What We Mean By “Transformation”

Doug Muder writes a great article about being an introvert at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. Although he writes with affection and appreciation for the enthusiasm and commitment he encounters among fellow UUs there, he reminds us that we are a diverse people and that some of us struggle with the pep rally atmosphere of GA.

I am a strong extrovert, and I struggle with GA for the same reason, although my discomfort has a different origin than Doug’s. My problem isn’t the way that our General Assembly event privileges strong extroverted personalities, it is the way that the event frames the very mission of Unitarian  Universalism, and particularly the way it defines “transformation.”

I have never gone away “transformed” by a General Assembly. I arrived with a set of liberal social justice convictions that I may have had affirmed and strengthened at GA, but I have never been “transformed.”

I have been validated.

I have been informed.

I have been educated.

And I have often been emotionally charged to engage in more action.

None of that, to me, equals “transformation.” Religious transformation, which I believe is the mission of any religious organization, is a far deeper, more challenging, intimidating and permanent work than getting jazzed up about a social issue at GA, or experiencing some fantastic “rah-rah UU” moments in huge worship services (“rah rah” sentiments always give me the creeps, actually. I think they play into our most immature needs and desires).

Religious transformation is not just about my awareness of someone else’s plight. It is first and foremost about my awareness of my own plight as a regular old screwed up human being.  A sinner, in old-school church terminology! Or, if you prefer, my condition as a human being who needs daily to challenge herself to move beyond her own ego and keep prying her hands, eyes and mind open with a crowbar, because everything in the world wants to convince her that she’s awesome, she’s right all the time, and she should be comfortable at every moment.  There is so much more transforming that I, and all of us, need to engage in. Being evangelized to get involved in social justice is just one very limited definition of transformation.

My God, the disconnect between our high UU aspirations around what we are called to do “out there” and our crappy behavior “in here!” And by “in here,” I mean the inner life, the life of community, neighborhoods, work place and family relationships, and the life in our congregations. You know I’m a church consultant and talk to hundreds of ministers every year, don’t you? You know how many stories of our incredible dysfunction and nastiness I hear, don’t you? Okay, to be fair, I am an unofficial mentor and (unpaid) consultant to church folk in a wide variety of traditions, but let me say that although UUs like to think of themselves as a particularly sophisticated and intelligent people, we ain’t either. What we are is particularly opinionated, mouthy and self-centered. Most of us think we’d be a much better leader than the person leading. Most of us hear an idea, and immediately have a better idea. Most of us listen “for” rather than listen “to.” We listen for things that we can disagree with, things we can refute, and things that will offend us. We do not like to listen “to.” We mistake hyper-vigilance for attentiveness. Most of us could sorely benefit from, as the kids say, “chilling.”

We don’t need to attract more people like that (like ME!). We need to attract more truly thoughtful people, more kind people, more patient people, more genuinely tolerant and accepting people. That’s the kind of person I want to be. I don’t need more fires lit under my furious, self-righteous, easily agitated posterior. I need a daily dose of “Honey, our first principle is NOT that we affirm and inherent worth and dignity of everything that comes out of your mouth.”*

It’s HARD!! Dammit! And that’s why I know I need church. Desperately need it.

Do we really think our Unitarian Universalist movement is limping and declining because we’re not committed enough to social justice? Do we really believe that our transformation from someone who doesn’t really care about immigration issues to someone who sends a check every month to “No Mas Muertes” and who protests Sherrif Arapaio in 110 degree heat is the goal for all those who consider themselves members or friends of our UU faith tradition? I would certainly be proud to be counted among a group who broadly makes such generous use of their money and time, but that kind of transformation is only part of what we need to talk about, open ourselves to, and promote.

I have heard the grumbles from some UUs: “we don’t do enough.” “We should be marching against war.” “We should be descending upon Washington, DC to demand gun control reform.” “We should be …”

WE are around 100,000 people in the USA. Total. There are dozens of humanitarian organizations and activist groups out there for Americans to join. Most of them share our 7 Principles and have, when you get involved with them, a kind of religious zeal to them. They require meetings, and organizing, and commitment, and heart.

What they don’t have is congregations. What they don’t have is institutional presence in communities. What they don’t have is a long history as a religious tradition. What they don’t have is the concept of covenant, or the act of weekly worship to remind them of the larger cycle of birth, death, struggle, sorrow, joy, celebration, sin, shame, reverence, awe, healing, learning, transforming and growing “into harmony with the Divine” which has always been the purpose of our lives in religious community.

That is our job; our calling. When people arrive at our congregations on a Sunday morning, they aren’t coming to find a group of social justice activists. They are coming to engage in religious community so that they can understand the deeper theological foundation beneath their instincts for justice, beneath their frustration with the world as it is, beneath their sense of longing. They are not coming to be transformed into protest marchers. They can do that through any number of other organizations.

It is not our job simply to grow activists but to minister to activists who are informed in their ethic of service and love by our religious commitments, our religious mission, and our religious principles. It is our job to help all who join with us find a deeper life, a life more abundant, and a way to articulate and live their deepest convictions. It is our job to discover life more abundant in responsible and mature ways, and to mightily resist the temptation to gather life-minded people in a self-congratulatory mode.

Because we are a church, we should gather in a spirit of humility, not pride and certainty. Because we are a church, we should broaden our definition of the word “activist” to include all who move beyond the littleness of their opinions, preferences and comforts and into the world as a helper, a healer, an advocate, and an intimate in the human struggle.

The young woman who bakes a cake for the new widow, then goes and sits with her in awkward, caring silence in the kitchen over a cup of tea, is an activist.  If this act is new for her, and she is moving beyond her comfort zone, and she is learning to push herself beyond her own daily concerns and to think about how she might support someone around her (who is not the kind of person she would choose to “hang out with”), she is a religious activist. When she sits in church and thinks, “I swear, this week I’m going to actually do something for someone. I have to stop saying I’m going to, and just do it,” she is in a process of transformation.

The guy who hears at coffee hour about another guy who can’t find a job and asks the minister if he can start a support group for the unemployed — and he’s never done this before and he has never been the kind of man who thought he would ever attend a support group, let alone start one — he is an activist in the process of transformation.

The woman in the choir who, after years of protesting any Theistic or Christian language in the anthems, starts to realize that she isn’t upset by sacred music any more, and doesn’t find the need to censor or edit it, is in a process of transformation. She has done work on coming to peace with her religious past, or her assumptions about what God language means to everyone (and the damage she believes it does), and she is able to sing “Shall We Gather At The River” and appreciate it as a beloved old-school hymn… she is being transformed.

The group of people in the church who absolutely believe that the expansion of the parking lot and repairs to the roof should take precedence over the addition of the RE wing, but who take counsel with each other and decide, together, that even though they know they’re right, it might be okay to wait and support the RE construction project for now… they’re experiencing transformation, too.

The woman who hears a sermon on domestic abuse and goes home, picks up the phone and calls her minister to say that she is in an abusive relationship, and could they meet right away before her girlfriend gets home – she is also in transformation.

Any time we find ourselves thinking jerky thoughts in worship and admonish ourselves to stop being so mean and critical or judgmental: that is the work of religious transformation. It requires confession of short-comings, determination to obey the dictates of conscience, and willingness to change.

It is not our calling to change the world. It is our responsibility and calling to change ourselves so that we are better able to participate in the world in a way that does credit to our values, our principles and our heritage.

* Our first Unitarian Universalist Principle is “we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

20 Replies to “What We Mean By “Transformation””

  1. I like this:

    “I don’t need more fires lit under my furious, self-righteous, easily agitated posterior.”

    In a way, my problem is the opposite. As an introvert, I feel I often need that fire lit under me, not just so I can get involved but so I can personally engage with people. That’s part of the religious transformation I’d like to have and am still looking for.

  2. Let the church say “Amen.” And let them sing it too.

    I’m an extreme introvert and yet love GA. Not because I’m “transformed” (hell, I’m already saved and sanctified, do I need to be transformed too?), but because I get to get educated and informed and hear from big voices that I don’t get to hear everyday–I mean really, how often does one have the opportunity to hear Gary Dorien and Karen Armstrong within 12 hours of each other. I get to hang out with people I don’t see often and hear what’s going on in their lives and, in the case of ministers, churches.

    Transformation, like conversion, is a process. But, also like conversion, it takes effort and patience and study. But in the modern UU rush to conform to this world, we have forgotten Paul’s directive to not conform to the ways of this world but to be “transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

    And since you mentioned “Shall We Gather At The River”, I wonder if the UU aversion of the old gospel songs is less disagreement with the theology in them and more how much they talk about patience and how we see through the glass darkly.

  3. Oh, I didn’t think you making assumptions. I just meant that yes, I agreed that the church needs people of different personality types (well, it needs people. Period. If UU membership is 100,000 people in the USA, it’s even less here in Canada.

    I should have also added that I don’t know if I’d ever to go a GA (the Canadian one in my case, as I’m in Montreal) so when we speak of transformation, I mean within the context of my own congregation. While I do accept that I’m an introvert, I recognize that it can hold me back so I need that push sometimes.

  4. PB, long-time lurker here (my daughter is an ANTS student and started my PB Habit). I so often agree with you and, most often, find delicious food for thought here, but never have I seen ME right there in your words! To my amazement, I have become, over the years, that woman in the choir! So, thanks for yet another wonderful think-piece and a Big Aha! [YAY!! YAY for the transformation and YAY for unlurking! Glad to know you, Kate! – PB]

  5. If only I could find a church like the one you describe. I love your writings. It is very inspired. Thank you!

  6. John, A year and a half ago I came to the UU church for the first time and wanting and needing that connection I joined every small group that was formed. A very effective way to meet and connect while learning new things. Many wonderful things have happened to me from my reaching out. If your church does not have small groups then form one of your own. Choose a subject that interests you, any word will do, it will take on a life of it`s own and have the minister announce or put in the newsletter. Reaching out on your own instead of waiting on someone else has miraculous benefits, take it from a former introvert.

  7. I’m not UU, I’m just a passing admirer from another, much more conservative denomination and I’m reading your post with interest. This is a great conversation to be having. I hope you guys come up with a great answer. And I hope your answer changes the world, not just for your own sake, but for everyone. Because I think that we need religion like the one UUs can offer. One that embraces the spiritual and social and scientific in an honest and open way.

  8. Judy, thanks for the advice. That’s my plan this fall when the church reconvenes. I’ve already asked the church secretary if I could help out with the website as it looks like it’s from 1997 and I’d like to take on the project of updating it (and putting the correct street address on it – I mean, really!).

  9. Thank you for posting this. I’m a long-time lurker from a different tradition, yet I always appreciate what you have to say and come away both humbled (aw, shoot, that’s me she’s talking about) and encouraged (oh yeah, there IS a reason we keep doing this church thing, even though it’s HARD). I’ve gotten into the habit of evaluation and criticism (in the dangerous guise of seeking excellence in worship and ministry) and out of the habit of spiritual humility (willing to learn from even those I just KNOW are less smart or less spiritual or less right than I). Church transforms in part because we can’t help but learn from those we worship in community with, even against our stubbornest resistance. [Thanks so much for writing, Karen. Having been on summer vacation for perhaps too long at this point, I am extremely aware that church life IS hard, that we cannot help but learn from it if we stick with it, and that life without it is — for me, anyway– nowhere NEAR as rich. Blessings to both of us in our constant quest to balance our desire for excellence with our need for humility! – PB]

  10. You have brought yet another lurker out of the woodwork. I have followed your blog off and on for a few years.

    This and another recent post of yours, resonates so loudly with me. I have been an active leader in my congregation for about seven of my ten years. I’ve held positions as committee chair, almost every board position, attended leadership workshops as well as one General Assembly. I don’t list my UU resume to impress anyone but show that this type of church activity would make one think it’s from someone who is dyed-in-the-wool UU.


    I have my letter of membership resignation typed.

    The social justice before personal transformation idea seems to have a lot of traction, given the theme of GA this year and Rev Morales’ and others’ embrace of that idea. I think it is a wrong direction and I nearly submitted my letter to my congregation, that is, until I read your post from July 26th. Then I found other UUs on Twitter who feel the same and found other UU bloggers and it’s given me….

    well, a bit of transformation I guess.
    Thank you. [Thank you for piercing me to the heart with this testimonial. I have been writing and saying this exact same thing for about 8 year — shouting into the wind, it seems. When I started writing, I got all kinds of complaints and angry denunciations from UUs who all had the same thing to say: “You can’t say that!!” Well, I can say that and I did say that and I have been saying “that” for almost a decade publicly. Finally the letters and comments I am getting are from UUs like you who come out of the woodwork to say that I speak to your experience. The nay-sayers have gone away, it seems. We all understand by now that we cannot survive from a place of shallow triumphalism. Social justice is admirable and important but it is not the essence of Unitarian Universalism. It is the essence of one of the fruits of a Unitarian Universalist life well lived. Blessings, and keep in touch. – PB]

  11. Thanks so much – I needed to hear this – The secretary of a church I attended who was not a Unitarian said in a moment of despair “UUs think that because what they want is good, that they themselves are good”. By coincidence I just read an article in Christian Century about the debilitating effects of excessive pride and the necessity to cultivate humility, an old problem and one with which I am well acquainted – in more honest moments I recognize in myself the since of Pharasaism – “thank God I am not as other men [sic]” This is an inspired and gracious blog you have written.

  12. I went to GA in Phoenix this year expecting pretty much what I experienced at my first GA in Boston in 2003…What I got was a refreshing group activism and validation from a broader community that was powerful and touching and transforming…Not for the reasons the writer has stated..Im a retired mental health therapist…For over 20 years, alone, Ive been saying the same things and doing the same work with the homeless, the poor, the mentally ill as what was espoused at GA on a massive group level…Its a relief to witness so many understand and mobilize what Ive felt alone carrying inside me when I went to work every day…Im perhaps looking for the opposite of what the writer suggests…Ive spent over 20 years providing service to others….That professional part of my life is over….Continuing that on a different level is important but so is being in a community of like minded beings…Connecting with others nationally and globally recharges me and prevents the isolation that is so common with mental health therapists and those who have already spent much of their professional lives working in the systems serving others….We are perhaps looking for that rah rah community of support and pats on the back we never got as professionals when battling managed care companies and budget cuts…Its so easy to get caught up on whats happening in our own religious congregations, not looking beyond those borders…..Mobilization and bearing witness to who we are and what we do is still a much needed and precious activity within the broader UU communities….Especially to those of us who have spent our professional lives already walking the walk.

  13. Peacebang, thank you so much for this. Yes, yes, yes and ever yes. You put into (very eloquent) words the very thoughts I have been marinating in for some time now but have not found a way to articulate to my satisfaction. May the conversation continue, and spread to all of our congregations!

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