UNCO13 — last thoughts

A few last thoughts and observations from UNCO13 West:

— The worship services were very low church. UNCO worship reminded me a little bit of the very best youth and young adult worship in which I have participated in Unitarian Universalist circles — highly participatory, lots of singing and guitars and drums, often mildly chaotic and planned at the last minute — but UNCO worship services were led with more skill, and with far more theological depth.

— The worshipping community of UNCO welcomed kids wholeheartedly. Kids could play on the floor, or sit on parent laps, or vocalize, and no one minded. The service was not dumbed-down to kid level; there were no “moments for children,” no talking down to children during the sermon. Everyone accepted, with love, the autistic five year old who needed to run around (and occasionally be corralled by his parents) during the services. Yes, it could get a little chaotic, but between the love in the community, and the seriousness of purpose, it all worked out. I want to belong to a church that worships like this every week.

— Online connections and face-to-face connections were nicely woven together. I liked watching the Twitter feed which was projected at the front of the room during the plenary sessions; sure it got silly at times, but it also allowed for a much higher level of interaction than just having one person talking at a time. I also liked the combination of low-church and high-tech. (By the way, Megan told me that finding a location for UNCO is difficult because of the heavy technology demands — fast Internet service, plenty of bandwidth, lots of IP addresses, etc.)

— The unconference format worked well. Of course it worked well: most of the attendees at UNCO are clergy with advanced degrees, and with tons of experience in widely varied settings and ministries. Too often, I have seen clergy conferences built around expensive “experts,” who only give one approach to an issue, and who may in fact be less expert than one or more of the participants. (Which makes me want to say: Humility may be a virtue, but underestimating the expertise of oneself and one’s professional colleagues is foolish.)

— The unconference format does away with that jockeying for position that you see when planning traditional clergy conferences. In traditional clergy conferences, there can only be a few presenters; plan a traditional clergy conference, and watch as clergy jockey for position to try to land a precious slot as one of the presenters, or to try to get their favored “expert” called in as a presenter. The result: politics rather than relevance decides what gets presented; important viewpoints get left out; and the expertise of the participants is deprecated. (Alas, Unitarian Universalist clergy seem to prefer their outside experts and the associated hierarchical approach to clergy conferences; and I think they prefer their methodological rigidity, too;— don’t expect Unitarian Universalist clergy unconferences any time soon.)

— And finally, this Twitter exchange from two UNCO participants made the whole thing worthwhile: “Talking worship styles. That whole debate is a boomer debate, not a question for young adults.” (David L. Hansen) “Exactly. And it’s not helping to project it onto the Gen-X and Millennial generations.” (Anna Woofenden)


Back to the first post in the series



Megan took this photo of me racing B—— through the labyrinth during Kid UNCO. He won. (What can I say? Four year olds can turn corners better than adults.)

UNCO pt. 5

On the last day of UNCO 13 West, we opened with a short prayer service. Then we shared some of the results of yesterday’s breakout sessions, and talked about what might be topics for some final breakout sessions. What needed ongoing attention? What might be some projects that “have legs,” i.e., are ready to be implemented? These are the topics that emerged for the closing breakout groups:

— A group to talk about vocation and identity for ministers who aren’t doing traditional ministry, including the following: ministers who aren’t serving a congregation; ministers who are taking a break from formal ministries to raise kids; etc.

— A group to talk about transitional roles, including the following: how to manage transition in a congregation or other setting; how to talk about change without freaking people out; how to help a local congregation to die (congregational death being a perfectly natural thing; someone reminded us that none of the churches Paul of Tarsus started are now in existence); etc.

— A group to talk about the issues that face ministers and leaders who are starting new ministries (i.e., church planters, etc.), and to talk about the loneliness of pastors serving in those roles.

The person who had signed up to volunteer with the kid’s program said she really wanted to join one of these groups, so I immediately volunteered to take her place as one of the adults working in Kid UNCO. Continue reading “UNCO pt. 5”

UNCO13 pt. 4

For the first afternoon breakout session, I went to a discussion on creative worship ideas. It turned out to be a wide-ranging discussion. Early on, this question came up: When might a minister wear a t-shirt in the pulpit, and when might a minister wear a robe? — and which is more authentic, and why? We had no final answer; sometimes a t-shirt is appropriate, and in other congregations or contexts robes and vestments might be best.

We talked about how congregations sometimes embrace innovation in worship, and sometimes reject it, and that spun off an interesting conversation about sometimes innovation and creativity in worship is not the right thing to do. Someone pointed out that most of us in the creative worship breakout group personally enjoy traditional worship services, with Bach and organs and pews; yet at the same time all of us are interested in creative innovation in worship. It occurs to me that the best creative worship probably comes from those who really love traditional worship, but see its limitations, and want to move beyond its limitations.

As a mystic myself, I particularly appreciated on comment from this breakout session: “There’s a burning bush in our service and we don’t even know it.” — Annie Dillard says much the same thing in Teaching a Stone To Talkwhen she says, “Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” Continue reading “UNCO13 pt. 4”

UNCO13 pt. 3

UNCO is an unconference. According to Carol Howard Merritt, one of the organizers of UNCO 13 West, here’s how the UNCO process goes:

“• First step — Create a graffiti wall. We write down all of the cares/concerns/dreams/ideas that we carry into the conference.
• Second step — Host discussions on particular topics.
• Third step — If there‚Äôs a particular project that needs further fleshing out, then we hold a planning session to decide who/what/how it’s going to happen.
• Fourth step — Report back to the group.
• Fifth step — Stay in contact with one another, encouraging one another throughout the year.”

So a brief worship service this morning, we were all asked to write on the graffiti wall, and within half an hour we had generated a list of half a dozen discussion topics for each of the four hour-long breakout sessions — and had identified a facilitator for each discussion session. In addition to the discussions sessions, Megan also needed an assistant each hour to help out with Kid UNCO, the children’s program. I decided to spend the first two hours with Kid UNCO.

Since we’re meeting during the week, most older kids had to be in school. And kids have to be toilet trained to attend Kid UNCO. So we had just two boys, Adrian and Burke (not their real names to protect their privacy). Adrian is 5 years old, likes to play horsie with adults, and is autistic; Burke is 4 years old, brought two Dinobots with him, and showed us he can count to 100.

Megan talked about the story of Noah while she and Burke (mostly Burke) drew a mural of the Noah story. Adrian didn’t feel like drawing, although he did enjoy playing with the crayons. Since the kids were just 4 and 5, their attention wandered, and I was impressed by the way Megan kept bringing us back to the story, and back to the mural. I mostly work with older kids — school-age children and up — so it was helpful for me to spend two hours with a four year old. It was also really helpful for me to spend two hours with a child with autism. It was perhaps the best two hours of RE professional development I’ve done since Ferry Beach Religious Education Week last summer.


Above is the Noah mural Kid UNCO made this morning. The rainbow is at right; lots of water and an ark in the middle.

More on the afternoon sessions in part 4….

UNCO13 pt. 2

The other reason I’m feeling comfortable at UNCO13 — aside from the fact that it’s a gathering of clergy and other congregational leaders that welcomes kids — is that people here speak geek. The conference is also taking place on Twitter, allowing people who can’t be here physically to participate

Yesterday evening, at “coffee hour” (the evening social time), I wound up speaking geek with Jeff, an interim minister serving a UCC church in San Jose, and Rob, a church communications expert working for the Presbyterians. And then our conversation got tweeted by @jazzpastord:


And Jeff was blogging about it as we talked. Speaking geek is not just talking about tech, it’s also extending that conversation online, and it’s also openness to continually learning about the ever-changing world of online communications.

Mind you, face-to-face still has its place. Face-to-face, Jeff and I could talk about challenging moments in congregational life that we would never post online. And one of the things I’m liking about UNCO13 is the mix of online and face-to-face.

On to part three…

UNCO13 pt. 1

As I write this, I’m attending UNCO13 West, which is “an unconference for church leaders, pastors, families, and seminarians.” I heard about it as a gathering for people who are doing creative innovative things with religion and technology and churches reaching out to people under 40. But what made me decide to attend was this statement on the UNCO Web site: “If church is for families, and UNCO is about doing church in new, different and better ways, then UNCO is for families.”

By way of comparison, on Friday and Saturday I was at retreat for Unitarian Universalist ministers:— no spouses, no children, not even any child care. There is a feeling among this group of ministers that they need to have time away from anyone who is not ordained. Although I understand the desire for a time and place where ministers feel they can talk completely openly about their ministries, I’m not sure this desire for complete separation serves us particularly well. We’re not that special, that we have to hold ourselves apart from non-ministers.

So the opening meeting of UNCO13 West has just finished. And yes, there were children: a couple of babies, a couple of toddlers, and three or four older kids. During the opening prayer, some of the babies were vocalizing, but no one cared. Children were wandering around during the orientation, and no one minded. It was nice — a powerful statement that here was a group of people who, as they figure out new ways to do religion, were committed to including everyone.

On to part two….

“Innovation is not the holy grail”

A passage from the article titled “Innovation is not the holy grail,” by Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair, in the Fall, 2012 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review (vol. 10, no. 4), interspersed with my comments:

We believe three oversights contribute to a tendency to concurrently overrate and undervalue innovation and to downplay the difficulties of enabling innovation in social sector organizations.

First, innovation is often perceived as a development shortcut; thus innovation becomes overrated. The tremendous value that is created by incremental improvements of the core, routine activities of social sector organizations gets sidelined. Therefore pushing innovation at the expense of strengthening more routine activities may actually destroy rather than create value.

The core, routine activities of the typical congregation are worship services, religious education for young people, and pastoral care. So for congregations, this would imply that innovations that sideline incremental improvements to these core, routine activities — which may include major building projects, social enterprises (i.e., ventures that make money), cafes, radically innovative worship services — may destroy value. And in fact, we’ve all seen this happen — building projects that result in decreased Sunday morning attendance, social justice projects that take so much energy that pastoral care is degraded, social enterprises that distract from the congregation’s primary mission. Continue reading ““Innovation is not the holy grail””

Innovation and big egos

Silicon Valley innovator John McAfee is currently a “person of interest” in a murder investigation in Belize; he is on the run with a teenaged girl and hiding from Belizean police.

“Silicon Valley culture really rewards a certain kind of single-minded pursuit of success,” said Leslie Berlin, a historian with Stanford University’s Silicon Valley archives and a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences. “It’s a culture that rewards success with financial rewards and with a real lionization of the entrepreneur who really leaves it all on the field. The inevitable question becomes, ‘What next?'” (Dan Nakaso and Mike Cassidy, “Eccentric path put McAfee on wild trajectory,” San Jose Mercury News, Monday, November 19, p. 1)

Entrepreneurial innovation often comes as part of a package with enormous ego and a certain lack of concern about other people’s emotional needs and feelings. To certain innovators, what is important is the need to be hypercreative, to create whole new structures and patterns, regardless of who gets hurt when the old patterns are demolished. And once they start innovating, sometimes they can’t stop.

“A lot of times (Silicon Vally entrepreneurs) go a little crazy, and the end result is they get in trouble,” said Rob Enderle, a San Jose technology analyst. “They don’t want to be that one-hit wonder. They get excited about the celebrity of it all, and they start chasing that celebrity. Your behavior changes substantially.” (Nakaso and Cassigy, “Eccentric path put McAfee on wild trajectory”)

What is true for Silicon Valley innovators can be true for innovative religious leaders. The most familiar example a pastor grows a huge Christian megachurch, begins to think he (it’s usually a “he” in that field) is somehow exempt from ordinary rules, and next thing you know he’s embroiled in a sex scandal. The same kind of thing has happened to yoga gurus, and to Unitarian Universalist leaders.

We often seem to assume that innovation comes only from people that have big, overbearing egos, where the health of that person’s ego isn’t as important as their single-minded pursuit of success. I suspect this assumption is wrong on at least two counts: first, the innovator can have a healthy ego rather than an unhealthy singleminded ego; and second, I’m willing to bet that innovation isn’t ever the product of a single person (even if it’s only one person who gets credit). Or to put it another way:

“A lot of times (Silicon Valley entrepreneurs) go a little crazy, and the end result is they get in trouble,” said Rob Enderle, a San Jose technology analyst. “They don’t want to that one-hit wonder. They get excited about the celebrity of it all, and they start chasing that celebrity…. (Nakaso and Cassigy, “Eccentric path put McAfee on wild trajectory”)

This is precisely the kind of thing we want to avoid in congregations. We want innovation without leaders who get in trouble.

Radical innovation and borrowing

Third in a series of posts on innovation in liberal congregations.

If we implement an old idea in our congregation, is that innovation? For example, megachurches have been projecting the words of hymns on a screen behind the pulpit for decades, whereas my congregation has always read the words to hymns from a hymnal. If my congregation starts to project the words of hymns onto a screen behind the pulpit, is that innovation? Really all we’re doing is adopting an old idea for our own use, but to us it will feel like a big innovation.

So let’s distinguish between several different levels of innovation:

(a) The lowest level of innovation is when we borrow a practice or idea that is widespread in other congregations that are similar to ours. For example, if your congregation doesn’t have a Web site and then you create a Web site, that’s an innovation for your congregation, but it’s a low level innovation. There is very little risk involved; and you can find a great many models and examples to guide you in the process.

(b) The next level of innovation is when we borrow a practice or idea that is widespread, but only in congregations that are substantially different from ours. Continue reading “Radical innovation and borrowing”

Innovation will be resisted

Second in a series of posts on innovation in liberal congregations.

If innovation in liberal congregations is hard, you won’t be surprised to learn that innovation will be resisted.

Sometimes the resistance will be in the open, and you will be able to identify specific people who are resisting the innovation. For example, I know of one minister who implemented innovations that brought 80 new people into a small congregation in less than a year; the response of the congregation’s board was to hire a lawyer so they could fire the minister. But I suspect that more often resistance will be passive and generalized: the innovator will find him- or herself ignored or encased in a bubble of apathy and inaction. This is why we might want to frame this statement in the passive voice — “innovation will be resisted” — because often it’s not clear who is doing the resisting.

And there are good reasons for us to resist innovation. I’ve already pointed out that innovation requires long hours and hard work, and that much innovation results in failure. Why spend long hours on something that’s likely to fail? If a given congregation is doing reasonably well at the moment (whether or not analysis shows it is declining over time), it makes a lot more sense to avoid innovation. Even in a case where a congregation is not doing well, why invest a lot of time and energy in innovative solutions, since most innovation is likely to fail?

Innovation is inherently risky, which is another reason to resist it. Take, for example, the way liberal congregations raise money. Most liberal congregations raise money today the same way they have been raising money for the past century. Yet in the last twenty years, fundraising in the rest of the nonprofit sector has changed dramatically, and other nonprofits are competing far more effectively for nonprofit dollars than are most liberal congregations. But if you go to your congregation’s leadership and suggest that they adopt some of the common fundraising practices of the rest of the nonprofit sector, you will face serious resistance — what if you try these new ideas and they fail? where will the money come from? The higher the stakes, the more resistance to risk and innovation you will find.

Finally, most liberal congregation seem to have a strong strain of institutional conservatism in them. I suspect that because we are willing to engage in some theological innovation, we are more likely to cling to our institutional forms. Furthermore, all the liberal congregations I know are dominated by a kind of hyper-individualism that gives a great many persons veto power over any decision. When so many people can veto major and minor decisions for any reason or no reason at all, institutions tend to become quite conservative — most decisions (including most innovations) will be vetoed, and the institution will keep on doing things the same way they’ve always been done.

Next: Radical innovation and borrowing.