Discussion of Commission on Appraisal Report “Belonging: The Meaning of Membership” (Part III)

Summary

Commission on Appraisal Report: “Belonging: The Meaning of Membership”
(Part III) March 26, 2017 (Final Discussion)

Led by Rev. Nan Hobart

Based on pp. 77-102, “Pathways to Growth,” and “Investing in Youth and Young Adults”

Overview of Previous Chapters

  • Membership is a progression of identification, affiliation, and commitment
  • The act of becoming a member of a congregation is an act of commitment
  •  Being a member is an act of incarnation – how do I embody the values of this congregation and change it even as I am being changed?

Summary of “Pathways to Growth” Chapter

  • Growth here is approached mainly as bringing people in who have been on the margins
  • Extra-congregational organizations (ECOs) are a way of expanding the space of Unitarian Universalism – providing the space where people can be together and practice their own religious preferences within the context of Unitarian Universalism.  They include groups that focus on
    • Theology
    • Race and culture
    • Sexual orientation and gender
    • Political and economic orientation
    • Camps and conferences that offer the opportunity to live with other UUs in community
  • For some members the ECO rather than the congregation is the focus of UU membership.  This creates a tension for those who think the congregations should be the center of the denomination
  • This Commission on Appraisal report views the strengths of the ECO’s in a way that is not always done within the denomination.
  • Identify-based ECO’s have created definite tensions within the denomination, but they have made a difference within the denomination.  They allow people to consider the question of how their identity affects their participation in the denomination.  “Is there a place here for people like me?”
  • Not all potential members of identity groups have a need to participate in them.  Rev. Nan shared her own experience of identifying as a UU Christian but never joining the UU Christian Fellowship (UUCF).

 

Responses to the invitation to share questions and experiences related to ECO’s:

  • Women’s groups have been important in the history of First Unitarian Chicago.  At first they met mainly during the day with evening meetings for women who worked.  By 1969 when Rev. Jack Mendelsohn became minister that began to change as most women began to have jobs.  “Women were beginning to stir!”  The Chicago Area Fellowship for Renewal was a continental group of UU churches that had a Chicago chapter.  They had a sense of outreach responsibility and put on many programs in the area.  The organization, which was closely aligned with the national group, made a difference in the lives of its members and gave them the energy to keep things going.

 When I joined the church there were very few other black women here.  The white women in this group [two of whom were present at the discussion] were a great support to me and encouraged me to attend regional meetings.  Since First Church was the only UU church in the area that had black members, I felt a responsibility to represent First U at the area meetings.

  • I am a relatively new (black) member of the congregation.  I have been reading “Arc of the Universe” (a history of the struggle against racism in the UUA beginning “with the passage of the racial and cultural diversity resolution at Calgary, in Canada, in 1992 and traces developments through General Assembly 2006”).  I have observed that there has been a lot of separation in the denomination beginning with the Black Empowerment movement around 1968.  I recently attended the convening meeting of the Black UU Organizing Collective and many of the group seemed to want to be separate.  I wish to be seen and heard by the entire congregation and not in a separate group, so my question is how, as a black woman, to I fit into this.  Is the black women’s group at First U an ECO?  Do we support all ECO’s?  Are there criteria?

 

Rev. Nan’s Response:  There is a lot of tension in the denomination around some of these groups, especially those that hold particular views.

  • I participate in the First U black women’s social group.  I empathize with the desire  to meet socially but not as part of the church.  The group is not what it means to me to be part of the church.  Some people want to be part of affinity groups, but I get more out of struggling inside the larger group for meaning.  The full responsibility for being engaged is what attracted me to membership here.  I do not mind telling my story in our larger groups.  We have to be careful that as we support these ECO’s we do not shoot ourselves in the foot.  I want us to be part of a movement and to do that we need to be unified.  My pathway to identity and finally membership here was through my kids.  This opened me up to everyone in the congregation.
  • The congregation is important.  Many of us had had the need to meet in special groups.  But my concern is the way in which the UUA seems to try to solidify certain points of view and in the process demonizes multi-racialists.  I hope we are identified as a congregation with many paths.  Our role is to build bridges.
  • We should be an inclusive congregation
  • My question about ECO’s is do they emphasize their particular identity or their being UU’s.
  •  At what point does an identify group become antithetical to our UU values.  There is no structure asking them to account for themselves.
  • I think First U has a unique situation because our theological interest groups were established as part of Rev. Nina Grey’s spiritual pluralism project – as part of the congregation and not in opposition to it.  I often asked whether these groups asked themselves the question “Why are we UU’s instead of the theologies we are celebrating?”  Also, I agree about the UUA promoting certain interest groups.  I remember the year we arrived at General Assembly and found out that the only ECO the UUA was going to recognize as an affiliate organization was DRUUMM – the others had been disaffiliated.  I once felt that as a lay leader I could figure out how the denomination and the congregation worked and work in it; I no longer feel that way about either.
  • I am a relatively new member and not privy to much of what you are talking about, and I don’t know what these various groups are.  It seems only reasonable to me that we would have smaller groups to attend to people’s interests.  So what is the problem?  [We later clarified for this member of our group that many of the organizations we were referring to were denominational groups, not necessarily First U groups.  Rev.  Nan clarified that the identity groups were based on commonalities about which people had no choice.]
  • We are not really part of the UUA.  I never knew anybody who was really interested in the UUA.  It seems to me there is something strange about that.
  • Since I joined I have tried to learn as much as I can about the UU’s and about Black Lives in the UUA.  When we came back from General Assembly we gave a forum, but it was poorly attended.  Since the last General Assembly the Black UU Organizing Collective has asked the board of trustees to support it, and the board has promised $5 million (documented in the UU World) over the next couple of years.  On the list of conveners, only one person had a congregational affiliation by their name.

There was a general consensus that we needed to continue this discussion.

 

Introduction to “Investing in Youth and Young Adults” chapter

  • When asked, about half of us raised our hands that we had grown up in a church
  • Question:  What do we owe our youth?
    • Acceptance
    • Religious education
    • Belonging
    • Safety
    • Welcoming
    • Openness to difference
  • There were varying opinions as to how successful we were in offering these things.
  • Most churches are not successful in giving youth what we owe them.  There are many reasons for this, including the many conflicts for families on Sunday mornings that keep youth from attending regularly.
  • We sometimes forget the ways in which we as a congregation are special and the special things we have to offer our youth.  We are more likely to keep them as UUs if we manage to involve them in the church.
  • The UUA has tried to form youth societies with varying degrees of success, but they have not survived.

Comments from the group:

  • The congregation reflects the overall society.  Children are influenced by their peers.  How do you raise a child?  How do you deal with a child during puberty?  It is hard to know “how tightly to hold the reins.”
  • Teenagers need an adult in their lives.  We used to have a program of adult mentoring of Coming of Age youth.  I don’t know where that stands now.  I didn’t feel the selection of mentors was an open process.  I think we need to continue this discussion
  • I have experience trying to interest students in the environment.  I remember when families used to come out and do things together.  Now large groups of kids come, most of whom don’t seem to be interested.  It seems to be much more organic when families come together.
  • We need to think in terms of membership.  I have always thought that the culmination of the coming of age process should be an invitation to the youth to join the congregation.
  • Are the children attached to each other as well as to the church?

Rev. Nan’s closing comments:

  • We have good connections here with RE and we should be proud of what we do.  The little kids enjoy seeing each other, but people don’t have the same kinds of connections as they get older as they used to.
  • In my previous ministries I would have children in RE until they reached seventh grade.  After that they would come to church, AND they would spend 1.5 hours with me on Thursday nights.  We ate, talked, and the kids wound up participating in the church.  They grew in their sense of presence and understanding, and they remained in the church.  One girl skipped a major soccer match so she wouldn’t miss the Thursday night meeting.
  • Eventually I went through the by-laws with these groups of youth.  We read the sections of the by-laws, I asked them why they thought such a thing was part of the by-laws, and then I was able to explain things that happened in the history of the church that made certain by-laws necessary.  They enjoyed studying the by-laws.  If they had been asked ahead of time whether they would like to study the by-laws, they probably would have declined.
  • Our youth need to know they are respected and liked and then have people in the congregation spend time with them.  They are so much smarter than we think they are.
  • It is not enough just to ask our youth what they want to do, because they don’t know all the things they might potentially become interested in.

 

Again, many participants hoped we would find a way to continue our conversation.