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Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Arms and the Land Downunder

Current Australian gun laws, introduced in 1996, as well as their clear effects on suppressing gun-related violence, are frequently cited by gun control advocates in the USA. These laws and their effects were achieved in the wake of the Port Arthur shooting, when a lone, white, mentally-disturbed gunman armed with a stockpile of automatic weaponry, went on a rampage, shooting up a quiet Tasmanian tourist town, killing 35 and wounding 4. Here down-under, such a scenario is the stuff of nightmares, not of the nightly news.

Seems we're doing SOMEthing right down here.

The laws introduced by the then Liberal-National party coalition government (note: for “Liberal” read “Conservative” here. Don’t ask me why…) were sweeping in scope, aimed at a total prohibition on the ownership, possession, sale, and importation on all automatic and semi-automatic firearms. These laws were enforced by a 6-month amnesty, during which time, the owners were invited to sell such weapons back to the government, which, in turn destroyed the surrendered guns. Failure to comply would mean tough penalties, including jail time. Included in the raft of legislation were a national gun registry, stricter guidelines for licensing and training, and an education program. There are still occasional amnesties and buy-backs for unregistered and illegal guns.

Some 650,000 weapons were culled in the first buy-back. 

By and large, the legislation was passed in its entirety—such was the national shock and horror at the Port Arthur massacre. The LNP government saw the political capital in the tragedy, the public mood, and the public benefit, and acted swiftly and decisively under the strong leadership of PM John Howard. As an indisputably direct result of this legislation, homicides fell by 59% and gun-related suicides by 65%. There were 13 mass shootings in the 18 years preceding Howard’s gun laws. There have been no ‘mass’ shootings since. 

The event that shocked a nation and its leadership into action

Such events as Las Vegas or Sandy Hook simply do not happen here any longer. More than those statistics is the freedom one feels here: freedom from random gunfire, freedom from being torn apart by high-velocity rounds blithely squeezed off by someone having a very bad day. Australians can go to any large event, walk on a crowded street, study on a busy campus, or catch mass transport, and it will never occur to them that more than half the people around them are strapped and loaded. Because they aren’t. Only the cops are. So, to sum up…

A mass shooting.

A shocked nation.

Strong, decisive leadership.

Comprehensive, practical action by legislators and law enforcement.

These events combined to produce unarguably positive results for Australia. 

If you sense some ‘buts’ coming, you’re right and here they are:

1.       The legislation was initially opposed by a significant slice of the National party, part of the Liberal-National coalition government that generally represents the interests of farmers. Australia is still a frontier economy, based on primary production, and weapons are part of every farmer’s tool kit. While it is true that you don’t need an AR-15 to deal with the feral pest control of foxes and dingoes that attack grazing stock, nor to control native grazing animals like kangaroos, farmers find semi-automatic rifles pretty useful in the management of threats to grazing and growing. There is still, among farmers, a strong resentment to control of such weapons, and corresponding pressure on National Party members to soften the laws.

2.       Australians continued to buy guns since 1996. In fact, there are now more privately-owned guns that there were in 1996, although with population increasing the per capita rates are significantly lower than they were before the legislation. As gun technologies change, as wealth from pressure groups like the NRA are deployed internationally, the Australian government will need to be vigilant to resist pressure groups, keep effective laws in place, and toughen them where needed. The past ten years has seen much leadership instability—5 changes of PM, minority and coalition governments, and wafer-thin majorities. Swift, decisive, unilateral leadership may be becoming a fond memory in the sunburnt country.

3.       The NRA has Australia in its cross-hairs. Since Australia is held up as a model for intelligent gun legislation, the NRA has pushed-back with propaganda ads full of outright lies about the country—that populace are in revolt against gun control, that ‘only the criminals here have guns’, that we are suffering under big-brother socialism, etc. etc. You know the tune. But you wouldn’t know these are false if you are at geographical and cultural distance from here. The NRA are coming for our guns, Australia, and they want to hand them back to us.

NRA spokesman: "Black is white, up is down...etc., etc., 

4.       John Howard was no saint. Howard, along with Bush and Blair, was arguably guilty of war crimes in his fervent and active support of the wars of the past decade. While genuinely and visibly shocked, appalled, and angered into action over local white deaths in a tourist town, Howard had not the least compunction about the collateral slaughter of Iraqi or Afghani civilians and their children, and still does not. The gun laws may be his one triumphant legacy.

5.       Australians have no right to feel smug about what its gun laws have achieved. They may express bewilderment at a culture with such a huge pathology--an average of one mass shooting per day—that could be so easily solved with such comparatively straightforward solutions. However, Australia as a country is in denial about its own violent pathologies, namely:

a.       the international disgrace of our harsh, punitive, inhumane, militarized, and torturous asylum-seeker policies;

b.       the systemic oppression of Indigenous Australians evidenced in low mortality rates, high incidence of aboriginal deaths in custody;

c.       the gleeful cashing-in on fossil fuels in a time of rising temperatures, sea-levels, rates of climate-related deaths;

d.       progressive de-funding and de-institutionalization of Mental Health care

I am a US-born Minister serving here; I grew up in West Baltimore (The Wire, anyone?). I left the US as a young man in 1985, in part because I didn’t want my children to grow up in a place where gunshots ringing out in the night were entirely normal, where their right not to be shot was trumped by everyone’s right to own assault weapons, where the pathological addiction to weaponry was a normal fact of life.

Yet these things, so bizarre to Australians, are entirely normal if you grow up in the states. My father was entirely normal, and the most peaceful man you could know, yet even he kept three—THREE—weapons in the house: a Saturday night special six-shooter, a Mauser semi-automatic, and a pump-action shotgun. The shotgun was bought on the QT from ‘a guy down at the plant’. Soon after he bought it, he was showing it off to my elder sister one day. He demonstrated how you pump the stock to put one in the chamber…and promptly blew a hole in the bedroom ceiling the size of an NBA hoop. Fortunately, my mother was not home. He swore my sister to silence, and being a gifted handyman, got up in the loft and patched and painted the hole so you’d never know it was there. My sister and father kept this secret until after he and mother had passed away.
Let's keep this a secret...
But if my sister’s tender, beautiful, face had been in the way of this dumb, atrocious accident, there could have been no denial, no secrets, no lies. That is the sort of shame and horror that cripples families and ripples down to affect generations yet unborn. None of us, and none of our children or their children, could have gone unaffected by it. The sins of the fathers (even my sinless father) do indeed get visited upon the children. I grieve for the victims of Las Vegas and their families and friends. But I grieve somehow more for the generations of kids yet unborn who will be brought into life in so violent a place as the USA.

The USA has not been so lucky as my family was. As a nation, my birth-country lost its crucial parenting moment at Sandy Hook. If a pile of the bullet-riddled bodies of kindergarteners doesn’t change the national taste for violence, I’m not sure if anything will. But the lies about gun violence, the secrets about the wealth and corruption that keeps guns firmly entrenched in our homes, and the denial that this is a national pathology must be exposed, exposed now, and by those in the position to do something about it swiftly and decisively.

Leaders can begin by listening to voices outside the US media bubble. Australian is not some other planet. It’s very much like the US. And Australia is not alone in having effective gun legislation. Apologies for salty language, but fuck your exceptionalism, America. Learn from us and from others before more innocent lives are mown down by this ongoing nightmare, the apocalyptic scythe that stalks your every home and street.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Lectio Divina as Post-Modern Worship

Few initiatives in my one-and-only Ministry have been as risky and as necessary to the unfreezing of our faith tradition as offering Lectio Divina as weekly worship.

Lectio Divina is a four-stage process that seeks to engage the whole person
Lectio Divina is Latin for 'divine reading', and is a fairly ancient and rather monastic way of approaching scripture. It offers a method of reading any text as way of prayerful practice. I say 'any text' because, in our pluralist way, we have put together a 'wiki' of influential readings (democratically sourced) to draw from, and these 100 or so have been bound together in no particular order in a large, hard-copy volume.

"Risky" first, because it can be perceived as Christian reconstructionism. While the Latin name and the big book may appear a bit old-high-churchy, Lectio Divina, stripped of Bible and personal God, is no more Christian (and far less Catholic) than lighting votive candles, which we happily do weekly at Sunday service.

Beyond surface impressions, what makes this practice truly risky is that it is a 21st-century Post-modern project in a church still largely stuck in late 19th-early 20th century Modernism. For those unfamiliar with these philosophic terms, here is a quick precis:
As a post-modern approach relates to words, texts, and their meanings, we need to admit that language and meaning are fluid and arbitrary. They are “messy”, because they're subjectively experienced and subject to pressures of culture and personal experiences within those cultural settings. Only power decides which readings of a text are objective, privileged, or 'right'.

A word or phrase, for example, may have connotations for a reader that the author never intended, but that does not make them wrong. Your experience is your experience, and your subjectivity is real.

Lectio Divina encourages exploring and developing your subjective experience through lateral thinking, free associations, and personal narratives prompted by a reading. It discourages rational analysis, whose object is to assert the superiority of the reader over the text, first by 'cracking' the text open like a walnut to extract the useful message, and second, by prevailing over the offered text by agreeing or disagreeing--as if one's approval were the only arbiter of value. It hardly needs pointing out that these twin modernist drives seek to exploit and to subjugate through 'reason', which alone leads to universal, objective truth, which is necessarily 'good'. If only that were true...

The problem of course is that the modernist world-view--where language is transparent and the signifier (the word) equals the signified (the thing or concept)--has been utterly exploded, not merely by advances in both philosophy and physics in the last 50 years, but also by anyone who is prepared to be honest about the way we experience the world.

"This is not a pipe" is true...it's a rendering of a pipe. The difference between signifier and signified is critical.
The inner world of each of our subjective consciousness is a universe in itself, and one worth exploring. The multi-dimensionality of our consciousness is predicated on the recent revelations of quantum mechanics: the universe goes infinitely outwards and inwards, and what's 'out there' and what's 'in here' are both infinitely complex and deeply interconnected. Thus, your experiences, associations, feelings, and mental images of pipes will be different from mine: neither is more valid. So, respect for a person's inner life is necessary, and may be the underlying metaphysic of our first UU principle: "The inherent worth and dignity of every person."

There are three challenges in Lectio Divina. First, being willing to get past the ego's desire to dominate the text, pull it apart, and assert and defend a 'meaning'. Second, becoming a psycho-naut. Freed of the lenses of judgement and criticism, you can boldly go where you've maybe not gone before--letting the text interrogate you, rather than the reverse, and expanding your stock, culturally-formed responses by 'accessing all areas' of the bottomless universe that is you.

Third, and perhaps hardest to cultivate, sharing what random associations and lateral connections you've dredged up with a room full of other people doing the same thing. This takes time, for it relies on daring and trust and the building of a safe space within which to offer what is deeply and particularly inside you to become common knowledge. And when people do share such things, listening and accepting the truth of their experience without judgement or comment., we can grow in compassion and acceptance.

How is this worship? Easy: it 'raises to worth' truth, generosity, humility, grace, and cultivates respect and compassion for each other. Indeed, as someone said of Lectio Divina, you come to find that "Listening and Loving are closely related."

How is it a challenge for UUism? Again, easy: there is an underlying assumption in Modernist thinking that all reasonable beings will come to the same coherent, humanistic conclusions. That justice looks the same for everyone. That objective truth exists 'out there' waiting to be discovered if only we could just think more rationally.

The science and philosophy of the last 50 years has made this a nonsense. The trouble is, UUs are caught in transition between these two world views. The latest UU thinking has for example, rejected the Modernist "Freedom, Reason, Tolerance" mantra in favour of a recognition of the greater complexity and convergence implied in the words "Generosity, Imagination, and Pluralism".

Lectio Divina, though a practice of that past, shows a fruitful way of engaging the contemporary religious life without Modernist delusions.

Monday, May 22, 2017

While we remember the victims of Manchester...

While we remember in our thoughts and prayers the victims of the Manchester bombing, let us be mindful--
  • Before certain politicians and media companies begin a fresh round of demonizing an entire religion in the self-serving lust to garner votes, clicks, and tweets...
  • Before this tragedy is used as a fresh excuse to ramp up the  militarized security state and kick down on refugees fleeing similar daily atrocities...
  • Before governments with a tenuous hold on the electorate beat more loudly on the drums of war...
  • Before the rush to judgement and condemnation...
--that the innocent kids we see fleeing the concert bombing have their counterparts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and other places.

Yes they do.

We see young Mancunians run from a bombing. We do not see people in Muslim countries running from bombs every day. Getting out, getting anywhere away from daily round of destruction, carnage, and 24-hour climate of fear. Getting all the way, sometimes, to Manus and Nauru.

We see young Mancunians, wounded or terrified, desperately seeking help, refuge, safety, comfort, We do not see (or do not allow ourselves to see) wounded or terrified Muslims fleeing their homelands to seek help, refuge, safety, comfort. Sometimes from us.

We see young Mancunians apparently intentionally targeted by a crude device. We do not see the schools, hospitals, wedding parties, markets, and workplaces intentionally targeted by sophisticated devices like drones and laser-guided missiles. Delivered and sanctioned by us.

We grieve for the young Mancunian survivors who will have to live the rest of their lives with the images of body parts, pools of gore, and children's corpses burned into their memories. We do not grieve for those who see such things as a matter of daily routine. Routinely ignored by us.

When people are slaughtered, survivors run away, whether in Manchester or in Fallujah. This is a equally normal response.

No child should have to witness the human form blasted into chunks of meat, whether in Manchester or in Aleppo. The trauma they will carry is equally inescapable.

"Why us?" they cry with one voice. "It's not fair to target us."

No, it's not fair, no matter where you are.

Why does distance and difference blind us to the simple truth that people are people are people?

Writing in a different time about a similarly oppressed and demonized people (the Jews), Shakespeare wrote:

"If you cut us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? And if you wrong us, shall we not seek revenge?" God (or whatever means The Good) forbid that the full measure of their revenge is not visited upon us.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us: what fearsome words to pray.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Users' Guide to the RobOTT, your new robotic Minister

Pax Vobiscum RoboticsTM congratulates you on your purchase of the new 2000-series RobOTT fully robotized Minister!

Better than a flesh and blood human Minister; somewhat better than no Minister at all!

Key features of the RobOTT 2000 fully robotized Minister:

1. Available in a comforting white male appearance, creating the impression of the high intelligence, privilege, authority, soundness of judgement, etc., of the modern urban professional. Included package as standard:

a. Blue blazer and bland suits
b. Conservative ties
c. Spectacles
d. Neutral accent/ethnicity cues

2. Is precision-crafted to balance the wisdom of age and the energy of youth.

3. Is pre-programmed to offer an inexhaustible variety of comforting words, gestures, and sounds when prompted.

4. Is firewalled against corruption by over-generous donors, over-flattering members, and anyone projecting anima/animus archetypes onto it.

5. Is inherently disembodied--sexless and free of vices; requires no privacy or private life.

6. Is equipped to absorb from users a full range of inputs--indifference, condescension, disdain, hero-worship, praise, projection, blame, judgement, vilification, micro-analysis, etc.--with 100% equanimity.

7. Is equipped with a 'light entertainment' mode, enabling it to output an endless archive of clean jokes, folksy anecdotes, interesting scriptural minutiae, toasts, and the odd old favorite song.

8. Is interfaced with Belief.net and Wikipedia data streams, so omniscience is virtually guaranteed.

9. Is finely tuned with an "Academic Equivocation" failsafe output monitor, so is able to remain 100% objective and disinterested in any exchange; has no inherent moral/ethical/political leanings.

10. Is programmed to produce verbal output which is more or less what new owners want to hear or already think; discomfort calibration set at the factory to absolute zero.

11. Is clairvoyant; programmed to sense immediately when a member falls ill or wants (or simply feels entitled to) on-site visits; arrives without being asked or, indeed, even notified.

12. Is programmed to refresh its sensibility hard-drive with simple verbal cues from its owners. For example: "Great service" or "I'm only sorry X wasn't here to hear that" or "You should have wider audience".

Our Guarantee:

1. Maximum moral and existential comfort; zero offence

2. Perpetual activity; minimum maintenance

3. High output at low on-pulpit costs: With only a minimum of routine maintenance, it will provide many years of reliable service. Your up-keep costs are capped  well below the average wage of your country of residence--locked in for the life of your RobOTT!

"If it's not OTT, it's not a RobOTT."

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

When 'tolerance' is intolerable

Many of the folks who seek out our church/movement/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, do so because we used to pitch ourselves with a handy 3-word slogan: "Freedom, Reason, Tolerance." This slogan, I claim, has done us as much harm as good, and should be consigned to our history.

To many, this looked like heaven-sent succour from the dark side of conventional religious affiliation--control, dogma, judgment. And indeed it is a wonderful gift, or it can be. Though individual congregations may have their own theological 'flavour', we do have certain principles to gently hold us together. For instance, we encourage each member to undertake a 'free and responsible search for truth and meaning'. We largely refrain from the language of 'sin' and suspend judgement on matters of lifestyle in free societies. For example, UU churches have been the place people came when the faith of their forebears prevents them from engaging rites of passage--for example, getting married after divorce or to someone of another faith, demanding oaths to a particular faith when welcoming children into the world, or enforcing a fairytale cosmology into the burial of a loved one. A UU congregation gave them the space to accept and make their own peace with how difficult and uncertain living this life can be.

But to some, that 3-word slogan looks like everything is permitted. A UU church will give them space to nurture and declaim intolerant bigotries. A UU church will give them room to exercise long-pent-up feelings of powerlessness by pushing others around without fear of push-back, because...freedom, man. A UU church will provide an endless and ready supply of easy-going folk for the narcissist's appetite for attention. A UU church will provide an open platform to construct and furnish the house they want to live in. No one will judge you, because we're free and tolerant. So, if you want to, you can get away with every damn thing you want. As with the current Trumpian governmental crisis in America, once the judiciary in rendered impotent, everything becomes possible.

We say we welcome all comers, and we do. But one of the more difficult aspects of UU ministry is having to confront and challenge those few who are so damaged, or whose maturity is so arrested, that they see our openness as a place to finally indulge themselves. In short, to draw perceptible limits to what tolerable, to remind them the free exercise of truth MUST be a responsible one, or everything's okay. And when you confront and challenge, our unhandy, archaic, 3-word slogan gets thrown in your face. "So much for tolerance! You're all hypocrites!" Tolerance is the serpent that eats its own tail.

My esteemed colleague, Rev. Peter Boullatta, put this better than I ever could in this seminal article some little while ago: https://peterboullata.com/2011/12/29/the-liberal-church-finding-its-mission-its-not-about-you/

If you haven't read that before, you really should.

Any parent of a nascent teenager will know that how you challenge and confront those who are simply not equipped to handle sudden, new-found freedom is a subtle art, and hard to get right. Largely, it's a matter of pastoral judgement--matching tone to content and matching those to what you know of the person's self-image, background, way of thinking. My experience is that, just as people who are mad don't think they're mad, people who use a UU church the way a baby uses a diaper likewise don't think they're doing anything amiss. Nine times out of ten, it's a no-win, and they stalk off somewhere else, a living bad PR-generating machine for the beloved community we try to build. Hey ho.

I have to say to any prospective ministers who may be reading--this is part of the job. In fact, this IS the job, the whole job. To see people's brokenness, to love them anyway since we are all broken, to teach and admonish when needed because you're the Minister, dammit, and to let go of controlling the result, even if it means losing them entirely.

Look at it this way, too: most of the faces you see before you in the church probably weren't there 20 years ago, and may not be in another 20. People come and go for many reasons, and none of it is entirely due to what ministers do or don't do.

So stick to your principles, and cut yourself a break.

Monday, December 5, 2016

If we hate haters for hating...

(This is--more or less--the text of a speech I was asked to give at a recent rally at SA's Parliament House, organised by the University of Adelaide's Students Against Racism group on Saturday, December 3.)

"I'm aware that the yankee accent you hear me speaking in does not exactly do me any favours in denouncing racism and xenophobia in forums such as this.
However, despite my Nth. American accent, I am an Australian. I've been here for 17 years: I became a citizen in 2007. So I'm an Australian BY CHOICE, rather than by an accident of birth. I too am an immigrant, and boy was it easy to get in here...for me. My credentials: European descent, educated, white (all of which were the result, not of personal achievement, but of privilege).
These personal characteristics made it easy for me to get in here because they seem to indicate I would pose no threat to Australia's cultural integrity. How wrong they were...
For, like you all, I am here today (and over the years my church has been steadfast its attendance at all such rallies) to mobilize our bodies and raise our voices against the racism and xenophobia that drive our refugee policies, a human rights disgrace the whole world condemns us for. And it is important we do so, for we are aware too that the race hate and fear of strangers that fuel these policies is on the rise--a real vote-winner everywhere it seems. Witness the recent surge in nationalism and xenophobia in the UK and the USA. Witness the return of the execrable One Nation party as Senate power brokers in our current federal parliament.
And yes, it is good to come out in public, regularly and in numbers. To feel that we are not alone but are many, that we are not powerless, and that it's not US who are going crazy, feeling (as we do) so at odds with the prevailing discourse.
BUT: if we are only here at these rallies to make ourselves feel better, safer, more empowered, to get the frustration we feel 'off our chests', like some sort of personal self-help practice or pressure valve, we will fail to evolve a more humane discourse around refugees in the wider community. In fact, we ARE failing.
We are failing not just because we're talking mainly to ourselves, not just because of the 'bubble effect' that has become the new norm in the social media landscape, nor is it because of the general indifference of consumer culture to activism (I mean, look around you--what are most people concerned about here and now? Commerce.)
We are failing because the fellow Australians we take to be racists and xenophobes also feel powerless and threatened themselves, and we will not convert a single one of them by hating on them.
Think about it: when did screaming 'Racist!' at a racist ever stop them having racist thoughts? On the contrary, hating on them only confirms their sense of threat, isolation, and self-righteousness. Labelling 'Racist' can not be the end of the conversation, but the start. And this is where our task gets harder than turning up on a Saturday for an hour or so.
Yes of course we need to protest as we are today to fortify and motivate ourselves, but we also need to become smarter and stronger and better skilled at engaging hearts and minds who are terrified of change, of difference, who want to stand athwart globalisation yelling "STOP!"
Yes, fire up your commitment today, but keep your cool tomorrow, I beseech you. Try to understand their fears. (Of course they're irrational fears, but irrational fears feel the same mas rational ones.) Try to see what buttons the authorities are pushing to make them comfortable with hating.
Yeah, I know, I'm a minister and it's kind of my job to sell the idea that there's a better way than fear and hate. But don't you believe that too? That a life not enslaved to these emotional states is simply a better life?
Of course you do, so don't just protest...become a teacher, say. Teach people to think about their thinking. Or if not, actively support the many refugee organisations you see represented here today. Or learn to take what capital you may have away from companies and businesses that support and profit from hate rhetoric and human misery. Educate yourself beyond this bubble of like minds.
In your personal networks, commit to engage day after day with those who do not think and feel as you do. Listen to them. Be patient. Create opportunities for them to engage with people who are different from them and they will see (must see) that they're not so different.
Most importantly, engage them in a spirit of loving kindness, for in truth, "they know not what they do."
I'm sorry: this is a hard message to hear. But it is so easy to become the thing you hate. But if we hate haters for hating, how are we any different? Where is our moral advantage? Yes, it's hard to exercise self-control, but the alternative is what we have--polar division, cultural warfare, take-no-prisoners smackdowns. You want to be truly radical? Make peace instead.
When I moved here, decades ago, what I loved about this place was that you could walk down the street and hear Greek, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indigenous languages, Polish...even Canadian, eh. The country I fell in love with speaks Spanish and Arabic and Thai and Urdu and Farsi and North American English, It wears a hijab and a yarmulke and a turban and a baseball cap and eats everything from halal kangaroo to vegan hamburgers.
Australia was at one time the shining multicultural success story of the world: incorrigibly plural, generous, imaginative in social policy. That default mode still lives in us and can never be lost, so let's make it so again. With generous hearts, imaginative minds and a commitment to making our country safe for everyone born, no matter where they were born.
Thank you.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Oh please do come in, Mr. Wolf!

We live in a time in history when most church attendance and membership is in steep decline. This has produced an atmosphere of insecurity, a desperation for growth, even leading to---gasp--marketing/branding strategies to invite, include, draw the digitally-jaded, over-worked, alienated, and media-distracted secular public into the fold.

Half the damned  articles in my news-feed come down, basically, to how to buck this general decline.
  • "Is your church too Inward?"
  • "Does your church have a clear mission?" 
  • "8 signs of a dying church"
  • "15 ways to strategize to strategize your outreach."
  • "Refresh your welcome"
  • "10 things Millennials are looking for in church"  
I have read them. All of them.

I've sorted and archived them, and shared them with key people. Policies around welcome, media, and the physical building itself have been changed because of the dissemination of them. If I were to print these digital articles, I'd be knee-deep in dead trees and eco-guilt.

But I have lately become aware that the general push to get EVERYONE POSSIBLE into your church is developing a huge blind spot in our thinking, and puts at risk those in our charge. Inviting newcomers and seekers is a theology of inclusion, common in many churches, and certainly one of our core UU values. But the general, panicked push for the fullest possible church inclusion can usher wolves into the paddock along with new sheep.

It is well to remind ourselves that Ministers are supposed to be both the vigilant SHEPHERDS who protect the vulnerable flock, as well as the sort of earnest rubes who chase after the odd lost sheep. How to gate-keep the paddock without appearing to exclude for the sake of exclusion (as it was in the days of the bad old church)?

The stone cold fact is that there are those who look at a congregation that is (think about it):
  • a ready-made community 
  • of open-hearted people
  • seeking meaningful connection
and see only--Supply. Opportunity. Resources. Fresh meat. Here are some examples of wolves masquerading as sheep that I have encountered first-hand:

Wolf #1--I am a lonely older person looking for love (or a lay...the two can get so muddled up)

In general, these are male, although recently-divorced females prowl the territory too. This can be pastorally tricky, since we are called to build intentional communities that push back against the epidemic of loneliness created by our broken socio-economic system. And of course, you can't and shouldn't try to stop relationships forming between consenting adults. But churches are supposed to be rather more than free hook-up spots for lonely superannuants and divorcees-of-a-certain-age.

Social skills (or lack of them) might be an indicator of whether pastoral intervention is called for. Is the person in question hitting on most everyone in their age range? Do they stare for prolonged periods at more youthful members of the opposite sex? Do they corner them in conversation, or otherwise make them feel uncomfortable? Discretion is called for here, and pastors would need to set aside extra time to engage the wolfish member in constructive conversations about what they have really come to church for.

(And a caveat: A vibrant church with a good range of ages is awash in unseen sexual energy, and since ministers are usually focal in live worship, they have the potential to become animus or anima figures for sexually frustrated/repressed members of the congregation, regardless of age or gender. It is impossible to overstate here the importance of a minister's personal boundaries. You are not their friend, you are not their son/daughter, you are not available to them outside a professional context. Period.)

Wolf #2: I'm building my own guru brand and would rather not start from scratch, so I'll just gather some of the sheep in the ready-made community around me and be off. Cheers.

Or, "I'm really interested in counselling/reflexology/Feldenkrais/Lucid dreaming/Ayurveda...whatever. Do you think I could use the church/hall/whatever? Do you think any of our members would be interested in something like that?"

Our emphasis on pluralism, diversity, and individual experience of the sacred makes us fare game for just about any fringe spiritual chancer. Basically, such wolves want to minister in their own special way to their own little congregation of the like-minded. Obviously, this is another wolf working out a deeply felt personal need for connection and usually some control issues as well, and thus is an opportunity for pastoral engagement about these issues. My experience, though, is this: discussion of their spiritual needs usually acts a wolf-repellent, and they're usually gone like the morning mist soon after.

Or, the more skillful learn to evade or deflect your pastoral concern. They stay and form a silo of people they've befriended or charmed. Then, they'll be off, thanks, with a chunk of your congregation, whose spiritual needs are being met by whatever it is they offer. Maybe that's not a bad thing. But it won't look good for you, Mr. Shepherd. The best way I've found to deal with any silo-group (wolf-led or not) is to keep insisting they share what they're doing with the community as a whole. That way, whatever good they're offering will be folded into the general practices of the church, and their brand loses its 'specialness'. Also, the minister positions themselves as the default arbiter of the church's spiritual offerings, which is what they are, in part, paid to do.

OR, in some extreme cases, when the minister's contract is up for renewal, they'll mount a putsch. There will be some conflict and tears and hand-wringing. But in such situations the peace-mongers always prevail and propose some sort of compromise that effectively means that ministerial authority is fatally undermined. If that happens, you should quit as gracefully as you can without a moment's hesitation, and at least you'll be outside the paddock when the wolf starts to eat and the screaming starts.

Wolf #3: I'm Baron Munchhausen: come to my caring embrace, my ailing little proxies.

"It's really simple, this, so here's the deal: I need you to be spiritually/emotionally/socially needy. I will make a great show of caring, supporting, befriending you. But do not get better. If you get better, I will lose my reason for being. So I will need to keep you broken. Your brokenness is my meat and drink, because it obliterates my own brokenness. So....poor you. Poor, poor you!" 

It is astonishing how well this dysfunction blends into what we think church community is supposed to be--caring for each other, making each other whole and strong through mutual loving kindness. Maybe Jesus was a Munchhausen's Syndrome by Proxy sufferer. I'd like to think not...

The best way to test this is by outcome: does the person the wolf has latched onto ever gain any personal autonomy through their caring efforts? No? Why is that? Not caring enough? Or too much?

The worst cases of this happen with congregants at the end-of-life. A positively ghoulish hovering near the dying. As if the dying haven't enough to contend with, they've got to take care of the wolf's feelings too. And of course, the risk of elder abuse is very great is such cases, leading to the entry of the most sinister wolf of all....

Wolf #4: Wolf, the Legacy Hunter

Once upon a time in Hyde, Greater Manchester, there lived a kindly doctor-wolf who sidled among the eldest sheep in the paddock and went to great lengths to look after their pain management, health care, and end-of-life planning. The sheep were so grateful for his kindness in their time of greatest need, that many included them in their wills. Right before they suddenly died.

Yes, children, it's the story of Dr. Shipman, who gobbled up the assets of scores of elderly, not-quite-all-there patients before he was exposed as the serial killer he was. Most of these elderly sheep are now in the graveyard of the Unitarian church where they worshipped, or that of the nearby Methodist church. Both paddocks offered an ample supply of ready-made, credulous, dependent sheep.

Imagine that. A nice, caring, church-going doctor using his professional standing to prey on elderly fellow-members! Well, here's a shock--doctors are not the only people in church communities to use their professional standing to further their own material ends. Legacy-hunting is not unknown among Ministers too. Look for the signs: excessive, almost exlcusive, attention to the oldest and sickest; special arrangements with funeral directors; personal attention to wills; a fat retirement.

Oh yes, Ministry can be a very handy guise for any of the wolves I've listed above. Sexual and financial predation, narcissistic cult-formation, and a need to keep people needing them.

Enter the unreliable narrator. Maybe I'm a wolf too.

The folk wisdom is that people go into the professions that offer what they themselves need or desire: many doctors are hypochondriacs, many psychiatrists are nuts, many cops have thuggish inclinations, and many ministers need to be ministered to. The bar for who gets to lead a ready-made community of vulnerable people seeking meaningful connection, cannot be set too high. Someone needs to be vigilant and that vigilance needs to be trust-worthy--and trusted.

There is a UU trend lately to do away with the notion of professional ministry, citing our commitments to democracy and equality, and with the Information Age  doing away with the minister-as-in-house-scholar.  After all, if you really want to know anything about religion or spirituality, or anything, you only have to Google it. And since as a church we do not insist on the existence of God, still less on a priestly-class of ontologically higher beings, why spend all those precious church resources on a minister at all? You're not the boss of me, man!

Models that ‘dethrone’ the ministerial role are perhaps a bit disingenuous. Or worse. Without someone to gate-keep, rightly or wrongly, we leave our communities open to exploitation in a world full of people so broken that they do exploit. We shouldn't let our insecurity about decline blind us to keeping safe those in our charge.

And just maybe, casting the widest possible net to top up our ever-dwindling memberships doesn't preclude discernment about who we actually haul in, and who we should throw back into the sea.