Just Say No?

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‘Tis the season… for recruiting volunteers. In congregational life particularly, things slow down a bit in the summer, so we end up with the Official Start of the Church Year when we go back to 2 services the second Sunday in September. And so in August, staff and lay leaders are looking at programs for the year, wrestling the calendar, and looking to fill vacancies in existing volunteer positions as well as launching new programs.

Wait, what? Launching new programs? It’s true. Part of reorganizing and managing the changes in staff hours & encouraging broader lay investment in leadership involves learning to become more efficient and effective with the time we do have. I’ve begun regularly asking myself the question, “What are the things that only you can do in this system? They hired a minister for your position, so what are the specific professional skills that you bring to this organization?”

As volunteers in this organization, your questions to yourself will be different, perhaps something like, “Is this something about which I feel passionate?” and “Do I have skills that would be useful to this initiative?” Whatever your questions are, it’s essential that you consider your commitments carefully. We are living in challenging times, and with the world around us changing rapidly, our stress levels are high. We all have commitments that aren’t negotiable. My hope is always that you will find this community to be a non-negotiable commitment. I want this place to be a sanctuary for all of us, I want it to feed us and inspire us as we continue the daily work of our lives, as well as our work creating just and sustainable community around us.

Even as your participation in this community is non-negotiable, the ways you participate are negotiable. We want you to volunteer, yes. Plain and simple, this place wouldn’t run without volunteers. But we want you to volunteer in ways that are life-giving, inspiring, and fruitful for your own journey. When I ask you to participate in a program or committee, I want you to take some time to consider my request, to think about whether it is something that interests you, whether you have time, and whether it stretches you or challenges you in a positive way. Part of my job is to help you see where your gifts can be put to best use — to pay attention to who you are, where you are in your journey, and notice when I see a place you might be able to serve and grow at the same time.

When I ask you to help me with a program or committee or task, I’ve considered all of these things. I’ve thought about what I know about your journey, and about the balance of skills and energy I am seeking in a group. So I’m asking you to do the same. I’d rather get a well-considered “No” than a guilt-ridden “Yes.” If the only reason you have to say yes to a task is that nobody else is going to do it, well, that’s just not a good enough reason! It’s OK for traditions to pass into history, and programs to end or get reconfigured when they aren’t working anymore. If you’re not sure, let’s talk it through.

Here’s an example: Last year, I was asked to participate in two different UU Ministers’ Association (UUMA) initiatives. The first was the pilot of the Ministerial Formation Network (MFN), which is a mentoring program for seminarians. The second was a Task Force for inclusion of families with children in UUMA retreats and programming. I thought about them both. I had just completed three years of service on the Right Relationship Team, so it was time to think about my next choice for denominational service. I definitely couldn’t do both, though.

The task force, well, it’s something I think is very important, and it certainly affects me. Seemed like a no-brainer. But when I thought more deeply about it, it did not sound interesting to me. I knew I would get bored and resent the time commitment. I didn’t want to give it my energy. The MFN, on the other hand, got me totally jazzed. Mentoring? Organizing an annual retreat? Helping seminarians have easy access to the kind of support that I had to work hard to find and seek out when I was coming up in the profession? This sounded like fun, and interesting, and right where I wanted to put my energy. That was a Sacred Yes.

In the midst of all the necessary conversations about what gets cut as we reconfigure staff and programs, UUCA’s staff has become much more intentional about how we DO spend our time. Turns out, it is much more generative and inspiring to think this way than it is to focus on what we can’t do. And so I invite you into the same work — it is the personal work that runs parallel to the values and visioning work that the board has been working on for the past year, which continues this Fall. Who are we together? What is the fundamental purpose of this community? How will we use our resources, both individual and collective, to embody Compassion, Inspiration, Connection, and Justice: the values that guide who we are and what we do?

Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, Associate Minister

It’s All About Connections!

The work of shifting our commitment from meeting the needs of the individual to claiming our core values and living them as a community is the path that will lead us to stronger, deeper, and more engaged faith.

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Knowing that there has been some conversation over the past few weeks regarding membership numbers, attrition, and tracking of such, I thought it would be helpful to share some details about the path to and from membership here at UUCA. The data we have suggests that we tend to gain approximately the same number of new members as we lose each year. Here is some of the larger context in which this data exists.

The numbers reported track with my experience over the past few years, which is that once you adjust for deaths, moves, and people who were not particularly engaged in congregational life, we know why the remaining members are leaving. That awareness is the best any congregation can hope for, because there will always be people whose needs change, or for whom the congregation is not a good fit, or who get upset about a specific situation or person. In most cases, we are not surprised that a person leaves – we know that they are experiencing a life change, or have had some upset or conflict regarding the congregation. Whenever possible, Mark or I contact anyone who resigns their membership and we don’t know why.

When I arrived in 2011, one of the main concerns regarding membership was retention, including the proverbial back door. Over the past 6 years, I have worked with Mark and the Connections Coordinator (Linda Kooiker, Christine Ray, and now Venny Zachritz) to improve the efficiency and content of our path to membership. Linda and I focused mostly on the structure of the new member class cycle. Christine and I launched the Connector Program, which, in tandem with the Luminary Program, is intended to provide support and connection to new members, maximizing both their engagement in programs and their access to information and relationships within the congregation. Knowing that the first three years are essential to retention of individuals and families caused us to focus on years zero to three of membership in Phase 1 of the program, which is fully implemented at this time. Phase 2 will include years four to death/move, and is in the beginning stages of planning at this time.

Membership development programs are not the only variable that impacts retention. This congregation is in the midst of an ongoing discernment process in which change is happening rapidly. The shift to family ministry beginning in the fall of 2016 is part of this change, as is the Board’s work on clarifying core values, mission, and ends. This ongoing work, while it may appear that it is happening in separate areas of congregational life, has the effect of narrowing and focusing what it is that we do as a congregation. As a result, people who do not share that more specific vision will go elsewhere, at the same time more new people will be attracted to the clear and focused articulation of who we are as a community. Therefore, we expect that eventually the attrition numbers will stabilize and the new member numbers will increase.

This work of shifting our commitment from meeting the needs of the individual to claiming our core values and living them as a community is the path that will lead us to stronger, deeper, and more engaged faith.

 

Words Worth Repeating

Sometimes, someone else says what you want to say so precisely that it isn’t worth trying to reinvent the wheel. I recently came across a terrific article by Erin Wathen about volunteering in church (Joy also posted it in the RE News. It’s that good!).

The article is provocatively titled, Your Church Does Not Need Volunteers. “What??” you say! That’s crazy. That’s not true! It’s not a short article, so I will excerpt some key points in this blog. If you’d prefer to read it start to finish, click on the article title above.

I know I’m not the only one who cringes when someone sees me, without kids in tow, and asks if my husband is “babysitting.” Well, no. I mean, yes, he is at home with the kids tonight. But I do not think you can effectively say “babysitting” when it is your own dang kid. I’d say we could just call that parenting.

I feel the same when people talk about “volunteering” at church. And yes, I know it’s just a word. But it’s the wrong word, for a lot of reasons…

…I balk at the secular nature of what it means to volunteer. To volunteer means that you are an outside resource, stepping in to help an organization in need. Volunteering is what we do when we pick up trash at the park, or build a house with Habitat, or help sort food at the local food pantry. Volunteering is what I do at my kids’ school on Fridays.

In other words, it’s what you do at a place that is important to you–but not at a place that belongs to you…

…You cannot volunteer at your own church, in the same way you cannot babysit your own kid. Because the church belongs to you in the same way your family does. It’s your own place, your own people. So of course you help take care of it. Of course you do yard work and make coffee and teach the kids and sing in the choir and whatever all else it is you do for the home and the people that you love…

…Ultimately, the language of volunteerism is secular, and more to the point, it is corporate. The notion is rooted in consumer culture, in which we can swoop in and give or take a measure that we deem fit, and then dart out again feeling we have done our part. We do a disservice to our faith, and to the gospel itself, when we reduce the work of the church to something you can mark on a time card…

…Call it serving. Call it discipleship. Call it the priesthood of believers, or mission, or the ministry that we all share together. Admittedly, “Priesthood of Believers” does not look great on a t-shirt. And it maybe doesn’t invite visitors to ask you where the bathrooms are… But whatever we do, we should remember that we don’t just belong to the church–it belongs to us.

And we do not babysit that which is ours.

Truly, what more can I say? What a beautiful and powerful way to articulate what the congregation means to us. It is ours. It belongs to us.

May it be ever so.

You’re Not the Only One Who Is Tired.

I have heard from many of you lately that you are feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed when it comes to making choices about how to engage in activism and social justice work. The sense that there is so much to be done and so many different issues and groups and initiatives vying for our attention. I have also heard that some folks are simply stepping back from their activism altogether because it just feels like too much. I understand this impulse. The sheer number of requests for space, speakers, petitions, and programs has skyrocketed.

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It’s overwhelming. Truly.

And yet, we know that our faith calls us to respond to the world around us, to continue to work for justice and equity in our community.

When we feel overwhelmed by the state of the world or the state of our everyday life, and then layer on top of that the continuous requests from organizations, it’s easy to say, “Forget this, I can’t possibly help enough to make a difference, I can’t possibly decide which one is most important, and furthermore, I don’t have time to add yet another event.” I’d be lying if I told you I’d never thought these things. You’re not the only one who is tired!

Here’s the thing: You don’t have to solve it all. You are only one person. You don’t have to go to every forum or march or meeting. You just have to decide what is most important to you and focus on that. I have a colleague whose practice it is to choose three issues, and three issues only. She decides where to put her energy, and keeps strong boundaries around her time and energy. I’ve not been very good at emulating this practice personally, but I commend it to you anyway. Think about it! If we all committed to one issue, or two issues, or three issues, there would be a whole congregation of people working to make the world a better place, and fewer people experiencing burnout.

Social justice in congregational life is different from our personal work. It is our work (the Earth  & Social Justice Ministry) to make opportunities for engagement available to the whole congregation. That’s why we don’t pick just one issue. We work on many issues together. But we don’t expect everyone to work on everything! Just Change (the Open Space event we held in September) was a process that allowed us to decide as a group what the primary interests of the congregation are for now. Action Wednesday (ESJM’s evening program on the third Wednesday of the month) was created to help more people engage in social justice activities by concentrating meetings and programs at the same time.

And so I invite you, rather than letting the wide range of challenges overwhelm you, get you down and paralyze you, choose your 2 or 3 issues, and give them your all. We can make a difference together.

What Does It Mean to Be a Sanctuary?

Lately, I have gotten many requests from members of our community regarding whether UUCA is a Sanctuary church, or has any plans to declare itself as such. We currently have made no such declaration, but we do have a history of supporting undocumented and other immigrants through our social justice programs. I have seen a number of you at the community conversations on Sanctuary in Asheville over the past two months. Unitarian Universalists also have a history of support and engagement with immigrant communities. UUA President Peter Morales calls UUs to action in this video:

As you know, the raids and targeting of immigrants and other marginalized groups have escalated since that statement was made, even in the past week or two. So, what does that mean for UUCA? I am working on getting as much information as possible about our options for response so that I can pass it along to you. I also need to know who among you are interested in this work. If we were to declare this community a Sanctuary (or a Congregation Supporting Sanctuary) we would need to have broad buy in and support from the whole congregation. It would be a choice we would make together. And so, as we continue our information gathering, please let me know if you are interested in being part of the conversation. And stay tuned for upcoming opportunities for information and dialogue.

There are many resources out there if you are interested in learning more, or you can join the work ongoing here in Asheville. The UUA has a toolkit for congregations. Standing on the Side of Love has created a google doc with lots of useful information.  and the UU College of Social Justice has tools and resources as well.

We are in a time of rapid change and challenge. Immigrants are not the only marginalized group that will need our help and support. Transgender and gender nonconforming people, the disabled, women, people of color, and so many more. Of course, a sanctuary is defined as a place of refuge or safety – and also a sacred or holy place.  My hope is that whether or not we make the decision to formally become a Sanctuary Congregation, this community will always be a sanctuary for all who seek refuge among us, or who seek a sacred place, or who need help and safety in these difficult times. Who are we called to be together? How will we help our neighbors?

Caring Ministry

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A few weeks ago, I preached about how we are called to community. If you missed the service (there was snow and ice that weekend!) you can read or listen here.  Afterwards, many of you asked how you might get involved in our Caring Ministry. Here is an excerpt from the sermon, and at the end of this blog, you can read more about how to engage in this ministry.

For many years, we have had a special list called the Caring Response Network that allows us to provide rides, food, and other assistance to folks who are in the midst of a medical or other crisis. Despite many attempts over the past few years to add people to this list, we find ourselves unable to meet all the needs that we have – requests to the Caring Response Network go unanswered. I am grateful to those of you, especially the pastoral visitors, who have helped me pick up the slack when this happens.

We are working on finding other ways to meet the need. But the question remains, is it our work to care for one another? In other cases, when a program struggles like this one has, I would let it fall by the wayside. I would say, “this appears to be something that is not important to the congregation, since nobody is stepping forward to meet the need.” And I would let it go. But with this situation, I can’t do that. It is not acceptable to me to say to our elders and others in crisis, “I’m sorry, we can’t help you.” And my hope is that it isn’t acceptable to you, either.

It is all of our work to care for one another. How will you respond when the call comes to help a friend? That one’s easy. When a friend calls, we answer. But what if it is someone we don’t know so well? Our presence in this community calls us to reach out, and it calls us to answer when others reach out, even when we aren’t already friends.

It has been said that in a religious community, we don’t have to like each other, but we do have to love each other – we are, in a way, each other’s anam cara. As a community of faith, as a congregation that chooses association based on relationship rather than creed, we choose to be spiritual friends. We choose this place because it calls us to reach toward our highest aspirations, to create a network of connections that will support us, and that will allow us to support others.

In order to facilitate this essential ministry of the congregation, next week we will launch an email blast called This Loving Community (TLC) coming out at the beginning of the week. TLC has been included in the enews, but will now come in a separate message. In it you will find personal milestones, births, deaths, etc. You will also find requests for meals, rides, cards, etc., which previously were only sent to the 55 people who opted into the Caring Response Network. The weekly On Call Pastoral Visitor will be noted in the message as well.

If you would like to submit information to be shared in the TLC email, you can send it to me, share it with a pastoral visitor, or use this convenient online form. If you are sharing information on behalf of another person, please do make sure you get permission from them first.

This change will, I hope, make it easier for you to keep track of what is happening in our community, and will empower the whole congregation to be involved in the work of caring for one another.

Supporting the Resistance

 

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After hearing Sunday’s sermon about banding together to fight and join the Resistance, I received a note from one of you asking how to get involved if you’re not a person who is comfortable or able to participate in direct action, rallies, and other such “headline” events. You might be an elder who doesn’t drive at night. You might be a person who is uncomfortable at or otherwise unable to attend rallies and actions due to social anxiety, physical, financial, transportation or other limitations. You might be a person limited in your time due to family and work obligations. You might be a person who is interested in learning more about direct action, but wants to dip your toe in the water first. Whatever your situation, there are many ways to support the Resistance.

First and foremost, know that showing up at church every week, singing loudly and clapping along, energetically supporting the activist forces in the congregation, and building up the energy of the congregation for resistance is more important than you think. As always, we are called to community, and therefore called to support one another in many different ways.

Here is a list of actions to consider:

Information Gathering & Communications

  • Attend organizing meetings as a “reporter” and compile notes & resources for distribution to other congregants/community members who could not attend. If you are interested in this role, please contact Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper or any member of the Earth & Social Justice Ministry, we need you now!
  • Make phone calls or send emails to whoever we’re supposed to call that day (Congress, the Justice Department, etc.), plus phone calls or emails to other church members telling them who to call that day.
  • Write letters to the editor about how wonderful you thought the protest was, or about compassionate, UU values-based positions on current issues.

Direct Support to Demonstrators/Arrestees

  • Make yourself available to talk with/listen to people who are or have been on the front lines, have been arrested, or have participated in direct action. They may need general support or critical incident debrief.
  • Bake pretty and delicious cookies and have a friend take them to the front lines and hand them out.
  • Let people use your land line as the jail support line.
  • Go to the jail the day after a protest where people were arrested with a (vegetarian) casserole or a fancy fruit salad and some paper plates and plastic silverware. Make a fuss over the awesome arrestees and offer them food and rides.

Financial Support

  • Donate to a fund to help people who get arrested, or network with others to raise the funds.
  • Give direct support to activists in your community. The financial gifts that often feel most meaningful are ones that happen in relationship, so rather than just giving money to Greenpeace, give a specific activist a gift of money or shop for needed items and deliver them in person.
  • Consider sponsoring a person who wants to attend an out-of-town action but doesn’t have the resources.
  • Provide room and board to an organizer, freeing them up to work full-time on the Resistance.

This list exists in a public google document that will be added to in the future.