Thursday, 22 March 2012

A sense of place

Local communities are about people. But is that all? 

It is interesting to note how many Unitarian websites have the picture of a building on their home page. I considered this for ours and decided against it - I wanted the community to appear to be bigger than just the building. I also purposefully chose the domain name '' to denote that people came from all over Staffordshire (and some from Cheshire but that would make the name a bit long) and to denote a network rather than .org or .co for an organisation or a company. Perhaps people don't notice those things but it was important for me - I wanted the greatest flexibility and the greatest sense of inclusion.

And yet ... I was at the Meeting House yesterday with Barbara, cleaning up. We hadn't done it properly for a couple of months so although it was tidy it was a little grubby in corners. It looked lovely afterwards. I have to say that the Meeting House does make my heart sing and my soul smile. Some people are unemotional about buildings but I expect that the vast majority of us are very fond, perhaps even love, some buildings and not just our own homes.

Our Meeting House was built on a shoestring in 1717 so it is not per se a beautiful building. I am not a particularly visual person and cannot imagine any photograph could encapsulate what I feel about the Meeting House or the chapel within it. When we use the word 'home' we can feel a warm fuzziness full of emotional content. How would I encapsulate that for our beloved Meeting House? Perhaps I don't have to. Perhaps people have to experience it themselves.

So back to the original question - is a community just about people? I don't think so. It is about how humans and their sacred space interact. To some extent the building represents the continuity of the community. Whilst we may disagree about how much importance, time, effort and money we expend on our buildings, we recognise their importance to that thing that we call spiritual community.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

That multi-faceted jewel

It is often difficult to define what holds a local Unitarian community together let alone our national and international community. To be able to call ourselves a community we must share something.  As a faith community I would suggest that what we share is faith. But what does this mean?  

I recently read something which advertised us as a faith for all beliefs and none.  But does anyone exist without beliefs? Probably not - so is this about a belief in God? Either you believe in God or you don't (however you may describe God) - or you simply don't know. Is this statement saying that we are a faith for theists, agnostics and atheists? In this sense it is not a belief in God which identifies you as a Unitarian. But what does? 

The thing that communities share is the thing that not only includes but it also excludes. If not then we are describing humanity. As a Unitarian community we do not want to be there for everyone whatever their beliefs. There are clearly some beliefs which we do not accept - religious beliefs which we believe are inherently un-Unitarian. Which takes us back to an old chestnut - describing Unitarians by what we don't believe rather than by what we do.

If we are going to become more distinctive as a faith in these changing times we need to focus on what we are. The glue that makes the diversity of Unitarian experience, thought and belief coalesce into a meaningful whole. Whilst not all people who attend Unitarian services will call themselves Unitarians and whilst we have people with dual or multiple allegiances there is a core to our beliefs when we are in community. 

As I was sitting at our District Songs of Praise on Sunday, having been to my own community's Sunday morning service, I felt a real sense of community with people who I knew believed very different things from me. I sang hymns which I would not normally sing. Whilst singing the words I knew were meaningful to others I gave them my own meaning. I found great joy in being able to love what they loved.

As a glass half-full sort of a pragmatist I am aware that I see sun where many see shadows. Whilst I may not agree with people about Jesus' role in my own religious experience I can relate to the meaning that this gives to people's lives.  I can relate to hope, to love and to doing the right thing. I can relate to a sense of something more powerful than me.  I can relate to wanting to show reverence . 

This may not be enough for some people but for me it is what I value in our diverse community.  We try to find shared meaning and understanding - we try to find the ties that bind. We try to see past language and individual belief to the whole - that multi-faceted jewel of which we only glimpse a part.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Leadership as service

Many of our problems in life come from how we communicate with each other - the giving of opinion and information and the receiving of both. Having just had a fairly controversial piece (on the 2020 Programme concerned with congregation planting) published in the Inquirer, it is fascinating to observe how people have interpreted it. The views that worry me are those who think that I am (a) being negative and (b) against change. 

It is always easier to make a sweeping judgement - we do these things all the time. I say 'we' because I see myself doing it. It is always easier to label the person that we don't agree with as 'other' - to give them characteristics that we don't consider ourselves to have ... being negative, anti-change, conservative, old-fashioned and so on. What this does is close down debate - if there is one.  On the issue that I have written about there has been no debate outside of the General Assembly's Executive Committee and staff, or if there has it has been carried out in private.

I could go on about this particular issue but this is not my point.  My point is about how we develop spiritual community. I will re-post a section from my other blog, Governance4Unitarians

The Charity Commission identifies six key principles for good governance. The last of these is being open and accountable. It says this

An effective board will provide good governance and leadership by being open and accountable.  The Board will lead the organisation in being open and accountable, both internally and externally. This will include:

  • open communications, informing people about the organisation and its work;
  • appropriate consultation on significant changes to the organisation’s services or policies
  • listening and responding to the views of supporters, funders, beneficiaries, service users and others with an interest in the organisation’s work;
  • handling complaints constructively and effectively; and
  • considering the organisation’s responsibilities to the wider community, for example its environmental impact.

Whilst, as someone remarked to me, we do not need to be driven by the Charity Commission in all that we do, I do think that as Unitarians we should welcome and promote open and accountable governance. In co-creating spiritual community we need to hear what people are truly saying; we need to try not to label them, as a way to argue against them, but engage with the issues;and those of us who lead our local or national communities need to be accountable.

As leaders, we are not just accountable for a bit of what we do, we are accountable for all of it. We are not at war with those that we lead, we are serving them.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Pastoral care

I visited one of our old members on Saturday.  I have not seen her for ages.  She was 99 the next day and has severe dementia.  She did not recognise me or even remember the Meeting House. I felt very sad as I sat with her, holding her hand, barely speaking.  She had a TV guide in front of her and was trying to make sense of it. The dates which were in the previous week did not help. I had written out a card and put her address on the envelope in case I hadn't had time to visit. She kept reading this and knew that the place was a home but did not recognise that that's where she lived. I slid it into my bag.

I have worked in social services and within communities but I have not come across dementia very much. I was concerned at my lack of knowledge and my being stumped in terms of how I might be able to help. Sometimes, probably most times, we just want to make things better. It seems to me that if we are to offer pastoral support that sometimes we need professional support. I thought that next time I might take some photos of when she attended the Meeting House but will that help?

I am moved to ask how we respond as communities when people are unable to connect with us, not because they don't want to but because they can't? Do they ever stop being one of us? We are fairly lucky although we only have a very part-time minister he does do pastoral visits and several other community members keep in touch with those who can no longer get to us. The National Unitarian Fellowship provides an opportunity to make links with others but that is perhaps a little impersonal for some. It is the human contact between people who have shared a worship space and a loving community.

Can all communities and congregations provide support to all its members that cannot get to services? What do we know about the needs for support at home or in residential care? Sometimes the support we are called to provide is to relatives. And then there is the sticky question of the funeral - although we all need to think about this I suppose. I would like to see us provide much more help in supporting the giving of pastoral care. I don't know what training ministers get but I haven't seen anything for lay people.

Pastoral care is love in action, often it goes unnoticed in the larger scheme of things, but always it is valued and very much appreciated.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Looking out or looking in

There has been a discussion on the closed Unitarian Facebook about whether our spiritual focus should be on us as a community or should have a more outward focus. I guess that my most fundamental question would be - if I belong to a faith community and I am expected to nourish others then where do I get my spiritual nourishment from? I write this as a compulsive giver. A compulsive giver who is worn out. A compulsive giver who reckons that she has to stop and accept nourishment from others - to be self-focused.

Maybe I should channel all my giving through my faith community but I don't.  I have been involved in volunteering for over three-quarters of my life.  It is a well-embedded compulsion! I probably spend two days a week on voluntary activity - as a minimum.  I write business plans, newsletters, maintain websites etc etc. What I want my faith community to do is to give me permission to stop - to walk with me as I recognise a harmful pattern of behaviour, as I try to change my approach to one of greater balance.

And here's the key - it's not about looking outwards or looking inwards, it's about the needs of the community and achieving balance. My experience of Unitarian faith communities is that they are full of doers.  Those people who volunteer, work unpaid overtime, care for family friends and neighbours, give their money to charities and generally try to be good citizens. It is not always about outreach sometimes it really is about healing ourselves. That may be seen as selfish. When we eat our dinners do we eat guiltily and nervously thinking that we should be feeding a hungry person rather than ourselves?  This is what it feels like.  It feels like I should feel guilty about wanting spiritual nourishment.

We cannot function as a faith community if everyone in that community is malnourished.  The function of a spiritual community is to provide spiritual nourishment. This world has plenty of opportunities to give of ourselves to others, sometimes it is perfectly OK just to do things for ourselves.