Dear “Welcoming” Churches

Dear So Many Churches,

Every Saturday this summer, I considered going to church services the next morning. I’m a preacher lady the rest of the year, so this is my time to worship without any leadership responsibilities.

I am a Christian. That is why I want to go to church. I want to hear the Word preached. I want to be part of the body of Christ. I want to sing the songs and be in the incarnate community of disciples of Jesus Christ even if I am not geographically or technically in your local community.

I am also a Unitarian Universalist. I presume that any time, anywhere, I will be welcome to worship with the UUs. I have been a Unitarian Universalist all of my life. I know that I can experience the beloved, incarnate community among our congregations whether or not they retain any outward signs of cultural or theological Christianity. I only want to share the love of God (by whatever name  the worship leaders call it – and that name doesn’t have to be traditional). I am also ministered to by worship services that are  generically reverent, for instance, worship that focuses on the immanent divine or creative force in nature and human nature.

So I’m actually kind of easy!  The only churches I avoided visiting were ones where I knew I would be recognized as local clergy and need to be “on” for that reason. I did not have the energy for that. Sometimes I do. This summer I did not.

That said, here’s why I did not attend your church or why I would not return:

  1. Your website is completely unhelpful and confusing, eg, your main page announces worship services at 10:00 AM but your interior page about summer services says that they’re at 9:00 AM. No one is in the office when I call on Saturday, of course, and nor does your outgoing message on the voicemail clarify the issue.

And I really, really wanted to visit you. I have heard beautiful things about your congregation but you didn’t care enough about those outside your vibrant community to inform us how we could join with you. It made me very sad. You don’t have an updated Facebook page. In fact, what you have is a pinned post from February promoting your chili cook-off. All the photos are insidery images with no identifying information. There is nothing posted about current programming; ostensibly because you presume everyone should already know. They do not. There are no links to go to to find out where and when you’re doing what you’re doing.

2  You also don’t have a Twitter account. In other words, you’re directing your social media presence to people who are already integrated into the community. This is a grave and common error.

I live 45 minutes away and we are strangers, but everything on your website and social media accounts should keep me in mind.  Very few people will even make the multiple attempts I made to figure out how, when and where to find you.

3  Your services are bereft of spirituality.

UUs, this is especially for you.

I can attend  a lecture or forum at the Jewish Community Center, the Salem Athenaeum, the ACLU, the Ipswich Historical Society, and many social justice organizations with which I am connected. What I cannot get in those places is corporate prayer, theological reflection and a message grounded in the wisdom of hundreds or even thousands of years of tradition. What I can’t get there is silence held by a people who have faith that they are called to be a people of Love, shaped and oriented in this shared hour to the contours of grace, peace and justice. If you’re unwilling to provide that, I’ll look elsewhere — conversation with friends, private prayer, a walk by the ocean, journaling.  If your summer services are a series of people essentially lecturing on a topic, advertise as such.  Call them “Summer programs.” Don’t call them worship, and please don’t quibble with me about the old English root of the word in “worth-ship.” Worship has a religious connotation. If you’re avoiding religion during your summer Sundays, you’re engaging in false advertising by calling the gathering “worship services.” It makes you look confused or lacking in integrity.

3  You have an evident immature spirituality.

When I did attend your church, you did not greet me as a soul but as a customer.  You barraged me with greetings, chattered at me before, during and after the service. You asked me to join the choir but did not ask me how I am or what promptings of the soul brought me to your church that morning.

You stuck your hand in my face for a handshake, you hugged me, you touched me on the head — you treated me like public property, like a nursery school child, like a new granddaughter. It was alarming, and I felt violated or insulted more than once. Your welcome was not authentic. You did not really look me in the eye. You were performing welcome, and I knew it.

You made assumptions about me: that my husband is at home, that my children will love your Sunday school, or that I’m interested in the singles ministry. Stop pigeon-holing people or trying to match them with others in the congregation you think they’re similar to. It’s a form of objectification.

Your bragging about “how great” your church is makes me feel like we’re on a first date and you’re desperate. Quite frankly, if the church is great, I’ll find out in time. But during our first conversation I don’t need a sales pitch. I need a connection.

You said petty, catty things about your minister or other members in my hearing. I overheard one man grumble to a woman next to him, “Is the pastor absent again?” The pastor had been on vacation, he wasn’t “absent.” And the pastor, an ethusiastic young man, was indeed present that morning — having flown back to town at 3 AM.

There was a deafening chatter during the Prelude and you all got up during the Postlude and started loudly socializing with one another. This says a lot to me. A congregation that cannot allow not one second of quiet or peace to allow the spirit of worship to resonate is not a community makes a space for contemplative spirituality or contemplative individuals.

4. You don’t understand the times we are living in.

It is 2018.  Almost no one in New England is under any social pressure to affiliate with a house of worship.  Church attendance is not only not de rigeur, it is almost counter- cultural.  I love and commend all of you who have been church folk for a long time and who continue to be so. However, you have to know that new seekers (especially anyone under fifty) are probably not visiting in order to fit in with the neighbors, to network professionally, or even primarily to find a way to engage with social justice. They might be, but most likely — in fact, almost certainly, they are looking for a spiritual organization.  They want a place and a community with whom they can learn about God/God- concepts, responsibly question or jettison theological ideas they received as children or from the wider culture, and attend to their inner lives.

If they came in order to become part of the Resistance, they need more than information on how to contact legislators or attend the march or accompany immigrants to deportation hearings: they need soul strength and spiritual practices that help ground and protect them against depair. They  need the witness of the prophetic ancestors.

They want a place where they can find peace and be given tools for cultivating it within their own lives.

If they are atheists, they want to be an ethical community of encounter and practice, but still within the context of reverence and compassion.

No one is there for therapy, or to be told by an emotionally manipulative minister (however piously) what they feel about the world. They need to see religious people being religious, which is to say living with a sense of commitment to the most profound intimations of their moral sensibility. They need to see those people taking seriously the obligation to discern morality together, and to act on its promptings.

They do not need idle chatter. They need to know that the people who are gathered as a congregation are real; that they tell the truth, that they suffer, that they do not have all of the answers, but that they are faithful to the quest to discover wisdom where it may be found.

Above all, I think, they need to believe that they can grow in some good way along with this community, even if just sharing one hour of worship. If the din of the socializing, requests to fill out forms (no, thank you) and the barrage of small talk and probing questions inform the visitor immediately that the people there do not not how to engage with them as a spiritual being but only as a potential customer, they will not return.

We must learn how to greet souls, not voraciously descend on potential members.

But first, we need to make it a non-mystery to find us and know what time and exactly where we are gathering.









Dear Unitarian Universalist Search Committees

‘Tis the season for search! And since I am not in search, haven’t been for five years and do not intend to be for the forseeable future, let me spill some tea for those of you dedicated laypeople who are serving on your congregation’s search committees.

I am going to be blunt because that’s my style and because we are in a religious tradition that practices WASP emotional culture, which means that we often communicate in vague or excessively “nice” terms unless we’re outright arguing about something.  It is a communication style that privileges the highly emotionally controlled  and poker faced, and creates subtle power jousting in place of open and forthright conversation. I have always hated it (see Waking Up White By Debby Irving for an engaging personal analysis of white New England emotional culture).

If you don’t know what your team or your congregation’s emotional culture is or how it is informed by your congregation’s ethnic, racial, economic, geographic and historical context, I highly recommend working with Essential Partners, whose Executive Director, the Rev. Parisa Parsa is a UU minister and fantastic facilitator.

When it comes to ministerial search, UUs are pretty thoroughly grounded in 19th century mentality and archetypal consciousness. I know this because I have been studying the evolution of American liberal religious clergy archetype for decades (with particular focus on New England Congregationalist traditions, of which we are part) and I can confidently say that while UUs are catching up to the 21st century in some ways, we are very far behind that in terms of ministerial search and call: both the process and the way we evaluate ministers. We know intellectually that ministers have a very different job now than they did at the end of the 19th century, but our hearts and imaginations are still attached to the expectations of yesteryear.

We want a scholar who can wax eloquent on literature, the Bible, theology, and the latest Bill McKibbon piece. We want a warm pastor who knows everyone and makes a lot of personal visits (even though people are not home these days and if they are, an unscheduled guest is an unwelcome intrusion). We want our minister to attend all leadership meetings, all programs, all social justice actions, community interfaith organizations, and local events we’d like to see them at. We want a fabulous preacher and a creative liturgist. We want a whizbang financial expert and fundraiser. We want someone who is strong but not so strong that they can’t be controlled or managed by disapproval, we want someone visionary but not so much that they move us beyond our comfort zone, someone challenging but not too demanding, and someone spiritual but not too religious.

We want someone who is available 24/7 to respond to “my” e-mails but who faithfully observes their day off to model healthy self-care. Winking face emoji here.

The question, “How many evenings a week do you feel it is wise and fair to expect a minister to be out doing church business, and what do you consider church business” should be at the top of your interview questions. It will generate a crucial conversation, I promise you. I also promise you that this question will not have been part of the congregation’s survey, which asks the congregation what they want, and says not a word about what they intend to do to manage their own expectations or to contribute to the next minister’s effectiveness. Here’s a fun fact: when I was ordained in 1997, we got in touch with people in person and on the phone. Very occasionally, paper note or letter. Today, I respond to messages by phone on three phone lines and voice mail accounts, by e-mail, text message and Facebook messenger. Sometimes by letter. The resulting stress around keeping communications organized is profound and unprecedented in history.

Search Committees and church leaders need to know that ministry has changed radically since Ferguson for most Unitarian Universalist ministers. Please make room to have that conversation. Many of us have been engaged in anti-racism and social justice work and learning for a long time, but community organizing and engagement has become exponentially more intense and demanding since the election of Trump.

If I may make a side rant (and I am going to) I would opine that the Congregational Survey that accompanies the great Ministerial Search is actually a fairly appalling document, as it encourage individualistic, consumeristic notions about what a ministerial search really is and what it should accomplish. It leads each individual person who fills out the survey into a spirit of entitlement: “What would YOU like? What do YOU want to see?” and should be jettisoned in favor of congregational discernment led by leaders or facilitators over a series of community meetings so as to determine the congregation’s vision of ministry, mission and priorities. The outcomes and consensus from these meetings should be shared with the candidates, who then have a far more accurate sense of the job they’d be signing on to do than is provided by a collection of personal, individual opinions.

All that said, my love and respect and gratitude go out to you, Search Committee members! I am of the opinion that you are working way too hard and for far too long on finding your next minister, and that upsets me for you. You are sacrificing endless nights and weekends to a ridiculously overwrought and prolonged process that was designed during an era when ministerial tenures were far longer than they are today, when the church enjoyed a place of prominence in society that it no longer has, and when reasonable expectations for volunteer engagement were completely different than they are now.

I am not sure what the average tenure is for Unitarian Universalist parish ministry but I believe it’s around six to eight years. This means that congregations are responsible around every five or so years for recruiting a Search Committee that will labor for one to two years to settle a minister who serves for only three or four times that long. Something’s gotta give, and I am looking forward to seeing what UUA Settlement Director, the Rev. Keith Kron, and others, figure out.

Dear Search Committees, the internet has changed everything about the way we do search. Much of it is positive development, allowing ministers and lay people to know more about each other, to explore the wider communities each one comes from, and to share materials extremely easily. I think this is a wonderful thing, and I remember with gratitude and fondness how often the Search Committee Chair of my current congregation and I checked in about small details relating to pre-candidating and also larger questions about each other. I was able to ask her questions for the entire committee that she was able to respond to within 24 hours. This rapidity was a help in our discernment process.

And yet the internet has also opened the door to many legitimate questions regarding public ministry, use of social media and published materials on websites. Please leave room in your interview process to explore these topics. Some questions you might consider are: Continue reading “Dear Unitarian Universalist Search Committees”

Away In A Grotto: Christmas Eve Homily 2017

I was in Bethlehem this past March. It was my first trip to the holy land and there was a lot that was mind-blowing about it – ancient history, and better understanding of the painful Israeli-Palestinian conflict, walking the streets of Jerusalem, a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims… it was an amazing experience.

One kind of small but very meaningful thing I got from the trip is that aren’t any stables the way we think of a “stable” in Bethlehem because buildings there aren’t mostly made with wood. It’s the desert, and all the structures are sandstone. So, actually, the barn-like structure that gets translated as “stable” for English readers of the Bible isn’t a building at all but a cave – or a grotto.

Away in a grotto

Away in a sheep cave

It doesn’t have the same ring.

I went into the very cave where Jesus is said to have been born. Of course a big, fancy church was long ago built over the site, so that humble place is now the Church of the Nativity right in the center of Bethlehem. You wait in a long, long line with people from all over the world to get down into the actual place of the nativity, which is, as I said, kind of a little cave.

I waited with some of my minister friends and the people-watching was fantastic. You might think that it was a very holy and religious environment. It wasn’t at all. Kids got bored and ran in and out of the line, couples squabbled in many different languages and people talked about where they were going to eat lunch. American evangelical tour groups sang Christmas carols. In March.

There was one very formal local man with a long beard and Orthodox priest’s cap selling the candles and postcards in the little gift shop (there’s always a little gift shop in these pilgrimage sites) wearing what looked to be a fairly permanent scowl etched into his face. I don’t know if his job is at the high or low end of the priestly totem pole – it seems to me it would be an honor to be a caretaker at such a holy shrine, but he seemed quite irritated by all the unruly tourists. I liked him very much. He’s right: if we were properly in touch with the sacred we would have waited in quiet reverence to climb down into the grotto where Mary had her baby.

When you finally get through the long line and climb down the worn stone stairs into the cave, it becomes very womb-like, warm and it smells good. Many centuries of incense have soaked into the walls and so has the breath of many pilgrims – some true believers, some skeptics, some friendly visitors who don’t think about Jesus much one way or another. Being down there and waiting in another line to press my hand to the actual SPOT of Jesus’ birth (I know it’s silly, but once you’ve waited in the long line to get in, another line is fine), I felt connected not so much to Jesus as to humanity. To our yearnings, our needs, to our failures and endless cycle of violence and repair, struggles about dominance over verses collaboration with.

I knew that many people down in that grotto with me came there believing that the most important thing about Jesus is that he came to “save us from our sins.” What they mean by that is that Jesus saves them personally so they can personally go to heaven. Well. That’s not what I believe. That’s not what this tradition teaches. Personal salvation isn’t enough for me and it wasn’t enough for Jesus, who understood that we are not only individuals who need healing and love and but A PEOPLE. A human people, together, whose fate is interwoven.

I believe that the most important thing about Jesus is that he invited us – in the brief shining flare of his life – to follow his example. If we could manage to do that, we would be saved from a lot of sins, together. We would be saved from greed, first of all. And then we’d have so much more to work with to heal the world, to build it up, to care for and rebuild our tired and overheated planet. We would be saved from a smallness of soul and fearful perspective that tries to convince us that there isn’t enough to go around, and that “I” should hoard my share to look out for “my own” and to hell with everyone else.

I want to tell you that this is not just a minister saying righteous words on Christmas Eve. It is absolutely true, every day no matter what arguments anyone has tried to have with you on the subject: the unmistakable core of Jesus’ teachings is a love, and a blueprint for a social order that unmistakably insists that the poor should be cared for, that the rich shall be humbled, that the stranger and the refugee and the immigrant shall be welcomed and honored and included, that women should be listened to and respected, that those who have been judged by moral purity codes should be included and embraced, that children have an important and valuable perspective and are to be cherished as autonomous beings and not just an extension of ourselves, that the law is never more important than love, and that the greatest force in the universe wants it this way.

Jesus called that force God, and Dad, Abba. You may call it whatever you like: creation, ultimate reality, the meaning of life, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, Nature, love. By whatever name you call it, I invite you to work with this congregation however and wherever you can toward the fulfillment of its call in our lives.

Earlier, before my tour group went together to the Church of the Nativity to see exactly where Jesus was said to have been born, we stopped at the field where the shepherds heard the first noel, where the angels appeared to them and scared them witless but caused them to actually leave their sheep and run to see what was happening.

It was brown. It was pretty flat. It was actually pretty boring. The Judaean desert right there where it all happened is no more exciting than Worcester. But I sat there and I looked over that field, now called Shepherd’s Field, and I laughed, and I loved it. What a perfect place for angels to show up. Why would I expect them to come somewhere already shining, already glorious, already awe-inspiring? Why would they waste their energy appearing anywhere where humans are already satisfied by beauty and luxurious things to look at and think and do? They wouldn’t. They never have been said to appear under those conditions.

The field was brown and uninteresting. The boys were making sure their sheep didn’t wander away or get attacked by wild animals. The sky was ordinary until angels made their appearance. The stable turned out to be a warm little sandstone cave. The baby who was born there just wanted to accomplish the radical miracle of making us belong to each other so deeply that when one of us cries, the other shall taste salt. That is what is so deep about this night. A cold winter’s night that was so deep.

Let us love one another.


The entrance down into the exact, precise geographical spot where Jesus was born. 

IMG_0374Shepherd’s Field, Bethlehem. That’s it.