A taste of the sessions, discussions, and speeches at the Unitarian Universalist Association's General Assembly in Nashville, courtesy of the UUA public information office.

A Lover's Quarrel: Unitarian-Universalists Wrestling with God
The Rev. Dr. Thomas Owen-Towle addressed the issue of God and the divine. The Unitarian-Universalist umbrella encompasses a wide range belief in the divine. In this address he discussed the variety of beliefs with their particular attributes, and suggested that the acceptance of other points of view can lead to open dialogue and ultimately the building of bridges to help an individual arrive at a more complete belief system.

He described his own faith journey as one starting at mindless belief moving to total rejection and finally arriving at a place of questioning faith that he is at peace with. mostly. He is now more comfortable with contradictions and accepts the existence of both a humanist and theist within himself. He described UUs as "theological mongrels." Those who want their beliefs wrapped up in a neat package tend not to be UUs.

Pascal described three groups of people: those who know and love God; those who don't know but seek God; and those who don't know and don't seek God. Owen-Towle calls the first path affirmatism, the second path agnosticism, and the third path atheism. Each of these attitudes brings a healthy mix to the discussion table--atheism with its skepticism, agnosticism with its essential gift of measured indecision, and affirmatism with its unflinching demands. The seeker must be cautious as each also has a dark undercurrent--atheism for a hollow heart, agnosticism for its disinterest, and affirmatism for its sanctimoniousness.

Going into more detail, Owen-Towle described the optimistic atheists, who focus on freedom and potential and have no belief rather than disbelief, and pessimistic atheists, who are skeptical, cynical, and forlorn. Agnosticism, a term coined by Thomas Huxley in 1869, describes a belief in partial wisdom. A modern unbelief is central to UUs today.

Agnosticism can also be subdivided into, for example, agnostic theists for whom God exists but whose nature is unknowable, and agnostic atheists who believe that knowing the existence of God is unknowable. Humanity has three attributes: humaneness, humor, and humbleness.

With affirmatists the "say it" must be accompanied by the "do it." We can only experience God when we say yes to life. For UUs, the location is emphasized instead of the definition. This is an extension of Thoreau's "lurking places where God may be found in our lives," which can be identified by the following: service, silliness, struggle, silence, and surrender.

Universalists view love as the beginning and end. UUs major in knowledge and minor in devotion and thrive on discussion rather than on experience. UUs love God as wholeheartedly as reasonable. God is not an unknown but a mystical comrade. Viewing God on a more individual and personal level allows a truer relationship to form and as in the case of other human relationships, the following can be stated: Life is one long quarrel with God, but we still make up in the end.

Parents as Sexuality Educators
Presented by Rev. Patricia Hoertdoerfer, Director, Children, Family and Intergenerational Programs, Religious Education Department, UUA and Rev. Keith Kron, Director, Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns.

Parents want to talk to their children about sexuality, but they don't always know what to say and how to say it. New resources from the UUA's Religious Education Department can help parents find the tools they need for these important discussions, participants learned in a workshop Friday led by Rev. Pat Hoertdoerfer and Rev. Keith Kron.

Kron and Hoertdoerfer began by having participants brainstorm they messages about sex and sexuality they heard in their childhood: from parents, school, peers and friends, the media, their religious community, and elsewhere. Whether through silence or explicit messages, parents are the primary sexuality educators of children, especially when it comes to shaping values. Hoertdoerfer and Kron challenged participants to put into words the values around sex and sexuality they'd want their own child of 18 years old to have. Answers included such ideals as emotional and physical safety, embracing the joyfulness and sacredness of sexuality, respect for self and others, understanding the mechanics of sex, acceptance of one's own and others' sexual orientation, and understanding the potential consequences of intercourse.

Hoertdoerfer and Kron then described how parents are involved in the Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum units for K-1 and 4-6 grade levels. Built around core values of respect, responsibility and reciprocity, and around the latest scientific information about sex and sexuality, these units provide age-appropriate information. Developed by the UUA and the United Church of Christ (UCC) together, and supplemented with separate faith-based segments emphasizing each denomination's religious foundation of sexuality values, these curriculum units extend the Our Whole Lives units for adolescents already in use in many UU (and UCC) congregations.

For the K-1 and 4-6 grade units, parents attend an information meeting even before the Sunday School chooses to use the Our Whole Lives programs. "Parents" can include not only biological parents, but any adults who serve in parental roles with children. After a congregation begins using the Our Whole Lives program, there's a two and a half hour parent and child orientation for each level. Parents stay involved through the eight sessions of each course through "home links" sent home each week to help parents talk about the issues raised and their own values. In the K-1 course parents attend the first and last sessions with their children, and in the 4-6 course they attend one session together. The final segment of the GA workshop allowed participants, through role playing, to practice communicating on sexuality through "teachable moments," a concept used in the parents' involvement in the Our Whole Lives courses. "Teachable moments" are opportunities for parents to communicate values and information when children ask questions or make statements. It's important, Hoertdoerfer emphasized, for parents, who often had little or poor information imparted from their own parents, to be able to begin discussions and answer questions on sex and sexuality. Children, Kron reminded the participants, learn to handle their own emotions around sexuality from how parents handle their own emotional process in talking with their children about the subject.

Just as parents need to encourage their children to continue to ask questions, Hoertdoerfer and Kron closed the workshop by urging the participants to continue to ask their own questions of the UUA staff as they work with their churches to give tools to parents as sexuality educators.

Ministering to Youth Groups
In this interactive session, presented in the spirit of a sharing circle with Unitarian-Universalist ministers and seminarians, presentors Jen Harrison, Duncan Metcalfe, and Nathan Staples of the UUA's Youth Office, talked about strategies to improve "Ministering to Youth." Presenters used methods that they had used and found successful with youth groups, beginning with a get-to-know-you game that involved the participants in running around the room in a variation of musical chairs. The Youth Office staff invited the ministers to participate in a fun visual activity whereby they created a caricature of the "Ideal Youth-Friendly Minister." The session provided ministers with concrete techniques and strategies to help make their congregations more youth friendly. Here are some specific suggestions given by Jen Harrison, director of the Youth Office, to enhance youth programming 1) Start a youth choir or a capella group
2) Use youth as Teachers in the Religious Education Program
3) Start a youth peer counseling program
4) Design alternative "Vesper Services" that are more interactive
5) Bring in curriculum-based learning programs such as Our Whole Lives

There were several handouts offered. Some are available from the Youth Office Web site, including "Five Components of a Balanced Youth Program," and "Synapse."

The Minister as Social Justice Leader, or Are We Prophetic Yet?
How can we be architects of a more just world?

On June 20, ministers gathered for a workshop with Rev. Meg A. Riley, who directs the Washington Office for Faith in Action. The purpose of the workshop was to discuss how to make congregations more effective in social justice work. Rev. Riley used quotes from prophetic men and women to guide the ministers through the issues.

.We shrink from touching
our power, we shrink away, we starve ourselves
and each other, we're scared shitless
of what it could be to take and use our love,
hose it on a city, on a world,
to wield and guide its spray, destroying
poisons, parasites, rats, viruses-
like the terrible mothers we long and dread to be.
--Adrienne Rich, "Hunger" in "The Dream of a Common Language"

"Have you touched that power in your congregation? Or are you left thinking: What power?" Imagine a continuum from left to right, poses Rev. Riley.Using a "Continuum" exercise she asks the ministers who represent congregations "empowered" to address social justice issues to stand on the left. Those with congregations "struggling" to address social justice issues stand on the right. There is a lot of chatter as they place themselves along this figurative continuum.

If this room were a boat, it would have tipped over. Most of the ministers crowded into the right side of the room. One lone minister, Jane Dwinell, from the First Universalist Parish in Derby Line, Vermont, is the only one on the left. First Universalist, Derby Line was thrust into a major initiative to fight for Vermont legislation in support of same-sex unions. There is a lot of space between her and the rest of the group. She shouts across the room to her fellow ministers, reassuring people that improvement is possible: A year ago I would have been over there with you. In fact, I probably would have been out of the door!"

So how can our congregations be more empowered to work on social justice issues? Rev. Riley asks the ministers to lists the obstacles to congregational effectiveness. She feels it is critical to identify the obstacles, and understand the type of the obstacle in order to move beyond them. Rev. Riley used a quote from Ghandi to help illuminate the different types of obstacles that can obstruct our fight for justice.

".Everyday when I wake up, I have three enemies: The British people-the first and most obvious enemy. In a way, they are the easiest to deal with. The second enemy is my own people, and that is much more complicated. And the third enemy is Mohandas K. Gandhi and with him, I have no influence whatsoever."

The ministers were asked to look at their own list of obstacles. Is the obstacle outside of the congregation? Is the obstacle sometimes within the congregation? Or might we be our own greatest obstacle?

The session closed with Rev. Dwinell from Derby Line sharing the congregation's story of organizing to help pass legislation in support of same-sex unions in Vermont. Several factors contributed to the successful effort. 1) They focused on one issue. 2) The issue personally touched members of the congregation. 3) There was deadline to the legislative session gave them a sense of urgency. Working together on this issue was an empowering experience for many members of the congregation.

For more information: The Faith in Action Web site has useful information for congregations. Of particular interest regarding social justice work is the Social Justice Empowerment Program, which contains a useful Information Guide and Handbook.

Ministers Get Tips in Promoting Safer Sexuality Education
On June 20, a packed room of Unitarian Universalist ministers and seminarians learned about ways to promote safer sexuality education from the UUA's experts. The Rev. Cynthia Breen, director of religious education, and Judith Frediani, director of curriculum planning in the Religious Education department, led the workshop which was designed to answer some of the most pressing questions religious leaders encounter about sex ed.

Breen and Frediani addressed the challenges of offering sexuality education in UU congregations. They presented the scope of programs available through the new lifespan curriculum, Our Whole Lives. Offering help to address the pastoral and prophetic implications of ministry for those who provide leadership on isssues of sexuality and faith, Breen said, "Some of us have not come to terms with sexuality ourselves, which makes it difficult to advocate for it for our children. When we get an understanding of the issues [that surround sexuality education], we can become better advocates."

Describing the Our Whole Lives program and the companion series, Sexuality and Our Faith, Breen and Frediani reviewed the major components of each level: for K/1, grades 4/6, grades 7/9, grades 10-12, and adult. Some of the participants talked about parental concerns regarding sexuality education.

"Parents coming to our congregations are different than 20 or 30 years ago.they are more conventional, different than the previous generations. They are, as a group, not so comfortable with sexuality education. So you really have to deal with parental anxiety.These are issues that arise from cultural oppression of sexuality. We have to help parents see the potential for raising sexually healthy kids," Frediani said.

Debra Haffner, former president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) and a UU seminarian, said, "Children need the skills to protect themselves.parents need to ask themselves if they would like their children to hear information on human sexuality correctly , for the first time, or whether they want them to get it on the playground from other children." Breen, responding, said, "We are advocating for respect and reciprocity," for accurate information conveyed to people of all ages.

Extension Ministry Days 2000 focuses on "What's Working in UU Congregations"

Leading a group of 30 extension and new congregation ministers in a pre-GA program at the Renaissance Hotel in Nashville, the Rev. Larry Peers, education and research director for the Unitarian-Universalist Association asked people to focus on what's working in congregations, rather than what's not. The session explored the use of the techniques of "Appreciative inquiry" in ministry, with a particular focus on the opportunities and challenges of extension ministry.

This all-day session is one of many pre-GA activities currently underway in Nashville. Appreciative Inquiry, Peers explained, can be used as a method of organizing for purposeful, powerful change in organizations. It starts from the premise of building on what is already present in the community, assuming that what you want more of already exists in the organization. Identifying those strengths and working from them can bring about fundamental and lasting change, Peers explained.

A basic principle of extension ministry is that "Growth=Change," which leads to an interest in methods of nurturing successful organizational change. The use of the techniques of appreciative inquiry as part of the presentation, and the strongly participative nature of the session, gave some flavor of how different this process might feel from the problem solving approach, which works well for some things, but which does not suit all organizational needs.

The session used "The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry," 2nd edition, by Sue Hammond as a framework for the discussion and exploration of the process. Information on the book itself and some discussion of the concepts of Appreciative Inquiry are available at http://www.thinbook.com.

The model is structured around the four "D's": Discovery, Dream, Design, and Destiny, which are seen as a cycle rather than a linear model.

Discovery. Ask questions formed to draw out deep and positive experiences, with a real interest in the answers, and an understanding that the answers are truly an unknown. As the group utilized this process in role playing, it generated some deeply felt responses, even when done as an exercise.

Dream. Ask what might be, and envision the results that positive change might bring. Design. Look at the steps to get there.

And finally, Destiny. Sustain this process and continue to adjust and improvise.

In ministry, and in extension ministry in particular, the nature of Appreciative Inquiry, which moves the participants into the adaptive process, actually lays the groundwork for change in development of the vision. Deep change can come from examining what we do well, looking at our assumptions, and envisioning where we want to be.

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