Category Archives: Unitarian Universalism

Looking for the Love‬

news_loveandjusticeToday is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and the second day of the “Thirty Days of Love” sponsored by our Association. I’ve waited until today to address something that happened just about a month ago.  I waited to make sure I wasn’t over-reacting. I waited, thinking maybe I’d feel better as time passed. I waited to give us all some time to calm down.  Just under a month ago,  the Unitarian Universalist Association posted a holiday greeting on Facebook that led to a long painful discussion.

At least, it was painful for me. So painful that I had to consider whether Unitarian Universalism is a place where I can or should continue to pour my energies, ideas, and hard work.  That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not.

The words and image chosen for the greeting are not the primary issue for me. Yes, I understand the intention was to remind Unitarian Universalists that the most important thing about the holidays is not the gifts and materialism. But I also understand that those words and the accompanying image left some feeling painfully excluded.

Yes, Unitarian Universalists are, in general, well-educated and economically privileged. But there are those among us who do not have what they need. There are also people like the woman I sat with in my office on December 23 who wept because she could not find a way to give her children the Christmas she felt they deserved: no tree, no big dinner, and most painfully for her, not a single gift. She chose to pay the rent and keep the heat on, but doing so made her feel like a failure and she knew her children would be disappointed.

The greeting also uses language that assumes that all of us can see, hear, and embrace with arms of love.  Some say the language is simply metaphor, and it may be. But in a world where barriers to inclusion and microagressions are an everyday thing for folks with disabilities, exclusive metaphors still sting.

When they are coming from your faith community–a community that says it is working to be inclusive and counter-oppressive–the sting becomes a burn. (This is something I’ve learned from my experience as a trans* person and by listening to others in my beloved community who struggle to be included–let alone, celebrated–in their fullness as human beings with abilities and disabilities.)

But it was not the greeting that broke my heart.

After the greeting was posted, a few brave souls pointed out that it may have been hurtful and/or excluded some folks in our beloved community. They did so gently and carefully, being clear that they knew that whoever had posted the greeting did not intend to exclude or hurt anyone.

And then all hell broke loose. And my heart broke.

First, Peter Morales, the President of our Association of Congregations replied:

I am sorry you were offended by the UUA’s Facebook page posting… However, I believe you misread both the intent and the content of the posting and that your criticisms are misdirected and counterproductive.

(I’ve deleted a story from President Morales’ childhood about being poor and information about how the new UUA headquarters will be accessible to people with disabilities.)

…What troubles me about your letter is that it falls into a pattern of what I have called UU’s who arrive “pre-offended.” The result is a kind of bullying that ends up having people become so cautious that our discourse is trivialized. To say that we need vision is not to demean those who are blind. To say that we should stand on the side of love does not disrespect those who cannot stand. To say that we should listen deeply does not marginalize those with hearing disabilities. Are we to avoid singing “Guide My Feet” in fear that someone without feet might be offended?

I do not believe we should ever give offense deliberately. And, yes, we should be thoughtful and sensitive. However—and this is critical—we should not take offense when none was intended. I rarely go to a major meeting of UU’s when someone does not come to me in righteous anger about some imagined offense. It is counter productive. Frankly, it is silly.
There are real issues we must confront together. I am convinced that economic inequality does enormous emotional damage and threatens our democracy. We need to work together to make our congregations and our society more open and accessible.

I look forward to working with you and others to confront real issues of injustice and marginalization that affect thousands. I suggest we spend more energy taking action and less taking offense.

The scolding, paternalistic tone of President Morales’ words was the first (and deepest) wound. Calling people “pre-offended” is to say that no offense was given and the critique  offered is a figment of the imaginations of those who are “too sensitive”–an age-old way of silencing people who dare to speak up and name oppression.

President Morales continues to  dismiss his critics (or critics of the greeting since the response to the greeting was never aimed at Morales personally) calling their critique a “complaint” that is misdirected, counter-productive, and a form of bullying. He admits that people approach him all the time in “righteous anger at some imagined offense.” Then he tells us what he really thinks: “Frankly, it’s silly.”

Sadly, President Morales is not the only one. After he posted his response, hundreds of people chimed in. It was like a floodgate opened and instead of compassion and love for those who felt excluded and hurt, what came pouring out was defensiveness, dismissal, and anger. And that was when I began to wonder, “Am I on the wrong team?” Are we so invested in our own culture, structures, and self-importance that we can’t even listen when someone says, “Hey, that hurt.  Ouch.”?

The holiday greeting was a relatively small thing: a picture and some words. Yes, those words were written by a beloved UU leader. And the picture is pretty and represents something we’re proud of: a grassroots effort to create images for social media that carry our values and message into the world.   When people critique  a well-intentioned greeting, it’s painful. When they point out that our words (and images) may have effects that we did not intend, it can be frustrating. But isn’t this exactly the kind of thing we have to be willing to do if we are to  live out our commitments?

Our Association has adopted Global Ends, which is a fancy way of saying Big Goals that are supposed to guide all that we do. One of those Ends is:

  • Congregations and communities engage in partnerships to counter systems of power, privilege and oppression.

I can’t help but wonder if we mean it.  Today, many of us are quoting Dr. King. But what about tomorrow? During the Thirty Days of Love, we’re studying up on multiculturalism, but is our beloved community truly welcoming to all? And if it is not, are we willing to change? Next time someone asks us to look at our words and consider that they might not be as loving as we thought, how will we respond? Will we accuse them of being the problem and dismiss them as silly? Will we tell them we’re too busy doing the real work of justice to be bothered?

Is that what we mean by Love?

The chance might be here already.  Today,  a Unitarian Universalist posted a lovely reflection called Love means it’s time to kill your darlings. How will we respond?

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Is Unitarian Universalism Ready for Revolution?

Social Media Revolution

I don’t think we’re ready. I think our churches are convinced that social media is just a passing fad.

What are the implications for churches, religious practice, spiritual development, blogging…if this is revolution?

What do ministers need to learn? How can our congregations become content providers?

Will we change or will we become irrelevant?

By the way, I found this video because it was posted on the Starr King School for the Ministry Facebook page.

Speaking on Behalf of Love

What I said at the rally in support of the Freedom to Marry at the County building in Redwood City this morning:

I am the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison and I am here, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, because I believe that every major religion has compassion and love at its center. The message of love may get lost or warped, or coopted by power, but at its heart, staying true to our religious values means standing on the side of Love—not only romantic love, but love that demands fairness, equity, compassion, and justice for all.

Too much of our public discourse is driven not by love, but by fear, which scapegoats particular people and deems them somehow less than human, worthy of fewer rights and responsibilities, and somehow not really worthy of equality under the law. These fears hurt us all—they keep us from living up to the high ideals of our nation that ultimately make each of us and all of us better human beings, capable of building better societies and a better world.

In the spirit of Love, will you join me in a moment of meditation, prayer, or intention as we begin?

Spirit of Life and Justice,
We have come together today in service to Love. We are here to bear witness to the right of all people to Love, to enter into covenanted relationship, and to enjoy the rights and bear the responsibilities of those commitments.

We are here because we cannot stay silent in the face of inequality and injustice. We have learned from the past that separate is not equal, and that denying the rights of the few does harm to the many. We are here for ourselves and for each other, knowing that if there is more Love and more Justice in the world, we will all benefit.

We are here to bear witness to the beauty of love and the pain that happens when Love’s legitimacy is denied. We are here to call for equality and to celebrate Love that demands justice. We are here to say yes to Love and no to fear.

We are here to be clear that laws that separate and discriminate are not good enough for our state or our nation. We are here to insist that we live up to the principles of equality and justice for all upon which our nation was founded. We are here in service to Love.

May Love prevail here, now, among us, and as we go forward as a people, insisting that our community truly protect justice and equality for all people. May we, through our action here today, help fear give way to fairness, injustice give way to justice, and hatred give way to Love. May it be so. May we be the ones that make it so.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

So Long, Philocrites.

Chris Walton, in the guise of Philocrites, has long been a deep source of wisdom, questions, challenges, thoughts, humor, and insight in the UU blogosphere.  But his life has moved on and he’s officially ended his tenure and retired his blog. It’s hard to say good-bye to Philocrites’ leadership and leaves us all wondering—who will pick up the torch? What form will the conversation take now?  Who will ask the wonderful hard questions and stir the pot of controversy so thinking Unitarian Universalists will grapple with questions of identity and direction?

Excellence and Oppression

Clearly, Rev. Christine and the event she attended about “Excellence in Ministry” got me thinking. Today’s thoughts revolve around the ideal of excellence and how oppression works.  If, by virtue of being part of an “historically marginalized group,” I am seen as very different from the image  of the “ideal minister,” how will that affect perceptions of excellence?

For example, as a transgender man, my very identity causes anxiety in many congregations and search committees.  I have often been perceived as a “risky” candidate—not because of the quality of my ministry, but because of worries about my identity.  Those worries are not something I create, but are created to serve the status quo by stigmatizing, punishing, and planting fear of any who differ from the norm.

But wherever they come from, fears about identity get in the way of perceiving excellence.  A “marginalized” identity looms so large that the quality of a person’s ministry is overshadowed and hidden.  This is the reason it is openly admitted that ministers from “historically marginalized groups”  have to be twice or thrice or ten times as good as ministers whose identity fits the ideal.

Even as women have slowly become the majority in our ministry, this is still known to be true of their ministry.  Imagine how it is for ministers even further from our Unitarian Universalist “norm!”  There is little room for them to be ordinary. Or have a bad year. Or—and this is especially sad—have time to acquire the skills and wisdom they need to become truly excellent. So many people from historically marginalized communities leave ministry within just a few years.

There’s another part to this.  Every time I’m rejected because of my identity, I begin to question my own excellence, even competence.  My confidence suffers and with it, I’m sure my ministry does too.  This is internalized oppression at work and it wears at the soul of any minister who is marginalized for differing from the norm.  I’ve seen it time and time again: a slow-growing soul weariness at having to explain, educate, and sometimes defend one’s right to minister and even one’s right to exist.  And even when that battle is won, there is the soul-deadening work of “covering:”

“It is a fact that persons who are ready to admit possession of a stigma (in many cases because it is known about or immediately apparent) may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large. . . . this process will be referred to as covering.” Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963).

The need to manage identity, stigma, and difference magnifies the vulnerability of these ministers exponentially.  The hard work of covering makes the need for self-care and other soul-satisfying activities and relationships vitally important.

And yet, most of these vulnerable ministers end up in small, struggling congregations. These are the congregations for whom the hunger for ministry outweighs the “risk” of having a “non-ideal” minister.  The ministry of these churches is often conflicted, poorly paid, and full of the stresses of trying to grow and change in order to survive.  Thus, our “historically marginalized” ministers are most often serving congregations where they are managing many things at once, far from colleagues and chances for ongoing support.  And in some cases, colleagues themselves may struggle to understand and accept a minister whose identity is outside their comfort zone.

I have just one more point.  Those of us from historically marginalized social locations are not really free to talk about these challenges. (It’s one of the bigger aspects of “covering” to maintain the fiction that we are fine, everything is fine…)  If we do admit that we are exhausted, disillusioned or angry, we are often labeled as “whiners” or “trouble-makers.” It’s only been said to me once, but it has been said to me:

“You should be grateful to be a minister at all.”

To be perceived as “excellent” most ministers of color, ministers with disabilities, genderqueer or transgender ministers, gay, lesbian and bisexual ministers, (and many more who challenge the norms of our culture of ministry) are expected to hide our struggles and offer unending hope and encouragement to our movement—sometimes to the very people whose words stung so badly or whose rejection hurt us to the core. And with that, I’ve probably said too much…

*cross-posted at truust.org

"Soul-Satisfying Ministry"

I’ve been watching and listening to the online discussion about “Excellence in Ministry.”  I have to admit that something in me cringed at the term. Maybe it’s the old memories from grade school when instead of “letter grades” we got either  “E” for “Excellent,” “S” for “Satisfactory,” or “U” for “Unsatisfactory.”  That sense of constant evaluation still permeates the word “excellence” for me.

Not that I am completely opposed to evaluation.  I’m just aware that there very few people that I would trust to understand the complexities of ministry well enough to truly evaluate “excellence.”  It’ s sure not going to happen on a survey with a scale of 1 – 5.  “Rate the minister’s sermons with 1 being ‘excellent’ and 5 being ‘boring as hell.'”

For the sake of full disclosure, let me explain a bit about my own situation.  In the past two years, I’ve dealt with a child who developed a serious addiction, the end of my marriage, and a minor, but scary health situation.  I’m also in the seventh year of ministry in my current congregation–a time known for being complex and even difficult–and often referred to with knowing glances and the phrase, “Ah, the seven year itch…”

With all that on my plate, I am well aware that my ministry, while certainly adequate and even still inspiring at times, has not been “excellent,” if what is meant by “excellent” is “top-notch, above average, better than most…”  I think I’ve done a good job managing all that’s happened and still doing my job, but I’d have to grade myself as “Satisfactory,” not “Excellent.” Now that the crises are past, I feel the energy and passion returning and feel “excellence” back within reach.

Even so, it takes time for even small disappointments to be healed and reconciled.  One of the most important tasks of religious communities is forgiveness and we are learning truly Unitarian Universalist ways to do that.  I think we’ve been pretty smart about it, getting help to work through the issues, the feelings, and finding a way to begin again in love.  Of course, some in the congregation are blissfully unaware that there was any stress at all, while others don’t know that any of the healing work is happening.  It’s very hard to communicate the complexities of these relational aspects of ministry to the wider congregation.  And all of it gets tangled up with perceptions and feelings of “excellence.”

All that was a long preface to what I really want to say.  In her recent update from the Excellence in Ministry meeting, Rev. Christine mentioned the term “Soul-Satisfying Ministry.”  Wow! Does that ever feel better!  Am I ministering in a way that is true to my soul?  That satisfies the “soul needs” of my congregation? Do I offer ministry that stretches, deepens, feeds, challenges, comforts, and otherwise engages soul?  Do I have the support and resources I need to satisfy my own soul? When, as a fellow human being, the minister is dealing with stresses that drain the soul, how can that be addressed openly and compassionately?

Those questions get me excited.  They open my mind and heart and make me want to really explore how I can do those things better.  They hint at the partnership between minister and congregant–a relationship that goes beyond evaluating “excellence” with questions like “Do the sermons interest me?” or “Did the minister return my phone call right away?”

“Soul Satisfying Ministry” seems to me a goal worthy of our history and faith tradition.  It invites us to discuss deeply the expectations, needs, and spiritual life of both the congregation  and the minister . It frames ministerial leadership in terms that aren’t only managerial, but spiritual and not only about satisfying the congregation’s desires, but helping them grow and change and maybe learn to desire new things: like being of service, being generous, being welcoming to all, celebrating pluralism…

As you can tell, these ideas get me excited!  Please, discuss!