Leadership – the Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men…

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Paris MemorialIn 2010, I accepted a three-year leadership position at my church – I know, some of you are saying, ‘Silly person!’  I was at a place in my life where I had more ‘free’ time available.  I wanted to give back to my congregation a fraction of what I had received from them over the years.

It was an exciting time in our congregation – we were implementing a new governance system designed to clarify and streamline the duties of church leadership and empower our lay-leadership. As a congregation we seemed to be on the cusp of great things.  I was filled with excitement and anticipation for what we leaders (along with the minister and the staff,) wanted to accomplish over the next few years – laying a strong foundation for a more vibrant and growing congregation.  The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

During my tenure as an elected leader chaos seemed to reign.  A long time staff member; two board presidents; an additional 3 board members; our settled minister; many longtime volunteers (who were instrumental in keeping the day-to-day church operation); several congregants – all resigned.

I witnessed poor and good behavior – behavior that ran the gauntlet of confusion, hurt, anger, lashing out, sadness, frustration, bewilderment, hope, bridge building and cautious happiness.

Through all the turmoil and pain; church leadership (volunteers and elected leaders) plugged on.  They reached across dividing lines to those who were hurting.   They kept their eyes on the ball.  Even while being under attack from various groups in the church – they saw a future when the church would be whole again.  These leaders, even the ones who themselves had been hurt or disillusioned; stepped up to the plate.  Over and over again, with little or no recognition; they carried the church on their shoulders.

These leaders have brought the congregation through the turmoil to a place of hopefulness and caring. There is a renewed vibrancy in our congregation – one that I haven’t felt for many years. Today there is a palpable feeling of excitement for our church’s future.

To all the leaders that worked beside me along the way– what a difference you have made. Our best laid plans did not go as we had anticipated.  But you have built a strong foundation for a more vibrant and growing congregation.  

Thank you.

Just a thought from the pew.

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Perpetual Visiting – Always a Visitor, Never a Member

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Church - Maui, Hawaii

There has been a steady stream of visitors to my church over the past few years.  Many visitors return again and again.  Some faces become so familiar over the months and yes years, that I am constantly surprised that many are still officially ‘visitors’ and aren’t members.

These ‘visitors’ show up most Sunday’s.  Whether singing in the choir, consistently attending small group study classes or chalice groups, attending church sponsored social events, lending a hand with church social projects, helping in the office or volunteering on key committees – they actively participate in our church community and life.  I wonder why they haven’t become church members.  They obviously feel a connection with the church and church life or they wouldn’t keep coming back.  Could it be that they don’t know how?  That no one has invited them to?  That the church hasn’t emphasized the expectations of membership?   They don’t see any advantage or value to being a member?  Do they only see the expectation that they need to be fiscally supportive of the church? Are church leaders being to ‘politically correct’ as not to pressure people to join like ‘other’ denominations seem to do?  Is it ‘to easy’ to join so therefore doesn’t have any value?

What does it mean to be an official member of a church?  Becoming a member of my Unitarian church seems simple – you talk with the minister and ask to sign the membership book.  Voila, done!  But what does signing the book really mean?  By becoming an official member as opposed to being ‘a friend’ or long term visitor – how has your relationship changed? What’s the difference?  Commitment; acceptance; support; a church home to call yours.

In the Unitarian religious faith becoming a member is a pledge of support that you give to the church and the church gives to you.  An acknowledgement that both the church and you; are there for each other. A promise; that the church will support you spiritually, emotionally and physically.  You are family.  You are welcome, safe, accepted as you are wherever you are at on your spiritual or life journey.  You are safe to question and search for answers to your religious and spiritual uncertainties.  Joining a church is an affirmation that you believe in and promise to promote the values and mission of the church.  The church promises to continue to uphold them for you.  You pledge to be a good steward, that you will faithfully support the church as past generations have; so it may continue to be a spiritual haven for future generations.  You are committed to preserving the tradition of being a liberal religious voice for equity and fairness in the community at large.

If your church has plenty of visitors that never get around to joining – find out why.  See what is missing or needs to be changed in your congregation’s programs or culture.

If you are not a member of the church you attend – consider joining.  The benefits abound.  Think of it as thanking the people who came before you and a gift that you are paying forward – a gift to the future.  For without members there is no future for your church.

Just a thought from the pew.

Three Pillars of Marriage – Justice, Love and Mercy

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Wedding Couple - Split, CroatiaLast month I attended my nephew’s wedding.  During the ceremony at the Mosque, I was privileged to hear the most wonderful dissertation on marriage I have ever heard.  I will try to do justice to the Imam’s words of wisdom.

The Imam began his remarks to the groom and bride by saying ‘In God’s eyes; next to one’s own relationship to God – marriage is the most sacred and important human relationship there is.’  It is so important that in the Koran, Mohammed spoke of the Three Pillars of Marriage– Justice, Love and Mercy.’ 

 ‘Marriage comes with certain rights and privileges.  As with any other right you are privileged with, certain responsibilities and obligations follow. This is the ‘Justice’ aspect of marriage.’ 

‘The first and most important responsibility or obligation is to rid yourself and your relationship of ‘me’ and ‘I’ and replace them with ‘us’ and ‘we’.   In marriage you can no longer act for purely selfish or self-advancing reasons.  A marriage can’t exist for long if it is being pulled apart by separate desires.  It only survives when you become a united one. ‘Us’ shapes everything you do in your marriage; ‘we’ becomes the most important entity.  ‘We’ trumps all else.    All decisions should remove the individual and be made for the best interest of the ‘We’.’

‘But, just fulfilling the responsibilities and obligations – the Justice in marriage – isn’t enough by itself to make a marriage successful. Knowing that, God added the second pillar- ‘Love’.’

‘Love’ elevates the obligation and the justice.  ‘Love’ frees the inclination we have to focus one’s self and turns the focus towards the other.    Instead of just doing the minimum needed, when ‘Love’ is added people strive harder – they give of themselves willingly, able to ignore wants of the self.  ‘Love’ allows for compromise; smoothing the path when you hit a bump in the road. 

‘There will be times in a marriage that ‘Justice’ and ‘Love’ can’t get you through.  You act with ‘Justice’ – fulfilling your obligations; you give ‘Love’ wholeheartedly. Sometimes though, unconsciously we put strings on our ‘Love”.  …”I love you so much, look what I do for you.”  “You need to love me the same way.  Why can’t you love me the same way?”  This is where ‘Mercy’ appears.’ 

 When you act with ‘Mercy’ you throw away the measuring stick. When it doesn’t feel fair; when you feel you have been disrespected; not treated as you should be; not loved as you should be –   you act with compassion.  You act with generosity of spirit.  You have to act with grace and ‘Mercy’ – you forgive.  You forgive not only the other – you forgive yourself.’

 ‘These are the Three Pillars of Marriage that God has given us. As a three legged stool all three Pillars must work together to form a stable foundation.  Take one away and like the stool; the marriage collapses.  Basing your marriage on these Three Pillars – Justice, Love and Mercy – they will see you through times of trouble, times of heart ache and the times of joy.  Inshallah.’

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Later that evening, I was talking with the bride.  She said that she had been hearing words of wisdom from everyone all day and did I have any.  This is what I shared with her.

I was awestruck by the Imam’s words todayThere is so much truth to what the Imam had said was needed in marriage – Justice, Love and Mercy.

My parents have been married 55 years.  In the first 25 years we lived in the same town.  During that time; I watched my parents fall in and out of ‘Love’ at least three times.  Each time I feared their marriage wouldn’t last.  Somehow, quietly – my parents worked through it together.  They came out the other side – their ‘Love’ bigger and deeper than it had been before.

You will go through rough patches.  There will be times you will find it hard to ‘Love’ each other.  There will come a time when you can’t find ‘Mercy’.  There will be a time that the only thing that will see you through to the other side will be the ‘Justice’ – the responsibilities, the obligations and the promises that you gave each other today.  Sometimes Justice seems all that’s left to see you to the other side.  Sometimes that’s just what’s needed.

Remember the ‘Us’ in your marriage you can overcome almost anything.’

 

Just a thought from the pew.

     

Walk the Walk.

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In my congregation’s annual ‘dreaming for the future’ conversations, the theme of ‘being more ‘prominent; having higher visibility or being ‘known’ in our community,’ has been a consistent refrain for many years.    These comments  tend to go hand in hand with …’if people only knew about Unitarian Universalism our churches and fellowships would be over run.’

For several years, the Mission Statement of my congregation has included the membership’s statement or promise that we will promote… “…service to those in need in order to affect positive change in our society and in ourselves.”  Our Board of Trustees’ Vision of Ministry has highlighted a yearly  goal to… “… Increase awareness of our church and Unitarian Universalist values in our community.  Live our Unitarian Universalist values through opportunities for social justice and outreach to others.”  Yet though these have been part of our long stated congregational goals — nothing much has changed.  How about your congregations; do you have the same  goals with similar results?

After all this time, why hasn’t it happened?  As a congregation and faith, we need to look at this dichotomy.  We have all the good intentions in the world — what is the problem? The problem is– us.

We need to ask ourselves some hard-hitting questions:

What are we as a congregation doing for our greater community?

How have we tried to  integrate ourselves into our neighborhood and community?

What actions have we done to make ourselves ‘visible’?

Our communities wonder,  where are we?   The answer from my congregation is  — we are huddled inside our church.   We haven’t put our money (or time) where our mouth is. We ‘talk the talk’, but over all we don’t ‘walk the walk’.

We have many fine groups or small group ministries at our church – a women’s group, atheist  and pagan groups, religious study groups, book and bridge clubs, chalice guild – and the list goes on.  None of these groups, in fact I can’t think of one group from our church that is service or community oriented. Nor do they have short-term or long-term service projects in the community.  What a shame.

To say that we are a selfish bunch would be incorrect. Large numbers of congregants to include myself, volunteer in the community for the Red Cross, Animal Shelters, Heart Association, their children’s schools,  their neighborhood associations and for many other fine charities or non-profits.  These congregants collectively spend hours a year volunteering in the greater community.  But they volunteer as individuals, not as members of our Unitarian Congregation.

Maybe it is our leaderships fault for not stressing or offering concrete ways for church groups to fulfill our stated church’s mission and goal of “…service to those in need in order to affect positive change in our society and in ourselves”  or to ‘… increase awareness of our church and Unitarian Universalist values in our community.  Live our Unitarian Universalist values through opportunities for social justice and outreach to others.”

What would happen, if each group, large or small, were asked by leadership to choose one or more service projects to work on during the church year? What if each group donated time and/or resources  as a ‘church group’ out in the community? What if when doing so, we wear a t-shirt or name tag that indicates that we are acting as part of our church? What would happen to our church’s visibility in the community?   I think our visibility would grow substantially.

What could different groups do?  It wouldn’t be hard.  Opportunities abound.

Instead of just collecting food for the food bank, why not take it a step further to committing to once a month or quarter to actually work in the food bank?

What about ‘adopting’ an elementary school in a low-income neighborhood?  Opportunities abound in schools.  From volunteering to read to children in various classrooms; mentoring children; collecting and donating mittens, coats, gloves and school supplies – letting the schools know if they need something call the church and we will mobilize and make it happen.

Nursing and VA homes; hospitals, rehab and Hospice facilities can use volunteers to read newspapers; play games; sing, play the piano or musical instruments; help write cards and or notes for the visually impaired or  just be a companion for an hour or two a month.

Animal lovers can collect blankets, towels and food for the local animal shelter and take it a step further too actually volunteering as a group in the actual shelter.  Shelters need people to walk, pet and socialize with animals along with the feeding & cleaning along with administration help.

Quilting or sewing groups could make lap quilts for wounded soldiers, elderly or veterans in nursing homes.  They could make baby quilts for premature babies or the police to carry and give to children who are victims of abuse.  They can deliver them in person to the police station, hospitals, hospice, VA or nursing homes.

Shut-ins or people with mobility problems can be helped to shop for grocery or clothing needs or be taken to the library to check out books.

The possibilities are endless.

I will say in all fairness, that we do have a small group of congregants that consistently help serve meals to the working poor and homeless in our church neighborhood.  There are also small groups of congregants that together consistently march in Gay Pride parades, walk or run for different charity events.    Overall though, it is a very small fraction of  the congregation.

We as a congregation need to  explore what our neighborhood and  community needs are.  We need to venture as a congregation out of the church building into the community. We need to shake off our reluctance, fear or shyness.  We need to put ourselves out there as an asset to be called upon by the community when there is an urgent or specific need.  We need to stop waiting for individuals and the greater community to come and find us — we need to find them.

By being present in the community, people will find us.  When they find us, our church will overflow.

Just a thought from the pew.

Find Your Happiness

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We are all busy in our life.  We fill our life with busyness.   We rush, here and there.  Perpetually in motion, never quiet.  Keep busy.  Don’t stop.  Don’t’ think.  Don’t feel.

Nagging, behind it all; a vague sense of dissatisfaction, an impression, there must be more.  Unhappiness creeps in, spreading down into the roots of our soul.

Stop!  Pay attention!  Unhappiness left unchecked, destroys all that comes in contact.

Still your body, quiet your mind. Breathe.  Breathe.  Let the sounds around you fade into the background.  Let the tension drain away.  Just be.  Remember what makes you happy.  Remember what brings you joy.  Seek it out.  Welcome happiness back into your life.  Focus.  Hold it in your heart.  Let all else fall away.

Happiness that is looked for, that is sought and cherished – will begin to fill your soul.  Happiness can’t be contained.  It naturally spreads and grows.   As it grows, happiness changes all.

Stop.  Find your happiness.  Let it spread.

Blessed be.

Unconditional Love

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In the days after my maternal grandmother died, a great sense of loss washed over me.

My grandmother was the last living grandparent I had.  She was 86 years old when she died.  She spent her last years caught up in the painful and relentless grip of Alzheimer’s.   Painful for her as she struggled to retain the dignity, memories and the essence of whom she was.  Painful for us, her family, as we watched a vivacious, vibrant woman stripped of her humanity. Her death in many ways was a relief that she was no longer a prisoner in her own body.

The Immense sense of loss was more than the ending of my grandmother’s life – it was the loss of the unconditional acceptance, faith and love in my life.

Don’t get me wrong.  I had and have many people who love me – my parents, sibling, spouse and children.  The love from my grandparents was different. It took the long view.  It wasn’t weighed down with daily minutia.  It didn’t come with ‘strings’ or maybe a better word would be ‘baggage’.  They accepted me.  The loved me despite my faults and mistakes.  They exuded complete faith that I was wonderful; that I would figure life out; that I was going to make mistakes because that was a part of life, but they had the utmost confidence that I would overcome all of life’s diversities – large and small. Their love and faith in me was unconditional; absolute.

How can I, how can any of us learn to give unconditional love?  What do I or we, need to change in ourselves, our thoughts, speech and actions?

Learn.  Learn to accept myself and others without strings, without judgment.  Learn to see past mistakes and faults, understanding that they aren’t the entirety of a person.  Have faith.    Faith that despite it all, that all of life’s adversities can be overcome.  Love no matter what.

Unconditional love what a gift to give.  What a gift to receive.   To love and be loved no matter what.

Just a thought from the pew.

Learning to…

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In learning to love our neighbors, we learn to love ourselves.

In learning to forgive others, we learn to forgive ourselves.

In learning to encourage others, we learn to encourage ourselves.

In learning to respect others, we learn to respect ourselves.

In learning to listen to others, we learn to listen to ourselves.

In learning to trust others, we learn to trust ourselves.

Just a thought from the pew.

 

The Art of Mindful Listening

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Our minds are cluttered with a loud and often times strident voice; a voice that demands attention. A voice that insists to be heard at all times. A voice that bullies – drowning out other voices as less important than it. We all know it. It is the voice of our thoughts – our ‘mental voice’.

Our ‘mental voice’ can be a benefit to us. It can help us to ‘think before we speak’. It filters our emotional reactions and helps us temper our response. It helps us measure our words for maximum effect. It improves our conversations and civilizes our tone.

Too frequently, our ‘mental voice’ acts against us. It takes over. It clamors to be heard; like a belligerent two-year old demanding our attention. It deafens our ears as it busily spins an internal dialog of what we think or believe and what we should say next. It muffles other voices; it bullies and drowns them out. Like the adults in the Charlie Brown comics, our mind is so busy constructing our next words, all we truly hear is Waa, Waa, Waa…

When the clamor of our ‘mental voice’ takes center stage, we may hear the words that others say, but we don’t truly pay attention to them. We aren’t processing what they are saying, much less the meaning behind their statements. We aren’t good listeners. We aren’t ‘present in the moment’.  We are living for the next moment.

We need to learn to quiet our ‘mental voice'; to turn the volume down. We need to practice shutting down our habit of ‘inner’ dialog. We need to be mindful; concentrate our full attention on what is being said.  We need to make a conscious effort to process what the speaker is saying.  We need to be watchful and aware when our ‘mental voice’ takes over.

Listening is an art, a skill we need to nurture. We need to practice listening. We need to practice the Art of Mindful Listening.

Just a thought from the pew.

Our Hearts Are Hardened – Insulated From the World

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Spirit of Life, Mother, Father, the Holy in All,

Like it or not, we are more apt to deal with people than love them.  We are more likely to act in our own interests than to consider others.  Using others to our advantage; turning our backs when they are in need.  We shrug our shoulders; saying there’s nothing we can do.  We walk on, our hearts hardened – insulated from the world.

Spirit of Life, Mother, Father, the Holy in All,

Open our hearts.  Open our eyes.  Let us see one another.  Help us to stop hoarding our gifts; but share our blessings.  Help us reach out to the world with love and understanding.  Help us make the world a better place, one life at a time.

May it be so.

Imagine if We Lived Our Faith

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Imagine; our every action arising from our Faith.

Every  interaction, rooted in our Faith’s principles, morals and ethics.

Imagine if we paused before acting; thought before reacting.  Every word uttered; filtered through our Faith’s teachings and principles.

Imagine if we lived our lives in Faith.

Imagine…

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