You may have noticed that there is an election on.
However, I'm not talking about the one with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton...
If you spend a lot of time in my world, then you realize that I am talking about the election for the next president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Sometime in the last couple days the candidates were announced and now there is much running about discovering who is supporting whom. Also, we are learning about different positions on the future of the Association. That part is slightly less interesting at the moment (in the small world of UU ministers it does feel a bit like high school). Yet, of course, platforms are more important in the long run than social concerns. The same can be said for questions around general leadership ability and competence.
Since I am not key to anyone's election strategy, I have plenty of time for reflection. This is nice. My Facebook is filled with posts and updates from both campaigns and honestly it will take a while to sift through all the material. Right now, however, I am noticing the electoral system, itself.
In the United Church of Christ (which I and my church are also affiliated with) we elect our leadership somewhat differently. While it isn't the full papal conclave, it also isn't the same as a vote for governor or city council. In fact, it is much closer to the way Congregationalist churches select pastors.
At General Synod this past July we elected the ninth General Minister and President, John Dorhauer. In that case he was the only candidate presented. There was a search committee and that committee gave us one name for an up or down vote. The candidate spent his week campaigning in a way more similar to that of a minister seeking settlement than to a politician seeking higher office. The whole process felt like an extended "candidating week" when a prospective pastor and local congregation try each other out.
Of course, while some of our questions were about the candidate before us, this wasn't our only concern.Those of us who were delegates (and therefore voters) also had to consider the process. Did the search committee behave in the way that was expected of them? Were they duly diligent in their quest for the best candidate? Again, this is just like a congregational search. In this case the conclusion was that they had been and Dorhauer was selected.
Now of course there was grumbling about that. Those of us who hadn't been paying close attention to the search process – – to be clear, people like me – – had thoughts about who else we might have chosen. The debate, in fact, was vigorous and healthy. My fellow delegates to General Synod know that feelings around the election affected other decisions (such as what system of governance to use) as well. Still, I think the process was a good one and the strong discussion certainly helped us refine our wishes for the UCC in the future.
The UUA is actually in the process of changing their system. Previous presidents have been elected outright. People would put themselves into nomination. We would meet at General Assembly. Then at some point during the weekend there would be a vote. This system felt much more like the normal elections we know in state, local, and national government. There were brochures, speeches, fundraisers, and whatever sort of other advertising that could be managed. There are advantages to this system as well. In spite of a certain level of awkward contentiousness, there was plenty of opportunity for having one's voice heard along with the hearing of other voices.
Now the system will be different. This new election is a hybrid of sorts between the old way and what is done by the UCC. There was a search committee that came up with two names instead of one. Therefore we will have an election like usual. Only this time the candidates have been vetted. (Update: My friend Sarah Stewart reminds me that there is a sort of "write-in" or "by petition" option. However, unless someone steps up soon, I don't see them having much of an impact this time around.)
It will be interesting to see how it all turns out. I suspect there will be some tweaking at the end. It is certainly a good faith effort that may bear its own fruit. That said, the election will still be long and probably expensive. If the goal was to prevent that, I don't see how this plan will. If it wasn't the goal, that is fine by me. I love watching elections. While some of them can be annoying, they can also be energizing if the candidates and campaigns do their job well.
Anyway, here are the webpages for the two candidates. I have only met either of them briefly in the past but by reputation they are good folks. The search committee seems to have done a pretty good job.
Here is the page of Sue Phillips and one for Alison Miller. Good luck to both of them!
This past week I made the first attempt at explaining my sabbatical plan in the church newsletter. There will of course be more of them as things develop and solidify. I am finding that there is a great deal of explaining that needs to be done for a variety of reasons. One reason is simply that most people don't have jobs that take sabbaticals (which is too bad, more should). Another is that usually among professions where there are sabbaticals, people travel. While the "staybbatical" is becoming more common (this will be my second) it is still less the norm. The concept of "away but not away"naturally requires some processing. Anyway, here's the first go.
The new year has begun! We started off well at church with the baptism and communion for our first service of 2016. Soon we will be having our Annual Meeting and then it will be Lent and Easter. Of course, there is that little problem of winter to get through as well. This will be a busy and fun year at church, and I hope that you are all looking forward to it as much as I am.
One thing that will be different this year is that I will be going on sabbatical from mid-summer to late fall. I will return on the first Sunday in Advent. During that time I will be undertaking a variety of projects. When someone serves a church for a long time it is important to adapt to the constantly changing dynamic in the culture of that religious community. This is why ministers and congregations in our tradition take a break for a few months every 5 to 7 years. It enables us to step back and look at the church without having to worry about the day-to-day challenges of serving.
Of course, Eliot will continue to do what it does during my brief absence. By the time sabbatical begins, Shane will be all trained up and will have graduated with his Master of Divinity degree. He will take my place in the first few months of the fall. Since we all know him and he knows us we can expect things to move as smoothly as ever. I will be around from time to time in any case. After all, Eliot is also my family's congregation, and we don't expect to be traveling anywhere.
For me, sabbatical means thinking about what comes next at Eliot. I have already begun thinking about areas of ministry such as technology, music, and worship. And there are other topics I hope to learn more about. One question I will focus on is, how do we continue to move forward in our community life without tiring everyone out? My goal is to return refreshed and ready for the next chapter.
Of course, we have a lot of time before sabbatical begins. However, one thing that I have already begun working on is a new personal webpage and home for my weblog. If you have any interest in seeing how things are developing, feel free to check it out! It can be found at
So, Happy New Year! I look forward to seeing you in the next few weeks and months in church and elsewhere.
Here as promised is the "Flashback" post from last year about long-term ministries. I mentioned it in yesterday's post. Enjoy!
One of my greatest weaknesses as a pastor is--quite simply--that I am not the most organized person to ever wear a Geneva gown. It is a problem that members of my church are rather familiar with. Over the 11-plus years we have been together we have learned to adapt and adjust. Like any long-term relationship, we have found ways to bring out the best in each other...most of the time.
However, one of the problems that this creates is that I am suddenly feeling the need to learn more about long-term ministry. Being in such a ministry will do that to you. I have changed since I arrived in September of 2003. My congregation has changed. The landscape we now are moving through has also changed. We are doing just fine, thank you, but I feel that I need to reflect a bit to be on my game.
The best way would be an ongoing group or a workshop. That is the problem. I am not good at planning. However, I am good at thinking so I thought I would share with you some of the topics that I think such a workshop or group would have to address if someone more gifted in this way were willing and able to work with me on such a thing.
1) Big Famous Keynote: Yes, we can have one of these. I am affiliated with both the UUA and the UCC. So is my church. It isn't hard to think of a few former pastors of big churches who fit into this category and who love to talk. However, what I am looking for from him or her is something very specific. I want theological and spiritual reinforcement for the value of long-term pastorates. This is important stuff and plays right to the strength of "Reverend Biggs". For applied and practical elements, I want to hear from other people who have experience in congregations that are a bit more typical.
2) How Do You Advance Your Career?: ...and what constitutes a successful career if you have stepped away from a system where bigger is always better?
We know why Reverend Biggs stayed at the big steeple right? The pay was good. Important people had heard of the good reverend's church and wanted to invite the pastor onto committees and such. There was time off (thank you Associate Pastors!) to write that meditation manual. This is all fine. Rev. Biggs worked hard, spoke well, and got the brass ring young enough to also serve in one place for a while.
Most of the long-term pastors I know, however, do not serve "big pulpits". We labor in relative anonymity. It is an easy thing to get noticed in that one big congregation in your association. What do the rest of us do to influence the direction of our various denominations? How do you get your voice heard when you have stepped off the career ladder for something you find more fulfilling?
3) How Do You Grow Spiritually Together?: Or, if you prefer, "How do you keep from getting bored or being boring"? A long-term pastorate, like any long-term relationship, can get dull if you don't work on it. My wife and I go to a lot of concerts, date nights, couples nights, and so on. We go for long walks to chat. We have been together for twice as long as I have been at the church.
Now I am not one of those "ministry is like a marriage" people because, well, it isn't like a marriage at all. That said, it is still a relationship that needs work. What are the equivalents to these sorts of experiences in a long-term ministry? I will say that I have had two rather distinct ministries at Eliot. There was the one before my sabbatical and the one after it. Both were quality ministries but they were different. I wonder if some sabbatical planning would make a good workshop.
4) How Do You Grow On Your Own?: Again, the same people all the time. The same patterns. What do you do away from the church to keep yourself sharp?
5) What About New People?: Some long-term ministers are pretty good about integrating new people. Others not so much. We have leaders we are comfortable with. Often we have known them for what feels like FOREVER. What sort of tricks and techniques would help facilitate lay-leadership growth?
6) How Do You Not Mess It Up For the Next Person (and here I mean Parson)?: This. Is. Important. A Church isn't after all, about us. In a long-term ministry it is inevitable (particularly in small and mid-sized churches) that the pastor becomes part of the architecture in some sense. The church building...the old communion silver...the ancient pastor who baptized both you and your kids...all are permanent and timeless after a while. What happens to the new person when they show up? How hard have we made it for them if we have over a decade of service in one place? I would like to hear from a really good Interim and find out what drives them crazy about us. I even have someone in mind.
7) God: This is the most important question. Where is God in our ministries? Are we in the same place because we don't want to (or cannot) move? Is there still life and spirit in the pastoring? These are important questions. Certainly there are always practical considerations that make us choose to stay. At the same time we are ministers. If God says "go" we go. If God says "stay" we stay. Perhaps this is where we end with small group discussion inspired by Reverend Biggs' sermon. We cannot let our relationship with God get old.
Anyway, this is my non-exhaustive list. Can anyone think of other items? My years at Eliot easily rest among the very best things that have ever happened to me. I know that every long-term minister would agree about their settlements. That is why we are still around. That is why we do the work we do. The challenge is to keep doing that work and to do it well...
Lately I have been giving thought to my sabbatical. This is something most parish ministers receive every 5 to 7 years. This is my second at Eliot Church. If you were to ask me 10 years ago whether or not I was going to have even one sabbatical at Eliot, I would've claimed that the odds were long. I had just finished a very short productive – but – difficult first settlement. The idea of staying in one place for an extended time, while appealing, seemed highly unlikely to me. Yet, here I am in my 13th year at this congregation.
Last year when I was thinking about this topic I posted on the old Burbania Posts I talked about best practices for a long settlement. I will re-post that here sometime soon. However, an article has been floating around Facebook that addresses the same issue. The article (linked below) lists eight "steps" or maintaining a long ministry. Some of them feel a little obvious. The first one “never stop learning" reminds me too much of "don't stop believing" to be of much use. Besides, it's pretty obvious.
However, there are others that are useful. Being willing to change, empowering others in the congregation to do their own ministries, and keeping a regular Sabbath are all good ideas and ones that I try to follow. My favorite, though is the concept of “reverse mentoring”. The author suggests that we practice the habit of learning from the young and innovative people in our lives. There are few things in my ministry that I love more than hanging out with the youth groupers. The opportunity for me to learn and grow is a big part of that.
All of these specific suggestions point to a more general stance of flexibility. I remember at my long-ago "candidating week" (when finalists for a position and the congregation they hope to serve spend a week checking each other out) telling folks that an average ministry lasts for around 5 years. A long ministry, I believed then (and still believe now) is a series of 5-6 year ministries where the staff remains the same. Sabbatical (a form of Sabbath) obviously helps to keep minds open to what that new ministry might look like.
Anyway, here's the article. I found it interesting and a worthwhile read for those who hope to have a long stay in whatever congregation they happen to serve. For those of us who have had long ministries it is useful to find a language to explain what it is that we have done. Again, tomorrow I will add a "Flashback" to this page with the article I posted last year.
I have been going through my old material from the previous Burbania Posts weblog. Every once in a while I will take something from their and re-post it on the new page here. This piece is from January 2011. It addresses a situation that occurred during "Championship Weekend" in the NFL. Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler injured himself and was taken out of the game. His manhood was questioned. This is what I had to say.
Obviously much of this is dated material. I still watched football then. Also the situation with Lance Armstrong was still unresolved at that time...
On Sunday I watched the NFC Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. Jay Cutler, the Bears starting Quarterback was pulled out early in the second half in favor of first, Tod Collins and next, Caleb Hanie. This did not surprise me. Cutler was clearly injured. Blood from his throwing arm was staining his uniform, after all. It turned out, however, that the bigger issue was his knee. He tore his right MCL and could no longer plant his leg effectively to throw.
You would have thought, to hear the commentators and fans (and later current and former players), that instead of being injured in a football game, he had committed an unforgivable sin. He had "quit" on his team. He had failed to show "leadership" by not playing until he was "carted off the field". More sports cliches were used to similar effect. Poor confused Brett Favre was brough up repeatedly...as someone worthy of emulation (!). I, for one, cannot see what the big deal is.
Look, I watch a lot of football. I like a good game, but I, at least, don't see how it helps anyone to permanently injure a player merely to prove that that person has "toughness". Professional sports--honestly--were they to disappear tomorrow would have absolutely no effect on the rest of the world. It is entertainment, we would find other things to do. The response from the players was particularly disturbing in light of the their union's current and much publicized concerns about injury. Football is a dangerous game. The union--representing the interests of the players who put themselves at risk--is trying to create a safer work environment. Why generate gallons of peer pressure to make it more dangerous? Why make the goal of safety harder to attain?
The real culprit here is the myth of toughness. As kids we are trained by our parents to value this aspect of ourselves. I don't have to tell you the social hierarchy of America's school system. We all, dear reader, had a place in it at some point or other. The "tough" varsity athletes reside at or near the top to the unending pride of parents and teachers. The less "tough" make a place for themselves on the science and theater clubs or the debate team. So given this culture and background, why, in that moment of manufactured drama known as "NFL Championship Sunday" wouldn't we seek out a villain?
Incidentally, now people are blaming Cutler's personality for the situation. Turns out he doesn't "let people (meaning the press) in". Hmmm...I wonder why? Is "letting people in" part of his contract?
I see two conflicting desires on the part of the media and the fans here. On the one hand, we want these sports figures to be "role models". We worry about this a lot. We don't ask this from our artists, of course. I was big fan of Metallica and the Who as a kid and no one thought I would follow their lifestyles. We do not (though we reall, really, should) even consistently ask it of ourselves as parents. We assign that task, apparently, to physically gifted strangers.
We get all upset about steroids and other drugs (and yes, we should). However, have we really considered the reason they are a constant issue in sports? We tell the pros that they must be held to a "higher standard" than we hold ourselves to. Yet we also perpetuate the "toughness" myth that makes it so hard for them to succeed. Did Lance Armstrong "dope" during his remarkable run of Tour De France victories? Honestly I would be surprised if he didn't. The Tour--like a lot of other competative venues--is an OSHA violation in progress all because we want to see the "toughest Tour yet". Lance was told to be "tough". He was told to be a role model. The requirement for role models in our world is simple...winning.
This is what we teach our children when we let them to play hurt--and many of us do. It is what we tell them when we fill their free time with parent-run competitive pursuits--and many, many of us do. This is what we tell ourselves when we push ourselves too far and wind up on crutches.
This myth pervades our culture, not just in sports but everywhere. We want to appear tough, we want to be seen as competitive at work and among our friends, with our neighbors at home and with Iraq and Afganistan abroad. We swagger as much as we walk in our relationships. We don't want to collaborate or solve problems, we want to win. How is that workin' for ya?
Perhaps we could try something out as a society. Instead of raising up toughness as a great an necessary attribute, why don't we replace it with empathy? What if our role models were people who could listen to others and make sound decisions? Why don't we encourage each other to care? Perhaps we should be in touch with each other and with our own needs and feelings. What if we praised Jay Cutler for knowing that his injury wouldn't make him the best option for the game? Maybe the world would be just a bit nicer to live in. Perhaps we could do with a little less toughness.
Okay so I want to use this picture one last time. It is a picture of me and some of my local colleagues at lunch several days before Christmas. In amongst the scattering of Christians of various stripes you will find representatives from the Jewish and Muslim community as well. When I posted this on Facebook slightly before Christmas Eve, this is part of what I said.
"Most folks don't realize (not willfully but I bet you haven't thought about it) that this area's religious (and secular) community is served by some really great people who work well together and genuinely enjoy each other's company. This isn't the first time most of us have sat around a table together. It won't be the last.
Present at this table are leaders from the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities as well as whatever we are at Eliot Church. We live in the same communities. Our kids go to the same schools. We experience the same divine presence and work to help others experience it too. There is diversity here. There is a diversity that we all should celebrate this Advent or whatever you might want to call the dark (I can't say cold) days at the end of a very long year."
After that I didn't give it too much thought. Or I wouldn't have except for the fact that people kept bringing up the picture to me. You see, it came as something of a surprise to many people that a group this diverse would get together and have lunch. It was usually a pleasant surprise for folks but surprising nonetheless.
However, as I mentioned in my original Facebook post, it isn't all that unusual for us to see each other. There is a monthly meeting that we try to attend (and I usually fail to attend). We work together on a variety of projects and initiatives. After all, the December meeting was partly to check in with each other and express support the Islamic community but also to celebrate progress on a community garden project the congregations are working on. Also, we see each other at public events. As I noted, our kids go to the same schools which means we go to the same kid functions.
All of this made me think about assumptions. Some assumptions are good. Some not so much. For example, there is the assumption in society that this group of people in this picture will not get along. The reasons for this are many. One obvious reason is that there are many religious people who DON'T like each other at all (just as there are non-religious people who don't like each other). Another is that, in most people's jobs, similar franchises are naturally considered competitors. Then there is the way religion is reported in our society as a sort of intellectual sporting event with teams and mascots. In this context our "Super Bowl" is that time in December that we just went through. These, I think, are the reasons that people are pleasantly surprised to find out that not only do we meet during December but that we see each other more often as allies rather than as enemies.
The whole experience made me think about assumptions. Most of us make assumptions about everything. There are social and religious assumptions. There are cultural assumptions. We make assumptions about science and relationships. We even assume what other people assume about us and others. Without doing some of this we would never get out of bed in the morning. However, there are times when we need to remain open to surprise. In our hyper-connected world certain assumptions have proven deadly.
I think my New Year's resolution this year will be to assume less. It sounds really pretentious to say but I mean it. I feel like I have become more closed minded lately. I can't say that this is true in areas that I know quite a bit about (like religion and the folks in the picture) but there are other ways where I have found myself being either dismissive or accepting of other people, places, and ideas. Maybe there is just more going on that points to what I am closed minded about! So here is to being more open to surprises in the future.
What is your resolution?