The Learning Community

The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister


I am among those who like to point out that interim ministers are “faster pastors.” Our encounters with congregations are brief virtually by definition; a year or two in the life of an institution is a veritable twinkling of an eye. The year-long relationship between myself and this church will conclude at the end of June.

I’ve often said that this is the first and only interim ministry period for this church in the twenty-first century. It follows the longest settled ministry in this church’s history, seventeen years with the Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay. So it’s very likely there are a lot of people in this congregation who really shouldn’t be expected to know a whole lot about interim ministry because they have never experienced it before. If I had to sum up in a very few words what this is we are doing, I might say that we are intentionally taking time during a period of leadership transition in this church to engage in communal learning. I think that interim ministry is about creating learning communities. Something about going through change makes learning more possible. Why is that? That’s an interesting question, and many answers could be offered; all I can say is that in fourteen years of doing transitional ministry with ten congregations, I am persuaded that periods of change and transition represent an exceptional opportunity for communal learning. The question is: what can a community do with that opportunity? An even more interesting question is: what has the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring been doing with this opportunity for communal learning, and what else might this community learn?

Because I have come to believe that interim ministry is about learning, one thing I have been trying to do is learn about learning. And one thing I have learned is that curiosity and inquisitiveness are essential to learning.

Curiosity and inquisitiveness are not the same thing, though of course there are similarities and overlaps between them. One difference is that curiosity is more of an attitude, whereas inquisitiveness is more of a behavior. It is possible to be curious without being inquisitive, and it is certainly possible to be inquisitive without being curious. Curiosity is the antithesis of judgment. Judgment is often based in fear, and that fear often expresses itself through judgment by means of either stoking the fear that someone else is better than ourselves — stronger, smarter, richer, prettier, luckier, whatever — and so we comparatively judge ourselves unfavorably, or fear expresses itself through judgment that we’re better than someone else, which often palliates our fear: “Whew! Somebody else is weaker or uglier or dumber or more mess up that I am! At least there’s that!” I think this is at the root of all racism, sexism, and every other oppressive -ism: the need to look down on others in order to soothe our fear. Curiosity is generous, it is life-affirming, it is a leaning into relationship and respect and connection. Even being curious about ourselves necessitates a certain self-forbearance and self-forgiveness. If our inquisitiveness is prompted by our curiosity, that means we are prioritizing connection and understanding over the need to salve our wounded egos. One obstacle to curiosity and inquisitiveness, therefore, is that they necessitate a certain vulnerability. I can’t speak for other faith communities, but I am persuaded that vulnerability is not a characteristic in which Unitarian Universalists are proficient. Other religious communities have a shared language of humility and self-effacement that is largely absent in this religion, and perhaps even frowned upon. “I once was lost, but now am found” does not typify UU attitudes, at least not the last time I checked. Personal gratification is often more of a goal than atonement; we are often more inclined to ask what we are going to get out of church rather than what we give to it and what church prompts us to give to the world.

So what I wonder is: during this exceptionally fertile time for learning, what might this learning community do to foster greater curiosity and more inquisitiveness?

Let me give an example.

Every Sunday this church sings a “Song of Exultation” as part of Sunday worship:

Since what we choose is what we are,
And what we love we yet shall be,
The goal may every shine afar,
The will to reach it makes us free.

In what are we exulting? What is it that prompts us to exult? What’s do we hope will happen by our exulting? What is the benefit of exulting at that point in the service, as opposed to at the very end, or after the sermon, or following the Communion of Joys and Sorrows? What is it about these words that exults? Who was William DeWitt Hyde? Is he someone of great importance to us, since we sing his words every single week? Or do we sing his words? What he wrote was “the will to win it makes us free.” We sing “the will to reach it makes us free.” What prompted this change? Who made it? When was it made? For what purpose was it made — for what hoped-for benefit, and/or to avoid what harm? But it is a Song of Exultation; what prevents us from also having a “Song of Lamentation” or a “Song of Thanksgiving” or a “Song of Reflection” or a “Song of Atonement”? And then we might ask: what are we lamenting, for what are we giving thanks, on what are we reflecting, with what are we seeking to be at one in our atonement (at-one-ment)? If we sing this “Song of Exultation” every single Sunday, surely it must be important enough for us to be curious about it and to be inquisitive regarding it. I wonder what more we will learn by continuing to ask such questions.

We engaged in what I think was an important learning experience this past winter when we tried going from two Sunday morning worship services to one, and finally there was a process just a few weeks ago whereby a decision was made to continue with one service and to also continue reflection, exploration and dialogue going forward. Many of the discussions in which I was a participant focused on pragmatic details of this decision, things like attendance numbers and the recruiting of volunteers. Those things are important. How might we continue to be curious and inquisitive about the very important matter of Sunday worship? How might that curiosity and inquisitiveness help us to explore the ways in which worship is an expression of the church’s purpose and identity? How does worship help us to reaffirm our commitments to this faith? What do those commitments demand of us? When we pay attention to the allocation of resources and personal effort in our worship ministry, what does that teach us about the church’s priorities? How might those priorities be expressed in other ways? How might those priorities change? I wonder what more we will learn by continuing to ask such questions.

We’ve also been learning together about the way the church is organized, and there have been many rich questions about programming, volunteer burnout, new member integration and retention, strategic planning, and growth of various kinds — numerical growth, but also maturational, organic and incarnational growth. How might we continue to learn together about these things? One possibility would be to cultivate a habit of asking about everything this church does, “How does this enable us to achieve our overarching purpose?” How much of what this church does is prompted by enthusiasm and commitment, and how much is prompted by the seductiveness of being busy? Being busy is very alluring. Important people are busy! Virtuous, thrifty people are busy! There’s work to be done in the world! Do we think that if we just know more and work harder, things will be better? What if the solution lies not in knowing and/or doing more, but in embracing a new and different set of attitudes and behaviors? That can be a lot harder than just adding another item to the to-do list or reading another report. The question of numerical growth has been an important part of our learning also. For some years, this church had a goal of growing to 400 members. Are we curious and inquisitive about this number? How was 400 calculated? What’s the benefit of 400, as opposed to 500, or 725, or 327, or 72, or 18? What are we hoping that new members can do that those who are already here cannot do? What has motivated us to want to have a different number of members than the 252 we have now? I have never heard anyone in this church say, “We want to grow because we want to share Unitarian Universalism with more people.” Did I never hear this because I wasn’t paying attention? Or because no one said it when I was within earshot? Or because no one said it? If no one said it, what have people said? Are we still saying that we want the church to have 400 members? If so, do we all agree on what’s beneficial about pursuing that? If we aren’t saying that any more, what’s changed? And what are we saying instead? I wonder what more we will learn by continuing to ask such questions.

Another thing we’ve been learning about together in this church is relationships. When this congregation applied for an interim minister a year ago, one of the statements in the application said this: “We need to reinvigorate our capacity to have debate and discussion, including of difficult issues, while being respectful of each other and trusting in the good intentions of others in our community.” What I have seen in many encounters in this church (including at a congregational meeting last month) is people being respectful of each other and trusting in the good intentions of others in the community. So this prompts what seems like an important question: what has changed, so that respectful discussion has been more possible this year, but reportedly was not uniformly the case last year? This is not to say that I have never witnessed interactions in this church that I would describe as disrespectful, but have there been fewer of these this year? Have they been less intense? If so, what’s changed? What can we do to continue along that path? Because interim ministry is likely to be unfamiliar to many in this church, it’s been interesting for me to observe how the congregation has approached it. When I arrived in August, the church Board had appointed a Transition Team, and one of their responsibilities was to organize one-on-one meetings and “cottage meetings” between me and members of the church. One consequence of those encounters was that they may have created a space for a sharing of feelings and experiences that was both honest and appropriate. A lot of the learning about relationships has been focused specifically on the covenant. What is this church’s covenant? What does it actually say? What does it call upon each of us to do and to avoid doing? What were the circumstances in which that covenant was created? Do we need to reaffirm that covenant, or do we need a new covenant? How will we decide?

Professor C. Conrad Wright was, in his lifetime, probably the most respected scholar of Unitarian Universalism in the world. He died in 2011 at the age of 94, having lived a lifetime full of teaching and writing; he was curious about our history and what we could learn from it and its impact on the here and now, and like any great scholar, he was relentlessly inquisitive. Few have had as much of an impact on my understanding of Unitarian Universalism as he, and I am not alone in that regard. Concerning covenant, Professor Wright had this to say:

Every denomination must have some way of understanding itself, some notion of what gives it its special identity. For Presbyterians it has been the Westminster Confession; for Episcopalians it was…the Book of Common Prayer. For churches like ours, it is the covenant—not the words of any particular covenant, but the covenant relationship of mutual obligation. But unlike the Westminster Confession, which is an historic document, or the prayer book, which does not get revised very often, the congregational covenant must be renewed continuously. That means inevitably that there is a special intensity in the search for consensus.[1]

      Do we understand covenant as a relationship of mutual obligation? Are we going to understand our covenant relationship of mutual obligation more deeply if we reaffirm the words of this church’s covenant? Will that covenant relationship be enhanced by a new and different set of words? Are words not the answer at all — is it more a question of what we do than what we say? If so, how might we go about doing some things the same way and some things differently, such that we will then be living our covenant relationship of mutual obligation more fully?

I wonder what more we will learn by continuing to ask such questions.

*     *     *

I signed a one-year contract with this church’s Board of Trustees to be the Interim Minister, starting on August 1, 2017. So our time together is ending soon. A month ago, the church voted at a congregational meeting to continue with another year of interim ministry starting this August, and to go forward with the search for a settled minister who would begin serving this church in August of 2019. I think this was a wise decision, and I was gratified to see that other options were also seriously considered and thoughtfully discussed. However, I have been curious about some of the responses to the impending conclusion of the current minister-church relationship. Some in this church seemed surprised, and some even a bit distraught. It’s true that our one-year contract is renewable for a second year upon mutual agreement between the interim minister and the Board, but in December I made it clear that I think this church would be poised for richer and more transformative learning if it had a different minister after this year. I also believed, given ongoing questions about this church’s finances and about how it is staffed, that it was good for the church to have more options going forward, and that renewing our contract would limit those options in ways that I thought were not beneficial to the church. More than once I have heard some say to me, “But Evan, we thought you’d be here for two years.” I have reminded such persons that we had a one year contract; more than once, the response I’ve heard has been, “We just assumed that it would be renewed.” So I am very curious about this. Again, curiosity is the antithesis of judgment. What if we were all curious as we noticed people saying, “We just assumed”? What would we learn if we paid attention to a phrases like “We just assumed” — not judging it, not critiquing it, not being proud of it or embarrassed about it or glad or sad about it, but just curious? What if that curiosity prompted inquisitiveness? What questions would we ask?

I was also curious — not judgmental, but curious — when a few people said to me, “You haven’t told us the real reason why you’re not staying for two years.” My curiosity about this remark prompts me to be inquisitive. Does everyone understand what they’ve been told? If some believe that the reasons they’ve been given are incomplete or untrue, what other reasons could there be? What would be the goal of not revealing those reasons? If our goal is to create and sustain a learning community, what would be the benefit of withholding important information? If some feel they are not being dealt with honestly, what is needed in order to foster greater trust? I wonder what more we will learn by continuing to ask such questions.

An important learning this year has been in response to the resignations last year of the Associate Minister and the Senior Minister. More than one person has said to me, “We were told the Associate Minister and the Senior Minister couldn’t figure out how to work together, and that was why the Associate Minister had to leave; we were never told the real reason.” I’m curious. How do we know we were never told the real reason? What purpose would such concealment serve? Who would be the intended beneficiaries of such concealment? What if this church has been told the real reason? What are the obstacles to believing and trusting that everyone already knows the real reason? What other reason or reasons could there be? Some have suggested to me that if they had known more, they might have effected a different outcome. What would we have done with more information? Does more information lead to better choices and better outcomes? What can we learn in answering that question in a post-2016 world? As we learn more and more about Cambridge Analytica and Kremlin bots and troll farms and Facebook and Brexit and the 2016 election, what can we learn about the role of information in decision-making? Did we as a nation make good choices with the information we had in 2016? There has not been, to my knowledge, any comparable phenomenon in this church: I am not aware that anyone at any time willfully circulated untrue information for the purposes of fostering division or promoting a particular agenda. What evidence do we have that true information was withheld in this church? What would have made a different outcome possible? Was a different outcome possible? What if “what really happened” wasn’t only a personnel issue, but a real loss? What do we do with the grief and sadness of that loss? What if what has “really” happened is: many in this community feel sad? What obstacles are there for some in the church to just be able to be sad — not to seek more data and explanations, but to just say, “This really hurt, and we’re sad about it”? Would some feel frightened by the helplessness that comes with being affected by a difficult experience that the community could not have prevented? Do we think sadness is a problem that we have to solve, and that it can get solved with more information and/or more work? What if sadness isn’t a problem to be solved? What if our spiritual life were centered on self-awareness rather than on prioritizing some emotions over others? I can appreciate that sadness can be a painful experience. What if it is? What if a principal point of church is to be in community in our pain? I wonder what more we will learn by continuing to ask such questions.

When I was new in ministry, I was still naïf enough to think that if I explained my understanding of how the congregation was acting, they might say, “Wow, that’s true! That is why we’re doing that! Well, now that we know that, let’s stop and do something better.” Part of the challenge of learning about this is that sometimes it does work: sometimes insight like that really does help us learn and grow and change. I’m persuaded that we easily rely upon it far more than we ought to. Usually it takes something other than insight to motivate us to change. If we were to strive for more curiosity and more inquisitiveness, what would motivate us to pursue that?

I’ve asked many questions this morning, and I’ve asked many this year. I wonder if anyone has noticed a characteristic of these questions: I’ve asked what, who, how, when and where, but I far less often ask why. I have been experimenting with trying to ask more what-questions and fewer why-questions. If we want to understand someone’s actions, “Why did you do that?” is not always a helpful means of understanding. Such questions are not infrequently rhetorical and/or are statements of emotion rather than genuine queries. “What were you hoping would happen when you did that?” invites a much more specific answer, and that can foster real understanding and real connection. The language we use to express our curiosity and give voice to our inquisitiveness is important too. The “espoused theory” of Unitarian Universalism is that this is a faith that encourages questioning. What does the “theory-in-use” tell us? What is the basis for our narrative about ourselves that we’re a questioning people? Can’t we think of many, many things that we never question? What would happen if we were more curious and more inquisitive? Are we afraid of what we might find out? What would it take for us to be genuinely curious and respectfully inquisitive about ourselves?

I wonder what more we will learn by continuing to ask such questions.


[1] Wright, Conrad. Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches. Unitarian Universalist Association, 1989, p. 33.