What’s killing Sunday school

A follow up to this post.

If Sunday school is going to die, what’s going to kill it? Let’s look at four social and economic factors that are leading to declines in U.S. Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools — and when I talk about decline, I’m talking about decline in enrollment, decline in attendance (which differs from enrollment), decline in interest among children and teens, and decline in interest among adults.

(1) The biggest single demographic factor affecting Sunday school enrollment has to be increasing diversity in the U.S. population. The majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations remain racially and ethnically segregated. That segregation may result from one or more of several causes: (a) Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are located in racially homogenous municipalities, typically upper middle class white towns that have the political power to keep people of color out. (b) Power structures in many Unitarian Universalist congregations are dominated by older white people who remain uncomfortable with the increasing racial diversity of the world around them, and enforce the whiteness of their congregations through a variety of means, including so-called microaggressions, blindness towards their congregation’s biases, talk about how “those people” wouldn’t want to be Unitarian Universalists because they’re all Catholics, or all Buddhists, or what have you; and still other means beyond these. (c) The way Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to imagine diversity primarily in terms of a white congregation adding a few black members, thus ignoring the stunning racial, linguistic, and ethnic diversity of much of the country, including the incredible diversity of people who are lumped together as “Hispanic” and “Asian,” and also including the way that some racial or ethnic groups get obscured by overly broad categorizations (such as Lusophones who are lumped in with Hispanics, or the treatment of “blacks” as a monolithic ethnic group).

For many people, our workplaces, schools, and community groups all have some racial and ethnic diversity. Thus, a parent who walks into a Unitarian Universalist congregation that is overwhelmingly white — and this includes a white parent — is going to feel that this is a strange place, and maybe a place they don’t want their children to be part of.

How can we address this demographic factor? Continue reading “What’s killing Sunday school”

The Year in Review: Unitarian Universalism

What a wild ride we Unitarian Universalists had in 2017.

The wildest part of the year happened last spring, when Peter Morales, the first Latino president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), resigned from office, with only a few months left in his term. The events that led up to his resignation were somewhat bizarre. Two of the finalists for a senior staff position at the UUA were both members of the UUA Board, which should make us wonder just how incestuous UUA hiring is (I mean, seriously, can’t you find viable candidates outside your volunteer board? — don’t you know how bad that looks?). Then when the white male gets hired in preference to the Latina woman, social media erupts in accusations of “Racism!”

Shouting “Racism!” was not a bad response, but hardly anyone mentioned the sexism involved. Now it’s not sexism every time the man gets hired over the woman. Nor is it always sexism when the man who gets hired is an ordained minister and the woman is a layperson (for while anyone who has done feminist power analysis knows that sexism often hides behind choosing the person with the most professional credentials, on the other hand sometimes the person with more professional credentials is in fact more qualified). And it’s not always sexism when the woman has a background in “women’s work” (which was true in this case; the woman in this case is a religious educator, and works with children, in a profession that is underpaid compared to parish ministry). But it most definitely was sexism when Peter Morales said in an interview that he could not hire religious educators for senior staff positions because they were not capable of that kind of high level work.

I was astonished at the rage I felt after reading that Peter Morales thought I was incapable of working for him in a high level staff position, simply because I am a religious educator, someone who does “women’s work,” in a profession where more than 90% of my colleagues are women, many of whom are poorly-paid part-time workers. Had I been British, I would have given Peter Morales the two-finger salute; but since I’m a New Englander, that would be cultural misappropriation, so instead I looked in his general direction with withering scorn. Continue reading “The Year in Review: Unitarian Universalism”

My rant for the day: Patriarchy dies hard

Let me climb onto my soap box….

All these troubles in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA): yet another senior denominational positions is filled by a white man; the first Latino president of the UUA gets defensive about this fact and then resigns; people of color in the denomination call for a national teach-in about white supremacy; the president of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA), who is a white man, holds forth online at great length, and somewhat incoherently, on hiring practices in the UUA; 130 members of the UUMA sign a petition calling on ministers to refrain from bringing lawsuits against other ministers in the middle of UUMA grievance procedures (a petition that was responding to a legal action by a UUMA member against other UUMA members to prevent ministers from talking about a colleague who allegedly committed sexual misconduct); a Unitarian Universalist minister pleads guilty to child pornography charges.

In the course of all these troubles, many Unitarian Universalists are openly addressing the problem of racism and white supremacy. This is a good thing.

And in the course of all these troubles, far fewer Unitarian Universalists seem to be talking about sexism and patriarchy. Maybe because all the candidates for UUA president are women. In a couple of weeks, we are sure to elect a woman as the next UUA president and therefore we have conquered patriarchy. Right?

Patriarchy within the UUA has not died. Nor is it in its death throes, nor is it even in the process of dying. All these years I’ve been going to political rallies and hearing people assert that all oppressions are linked. So guess what: patriarchy and white supremacy are linked. We cannot talk about one without talking about the other.

As a minister of religious education — that is to say, as someone who is doing “women’s work,” because taking care of children is not “real ministry,” it’s just “women’s ministry” — I can tell you that patriarchy is alive and well in the UUA. Sunday school enrollment has been dropping since 2005, even though demographically there are more and more children out there. Why? Sunday school enrollment has been dropping because in the UUA as a whole, and in most individual congregations, when money gets tight we pull resources away from children and youth ministry so that we adequately pay the patriarchal positions — the president of the UUA, the senior denominational positions, the parish minister.

We do this both because of patriarchy, and also because of white supremacy. In much of the U.S., non-white children are now the majority. If we adequately fund children’s ministries, we might bring more kids into our congregations. If we do that, not only are we saying that “women’s work” is important, we are also opening the doors to a lot of non-white people. Both these things are equally threatening. Patriarchy and white supremacy die hard.

I know, you’re sick of hearing me rant. OK, I’m off my soap box now. And I promise to reduce my ranting in the future, because the last thing we need is another rant from yet another white man.

Irrelevant

I admit it, I’m feeling irrelevant.

As I watch a social media debate about accusations of “white supremacy” engulf my denomination, I’m all too aware that I’m on the far periphery of that debate.

Part of my problem, as I learned in a May 27 article on the UU World Web site, is that I’m a religious educator. According Peter Morales, who just resigned as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), this means I am not competent for leadership:

“Some have noted that a preference for ministers for certain staff positions also means the candidates will skew white, since there aren’t many UU clergy of color. Morales said the Association would be open to a religious educator in leadership positions but said they seldom have as much management experience as ministers. ‘So the question is, are you willing to overlook that and train them?’ he asked, adding, ‘you don’t want to set people up for failure’ by putting them in positions they aren’t ready for.”

Because I’m on the far periphery of my denomination, because I’m not privy to all the inside information that people on Facebook seem to have, I’m trying hard not to judge anyone who is centrally involved in this debate. But I’ve finally decided that I’m really angry about this comment by Peter Morales. In my first position as a part time Director of Religious Education, I had to hire, supervise, and in one case fire an employee; supervise a couple dozen volunteer staff; coordinate with committees and other staff; and manage events and projects. Yes, I made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of stupid things, but I gained a hell of a lot of management skills, and I was mentored by more experienced DREs who were very adept managers. I got more on-the-job leadership and management training in three years of part-time work than many parish ministers get in five years of full-time work.

But Peter Morales’ attitude is what I’ve come to expect from the cosy little in-group at the head of the UUA: — Religious educators must make poor leaders because, you know, it’s women’s work, and we all know that women don’t make good leaders. As for the male religious educators, if they had real skills they’d have become real ministers (I’m looking at you, Dan Harper).

Yes, I’m generalizing here. There are plenty of people at the UUA who value religious educators. But I have felt dismissed by UUA leaders; the only word for it is “patronized.” And it’s not just the UUA that is pervaded by that patronizing attitude of dismissal towards religious educators; many members and leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) do a marvelous job of being politely condescending towards religious education and religious educators; and the UUMA never seems to offer continuing education to its members about religious education, I guess because real ministers shouldn’t lower themselves to that level. I may be generalizing here, what I’m saying may not be true of specific individuals, but what I’m saying is generally true.

Not surprisingly, this kind of thing makes me angry. And I’m a middle-aged white guy. Imagine how I’d feel if I were not white, or if I were a woman.

Maybe part of the UUA’s problem is that we have too many ministers in senior leadership positions. More precisely, we have too many of a certain kind of UU minister with an inflated sense of self-importance, with blind spots about their own prejudices, and with strong connections to a loose network of powerful people within the denomination. Many of these are good people. But this loose network of powerful people in the upper echelons of the UUA (and of the UUMA) takes care of its members in ways that are not good. I have watched this network close ranks around their friends who committed sexual misconduct (I still remember the time I wound up yelling at a senior UUA staffer over the phone regarding a minister who had committed egregious sexual misconductor). I have watched this network provide soft landings for its members when they needed a new job. I also believe this network shunts competent women and competent people of color into the less prestigious jobs at the UUA (“she’ll be a good fit for the Religious Education Department”; “he’ll fit right in to the Diversity Office”; etc.).

At this point, I can see that I’ve let my anger get the better of me, and I’ve gone on too long. “Bring it home, preacher” is what they’d say in some congregations. So I’ll ask: How do we get out of this?

Well, I hold out little hope that any of the three candidates running for UUA president will show increased respect for religious educators (and no, being condescending and not listening are not signs of respect). If you can’t show respect for the people who are training up the next generation of Unitarian Universalists, that’s not a hopeful sign. And if you can’t show respect for religious educators, why would I believe that you could show respect for people of color?

Nor do I see any imminent signs of culture change at the UUA. I know there are good people on the UUA Board of Trustees, and good people working at the UUA in Boston, and as field staff. But UUA policy is set by General Assembly, and General Assembly is dominated by well-to-do white people who can afford a vacation in late June, and well-to-do ministers who have a big enough professional expenses budget to attend. In other words, it’s the same old people who can afford to meet face-to-face who are going to continue to set policy.

Maybe something will come out of the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism movement. I hope so, but I’m not counting on it.

If we’re going to make real change happen, I strongly believe it has to start from the grassroots: from our local congregations. That’s where I believe we can do the real work: face-to-face in local congregations, where we can respond creatively and specifically to immediate problems. Don’t wait for the UUA to lead the change: make your congregation lead the UUA. Make religious education central to your congregation. Make racial justice central to your congregation. Make your congregation fight against the resurgence of sexism.

As I write this, I realize that it might not be me who is irrelevant. Nor are we religious educators irrelevant, despite Peter Morales’ dismissal of us as incompetent. It might be that the UUA, the senior leaders at the UUA, their cronies in the UUMA and elsewhere: all of that is increasingly irrelevant.

Denominational politics

I haven’t had time to pay much attention to denominational politics for the past year, between my boss going on sabbatical and the death of my father. But the recent uproar at denominational headquarters has been so big, I’ve had to pay attention.

Peter Morales, the first Latino president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and the second person of color to hold that office, resigned yesterday amid charges from critics that he is perpetuating a “white supremacist” culture at the UUA. He had three months left in his second and final term as UUA president.

Some of the charges leveled at Morales say that he did not do enough to hire non-white people into senior leadership positions at the UUA. I was actually surprised to learn that the number of non-white employees (excluding service workers) was up to 11% — a pitifully low percentage, worse even than notoriously racist Silicon Valley tech firms, but much higher than I expected given how lily-white Unitarian Universalism is (I’d bet most of our Unitarian Universalist congregations are maybe 97% white).

Obviously, the first thing the UUA needs to do is hire those qualified non-white applicants who do apply for UUA jobs, and Morales resigned amid accusations that didn’t always happen. Mind you, I don’t want to second-guess UUA hiring decisions, but the UUA gives the impression of a cosy little in-group — not unlike Silicon Valley tech firms — and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn qualified non-white candidates are passed over in favor of white people who would “fit in.”

But even if the UUA starting hiring every qualified non-white candidate, there’s a bigger problem: there aren’t many Unitarian Universalists to begin with, and the overwhelming majority of them are white. When I served on a search committee for a district staffer a few years ago, I felt the pool of candidates was frighteningly small; there just aren’t a lot of Unitarian Universalists who want to work for an organization that demands long hours and offers modest compensation. In an interview on Monday, Morales said something that I agree with: the UUA could expand the pool of qualified applicants by considering persons of color who are not Unitarian Universalists, just as All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., did when they hired an associate minister a couple of years ago. Given how white Unitarian Universalism is, hiring non-Unitarian Universalists might be the only way the UUA will be able to increase the number of non-white staffers from 11% up to 36% (the percentage of non-white people in the general U.S. population).

[Update 4/1: In online discussions, people have pointed out that when the UUA does hire people of color, it often treats them badly enough that they leave the UUA (or even the denomination). Obviously, expanding the pool of candidates will be a waste of time if the UUA chases away its non-white staffers. So much for the one idea I had to address this problem.]

Above all, I don’t think we should give up on racial diversity. I have very little to do with the UUA any more (the last thing the UUA needs is another middle-aged white guy hanging around), but I’m still committed to moving my own congregation towards more racial diversity. On the other hand, I admit I’ve pretty much given up on trying to increase class diversity, and I hold out little hope for a non-Anglophone Unitarian Universalist congregation in the U.S. Sometimes I even feel as though we’re back-sliding on the meager progress we had made towards fighting sexism in religion.

Thank God I’m a Universalist, so I have this irrational hope that love will triumph in the end. Because at this moment in history, it does not feel as though love is triumphing, not within the UUA — nor in the wider U.S. society.

[4/1: several typos corrected]

Feminist musical spirituality

Anonymous 4 has announced that the 2015-2016 season will be their last. This may not mean anything to you, so I had better explain who the Anonymous 4 are.

Back in the late 1980s, I was living near Boston and listening to a lot of early music. The Boston area at that time was one of the centers of the early music revival in the United States. There was lots of live music, including a renowned early music festival, record stores with entire sections for early music, and a dedicated fan base.

I shared this passion for early music with Joel, one of my housemates at that time. Joel was an amateur musician, a member of the American Recorder Society who got into a master class with internationally-famous recorder virtuoso Marian Verbruggen, and a singer who eventually wound up in a choir that specialized in 13th century Flemish choral music. I was merely a fan, and Carol and I became groupies of that 13th century Flemish music choir (not as risque as it might sound; we just sold tickets at their performances). I tell you this to give you an idea of the early music scene at that time: Marion Verbruggen gave master classes! There was an entire choir devoted to 13th century Flemish music! Early music choirs had groupies!

During the late 1980s, I began to hear about this innovative quartet of women singers called Anonymous 4, who were making recordings of medieval music. Everyone I knew talked about it as kind of feminist endeavor. They explored feminine aspects of medieval sacred music: music by women composers, positive images of women in medieval music. And as progressive as the early music scene tended to be, it was considered mildly radical for women to sing medieval sacred music; there was a common misconception that only medieval men really sang sacred music, but Anonymous 4 helped make it widely known that medieval women also sang sophisticated and beautiful sacred music.

I have to admit I never went to an Anonymous 4 concert until a few years ago. In the late 1980s, when they were singing medieval music, I was more interested in 16th century polyphony and Baroque music. In the 1990s, I drifted away from early music and began listening to new music, and folk and trad music. Yet had I been paying attention, I would have found that Anonymous 4 had already explored these musics: among other projects, they premiered new work by composer Richard Einhorn, and performed with bluegrass fiddler Daryl Anger.

But though I missed their live music, I kept listening to their recordings, as did so many other music aficionados. Their sound is immediately recognizable: the lack of vibrato, the precise intonation, the fluid but disciplined sense of rhythm, the unity of musical purpose; and above all the transcendent beauty of their interpretations of sacred music. In our deeply secular age, not many musicians, not even many church choirs, make you feel that sacred music can be transcendent and holy. For me, Anonymous 4 represent the very best of the revolution in feminist spirituality: they may be a secular ensemble, but they sing sacred music as if it’s sacred; and that is a rare and wonderful thing.

They’re not done yet; they’re working on one more recording, and they’ll be performing for two more seasons. Nevertheless, it feels like the end of an era in feminist spirituality.

Marriage as a religious act

I received an interesting and thoughtful comment via email on a sermon titled “Marriage as a Religious Act” which I recently posted on my main Web site. I realized that this sermon relates to some issues you, dear readers, and I have addressed on this blog — most importantly, the sexual revolution within Unitarian Universalism, and the theological basis (if any) for marriage in our tradition. Since this is something we have talked about here, and since I greatly value the comments I get from you, I decided to post this sermon and see what you might have to say about it. The sermon beging below the fold.

Continue reading “Marriage as a religious act”

Kavita Ramdas to speak at UU Church of Palo Alto

On Tuesday, August 28, Kavita Ramdas will speak on the topic “Women’s Rights and Culture: Social Entrepreneurship,” at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA). The talk will begin at 7:00 p.m.

Kavita Ramdas is the Executive Director of the Program on Social Entrepreneurship for the Center on Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. She is the former CEO and President of the Global Fund for Women. She is an advocate for human rights, open and civil societies, and a respected advisor and commentator on issues of social entrepreneurship, global development, women’s leadership, education, health, and philanthropy. She spends her professional life shaping a world where gender equality can help ensure human rights and dignity for all. She was was born and raised in India and educated at Delhi University, Mount Holyoke College, and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. And she’s been attending UUCPA!

I’ll be at this talk. I’m fascinated by the growth of social entrepreneurship, and I’m committed to women’s rights, so I’m looking forward to learning how these two things can be linked in powerful ways. And did I mention she’s part of UUCPA? Oh yeah, I already did.

Women and organized religion

Last summer, Barna Research Group released a report in which they examined trends in 14 different religious variables for the period 1991-2011. One of their more interesting findings was that women, long the majority in many congregations, have been dropping out of organized religion:

Church attendance among women sank by 11 percentage points since 1991, declining to 44%. A majority of women no longer attend church services during a typical week. [Link to report.]

A year earlier, Jim Henderson, an evangelical Christian author and minister, had contracted with Barna Group to conduct a survey of how self-described “Christian” women who attended church regularly felt about their experience of church. The vast majority of those women felt satisfied with their church, with their church’s leadership, and with their church’s views of women.

It sure looks like the self-described Christian women who go to church regularly like their churches. But Henderson asked himself why so many other women were leaving church. According to a Washington Post report on his new book, The Resignation of Eve, Henderson came to a logical conclusion: women in Christian churches are getting increasingly disillusioned by the sexism that’s all too common in those churches:

In [The Resignation of Eve], the author, an evangelical minister named Jim Henderson, argues that unless the male leaders of conservative Christian churches do some serious soul-searching — pronto — the women who have always sustained those churches with their time, sweat and cash will leave. In droves. And they won’t come back. Their children, traditionally brought to church by their mothers, will thus join the growing numbers of Americans who call themselves “un-churched.”

Never mind that the Bible talks about women submitting to men and sitting silently in church, Henderson declaims. That’s ancient history. “Until those with power (men) decide to give it away to those who lack it (women), I believe we will continue to misrepresent Jesus’ heart and mar the beauty of his Kingdom,” Henderson writes.

Henderson bolsters his argument with data from the Barna Research Group…. And although the Barna data have been disputed by other researchers, Henderson goes further. Even those women who go to church regularly, he says, are really only half there: Their discontent keeps them from engaging fully with the project of being Christian. He calls this malaise among women “a spiritual brain drain.”

I wouldn’t expect many of those Christian women to transfer to their local Unitarian Universalist congregation. Instead, I would expect them to join the growing ranks of Americans who are “spiritual but not religious” — i.e., those who have religious leanings but who stay away from organized religion.

However, all this does lead me to believe that we need to continue the feminist revolution that has stalled within Unitarian Universalism. While most of our ministers are now women, men still get the majority of the prestigious, well-paid jobs in the biggest congregations; and while I can’t find any hard data to back this up, I’m inclined to believe the average female minister makes less than the average male minister. Furthermore, the vast majority of professional religious educators are women, who are most often part-time and poorly paid. I think it would be wise for us to correct the existing gender inequities within Unitarian Universalism before we start alienating Unitarian Universalist women and men.