Why Gini Courter’s endorsement of Laurel Hallman rings hollow

March 2, 2009

The following is a comment I sent to the UUA’s Election-l mailing list which serves as a forum for the UUA presidential candidates. Gini Courter (pictured below) is the UUA’s elected moderator (their highest volunteer position, presiding at GAs and meetings of the Board of Trustees).

But her endorsement of Laurel Hallman (which you can read at http://hallmanforuuapresident.com ) is not to my liking, as you’re about to find out.

Gini Courter’s endorsement rings hollow

Gini Courter’s endorsement for Laurel Hallman may well backfire. Her
‘listening to congregations’ rhetoric sounds to me like the Bush
administration’s response to Global Warming scientists: ‘Let’s delay
action indefinitely by studying this some more.’ By contrast, Peter
Morales reminds us that we have already gathered plenty of actionable,
practical knowledge on fostering growth because we have been actively
listening to and working with the full spectrum of congregations for a
long time. His training DVDs, workshops, and success stories
(including the growth at his own congregation) prove conclusively that
neither miracles nor gobs of cash but only dedication are required.
However, too few congregations have yet seized on or even realized
their own potential.

Peter would be an inspiring leader who can make congregations aware
that various solutions adaptable to their local situations exist, have
been identified for some time, and are within their means. He would
impress on congregations that none of these solutions will likely work
if they skip the necessary self inspection to identify with painful
honesty why they still shrink or stagnate.

But most importantly, he gives it a distinctive religious thrust, even
mandate: We are the religion for our time, and we owe it to those who
are seeking a liberal spiritual home to truly welcome them.
My experience, as a humanist and atheist, is that UU offers the Good
of religion without the Bad (not counting committee meetings):
community, deep reflection about what is important in life, social
justice, good deeds and activism, joy, music, and caffeine. We reject
religious dogma as the arbitrary and often cruelly inhumane traditions
that they are and insist on thinking for ourselves.

Peter tells us Unitarian Universalism ought to be a life changing
offering for a very large number of Americans, and that we must get
our act together to become the denomination that makes good on that
liberating promise. This time of economic crisis presents an
opportunity not to retreat and refocus on our existing membership but
to invite others in to share what we have.

To me, Gini Courter’s talk about ‘listening’ further sounds like a
calculated appeal to those congregations who don’t want to change, who
neither want to listen nor to share, and to tell them that Laurel
Hallman is the candidate who will happily leave them to their own
devices. Her appeal sounds like fishing for votes among those who
don’t care about the association anyway. Peter has stated that he,
too, won’t force anyone to change. But it is because he wants to focus
the UUA’s energy on those congregations who have declared a desire to
grow.

Furthermore, Gini Courter’s harping on ‘listening’ ignores that Peter
(but not Laurel!) has identified and publicized new upcoming problems
for the UU movement that many ministers and lay leaders are not
sufficiently aware of (such as the demographic steamroller bound to
flatten us in just a few years, or the almost total absence of non-
white ministers in the training pipeline). Someone has to alert them
and call on them to jointly work on solutions. Listening goes both ways.

Gini Courter then claims we need a leader “grounded in our polity”
which seems to imply that only a ‘UU lifer’ could ever be eligible.
First, this denies the fact that our denomination would long have gone
extinct if not for the influx of adult seekers from other religions or
no religion at all. Peter is one of those, and he represents that
large, and active, segment of members who arrived here later in life.
For him, UU is not a family tradition but a deliberate choice. He has
turned his own calling into a call to expand our role and turn our
liberal and liberating approach to faith from a feeble and marginal
one to a clear and relevant voice in American religious life.

Secondly, our stagnation is bigger trouble than many realize (we are
in effect shrinking relative to population growth). It is often easier
for someone who has not been an insider his or her entire career to
provide a more helpful diagnosis. Organizations who managed to survive
crisis have typically brought in leaders from the outside. Peter,
fortunately, offers both: he has years of intimate inside UU
experience on the national, regional, and congregational level, as
well as perspectives gained working in business, government, and the
media.

By contrast, Laurel lacks an outside perspective, and her
overoptimistic leadership in the failed million dollar Pathways “Fast
Start” Congregation endeavor is perhaps indicative that a UUA
president needs broader qualifications than long tenure and a
successful ministry. Had she googled “why churches fail” she would
have found out immediately that among two dozen options to create a
new congregation they picked the most expensive one, and the one least
likely to succeed. Optimism alone doesn’t cut it.

Finally, Gini Courter’s evocation ‘treat them not like customers’ is
empty rhetoric. Obviously, the UUA – by nature of its contingent of
fiercely independent members – will never be ‘top down’ or a mere
service pool. But of course Boston headquarters has a much appreciated
and needed role to be of service to congregations and to allocate and
steer resources. For that, we could make due simply with an
administrative manager, and that’s not the job up for a vote.

But to instigate our necessary national dialogue about directions,
problems, and solutions we need a president with a clear vision and a
voice that wakes us from complacency and tells us that, yes: We can be
the religion for our time. Peter Morales is that leader.

M.V., Golden, Colorado,
(a member of Peter Morales’ congregation, Jefferson Unitarian Church)
_______________________________________________
You can sign up for theElection-l mailing list here:

http://lists.uua.org/mailman/listinfo/election-l

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Peter Morales’ “Repelling fewer visitors” can’t be easily dismissed — an endorsement

July 25, 2008

Thanks to Philocrites I noticed a blog post by Rev. Anthony David, who had criticized Peter Morales‘ growth strategy of ‘repelling fewer visitors’. On many levels, Rev. David’s post (here) is insightful and worth considering but his facile dismissal of the ‘repelling’ issue looks shallow to me when he paints it as a lifeless, mechanical exercise in contrast to a supposedly much more sustaining spiritual nurturing of our ‘deeper’ UU identity.  

This view ignores that almost all of those people had already thoroughly checked out UU online prior to their visit, had read beliefnet, listened to sermons on that church’s website, or called for details. They came through the church door because they had concluded that in principle, they should fit right in, spiritually, ideologically. So it must be something we’re doing wrong to make those quarter million people leave. 

How could we possibly justify to continue doing things wrong and shunning those who are actively seeking our community, denying them the religious home they seek?

Is this only about us lucky bastards who are already in the UU club?

A president who can shake up people to live up to their own stated desires (with growth at the very top!) will be a blessing for our movement. 

In his critique, Rev. David used the term ‘mechanical’ with regard to growth strategies in a somewhat tendentious way. Peter’s growth workshops have proven effective because they don’t rely on one-size-fits-all ‘mechanisms’ but instead lead a congregation to look soberly at their ingrained disfunctional practices and habits, and to come up with individual solutions themselves that work for them. Yes, there are ‘mechanisms’ to be dealt with and ‘mechanisms’ that need to be replaced by better ones. But done in the right spirit this can be a deeply meaningful, and, yes, spiritual, practice. 

In the context of growth, a vastly more useful term is critical mass“Growing our souls”  (what Rev. David and most of us aspire to) is much more easily achieved in a congregation that takes steps – any steps! – to leave stagnation and decline behind. A growing, rejuvenating congregation has more volunteers, more children, more task forces, more services of different kinds, (and, yes, eventually even more tenors and basses).

You need critical mass to be able to start more appealing programs or forms of service and action, and we don’t have critical mass for a lot of those (including, incidentally, youth RE and nurseries!) in the vast majority of our congregations.

I may be reading too much into David’s blog entry but I see there a call for the UUA president to preach, appeal and inspire us to strengthen our spiritual UU self esteem and sense of direction. I cannot imagine that his would have any effect whatsoever. Such appeals might even be counterproductive in that they might be received as an invitation to feel smug about ourselves because our religion is just sooo wonderful.

Rev Hallman says our faith is unstoppable. Is it really? What, then, explains our continuing decline?

Making us more inviting must not be misconstrued as shallow cosmetics. It is not, because those efforts will be sustained by our sincere desire to share our faith more deeply and to offer and nurture that connection that visitors and members both seek. What shape that faith eventually takes is not in anybody’s hand, least of whom the president of the UUA.

Back to that sense of smug optimism: it may have been that same kind of optimistic ‘inebriation’ with self-delight and hopeful vision that made a number of UUA high rollers, led by Laurel Hallman, choose the most difficult of all possible models for a church planting instead of a less bold but more achievable church planting model. I’m talking of course about what was initially known as the Pathways “Fast Start” Congregation. I’ve just reread the 2006 report about it and it looks to me like the planning was extremely poor: a long list of very predictable high hurdles had apparently only been drawn up after the events, instead of in the early planning stages when that same information would have been available for those asking prudent questions.

Why do I bring up this painful chapter?
Because it highlights how important it is to have leaders who to anticipate arising problems, ask probing questions early, and proceed using proven strategies that are within our means.

I see Peter Morales as just such a leader who has researched a sober analysis of very concrete problems facing UU. These problems don’t even seem to be on Rev. Hallman’s radar screen: the demographic shift that will tremendously shrink our historical core constituency, the need to replace half of our ministers shortly, the continued slide into statistical marginality and the resulting reduced effect of our faith as a force of good in society. 

Not only do I see problems ignored or denied, I see solutions ignored and denied.

I want a UUA president who can shock congregations into facing those realities and into tackling them with creative use of simple tools they already possess. Business as usual in conjunction with inspirational feel-good talk won’t do.

If you want spiritual growth I’m predicting it will come with congregational growth in a similar way in which increasing mental well being is related to getting off one’s butt and starting physical exercise: once you start doing things as opposed to just pondering possibilities or reveling in either self pity or self aggrandizement you’ll soon find yourself on a different, more fulfilled level. 

I’ve created a blog website where the two candidates’ positions are featured side by side, in a neutral framework. 

http://uuapresidentialdebate2009.wordpress.com
While the posts on there are completely neutral (only what both candidates said, with the candidate forum at GA as its starting point), the comments are a free forum for discussion.  I invite you all to contribute with civilized critique or praise.

For balance, I included Aaron Sawyer of DiscoverUU.com as co-moderator with equal rights, and we’re seeking an outside ombudsman so that readers have assurance that there are real mechanisms for fairness in place. (Details on our About page).

I think in time it will develop into a prime spot for discussion and will enable a conscious, educated choice in 2009 that is based on policy decisions rather than seniority or personal loyalty. I hope to read your comments there, regardless of your choices.

Martin Voelker, aka jUUggernaut

uuapresidentialdebate2009

 

PS: I’ve recently received this praise from an East coast minister whom I’ve never met:

“Martin,

 I’ve just had my first visit to the excellent candidate forum you have established. Thank you for a truly useful site. We owe you a debt of gratitude – this will be a valuable tool in the months to come.”

 


Peter Morales Opening Speech at UUA Presidential Candidate Forum

July 4, 2008

Here is both the transcript and the video portion. The original video is now back online, albeit without Question One.

http://www.uua.org/events/generalassembly/2008/112314.shtml

I’ll be posting all segments of the debate in the coming days.

[blip.tv ?posts_id=1057529&dest=-1]

Description:

Rev. Peter Morales gives his opening speech at the UUA Candidate forum, explaining why he is running for UUA president. The complete transcript of the June 28, 2008 debate with the other candidate, Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman, will soon be available at http://uuapresidentialdebate2009.wordpress.com

Campaign website: moralesforuuapresident.org

Opening speech Rev. Peter Morales

I’m running for UUA president because I believe deeply that we are called to be something that’s a great deal more than what we are today.

We are called to be more than a tiny fringe, relatively elite, and sadly declining part of American religious life.

The need for liberal religion in our country right now is just enormous.
It’s needed at the personal level where hundreds of thousands of people are coming, are longing for authentic religious community, for depth in their lives, for a place where they can be joining with others to make a difference in the world, where they can have authentic relationships.

And we live in a society with forces of fear and ignorance and greed that lead to hatred and exploitation, marginalization and terrible destruction of the ability of our planet to sustain life. And yet, this need not be the case. We can change this. I am completely convinced that we can change this.

I want to talk about three major issues, and many of you have gotten my platform and I’m inviting you for much more detail to check the website on that. I just want to hit the high spots on three issues that interrelate to each other and that are absolutely vital to us.

The first one is growing our movement.
And I believe we need to reframe ‘growing our movement’. It’s not a nice thing to do, it’s not about numbers, it’s the moral equivalent of housing the homeless, and feeding the hungry because we’re talking about people who are spiritually hungry and religiously homeless.
And every thing that we want to do in the world, every good that we want to do in the world, depends on growing our movement to be a stronger force.

The second major area has to do with our tradition of public witness and social service and social justice work. And one of the things that I really want to honor Bill Sinkford for is to raise our visibility in the world. That has to be and ought to be the foundation for the next president. And if I’m the next president I’ll continue and expand that, I’m a former newspaper editor and publisher, I’m comfortable with speaking out. And we also have to make it a lot easier and partner with our local congregations to help them to be effective moral beacons in our community.

The third issue that fits in with that is just enormous: We must create a new ministry for a new America. Let me hit you with a couple of statistics that are just shocking. Americans that are 70 years and older: three quarters of them are white. Americans 10 years of age: one quarter are white, 3/4 are not white, are Hispanic, African-American, Asian, Pacific-Islander, African, and more.
In the next generation we are going to see a historic demographic sea change in America. On top of that we are going to lose half our ministry during the next presidency. Three out of eight of our ministers are 58 years of age or older. You throw in our regular normal churn that occurs: half of them are gonna been gone, and dispro–portionately those serving our mid-size and larger churches.

It’s a perfect storm – and a fabulous opportunity if we take it.

We need – and if I’m president I’ll immediately put together a task force of key people from seminaries, or ministerial associations, people of color – to develop a strategy for ministry for the next generation. Without it we’ll be in a terrible crisis.
The fundamental issue for us in this campaign – but it extends way beyond this campaign! – is whether or not we continue to drift and slowly decline, and add about one person per congregation per year, which does not keep up with the growth of the population – or whether we will seize an opportunity to make some changes, to make us a vital force in American religious life and in the lives of hundreds of thousands more people.

We can be, we really can be the religion for our time, and I ask for your support for becoming that. Thank you.
(Rev. Morales spoke without notes)


UUA candidates Hallman, Morales on their top priorities and measures for success

July 1, 2008

My personal transcript of the Question One in the candidate debate of Saturday, June 28, 2008.

A link to the video file may still be available here but at present is not listed among the viewable UUA GA sessions http://s2.netro.ca/uuasscod/4059.wmv

Question One: What would be your top priorities as you begin your administration, and looking back in four or eight years, what would constitute a successful presidency?

Rev Peter Morales:

Everything that we want to do depends on our ability to grow our movement, and so that is the one great measure. And sadly, everything that we’ve tried in the last generation has not been effective. And yet I have seen in my own congregation and dozens of others who have grown very rapidly (we are one of the rapid growing congregations) that real practical stuff can transform a congregation and make it different. What we need to do as a movement is to partner with our congregations – because we will only grow when hundreds of our cong grow – what we need to do is to unleash the commitment, the idealism of the people that are already in our cong. And as I said the other enormous thing by the time four or 8 years go by we will have a plan and have implemented that plan to ensure that there are dynamic, thoughtful and diverse religious leaders for the new America that we are living into. [applause]. (182 words)

http://moralesforuuapresident.org

————-

Rev Dr Laurel Hallman:

I hope you take this in the seriousness with which I say it:  My highest priority is to convince people that they need to focus in the nursercy and that they need to focus on their young people the first year out of high school. Now, let me, let me talk about that. I have one grand daughter who at the time she came to visit me along with her parents, she came to church, I wanted to introduce them in church and so I asked them to come with me into the church with her so that people would realize I hadn’t really made them up, and so they did, and I said: “And if she is fussy and you need to take her out  just take her over to the nursery. And my daughter in law looked at me like I’d said “Just throw her out on Preston Road”, she was just stunned. And of course, I introduced them, it was lovely and then in time she became fussy and her mother took her out. And she went to nursery and came back to the service at the end of the service and said: “You have a fabulous nursery”. And when she said it she held our silent beeper that we give to parents who leave their babies in the nursery. It was kind of umbilical cord to the nursery and I think it was this that meant we had that marvelous nursery. If she were not living in another city, if she were an example of a mother bringing her child perhaps for the first time, maybe the first time away from them as she went to the service – this is one way to have them come back. It means we understand the bond and we want to take care of it. The nursery is crucial and of course now it also means all kinds of things: about safe places, about clean places, about taking care of what we have and cherishing our youngest. So my highest priority – and I’m not being fascetious – is the nurseries on our congregations. And then going along with that is the first year out of high school. I know Lyle Schaller who is a consultant to religion, to congregations, says that this is one of the most important factors in the growth of the Mormon church, their young people go out into an act of service for two years that reengages or engages the young people and their parents are paying for it which reengages the parents at a time where they would leave. It brings them back into the church for a new chapter in their lives, and it’s crucial. I’ve got lots of other priorities but that will be for starters. (512 words)

http://hallmanforuuapresident.com

[I’ll correct typos along the way]

My analysis:

Peter Morales clearly has a long track record of pushing for achievable growth that includes teaching at seminary, leading growth workshops nationwide , co-producing and participating in video manuals for growth. Having seen the two videos I assert that those ideas are cheap, imminently practical, and effective, which has also been the general feedback from congregations. I also see his second priority – to ensure we have capable ministers that are racially diverse so that they will relate to the rapidly changing demographics – as addressing a harsh reality that is not yet on everybody’s radar, but should be.

Laurel Hallman illustrates her priority – to focus congregations’ attention on providing superior nursery care to demonstrate how much we care and understand a visitor’s trust – in a great many words (512). She then cites the Mormon practice of sending young adults to do two years of missionary work as an effective glue for both the kids and the parents to the church but fails to say what the practical lesson for UUA might be. 

My take: I find Peter’s priorities on growth and developing a ministry capable of reaching changing demographics are indeed the most pressing issues, and his track record indicates he’ll be able to follow through. Laurel’s priority on the nursery: To me it is merely one valid problem that needs be addressed and has been addressed well at her large church. Adapting such superb practices to small and tiny congregations will be hard as it requires critical numbers of members, staff, rooms, and cash. The UUA has no resources to offer for this whereas a UUA field staff that fosters many cheap, tested, and adaptable ideas for growth can have a huge impact.


Candidate’s elevator speeches, Laurel Hallman & Peter Morales

July 1, 2008

The candidate forum is no longer listed among the webcasts. Here is my transcript of the two elevator speeches from my saved audio copy.

Laurel Hallman: We’re a church that was founded – at least in America – along with the freedom of our government. We believe that no Pope should tell us what we should believe and no rabbi or minister of priest should stand between us and our relationship with God. It’s unmediated. It’s a free church now, their definitions of what makes it free have expanded dramatically since those early years but those founders of the democracy of our country and also of our free faith were able to put in place a structure that could contain much more than they could even imagine. [111 words]  hallmanforuuapresident.com

Peter Morales: I believe  – and if you look at the history of religion: it’s true – that religion is much less  about what we think than about what we love. And we are a group of people who loves life, who believes in compassion for one another, who believes in human dignity, who believes in peace and compassion. And if you believe in that, we have the same religion. [78 words]    moralesforuuapresident.org

——

Rev Hallman proceeded to say:

“Now, just as a matter of commentary, of ministerial commentary, it helps people connect with our country and with something they know and it aligns us with that in a way that is helpful and they can relate to even though is also expands the definition. So, I found that to be a helpful elevator speech.”

Rev Morales speech was followed by applause, then the moderator read the next question.

Feel free to comment.