Experience the Holy

There is no power equal to a community discovering what it cares about . . .

  • Margaret Wheatley


During November the Board of Trustees will be holding a series of workshops asking –

What timeless, transcendent qualities of our religious community will we embody in all we do?

Our goal is to identify our congregation’s core values – what Mark often refers to as the burning ember at our center. Having that conversation is a process we are calling Experience of the Holy – holy as what we value most.

Values are the foundation of our covenant, of the promises we make to each other. Our shared values are what we endeavor to make real in our congregation and in the world.

We have a strong mission and Ends, a strong sense of what difference we’re in the world to make and for which people, but we’ve never had an explicit conversation together about the values that inform our sense of purpose, the values that provide the underpinning to everything we do in the congregation.

The Board felt it was time to explore and articulate the values that provide the touchstone for everything we do together as a congregation.

The workshop process will tap into people’s real, lived experiences and uncover the values embedded in those experiences and how they connect us as a community. From the information shared in the workshops, the board will discern and articulate no more than five words or very short phrases that capture what timeless, transcendent qualities embody all we do. And, of course, share the results with the congregation.

Attend any of the one-hour workshops and shape our future.

by Kay Aler-Maida, UUCA Board President


Naming Our Center

One of the things that we celebrate as a congregation and as a religious movement is that we affirm no creed or doctrine that we believe encompasses religious truth. The living tradition in which we stand honors many sources of religious understanding, but we privilege no particular text or teacher as the sole fount of wisdom. Each of us in our own reflections, in conversation with others and through work we are called to in the larger world, develops our own centered sense of where our faith, our sense of that in which we can trust, lies.

That can make it hard, though, when we are asked to name what is core to us. What guides us in deciding what our work as a congregation is? Why would we do one thing instead of another, and to what purpose? The short answer to this line of questioning is that we are centered in values that we affirm as a congregation that speak to our collective understanding of what is true and good, that give our lives meaning and fill us with hope.

I think that if we were to have a conversation, we’d find that we pretty much agree on those values, though we might also hear some different ideas that open up new possibilities. But here’s the interesting thing: to my knowledge we at UUCA have never actually had that conversation – until now!

I’ll get back to the – until now! – in a minute, but first you might ask: how could it be that we’ve never had that conversation? Well, it’s not as if we haven’t done meaningful and wonderful work as a congregation for ourselves and the world, but for some reason we’ve avoided focusing on the values underneath it.

This isn’t to say that we have no words to guide us. Many of us look to our seven Unitarian Universalist principles for that purpose. It’s worth remembering, though, that the principles were not intended as a statement of values. They are framed as terms of a covenant that member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association have with each other. In it, congregations agree to “affirm and promote” such things as “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and so on.

The principles are good, but we’re looking for something deeper: basic values that underlie the principles, that speak to our sense of what has greatest meaning in our lives. It’s hard to articulate because we’re really looking at feelings that emerge from our experiences. So, it takes some digging and head scratching, but in the end it can give us the kind of clarity we need to awaken to the work of living our values every day.

It may sound a little daunting, but it actually isn’t so much. In fact, it’s fun. I know because I took part in a meeting your Board of Trustees had with members of the congregation who will be facilitating this conversation with you in several venues in the next month or so. Keep an eye out for their announcements about your opportunity to take part.

Why has it taken us so long to get around to this? Part of it, I think, is that we’ve just kind of assumed we’re all on the same page. And part of it may be that we’re a little bit shy about bringing up this deep stuff with each other. A number of us were raised in or exposed to religious traditions where we felt shamed for bringing up our own ideas of what is good and true, what is sacred or holy, and worry that we might look foolish or that this kind of conversation might stir up dissension.

It is true, of course, that when we open a conversation like this, we can never be sure where it will go, but I believe that rather than stir division, this exercise will energize us and give us the clarity we need to live into the mission that calls us.

Written by Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, NC


Too Many Notes

by Dr. Linda Topp, Director of Administration

This title will be an obvious reference to anyone who’s seen the movie, Amadeus.  However, since the movie came out in 1984 (good grief!), perhaps a little review is necessary. In the movie, Emperor Joseph II has commissioned Mozart to write an opera.  After experiencing a performance, the Emperor offers scant praise and then follows with his unforgettable critique:

EMPEROR: … Of course now and then – just now and then – it gets a touch elaborate. 

MOZART: What do you mean, Sire? 

EMPEROR: Well, I mean occasionally it seems to have, how shall one say? [he stops in difficulty; turning to Orsini-Rosenberg] How shall one say, Director? 

ORSINI-ROSENBERG: Too many notes, Your Majesty? 

EMPEROR: Exactly. Very well put. Too many notes. 

After an astonished reply by Mozart, the Emperor tries to help:

EMPEROR: My dear, young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Cut a few and it will be perfect.

And finally, Mozart asks, “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”

This scene sounds very much like conversations in our weekly senior staff meetings these days.  Mark, Lisa, Joy and I are just now fully experiencing the loss of many, many staff hours as the new church year ramps up and there are simply too many notes.  We have collectively, our staff and volunteers, put in place many, many high-functioning programs, some of which have garnered the attention (and envy) of other UU congregations and the UUA.  Our awesomeness shows up in our Beginning and Connecting Points classes, our YRUU program, our Connectors program, our Luminary Program, our all-ages programming at 9:15, our Time for All Ages in every Sunday worship service, our “Take it Home” materials for parents, while our overall excellence shines through our worship associates, pastoral visitors, and every single religious education program, including OWL classes, coming of age and adult programming.

We have lots and lots of volunteers who work on these things, but the burden of nurturing the creative aspects of the programming, recruiting and guiding volunteers and providing much support in the areas of organizing, communicating, and training (along with so much more) falls to staff.

And herein lies the problem.  These programs all grew with a larger staff than we have this year.  That means that now we have too many notes for the available staff hours.  But golly gee whiz, we have awesome music going!  How do we take out notes but leave the melody?  How do we remove tasks from our jobs but leave the wonderfulness?  That is our work for the coming months. 

We are sure our melody is in the shape of our mission and in the actual purposes of our various roles on staff.  What is the core work of this congregation?  What staff SUPPORT is needed to do that core work?  In this time of discernment, we are once again pointed to the wisdom of Susan Beaumont in her book, Inside the Large Congregation.  She writes, “In the effective large congregation, the staff team knows that they do not exist to carry out ministry on behalf of laity.  The staff knows they exist to equip the laity in the pursuit of the congregation’s mission.” (page 191)  These words of Susan Beaumont are a reminder to both the staff team and our cadre of committed volunteers that the selection of which programs to pursue (it’s all about mission!), the excellence of those programs and the work needed to sustain those programs must come from the congregation. 

Now it may be true that we currently have too many programs and administrative tasks to pursue with our current number of committed volunteers.  It is definitely true that, at this moment, the current staff cannot continue to do “what we’ve always done.”  So once again, we find ourselves in that gray area of governance where staff and congregants need to give and take, invent and dismantle, experiment together, succeed and fail together as we seek to answer Mozart’s last question.



In the Wake of Yet Another Death

candlelight-vigilby Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, Associate Minister

“How long, O Lord, how long?” are the words heard over and over, the Biblical refrain of lament. I hear cries of lament, of grief and rage, echoing across our country, hurled to the sky, lobbed at passers-by like the tear gas that has become almost as inevitable as the linked arms of protestors responding to the latest death of a Black man, woman or child.

I hear over and over again, this has to stop, at the same time I hear, but I don’t know how. And surely I understand the horrible tension and fear of trying to stop an unstoppable force. Systemic racism is a many-headed beast, a Hydra or a Cerberus, which will not easily be defeated. And yet, we must work together to defeat it, we must. We who are white must work to change the system we did not create, but from which we benefit. A system will work hard to remain in stasis, especially when forces are trying to change it from within. Knowing this we must push harder than the system’s need to remain stable. We’ve got to start listening. We’ve got to start amplifying the voices of people of color. And if you’ve already started these things, that’s wonderful, and let’s keep listening, amplifying, and pushing for change.

It is a fight for the soul of our nation, perhaps, but more than that, a fight for the lives of our comrades, our siblings of color.

Even as I write this, I am sure there is nothing to be said that has not already been said. And yet, I cannot remain silent. My initial lament of, “How long, O Lord, how long?” turns into a deeper understanding that in our Unitarian Universalist tradition, the question does not get asked of the Lord – an agent outside of us who is expected eventually to fix the problem. We must ask the question of ourselves.

How long, my friends, how long?

How long will we let the racist system triumph?

I once heard a colleague say that the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, but that it is our job to reach up and help.

How long, my friends, how long?

DLRE Joy Berry: Snapshots From a Community of Faith on Ingathering Sunday

IMG_4393 (1).PNGHow does a person build deep faith identity?  By being welcomed into the circle, invited to share and know deeply the rhythms, rituals, and sacred spaces of their religious community. This kind of foundational faith development is taught not in a class but by, and throughout, the whole congregation.

Churches often refer to the first Sunday back together again from Summer as “Ingathering”. It’s a special word and a special occasion, a returning of the tribe from all over to the work and fun and worship and learning and music we do in faith community. We say we are a gathered people, and so it was last Sunday as we began putting into practice some of the goals and dreams that arose from our church-wide Visioning for the Future sessions in the Spring. Because a picture really is worth a thousand words, I’m delighted to share snapshots of the ways we came together in worship, classes, and activities at our Ingathering on 9/11.

Gathering in Time For All Ages (TFAA) at the beginning of every service is a change for us this year. It arose from a shared vision of more time together as a family and a congregation, hopes lifted up in the congregational visioning process this Spring. Worship literally means “what we give worth to”: by making room for all ages in our worship service, we demonstrate that we value the experience of shared worship as beneficial to everyone involved. As we begin to consistently share this sacred time and place, in our sanctuary, we tell our kids and families and RE teachers that they too are part of the whole congregation and that there is meaning and learning happening there that’s too important to miss.

TFAA is different qualitatively, too.  The “wordy bits” of announcements and greeting of visitors and the worship associate’s sharing have been moved out of the first fifteen minutes, now taking place after the RE community leaves for classes and activities. This creates space, in those brief moments we share each Sunday with our children and youth and teachers, for elements that get straight to the heart of  who we are: opening words and chalice lighting (now by a child or youth each Sunday!), a story for all ages or important ritual like teacher covenanting or child dedication, a hymn picked to be one we think accessible to everyone, and a ceremonial sharing of the congregational chalice to the RE and classroom chalices.

And those floor cushions! We wanted to make space for our whole community and for everyone to be comfortable. We also wanted to make a strong visual statement to newcomers about our commitment to making worship welcoming to families and children. The cushions have been well-received, giving young people a great view of what’s happening in worship. We also shared an insert in the order of service sharing our goals and suggestions for people of all ages, to help make this transition a good one. That will become a standard part of the literature available in the pews, as we go forward.





Kay Aler-Maida: Open Space What?

We’ll be launching UUCA’s new active Earth and Social Justice movement this month, September 24-25, with a forum entitled JUST CHANGE using Open Space Technology.

Open what?just-changeflower

If you’ve registered for JUST CHANGE and are familiar with Open Space Technology, you can skip the rest of this. If not, please read on.

Open Space Technology is not the latest coffee shop for geeks (in fact, it has nothing to do with electronic gadgets) but a way to enable all kinds of people, in any kind of organization, to hold meetings that get stuff done. Participants create and manage their own agenda in parallel working sessions around a central theme of strategic importance.  

The result is effective connecting and strengthening of what’s already happening in the organization: planning and action, learning and doing, passion and responsibility, participation and performance.

Open Space Technology has been around for over 30 years and has been proven successful with groups as small as 5 and as large as 3,000 and with organizations of all types and structures.

How does it work?

The facilitator opens the space by inviting people to post agenda topics. These people become the conveners of those topics.

Participants pick from among the posted agenda items and join small group working groups led by the conveners.

  • All the issues that are most important to those attending are raised and included in the agenda.
  • All of the issues raised are addressed by the participants best capable of getting something done about them, although you don’t need to be an expert to join in. All you need is interest or passion.
  • All the most important ideas, recommendations, discussions, and next steps are documented in a report.

Everyone’s focus is on what speaks to their heart and from that comes the future. Its power lies in the simplicity of drawing on the passions of the participants and opening the space.

This is what we will be doing at JUST CHANGE – opening the space to include you and me and all at UUCA in creating the future of our Earth and Social Justice movement. The future belongs to those who show up.

Kay Aler-Maida, President, UUCA Board of Trustees

Rev. Mark Ward: What Worship’s About

Last weekend I met with Worship Associates for the coming year for our annual training session. It’s a good time to review what we hope to achieve in worship here, what we understand as the role of Worship Associate, and to talk over some of the mechanics of how we make it happen. I am deeply grateful for those in our congregation who volunteer to serve in this role. They are a huge help to me and contribute a lot to what happens on Sundays. Look for the following people to be helping out in the upcoming year: Louise Anderson, Juliana Austin, Jane Bramham, James Cassara, Lisa Forehand, Jennifer Gorman, Nancy Heath, Isabel Horak, Charlie Marks, Stan Nachman and Sharon Van Dyke.

Especially since I’m making a few changes in how we regularly do things on Sunday, I thought it might also be a good time to share some of my thoughts on how I seek to frame worship here. Not every Sunday follows the same pattern, but there is a rhythm that we try to establish, and there is a goal we are seeking to achieve.

We begin with an important assumption that is central to our tradition, which is that religion for each person begins with individual experience. We each have foundational experiences that shape our deepest beliefs. One way to describe the feeling is as a sense of wonder, that we are deeply connected to each other and all things. Those are the experiences where we discover the centers of meaning in our lives. The point of religion, then, is to help us get clear on these discoveries and then help us draw them together into an ever-evolving fabric that gives our lives a sense of wholeness.

Another way that we describe this is the journey of faith. We are all born with faith, a feeling of that in which we can trust. This sense evolves over time in response to our experience. Liberal religion celebrates trusting that is life-giving and hope-filled. But it also provides space for us to reflect on and challenge trusting that results in ways of thinking and being that are unhealthy or destructive. In the end, the goal is to help us each discern that which we can trust so that we might live with compassion, integrity, service and joy.

So, our services begin with a Gathering time that starts with music and words that we hope will take you into a space where you are ready to engage with some of your deepest concerns. And we frame this within our Unitarian Universalist tradition with the lighting of our chalice and the singing of a hymn.

The biggest change to our Sunday worship is that every week we will begin with our entire community gathered in the Sanctuary. This change comes in part from the request of parents who wish they share the Sunday experience with their children more often. But since announcing the change, I’m finding that older members are happy about having the children present more often, too.

So, there will be a Time For All Ages every week where we’ll sing together and share stories and rituals. Then, the children and adults leaving with them will light a special chalice that they’ll carry on their way.

Once the children leave, the Worship Associate will open worship with a personal reflection on the topic of the day and invite the congregation into the practice of generosity with the announcement of the offering. We will continue to name community partners, who we hope you will make an effort to learn about and consider volunteering with. The Offering of the last Sunday of each month will go entirely to our community partner.

The middle of the service is largely unchanged: Spoken and Silent Meditation offer space to bring your true self present and open your heart to the work of growing faith; and the Musical Reflection, Readings and Sermon are constructed to invite each of us to the use all of our senses in wrestling with our own journeys of faith.

The other big change that you may have already noticed is that the section I had called Welcome has been moved from the beginning to the end of the service and been renamed Work of the Congregation. This is intended to remind us all that the work of our congregation extends beyond Sunday into the rest of our lives. This is where we welcome visitors and make important announcements.

I hope that you find our worship services meaningful and that they feed your spiritual hunger. Please send me any feedback you may have on our worship program at UUCA.

The service is intended to offer many different ways that you might be fed: perhaps the sermon or reading will do it, or if not, then perhaps the music, if not the music, perhaps the Time For All Ages, or perhaps the blessed opportunity for a few moments of gathered quiet in this community of your choosing.
Rev. Mark Ward, UUCA Lead Minister