Monday, September 03, 2012

Tom Owen-Towle's "Growing a Beloved Community"

I've been reading Growing a Beloved Community for the last month as part of a gentle assignment by the Board of Trustees president at the Unitarian Universalist church at which I am a (n active) member. As I wrote on Goodreads, I think it's a gem of a book: it is full of feel-good ideas but does not confine itself to platitudes; it provides a wonderful structure to facilitate discussion by church bodies; and it even offers some specific ideas for ways to look at issues differently and ultimately how to tackle those issues. Some highlights:

What is the beloved community? "The Beloved Community is not an organization of individuals seeking private and selfish security for their souls. It is a new adventure, a spontaneous fellowship of consecrated men seeking a new world" ~ Clarence Skimmer

The twelve main numbers below represent the chapters, followed by their titles, which are the "twelve hallmarks of a healthy congregation," according to the author, Tom Owen-Towle.

  1. Occupy Holy Ground
    1. church is not a social club but a true religion which must embrace its holiness
    2. holiness is rooted in love and community
  2. Welcome All Souls
    1. we believe in the worth and dignity of every being (even the 'bad' ones), so this is a really tough tenet for people
    2. I noted that it is a tenet of Islam to be charitable and be a good host to guests
    3. Here are three psycho-social dynamics in play when newcomers enter our church gates
      1. inclusion - Will I be welcome here? What's required of me if I join? Who's missing from here and why? (My church is heavy on the above-50, upper-middle-class white, over-educated contingent.)
      2. control - How does this community run? Who's in charge and why? (My church is small, we have unofficial matriarchs and patriarchs, we have teams and individuals who seem to be involved in everything. In the past there have been struggles where some folks have felt underrepresented or without a voice. We continue to tackle this problem head-on and have, I think, developed a culture of being much more proactively inclusive.)
      3. affection - Is church warm or cold? Is there an inner circle or an 'interweaving spiral of leaders'? Would they miss me if I were absent a while? (What struck me about this church is that the members are genuinely warm. There is an inner circle that certainly needs to be challenged, but the circle is rooted in tradition and community and the fact that many members have been here for decades. I already feel like I'm in the inner circle.
    4. My prayer for my church and my world: Let us be Radically Inclusive. Love everyone. Welcome everyone. All are worthy of respect, dignity, and love. Even, and especially, when it's difficult.
  3. Care for Your Own
    1. Give but let yourself be taken care of as well. We are one body.
    2. Be a caregiver but not a caretaker. You cannot fix people, only be with them and empathize.
  4. Give Everyone a Voice
    1. "Democracy requires rather a large tolerance for confusion and a secret relish for dissent." ~ Molly Ivins
    2. It is "imperative to embody a shared ministry at every level of church existence" (24).
    3. "Hallelujah to our conscious accceptance of deep differences" (27).
    4. Create and celebrate ritual.
    5. Remember in the church to give laity their downtime.
    6. Expect members to share their voices. (My church is aware of and working to find the right balance between caring for its members and charging them with their responsibilities as part of the body.)
  5. Encourage Unity Amid Diversity
    1. "They key is for each local congregation to locate, declare, and bring alive our core of common values, recognizing that without a vision the people perish" (35).
    2. One of the UU principles is to respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. This means recognizing our differences and the fact that we are part of one web.
    3. Frame ourselves in the positive. Say what we are, not just what we're not.
  6. Balance Justice and Joy
    1. "If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning, torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world, and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." ~ E.B. White
    2. "Our congregations need to 'share in the action and passion of our times under the penalty of being judged not to have lived'" (45, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.)
    3. I think this is an extension of the idea that we should define ourselves and the vision of the world we want to live in in positive and not negative terms. Be and love what we are. Make change FOR something, not against something else.
  7. Look Back, Around, and Ahead
    1. "In pursuit of the Beloved Community, the past is cherished, the present is celebrated, and the future is charted" (51).
    2. Great Ideas:
      1. take, share, archive photos of former members
      2. share anecdotes from the past in the newsletter, a "Blast from the Past"
      3. consider including a Death Ceremony (53)
    3. "The responsibility of a shared ministry is to produce a communal vision that includes yet transcends the disparate viewpoints of members" (54).
    4. As Augustine said and everyone seems to agree with of late, "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they don't remain the way they are." The JUSTICE aspect of my church is beautiful.
  8. Spread Our Good News
    1. First, know your good news. Internalize it. Then radiate it.
    2. Love + Truth = :-) "Truth without love turns callous, even cruel. Love without truth is sentimental, even vacuous" (60).
    3. Share by being.
    4. Challenge your faith.
    5. Church Idea: credo sharing (61)
  9. Practice Respect
    1. This means embracing healthy conflict.
    2. Stay at the table. Things will get dicey from time to time. Remember your covenant and why you're here in the first place. There are exceptions, but part of being a member of the beloved community is sticking it out.
    3. "Being a remember of Beloved Community requires learning and practice [...] and forgiveness" (66).
    4. The word respect means to look at again. This means rethinking the way we do things, not necessarily keeping tradition for its own sake.
  10. Nurture Stewards
    1. Generosity is a virtue (75).
    2. Think about Natalia Ginzburg's "Little Virtues," including that we should teach our children 'not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love for truth; not tact but love for one's neighbor and self-denial; not success but a desire to be and to know" (77).
    3. "Churches must help society focus on compassion as our human imperative rather than on prosperity as our divine right" (78).
    4. Statistically, generous people experience less mental illness, they live longer, and they feel good. Owen-Towle doesn't really back up the science and correlation doesn't imply causality, but it's interesting.
    5. Here's a quotation from a Baptist minister that sums up a lot of what my church wants to be: "I don't agree with a lot of what you say and do, but I'm appreciative that you're always supporting causes that no other church in town will touch and welcoming folks no one else wants around" (79).
    6. To be generous is to be generative. "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." ~ The Beatles
  11. Keep Journeying
    1. Resist "the temptation to camp out in caves of comfortableness" (82).
    2. "In Nigeria, people say of someone who has died, 'Their feet are in agreement; in other words, they've ceased moving. For the wise elders know that life is movement and movement begins with the contradiction of the limbs... non-contradiction means death" (84). I love this metaphor. I believe that life and time are about change. Without change, time does not exist. It's kind of the whole point of this life - this unique understanding of our own rate of change.
  12. Know That You Are Not Alone
    1. The question isn't just Who Am I, but Whose Am I?
    2. Believing, Belonging, Becoming
The book ends with a pretty tree metaphor which would be fun to draw. The roots are our sources, history, variety of traditions. The ground and the trunk are our church structure and how we live. The members are like leaves in the seasons, growing, maturing, falling and dying. Programs are branches, strong limbs which help us grow.