Hooray for Cognitive Bias!

Truth. Who Needs It? part 1

from Ben Yagoda, "The Cognitive Biases Tricking Your Brain," Atlantic Magazine, 2018 Sep
Wikipedia’s “List of cognitive biases” contains 185 entries, from actor-observer bias (“the tendency for explanations of other individuals’ behaviors to overemphasize the influence of their personality and underemphasize the influence of their situation … and for explanations of one’s own behaviors to do the opposite”) to the Zeigarnik effect (“uncompleted or interrupted tasks are remembered better than completed ones”).

Some of the 185 are dubious or trivial. The Ikea effect, for instance, is defined as “the tendency for people to place a disproportionately high value on objects that they partially assembled themselves.” And others closely resemble one another to the point of redundancy. But a solid group of 100 or so biases has been repeatedly shown to exist, and can make a hash of our lives.

The gambler’s fallacy makes us absolutely certain that, if a coin has landed heads up five times in a row, it’s more likely to land tails up the sixth time. In fact, the odds are still 50-50.

Optimism bias leads us to consistently underestimate the costs and the duration of basically every project we undertake.

Availability bias makes us think that, say, traveling by plane is more dangerous than traveling by car. (Images of plane crashes are more vivid and dramatic in our memory and imagination, and hence more available to our consciousness.)

The anchoring effect is our tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered, particularly if that information is presented in numeric form, when making decisions, estimates, or predictions. This is the reason negotiators start with a number that is deliberately too low or too high: They know that number will “anchor” the subsequent dealings. A striking illustration of anchoring is an experiment in which participants observed a roulette-style wheel that stopped on either 10 or 65, then were asked to guess what percentage of United Nations countries is African. The ones who saw the wheel stop on 10 guessed 25 percent, on average; the ones who saw the wheel stop on 65 guessed 45 percent. (The correct percentage at the time of the experiment was about 28 percent.)

The effects of biases do not play out just on an individual level. Last year, President Donald Trump decided to send more troops to Afghanistan, and thereby walked right into the sunk-cost fallacy. He said, “Our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives.” Sunk-cost thinking tells us to stick with a bad investment because of the money we have already lost on it; to finish an unappetizing restaurant meal because, after all, we’re paying for it; to prosecute an unwinnable war because of the investment of blood and treasure. In all cases, this way of thinking is rubbish.

. . . the endowment effect . . . leads us to place an irrationally high value on our possessions. In [one] experiment half the participants were given a mug and then asked how much they would sell it for. The average answer was $5.78. The rest of the group said they would spend, on average, $2.21 for the same mug. This flew in the face of classic economic theory, which says that at a given time and among a certain population, an item has a market value that does not depend on whether one owns it or not.

If I had to single out a particular bias as the most pervasive and damaging, it would probably be confirmation bias. That’s the effect that leads us to look for evidence confirming what we already think or suspect, to view facts and ideas we encounter as further confirmation, and to discount or ignore any piece of evidence that seems to support an alternate view. Confirmation bias shows up most blatantly in our current political divide, where each side seems unable to allow that the other side is right about anything. Confirmation bias plays out in lots of other circumstances, sometimes with terrible consequences. To quote the 2005 report to the president on the lead-up to the Iraq War: “When confronted with evidence that indicated Iraq did not have [weapons of mass destruction], analysts tended to discount such information. Rather than weighing the evidence independently, analysts accepted information that fit the prevailing theory and rejected information that contradicted it.”
You probably recognize many of those cognitive biases Ben Yagoda and Wikipedia mentioned. And you probably recognize them because you’ve seen them in other people. They are harder to detect in ourselves. We humans are expert reasoners when it comes to spotting flaws in someone else’s argument. The positions we’re blind about are our own. For instance, when I mention to people that we’re good at seeing the weakness in other people’s arguments but lousy at noticing the gaps in our own reasoning, the most common response I get is: “Oh, yeah, I know a lot of people like that.”

Well, we are gathered for spiritual sustenance and spiritual challenge. Spiritually, what do we do with these facts about ourselves? There are two ways we might go from here.

I might talk about cultivating humility, developing a habit of doubting my own conclusions, holding my opinions lightly, and never believing what I think. I might talk about how to train and practice at spotting our own cognitive biases.

Or, I might take a different approach. I might say, you know what? Let’s just give up on that. It can’t happen. The biases built into our reasoning processes are inherent. They’re not fixable. One of the things we do spiritually is celebrate ourselves – affirm our worth and dignity, the beauty and wonder of the amazing life forms that we are. So let’s celebrate our cognitive biases because that’s who we are as humans. We are apes who search out and latch onto any information that seems to confirm what we already believe; we overlook or ignore information that suggests otherwise; and once we get a notion into our heads, it’s almost impossible to dislodge it. We rely on emotional reactions and heuristic shortcuts because: who’s got time to time think for themselves and carefully analyze the data for accuracy and implications? It’s not that we’re lazy, it’s that we’re busy. We got things to be doing. Let’s celebrate how amazingly productive we are!

The cognitive biases provide us with shortcuts, and yes, sometimes the shortcuts bypass, well, the truth, that is, the conclusion we would come to with a more careful and objective analysis of the evidence. But they are worth it. Our emotional reactions and our heuristic shortcuts help us connect to each other, form community, and facilitate our fantastic productivity. The occasional negative effects of cognitive bias are usually negligible, only rarely disastrous, and most often help us get along in our relationships and progress through our tasks.

Anyway, brain studies indicate that we get a rush of dopamine when we are processing information that supports our beliefs. “It feels good to ‘stick to our guns,’ even if we are wrong.” (Jack and Sarah Gorman)

We see the speck in our neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in our own eye because we were built to do that, and not one of us can help it. This is not a bug in the way our brains are wired. It’s a feature. Sure, there’s a shadow side to it, but it evolved for a reason. There are good reasons for having bad reason, so hooray for human cognitive biases!

Let's celebrate what we are! There isn't much, but there is a little bit, we can do to mitigate the cognitive biases, and I'll talk about that later.

We humans are not merely a social species, but ultrasocial – a level achieved only by a handful of species, mostly insects like ants, termites, and bees. Chimps, for instance, are highly social -- but they aren’t ultrasocial. Primatologist Michael Tomasello gave this illustration: “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.” But you will see ultrasocial species -- like ants or humans -- carrying something together.

At some point in about the last million years, our ancestors developed shared intentionality – that is, the ability to share mental representations of a task so that multiple people can work on it. Take something as seemingly simple as one person pulling down the branch for the other to pluck the fruit, and then both of them share the meal. Chimps never do this.

We are profound collaborators, connecting our brains together to solve problems that single brains can’t. We distribute the cognitive tasks. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, or an aircraft. Our species success comes not from individual rationality but from our unparalleled ability to think in groups. Our great glory is how well we rely on each other’s expertise.

We rely on it so smoothly that we assume that we understand things ourselves that we have let others work out. Take zippers. Or toilets. Or cylinder locks – the sort of lock you probably have on your front door. Do you know how zippers, toilets, and cylinder locks work?

A study at Yale asked graduate students to rate how well they understood these everyday devices. Most of them rated their understanding pretty high. They were then asked to write detailed, step-by-step explanations of how the devices worked. Forced to spell out the details, they realized there were some key details they were pretty fuzzy on. Asked again to rate their understanding of these devices, they rated themselves lower. (Sloman and Fernbach)

This illusion of explanatory depth allows me to take for granted what other people know and frees me from having to, as we like to say, re-invent the wheel. Our vast and complex collaboration depends on “not having to think about it” — that is, not having to think about most things so that my neurons can focus on what I am contributing -- so that others don’t have to think about that.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Truth. Who Needs It."


"Hey Boss, You Don't Want Your Employees to Meditate"

When I saw the headline of the recent New York Times Op-Ed -- "Hey Boss, You Don't Want Your Employees to Meditate" -- I thought: Oh, good. This will counter the criticism that meditation and mindfulness in the workplace are tools for corporations to improve productivity while avoiding correcting the injustices that produce workplace stress.

Let's look at the criticism and how the study by Kathleen Vohs and Andrew Hafenbrack, who wrote the Op-Ed, addresses it.

First, the American workplace is often stressful. Ronald Purser and Edwin Ng cite a Stanford-Harvard study that identified the stressors:
"A meta-analysis of 228 studies showed that...major workplace stressors were associated with a lack of health insurance, threats of constant layoffs and job insecurity, lack of discretion and autonomy in decision-making, long work hours, low organizational justice, and unrealistic job demands...Stress is shaped by a complex set of interacting power relations, networks of interests, and explanatory narratives."[2]
Corporations care about this stress because it reduces productivity. Rather than address the problems by pushing for universal health insurance, by lowering job demands and shortening work hours, and by providing job security, worker autonomy, and organizational justice, some corporations have introduced mindfulness programs. Kristen Ghodsee worries that these
"employer-sponored mindfulness programs obscure the insanity of our American work culture." [1]
Purser and Ng suggest that mindfulness is being used to promote quietism. Mindfulness, perhaps,
"merely amounts to employee pacification and a form of passive nihilism." [2]
In an earlier piece, Ronald Purser and David Loy wrote that mindfulness training:
"has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals." [3]
Training in peace and acceptance might lead employees "to spiral into complacency and subjugation" [4]. Practices that encourage altruism may also make people easier to exploit. Corporate mindfulness may be the latest version of workplace "cow psychology" -- so called because contented and docile cows give more milk. Ghodsee concludes:
"There is something insidious about corporations and universities promoting mindfulness among their employees, particularly those who might otherwise fight for necessary institutional change." [1]
But wait. If acceptance of reality demotivates people from agitating for institutional change, would it not equally well demotivate them from pursuit of the company's productivity goals? Docile cows might give more milk, but companies want workers who are motivated and energized, not merely docile.

Actually, two points. One, my experience suggests that meditation and mindfulness don't demotivate activism. Two, meditation and mindfulness apparently do demotivate the pursuit of productivity goals for their own sake.

The first point doesn't have much evidence for or against it. I've found that meditation facilitates increased interest in the well-being of all beings, and that this strengthens rather than weakens interest in working for institutional change. But this, as the empirically-minded will note, is anecdotal. We don't yet have careful studies on whether either (a) nonactivists who begin a meditation practice are more likely to become social activists, or (b) activists who begin a meditation practice become more effective, more energetic, or less susceptible to burn-out in their activism.

The second point, thanks to Vohs and Hafenbrack, has a supporting study. Meditation apparently does function, in some contexts, to reduce worker motivation to pursue their company's productivity goals. Vohs and Hafenbrack write:
"Among those who had meditated, motivation levels were lower on average. Those people didn’t feel as much like working on the assignments, nor did they want to spend as much time or effort to complete them. Meditation was correlated with reduced thoughts about the future and greater feelings of calm and serenity — states seemingly not conducive to wanting to tackle a work project." [5]
Actual performance, however, was unaffected. Meditation brings both increased focus and decreased motivation, Vohs and Hafenbrack conclude, and these two effects seem to cancel each other out, leaving overall performance neither improved nor worsened.

This "decreased motivation" was for particular tasks. The tasks used in the study "were similar to everyday workplace jobs: editing business memos, entering text into a computer and so on" [5]. That is, these were tasks that had no evident connection to making the world better. They are tasks that would normally be motivated only by the prospect of extrinsic, self-centered, material reward.

Along with "focused, nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment," which, as Hafenbrack and Vohs say, characterize a state of mindfulness [6], meditation also facilitates an increased sense of connection to other beings, and thus increased compassion. It makes sense that a wider, deeper sense of connection, and of the interconnection of all things, would shift motivation away away from tasks with only a material or egocentric reward. Instead, motivation would tend to shift toward concern for others and tasks that support life. Jeremy Hunter writes:
"If people pay attention to their mind, body, and emotions, they begin to approach the world with more openness and inquisitiveness. Quite often that touches off deeper values, such as concern for others and the world at large. A decade ago, Mirabai Bush, founding director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, introduced a mindfulness program at Monsanto, a company that had been widely criticized for perpetuating shortsighted and damaging agricultural practices. At a corporate retreat, a top scientist approached her after a session and said, 'I realized that we’re creating products that kill life. We should be creating products that support life.' It’s a long journey from a personal insight like that to large-scale change, but at least we can say that mindfulness was starting to serve as a disruptive technology within the company.” [7]
We have yet to see American business culture make any notable shift toward compassion. But there is at least reason for seeing a connection between meditation and increased interest in compassion. An increase in workers who are more focused while also less interested in material rewards is a social good -- though not useful for the narrow productivity interests of corporate bosses.

Your boss might not want you to meditate -- though, since performance stays the same, your boss probably doesn't care. The rest of us who share this planet with you would love for you to cultivate compassion, acceptance, and focus.

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[1] Kristen Ghodsee (Bowdoin College, Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies), "The Dangers of McMindfulness," ChronicleVitae, 2016 Apr 5.

[2] Ronald Purser, PhD (San Francisco State University, Professor of Management) and Edwin Ng, PhD (cultural theorist based in Melbourne, Australia; writes on Buddhism and mindfulness for the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Religion & Ethics blog), "Corporate Mindfulness is Bullsh*t: Zen or no Zen, You're Working Harder and Being Paid Less," Salon, 2015 Sep 27.

[3] Ronald Purser and David Loy (Zen teacher), "Beyond McMindfulness," Huffington Post, 2013 Aug 31.

[4] Norman A.S. Farb (University of Toronto Missauga, Department of Psychology), "From Retreat Center to Clinic to Boardroom? Perils and Promises of the Modern Mindfulness Movement," Religions, 2014.

[5] Kathleen Vohs (University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management, Professor of Marketing) and Andrew Hafenbrack (Católica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior), "Hey Boss, You Don't Want Your Employees to Meditate," New York Times, 2018 Jun 14.

[6] Andrew Hafenbrack and Kathleen Vohs, "Mindfulness Meditation Impairs Task Motivation but Not Performance," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2018 Jul.

[7] Jeremy Hunter (Claremont Graduate University, Drucker School of Management, Executive Mind Leadership Institute, Director and Professor of Practice), "Is Mindfulness Good for Business?" Mindful, 2013 Apr.


Transformed Into Ourselves, Not by Ourselves

Ministry & Metanoia, part 5

A Prayer

Dear Ground of Being,

We know we cannot transform ourselves. What we can do is attend. Keep watch. Be ever on the look-out for the beginnings of a new compassion awakening within us. We can direct what small and meager powers we can to nurture what is new in us that struggles to be born.

It begins with paying attention, in gratitude and in hope. In gratitude, we bring attention to the feel of sunshine, of the inhaling breath, the faces of friends, the food that sustains us.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. In gratitude, we bring attention to this world where our stumbling efforts at human community and lovingkindness occasionally shift governments and institutions.

Burkina Faso this week joined 20 other African nations to abolish the death penalty.

In hope, we bring attention to suffering, hoping for its ease. Let us not turn away from the cries of the world: the families of seven people murdered in India by mobs fueled by rumors being spread through a social media site; the suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan; the children taken from their parents at the US border; the asylum seekers who have suffered from domestic and gang violence who are now to be turned away; the severe droughts that wrack Afghanistan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mongolia, and South Africa; and the flooding that is wracking Belarus, Rwanda, Mexico, New Zealand, and France.

In gratitude and in hope, may we keep watch on our world, for our world is our self, and keep watch on heart, listening, listening, for the call that it was made to answer.


A Reading

James Luther Adams, “A Time to Speak: Conversations at Collegium," 1986, in An Examined Faith: Social Context and Religious Commitment, 1991, pp. 32-33:
“The characteristic accent of the Gospels, metanoia, is lacking in liberal religion. We are an uncommitted and therefore a self-frustrating people. A sense of commitment requires a change of priorities. But as Unitarians we tend to assume we’re liberated already. Maybe this is a hangover from the Enlightenment, imagining that we are emancipated because we don’t accept the inerrant authority of the Bible, or something like that.

“Let me put it autobiographically and say that in Nazi Germany I soon came to the question, 'What is it in my preaching and my political action that would stop this?' Maybe it was an extreme judgment of myself, but I said, 'If you have to describe me, you’d say I’m not really involved, for example, in combating anti-Semitism as it is in the United States.' It is a liberal attitude to say that we keep ourselves informed and read the best papers on these matters, and perhaps join a voluntary association now and then. But to be involved with other people so that it costs and so that one exposes the evils of society – in Boston we’re right across the tracks from poverty -- requires something like conversion, something more than an attitude. It requires a sense that there's something wrong and I must be different from the way I have been.

“The function of a vital church would be metanoia as a continuing process. There should be increasing awareness, a raising of consciousness with regard to the evils around us. There should be moments of commitment, for example, in prayer as a prophetic form of spirituality."
A Call to Leap

If we could end in ourselves that dynamic of self-protection and ego defenses – the dynamic in which lie the roots of evil – that would indeed be a profound conversion, metanoia. And it is nothing less than this that is the task of congregations. Adams says, “The function of a vital church would be metanoia as a continuing process.” A vital congregation seeks ever-increasing awareness. However raised its consciousness may be of evils around us, a vital congregation always aims at raising it higher. Every worship service must give some attention to the world’s pain – in the prayer if nowhere else – for this is prophetic spirituality. Taking in the anguish of the drought in Mongolia teaches our hearts greater kindness in our day-to-day interactions.

The function of the church – of the congregation – is transformation. We are not here to stay the same. We have plenty of ego defense mechanisms and self-protective strategies that keep us the same.

Were you transformed at last Sunday’s worship? At your last journey group meeting? Or at Faith Development Friday? If so, then those functions did their job – which is to say, they helped facilitate in some way you doing your job, us together doing our collective job. Then what? What’s next is the next transformation – each one a little more radical, each one chipping away a little more at the walls we erect around us, each one a little more attentive to the world hurt, and our own, and how our own and others’ defenses contribute to that hurt.

Are you seeing how the parts of today’s service fit together -- what the reflections on ministry, what Shannon left us, what Cindy takes from us, have to do with metanoia? Knowing those who came before, who made our community, we know ourselves. We know ourselves and thereby become transformed into ourselves more and more. This is what ministry is. It’s what I’ve been saying for five years in various different ways and what Rev. Carol said her way and what Shannon said in hers, and what Cindy’s emerging ministerial voice has already begun to say, and what many of our lay leaders also remember and remind: we can’t transform ourselves by ourselves; we need each other for that, and all the people present, past, and future that contribute their lives to ours, in so many ways we never know.

Because of them, because of their ministry, I can leap into mine, and you can leap into yours. And leap again. And leap again. Because of them, the net is there. And the name of the net is love.

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This is part 5 of 5 of "Ministry & Metanoia"
See also
Part 1: Marking Ministry Milestones
Part 2: Shannon
Part 3: Cindy
Part 4: Metanoia



Ministry & Metanoia, part 4
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance [metanoia] for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4)

“Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance [metanoia].’” (Luke 5:31-32)

“Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance [metanoia]; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance [metanoia] that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death." (2 Corinthians 9-10)

“metanoia: a profound, usually spiritual, transformation; conversion.” (Random House Unabridged Dictionary)

“In Classical Greek metanoia meant changing one's mind about someone or something. When personified, Metanoia was depicted as a shadowy goddess, cloaked and sorrowful, who accompanied Kairos, the god of Opportunity, sowing regret and inspiring repentance for the ‘missed moment’.” (Wikipedia: "Metanoia")

“Metanoia is the sine qua non of the Christian life. You cannot be a Christian without it. What is involved in metanoia is what might be called a spiritual paradigm shift, a spiritual revolution. We encounter the Lord Jesus, and He personally invites us to change as persons: metanoei! He calls us each and everyone by name. ‘I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine’ (Is. 43:1). Live that way!” (Andrew M. Greenwell, Catholic Online)
In my reflections about ministry past, and ministry future, metanoia is what, ultimately, I have been talking about. Translating it simply as “repentance” is inadequate. Connotations of repentance are in there, but fundamentally it is profound change. Ministry – mine or yours, ordained or lay – means, most simply, serving. And what do we serve? When we minister, we serve the power of change, the capacity for transformation.

There’s a paradox here – as there often is with spiritual matters. Indeed, paradox is one of the signs of the spiritual. The paradox is that the most radical change of all would be if we could truly, truly believe that there is nothing wrong with us exactly the way we are. The change we most need is to see that no change is needed. See? Paradox.

We have lived our lives in the grip of “shoulds” – I should do this, I should be that. Some of us might sometimes even feel that we should experience a metanoia and stop wanting to be different from how we are – but that merely makes metanoia into one more "should." But you can’t make it happen. The Christian Testament speaks of metanoia, if it happens, as a grace of God. I can’t make this kind of transformation happen. I can’t "should" myself into it. The Christian tradition recognized this, but talks a lot about it anyway.

There’s a kind of commitment – not to make something happen but to be open to it, to prepare for it, to orient toward it – understanding that whether the transformation actually happens is out of our hands.

James Luther Adams, the preeminent Unitarian theologian of the 20th century, was committed to Unitarianism and to liberal religion. Yet he was also often critical of certain tendencies within Unitarianism -- particularly our tendency to complacency. Indeed, we are often complacent -- but we don’t have to be. So Adams urged us to continually expose the evils of society. He spoke of being “involved with other people so that it costs.” It’s not enough to have the right sort of attitude. “It requires a sense that there's something wrong and I must be different from the way I have been.”

I put it this way: the something that is wrong is that we think something is wrong. Yes, we fail to be fully involved in stopping injustice, combating anti-semitism, combating white supremacy, patriarchy, any form of dominance. We fail to be “involved with other people so that it costs.” Why do we fail? We fail because we think there’s something wrong with us, and we’re at work trying to fix it, or cover it up.

Because we perceive an inner flaw, we develop defense mechanisms and self-protective strategies. If we really could fully grasp just how perfect we are just the way we are, those defensive, protective strategies could fall away.

One very basic example of how this works is captured in the word “productive.” Economists have specific ways to measure productivity, and our sense of our worth as human beings gets tied up in being productive workers. In pursuit of greater levels of productivity, we get stressed, and rushed, and so we cut someone off in traffic.

We measure our worth comparatively, so being worthy means being worthier than at least some other people. Ideally, we’d like to be worthier than all other people. We think it’s a good thing to be THE BEST. This is not rational. Being the best simply means that everyone else is worse. Why are we so concerned with everyone else being worse? Necessarily, there will always be exactly one person who is best at something. Is the world any better off if that person is you?

All the great evils – abuse and harassment, war and genocide, battering, violence, and cruelty in all its forms -- flow from the same basic dynamic that gives us competitive self-promotion and mild rudeness in traffic. None of us is entirely free of that dynamic.

Can we be “involved with other people so that it costs”? What is cost but a way of thinking about how to protect ourselves from paying too much? Our capacity to be “involved with other people so that it costs” is proportional to – or is the same thing as – our capacity to stop protecting ourselves from what seems like a “cost.”

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This is part 4 of 5 of "Ministry and Metanoia"
See also
Part 1: Marking Ministry Milesones
Part 2: Shannon
Part 3: Cindy
Part 5: Transformed Into Ourselves, Not by Ourselves



Ministry & Metanoia, part 3

We are marking milestones today: milestones of ministry past and milestones of ministry future. It has been twenty years since Rev. Shannon Bernard's ministry ended. It has been two years since Cindy Davidson's ministerial internship began. She stands now on the threshold of professional ministry.

How Our Professional Ministers Come to Be

Ordination. Among us Unitarian Universalists, the power to ordain rests solely with congregations. Boston, where our Unitarian Universalist Association is headquartered, has no say in who may be ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister, apart from recognizing our congregations. A group of people that want to be a UU congregation must have 30 people sign their initial charter, and must file that charter with our Boston headquarters. But once any group is recognized as being a bona fide UU congregation, then that group has total power to make whomever it sees fit into ordained Unitarian Universalist ministers.

Fellowship. Boston exercises more control over something called Ministerial Fellowship. To be admitted into Fellowship has a number of steps.
  1. File an initial inquiry form with the Ministerial Credentialing Office.
  2. Have an interview with a fellowshipped UU minister, and file the form about that.
  3. Get accepted into a theological school, and tell the credentialing office that you have.
  4. Sign an agreement to abide by the rules and policies of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee.
  5. Sign a criminal offense disclosure form.
  6. Obtain the sponsorship of a UU congregation, and submit the form for that to the Credentialing office.
  7. Complete a full approved career assessment which will measure which sorts of careers are most suited to a person like you, and have the assessment report sent to the credentialing office.
  8. These first seven are mostly filling out forms and applications and one long series of questionnaires, and proving your competence at filing papers with the ministerial credentialing office. Cindy completed these years ago. Now we get down to the real training.
  9. Successfully complete a unit of chaplain training, called Clinical Pastoral Education. Cindy did that summer before last.
  10. Earn a Master’s of Divinity degree. Cindy received the M.Div. from Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary last month.
  11. Complete the independent reading list of about 37 books about UU history, polity, theology. As for that, we'll just say that Cindy's looking forward to some summer reading this summer.
  12. Make an appointment to see the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, submit a hefty packet of information about yourself to them, and go in person to be interviewed for over an hour by seven members of that Committee.
The MFC interview is the final step. If the interview goes well, and the first 10 have all been been successfully completed, the ministerial candidate is admitted into ministerial fellowship. Cindy has an appointment to see the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in December. I have every confidence that we shall be hearing word in December that Cindy Davidson has been admitted into preliminary fellowship.

In the usual order of things, the newly fellowshipped minister then, at some point, asks a congregation – often the first congregation they serve as minister – to confer the honor of ordination. I look forward very much to attending Cindy’s ordination ceremony, probably in the next year or two.

What Our Ministers Inherit

Come on up here, Cindy.

It is custom among Unitarian Universalists – though there is no written regulation on the subject – that the stole signifies ordination. Cindy begins serving our congregation at Mohegan Lake in September, and though she will be their minister and will be preaching twice a month, in keeping with our custom, Cindy won’t be wearing a stole on Sunday mornings until after her ordination. But today, just for this morning, we will make an exception, in recognition of our confidence in her ministry.

This stole -- the one I am wearing this morning -- is one of several that you have seen me in, signifying my role as a Unitarian Universalist minister. I told Cindy about a month ago, that on her last day I wanted to give her one of my stoles, that I would invite her to pick out whichever one she liked. Yesterday, she picked this one.

The stole is symbol of ordination, and of a long inheritance of loving and serving congregations. Whether you stand on the shoulders of giants, or on the shoulders of those of much diminished stature, if you stand on a pile of enough of them, it's apt to improve your vision of the horizon.

Ministerial stoles, as you may have noticed, are highly variable in design, style, and fabric. This particular one, I have been periodically wearing for years. It represents to me not just any ministry, but mine. And by “mine,” of course, I mean it isn’t really mine at all. It is the ministry of all of my ministers -- to me they were giants -- and all of theirs, and all of theirs. Their labors and their hearts took shape in thousands of lives, including mine. This strip of cloth represents the ministry of all the people and experiences and values that shaped me.

It is the ministry of Reverends Eugene Pickett, Duncan Howlett, Terry Sweetser, Wayne Arnason, and Mary Katherine Morn, who were my ministers in my childhood, youth, and young adulthood.

It is the ministry of Rev. Christine Robinson, who guided and taught me through my ministerial internship.

It is all the ministry that ever happened at and brought into being and form the Unitarian Universalist Community of El Paso, Texas, which saw fit to ordain me.

It is all the ministry that ever happened at and brought into being and form the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, Florida, to which I was called from 2006 to 2013.

It is the ministry of 109 years of lay leaders and congregants of Community UU at White Plains.

It is the ministry of Reverends James Fairley and Clif Vesey and Peter Samson and Betty Baker and Shannon Bernard and Carol Huston, and five interim ministers -- the ministry which it has been my duty and honor to carry and to uphold in this congregation these last five years.

And now, Cynthia Louise Davidson, it is yours.

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This is part 3 of 5 of "Ministry and Metanoia"
See also
Part 1: Marking Ministry Milestones
Part 2: Shannon
Part 4: Metanoia
Part 5: Transformed Into Ourselves, Not by Ourselves



Ministry & Metanoia, part 2

"May I never again take for granted a friend, objectify a stranger, be indifferent to falling rain, falling leaves, falling snow, eat bread without thought, hear music without care, laugh without praise. Thus shall I ever give thanks." (Rev. Shannon Bernard)
It was twenty years ago this month: in mid-June 1998, Rev. Shannon Bernard's resignation as CUC's minister became effective. It had been known for a couple years that Rev. Shannon was dying of breast cancer, and by spring 1998 it was clear she didn't have much time left. The announcement that appeared in the Order of Service in April that year that she would be resigning in two months would not have been a surprise.

She thought she would have a year of life left after the resignation. Eleven weeks later, August 29, 1998, she was dead.

I never knew her, and yet there I was that night a few years ago addressing her ghost because her presence is here. I told her about what was on my mind, thanked her for serving these people that I now serve, for all she did that fashioned you as a people, for loving you into being – as that is the ongoing continual function and need of congregations, to love and be loved into being. I asked some rhetorical questions, which she didn't answer.

If you’re a part of CUUC now, then CUUC is a part of you -- which means the Rev. Shannon Bernard is a part of you whether you knew her not. So is Peter Samson. So is Warren Ross, and Charlie Selinske, and Sam Usher; Joe Hertog, and Betty Baker; Henry Mertens, Robert Clapp, John Sacardi, and Whitney Young, and Meg Hellman. So many others. In adding ourselves to this place, we have come under the influence of all these people whether we ever met them or not. And none was a more powerful force than Rev. Shannon Bernard.

For the sake of those who did not know her, let her memory today be shared. For the sake of those who did, let her memory today be honored. As we are a community of memory and hope, let her be remembered. As important to this congregation as she was -- and still is -- let her be remembered. You may find, as I did, that in learning something about Shannon, certain aspects of this place suddenly make a little more sense.

Her ministry to our congregation began in 1985. She had previously served six years at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex in Orange, NJ, about 15 mins west of Newark: 1979-1985. During her first years at CUC, she said often that she'd be leaving after five years. She stayed for 13. In the chapter in our church history on the Shannon years, Paul McNeill wrote:
“The Rev. Shannon Bernard stirred a sea of change at Community Unitarian Church in the 1980s. She was the church’s first female minister and a force to be reckoned with. She forged a new more vigorous role for the church in the lives of many of its members and in the life of the White Plains community. She was able to take advantage of pressures already at work in the congregation through force of her personality, will and impressive energy. She also summoned a compassionate zeal that enabled leaders to make great change. And, she was thoroughly controversial.”
Just before the vote to call her, the board chair, Eileen Kellner, invited Shannon and all board and search committee members to her house for a dinner. Shannon proclaimed to all those gathered, “I want you to know that you need me more than I need you.” “Classic Shannon” people came to say of such anecdotes.

She was well-loved, but also repelled more than a few. Some called her dynamic, others called her over-confident or arrogant. Some called her straight shooting; others called her brusque.

She reinvented our music program.

She got CUC active in the White Plains community, in particular as a founding member of SHORE, the consortium of congregations that worked to shelter Westchester’s homeless and advocate for fair housing.

She brought energy to pastoral care, including originating the Caring and Sharing team, which is still our mainstay for pastoral care.

She energetically facilitated the capital campaign in the 1980s that got the Parsonage built.

For these five years I have been preaching from Shannon's pulpit -- the pulpit she enlivened with her insightful and captivating preaching – and I have been living in Shannon's house -- the Parsonage that she led this congregation to build and that she inhabited for its first dozen years.

As her illness progressed in the final year, I understand she had a designated hugger. Greeting congregants before or after the service or at other occasions, people would want to give her a hug, but her immune system was compromised, so to protect it as much as she could, a person was selected to stand next to her and receive all hugs on her behalf.

She stood in this pulpit, behind this Spirit of Truth figure, on May 24, 1998, and preached her final sermon. She began it with the words, “Leap and the net will appear.” She said it was a quote for the church sign, and she related that congregant Jason Brill had told her the quote was unfinished. The full saying was:
“Leap and the net will appear – and the name of the net is love.”
In that sermon she told the story of how she had complained to one of her seminary instructors about the behavior of some of the members of the church where she was interning.

The professor told her, “Shannon, you are not called to LIKE them. Some of them behave in unlikeable ways. You are only called to love them.”

When she heard this, she said, she “relaxed for a moment until the implications unfolded and exploded in me.” But the advice sunk in.

“I don’t have to like everything each of you do;” she preached to those gathered in this sanctuary that day – most of whom were thinking, “and you’ve made clear that you don’t.” She continued:
“You have the same freedom with each other and toward me. When confronted with a fellow member here whose behavior is driving you around the bend, you have more options than to avoid the person forever. You and I could actually take the wild leap toward honesty and love by saying aloud: ‘I care about you and the way you do “x” is offensive to me.’ We will all survive candor, for we are engaged in the process of learning to love.”
Later on, she muses,
“How do we love within a church community, particularly this religious home which holds a central and tender place in my heart?

"When I was called to your pulpit in 1985, this was not known as a loving church. The reputation of that long-ago congregation was, fairly or not, that of a cold and unfriendly place. I had cold feet and nearly backed out of our contract in the days before we made a covenant with my installation. For $6,000 (the cost of repaying this church for my move and moving back to New Jersey), I could have returned to my former church – a group of people who knew how to love and be loved. George and I talked for long late hours in those couple of days, he leaving the decision to me with a reminder that I had a model of a loving congregation and could work to help create that here.

"How well he knew me. There’s nothing like a challenge to get this Irish woman going.

"It was hard on all of us. I was defensive and scared of the leap that my choice had committed me and my family to living out. Members here were able to be extremely caring of each other in small groups, but seemed stunned by my insistence on the little ways of congregational love:
  • Using gender neutral language even in the holy of holies, 'The Spirit of Truth';
  • Referring to children as “children of the church” and asking that child care be provided for every church meeting, class, event;
  • Giving plants to children at Easter to teach the preciousness of growing life rather than passing out cut flowers;
  • Including family worship in previously adult-only services at least once a month
  • Suggesting, none too delicately, that a finance, membership, and caring and sharing committee were ways of responsibility as well as connection;
  • Reminding visitors and newcomers that this was a warm and caring community that welcomed their participation.”
Shannon goes on to say that after a while
“We began to trust one another, to respect one another’s gifts and talents and efforts. In short, we laid the foundation for love in a religious community. It could not have happened without each of us. . . .

“The work in this community over the next three years will need the efforts of all of you. For in that time, you will welcome an interim minister, trust his advice and caring for the institution, grieve with him for my death – even as you are planning for the next settled minister to begin his/her love affair with you in September 2000.

"The work you must do is . . . to call one another into deeper being. You cannot afford to allow each other to become or remain consumers of religion. This faith and the work of Community Unitarian Church is not a spectator sport. If you are to call one another into being, you will have to, in the words of a marriage vow, 'speak the truth to each other in love.' That means a care for how you speak, how you listen, how to handle consequences. It means hanging in and working out your differences when it would be easier to walk away. It means giving of your talents when it would be easier to stay home and relax. It means setting firm boundaries; it means abiding by the boundaries fairly and lovingly set.

"You have given me so much. Surely each of you deserves the same caring trust. You have kidded and chided me about my shortcomings, encouraging me, calling me [into being]. Can you do any less for one another – for the ministers who follow me?

"Leap and the net will appear. And the name of the net is love.”
Those were the last words the Rev. Shannon Bernard preached from this pulpit to which she had been called 13 years before. "And still her silent ministry within our hearts has place."

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This is part 2 of 5 of "Ministry and Metanoia"
See also
Part 1: Marking Ministry Milestones
Part 3: Cindy
Part 4: Metanoia
Part 5: Transformed Into Ourselves, Not by Ourselves


Marking Ministry Milestones

Ministry & Metanoia, part 1

Gordon McKeeman
"Ministry is all that we do — together. Ministry is that quality of being in community that affirms human dignity, beckons forth hidden possibilities, invites us into deeper, more constant, reverent relationships, and carries forward our heritage of hope and liberation. Ministry is what we do together as we celebrate triumphs of our human spirit, miracles of birth and life, wonders of devotion and sacrifice. Ministry is what we do together — with one another — in terror and torment, in grief, in misery and pain, enabling us in the presence of death to say yes to life. We who minister speak and live the best we know with full knowledge that it is never quite enough — and yet are reassured by lostness found, fragments reunited, wounds healed, and joy shared. Ministry is what we all do — together." (Rev. Gordon McKeeman)
It’s a day for marking milestones. We mark the annual Father's Day honoring of the fathers. We mark the end of a church year.

We mark the milestone of Cindy’s two years with us coming to an end. Two years.

I mark the conclusion of five years of ministry to Community UU at White Plains. Five years.

2013 May: "I accept your call"
I ought to say something on the occasion of completion of five years as Community UU's servant-leader. How has it been? It’s been good. We’ve been through some things. I’ve tried to make it look easy, but it hasn’t always been.

Every minister has critics. It’s the nature of congregations that they include diverse voices, and some of them will criticize. When I was in divinity school, I read a semi-humorous essay by a retired minister who claimed that no matter what the congregation and no matter who the minister, there will always be 17 congregants who are out to get the minister. Maybe they don’t like the very idea of professional clergy. Or they loved the last minister and can’t forgive you for not being them. Or they don’t share your vision for the congregation. Or you remind them of their brother-in-law. Whatever the motivation, it's always 17. So it’s better, the essay said, to serve a large congregation so the 17 will be more diluted. In any case, the essay said, identify the 17 as early as you can, and keep your eye on them.

I’ve never been very good at that – identifying enemies – and I have to say, Community UU, collectively, doesn’t make it easy. When there’s some point of conflict, CUUCers tend to enter in, and then get over it. Very few CUUCers carry grudges. It’s remarkable. We hash it over, and then, for the most part, they're ready to move on. By and large, this is the moving-on-est congregation I’ve ever seen.

This makes it hard to know who the 17 are – because who they are keeps changing. The people that were contrary and oppositional to one idea of mine, will turn around and be supportive of the next. This is a very sensible way to be, but most people aren’t that sensible.* It catches me by surprise sometimes.

The other really annoying thing about my critics at Community UU has been that they’re so often right. Damnit.

And so it was that three or four years ago, in the first year or two of my ministry here, I was feeling down about something, or several somethings, and found myself working late until I was alone in the building one night. I wondered out of my office and into this darkened sanctuary, made my way to these steps, looked up toward the ceiling and said out loud into the emptiness, “Well, Shannon...”

I was addressing the imagined specter of my predecessor at CUC (which added the second "U" to its name and acronym in 2016), the Rev. Shannon Bernard.

That’s my segue to talking about the other milestone to observe today. Twenty years ago this month, the Rev. Shannon Bernard’s ministry to CUC came to an end.

NEXT: Remembering Shannon

*Seriously, being this sensible isn't easy. There's a documented cognitive bias called the "halo effect" -- and its opposite, the "horn effect." When we agree with someone about one thing, we're more likely to agree with them about other things. When we disagree with someone about something, we're then more likely to disagree with them about other things.

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This is part 1 of 5 of "Ministry and Metanoia"
See also
Part 2: Shannon
Part 3: Cindy
Part 4: Metanoia
Part 5: Transformed Into Ourselves, Not By Ourselves