Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Where Unitarians get their inspiration

And yet more inspiration from Facebook - who would have thought?!

There was a debate about whether people attending Christian services understood much about the finer points of theology and at some point I wrote

I think that people are much more alive to their own personal relationship with God/the divine and much more open to other influences e.g. the TV, books,the radio and the Internet then in times gone by.

A little later I was surfing for another topic and came across the six sources of the Unitarian Universalist Association - here's the explanation and detail ...

Unitarian Universalists place emphasis on spiritual growth and development. Unitarian Universalism is a creedless religion. The Unitarian Universalist Association affirms seven principles: The official statement of Unitarian Universalist principles describes the "sources" upon which current practice is based:

1. Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
2. Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
3. Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
4. Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
5. Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
6. Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

I would argue a bit with four - because whilst our roots may be Christian and Jewish - there are other roots in other religions and the Golden Rule (treating others as you yourself would want to be treated) can be found in most, if not all, of them.

Which led my to our national website which says something similar but not in one place.  Here it all is ...

We believe that
  • Everyone has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves.
  • The fundamental tools for doing this are your life experiences, your reflection upon it, your intuitive understanding and the promptings of your own conscience.

And then 

On our personal life journey we are aided and inspired by:
  • The example and spiritual insights of others.
  • Writings deemed 'holy' and 'sacred' by the various faith traditions of humanity.
  • Inherited traditions of critical and philosophical thought.
  • The ongoing creative work of artists, musicians and writers.
  • The scientist's search for knowledge and understanding.

I like the fact that the UK sources include a more egalitarian view of inspiration - it doesn't have to be teachings, religious wisdom or the words of the prophets.  How often are we inspired by our fellow travellers, by simple acts of kindness or an encouraging word? My blog is evidence to the fact that I get a lot of inspiration from words written on Facebook.

When we are in spiritual community sometimes, or perhaps often, it isn't an individual but a group experience which moves and inspires us. Whilst it is always nice to get recognition it is really not important who said what, whether it be a prophet or our next door neighbour.  It is the content of the message and the meaning that we extract from it.

Perhaps each local community could have a go at describing where their inspiration comes from. 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Why do I attend my local Unitarian meeting House for services?

Another Facebook inspired posting.

So what are services for?  Whilst they need to be inclusive of new comers they play a significant part in community building for our local community. The traditional view of Christian service, whence we came, is that people go to church to worship God. However as Unitarianism has evolved and morphed is this still the case? Clearly there will be different views on this and mine might not be the same as others - it would be interesting to find out what others thought.

The question asked in the Facebook posting was 'Do we worship God?'  Which I answered, 'Not in a traditional sense'. I then went on to say ...

Everyone has a different view.  I cannot understand a god that is one entity with human feelings and emotions.  So for example I don’t understand the concept of ‘God loves you’ or the idea that god has a gender, female or male. It is all so difficult to understand that I tend to rely on experience – my experience is of an otherness and of a strong need to live a principled life. This is part of my everyday life and I don’t need to go to chapel to connect or to strive towards being a better person. 

However I do need to go to a Unitarian service of a community to which I belong to get a sense that (a) what I believe is OK; (2) there are others who have a similar faith; (3) together we can move forward in our understandings; (4) in doing this it’s fine to change one’s mind; and (5) by creating intimate bonds with others I am challenged to be a better person by being vulnerable, opening myself up to receiving love, and by being strong to giving love – in real and tangible ways.  I also expect to be moved by words and music which embody beauty and the best in human behaviour – I expect to be inspired. At times I just come for an hour of peace or respite from difficult times.

Using the word God and having things such as the Lord’s Prayer do not mean much to me.  But I have learnt that to be an inclusive community we actually have to be inclusive, so we don’t always get what we want.  Respect for that is easy to say but often more difficult to do. 

Not sure that I can add anything more to this.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Young people

Have had a bit of a debate about the needs of young people within Unitarian communities. I was arguing to take a more balanced approach - what do young people want from older people and what can they offer to the wider community.  Another person finished her post with

Also, I do think we have to weight it a bit more towards what we can give them rather than what we can expect from them in general since they are young people in our care.

I have been musing on this.  In what sense are young people in our care?  Do many congregations have young people unattached from their families? Whatever it is we might be providing I have never thought of it in terms of care over and above what anyone else gets. I suspect that some of our older people are much more vulnerable than some of our older young people.

To some extent this is about how we view young people and whether we see them as having specific needs just because they are young. I have also been involved in a debate about communities on another site and the TV programme about Amish communities was mentioned about how children in Amish families are expected to take on chores.  One of the British teenagers living with an Amish family commented thus

‘From a very young age, the Amish children do chores,’ Charlotte says. ‘It creates a lovely family bond, and means they work well as a unit and respect each other.’

This was in the back of my mind when I was writing about our young people.  What was also in the back of my mind was when my daughter disengaged from the Unitarian community.  She was preparing to speak on behalf of the youth group about marriage equality at an Annual Meeting (she was 16 or 17) when she was stopped by the President and told she had no right to speak as she was not a delegate or an Associate Member. It was the triumph of bureaucracy over compassion.  All kinds of apologies were made but the scar has remained.

So what was that about, her need to have a voice or our need to hear her (or not!)?  It seems to me that unless we have a rigid view of adults providing for young people's needs because they are in their care then the give and take of contributions will be more fuzzy. I don't believe that we can just ask the question 'What do young people need?' separately from 'What do our communities need?'. I also think that part of what our young people need is to be included within the wider community as in a family.  Sometimes young people go and do young people's things and sometimes they spend time with the adults.

Good families know how to make whole-family time work for everyone.  Good faith communities should know how to do that too.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011


Communities can be large or small.  What marks out members of a community is that they share something and the something that they share is then the focus of the community. So in neighbourhoods it is the physical space that people share; in faith communities it is the faith and the values; and for many self-help groups it is a shared experience for example eating disorders or an abusive childhood. The one thing that is shared by people within communities is a sense of belonging.

Last night I was at our borough's community and voluntary sector awards ceremony.  It is the second one that's been run although I wasn't there last year.  I only went because an organisation that I chair was sponsoring one of the awards.  It was an overwhelmingly lovely evening.  Young people from the university where the award ceremony was, were playing in an orchestra and a 16-year old local singer sang us some country and western songs; the food was good; and the company was excellent.  But the first 'best bit' was recognising how many wonderful people there are on my door step.  People who have given years of service quietly and without fuss to help the people living in their community - in a wide sense.  Not just those people who live next door to them but vulnerable people from across the borough who need additional support. When I hear so much negative comment about people today it is heart-warming to have evidence to the contrary.

The second 'best bit' was the award that went to my daughter's volleyball coach.  I had put him forward for the sport's volunteer of the year.  He and his wife have given years of service to not only provide good coaching but also help my daughter and her friends develop as young women.  How do you say thank you for that? Thankfully I had to opportunity to say why I had nominated him and what it has meant to my daughter and me.

It is so lovely to be able to say thank you and mean it from the bottom of ones heart.  We live in a highly inter-dependent world. We are very lucky if we find ourselves in a world where the majority of the people who impact on our lives are kind and encouraging. It makes me pause to think of those people who are not so fortunate. Counting our blessings is an old idea which has regained some currency.  

Perhaps as Unitarians we need to discuss how we recognise and appreciate those who give of themselves for our community - both lay and ministers. Perhaps we need a few more awards and a bit more celebration of our achievements.

Sunday, 20 November 2011


In our Unitarian community we each have the opportunity to lead services or gatherings.  We have a minister but he only leads one service a month as we share him with another community.  I am lucky in that I am quite active am often the first to know that we have a gap to fill.  Our Monday gathering tomorrow had no-one to lead it.  And so it was that I jumped at the chance to lead this.  I want to explore the issue of safety and whether our faith communities can offer us a feeling of safety when we feel unsafe in other parts of our life.

It has been difficult to find much material using the words safe and safety - I then tried to search for things about protection.  It was only when I searched on words such as haven and sanctuary that I found more material.  They hare both such lovely words.  I recognise that our Meeting House, even without people in it, feels like my own personal sanctuary.  During the week my car was blocked in outside the Meeting House.  I had parked briefly to show someone round the building prior to renting a room.  We rent our parking spaces out and the lady who uses it had returned in the ten minutes that I was in the building.  I decided that even though I could ask her to move her car that I would stay and do some cleaning.  I put on some swing music and spent a couple of hours cleaning and singing.  I felt very safe and very happy.

Yesterday I was on our monthly walk.  We chatted and laughed.  We gently ribbed each other about recent events.  And I felt safe. This haven of community really works for me.  I feel held and cradled.  If we accept some of the work that Abraham Maslow did on the hierarchy of needs (although it has been much criticised please bear with me) then we will appreciate that if we feel unsafe we will not feel secure enough to move forward.  For those of use who feel a strong pull to developing our spirituality we need to ensure that we have a safe place, physically, and amongst people that we trust.  We need to co-create this safe space so that others may feel equally safe.

Our spiritual growth is not always about new and exciting experiences but is also about providing safe space and time: providing sanctuary. It is also about the development of trusting relationships so that not only does the physical space feel safe but the people that fill that space can be relied upon to provide us with protective love when we feel vulnerable and in need.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Feeling unsafe

My neighbour of nearly ten years has been committed to Crown Court accused of sexual offences against children.  Whilst it is in the local paper, let's just call him Mr X.  Mr X is a public servant.  I have always had a good relationship with him and his wife - they have no children.  We laugh and joke together, we've been known to sit with a drink (a non-alcoholic one for him) either in a neighbourhood garden or the local cricket club bar.  We've exchanged emails and we've watered each others' plants.  I've driven them to catch a holiday coach in the early hours of the morning.  It seems to me that we have been involved in an implicit good-neighbour pact.  I have often spoken proudly to friends and family of the lovely local community which has enabled me as a single-mother to feel safe.  And now I feel devastated.

I have been involved in sexual violence services for over 25 years.  So I know full well that sexual abusers and sexual predators look like the rest of us.  They don't have a mark on their forehead proclaiming the fact.  My Mum reminded me that about ten years ago a near neighbour of hers, who was a senior administrator with a national professional association, was convicted of taking sexualised photos of his own daughter.  As with my neighbours now, my Mum and her neighbours were in complete shock.  However in that instance the man's wife threw him out and she got tremendous support from everyone.  Mrs X is reportedly denying that there is any foundation to the charges.  Perhaps there aren't.  But my experience of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in sex abuse cases is that they will not take them to court unless there is sufficient, credible evidence.

In my nice, rural idyll of a neighbourhood I have believed myself to live in a safe community with like-minded people.  It is not a wealthy area - we're just ordinary working people.  I believed that we shared not necessarily a political outlook but a common sense of what one might call decency.  Throughout her childhood I have let my daughter wander around on her own down the rear service road of our terrace of fifteen houses.  When she was little she would disappear to her favourite neighbour, Mike, who lived with his wife Helen down the road. I would never have imagined that Mike would have done her harm and I am sure that he never would.  But I would have felt the same way about Mr X.  I am not sure what the charges actually involve but another neighbour suspected that Mr X had exposed himself via the internet to his daughter some years ago. Mr X and this neighbour have been, to my eyes, good friends.

I continue to be absorbed by this.  Mr and Mrs X are nowhere to be seen.  Indeed I am not sure if both of them are there - if they are then they are not talking much as I usually hear the muffled sound of voices some time during the day.  They move the car each morning from their garage so that they can get into it without being seen.  I am anxious as to what I should do or say to either one of them.  In this instance I cannot separate the act from the perpetrator.  I cannot see a fellow human being.  I do not believe in innocent until proven guilty.  This is not about the law but about the morality of behaviour.  If he has abused a child then he is guilty of that.  I would like to be supportive of Mrs X and feel some sense of the pain that she must be feeling.

And what of my beloved community?  It is the first time in many years that I have considered the possibility of moving.  I guess that this is the response to the shock.  How will other neighbours respond?  It is not about endlessly gossiping about this but about how to heal our small neighbourhood so that we once again feel safe and trusting.

All communities can be harmed by one of its member's behaviour.  Within faith communities at least we occupy a common space for some time each week or month and, if we are brave enough, we can discuss any issues that arise.  Each time something like this happens, it is like losing ones innocence again.  I am reminded of other people's lives, people who live in areas where they cannot trust their neighbours or perhaps even their family members.  The underbelly of life can be closer than we imagine.  Ultimately we need to commit to grow to be bigger people than we imagined we could be.  We need to respond.

For now I will let the shock and the anger have their day.  I will wait for the time when compassion takes the lead and then talk with my neighbours.  Not sure what we will talk about but whatever it is I need to re-establish my sense of trust in those who I share a neighbourhood with.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Balancing our perceptions of others

My daughter has just left home to go to university - so she hasn't left for good but it's still been a bit strange.  I don't lead many services, one or two a year.  Last Sunday it was my turn again.  I was restless trying to find a theme, and as I said at the service, I kept circumnavigating the elephant in the room.  Once I recognised this I led the service on change, loss (including loss of role), comfort and healing.  We have had a quite a few bereavements between us over the past three years and we are still dealing with these as individuals and as a community, so I tried to tie this all together.

I used a lot of recorded music - when I am low or thoughtful I turn to music.  I thought that I might cry but I didn't - I think it had been very therapeutic preparing the service.  At the end I thanked them for bearing with my self-indulgence.  However the response that I got was fantastic - many had been through the same and gave me a big hug reassuring me that it would be fine.  I had an interesting exchange with someone who was struggling to find a role.  A previous service that I led last year on families brought a flood of revelations and confidences.

In our own communities we often recognise each others' struggles with life.  We want to reach out but sometimes don't know how. The telling of our own stories can reveal our own vulnerabilities.  This may encourage others to feel sympathy and perhaps empathy.  It may also touch some some nerves and enable a greater sharing of the self.  The more we get to know each other the more we can strengthen our network of relationships.  

This article in the Guardian is about how the general public seem to be viewing Amanda Knox, who has just been found innocent on appeal of Meredith Kurcher's death.  It talks about what one psychologist. Emily Pronin, has called, 'the illusion of asymmetric insight'.  This is essentially about when we communicate with others - our experience of them is their outward appearance and what they say, whilst our experience of ourselves is our own minds.  Which the article says leads to a situation where we think, 'I am infinitely subtle, complex and never quite what I seem; you are predictable and straightforward, an open book'. 

This certainly rang true for me.  How often I have been surprised as I have learnt more and more about people.  Surprisingly we find that they are as complex and interesting as we ourselves are!  To get more symmetry into our relationships we need to know each other better, spending time to get into those complexities of thought and personality.  Being together in open, honest and respectful community is one way to move towards balancing our perceptions of others and of ourselves.

Friday, 7 October 2011


My last post on my Governance4 Unitarians blog was about conflict of interests and mentioned decision-making.  I have decided to put this post here rather than on my Governance blog because I think that how we make decisions can help or hinder the development of our spiritual communities.  Last week I watched  a TV programme about the Calendar Girls as it is the 10th anniversary of their calendar being produced.  It was a major success and afterwards they had two different offers to make a film of how they'd come to make the calendar - the group was split as to which offer to go with.  They voted and the majority carried it which caused a split in the group, which caused much upset and sadness.

I have come across these examples before.  There's a disagreement and someone says, 'Let's vote!' and the majority carries it.  This can lead to a very sour taste in the mouth for the minority.  So is there anything inherently wrong with this approach or have we all just got to grow up a bit?  My personal view is that we have to ask what we are trying to achieve.  There are of course times when a decision needs making and it needs making quickly but there are times when a decision can take years to make.  The decision is important but so is the process.

The important thing to know is how decisions will be made and who needs to be involved.  Any trustee board needs to consider who can make which decisions.  More often than not powers are delegated either to a person or a sub-group of the main group in particular when simple decisions are needed - for example someone contacts you and wants to rent a room.  It is best to have a policy which says who can rent rooms and what the charges are together with a rental agreement and an understanding of what the building's insurance will and will not cover.

But when fundamental decisions need to be made there has to be some thought about how this will be done.  And who will make it - should we open up decision-making to our whole community and not just the board of trustees?  For example, we have been having discussions for several years on how to improve the access to our top floor where we have meals after services and social events which some people cannot get to.  We cannot have these downstairs as we have fixed pews and very poor kitchen and toilet arrangements.  The need to make some kind of decision has become more pressing as some of our community have developed significant mobility issues.

At the end of September we decided to look at re-configuring downstairs which would include removing the pews.  This is a major decision and has been made by everyone as we have explored the possibility of making upstairs accessible and failed to come up with an answer.  It has also been reinforced by a couple of occasions when people have been excluded from what we have done.  This is just the first stage of changing downstairs.  We have no plans yet and much more to discuss.  Whilst we have no written policy we knew that any kind of vote in the early stages of this debate would have split us, probably irrevocably.

Our purpose was to find ways as a community to solve the issues which brought about a real commitment from the whole community.  Against this we have had people who have been excluded from some of what we do.  Whichever way we had done things we would be hurting some people. This is an uncomfortable place to be in for a community which seeks to promote compassion and I am not sure that there is any way to avoid some hurt.  It comes down to a judgement about how to minimise the hurt.

Whatever faces us as communities we would do well to discuss how we make decisions before we make them.  A majority decision vote is one way of doing it but you have to agree to that beforehand.  As communities we need wisdom as well as compassion to make the best decisions that we can at the time.  Perhaps we then need to reflect on how we decided and whether we should do things differently in the future.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Who carries responsibility for action within a group?

Recently I was at a meeting where at least two-thirds of the items on the agenda were things that I needed to talk to and were about things I had either done or papers I had written.  There was an issue where I had not done something and had not done it for about a year.  One person kept on about this.  This person had not done anything as far as I could remember between meetings.  I was very apologetic.  But this did not cut much ice.  I said that it was on the list and it was clear from what I had already done that my list was long (and getting longer!).

As I drove away I was reflecting on times in my life when people have been a bit more supportive.  When friends have just done things - they've invited themselves to stay and re-tiled my bathroom, spent some holiday helping me decorate the hall and stairs, made me sit down whilst they washed up/cooked/did the garden.  They are people whose response is to do - to recognise that something needs doing and not necessarily in their lives - and to do it.  'Why,'I thought, 'did no-one at this meeting say, "Louise you have enough to do, you have done too much already, I will do this"?'

It is so much easier to see a job as belonging to 'you' rather than to' us'.  I will get onto doing this job but it would be interesting to wait to see how long it would take before someone actually steps in and volunteers to get it done.

In our own communities do we see each job as belonging to someone rather than to us as a community?  Do we think that we are there to support each other rather than to criticise.  Sure there are times when individuals fall short but there are also times when we as communities fall short.  We do not make sure the job gets done but we do make sure that the blame gets attributed.  This can isolate people, make them feel unappreciated, make them feel resentful and ultimately may not get the job done.  Let us take more co-operative approaches and focus on how to get the work done.  Let us make our response to problems much more about action than about words.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Active listening and more

I was at our District meeting last night and we were talking about developing community - being active and engaged.  I was talking about listening to people to understand what it is that they want and need.  I was reminded of when I moved from working with one local authority to another in social services.  

In the first local authority for anything to change there was a whole process which meant writing committee papers and getting agreement from several layers of management before planning what to do and blah blah blah ... as the confused and complex process meandered on.  It essentially meant that not very much changed, certainly not much change was instigated from below.  The frustration levels were very high and the services were very outdated and did not serve the local population well.

I moved to the other authority and it couldn't have been more different.  There was encouragement to find solutions locally and to change services quickly in response to need.  When 18 months later I was promoted to manager of a new day services team we had numerous occasions when we heard that people couldn't get to a group or they needed specific help.  As a team we had the authority to start new groups and try new approaches, within boundaries.  This made for a more responsive and more effective service.  You are then not waiting for formal feedback but taking note of conversations and picking up information from a variety of places.  We could set up a new group in a matter of weeks.

This is what we need to do.  If someone has problems or feels that things are not quite working for them then is there a way round that?  There are some very simple things that we can do for example large print hymns, giving people a lift to and from the building or finding out people's food preferences and making sure they are included.  We have a vegan and someone who has an allergy to wheat - you may need a magnifying glass when you got shopping for biscuits but we've found a great variety of oat biscuits that suit both. It is so often the little things and most importantly the attitudes which impact on people.  Does everyone really value me enough so that what I want counts? 

Which begs the question - who needs to do the listening?  In my social services role it was clear that it was me and my staff but we also asked other people who used the service not only about what they thought but also what their observations of how other people were getting along.  We all have a responsibility to listen to each other and to think about solutions to problems.  It can be difficult to ensure that everyone is on board with change - and with significant change this must happen.  But some things - like starting a mid-week service should only matter to those who will have to do something, not those who do not want to get involved.

So active listening and then some - which means finding ways to make the experience of our communities even better as soon as we can after finding out that someone has a problem.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Why belong to a faith community?

I was speaking with my younger brother yesterday - we chat quite a bit over the phone.  We live fifty miles apart and both work from home.  We are both interested in technology and dogs.  He does some casual social care work.  Having been a social worker and manager some years ago I can offer a bit of support and advice.  So we have much in common and are both chatters.

He was talking about his views on life and about ethical living.  I said that that what he was saying sounded very Unitarian (should the adjective have a capital letter?).  He then asked a few questions about whether we prayed at our chapel and whether we got down on our knees.  He then asked, but why do you need to join a group to do this?  Which is a very good question and I guess one that some of us ask ourselves quite frequently.  It's not as if I'm short of friends - I don't get to see my non-Unitarian friends enough.  It's not that I can't have interesting debates with friends, real and virtual.  It's not as if I can't find spiritual stimulation from books and from the Internet.  But these are relationships which have a simplicity.  

Once more than three or four people decide to become something other than just a group of friends then that something takes on an identity which is bigger than the sum of the parts.  It is this thing which we (locally) call community.  We create something which helps us to create our spiritual and ethical selves.  It is the power of the group which we believe in.  However I have been to some congregations which do not have so much of a community feel.  There is sometimes a sub-set of people who feel deeply connected, who feel part of a community, and others who only come to be a member of a congregation.

Can we develop our congregations to become communities?  Do people want that?  It does demand quite an investment, not just in time but also in emotional energy and courage.  We are opening ourselves up.  To date our congregational assessment process has not recognised this as a key element for some local communities.  And if it isn't recognised then perhaps it isn't promoted or even appreciated that this is one choice.

I return to my brother's question - why do I belong to a faith community?  Because this way of being reflects my take on life - that to get the best out of life demands that we put the best into it.  Spirituality is not an add-on, it is integral to the holistic view of human existence and as such the whole human has to be present for our own spirituality to develop.  We can challenge ourselves from the comfort of our own homes or even free-falling in the sky.  But the challenge that is deepening human relationships with people, some of whom we perhaps would not choose to be friends with, has a different feel. 

It is here that the word faith becomes so important.  This is our faith in the goodness of humanity and the faith that others can provide us with much more than we alone can.  I searched long and hard for a spiritual community, feeling incomplete exploring spirituality outside of a faith community.  Every day I am grateful that I have found a community of similar minds who are committed to and enthusiastic in developing something which is bigger than us all.  It isn't always easy but it is always satisfying.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011


Our service on Sunday was led by Phil Silk.  He is a member of our community and a qualified minister (in the US) although he has not had a permanent pulpit (is this how you say it?) since moving to this country many years ago.  The theme was peace and he read a piece that he had written when he was 17 and still at school - not quite sure where he would have been in the US educational system.  It was a marvellous piece written with great passion and depth of knowledge.

I have started writing an on-line diary - my younger brother had alerted me to one application - as usual I surfed the Internet and found another one called Penzu and signed up for that - and I started to write.  I was reminded of the diaries that I kept when I was in my late teens. I have got them from my chest of treasures and have reread bits of them.  I could have written them yesterday - the style and the observations.

Of course I know more now, as does Phil - but knowing more can also be accompanied by having our prejudices hardened and our cynicism more finely tuned.  Observing oneself from a distance of many years it is interesting to note our abilities and thoughts at age 17 and 18.  It highlights the value that young people bring to the table and the reason why we should attempt to engage more with them and just listen.  We may then be able to go back in time and remember ourselves at 17 - full of enthusiasm and hope, perhaps with a view that anything is possible.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The nature of services when developing spiritual community

One thing that I have noticed at our Meeting House is that our services are moving away from 'services' and developing into conversations.  There is often no sermon.  The question, 'what does this all mean for our community?' is never far away.  The service then becomes an open conversation within the community about what is valued and our developing spirituality.

I am reminded of being on the Foundation Worship Studies course.  Two issues that I identified as being key - the first was the difference between leading worship in your own community and elsewhere.  The former should be part of the on-going conversation and development.  The tone will be very different.  Although each service has to be stand-alone so that newcomers, or those who have not been for some time, feel included.  The other issue was the need to look at the service as a whole.  Much of our worship training deconstructs the service so that we have sessions on hymns, readings, music, sermons, delivery and children's stories.  Whereas what I value most is a service which seamlessly includes all of these elements and is driven not be the individual elements but by the purpose of the leader and the theme that they have chosen.

It takes some confidence to move away from traditional ways of service delivery to one where the service leader tries to engage in a dynamic and responsive conversation during the service.  Whether this can be done with large congregations is not clear to me (linking back to my previous posting).  It is also not clear to me if the physical constraints of some of our worship spaces actually helps this.  We have pulpits which are many feet off the ground and pews which mean that we spend much of a service looking at someone else's back and others looking at ours.  Or in some instances actually staring straight at people.  In our own chapel whilst it is possible to move out of the pulpit it is difficult as the CD player and loop mic (mike) are in the pulpit.  We have a hand-held mic (mike) and need to explore how we can set up our sound system to be operated from elsewhere.

Our physical space should work with us as a community, not against us.  Funnily enough I may be having some of these conversations in ten days time on Heritage Open Days when history buffs will perhaps be promoting the preservation of physical space rather than the preservation of our culture, which should be dynamic and led by the needs of the faith community.  Which all leads me to reference comments that I have made on one of Adrian Worsfold's recent blog postings about whether we can agree about what ministry is about.

If we take the view that our task is to build spiritual community then there are consequences far and wide about our buildings, our services and activities, our training, the sorts of people who may be employed by communities, the support that is needed and the body of knowledge that we choose to write down and develop.  This seems to me to be a paradigm shift - or would be if it happened - for Unitarianism.

Large congregations

I write from the experience of belonging to a community with perhaps 40 people in it.  There is a core of about 20 of us and then people who are linked in some way - usually attending services or walks when they can but they have busy lives, are too far away or not well enough to attend frequently.  Within this size of community we can see how we could shape and develop community.  But a posting on Facebook has made me wonder if this could be done with say a community of 200+.

The idea of engagement groups is a way of facilitating deeper relationships within large congregations.  Here between 6-10 people agree to meet up as a minimum monthly to develop closer relationships with others - this may be through a shared activity or through spiritual practice or exploration.  However it appears that this is outside of the main worship activity on Sundays.  So is it possible to create community in large communities during Sunday services?  

I would love the opportunity to view congregations where this works to see how it works. I would love even more if this was our own community.

This posting has led me to think about how our own services are developing but have decided to make this the next posting.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The building blocks of community

The building blocks of community are very simple - they are the individual relationships between people rather than the people themselves.

At our lunch after the service yesterday we only had 12 people - others had had to leave. At first I thought, 'What a shame that we are not large in number'. But as time went on I realised how precious this opportunity was.  An opportunity for us to not just speak with each other but also to have quite long conversations, without thinking that we had to get round to speak with many more people.  The general pattern seems that as we eat our savoury course we attempt a large table discussion - with some side discussions which tend to be short-lived - but then when we have pudding and teas/coffees people form into smaller groups and have more intense conversations.

These tend not to be times for debate and difference but for chats and similarities.  I remember hearing on the radio many years ago that the vast majority of communication is chatting - and we do this to bond.  So in our chatting we learn more about each other and strengthen the bonds that tie us together.  To build community we have to increase the opportunities for this.  Perhaps this should be a rule for community development - allow plenty of opportunities to chat.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Open, honest and loving relationship

I was talking with a friend yesterday about how she was looking for a spiritual community.  She had been to one place and really liked it but then one person was quite rude to her and that put her off.  Which is understandable.  I then spoke about our community and my approach.  Unless you are very easy going (and I am not that!) you probably come across people that you don't warm to or you find difficult or they irritate you or they drive you nuts or ...  And others might feel the same about you/me.  

So is there an imperative to make an effort within our communities to find connection and to get on with one another?  I believe that there is.  We are called to be bigger than we thought we were and to find a connection however slight with everybody.  How do we do this?  We have to spend time with those that we find difficult and we have to listen and we have to speak.  We have to find common ground and we have to feel a sense of equality - that we are two people with the same rights and responsibilities deserving of respect.

This is not to say that we don't judge or at least have an opinion.  Some people have some quite significant personality flaws - they may be mean, they may be lazy or they may be rude.  But normally people aren't like this all of the time.  When faced with people that we find difficult we ask ourselves many things depending on our own personality.  We may ask, 'Am I like this person?' or we may think, 'They remind me of my Dad' or 'Do they like me?' or 'Might it be best if I just avoided them?' or 'Did I do something to make them act that way?'  Sometimes these questions can lead to answers that make us feel uncomfortable about ourselves - either our own sort-comings or memories of difficult relationships in the past.  It may be instructive to stick with these feelings.

We may also think about the person themselves and consider what has led to them being as they are.  This is not about finding excuses but about trying to understand.  Whilst harmonious relationships can bring much joy, disharmonious relationships can bring much understanding and insight.  And, it is hoped, they bring change.  We can commit to changing ourselves and we can believe that the way we approach others can change the way that they behave albeit just when they are with us.

One sign of a healthy community is not that there is no conflict but that conflict is resolved in a healthy way.  That conflict may be about views or approaches or about personalities.  We can avoid these or we can work with them.  When we sing, 'All are welcome here,' we should mean this and be committed to being in open, honest and loving relationship with all: a tall order but a worthy aspiration.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Holding each other in grief

When in community we are relating to people who we know but perhaps don't know that well.  We may know several people well but it is difficult to know everyone.  We had a discussion at the end of July about our social welfare work as individuals and as a community.  We were looking outside of our own community.  I commented that we also needed to look within - we needed to ask, 'What do we do for each other?'

Perhaps the first thing we have to ensure is that we are a community where people can be honest about how they are feeling and where the giving and receiving of help and support are part of our way of being.  This can take many forms - from a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, a reassuring hug, or something more active around problems solving.  For example a lift in a car, changing times of meetings to accommodate people, helping out with children and dependent relatives, visiting in times of need, providing food and giving a bit of advice where other help may be available.  

Within our communities we should be offering active friendship - I purposefully use the term friendship because I think that it is about equal relationships, where we each give and receive.  We do not want to be setting up informal systems or even see informal system evolving where there are a group of people who always give and a group of people who always receive.  Those who give have to get their mind around the fact that they too may need help and learn how to ask for it and receive it gracefully and gratefully - from personal experience I can attest how difficult this can be.  In my case it was an internal dialogue about the meaning of strength - but this is part of another discussion.

My main concern in this posting is about grief.  Grief comes about after loss, often a bereavement but not necessarily.  We all respond differently to grief and what was thought to be a process following clear stages is now seen as highly idiosyncratic to the person and to the circumstances, both about the loss and about what else is going on in life at the time.  Some people are remarkably resilient and manage well and some do not manage at all: most I suspect sit somewhere in between.  My own reaction to the loss of two fathers in one year and two good friends was of a closing down, an inability to think effectively and a real struggle just to get on with life.  This was very marked for at least six months.

In my opinion our bodies are wise, often despite our best intentions.  They create the right conditions to heal.  Closing down is a way to protect ourselves from further hurt, to save energy for actual healing and a time to readjust to our new life - life without that person (or job or house or child living with us - whatever the loss is).  There may be reminders around us which trigger an emotional response - for me when I see a silver Mercedes I think of my Dad and fill up.  Without knowing this you might be a little surprised at my reaction to a car! 

Within our communities there may be lots of people in various states of grief.  One friend told me it took her seven years to get over the death of her mother.  To support people in healing we have to be present - be with people, talk about the hurt and the pain, recognise their real and deeply felt experience of loss and not expect an immediate return to normal service. We as communities have to create a safe, secure and comfortable place for people to lick their wounds and regain their strength and purpose.  But we also have to be joyous and fun and engaged with the world - a reminder that life goes on.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

What attaches people to their community

Surfing the Internet for something about soulful community I came across a site about a project called Soul of the Community.  It says this

What makes a community a desirable place to live? What draws people to stake their future in it? Are communities with more attached residents better off?

Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation launched the Knight Soul of the Community project in 2008 with these questions in mind. After interviewing close to 43,000 people in 26 communities over three years, the study has found that three main qualities attach people to place: social offerings, such as entertainment venues and places to meet, openness (how welcoming a place is) and the area’s aesthetics (its physical beauty and green spaces).

Whilst our meeting houses, chapels and churches are not neighbourhoods it is worth thinking about these three characteristics
  • Social offering;
  • Welcome; and
  • Beauty. 
Although we believe that people are attached to others in a community and not the physical building, many of us have a very open love for our worship space and the place where we meet.  When newcomers first walk through our doors they will be confronted with our welcome and the physicality of the place.  So this seems to be quite a good starting point.  Time for a bit more thinking.

Friday, 29 July 2011

How can we measure a community's soulfulness?

I have been busier than usual and so my reading for pleasure has been books with short chapters and snippets.  I have returned to a book called Journey to the Light edited by Linda Jones and Sophie Stanes which is about people of religion and their encounters with doubt.  There are some fascinating stories but the one that I love the most is from Rabbi Lionel Blue.  He is my secret crush - not so secret now!

I like Lionel Blue for, amongst other things, his humanity and absolute faith in God - which he calls WW (Whomsoever, Whatsoever).  He casts a critical eye over religion - Christianity as well as Judaism, and writes about every day encounters with WW.  It was one of his books which gave me permission to be religious - to be able to think in terms of faith as quite pragmatic and integral to life rather than dogmatic and church-based.

Here's what he writes about growing up.

'We have to be careful because sometimes we grow up and we don't allow God to grow up as well.  You end up as an adult and God as he was at the Sunday school stage.  I remember a boy at barmitzvah who asked me. 'Rabbi, do you believe everything you read in the book of scrolls?'  I replied, 'Of course not, some of it's unbelievable,' and he looked really shaken.  I said to him, 'You're supposed to become an adult today, you've asked me a question, so here's an adult answer.  The best way of looking at it is that the book is the beliefs and experiences of all our ancestors, our forefathers and foremothers.  You've got your own truth and you've got to add it on.  You can't be your own grandfather.'  I tell my students that they should be careful not to be trapped by religious rules.  They've got to find Whomsover, Whatsoever wherever it is.  They've got to make their own journey.'

As Unitarians we don't need telling this.  As individuals we are committed to finding and following our own path or perhaps forging our own path would be a better description.  And as communities we must do the same.  Each community is different and has its own path to forge.  As our own individual paths cross and collide we create a wonderful magic that is religious community - or not.

If we think that we are not creating magic - then what is it that is holding us back?  Do people themselves know the issues?  I suspect that in many communities at least a few people will know what the difficulties are and why, but there may be some communities where people really cannot fathom what the problem is.  We have congregational assessment forms which give us an idea of how the patient is doing - all the vital signs are being checked - but still there is something missing.  

I think that we might call this the soul of the community.  What is our community's higher purpose?  Is there a dynamic or are we stuck?  Does each individual feel that they matter and that they help to create the whole?  How is a community's soulfulness expressed?  Is our community's soul mature, has it grown as we have grown or has it remained as a Sunday school soul?

Is there something more profound than the congregational assessment form that we can create which helps communities move into more soulful being?  This needs some thinking - I am not sure whether it needs a lot or a little.  If anyone has any thoughts then please do comment.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Charter for Compassion & UHU

There is something warm and fuzzy about signing up to a Charter for Compassion.  It says this about what it is about

The Golden Rule requires that we use empathy -- moral imagination -- to put ourselves in others' shoes. We should act toward them as we would want them to act toward us. We should refuse, under any circumstance, to carry out actions which would cause them harm.

Which seems to me to be a good start. However there is something to me about action which demands something of us.  If compassion were easy, why would there be all the fuss about it?  And so we have to ask ourselves - what can I do?  What cost am I prepared to pay to put compassion into practice?

It is often easier to do things for people that we don't know - give some money for a good cause or sign a petition.  It is can be more difficult to do something for those that we know.  How do we show compassion for those around us?  Within our own Unitarian communities - local, national and international - what might we be called to do?  

The issue of money is a touchy subject. And yet for many people the issue is about money.  I remember when my daughter was small that I would use her Christmas money to pay for food so that we could eat during the month of January until I got paid when I would pay her back.  Single-parenthood brought financial difficulties which I had not experienced since my childhood.  And because I had experienced them in my childhood it took me back to those times when I felt helpless and different to my friends.  Money is an emotive subject for a variety of reasons.

During the years friends have paid for hotel stays when I have gone away with them as they knew that I would struggle to afford it.  Another friend in a two-income, no-child household sent me a cheque for over £500 when an assurance policy matured - he and his partner's kindness meant so much.  I have been touched by such actions - love in action.  To make real a person's love and concern by doing that very practical thing of providing money has meant so much to me and to my life.

Perhaps I am sensitized to this and I am glad that I am.  I have tried to be supportive of friends and those in our local community who struggle.  It is not easy for those in need and those trying to help.  I once sent a friend of mine some money and my mother told me off - as if it was not the thing to do.  On the phone I asked my friend if she felt offended - ready to apologise - on the contrary she had needed money at that point and was glad of it.

Many of us live in a world where we always have enough money for the mortgage, the food, the utility bills and more besides.  But many of us do not.  We may stand side by side with people every Sunday whose circumstances are very different to ours.  We don't have special pews or boxes these days for those with the money.  We are all in it together.  

Should Unitarians try to do something about this?  And if so what? To help those Unitarians wanting to attend training events and conferences I have started a Facebook page - UHU (Unitarians Helping Unitarians).  There are three rules - which are
  • Ask when you are in need;
  • Give when you can; and
  • Give what you can. 
I know the importance of getting a financial leg-up.  I hope that others will be motivated to help fellow Unitarians in financial need.  It could, and most probably will, change someone's life.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Shaping the Future

The results of the Hibbert Trust funded project can be found here. Interestingly for a publication which extols us to use new media there is as far as I can see no on-line forum to engage us all in the debate. For a document that is supposed to shape our future it looks suspiciously like something that is mired in our past. The last paragraph says this

However, the group has been able to offer pointers. These primarily concern communication; involvement in contemporary issues of concern, whether social, political, or global; and a spirituality that is based on active acceptance of the individual and his or her needs. Thus principles have been identified on which action can be based.

The project cost thousands of pounds and involved people giving up a lot of their time and energy and this is the result. So social action and individual spiritual need - sounds very 19th century to me. If anyone is interested in a debate I have posted this link onto the UK Unitarian Facebook group.

Time to think more creatively than this, to do real collaborative enquiry (if that's what we want to do) and to produce documents which look and feel modern and appealing to the eye.

Oh dear!

Monday, 27 June 2011

Storming once more

We had a short workshop over the weekend looking at publicity and the like. There were six of us - several people had had problems getting there. We all knew each other and as far as I know liked each other and yet ... At times it seemed like we were meeting for the first time - storming away - trying to establish ourselves in the group, sometimes not listening and at times seeming to fall out over minor details. Thankfully we ended with agreement and with some actions.

I could have been frustrated by process. Perhaps I should have structured it. But my experience at previous workshops is that people like an input into the agenda. Perhaps I had not been calm enough at the beginning - it was my birthday and I had had several emails, Facebook messages, texts and phone calls before I left home and then two en route about the workshop. One was when I was trying to buy a paper and one was as I was parking the car. Of the six people, four thought it started at 9.30 a.m., one at 9.00 a.m. and one at 10.00 a.m. And at least two of the people were in the midst of some work-based and/or home-based stress. So perhaps ever-wonder that we were all a bit jumpy and not quite meshing together.

We can always look to the negatives and ask what went wrong? Or we can look to the positives and think, with all the confusion and the tired individuals, we actually ended as friends and we ended with achievements - which was an achievement in itself. Things aren't always going to run smoothly and there are times when we begin to doubt ourselves and our communities, but this is how life is. If we are to be authentic then sometimes that's not pretty!

But what it certainly does remind me is that I will take nothing for granted. Every day (or at least a few times a week) I have to consciously work on myself and on my relationships. Whilst there is a time for negativity and despair, that time must not be the end but the beginning of doing things just a little bit better.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Talking of the individual and healing

People can get lost in communities - they can be quite happy being unnoticed but not always so. And anyway what is community for but to recognise the other - in a safe and loving environment?

On Monday night I attended a very inspirational midsummer's eve gathering at the Meeting House. This was not a special do but one of our monthly meditational gatherings where we take a less structured approach, more music, fewer words and, by and large, no hymn singing. The woman leading it has been with us a couple of years and has led services before. Yesterday evening's was a good one - wonderful words and a great sense of spiritual connectedness in these and the music. On walking out into the rain she said something along the lines of, 'I think that I am getting used to speaking publicly."

For those of us who will speak to anyone, at any time, about practically anything, it is hard to imagine how some people fear public speaking. I remember winning a vote to attend a union conference (I was in my late twenties) when the local shop steward had failed to get enough votes. He asked if I would give my place to him because he was proposing a motion and I would have to do this if he wasn't there. Talking to 3,000 - bring it on! He would have been more successful if he'd said that I wouldn't be allowed to speak. But for some the idea of speaking to others, as when leading a service, can be unthinkable. Just as some people won't wash up - but perhaps that's not about fear :)

We can offer support and hand-holding and then be amazed and delighted at the result. The ancient link between 'church' and 'psychology' had been lost by the twentieth century but in the latter part of the century with ideas like holism it has crept back in. We recognise the difficulties that separating out parts of ourselves can lead to. We are not offering psychotherapy but a place to address our own demons - sharing them with others and working towards either overcoming them or accommodating them more comfortably.

For many our communities are not just spiritual homes but places where we can bring ourselves for 'healing'. The healing comes about through our relationships and how we support each other in moving towards being that person that we were born to be. It seems to me that this is one of the prime responsibilities for us as spiritual community members - both in supporting others and also in being brave in looking as honestly as we can at ourselves and being bold in committing to personal change.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Parenting our communities

Gosh I've been busy! And I love it - I love having things to do, places to go to and people to see. I love to meet new people and perhaps above all I like to be useful. I am not alone in needing to be useful. As our lives shift and re-shape we need to find new ways to be useful. As a parent we need to be mindful of our children's changing needs if we are to maintain our usefulness.

My daughter is now 18 and driving. She can cook her own meals if need be and doesn't need much apart from money and a place to sleep - well that's in the physical sense. What she does really need is a mum who will listen, talk, give advice, provide support, calm things down, crank things up and generally love her well as she prepares to move onto the next phase of her life. Change brings with it excitement and anxiety and usually a sense of leaving something behind as well as moving towards something new. I find myself listening to my daughter both about the excitement of moving on but also about the sadness of leaving her childhood and her existing life behind - it will never be the same again.

This is very much like communities. We can sense that we are moving onto the next stage of our development - so who is there for us who will listen, talk, give advice ...? Who will be a parent to our community? Who will listen to our fears of change, be with us to experience the thrill of the new and the sadness at leaving some things behind?

To some extent we do this ourselves and if we have a minister who can take a more objective view then that can be very helpful. Perhaps there is someone in the District or nationally who can be there. If we are to feel confident in our development I suspect that many of us would like some wise counsel and a steady hand to help us on our way. How can we make this happen for each other?

Monday, 30 May 2011

What do we expect from life?

I was visiting another chapel yesterday - the service was on the theme of joy. Towards the end the service leader said something along the lines of what a dreadful six months the world had had with earthquakes and tsunamis; the threat of nuclear contamination; and the Arab uprisings bringing death and destruction. There may have been more - my memory tends to be a bit hazy these days.

I was struck by this reflection on the last six months - there had been many days when there were no earthquakes and no tsunamis. There were countries where there was no political unrest and no civil war. There would probably be many people who would say that they had had a good six months.
And anyway, 'What do we expect of life?'

Whether we believe the gods or God has a hand in it, what is our expectation? That life will always be trouble free, that the sun will shine during the day and it will rain only at night? That all people will live together in harmony? That the natural world will always be at peace?

We only have to look at Wikipedia on the
page on natural disasters to see that they happen on a fairly frequent basis - for example did you know that 56,000 people died in Russia last year due to a heat-wave? On the page on ongoing conflicts over 15,000 died last year in Mexico's war on drugs. So part of this is about what gets reported -perhaps a heat-wave is not as spectacular as an earthquake plus a tsunami, despite it killing many more people. Perhaps the war on drugs only kills people who are seen to be guilty.

I think that we need to accustom ourselves to the facts: our world can be a dangerous place. We, here in the UK, in 2011 are fortunate to live at a time and a place when we are safer than the vast majority of humanity.
So it is not just when the news tells us that there are dreadful events happening but all the time that we need to be mindful of our own privilege and not squander it.

As a faith community we have a duty to find out about the world around us and to talk about such things – Channel 4’s Unreported World is for me a recently discovered gem. We also have a duty to give something of ourselves – something that costs us. It is in community that we can nudge and be nudged. There is no joy in seeing others suffer but there is joy in knowing that together we can all make a difference, even those of us who only have a ‘widow’s mite’. We can make a difference to at least one person – probably someone we don’t know but nevertheless connected to us by the life and spirit which flow through us all.