Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

- Howard Thurman, "The Work of Christmas"

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

And a very blessed Solstice

May the light return in many ways for you and the ones you love.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Breaking Through

It was pageant day! A bright sunny day and our new windows combined with the extremely low solstice sun to sweat us just about out in lamb and cow costumes! We used the lovely Joyce Poley pageant "Would You Like to Hold the Baby?" and it was fabulous.

We almost felt that somehow we were, you know, breaking through. I mean, after all, I've hesitated to ever do such an involved holiday program because we never quite knew who we'd get from week to week or how things would go.

Definitely a breakthrough for us.

In fact, decorating for the holiday before the afternoon of Christmas Eve was fabulous even though our minister our ADRE and a number of other core folks spend three hours assembling a fake tree. This was another breakthrough. We love this whole owning a building thing. Fabulous. Except that now we can't just call the people we rent from to fix things, but oh well, who cares. It's obviously a breakthrough.

So many breakthroughs for little Westside Unitarian Universalst Congregation.. So, so many.

I mean, you'd almost think that we'd be headed to the UUA General Assembly this year to accept some kind of honor for all of our breaking through. Almost. I mean, maybe it really is true. Maybe.....

Yep. It is true.

Westiside Unitarian Universalist Congregation, the little church on the hill that could, IS a 2011 Breakthrough Congregation. See y'all in Charlotte!

And, by the way, whoo hoo!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My New Career

I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave the world of religion and children and head into a new career as a booking agent. I'm sitting here listening to my sons and husband jam and whooo boy, they're amazing!

A few years ago we tried to buy my husband a drum set for Father's Day. They were like 40 gabillion dollars. So we gave him a "drum set" card and I figured if he could justify spending a gabillion dollars on it, well then fine. Bah humbug or bah father bug or whatever.

But the boys just kept getting better and playing more amazing music. I mean, have you seen this cover of "Melt With You" it's better than Psycho Furs, but then I'm the mother and all but see?? It's good.

So he was left out of the party. Poor guy. This Thanksgiving my dear husband found an inexpensive drum set on Craig's List and went out at 7 at night to meet the young family who needed grocery money and was willing to sell their drum set. I think they even met in the WalMart parking lot--in Renton! The one place in our town that gets by far the most police calls each month. Yeah.

But the drum set is great. And he's a fabulous drummer. They sound amazing. They jam blues and jazz. They play pretty much anything the youngest--the music phenom--can play. So here I sit under the Christmas tree, listening to them.

I can see it now.....they'll play the cruise ship circuit. I'll be a lady of leisure. Or I'll be Julie from the Love Boat. It's my new calling....

Or maybe we'll just play with our little family band and we'll do the prelude on Christmas Eve at church and we'll continue to have great jam nights in our own little home choir loft-- at least as long as the oldest is home from college. And it will be a wonderful Christmas.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Finding the Blessings

I was in a hibernate-y mood. Too much to do, too much to think about. Too many people needing something from me.

But it was time for what in the slang in my head I call "butt-day"; time to put in my hours at our little homeschool-school. Time to sit myself down and just be there as part of the cadre of parents who hang to keep the peace during lunch and PE.

Oh I didn't want to go. Yes it was supposed to be my day off from work but there had been paint trauma with the living room prior to the new carpet going on on my work day, so I was behind. And my kind of job never really allows for a personal leave day or anything--the work just sits in the corner and patiently waits for you. It's got those glow-y eyes, too.

So, I took myself up to school. After lecturing my youngest son about personal responsibility and discipline all morning, I felt guilty just thinking about blowing it off.

It was lovely up at school. There were babies riding in back packs, littles playing in the preschool room. Teens were clustered in little groups--some playing guitar, some studying. Some just hanging out.

There was a soup lunch that one of the kids had arranged, she's trying to raise enough money for a "Cheese of the World" package for Heifer. We had a bake sale for the Musical Theater class and a candy sale for the drama class. Lots of people were working and laughing and playing and getting ready.

I realized that my "butt-time" is coming to an end. This is our youngest son's last year at the little homeschool-school. Yes, the middle son may go through this school for his early college program next year, but it's not the same. That's just stopping in for paperwork and saying "hi". If you're a parent of a "Running Start" student, you don't have to do volunteer hours in the same way. After all, your kid isn't one exploding beans in the microwave, or getting a little too loud with the guitar in the hallway. So for me, these days are coming to an end.

Zap. The whole day shifted. I was deeply grateful for the mess of soup bowls to wash. And deeply grateful for babies toddling out from the preschool room to snitch a cookie from the bake sale. Even the trauma of another little injury during PE made me smile. It's not just our own children we care for, a child with a bump brings the whole village-strong response. No one at our school ever is left alone with a problem. And it's even sweeter now that it's almost over for me.

The seasons of our lives do turn, one to the next. It's funny but the things that seem to be drudgery at the time, are often the things that I miss the most when they're gone.

I am blessed and lucky.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Ruling Class and Me

I've been so upset with my president. Come on Barack, don't you know that we don't negotiate with terrorists, or they'll just take hostages again?

And I'm sorry to family and friends who are on the other side of the aisle, but I have lost all compassion and faith for anyone who has ever voted for a Republican, ever. It's been nice knowing you and I wish you well in life, but buzz off. Now.

Here's the thing. I work hard. My husband works hard, get this--for the government--keeping planes safe and flying--he's gone every day for at least 12 hours and he often works at home, too. And yes there is no pay raise for the next two years so if he doesn't look for a job in industry that offers bonuses and actual cost of living increases I might just scream, but anyway.....we make a fine living. We're compensated pretty fairly for what we do. I work for a non-profit which by it's nature is lower paying than a business type job, but still, we are not wealthy but you'd think we'd be solidly middle class. And really, we are.

But here's the other thing: we're members of the screwed generation. Our parents graduated from high school, got jobs, worked. They had families and a nice house in the suburbs. They worked a fair day for fair pay. They had whole weekends off with two days in a row when they didn't have to work. It was rare that they had to go to work in the dark AND come home in the dark. They were able to pay for the medical procedures and services that they needed. They went on nice vacations, they had two cars each and then they retired at age 55. Nice.

And not happening for us. My parents never had high level bosses that made an obscene salary or benefits that were fit for royalty. Of course, we don't either! My boss drives a 15 year old car because she's a dear. But the wage disparity between the ruling class and the rest of us is grossly unfair.

"During the late 1980s and the late 1990s, the United States experienced two unprecedentedly long periods of sustained economic growth—the "seven fat years" and the " long boom." Yet from 1980 to 2005, more than 80 percent of total increase in Americans' income went to the top 1 percent." from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. 

And we feel it, don't we? The buying power of a regular paycheck seems to diminish every year. Groceries feel like a bigger hit, any home improvement projects need to be carefully planned, and furnishings are kept in service past a broken frame and a threadbare cushion. And if you're going to talk tuition to a four year institution, well, it's a huge hit. Huge.

Of course these people, these very wealthy people who give huge sums to politicians are pressuring the people in power. They don't want to have to budget for what they want. They don't want to choose between a crown for a broken tooth and carpeting. They want to continue to live a life of privilege. These are the wealthy who just bullied their way to a tax cut. A tax cut. During a time of war. Where is their patriotism? Where is their 40s style commitment to 70% taxes because it was the right and honorable thing to do--a privilege even--that's the way the wealthy viewed it then. 

I am reminded of "The Good Earth" and "The Grapes of Wrath" and the lessons from the Great Teacher (that's what Unitarian Universalists often call Jesus of Nazereth). The money and gross privilege eventually becomes a target. And people who have nothing for their children eventually rise up. 

I've had Pete Seeger songs running through my head all day. And while I find some gross problems with some of the power and money held by unions, it seems that working class folks banding together and saying "enough" is the only way to end the power and inequity wielded by the wealthy. I love the lyric I found in the original version of "Which Side Are You On" by Florence Reece 

"Their children live in luxury, our children almost wild" 

Still fits. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Care and Feeding of Your Religious Educator Part 3

When I became a Religious Educator in June of 2005 I made a vow to my husband and family. I said "five years, I'll stay five years and then move on" a vow I've clearly broken. Five years was branded into my heart and soul because as a congregant I had seen a number of religious educators be eaten alive at five years into the work. 

I thought it was a universal. If you stayed long enough to really have a rhythm and a groove, the congregation would decide that you were the root of whatever was going wrong in the church and send  you packing. 

But I haven't been eaten alive. I haven't even had any bites taken--maybe a nibble or two over the years, but hey...I'm nibble proof. 

Why? Why does it work for some folks? What happened for me that allows me to put nails in the wall of our office to hang pictures? What let's me add expensive and really long term study "work" books to my library. What makes a professional religious educator able to stay past five years?

1. I was treated as a professional and a colleague from the minute I was offered the job. The minister welcomed me, the president at the time who is also our chaplain welcomed me. The chair of the RE committee welcomed me. I was a clueless newbie, but they gave me a grace period, a good professional budget and for that first year pretty much anything I asked for in the program. There was no "prove yourself" period. It was easy to grow into the professional role with the door held open. 

2. The congregation supported my professional development from the first minute I held the job. I attended the 2005 Fort Worth GA ten days after I started. I went to LREDA Professional day, I spent hours and hours in the exhibit hall learning all I could about curriculum (that's where I first met Jeff Liebmann of uujeff's muse kennel and pizzatorium--he made fun of me for being a curriculum geek!) and I opened my planner to anyone who would look at it with me to help puzzle out the next curriculum year. It was like a crash course in new DRE start up. I could never have gone without rock solid support of the leadership of the congregation. 

3. I had great support when parents or others would push back on something. I had a vision and a goal for our program and the way things had always been done had nothing to do with what we were doing. 

4. Conflict and conflict and more conflict. I love the people I work with, but there isn't a fear of saying "hey, I think you've got it wrong" or "Hey get the heck OFF my toes!" it is not always easy and is never pleasant, but it is clean and honest and much, much better in the long run. 

5. I had colleagues from the start. The advantage I had coming in was time served on an RE Committee and on a Steering Committee (the old-style board) so I'd heard about LREDA from a couple of religious educators, and I knew where to go and what to look for. I've heard of ministers who tell the religious educator they hire to avoid LREDA. That's unforgivable. Much of the learning of how to do this work is in a kind of ad hoc apprenticeship style. Even today I can say anything to a couple of my buddies and they just listen, no judgement, no argument--just support. 

6. From day one I also had a great RE chair. The fact that we now share an office and one full time position tells the whole story--she was committed and hard working as the chair and is both as a colleague now. I hear about congregations forgoing the RE Chair and committee in favor of working groups, but nothing can replace a member who has accepted the leadership on the congregation's side. This is a primary role--maybe nominating committees should consider recruiting the RE chair as a part of their work. 

5. As my professional experience grew, my congregation supported my work at a district and continental level. There was no hesitation that I should serve on boards, or as a consultant. Even weekends away to do the work were happily covered. The RE chair said "we're not very big, we can't give huge sums of money to the movement, but we can give them you for a while." While this fed me and exhausted me, it affirmed their view of me as a resource beyond our doors.

4. I've had an ongoing freedom to do the work as needed, with a powerful trust that: I'll work my hours, the work will get done and that I won't over work my hours. Yeah, trusting me to not overwork was a bust, but I'm trying. But I've been able to work from home, bring my homeschooled kids to work, work from the road--whatever. I've heard about congregations requiring their religious educators to work all their hours in the office. Oh please! If I had to do the quiet, spiritually challenging work in the office I'd go nuts! And how do you shop for a boat load of craft and classroom supplies at the office?? Yes, get volunteers to do that, yadayada, but sometimes you have to work from someplace other than the office. 

3. Everyone involved in a crazy organization like a church needs to be able to laugh, at themselves, repeatedly. Well, one or two can opt out, but everyone else has to be all in. You've gotta have a sense of humor. 

2.  Hard, hard, workers surrounding you make everything easier. At my job I'm surrounded by people who know how to really work. It rocks. 

1. I have had forgiveness gracefully extended to me over and over. This group of people trotting along with me on this journey have forgiven forgotten meetings, messed up plans, crazy ideas that turned out to just be crazy ideas and many other of my human foibles. They still pay me and they still bring me chocolate and even sometimes gift cards for the local coffee shop. 

It's not easy, but it is simple and straightfoward. Pay people a living wage, be respectful, provide the tools to get the job done and as boards/leaders and ministers educate yourselves about what is reasonable to expect from a professional religious educator. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Care and Feeding of Your Religious Educator Part 2

I wrote earlier this fall about keeping your Religious Educator happy and content in their work at a congregation. With a recent rash of resignations/trauma among completely unnamed colleagues, let’s take this a little deeper.
Professional Expense
A congregation simply must provide for the continuing education of their religious professionals. Your bookkeeper needs to go to training on the updates for the system they use to manage the books (can you say CHURCH WINDOWS??) the minister needs to buy books and go to professional events to find renewal and your religious educator needs to have classes, training and collegial time to be able to come back and be the best professional that they can be.
Time Off
Not just time off for good behavior. Not just time off “if you can cover the things you normally do on Sunday that the congregation needs” but regular reliable and committed time away. LREDA guidelines say that religious educators need to have four weeks of paid vacation as well as the option to take ONE SUNDAY PER MONTH OFF! What? You say. One Sunday a month OFF? But that’s when everything happens, that’s when we NEED our professional to be on site.
OK, yes, I understand that. But it’s not true. A religious education committee needs to know what that religious educator does every Sunday, and they need to be able to step in and DO it. It provides them ownership and a deeper understanding of what happens each week. The religious educator needs time with their own family or in solitude that is contiguous and relaxed to be able to recharge. If we didn’t earn half the salary of a city bus driver, maybe working every Sunday except the ones for vacation would make sense. Don’t get me wrong, we love our work, we love Sundays, but there is a good and time tested reason that LREDA guidelines demand one Sunday a month off. Put it in the contract, support it, and explain it to the board and whoever fusses about it. Stand behind it.
The work we religious educators do doesn’t end. We have “days off” but the next children’s chapel or the holiday play or a working list of who can teach next fall is always churning in our hearts and minds. We get important calls from families on our “day off” and of course we take the call because we love the families of the congregation and we are the best ones to help them when things are hard. We work more hours than you pay us to work, we answer email on vacation and we take family time to run to the book store late on Saturday night to pick up the book that someone forgot to get for the children’s message for worship in the morning.
So write a sabbatical into your religious educator’s contract. Yes it’s scary and hard, yes you will miss that professional presence, but it’s the right thing to do. We Unitarian Universalists buy fair trade coffee and vegan Birkenstocks, we march for human rights and a fair wage for workers elsewhere, but sometimes we treat our own employees in ways that are not fair or just or right. It is easy to overlook our lay employees—after all they aren’t ordained clergy. But some of the expectations of congregations I’ve been hearing about are absolutely disgusting. So write it in to the contract. A month per year served is the common measure. Can’t start there? At least write something in, start somewhere.
Reach out to Good Officers, either from the UUMA, UUMN or LREDA if there are troubles that are brewing. Bring in your district services, and believe them when they say to call BEFORE things get bad, before you have a problem. This is what keeps us healthy. Marriage counseling, grief counseling, are commonly accepted places to turn to prevent problems, think of your congregation in the same way. Yes a consultant from Alban Institute is expensive, but what are the hidden costs of NOT doing it?
Save the money you’d spend on a search committee
Turn over for religious educators is extremely high. Why wouldn’t it be? The work is demanding and rigorous. The hours are often simply awful. The complaints are voluminous—we are the reason classrooms are hot, after all. And we sometimes get asked to clean out the fridge in the kitchen and to handle pastoral calls because the minister is out in almost the same breath. But we do the work (but not the fridge!) because it is fulfilling and extremely important.
For all its pitfalls it’s the most rewarding job that most of us have ever had or will ever have. But if you don’t follow LREDA guidelines or you ask simply too much of the human you’ve contracted with to be your Religious Educator, they will leave. Gone. Poof. Seems like a whole lot of people are leaving as of December 31st. Those congregations will now be “in search”. That means a committee, if you’re like lovely Emerson in Houston it means a lot of money on mailers sent out to recruit just the right person.
If you’re large enough it probably means you'll have to find an interim religious educator and offer a moving package. It means a lot of trauma for the children and families. And while they may not be your big pledgers or volunteers right now, give it a decade, they will be. And they’ll remember. Or they’ll leave and never have a chance to be the big spenders. Consider other program staff time and adjustment. Consider the likely chance that you will not just be able to pluck someone from the congregation to “run the kids program” and do it as well as a professional religious educator with ties to the community and deep connections. There is a cost to not being a good employer. And it’s not all monetary. It’s a soul cost.
Say thank you. Say I’m sorry, I was wrong. Say we appreciate you.
But only if you really mean it.
So I guess the moral of the story is (if we were in person I’d point the microphone at you) live your Unitarian Universalist values. Treat people well, trust them and do what you should do.
There ya go! Oh, and some chocolate that appears on our desk every now and again, not a problem, not at all!
(edit 12-2 8am--links) note--this blog is in reaction to the loss of some good people to this good work we do, my congregation is of course, not the home of this unjust treatment.