Sunday, January 31, 2010

New Century Summit & the Future of UUism

Well, the New Century Summit of the UUA Pacific Central District is over, and and follow-up actions are planned. The topics identified for cross-congregational teams were youth, global/public engagement, community, generosity, outreach/evangelism, spiritual deepening, diversity, and transformation.

Many of the participants share my passion for addressing climate change. One of them, who works for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, told us that the Aquarium is preparing an exhibit on the impact of climate change on the world's oceans.

There's a beautiful view of the SF Bay from the UUC Berkeley, which hosted the Summit. Overlooking the Bay, I found it almost inconceivable that humanity has the capacity to wreck the atmosphere that is needed to sustain life. It reminds me that Henry Nelson Wieman, a UU theologian, once defined "God" as that upon which life depends. It's a special kind of hubris to deny the consequences of our actions, yet the experience gave me a new understanding of deniers.

On a lighter note, I just commented on this post at "Ten Minutes or Less," Mike Durall's blog of helpful hints for busy clergy and lay leaders. Mike and UU moderator Gini Courter were the keynoters at the Summit. His post reminds us that competencies for UU ministry are a moving target because the expectations of UU (and other) congregants are changing.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sausage Making, Blind Men, & the Elephant in the Room

In response to my 1/25 post about the "Pluperfect Storm," AKA the 4 reviews of UU ministry, Politywonk wrote the following:
Sausage-making comes to Boston... If they are serious about democracy, they will take the time to coordinate all of this into a simple proposal that Denominational Affairs Committees can pick apart point by point.
If she means that by putting together lots of ingredients we'll end up with a yummy product, then I'm in agreement.

I'm reminded of the Indian story of the blind men (or men in the dark) and the elephant found at this Wikipedia link. In my mind, the point of the story is that we each are limited in our perspectives and rather than trumpet their finality, we should be in dialogue to generate a more complete picture. In that light, I hope that multiple scenarios are developed that inspire rich reflections by denominational affairs committees.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Go Tell It on the Mountain

This weekend the Pacific Central District of the UUA is holding a New Century Summit with Gini Courter, the UUA Moderator, and Michael Durall, congregational consultant and author of The Almost Church Revitalized: Envisioning the Future of Unitarian Universalism. Along with the other issues that may arise there, hopefully intercongregational issue groups will be formed to address climate change and the future of lay and professional UU ministry in the District. I will report my impressions after the Summit.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Pluperfect Storm -- Commission on Appraisal

There's a pluperfect storm of ministerial review on the horizon. tells us that one definition of "pluperfect" is "more than perfect."

Wikipedia says a "perfect storm" is:
The confluence of three different weather-related phenomena that combined to create what Case referred to as the "perfect situation" to generate such a storm:

* warm air from a low-pressure system coming from one direction,
* a flow of cool and dry air generated by a high-pressure from another direction, and
* tropical moisture provided by Hurricane Grace.
We now have a pluperfect storm for ministerial review:
  • In October, the UUA President announced a comprehensive review of UU ministry;
  • In December, the Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee created a process review subgroup;
  • This month, the UUA Board appointed a workgroup on credentialing that will report to the Panel on Theological Education; and
  • This weekend the Commission on Appraisal decided to review UU ministry.
As Bob Dylan said, "you don't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing." May the winds of change bless the imperiled climate of this planet.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tactics, Emergency Preparedness, and Ministry

Thanks to Elizabeth Curtiss, AKA PolityWonk, wrote the following on Facebook in response to Friday's "Health, Trust, and Testing" post:

Today's post at PolityWonk says that with all the money flying into Congress from greedy corporations -- and all the elected officials who love that life -- we need to change tactics completely.
Elizabeth's post was prompted by the Supreme Court decision by this week's Supreme Court decision on corporate campaign financing described in this New Yorker article. She suggests ways of taking political and social justice actions to take back government from corporations.

I too want to take back government to help us veer off our environmentally destructive path. There's something in the air: both literally as in too much carbon and figuratively in terms of sensing it's time for a change. Recently, there was a outpouring of interest in trauma ministry among local UU community ministers. You could attribute this interest to our being in the earthquake-threatened SF Bay Area and the horror in Haiti, and you might be right. However, there are also predictions that water accumulating under the Greenland and Antarctica glaciers may result in their sliding into the oceans and raising sea levels 200 feet within 12-24 hours. This would put much of the SF Bay Area, including the humble abode of this author, underwater.

It's hard to write about this topic without appearing to be the friar from the old New Yorker cartoons who carried a sign "The end of the world is nigh." It's also hard to not to think about Gore's metaphor of the boiled frog (frogs won't jump into hot water but you can boil them by gradually increasing the temperature of the water that they're in because they can't sense the gradual increase).

During the years I worked in strategic planning, I had lots of opportunities to say that my crystal ball is cloudy. However, cloudy isn't the same empty. Look around you, what do you see? What does it say about ministry and our denomination?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Health, Trust, and Testing

Thanks to Christine Robinson, AKA iMinister, for the following comment in reply to my last post:
I think that it is dicey for the denomination to decide what the issue of the future is going to be and require it as a ministerial competency. We tried that with Anti-Racism/Multiculturalism and the result has been minimal. It is healthy churches, healthy leaders, and spiritual and emotional centeredness that we need to look for, and look hard for. Then we need to trust the bending arc that that spiritually, emotionally centered person will lead their congregations into whatever the future brings.
I always appreciate Christine's thoughtful comments and believe that this one warrants a new post.

I have a confession to make. The title of the last post, "The Critical Competency," was intended to be provocative and slightly disingenuous. You could have inferred from it that I was proposing that we add another competency to the 16 we already have. Please, please note that that's not what I had in mind. Three competencies -- UU Identity, Ethics & Justice, and the Practice of Ministry (Ministerial Praxis) -- should be sufficient.

Also, I agree with Christine that's it's dicey to try to decide the issue of the future and require it as a ministerial competency. However, healthy organizations and healthy leaders do imagine futures, plan for them, and adjust those plans and preparations as new information becomes available. Being/becoming spiritually and emotionally centered presents us with the opportunity to see the future as it is emerging and to develop the skills and abilities needed to prepare for it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Critical Competency

Climate change, quite simply, is the issue of the 21st century. It is not one issue among many, but, like the canary in the mine, it is warning us that the way we are living on our planet is causing us to head for disaster. We must change. All of the other issues we care about--social justice, peace, prosperity, freedom--cannot occur unless our planet is healthy. It is the unifying issue of our time; it is our "World War II," as it were: the concern that must develop into a worldwide movement for change of mind and change of action.
--Sallie McFague A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming
McFague goes on to argue that our individualist theology, philosophy, and anthropology are exhausted and must be replaced by a communitarian (from "communitarianism" not "communism") perspective. How are we preparing UU ministers to lead this change?

Since we're talking communitarianism and a whole new view of humanity and divinity, how are we preparing UU laity to lead this change?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Demolition Advocates v. Tinkerers

In my discussions with individuals who have felt wounded by the current ministerial examining process, there are always those who'd like to blow up the whole thing. Why do we need ministerial examining in the first place? If we need it, why does it pivot on the interview? Shouldn't we have a process, like "in-care" in the United Church of Christ (UCC), that is more supportive and affirming of those striving to enter professional ministry and calls for greater involvement of the local congregation as a key partner in the process?

On the other hand, some of us are tinkerers. Why can't we, like the American Baptists, limit the interview to questions of character and find other ways to examine for content knowledge? Are there other ways to demystify the process?

I'm more in the tinkerer than the demolition camp, arguing for some form of centralized or regionalized examining and that some (and probably most) members of the examining committee should not personally know the examinee. Despite all post-modern claims to the contrary, there are arguments for objectivity, or, at least, what Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia calls neutrality in his TED video.

I'm also a believer in innovation and continuous process improvement. Mostly this involves tinkering, but occasionally it requires demolition.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Reflecting Theologically on Ministerial Credentialing

I'm daunted by the challenge of the title of this post which was inspired by Scott Gerald Prinster's comment to my post on "Ministerial Examining & Climate Change" and thoughts about the differences between ministry and organizational development consultancy. Scott points out that ministry is distinguished from activism and politics by reflection upon the deeper issues that form the basis for the latter two activities. His comment caused me to wonder about the project of this blog: Where would theological reflection about ministerial examining/credentialing lead?

The other thread was a comment made to me that while I may serve as an organizational development consultant as a minister, my clients would also expect me to minister to them. This distinction is more subtle than it may first appear. Consultants often do minister to their clients. While consultancy, therefore, can be a ministry, there is a different intention or at least a greater intentionally in fellowshipped ministry than in consultancy and different expectations from those served by ministers than those served by consultants.

Reflecting theologically on ministerial examining starts with "respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person," UUism's first principle and the first principle of this blog. Ministerial formation is a transitional time of great vulnerability, and like other transitions, calls for a greater measure of care. Think of all the people who enter our congregations at times of person crisis and transition and our call for radical hospitality.

Jungians refer to periods of transition as liminal space. This term derives from the Latin word "limen," which means threshold. Aspirants for ministry hope to cross the threshold into candidacy, candidates into preliminary fellowship, and preliminary fellows into final fellowship. These thoughts about thresholds lead to thoughts of hospitality supported by the UU source of "Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves." The Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee literally welcomes successful candidates into UU ministry.

What is sometimes difficult to remember in the midst of preparation for exams is that some covenantal expectations of hospitality/ministry also fall upon the guest. Candidates and aspirants must learn to welcome the concerns of Committee and Subcommittee members as they will be expected in their ministries to welcome the concerns of congregants and community members.

Finally, this blog has reminded me of the 7th UU principle, "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." Ministerial examining is connected to ministerial competencies, formation, and development. These are connected to the role of professional ministry which is connected to the role of lay ministry. These roles are performed in the context of the covenant and principles of UUism. Just as candidates for ministry are expected to minister to their examiners as their examiners minister to them, our living covenant is embodied in and informed by how we welcome and examine candidates for ministry.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

New Century Summit

Out here in the wild, wild West, AKA the Pacific Central District of the UUA, we're gearing up for a New Century Summit later this month. Gini Courter, the UUA Moderator, and Michael Durall, author of several books, including The Almost Church Revitalized: Envisioning the Future of Unitarian Universalism, will be the keynote speakers. The purpose of the Summit is the look at the meaning/future of UUism in the PCD in the 21st century.

A perfect storm of climate change and the future of UUism in the 21st century is on the horizon. We would be deluding ourselves if we tried to contemplate the latter without considering the former. This Grist article refers to a booklet available online from the Columbia University Center for Research on Environmental Decisions on "The Psychology of Climate Change," which tells us a lot about why we might be in denial.

Hey, I'm sympathetic with the denial and the deniers. I can think of a whole bunch of reasons to stick my fingers in my ears and shout la-la-la-la when it comes to climate change. Yet it is one of the challenges of ministry to be prophetic, to tell a truth that your audience is not yet ready to hear.

Prophecy has at least two meanings. Often people think of Nostradamus making "prophecies" about events 100s of years into the future or of prophets who hear God's voice and tell the people what they've learned. But prophecy in the context of UU ministry and climate change has much more to do with telling truth to power and truth to the populace. Though prophets have been ascribed mysterious powers, usually what prophecy requires is seeing clearly what's happening, making reasonable inferences about what's next, and telling your truth.

We are in a time that calls for prophecy. May the Summit be an opportunity to respond to that call. And may we help UU ministry prepare for their roles as prophets.

Friday, January 8, 2010

FBI Geologists; VA Anthropologist

I've been listening to Irons in the Fire, a collection of essays by John McPhee. Among other topics, he writes about investigations of FBI geologists.

Despite having watched and read lots of crime stories, books, movies, and TV shows, it never occurred to me that the FBI would employ geologists. Yet, there's a whole field of forensic geology in which geological evidence is used in criminal and civil investigation and litigation. For example, in one of McPhee's essays, a murder investigation is supported by analysis of the soil on the undercarriage of an abandoned getaway car. Geologists can now pinpoint with amazing accuracy the source (location) of soil samples.

FBI geologists put me in mind of a VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) anthropologist with whom I worked. She told me that for the first 20 years of her career, she always got the fish eye from other VA employees. Why did the VA have an anthropologist? During that time, most of her work was supported medical research and wasn't seen as being directly relevant to health care delivery.

However, when I met her during the 1990s, she said that during the previous five years of her career, she'd had more work than she could handle and that other VA employees were enthusiastic rather than suspicious of her presence.

What was the difference?

VA employees, especially VA leadership, had glommed onto the fact that VA itself had a culture and that the functioning of that culture significantly impacted VA effectiveness and efficiency. Of course, soon after they'd had that insight, they'd started asking themselves: Who knows about culture?

Well, organizational development types like myself and social psychologists and sociologists all have knowledge of and information about culture. Yet, anthropology is the study of culture, and anthropologists can offer insights that elude the rest of us. That's how my friend the anthropologist went from pariah to rock star.

I bring these thoughts to this blog because U.S. and world culture is changing at an accelerating rate and UU culture is due for an overhaul. What will be the role of UU ministers in this transformation and how can we help prepare them to fulfill that role?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ministerial Examining & Climate Change

When I came up w/ the above topic, I thought of the folowing:
  • the old Reese's commercials about accidentally getting chocolate in peanut butter and vice versa;
  • a poetry workshop in which we were given the task of creating poems using randomly selected words to start each line (a great exercise that produces amazing results);
  • a desire to let you know that I do not spend all my time thinking about ministerial examining; and
  • my interest in discovering links between ministerial examining and climate change, two of my current passions.
I went from a mild interest in climate change straight to despair (do not pass GO; do not collect $200) after attending Dan Miller's "A Really Inconvenient Truth" presentation (summary here) at the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland. Miller claimed that we must reduce dramatically the release of of carbon into the atmosphere within the next 2 or 3 years if we are to avoid environmental disaster within the next 20 years. With my knowledge of the glacial speed of cultural change, I interpreted him as saying that we would face the inevitable if we didn't do the impossible. (And, considering how quickly the glaciers are melting, I may need to come up w/ another metaphor, like "bowling in the sand," to describe the slowness of cultural change.)

I'm grateful to report that my trip to despair was quite brief. (Not a nice place; don't recommend it.) It occurred to me that UU communities, littered as they are with scientists and engineers, might be a good place to start tackling climate change. Naturally, at least for all of you who have been paying more attention than I have, I found that many UUs and others such as Bill McKibbon of (YouTube video here) had preceded me in this thought.

So what does all this have to do with ministerial examining? Before I answer that question, one more aside.

I just finished listening to the book Change or Die, which I highly recommend. In it, the author tells the story of Madison Avenue advertising account reps who made quite a good living placing ads on broadcast television. As the audience for that medium shrank, the cost of the ads increased. This could not go on forever, and in time, many account reps saw their commission income drop significantly as more and more advertising dollars moved to the Internet.

There are many types of "climate change." The "climate" in which UU ministry is practiced is changing, as the new UUA President frequently reminds us. Like the advertising account representatives, UU ministers may need new knowledge and competencies to thrive in the midst of change. If that's the case, then ministerial formation, examining, and development will be enhanced by changing too.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

See a UU Minister?

In reply to my 12/10/09 post "See a Minister?", Scott Gerard Prinster wrote the following comment:
My first thought about this elusive "ministerial presence" is that a strong candidate demonstrates the ability to reflect critically on questions in light of our UU traditions and values. Our congregations expect us to be able to provide leadership in responding thoughtfully from a UU perspective to difficult questions and situations.
His comment closely tracks my thinking about the 16 competencies (Sexual Health, Sexual Boundaries, Sexual Justice was added at the 12/09 MFC meeting) for UU ministry. When the MFC evaluates candidates, it's not just trying to answer the "See a Minister?" question. Rather it's looking at the more specific "See a UU Minister?" question. It wants to know whether the candidate is grounded in "UU traditions and values" and understands theology, church history, Hebrew & Christian scriptures, etc., from a UU perspective.

This lens for looking at the other competencies can be helpful in studying for the MFC interview. For example, candidates are less expected to memorize scripture than they are expected to see it as a UU and to "respond thoughtfully from a UU perspective."

One can advocate this study method without slipping into the dangers of orthodoxy. It's not necessary nor wise to parrot a UU "party line." Instead reflect on how your theology, ethics, and understanding are aligned with UUism. For example, my theology had its roots in Asian Indian philosophy. Learning that Mary Moody Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and others had trod this path before me and the impact of Asian philosophies on modern UUism put me on solid UU ground.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Blind Spots

Happy New Year!

Maybe you've had this experience. You get a notice from an airline frequent flyer program that you'll lose your miles unless you either fly or extend their life by using some for a magazine subscription. Since you're not a real frequent flyer, but someone who's accumulated a few miles from the occasional trip, you go for the magazine subscription. Thus I became a Wired subscriber.

I'm loving it. Tho I don't have the quals to be a card-carrying geek, I have the nerd's love of things of the mind and have found many wonderful articles in Wired, including this one about the neuroscience of illusion, staring Teller of "Penn & Teller" fame.

An aside: It's a great article, and I still have a fondness for reading paper rather than a computer screen, but there are clear advantages of the net as is illustrated by the embedding in the online version of the article of YouTube videos showing Teller performing the illusions/magic which are only described/pictured in the paper version.

Teller is now a co-author of an article in a neuroscience journal on the new field of "magicology, the mining of stage illusions (magic) for insights into brain function." Not only is the hand quicker than the eye; the brain is so enamored of its perceptual heuristics that it still can't perceive/understand what's happening when the secrets of some illusions are revealed. As Jonah Learner, the author of the article and the books How We Decide, and Proust Was a Neuroscientist, writes:

What's surprising is just how limited the repertoire of magical illusions actually is. The Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper lists nine fundamental "conjuring effects" of modern magic, from the vanish and the restoration to telekinesis and ESP. While these basic tricks have been varied endlessly—you can "restore" a cut rope, a sawed-in-half assistant, a shredded piece of paper—each of the effects relies on a specific perceptual phenomenon. This may be why exposing the "secret" of a magic trick is so often deflating. Most of the time, the secret is that we're gullible and our brains are riddled with blind spots.
OK, you who have been reading this blog for a while know what's coming. I read the above and immediately thought about the implications for interviewing and examining. Good design is critical for examinations precisely because "our brains are riddled with blind spots" and cognitive frames that are usually functional but sometimes misleading. We interview in groups partially in hope of reducing our blind spots and confirmation biases (ignoring evidence contrary to our beliefs), but then we risk group polarization, the tendency of people with shared beliefs to become more certain of those beliefs when they congregate.

Knowing these limitations to human perception and understanding encourages the spiritual practice of humility. In this new year, may we wear our beliefs like comfortable old garments, soft to the touch and with room for growth.