Hello From Our New Minister!

Dear UUFEC Members and Friends,

            Congregations, like individuals, are on their own unique journeys.  In the past couple of weeks I’ve met some of your leaders and learned a little about UUFEC’s history and challenges, successes and strengths.  After all the conversations with your Board leaders and after I’d read lots of your official documents and informal newsletters, I knew I wanted to walk with you on the next part of your journey.  So I’m very pleased and excited to be joining you during this time of transition in UUFEC’s life:  as your interim minister. 

            In the coming months you’ll be hearing a lot more about interim ministry and we’ll get to know a bunch more about one another.  For today, though, I thought you’d like to know that ministers designated as “interim” are sometimes called “temporary shepherds.”   [It’s the “temporary” part of that description that may be a new idea for you.  (The “shepherd” part, too, since who’d even try to “sheep-herd” UU’s!)]  It’s a unique time in a congregation’s life that we’ll shape together in the next year.  

            We’ll also be learning about one another in the coming months.   Here are a few things you might like to know today:  I’m a native of Chicago and have had three careers:  at-home parent of four kids; teacher of young children; and Unitarian Universalist minister.  In my nearly 25 years in ministry I’ve served as settled minister in Birmingham AL and with a congregation in Chicago; consulting minister with a young congregation in Aiken, SC; and as interim minister in the Richmond, VA area and in Charlotte, NC.  In each of these places and congregations I’ve had the privilege to know and work beside so many wonderful UU’s. 

            Now, I look forward with great anticipation to getting to know and work alongside you – the staff and leaders, adults and children, members and friends of the UU Fellowship of the Emerald Coast.  

With gratitude – and in faith,


Marriage Is Not for You

Minister’s Reflection, February, 2014
Rev. Rod Debs, pastor

A colleague (Rev. Eva Cameron) wrote about a blog by Seth Adam Smith when he had cold feet before getting married:

“My dad giving his response to my concerns … with a knowing smile said, ‘Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy; you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.’”

Perhaps, religious community is not for us either. What a radical notion!

Some of us do not actively participate in religious community because it does not serve our interests. Why go if church doesn’t make me happy? Why go if the people don’t do what I want? Why support a Religious Exploration program for children when I don’t have children? Why go if the religious services aren’t intellectual enough or spiritual enough or social activist enough for my taste?

It does seem true that many people have decided, “Church isn’t for me.” However it also seems true that others participate actively in religious community for the very same reason: “ Religious community is not for me!”

Religious community is for the children we nurture to healthy behavior and healthy values. Religious community is for those among us who need respite as care-givers and companionship in aging. It’s for those who suffer accidents and illness, loss of jobs and loved-ones. Religious community is for those who are lonely and for those struggling in their relationships. Religious community is for those with special needs and for those with special gifts.

Religious community is for small group relationships and personal connections others don’t have without us. Religious community is for spiritual growth in committee collaboration and problem-solving. Religious community is for mobilizing social change in the world. It’s for the hungry, the homeless, the abused for whom we join hands to help get back on their feet. Religious community is for bringing smiles to others’ faces. Religious community is for inspiring the next generation to greatness, to greater wholeness.

Religious community is not for you or for me. Religious community is for the whole world, doing what we can do together to make it better.


UU Courage and Calling

Minister’s Reflections, Rev. Rod Debs, pastor, January, 2014

What are we doing here together? What is our calling as a Unitarian Universalist religious community?

“The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Emerald Coast is a religious community united by UU Principles and committed to service, spiritual growth, and caring community. (UUFEC Mission Statement)”

Ours is a message of unitarian interdependence, that we’re all connected, we’re all in this together. Ours is a message of universal compassion, that we leave no one behind.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not say, “I have a complaint, or I have a critique, or I have a list of issues.” Van Jones: “The brother had a dream.” Martin Luther King was not a warrior like the Biblical David with his sling and stones, seeking to conquer his Goliath enemy. Dr. King was a builder like Noah, building a dream ark to save all life in all its diversity. (Van Jones, Ware Lecture, 2008 UUA General Assembly)

This is a congregation with a courageous dream to build an open-hearted religious community. In 1997, despite controversy the congregation purchased this building for $140,000. Many members made double pledges that year, one for operating expenses, and a second three-year pledge to buy this building, vacant for four or five years.

Then in 2000, only three years later, the Fellowship remortgaged for a $100,000 renovation including carpet, chairs, paint, and stained-glass windows. Again only three years later, in 2003, the congregation called its first full-time settled Minister.

Five years later, in 2008, the 50th Anniversary of its founding, during the worst financial down-turn since The Great Depression, the congregation bought down its mortgage, purchased an entirely new heating and air-conditioning system, and remortgaged for one third of our previous annual payment.

Members have been ambitious and generous in capital campaigns since 1997. Part-time ministers have, as well. Rev. Harold Hawkins, retired, contributed his entire pay back to the Fellowship when he served as part-time minister. Rev. Nels Oas did not accept pay for his part-time ministry.

For fifty-five years, Unitarian Universalists of the Emerald Coast have had a dream, a dream not of waging battle against those with different religious beliefs. Rather, the dream has called our forebears to build this place, and staff it with a full-time Minister, half-time Director of Religious Exploration and part-time Music Director and Office Administrator plus paid and volunteer RE teachers for the children.

Since 2006, this congregation expanded its limited small group ministry to wide-ranging Second Hour groups, from Atheism and a Course in Miracles, Buddhism and TED Talks, Parenting and Current Events, and this Second Hour model has been adopted in congregations across the Southern Region. As a result, families and young adults have joined the congregation.

Subsequently, the UU Fellowship has taught all five age-groups of OWL, the UUA’s comprehensive sexuality education program. Volunteers have built a beautiful playground for our children and funded a Memorial Garden and Pergola in honor of those who have gone before. We have achieved Welcoming Congregation and Green Sanctuary certifications, and renewed the Fellowship’s public witness as a Peace Site.

In addition to ongoing Share-the-Plate support of Shelter House, Sharing and Caring and Opportunity Place homeless shelter, Congregational Projects have included sending 136 boxes of clothes to displaced people in Afghanistan, and currently, our Congregational Project of hands-on support for the homeless. Under our yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” banner, UUFEC members have made public witness of respect for the Qu’ran, and celebration of ethnic diversity in Fort Walton Beach.

In 2012-13, the congregation has faced trauma and grown in maturity. The Board created a Covenant of Right Relations and Board Meeting Procedures. It created and twice implemented a Disruptive Behavior Policy. This is a courageous congregation determined to place the congregation’s mission above individual demands.

What binds us together is our dream of global community that no one gets left behind, that we’re all in this together, allies covenanting together our mutual trust and support. This is our dream. This is our calling as a Unitarian Universalist religious community that continues to merit our commitment and participation.

Winter Starlight

Minister’s Reflections Rev. Rod Debs, pastor December, 2013

“When it is darkest, (then we) see the stars.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson (Unitarian)

With the turning of the seasons, Winter Solstice brings longer, crisp darkness to our days. Now we feel the warmth of the Daystar as a special kindness. Now we celebrate!

We have much to celebrate as a religious community.

We have a message of openness and hospitality to the grand diversity in the world. Our work, beginning with ourselves, is to make of the globe a safe place for the beauty of nature and of humanity’s self-creation. We are learning to protect that sanctuary.

We have a message of humility to share with the world. As Parker Palmer says, “The great gift we receive on the inner journey is the certain knowledge that ours is not the only act in town.” We are learning to listen as well as to speak.

We have a message of gratitude and generosity. Those are the kinds of people we love being with, the kinds of people we strive to be. What a wonderful world it would be!

We have a message of compassion. Yes, compassion is in our human nature and many faiths proclaim it. We join with them in creating a world that does not succumb to fear and greed, but finds joy in the bonds of loving-kindness toward enemies as well as friends. We would have this world extend compassion to the least, the last, the lost.

This is a mission Unitarian Universalists share. See the UU World link that Elizabeth Ashley posted on Facebook: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/290832.shtml

We have much to celebrate as a religious community. We have a beautiful community and a glorious mission to bring joy to the world. May we be twinkling stars of hope in the winter skies.

Enjoy the holidays! Blessings!

Gifts of Priceless Value

This morning I spent a few minutes outside planting a hill of seed potatoes. The spring air is about as good as it gets, don’t you think? Sweetened with a trace of wisteria blossoms.

It seems such a gift that for a small effort, covering pieces of potato under a mound of soil, I will be able to unearth whole potatoes in a few months. Collard greens keep on giving. I tear off the big, lower leaves, and collards just keep growing taller with new sprouts at the tip. I call them my “palm collards” — tall stems with a clump of leaves on top!

Eight little baby bunnies grace my rabbitry, jumping in and out of their nest boxes. Katrina used to put one in each of her shirt pockets. Rabbit kits are a joyous gift I had very little part in creating!

Clean tap water and clear air are blessings many nations can’t enjoy. They are gifts of the earth, vulnerable to those who would despoil them in competition for lower costs of doing business.

Market value is no measure of life’s gifts. In Wyoming I remember scouring my imagination for how that expanse of land might be developed— too little water for crops or cattle, too distant for housing or businesses. Then I woke up: How often I confuse price with value.

The smile freely given by a stranger. People who look and listen and ask questions and celebrate insights different from their own. Gifts of community, fellow-travelers. Gifts of nature. Gifts of inner feelings and passions, experiences and insights, evolving, persisting. Gifts of personality, endlessly diverse among us and around the world. So much value, transcending the accident of price.

Religious community is where human beings seek to be awake to the priceless gifts of life. Gifts that transcend the changing market, whether balloon or devaluation. Here we gather in awe and wonder, gratitude and humility, the posture of religion (and of secular wisdom) around the globe.

At UUFEC, April is when we make our individual pledges of financial support for Unitarian Universalist religious community. Stewardship volunteers have drawn my attention to Malvina Reynolds’ song, The Magic Penny (1949): “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.”

When we participate in religious community, we celebrate awareness and exploration of life’s gifts. We invest in one another, collaborating in shared leadership. We invest in Unitarian Universalist values by our living witness in the community. We invest with our time, our talents and our treasures.

Beyond my commitment to UnitarianUniversalist ministry, Jeannette and I will give real dollars in our pledge to UUFEC, guided by the suggested giving chart. We think it is worth investing in Unitarian Universalist values- exploring and awakening to the gifts all around us.

“It’s just like a magic penny, hold it tight and you won’t have any. Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many, they’ll roll all over the floor….”


Real Explorations

The great gift we receive on the inner journey is the certain knowledge that ours is not the only act in town.”
–Parker J. Palmer

Children display real delight in exploration, discovering something new: Aha! We Unitarian Universalists long for the spirit of the child, open to new insights and wondrous discoveries. We love that feeling! In fact, we call our religious education classes “Religious Exploration” and “Lifespan Religious Education and Faith Development.” In the early 1800’s, William Ellery Channing described this radical Unitarian notion of “religious instruction”:

“The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own; Not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own;

Not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth; Not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs;

Not to bind them by ineradicable prejudices to our particular sect or peculiar notions, but to prepare them for impartial, conscientious judging of whatever subjects may be offered to their decision;

Not to burden the memory, but to quicken and strengthen the power of thought; Not to impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment.

In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.”

Sometimes I think the Western world is trapped in our moot religious and philosophical debates, as if there is nothing new under the sun. Then, aha! Halfway around the globe people explode in celebration of exotic religious traditions!

On March 8 and 9, huge numbers gather to celebrate ancient religious festivals, rich in spiritual insights exotic to the Western world: Magha

Puja, Holi, and Hola Mohalla! Enough talk about how religions are all alike! New insights, new discoveries await our openness. See you Sunday?!

“Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.” (UUA Bylaws)

What Is Your Ministry

When I first wandered into the Unitarian Universalist Church of Binghamton, NY, I thought “church” involved Sunday services with music and preaching, children’s classes with stories, crafts and songs, and adult classes on hot ethical issues.  I had not the faintest idea of what a passionately diverse covenant community might entail.    

With all our different personal perspectives and passionate debates, we rarely come to agree on beliefs.  In fact, we are pretty proud that UUs with an exotic array of human wisdom and experience hold our heads high in full participation, welcome, and embraced with kindness.  I’m not suggesting we don’t sometimes break our covenant and act with disrespect toward one another now and again.  We’re a learning community.  But we have our covenant, bylaws and policies, and we try to call ourselves back to our better behavior.  At best, we celebrate our beautiful diversity of perspectives, especially when we differ, with grace and mutual respect.   

Which brings me to this question:  What is your ministry here?  What unique gifts and energies do you bring to this diverse fellowship?   Is there something not being done?  Perhaps others share your recognition of this emptiness that should be filled.  With others’ support, could this be your ministry? 

Is there something that could be done better?  Please be gentle with us.  We are not trying to be perfect nor impressive in our ministries with one another.  We are trying to be faithful, doing what we can to serve our various callings.  What calls to you?  What little ideas are nibbling at your soul? 

Let me give an example.  We support food pantries that provide largely processed foods to the hungry.  But in the Debs household, we try to eat unprocessed grains, fruits and vegetables.  I wish I could give the hungry better, healthier food to eat.  Then our daughter Katrina mentioned that potatoes are one of the more perfect foods.  Been thinking about that.  What if….  What if someone bought a bunch of seed potatoes and made them available to kids and teens and families at UUFEC to grow a hill or two, maybe a tub of potato plants in the yard.  Perhaps I’m not the only one who thinks our kids would do well to learn how to grow food.  Maybe we could harvest potatoes for the food pantry. 

I’m coming to think that Unitarian Universalist faith is not just about attending church and classes.  It’s about encouraging and accepting one another.  It’s also about finding our ministries and supporting one another in that journey.  What is your ministry here and in this community? 

“I don’t know what your destiny will be,  
but one thing I know:  
the only ones among you who will be really happy  
are those who will have sought and found  
how to serve.”   
-Albert Schweitzer 


I met a hero Last year at UU minister’s conference, now retired in Ashville, NC. 

Rev. Clark Olsen was one of three UU minister’s in Selma, March 11, 1965, who had responded to a call by Martin Luther King, Jr. for ministers to come support the struggle for black voting rights.  It was one of the others, Rev. James Reeb who was clubbed in the back of the head and died days later.  All three had dared to stand as allies with African Americans in their struggle for a voice. 

The Unitarian Universalist movement is grounded in the value of justice for all, and respect for every person’s right of conscience.  UU leaders could decide for themselves what the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations will do.  But they are elected from among us and respect us enough to ask us what we want to do.  In 1996, the UUA Board charged a committee to survey the members of our congregations.  See http://archive.uua.org/re/promise/results.html, and it was Clark Olsen who presented Fulfilling the Promise Final Report at the 2001 General Assembly.    

Over lunch I told Clark that I sometimes quote his words introducing that report:   

“The 21st century story of Unitarian Universalism may be, that in fulfilling our promise (of covenant relations) we provided a light for many of the world’s peoples, now conflicted by faith and ethnic differences, to move toward a new understanding of how peoples can be truly together in a democracy.  And what a legacy that shall be!” 

In the congregation he served last, Rev. Olsen took this respect for every person’s voice and “right of conscience” to new heights.  Although “worship” is said to be “the work of the people,” the medieval model of priests and clergy preaching “truth” to illiterate masses remains the cultural expectation of most religions with few exceptions.  Rev. Olsen stopped writing and preaching sermons.  Three months ahead he announced sermon topics and invited members to meet with him to share their reflections on the topic and subsequently research and design and deliver the Sunday service. All manner of arts were brought into worship:  music, poetry, visual arts.  Diverse experiences and insights shaped the messages.   Worship services honored the experience and wisdom of all the people, inviting them to share spiritual leadership.   

Here at the fellowship, some of our most delightful services have been collaborative:  New Years’ and  Interfaith Panels, Mother’s Day, Flower Communion, Memorial Day, Poetry Sunday, Independence Day, GA Retrospective, United Nations Sunday, and Blessing the Beasts.  You might say that the UU “liturgical calendar” has infinite possibilities.  I’m not the hero Clark Olsen is, but I am willing to collaborate with you in any way we can imagine that many voices may be heard, “enriching and ennobling our faith.”  

One Sunday during Second Hour, we were asked at Porch Swing to name just one thing that would bring life closer to earthly paradise.  One member said:  If we listened to one another.  May we create venues to listen deeper than words, to the depths of one another’s life experiences.    

Blessings in this new year! 

Holiday Thank-You

At our best, the Winter Holidays are a season of generosity and joy.  I feel gratitude for so many kind acquaintances, friends and family.  I feel gratitude even toward strangers who offer their services and even nurture.  There is much to be said for a modest strategy for saying “I love you”—giving your presence and a few presents to loved ones.  Hanging lights, decorating halls, cooking and feasting and making music! 

Mixed in among the bills and holiday cards, mail boxes are filled with charity appeals on behalf of noble causes and marginalized people. However, our empathy flows deeper than our resources.  I feel sad that I can’t give to groups I know are doing life-changing work for people who have no bootstraps to pull.  The more I know about injustice and suffering among the 99%, the more I feel empathy fatigue!   

It’s not “compassion fatigue,” I think.  Forrest Church’s modest advice is, “Do what you can.”  When I do what I can, when I act with compassion, I don’t feel fatigue of heart!  I feel energized and joyful!  It is the concerns that I do not act upon that build up to “empathy fatigue.”  In moments of empathic sadness, I am advised to breathe and reflect whether there is anything I could meaningfully contribute to redress the wrong.  Breathe.  “Do what you can.”  Enjoy doing what you can do!   I have the greatest gratitude for work others are able to do, well beyond my individual capacity.  Thank you for all the good you bring to the lives around you!  Thank you for your support of Sharing and Caring, Shelter House, Opportunity Place and our Niceville-Valparaiso Cold Night Shelter.  Thank you for your compassion for children, for your kindness to strangers, for your care of the earth.  Thank you for your kindness toward those who seem to least deserve it, for your loyal love toward family.  Thank you for embracing yourself with compassion.  On his Bountiful CD, Peter Mayer sings: 

Could you be a window 
In a darkened hall  
To give a passing soul 
A way of seeing through the wall  
And people stop in front of you  
And into you they peer  
Uncertain what they see because  
You’re not exactly clear?

Could you be a lighthouse  
Standing on a shore  
Meant to send a light out  
To the sailor in a storm  
But even though you show your light  
Not a boat can tell  
You didn’t know you’re not supposed to  
Shine it on yourself?

Are you a bell that hasn’t tolled?  
  A drum that hasn’t rolled?  
    A word of hope unsaid?  
A declaration never read?  
Could you be?…. 

May the blessings of compassion fill you with gratitude and joy this holiday season!  May we each shine our light on someone else.    


Religious Community

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Emerald Coast is a religious community united by UU Principles and committed to service, spiritual growth, and caring  fellowship.”              –UUFEC Mission Statement 

I  was having coffee at the Niceville YMCA after working out on the elliptical trainer, and a guy asked me what I do.  I said I am the minister of the Unitarian Universalist church—a liberal religion.    

Hold on!  That’s not what I say on Sunday mornings from the pulpit!  When I welcome newcomers to the service, I quote our Mission Statement that we are a “religious community” as opposed to a Bible-based, creedal church or one based on “enthusiasm,” an emotional experience like being “born again.”  I say that as a “religious community” we promise to be a safe place for each person’s integrity.  Our Statement of Principles is our covenant (or promise) and ends with these words:  

“Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and to expand our vision.  As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.”                           (UUA Bylaws)  

So which is it?  A covenanting “religious community”?  Or a “liberal religion”? 

In 1568, when the Transylvania Diet and King John Sigismond signed the Edict of Religious Toleration, not only were Unitarian Churches with their anti-Trinitarian theology first legalized, but “liberal” religious toleration for churches that held different theologies was also made into law for the first time in history.  Religious liberalism developed in time to where UU congregations affirm different theological views within the same congregation: “liberal religion.” 

When we say that we feel at home and among “like-minded people” here at UUFEC, I think we are saying we have met people who share the same doubts about traditional theologies.  A few may actually hold the same ethical or theological views as we.  Mostly, we are alike in that we approve of having different religious views!  “Liberal religion”  celebrates religious freedom and the “right of conscience.”  

Some discover us and sign the book as members because they feel “at home” with our liberality toward theology and ethics.  They may even send a check every year.  But they disappear.  Ask their religion, and they will declare themselves Unitarian Universalists, happy that UUFEC is a beacon of liberal religion on the Emerald Coast!   They “believe” the concept of liberal religion but without religious community, and we miss them.  

“Religious community” involves more than beliefs about theology or ethics, whether conservative or liberal.  It is a community of mutual trust and support, a community of compassion and hope.  If our faith were only about liberal beliefs, the library or internet or New York Times Book Review would be a more fertile and expansive source of liberal theology and ethics.  You who join us sporadically—I hope you know that a liberal religious community is here for you.  When you need us, when you want to grow relationships of “mutual trust and support,” UUFEC has lots of small group and leadership opportunities.  Sometimes, even love blossoms! 

 The world needs liberal religious community.  UUFEC needs to become a stronger voice celebrating diversity and compassion in a country that is becoming ever more tribal and divided, each against all.  We need you with us as we learn to “play fair” together, consulting, collaborating, struggling toward mutual trust.  Liberal religious community is a microcosm of the world, exploring how to share power, wealth and knowledge, taking for ourselves no privileged place.   

The world needs liberal religious community.  Will you join us?    Blessings!