One of the limits of WordPress, I have discovered, is that it hates too many iframes, and thus is unwieldy to edit. So I’ve instead put up this followup post… it includes a link to the audio from August 21, as well as the words of Rev. Linda Hoddy’s blessing.
The audio – click here to listen – picks up at beginning of my formal remarks – right after “Song of the Soul”… it includes Linda’s blessing, closing words, extinguishing the chalice, and the postlude.
Linda’s words of blessing are below:
Spirit of Life,
We give thanks for this beloved community, this congregation,
where a call to ordained ministry can be felt and nurtured.
We give thanks for the one who is now being called to deeper service, and for her Yes,
We ask your blessings for her journey, and grant our own.
May Kim continue to be attuned to things of the spirit,
open to and heedful of the subtle signs and messages by which you will guide her into
the service of humanity and a better world.
May she be accompanied by wise and gentle souls
who will help her discern and refine her ministry.
May her academic preparation be excellent.
But more importantly, may her heart and mind be continually opened to your guidance and will.
May she increasingly know the divinity present in all creation:
in nature, in work, in play, in other human beings,
and herself and her call to service.
May she never doubt her own worth as a child of God, with gifts intended for the blessing of humanity.
May ministry not only be something that she does, but may it
deepen and mingle with the roots of her being, until ministry is the very essence of who she is.
May she find joy in the sacrifice and surrender that ministry requires.
We are grateful for all that she has shared with us in these few years:
Music and theater,
Laughter and tears,
Tenacity through conflict and tumult,
Warmth, wisdom, insight and friendship.
These gifts have enhanced our life together.
And now, as we release her to greater service, we wish her well.
May she know in times of doubt and struggle, as well as in times of joy,
that our prayers are with her. We will hold her gently in our hearts, forever.
Sometimes it isn’t enough to just share the text of a sermon. Sometimes it’s important to hear the music and the other words that form the entire service. Thus (and in lieu of recordings that feature the actual musicians from my congregation), I have included links from YouTube and other mp3s. Please take the time to listen to them as you read my story of getting to the yes.
Lighting the Chalice
Words for Gathering
by L. Annie Foerster
Come we now out of the darkness of unknowing, out of the dusk of dreaming.
Come we now from far places, from the unsolved mysteries of our beginnings.
Attend our journey!
Come we now into the twilight of awakening, into the reflection of our gathering.
Come we now toward the light that beckons, toward the oasis that summons.
Harken the gathering!
Come we now all together.
We bring, unilluminated, our dark caves of doubting, filled with the rocks of our foreboding.
We seek, unbedazzled, the clear light of understanding, born of the fires of our attending.
May the sparks of our joining kindle our resolve, brighten our spirits, reflect our love, and unshadow our days.
Come we now. Come we together.
Come we now all together to begin.
Let us begin with Amen.
I went to Girl Scout camp for the first time when I was 9 years old – which would make it the summer of ‘74. It was an amazing time – in an amazing place, up at Camp Little Notch in Fort Ann. Our counselors were young women fighting for equal rights, proudly wearing the label ‘feminist.’ Our lessons were of self-reliance, strength, and independence. Our music was a blend of traditional camp songs and new songs from the new world of women’s music – Meg Christian, Margie Adams, Holly Near, and Cris Williamson. We sang “Gentle Angry People” and “Beautiful Soul” and the “Unicorn Song” and “Song of the Soul”… mostly “Song of the Soul.” A hundred little girls singing this song at the top of their lungs, finding harmonies, not knowing how deeply this song would later resonate.
My experiences at camp – the music, the women, the lessons – were in sharp contrast to the more conservative environment of the rest of my life, which was much more enmeshed in knowledge and education – not surprising, as my father was an educator and my parents were both non-practicing Unitarians.
But as a child – with my siblings much older and long gone out of the house, and living in an isolated corner of southern Rensselaer County – I spent many long hours reading and thinking and wondering about God.
At age 12, I read a book describing meditation, and it suggested creating a picture in your mind of a place to go, a sanctuary. In my mind, I built a beautiful stone cloister – several stories high, with a beautiful courtyard in the middle, and arched windows along the inside where you could look out into the courtyard. That image – that sanctuary – has been with me ever since, and has provided a place of safety.
These are some of the earliest signposts that I remember seeing on this long journey that brings me here today. As I began preparing to tell you about my journey to the Yes, I realized that it wasn’t something that happened in a short, defined period of time, but rather a journey I’ve been on since my childhood. And that journey hasn’t been on a straight, paved, well maintained road… it has taken some concentration to stay ON the road, and it’s in the retelling here today that I can begin to map it out.
At the very center of the road – whether I recognized it at the time or not – is my spiritual path.
Through my childhood as a Unitarian in a Methodist Sunday school, and through my young adulthood immersed in a full gospel Pentecostal community, and long afterward, even into my agnostic phase, I still talked to God. I thought of myself as “spiritual but not religious” and felt I had a pretty decent relationship with the Divine. I found a place of expression in the pagan community, and I liked the connection to the earth and the ancient mythologies. But as connected as I was to the ideas and the people, I grew further and further disconnected from God.
And then I lost my partner to a needless death.
And then I had a major financial crisis.
And then I had a nervous breakdown.
And then a pedestrian ran in front of my moving car and was killed.
And then my back went out and I required several surgeries.
And then my mother passed away.
At every turn, God was missing. I continued to talk ABOUT God, and to help others find their voice and nurture their spirits. But I was angry. And hurt. And lonely. And I had long since stopped talking to God. I was certain – absolutely certain – that I was God’s punching bag.
Linda Hoddy talks about the time after her brother’s death, arguing with “the god in whom she did not believe”. I don’t know that I ever stopped believing in a god of some form, but I know that I got tired of arguing, and declared a schism. I decided Nietzsche was wrong: that which does not kill us does NOT make us stronger, it makes us angrier. I needed to be away from that conflict. God didn’t like me, so I didn’t like God.
And I felt even lonelier.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that “Life is to be understood backwards, but it is lived forwards.” I’m not sure of the source now, but in one of his books, Kierkegaard expanded on this idea: he said that we are all walking toward the light of God, but that because it is blinding, we walk backward. We look at where we have been, and gently nudge others so as not to trip on a root and avoid the rocks, all the while feeling gentle nudges from behind us making sure we don’t trip or stumble.
I like this idea – I like the idea that we’re all on a journey, that we see in retrospect the lessons and messages we encounter. David Roche, in his book The Church of 80% Sincerity, calls it the Principle of Delayed Understanding.
But whatever you call it, it is only in looking back that I can understand the messages that God, and my fellow travelers, had been sending. In preparing for today, I have remembered many friends from former covens, guilds, and congregations – hundreds of moments that have led me to this place. But of course it wasn’t until recently that I realized that they WERE messages.
Looking back, I see hints I left for myself, in journals, in letters, and in sermons. I look back at my talks on waiting, and faith, and being open to possibilities, and I now can see that while I was sharing some ideas that I hoped would help you, I was also leaving myself messages about my relationship with God and a possible future path.
Looking back, I recognize the metaphors – from the idea that my life was a tapestry, waiting to be woven so others could see the story, or that I was a wounded healer, telling the stories of my own woundings in order to help others heal.
Looking back, I understand the dreams I dreamed in significant places – at a women’s spirituality retreat in San Francisco, at my first UU Musician’s conference in Denver, and a notable one, in upper Michigan on Midsummer. I dreamed of being in a spa of some sort, where I was being nurtured and pampered. As my nails were being manicured and my feet being rubbed – I told you it was a dream – a handsome man came behind me as though to kiss me on the cheek, but instead whispered in my ear “not yet.”
Looking back, I learned that some messages came via Eeman’s Law, which states that half of life is figuring out what NOT to do. In my case, I had some false starts, seeking some greater way to serve, which never panned out. In the late 90s, I had an opportunity to take an intensive priestess training, but somehow the money never appeared. In 2006, I began the program to achieve a Credential in Music Leadership through the UUA, but this was cut short because of my back. About a year ago, I pursued some positions within the UUA – none of which panned out.
Now of course, in my state of schism, I saw each of these failures as further proof that God was not on my side.
But something happened in the spring of 2009. I met a former Lutheran minister who would later become my boyfriend. In our conversations, I told Carl about my schism with God, and he brought up the book of Job. Now I’ve heard all about Job, how God tests him by causing all manner of tragedy. I was pretty unimpressed – ‘cause if people aren’t quoting Nietzsche, they’re talking Job, as though they think that’ll help.
But Carl brought up something I had not heard before. “After all of the tragedy in the first three chapters,” he said, “Job spends the next 39 complaining to God. Loudly. Forcefully.” Hmmm. “It’s okay to complain,” he continued. “In fact, it’s what you are supposed to do.”
Now this is something I’d not considered before. So, I started complaining. I began to argue, and yell, and list in painstaking detail the many grievances I had.
But it was not until later that summer that I got the feeling that God was talking back. Carl and I were driving through New England, and while I navigated the rolling turns of Route 7, Carl viewed the beauty of the Green Mountains through his eyelids. In the quiet, I began humming some of my favorite spirituals: “Over My Head, I hear music in the air” … “there is more love somewhere.” I got to a piece from our teal hymnal, called “Comfort Me.” Now the way Mary Neumann wrote the song, the third verse goes “speak for me, speak for me oh my soul.” But that day, I began to sing “speak TO me”…. And God said “I have been. I never stopped.”
Yeah, okay, I know many of you are skeptical of spiritual experiences, or of God, but I have no other way to describe it except ‘God said.’
And God said, “I never stopped talking to you. You are the one who stopped.’ And so I asked her, “I haven’t heard you. How have you been speaking to me?”
The answer came immediately, as the napping Carl let out a loud, forceful snore.
Which made me realize that God had been speaking to me, through the divinity in each of us. Through the long conversations with Carl, and Linda Hoddy, and Brent Wilkes, and Nikki Ferguson, and Aaron Broadwell, and others… through the poetry and music that has made me weep from their beauty… through the many quotations from books and movies that I’ve collected… through the little moments of grace I’ve witnessed and been blessed with. All of them, messages from the Divine, all of them hoping that in the spirit of Kierkegaard, I would recognize them in retrospect.
Looking back on the road I traveled, with its broken pavement when there’s been pavement at all, with its twists and turns and steep hills and narrow bridges, I realize that the long and winding road has led me to the door of ministry.
And its road signs all say “Yes.”
“Yes” echoed first during a service where I served as worship associate. Linda asked me to read a poem by Edward Hays as the meditation. The poem, about being open to the divine, is based on a Sufi saying that reads “don’t invite an elephant trainer into your living room unless you have room for an elephant.” As I read the poem, in front of you all, I heard “yes” so loudly that I barely got through the reading.
“Yes” echoed when Linda invited me to join the Wellspring spiritual deepening group, although I believe I only expressed my interest in passing. And, “yes” echoed over and over again during the year of sessions with other seekers on the journey.
“Yes” echoed in the words of Jim Mihuta, who told me I had a knack for saying the right thing at the right time… in the words of Joe and Sally Russo, who said they never wanted to miss a chance to hear me speak… in the words of Barbara Freund, who said I had the kind of presence, even just singing in the choir, that suggested I should become a minister… in the words of Ashley Friedman, who said she remembered my 80% sermon and that it still resonates with her as she makes her way through her first years at college.
“Yes” echoed the day I went to visit Union Theological Seminary in NYC…. I walked into a large stone building, and after our little tour group gathered, our guide took us into the courtyard. It was the courtyard of my sanctuary… the same arched windows, the same shape, same stone. “Yes” reverberated through the place as I enjoyed an informative tour, an amazing lecture, and a wild and welcoming service led by the Queer Caucus.
“Yes” echoed the evening I ended my meditation with a sudden need to flip through an old Methodist hymnal I own. I opened the book and began singing the hymn in front of me… Open my eyes that I may see…
“Yes” resounded in the song that I had known since my youth, a song I have sung over and over again as the introduction to “Song of the Soul.” “Yes” further echoed as I read the third verse:
Open my mouth, and let me bear,
Gladly the warm truth everywhere;
Open my heart and let me prepare
Love with Thy children thus to share.
And finally, “Yes” echoed in early January, when I awoke from a dream… in which a handsome man hugged me and whispered in my ear “now.”
At that final “yes,” I completed my application, and Linda and Murray Penney were among those who wrote recommendations for me. They must have said some nice things, for in April, I was accepted.
I’m five days away from orientation now… five days away from setting foot on this new road – most assuredly, as Robert Frost puts it, “the one less traveled by.” Not surprisingly, I keep finding myself singing “Woyaya”… we are going, heaven knows where we are going, but we know we will…” and I invite you to stand as you are able and join me in singing it now.
The road isn’t completely uncharted, however, and yes, I already know there will be bumps and rocks and uneven pavement just as on the road I’ve already traveled. But I do have some sense of where I want my ministry to go. I joke with Linda that I am keeping a list of reasons not to go into congregational ministry… but I think, at this point, my path is heading in other directions. On the other hand, as the rabbis in the Talmud say: “Do you want to make God laugh? Tell him YOUR plans for the future.” So who knows? I do know that there are some fascinating things happening in our denomination – a resurgence of universalism, a call to spiritual deepening, a sense that now that we’ve reached our 50 year mark, it’s time we figure out who we are now and where we are going.
I feel called to share our religion with a world that I think is absolutely ACHING for a meaningful, active, useful, nurturing faith such as ours. I believe I’m called to help people nurture their souls – to help more people find a home in what our president Reverend Peter Morales calls “a religion for our time.” I am inspired by his words, and those of Scott Alexander…and Kaaren Anderson… and William Shultz… and Deane Perkins…and many more Unitarian Universalists of vision. Their words are calling all of us to make a better world through our faith and actions.
And I know there’s so much to understand, to explore, and to share. My gifts in music and theatre… along with my desire to know and to heal… seem to make for a potent combination in ministry. Will I work with congregations, clusters, and districts? Write and lecture? Do community ministry? Or land in a congregation after all? I don’t know… as my friend Alan Rudnick says, “when working in the business of faith, faith is needed.” I do know that I once I began hearing “yes,” I could not say no… and the continued yesses from friends and acquaintances and newfound colleagues tells me others may be interested in what I may eventually have to say.
As I enter Union – a place brimming with diversity of race, gender, religion, age, talent, and ability – I bring with me the experience I have with love, community, and support that I have found here, from you.
This congregation – you together and individually – you have listened to me and watched me grow. You have nurtured and comforted me through some difficult times, providing not just emotional support, but rides, and meals, and help when I needed it.
When I came here in October of 2004, I was emotionally shattered, in need of spirit, connection, comfort, and community. And you provided – in spades. I never felt so welcomed in all my life; through the many congregations I’ve been part of, I never felt home before. I often find myself thinking of a song from The Wiz, which begins “when I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing.” This place – this group of people who love each other and work together and drive each other nuts– this place is home.
And yes, I feel a little like the bird being pushed out of the nest… or the teenager being shipped off to college. And I will be back many Sundays, but only as a congregant, sitting in the pews, maybe singing on occasion. And of course, my role here will change… I won’t be doing chores anymore, but I will be bringing home my dirty laundry and looking for a good hot meal. What I bring of you to Union is far greater than what I’ll bring home. And even at school, I will have some of you with me, as member Nan Asher has graciously allowed me to stay in her home in Queens, which helps me extend an already very tight budget. But most of all, what I bring is the knowledge that where there is room for growth, space for possibilities, a firm foundation of love and respect, anything IS possible.
A conversation on Twitter just reminded me of the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”… and I remembered that I rewrote the lyrics a couple of years ago.
We had held a “check your theology at the door” hymn sing at the church, and we had a blast singing “Just As I Am” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”…songs of our pasts, which stir up our souls in old and sometimes meaningfulways. We sang and told stories and laughed and cried that night… blessed to share this with each other.
“It Is Well” was my trigger. THe words spoke deeply to me – to a point. Theoriginal lyrics by Horace Spafford are deeply tied to ‘washed in the blood” theology, and I found someof them to be too out of line with what I believe. And yet the song moved me. My minister, Linda Hoddy, suggested I rewrite the lyrics, which I did. Our music director, Michael Harrison, arranged the song for a quartet, and we sang it the first time at a service on Faith, Hope, and Charity.
For some of us, the fear is about rejection. For others, it’s about embarassment. Others fear that failing means they have let someone down – and sometimes that person is long deceased. Still others struggle so hard that they don’t feel there’s any wiggle room for failure. And in this internet culture, we fear that someone will put our mistakes on FailBlog, stamped indelibly with the word “FAIL” – or worse, “EPIC FAIL.”
And it’s even worse when we’re talking about failing not just on our own, but on behalf or with a group of people… a congregation, for instance. Oh, the things we risk if we fail! We will lose members. Our pledges will be smaller. Our volunteers will quit.
And yet we fail all the time – students don’t pass exams. Suitors get rejected. A member decides we aren’t fulfilling his spiritual needs. Only three people show up to a fellowship event. We don’t raise enough money. As a result, we have let people down, including ourselves. And we even seem to have lost the gradations; things are no longer moderate or limited successes – everything is pass/fail.
It sounds pretty depressing, and certainly unsuccessful. So why are we celebrating this experifail/failing faithfully business?
“Experifail” was first coined during a TweetChat about the Faith Formation 2020 report… we were talking about some new approaches in our congregations, and someone remarked that there was a good chance a particular initiative might fail.
That’s when Rev. Phillip Lund spoke up and said we should experiment anyway… we should be willing to “experifail” (he also offered faileriment, but that wasn’t as graceful, nor do I think it conveys the same meaning – “faileriment” puts the failure up front, whereas “experifail” puts the experimentation first).
Needless to say, the idea stuck, and it reappeared in a chat about Generational dynamics in our congregations – again, the question came up about trying some new things, and we agreed that we needed to find the courage to risk.
And that’s all experifail is about: being willing to, and strong enough, to take some risks. To experiment, knowing that the result is not a sure thing, being willing to own the failures and learn from them, and not letting the failures keep us from trying again.
Experifail can be scary – the “what if” list grows longer and longer the more you risk. But experifail carries with it a vitally important element: Faith. Experifail isn’t just charging ahead and trying something risky. Experifail is stepping out in faith, knowing that we’re putting our best selves forward, doing what we believe to be the next right thing. Experifail also has room for success – when we’re willing to fail, we are less likely to second guess…and thus we might actually succeed.
We can employ experifail in our personal lives and in our congregations. There are so many things we can do, if we are willing to take the Risk that it’ll fail. This is when the costs/benefits analysis should be set aside…maybe you WILL lose something… but what you may learn will be worth much more than what you lost. And, maybe you’ll win too.
Now I put this under the Generational Theory heading because Experifail is the topic for our next #GenChurch TweetChat on August 26th. (8pm EDT) As Rev. Naomi King and I were discussing the topic for the chat, she pointed out that in order to better deal with generational transitions in leadership, worship, fellowship, education, and faith formation, we need to be willing to experifail – and prepare our congregations for some faithful failing. I’m going to think (and consult my friendly, neighborhood generational expert) about what barriers and support we might get from the different generations as we approach some of these shifts… and hopfully have some ideas to share when we chat again.
Or I might not. I could walk into the chat the very model of experifail!
In just over two weeks, I head down to the city to begin orientation at Union Theological Seminary. It’s been so far away for so long, it is surprising to realize how close it is now. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been resigning positions on boards, finishing terms on committees, closing up projects, generally putting my house in order so that once classes start, I can concentrate on work and studies.
A few weeks ago, I first identified a certain good melancholy – a bit sad to be no longer seeing these people on a weekly or monthly basis, but knowing I am leaving on good terms and heading for something more.
But the last week or so, I’ve been sad in an unsettling, unclear way.
Now I have tied some of the sadness to a particular fear I carry with me – an odd academic fear. I’ve always been good at school when I put my mind to it – I grasp things easily, see connections, know, and excel. But since the surgeries in 2007-08, I’ve noticed that my memory is compromised – it is a strikingly noticeable effect of the pain meds and thrice-in-one-year doses of general anesthesia. And I know, once I get into it, I’ll likely see my strengths come back and add more tricks to those I currently use to get by with a diminished short term memory.
But even with that nagging worry, and recognizing the loss associated with ending certain activities, I’ve been sad. It became sharpest last night, when Carl and I were talking. I was telling him about my day – the many good things that happened. Normally, I’d be smiling and triumphant in the good stuff (finishing a hard project, getting a new one, having a great experience with an author, etc.). But I was still terribly unsettled and weepy. When we hung up, I should have gone to sleep, but I was left wondering WHY the things that would normally signal a good day didn’t have the same effect.
And then I remembered the Edward Hays poem:
Don’t make friends with an elephant trainer unless you have room in your home for an elephant.– saying of the Sufis
O Blessed one, you whose voice calls me
to the sacred path of the pilgrim,
I wish to seek you with all my heart.
Yet I am often half-hearted in that desire
when I realize the cost of such a quest.
My life is rather comfortable and well-ordered
and fits me like an old shoe.
I fear the knowledge that if I romance you
I may lose what I hold dear.
Be compassionate with my hesitation
as I measure the cost of loving you.
I have read in the holy books
and know from the lives of the saints,
that you, my god, come as purifying fire
to burn away all that is not true.
I tremble at the thought
of you consuming those things that I love
and even my prized image of who I am.
Yet, I also want to know you more fully;
help me to embrace the awesome implications
of my inviting you to enter my life.
Enlarge my half-hearted love
with the ageless truth
that if I seek your kingdom first,
seek to be fully possessed by you,
everything I need shall be given me,
and happiness beyond my wildest dreams
shall be mine.
Come today, Creator of elephants and saints,
and be my friend.
And I realized that there is a lot more going on.
I realized that I’m not just giving up or changing parts of my life, nor am I intentionally making changes to my life. Rather, I am giving myself over to a change, giving myself over to the service of God. I am stepping into a role that carries a holy and sacred calling. I am saying Yes, I am willing to be different. I am allowing the reality of God to change my reality. Like a magnet being wrapped in copper coil and run through with electricity, my very polarity is changing. Like a length of iron being heated up and hammered into a sword, I am being strengthened. Like a piece of wood burning in a fire, my chemical makeup is altering.
And as hard as I have worked to change myself for the better, God is taking those things and changing me for good.
The change is indeed unsettling. And I don’t know if everyone who enters seminary goes through this – maybe others have always just known, or have had an easier time letting go of control, trusting God. I know it’s been hard for me to put my weight down on the “trusting God” thing; I’ve been angry with the Divine for many years, and I’m unsure of my footing.
And that in itself is a little sad.
But as unsettled as I feel… as sad and unsure… I know that even this is a good sad.
Just about everyone has a theory about leadership style – they’re tied to personality types, astrological types, temperaments, right- or left-brain types, gender, and more. So it seems kind of redundant to offer more theories about leadership, and yet there seems to be something to the broad strokes of generational types that helps us understand, at least a little bit, the kinds of leaders we have in our congregations.
Using, of course, the current model we’ve been focusing on (and again, reminding you all that these are generalizations and your mileage may vary), let’s look at how – in 2011 – the generations are leading in your congregations. Also note – I’m not addressing – today, anyway – how to manage these different types of leaders, simply offering the leadership “biography” that I hope will help explain what might be happening at the board meeting.
Actually, that’s a misnomer in this case. While “silent” is appropriate in light of other aspects of the generation, these people are not quiet in their leadership positions. In fact, this group has rather enjoyed the lengthy board meetings, the long discussions, the chance to hear from all comers, to take all opinions into account. It’s why they are so good at movements involving equality – civil rights, women’s lib, the disabled, etc. We are at our best as witnesses to justice when we follow the lessons of this amazing generation.
At their best, Silents are inclusive, detail oriented, careful, empathetic, and precedent honoring. They’re the best listeners. They see the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, and work hard to make sure all the parts are working in harmony.
But when it comes to hashing out the specifics of a policy, it can seem to other generations too much talk, too little action. As Carl Eeman writes,
Excessive attention to detail and a lengthy process can give church members and fellow leaders the impression that these leaqders are cautious to the point of timidity. Members of a governing group [from this generation] can be perceived as using process and procedure to avoid coming to decision that may be unpopular in the eyes of some.
Further, Silents are vulnerable to endlessly revisiting points that others thought were decided – beating a dead horse, as it were. And once a decision’s been made, Silents are loathe to revisit it – being much more rigid suddenly than expected.
And, unfortunately, in 2011, this generation is seen as “old”… and whether we mean to or not, younger generations still fall into the trap of sometimes dismissing the wisdom of our elders. Silents are leaving leadership roles for many reasons – many are snowbirds, only around for 6 months of the year. Others are just tired. And some feel as though they are no longer useful.
The preponderance of your church leaders were probably born between 1943 and 1959. It’s no wonder, as there are so many of them, but also because they’re in the stage of life where they’ve assumed and maintain strong leadership roles.
Boomers are compelling leaders – they formulate and articulate broad visions. They build concensus around those visions; but whereas the Silents make sure everyone is heard and on board and hash out a concensus, Boomers tend to present a vision and bring others along – this generation is big on the “buy in.”
At their best, Boomers lead the charge for big, new ideas for growth. As Eeman points out, they often embody the George Bernard Shaw quotation: “Some men see things that are and ask ‘why?’ Other men see things that never were and ask ‘why not?’
But at their worst, they are stubborn and absolutely certain they are right. They can be seen as the unfortunate counterweight to the Silents who come slowly to a decision; Boomers tend to already have made a decision and will fight long and hard for their point of view. Boomers in the heat of an argument will work very hard to build factions of support – more buy in – which can be hard for other generations to argue against. Of course, good Boomers know this and temper it with considered thought – the worst never do.
Boomers are also beginning to age out of leadership a little – they’re the newly or soon-to-be-newly retired, and they’re thinking this snowbird action is kinda cool. But many are in for the long haul – and, by the way, the preponderance of our ministers are still Boomers too. They are dominant … large and in charge.
This is the generation of the rising leaders. Some are already in places of leadership – the ministers and leaders in their 30s and 40s are Xers, and they’re shaking things up a bit.
Partly, they’re shaking things up in that instead of talking endlessly about ideas, or building coalitions around ideas, they’re implementing them. They don’t built task forces and committees – this generation just doesn’t have that kind of time. Instead, they build short-term teams to tackle small (or sometimes large) projects. For example, after years of talking about how to approach our web presence and social media, it finally took a group of five Xers to tell the president and minister “we’re going to do it” and then…they did it. (Or, I should say, we did it, as I was the one gutsy enough to say we should go ahead.)
This generation also questions the status quo, which is likely full of processes and procedures and an (un)healthy dose of “we’ve always done it this way.” This both makes other generations nervous, and occasionally gets them into trouble. If ever there was a generation that believes “it is easier to ask forgiveness than seek permission” it is this one.
This generation is also a bit unsure about stepping into leadership. They feel like the Boomers are still in charge, and they don’t see themselves as being the great idealists their Boomer leaders are. And yet, when they do take steps toward leadership, they find there’s a bit of relief from the burned-out Boomers and Silents, and of course, a lot to do.
At their best, GenX leaders execute great ideas with almost military precision – they are pragmatic and effectively use resources. (Note that some of the best military leaders – Washington, Patton, Eisenhower) were of the same Nomadic generational type.) At their worst, they charge ahead, full steam, sometimes to the determent of the relationships (feelings can get hurt when not everyone’s been properly consulted or has bought in).
We’re just getting a sense of who this new generation will be as leaders – the oldest of them have not yet turned 30. But if they’re anything like previous Civic generations, they are the institution builders. They like to do things big, and do them together. As I’ve said before, this is the generational type who built the transcontinental railroad and the interstate highway system. They also built Levittowns and cookie-cutter schools, offices, and public buildings…sometimes believing to a fault that “if you build it, they will come.” Sometimes it is true – but sometimes we’re stuck with rather large assets that have become liabilities (from abandoned shopping malls to Robert Schuler’s Crystal Cathedral).
Already, we’re seeing rumbles from this rather large generation (to compare, there are 80 million Boomers, 44 million Xers, and 78 million Millennials). They don’t want to be sidelined, they want to be listened to. Just because their head is down texting doesn’t mean they’re ignoring the world. No, they’re connecting to their Facebook friends in California, and offering condolences to their online friends in Norway and planning their Unirondack reunion… and they’re looking at how we can build digital congregations and grow not just our individual congregations but our entire denomination.
So what does this mean in the boardroom?
What it means is NOT that one side is right and one is wrong – instead, it means is that it’s easier to understand why issues occur and how to maneuver around them when you have a sense of what’s driving a person’s particular leadership outlook. I’ll end this rather lengthy post with an anecdote, as an example of what happens when the generations collide:
A few years prior to the fateful event, a congregation had crafted a conflict resolution policy between members and friends of the congregation. It outlined how to handle conflict, who should be involved, and best practices. The author of the policy – a joyful but sometimes …forceful member of the congregation (a Boomer) – proposed that the policy be added to the personnel policy, that this particular procedure would work just as well for our growing staff and needed to be implemented without delay.
Unfortunately, there were many employment legalities that the policy did not cover, and the Personnel committee – almost entirely staffed by Silents – was sent to rewrite it. Meanwhile, the Treasurer, an Xer, carefully read the current personnel policy and found a grievance clause that would cover any conflict issues that arose.
Then Personnel came back with their amendments a couple of months and many meetings later, the existing grievance clause was shown, and an argument ensued.
The Silents said, “we have asked many people and sought several opinions, and looked at a number of different personnel policies, and really, it would keep peace, so what would it hurt to have this too?”
The Treasurer said “it’s redundant and incomplete” and the other Xers on the board wanted to just dump it, wondering why it was taking so long for something so unnecessary.
The Boomers – some of whom were in coalition with the policy author and others who were not, were battling between “he’s the expert, so we should have just listened to him in the first place” and “pass it so he’ll be mollified.”
The president – a Boomer – finally asked for the question to be called, seeing that this was not feeding the vision of a harmonious and effective board. For the first time in several years, a motion passed by only a slim margin (as opposed to the normally unanimous decisions this board makes). The Silents voted yea, the Xers voted nay, and the Boomers were split.
Was it a perfect solution? Is it a perfect policy? We’ll never know. But at least we have a sense of why the different factions acted as they did… and the president was better able to assign further projects and consider other actions in ways that would get the results he was seeking.
Next time, we’ll talk a bit about religious education.
For the record, I am estatic that New York State is now allowing any committed couple to legally wed – gay or straight. It’s been a hard fight and a sweet victory… and yes, there are still many battles for LGBT rights left to fight (repeal of DOMA, federal marriage equality, etc.) but..it is a sweet sweet victory.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of days viewing pictures of newly married couples, some who have waited decades for the day to come. I’ve read their stories, heard their cheers. I have cheered with them. And I’ve cried.
And not all the tears were tears of joy.
This seems to be giving me an opportunity to talk a little about my own history… to explore a rich piece of who I am, and begin to find language to explain where I have been and where I am now without people freaking out. I am, as it happens, one of those people – like Holly Near and Anne Heche – who have loved both men and women, and after many years being actively and happily labeled a lesbian, now consider myself bisexual. No, I didn’t “get cured.” No, it wasn’t “a phase.” As a teen, I was attracted to men and women… and in my early 20s, after some meandering, found that I was most comfortable identifying myself as a lesbian. I had a couple of great (and a handful of terrible) relationships. I embraced my phsyical and emotional attraction to women. I fought for equality. I marched in parades, protested with the Lesbian Avengers, even appeared on local news, and was on the front page of several state-wide newspapers, me kissing my girlfriend in front of a parade banner.
In other words, I was out, I was proud, and I was active.
In the mid-90s, I had met the person I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. Tricia was vibrant and brilliant – she lived life large. She was passionate, funny, earnest. And she loved me fiercely. In 1997, we decided to make steps toward as legally permanent a relationship as we could have in North Carolina. We were beneficiaries on as many policies as would allow us. We had medical power of attorney for each other. We were on our way to buying a house together and working with a gay attorney to ensure we were as protected as we could be, even as we began to talk about plans for a ceremony.
Parallel to this, I was completing my bachelor’s degree at Meredith College…. and Tricia was slipping back into a narcotics addiction I thought she had beaten in the late 80s. Using debilitating migraines as her excuse, and not telling her several doctors about the previous addiction – or in fact, even about each other – she amassed a stockpile of narcotics and used them to “help” her headaches.
I should have known, the day she got a new doctor to give her methodone as as way to manage the pain. But I didn’t. I didn’t know about addiction, about prescription drug abuse. I hadn’t had any experience with it. So I trusted her doctors… trusted her… and on April 7, 1998, Tricia had a heart attack, likely induced by the narcotics, and died that afternoon.
Now I tell you this because for a long time after she died, I was convinced I would never love again. And then, as I crawled out of the cave of blinding grief, it was men who offered the kind of comfort I seemed most to need. Women seemed harsh, or overbearing. Men were more measured, giving me space, and time, and a rather appealing kind of support.
Several years later, in considering relationships again, I found I was turning toward men – something I hadn’t done since my early 20s. It wasn’t that I suddenly found women revolting – it was just that, well, something had changed. I went from looking for women, to “if it really is about loving the person, not the gender, I have to be open to it being male or female”, to simply knowing I wanted a relationship with a man.
Since Tricia’s death, I have had a small handful of relationships with men – all were what I needed at the time, although I think I spent a few years learning the things always-straight women learned about men in their early 20s. I also spent a few years learning how different relationships with women and with men can be. This is NOT a judgment on either one – both are great, both are terrible, both are what they are. I am blessed right now to be in a great relationship with a man who is kind, open, funny, brilliant, and charming. I am unsure where the relationship is heading – but it is steady and positive, and I feel loved and supported. I still have moments when I miss Tricia, but they are fleeting, and I – like many young widows and widowers – have moved on to a new phase.
But I have cried the last few days because I wish she was here to see these pictures…to have the chance to marry me, legally, in my home state… I wish she was here to see that the work we did in the 90s was NOT in vain… I wish we could have been part of that celebration.
One of the areas congregations struggle with most is stewardship. If your church is anything like mine, it’s like pulling teeth to even find people to head the stewardship campaign, no less getting people to give in a way that’s meaningful. I can’t deny sometimes wishing that in our UU congregations, we had a culture of tithing – the magic 10% that seems to flow freely from the pockets of many evangelical Christians. But we don’t, and we struggle to get people to see the value of our congregations and put a dollar figure to it. Many will donate countless hours to committees, justice projects, and doing the physical work of the congregation, but that only goes so far when there are mortgages and light bills and salaries to pay.
Not surprisingly, generational theory can play a role in stewardship. I actually have some first-hand knowledge of this, having been in charge of my congregation’s stewardship campaign in 2010. Here’s what we did:
One Pitch Does Not Fit All
Instead of one pitch about supporting our congregation for everyone to hear, we created four different pitches, each with their own flavor. Now we did have some common themes – namely, that true stewardship is a commitment of not just money, but also of our time and talents. We’re using the Time, Talent, and Treasure theme a lot when we talk to both potential members and current ones, asking for a yearly commitment to give of all three in some measure, knowing people have varying levels of each at different times.
But then, instead of one big stewardship event, we had a series of Generational Parties. We asked members of each generation to create an event that would (a) be something they’d like and (b) address the pitch with certain generational emphases. The general pitch is the same – here’s our budget, here’s what we’re looking for from you, here’s what “fair share” means – but the place, the style, and the emphasis were all different.
The Silent Party
At first, the Silent on our stewardship committee didn’t much care for this idea. In true Adaptive form, he said, “but we should all be together – why are you separating us?” But we assured him it would work, so he and his wife hosted a dessert party, and they gave an effective pitch.
Pitching to the Adaptives requires an emphasis on
relationships and building new relationships throughout the year
pastoral care, especially as they are the generation now most likely to need home visits, hospital care, rides to doctors, etc.
care for the earth – carrying on the causes of compassion, freedom and equality
leaving a legacy – making sure there’s a place with a strong tradition to continue this work
outlining budget goals and providing detailed rationale – not just “we want to grow” but “we need more RE classrooms”
a stress on fair share and proportionate giving
a bold “ask” – asking for real and exact numbers
The Silents party was a success – new friendships were formed, and when it came to the post-event canvass (followup calls), our Adaptive committee member, who previously thought this was crazy, said, “my wife and I will call all the Silents.” His conversion rate was great – despite having more fixed incomes and more snowbirds, he was able to get in several cases an increase in pledges.
The Boomer Party
This was an all out shindig – great wines and local beers, great appetizers from a local gourmet foods market, and quite the crowd at the home of one of our more generous Boomer couples (they have served in leadership since their arrival 5 years ago).
Pitching to the Boomers requires an emphasis on
vision – going beyond the hard numbers to who we are and what we see ourselves as
enhancing the quality of programs, with a view toward making us “the best”
highlighting the spiritual benefits of a faith community – how having a strong congregation helps them become stronger and more effective
addressing concerns over retirement and the benefits of continuing to give
asking for opinions – what will best serve us as we head into retirement, take on different leadership roles, consider life in the empty nest (often you’ll get a whole new set of classes, programs, and small group ministries)
Now some of this did happen at our Boomer party, but interesting, our host had just lost his father and was himself dealing with learning he has a serious illness. The host spoke at length about all that our congregation – and indeed, our denomination – had done for him, and he spoke of his hope that we would continue to be that kind of place for others. Talk about vision! It worked beautifully, and again, we saw increases in pledges.
The GenX Party
We held a pot luck after church one Sunday, with a couple of parents downstairs with the kids so that the adults could talk. It was wonderful – one of our newer families is Indian, and the food they brought was an amazing addition to the rather basic American pot luck fare we are used to. I hosted this party, along with another member of our stewardship team – we settled on a Sunday potluck, knowing that most GenX families could stick around for an hour but probably couldn’t make time during the week due to the endless music lessons and scout meetings and soccer games.
Pitching to GenX requires an emphasis on
the practical side of the budget – how much it costs to send a child through RE, how much one month’s utility bills are, what we spend on supplies
focus on youth programs – what we have and what we want in the most encouraging and safest way possible
emphasis on fair share, knowing that this is the generation currently carrying the largest debt load; GenX doesn’t want to be seen as slackers or shirking their responsiblities
rising leadership – that this is the generation stepping into leadership roles, and part of leadership is a responsibility to give time, talent, and treasure
short-term projects rather than long-term commitments; we can’t fund the next ten years of RE, but we can build a playground
This party was a huge success – for several, it was the first time they’d been seen as leaders, and in fact one woman in her early 30s said “yes” to a leadership role, which she admitted she’d have shied away from, thinking she was too young. For others, they finally understood the pragmatic side of fair share and stewardship – could see it in real terms, and could see how they could help shape the here and now… several sheepishly raised their pledges by significant amounts, having finally learned what was expected of them. Interestingly, we also built an ad-hoc committee on digital media, and are in the process of not only updating the website but also getting more active in Facebook and Twitter.
The Millennial Party
This was a casual gathering at a local coffee shop. There weren’t too many people in attendance – we are, admittedly, not doing a great job attracting and keeping young adults – but those who are with us are very committed, and were happy to sit together for a little bit in a bustling hangout.
Pitching to the Millennials requires an emphasis on
community – doing things together
improving the world we live in; big projects we can do together
the many ways to interact – Sunday services, small groups, special interest groups, group discussions
adult RE – many of this generation are unchurched and can use some of the same kinds of lessons we give our kids, about world religions, our principles, etc.
like GenX, the practical side of the budget – how much it costs to send a child through RE, how much one month’s utility bills are, what we spend on supplies
space to be heard – this generation knows they are small in number in our congregations, despite being large in number in the world
These gatherings were great for the adult Millennials who are just now finding their place in the world. They saw that their investment is a way to build community to do big things, not just a nice place to get personally fed. While many of our Millennials are naval families on limited budgets, they still saw ways to give a fair share, and understood the time and talent portion of stewardship.
So what did we learn?
We learned that by addressing the unique perspectives of these generations, not only how they see the church but also where they are in their lives, we could help them best give and feel a sense of ownership. They seemed to better understand their fare share and the benefits of giving. In real terms, we saw an increase not only in the number of pledge units, but also an increase in the pledge amount (a solid 10% increase!) for 2011.
Further, we got more time and talent commitments from the Xers and the Millennials – rather than feeling overshadowed by the Boomers who are in leadership now, they saw that it’s time to step up and take the congregation to its next stage.
And finally, we saw relationships being forged – many of those who gathered in these generational parties got to know their peers a little better, and for our newer GenX and Millennial families, they got to make some new friends.
Again, generational theory isn’t the be-all, end-all of anything… but it is a good tool for the toolbox.
Next time: Generations in the Board Room, or “oh, so that’s why we had that fight over the bylaw changes.”