UU Troublemakers Wanted

In one of my workshops at our conference this Saturday I noted the need for our leaders to be bolder, to experiment more, and to make trouble.  This “trouble-making” notion is something  I’ve heard UUA President Peter Morales stating on multiple occasions.

Following the workshop I was asked for the source.  “Where did Peter Morales state this? I’ll believe it when I see it….”

I knew I had heard it at least twice.  One was at a UU Mass Action event where Morales spoke. I took the note “troublemakers wanted” during his presentation, though no transcript or video is available.  The other instance was in his Sunday sermon from this past General Assembly.  I just looked at the event coverage and found the quote.

UUA President Peter Morales:

… I had a conversation last year with a famous expert on organizational change—Harvard professor has written a shelf full of books. And in that conversation he made a comment that has haunted me for a year. He observed that when an organization fails it is almost never its problems that kill it. What kills it is its past success. What kills it is its past success. And what he meant was that problems tend to be technical and solvable, but that people have a tendency to hold onto the past, to old ways of doing things even when they’re no longer relevant because the past has become part of their identity. And this holding onto the past kills the organization. What are we hanging onto that no longer serves us?

We need to remind ourselves that our heroes and heroines were always people who knew how to let go, who saw new possibilities, and who were bold. The best way for us to honor the past is to be like them. To push for change, to forge a vision of a new future, and yes, to make trouble.


I’m going to regret having said that…

(Read the full sermon and watch  video here)

We need trouble-makers, leaders who

  1. can let go of the past
  2. find new ways of doing things
  3. particularly those that are relevant today

This most certainly can be seen as “making trouble” as the necessary change includes letting go of how the UUA staff, UUA Board, Districts, Congregations, UU Clergy and Lay Leaders have done things through this present day.

Friends, in order to lead the change we need, you may be called to act in ways contrary to our culture and even some present policies, procedures and protocols of our Association and congregations. If the unofficial rule book governing how we “do church” and Unitarian Universalism here in America isn’t working – and its not — you may need to “break the rules” challenging and changing our old ways.  (clarified 11/2)

And I may regret having said that!  Whatever you do, just don’t break the law, okay?   😉

I have some specific thoughts on trouble that I think needs to be made.

But first, time to vote!

Do you have ideas for trouble that needs to be made within our movement?  Share via comments or to me directly via email.

23 thoughts on “UU Troublemakers Wanted

  1. Yes! The trouble I want to make is the “trouble” that will lead us away from our obsessive 20th century postmodern individualism and into a progressive faith that proclaims the love God has for all people – no matter their faith. This is inclusiveness rather than individualism.

    In other words – we should be true Universalists for the 21st century. God loves you no matter what you believe. Focus less on the whittling-down of what you believe (old school UU) and more on the fact that God loves you (progressive UU).

    Ultimately, this means we have to go back to being a church that believes in God. :::gasp!::: Yes. I said it.

    Proud to be a UU troublemaker. 🙂

  2. I love the boldness of Morales’ prescription! But given the historic trajectory off UUA growth curve, it’s an obvious prescription, really. In our root tradition, that troublemaker would be named a prophet, a gadfly, a shit-disturber, an idea innovator. Our structures have crystallized, they discourage creativity and innovation, and their walls need to be broken down.

    There are many updated models out there in the business world where the evolutionary forces of competition drive them to adapt and innovate – or die. In fact their newer models are more collaborative, more democratic, more personal growth oriented, might I say even more spiritual, than the structural models of main line churches. I’m thinking here of Peter Senge and the “learning organization” and related models.

    We don’t have to “cause trouble” from scratch. We just have to look around us, be open and experimental, and adapt some promising initiatives. Here is where the UUA could be really effective: actively encourage pilot projects in several adventurous congregations, compile the learning, and plant yet more of these seeds. Congregations are hungry for innovative growth, personal and collective. The UUA could spot these trouble makers and feed them more fuel.

  3. Peter,

    The institutional framework in Unitarian Universalism that encouraged both troublemaking and risk-taking in our movement was the wide-ranging collection of independent affiliates. The recent emphasis on congregational life will (in my opinion) result in less trouble-making and less risk-taking for Unitarian Universalism.

    Here’s my blog post about this role for non-congregational UU groups that I wrote in 2004:

    “Unitarian Universalism, Congregationalism, and Congregations”

    In many cases, these non-congregational groups were letting us know about UU ministerial needs that were going unmet in our congregations.

  4. Yeah I do and starts with ending the use of the term “movement” when it comes to referencing our RELIGION!

    A movement is a grassroots organization that is trying to reform an establishment and has a beginning and end. A movement is an orchestral piece of music that is part of a larger whole that has a beginning and end. A movement is something you have when you’ve been eating cheese for three days and something finally breaks loose.

    Causing trouble starts with viewing UUism as a RELIGION, affirming its beliefs in your daily life and letting others know of it.

    1. Hi Julian. I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about social movements lately. I would offer that we can have (and need) a Unitarian Universalist RELIGION, a Unitarian Universalist ASSOCIATION, and a grassroots Unitarian Universalist MOVEMENT. I think it is going to take a movement focused on trying to reform the established institutions of our religion to change its culture if it is going to thrive long term. Some use religion, association and movement as if they were the same thing. They are very different in my mind — I’ve been trying to be precise in how I use them, though that is hard.

      Our world is changing and the way we interact, communicate and bring about change is changing too. Understanding movements and learning to ignite them are now key. Whether you accept that we have a Unitarian Universalist movement or not, its time that we started one.

      Check out this TED presentation on movements and tribes by Seth Godin.

      “Seth Godin argues the Internet has ended mass marketing and revived a human social unit from the distant past: tribes. Founded on shared ideas and values, tribes give ordinary people the power to lead and make big change. He urges us to do so.”

  5. Peter Bowden wrote: “We need trouble-makers, leaders who [ 1)active verb, 2)active verb,] 3) particularly those that are relevant today.

    I affirmed Guinevere in my vote today, bathroom tissue ballot in memory of bathroom tissue manifesto by MLK: ” Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

    Happy Saint Patrick’s Day and good night Mrs. Calabash wherever you are.

  6. We have to hope that the troublemakers will get enough encouragement from the likes of the two Peters here that they will continue to bear the resistance from those who have found comfort in the current stasis.

    I hate to think that there are people who actually think “I don’t really care if Unitarian Universalism has disappeared in 50 years — the way it is today suits me fine and I’ll be dead by then.” But isn’t that what our collective actions say?

  7. I’ll believe it when I see it. There are troublemakers already here…they just get chewed-up and spit-out and told to “shut up and act like a good UU.” Or they’re told that what they are advocating for isn’t what UUism is.
    Or they are completely ignored.

    That is the way of institutions; they are in the preservation business. And anything that disrupts the status-quo is going to be actively worked against. And it’s happening in the UUA.

    1. Kim, You’re right. That is the way of institutions. And I think that is why Peter Morales shared that our previous successes are likely to stand in the way of progress. I personally hope that this site can be a safe place for people to share those “troubling ideas” that might otherwise lead to getting “chewed-up.” If you have thoughts on what kind of support is needed within our association / religion / movement to allow new ideas to come forward, please please let us know!

  8. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, especially as I enter preliminary fellowship and begin my career as a minister in our religion. And, I want to take Peter’s call to action and expand it beyond our endless self-examination and tinkering with organizational structures. We face many very real crises in our nation and in our world that will require bold action to resolve. Status quo and business as usual will leave us as a marginalized faith with little real impact in the greater society.

    I do believe that we need a UU revolution – a revolution in which we aspire to grow up and take the reins of the liberal religious movement in this nation. But, while moving away from past governance structures may indeed be necessary, that is only a very small first step. If Peter really wants troublemakers (and I sincerely hope he does), then lets truly open our pulpits and encourage our ministers to be bold again. Let’s channel the great ministers of our past, like A. Powell Davies or John Haynes Holmes, and call on our congregations and our society to strive to be better. We already do a good job of the very necessary work to comfort the afflicted. I believe, however, that the time is now for us to take up the twin mantle of afflicting the comfortable.

  9. Anna Snoeyenbos writes: “our obsessive 20th century postmodern individualism”

    Er, I think you mean modern, not postmodern — postmodernism tends to reject the hyper-individualism characteristic of 20th C. modernism in favor of communitarianism. Having said that, it also sounds like you like the modernist idea of a single meta-narrative (in your case, belief in God as the central metanarrative). And in this context, I’d suggest you read Harvey Cox’s new book The Future of Faith, in which he says that belief is being eclipsed by faith.

    Peter — Thanks for this post. And I think Morales is right when he says, “I’m going to regret having said that.” In the context of the passage you cite, I believe what he really means is that we need methodological innovation. From an organizational standpoint, we had great success with the fellowship movement in the 1950s, good success with the extension movement in the 1980s, and no real successes since then — so unfortunately what we see is that UUs keep turning back to the fellowship movement and the extension movement, and trying to recreate those successes. But those programs worked because they fit in with their historical moment; they’re not going to work now. We pretty much missed out on adopting cell groups, the successful church growth strategies of the Christian evangelicals in the 1980s, and now here we are in the 2010s without a timely strategy.

    Similarly, we had a certain measure of success in incorporating some worship innovations during the late 1960s and 1970s. We adopted some worship elements from second-wave feminism such as joys and concerns and the water communion; we borrowed the idea of using guitars and other new instrumentation from the liberal Catholics who were doing “guitar masses”; we started using the flaming chalice. That stuff worked back then to pump a little new life into worship, and we saw worship attendance creep up through the 1980s into the 1990s, but that historical moment has passed and this historical moment requires new approaches to worship. We pretty much missed the emergent church approach to worship of the 1990s and 2000s, and so here we are in 2010 still doing worship like it’s 1980.

    Similarly in religious education. The peak of our religious education was in the 1940s and 1950s, when we produced truly innovative programs and curriculums; we had something of a resurgence in the 1980s. And now here we are in the 2010s, with this new Tapestry of Faith program that’s re-using some of the old curriculum material first put out in the 1940s, wrapping it up in the “teacher-proof curriculum” model of the 1980s, and hoping that it will work in the 2010s.

    So it’s not a matter of finding “troublemakers.” Most of the so-called troublemakers I have met in UUism are people who snipe and criticize and tear down our leaders. What we really need is methodological innovation. Innovators are going to be smart, talented, creative people who are willing to try new things and fail — and willing to ignore the troublemakers who snipe at and criticize their failures.

    So Morales is on to the real problem — we are being killed by our past successes. We did a few things right a few decades ago, and we keep looking back. Looking back makes us afraid to try new things, and afraid to fail. So what we need is innovators, people who aren’t afraid to fail a few times before they get something that works.

    My $.02 worth….

    1. Your right about making trouble… Using that word is just a way to grab attention. I will say that advocating for methodological innovation often is construed as making trouble, particularly when people suggest changes from the sidelines. It works much better when people model innovation or recommend it while sitting at the table. Only problem is that sometimes the best ideas don’t get to the table as institutions do a good job of hiring and inviting people in who are going to support the system as it is.

      I wonder if that line by Peter Morales is a cry for help. Is he saying that HE can’t advocate for sufficient change (trouble) from within and needs outsiders to bring it on? I’m not sure what he means. Maybe someone should ask him. THAT would be a good guest post….


    2. Dan, I do mean “postmodern.” This is from PBS’s Faith and Reason glossary definition for Postmodernism:

      “A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.

      Postmodernism is “post” because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody – a characterisitic of the so-called “modern” mind. The paradox of the postmodern position is that, in placing all principles under the scrutiny of its skepticism, it must realize that even its own principles are not beyond questioning. As the philospher Richard Tarnas states, postmodernism “cannot on its own principles ultimately justify itself any more than can the various metaphysical overviews against which the postmodern mind has defined itself.””

      Modern vs. modernism vs. postmodernism vs. post-postmodernism – it’s all very confusing! Regardless of terms, you know what I am trying to say. But thank you for the book suggestion – sounds like a good read! I’ll check it out. 🙂

  10. Excellent goad, Peter. Hope the other Peter is watching and picks up your gauntlet. Because it’s the UUA that has the personnel and resources (?) for the study and implementation of such seminal trouble-causing ideas. They’re the ones to grow the pearl from our irritating grains of sand.

    Having had my hands washed in the engineering and construction trades, it bothers me that such good ideas and energy generated in conversations such as this thread, might go without action. Seems a waste of mental energy. I would love to see some concrete initiative concerning new up-to-date forms to come from the UUA. I have no idea what that would look like, being only a trouble maker myself.

  11. I suspect that much of the applause generated by the President’s remarks was due to assuming that we, the UU’s, were going to be troublemakers within the larger culture in regard to our usual roster of social justice causes. I’m not sure how many of those folk would embrace trouble-making from within our ranks aimed at changing us, as far too many UU’s see our little “movement” as pretty fine just the way it is.

    1. Oh I think people were cheering more for change within. Peter Morales sets the context pretty clearly – in my opinion – when he shares his conversation about institutions being challenged by their past successes. Yes, the larger challenge may be to be relevant in our world at large, but I think Peter is clearly stating that we need to do things differently within our institutions. At least that is what I thought he meant. I think I’m going to have to ask him….

    2. This is only belated by a couple of months. I was at GA when Morales gave that sermon, and I can tell you that the group leading the applause? Young adults and the young adult caucus. Make of that what you will. I met a lot of fellow young adults at GA, and most of them had a fair amount of complaints with typical UU congregations and not feeling welcome.

      1. Thanks for belated comment. One of the many drawbacks of participating in GA via the web is you can’t see the room.

        I have good news. Its not just a young adult thing – the norm is for people to have complaints and not feel welcome in UU congregations! Wait? Maybe that isn’t good news….

        I think it is good news in that there are large numbers of people who want a congregation like the kind of congregations we need to be moving towards. The question is how best to manage change.

        I’ve been getting emails from lay leaders and ministers from across the UUA who want to see real changes, but find it hard to change established culture.

        I’ve shifted from reading “church books” to focusing on organizational change.

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