Recalling “Economic Sustainability”

One request begets another; my comment yesterday about the situation about the UUA today being different than the Universalists in the first half of the twentieth century must have struck a note.

So, by request, I’m recalling the UUA’s report of The Economic Sustainability of Ministries Summit June 2015. You can download the PDF report and read the summary here:

Sometimes I hear, seminarians should be warned about how bad things are. So it’s worth mentioning that there was another report in 2015 about the “economic realities of the ministry”. You can read that here. (Also a PDF.)

But unless you’re going to say “nobody should be a minister” then there need to be some solutions. A fund for service-dischargeable loans and alternate training models (more about those later) come to mind. Overtures (“CWG Approved Revision To M. Div. Equivalency Process”) in that direction were made in a Ministerial Fellowship Committee meeting at the end of 2018 and that is linked here. (Another PDF!)

The architecture of Universalist National Memorial Church, in detail

I was Googling for a set of 1939 orders of service from the Universalist National Memorial Church — where I was once minister and now, after a long break, am now a member — and found Sixteenth Street Architecture,  a fine architectural survey of Washington, D.C. “avenue of churches” from just north of the White House to just south of Columbia Road, thus missing All Souls Unitarian, but capturing the recently-demolished brutalist Third Church of Christ, Scientist. (I blogged about it a few years ago.)

 The section on UNMC is detailed and valuable, and includes photos of the construction.

A pastor without a car?

A similar post, like Wednesday’s. Musing on a reality that “might ought could” (as we say in the South) be examined, even challenged.

Is it practically possible, say, in a larger city or even a  large college town, to pastor a church without a car? I’m not sure it is. It assumes your home, church and most parishioners — not to mention civic events — are conveniently clustered, or accessed by reliable (and Sunday-serving) transit.

And a shame, too. Car ownership is a huge cost — and car maintenance a financial crap shoot. My husband and I haven’t had a car in six or seven years, and have saved a bundle, and that’s considering the occasional car rental or cab.

Reimbursements only go so far. I hear so much from ministerial colleagues about student debt and making ends meet. A car-free ministry would be a big help.

But, does anyone here do it?


The new national weight loss plan

Over the years, I’ve tried to lose weight and am fully aware of what works for me (eating high-fiber, low-fat vegetarian food; counting and recording calories) and what doesn’t (everything else).

My reasons for trying to lose weight, however, have changed. The vain reasons of youth have become the health-preservation demands of middle age. Why, to you the reader, might this matter?

Because it meshes well with one of two ideas I have about the Occupy movements. On the one hand, by pushing the political expectations of the country (I can’t speak to how it plays out overseas) to the left, and by encouraging activists, I think there is more possibility for an equitable political solution. (The main line of the Democratic party isn’t going to do it.) What does that have to do with weight loss? Nothing.

The other hand suggests that the fight is going to be generations-long and that the reliable help that comes will be softer, smaller-scale and sometimes insufficient. Encouragement over aid. Solidarity over programs. Pig-headedness, perhaps, over leadership. It means we’re going to have to take care of our own health, finances, social affairs and even religious needs even while others profit unfairly from our labor and government remains unresponsive to citizen demands. It means preparing ourselves bravely and creatively to have less. Sounds very tiring, but this situation has been decades in the making.

So I’m trying to lose weight to stave off diabetes and coronary disease, and rely on the support of a few good friends to make it happen. It may not be enough, but If that’s as much health care as some people have. Time, I think, to consider self-care — not in that sickly-sweet way ministers once talked about among themselves — and solidarity action. And if that works, then why not housing, food, tools, education and religion? I would rather starve the forces that try to control us than surrender.

Let’s start with the “too big to not be bailed out” banks. Then move to abusive multinationals and the producers of goods who finance the corrupt system we see. That I’m hungry for.

Having banks on the brain

A person I respect — wise, patient and politically savvy — asked me credit unions today. It seems the excesses of the large, national banks, epitomized by their recent collective fee increases, led him to consider a credit union in place of the large national bank that he uses.

I mention this, not to suggest that everyone would join a credit union or that he is cheap or petulant, but to consider how we choose to give over power, in this case financial and social power. These banks are “too big to fail” both in their political power and their hold — as impressive, important institutions — in our own consciences. And so it’s easy for them (at least easier than what you and I) to extract government support, defense from industry and — at the end — profits from customers. But if you remember that there are alternatives to the banks — or Facebook, or particular retailers or even churches — even if the best alternative is “none of the above.” And once you realize you can live without something, you’re in a better position to choose how your money, effort and influence works to what you believe in. A simple thought, but worth repeating. And one of the reasons I buy American-made clothing and don’t eat animals.

For the record, if you live, work, study or worship in the District of Columbia — one of their membership classification — I can recommend Signal Financial Federal Credit Union. And here’s my last blog post on local credit unions, at the beginning (2008) of the current economic crisis. Read it for the comments.

John and Eliza Murray were one serious illness from bankruptcy

It’s well known now that a medical crisis is more likely to push you — let’s limit this to the United States — into bankruptcy than any other single cause. This was true, too, for Universalist church founder and inspirer John Murray and his first wife, Eliza around 1768.

The text follows, but first to set the scene.  Our brother and our grandfather are literally Eliza’s. She was raised by her grandfather, but had been disinherited — at one brother’s scheming; he got her inheritance as a wedding gift — for marrying Murray (for being a follower of George Whitfield, rather than being a Universalist.) Though reconciled, the grandfather’s new wife — who had been the older man’s servant; John had found her — cut off the family. On top of this, both Murrays had recently become attendees of the notorious (Universalist) James Relly’s worship, and so were cut off from the main of London evangelical fellowships. Their avenues for relief few, and thus their risks high . . .

We had a sweet little retirement in a rural part of the city. We wanted but little, and our wants were all supplied; and perhaps we enjoyed as much as human nature can enjoy. One dear pledge of love, a son, whom my wife regarded as the image of his father, completed our felicity. But, alas! this boy was lent us no more than one short year! He expired in the arms of his agonized mother, whose health, from that fatal moment, began to decline. I was beyond expression terrified. Physicians recommended the country; but my business confined me in London, and my circumstances would not admit of my renting two houses. I took lodgings at a small distance from town, returning myself every day to London. The disorder advanced with terrific strides. My soul was tortured. Every time I approached her chamber, even the sigh which proclaimed she still lived administered a melancholy relief. This was indeed a time of sorrow and distress beyond what I had ever before known. I have been astonished how I existed through such scenes. Surely, in every time of trouble, God is a very present help. I was obliged to remove the dear creature, during her reduced situation, the house in which I had taken lodgings being sold; but I obtained for her a situation about four miles from town. The scenes around her new lodgings were charming. She seemed pleased, and I was delighted. For a few days we believed her better, and again I experienced all the rapture of hope. My difficulties, however, were many. I was necessitated to pass my days in London. Could I have continued with her, it would have been some relief. But as my physician gave me no hope, when I parted from her in the morning, I was frequently terrified in the dread of meeting death on my return. Often, for my sake, did this sweet angel struggle to appear relieved; but, alas! I could discern it was a struggle, and my anguish became still more poignant. To add to my distress, poverty came in like a flood. I had my house in town, a servant there; the doctor, the apothecary, the nurse, the lodgings in the country, — everything to provide; daily passing and repassing. Truly my heart was very sore. I was friendless. My religious friends had, on my hearing and advocating the doctrines preached by all God’s holy prophets ever since the world began, become my most inveterate foes. Our grandfather was under the dominion of the woman I introduced to him, who had barred his doors against us. The heart of our younger brother was again closed, and, as if angry with himself for the concessions he had made, was more than ever estranged; and even our elder brother, who, in every situation, had for a long season evinced himself my faithful friend, had forsaken us! I had, most indiscreetly, ventured to point out some errors in the domestic arrangements of his wife, which I believed would eventuate in his ruin, and he so far resented this freedom as to abandon all intercourse with me. Among Mr. Relly’s acquaintance I had no intimates, indeed, hardly an acquaintance. I had suffered so much from religious connections, that I had determined as much as possible to stand aloof during the residue of my journey through life. Thus was I circumstanced, when the fell destroyer of my peace aimed his most deadly shafts at the bosom of a being far dearer to me than my existence. My credit failing, my wants multiplying, blessed be God, my Eliza was ignorant of the extent of my sufferings! She would have surrendered up her life, even if she had feared death, rather than have permitted an application to either of her brothers; yet was I by the extremity of my distress precipitated upon a step so humiliating.

But she did die, and in time Murray was locked up in a sponging house, a prelude to prison proper, where the inmates, locked up in a bailiff’s house were squeezed (hence the sponge reference) by having to pay their own bed and keep, at inflated prices. His brother-in-law William paid his debt and set him up in a business. Within two years, he had left “to retire in” the wilderness of America, a kind of living suicide and the rest — they say — is history. And providence.

The lesson of the Esperantists' conferences

Spend any time with Esperantists and you discover how important conferences — kongresoj — are. I think it’s because the community is so small that it helps to have intentional times together. That, and since one of the language’s selling points is your ability to speak with people from other countries through a non-national auxillary language, international travel is a frequent option. Little wonder that the word for registration form shows up on beginners’ wordlists.

No doubt due to the lack of sponsors, the likely fact that most attendees pay their own way and the long duration of conferences (perhaps due to custom — Esperantists have been doing this for more than a century — and the long distances traveled) great attention is made to keep costs down.

Discounts routinely go to the young, persons from particular sets of countries and early registrants.  The lodging costs are often very low — with comforts to match. Room-sharing is routine, and camping and floor-space accommodation (bring your sleeping bag) are well-known. Meal plans are common, and a vegetarian option is a given. Some conferences allow for cooking, and I even noted a United States conference info page that tacitly apologized for this option not being possible.

It’s possible to have a private room with a private bath. There are sometimes banquets and very often day trips. There’s little to help the cost of very long distance travel. One can spend money (and donate money to help offset others’ costs) but a conference trip, doubling as a modest and interesting vacation, is kept as affordable as possible.

A couple of examples. The Universala Kongresothe big international conference at the end of July this year — is in Copenhagen: a very expensive city. A 29-year old attendee from Poland, who is already a member of the Universala Esperanto-Asocio, registering before last December 31, would have paid €60 for the 8-day conference. Even my late-registering, non-UAE-joining, forty-something United State citizen self would only pay €300, which doesn’t seem unfair for occasion.  The whole conference in a college dorm share with one other is €190. No word about self-catering.

Or you can go to the Christian (mainly Protestant) Esperantist conference (PDF, in Esperanto, of course) the week following in the spa town of Poděbrady, Czech Republic. Our early booking Polish friend would get this 8-day conference for €160, shared room, meals and (perhaps) day trip included.

This is a long way around to saying that there’s nothing wrong about counting pennies when putting together a conference if it means more people can attend. I’m thinking of the next General Assembly. My first was was in Charlotte. I got the young adult rate, a shared room (thanks I think to Joseph Lyons) but had to live on vending-machine Cokes for three days because there were no grocery stores within walking distance and the restaurants were full and expensive. (I think the area is more built up now and in any case there’s a light rail system that did not then exist.) One dear minister — no longer with us on Earth — bought me lunch, under the excuse I’m sure of examining my interest in the ministry. It’s largely because of the experiences at the 1993 General Assembly that you have me today. So when I organized a seminarians’ breakfast the next year in Fort Worth, I found a place that everyone could afford, even if it wasn’t fancy.

Costs matter if people matter.



Plain thoughts about alternatives to college

Minister and blogger (and friend) Adam Tierney-Eliot looked at his family’s finances and so addressed one of the great taboos of the educated middle class: that there may be an alternative to college for his children, that blithely opting into college surely come with a mountain of debt, and that the alternatives might be demonstrably better. The influence of homeschooling and related questions about the cost of ministerial education surely play into a larger discussion.

I’m glad that Team Eliot has some time to make plans.

A college education, to my mind, provides at least the following five benefits, which need to be addressed in a plan to “un-college” a youth.

  1. Content information in a field of study
  2. Character development, including manners and professional or academic habits
  3. Habits for further learning, including disciplined curiosity
  4. A social network
  5. Identifiable credentials

Of course, other experiences provide these; military service is an obvious alternative. Also, not all college student acquire these five, or do it well. But so long as there’s a presumption that one’s middle-class standing is tied to a post-high-school college education, then it makes sense to address all of these intentionally — at least to relieve the anxiety that the experiment is foolhardy and detrimental. The goal, I think, is not to ape class prescriptions, but to guide a young person into a confident and competent adulthood without hobbling him (I’m still speaking here of the Eliot boys) though decades of student debt.

I work in the HR and financial end of a savvy nonprofit organization, and I see the effects of high student debt every day. Avoid it if you can. And now the question of how. (I hope to return to this subject, but I would like readers to comment at length, too.) But I’ll start here:

  • There needs to be a plan, with measurable goals. Making plans and meeting goals, and the peril in failing to do so, is itself a basic life lesson.
  • The plan should include independent study and networking and compensated work and travel and public service.
  • An internship, including one or more of the above, should be a part of the plan. It — or they; multiple internships are not uncommon — has, since my own college days, become essential, and may matter as much or more than the degree to some employers.
  • The most valuable skill is the ability to write and speak in clear, convincing and jargon-free English.
  • The second most valuable skill, I suspect, is the ability to manage money, including the ability to read (and perhaps draft) budgets. Personal ones, at the very least: it’ll also make the prospect of self-education seem wiser.
  • If a degree turns out to be essential to follow a career path, then distance learning, based on credit by examination might be an option. I tested out of about two quarters of classes that would have otherwise bored me, and let me graduate with two majors in four years.


The non-sense of austerity policy

Andrew Brown, Unitarian minister and blogger (Caute) wrote:

Readers of this blog may be interested this short video presentation which is, I think, worth five minutes of anyone’s time.

I agree, for several reasons, not the least of which is warning about misleading civil preachments of virtue.

Do watch this.