Excellence in Ministry

28 November 2008

PeaceBang has closed the comments for her post about the Excellence in Ministry summit, and probably with good reason. These things always seem to get out of hand.

But I’ve had one thought about our terminology here that seems relevant, without presuming to fully answer any of the questions she’s posed. The usual term, in a Christian church, for the person UUs usually call the minister, is “pastor.” This grates against UUs for all sort of reasons, some of them legit: it smacks of hierarchy and patriarchy, among other things.

But doesn’t it undermine our stated commitment to “ministry of all believers” to confine that name to the ordained? One of the churches I work with as an organizer lists in its order of service, “Ministers: All Members of ___________ Church. Pastor: Rev. John Jones.” Doesn’t something like that better reflect our ideal of ministry?

I think that this is a place where the UU compulsion to purge all things Christian has really damaged (what I would like to be?) our understanding of ministry.

Update: Christine Robinson is live-blogging the summit here.

On the “Charter for Compassion”

16 November 2008

I guess I have three closely related reasons (plus a new, stand-alone bonus reason — for a limited time only!) for being uncomfortable with this effort, and for being so immediately dismissive, as much as I generally like Karen Armstrong’s books.

1. There seems to be a reductionism at work here which I find annoying and dangerous. For me, for example, I don’t think that the Golden Rule is “fundamental.” as they say, to the Christian faith; I think it proceeds from certain theological commitments which are fundamental. It’s important to get these words right, since words seem to be all it’s about.

2. I think it’s a mistake to reduce the idea of good or redemptive works to the idea of “compassion,” a word which smacks far more of mercy than of justice. Again, important to get the words right.

3. “Jim”, in the comments to PeaceBang’s post on this, wondered about such derision of an “almost cloyingly benign” effort, AS THOUGH THAT WERE A GOOD THING!

What used to be called main-line churches (a term which is more usefully culturally than theologically, and which for me includes most Catholics and UUs) have made a fetish out of ineffectiveness. In terms of our prophetic ministry, we have taken impotence as evidence of virtue. So yes, anything that digs the Church deeper into fecklessness is rightly the object of derision.

4. This is supposed to a worldwide effort but on this site and in a search in several different languages, all of this material seems to only be available in English. I could be wrong, though.

(crossposted as a comment over at PeaceBang)

What organizers aren’t

4 October 2008

From a multi-part series: “Benjamin takes several months to get around to responding to all the crazy shit that’s been said about organizing thanks to Sarah Palin.”

One of the reasons that Sarah Palin can claim confusion about what community organizers to is that there’s no agreement, even (especially?) among the many people who call themselves organizers on what organizers do. By my lights, the defenses of “organizing” made since then have obscured more than they have clarified.

I want to write a little bit about the sort of organizing that I do, and that Barack Obama did, which is congregation-based community organizing in the tradition of Saul Alinsky. Whatever 60s-radical patina the word “organizer” has (that appeals to some and repels others), it comes largely from this tradition.

Read the rest of this entry »

Black homophobia

3 October 2008

I’m down with my buddy Jamelle in this ongoing discussion of black homophobia. I have some thoughts on this for later, maybe. But it’s Friday morning, and there’s work to do.

Nehemiah & Prophetic Power

2 October 2008

For a clear Biblical example of what I mean by prophetic power in this post, see Nehemiah 5 (link to KJV, ’cause it’s prettier).

Simply talking does not make you a prophet. Sometimes, it makes you a fool.

2 October 2008

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” – Matthew 10:16

Bill Sinkford, president of my estranged religious home, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has decided he wants to have a dialogue with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran. There’s a great debate going on about whether this, and the crowing press release from the UUA, was a good idea. I think it was a bad idea, not just because it was with the president of an oppressive regime, but because it reflects a misunderstanding of what it means to be prophetic which is wrong and naive.

What makes or breaks a democracy is not “public dialogue,” but widely distributed political power. Ahmedinejad can “dialogue” precisely because an oppressive political system means that he is never forced to be responsive to anything that may emerge out of the dialogue. This doesn’t hold anyone accountable because it doesn’t force them to be responsive.

The prophetic voice is one that builds organized, strategic power to hold power people accountable for their bad actions. Instead, we put out press releases and pass resolutions. This episode is not a prophetic stand. This is masturbation, only more dangerous. (And probably messier.)

To be prophetic we don’t just want a relationship — “king-to-jester” is a relationship — we want a relationship of mutual respect. I would want my (future) kid to talk to bullies, yes — but to stand up to them, not to “ask them questions,” and certainly not for the fleeting thrill of poking some other bully in the eye. We get respect with public officials by being powerful.

To be prophetic, we have to talk as equals. In other words, not “dialogue,” but negotiation. Moses didn’t go up to Pharaoh to get to know him better, he did it to negotiate: “Do this, or else.” And he could do that because he had power to back it up. In his case, God’s plagues; in ours, the power of organized people.

President Bush may not hold as many press conferences as I like, but he is accountable for this as for other things in a way the Iranian president never has been — witness the initial failure of the bailout, or the 2006 congressional elections. And Bill Sinkford and the UUA have never done anything I know of that has made any public official more accountable.

As for the idea that we should have a relationship with them for “pastoral” reasons, i.e. to help him see the error of his ways, this is (1) stupid, given that UUs don’t even count as “people of the book,” and are thus unlikely to be listened to by a conservative Muslim, and (2) is better done in private anyway, if we really care about the state of his soul.

Updated: a couple of times for clarity and typos.

Updated again: My further comment on this issue, in response to this comment by Fred:

There is a need to develop some level of talking points in any conflicted relationships. There is a need to have some sort of level playing ground from which to build to those more difficult points of disagreement. The current adminstration has stated that no conversations with Ahmadinejad would occur without some sort of pre-conditions. Of course, then Condi Rice did meet with his representatives so one has to wonder what were the pre-conditions if any, to allow that meeting. Some of those pre-conditions might occur at a lower level of interaction. Enter the Peace and Reconciliation folk.

They have no authority to alter current foriegn policy with Iran but they can show a different face to that country. It is the same strategy used when we invite or are invited to a cultural exchange or to have a student exchange. It is a grass roots development that allows for human interaction at the human level not the political level which is conflicted.

Me again: But, Fred, the problem is that if you want human, not political, interaction, than the last thing you should do is go meet with a political leader.* All meetings with political leaders are inherently political, and call for a prophetic stance, not a pathetic one.

[*You should go meet with regular folks. I’m told that the FOR does arrange for this, which is good as far as it goes.]

I also think it’s impossibly naive to think that political conflicts are primarily motivated by a lack of “understanding,” and if we only showed each other “different faces” our problems would be solved. Political conflicts primarily arise from serious — and legitimate and real — disputes about resources, self-interests, and values.

And I want to be clear — I think the prophetic failure here is not just that Sinkford et al. entered into dialogue without holding Ahmadinejad accountable, but that they do so having also, over many years, failed to hold our own government to a more rational, compassionate and progressive relationship with Iran (among other places). By being more concerned with ego than with being both ethical and effective in the public sphere, the UUA has enabled the current problems in our Republic no less than they have enabled Ahmadinejad. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a pragmatic stance in politics but is a sorry basis for prophecy.

This is all just a big misunderstanding.

1 October 2008

This whole Sarah Palin episode has reached such heights of ridiculousness that it’s hard to know what things are scurrilous rumors and which are facts. So far, the more outrageous things are the true ones, but I do think she’s gotten an unfair shake.

For example, I hear (but am too busy with sarcasm to look up) that she didn’t know what the morning-after

Uh-oh, indeed.

Uh-oh, indeed.

pill was. I think the important thing to remember is that in Alaska, the morning-after pill is pretty useless and therefore not widely known. After all, as far north as they are, the “morning after” is actually sometime in the middle of the second trimester.

And then there’s the interview in which (I shit, dear reader, you not) the two authors most influential on her are C.S. Lewis and a guy who for many years had a column in Runner’s World.

Now, if I were running for high office, and didn’t know much of anything about anything, I would probably look for a “reader’s digest” — a primer, if you will — to help me get oriented. If I’m running, then I would probably see Runner’s World there on the shelf and think, Hey, I’m running for something! This is probably pretty helpful.

The most recent issue of Foreign Policy Quarterly

The most recent issue of Foreign Policy Quarterly

And put yourself in her shoes: you open up Runner’s World, having heard for the last several weeks about all of the strange exotic places in the news, and half the sentences start with “I ran.” What would you think? it’s an easy mistake to make.

This whole thing is just a big misunderstanding.

Polling racism (updated)

21 September 2008

Pollsters have, you know, training as pollsters, but I’ve got a question.

Marc Ambinder has a post up about race and the “Bradley effect,” which is the idea that support for minority candidates will be overrepresented in pre-election polls. I’m most interested in this AP poll (link goes to story which links to the poll results), in which white voters are asked how well various words describe most Blacks.

Now, I’m no scientist — my Physics 201 and 202 over the summer was probably the most intense scientific experience I’ve had — but it seems to me there’s no control in this study.

Yes, only about 15% of White Republicans described Black people as “determined” — but it certainly seems possible that those being polled are generally misanthropic, and would describe White people the same way.

Note: this is not to say that there’s not bias against Black people. I think certainly there is more and subtler racism than most people think. But this study doesn’t reveal it. There doesn’t seem to be any control here, asking about White people, or people in general. If the same 85% of Republicans who wouldn’t describe Black people as determined also wouldn’t describe White people that way, then we may have cynics, not racists.

Science people! Help me out here. Am I wrong?

Update: There are other problems with the poll.

Emotional whiplash

20 September 2008

There are lots of ups and downs being an organizer. Last Tuesday, for example, I counted three ups and four downs, and last Tuesday was pretty typical. Emotional whiplash is an occupational hazard. I don’t think it’s just me: My organizer friends all report the same sort of thing, albeit to different degrees, depending on temperament.

Still, the ups are pretty good. I have lots of leaders who are just phenomenal people, who have incredible stories. And every once in a while, I just think, damn, I really love this guy. (Or this woman, but the leader I’m thinking of as I write this is a man.) They’re just great. They get it, they’re committed to making this work, and you can just go in there with a napkin and a pen and come out with your problems solved. Having leaders like that makes this less lonely, and a lot more fun.


17 September 2008

I’ve been pretty prolific in writing here in the last few days. That’s partly because of Sarah Palin, and the commentary thereon. But I had resisted giving my two cents on that for a number of days, and I think the reason that I gave in is more personal: Avoiding work.

This month has been full of events, which has sort of been an obstacle to really building much capacity in the congregations. I have too many congregations; it works out to something like 2 hours per congregation per week, which is too little time to do very many initial 1-1s.

We anticipate hiring someone next month who I will supervise and assign some congregations to, but in the meantime the stress of having to put on event has really been stressful, on me, and on my leaders — not being able to do initial 1-1s means that there’s no new leadership being trained to take on some of that burden.

What’s more, events are not what I like about organizing. One-to-ones are. That’s what gives me energy. Vacation in three weeks, and counting down.