the thing we love . . . that leaves us (part II)

(Or, “Running Through the Thistles: a Lay Perspective”)

The first part of this story appears here–this is part II . . .

So where does all this leave us, and what does any of it have to do with church life?

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There is one relationship we build within our congregation that, if we are doing things as well as we hope to, will inherently be time-limited: the one we have with our minister.  At some point, the ministry continues, but the minister does not.

This fact was recently brought to my attention, and I am slightly embarrassed to say that it came as something of a shock.  Certainly, simple naivete played a part in my astonishment, but our congregation is also in a unique position: our current minister is the only minister we’ve ever had.  In 60 years as a fellowship, the last decade is the first time that we have accessed any sort of professional ministry, and only in the last few years have we had a settled minister.  Thus, our minister is, for all intents and purposes, The minister.

And I now understand that someday she will leave us.  Actually, this much I had worked out for myself.  Superior reasoning skills, no?  The part that astonished me is what our minister’s departure will mean.  Which is, jointly and severally, the end of our relationship with her.  Not unlike a death–a death foretold, with ritual preparations including thank yous and farewells and unfriendings on Facebook.

Why take a painful situation (a goodbye) and exacerbate it by turning it into something else (a cut-off)?  The reasoning is usually framed as a potential detriment to the relationship between the new minister and the congregation.  This failure to connect and to define a [n exclusive?] two-way relationship adversely affects both parties and ultimately the ministry itself.

Unfortunately, this isn’t merely theoretical; I have a friend–I’ll call him Matthew–whom I know to be an intelligent and caring individual, and who is, by all accounts, a talented pastor.  Despite those attributes, Matthew’s ministry recently unraveled as a result of unclear loyalties and power structures.  The congregation opted to maintain an official, ongoing relationship with the former senior pastor even as they welcomed a new one; several years (and a significant investment in consulting time) later, it has become clear that this arrangement existed to the detriment of all.  Perhaps the greatest harm accrued to Matthew himself, who was unable to establish the relationships and the leadership traction necessary to steer a congregation whom he loved deeply and believed in utterly. These difficulties and the bitter legacy they leave harm congregations, the denominational ministry and ultimately the larger faith community.  Members are lost, gifted pastors leave, and we all are distracted from our primary church tasks–the worship of God and our shared work to build and care for the Beloved Community.

For a detailed and affecting discussion of these challenges and some thoughts about how ministers and congregations might rise to meet them, see the 180th Berry Street Lecture, given by Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed.  I will warn you, however, that while very eloquent and even beautiful in places, Morrison-Reed’s reflection is a painful read whether you are a layperson or, I’m told, a minister.

Truthfully, even with the above knowledge, I am not entirely convinced that a “take no prisoners; leave no friends” approach to goodbyes is the best one from a personal or a theoretical perspective.  I will set that aside, however, and look instead at the meaning of this impending loss.  Which, while hopefully rather distant from the current moment, will someday be upon us.  In the meantime, foreknowledge is ours to do with what we will.

As to our minister leaving, when the time comes: it will be painful.  In fact, the knowledge of it hurts already, and my natural inclination is to protect myself.  While the situation is less fraught, this is not unlike what I experienced in my friendship with Jamie [note: for the rest of this story, see Part I].  Or my five-year-old’s reaction to the Snowman’s passing out of the boy’s life after staying just long enough to illuminate some true magic in the world.  Why connect in the present when the ties we make must break?  Why invest ourselves in that which cannot stay?

In answer to these questions, Rev. Morrison-Read quotes Unitarian Universalist theologian Forrest Church, who opined that “[t]he fact that death is inevitable gives meaning to our love, for the more we love the more we risk losing. Love’s power comes, in part, from the courage required to give ourselves to that which is not ours to keep: our spouses, children, parents, dear and cherished friends, [and congregations]…”  Thus, explains Morrison-Read, “it takes courage to throw off caution and enter fully into life [because the] risk of loss is not just great; it is certain.” This is poignant, evocative, and (unfortunately, in my view–how lovely it would be to have relationships without pain) absolutely true.  In fact, it is precisely what I wish I had realized two years ago, watching Jamie from what I hoped was a safe distance while guarding my heart and hiding my love away.  We love because that is what we are here to do, and the losses we incur are simply part of that love.

Yet that message, however powerful, is not the point of this post.

This is a reflection not just about love and loss, but about intentional congregational life. In short, we know that, in any context, that which we love may leave us.  We know that we must continue to love, and to offer the best that we have within us, even so.  The question is, what power does that knowledge afford us in our congregations–and not just in our dealings with our clergy?

One thing we might learn from the knowledge that our minister will leave–and that our particular relationships with her will end–is that as congregants, we must focus our efforts in what we can do for each other.  In the end, the work we do to build an intentional community, or to intentionally build ourselves and grow spiritually, isn’t between ourselves and our minister.  It’s between ourselves and . . . us.  In this context, a job well done is revealed by the our relationships with one another; the currency that counts is the trust we place and the care we take and the covenants we make and honor.

With those tasks in mind, let’s look around and ask what we might do next.  It is we who stay–to whom should we reach out in offer of connection?  It is we who stay—how might we make the circle bigger?  Can we forgive the one who wronged us?  Listen to the one who irritates us?  Can we hold each other tighter, and can we do it in this season, rather than waiting for a time of crisis?

But–here’s the real mind-trip–our focus in relationship must be about “us” because it ultimately isn’t about us at all.  This idea, of course, isn’t new either.  Many denominational communities view their work as the natural extension of a relationship even more fundamental than what we have with one another–that which we cultivate with God.  Phrased this way, the concept may not resonate with some UU’s, but even we are being pushed to acknowledge something on the order of a Larger Truth.  (Don’t worry, friends, it’s not what you think–but it will demand sacrifices just the same, the first being a lessening of our egos.)  And that truth is: it’s not about you.  Sound a bit familiar?  A piece of this was shared with ministers at General Assembly last summer (See Rev. Dr. Fredric Muir’s 2012 Berry Street Lecture, “From iChurch to Beloved Community”) and has been making its way into congregational discussions since then.

I can be pretty self-centered and even a bit dense at times, but I think I could have figured out “It’s not about U” on my own.  Eventually, anyway.   The real challenge to my fledgling attempts toward the practice of radical hospitality is understanding that my congregational work is not only not about me– it’s also not about anyone else I already know and love.  We need to keep our eyes fixed lovingly on one another not because what we do here is an end in itself (though of course it is, and hopefully a beautiful and healing one), but because what we hold in our hands as our most reverent, connected selves is nothing less than the future.

We will continue to hear this message. In fact, it seems like being a Unitarian Universalist in the current moment means confronting this truth again and again; it is going to continue to creep up on us, tapping us on the shoulders, whispering in our ears, until we adapt to its demands.  And so, reflecting on our tasks as an intentional-community-in-the-face-of-loss becomes part of the larger challenge: to think more broadly about our purposes and our obligations as a people of faith.  We are building something for the future, something that comes through us but is not of us.

In our churches and our fellowships, in the meeting halls and campus buildings and repurposed storefronts–in all those places where a living faith exists–something profound and sacred has been entrusted to our care.  We may enjoy it, live in it, scatter it joyfully around our lives–but it will never fully belong to us.  Like the children in Khalil Gibran’s poem, our religion is not really ours.  In this discussion of losses we face as a congregation, perhaps the greatest is our illusion of self-importance, of ownership.

This summer the Rev. Dr. Lisa Presley advised a group of us that “if Unitarian Universalism has given you something–if this faith it has been a transformative influence in your life, and I think for all of us, it has–then you have no right to close the door behind you.”  Keeping those words in mind, we lean into loss, embracing life before death and the pain of grief after it, because it is the faith that must outlive us–a faith embodied in our healthy, thriving congregations.  Thus, we seize this moment and open our hearts to one another with the full foreknowledge that they will be broken wide open.  In so doing, we keep alive a vital spark, handed to us by those who came before and which we ourselves must pass on, that the work of peace and justice in the world may continue.

Channeling our beloved, but impermanent, minister: May it be so.

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