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I finished the first part of my presentation on Family Ministry in Milwaukee with a discussion of the importance of values, specifically the need to clarify and promote our values.

First, we took a look at what is probably the most well known statement of our UU values, our Principles and Purposes (along with the sources):

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Now I’m a pretty strong proponent of using our principles as a guide for faith development, and I certainly think we should teach them early and often in our religious education programs. However, the way they are worded makes it a little difficult for persons unfamiliar with our faith to discern what are the values we actually promote. And if we’re unable to clearly articulate the values we share in our communities of faith, then we’re probably not offering a comprehensible message to families looking for a spiritual home. Our Principles and Purposes are an excellent example of limited comprehensibility. We know what we mean when we say things like “the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” or “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” but for an outsider, these phrases may be seen as more evidence that Unitarian Universalists are just a bunch of over-educated elitists.

How, then, do we make our message clearer? By grounding it in the language of our shared values. So at the risk of sounding like an over-educated elitist, I’d like to suggest that we do more “collective values clarification” or CVC for short. Truth is, identifying our shared values is a relatively easy process, and it can even be fun. Here’s one I’ve done repeatedly and successfully. Gather the people. Generate/show them a list of values (I often use the 21 values George Lakoff mentions in his book Moral Politics). Give the people multiple votes to identify their top three values. Tally the votes. Take the top six or so values and use them in all of your congregation’s promotional material—welcoming brochures, websites, descriptions of religious education classes (for children, youth and adults), etc. Do a sermon series on them. Teach them to your children. Design small group ministry plans around them. Incorporate them into your shared spiritual practices. Use them to guide your social justice activities. You can even build your mission and vision statements around them.

What we need to do is speak the language of values, so that families will know what they’re getting when they walk through our doors. I mentioned my home congregation’s insistence on articulating these values from our mission statement over and over: Unity Church-Unitarian is here to help us live loving lives of service, integrity, and joy.

So, beginning with “service, integrity, and joy,” we generated a list of values on newsprint and ranked them by giving each person three votes. We were able to come up with seven values that would service very nicely as a basis for a family ministry initiative (or for an RE program, or to help build a congregational mission statement). Folks noted that different kinds of congregations would need to use different processes. The important thing is that every family ministry initiative needs to have a set of six or seven values that it’s trying to affirm and promote.

Continuing my Milwaukee presentation: I focused on why building and sustaining connected community is so important for family ministry.

Two things to consider from Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities, by the Commission on Children at Risk:

First, a great deal of evidence shows that we are hardwired for close attachments to other people, beginning with our parents and extended family, and then moving out to the broader community.

And…

Second, a less definitive but still significant body of evidence suggests that we are hardwired for meaning, born with a built-in capacity and drive to search for purpose and reflect on life’s ultimate ends.

The report offers a basic definition and then lists 10 components of a Connected (Authoritative) Community, which to mean sound remarkably like a healthy, vital, multigenerational congregation.

Authoritative communities are groups of people who are committed to one another over time and who model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and live a good life.

Authoritative communities have 10 key characteristics. Based on careful analysis of both the new science of nurture and the existing child development literature, the Commission identified the following 10 principal characteristics of an ideal authoritative community:

  • [Connected] communities include children and youth.
  • They treat children as ends in themselves.
  • They are warm and nurturing.
  • They establish clear limits and expectations.
  • Their core work is performed largely by nonspecialists.
  • They are multigenerational.
  • They have a long-term focus.
  • They encourage spiritual and religious development.
  • They reflect and transmit a shared understanding of what it means to be a good person.
  • They are philosophically oriented to the equal dignity of all people and to the principle of love of neighbor.

If congregations really want to attend to the needs of families, we must begin with the needs of children—and building connected communities is the best place to start. Now two of these 10 characteristics may cause some Unitarian Universalists some discomfort: clear limits and expectations, and a shared understanding of what it means to be a good person. So I offered the following interpretations of those concepts. The first is from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose work around optimal experience (or flow) I’ve found to be very helpful. Here’s what he has to say about clear limits and expectations:

There is ample evidence to suggest that how parents interact with a child will have a lasting effect on the kind of person that child grows up to be…. The family context promoting optimal experience could be described as having five characteristics. The first one is clarity: the teenagers feel that they know what their parents expect from them—goals and feedback in the family interaction are unambiguous. The second is centering, or the children’s perception that their parents are interested in what they are doing in the present, in their concrete feelings and experiences, rather than being preoccupied with whether they will be getting into a good college or obtaining a well-paying job [which is exactly the kind of parental pressure Madeline Levine talks about]. Next is the issue of choice: children feel that they have a variety of possibilities from which to choose, including that of breaking parental rules—as long as they are prepared to face the consequences. The fourth differentiating characteristic is commitment, or the trust that allows the child to feel comfortable enough to set aside the shield of his defenses, and become unselfconsciously involved in whatever he is interested in. And finally there is challenge, or the parents’ dedication to provide increasingly complex opportunities for action to their children.

I think all of these characteristics apply to the kind of connected community we’re talking about—especially the religious education programs within our congregations.

As far as a shared understanding of what it means to live a good life, I think the Lifespan Faith Development Vision Statement from the UUA gives us some direction here.

We envision children, youth, and adults who:

  • know that they are lovable beings of infinite worth, imbued with powers of the soul, and obligated to use their gifts, talents, and potentials in the service of life;
  • affirm that they are part of a Unitarian Universalist religious heritage and community of faith that has value and provides resources for living;
  • accept that they are responsible for the stewardship and creative transformation of their religious heritage and community of faith;
  • realize that they are moral agents, capable of making a difference in the lives of other people, challenging structures of social and political oppression, promoting the health and wellbeing of the planet, acting in the service of diversity, justice and compassion;
  • recognize the need for community, affirming the importance of families, relationships and connections between and among the generations;
  • appreciate the value of spiritual practice as a means of deepening faith and integrating beliefs and values with everyday life;
  • experience hope, joy, mystery, healing, and personal transformation in the midst of life’s challenges.

I especially like the multigenerational quality of this statement. It refers to all of us–children, youth, and adults. And it points to the next part of my presentation: values. More on that tomorrow.

I continued my Milwaukee presention on Family Ministry by defining community:

Community is key to ministering to families. Conservatives understands this. It’s time progressives did, too. And while we strive to have as expansive definition of family as possible, the truth is that when we talk put the concepts of family and community together, we must inevitably think of the children. Here’s what Diana Garland has to say about this:

The African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” became a political slogan pointing to the importance of community for children, but it does not quite go far enough. All persons, both children and adults, need community. Because children are dependent on others for their survival, their vulnerability in the absence of community is more apparent. As James Garbarino has pointed out, children are like the canaries miners used to take with them into mine shafts. Canaries are particularly sensitive to poisonous gasses, and if they succumbed, the miners knew the environment was dangerous (Garbarino, 1995). Like canaries in mine shafts without adequate fresh air, children “succumb” without adequate communities of nurture and support. Adults, too, however, need to live in community. Some seem to need community more than others, but even self-sufficient adults seek the company of others and need a community when they become ill, injured, or threatened. (Diana Garland, “Community: The Goal of Family Ministry“[Word Doc].)

It’s important for the future of our religious movement, for spiritual progressives, for progressives in general, for the country, perhaps even for the entire world. As George Lakoff says:

I think the issue to bring progressives together should be this most central of all issues—raising children to become responsible, empathetic adults. (Lakoff: Moral Politics)

[By the way, I could easily see “raising children to become responsible, empathetic adults” as the primary goal to measure the success of our religious education programs by. The secondary goal would be raising life-long UUs.]

Unfortunately, this is one of the shared weaknesses of mainline Protestant denominations.

A recent poll conducted for PBS’s Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly surveyed 1,130 adults about faith and family. Anna Greenberg, vice president of the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc., told Sojourners [magazine] that “progressive religious groups [need to] make sure they are offering services on the ground for children”—something she said conservative evangelicals often do well. Greenberg saw this as important to the long-term survival of progressive religious traditions. (“Progressive Family Values,” Sojourners Magazine)

So we’ve got our work cut out for us. Here’s where I think we should start: the primary service on the ground we can offer to our children is to offer them connected communities in the form of nurturing congregations.

Here’s why:

According to Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities (a report by The Commission on Children at Risk), the “mental and behavioral health of U.S. children” is deteriorating.

We are witnessing high and rising rates of depression, anxiety, attention deficit/conduct disorders, thoughts of suicide, and other mental, emotional, and behavioral problems among U.S. children and adolescents.

According to the report, these “rising rates of mental and emotional problems among American young people raise a red flag about how well we are nurturing our kids.”

While many American young people are thriving, many more are not, and there are worrisome signs that as a society we are losing rather than gaining ground. Notwithstanding sustained increases in material well-being and important medical advances in the ability to treat depression and other mental disorders, the rate of serious mental and emotional disorders among American children and youth has been rising steadily. Eight percent of high school students have clinical depression, 20 percent report having seriously considered suicide during the past year, and, according to the Surgeon General, 21 percent of 9- to 17-year-olds have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that will cause at least minimum impairment. A recent study of mental health problems among college students at a large Midwestern university found that over the past 13 years, the number of students being seen for depression doubled, the number of suicidal students tripled, and the number of students seen after a sexual assault quadrupled.

“Numerous studies,” says Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids “show that privileged adolescents are experiencing epidemic rates of depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse rates that are higher than those of any other socioeconomic group of young people in this country.”

[I mentioned the cover photo from The Price of Privilege: a group of adolescents sitting together on some bleachers, each of them with a wireless phone in their face, probably reading or sending a text message.] In fact, here’s a blog post I read last fall that shows just how disconnected kids are from live human community:

Class of ’11 brims with gadgets, hope
Posted by Stefanie Olsen

My, my how time flies. In just four years, the profile of the average college freshman has vastly changed, thanks to technology. That’s according to a study published Wednesday from Alloy Media and Marketing and research firm Harris Interactive, which contrasted details of the class of 2011 from that of 2007. (It queried 1,592 students ages 18 to 30 in the United States to gather its data).

The gist is that most college freshman are likely carrying all of the following: cell phone, digital camera, laptop and iPod (or some other MP3 player). It may seem hard to imagine it any other way, but that wasn’t the case just four years ago, when “wired” still meant caffeinated and students weren’t necessarily messaging their professors on Facebook.
What are the differences? Here’s a short list:

No big surprise, but 93 percent of freshman say they own a cell phone, vs. about 78 percent four years ago.

A majority of students, 64 percent, owns a digital camera, double the figure four years ago. Sixteen percent say they plan to buy one this year.

More than half of students (58 percent) own an MP3 player, up from 17 percent in 2004.
A majority of students (63 percent) own a laptop, vs. 42 percent in 2005. The desktop is now considered “old school,” according to the report.

About a third of college kids are mobile on campus, thanks to blanket wireless connectivity at as many colleges, according to the study. That number has doubled in four years, and it’s poised to increase. Two-thirds of campuses say they have a wireless strategy in place.

More than half (54 percent) of students visit a social network every day. Four years ago, the number was too small to report. And 27 percent of students say they prefer to keep in touch with friends via a social network over face-to-face communication.

Finally, a third of this group believes they have an innate ability to change the world for the better and say they are more likely to buy brands that are socially and environmentally responsible. Harris didn’t report the earlier figure [four years ago], but it’s heartening.

The bit about the ability to change the world is heartening, but the fact that “27 percent of students say they prefer to keep in touch with friends via a social network over face-to-face communication” isn’t. While it’s not impossible to make real connections using Facebook and a wireless phone, it’s very difficult and it’s definitely no replacement for face-to-face interaction, or what Dr. Edward Hallowell calls “the human moment.” (He writes that the human moment is ”an authentic psychological encounter that can happen only when two people share the same physical space. It has two prerequisites: people’s physical presence and their emotional and intellectual attention.”)

I continued my Milwaukee presentation by explaining what I believe is the context of Family Ministry. The three main components of liberal religious family ministry: relationships, community, and values. Three nice, abstract nouns. Then I went on to clarify a little bit by adding some modifiers: family (or primary group) relationship, connected (or authoritative) community, and progressive (or liberal) values. Then, to help us move from theory into practice, some strong verbs to help us make these abstract concepts concrete: nurturing family relationships, building connected community, and sharing progressive values.

Relationships, community, and values—these are the things I believe liberal religious/spiritual progressive families are looking for when they come to our congregations. And unless we are aware of these needs and be intentional about what we offer in response to these needs, we’re not doing everything we can be make each of our communities of faith a spiritual home for progressive families.

We looked first a family relationships. What we need, I believe, is a firm understanding of what we mean when we, as religious liberals, say family. And the best way to do that is for us to get a sense of what it means for each one of us, as individuals, to be part of a family. So we did an exercise I call “We Are All Family.” First, you give yourself one point for each of the following relationships you may have:

I am someone’s…

Child
Spouse
Parent
Sibling
Niece/Nephew
Cousin
Aunt/Uncle
Grandchild
Grandparent

Think how much further those relationships go if we say:

I once was someone’s…

I wish I were someone’s…

Everyone has at least some family relationship in their lives. Add to this step- and half- relationships, ex- relationships, lingering relationships with those who have died. And let’s not forget chosen families, people who have formed family units that transcend these categories. This is what we mean when we say we are all family—family defines us, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill—to a large extent.

No one walks through our doors completely alone—and if they did, that would be all the more reason to welcome them as family. “We glad you’re here…you help complete us.”

I closed this section of the presentation with an expanded definition of family:

Persons who commit themselves to attempt to be family for one another… [who] (a) meet their needs for belonging and attachment, (b) meet those needs in others, and (c) share life purposes, help, and resources.

That’s from Diana Garland’s article “Family Ministry: Defining Perspectives,” which you can download here (PDF).

Here’s more from my Milwaukee presentation on Family Ministry. I mentioned another reason why I’m so passionate about family ministry: I’m angry at how the word family has been co-opted by political conservatives and the religious right. I asked folks to consider the following recent statement from one right-wing think tank. It’s called “The Natural Family: A Manifesto”:

The natural family— part of the created order, imprinted on our natures, the source of bountiful joy, the fountain of new life, the bulwark of ordered liberty—stands reviled and threatened in the early 21st century. Foes have mounted attacks on all aspects of the natural family, from the bond of marriage to the birth of children to the true democracy of free homes. Ever more families show weaknesses and disorders. We see growing numbers of young adults rejecting the fullness and joy of marriage, choosing instead cheap substitutes or standing alone, where they are easy prey for the total state. Too many children are born outside of wedlock, ending as wards of that same state. Too few children are born inside married-couple homes, portending depopulation . . .

And so, we advance here a new vision and a fresh statement of principles and goals appropriate for the 21st century and the third millennium.

We see a world restored in line with the intent of its Creator. We envision a culture—found both locally and universally—that upholds the marriage of a woman to a man, and a man to a woman, as the central aspiration for the young. This culture affirms marriage as the best path to health, security, fulfillment, and joy. It casts the home built on marriage as the source of true political sovereignty, the fountain of democracy. It also holds the household framed by marriage to be the primal economic unit, a place marked by rich activity, material abundance, and broad self-reliance. This culture treasures private property in family hands as the rampart of independence and liberty. It celebrates the marital sexual union as the unique source of new human life. We see these homes as open to a full quiver of children, the source of family continuity and social growth. We envision young women growing into wives, homemakers, and mothers; and we see young men growing into husbands, homebuilders, and fathers.

Ugh, I said. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s important for us to present an alternative to the rather restrictive view of the family offered by groups like this. But I acknowledged that these groups aren’t entirely misguided, and that one place to begin thinking about what do we hope to accomplish by focusing on family ministry is to consider what some of those conservative groups are trying do. Here’s the one more paragraph from the Natural Family Manifesto:

We see true happiness as the product of persons enmeshed in vital bonds with spouses, children, parents, and kin. We look to a landscape of family homes, lawns, and gardens busy with useful tasks and ringing with the laughter of many children. We envision parents as the first educators of their children. We see homes that also embrace extended family members who need special care due to age or infirmity. We view neighborhoods, villages, and townships as the second locus of political sovereignty. We envision a freedom of commerce that respects and serves family integrity. And we look to nation-states that hold the protection of the natural family to be their first responsibility.

It’s hard to argue with much of this: I believe that true happiness is the product of persons enmeshed in vital bonds; that parents truly are the first educators; that extended family members should be cared for; and that the government does have some responsibility to make sure that families have everything they need to survive and even thrive. What’s more, congregations may have an even greater responsibility for the families they serve. It fact, ministering to families should be a priority. But how do we get there?

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