Carol and I went for walks in two wildlife sanctuaries today: the Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary and the North River Wildlife Sanctuary, both in Marshfield, Mass. Usually when we walk in wildlife sanctuaries I spend most of my time looking at plants, especially flowering plants. But today, without trying at all, we wound up seeing a quite a few animals. Here are three of them:

Two raptors in a nest built of sticks.
Adult and juvenile Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
A beetle on a leaf. The leaf has pieces gone from it, perhaps eatne by the beetle. possibly
Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Turtle mostly submerged in water.
Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)

Each of these three animals is what I’d call charismatic. I’m not quite sure what makes some animals more charismatic than others. Animal charisma is not a matter of being cuddly — none of these three animals could be considered cuddly. Nor is animal charisma a matter of being cute — a baby Osprey might be cute, in a fierce flesh-tearing-beak sort of way, but a Red Milkweed Beetle is not what most people would consider cute. In fact, being cute and cuddly is almost the opposite of being charismatic. Cuteness and cuddliness feel controllable; charisma does not.

Humans remain my favorite animal. At the same time, I think it’s good for us humans to encounter non-human animals. After all, for most of human existence, we lived in close-knit human communities while being surrounded by non-human animals — a distinct contrast to our current existence, where we are alienated both from other humans, and from non-human organisms.


One of the personal characteristics that most troubles religious liberals is charisma. We religious liberals think religion should be rooted in reason and rationality, and charisma is very upsetting to those of us who claim rationality as a highest value. A charismatic person can make a reasonable person think unreasonable thoughts, by the sheer attractiveness of that charismatic person’s personality; no wonder we rationalists find charisma so upsetting! We sometimes forget that the ancient Greeks knew that the power of rhetoric and rhetorical argument could be greater than the power of reason. We also sometimes forget that the science of psychology has shown over and over again how human beings are convinced by the power of that which is not rational, such as advertisements, sexuality, tyranny, etc. Of course we forget; we have an unreasoning faith in reason.

What, then, do we religious liberals do when we meet up with another religious liberal who happens to be charismatic? If we’re honest, we’d admit that our immediate response is distrust. So it is that we actually prefer our ministers to be a little drab and colorless, rather than dynamic and exciting. Lay leaders who show signs of being charismatic are often subtly disabled; the nail that sticks up will get hammered down. Charismatic ministers and lay leaders quickly learn to hide their charisma behind a mask of bureaucratic grayness, or even assumed incompetence.

I’m not sure I would want to change our liberal religious response to charisma all that much. I don’t trust charisma myself, even on the rare occasions when I find it in myself; no, especially on those rare occasions when I find it in myself. It’s too easy for someone with charisma to get carried away by the power of their charisma. However, charisma can be extraordinarily useful to human institutions. What we laud as great leadership in business or politics is often little more than the power of charisma in a given individual; I doubt Steve Jobs was the genius he is made out to be, but by all reports he was powerfully charismatic; the same seems to be true of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Charismatic individuals can drive institutions and make things happen.

But although your charisma can drive human institutions, it is wise to recall that your charisma does not inhere in your personal being; it comes from the outside, a gift of the spirit; or, more properly, given by the Spirit, it comes into you from something or somebody or some place beyond the narrow confines of the self. If you’re charismatic, your charisma doesn’t belong to you, wretched mortal individual that you are; it is ageless; it belongs to humanity; so don’t take credit for it — this is the religious liberal’s attitude. We religious liberals can tolerate charisma only when it is combined with serious humility.

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”

A portrait of the minister as a misconductor

Recently I received an unsolicited book in the mail. As a minister and as a blogger, I sometimes receive unsolicited books in the mail, usually on topics in which I have no interest, and I generally toss them straight into the recycling bin. Upon opening the envelope, I read the title of the book, Being Alive and Having To Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church, and having no interest in Forrest Church I headed for the recycling bin. But before I tossed the book, I thought to myself, “I wonder if the author dared tackle Church’s sexual misconduct?” The author did dare, so I decided to read on.

Dan Cryer, the author of Being Alive and Having To Die, portrays Forrest Church as having come from privilege. The son of Frank Church, a prominent U.S. Senator, Forrest Church could trace his ancestry back to the Mayflower through both his mother and his father. He grew up in large part near Washington, D.C., in a county with the highest per-capita income in the country. His father went to Stanford University, and that’s where Forrest received his undergraduate degree. Although he was estranged from his father during the late 1960s, as were so many upper middle class young men of his generation, he once avoided arrest because U.S. Forest Service troopers liked his father’s pro-conservation initiatives in the Senate. Forrest Church continued following his father’s footsteps: his father had gone to Harvard Law School, and after a year at Pacific School of Religion Forrest transferred to Harvard Divinity School.

He married Amy Furth when they were both undergraduates at Stanford. Cryer’s descriptions of their marriage makes Forrest Church sound like a male chauvinist pig, e.g., “…the young husband did have a bad habit of wounding Amy by making important decisions without consulting her” (p. 65). Beginning in 1976, Church began having affairs with other women, although he himself “declined to characterize these as ‘affairs'” (p. 188). After he was called to the prestigious pulpit of All Souls Unitarian in New York (in “that nation’s wealthiest ZIP code”[p. 110]) in 1978, the affairs continued, though not with members of the congregation. By 1991, the marriage of Amy and Forrest Church “had been shaky for a long time” (p. 187). It was in that year that the whole thing blew up. Continue reading “A portrait of the minister as a misconductor”