Category Archives: Spirit in Organizations

Cultivating Heresy

Our communities of faith and justice require heretics– without them, we stop learning.

Ralph Waldo Emerson may be heralded among liberal circles now—but in his own lifetime, popularity was harder to come by.

Whereas his writings on nature received a handful of reviews in the first few years, his infamously scathing Harvard Divinity School Address resulted in nearly thirty different reviews in the first few months. His call to Harvard graduates was a warning of the role of the institution of Christianity, the deification of Jesus and the institutionally-enforced separation of the divine incarnated in all from the divine incarnated in only a few was deemed heretical. His commentary on the boring and disconnected preaching of his contemporaries was probably hurtful. His critics bitterly scorned him, his fellow transcendentalists adored him—or supported him quietly.

Ultimately, Emerson would be described by some preachers and scholars as the new liberal infidel—a heretic. It would be thirty years until Emerson would be invited to speak again at Harvard while, in the meantime, a violent polemic against him kept him out of religious pulpits and into academic podiums for the rest of his adult career. His ministerial principles remained at the core of his prophetic witness even outside of formal ministry.

They say one cannot be a prophet in one’s own city—this certainly seemed to be the case for Emerson.

But why not? If not your own city, where else?

Why aren’t we anchoring, honoring and cultivating our own, homegrown heretics?

By heretic I’m not referring to “people who complain” or even people who stand on the sidelines or blog-lines in vehement disagreement —but rather, an Emersonian heretic: the people who prophetically challenge and inspirationally name the theological and social idiosyncrasies and operating assumptions that they see as preventing individuals and communities from cultivating and embodying a vision of the beloved community.

Unitarian Universalism boasts a history of heresy, progressive leanings and harbors remarkable diversity. However, this heretical capital is squandered when the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” becomes a theological “free for all”—when beliefs are adopted willy-nilly and remained unquestioned and unchallenged by the community of fellow believers. More emphasis is placed on the people outside our walls—what “they” believe—rather than a thoughtful, principled but deep questioning of what the people in the pews around us believe.

Perhaps, we like to play nice—yes, we’re diverse but we don’t talk about it explicitly—rather than risk the anxiety that is provoked when we really get asked why it is we believe and do what we believe and do.

Heretics, by questioning these assumptions, can push us out of the shallow waters of half-hearted adoption and co-option of faith and ritual and into the depths of our own theology, causing us to ask important questions about the rituals of belonging and belief that we take for granted—why Jesus, why sermon, why Sunday, why interdependence, why Earth, why justice, why not?

We need to cultivate heresy.

In the book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath explore what exactly makes certain stories, urban myths and tales “stick” whereas others fall apart. One of these factors is the role of the unexpected—that something perceived to be “the usual” starts down its usual plot line and ultimately, the expected plot gets turned upside down. After the idea is upside down, a sticky concept shows the viewer a new way to imagine “right side up.” This combination: expected, unexpected, new-undersanding-of-expected is a recipe for “stickiness.”  Without our expectations turned over and new ideas (even if only slightly tweaked old ideas) formed, things don’t seem to stick.

Perhaps heretics help with the stickiness of our own theologies—we need the disruption to help us re-evaluate the beliefs we hold—whether or not we end up changing them. Like those traditions that uphold the archetype of Coyote the trickster—we can see the dual role of Coyote as both, trickster and transformer. Coyote teaches through games and tricks, he surprises those who get too comfortable on the path, she pounces and plays games when the unsuspected stop tuning into the world within them and around them. Coyote teaches us that the moment we stop learning—and living—is the moment we stop paying attention.

Perhaps (and whether or not he would ever admit it) the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School invited Emerson to give the closing address in 1838 because they knew that something needed to be interrupted—they needed a visit from coyote. And I believe, more than ever, we need more coyotes: more coyotes in our congregations and non-profits, in our neighborhoods and social justice movements. Coyotes and heretics among us keep us alive from the real threats to our existence—our own stagnation.

When radical exiles leave other spiritual and social homes that oppress them on the search for a new place to belong, they aren’t just looking for some other safe space that is more “liberal”—they are looking for a place that knows how to stay liberal and how to stay alive. They are looking for places that don’t stop paying attention, that don’t stagnate. They were heretics in their own communities– is it possible they are looking for places where its okay to be heretical now?

Emerson’s life experience as heretic of Unitarianism teaches us that we need coyote in our congregations. Without coyote, without heretics, we stop paying attention—and when we stop paying attention, we stop learning—and when we stop learning, we stop living into the depths that call us together as theological beings.

The complexities of neighborly love

 

Join me in a walk down Unitarian Universalist (and congregational) history.

The Cambridge Platform of 1648 was an England-based congregational blue print for the future of independent churches free to associate, is definitely a piece in time. What does that mean? It means that religious folk were asking important questions about the ways their understandings of authority were all tangled up with state authority (a king ordained by God) as well as out-of-touch, hierarchical religious authority (outside people determining who has authority, who can take it away, how do you know if you have it). This was the struggle of their time– if we are not led by a hierarchy outside of our selves and we are independent, how do we associate with one another within our churches and between our churches?

For this deliberative group of Congregational ministers in Massachusetts and Connecticut, religious authority was to “preach and teach”—and congregational polity (i.e. the way the congregation organized its arrangements of power and authority) would be determined by a people gathered who had been “called” authentically in their own hearts.

(Needless to say, the power to determine who is “called” is easily abused.)

However, I’m interested in what this platform, as part of liberal religious history, suggests for organizations and congregations/societies today.

Others have written what their deliberations might mean for issues of internal power and authority (see “Who’s in Charge Here: The Complex Relationship Between Ministry and Authority” — from UUA Commission on Appraisal for a more in-depth analysis of history, polity and its influence on the way we think about authority in churches today). Others, have asked questions about the role of Christian language in the platform (visit UU blogger Tom Schade who has something to say about it. His piece takes an all-too-familiar offensive posture at the use of Christian language in UUism, which necessitates this response: UUs were Christian, Christian language is part of our history and I think there is really nothing one-sided about including that side of our story in our reporting of where we came from and where we are headed.)

The Cambridge Platform suggests important relational agreements between congregations (and non-profits). Even though we are independent organizations who are “free to associate”—we freely associate embedded in value systems that uplift the complex values of interdependence.

What interdependence is lost in our struggle to wrestle power from distant hierarchies?

Early on in the platform, there is debate around what it means to leave one congregation for another congregation—because of (1) “future abolition” of the church (i.e. the church will be shut down and you want to leave before it does), (2) “pollution” (i.e. church drama), (3) “greater edification,” (i.e. I’m heading over to this other church because they have less drama and better food).

The platform isn’t too happy about this, noting that if this logic continued to other relationships chaos would ensue. In their words,  “future events do not dissolve present relations…. else wives, children, servants might desert their husbands, parents, master when they be mortally sick.” Let’s respond to this text tenderly for the nuggets of wisdom within it, even when though it does reflect a point in time when wives, children and servants lacked agency and power—i.e. the free association of most intimate!

When these “sound” members leave a “defective” church, the platform reasons, “reformation is not promoted.” For the platform writers, leaving communities (although rife with drama or division) did not model the “spirit of neighborly love” that they felt embodied in Biblical family and organizational life. Even if we are free to walk together only when called by the spirit, we were still bound by the complexity of community love—which called upon participants to stick around (even when it was tough) for the purposes of reformation. When drama strikes, the platform encourages that ‘sound’ individuals speak out about the breach of neighborly love within the church and then rely upon counsel of neighbors and elders to assist in reformation—which includes consulting with other churches for healing divisions within one’s own community.

This is the tension of “free association” and independence for a faith movement that also values its 6th and 7th principles: “world community with peace, liberty and justice for all” and “respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all apart.” Our congregational ancestors emphasized the role of the individual in speaking about reformation from within, alongside the role of neighbors in assisting in reformation from the outside.

Churches talking to churches about their drama? Scary. And complicated. Our rules (designed by all good intentions to protect individuals’ worth and dignity) specifically limit the ways we talk church concerns between congregations—and that is more complicated between ministerial leadership, elected leadership and lay community members.  Yes, we talk church “joys” (i.e. regional church camp) but pain, powerlessness and confusion are often confined to the private rooms of omsbuds-people and district executives.  Too often, I think we’d find, we call in neighborly counsel when it is too late and too much damage has been done to our leadership and our community.

Perhaps the Cambridge Platform can re-orient us to attend to the tension we feel: the hunger to protect each of us in the midst of the desire to connect all of us in the complex work of “neighborly love.”

Imagine:

  • Churches that held council amongst themselves (and included lay and professional leadership) in sacred and intentional ways, within regions or smaller partnerships that met regularly to discuss and provide clarity on the issues that arose in their churches.
  • Non-profits that had safe spaces to admit internal struggle, financial fears and the burnout of competition for resources or materials– and designed new ways of relationship from it.
  • Organizations of faith communities that held one another accountable to the ways of peace-making– that when we speak negatively of someone or something’s actions, it is our responsibility as the listener to return our speaker to the person they are struggling with.
  • Spaces within communities of faith or social justice where concerns and grievances were safely aired– allowing those who are considering leaving to generate conversation about what is bothering them. (This is especially important given the fact that those who will leave a situation are often those who are uncomfortable with the confrontation of claiming their concerns or needs in a public space.)

What would it take to build free associations that still associated– for what is the worth of “free association” if we don’t have the depth of genuine interdependence that associates us?

Healing and Wounding: Personal is Political

During my Master of Divinity program at Claremont, we budding ministers are often reminded that ministerial misconduct will most often occur when a minister is not getting their needs for freedom, fun and belonging met. When one’s needs aren’t met, one get’s resentful. When one get’s resentful, one  make’s bargains with the responsibilities and commitments that are made to maintain collegiality, transparency and clarity of roles within organizations. The greatest way to avoid ministerial misconduct is to make sure your needs are getting met from a wide array of places—to have a life beyond the work you do.

Basically– your personal life will always have an impact on your political/ministerial life and vice a versa. 

In spiritual communities, in activist organizations, we know that the personal is political—that the work is not separate or compartmentalized from our lives, but a committed, integrated lifestyle that intentionally makes choices that challenge the unjust and strives for wholeness rather than fragmentation. When one is committed to this, one sees the connections between their food, their intimacy, their transportation, their housing tract, their elected leaders, their language, their income, their children’s schools and their choice of work in the world.

There is a feeling of inconsistency when this vision for radical integration meets the realities of corporate life—by which I mean, the organization, church or business modeled from the corporate model of governance (which nearly all of us are in an effort to receive the benefits and protections of aligning with some form of “rule of law”). In this world, to maintain a legal integrity and security that requires an outlined transparency of power, we trade in the organic messiness of real relationship for the legitimacy of corporate governance. This is a trade off many have already discussed within radical social movements and organizations (read The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex). However, where has that left us?

In some ways, it has left us very hurt. We experience this hurt when non-profit leaders leave and move to other organizations—were they committed to us, the people, the vision—or just the job? We experience it when we play with the organic messiness, then find ourselves relying on the legal mandates of our rarely-touched Bylaws when something “goes wrong” and we need something stronger to “fix it” (i.e. there are no bylaws for breakups, but that can be what this all feels like). We experience this hurt when ministers and congregations have conflict and ministers or congregants leave—were the relationships real in the first place, or were they interchangeable for the next “called” person in the pulpit? We experience it as leaders, feeling shame at our burn out or how tired we are of our jobs… I mean, why did we start this in the first place?

Two trains of thought reunite here:

1) Where and how do activists/ministers get their personal needs met in the development of deeply integrated lives? (i.e. the personal is political)

2) How do organizations, churches and social movements make decisions about the way they will embrace the organic messiness of integration (where people get their needs met in the midst of the work) in cities and countries dictated by a corporate way of rule that is often disinterested in personal needs? (i.e. the political is the political in an effort to protect the personal)

These are the sorts of questions that take conferences, lifetimes, solidarity circles and therapy—but here are a couple leads:

1) Healed people heal people, wounded people hurt people. Work on your healing if you want to be a healer. This is not to say people are perfect. I don’t think “healed” is perfect—I do think healed is honest. For example, do we want “perfect”  leaders (Note: this is impossible, so it would be a lie in the first place), or do we want leaders who admit fault ? Name their own wounds out loud? Do their own internal work? Name it when they are acting from it? I’d opt for the latter. I’m not one to romanticize the “wounded healer” concept– I think all of us are wounded healers, but we do our best healing when we model what healing feels like, looks like, struggles like. Let’s aim for being healed healers. Therapy can be expensive, but not always—spiritual directors, ministers, counselors, chaplains are beginnings to the internal work that can lead to therapists who are affordable, accessible or nearby. Knowing your needs is the first real step to naming your needs, claiming your needs and integrating your needs.

If you are in social work, non-profit work or ministry of any sort– you should have a therapist, spiritual director, mentor or personal coach who knows your depths, tracks your patterns and keeps a mirror up for you.

2) Healed organizations heal people, wounded organizations hurt people. I’m a firm believer that the organization is a reflection of the people inside it—there is a mutual impact that organizations can have on their people and people on their organizations. As we know, organizations are made up of people—they are the face of the organization or the church or the ministry or the movement. We can learn a lot about designing healing organizations from acknowledging some of the ways we create healing people…

  1.  PERSONAL WORK IS WELCOMED: organizations cultivate a culture that acknowledges what happens (things don’t just happen—we make meaning out of them). Reconciliation of any sort necessitates a truth-telling where people’s stories and experiences are honored—this requires individual people to have done enough of their own internal work to reach a point where stuff gets acknowledged (i.e. non-profit chaplains, folks trained in Council and therapists would be God’s gift to the future of our movements);
  2. GROUP WORK IS PART OF THE CULTURE: when “bad” things happen, we talk about them and when “good” things happen, we talk them—issues that are “hush hush” become issues that build resentment—building processes for talking about the hard things helps prepare people and build some sense of consent for how the tough stuff gets processed (more on how one might do this in future blogs, I promise)
  3. RITUAL ALLOWS FOR NEW STORIES OF “ME” and “US”: we process grief and create meaning through community and rituals of belonging (ritual and care is not something that gets in the way of our work, but improves our work and creates resilient bonds between people; this also allows what happens to become part of people’s stories and integrated into who “we” are.

Organizations build upon people developing their sense of self worth models what it means to live out our inherent worth. If organizations become places where authenticity happens and is cultivated, they also become places where we might reveal more of who we are—which includes naming the boundaries in ways that invite authenticity rather than a sense of artificiality.

But more on that side of things later.

Overall, rest assured: your personal wounds will show up in your political life. Your political wounds will impact your personal healing. How about we start thinking about organizations as places where we learn new ways of healing, rather than places where we act from the wound unconsciously?

When are we more alive in our work?

My colleague, Daniel and I will be going to India in January 2014 to present at a Jain Concerence in Rajasthan. The conference is the 8th International Conference on Peace and Nonviolent Action (ICPNA). This year’s theme is “Towards a Nonviolent Future: Seeking Realistic Models of Peaceful Co-existence and Sustainability.” It is hosted by the Anuvrat Global Organization.

This year’s theme looks at the intersection of sustainability and non-violence. Daniel and I are looking towards sharing what youth mentoring, leadership and organizing has meant in the context of nature connection and the Cultural Repair Movement in California.

I’m new to this concept– but I think I’ve been part of the movement for awhile, especially among those who see activism as wholeness, as living out lives that, in the words of Ivan Illich, are “alive enough to be shared.”  Even in creating this blog, inspired from my Public Scholar Activism course at Claremont School of Theology, my professor was assisting me in making more concrete what it exactly I wanted to speak to. Her suggestion has grown on me: it is about people learning to put the oxygen mask on themselves first, before they try to “help” someone else. 

Cultural repair isn’t about self-centered people getting high on their own oxygen masks, but it is about remembering what it was like when we were living more grounded lives– the culture itself was the greatest source of oxygen, our communities, work, families weren’t places to escape from or left us depleted but places that nourished us.

Cultural repair speaks to that aching hunger to return to … something. Something that feels like it is in our memories, something that we catch glimpses of at pot lucks of compassionate friends, circles of allies or sweet moments when our work feels like a creative process that brings more life to ourselves and the world. It reminds us that there are natural cycles that pattern the natural world, and we, as part of that, have cycles, processes and ways of being that we have neglected– the importance of inspiration, the role of focused work, the rejuvenation of timeless siestas and playfulness, nourishing food and the role of story-telling around the fire under a night sky. These things are not luxuries, these are spiritual necessities– deep within us we are aching to return to this memory of well-being.

This movement, most often associated with the work of Jon Young and the Eight Shields Model, is not just about deep ecology and nature-connection– it is also about personal transformation and social justice. In the words of Young, it is about “optimizing the human operating system.”

Can you imagine an organization or faith community or campaign that leaves you feeling more alive than when you joined it? Where the process of gathering is as important as the potential “products”– the voting rights maintained, land conserved, unjust laws repealed are enhanced by the community of intention and care that worked towards them? Where we paid attention to the design of our gatherings, our meeting spaces, our meals, our personal lives and yearnings? Where we started and ended in gratitude?

That is cultural repair. It is about repairing our culture to be naturally healing, sustaining and life giving.

So, Daniel and I are off to India with these questions: what does this movement mean in social justice? What does social justice have to teach this movement? What does this say of the spirit? Further– how does the movement frame itself in a way that includes or excludes different communities of people? When this knowledge is recognized as coming from brown and black bodies (much emphasis is placed on the wisdom from the bushmen communities of the Kalahari to the wisdom of council in indigenous North and South America), yet few folks of color are present at workshops, what does this say of the need to re-design, re-learn and listen more deeply ahead as we acknowledge the classism, racism and exclusion of our environmental movements?

The Jain community of North India will be dynamic conversation partners in this effort. Jainism is well-recognized for its emphatic focus on the life of all beings and the inherent, explicit interconnectedness of all life– physically and karmically. Furthermore, the Jain concept of anekantavada  or “non-onesidedness”/”many-sidedness”, has much to say to the adversarial antagonism of movements for justice that claim absolute truth or prescriptive answers to complex realities.

Our proposals are below– and we are hungry for feedback: what does a movement like this raise for you? Where have you experienced work and life that is “alive enough to be shared” and what made it that way? 

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Presentation Title: “Bird Song and the Listening Spirit: Growing the Movement for Cultural Repair”

Summary: In the United States, fragmented movements for ecological and social justice face language of scarce resources and adversarial needs—as social justice movements work diligently for the rights of human beings, ecological justice movements give voice to the inherent aliveness of nature and warning to our self-destruction. Both models, however, often lack the spiritual tools and self-reflection to sustain themselves in the midst of financial, social and political strains and embedded injustice in our society. An inclusive approach to the Cultural Repair movement is a response to this hunger for what sustains us by including earth- and human-connection and fueling (through living) in regenerative ecological communities of care. This paper will examine these philosophical foundations, current manifestations, opportunities and challenges for growing the movement to repair our world.

Workshop/Experiential Learning Segment: “Children and Youth: Our Radical Teachers in the Movement for Cultural Repair”

Summary: In Southern California, social and ecological justice activists have come together in common movements to provide learning spaces for diverse youth to reflect, connect, dialogue and take action in healing their community, ecologically and socially. These best practices are part of larger movements, returning to indigenous and ancient wisdom, that engage people in reconnecting to the earth, to themselves and to their own spirits through outdoor activities and community living. This workshop will share (and practice) some of these best methods in case studies from California in which youth and children serve as leaders and teachers in re-discovering what keeps them, and us, alive.