Linda Topp: You Are an Employer


As a member of UUCA, you are also an employer of 10 “regular” staff members and about 13 other support staff members (music, sound system, childcare, bookkeeping). Operating expenses devoted to personnel salaries and benefits amount to 68% of the budget. Although our budget process shields you from choosing among the various scenarios that can be funded with our projected income (having a sensible projected income number to work with is the reason we need your commitment by mid-March), your vote to approve or not approve a proposed budget at the annual meeting implies that you have made these considerations as an employer:

  • What skills do we need to pay for? Or, conversely, what jobs are you (as a volunteer) willing to do?
  • How many employees can we afford? And its flipside, what if we don’t have enough employees to make “that” happen, with “that” being anything we wish we could do but don’t have staff for? Would you be willing to do it as a volunteer?
  • Are we fairly paying our employees?
  • Are we providing opportunities for skill development?
  • Do we reward strong performance?
  • Do we offer good working conditions?

The employer-employee relationship is a significant human relationship of mutual dependency that has great impact on the people involved. The employer has a moral obligation to look out for the welfare of employees. It is not a question only of fair pay and good working conditions; there should be a real and enduring concern for employees.

UUCA currently has an exceptional staff. There’s no other way to say it. This is a group that is made up of individuals who each have a skill set that aligns nearly perfectly with their job, with personalities that function well together, and with commitments to the congregation’s well-being that result in prodigious work and idea production within the parameters of the hours available.

So, what skills do we pay for?

We pay people to lead:

worship for adults, youth and children; music programming; education programming for adults, youth and children; our pastoral care ministry

We pay people to organize:

worship experiences, newcomers’ experiences, volunteer opportunities, programs in lifespan religious education and social justice, a congregation-wide “care” system, our small group ministry

We pay people to manage:

the congregation’s staff, the congregation’s finances, a complex database, the congregation’s physical structures and grounds, facilities rentals, vendors, the sound system

We pay people to write:

sermons, blogs, eNews articles, web content, emails, announcements, brochures, pamphlets, scripts, lesson plans and curricula

We pay people to train:

worship associates, pastoral visitors, religious education teachers, connecting stewards, and new member connectors

We pay people to support volunteers who:

sing in the choir, teach lifespan religious education classes, wish to raise money for UUCA or various other causes, desire to become leaders in the congregation, welcome newcomers on Sundays, help integrate new members into the congregation, organize congregation-wide parties

We pay people to produce:

orders of service, website, Weekly eNews and inserts to the order of service, monthly mailed newsletter, RE News Weekly, videos, audio copies of sermons, music, posters, announcements

We pay people to enter data for:

a membership directory, financial accounting, religious education, room reservations,

We pay people to clean our buildings, host our coffee hours, take care of our youngest children on Sunday mornings and whenever parents need childcare to attend a UUCA event

We pay people to think about:

why do people join UUCA; what will be a compelling topic for worship; how can we help people learn what’s going on in the life of the congregation; what are the theological underpinnings of religious education for youth and children; do we have enough fun around here; why are nearly all religious organizations experiencing a decrease in funding and levels of volunteer commitment; what is the future of the institution of “church;” how do people develop the spiritual gift of generosity; what happens if our second service begins to regularly “overflow;” what does it mean to be a “beacon of liberal religious thought and action;” why do people say they want more opportunities to participate in social justice and then not respond when more opportunities are provided

Are any of these things something that you could do as a volunteer? You will have to make your own judgment about that, but so far we have chosen to hire for a position when we have learned that volunteers cannot or are unwilling to provide consistent quality in a program or administrative function. By hiring someone, we can demand a greater level of accountability, excellence and commitment to our mission.

How many employees can we afford? Unfortunately, at this exact time we can’t quite afford all the employees we have. We remain in a deficit-spending situation that will require some very difficult decisions in the next year or two if we cannot increase our income.

Are we fairly paying our employees? This is a bit of a trick question because it very much depends on how you think of the word “fair.” If by “fair” you mean everyone is paid no less than the Asheville Just Economics Living Wage, then yes, this congregation pays fairly. And we might be considered to pay fairly if you ask if everyone is paid at about the “Asheville norm” for their jobs. However, there are three exceptions to this since the salaries of both of our ministers and our administrator are considerably below the UUA norm for their levels of experience and responsibilities and are likely to be below the norm for Asheville.

Are we providing opportunities for skill development? Once an individual has been hired, professional development becomes the responsibility of the organization. Although the employee was hired with a certain set of knowledge, skills and abilities, if the roles and responsibilities of the position change—and they will—the employer has a moral responsibility to invest in their employees. This is also often the way new ideas are discovered and brought back to the congregation. For our hourly employees, we provide a pool of $2,800 to be accessed by 5 employees for annual training/learning opportunities. For our salaried (exempt) employees, we provide 6% of their salary for this (the UUA recommends 10%). This is not a huge sum and does often restrict these employees’ abilities to get out in the world to meet with peers, visit innovative congregations and attend trainings and events that may provide insights into new ways of doing things at UUCA. It can be difficult for employers to swallow the costs associated with employee professional development, but ultimately the organization benefits when its employees have the capacity to bring home changes and innovations that may make a big difference in working toward our mission.

Do we reward strong performance? Over nearly the past decade, no employee has received any pay increase except for annual cost-of-living adjustments when the federal government declared such an adjustment for Social Security beneficiaries (except when changes in an employee’s job description absolutely required a pay adjustment to bring that pay more in line with Asheville norms). So, the answer to that is “no.” Whatever an employee accepted for a salary at the time of hiring is all they will ever get, along with cost-of-living increases.   Our projections indicate that this will continue to be true for the foreseeable future.

Do we offer good working conditions? This is certainly the secret to our success in holding exceptional employees. The staff culture is supportive, generous, helpful, understanding and competent. The kind, friendly congregants who interact with staff outnumber the more challenging ones. Health insurance coverage is available for eligible employees (those working more than 750 hours per year). So is dental insurance. Long-term disability is paid for. There is no short-term disability program; we are essentially self-insured in that category. Contributions are made to a pension plan for eligible employees. Staff supervisors show compassion during times of stress for employees. Our bereavement and extended family leave policies are generous compared to most other employers, and we recently updated our personnel manual to provide an extra week’s vacation (more or less—many of us do work on Sundays) by closing the office between December 25 and January 1. Of course, it also helps the cause that people who work in churches choose that work as a calling rather than a job (lucky for us).

Here’s the bottom line. As an employer, how do you feel about the status of your employees? Are there changes you would make? Are you satisfied that you are a moral employer who is looking out for the welfare of your employees?

Sermon: Our Faith in the Vote

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Seven months ago I recounted to you an amazing moment in my life and ministry that embodied in the photo you see on the cover of your order of service. Having come for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Civil Rights marches in Selma, Alabama I found myself crowded together with hundreds of others along the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday beatings a half century before, in one of the most diverse assemblies of people I’ve ever been a part of. Despite being pressed together, though, there was an easiness among us communicated in smiles and casual banter amid the singing of freedom songs and the laughing of children that gave me a glimpse of what racial peace and racial justice might look like in this country.


Seven months ago I recounted to you an amazing moment in my life and ministry that embodied in the photo you see on the cover of your order of service. Having come for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Civil Rights marches in Selma, Alabama I found myself crowded together with hundreds of others along the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday beatings a half century before, in one of the most diverse assemblies of people I’ve ever been a part of. Despite being pressed together, though, there was an easiness among us communicated in smiles and casual banter amid the singing of freedom songs and the laughing of children that gave me a glimpse of what racial peace and racial justice might look like in this country.

Selma was a focus because as a result of actions there, accompanied as they were with hardship and tragedy, one of the greatest victories of the Civil Rights movement was won: the adoption in 1965 of the Voting Rights Act.

Federal protections for Civil Rights had been passed the year before, but they were largely toothless until African-American had the unfettered right to vote. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made the point, as you heard earlier, eight years before the March on Selma in his first speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1957: “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind – it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact – I can only submit to the edict of others.”

African-Americans had been given the right to vote in the 15th Amendment adopted in 1870, but Jim Crow laws passed across the South in the next couple of decades that enacted poll taxes, literacy tests and other restrictions took most blacks off the voting rolls.

The Voting Rights Act swept those restrictions away, and the impact was dramatic. In following decades, the percentage of blacks in the South registered to vote rose from 31% to 73%, and the number of black elected officials increased from fewer than 500 to 10,500 nationwide. In future years, the act was expanded to lower the voting age to 18 and provide protections for language-minority groups such as Hispanics in Texas, Asian-Americans in New York and Native Americans in Arizona.

So, there was much to celebrate in Selma, but not without concern, too. For what has gained less attention since the Voting Rights Act was adopted is that just as Southern lawmakers in the 19th century passed laws to frustrate the effect of the 15th Amendment, laws passed across the South since 1965 have chipped away at voting rights to the point that today many of its protections no longer have the effect they once did.

Many voting districts were gerrymandered or switched to at-large voting to dilute the African-American vote. At the same time, a new wave of voting restrictions have emerged in the South and many states beyond, that while they no longer specifically invoke race, have the effect of reducing the voting by minorities, particularly blacks and Hispanics.

They have curtailed early voting, purged voting rolls, denied the vote to ex-felons and required proof of citizenship or government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot. This trend culminated with a decision by the Supreme Court in 2013 that hobbled the most effective tool in the Voting Rights Act to protect free access to the vote.

It is technical tool of sorts with an unassuming name – Section 5. What it did was targeted states where in 1965 less than 50% of blacks were registered or where voting restrictions were in place. It said that these states – largely though not entirely across the South – could not change their voting laws unless the changes were reviewed by the US Department of Justice. And it had been invoked repeatedly since 1965.

In the Supreme Court decision, though, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, argued essentially that Section 5 was a relic, that conditions in the states that were targeted by the Voting Rights Act had changed, that in each state strong majorities of African-Americans were now registered to vote. So, he said, the formula that targeted those states, which was based on conditions in 1965, no longer applied and should be discarded. The court’s 5 to 4 decision freed those states from federal oversight.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg led the dissenters She pointed out that while black voter participation had improved, it wasn’t for lack of legislators working to dilute and reduce the black vote.

She noted that in 2006, when Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years, hearings documented that since 1982 the Department of Justice had blocked more than 700 instances in those targeted states where attempts were made to keep blacks from voting. Also, she said, while there are now fewer instances of bald discrimination, there was an increase in what she called “second generation barriers” like gerrymandering that reduce black voter participation.

Eliminating this tool of enforcement when it is working to reduce voter discrimination, she said, “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rain storm because you’re not getting wet.”

Our focus now shifts to the state level. Three weeks after the Supreme Court decision essentially neutralizing the Voting Rights Act, the North Carolina Legislature acted.

The Republican majority had already been debating some of the toughest voting restrictions in the country, such as strict voter identification, reducing early voting, and changing same-day registration rules. With the court’s decision they were put on a fast track and adopted.

North Carolina is an interesting case when it comes to voting rights. In 1965 with only about 47% of blacks registered to vote, it was one of the states given federal oversight under the Voting Rights Act, though only 40 of its 100 counties were covered.

Even then, overall voter turnout remained low. As late as 1996 we ranked 43rd in the nation in turnout. But due to reforms such as early voting and same-day registration voter turnout increased to 11th in the nation by 2012.

In debate on the bill, North Carolina’s legislative leaders claimed that the changes were needed to prevent voter fraud, but they provided essentially no evidence of it, and certainly none linked to the reforms. The North Carolina NAACP sued, arguing that the law was intended to silence black voters, since African-Americans were twice as likely to use same-day registration and early voting as whites. In 2014, they lost a bid for an injunction in circuit court, then won a reversal in the Circuit Court, before the Supreme Court reinstated the restrictions. The full case was argued to the district court judge in Winston-Salem last July, and we now await his ruling.

It was Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, whom we hosted in this pulpit last month, who dubbed this moment “Our Selma,” and the parallel is apt.

For we remember that in Selma in 1965 we faced people in power determined to twist the tools of democracy to shut others out. So in North Carolina in 2015 we find people in power once again using the machinery of government to shut others out.

If nothing else, the struggle we are in is proof of the power of the ballot. For where democracy holds sway, the ballot trumps all.

Give us the ballot, Dr. King said, and we won’t have to worry about people securing their basic rights.

Give us the ballot, and we can have confidence in the leaders we call to serve us.

Give us the ballot, and we have cause to join in the mighty work of building a beloved community that serves us all.

The principles at play here go back several hundred years to the thinkers who influenced the founders of this country, particularly the philosopher John Locke. Locke argued that “the state of nature,” the way things are, is a state of perfect freedom and equality. That is to say, no one is naturally better than anyone else.

To get things done, though, he said, we need government. And government, in his understanding, takes the form of a social contract where equal persons agree to serve a common good that is determined by the will of the majority. For government to be legitimate, he said, it must operate with the consent of those it governs. That means people must have a way of influencing the decisions of government, and the vote is how that happens.

We Unitarian Universalists embrace this notion in our fifth principle, which invites us to affirm “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” There’s a bit to unpack here. To affirm the right of conscience is to say that we trust in an inner guide that we each possess to help us find the right way, the ethical way to be with each other. We don’t make any claim as to the nature and origin of that guide – there are many opinions on that. But we trust and respect what it teaches.

And this connects directly to the second half of this principle, that we affirm “the use of the democratic process” as a way of deciding things that gives each person a say in the deciding.

And we regard the opportunity that we each have to influence how matters are decided in our lives not just as a nice thing to have, but as a fundamental right: it is something we are each owed simply by being present in the world. Another way to say this is that we have faith in the vote. It is our conviction that a vote is something that we each as individuals of inherent worth and dignity are owed and that it is through the vote that our hope as individuals in society will best be served.

It’s true that there is a great leap of faith embedded in this way of thinking because it means that we accept that whatever is decided is outside of our control. We can put our oar in, but in the end there’s no predicting where democracy will take us, and that’s OK.

History is full of doubters of that claim, people who distain others they consider less worthy than themselves who they seek to push past to wrest power for themselves. We reject that. We say that the uncertainty of democracy is a price worth paying because it’s grounded in a deeper trust.

John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who 50 years ago led the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday and took some of the first blows among the marchers, speaks to this. In his recent book, “Across that Bridge,” he mused on what for him were the lessons of that time. “All our work, all our struggle, all our days,” he said, “add up to one purpose: to reconcile ourselves to the truth, and finally accept once and for all that we are one people, one family, the human family.”

Our dedication to democracy carries with it a deep respect for and belief in the inherent worth of each of us, in a fundamental goodness at our core, and our belief that for all our foibles we are capable of making decisions that will serve and save us all.

Walt Whitman was known as the poet of democracy in that he saw in it not simply a style of governance but a vision something like Lewis’s. It is a way forward, he suggests in the poem you heard earlier, that depends on “the love of comrades,” on “companionship thick as trees,” on “inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks.”

It’s an image that carries me back, again, to the streets of Selma last spring. Too much to hope for? Well, there was a moment, a glimpse.

It is easy, I know, to throw up our hands at the electoral process. There is much in it that’s a mess, but thankfully I believe there is nothing wrong with our democracy that can’t be repaired by applying more democracy. The trouble comes when we absent ourselves and check out of the game. Because when we do that, all it means is that we give over our power and leave the decision-making to others

Instead, let us be faithful agents to bring about the change we want to see, to bring into being a society that makes room for all, that serves us all. Won’t you join me in the work of this congregation. Get out and vote yourselves, and help us make sure that every woman and man has access to the precious franchise that is the hallmark of our democracy: all colors, all ethnicities, all people.

Rev. Barber offers us the call:

Forward together, not one step back

Forward together, not one step back,

Forward together, not one step back.

Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper: Beloved Conversations


For the past two days, Joy Berry and I have been in Morristown, NJ for a two-day module of Beloved Conversations, “an experiential curriculum that provides a space to re-form/fuse the brokenness of racism into new patterns of thought and behavior ushering in social and spiritual healing. New ways of being are learned through the actions of conversation and probing dialogue.” We are participating as a staff team, and will come home with a project, which we will share with all of you. 

So far, the module has been thought-provoking, and has called us to deeper engagement with our own experiences of race and oppression, our white privilege, and the ways in which our other identities intersect. For me, there have been a number of moments of making mistakes and being vulnerable that have felt uncomfortable, but have drawn me deeper into reflection about who I am and how I move in the world. I have had the opportunity to grapple with some of the challenges of my privilege, and to receive support from colleagues. It has been life-giving and inspiring, and it has pushed me out of my comfort zone.

This work of digging deep into uncomfortable spaces, learning how to create a container that can hold our varied experiences, and continually recommitting to being a force for change – called to create just relationships – is powerful, life-giving work.

It is the foundation of our Black Lives Matter initiative. We have envisioned this work in three parts: Engaging our personal internal work, supporting and building relationships with community organizations, and working to dismantle the systems that oppress us. This internal work is foundational because it is how we undergird our work in the community with integrity and authenticity. 

I can’t tell you what our project will be because it is still in its infancy, but I very much look forward to sharing our ideas with you when we return, and continuing this challenging and engaging work for freedom, justice, and love.

Sermon: Opening a Way to Reverence (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
It’s funny how some words can ignite great controversies. Some years ago, just as I was ending my training in seminary, reverence turned out to be one of those words for us Unitarian Universalists.
The controversy was prompted by a 2003 newspaper report that in a sermon the then-president of the UUA, William Sinkford, had called for adding the word “God” to the Unitarian Universalist purposes and principles. (Actually, in a sense it was already there, though technically not in the principles themselves but in the list that often accompanies them of six sources of our “living tradition.” Among those named sources are “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”)


It’s funny how some words can ignite great controversies. Some years ago, just as I was ending my training in seminary, reverence turned out to be one of those words for us Unitarian Universalists.

The controversy was prompted by a 2003 newspaper report that in a sermon the then-president of the UUA, William Sinkford, had called for adding the word “God” to the Unitarian Universalist purposes and principles. (Actually, in a sense it was already there, though technically not in the principles themselves but in the list that often accompanies them of six sources of our “living tradition.” Among those named sources are “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”)

In any event, Bill quickly announced that the reporter had misquoted him. What he had actually called for was that we UUs look at reclaiming some of the religious language that many of us had abandoned and, for him, that included the word God. “Religious language,” he said, “doesn’t have to mean ‘God talk’” or returning to traditional Christian language. But, he said, “I do feel that we need some language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name the holy, to talk about . . . the ability of humans to shape and frame our world guided by what we find to be of ultimate importance.”

What was interesting is that Bill framed his sermon as inviting UUs to cultivate what he called “a vocabulary of reverence.” He said that he had borrowed that phrase from a 2001 essay by David Bumbaugh, who at the time was my advisor in seminary. David, however, had made a very different point from Bill’s in that essay, as is clear from its title, “Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence.”

Rather than urging UUs to reclaim traditional religious language, David’s was an appeal to what he called “the Humanist witness among us” to consider how they might recover “a vocabulary of reverence” from our understanding of the natural world.

He reminded his readers that decades ago humanists had, in his words, “set the agenda for religious discourse.” But now, he said, it seemed to him that humanists had become increasingly defensive and dismissive of any hope of dialog with traditional religion. His concern, he said, was that humanists “have lost the ability to speak of that which is sacred, holy, of ultimate importance to us, the language that would allow us to enter once more into critical dialog with others.”

The body of his essay was devoted to demonstrating how they might do that. All the discoveries of modern day science from high-energy physics to genomics and the interwoven character of life, he argued, are not only interesting and useful developments. They also inspire us.

“The more we understanding about the macrocosm,” he said, “the more reason we have to stand in awe and reverence at the process that shaped and structure its evolution, and our evolution. . . . The history of the universe is our history. . . . How can we not stand in awe before the fact of our emergence as a consequence of the same vast processes that created galaxies, suns, stars, and planets?”

This story, David argued, “is a religious story in that it calls us out of our little local universes and invites us to see ourselves in terms of the largest self we can imagine – a self that was present, in some sense, in the singularity that produced the emergent universe, at the birth of the stars; a self that, in some sense, is related through time to every living thing on this planet, that contains within it the seeds of a future we cannot imagine in our wildest flights of fancy.”

I must admit that I am partial to David’s vision of our religious story. My point today, though, is not to promote his notion but to invite us into an expansive understanding of what reverence might be in our own lives.

I don’t happen to believe that developing a vocabulary of reverence requires that we reclaim traditional religious language, but I also think it doesn’t preclude it either. David and Bill represent two very different religious positions in the spectrum of Unitarian Universalism, but each in his own way, I believe, invites us into the kind of exploration that serves us all as we seek to get clear for ourselves on what is deepest and dearest in our lives, or, as David put it in a subsequent essay, “what is so precious to us that we cannot betray it without losing our own souls.”

What he is talking about, I believe, is that for which we have reverence. So, that means that we need to get clear on how we are using that word. A place to begin is to take note that, while it is often used in a religious context, reverence is not strictly a religious concept.

Some years ago the philosopher Paul Woodruff made this point. In his book entitled “Reverence” he noted that the idea of reverence points to that for which we have awe that engenders in us a sense of love and respect. Let me repeat that: reverence refers to that for which we have awe that engenders in us a sense of love and respect.

It may or may not emerge in a religious context. Woodruff said that it was a central concept in both Greek and Chinese Confucian thought, where it operated as a civic virtue.

For the Greeks, he said, to have reverence was to live in a way that is conscious of our humanity – both our wonder and beauty and our foibles and failures. It was, he said, “the greatest virtue of leaders, because it gives powerful people the strength to listen to those who are weaker than they, and it remind them that no one, no matter how successful, was born complete, knowing everything.”

In the same way, in the complex social system of Confucian China to live with reverence was to behave in a way that was in tune with what they believed to be the natural way of things, the duties and feelings that naturally emerge from our relations with one another.

In both cultures, the notion of reverence was also bound up with humility, a sense that our understanding is limited, that we ourselves are part of something greater than we can know and that we need to be wary of presuming that we are in control or that our knowledge is greater than it is.

So, it is possible to experience and cultivate reverence outside of religion. It is also possible for religions to operate in a way that is at odds with reverence. An example that Woodruff gives in his book is a campaign he saw conducted on the billboards of a city where he lived that declared “God voted against Proposition 2.” The sign may be an expression of faith, he says, but it is an act against reverence.

“If you wish to be reverent,” he said, “never claim the awful authority of God in support of your political views. You cannot speak on such matters with the authority of God.”

There has been much speculation recently on the positive reception to Pope Francis around the world. My sense is not that people are suddenly persuaded to the views of the Catholic Church but that they find a sense of reverence in the way that this man has taken on the mantle of his awesome new responsibilities. Acting as the leader of a church that opposes homosexuality, to say of someone who is gay, and, in Francis’ words “searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” is to speak from a sense of reverence.

So, I think that both David Bumbaugh and Bill Sinkford are right when they urge us Unitarian Universalists to reflect on that of which we can speak with reverence. What is it that fills you with a sense of awe that engenders in you a sense of love and respect? What, in the words of the Ends Statements composed by your Board of Trustees, do you embrace that helps you discern that in which you most deeply trust, that to which you give your heart?

It need not be something big and fabulous. To my mind, Robert Frost’s humble, little poem, “Hyla Brook,” that you heard earlier, is an appeal to reverence. An ephemeral stream that has only the weak and faded foliage of weeds fed by its flow to show for its ever having existed, it is nonetheless loved by its author. Equally each of us humble souls have but the memories of our loved ones to attest to our having been here.

“We love the things we love for what they are.” They might not count for much in the wide world, and yet they are worthy of our attention, our respect.

I recall that the controversy over Bill Sinkford’s sermon now 12 years ago generated quite a tempest over how we use words, over what might possibly count as a “vocabulary of reverence.” It’s understandable because words have power and they have impact.

Bill’s remarks centered on one particularly powerful word – God. In his sermon he told how he once had a life-changing experience of what he felt was God that helped evoke a sense of reverence in his life. And that experience, he said, helped connect him to his own feeling of what was ultimately important.

In an essay following Bill’s, David said the notion of God and other words of traditional religious language had the opposite effect for him. He said that in our post-modern culture he had seen that language used, in his words, “to support political agendas of questionable merit” and sell soap, cereal and automobiles. The result, he said, has been to empty what has been called “the language of faith” of any meaning for him.

Instead, David says, he has turned to language that he believes “has the potential of unshackling the religious vision from its enslavement to the politics and economics of conventional society,” a language, he says, “rooted in the vision of reality of humanity’s place in the world that has emerged from the natural sciences.”

We in this tradition gather in a covenant that insists that no words are prima facie off the table as we seek to address those deepest things in our lives. Instead, we look to each person to use those words that she or he can claim with integrity, all the while agreeing to listen with equal integrity, with reverence, knowing that they will do us the same courtesy.

From this position we can entertain the notion of finding reverence gazing at the stars or listening to the singing of “Amazing Grace.” One or the other may not do it for us, but knowing how it moves our partner in conversation may open something in us. It is one way that we express a sense of reverence for a principle at the center of our religious tradition: the inherent worth and dignity of each person.

The words we use, after all, are embedded in the stories of our lives. None of them carries the trump of settled truth. Instead, they speak to the struggles and epiphanies that made us who we are, and by opening to each other with curiosity and humility, letting go of our fearful need to have everyone share our perspective, we create the possibility of growth for us all.

I offered you the words of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore earlier as an expression of reverence that has always resonated deeply with me. This poem speaks to my sense of the deep connection of all things. It captures the sweep of all being, from humble “Hyla Brook” to “the ocean cradle of birth and death,” all shot through with the running, dancing, joyous throb of ages, which is life.

And, like the poet, my pride comes not from some vainglorious vision of my own importance or the importance of my species, but from being immersed in the midst of it. I recognize it as such an improbable gift that from this tumultuous wave of being in this brief glimpse of a moment out of all eternity the conscious entity that I have become emerged. Who would’ve thunk it? Yet, there is it.

It fills me with such awe and gratitude to reflect on it that I am called to celebrate with joy not only my existence but all of it, every leaf, every bug, as Tagore puts it, “made glorious by the touch of this world of life.”

Cause for reverence? It is everywhere you look. Let us open ourselves to it.

Joy Berry: A New Approach to Youth Ministry at UUCA


Our youth program for senior high students has undergone a renovation as valuable and as transformative as our church construction project this year. After a decade of discernment and data analysis, the UUA has grouped youth ministry with young adult ministry at the department level, and is sharing a wealth of resources and energy to help churches create programs that succeed. Read more about the UUA’s suggestions.

The “youth empowerment model” that has been the UUA’s recommended program for youth for many years, too often meant that some very focused youth thrived while others felt left out, and the emphasis on that word empowerment too often meant a lack of integration with the larger church community. As such, youth group members often never made connections to the church and had no or little experience with being in worship, leadership roles in multi-age congregational groups or events, and few meaningful relationships with anyone not their age. Youth groups at their worst could be cliquish or go rogue, forgetting that we have a duty to learn how to be in covenant together and to integrate our children and youth into the life of the faith community.  

After all, Bridging should be more than a one-Sunday event where we publicly recognize and honor our seniors when they graduate out of school and Sunday RE programming. In truth we have too often pushed our youth off a bridge to nowhere, having not prepared them for congregational life outside RE. Our new approach to youth ministry (and that word matters) compels us to see the three years leading up to graduation as a time to prepare youth for a journey. In packing their metaphorical backpack with experiences, competencies, and faith formation, we believe we will:

  • Increase the chances that even when they leave, they will see themselves as UUs and act in the world in reflection of our values.
  • Increase the likelihood that they will seek out UU community on campus or attend churches elsewhere, both during the young adult years and when they begin their own families.

To that end, our new YRUU group has a year of varied experiences planned.  

First Sundays
Because we know that a real relationship with clergy is highly correlated with continuing to practice the UU faith, and that worship is an experience of high value to adult UUs but we give children and youth little time there to form positive experiences and memories and competencies there: youth will attend worship as a group with an advisor and meet afterward for pizza and conversation with one of the ministers. This day also affords youth the chance to get involved in helping produce worship; we have developed several ways for youth to be included as a service participant.

Second Sundays
Because we believe that social justice is a core component of the work our theology compels us to do in the world, and because there are many opportunities to BOTH integrate with others in the church and to create their own social justice strategies and activities: students gather to both plan and manage, as well as join in and go out to, activities and events they choose, with supervision by a dedicated and veteran social justice advisor.

Third Sundays
Because we know that covenant groups are an essential piece of UUism for many adults, teaching what it means to be in covenant as a people of faith, and because we know youth groups need to form deep bonds and discuss what matters most to them about personal, political, social, and global matters: youth will gather regularly to share deeply, to create a living covenant to guide them, and to connect to their peers and advisors.

Fourth Sundays
Because we know that youth need an opportunity for unstructured time and that food is a highly motivating factor, and because we want youth to have more opportunities to interact with the life of the congregation: youth will gather in the kitchen to cook and eat food, and, on some Sundays, cook and offer food to the congregation as a fundraising effort toward an immersive youth trip.  

Add in a youth-led worship service in May, trips to youth cons at The Mountain in December and April, and the possibility of a trip to General Assembly or elsewhere this summer, our year looks busy, but spiritually engaging and very different from youth groups of the past. We believe our approach will serve the youth of our congregation more fully, and increase the health of the congregation as a whole, as we fulfill the promises we make to be as inclusive, encouraging, and supportive as possible to all the parts of our faith community.

Click here for a printable flyer to hang up as a reminder about each Sunday’s opportunities. Please let me know if a youth in your life would like to join us!