Friday, August 24, 2007


When I had become active at the Unitarian church for about a year (maye 1976), I was invited to attend Leadership School. By the mid-Seventies many “boomer” Unitarians had gone through periods of high idealism and then been disillusioned, but were now trying community once again. Other older folks had put on harness to save many, many causes and were getting a bit tired of pulling all the time. Some had been Christians who got burned by bad ministers or empty doctrines. People were all over the map and they sometimes tangled. Peter Raible, the minister in Seattle, collaborating with Rod Stewart (our district exec -- as close as Unitarians ever come to bishops), invented a thing called “Leadership School” that was based mostly on the theories of organizational design.

I was terrified of attending. I’d never been to camp as a kid, rarely been with an assortment of unknown peers since starting college and then work, and had mostly played my music through someone else’s speaker. It wasn’t until I was out in uniform as an animal control officer that I began to get a grip on my own authority. But then I had a badge and a role -- which is different. I drove up with one of the steady and experienced women of the congregation and even she was a little spooked. I shook when I carried in my luggage to the Fort Warden, WA, dormitory. This retreat center is a fabulously beautiful old coastal fort.

I want to save much of the description of what happened for a longer piece about the whole experience, but it was literally life-changing. I’d been working on a degree in clinical psychology, which I was slowly realizing was NOT what I’d expected. Rat experiments and social worker ethics -- daunting enough for a romantic -- but also it required statistics and that was very close to impossible for me. I didn’t want to leave Portland -- couldn’t have if I’d wanted to because of lack of money -- or so I thought.

There were four main strands of “curriculum” and we joined or were assigned to a different group for each one. There was a worship group which designed worship for everyone as a whole. This was a new idea to me, that you could “design” worship.

There was an organizational design group that was assigned a concept to teach everyone else by inventing a “happening,” or a game, or whatever else could be devised.

And there was a credo group which met late in the day to share what we truly believed. Each of these groups had members specifically chosen to be compatible -- no scary lions with timid bunnies -- and had an assigned guide.

But there was also an old-fashioned lecture for everyone on the history of the Unitarian movement, which was news to some folks who had abandoned history as irrelevant.

The whole process lasted a week. The first few days were jolly and high-energy. Then, as people began to get tired and to drop their guards, the work shifted to a deeper level. Pretty soon we were “over the threshold,” what Victor Turner the anthropologist called “liminal.” It’s the place in one’s interior organization where real change can happen -- dreams, play, art... religion. People began to burst into tears.

Once we were all supposed to choose partners for an exercise. Everyone chose someone except that there was one middle-aged woman who had just stood waiting -- and no one chose her! She was devastated. We were standing all over a large room and we had a psychologist with us. “Stand where you are,” he said. “You know you’ve all been where she is now, so we’ll all be with her.” He sympathized with her a bit, asking her was it this or that, was there a memory, what did she think might happen because of not being chosen... so on. Then he gave a little lecture: one can relate to others in two ways, by being chosen or by choosing. Both can be active. Both are a skill. Both are an option. I don’t remember whether he assigned her to be a third person or whether he “chose her,” or whether there was someone else left over who had not been noticed, but it was quite memorable.

Another woman, a young mother away from her children for the first time, burst into tears in a “devised” worship. We were sitting on cushions feeding each other strawberries when suddenly a cello, hidden in the room above, played a poignant soul-searching melody. This woman assured us she was shedding tears of ecstatic joy. But she also missed her children.

We really needed the leaders of the credo groups since we didn’t agree and some people were ready to come to blows over what they considered to be the truth. I remember holding up my finger to make a point and someone else grabbing it and bending it painfully backwards, saying “Don’t shake your damned finger at me!” But the group consensus was always for tolerance, multiplicity and good humor.

My organizational design group was memorable because we included both an engineer, who kept making bullet lists, and an architect, who would sketch something -- a sailboat, for instance, and explain its principles.

The point is that I simply had not understood that people could do these sorts of things, both intimate and intellectual, both individual and in sympathy with others. I got a little drunk on the experience. The next year I went back and the third year the leaders tried an experiment. They rented a house instead of the dorms, ordered a lot of food and a cook, and told us to design our own week. What did we want to do? How would we get to it?

Of course, we were all very predictable. Then things got mean for a while. Once things got so tangled up that we could only get out of it by choosing one person we all trusted (an older woman who was always kind), elect her queen, and agree to do whatever she said. She sent us all off to take walks or naps while she thought about it. When we came back, she explained her “decrees” and the logic she used to get to them. We agreed and it worked. (Maybe it would work in Iraq? No. It’s the trust that’s the key.)

At some point in there, I decided I wanted to be a Unitarian minister. Not that I wanted to be queen (though I did want to be trustworthy), but that I wanted to be part of this kind of community and for the first time I saw that it COULD work. Actually, it was rather close to the work my father had done all his life (working with agricultural cooperatives like Tillamook Cheese or the Gresham Berry Growers), but that was veiled in my subconscious. It was interesting afterwards to think about ministers in terms of their father’s work and the unconscious patterning it gave them.

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