This is the season of shifts—some of you have new staff, new board members, and a new church year upon us. We are all shifting gears of sorts.
Your regional program staff is also shifting into the new year. Our late August retreat felt like a launch into a new era for us. This bi-annual time together is one of the few times we’re physically all together. It’s a beloved time of worshipping and reflecting, recommitting to our covenant, connecting to each other and our calls and aligning our strategies. With the addition of a new staff member, Annie Scott, we took the opportunity to receive her many good questions as a way to break down assumptions as to why we do things the way we do them. We got clear on our core beliefs that guide our work. What came out was a list of intentional and aspirational movements we call "shift statements."
Over the course of the coming year you’ll hear more about these shifts. We’ll go deeper each month highlighting a shift and offering resources to help you move what may be shifting in you. We will also include addition resources including articles, podcasts, sermons, music and much more.
January 8, 2020
I grew up in a fault-finding family. It was one way my father’s upper-class WASP culture and my mother’s working-class Jewish culture came together: analyzing what was wrong. We’d go to a phenomenal movie, but spend the car ride home talking about the not-so-good acting of one character. When I started preaching sermons, I always could rely on an assessment of my mistakes from my parents. “That was really good… but your children’s story was way too long, and your tone didn’t match your message in this part or that part.” Oh, and I did the same when it was my turn in the pew: taking the good for granted, finding the faults. In that way, we were perfect Unitarian Universalists: noticing, calling forth, calling out all that was not right. Taking careful mental notes on what was not perfect in every work of art.
Perfectionism is one of the hallmarks of Unitarian Universalist culture, and also a hallmark of what Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones name as white supremacy culture. There are some definite upsides to seeking perfection, especially when it keeps us always learning, always striving to live up to our professed ideals. But perfectionism has a cost, a serious spiritual cost. It keeps us focused on the negative, rather than nurturing the positive. Internally, it feeds our own shame and our own status anxiety. Relationally, it makes our friends, family, and coworkers feel less seen, less appreciated, less loved. And when we approach our faith communities from a stance of perfectionism, we fail to value our own and others’ contributions. We distance ourselves from the joy, the ministry, the blessings we can receive… because it’s not “just right.” We don’t tolerate the genuine human shortcomings of our communities, our ministers, our staff, our leaders… and we become resentful toward one another.
I also grew up in a loving, wholehearted family. The same family, with parents about to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Supportive and kind, nurturing of my gifts and embracing of my quirks. I also found this supportiveness in Unitarian Universalism: a deep acceptance, a profound ministry to me in my brokeness, and a powerful witness to who I am called to be in this world. Perhaps you have found this, too. We have the disease, but we also have the antidote. Okun and Jones name these antidotes to perfectionism, among others:
create an environment where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results.
When we are at our best, we are like this: appreciating, learning, accepting, falling down, trying again in love.
Brené Brown speaks of the antidote to perfectionism as wholeheartedness. In The Gifts of Imperfection she writes, “Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” Yes! You, your UU congregation, and Unitarian Universalism as a whole: we are imperfect, and vulnerable and afraid, AND we are deeply worthy, brave, and loving.
We are a paradox of a faith community, containing both the problem and the antidote. In this new year, and new decade, let us live into the wholehearted promise of our faith, with gusto.
Here are some resources to guide you in a shift from perfectionism to wholeheartedness.
March 10, 2020
I have a middle school son who is very into Dungeons and Dragons. Last Saturday he invited me into this world. We created a character. I’m a wood elf named Lulu. When he asked what I wanted my super power to be I told him that I wanted the sound of my laughter to cause the defensive mechanisms of all those around me to suddenly be disengaged. He stared at me for a moment and then hand on hip, “really, Mom?”
I wish that were my real super power and in a way, I think I’m on the path. I am kind of the manatee of human beings. I don’t really get defensive. I tell people, “if you’re trying to offend me, please bluntly tell me, because I will probably miss it.” A close friend asked me to deeply reflect why that is. I think the key is this: I care about the “us” more than the “me.” And I’m almost obsessively curious.
Maybe I wasn’t always like that. Maybe it’s from hanging out in youth-centered spaces all these years. I remember in one intense conference planning meeting there was something on the agenda that got people’s feeling stirred up. A youth leader asked another youth leader something that could be construed as a slight. I started to feel defensive on behalf of the apparently insulted youth and before I could step in as an adult holding the space, the youth stuck three fingers out from their face and looked at the leader running the meeting. The procedural leader acknowledged this youth with the three fingers fanning out from her cheek who then asked a series of questions back to the other youth. They weren’t terse or tense, they were clarifying. The intensity of the moment evaporated. What is this magic? Turns out the three fingers were the whiskers of a “Clarifying Question of a Curious Cat” or shorthand for “may I meet the intensity of this moment with curiosity instead of defensiveness?” I find youth spaces full of these shorthand ways to bring people back into covenant.
And when I am out in the rest of the world and have those moments of defensiveness (because I am human) and need extra inspiration to be my better self, I think of the Curious Cat and turn to curiosity.
December 4, 2019
The first of the candles in the Advent Wreath is the candle of Hope. In the Lutheran tradition of my childhood, we always lit Advent candles this time of year. Winter is often a time when we look for hope. We look with hope for the return of the sun in the months to come. We hope for good things in the future, as we celebrate the coming of the New Year.
As leaders in Unitarian Universalism in the West, our PWR team is inviting you to join us in seven cultural and spiritual shifts. The shift statement we want to highlight this month is the shift from Despair to Hope. Some people think that hope means denial of the despair we can feel during hard times or when acting against oppression. They may even say hope is just a distraction that keeps us from actions that will combat the roots of injustice. But I see things very differently. I think hope is part of what motivates us to make things better. Hope is what allows us to imagine a better future that could be possible. If we don’t believe a better future is possible, we cannot strive for it, work for it, even fight for it.
Where would we be if our heroes of history had seen no hope? If there was no glimmer of hope in the civil rights movement, no one would have marched for freedom. If suffragettes had been without hope, no women would be able to vote in the upcoming elections. If medical researchers had abandoned their hope, we would not have the treatments for AIDS that we have today. Hope is what makes each new day an opportunity to bend the arc of the universe towards justice.
Barack Obama said it this way: “Hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it”.
In our congregations, our hopes and dreams are often embodied in our congregation Vision statement. Our Vision is how we describe our hope for what the congregation can do and be. Rev. Renee Ruchotzke describes the Vision as your “vow with the universe”. If we embrace the hope of our Vision, letting it guide our decisions and inspire our actions, what kinds of good work can we accomplish together? What justice can we make manifest?
As this year comes to a close, may we embrace our hopes and a vision that inspires us to create the brighter future we dream of. May we all be inspired by the candles in the darkness. It is what we are called to do.
Here are some resources, pragmatic and spiritual, to help you grab onto the hope that will fuel your work to build a better world.
All Will be Wellby Meg Barnhouse
I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church where I was taught early on that you are either ‘with us’ or ‘against us.’ A sheep or a goat, saved or damned to hell for eternity. It wasn’t a far leap from being either a conservative or a liberal, male or female, straight or gay. Each side was labeled good or bad, right or wrong. I thought things were perfectly clear until I came out as a gay man and still considered myself to be a faithful Christian. How can I be a bad person earning a one-way ticket to hell?
When I discovered process theology, I literally had a conversion moment. I was introduced to the idea that by viewing the world with a both/and lens instead of the either/or mentality I was brought up with, I can expand my view of God and the universe and hold opposite concepts in tension with one another. Over time, I shifted my dualistic, black or white, binary thinking into a rainbow of possibilities. It’s become more complicated ever since and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Many of our congregations can sometimes get stuck in polarized, either/or thinking. Are you an atheist or a theist? Are you racist or woke? Indeed, this mirrors the polarized society and political landscape we find ourselves in these days, producing gridlock in our decision-making processes, entrenched camps of who’s in or who’s out, and can create a wedge that turns into enmity and ostracization.
The deeper spiritual truth is such divisions are an illusion. Even someone as ‘saintly’ as Mother Teresa was once quoted as saying, “I have a piece of Hitler in me.” All of us are saints and sinners. Yet our Universalist tradition says none of us fall outside the circle of love. Since no one is going to this place called hell for all of eternity anyway, might as well figure out how to get along in this life now. Can we use our congregations as a laboratory to draw the circle wide? Not an easy thing to do in a polarized world.
Both/and thinking requires polarity management: the notion that as interdependent beings, opposing truths need not divide us but can actually get us closer to a deeper truth. Taoists have recognized this in the form of yin and yang, the dynamic exchange between two opposite poles. How might we solve conflicts using both/and thinking? How might we see complexity as a gift to help us heighten our consciousness and awareness rather than trying to reduce everything to simple black and white answers that may not exist?
Below are some resources to help us unleash the power of our Universalist heritage and save our hurting world by drawing the circle wide with our ability to live in a both/and manner:
November 14, 2019
What would Unitarian Universalism be like if we lived from our faith more than we lived from our fears? And when I say “we,” I mean each of us, and each of our UU institutions. What would we be like if our minds, our hearts, our spirits shifted from fear to faith?
This is an open question that we on Pacific Western Region staff are asking of ourselves and our congregations. It’s one of the seven shifts that we are fostering in Unitarian Universalism.
First, let’s talk about fear. We are living in a country where our fears are stoked daily. And our UU institutions are feeling this fear too. When we are fearful, we think more narrowly. We are deeply sensitive to the possibility of threat, and highly alert to any possibility of loss. Conflicts become all-or-nothing, we dig in our heels. Changes—even positive ones like congregations growing or becoming more multiculturally inclusive—feel unwelcome and anxiety-provoking.
How do we move into a place of faith? First, I need to clear some things up about the word. Here, I’m talking about the faith we can have in one another as people, and the sense of faith that grounds our spirituality.
Spiritual faith is not the same as spiritual certainty. The kind of faith I’m talking about is not the same as “belief in improbable supernatural things” or a belief that “everything works out for the best.” The kind of faith I’m talking about is borne out of our own deepest experiences, as Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg writes.
Our personal and congregational faith comes from our truest experiences, our deepest selves, and our interdependence with all. When we live from our faith we “trust our own deepest experience” and place our hearts there, even though we may still feel fear. Faith gives us courage, binding us to our heart’s truth, helping us move forward with creativity and hope.
I wonder what our congregations could be like if we followed this principle, from Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism’s Working Agreements:
Hope before fear: We put hope, desire, and longing at the center of our thinking and work, instead of (and before) working out of fear. This means, when in doubt, we are on the side of trusting each other (as leaders) and building trust with the other people we work with.
What if we operated from faith, more than fear? Like BLUU’s Working Agreements, the resources below can be aides on your journey. From sermons to podcasts, books to spiritual practices, you have many ways to join us on this deeply meaningful journey. As people and as congregations, may we be guided by our deepest experience. May we place our hearts there. May we live with faith, and dedicate ourselves in the service of love and life.
I Learned Hope the Hard Way: On the Early Days of Black Lives Matter by DeRay McKesson in The Guardian, April 12, 2019
“We Are Striking to Disrupt the System”: An Hour with 16-Year-Old Climate Activist Greta Thunberg, Democracy Now, September 11, 2019
Fortification Podcast, Caitlin Breedlove interviews UUA President Rev. Susan Frederick Gray, May 29, 2019
Faith and Patience by Rev. Barbara Prose, All Souls Unitarian Church, Tulsa, OK, September 25, 2017
I Will Not Die an Unlived Life by Dawna Markova
Congregational Board Member Training module six, In the Wilderness: Change is Hard, Even if it’s the Promised Land.
Spilling the Light: Meditations on Hope and Resilience by Rev. Theresa I. Soto, the 2019 UUA InSpirit book of meditations
Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzburg
Breathing Through, by Joanna Macy. Macy is eco-philosopher, teacher, and Buddhist practitioner.
Psalm 23 for This Moment, by Rev. Kevin Tarsa. Written for the 2017 memorial service for Jim Key, UUA Moderator.
From Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism’s blog, just after Trump’s election:
Our faith calls us to be in community, and it is to community we turn. Our faith calls us to believe in abundance, in generosity, to step out of fear and to build that which we cannot see but we know is possible. We will not abandon our belief in Beloved Community because in these times we need it now more than ever, we will not give into fear, and while our fighting may begin in anger, it is sustained in love. In love for the Syrian refugee, in love for our Somali brothers and sisters, in love for our Iranian human family, in love for our Sudanese family, in love for our Mexican neighbors.
The Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg writes of faith in her book Faith: Trusting Your Deepest Experience:
In Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts, the word usually translated as faith, confidence, or trust is saddha. Saddha literally means "to place the heart upon." To have faith is to offer one's heart or give over one's heart. In Pali, faith is a verb, an action, as it is also in Latin and Hebrew. Faith is not a singular state that we either have or don't have, but is something that we do. We "faithe." Saddha is the willingness to take the next step, to see the unknown as an adventure.
It is a common assumption that faith deepens as we are taught more about what to believe; in Buddhism, on the contrary, faith grows only as we question what we are told, as we try teachings our by putting them into practice to see if they really make a difference in our own lives. The Buddha himself insisted, "Don't believe anything just because I have said it. Don't believe anything just because an elder or someone you respect has said it. Put it into practice. See for yourself if it is true."
Our first shift is from “I” to “We.” Another way of thinking of it is from “me” to “we.” While playing with paints I (re)discovered that if you fold a piece of paper in half and then write “WE” with a lot of paint on one half, when you refold it it will create a mirror image, “ME.” Same as in church. We honor individual worth and dignity as we organize around collective purpose. As we strive together for this mission and vision larger than ourselves, we actually find a deeper notion of ourselves mirrored in the collective. When we surrender to the larger community, we can find our authentic self.
How to do that? It’s so hard and counter-cultural! The US economy is built on—is literally counting on—the notion of radical individualism coupled with consumerism. But what if our congregations are where we come to understand that we are more than enough? What if we can have enough in community? What if we not only acknowledge the “interdependent web of all existence” but learn to feel it in our very bones, and live accordingly?
Some of our congregations seem to focus on satisfying the preferences of individual members and trying to keep as many people as possible happy. Other congregations have shifted to focusing on the well-being of the congregation of the whole.
I often wonder what would we look like as a faith tradition if when the Seven Principles were rolled out the first and the seventh were swapped? What if we led with the notion that our congregation is a big, human interdependent web of community-existence?
Below are some resources to help open up your imagination as to what could be possible as we shift from I to We.
Change is hard. Especially at in our congregations. Especially when a congregation is growing and it feels like you’re not able to intimately know everyone anymore… and not everyone knows you. There comes a time when it is a must to wear name tags.
Nothing says moving from I-Church to We-Church than when the Candles of Joys and Concerns (ritual focusing on the individual) is retired from worship (the one time of week when WE are all together—the ultimate We part of congregational life.) And oh, that’s a hard change! Some of us react with anger (“no one asked me!”) or sadness and grief. What could happen if rather than putting your energy into trying to change things back (to get your personal needs met), you trusted of your leadership? It’s normal to feel sad the ritual retired. Think about what need it filled in you and perhaps you can fill that need in other parts of congregational life. I know I miss hearing how everyone is doing and making note of who might need a card or casserole. But I find that the weekly email our Pastoral Care Team sends out with summaries of who needs what (with the inclusion of addresses and other specifics) is actually more effective in connecting me to those in need. I find the depth of my small group ministry circle is far more intimate than a fly by announcement.
If your congregation is experiencing the demise of rituals that focus on individuals in larger worship you are not alone. It is part of a larger cultural shift in a congregation from "I" to "We" and from "small and intimate" to "open and inclusive." I know it’s hard. And I think it’s for our collective betterment. Consider it a spiritual practice. When faced with changes in congregational life, pause and ask, “Who does this serve? Is it for the greater good?"
April 9, 2020
“We are not walking this path alone, building spiritual muscles, climbing the ladder to become more perfect. Rather, we are discovering the truth of our relatedness through belonging to these bodies and emotions, to each other, and to this whole natural world. As we realize our belonging, the trance of unworthiness dissolves." —Tara Brach
You are beautiful and worthy of love. At a youth summer camp called Quuest in the Black Forest outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado, this statement became the camp’s mantra. It was meant to be a buoy, to our youth, many of whom felt trampled by the world outside of their UU communities. Quuest had become a place of refuge and spiritual nourishment to these teens. And, this mantra became life-affirming to many.
You are beautiful and worthy of love. Jenny Finn, one of our sensational workshop leaders, and an expert in somatic movement, helped the community explore this paradigm through breathing exercises, group dance, and pair shared conversations. The room pulsed with the sound of music, stomping feet, and beating hearts.
You are beautiful and worthy of love. Initially, heads low and bowed, shame clung to these teens like a dark cloud. There was so much to cleanse from each group member’s respective spirits—the shame of perceived failure, of not enoughness, of being vulnerable, shame from folx who felt they existed on the margins of society. You could see it in their beginning steps, heavy and weary that, over time, transitioned to light, graceful jumps and laughter. I witnessed many tears through the course of that week together, and a waterfall of them during the movement workshop. Soulful sobbing shook some of the cobwebs loose. It opened doors. And the fresh air of compassion rushed in.
This group learned through a week of being together, of committing to being present, and to bowing to the sacred beauty in each of us, that each day, each moment, we might choose to live differently. We could choose to reject shame and fully realize that each and every one of us is beautiful and worthy of love.
Great spirit at the heart of all... All encompassing love that surrounds us…
In these times of trial, stress, togetherness, and hope, may we each find that little voice within that lifts up our dignity, our beauty, our magnificence, and cleanses us in your tender, compassionate embrace.
YOU are beautiful and worthy of love. Always and forever. Amen.
I Know This Rose Will Open, STLT #396
Meditation on Breathing, STJ #1009