It’d been a while since I thought much about our former church, UUMAN. Frankly, when we left there, I never expected to return – which was part of what made it such a shame to feel as if that was honestly the best possible choice at the time. We developed some good relationships and found many aspects of our time there quite rewarding. It’s easy to choose to discard something one doesn’t value; by the same token, it’s never easy to come to a decision that the most-correct choice in a given situation is ultimately to still choose to discard something one feels does have some value.
Anyway, a couple of months ago, we discovered that in the time we’ve been gone, the congregation has made what appear to be some steps toward addressing many of the issues that combined to cause us to make the difficult choice to make a permanent (or at least indefinite) break with the congregation. I read these new documents with interest – since nothing of the kind had existed when our family was part of the congregation. And I must confess, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. From just the language itself, they sounded very good, albeit in that inimitable dry, worked-over-by-committee sort of way.
But then, virtually all organizational mission and vision statements – and even many internal written policies, aspirations and agreements – sound quite good when read on the page, in the abstract. However, as anyone who’s ever worked at a company with more than a half-dozen employees, or been part of nearly any other kind of large-ish organization can tell you, what’s down on paper can differ vastly from the actual reality of the organizational culture and unspoken understandings.
So I found myself left wondering what to really make of these three documents — and what, if anything, they meant to me and my family, this long after we’d felt compelled to disassociate ourselves.
Then, just the other day, on facebook, of all places, a man I don’t know well at all – he was just starting to attend UUMAN as we were in the throes of leaving – Matthew Elliot, sent me a message. We’ve been “friends” in the facebook sense of the word for over a year now, but rarely spoken, since we don’t really know one another.
But his message got me thinking once again about why we chose to leave, and what those three obviously labored-over documents mean, both to the congregation at UUMAN, and to me and my family personally. It’s with Matthew’s permission that I reproduce the conversation we had here, because receiving his message made me think more about these issues than I had in some time…and I figured that if someone I barely knew was wondering about me and my family in this way, other people we’d known at UUMAN might be also. So, since I’ve taken the time to think a bit more deeply about it, here is what we came up with.
The beauty of blogs is that, if I’m entirely wrong and nobody has been wondering anything of the sort, then no one has to – or will – read this. I post it here in case anyone IS interested in some of the things Matthew was, and our thoughts about them:
I know we don’t know each other well, but I do know your family was once very involved at UUMAN. I wanted to personally invite you back to meet our new minister and see some of the changes that have happened or are in progress. Of course, this invitation is always open, and I respect whatever decision you make.
Our committee fair is after service this Sunday, and all committees on the Program Council as well as many small ministry groups, etc. will have tables and representation. I am Chair of the MCY Council this year, so I will be at that table most of the time. Our earth-centered group, Green Wheel, will have a table, and I will be there at some points, being one of the coordinators. Also, Sunday is a new member service, and I believe we have about 15 or so people joining.
All the best to you and your family.
And, after some thought, my reply (slightly edited):
Thanks for the invite! It sounds like you’ve become pretty involved at UUMAN yourself. Good for you; I hope you are getting a lot from your association with UUMAN. You sound a bit as if you’ve heard some tales of why my family left UUMAN, so let me address it briefly.
Every organization – and every person – has problem areas. Lord knows I do, LOL. But UUMAN, like all churches, is an opt-in community of choice. Given the level of community and openness UUMAN strives for as an ideal, the failures and discrepancies between the values UUMAN purports to uphold, and how frequently it fails to actually uphold them in foundational, root-level areas ( in other words: how the community actually functions or allows individuals to behave) were too glaring and too vast, and, perhaps most importantly, too intractable and systemic, for the Olssons to feel as if there would be more benefit for us to “stay and work it out in community” than to simply recognize when it was literally not worth the effort in terms of what we were at that time getting out of it, versus not just what we put in, but what we went through, as well.
That last bit about problems – the “intractable” bit – is what remains important for the Olssons. Problems, even vast, glaring ones, can be fixed, worked on, or at least addressed, given enough effort and goodwill from all sides. But intractability becomes an issue when enough of the participants either don’t even recognize that there IS a problem, or are unwilling or unable to do what’s required to address it with integrity and in consonance with personal and organizational values, even if doing so is difficult or makes waves. That’s where the Olssons stood with respect to UUMAN when we left, and where we still stand.
And that’s also why we can’t really consider rejoining UUMAN at all right now; because although it appears that some steps in the right direction have apparently been taken with respect to intra-congregational covenanting and internal standards of behavior since my family left UUMAN, neither those new standards nor the resolve of the new minister to act in support of them have actually been put to the test…yet. To feel safe enough to consider returning, the Olssons will need to see UUMAN go through a significant crisis and respond in a manner that will be readily apparent to any outsider looking in, that the deal-breaking issues surrounding how UUMAN – as a congregation, not as individuals – deals with such things, have been rigorously and reliably addressed and are not still the problems they used to be when we made our decision to leave.
Anyhoo, that’s what I thought after giving it some thought.