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Anyone who’s kicked around in the field of congregational growth for more than about ten minutes has encountered the concept that there are several kinds of growth. As outlined by Loren Mead in More Than Numbers: The Way Churches Grow, they are numerical growth, organizational or organic growth (appropriate changes in structure–e.g., a 75-member church needs different structures than a 250-member church), missional or incarnational growth (how well people live out the mission of the congregation day to day), and maturational or spiritual growth (he also calls this “growth in wisdom”). To our detriment, we tend to focus overmuch on numerical growth, for a variety of reasons, a major one of which is that it’s the easiest to measure.
Since other kinds of growth are important as well, though, it’s important to measure them too. I have been thinking about ways one might measure the maturational or spiritual depth of a congregation and its members: the extent to which the congregation “challenge[s], support[s] and encourage[s] each one of its members to grow in the maturity of their faith, to deepen their spiritual roots, and to broaden religious imaginations”; members’ growth in wisdom. What if we randomly sampled a group of members each year and asked them some questions that would reveal the maturity of their spiritual lives? Or followed several over the course of several years, in a longitudinal survey? What questions might we ask?
What do you think of these?:
I have a regular spiritual practice. (y/n)
I have people at church with whom I can talk about spiritual or religious matters. (y/n) How many? _____
I have people outside church with whom I can talk about spiritual or religious matters. (y/n) How many? _____
In the past month, I have had conversations after church, and/or outside church, about an issue that was talked about in the service. (y/n/I haven’t gone to any services)
Participating in my small group gives me insight and inspiration. (y/n/I’m not in a small group)
I have called upon members of the congregation to help me in some way in the past month.
I have responded to a request for help from other members of the congregation in the past month (examples: brought a meal for our Baby Cafe or Get Better Bistro, gave someone a ride, followed up with someone who shared a sorrow at Caring and Sharing).
I ponder deep questions ___________ (frequently / occasionally / rarely / never).
Things I learn in church help me in my relationships outside church (frequently / occasionally / rarely / never).
In the past month, I have had an experience one might call transcendent, spiritual, or powerfully meaningful at church. (y/n)
In the past month, I have had an experience one might call transcendent, spiritual, or powerfully meaningful outside church. (y/n)
What else would you ask to discern wisdom or spiritual depth? Does your congregation have a process for measuring maturational growth?
As a side note: although Mead is an Episcopal priest and the organization he founded to strengthen congregations, the Alban Institute, is non-denominational, putting his terms into a search engine turns up mostly Unitarian Universalist sites. I’m curious what that’s about.
Two developments at this year’s General Assembly make me wonder about our movement’s commitment to children and their teachers and families. The General Assembly Planning Committee, which has had an increasing say over exactly which programs have happened at GA in recent years, has decided not to include the Sophia Lyon Fahs lecture, which usually has an outstanding speaker and attracts hundreds of attendees, nor any program by the Liberal Religious Educators’ Association (LREDA). LREDA submitted the request as usual and were stunned to have it turned down. I have not seen any response from the General Assembly Planning Committee, whose last-published minutes are from 2011. I hope they give a good explanation before thousands of people come to GA wearing “Where’s Sophia?” buttons.
Also, programming for children has been curtailed. In previous years, there was a UU camp for kids 1st grade and up and I heard great things about it. Now it is only for kids entering 5th grade or older. I was thinking that my daughter would be able to go to UU camp next summer at GA, but apparently she will have only the same kind of programming that she had as a toddler. Not appealing.
If there are logistical or funding problems with LREDA’s programs or camp for younger children, I hope the GA Planning Committee will say so. If LREDA’s proposed speaker wasn’t good and the committee wants them to suggest someone better, I hope they’ll say so. Taking away these programs without explanation or comment tells us that children don’t count. And in ten years, we will be wondering why those teenagers are drifting away.
Correction: I originally wrote that camp kids have to be in fourth grade. I was wrong; they have to have completed fourth grade. That’s five more years before there will be any programming for my child. She can stay home, going to a secular day camp while my wife solo-parents, but I’d hoped she would accompany me to GA now and then and have a great camp experience with other UU kids from around the country.
Tim Bartik, who I wish lived near Palo Alto instead of in Michigan so he could be there tomorrow night, has been contributing really interesting and careful comments on The Dispossessed at the UUCPA blog, and his last one, written on February 24, was so helpful in clarifying my own thoughts that I want to post my response here as well.
Forgive the length of this response, but you’ve helped me understand a real key to this novel. I’ve been thinking about your previous comment, which made me realize for the first time the connection between The Dispossessed and Le Guin’s essay (which I cannot recommend highly enough) “The Stalin in the Soul,” and how I would concisely sum up my scattered thoughts, and before I got back to the internet you did it:
“as long as he or she can find an audience that is willing to pay for that art”
That’s the rub, isn’t it? That’s why our freedom isn’t free. Not only because many great artists never make their art, or many people never get to see it or hear it, because they are busy working in an office or factory; but because many potentially great artists censor themselves for the market. They make what will sell instead of what their art calls them to make. That is an outcome of our economic system. It might be a price worth paying, in the last analysis, but we mustn’t treat it lightly.
Le Guin’s essay describes two novels: a great one that is written and never published in the author’s native land, because it is repressive and censors him in life and death; another great one that is never published in the author’s native land because he never writes it, being too busy writing what will sell to ever get around to his true art. The first author is Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of We, and the second is anyone in the US, including herself. As she says, we’re free “not only to write fuck and shit, and to spell America with a k,” but “to write what we please,” and yet we often don’t. She’s a little hard on her imaginary author, making him concerned with riches and fame. Most artists surrender their freedom just to eat and pay the rent, so their selling out is more understandable.
You are right that Bedap is right–Shevek doesn’t accept it in chapter 6 but he comes to–but I think you are describing the repression on Anarres slightly inaccurately. The bureaucrats can assign Tirin to the Asylum, but they can’t send him there. There are no laws, no police; he can refuse to go. But he goes, under the pressure of his community. The distinction is key, because we also pride ourselves on the fact that no one is going to throw us in jail for expressing ourselves. But do we do it?
If we don’t–and most so-called artists don’t, most of the time–then what is keeping us from doing it? A kind of unfreedom. And if we say, “Well, we’re free really, as long as we find someone to pay us,” we’re being like the Anarresti who “keep their initiative tucked away safe” (chapter 10). We’re refusing our own freedom. And then how free are we? Less free, in a sense, than Zamyatin, who wrote his book at least, even under Stalin.
I’m not saying there’s a better alternative to what we’ve got. I’m not sure whether there is, though I hope so. What I’m saying is that we tend to hide behind our democracy, assuring ourselves that we’re all free, and not acknowledging the walls that our economic system puts up. For every artist I know, I know five other people who would create art if only they didn’t have to earn a living. And don’t ask me how many “artists” I know whose great novels never get out of their heads because they are too busy producing what their publisher tells them can earn them the next advance. I’m sure it’s a lot. Most of them. And let’s not even get started on physics. You create it for the military, or for sale, or you fit it into the ever-narrower realm of “pure research” enabled by the ever-poorer universities. For that matter, I know many ministers who are not pursuing the community ministry they are called to, which would be tremendously beneficial, because they don’t know any way to get paid for their ministry except by congregations.
Last night, when I heard UKLG speak at Berkeley, her interlocutor asked her about her passion for Virgil, since she has such leftist-anarchist politics and he’s a poet of empire. She said she’d thought of lefty excuses for him, which got a laugh, and then she said seriously, “He had to be. If you don’t have copyright, you need a patron, and his patron was the emperor.” Art has to be paid for. (Copyright is just a part of it, something she’s concerned with at the moment since it’s under assault.) One thing she fantasized in The Dispossessed was a society in which artists are supported the same way as anyone else: the only justification they need present for their receiving food and housing and medical care and time is that they are doing the work they need to do, and that they join in the tenthday rotation and do some kleggich like everyone. They don’t need to find a patron; they don’t need to sell their art. They just need to create it. And then, because she is an honest thinker, she identifies what might not work about this: even Odonians start to ask, implicitly about the art, the compositions, the physics maybe, “What is it good for?” (“music isn’t useful,” Bedap points out)–which makes them no different than Dearri, the stupid businessman at Vea’s party. If it doesn’t further their narrow ideas of Odonianism, so they block it. They miss the true Odonianism, of course, which is based on the conviction that if each person follows their calling the society will thrive.
She is very subtle in how she talks about what undermines a revolution. This novel is not Animal Farm. People aren’t shot or driven out of the community by force. Tirin is not SENT to the Asylum; no one can send anyone anywhere, on Anarres. His Stalin is in his soul. But social pressure is often enough to drive someone mad and punish him for his madness. So what’s our equivalent? What imprisons us, who are so free? Isn’t the purpose of Le Guin’s novel to get us to ask that? And she suggests one answer: part of it, a big, big part of it, is money.
Again, disabling comments here so as to consolidate them at the UUCPA blog. “The Stalin in the Soul” is a very short essay collected in Le Guin’s The Language of the Night and also in a collection called The Future Now.
I’m facilitating an Adult Religious Education session on the novel The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin, on February 28. I know some people will come who haven’t read it, but you’ll get a lot more out of the class if you have, so you might want to get a hold of the book now.
As promised, I’m posting questions about it ahead of time. This first one is more along the lines of a thought experiment and can be carried out whether you’ve read the book or not.
As you go through your day, wonder what it would be like if no one in our society had money or private property–if everything belonged to everyone. (On Anarres, one of the novel’s invented worlds, if you want a new shirt, you walk into a clothing depository and pick one up.)
For example, if you go to a restaurant tonight: If this were Anarres, what would happen when you walked into a restaurant? Who is cooking, how does the food get there? Would there be a restaurant? Etc. This is repeatable wherever you are and whatever you are doing.
How does it feel to imagine this different economy? Freeing, frightening, fragile . . . ?
By the way, Ursula LeGuin will be speaking in Berkeley on Tuesday, February 26. I’ll be there.
Cross-posted at the UUCPA blog. I am closing comments here* so that responses are gathered in one place–click on over to the UUCPA blog to add your comments.
*Except Stacy’s. That got through before I remembered to close comments.
Dear miss Amy
In response to your letter printed in S.J. Mer. I don’t know which Bible you teach from but my Bible teaches that marriage is between a man & a woman I Cor. 7-1-5 also that sexual immorality is a sin I Cor. 6-12-15 Homosexuality is a sin I Cor. 6-9 I tim 1-10. Also beware of false teachers Mat. 7-15 I believe that the Bible is God’s word and should be followed not added to or taken away from the Holy Word! May God have mercy on your soul!
No signature, but written on such a sweet card (see photo) that it almost qualifies for Passive Aggressive Notes.
Since she didn’t include her return address or even her name, this woman is clearly not interested in hearing what I (false teacher that I am) think the Bible says about marriage, nor my views on its being God’s holy and complete word. Anyone who wishes to, post in the comments and I’ll be happy to oblige.
On this sacred day of choosing–with gratitude to those who entrusted us with this honored task, who struggled and suffered that we might have the power to choose–may we choose well.
May we choose love over fear, wisdom over cleverness, courage over cowardice, life over death, kindness over callousness, faith over cynicism.
May we know that we choose not just for today, but for many generations to come. May we know that we decide not only for ourselves and our own, but on behalf of all the earth, its peoples and creatures, the waters and lands in which they dwell.
We seek the humility to know our own shortcomings and uncertainty even as we accept the responsibility to decide the fate of others.
May we weigh our choices with full awareness of how precious is all we hold in our hands. As we ourselves are weighed and tested by the choices we make, may we be found worthy.
May we choose as leaders those who will strive to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. And, grateful for our differences, may we find in each other qualities worthy of our trust and respect.
Based on my own experiences, I accept it as a given that rich, lasting relationships can arise through online connections, via social media and the internet. On Sunday I’ll be talking about that and what it says about the nature of community, and asking how we might expand our sense of connection by using these technologies more as a congregation, just as many (almost all) of us are using them more in the rest of our lives.
How do you currently use social networking and the internet that would translate well to congregational life?
Last month we started ending our services with a benediction. We already had a benediction–different words each week–but it felt swallowed up in the chalice extinguishing, and then hemmed in on the other side by the postlude. Also, at Palo Alto people want to applaud the musicians, so when the postlude is the very last thing, the service ends with applause. This doesn’t always feel appropriate to the theme or mood of the service, and it tends to create the feeling that one has been at a performance.
I have visited other congregations where the very last words are a blessing, and I’ve loved the way it felt. It seemed right to have the postlude (followed by its applause) and then an element that would help us to leave with a sense of participation, mutual care, and a turning outwards. So what words of blessing? I knew I wanted them to be something we all said to each other and that we said each week, and I knew I wanted for us to make a physical connection.
I have a great affection for this passage from the preface to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and will probably give a sermon on it sometime (I could fill a book with thoughts just on the most perplexing line, “Argue not concerning God”), but it isn’t really right. It sounds like a command more than an invitation, albeit a command to do some terrific things.
Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
Dan Harper, who is our Associate Minister of Religious Education, and I both had stories relating to the benediction said in the Concord, Massachusetts, church, where he grew up and I have visited. Actually, it was the same story: of going to the home of someone who belonged to the congregation (they were not the same someones, but two separate families) and finding that they’d put the words of the benediction on their doors, where they would see them each time they left the house. They had become a blessing that they bestowed on themselves daily.
I knew them and liked them and wondered where they’d come from, so I poked around a little. First, here’s the Concord version:
Go out into the world in peace
Hold on to what is good
Return to no person evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Honor all beings.
The Rev. Dr. Brent Smith has this on his website–I’m not sure whether it was, and/or is still, a regular feature at All Souls in Tulsa, where he previously served:
Be of good courage.
Search all things, and hold fast to that which is good.
Render unto no one evil for evil.
Strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak, help the afflicted.
Love all men. Love all women. Love all children.
Love all souls, serving the Most High;
And rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Amen.
I’m guessing that both have their origins in the Presbyterian Worship Book, because I found another site listing this, used by the Rev. Herb Swanson when he was interim pastor at St. John United Church, Columbia, Maryland, and described as “adapted from the Presbyterian Worship Book and the Bible”:
Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted; support the weak; help the suffering. Honor every person that you meet. and Love and Serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I liked the Concord version, and pondered if anything essential to my theology was missing. There were two things: beauty and–to a lesser extent, since it was already implicit–love. I wrote two more lines and ended up with this:
Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.
We have been ending the service by taking hands and saying it–a feat that the people at UUCPA attempt with good humor, since it’s not easy to hold hands and hold a piece of paper at the same time–and I see a lot of smiles. Maybe we are feeling our very flesh become a great poem.
I heard a juicy bit of wisdom about religious communities on a radio story about the new release from Rovio, the makers of the Angry Birds video game for smartphones. Naturally, they are trying to replicate their success. Why is Angry Birds so phenomenally popular? The interviewee said that in addition to having “endearing characters,” it follows the formula known to successful game-makers of all types (in fact, the tag line for the board game Othello was almost exactly this): it is easy to learn but hard to master. So you get right into it, and then you want to keep at it, trying to improve, trying to get a high score or three stars or (in the case of a game like Othello) a strategy that will consistently beat your friends’. It makes it hard to put the phone down. I know this well from personal experience.
Definitely good advice for congregations. Getting acquainted has to be made easy enough that a newcomer can join in without climbing a steep learning curve, and there has to be enough depth (theological, philosophical, social) that people have reason stay for years, and preferably, for generations. And, of course, it also helps to have endearing characters.
Coming home from church last week, the munchkin sang the song she’d learned that morning, the first day of Sunday school. In one version, her fingers are “things” and she sings, “These little things of mine, I’m gonna let them shine,” which cracks me up. In another version, she seems to understand that she’s talking about a “little light.” They must have gone around the circle and used each person’s name, because that’s the way she sings it:
Is Mama going to turn it off? NO! I’m gonna let it shine
Is Mommy going to turn it off? NO! I’m gonna let it shine
Is [Munchkin] going to turn it off? NO! I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
Also, they made candleholders by decorating plain glass ones with colored tissue paper (on the outside!). She remembered Hanukah and asked if we could light it then along with the menorah, but we said why wait?, and at dinnertime we lit her “chalice.”
It warms a mama’s heart. With a child who’s four, this is what we want from Sunday school: she enjoys herself, she feels cared for and safe, she learns a song that is a game now and will have other meanings as she grows up, and she can make a tangible, beautiful contribution to the religious life of our household.
photo credit: Matthew Bowden, http://www.digitallyrefreshing.com, via Wikimedia Commons