01: On Passion and High Commitment


Radical Nature of Mission

Not before the l9th century, did a people proclaim that through radical idealism,  one could choose to evolve religion  in a way that both offered transcendent meaning but deconstructed the destructive and divisive aspects of it through the embrace of non-theism as well.   Challenging as this concept may be to some,  Adler’s intention was to raise up the universals of religion and eliminate those that provoked exclusivity and domination.   We seek in our report to hold to this original purpose as we light the torch of our own passion for ethical culture.   We present this report as a gift and a guideline that may point to our continued growth and renewal of purpose.

As  a 21st century community,   we face a whole new set of issues that require some new tools to meet the demands of the day especially around organization building .  Much around spiritual activism is being written as we speak.  To produce this report   we’ve done research in our ethical culture archives  and rediscovered gems that have been with us for a long time.   We note especially those contained in Great Expectations and other materials carefully applied by our present AEU Membership Committee.    Through our year and one-half effort, we have shared insights and experiences along with our skills  that have pointed to practices already underway in our local Societies.

Ethical culture can lay claim to its unique place in the framework of humanism.   As do most religions, we hold that all life is sacred and interrelated, but ethical culture holds this without exception including sexual orientation.  We believe that consciousness emerges from human experience and can be synergized in collective experience nurtured in Societies that are both safe and  yet challenge personal growth – places that bring out the best in the greatest numbers of its membership actions that produce reciprocity between agent and recipient.    We call ourselves ethical learning communities.   As such, we have the right to be “influence peddlers” within the scope of ethical application.   We are an outward looking community that possesses the moral force needed to critique the rampant social injustice in society today.  Such community meets a growing need especially in the United States.   Despite our human limitations, we will speak for justice even when that makes us unpopular.   Ironically,  millions of Americans seek moral clarity in an ever changing world.  Why should we leave this task to the fundamentalists of all persuasion in our times?    Perhaps,  we have forgotten our passion.  We hope this report will remind us to live bravely and out loud.   Perhaps,  our renewed high commitment will remind us to be patient and persevering in our struggle for justice.

We affirm that evolution takes the best course when aware persons think freely,  both critically and creatively.    We seek to embolden ourselves with the daunting responsibility to build a better world.   Our ethical creed has sustained itself for over one hundred years.   Its quest for goodness,  love for beauty and nature,  celebration in all that authentically human offers endless opportunity to make a world that works for all.   Some find this quest  akin to the gift of life itself and have participated in ethical culture with unquenchable enthusiasm to nurture its growth and development.

We might acknowledge that for too long  many of us  have “hidden our light under a barrel”  but now for the sake of ourselves and our children’s children unto “the seventh generation”,  it is time to come out and declare with great joy that we  belong in a community that is ever evolving in its ethical quest to do the right thing amidst great complexity.  It is time to intensify our welcome to  all those who seek to be fearless for the good, to integrate material well-being into moral and spiritual imperatives.   It is time to begin by treating each other well in trust and transparency.

Everywhere we turn,  the search for ethical meaning is palpable – in government,  corporations,  families and the daunting crises human beings face in these times.  We need therefore, to enlighten ourselves with the same vigor we have developed religious and ethical education for our children.   We urge through all ethical means to remember the passion that created this movement in the first place.   We challenge ourselves to become a people who embrace high commitment to the growth and development of our communal practice we know to be ethical culture. We hope that our findings and recommendations inspire our readers to continue an awakening of all of us to the richness and power yet to be mined in ethical culture.


Passion:  “a strong extravagant enthusiasm;  the state of being affected by something outside oneself;  fervor, zeal ardor.”   (Random House Dictionary)  Why might we feel so passionate about our movement?  In conversation with those who demonstrate passion for ethical culture through long service,  these reasons emerged.

1. the opportunity to live a moral imperative.

We are a people ever becoming more in our determination to evolve through choosing the good.   Moral imperative here means that we are equally concerned about the process as well as the action.   When we say that “ethics is central” , we attribute  worth to all life and seek to find ways to go for the best,  especially the best in others as a way of bringing out the best in ourselves.  Because  ethics flows from human experience, we are open to all experience including our experiences with love, fun, and creating justice.   Thus, we value fearlessness,  non-attachment and profound reflection based in the latest information.

2. the opportunity to pursue the moral imperative in a community.

We are a people  who know that our lives are worked out in social arrangements;  our spirituality tramscemds the personal sphere.  We understand that choosing to progress in community both rubs off our rough spots and models the interrelationship of all life.   it matters to us how we act.  According to Adler, we are destined to transform the cosmos (Life and Destiny) toward the embrace of goodness.   We enjoy  shared celebrations and commemorations with our life issues of birthing, losses and dying.  We are a people who can sing and dance for the sheer joy of being alive.

3.  we pursue the right in community that includes mistake making,  i.e,  we do not choose the good to be perfect but to learn through our choices.

We are a people who are committed to evolution.   We live in the midst of confusion,   often lacking the information we need to make the best choices, yet we are willing to take positions regarding social and moral issues.   Our aim in community is to develop a mature perspective that does not look to dogmatic rules for guidance but practice in ethical reasoning and support from our community to be our best.

4. the challenge to influence all of humanity to the good.

We are a people never satisfied with what is because our aim is to realize the supreme ideal.   Adler called it the “organization of humanity”    While we seek to educate ourselves,  we do not rest in knowledge but in those actions that will motivate others to seek.    We are ready to change course with new learning.   We will join with those not in our movement to build coalitions for the good,  but we will not lose ourselves in doing so.

5. the inherent creativity in using oneself as a work of art always in progress.  

The ethical manifold seeks coherence between great diversity.   We espouse pluralism of all kinds,  while we look to the common pattern that informs human life.

When we fail,  it is because our local Societies have become social clubs with cliques and individuals who choose to hold onto their special interests and positions instead of nurturing the talents of others.     We are still learning  how to cultivate our ethical culture identity within a broader sweep of the thriving multi-culturalism that exist in pockets of the US.   Often, we are not welcoming and do not heed the importance of treating each other well.    We may find change and adaptation hard.    Our congregational polity that urges us to grow in democratic policy often leads to chaos and either too much tolerance for individual quirks or  a kind of “might makes right” attitude.  In an effort not to hurt anyone’s feelings, we will tolerate leadership that is ineffective or even ill-conceived.  Through an outside consultation,  one Society learned of the importance of creating a management structure that was “to scale”, one that did not burn individuals out and therefore, took on more than it could absorb and internalize into its communal space.

But, none of these failures are the “deal-breakers”  that might cause us to lose faith with the wisdom of the vision nor our collective ability to polish the rough spots and get on with the business of shouldering the task of being the ethical communities others will want to be a part of if they saw the best of us more frequently.   One Society that acknowledged all of its limitations,  discovered that when it changed,  many more visitors come within its doors.  Instead of losing numbers,   it held steady and now can look toward gain.  It is a confident Society.  So, while we have good reason to be passionate for ethical culture.  we must ask  why  have we not more members who demonstrate high commitment in ethical culture.

High Commitment

In ethical culture,  We can boast that in at least one family five  successive generations were active in ethical culture.   Three of our clergy Leaders were born into the movement.  On the GRLT Task Force of six members,  we represent cumulatively  nearly 150 years of participation in the movement. We already thrive in vibrant small circles from Rockland County, NY, to Asheville, NC, to Silicon Valley, CA,  where energy for our growth is high.  We are an internet community in ESWOW.   We are proud of those Societies that persevered for over 100 years.   We are respected in our non-governmental work at the UN.  We now include certified ethical culture chaplains and soon certified College Campus chaplains  And there is more to come.   We appreciate that we chose Federation in an AEU and rely upon its growing ability to build transparent and democratic frameworks.  High commitment is alive in ethical culture.   Our volunteer participation is phenomenal.   Now we need more of it.  Let there be no excuses why we do not grow.  It will if we take the steps to make it so.

The GRLT  urges us all to shift those systems in our institutional framework  that constrain us from growing into a vibrant collective in the world.   By shifting systems, we mean here that we look into our management structure.  Are we encouraging volunteerism,  are we giving Platforms on Pledging and thereby raising what Michael Durall calls generous congregations.   Are we identifying non-members who are outstanding citizens, and honoring them?    While as a community we love to learn,  we sometimes overlook  that learning which teaches us how to work more effectively together.   We have been desultory in institution building.   Yet,  now, this is all changing.   We mustn’t let our weak endowments prevent us from finding ways to jump in to build the movement.  Rather, we believe it necessary to expand from the great volunteer spirit that is like the rudder of our ship.

We urge our growth in all forms of information technology as key to 21st century communication.   We hold that true growth must begin in the innermost wisdom of each human heart working in community to be more than we can possibly be in singularity.   In this light,  we ask each member buy-in more fully the movement as a whole,  to seek practical and concrete ways to belong more effectively to the whole Federation, we call the American Ethical Union.   We argue for a kind of fearlessness that comes from our willingness to learn endlessly and to embrace different approaches to living ethics when called for.

There are some basic  qualities that reflect high commitment:

  1. affirming  our membership by saying “yes” before we are asked to help:
  2. sharing our strengths that we have from our careers,  our jobs, our families in ethical culture
  3. asking questions that will bring us closer to the center rather than criticizing limitation;
  4.  looking more frequently at the web-site, in fact,  all the web-sites of affiliate organizations;
  5.  developing our own “elevator speech about what ethical culture is;
  6. building our own small groups within membership but beyond individual Societies, so that our belonging is not restricted to our particular neighborhoods to pledge more than we do;
  7. thinking of ourselves as major stockholders in a small company that needs us.
  8. participating in the envisioning of ethical culture’s future;
  9. enjoying the benefits of the movement by being present at Platform, Assembly, regional meetings and Public Policy forums;
  10. acknowledging and affirming the efforts of others in our movement.

Below is a brief reading list, we encourage all to explore.   We invite you to recommend to us  other materials that demonstrate  high commitment from the progressive perspective. We need a Federation to promote our interrelationship with all of our parts including the growth of affiliate organizations,  certified chaplains and soon to be accredited college campus clergy.

When it comes to high commitment,  we do not disdain the findings of business whether it be business scholars such as David Cooperrider who sought to increase “buy in” of employees through Appreciative Inquiry methodology or Kouzes and Posner who identified effective leadership.   In fact, we challenge all of our members to combine religious zeal with all pragmatic best practices that produce systems shifts in this ethical movement.   We owe it to ourselves to be the people of best practices!

Annotated Reading List

1. Felix Adler, “Essential Fruits” in Our Part in this World: Interpretations by Felix Adler.  Selections by Horace L. Friess, Anniversary Edition.  Morningside Heights, NY: King’s Crown Press, 1946, pp. 82-83.  The following were not consecutive sentences in the original.

The crux of ethical discernment is the power to see, through all appearances, the spiritual nature in one’s fellows and in oneself.  The spiritual nature, the divinity in every person, is not just that assemblage of good traits or excellences with which nature and fortunate circumstances may have endowed him.  It is a superlative excellence beyond that, a freedom for spiritual response and interrelatedness, uniquely qualified in each person.  The force which incites me to penetrate beyond the empirical traits of others, to surmount the walls which surround the shrine in them, is the consciousness that unless I do so I am myself spiritually lost, I remain spiritually dead.  For it is only face to face with the god enthroned in the innermost shrine of the other that the god hidden in me will consent to appear.

2. Progressive Intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Democratic Commitment  by Leon Fink

How to lead the people and be one of them? What’s a democratic intellectual to do? This longstanding dilemma for the progressive intellectual, how to bridge the world of educated opinion and that of the working masses, is the focus of Leon Fink’s penetrating book, the first social history of the progressive thinker caught in the middle of American political culture.

In a series of vivid portraits, Fink investigates the means and methods of intellectual activists in the first part of the twentieth century–how they served, observed, and made their own history. In the stories of, among others, John R. Commons, Charles McCarthy, William English Walling, Anna Strunsky Walling, A. Philip Randolph, W. Jett Lauck, and Wil Lou Gray, he creates a panorama of reform of unusual power. Issues as broad as the cult of leadership and as specific as the Wisconsin school of labor history lead us into the heart of the dilemma of the progressive intellectual in our age.

The problem, as Fink describes it, is twofold: Could people prevail in a land of burgeoning capitalism and concentrated power? And should the people prevail? This book shows us Socialists and Progressives and, later, New Dealers grappling with these questions as they tried to redress the new inequities of their day–and as they confronted the immense frustrations of moving the masses. Fink’s graphic depiction of intellectuals’ labors in the face of capitalist democracy’s challenges dramatizes a time in our past–and at the same time speaks eloquently to our own.

Publisher: Harvard University Press    No. of Pages: 384

3. Andrew Harvey,  http://www.andrewharvey.net/sacred_activism.php

Sacred Activism to be published,  September, 2009 

 4.The Breaking of Bill Hull Disciple Making Pastor

“If you want to bring fundamental change to people’s lives and behavior, a change that will persist and influence others, you need to create a community around them where those new beliefs could be practiced, expressed, and nurtured.”1

It was a proud moment . . . we had just commissioned eighty-three new members. The newly initiated throng made their way off the platform, while I descended the steps to get closer to the congregation to begin my sermon.

“This is great, isn’t it?” I began. 
”But before we get too giddy 
about new members, 
let me ask you a question. 
Why should we bring 
eighty-three new people 
into something that is not working?”

That was the first time in thirty years of ministry that I had admitted that something I was leading wasn’t working. It appeared to be working, but it just wasn’t.

“Something is wrong. It has been tormenting me for several years. All the formulas, strategic planning, mission statements and visionary sermons are not making disciples.” Indeed, I was haunted by it. We were engaged in a studied routine of religious activity without change. Where was the personal transformation after all the effort we put into weekend services, Bible studies, small groups and outreach events? We were stuck in the same rut that so many find themselves in – religious activity without transformation.

I felt like an ice skater gliding over the ice, and beneath the surface I could see transformation, I just couldn’t get at it. That icy barrier was church infrastructure, customs and traditions . . . an institutional community held together by roles and hierarchy, rather than a relational community based on relationships of trust. It was a pastoral model that insist pastors be CEOs and/or leaders of church growth, instead of what to me feels more like Christ’s model of helping people go deep into the life He has for us. Yes, too often those two models are mutually exclusive! It all depends on what you value.

As I stood before the people 
that morning, 
I was prepared 
to pour out my soul, 
even my desperation.

I was nearing the end of a three-year reshaping of my person and I had morphed in such a way that I could never go back to the way it used to be. Bill Hull, the Disciple Making Pastor, had been broken and now God was starting to put me back together again.

For three years people were steadily leaving our church. I wouldn’t support or agree with much of what they said or did, but God used them as a gift to me. It was the most painful experience of my pastoral life and so many times I wanted to run away. But God spoke to me very powerfully one morning as I lay prostrate on my office floor. “Bill, I am going to break you, don’t run.” I talked about running, I prayed about running, I asked others about finding a better fit (running), but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Sometimes from pride, “what would others think?” or “I won’t let the weenies win!”

Everything looked better, a “barista” at Starbucks, a sports writer, or a bag boy at Ralphs. I lived most days hour-by-hour in the survival mode, every day I was getting older, 54, 55, 56 . . . I started getting senior discounts. I would turn my head away from retirement commercials. Every day I was less relevant . . . every day less people cared about me and what I did.

During this “dark night of the soul,” I poured my life into three younger men and one-by-one they rejected me and left the church. I had trusted them with me and they betrayed that trust. A plague had descended on us, and most plagues must run their course. People leaving a church is contagious, just like people going over to a new churches is contagious. It’s not like everyone does a lot of research then acts in accordance with biblical truth. Most are swept away by their feelings and by the opinion of friends.

I was boring . . . I was aloof . . . I wasn’t caring or welcoming. They got the feeling that I was on a mission and they were pawns in my plan . . . Bill Hull’s projects. But all I was doing was what I had been taught. I based much of it on what I had read about leadership in the 21st Century. I really thought there was no way I could stay, and there was no place to go. I was in some serious pain.

Then the plague began to subside, attitudes began to change and it all became . . . sweet. What happened? Well, what happened primarily happened to me, and then it spread.

When I humbled myself 
and expressed my frustration and pain . . . 
when I admitted that something was wrong 
and that I was as tired of it 
as everyone else, 
we all sighed a gargantuan sigh of relief, 
the masks came off 
and we were on our way.

When I finished telling them what God has shown me, they rose up and said YES in a way that I have never experienced before in thirty years of ministry. They knew that they were no longer my project, they understood deep within that what I was telling them was true. They sensed that something prophetic was happening and it changed our church.

What I told them was that:

1. The Great Commission was more about depth than it was strategy or technique.

2. Discipleship was not optional.

3. Being spiritually transformed is the primary and exclusive work of the church.

4. The evidence of being a follower of Jesus is following Jesus.

5. Believing the right things was not enough, that true belief included behavioral verification.

6. The most important question we face is who is saved and who is not (see #5).

7. Discipleship is a choice, we don’t drift into it or amble our way half-heartedly down the path of obedience.

8. We had accepted a non-discipleship Christianity and we must confess this sin to the Lord.

9. What’s more, I was going to evangelize them.

I was going to engage them in “discipleship evangelism” 2, calling on them to “Choose The Life” . . . the life of following Jesus, the life of spiritual formation, the life that is the answer to the weakness of the church and the boring ineffectiveness of our lives.

When I changed from the strategist to the shepherd . . . when the thrust of my teaching was perceived as my loving them, then the congregation melted in my hands.  To many of you reading this you may say that “discipleship is a tired word” and that you already know about it. You might even say, “I’ve read Bill Hull’s stuff, I know what he has to say.” But could it be that like me, you got tired of discipleship because you didn’t see it working? Could it be that you tried it and it didn’t work because of your impatience, your need to succeed now? Could it be that like me you left something important out?

Yes, there are still problems and there are people who still resist the call to the life. But we now have created a Choose The Life Society composed of those who desire transformation. I invite you to go join me in a journey of personal transformation. I hope your resistance if any exists, will melt away, not into my hands, but into the hands of Christ so He can shape you into His image. And remember, don’t run, because it is so sweet on the other side.

Editor’s Note: This has been a sneak preview of Bill’s upcoming book Choose The Life. Bill will be holding Choose The Life Workshops and creating the Choose The Life Societies in local churches. You will hear more from us on this in the future.

1 Gladwell, Malcolm Tipping Point  Little Brown & Co. Boston.

5. The Power of Appreciative Inquiry:  A Practical Guide to Positive Change, by Diane Whitne and Amanda Trosten-Bloom,  Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2003

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