Order, Chaos, Order, Chaos

I am feeling the lessons of pendulum waves lately:

I’ve been experiencing periods of tremendous synchronicity, harmony, oneness from many… and corresponding interludes that feel like every molecule near me is on some random, not quite colliding path.

Order, chaos, order, chaos – can’t have one without the other- really they are expressions of a larger whole.

We may ascribe the label “chaos” to a pattern that is just too close for our understanding, or that is a piece of an unfinished pattern. When I am sitting in the midst of the shuffle, and there is too much competing stimuli, too much happening, I can remember that order is on the way. Breathe. Remember. Trust the science. Trust the waves to make their shapes.

Love watching pendulum waves? Me too.

Here’s another video that comes with kids making sounds of awe when the balls make a pleasing alignment. May we all recognize the fleeting moments of order in our lives and be appropriately awed. May we also feel a connection that exists even in the midst of chaos:

Worship of Numbers

Perhaps the topics that are “hot” when you enter a professional field create the frame which follows you in your career. Not that we can’t adapt our perspective with new learning and changing times, but the orientation never fully leaves us and the may be default approach we might bring to our work. Perhaps not.

My professional entry was in the early years of this century when Church Size Theory was all the rage. From the UUA page on this topic:

“Congregations have been grouped by size by a number of congregational growth specialists who have found it useful to understand common characteristics among similar sized congregations.”

Church Size Theory teaches that behavior in a system is directly linked to the number of members of that system. There are labels for the sizes of congregations based on counting the people in the congregation: Family size (0 to 50), Pastoral size (50 to 150), Program size (150 to 350), and Corporate size ( 350 to 500+)

Every leadership training and professional conference I attended for about 5 years used Church Size Theory as the lens for approaching the challenges in our work. Membership numbers were tracked very closely. Articles and books counseled how to move your congregation up a level, placing a positive value on growing in numbers. A Program size church was better than a Pastoral size church and “successful” religious professionals were ones who served larger congregations or who had managed to bring a community up a category. Colleagues with larger congregations held high status and more often were invited into the positions of power in volunteer or paid service.

I remember wringing hands with colleagues because we couldn’t seem to get over a numerical hump. If we couldn’t bring a congregation along with the goal of being bigger and having the perks that come with a larger size category, we were frustrated and disappointed. I know talented, dedicated colleagues who lost their jobs over decreasing membership numbers, and it is still happening.

This worship of numbers harms our congregations and our spirits. White supremacy culture* values quantity above other forms of success. Things that can be measured are more highly valued than things that cannot. We can count how many people show up on a Sunday morning. We can count how many people sign the membership book. White supremacy culture says that the church with a bigger membership is richer in complexity and deeper in spirit.

Tema Okun articulates the characterisitics of white supremacy culture that show up in organizations, such as “Quantity over quality” and “Progress is More, Bigger.” I find it useful to keep returning to this list, reminding myself that what the dominant culture tells me is normal or has value, is not the only way, and it is unhealthy to have one approach. We do not have to continue a devotion to quantity over quality!

There are antidotes to the primacy of size framework. You can read some in Olun’s work, and I have some additional thoughts from my fractal faith formation point of view:

  • Everything is process and all process is relationships
  • Success is scalable
  • Be exponentially impactful
  • Bronchi OR broccoli; you can’t be both

I’ll dig deep into each of these in later posts. I have much more research to do before this is clear enough to explain outside my head. If you’ll forgive my brevity, here are my thoughts today…

  1. Everything is process and all process is relationships: I feel like this concept is well explored by many other writers and activists. In a nutshell, dominant culture tells us that we can do things on our own, create ideas on our own, lead and learn on our own. Not only can we do these things in by ourselves, but it shows grit and strength to go solo!  This is a lie. There is literally no such thing as transformation in isolation. Process requires feedback and relationship. We are always part of a system bigger than just us.
  2. Success is scalable. Scalability is the ability to increase or decrease in size while maintaining function, usefulness, and accuracy.  I am searching for that ability in religious life. Everything that actually matters should be scalable no matter what size your congregation, group, or organization. System size does impact dynamics, communication, and power for that system, but authentic success is a core within any size range.
  3. Be exponentially impactful: When we are engaging with one person or one thousand we have an opportunity to make it an interaction that expresses our truth. By knowing the values we want to promote in the world, we must be aware of forwarding those values on individual, family, community, and global levels.
  4. Bronchi OR broccoli; you can’t be both: Looking to nature, we notice that the structure of a head of broccoli is visually similar to the structure of a lung. (Go image search “Broccoli Lungs.” I’ll wait…. Cool, right?) We could go into a whole discussion of nifty correlations of shapes and patterns in nature, and whether there is a spiritual dimension to these connections…. and I totally will want do that later, but in this moment I just want to hold on to the idea that just because they look alike it doesn’t mean diddly about how they each function. The fractal lesson is that the branching pattern is a successful shape and that exponential pattern of branching is what allows them to be successful, but the two examples have different purposes that are not interchangeable. We can have similarities of mission or values and those will help us be successful in all our size iterations, but there are going to be important difference in our relationships- our location or system- that will make success look different in different families or communities.

Like I said, I am just starting to articulate these ideas – let me know what resonates with you (or not!)

I don’t want to throw away Church Size Theory. There are some helpful frames for understanding how to work in systems when we notice patterns by size. But let us recognize that valuing larger sizes over smaller and rewarding growth just for the sake of numbers is damaging to our movement. We can be more complex than that.

 

 

*White supremacy culture from Resource Generation: “the ways in which the dominant culture is founded upon and then defines and shapes norms, values, beliefs and standards to advantage white people and oppress people of color. The ways in which the dominant culture defines reality to advantage white people and oppress people of color. The norms, values, or standards assumed by the dominant society that perpetuate racism.”

Bring On The Hot Mess

Last week, I was lucky enough to be in conversation with many talented, creative, connected Religious Educators. The conversations flowed, and ideas sparked as we moved from naming problems to designing projects to meet the many needs of our world.

This is one of my favorite aspects of professional conferences- the time and space for trust to develop, friendships to bud, and just sit and talk or play together.

There was one especially fruitful conversation, where I was able to overcome my hesitance to share a new project idea with someone who is actually in the position to help make it a reality. I left the circle feeling hopeful and elated. So much so that when I later bumped into this person in passing, I shared my excitement: how energized I felt! That my brain was operating on all cylinders! That the collaboration we were beginning was going to be great because, “I like messes!”

Wait…. What?

mess

“I like messes.” As soon as I walked away, I felt really silly. The person would certainly rethink the wisdom of working with me, an inarticulate moron. The demons of insecurity, never far from me, leapt in like hyenas on a wildebeest carcass.

But after some reflection, and a generous reframe from a close friend who heard my story, I am able to see that exclamation as an asset. I do like messes. Messes are a huge part of any complex project. My work as a Religious Educator involves sorting through innumerable messes, both physical, systemic, and emotional.

I am experienced with untangling mess. I can hold many parts of project at once. I attend to strong personalities in a working group without running away or being intimidated. Complexity and contradictions intrigue me. I am not really thwarted easily. A gift of stubbornness, I guess.

I write this not to pat myself on the shoulder, but to lift up that sometimes we need to see the blessing in the odd parts of our functioning. Also that sometimes, when our thinky brains are busy working on big thoughts, bits of pure heart truth can slip out of our mouth. “I like messes” was a piece of my heart’s truth.

Hearing and understanding this message is helping me discern what sort of work is next for me. While I am not yet ready to proclaim a next move, I do now know that it will be something that uses my gifts – all of them. I will embrace messes with the confidence that I enjoy making order from chaos, finding commonalities in groups of people, and seeing the hope in complicated situations.

And there are plenty of messes for me to work on in this world.

Happy Things and Lots of Exclamation Points!!!!!!

Yeah, I, too, have noticed that the communications from people in my line of work often contain a humorous number of exclamation points, smiley faces, and generally excited messages. We are a people passionate about our work- enthusiastic about the truly beautiful opportunities for connection and grace in our programs. Sometimes, it can get a bit out of hand, so today I offer a slightly different tone. Yes, I still want to communicate the amazing, transformative energy of our program, but maybe with more question marks.

muddy-road

Living a faith-full life is challenging. Navigating the decisions of every day amid distractions and disappointments is hard work. Paradoxically, developing our hearts and minds calls us to stay open. Whether we are adults, youth, or children, the complicated business of getting through a day with an intact soul takes all the energy we’ve got. Can our church be not merely a place of refuge, but one of recharge, re-forming, and respect?

Our Unitarian Universalism wants to connect us with the power of Love. Our Unitarian Universalism wants us to build Beloved Community. Connecting with the power takes energy. Building anything stable takes solid materials and tools. What happens when we do not possess these resources? How can we make sure everyone has access to the healing, creative force that our church community can give?

All our congregations are experiencing declines in attendance and membership. Why are we losing ground? Why are the numbers dwindling? Partly it is the culture that surrounds us. Perhaps you have been following the series on NPR about the growth of the “nones” – the people without religious affiliation.  Could it be that we are focused on only one type of growth- numbers? What about developing other kinds of growth in the faith formation of the folks who are already in the pews (or even our members who are staying home on Sunday!)

This big hot mess we are living is you, me, them, and even those folks over there. All of us. When our conversations see the whole crowd and considers each voice as important, then I know our intentions have become reality.

When the experience of the child is considered wisdom for the Board table, then I know that our Principles are more than words.

When the door is held open for the parent, not for a tip, but to give respite from a world of fear and pain, then I see our compassion.

When we learn how to trust from Youth and give them cause to respect us, then I know we understand the chicken and the egg.

How might we imagine a better way? How might we support our people, even if it means we have to make changes? Can we honestly face the reality that changes need to happen, and be ready for something good to be just over the horizon?

This is the part where it helps to have faith. While I don’t know where we are headed or how we will get there, I do believe that the power of Love expands beyond our wildest imaginings. I know that when we tune into the frequency of connection, of caring, of creativity, then it is a tremendous force for life. And I know I don’t want to miss it happening. Woyaya. We are going.

First Thoughts from Fall Con

Well, 4 days of intense exposure to learning, theology, colleagues and worship have left me happy, tired, inspired and ready to WORK!   The Fall Conference of the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) was terrific!  About 260 Religious Educators attended.  There were Directors of Religious Education, Ministers, Youth Advisers, Seminary Students, Music Directors and other Lay Leaders!   LREDA is organized into Chapters all across the country and Canada.  It is almost entirely made up of Unitarian Universalists, but is open to other liberal religions as well.

I began with a training meeting for chapter leadership (I serve as the North Atlantic Regional Chapter Scribe) all day Friday, our chapter was also responsible for leading the opening worship.  We had a great team leading the worship, and I was proud to work with them!

Saturday,  the talks were a seamless blend of worship, music, lecture and movement lead by Rev. Dr. Thandeka, Rev. Dr. Peter Steinke and Kevin Tarsa .  Thandeka discussed a “Global Positioning System” for UU’s that helps us live in connection with our bodies and our community.  She talked about how our body speaks a language of emotion, and that when our experiences do not fit our emotions there is a disconnect which is harmful.  She highlighted three elements as vital to our “Global Positioning System” :

  1. A Transformative Change of Heart
  2. A Religious Community of Care and Compassion
  3. Doctrinal Freedom

When all three of these elements are in place, we are building a stronger community.  We are part of a community that loves beyond belief Love. Beyond. Belief.  (isn’t that a cool elevator speech?) Experiencing our emotions and the feelings of our bodies.  Paying attention to the changes to our theology and the deepenings of our understanding of life, then bringing our WHOLE selves into our beloved community.  The people who embrace us and help us and guide us and need us, without belittling our path to truth, but encouraging us to learn and live our thoughts and actions.  This is good stuff, no?

Peter Steinke focused on neuroscience and psychology to highlight the important connection between our emotions, our brains, our birth order and how systems work in organizations.  I am still processing some of the great insights he gave, and bought one of his books, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.   For this talk, he seemed to be focused on the importance of differentiation in out work in community.  That it is vital that we know who WE are so that we can better serve each other.  Thankfully, there will be video tape of all the lectures, so I can go back and watch them again and review my notes!  I’ll let you know when they are on the LREDA website.

I also attended a workshop on stewardship, and got some great resources on building that elusive “mindset of abundance”.  I am excited about what I learned!

And I haven’t even mentioned the new songs I learned and lovely people I spoke with.  It was a truly unique experience which I would not have been able to attend if the LREDA Board had not granted me a scholarship.  I am very grateful to them for covering half the cost, as my professional development budget was eliminated this year.

SO many thanks to Betsy Dees for covering my Sunday away and to Kim Shute, Mike Lanowy, Rick Osborne and Bill Westall for helping make the Fall Frolic another fun filled success!  I lookforward to seeing everyone this week for our Intergenerational Serivce.