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)
_______________________________________________
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Deranged but effective: how megachurches make visitors come back (while UUs make them leave)

June 26, 2008

 

I just read (and highly recommend) the book by Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi: The Great Derangement (May 2008). It addresses the 9/11 conspiracy crowd, the appallingly corrupt workings of the Congress and Senate, and the phenomenal success of lunatic right wing fundamentalism. For that third topic he went undercover for months and joined a hugely successful if ideologically evil Texas megachurch. (See the linked excerpt article below: “Jesus made me puke”. The provocative title refers to being made to spew out ‘demons’ into a barf bag during a ‘healing service’.)

 

What fills the pews in those 5000 seat arenas? (according to Matt Taibbi) 

1) People are (as sociologists can prove) lonely and disconnected on an unprecedented scale. (I failed to dig out the statistics that I recently saw, their measure or indicator was how many persons someone had other than spouses or parents in whom they could trust to discuss deep emotional issues. Please respond if you can identify the study.)

2) People are hurt. Financially, emotionally, they suffer from evil jobs, endless commutes, they have little life outside their consuming drudgery. Addiction also figures prominently, as do abuse and bad relationships.

These churches are effective, Taibbi writes, not because of their often ludicrous ideologies but because they offer real support in those areas of affliction. (Whether they support is effective is another question, but at least they offer support, and starting to address a problem is always a step in the right direction).

They are also good at retaining folks because they form small groups inside their larger settings (sometimes called ‘tribes’) where people get connected through bible study etc with a regular subset of the same few people. It combines the pleasure of being part of a large group or movement (I call it the ‘stadium effect’) with the joy of really getting to know well a few people who embark on the same journey.

What can UUs learn here?

If a church wants to grow it must first make a visitor feel welcome as a person and then have a mechanism where s/he gets involved and makes lasting acquaintances. My minister, Peter Morales, explained recently that in his experience (both here at JUC and in congregations he’s visited nationwide) almost all visitors have already thoroughly checked out a church online (read sermons, been to http://beliefnet.org etc) before they step through the door.

So their question is (says Peter): Are these my people? and not: Do they believe what I believe? 

If they are not actively welcomed and made to feel that, yes, there might well develop a deeper connection, they won’t return.

Many congregations apparently fail to make visitors return. Peter Morales thinks it’s not because of intentional snobbery but rather because our culture of welcoming is underdeveloped, too timid, or simply unreflected.

In a recent campaign event he said about the art of welcoming people: “You don’t have to do it perfectly, and we don’t do it perfectly, and the churches that grow like crazy don’t do it perfectly but they pay attention and they care. The first thing is to get people to care and then to pay attention.”

Since this post now has half turned into a campaign pitch I might as well give a direct link – to both candidates!

 moralesforuuapresident.org  hallmanforuuapresident.com

Don’t miss the candidate forum webcast this Saturday: 6:45 – 8:00 p.m Eastern time (it takes days until it’s available archived, you have to tune in live or you’ll miss it)

4059 UUA Presidential Candidates’ Forum with Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman and Rev. Peter Morales, Candidates: http://www.uua.org/events/generalassembly/2008/112314.shtml

The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire

www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/20278737/jesus_made_me_puke/print

Note: Our church, JUC, gets small Amazon referral fees when purchases are made through a JUC link. I suggest you look into that for your own congregation. People are slow to pick it up but I spend loads on Amazon and simply bookmarked JUCs referral button and use it religiously