he said. ‘We are recommending that each organization thinks through that question.'”

This means yet another safety policy for the Board of Trustees to vote on BEFORE reopening.

Plus there are other considerations. For instance, our music director tells us that we probably shouldn’t have any group singing, nor any group speaking, until there’s an effective vaccine — so no hymns. Beyond that, no choirs and no wind instruments either. From my perspective as an educator, I see major difficulties enforcing social distancing with younger children, so maybe there would have to be a lower age limit.

It begins to look like it will be a major challenge to hold in-person services before there’s an effective vaccine.

Which leads me to ask: What about those states that are allowing churches to reopen soon? Have they thought all these issues through?

More to the point, what about those churches that decide to reopen because they are sure God will protect them? Rev. Stephen Fearing of Beaumont Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, has the best answer to that one:

“Bad theology has consequences.”

Behaving well in the era of COVID-19

According to the Associated Press: “Louisiana authorities arrested pastor [Tony Spell] on an assault charge on Tuesday after he admitted that he drove his church bus toward a man who has been protesting his decision to continue holding mass gatherings at church in defiance of public health orders during the coronavirus pandemic.”

By contrast, after learning that the governor of Georgia planned to reopen churches and other businesses, despite contrary advice from public health professionals, “Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, the presiding prelate in Georgia for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, instructed the state’s roughly 520 AME congregations not to gather,” according to Religion News Service.

And by way of further contrast: Angelus Temple, a megachurch in Los Angeles, has now served 350,000 free meals during the pandemic, according to Religion News Service. The pastor, Matthew Barnett, said a few people disagreed with the decision to stop holding services in mid-March and concentrate instead of feeding people in need, but such criticism is “not productive in bringing about healing and possibilities of what we can do during this time.”

The difference between Tony Spell on the one hand, and Reginald T. Jackson and Matthew Barnett on the other, is that Jackson and Barnett have a more mature understanding of Christianity. They understand that their actions go far beyond the churches they supervise; their actions have ethical and moral implications that transcend their own self-interest.

What I’m taking away from this: I’m going to do my best to NOT be like Tony Spell, selfish and immature when it comes to quarantine restrictions. Instead, I’m going to do my best to model my behavior after Jackson and Barnett — looking to the greater good, acting with kindness and compassion.

The mystery of the misattributed hymn

One of my favorite hymns about peace begins:

Years are coming — speed them onward!
When the sword shall gather rust,
And the helmet, lance, and falchion,
Sleep at last in silent dust!

This hymn has mostly been reprinted in Universalist and Unitarian Universalist hymnals, and it is usually attributed to the Universalist minister Adin Ballou, who founded the utopian Hopedale community in Milford, Massachusetts, in 1842. Ballou and the members of the Hopedale community were believers in women’s rights and abolition and temperance and education and pacifism. Recently, while I was researching family history, I discovered that my mother’s great-grandparents Nathan Chapman and Hepzibah Whipple left the utopian Rogerenes of Ledyard, Conn., to join the nearby utopian Hopedale community in Massachusetts; and their daughter Jeannette was married in Hopedale to her husband Richard Congdon by none other than Rev. Adin Ballou; and though by the time of this marriage the Hopedale community had gone bankrupt, the spirit of the community lived on in the Hopedale Unitarian church of which Ballou was the minister.

Not only did this family history help explain why I’m a feminist, pacifist, educator, and utopian dreamer, but I decided it must explain why I like this hymn so much.

Except that Adin Ballou didn’t write this hymn.

Continue reading “The mystery of the misattributed hymn”

Make yourself look good on camera

With the shelter-in-place order, any socializing we do is on camera. Plus many of us have to use videoconferencing for work. As long as we’re going to be spending lots of time on camera, we might as well look our best. So here are some tips for making yourself look good on your laptop’s (or your phone’s) crappy little web camera.

First of all, and perhaps most importantly, have your laptop or phone sitting on something stable. Ideally, you want to move the camera as little as possible, for two reasons. First, if you’re in a videoconference, you want to focus attention on your face, and if you move the camera around that’s going to be a distraction. Second, unless you have a really fast internet connection you probably want to save bandwidth; if you have a stable backdrop, that will be less information you’re sending out, and so you’re less likely to have degraded audio or video.

Second of all, don’t place your camera too low. If your camera is too far below your face, people will be looking up your nose, and if you’re middle-aged they can see all those incipient jowls that you’ve been trying to hide. In other words, don’t do this:

Camera placed too low, and only one source of lighting

Boy, do I look ugly in the photo above! Don’t make yourself look ugly. Place your computer or phone so that the camera is about at the level of your chin. However, don’t place your camera too high; there’s a psychological disadvantage to giving your viewers the impression that they are higher or taller than you.

In addition, learn about the Rule of Thirds. Imagine that your screen is divided in thirds both horizontally and vertically, sort of like a tic-tac-toe board. Have your eyes placed so that they’re about a third of the way from the top of the screen. Move so that your head is NOT in the center of the frame, but about a third of the way to one side (I like to move to my left, so that my right hand, my dominant hand, can make gestures in the space to my right). Setting up your camera using the Rule of Thirds will make you look more professional, because that’s what we’re used to seeing in movies and on television.

Use the Rule of Thirds to place yourself in the frame of the camera

Now let’s take a look at lighting. In movies and television, they use what’s called “three point lighting.” That just means that they use three light sources to light someone’s head. First, you set up the “key light,” which is the most important light. If you’re at home and on a videoconference during the day, your key light is most likely determined by the nearest window — in that case, try to sit so that the light from the nearest window is coming towards you at about a 30 degree angle — and you want diffuse daylight, so make sure there’s a curtain or something to give diffuse light. At night, sit so that the strongest light in the room becomes your key light.

With only the key light, your head will look a little one dimensional or washed out; and if you have any wrinkles or blemishes, they will tend to stand out. Therefore, you need to set up another light, called the “fill light,” which will fill in the stark shadows cast by the key light. The fill light should be less bright than the key light. The drawing below shows where the key light and the fill light come from:

Diagram of three point lighting

Then if you want really professional lighting, you’ll add what’s called a “back light.” This comes from the same side as the key light, and it lights up the back edge of your head. By lighting up that back edge of your head, it makes you look that much more three dimensional. However, it’s super time consuming to set up a back light, so I don’t bother when I’m on a videoconference.

Now here are some examples of what I look like with these different lights. Here I am with just the key light — it’s adequate, but pretty stark:

Continue reading “Make yourself look good on camera”

Further adventures in livestreaming

The shelter-in-place order has made livestreaming our church’s worship services a little more complex. We just had a tech rehearsal with worship leaders and tech support people each in their own locations, using Zoom as our basic platform. We have learned a lot since we livestreamed last week! Here’s a summary of what is currently working for us:

(1) Before the rehearsal, whoever owns the Zoom account needs to log in to their Zoom account and go over the settings carefully (see the screenshot below to see where to find “Settings” when logged in to Zoom). The critical settings you need to be aware of are as follows:
(a) Do not allow “Join before host.” This is to prevent someone from hijacking the feed with inappropriate screensharing before you take control.
(b) UNtick “Participant video: Start meetings with participant video on.” You want participant videos off, partly to prevent distraction, but also to prevent trolls from putting inappropriate content on their video feed. (Zoom will allow participants to start their video feed again, so you’ll also need someone to monitor participant videos during the service; see below.)
(c) Tick “Mute participants upon entry.”
(d) Tick “Allow co-hosts,” for two reasons: First, you’re going to need 2-3 people to manage the video feeds; second, make all worship leaders co-hosts because that puts them at the top of the participant list so you can more easily find them when switching back and forth between worship leaders and musicians.
(e) Tick “Allow host to put attendee on hold.” Just in case.
(f) Under “Screen sharing,” make sure you select the option where only allow host(s) can share screens. This prevents so-called “Zoombombing,” where trolls put up inappropriate images on your Zoom feed.
(g) Tick “Disable desktop/screen for users.”
(e) Tick “Allow users to select original sound in their client settings.” This improves the audio quality of musicians enormously.

(2) Well before the service starts, make sure you have email addresses for all co-hosts and worship leaders. Cell phone numbers would be a good idea too. If something fails, it’s nice to have a backup communication method besides private chat within Zoom.

(3) Start the Zoom call at least 15 minutes before the stated start time for the worship service, and make sure your co-host(s) who are managing participants also log in early. You want to have at least two hosts managing participants before the stated start time, when you’ll have your big influx of participants log in. Have your worship leaders log in early as well, and assign them co-host status so they appear at the top of the participants list.

(4) During the worship service, you’ll want people in the following tech roles:
(a) One host to “Spotlight video” of whichever worship leader or musician is on.
(b) One or two hosts to manage the participants. If you have a really small service (say, 30 or fewer participants logged in), you might be able to combine this role with the previous role.
(c) One or two people to work on audience engagement; these people will be monitoring the chat. Specific tasks might include monitoring chat for joys and sorrows (we’re going to allow joys and sorrows in chat); pasting hymn/song lyrics into chat at the appropriate moment; watching for newcomers to the service and perhaps greeting them privately in chat; generally monitoring behavior.
(d) Optional: we’ll also have a few knowledgable people monitoring audio and video quality, and providing feedback and/or advice as needed.

(5) Send out a script ahead of time. Our script, which was the basic order of service, proved to be inadequate. The primary worship leader (the senior minister in our case) is going to send out a full script, and our music director is going to insert cues for the host who’s in charge of switching the video feeds.

(6) We did a brief postmortem to talk about what worked and what didn’t work, and of course we’re doing email follow-up as well.

One final point: While putting on a worship service is always a team effort, it becomes even more of a team effort when you’re livestreaming (especially when everyone has to watch from home), because the tech crew becomes an integral part of the worship team. I consider this a major benefit of livestreaming services: in these times, when we’re all feeling a little isolated and scared, being a part of a team effort can be quite comforting.

Copyright free hymns

For me, the biggest stumbling block for livestreaming worship services has always been copyright issues.

Especially troublesome are hymns.

Many of the most popular hymn tunes are protected by copyright. Even if a tune is in the public domain, the arrangement may be copyrighted (and it can be difficult to find out if the arrangement is, in fact, copyrighted). Even if the arrangement is copyrighted, some people will claim copyright for their typesetting of the hymn. If a hymn is protected in any way under copyright, you’re not supposed to photocopy or project or electronically disseminate the printed version of the hymn; if any part of the music is protected under copyright, you’re not supposed to broadcast audio of it. No, not even if you own hymnals with the hymn: owning a hymnal just allows you to use the hymn in an in-person event such as an in-person worship service.

The solution to this problem: copyright free hymns.

For the past few years, I’ve been collecting copyright free hymns and spiritual songs. I have huge disorganized files (both electronic and hard copy) of public domain tunes and texts and arrangements. I’ve pulled many songs from the great early African American collections, including Slave Songs of the U.S. (1868), the Fisk Jubilee Singers songbook (1873), and Cabin and Plantation Songs, assembled by the Hampton Institute (1901). Although most of the hymns I’ve found are Christian, I’ve also found some good hymns and songs with Buddhist, Jewish, Neo-Pagan, Ethical Culture, or secular content. All the hymns I’ve found would be suitable for use in a Unitarian Universalist worship service; indeed, many of them are public domain versions of hymns in our current hymnal that are protected by copyright in some way.

I’ve just put 24 of these copyright free hymns and spiritual songs in a Google Drive folder here.

I’ll put a list of the songs currently in the folder below the fold. And I’ll be adding more copyright free hymns and spiritual songs as I find time to produce fair copies of the versions I have.

A thumbnail view of a copyright free hymn
Continue reading “Copyright free hymns”