What Congregations Can Learn from Pantsuit Nation

By Christine Purcell

The blogger in her pantsuit

08 November, 2016

A week or so before the presidential election, an elder of our faith added me to Pantsuit Nation, a secret Facebook group with 3.8 million members, most of whom supported Secretary Clinton for President. What a resource! The stories! The hope! I can’t estimate how much time I’ve spent reading the heartfelt stories shared in the group, or how many tears I’ve shed or how much resolve I’ve gained because of those stories. Looking forward to spending time in this group and carrying its stories in my heart reminds me of my feelings for church at its best. As I've considered the similarities between Pantsuit Nation and "good church," I’ve noticed many differences, as well, and ways in which our Unitarian Universalist congregations must go further and do more than ever before to meet the needs of our hurting world.

1. Make room for stories: Pantsuit Nation draws a wide circle which includes people of all genders, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, Muslims, Jews, seeing one another and hearing each other’s stories of hope, determination, and pain. The world needs more of this. Our congregations need more of this. It’s no wonder that small group ministry is such a powerful tool for engaging visitors and long-time members, alike. I see this year after year at our Leadership Experiences when we share our stories as part of discerning our shared, highest values. Stories build love.

2. Build your network: A rallying cry of Pantsuit Nation is “Stronger Together.” I have seen the truth of this slogan in congregational clusters and in our Association’s staff teams around the country. We ARE stronger together. Twice in the last month, I was stunned to hear congregational leaders ask if they could reach out to another congregation in a different geographical area for mutual support. Yes! by all means, YES! Talk to one another, ask questions, fortify one another for the work ahead by sharing the blessings of your talents and experiences. If your Congregational Life staff can help you make connections, let us know. We need one another, as the world needs us.

But here’s the hard part. In our communities, people are feeling hurt, scared, and irrelevant across the political spectrum, on the right and the left. We resist oppression when we must and show love when we can to draw our circles wider. We must do both. Using principles of Compassionate Communication, we can learn from our neighbors and family who voted for the chance of change and jobs offered by a blatantly bigoted candidate, AND THEY CAN LEARN FROM US. Our networks are larger, stronger, and more inclusive when we hear each other.

3. Listen and learn: When the election did not end as Pantsuit Nation expected, the group took days to mourn. After a few days, members began to post stories of times when they were not heard by or faced microaggressions from privileged allies. Some members responded by glossing over those stories and urging everyone to "circle the wagons," despite the harm caused to the community by identity-based exclusion and privilege. Others tried to hear, learn from, and amplify concerns to make Pantsuit Nation a safer space for all. Meanwhile, every new political appointment or rumor of appointment raises new dread about groups of people who will be further marginalized in the coming administration.

This is where I start when people ask me if Unitarian Universalists can believe anything. No, we cannot! Our faith begins with our first principle, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Racism, misogyny, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-semitism, Islamophobia have no place in our congregations (or in public service). We must listen, even—heck, ESPECIALLY—when we feel uncomfortable as someone shares the pain which oppression has caused them. We’re hearing more of these stories since the election, but bigotry is not new, or even revitalized, in America; it is simply less veiled. We must do our personal and congregational anti-oppression work to make our congregations safer for all who need us. We can start by listening.

4. Bounce trolls: Pantsuit Nation has no shortage of administrators to protect its members from trolls. For stories to be told, our circle must be as safe as it can be. Vulnerability is risky business. As it happens, Unitarian Universalists are the people of covenant.

We know that, in our interactions with one another, how we agree to treat one another matters more than our differences in view and experience. We don’t block trolls within our communities unless their behavior is such that covenant cannot be restored; we seek a way forward in covenantal relationship when we can. We know that covenant restored is stronger than covenant maintained. As my Southern Region teammate, Connie Goodbread, says, "Covenant is not the creation and word-smithing of the vows we say to one another, Covenant is a life-long practice of living up to those vows. Covenant begins when destructive behavior happens and is upheld when we set healthy boundaries around that behavior.” Live into your covenants AND make sure your policy and procedures manual has guidance for responses to behavioral issues when covenant cannot be restored.

5. Switch privacy settings to PUBLIC: Pantsuit Nation can be an echo chamber for like-minded folks, as it is a secret group with strong administration. Many stories would not have been shared in Pantsuit Nation without the secret privacy setting.

Our congregations cannot and must not be this way, if we are to live our life-changing, life-saving faith in the world. We respect the privacy of our small groups and private conversations, of course, but if our congregations were Facebook groups, their privacy setting would be set to public. When people who have never set foot in UU congregations visit us to check out “the LOVE people,” the ones who show up for justice actions in their communities, we must be ready to welcome them and care for them, engaging difference with curiosity and respect. After the service, asking Janine if she’s bringing her famous casserole Wednesday night and how her grandson is doing can wait. Welcoming and engaging visitors, while expressing gratitude for their presence cannot.

The world needs the saving message of Unitarian Universalism more than ever. Your congregation is not alone in balancing pastoral care of its members, outreach, and justice work in the face of systemic, intersectional oppression, challenges to democracy, and regressive policies. Reach out to your neighboring congregations (interfaith and Unitarian Universalist) for support and solidarity. Ask your president or minister to contact your congregation’s Primary Contact for help with small group ministry, network-building, intercultural competency, covenant, behavioral policies, or publicity. We are here for you. More is on the line than the growth of our congregations. We Unitarian Universalists must do our work to be the faith our country needs right now.

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About the Author

Christine Purcell

Christine Purcell serves as the Congregational Transitions Director on the Congregational Life field staff team. She works closely with regional staff, congregational boards of trustees and search teams to support ministerial search processes.

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