Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.
- (Sufi Poet Rumi)

Monday, July 1, 2013

Church - I Came Here to Complain! (No You Didn't!)

The Argument Clinic Sketch

Do you feel that when you go to your congregation, it seems like you've entered the Monty Python skit The Argument Clinic?  In the skit, a man pays good money for an argument, which he gets, but he also gets complaints, abuse, and hit over the head.   In this sketch, one line is, "If you complain nothing happens ... you might just as well not bother." I believe that complaints can be valuable, for they tell us what we long for.  It takes however some practice and skill to shift the internal and external conversations so that something wonderful might happen in your congregation.

What complaints do you hear?  

The service went too long!
I didn't like the music this morning.
People don't pledge enough to keep this congregation solvent!
We just don't have enough people to handle all the volunteer duties.
Our congregation is dying, we need younger people!
I'm tired of all the conflict and gossip around here.

Do these sound familiar to you?  If so, you might also have experienced in your body a lowering of energy, or perhaps tenseness when you hear a complaint.  Maybe you feel exhaustion, lack of hope, and a desire to withdraw from the conversation or even the relationship or the congregation.  The needs behind this response are multiple - mutual empowerment, hope, fun, ease, connection, etc.  Over time "complaint energy" can embed itself within a congregation and be difficult to eradicate, but not impossible. 

One way to reverse complaint energy is to play the complaint game. 

Gather with a group of people in your congregation and write down all the commonly heard complaints, or the complaints or criticisms that cause you to go nuts. As a group come up with the needs that exist behind the complaints. Then role play a conversation where one person issues forth a complaint, while the other responds with empathy by guessing what might be the needs of the complainer.  In this way both parties receive the gift of helping each other connect to life and to one another by sharing the needs that exist behind the complaint.  The complaint game is also a good way to practice, so that when you hear a complaint in "real time" you can immediately translate it to life giving needs, both for your benefit and for another's if you so choose to empathize out loud with the other.

So let's play shall we?  What needs are behind the complaints listed above?  When you have come up with a list continue reading.

The service went too long! (consideration, efficiency, rest, integrity, ?)
I didn't like the music this morning. (stimulation, pleasure, joy, shared reality, ?)
People don't pledge enough to keep this congregation solvent! (fairness, hope, community, faith,?)
We just don't have enough people to handle all the volunteer duties. (rest, fairness, fun, ?)
Our congregation is dying, we need younger people! (hope, contribution, justice, love, community, nurturance, ?)
I'm tired of all the conflict and gossip around here. (rest, peace, connection, integrity, ?)

You can play the complaint game by yourself too.

I now invite you to think of an important complaint you have about your congregation.  I say "important" because complaints let you know what you value and long for.  List the needs behind the complaint and then translate the complaint into a statement about needs.  Then imagine those needs being met and rest in that energy for a while.  This will prepare you to share these precious needs with others in a form that perhaps they can hear, empathize with, and experience mutual empowerment so that together you can come up with a strategy that might address these needs.

For example, I might complain:  Why can't we loosen up around here - move our bodies, clap our hands, dance, and shout amen?   

I long for connection, sharing, spirit, fun, kinesthetic movement, physical well being, etc.

To my worship committee I might then say, "I sure do appreciate how wonderful my body feels when I move during a service and value so strongly sharing the embodiment of our faith with others.  Would you be willing to tell me what comes up for you when you hear me say this?"

I believe that people do not join a community of faith to argue, but to serve life, which we can do by translating complaints into needs language.

Good hope in this,


Friday, June 14, 2013

Translating the Chatter into Needs - General Assembly 2013

It's that time again!  General Assembly, the annual meeting of Unitarian Universalism, begins in 5 days.  The ministers gather a few days earlier to make the whole event a week's work of networking, celebration, and sometimes uncomfortable conversations and interactions. Probably the most common unpleasant situation is that there just doesn't seem to be the time or spaciousness to really connect with all the people you'd like to! Or perhaps it seems like you don't know very many people when others seem to always have a gang of followers or peers gaggling around them wherever they go. Maybe during the plenaries, workshops, and worship services you experience envy, regret, and even sadness that you haven't accomplished as much in the past year, aren't in the thick of things or won't have the chance to have a follow up conversation with those who have spoken in the public space. 

GA is far from being a bummer, but I do know that the complex world of human relationships and heart's hope easily set's one up for disappointment and frustration.  It happens in our congregational homes every Sunday, and so too it happens every year at GA.

What then to do?

One way to keep the heart open to connection, is to keep bringing back our mind's chattering to needs.  If you feel an emotion or a shift in a body, what needs are being met? Aren't being met? In yourself?  In others?

Here's an example.

I recall several GA's back where I passed near the escalator at GA a colleague with whom I had worked in a congregation.  As we passed, we paused briefly to say hello, during which he kept looking over my head.  Without checking in with him, my jackal interpretation  ran wild. He was too busy and important to spend any time with me. Clearly he was lacking in the simple social graces of at least making eye contact!  I never really liked him anyway.  If only I was more interesting we could have connected....  If I was only a different person I could have been a contender! 

Okay, self empathy. What are my needs? What would be your needs in this case?  I'll suggest connection, consideration, friendship.

Okay, other empathy. What are his needs?  Guessing I'd say efficiency, connection, ease.

But wait, there's more!  Once we understand the needs involved we can entertain what strategies we might employ to address these desires.

I'd love to hear your strategies about how you navigate your GA experience.  Would you be willing to describe here how you seek to connect to the beauty of needs at GA, or any other large gathering of humans? 

Ah, up rises another request to address the needs of connection, mutual reality, community, fun, etc! The list goes on.

Here's the idea. During GA let's share what needs come up for us, or what we guess is going on for others, by either reporting in here, or using Twitter with the general hastag = #UUAGA, and also #UUAGANEEDS. 

Shall we?  I'll start us off today!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Speaking With Our Mouths Full of Compassion

Besides working as a consultant in Compassionate Communication for congregations, I am also active with the Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry (UUAM) where I serve on the Board and also am the Reverence for Life Coordinator.  Through these capacities I have frequently witnessed the intricate dance we do with one another as our faith calls us to be prophetic witnesses to suffering in the world.  How do we hear of another's pain, or anger, or express it ourselves, without shifting into blame and judgment, or withdrawal and disconnection?  Sometimes we step on each other's toes and all too often, individuals decide to sit the dance out entirely and resign their membership in their congregations. 

This relationship or conservation struggle can center on any one of many different justice issues or oppressions, and in the case of those involved in animal ministry, it often includes diet choices. In a week's time this will be fore front in my thinking as I go to attend the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Louisville, Kentucky.  Part of my work there will be to staff the UUAM booth where there will be much opportunity to speak and listen compassionately, as well as with integrity and authenticity. This won't be easy as my experiences and understanding of the world can prove difficult for others to hear, and vice versa.

So what are we as a people of faith to do?  (and by faith I mean striving to respond compassionately to the understanding that beings are beautiful, are interconnected, and are capable of both experiencing and causing suffering).

Here's my plan.  No matter the conversation I will seek to go beyond ideological assumptions, statements, and judgments. I'm with the author of  "Better Angels of our Nature," Stephen Pinker, on this one - ideologies are the cause of much of the violence in the world, and in the case of my relationships with others, can cause daily and multiple micro-instances of oppression and violence.  Now I know there is no getting rid of the ideological filters that each of us have, say for instance, whether one "should" or "should not" eat animals.  But in knowing that, I can humbly strive to go beyond ideologies, mine and others, so that we can listen and speak as honestly and empathetically as we can.

How, you ask?

The goal for me then is to always go back to the needs of those involved.  I seek to hold tenderly the needs of the person with whom I am talking, as well as the needs of the marginalized and oppressed. In the case of other species, then, I try to shift the conversation away from blanket statements about what is the right thing to do and away from lengthy discourses covering every possible rationalization about the issue. For if there is one thing our subconscious minds can do, is come up with a story about why we do what we do.  Instead I speak about my needs, listen to and guess the needs of the other human, and then speak about the needs of animals.  I'm willing to let go of specific strategies or outcomes in this complex world, but I am not willing to concede awareness about the states of others and my desire for their flourishing.

A possible conversation might go like this at the UUAM booth using classic Nonviolent Communication formulations. In person it would probably be much less stilted, but hopefully you can grasp the consciousness I seek to develop and convey through this sample dialog.

Other person: I saw your ad in the last issue of the UU World magazine and I was frankly offended. Who are you, especially as a UU, to tell others what is right or wrong for them to do?

Me:  I'm guessing you really value choice and respect, and you didn't experience that while reading the ad. Is that right?

Other person:  Yeah, you're right.  I get so tired of others playing the purity card in our congregations.  Gosh, I'm doing the best I can.

Me:  So you'd like some ease and understanding about how hard you are trying to make compassionate choices, especially given how overwhelmingly complex you see the world as. 

Other person.  Right again!  I just don't see what's so bad about eating animals when it does so much good for humans.

Me: Would you be willing to hear why I don't eat meat?

Other person:  Well, er, okay, but plenary is going to start soon.

Me:  Thanks.  I appreciate the chance to share, and I'll be brief.  It's that I feel sad when I think of the lives and deaths of chickens who are raised for meat.  I so want them to not suffer and feel pain, and to flourish in all ways possible.  I long for that for them, and for you and me too.  What comes up for you when I share this?

Other person:  I guess it's complex and maybe someday I'll have time to think about this more.

Me:  Yes, the situation sure can make one's head and heart burst open, at least it has for me.  Would you be willing to take any literature or remember us so that if you ever need a listening ear, information, or support, you can contact me or someone else at UUAM?

Other person:  Okay, sure. Thanks.  Can you also help me decide for whom to vote for Moderator?

Now dear reader, can you tell me what comes up for you after reading this blog entry?  Would you be willing to contact me here, or better yet, come by the UUAM booth at General Assembly?


In the hope of holding all needs fully,


The ad highlighted in the dialog and in the last issue of the UU World.
What needs of yours, other humans, and other species come up for you when you see this ad?

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Mission From God

We hear a lot about a congregation having a mission statement these days.  If we only had a perfect mission statement our congregation will be saved as new members come flooding in to solve our financial problems and our falling membership.  More deeply, we long that our apparent disparate lives will find common cause and quit fussing with one another.

In the past the process I have employed is "needs based missioning."  We gather members together in cottage meetings, small groups, and workshops so they can discuss the needs of themselves, each other, and the greater and even global community.  At the same time we take an inventory of our gifts.  What we essentially have done is follow Frederick Buechner's sage reasoning, "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." The difficulty lies though in bringing people together who, although they have the same needs, prioritize them differently.  What often results then is a watered down mission statement that offends no one as it attempts to include everyone's needs and gladness.

I do believe that needs based conversations, behaviors, and relationships are key to the good life. So I'm not suggesting that we give up on sharing with one another our deepest longings, woundings, and gladness.  Instead, I'm wondering if we in our congregations can come to a place where we share a mission based on the wisdom and experience we have as a people of faith.  We know what we and others need, and we know what makes us glad.  The challenge comes in the process of determining needs and gifts.  When in our lives, and even in most congregations, do we slow down enough so that we can focus, go deep, and listen to life arising through us so that we may best serve life?

The mission then that might be widely shared with other congregations is process oriented. How can we live deeply so that others can live well? In short, the mission is a way of life.

Here is an example.

Listen, open, serve
Listen to our deepest selves
Open to life's gifts
Serve needs greater than our own

We seek to know when needs are met, and not met. We then mourn, celebrate, and act according to how life seeks the greatest possible fulfillment in our congregations.

If we can do this, we will, as in the words of the great John Belushi in the movie, Blues Brothers, "be on a mission from God."

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Transforming Church Conflict: Compassionate Leadership in Action

I have now served in Unitarian Universalist congregations for 14 years, first as an intern, then as a parish minister, and now as a community minister and consultant.  In this time, boy howdy, have I seen conflict!  For a long time, and even still, I experience confusion regarding how I and others find it difficult to see the beauty of the other and their needs when our own needs are not met.  We move into judgment and blame, and repeat disconnecting thoughts and behaviors.  Over time in a particular congregation, these patterns can become entrenched, leaving individuals desperately longing for authentic and deep relationships that can weather the diversity of human expression, experiences, and wounding.  What then to do?

My greatest hope lies in Nonviolent Communication, also known as Compassionate Communication. I am not alone.  The authors of a new book I just finished, Transforming Church Conflict, write, "We have become convinced that nonviolent or compassionate communication is the best singe resource  available for learning the complex interpersonal and pastoral leadership skills needed by today's church."  They go on to say, "Compassionate communication helps us maintain our inner clarity and sense of direction in the midst of challenging situations in which we have significant personal investment."  I love the hope and the vision of congregations, and perhaps this is why I can become disheartened when I perceive that we are not making the most of the transformational possibility inherent in conflict.  Does this resonate with you?

If so, then I recommend this book to you, as well as the practice of compassionate communication.  This authors in their writing support me in my practice, which in turns keeps me engaged with others in the work, perhaps with you too.  Please join me here in this blog, for I treasure companionship and the interdependence of sharing a way of being in the world that I cannot do alone.  My commitment is to write regularly here about compassionate leadership in congregations.  If you have any comments or situations in which we can offer empathy and understanding to one another,  I would be delighted to hear from you. 

Let us share and build upon the hope of compassion.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Beautiful Useless

Carolina Wren (photo by William Majaros)

One of the greatest needs I hear repeated during workshops is "contribution" and "to matter."  I resonate with both of these. Do you?

For myself there are other needs lurking behind these, very important needs to recognize and address.  I might characterize these as "belonging" and "interconnection."  No  matter what I do I belong and am interconnected with the interdependent whole.  It is only my state of mind that sees it otherwise, alas all too often!

So I have taken up the motto, "Beautiful Useless," so that I might remember how I can experience connection to all life no matter external characteristics, or even internal states of mind.

To help me remember this motto, I read Mary Oliver whose poems, such as this one below, speak to our deep interbeing with all, no matter where we may be standing or our stance in life.

I don’t know where prayers go,
or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
crosses the street?
The sunflower? The old black oak
growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
along the shore or under the trees,
With my mind filled with things
of little importance, in full
self-attendance. A condition I can’t really
call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
Just outside my door, with my notebook open,
Which is the way I begin every moning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.
He was positively drenched in enthusiasm,
I don’t why. And yet, why not.
I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe
Or whatever you don’t. That’s your business.
But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be
if it isn’t a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

Beautiful useless is Mary with her pen in the air. 
Isn’t this who we are, all of us, all the time?
Isn’t this what a prayer is? A cat? A wren?
The triumphant trees?

My fingers are typing out a prayer, as is my breathing, my being, my being – every act a gift and a petition for life to flow easily, fully, in me, which silly me, always does no matter what.
May it be so.
(Alas, another petition, silly me)
At last, hallelujah!

At last, hallelujah!
It is so.

What do you ask for with your very being?
How is your life a prayer?

Monday, March 5, 2012

No One Is Unproductive

In yesterday's "Dear Abby" column there was woman who described herself as retired and in search of herself. She didn't know whether to take a part time job, go to school, or volunteer. She was experiencing guilt and a sense of unworthiness because she was "unproductive."

Here is how I would have replied to her letter using NVC consciousness.  What might you have said?

No one is “unproductive.” We each just choose different strategies to meet our needs for ease, rest, fun, security, and protection (and many other needs).  No one is old. No one is retired. These labels tend to go with expectations of how we should act.  So I’m going to ask you to think of what needs are alive in you now.

Let me help get you started.  From what you write I am seeing how much you value contribution, as well as stimulation.  You however want more ease and rest than your previous full time job allowed. Is that right? 

You can have people guess your needs, like I just did, or you can do this yourself.  One way to get at needs is to see what labels you are using.  For instance, I’d like to ask you where your sense of guilt and worthlessness comes from when you think of the phrase “not being productive.”  I am guessing that you have some “should” statements going on in your mind, such as “I should not be lazy.”  “Good people work hard.”  These should statements can disconnect us from life energy and keep us from coming up with creative ways to meet our needs. So we need to get at the needs behind “not being productive.” 

So pick up a pen and paper, and write down all the needs you can think of that are met when you imagine yourself being “productive.”  You might list connection to people, contribution, respect, and nurturing.  Now also imagine all the needs that are being met when you are not working as hard as in your last job.  You might list rest, ease, fun, and learning? 

Take a look at all those needs you wrote and lift up the 2-3 that seem to resonate the most for you right now.  Thinking of these needs, can you think of ways to meet these needs?  The goal is to meet needs that are alive in you, and not the needs of some should statement, such as I should be active or busy. 

My guess is that life is trying to come through you very strongly, and you are rearing to meet those needs to connect to life as much as possible.  Just listen to life as it expresses itself in the various emotions you have, and try to translate any self judgment into a language of needs.

Find your needs and you will find yourself.