Sunday, October 31, 2010

Making Amends to a Colleague

Over ten years ago, when I was a very junior minister in another state, I made an egregious collegial error by accepting a request to perform a memorial service for a member of another congregation without making sure it was all right with the minister of that congregation. It was sort of an accident, but one that should not have happened, no matter how ignorant I was of the existing UUMA guidelines.

Subsequently, I had a lot of explaining to do, much of which was inadequate, and managed to avoid being hauled up in front of a national good offices person, mostly out of the kindness of the colleague and district UUMA folks. The reasoning was that I was a rookie, that the copy of the guidelines I had been given was out of date, and it was not a malicious act. I apologized as deeply as I was able at the time and tucked away my much improved and clarified knowledge of our UUMA guidelines.

But tension remained between me and the colleague. Every time I would see the person, I was embarrassed and self-conscious, interpreting every glance as hostile or at least mistrustful. We'd be cordial, but there was pain between us.

That person didn't come to a lot of district functions for a time and this helped me avoid thinking much more about it. But then, there s/he was, at our recent UUMA retreat, and we ended up in the same small covenant group. Gulp.

The first two sessions were unremarkable, just sharing about various ministry roles and situations. But the final one was about end of life issues, memorial services, and grieving.

You may remember from an earlier post that I have been grieving the loss of one of our most esteemed congregants, a man who took a terrible fall in June and has been declining ever since. During our retreat, I was aware that he had only a day or so more to live and I had made plans to say my last goodbyes when I could stop by and visit him in hospice, on my way home.

During the conversation in our covenant group, my sense of remorse and regret began to intensify, as I made the connections about how I would feel if someone had pre-empted my chance to say goodbye to this precious congregant, and I realized just how hurtful my action had been toward my colleague, even though it had not been deliberately inflicted. I knew I had to say something to my colleague, something that would let him/her know that I finally understood the meaning of this guideline.

I had an opportunity at lunch to sit down with him/her and express my deep remorse and sorrow over having hurt him/her at that time, saying that I now understood what I had done from an entirely different perspective and that I wanted to tell him/her of my new awareness. S/he accepted my apology and, I like to think, the mistrustful expression changed a little bit. S/he said thank you and we went on with lunch.

We often think of our UUMA guidelines as "turf" issues, but I know personally that they are not. I know that now; I didn't always know it. A few times over the years, congregants have had someone other than me perform a rite of passage for them---a marriage, a blessing, a memorial---and it has hurt a little bit. I wish those other celebrants had had the courtesy to check with me first; I wish those congregants had understood that a minister's relationship with his/her parish is deep and bypassing it when celebrating a life's passage can be painful to the minister. But I've discovered that professional guidelines in other denominations are not as well-thought-out as ours in UUism.

For me, making mistakes is a surefire way of learning. I often have to be hit smack between the eyes with some revelation before I really understand what the mistake was and what it means. It took me ten years to realize the depth of the hurt I had inflicted and make amends for that in some way. I am grateful for the patience of my colleague. I hope nobody else will ever have to wait that long for me again.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Rockstar Hero or Everyday Hero?

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Oct. 24, 2010

Sitting in a small booth at China City last Sunday night, awaiting my meal, I took out the little notebook I always carry and a pen, thinking I’d make a quick list of the various people I’d considered my heroes and heroines over the course of my life so far.

Let’s see, there were my parents and Ethlyn Whitney, the woman who was my Camp Fire Girl leader when I was a kid, a few professors in college. Oh, and fictional heroines counted---so there was Jo March, the literary creation of Louisa May Alcott, and, of course, Nancy Drew.

And then my list came to an abrupt halt. The next figure on my adult list was my boss at the Denver Christian Center, in 1965, the Rev. George Turner, and his presence on the list marked a huge shift in my hero standards.

George Turner, director of the Christian Center, was a whole different kind of character than anyone I’d known before. He shared some traits with my earlier hero figures, but he was different because his life stood for something greater than I had experienced in a hero before.

Before I go on to explain his presence on my list, I’d like to ask you to tell me some of the men and women who are on your personal hero list. Just call out those names; I’ll repeat as many as I can catch. (cong. response)

Thank you! And now, take a moment to reflect and then call out the chief characteristic that makes this person a heroic figure in your eyes. I’ll repeat as many as I can. (cong. response)
Again, thank you!

As I listened to your responses, I notice quite a bit of overlap in our choices. I hear in many of yours the same traits that I have come to acknowledge as heroic: moral courage, physical bravery, ethical integrity, intellect used compassionately and productively, appreciation for others’ efforts to behave with integrity. And these are only some of those traits.

George Turner’s leadership of the Christian Center wasn’t ideal. He sometimes overlooked important details, he expected our staff to work nights and Sundays and weekends on occasion when we didn’t want to, he was only a so-so preacher. He was quiet and unassuming, not fiery and aggressive. His wife Rae griped about his domestic habits occasionally and his son Georgie Jr. just saw him as Dad.

But he was the first person I knew who had had the moral courage to leave his comfortable life and to participate in the March to Selma, Alabama, when the temperature of the antagonism of the Southern states was in triple digits. He didn’t stay safely in Denver with his family. He went to Alabama to help his friend Martin Luther King Jr. His wife and son were scared for him but they too had moral courage and told him to go.

As Gladys and I were preparing this service, we talked about our own hero figures. Many of her heroes were people whom she knew through her family. As a born and raised Unitarian Universalist, she was personally acquainted with some of our denominational heroes---Charles Follen, for example. But her family background exposed her to men and women who had real moral courage and stood up to the likes of Joseph McCarthy during that era of our history and helped to integrate their local communities, at a time when this was a very risky thing to do.

Moral courage is one of my top requirements in a hero figure. It often looks like irresponsible foolishness to those who don’t recognize it. Jesus had it. Martin Luther King Jr. had it as have many historical figures. A person who is willing to risk the ultimate for an ideal or for another’s wellbeing has moral courage.

It’s as though the person looks into the immediate future and thinks “will I feel better about my life if I take this path of offering help in this crisis or if I take this path of avoiding danger?” It’s less a matter of safety and self-preservation than a matter of doing the right thing and knowing that it is the moral choice, not the choice of fear or apathy.

Our reading today comes from the Memoir in Progress of our UUCWI member Don Wollett. I have had the privilege, for the past seven years, of visiting Don every few weeks and spending time with him and his big old dog Major, listening to his stories about WWII and baseball and union negotiations and family. I’ve spent many a pleasant hour discussing current events and politics and justice issues with Don and I always come away feeling enriched by our time together.

As I have listened to Don’s thoughts and the stories that exemplify his values, I have come to see him as a hero figure for me. Our reading today gives you a glimpse of his values, but I’d like to tell you a bit more.

Don captained a ship for the U.S. Navy during World War II and considered stopping Hitler’s march across Europe to be a moral challenge which required his full commitment and participation. Though he came to hate wars of choice, like Iraq and Afghanistan, he saw Hitler as a threat to the safety and preservation of a democratic way of life, a threat to the lives of millions of innocent human beings, and a threat to the concept of freedom for all humanity.

Don served as a negotiator for a number of labor groups during his civilian career as an attorney, including baseball teams, teachers, and transit workers. And at one time, he was the contract negotiator for transit unions in the San Francisco Bay area. Because he worked successfully with the union and management to solve the problem of absenteeism and tardiness among drivers, the result was an improvement in the big picture: service for riders, improved morale among bus drivers, and consumer support.

This accomplishment caused an improvement in public funding, meaning wage increases. He got the union to cooperate with the boss, and vice versa, instead of the traditional adversarial role that unions and management often assume.

Consumers got better service, bus drivers got more money. Don has called this his finest hour. He calls it an example of enlightened self-interest in which adversaries realize the value of cooperation for the greater good.

Helping two adversarial bodies come to terms can be a risky business. There can be dangers from both sides, loss of reputation, loss of career, efforts to buy favoritism, even physical danger at times.

Now, Don’s many acts of heroism are not the kind you’ll see written up in the newspaper; they didn’t earn him a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize. He was rewarded for his service by the US Navy, in the same ways that most veterans are rewarded---an honorable discharge at the end of service and a medal or two.

But a hero he is nevertheless. To me, at least, and perhaps to those of you who also know him well.

Because Don is one of those unassuming, quiet, steadfast kind of guys whose heroism is unremarked but not unremarkable. He stepped up to the plate, both literally and figuratively, and did the right thing, at a time when the right thing might not have been the popular thing, the first choice for those who were only looking out for Number One.

I’ve mentioned from time to time, I think, how sometimes sermons come to write themselves, how occasionally they pay no attention to what I’ve described in the newsletter blurb and take off in a different direction.

To some extent, that has happened here, as I had intended to focus on heroes of our faith---the rock stars of Unitarian Universalism like Francis David and Michael Servetus and all those Transcendentalists, plus the heroes of social justice, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

But as I’ve spent time lately with people like Don---and you here today---I’ve found my hero thinking focusing on ordinary people who have heroic traits and behavior. Maybe not rock star traits like those I’ve mentioned, maybe with warts and feet of clay like our own, but with everyday moral courage and integrity.

A conversation with a friend later this past week helped me see it even more clearly. We realized together that our greatest heroes, it turned out, were people we knew personally: those who could really hear us, who could really see who we were; those who were not ruled by fear; those who were not plowed under by adversity; those who were open-minded and open-hearted; those who acted from their depths and inspired us to act from our depths---and even to help others in the same way.

These were our heroes’ traits and these people are all around us. One need not be a rock star hero, one only needs to be an every day hero, listening carefully to our friends and family members to be sure we understand who they are and what they need; not letting our fears hold us back; rising up from adversity to face it with courage, not despair; staying open to new learnings and welcoming new companions into our lives; going deep within to find strength for every day and helping us to find that strength deep within our own selves.

The Hebrew prophet Micah once wrote: “What does God require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” We might paraphrase this in more universal terms, but the message is the same----what is a human life and what does it ask of us?

We’ve recently been thinking about the wording of our Covenant of Right Relations and the Best Practices suggestions that came out of our September potluck conversations. And it occurred to me that what we are asking of each other is everyday moral courage and ethical integrity.

We are asking each other to really listen, to really hear what someone is saying, to be compassionate and respectful with one another. We are asking each other to be honest and kind, to be generous and faithful, to be forgiving and open to reconciliation.

Sometimes we don’t realize that these qualities, which I think we might agree are basic human niceties, are actually rare enough in human life that when we see them, we acknowledge how precious they are, we call them heroic.

I think most of us are fairly modest about our own heroic actions and qualities. We think of heroes as being those rock stars of history or of current events: the courage of Chilean miners trapped for months half a mile beneath the surface and the persistence of all those who worked to rescue them; the elected officials who accomplish some spectacular bit of legislation; the discoverer of cures for deadly diseases.

Of course these are heroic figures, there’s no doubt about that. They are the rock stars. But for every big name hero, there are hundreds, thousands, of little name heroes, and I don’t want that to be lost in the shuffle.

Being a rock star hero is often just a matter of timing, of being in the right place at the right time. Rosa Parks already believed she was good enough to sit in the front of the bus; Martin Luther King Jr. was pressed into service in the civil rights movement because nobody else was available.

Louisa May Alcott’s family was about to be evicted. Michael Servetus had just written a book. Ralph Waldo Emerson was sick of being a minister who couldn’t speak his own truth. Spiderman got bitten by a bug.

Most rock star heroes didn’t plan to be rock stars. They just wanted to live decent lives, have a few friends, speak the truth as they saw it. But when the moment arose, they fearlessly stepped into the new role and Mrs. Parks touched off the bus boycott in Montgomery, Dr. King led thousands of people in non-violent protest, Alcott wrote a series of classic books whose characters still live today. Servetus challenged the most notable clergyman of his age, John Calvin, Emerson quit the ministry and became part of a world-shaking literary movement based on natural theology. And Spiderman was just an unassuming student at a high school science fair who used his powers for good.

Some of us are tapped for greatness. Most of us just want to live decent lives, have a few friends, speak the truth as we see it. Sometimes a moment appears when we are thrust into the spotlight for some deed---we stop the bleeding of an injured person, we perform CPR on a person who has stopped breathing, we find a lost child, we contribute bunches of money to charity, we organize something that has far-reaching positive outcomes, we save the lives of a busload of people on a treacherous road when the bus driver has a heart attack, we donate a kidney or make the difficult decision to donate the organs of a dying loved one.

These things could happen; most of us are aware that the unexpected moment could fall into our laps. We hope we would respond in the right way.

But there are analogous heroic actions we can take every day: we can tend to the bleeding hearts of those who are grieving deep loss; we can wrap our arms around a person whose breath has been taken away by some great blow; we can reach out to the many lost children in our schools, those who are struggling to learn, those who are defenseless against bullying and harassment, those who are the victims of addiction and abuse.

We can contribute our time and talent to charitable causes; we can invite people over for a holiday meal or just an ordinary supper; we can provide transportation for a shut-in or visit the heart attack victim in the hospital; we can check that little box on our driver’s license that marks us as an organ donor and let our families know that this is what we want.

Every day we have opportunities to be heroes, people with moral courage, people with ethical integrity, people who are not ruled by fear, people who don’t let adversity stop them for long, people who are open-minded and open-hearted, acting out of a depth of character.

What might be the outcome of investing ourselves in everyday acts of moral courage, ethical integrity, fearlessness, respect and kindness? I believe that these acts of everyday courage and compassion are foundational to a life lived fully and satisfyingly, a life of deep meaning, a life which contributes something valuable to both the local and the larger community.

I mentioned during Joys and Sorrows that our dear Baird Bardarson will be receiving hospice care, as he has contracted pneumonia and, as he would wish, this disease, long called “the old man’s friend”, will be allowed to end his life, probably within the next days.

Baird has been a hero for many of us in this congregation, a man with moral courage, passion, vision, and commitment. And his name should be mentioned today as a hero among us. There will be time another day to tell the story of his life, but Baird has contributed so much to us as a congregation that his name must always be included, along with Don Wollett’s and many of your names, in our list of heroes, men and women whose lives are a testament to the best in human character.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we too have heroic qualities, we too can save lives---if not by stopping a runaway bus, then by easing a grieving heart or standing up for someone who is in need. May we have the moral courage to do these simple, everyday acts of heroism, for it is in this way that we make the world a better place. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Okay, here's what I've found out...

about "Go Now in Peace".

I have written to and received answers from two people I consider authoritative about the origins of the song and the preferences of its composer, the late Natalie Sleeth, as well as commentary from others who have heard stories or made surmises about her wishes.

There is definite evidence, from Mark Belletini of the Hymnal Commission, that she refused to allow the song to be published with adapted words. Without her permission, to publish different words to the song would be a copyright violation. That means that we can't legally or ethically put the adapted words in any Order of Service or temporary songbook until the song is in the public domain, many many years from now.

There is no conclusive evidence that I have found which indicates that Ms. Sleeth publicly requested that nobody ever change the words of her song when they are singing it. There are legends, there are heartfelt suggestions that she would not want her song adapted. But there is, at least as far as I can discover, no evidence other than hearsay that she made this request. I am certainly willing to listen to firsthand testimony from someone who knows this for sure, but at present there is none that I have found.

I checked with my friend Keith Arnold, president of the UU Musicians Network, and he does not have any firsthand information about her preferences. He too has heard the stories but has seen no evidence. The UUMN policy is to respect the work of composers and musicians but does not specifically recommend anything around this song.

So.....we are going to continue to sing Go Now In Peace until the music committee/worship committee decide to change it. If I can remember (which I haven't so far) I will sing the original words. However, I'm not going to make a big deal about it in church, despite what I said earlier.

I respect those who have given the stories so much credence that they substituted another song to sing the kids off to their classes. They were acting in good faith and some lovely new songs have been written to substitute. But this beautiful little melody and words are getting short shrift because of legends, not because of an actual human request---as far as I can discover.

It is perfectly acceptable---and legal--- to sing whatever words we like to any song we want to change; this is the human creative spirit in action. It is NOT acceptable and legal to publish adapted words to a copyrighted song without the express permission of the composer.

Now, if a Sleeth heir contacts me with firsthand information that changes the situation, I will let you all know. In the meantime, go now in peace.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

This seem to me to be an authoritative answer to the question of...

how do we deal with the ethics of singing the adapted words to "Go Now in Peace.

I wrote to Mark Belletini, chair of the Hymnal Commission which published our grey hymnal, and asked him for the backstory about "Go Now in Peace" and the concerns I expressed in the previous blog post. Mark was kind enough to give me his take on the topic and also his permission to reprint his reply here.

I feel comfortable now with the way I plan to approach the topic with my congregation, which is also explained in the previous blog post. I believe, after hearing from Mark, that it is not an ethical lapse to keep singing this song as adapted. I will stay open to being convinced otherwise if evidence emerges that she really did say she didn't want anybody changing her words when they sing it. However, I will sing the original words and invite my congregation to do the same, if they wish. And I may not say my piece just before we sing it but later in the service, to avoid worrying the kids.

From Mark:

Dear Kit, as far as I remember....(i did not keep the written records of course, they are tucked away somewhere at the UUA...
so if you want actual written authentication I cannot, sadly, help you there)
Natalie Sleeth simply did not give us permission to change her lyrics. She did not say why. Unless people who are surmising
the reason for a change i.e. "she was a conservative Christian" actually talked with her, they are being embarrassingly presumptive
since she was a member of a rather progressive and inclusive Methodist Church in Dallas (where Methodists are the liberals, most often.)
The use of the word God, I hope, has not now become a test for conservatism, but I suppose among some UU's, it probably is.

As I remember it, she told us she wrote of God in her song as she understood that word, and she did, quite understandably I think,
have a difficult time understanding why a word she felt to be so inclusive and welcoming was perceived to be so limiting by others,
especially because, she told us, she thought everyone brought their own meaning to that word. I know we did not argue with her.
I suppose some would have. We felt that what she said was sensible enough to feel good about putting the piece in for those
who wanted to sing it her way.

She was not alone of course in refusing to give us permission to change words.... We were told NO by many authors...
including decidedly progressive thinkers...including the estate of John Lennon, who forbid us to change Imagine's brotherhood of man. Pete Seeger said no to us about
changing a song of his to brother and sister where it would have made no scansion problem at all. He wanted the word brother repeated twice.
We said no to both songs, but said yes to Natalie Sleeth's because its a lovely little piece to send children forth,
and we understood that many UU's won't sing it as she wrote it. My suggestion always has been from the beginning: Sing something else. Its OK.
There are other great little songs in the book. There are often good composers in even the smallest congregations who can write simple departure chants.

We don't sing it here in Columbus because God language is not the usual idiom here, and I have no intention of changing the words,
but we do indeed use other music for that part of our celebration. It sounds as if you did that
(I just read your blog) and it didn't work. I think you way of dealing with it is respectful and intriguing and very UU in spirit.
I personally have no problem with people singing different words to the same melody, as in Amazing Grace, where some folks
just hated the sonics...NOT the theology mind you....of the ugly to sing word "wretch." So sing soul already.

Your sermon should be pretty amazing. Your action is worth reflecting on, I think.

I hope you will be able to find something suitable to use there in Whidbey. Hope your fall days are nurturing you. Mark B.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Going in Peace

Like many UU congregations, for years we have been singing our children off to RE classes with the Natalie Sleeth song "Go Now In Peace", a tradition that has recently been questioned because, like many UU congregations, we substitute the words "spirit of Love" for the phrase "Love of God" in one line of the ditty. It seems like an innocent substitution and one that seems completely in line with the generally accepted tendency of human beings to modify or redefine words that don't fit one's theological or social views.

However, once we learned that Ms. Sleeth and her heirs have requested that the song be sung in its original version ("Go now in peace, go now in peace, may the love of God surround you, everywhere, everywhere you may go"), we had a dilemma on our hands. Should we honor the request of the composer and her heirs or should we rely on the so-called "folk process" to justify the change we'd made?

A couple of years ago, we tried substituting a beautiful short song by a UU composer but it just didn't catch on. There was something about that old "Go now in peace" melody and words that just wouldn't be set aside, so we went back to singing it again and shoving our nagging sense of artistic disrespect underground.

Well, it's surfaced again and on the 24th of October, the next time I am in the pulpit, I have a plan. I've warned the worship leader and checked it out with our administrator, who is feeling as uneasy about the situation as I am, and that day, before we start singing it, I am going to say something like this, perhaps after asking folks to open their hymnals to page 413:

"Because the composer of this beloved little song, Natalie Sleeth and her family, has asked congregations to sing the original words, not substituting the word "love" for the word "God" in the song, I am going to sing those original words from now on. I invite you to sing the correct words with me, if you are willing and able, out of respect for the artist's original composition. If you can't, well, nobody's going to be taking names. But if most of us can't do that, we'll find another song, out of respect for the composer. Now let's sing our children off to their classes."

I don't know if this will be well-received or not. Chances are most folks in the congregation will sing the original words; I certainly don't find them offensive, just a little limiting. There will definitely be those who continue to sing the words they're used to and I have no objection to that. There will be no police action! And I think that will satisfy my own sense of obligation to Ms. Sleeth and her family. It certainly will be easier than finding a new song! I'll keep you posted.

This ministry life is so interesting! And they pay me to do this....will wonders never cease?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Plan B...what to do when

you forget your sermon manuscript at home.

I'm reminded of this because I woke up in a sweat this morning from another dream in which I discover, just as the opening hymn begins, that I do not have my sermon manuscript with me. It is at home, resting in the printer tray where I had left it before coming to church.

I used to have different recurring dreams, most notably the one where I am driving up a steep hill which gets steeper and steeper until I am not sure my little car will make it to the top but will tumble over backwards. That one I used to get when I was a school counselor and had way too many horrible issues to help students with, plus do lunch duty and lead a committee meeting, all in the same day.

The ministry dream visits me every once in awhile because I am one of those ministers who is pretty tied to a manuscript. I don't want to take the chance of babbling, oversharing, or making inappropriate joking remarks which offend; I do these things without my manuscript. I envy those who can speak off the cuff without error, but I know myself too well. Even on a topic I know thoroughly, I tangentize, I get off track, let's face it---I babble.

So the manuscript is my friend. I treat it like the stone tablets of Moses---wait, they had a bad first edition, didn't they? I forget. Anyhow, I protect my manuscript carefully because I never want this dream to come true.

But if it did? I have a Plan B.

My school teaching experiences have helped me develop this Plan, because a classroom setting is one place where I don't babble. Because I have a Lesson Plan. I have an outline that is full of cogent questions THAT I CAN ASK MY STUDENTS.

That's right, if I were to lose or forget my manuscript at home in the printer tray, I would quickly jot down the main points of the sermon in question form and turn the sermon into a time of congregational give and take. Sort of a Socratic method sermon, in which I don't have to provide the answers, I can just steer the discussion.

It wouldn't make everyone happy and it wouldn't work in huge venues. I would be stuck then and I haven't yet developed a Plan C or D. But so far I haven't even had to use Plan B.

It's worth thinking about, for seminarians and established clergy as well. What is your Plan B?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Dealing with troubled people

Over the course of my life, I have dealt professionally with a number of troubled souls, some of them my students, struggling with issues of domestic violence, with sexual orientation, addiction, and more. Some were adults whom I knew through our professional relationship, either in a school setting (parents, for example) or as others who sought me out for counseling or other help. Some were friends or acquaintances who saw me as somebody who had helpful professional skills but were not clients in any sense. With all of these folks, I interacted from my professional self.

In every profession, however, there is a strictly professional aspect and then there is a somewhat personal aspect. Sometimes they get intermingled, despite our best efforts to maintain the professional relationship, and a professional decision means an injury to the personal aspect.

In ministry, this is particularly true. When I was a seminary student, preparing for UU ministry, I was also a person who was seen in my home congregation as an active and energetic lay leader. Most of my close friends were members of that congregation and I saw them often, both in worship, in church activities, and in groups outside the congregation. But as I got farther along in my education and ministry experience, I began to separate somewhat from my life as a lay leader and to become more aware of my ministerial identity.

This had the effect of distancing me from my friends in the congregation, as they didn't see me as a minister. They just saw me as Kit----until the moment when they wanted to dish about something the current minister was up to, and I couldn't do it because of my collegial responsibility to him/her.

"You've changed! You're not the same Kit any more", I heard often. Sometimes this was a good thing and underscored an improvement in my skills, but more often it marked a shift, away from my lay leader identity and toward a very different identity, that of minister.

It was hard for many of my friends to accept my new identity. Because I was less present at the activities of my home church and had less time for my outside activities, I lost contact with many friends, was not invited to gatherings, and I spent much more time with my new seminary friends, friends who were also budding colleagues and with whom I had much more in common.

I tell you this to begin a series of observations on the ways that the professional and the personal can overlap and often pinch, particularly in ministry.

Without revealing confidential data, I hope to describe in generic terms some of the most difficult kinds of situations I've encountered and the resources I used to work through these difficulties toward a more positive outcome.

Stay tuned. Surprisingly, my previous post about my sense of inertia around blogging produced a lot of new ideas, because of the many encouraging comments received. Thanks for re-enlivening my blogging life, friends!

Saturday, October 09, 2010

I am trying to decide...

what to do about this blog. I have enjoyed writing and posting my thoughts on it, I've enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) the friends I've made here, and don't want to close it down entirely. But...

I rarely post more than once a week these days and even then, it's usually the sermon or some other related bit of writing. I have fewer flashes of inspiration that just have to be expressed in writing. And these days, in my 8th year of ministry with one congregation, I have a lot of situations and challenges on my plate that should not be aired publicly.

Election season is always a time of political angst and upwelling of opinion and fear-based political ads. I dislike it intensely and have already pretty well picked out my candidates and issues. But I'm not going to post them. I don't want to argue about them with readers who might be making the same decisions but with different candidates and different opinions about issues. I'm sick of all that.

I've felt I've served as a long distance mentor for a few seminary students and that's been very rewarding. But several of those folks are beyond the beginner stage and, in fact, I have noticed that I'm learning from them! (Though I haven't yet shaved my head.) A few folks from my congregation read the blog, but they don't need to do that to know what's going on in my life or what I'm thinking!

I hate to complain about my physical health (which is actually quite good, so don't worry, FS), even when it takes a chunk of my time to care for it or fix it or worry about this pain or that. It's not a fit topic for a blog post, IMHO.

And Facebook gives me a place to post little day to day stuff, repost great stuff I've seen on others' FB updates, and generally keep track of others and let them keep track of me. I spend as much time on FB now as I used to spend on blog posts. I spend about 5 minutes on FB every hour---what's that, an hour every 12 hours? Not too bad and I get to see what all my cronies are doing out there in UU land. But not everyone I know is on Facebook---some are only reachable through blog posts.

So it's a dilemma. I'm definitely not going to shut down Ms. Kitty's but for now you're probably mostly going to get sermons and that sort of thing. Well, except for that one situation recently that might be helpful to seminarians about dealing with difficult congregants.... we'll see if that one can be made helpful (yet kept confidential) for those who have yet to confront such a difficulty.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Bones of Leadership

Backbone, Funnybone, Wishbone
By Rev. Kit Ketcham
Oct. 3, 2010

Okay, I know what song is on your minds right now, so let’s give into the temptation and go ahead and sing it. But after we’ve sung it, I’d like to tell you a little bit about where the song comes from and why it is meaningful in the context of our service today. And I know we’ve all learned slightly different versions, but don’t worry about that!

Ezekiel cried, "Dem dry bones!"
Ezekiel cried, "Dem dry bones!"
Ezekiel cried, "Dem dry bones!"
"Oh, hear the word of the Lord."

The toe bone connected to the heel bone,
The heel bone connected to the foot bone, 
The foot bone connected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the back bone,
The back bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the head bone,
Oh, hear the word of the Lord!

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk aroun'
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun'
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk aroun'
Oh, hear the word of the Lord.

The head bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the back bone,
The back bone connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone connected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the foot bone, 
The foot bone connected to the heel bone,
The heel bone connected to the toe bone,
Oh, hear the word of the Lord!

When we sing a song from another culture, I think it’s valuable to know something about where the song comes from, and African American spirituals, most of which came out of the misery of slavery, are songs with powerful, often hidden, meanings. They were communications, they were maps, they were sources of hope or despair. And this song is no exception.

In the ancient story of the prophet Ezekiel and his mystical encounter with the Valley of Dry Bones, I hear more than its message to the Israelites in exile; I hear a message of freedom and vision that can be and has been used by many peoples to breathe life back into a hope that has died.

I like to think that African slaves in the Americas centuries ago, as they were forced to learn the religious stories of their masters, heard that message and leapt from the literal story about Israelites to a prophecy of release and power for their own people.

I like to think that out of that story emerged a secret song of renewed power and hope for an oppressed people, a song which gave them strength to endure, a song that expressed their faith that their people, their lives, their culture could and would rise again even in a new land.

I wanted to know more than what my imagination told me, though, so I turned to St. Google and, in my search, uncovered a little bit about the origins of “Dem Bones”. But this old song is not merely an anatomy lesson for children, as Wikipedia seems to think. And African American author Zora Neal Hurston confirms my suspicion that this song means more than just a linkage of one bone to another.

To her and to other African American thinkers and writers, it did mean hope and vision and freedom, renewed life, vindication after terrible oppression and death. For them, it wasn’t just about the Israelites returning home; it was about African slaves receiving new life, new hope, new promise, new freedom. And it was emphasized by that most powerful of religious statements: Now hear the word of the Lord. That meant it was going to happen and naysayers be damned.

African Americans identified with this story, for, like the Israelites of Ezekiel’s time, they too had been carried off into exile and captivity. This story and the resulting spiritual celebrated the much-anticipated return of strength and power and freedom to a human community that had been imprisoned. Those dry bones would rise again!

Today we are considering the living, breathing bones of leadership, specifically moral leadership, the leadership that will keep progressive religious faith alive and thriving. These are not dry bones and we hope they never will be!

We have as our guests today the members of the board of directors of the Pacific Northwest District of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We are honored and proud to be your hosts for your fall board meeting. And I am honored to have the opportunity to speak to you---to us all---about effective moral leadership.

The bones of moral leadership, the theme of our service this morning, are, as country star Reba McIntire and bank president Elaine Agather have dubbed them, Backbone, Funnybone, and Wishbone.

Whether you are a formally selected leader, like a treasurer or president or minister, or an informally selected leader, like the person who volunteers to make sure the kitchen is cleaned up after church or the one everyone looks to for the next bright idea, you need a backbone----that is, you need courage. You need a funnybone---that is, a sense of humor; and you need a wishbone---that is, a dream, a vision.

Backbone, Funnybone, Wishbone---how do these bones support moral leadership, the moral leadership that springs from our human sense of justice, freedom, and responsible stewardship?

When I think of moral leaders with Backbone, I think of our religious ancestor Michael Servetus, who confronted churchman John Calvin in the 16th century, insisting he consider the errors of the doctrine of the Trinity, which had become official Christian dogma. He was burned at the stake for his boldness. I think of Martin Luther, whose 95 Theses of disagreement with the Catholic church sparked the Protestant Reformation. I think of Harriet Tubman, who rescued slaves using a network of abolitionists and safe houses, known as the Underground Railroad. I think of Martin Luther King Jr., whose leadership of the Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s resulted in so much progress for citizens in this nation.

I think of countless others who have gone to bat for moral causes---the freedom of women to control their own reproductive lives, the opportunity for marriage for same sex couples, the preservation of wilderness, the attention to the issues of climate change and human responsibility, advocacy for women’s rights in theocracies and non-democratic nations of the world, civil rights for immigrants, whether documented or not.

To have a backbone means to stick one’s neck out, to confront wrongdoing, to be a presence in the fight against oppression, injustice, and hate. It can mean ridicule, separation from loved ones, loss of earning power, prison, sometimes even death.

And Funnybone? What would a Funnybone do for a moral leader? Well, anyone who has gotten involved in nonprofit causes knows that most of the work is done by volunteers. Churches are largely operating on volunteer help, whether it’s the board of directors, the choir director, the religious education teachers, the potluck organizers, the folks who create the newsletter and the website, who put out the hymnals and play the piano. Even the paid staff often put in far more hours than they can be paid for.

And volunteers, as committed as they may be, can’t do everything we ask of them. They have emergencies, they have vacation plans, they have families and lives that require much of them. Volunteers, unlike paid staff, can say no; they say yes to the jobs that appeal to them and sometimes have to cancel at the last minute.

A Funnybone comes in handy in these situations. The leader has been left in the lurch but doesn’t want to lose the precious volunteer, so he or she laughs instead of crying, knowing that this is one of the inevitable challenges of moral leadership.

Speaking of moral leaders with a Funnybone, I’ve been struck by the ingenuity of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s scheduled rallies in Washington DC on Oct. 30: the Rally to Restore Sanity and the Rally to Keep Fear Alive.

You know Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as two of the funniest so-called “newscasters” of our time. Many of our younger folks today get their news from these two comics. Stewart and Colbert, with the freedom they have to say anything they like on cable television, have a perspective on the news that dares to parody and satirize the newsmakers of mainstream television, particularly those they disagree with. The Fox channel comes in for most of their ridicule but no stodgy newscaster with his or her limited viewpoint is immune from the needle of the Stewart and Colbert Funnybones.

And they don’t shy away from controversy, inviting public figures to join them on the show and then asking them the hard questions that reveal their guests’ biases. Rachel Maddow, on MSNBC, is not a comedienne, but she finds humor in the blunders of public figures and invites them to explain themselves on the air; her courteous but pointed prodding puts them on the spot.

In our own tradition, we have the Rev. Meg Barnhouse, whose tongue in cheek reflections often skewer her own and our religious foibles. Rev. Barnhouse regularly appears in our UU World magazine, copies of which are available in the leaflet rack in the foyer here. And though we’re sometimes a little nervous about including him, the entrepreneur, parttime politician, and circus founder, P.T. Barnum is one of our Unitarian moral ancestors. He stood against slavery and for women’s rights, as well as humor, in the 19th century.

Those of us attempting change through moral leadership need a sense of humor, a strong Funnybone in order to survive the disappointments and challenges that history and everyday life throw at us.

And then there’s the Wishbone. How does anything get done without a wishbone? The wishbone I’m thinking of, of course, is Vision, a Dream, a Sense of what could be, beyond what is.

The poet Langston Hughes once wrote: “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams, for when dreams go, life is a barren field, frozen with snow.”

There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about the American Dream and how it has been denied to many of the people in this country. Many of those speaking are talking about the dream of home ownership, of a white-collar job, of kids doing well in school and going on to college with generous scholarships---the whole dream of “let me and mine prosper financially”. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, as a dream.

It’s just that it’s not the dream of dreams, the vision of visions, of a world that is generous, that is just, that is merciful, that is encouraging, that is spiritually solid, that is peaceful, that is not beset by the consequences of human greed and destruction. That’s the real dream, the dream that enables all other dreams. That’s the dream, the vision, of moral leaders.

Whose dream, whose vision, are we heir to, in this progressive religious tradition? Well, there was John Murray, our Universalist ancestor, who said “Go out into the highways and byways, give the people something of your new vision…give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God”.

There was Julia Ward Howe, Unitarian poet and abolitionist who authored the Mother’s Day Proclamation in which she stated: “Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of fears! …Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.”

There’s Mark Morrison Reed, a contemporary Unitarian Universalist minister, who wrote, “It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.”

There is the vision, here in our island community, of those who organize for preservation of wild lands and wildlife, for energy conservation, for human rights, for kindness and mercy for unwanted animals, for financial help to those who can’t afford their medical bills, for building homes for Habitat, helping disabled children learn to ride a horse, reaching out to veterans, to the mentally ill.

There is the vision that created this congregation and this sacred space, dreaming first of a liberal religious community here on Whidbey Island and then dreaming of a sacred space that would be beautiful, would be open to the larger community, and would provide a home base from which we could reach out to gather in those who are looking for a religious home.

And there is the vision of all of you here today who are holding the Wishbone, ready to take part in building upon that vision, of making this congregation a beacon of love and justice in this community, standing faithfully together with Backbone straight and Funnybone sharpened, finding meaning and a sense of belonging here.

As Dave and I were preparing for this service, he gave me a copy of something he’d written several years ago, his personal philosophy of leadership. A few of his points relate directly to our message today, but I’m going to share them all. And I note that Dave is not only our worship leader today but also a leader in our larger sphere, as treasurer of our UU Pacific Northwest District. He has lived his philosophy as a moral leader in this congregation from the first days of his presence here.

My Personal Philosophy of Leadership
October 20, 1997
1. Trust is the foundation of all of civilization
2. Laugh easily, and at yourself.
3. Maintain both a healthy optimism and a healthy skepticism
4. Your strengths create your opportunities; your weaknesses cause your failures. Neglect neither.
5. Enthusiasm is contagious.
6. Gladly give the client more than is expected.
7. Set worthwhile goals.
8. Plan work to make success inevitable, but stay flexible to seize opportunities.
9. Be fanatical about closure.
10. Learn to lead people who are smarter than you are.
11. Require that jobs provide continuous personal development.

Dave went on to say that he sees being a leader as a personal ministry, that leadership calls for humility, for the courage to step forward, not waiting to be asked, and that it opens up the self for inspiration and greater commitment.

And I would like to add that each person here has that same opportunity to serve----as an usher, as a social hour host, as a greeter, as a teacher of children or adults, as a musician, as a contributor of time, talent, and money. In fact, if you haven’t signed up yet to serve in one of these capacities during this program year, I urge you to do so today. Whether you are a member or a friend of this congregation, we welcome your participation and promise that it will help you feel at home here.

There are countless opportunities for us as a congregation and as individuals to use our Backbone, our Funnybone, and our Wishbone, for all of us are ina position to offer moral leadership. All we have to do is look around our community and see the places where moral leadership is needed, from supporting our local schools as they struggle with the handicaps of a limited budget, to advocating for marriage rights for all citizens, and educating ourselves about issues such as immigration, climate change and peacemaking. As Mark Morrison Reed has said, we are stronger together as a community than we can be alone.

Our Bones of Leadership are not dead and dry, they are strong and vibrant; let’s exercise them in ways which will benefit our whole community. These Bones are gonna walk around and bring joy and new life to others. “Now hear the word of the lord!”

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we have strength, courage, vision, and the sense of humor to support our moral leadership in this community. May we exercise that moral leadership both in our own sacred space and also in the world beyond these walls. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.