Our outgoing representative to the UUA Board of Trustees, Sue Stukey, created a wonderful list of Unitarian Universalist acronyms. I thought that this might make a good partner to the list of terms associated with ministerial search that I posted previously. I offer it here with Sue’s permission (CMWD Acronyms).
I present this list of acronyms with some misgivings and a word of caution. Unitarian Universalists love acronyms. Aside perhaps from the US Army, I know of no organization that loves them more. I find myself forced to use them sometimes. How else am I going to come up with a name for a budget line for the District Youth Steering Committee that is less than fifteen characters? But I distrust acronyms.
Why? Partly, I suppose, I take a perverse joy in being contrarian. Yet, it is more than this.
Acronyms are an insider language. We may begin to use them for ease and economy of communication. Yet, using them also communicates that we are part of an inside group and others are not. Use of acronyms can communicate this even when this was not intended. It is especially hard for newcomers and visitors not to get this message from use of acronyms.
When my family and I lived in Maryland, we were members of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church (that would be, CLUUC). It was a tradition there for the delegation returning from General Assembly to lead a worship service in which they shared something of their experience. More than once I found myself sitting in the congregation next to puzzled visitors as an enthusiastic delegate explained that it was a life-changing experience to “Go to the UU GA from the JPD to hear about Anti-anti-M, CLF, APF, and GLBT issues.” Perhaps the intent is to make people feel they want to know more about our association and to be more connected. The effect was not that.
To be sensitive to this is good hospitality. For those who need a more self-interested view, I would add this: All that ever has been written about congregational growth can be distilled into four words: “take the outsider’s view.”
I remember once meeting with a congregation’s membership committee. The people on the committee had a strong sense of mission, a strong sense that the congregation had entrusted them with an important task: their congregation needed to grow. To pay their staff adequately, they needed to grow. To offer the religious education program that they wanted for their children, they needed to grow. To maintain their building adeqautely, they needed to grow.
Yet, they realized that nobody ever joined a congregation to make it grow. Sometimes people join congregations because they like to be part of a growing enterprise, but that is something different. Nobody ever joined a congregation to make it grow. This committee had realized this abstractly, but they had not made it the organizing principle of their work. Until, that is, one committee member stopped and asked quizzically, “so, why do people join?”
This committee’s voyage of discovery in answering this question ended in the startling discovery that they probably did not even have the right people on their committee. Those who feel most strongly their congregation’s need to grow tend to be the insiders and the institutionalists: those who know just how little the staff is being paid, those who notice the tree work that needs to be done every time they drive into the parking lot, those who have seen the estimates for how much it is going to cost to bring the religious education rooms up to code. These people (and this include me) tend to be a long way from their own decisions to become Unitarian Universalists. And they (or I should say “we”) tend to be so busy enough during coffee hour that we are are not the main ones to speak to newcomers and visitors. The institutionals tend to have a list of people to see in coffee hour that is so long that they worry about getting around to all of these before they start to leave–let alone taking time to be hospitable.
What should be done?
1. Avoid acronyms. Adopt the discipline of speaking and acting in a way that is inviting and welcoming of newcomers even when they are not present. Do the work of explaining rather than putting onto a newcomer the work of understanding.
2. Have the center of gravity of your membership committee be with those who are more passionate about why people need to join than about why the congregation needs them. These will typically be new members but not very new members.
3. Talk to newcomers. Every newcomer is on the way to becoming an institutionalist. For this reason, every congregation and especially every membership committee needs a way to stay close to the experience of newcomers. One mechanism works surprisingly well and is wonderfully easy. Gather the newcomers at regular intervals–ideally those who have been around long enough to feel comfortable speaking out but short enough that they remember vividly the experience of being a newcomer. Ask them what they were searching for when they came, what they feel that they have found, what helped them feel connected and what stood in their way (this wisdom comes from the book by Roy Oswald, The Inviting Church.).
In recent years many Unitarian Universalists have read with much interest and benefit the book Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love by Lonni Pratt and Daniel Hoffman (My colleague, Dori Davenport, does a great workshop on the subject). Pratt and Hoffman observe that authentic hospitality is a spiritual discipline. As any who has been a guest of the Benedictines can attest, this the tradition of this still lives with the Benedictines. It is a powerful, prophetic ministry that is both ancient and newly relevant to a contemporary world where too often we must work to make ourselves secure from each other.
At their best, the Benedictines make hospitality a powerful spiritual tradition and religious witness in part because they do not allow it to reduce to a growth strategy. Rather, each time I have enjoyed Benedictine hospitality, someone (often an elderly nun) has found a discrete way of affirming me on my own path, of meeting me where I am. Benedictine communities are as anxious as any on the subject of membership. Doubtless most Benedictine communities have more space to be welcoming of strangers than they would like!
Yet, the Benedictine tradition has much Unitarian Universalists can learn about hospitality because it allows hospitality and recruitment to be independent values. Good recruitment is good hospitality. But hospitality cannot be allowed to reduce to recruitment. Hospitality is authentic–it works spiritually–only in a community where it is so live and powerful that it can challenge as well as support the institutional values. Benedictine communities spend a great deal of time in discernment about the question of who is the stranger to us now, today. Properly done, there is always a degree of tension between the answer to this question and the answer to the recruitment question. Today, for example, many Benedictine communities have felt led to work with undocumented aliens (following Leviticus 19:34, “You shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you once were an immigrant.”).
Does this say that we Unitarian Universalists should work on social justice rather than recruitment? No. It only says that hospitality can work in service of insitutional values like membership only when we allow it to be an independent value. For Unitarian Universalistics, there is a particular danger that we feel uncomfortable with evangelism or recuitment and so rename it membership and then–still uncomfortable–rename that hospitality or radical hospitality. We can forget that hospitality must not become just another way of talking about getting more members. We keep all this straight, not by letting go of our institutional concerns, but rather by keeping ourselves at that place where we still see and still work the tension.
This ramble takes me a long way from Sue Stukey’s list of acronyms. My point is only to say that I do not offer you this list to recommend you use them. Rather I offer it in the spirit that Sue created it: to make the work of the Unitarian Universalist Association more hospitable to the newcomers and guests.