Tuesday, March 17, 2009

PNWD-UUA LEADERSHIP SCHOOL: Narrative of The Third Year


(It’s my understanding that a third year was never offered again anywhere. I don’t know about second years.)

The third summer was almost painful because we all knew this was our last summer, including Ord and Peter. By now we’d seen people changing over time: some divorced, some married, all older, a few health issues. I knew I was going to seminary in the fall and wouldn’t be back to the Northwest for a long time.

This time we bunked on the officers’ side of the compound and contracted with some Unitarians to cook for us, which meant we had exceedingly healthy and delicious food and also that we had some kitchen chores to do. Not that it was a hardship. I particularly remember one dishwashing session with us singing “Summertime” in harmony.

This time the idea was for us to form an “ideal community” -- to use all the skills we’d been taught and the desires we’d brought with us to design a way of life for a few days. We could do anything so long as it wasn’t illegal or destructive. It was a little surprising how conservative we turned out to be.

The planning structure was quite rigid. There were two givens: every day started out with half an hour of meditation which Peter began with a short thought and ended by shaking the hand of the person next to him. Each evening ended in our Odyssey groups (which served the same purpose as Credo or Journal groups) where each of us sketched out our spiritual growth and development and explained why we came to the UU churches. Even on the days we were doing the model community, no one wanted to change those two basics that bracketed the day.

On the first evening Ord laid out an outline for the plan of the week. There was no textbook, custom or otherwise. The biggest problem was that everyone wanted to leap into action immediately without doing the basic groundwork. We had to be pulled back over and over.

Next morning we began with a long painful struggle to define our needs, which were inchoate. The following list is what we finally came up with after “pyramiding” to get consensus:

1. Private space and time.
2. Balance in pacing and activities.
3. Opportunity to share leadership and experience new roles.
4. Celebration, inspiration, ritual and spiritual development.
5. Giving and receiving, nurturing, gentleness, trust, acceptance and intimacy.
6. Opportunities for individual growth and learning.
7. Experience collective energy, purpose and unity.
8. Open communication, integration and feedback.
9. Permission for spontaneity, risk and failure.
10. Boundaries/structure (i.e. role clarification and worth)
11. Creative and aesthetic opportunities.
12. Relationship to the environment (sensitivity to and integration with)
13. Respect and integrity.

(These were not ranked.)

In the afternoon we designed our purpose: “to enhance our personhood and UU religious questing in a covenanted, participatory community, by designing, living and evaluating experiences which attempt to nurture the creative, spiritual and human needs of the its members with recognition and acceptance of the differences among individuals.”

Every word and phrase of that purpose was argued over, fought for, compromised, and semantically rotisseried until we had consensus, which meant that when all the rest of the week everything was matched back against that purpose, the congruence or discrepancy had real force. This purpose was our Constitution. We were our own Supreme Court.

The next meeting was to design the leadership and set their relationships. We had a basic decision to make as to whether the Odyssey groups, which were our only small groups so far, should also be the management groups. We finally decided against that on the grounds that if the management groups had tough times, we would have the Odyssey groups in which to take refuge. This turned out to be a mistake, since our management groups proved not to spend enough time together to get any commitment or identity. We should not have trusted our Odyssey groups to be able to be supportive and critical at the same time. I don’t quite know why we lost our nerve when we had learned in previous years how to do that, but I think it may have had something to do with several disruptive personalities coming into the group without having been through the very critical second year process. We who had been through that scalding knew we could survive anything. Except the uninitiated.

Anyway, the management design came out like this:

Stage 1: All Odyssey groups take talent inventory of what people are able and willing to lead or contribute.

Stage 2: Put up signs for the task groups and let each person walk to that group he or she likes. Persons can then “eyeball” their decisions on the basis of who is in the group, how many people are needed, and what the task is.

Stage 3: Each management or task group would choose one representative to be on a central council which would be responsible for coordination and arbitration.

Stage 4: The council would meet, decide on their own structure (whether to have a chair, divide authority among them, appoint persons to oversee specific things like cleanliness or refreshments, etc.), make up the final calendar and decide on their future meeting schedule.

At the next meeting (by now we were on the third night) we discussed rewards and why a leader would want to go through a lot of hassle. We talked about built-in rewards (money, privileges, extra time, titles) versus natural rewards (pride, power, etc.) and so on.

The next morning we checked back over our plans to see whether we had forgotten anything and to see if our leadership design fit our ideological purposes and tasks. Looking back, I think our UU tradition of individual choice encouraged us to be too loose in our design, so that too much had to be invented as we went along. The council met, a calendar was produced, and we started out.

That night the calendar called for field games, some silly time and some child-type games. I can’t remember the field games. (Not my thing anyway. I might have taken a nap instead.)

The silly time went evil. It was supposed to be a take-off on a beauty contest with men dressed as women. (Cross-dressing is a common preoccupation in prairie culture, Blackfeet culture, and modern culture. But it was crossing the threshold into liminal time and space about sex that had evidently still not been resolved by this group.) Somehow it turned malevolent in a very sexist way. What was meant to be clever had sharp edges. The men were naive about athletic supporters and were revealed in embarrassing ways when display turned out to be obviously stimulating.

Everyone was unhappy and no one could turn it back into a good experience though some people tried. (Always the “fixers.”) No one wanted to just blow the whistle and call the game. Finally we struggled to a conclusion, which came off somewhat better when one “contestant” arrived draped in seaweed as the Monster from the Black Lagoon, pushing the fear-based witticisms into slapstick.

Next we played “Sardines” for a while, which was pretty exciting with three big empty Victorian houses and lots of grounds for hiding. No one got the instructions straight so we never did figure out who won. No one cared. At one point there were fifteen people huddled under my van!

Then we danced and sang for a while until the Park Rangers came to quiet us down. (The noise problem was back.) It was interesting that as soon as outside authority showed up, the model community dissolved and Peter was left to meet the badges and make excuses. On the other side, I suspect the Rangers were mostly curious. We weren’t THAT noisy, but they may have thought we might be a cult or something. All in all, we got off to a bad beginning.

The next morning, we had agreed, was to be silent until after lunch. We silently, ate silently, and went for a long silent hike together, off through the woods and along the beach. We were so quiet that rabbits sat beside the trail, watching us, and birds didn’t stop singing when we passed. When we got back, some people played volleyball, some played a silent child’s game about things in paper sacks, and some of the women went off together to massage each other with fragrant oils. By this time some people were desperate to communicate and doing a lot of gesturing. Finally we joined together with a worship service to break the silence slowly and gracefully. This was one of thge best parts of the community. We all expressed great hunger for spiritual discipline and low-key intimacy.

In the afternoon early we played “New Games:” Pruii, Skinning the Snake, and handing people overhead, mosh-pit-style. This was very threatening to me and I don’t know whether I could have done it without the reassurance of the morning’s experience, but I really liked it in the end.

Then we had formal classes. I led one on the Progoff formal Journal-Keeping (based on Jungian principles). Peter did one on Bible study. Joan Goodwin did one on materials for fellowships.

That evening the shit really hit the fan! All our design flubs showed up in spades and when it was time to “reconsider and adjust” everyone wanted to blame all the trouble on Ord. Mutiny was in the air and everyone was mad at everyone. It wasn’t clear whether Ord and Peter were in charge of the evening or whether the council we had empowered was in charge of the evening.

Finally, the council took hold. In fact, Donalda Regehr, as authorized head of the council and voted “most trusted person present,” took hold of the entire group (including Ord and Peter), restored order, and made up a plan of action. This was a heady experience for her, as she doesn’t usually end up as the leader.

The council was directed to divide up, go outside and take complaints from individuals, meet to compare stories, and develop suggestions for the total group. Instead, some rebels lingered inside, resenting the fact that the group had been divided up, and formed their own separate power group. When the council returned and started to put through the rest of their plan, the rebels refused to accept their authority and burst out with all sorts of objections. No one knew what to do. Peter and Ord were both swearing. It seemed as though everyone might pack and go home. Utopia was in flames.

Finally, it began to filter through that no one was angry about the community as such. They were mostly angry about the abstract question of who had the power. (The reality was that Donalda had it.) Therefore, in order to go on, we had only to agree on where the power should lie. We resorted to parliamentary procedure (much to Peter’s disgust), moved and seconded that Donalda should be in power, voted the same, easily dispensed with the complaints, and went on with the original game plan.

The next morning all was calm. Peter dressed up in his seersucker suit and we went up to the classroom for a formal sermon on “Raible’s Ultimate Theology.” The basic gist goes as follows. (I justify including it because it was the entire pre-existing theology that prompted the leadership school operation -- which the initiated call “theogamy.”)

From the very first lecture we’d been working with a series of concentric circles with one’s self at the center, opening out to intimates, community, country, world, universe, and finally folding around to self again, as the conceiver of the universe. (This meant so much to me that it has been my basic theological pattern ever since, with much benefit. Eliade confirmed it.)

Peter “concentrated” on just five circles: self, intimates, communities, causes and the Ultimate. Then he designed a sort of stairstep of interactions that go like this. (Blog format will destroy the format but preserve the words. Imagine that each set is indented.)

The self gives the self knowledge.
The self gives the intimates commitment.
The self gives the community binding.
The self gives the ultimate questing.

The ultimate grants the cause creativity.
The ultimate grants the community purpose.
The ultimate grants the intimates meaning.
The ultimate grants the self transcendence.

The cause grants the community outreach.
The cause grants the intimates altruism.
The cause grants the self empowerment.

The community grants the intimates acceptance.
The community grants the self inclusion.

The intimates grant the self enfoldment.

Peter used this framework to evaluate the UU churches. Has our community stayed involved with the world? He says he’d give us an A to a C, depending upon the issue. Has our community attempted the new? Peter would give us an A. Has the community “articulated religious values?” Peter thinks we deserve a C. Have we built religious community? Peter would give us a D.

This lecture (for which I was on the sponsoring committee) was followed by a formal exercise for an hour. People were asked to form triads at first with people not from our church and then to re-group with all the people from their own church. In both groups we were to address four questions.

How does one give oneself knowledge and how are YOU doing it?
How does one give one’s intimates commitment and how are YOU doing it?
How does one bind community together and how are YOU doing it?
How does one quest for the Ultimate and how are YOU doing it?

We spent the rest of the morning preparing for gifts that night, massaging each other in the sunshine, and visiting quietly. That afternoon we presented gifts to the community. As individuals each of us gave something by putting it on the table with a few words about it and then took something according to fancy, as in a flower communion. Objects ranged from a beach pebble to a cherished book. One group of us had written a poem in unison, which we read. A giant mural had been constructed from old New Yorker cartoons, in-jokes, original art, and bits of the environment. That was presented to the community. Later it was cut up in pieces and hauled home by several different churches with the idea of reassembling it at a PNWD annual meeting. I don’t know whether this ever happened.

Then we had the second silly time, which turned out to be REALLY silly. We were instructed to appear wearing old clothes and holding a dollar and a cup. We were told to stand in a line. The committee came by in a VW van, jumped out, took our dollars, got back in and disappeared! We were left gaping and gasping, utterly abandoned with no instructions. The only member of that committee left was Juanita Russell, so we took her hostage and tied her to the porch. But just as we tied the final knot, the van returned with a garbage can of ice and champagne! That’s what the cups were for!

Once we’d killed the champagne, our instructions were to play “Alice the Camel,” except instead of being in a circle and smashing the central person, the idea was to smash Peter against a building, which we did with glee. But just as we were enjoying flattening poor Peter, someone glanced up and screamed! Overhead on the roof was Ord with a whole box of water balloons! The revenge of the leaders! His aim was good! The committee brought up boxes and boxes of water balloons that had been in the nearby basement -- evidently they’d been filling them all afternoon -- and we had the world’s all-time most satisfactory waterfight. Rebels against leaders.

After supper we evaluated the model community. Most of our problems centered on our management design. Our purpose was okay and our task design was okay and, as usual with UU’s we survived on good will and ingenuity -- with some cost in terms of tempers. It was quite a pointed lesson.

On the last morning we evaluated the whole leadership program. [This document doesn’t include that formal evaluation.]

We knew that it would be very hard for all of us to end this school. Therefore, we made a special effort to design a graduation/worship sequence that would channel our emotions into something constructive. The graduation came first with all those who had attended three years receiving certification which we had designed and xeroxed in town instead of dittoing them on our own indispensable machine. (We had used boxes of purple masters and reams of paper in this one week.)

The worship was rather formal and simple. (This was true of all our worships that summer. They were at suppertime and had a sort of vespers quality.) We played the entire first band of the Pachelbel Canon while the group meditated. There were opening words by Peggy Woods. Joy McKim led us in a responsive reading. Virginia Lane led a meditation quoting Clarke Wells: “Some day you’ll have forgotten all about this summer and then you’ll open an old suitcase and out will jump a jaguar and yards and yards of coloured silk.” Ord played Spanish guitar softlyu and classically in the background. Janet May directed everyone to come up and light a candle, and while the group held their candles in front of them, I read a piece I’d written comparing the school to a phoenix.

Peter had supplied the candle on the first day at the first meeting. He’d blown it out when the second year class dispersed and lit it again to begin the third year. We’d used the symbol several times during the week. Now the idea was to carry our candles out into the world and not to worry when they went out, because we knew how to light them again. I led the way out the door and everyone carried their lights along behind me -- this time we didn’t leave anyone sitting there, unwilling to recross the threshold!

1 comment:

dasw said...

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