Service and Military Chaplaincy

Major Seanan Holland, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (right), administers the oath inducting his fellow UU seminarian, Second Lt. David Pyle (left), into the Army Chaplain Candidate program.

We all know that we live in a pluralistic world—including a world that is religiously pluralistic. Probably no one lives in that world as fully as chaplains that serve the military, hospitals, hospices and prisons.

Unitarian Universalist ministers are particularly well suited to chaplaincy in our multi-faith society. We already respect and affirm the wisdom and value of all religious traditions. We are, in a very real sense, a multi-faith faith.

One of the great opportunities we have to share the gift of our broad perspective is in the military. The military is probably the most ethnically diverse and religiously pluralistic institution in America. Soldiers, especially the youngest ones, confront situations that try their souls.

A few years ago the UUA published Bless All Who Serve, a meditation manual for those serving in the armed forces.

Today there are ten UU military chaplains. That is up from only five in 2007. Three of our chaplains have been deployed to Afghanistan during the last year.

I am especially proud that the Rev. Sarah Lammert, who leads our Ministries and Faith Development staff group, is taking a leading role in nurturing military chaplaincy. Sarah will be serving as the chair of the organization of “endorsers”—denominational officials who certify chaplains. This is an amazing honor and an opportunity.

Sarah also serves in the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy, a group dedicated to the full inclusion of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the military. Again, our faith tradition has a long history as a leader in this area.

Like many UUs who came of age during the era of the Vietnam War, I have often been wary of our military establishment. Like many UUs, I was critical of our government’s war in Iraq.

However, we must never let our advocacy for peace or our criticism of foreign policy spill over into a lack of compassion for the men and women who serve in our armed forces. Indeed, these days those who serve are more likely than ever to be people of color and people from lower social and economic backgrounds.

Military chaplaincy is an important and essential ministry today. I am proud of the work our UUA is doing. You should be proud, too.

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Sacred Ground, Shine and Shadow

I often get asked if I have read this or that new and wonderful book. I usually smile and say that I only read emails and that if someone would send me a book disguised as a series of 50 or 100 emails I would read it. Alas, that is too close to the truth to be funny: I don’t read as many books as I used to.

However, I just picked up a couple of recent books by our own UUA publishing houses: Beacon Press and Skinner House. I am only about a quarter of the way through Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice and the Promise of America, by Eboo Patel. Patel writes with power and clarity. More importantly, he has something important to say.

The second book is a small volume of meditations by Rev. Kathleen McTigue, Shine and Shadow. McTigue is the new director of the UU College of Social Justice. I have known her for years, but I somehow missed this book of meditations when it was published last year. I have only read the first few entries, but I have been deeply touched. One of them, “How to Give a Blessing,” recounts an encounter with a young man with Down syndrome the morning after after her father died.

One of the things that the UUA does is print books—wonderful, important, touching books. These are just two recent examples. Beacon Press is our “trade” press, publishing books aimed at a wide audience. Skinner House is more focused on books for Unitarian Universalists. Both do a wonderful job.

Take a look at their websites: and Order a book or two from the online bookstore. Like me, you will be glad you did.

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The Road Ahead

What a year we have before us! The UUA staff is laying out plans for additional outreach in our “Congregations and Beyond” initiatives, collaboration with other faith groups, modernizing communications, new forms of professional development for religious professionals, and a move to a new headquarters. And those are just what we lovingly call “the big rocks.”

Every year the UUA’s Leadership Council (the senior leadership comprised of the heads of our staff groups) gets together for a planning retreat. We take time to assess where we are and the challenges and opportunities that lie before us.

The biggest of the “rocks” is the Congregations and Beyond effort. You will be hearing much more about this in the coming months and years. We will be putting together an advisory group of some innovative thinkers. We are going to study UUs and people who share our values, and we are beginning to explore the use of new social media and the principles of online interactive gaming. This is not the passive and isolated activity many of us associate with video games. This is about incentivizing social interaction, collaboration and building community. We are entering a time of exploration—and it is very exciting.

The potential move to a new headquarters will occupy a lot of energy. Our consultant has been exploring a number of options. We are ready to do more analysis on the most promising. We have learned that a move is even more complicated than we thought. Life is like that.

A related “rock” is the issue of improving communications we have with our constituencies. With the explosion of electronic communications it is a great challenge to coordinate our work. We need more consistency, coordination and new vehicles to make communications interactive. A task force last year made a number of recommendations. We have implemented some and are working on others.

Terrific work continues with the implementation of the major recommendations from the “Strategic Plan for Professional Ministries” effort. I am personally convinced that the health of our movement in the future will depend on our ability to recruit, train, nurture and empower creative and entrepreneurial religious leaders. Way too much is happening in collaboration with the UU Ministers Association and others to outline here—and it is great stuff. One project that is close to completion is a tool that identifies the major skills and personal characteristics of excellent ministry and the levels of development in each area from novice to expert. This has the potential to shape self assessment, work with committees on ministry in congregations, continuing education and even seminary education. Stay tuned!

And there is more. Among the initiatives that bear mentioning here are efforts to build on the success of our last GA with focus and programming for the next two years and work to make sure the new College of Social Justice (a joint venture with the UUSC) gets off to a great start.

Whew! And there is more.

We have a great staff. They are committed, creative and diligent.

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Fear and Denial in Politics

I would like to think that the nastiness of the American presidential campaign is a new low. As bad as it is, I only have to think back to other recent campaigns to see races that set a pretty low bar. And, taking the longer view, we can find lots of tawdry examples.

Of course, political “analysts” tell us that attack ads are used because they work. And now, with the unleashing of Super PACs, there is less accountability and more money than ever. We should prepare ourselves for bitter attacks, superficiality and distortion.

I suppose that what concerns me the most is what all of this says not about American politics, but about the American spirit. Personal attacks only affect me if I am predisposed to demonize. Fear mongering only works if I am already afraid. Thinly veiled racism and homophobia only work if I am already afraid of people who are different from me.

Tactics that refuse to discuss honestly the options before us will only work in a national culture that is in deep denial. We see symptoms of this denial all around us. I think of those who still deny global warming.

My own politics are, and always have been, pretty progressive (though among UU’s I am probably middle of the road!). What troubles me is that we are not having anything like an informed debate about the real options.

We need a real debate about the role of government and about the need for policies that will deal with the real issues of an aging population, about environmental degradation and the need for sustainability, about levels of taxation that fund the government we want. Reasonable people of goodwill are going to disagree about policy. But we are witnessing the worst sort of pandering.

The deeper problem is not our political process, though heaven knows it has been severely distorted and corrupted by money and power. The deeper problem is a nation that is anxious, afraid, insecure, and often in denial. These are emotional and deeply spiritual issues.

The shameful display of this campaign bothers me because of what it says about us. This campaign holds up a mirror.

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From the Road: Reunion

When I entered seminary, a month shy of my 50th birthday, it came as a surprise to people who had known me for many years. I remember the wife of my undergraduate economics professor, herself a sociologist, commenting that she had just read an article about middle aged people (or, in my case, past middle age) entering the ministry. Then she smiled at me and said, “But you are the LAST person I would have thought would go to seminary.” I laughed and thanked her for the compliment.

Like so many of my classmates, I left college with a deep distrust of organized religion. My study of history and science had rendered me an unbeliever. Now, 45 years later, I was returning to my undergraduate college reunion as the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Not only that, I had been asked to be part of a panel on religion in the modern world.

With my wife, Phyllis, in the Raymond College Great Hall

Last weekend I attended my college reunion. I attended a small “cluster college” that was part of the University of the Pacific. Raymond College had been a bold adventure in the liberal arts.

I wondered whether anyone would come to the panel discussion. The title was “The Role of Religion in Contemporary Society” and we were up against two other panel discussions being held at the same time. Worse yet, this was after lunch on Saturday. People were happily renewing friendships and catching up on decades of news. It was a lovely California afternoon.

As it turned out, the classroom soon filled up. Extra chairs had to be brought in. A few people stood in the doorway and out in the hall. A handful of the most nimble sat on the floor. Sadly, some people came, saw that there was no room, gave up and went away. You have to understand that among my college friends from the 1960s to be religious was the rough equivalent of being a right wing Republican or a member of the NRA. It simply was not done. And on the beautiful Saturday afternoon they packed the room for a panel on religion.

The people I went to college with are amazing and can even seem a little intimidating (until you know them). They have had distinguished careers in foreign service, in law, in science, in higher education.

In my very brief comments I talked about religion “beyond belief,” about how religion should be much more about what we love, about what moves us, than about what we think. I also spoke about the deep human need for community and transcendence.

Classmate Bill Kenagh in a Morales campaign shirt

One of my surprises was to find out how many UUs there are among them. (One classmate even showed up wearing a Morales for UUA President t-shirt.) During the day and a half that my wife Phyllis and I were there (we were classmates and married immediately after graduation) we kept having people come up and tell us that they were members of this or that congregation. And even among those who belong to no religious group (the majority), the interest in religion was amazing.

There are important lessons to be learned here. Once more, I am convinced of the potential for our movement—a potential that can only be realized if we become much better at reaching out and engaging those who are in deep sympathy with us. They are legion.

More importantly, I am convinced of the spiritual hunger for community that respects modern learning, is committed to act with compassion and to advocate for justice, and that transcends the banality and narcissism of consumer culture.

We can be the religion for our time for millions. Really. Really. The overflowing classroom for a panel about religion is just one sign of the times. The challenge for us is to seize this historic opportunity.

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