PART 1: NARRATIVE
by Mary Scriver (1978)
Edited and annotated in 2009
“A minister without a knowledge of group dynamics is like a doctor without a knowledge of antibiotics.”
---Charles William Steward, "Person and Profession"
What follows is an attempt to put in order the raw materials produced by participation in the Pacific Northwest District Unitarian Universalist Leadership School. I attended this workshop three times, one week each in the summers of 1976, ‘77 and ‘78, and found myself personally and profoundly influenced by the experience. Though my own response was individual, its intensity and value was paralleled by that of other people. Some people did NOT enjoy nor profit from the experience and I am not prepared to account for that, although in some cases I rather suspect that the work frightened or threatened them, perhaps subconsciously. They tended to be people who put a high premium on control and orderliness, even to the point of suppressing things that didn’t fit the pre-existing system. They tended to be doing quite well in the status quo context. This experience was intended to empower lay people. It was not for ministers.
PNWD Leadership School was held at Fort Worden, a former military fort which has been converted to a convention center and arts campus near Port Townsend, Washington, a resort town with a ferry slip connecting to British Columbia. Fort Worden is at the tip of the southern peninsula that curves around the mouth of Puget Sound. One gazes across the water to Canada and sees sea-going ships constantly passing. The buildings are old-fashioned, with wide porches, and arranged in a square compound with a vast grassy field in the middle. On one side are officers’ quarters with conventional internal arrangements of living room and so on. On the other are barracks, remodeled into tiny cells, each with a bunk, desk and closet, and a large gathering room. A dining hall is in a separate building and there is also a classroom sort of building. A chapel and a theatre are on the premises as well as a foundry, a custom printing press, and a ceramic studio. An arts festival has its headquarters here all summer and the Leadership School has operated in the midst of a stringed instrument workshop, a science-fiction writers’ convention, and a poetry festival. Port Townsend is an artsy little town with lots of antique shops, book stores, and pleasant pubs and cafes.
Part of the reason I spend so much time on the surroundings is that in the course of our experiences together we began to feel that space very much as sacred ground. It would have been quite different if we’d been shut into an air-conditioned urban building. PNWD, after all, is a “nature-worshiping” district.
The three three stages of the annual Leadership School were roughly based as follows. The first year gave the vocabulary and basic dimensions of organizational development and Unitarian-Universalist ideology. The second year began to draw on the abilities of the group to teach itself more sophisticated concepts, so as to carry them home, and to tolerate extremely detailed criticism. The third years was simply the design and maintenance of a creative community that would satisfy both our ideological commitments, our personal identities, and our new OD standards.
(I was pre-disposed to accept and assimilate this material in part because of classes from Dean Barnlund at Northwestern University in 1957-58. The classes were entitled “Language & Thought” and “Discussion,” based on textbooks written by Barnlund. Working on ideas partly stirred up by Hayakawa, Barnlund was teaching ways of thinking together that evaded conflict, focused on the ideas rather than the participants, and built-in much self-monitoring. I think some of this was closely related to Third Force Psychology. We did “bird-cages” where half the group discussed while the other sat just outside the circle and watched process; played the roles of summing up, or clarifying definitions, or pointing out lapses of logic or dealing with emotional outbursts; and so on.)
One of the most difficult concepts to grasp was that nothing as scripture (i.e. the leaders did not “tell us what to do” and there was no “right and wrong” as such). No plan was cut in stone and because EVERYTHING was open to investigation and change, there was nothing no matter how disastrous or uncomfortable that wouldn’t yield up something valuable. In other words, we were perfectionists who found it hard to believe that perfection is the most deeply imperfect state of all, because it doesn’t allow for growth and change.
1976 is the most distant year of the school so my memories are more ancient and have been transformed more. Also, that first session aroused many strong emotions, which have taken me a long time to recognize and use. I had been a UU for not quite a year and was asked to attend the school rather than soliciting to go. The church paid my tuition and when I put the matter to my boss, because I didn’t have any vacation time left and couldn’t afford a week off at no pay -- he simply turned in my time as though I were at work that week. He reasoned that he would be amply repaid if I learned anything and that he would get the time back in overtime anyway. (He was right!) The more I asked about the school, the more conflicting information I got, so I finally went feeling extremely wary.
We arrived at Fort Warden tired from the four hour drive up from Portland and had a hard time even finding the right building. Next was the hassle of finding the right room, but I was grateful to have a hole in which to hide. The inevitable “happy hour” soon followed and I suffered as usual. I am not gregarious and don’t normally drink.
After supper we gathered in one of the big rooms on cushions and chair and Peter Raible began the program. He asked us all to recline or slide down on our chairs until we were comfortable and asked us to close our eyes and listen to what he said. What followed was what he called a “Bidding Prayer” but it was more of a guided meditation.
(“A Bidding-prayer (O. Eng. biddan, "to pray", cf. Ger. beten) is the formula of prayer or exhortation to prayer said during worship in churches of the Anglican Communion. It occurs during the liturgy of the word, prior to the sermon. Such formulae are found in the ancient Greek liturgies, e.g. that of St. Chrysostom, in the Gallican liturgy, and in the pre-Reformation liturgies of England.
“The form varies, but in all the characteristic feature is that the minister tells the people what to pray for (e.g., the 1662 Book of Common Prayer bidding-prayer form begins, "Let us pray for Christ's holy Catholic Church," provides specifics, and then moves on to the next bidding). It is an informal intercessory prayer.”)
Peter asked us to replay our trip: imagine ourselves at home, packing, getting into the car, traveling, stopping for coffee, and so on until finally we had retraced our steps and were back in the room. The directions then were “be here now” -- which I hadn’t been until then -- and after some silence Peter offered a conventional prayer and the week began in earnest.
The workshop took advantage of many paper and pencil instruments, some quite ingenious. The main gimmick of the evening was a booklet called “Dyadic Encouter, A Structured Experience for Human Relations Training.” People pair off and each one gets a booklet which contains directions leading through a simple conversation. Page one says, “Ask the person his/her name.” Both parties do that. The next question is another typical friendly inquiry and then the conversation goes on through the book, gradually becoming more personal. Occasionally the booklet directs the two people to “put down the book, look into your partner’s eyes, and smile.” This very obvious-seeming strategy can often unfold into a close relationship! The people at Leadership School don’t forget their dyad partners and the amount of closeness they were able to achieve with a stranger in an hour at most. My partner was Kris Kaufman, an engineer who wrote everything in “bullet lists” like a Power Point presentation!
It’s a bit like being trapped in an elevator, because there’s no way to slide off and escape and yet the booklet offers ways of defending ourself. (“You may simply say that you do not want to answer this question.”) Another plot for similar situations is to interview one’s partner and then introduce him/her to the group, but that’s a high-pressure task in which an error can sting. It’s a comment on our society that we have to have directions to make friends. Anyway, I had a buddy from that point on. I’ve used the same strategy for other groups by putting questions on 3X5 cards. One can customize the questions for the kind of group.
Other housekeeping chores of the evening included finding a working group for the OD exercises. This was done by posting four signs on the four walls: “horny, witty, willing and sexy.” People picked their category by standing under the sign of their choice and did a bit of shifting around until the groups were equal. The categories were humorous and some chose their group ironically, but they did tend to sort out people who didn’t know each other into vaguely compatible groups.
The second kind of group was the “Credo Group.” These consisted of five people with one staff leader who would meet last thing each night in order to work on their personal credoes. These groups were assigned by Peter Raible, partly on the basis of mixing people from different churches and partly on the basis of what he knew about people’s personalities. Peter is very good at this. The group I was in was led by Peter himself, which I interpreted as meaning I’d been special in a complimentary sense, but much later realized must have meant there was some thought that I might blow up.
The Credo directions were given to the whole group and then the small groups worked on actual specifics. These Credoes were to be written in copies so they could be read by the group as the individual read them aloud. They were created during afternoon “free time” (which turned out to be a misnomer since we all had many self-imposed assignments after the first day). The directions were as follows: “Stay away from negatives. Don’t say what you DON’T believe in. Use no long quotes. Use concrete expressions instead of abstract, didactic sorts of phrases. Pin down what you say to your own life and experience. Ask yourself what difference does it make? Stick to the NOW, not the past or future.”
Instructions for the individual topics were given the night before each Credo was due. The first was to be about nature and other life. Do we feel a sense of dominance or a merging? (This was in the Seventies remember, before we all went wildly green.) Do we feel a sense of reverence?
The third group for which we signed up was a worship group. Each day was to start with a short service done by ourselves as a group. Peter also gave us the background for this. We were to ask ourselves, what happens -- if anything? What are we ABOUT? What kind of goals do we have? How do we reaffirm our goals as a group? How to build community? Where do we point as a direction? How do we make this happen? What kind of process or setting?
Peter had a real bug about informality being equated with “half-assed.” Too often people slide by on good will and general limpness. He emphasized that people should never be confused about what they are supposed to do next. They should know where to look for directions, whether it is in the order of service, on a posted list of hymns, or coming from a speaker. They should not have to crane their necks to find out who is talking. They should never be embarrassed. he said to remember always that when the minister or leader looks out over the congregation, there will be a person out there who is in the midst of tragedy (a death, a divorce, a burned-down house, a move away from home), one who is in the midst of joy (a birth, a marriage, a promotion), and one who is struggling with great problems. No matter how narrow the theme to be addressed by the service , some kind of allowance must be made for people who came for spiritual contact. (Fellowships are famous for doing programs on what came to be known as “City Sewer System Syndrome.)
He talked a bit about the advantages of the traditional “hymn sandwich” and the first worship was directed to use that format. Hee pointed out why each element was in that particular place, not arbitrarily but out of many years of human custom. I signed up for that first worship service, which was to be presented right after breakfast the next day. I figured I’d be able to handle a traditional service but had no idea what to do with an experimental service, which the next two were supposed to be.
Worship happened every morning. I’ll discuss them together before dealing with the other content. The first service was traditional and the theme chosen was dawn, because it was the beginning of our time together and also happened in the morning. We chose the “morning” hymns (“Morning Has Broken,” “Morning Hangs a Signal” et al). The room was organized with an altar table and flowers (carefully dug up instead of cut because we were doing our Credoes about nature and feeling hyperconscious). We prepared an order of service, I wrote a prayer and Virginia Lane wrote the sermon: “A New Day.” It all went quite well and we were pleased. The worship groups were led by Betty Muir, who expressed just as much anxiety about the process as we beginners did, but who somehow managed to encourage us without directing us. Not one worship group flopped. The traditional service was critiqued without drastic blunders coming to mind. We were quite exhilarated, though some of us were fellowship leaders who regularly presented worships.
The second worship was based on a phrase from one of Peter’s lectures: “People are Precious.” We were asked to wait outside until the room was set up. When we came in, the chairs were in a circle and the sponsoring group was already seated. Music played on the phonograph and the order of service was merely a copy of the unison closing on a round piece of paper for each of us. In the middle of the circle of chairs was a sort of construct with a fountain of Scotch broom. (It’s a weed, right?) There was instrumental music from a ukelele during the service and we sang at least one song that most people know from pop culture. I think it was “May the Circle Be Unbroken.” Couple danced and there was a period of Quaker silence and testimony. The theme was reinforced and explored throughout. The only real criticism was that the people who didn’t help with planning didn’t know whether or not they were supposed to participate in the Quaker-style sharing. The planning group had hoped they could set an example with their own speaking and that we would follow, but instead, because we knew they were all part of the planning, we were all afraid to say anything for fear they were leading up to something we didn’t know about and that we might interfere.
The third worship was the most elaborate of any. We were asked to come into one large room and to sit with our eyes closed in a circle on chairs while music played. As we sat meditating, the planners came to get us one by one and led us -- with our eyes closed -- to the next large room where we were seated on pillows facing another person. We didn’t know whom until we were told to open our eyes later. It was a very strange sensation to have to trust someone else so much. The theme was openness, being aware, trusting and so on.
When we opened our eyes we were facing a person of the same sex who had been deliberately chosen by the planners. (No tigers facing rabbits.) Between us was a small bowl of grapes. The service went on with readings and music. At some point we were asked to feed each other the grapes, which meant more trust. (The men felt particularly affected by feeding another man.) Directions were given by a reader and the pairs of people had been clustered so that each cluster had its own guide to demonstrate silently what to do. Like, wait until the first grape goes down before offering the next!
Then, by surprise, from up above us in some empty space, came the most exquisite cello solo. (One of the attendees of the string players conference was a UU.) At that point some people hit emotional overload and burst into tears. We talked quite a while about the legitimacy of causing that much emotion and whether it was manipulative.
The fourth worship was to be celebratory. We were all totally exhausted and it was the morning after the Third Credo. The topic had been “evil” and we had plunged into the Dark Side. The worship capitalized on our fatique intoxication. Norma Dahl sang “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” with great poignancy. We had a strawberries and champagne communion and the most chaotic maypole ever to turn into a pig pile. The event had a great deal of shape and preparation under it, but mostly what I remember is color and strawberries and laughing until I ached.
The last worship was done by a special composite committee drawn from persons who had already served, and it was interesting that it was rather quiet and conservative. It was Sunday, the Fourth of July, and Peter had left to preach in Seattle. He is a patriot and wanted to be in his own pulpit. Others had left but those who stayed had made quite an emotional commitment to the larger group. Some of the material of the week was reiterated as we all sat in a circle on cushions and had a dignified “cold duck” wine communion (all the wine remnants poured together). Then Larry Omo, a solid warm fellow, took Peter’s role and did another “bidding prayer” exercise to detach us from our week and send us home.