Archive for November, 2013

October 2013 – “Ethical Reflection on a Milestone” – Leader’s Mesage

November 7, 2013

Today is my fifth anniversary as a Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. I decided to spend it reflecting upon what I have learned and what I feel called upon to do in the future. (Fortunately, my contract has been renewed by the Board of Trustees, so I’ll be spending at least the next three years with you.)

So how did I get this reflection off the ground? I cleared my desk and cleaned out my file cabinets, of course. What better way to review the past than to pour over what I felt was worth keeping? And some of it wasn’t worth keeping, although I lingered over scraps of paper, wondering whether they held messages to my future self, before pitching them into the recycling bin. Soon the top of my desk and the conference table, too, were littered with sacrificed trees. Weren’t computers supposed to save us from such waste? I wasn’t reflecting; I was drowning. So I did what I tell everyone else to do and took a deep cleansing breath. “Breathe in, breathe out, survey the landscape and get in touch with your feelings.”

When I first entered this office as a leader (no longer an intern with Dr. Khoren Arisian), I knew I had to change the landscape. It was far too austere and intimidating, and the door to the hallway was locked. That door is now wide open, an invitation to everyone who passes by. My colleagues, Joe Chuman and Curt Collier, granted my request to “nest,” so I brought in a sofa, rug and chair from home and got to work. Then I put our maintenance staff to work, too, hanging pictures on the walls and moving furniture.

Soon I had a “home away from home” where I could conduct business and settle in for chats with members. I love walking in every day and sometimes linger at night to look around at all the trappings of my leadership: an origami mobile, prints, and a painting made by members; a photograph of a sculpture in Rochester, NY, of lifelong friends Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony; a still-thriving geranium plant that the lunch discussion group gave me one year for National Teachers Day; a banner from the National Religious Coalition Against Torture and placards from various marches and demonstrations. Oscar the Grouch sits on a glass table, and there are picture books on lower shelves for children to read here and a “magic” box for them to hunt through for small toys to take home.

I riffled through a file that held letters and cards from members and photos from events over the years. There were faces of people who had died during my tenure; I officiated at their memorial services. There were also faces of couples whose weddings I officiated – and of their children. Sorrows and joys poured out: so many people held so dearly by this community.

Other file drawers held Sunday platform addresses, workshop handouts, and many committee agendas and minutes: the day-to-day work of an Ethical Culture leader and a community of dedicated members. I realized that over five years we have come a long way organizationally. We have a skilled Board of Trustees to guide this institution, staff and volunteers who provide intergenerational programming, a caring network that reaches out to housebound and recuperating members, and social justice projects that connect us to the larger community. And, thanks to the creative genius of a couple of members, we now have “branding” that identifies us as “Ethical,” giving our message a real kick.

Where do we go from here? Three years ago we celebrated the centennial of our meeting house. It’s time now to make it truly a House of Ethics. We have been discouraged by building rentals that are necessary to keep the roof over our heads but that neither reflect our values nor convey our message. We must grow in membership and influence, reaching out to populations – and generations – that share the common ground of ethics revealed by founder Felix Adler in a rented hall on May 15, 1876. It will take time, energy and determination, but I firmly believe that we can reclaim our heritage and carry it into a brighter future for everyone.

September 2013 – “Training in Ethical Humanism” – Leader’s Message

November 7, 2013

When I meet with newcomers, individually or at our monthly receptions, I tell them about the “Four T’s” of membership: time, talent, treasure and training. The first three seem obvious: contribute in different ways to the well-being of the community; the fourth might sound like indoctrination, a practice unfamiliar to a “free-thought” community. “If you plan to join our community,” I tell them, “– and I hope you do, you need to be able to tell your family and friends what it is you have joined. Yes, we’re a lovely group of people and we offer terrific programming, but what do Ethical Culture and humanism really mean – and what can they offer the world?” A Q-&-A session or FAQ sheet can only scratch the surface. That is why we Leaders offer classes, study groups, workshops, etc. on history, concepts and practices. And when members have exhausted all that we have to offer (Is that even possible?), there’s The Humanist Institute (

Formerly the North American Committee for Humanism, the Humanist Institute is a graduate-level leadership education and training program founded in August 1982 by visionaries across the spectrum of the humanist movement (Ethical Culture, Unitarian Universalist humanists, Society for Humanistic Judaism, Council of Secular Humanism, and the International Humanist and Ethical Union). This alliance was a response to the urgent need to find effective ways to bring the message of humanism to a wider public. Since that first meeting, when the committee established The Humanist Institute (THI), seventeen classes have graduated from the 3-year seminar program, providing skilled leaders to the humanist community and the larger world. Two more classes met last month.

I was a member of Class 10 (1999-2003) with co-mentors Jone Johnson-Lewis, Leader of the Northern Virginia Ethical Society, and Dr. Harvey Sarles, University of Minnesota professor specializing in science, human nature, and pragmatism. They were a good match, engaging us in rousing discussions of the many tomes we were required to read. My participation was part of training for Ethical Culture leadership, as was Randy Best’s, now Leader of the Ethical Society of the Triangle in Chapel Hill, NC. Other students were leaders of local American Humanist Association chapters, members of Unitarian Universalist churches, and people who had just discovered humanism and wanted to learn everything they could. Together our journey took us from concepts of humanism and ethical theories to religion and science, from critical thinking and leadership to aesthetics and celebration. Lest you think that we were cooped up all day reading, writing and talking, let me reassure you that we also took field trips to museums, science labs, and meeting houses of traditional faiths.

Four years after my graduation, I was invited to co-mentor Class 15 (2007-10) with Dr. Anthony Pinn, Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, and for the last three years I have served with Carol Wintermuthe as co-dean of the Institute. Last month I observed seminars with Classes 18 and 19, the former immersed in science, the latter world religions – two of my favorite topics, both as a student and mentor. With two Ethical Culture Leaders-in-Training and three NYSEC members participating in these classes, we are well represented.

In addition to these seminars, THI offers an online program called COHE (Continuum of Humanist Education), the Internet’s first offering of interactive courses in humanist thought. Current courses include Humanist Activism & Organization, Humanist Parenting, Science & Humanism, Psychology & Humanism, and Religion & Spirituality. So if you can’t make the commitment to a three-year course of study, check out these and other courses. That “fourth T” of membership can be an exciting new adventure!