Moving On: My Upside Down Church

I’m unexpectedly leaving my congregation, UU-Clearwater. Not my denomination, Unitarian Universalists, just my local congregation. Like so often in my life, things seem upside down so I lost interest and I’m moving along.

I love my denomination; we have “ethics” not dogma. Some members believe in Jesus, others Jehovah, some are atheists. Some consider the Bible a sacred text, others inspirational reading, others think it political fiction. Some follow the teachings of Buddha, others the new or old testament, others are Wiccans or Pagans or sense Auras or await intelligent beings from other dimensions. Some believe that only mankind and science can be relied upon. Yet, each Sunday we open hymnals and sing together about acceptance and love and true brotherhood. Not shoving your dogma down each other’s throat because in UU there is no “other”. It is an inspirational, amazing place: part church, part cultural exchange, part meditation session and part folk music festival.

But I am leaving my little congregation over what could have been, but seemingly cannot be.

When I first arrived some five years ago our minister was a man from India; a husband and a father with a quiet commanding presence, a simple leadership style, an easy smile and a twinkle in his eye. From my thirty years of business experience I thought “he does not belong here”; he is too big a fish for this tiny pond.

I eventually learned that he arrived young, directly from seminary; a little fish out of water. Later, when the minister’s children were born, with their grandparents half a world away a hundred aunts and uncles were right at hand. It turns out for years he had been offered promotions; to bigger more strategic congregations, to regional and finally national posts, but he always just said no; waiting for his children to grow and finish school in our loving home congregation.

I took my new membership classes and signed the registry under him. At my new member luncheon he announced he had taken a new position, high up in the UU hierarchy. In a few months, he and his family would be moving. Dozens audibly gasped. I smiled, nodded, and thought “well its about time”. The ripples were huge and nearly immediate. Almost half the congregation simply left. They were “minister groupies”, and shame on them for shallow pettiness.

Before he left, I caught him in a wistful moment, and asked him about his promotion and his many years at UUC. He expressed his love, but said his one regret was that he “did too much”. But he learned, repenting in later years. Originally he did everything, showed up at every meeting. Members would naturally defer to his opinion as minister. In the end he learned he led best by staying home. This way people would argue, grow together, take ownership and build their own agenda. He learned to be the face of the church to the outside world, but its quiet guiding inspiration to the members inside. Unknowingly, I had walked into a building teeming with smart, qualified, visionary volunteers heading up and serving in dozens of activity cells: outreach, finance, care, communication, data systems, administration, building, music, education and on and on. Strong, confident … department heads. Each with vision, authority, alliances, teams, methods, culture.

Now, all of that is gone. Each and every one of them. Well, me too.

Like many UU congregations, mine is disproportionately white, elderly, “moderately wealthy” (not uber-rich), and extremely intelligent. It is filled with retired lawyers and doctors and psychiatrists and social workers and engineers and college professors, information systems people and civil servants and eco-culturists. Of course there are other members; young families, working people, divorced single parents. But UU’s are notoriously mono demographic.

Our church was amazingly active and had just received recognition for its high degree of social activism, singled out among all UU congregations nationally (THAT is a high standard). We were on our way up; active and growing and strong, now temporarily shaken by the change of minister. Our traditional weakness was suddenly an opportunity. When replacing the half empty pews, how might we best reach out to people of color, lower income, singles, “none of the above”, the younger generation, families with kids, and on and on. This would need market segment analysis and targeting, dynamic focus teams, leadership, goals and measurement. Yet all those elementary business skills resided in this congregation, in abundance! Keep true to our activist roots, continue to inspire our current members for spirituality, but grow our circle to encompass a larger and more diverse flock. Let our coffee hour grow to look more like the city outside our doors, and less like a democratic party executive fundraiser.

The first step in UU is a grueling 2-year process lead by an “Interim Minister”. While a trained caretaker takes the helm, the congregation does self-evaluation: Who are you? What do you want? Where do you want to go? There are questionnaires and meetings and workshops; then a team is selected with a cross section of young and old, finance and outreach, activists and administration. This team digests all the gathered information then goes through a long search process. Minister resumes are submitted (in secret of course), and candidate ministers are interviewed. Final candidates lead an actual service in a “neutral pulpit” while the search team shows up as visitors to watch their style and presence. It is grueling for everybody, but it works!

Eventually our selection committee presented their candidate to the congregation, and it exceeded any possible expectation. She was a black woman, in a multi racial same sex marriage, who entered her ministry late in life after a successful business career including charitable organizations. She even previously led an experimental virtual internet church project. Hokey Smokes! Two years of grueling selection work and a home run. Actually, hit out of the park!

Now, here is the problem. A black lesbian woman with a business background has been fighting discrimination, favoritism, and white male privilege her whole life. She wants, needs, deserves to have the same business management challenges and successes as a straight white male counterpart. To deny equal access to accomplishing those same successes would be unethical, especially by high UU standards.

So while the congregation had literally dozens of trained, active, intelligent, dedicated volunteers heading up its highly distributed organization, our new minister methodically laser focused her highly competent business leadership and direction, onto each of them. As I see it (and this summarizes my personal reasons for leaving) she systematically, one-by-one, usurped each volunteer leader with her own alternative high-quality successful agenda and vision. By that I mean she displayed world-class business leadership deserving of any corporate leader. Whether the decision was what color to paint a rest room, which font for the newsletter, who should contact a sick parishioner, or the number of chairs in a meeting room; the types of detail decisions that would never be denied to a business leader in their domain. To deny them to her might easily be interpreted as condescending, discriminatory, or worse. What was she hired for if not to run the church?

But should a minister waste their time at this detail of control? Our last minister, so very successful and now promoted, knew he lead best when he simply “stayed home”. We used to have lots of people deciding these kind of little trivialities. And to tell a volunteer their idea is wrong, then unilaterally usurp it, is a good way to snuff out the volunteering spirit. Volunteers don’t show up for the pay, its for the endorphins, and those come from the little sense of “getting something done” and “making things just a little better”. If you dictate its not “1, 2, 3” but “3, 1, 2” priority, the committee may as well go home. And they will. Override a committee two or three times, and they will simply quit meeting. And they did. One by one they all did. Many say they learned their help was no longer needed when they showed up as usual, and the task had been completed by somebody else.

But members and volunteers, even board members, cannot represent the congregation with authority in public forums or at community events. Only the minister carries the title and universal respect that they speak for the congregation. Our previous minister knew that, as well.

While our new minister was busy usurping volunteers and reviewing the minuscule, did she also perform ambassador duties? Did she do outreach into the LGBT community? Did she find ways to connect to the young, the disenfranchised, people of color, single parents? Did she use her background with the internet in some new imaginative way (beyond another sing-song web page and facebook presence)?

For years now our congregation sat on a social justice coalition with dozens of other churches, half Catholic but the rest AME, fundamental baptist and the like. Yet, unlike her predecessor (and even the interim minister), she did not invest the detail time to participate in all the year round workshops and therefore didn’t appear on the podium representing us. The audience at the big annual rally was over half people of color. Today, in that community, UU’s are still as mysterious as UFO’s. To get access and recognition takes time, and work, and schmoozing in the local black community, and money from our congregation (spent elsewhere) to grease those wheels. A lost opportunity.

For decades now our congregation has participated annually at the huge Pride parade. We always receive incredible recognition and thunderous cheers because UUC has been an early, strong, earnest and consistent supporter of all local LGBT issues and conflicts. Our sea of matching T-Shirts, around our annual novel float, has been a parade tradition. Something big must be brewing? Nope. Nothing new, nothing bigger; no whiz, bang or boom. Actually, no float at all this year. No internal interest whipped up. The youth dispersed, other groups decimated or left rudderless. Any of our T-Shirts that appeared at all were scattered in the audience along the curb or atop other groups’ floats. Yes, individual stalwarts still showed the UUC colors, despite our minister’s leadership not because of it. Ambassador? Actually, the opposite.

Our members have been annual attendees at the local MLK pancake breakfast and march, sending a dozen or so each year. Was it bigger this year? Special connections? Building or harvesting those one on one coalitions and congregational friendships with our target community? Nah, just the usual couple tables of white faces and gray hair. Not mine though. Like the rest of our disappearing (and dying off) group of dedicated volunteers, I was already one foot out the door. Such coalitions take time and leadership, patience and husbandry, and there was only so much time for the minister to invest. She had to pick her priorities.

In my travel around the country, I visited many UU congregations. Those that cannot draw congregants of new demographics to their building are experimenting with satellite facilities in neighborhoods populated by differing audiences (people of color, students, young families). In this skunk work style project, a small group of lay leaders start Sunday meetings, child care, and literally spin off a new micro facility in a storefront, school, or public building just a few miles away. It gives a taste of our mysterious UU culture to local residents, a living insight into our openness. New members can then either stay and help grow that satellite, or transfer back to the mother congregation. The two campuses cross pollinate for social events, political marches, regional speakers. Many UU groups do this, but not us.

Instead, we cleaned and painted our building under her detail supervision, and organized the parking lot with new bumpers, decided which trees should be planted and how much mulch is appropriate. No administrative decision was too small, with a firm and competent hand. These are good and valid business management skills of any insightful business leader running an office or retail store. Who could criticize that? Well, frankly, me.

When we sponsored an immigrant family and proudly announced it with a banner, the congregation took pride, until a local hate group ripped the banner down and defaced it in the middle of the night. No particular publicity, TV coverage, public march or political speeches; no leveraging either the proud arrival or the despicable defacing of the family or banner. Nope, just put up a banner and then find it cut up in the bushes. There you go. Instead we paid for and placed a duplicate, without fanfare, which was then also torn down by hateful vandals. No particular news coverage, no big deal, no minister at the city council or interviewed on TV. This at a point in time that manufactured news about “defaced” US flags, “support the troops”, and “the liberal attack on Christmas” were seen almost daily in popular media. So without fanfare the notice is now painted on the building. If you happen to drive down our side street, and look just right, you may notice it.

With her business background we have now launched a major capital fund raising campaign, passing the same worn out hat among the same retired white congregants that remain to fill those same well worn pews. We are going to use that pool of money to improve our current building, to make our happy home even happier. We are drawing on our internal fund raising skills, and our current members, to make our current property better … as part of a sound business vision that any person of any race, gender or sexual orientation could be proud to put forth. Equal performance with equal resources giving an equal result. Her successful business agenda and achievements are comparable to what any selected minister might have accomplished, and doesn’t that represents the best of America? Equal opportunity, equal achievement, and equal reward; all sound UU ethics.

And for those that are staying, that is a good thing.
Or it just doesn’t matter to them.
To me, that’s just upside down thinking. So I’m moving on.

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