I see friends shaking hands, saying “How do you do?”
They’re really saying “I love you.”
— “What a Wonderful World”
Before Allison and I moved to Virginia, we spent four years in Colorado where I studied at the Iliff School of Theology and worked in the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Actually, we spent year three in New Mexico where I was a student minister at First Unitarian in Albuquerque. That internship immersed me in congregational life in ways that I had never experienced as a layperson — and I was one of those Unitarian Universalists who was used to spending more evenings in programs and meetings at my congregation than I did at home! — as a result of which I developed new perspectives on many of the things we do as Unitarian Universalists.
For example, it felt strange to me, getting back to work and school, that we did not start meetings and workshops — as well as smaller classes — with some sort of check-in. At my first meeting of the Iliff Student Senate, on which I was serving as Treasurer, we were all set to dive right into business when I asked the Chair if we could take a few minutes to introduce ourselves and check in. This wasn’t just because, after being away for a year, I didn’t know everyone’s names, but also because I knew that, sooner or later, we’d be addressing some issues on which we might not all agree and it’d be much better if we’d built up some empathy for one another.
Now just about every meeting, program and other activity at the Fellowship starts with a chalice-lighting, where meaningful, poetic words are spoken aloud at the same time that a flame is kindled within a chalice. This signals that what we are about to do is special, inviting us to set aside the regular chatter of our lives and devote ourselves to a common purpose. Usually a check-in follows, where everybody present is asked to say something about how they are doing.
When I convene our Fellowship Circle facilitators, for instance, I ask them to share what is on their minds and in their hearts, and that sets the tone for all of the sharing (and listening!) that will follow during the rest of our time together. In other settings, of course, the rest of the meeting may be devoted to business or learning or training, rather than to more personal matters, but a check-in where each person lets us know what is going on for them is important. In fact, it is arguably more important!
Even when attending a meeting that is entirely centered on some item of business, we bring with us our whole lives and everything that has been going on in our lives, and that affects how we interact with each other. I know I’ve been in meetings where someone was behaving in an uncharacteristic way, only to find out later that something significant had happened to them; if we had heard about that at the start of the meeting, the rest of us might have been more understanding and our time together might have been better for all of us. Often what happens is more subtle than someone erupting in anger or collapsing in tears, but knowing something about what is going on for them still makes a difference.
At the Unitarian Universalist ministers’ meeting I attended this Winter, the leaders of the seminar I attended described this in terms of “intimate” and “strategic” interactions. While most committee meetings may take place in the strategic mode, where participants use both formal and informal power to accomplish specific tasks, a good check-in is an example of an intimate interaction, bringing people closer and helping them care about what each person is thinking and feeling. For those who work in the realm of human relationships, from family therapists to business consultants, it’s clear that the intimate and the strategic support one another. In a Unitarian Universalist setting, committees exist for specific purposes (strategic) but only to the extent that their activities grow the Beloved Community (intimate).
The living tradition that is Unitarian Universalism is based on the truth that we are most human when we are in right relationship with one another and with the world around us. For the fact of our interdependence is manifest in our Unitarian assertion that “We are all in this together.” And our faith in a better future — in the only way that salvation can work: in this life — is expressed by our Universalist assertion that “Together we shall be well.” No matter the agenda or goals before us, we are called to practice this part of our living tradition every time we are together.