mUUney Ball

© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 17, 2011

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Although it may not be reflected in this year's standings, our local baseball team, the Oakland Athletics, are the leaders of a revolution sweeping baseball. In 2003 a man named Michael Lewis published a book called Moneyball and the movie, starring Brad Pitt, will be coming out this September. The central premise of this book was that many ideas at the center of the conventional wisdom of baseball were fundamentally flawed. Basic concepts were called into question - like valuing a player with a high batting average, or who stole a lot of bases or had more runs batted in than others after a particular season. As people began to look at the numbers rather than just assuming that their eyes, gut, and traditional measurements were telling them the truth, they discovered a whole new way to think about the game. And it was all pioneered by the General Manager of our local Oakland Athletics, a man by the name of Billy Beane.

What Beane concluded was that, as a smaller market team, they needed to exploit these miscalculations and pick up players that should be more highly valued than they were. To understand the payroll disparity Billy Beane faced as the GM of the A's, you must know that his team's payroll usually hovers around $60 million, less than one third of the Yankees who are usually close to $200 million a season. And with that miniscule payroll, comparatively speaking of course, since he was named General Manager in 1998, the underfunded A's have won the division four times, won the wild card once, had 9 winning seasons and gone deep in the playoffs several times. Clearly, his innovation has benefited his team.

But in order to take advantage of these mis-valuations, Beane had to use new statistics that would identify which players were undervalued. Now, this may all sound a little confusing for non-statheads out there, like me, so let me break it down very simply.

As I said earlier, Beane claimed that the old stats like average, stolen bases and runs batted in were misleading of a player's true value. This was true because each of those statistics left huge variables out of the equation.

Let's take a closer look at batting average. A batter's average is a simple percentage, determined by taking the total number of hits a player has gotten and dividing it by the number of times a player has come to bat. So if I have 3 hits out of ten times at bat, 3 divided by 10 gives me .300 or what we call a .300 batting average, which is pretty good and will make for a long career. But in baseball it turns out it really does not matter how you get on base, just that you do. And there happen to be many ways to get on base besides a hit. (Kids, can you think of some other ways a player can get on base without getting a hit?) That's right! A batter can get a walk, that is, a free pass to first base, if the pitcher throws four balls before three strikes. Also, if the pitcher hits the batter he also gets a free pass to first. And it turns out that some players are really good at getting to first base using some of those other ways, especially drawing walks, but that talent is never reflected in the main statistic that hitters are judged by: average. So a new equation was created called on-base percentage. OBP is just like average except it takes the total number of times a player gets to first and divides that by the plate appearances, rather than just using the hits. Now we have a number that accurately reflects how good a player is at accomplishing the most important goal of any hitter: to safely reach base.

Now at this point many of you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with us. Perhaps you are thinking that I just really wanted an excuse to talk about baseball. But fear not, I think this has A LOT to do with us, and here is why:

We are in a very similar place as the A's were when Beane arrived. We are also underdogs in terms of resources and numbers and need to find our niche - our way of leveraging our position to our advantage. Of course, Beane was also trying to drag an old institution kicking and screaming into the realities of the 21st century as a survival strategy. And our movement finds itself in this same place: adapt, change, or die.

What I am proposing today is that we be leaders in a new way of thinking about being a religious or spiritual or faith-based community - that we be trailblazers in discovering new ways to think about Unitarian Universalism.

Recently I was involved in a clergy conversation about the future of our denomination. One of the unchallenged beliefs that was clearly underlying much of what was being said was that people just don't join things anymore, and that this cultural shift is responsible for the decline in church membership. In other words, its not our fault people don't join our faith homes, it's the culture.

I have to say I reject that idea. Much as Billy Beane could not say to the owner of the A's that spending one-third of what the Yankees spent was solely responsible for his team's failure on the field, I feel it is a major cop out to blame failing church attendance on a cultural shift away from being joiners. And just as he turned to statisticians to get a new understanding of baseball, I believe that we need to learn from another school of thought as well - in our case, brand theory - in order to get a new understanding of what faith communities can do to be attractive to new people.

Some of you may be uncomfortable with the thought of getting ideas from such a consumer-driven model as brand theory, and I share that concern. But what I have come to realize is that this is how most people think. Most of us, myself included, have been trained for our entire lives by our culture to be consumers. And it is inescapable that we would begin to see our faith communities as something we consume. Like it or not, we are a brand. Brand theory basically says that a brand is "The sum of perceptions and expectations consumers have about the product/service/entity" in question. Unitarian Universalism and Mission Peak are both brands.

Although I think it is basically true that people are not joining organizations in the same way that they used to, I do not believe it is because some magical cultural shift has transformed us from being joiners into being isolationists. I believe it is deep within the human condition to want to be a part of something bigger. Community always has been and I believe always will be central to our species.

What brand theory tells us about why people are or are not joining things anymore is very important to our future. What brand theorists have realized is that people have become very savvy about the brands they connect themselves to because they know that those decision communicate a lot of information about who they are to other people. So many people, perhaps without even realizing it fully on the conscious level, see all things, not just the obvious consumables like the clothes they put on their body or the car they drive, as decisions about what brands to connect themselves to and what they want to tell the world about who they are. For the most part, religious institutions - and by extension most faith communities - are seen as a negative brand, one that people do not want to be connected to because of what that association communicates to people about who they are. What I am saying is that it is not that people aren't joiners, it is that they don't want to join the faith community brand and the lifestyle it promotes.

To the point that people aren't joiners anymore I offer you exhibit 'A' in my rebuttal, and that is 'A' as in Apple, the makers of the iPhone, the Macintosh computer and iTunes. Their brand is associated with positive connotations of hipness. Far from having trouble finding people to celebrate and join their brand, people wait in ridiculously long lines to throw large amounts of money at Apple so they can join in and be associated with their brand. The way Apple has accomplished this is not simply by creating excellent products, but by connecting those products to a lifestyle image of hipness. The unspoken concept is that if you buy an iPhone or a Mac, that you will now be a part of a new hip world.

Looking at Unitarian Univeralism through this lens I realized that we present a very confusing brand. We say we are a religion, although we struggle to articulate what makes us one. What I am starting to think is that Unitarian Universalism has trouble articulating how it is a religion because it really isn't one. Yes, this statement does amount to a little blasphemy to some, but I honestly believe that Unitarian Universalism can better be understood as a lifestyle than as a religion. Thinking of ourselves as a religion has always been an awkward fit since the word religion connotes a rigid set of beliefs, and we simply do not have that. But a lifestyle is defined by the habits, attitudes, tastes, morals and standards that together constitute the mode of living of an individual or group. That is beginning to sound a lot more like who we are. That is, we are defined more clearly by how we live than by what we believe. As much as calling our tradition a lifestyle sounds like a negative description, there is nothing meaningless about a group's mode of living. It actually is exactly the part of people's lives we want to be involved in - where the real impact can be made.

In terms of brand theory, this actually puts us in a great position if we were to embrace this new model. As I said earlier, brands that are associated with positive lifestyles are exactly the kinds of groups that people are joining these days.

So I think there are implications from this line of thinking that we need to take seriously if we want to take advantage of this position. When a community is formed around a religion and its accompanying shared set of rigid beliefs, it makes sense to put most of your energy into a one-hour-a-week service, because all that is needed is that small moment to reinforce the shared world view. But if a community is instead organized around a lifestyle - that is, around a shared mode of living - then we need to do a better job of supporting that lifestyle through every day of our lives, not just for one hour on Sunday.

Just as Billy Beane realized that the implication of his new worldview was that the A's needed to go after players whose skills were mis-valued by traditional measurements, I believe that we should be putting our energy into creating more opportunities throughout the week to be in community living our shared values, rather than focusing so much of our energy on worship. Not that we should stop having excellent worship on Sundays, but that we should have that and more of everything else, more opportunities for adult RE, more group dinners, more opportunities to deepen our spiritual selves like mediation, yoga and Small Group Ministry, more youth group activities, more volunteer opportunities.

In my dream, three years from now there would be at least two Mission Peak-sponsored opportunities to live your values every day of the week. That is the vision that I see coming from this way of looking at our movement. I offer it to you now as something to chew on over the summer. And I look forward to continuing the process of unfolding this vision and exploring its implications with all of you in the coming years.

May it be so. Ashe.

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