You’re In the (Lord’s) Army Now! UU ministers on moving from “congregant” to “seminarian”

This series of posts arose from a discussion among  Meadville Lombard students about  surprises (some lovely; others less so) that “seminarian” status has brought to our relationships with our home congregations.   The churches we belong to are often full of beloved friends and mentors, and the place where a call to ministry was first voiced and nurtured.  Must we lose our home churches?  These first thoughts are from a minister fresh out of this process: the Rev. Patrick McLaughlin.
Stay tuned for more perspectives.  In the meantime, whether you are a minister, a layperson, or a seminarian yourself, I’d love to hear your take.
-j
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Your relationship with your home congregation starts to change the moment you announce to them that you’re stepping over the congregant-minister line by beginning seminary.This can be strange and unsettling.

I was the newly-former president of the board, deeply embedded and well thought of. I was still on the board, given the governance model (that I helped design and led the implementation of).  In the service where I revealed what I was doing, the reaction was very positive and affirming, but one of the elder members, on the way out through the line, grumbled, “Well, don’t get a big head…“. That was when I started to realize that everything had changed.

In the congregation’s eyes, you have stepped over the line (a line that may have been invisible to you as you started seminary), and are now becoming a minister. You are now an alien creature. And in short order, more and more of the congregation lose track of the becoming part of that. You are a minister. Even if you’re all at sixes and sevens about it, and your grip on your ministerial identity is sketchy, the people who were your fellow congregants don’t necessarily see that, at all.

Seminarians are urged by the UUMA and MFC processes (and even by the demands of seminary) to disengage from lay leadership. You will still engage in work that a lay person might do… but you will do it as a minister. And as you do that, you naturally start to slide out of leadership, and ultimately out the life of the congregation.

Soon, you begin to inhabit a space where the members of your home congregation just experience you as minister. Thus, what you experience is distancing, because you’re encountered and embraced differently. Only your real, personal friends are still (mostly) there as they were before.

“Do you have advice for aspirants/candidates navigating between their home congregations (from which they were called into ministry, usually) and internship and seminary experiences?”

My first advice is to mourn. You’ve just lost your church. Really. In ways that are almost irrecoverable, you’ve lost the church, and in any church you belong to in the future, you’ll always be different from the rest of the congregation. You’ll belong to it, in ways that are deeper, but you’ve lost it, mostly.

You can’t speak freely. And your minister (who is now also your ministerial colleague) is aware that you need to finish crossing the Rubicon. That minister will insist that you live into this new role plus expect you not to “misbehave,”–not to do those things that a lay person might do and get away with, but which are now violations of professional guidelines and codes about how we ministers act and how we treat one another. And so, in a variety of ways: you’re pushed, pulled, dragged, and thrown over that congregant-minister line.  And there is no return.

Do you remember how the process of stepping away from your home congregation worked for you?  How have you honored or maintained a connection with “the place that you came from”?  

Every case is unique. I’d been one of the most active of lay leaders. Search committee, Welcoming Congregation Committee, Building Chair, Committee on Ministry, Board of Trustees — and more. My wife was Worship chair for nearly six years.  So, stepping away was slow, and it was challenging. The first year, I was finishing out the term I’d been elected to on the board. And then, I took on nothing else except what I did as a ministerial student. My family was still very active. I was… there. I’d find myself invited in as a ministerial presence for various functions—but mostly, my task was to figure out how to NOT be an active lay leader, even when and where I so wanted to be. My fingers are flat to this day from sitting on my hands.

Because of the flexibility of Meadville’s part-time program, and my family’s situation and engagement in my home church, we stayed. I just stepped farther and farther away .  .  . and finally, I stepped back entirely. Sort of. With the minister’s support.

This meant more preaching as a minister— and the church made a point of paying me. And later, when my son became the de facto leader of the youth group, I kept the utmost distance (This was not because of him, per se—he was active in urging me to be chaplain for the YRUU summer and winter camps at de Benneville–which I did, and I strongly encourage anyone to do some of that sort of thing at any of our camps). I kept my distance because I didn’t think the congregation could handle and understand the fine lines there. The family remained very engaged, while I became “the minister they were helping grow,” who in the end, would go away.

There was a lot of work involved in educating our congregation around that, as I am the first person to go from that fellowship to seminary, and to be ordained by them. My ordination was one way I honored my congregation. In the meantime, it was a ruthless process of education. By the time of my ordination, we all knew I was going to New Hampshire, so my leaving was part of the charge to the congregation: “Good job. Congratulations! Now let go of this minister, and start the process again with another. That’s your job now.”

It is sometimes said, perhaps with just a bit of wistfulness, that ‘ministers don’t have ministers.’  Is there a congregation in which you participate in worship or other aspects of congregational life?  Who or what ministers to your spiritual needs?” 

Ministers DO have ministers; it just doesn’t look quite the same. First, there’s the minister of my home congregation.  Although she’s now a colleague and equal, and there are places I don’t fully agree with her… she’s going to be “my minister” for a long time, in many ways.

I have others who fulfill that role, too. My internship supervisor will remain a mentor. She is someone who’s invested in me, but who I had a more equal relationship with as the intern—that person is a minister, and I was a minister-in-training.

And there are others, some of them retired colleagues—in fact, this sort of support may be their real role now for many of us. They’ve been through all this, and can sit back, chuckle, offer some sage advice–and some utterly obsolete, dated, useless advice, too. But these experienced ministers are utterly capable of embracing the hurt, loss, confusion, success, and joy experiences and understanding them. Of soothing. Of cheering.

Finally, there are a handful of collegial friends one turns to, in part to kvetch and be kvetched to. “You will never believe what my Committee on Ministry chair has done…”.

On the whole, we don’t “have ministers” in the same way, but we have ministers, still. And in some ways, the relationships are deeper.

-Rev. Patrick McLaughlin

Rev. McLaughlin is a recent graduate of Meadville Lombard Theological School and the newly settled minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester, NH. He is a life-long UU who grew up all over the western United States, as well as in Australia and Belgium. He attributes finding the right congregation to good fortune, a red clown nose, and a warped sense of humor.

taking Communion, and other subversive acts

This weekend, I had a totally unscheduled Sunday morning.  That’s become a rare thing when I’m at home, and one which—oddly—means a decision about where to worship.  Lately, I tend to take these “free” Sundays and either visit a local emergent Christian church or my old ELCA stomping grounds, mainly so I can take Communion.*

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Truth, which I have mentioned before: this feels sneaky.  I’m not sure if internal ethical struggle is innate in my personality, or if this is based on a misguided sense of denominational expectations . . . or if I am responding to actual denominational expectations, perceived indirectly, but accurately.

Regardless, one of my goals for the next few years is to find peace and balance around my own self-care of the soul.  For me, for now—and for the foreseeable future—that includes the Christian rituals that call me back to my best self, grounding me more firmly in my body, yet fixing my attention more compassionately outside of it.

Other than prayer, which is highly portable and available individually, I most yearn for Communion and for the Kyrie–the ritual confession and forgiveness of sins.  It’s not a matter of needing a larger Christian context, I don’t think–I would partake of these elements in my home church, and I have, gratefully, when that’s been a choice.  It’s just that, as part of my deeper spiritual practices, an annual memorializing of these rituals isn’t enough for me.

So now, realizing that I’ve spent years waiting for the desires of my heart and the realities of my church to meet in the middle, one task is to acknowledge the obvious: an intersection of my Christian-based ritual needs and the practices of my UU church is not an achievable goal.  In many ways, I have always known this, and I wouldn’t turn my UU church into something that it is not, even if that were within my power.  But I also don’t want to wish that I were different—what I want, in sacrament as in so many other areas, is to go deeper in my faith: to challenge myself to connect with what matters, and to articulate it where that’s helpful.

Thus, I find myself returning to this question of cloak-and-dagger Christianity, and wondering: why the guilt?  Is secrecy necessary?  I don’t know anyone who “sneaks” to yoga, thinks very carefully about whether to wear Buddha beads to UU worship, or feels like a visit to the local Zen center might somehow indicate disloyalty to their UU faith.  Yet my own desire to make the Lord’s Supper part of my Sunday does feel a bit like I’m two-timing my church. And perhaps, in a sense, I am.  I have no choice, in that they’re both churches.  Scheduled opposite one another. With the rituals in question available in one, and not in another.

What’s a Christ-smitten, UU-dedicated girl to do?  I don’t know. Suggestions welcome.  For myself, I’ve tried to imagine, especially lately as I think about what it would mean to really claim and connect with this ritual, what it might look like to truly make Communion an option in the UU context. One thought: what if there were a bread and wine table somewhere in the building, not once a year, but once a week?  What if we made it so that those of us so inclined could stop by, do our thing, offer bread to one another, pray individually or together?  This time of ritual and reflection, done carefully, might take 10 or 15 minutes; participants might then simply begin, continue with, or rejoin other events of the morning.

On the “Christian” side of this equation, this obviously wouldn’t work for someone with a Catholic approach to the sacrament.  However, it seems unlikely that Christian orthodoxy tries to make a home within UU often, if ever–from what I have observed of UU Christianity, a DIY communion ritual could be a fit for the majority of us.  As for my non-Communing fellow congregants, what might this mean for them?  I was tempted for a moment to assert that the possibility of ritual inclusiveness would change no part of the worship experience of anyone who chose not to participate.  But that’s almost certainly not true, so a question: how might something like this affect others?  What might the presence of bread and wine and a greater awareness that there are practicing Christians among our number change at our church?  What might this challenge?

As I reflect on all of this on a personal level, I am also wrestling with the theological and historical underpinnings of Christian ritual, and Communion in particular.  This is academic—I took three classes last month at Meadvile Lombard, the first of which was African American Humanism.  (I decided that if I were really going to open myself to this experience, I might as well start with what would challenge me, and just reading the title of this class made me feel like a stranger in a strange land.)  The course was one of the most challenging and thought-provoking I’ve ever taken, and I am currently working on a paper about framing communion within “strong humanism” as outlined by my professor (and UU theologian) the Rev. Dr. Anthony Pinn.  Thus, I have been reading–and reading, and reading–about breaking bread together, on our knees and not, and reflecting on what our embrace or rejection of this ritual might mean for us as a liberal faith.

Things I’m discovering: a Christian vision of Communion as a subversive, action-inspiring, and human-focused ritual does exist—it has existed for millennia, and has adherents today.  Again, to be clear: this more human-centered view has Christian adherents.  And also, the familiar, comfortable ritual that brings me so much peace and connection hasn’t always been such a show.  It used to be more humble.  It used to be more real.

There are many great treatises on the history and theology of the Lord’s Supper; I’m happy to provide some resources for further reading if this excites anyone besides yours truly.  For now, though, I’m going to attempt only to provide a bit of context within modern popular culture, through a reflection that Rev. William Willimon, of the United Methodist Church, shares in his book Sunday Dinner: Reflecting on the Lord’s Supper:

[Previously, congregations were seated] at tables, and had a meal which looked and tasted like a meal.  The custom of using individual pressed white tasteless wafers is an extension of medieval preoccupations with the bread as a holy, untouched, spotless portion of Christ’s body.  Over the years both the glasses and the wafers got smaller until the church seemed to have a make-believe meal without food.

Eucharist

Willimon continues:

I finally said “enough is enough” a couple of years ago when I read of a man who . . . has begun marketing a product for those in a hurry.  He produces airtight packets which contain a crackerlike pellet in one compartment and two grams of grape juice in another compartment—a disposable, self-contained, eat-on-the-run Lord’s Supper—“This is my body packaged for you.”  There you have it.  The last hindrance to totally self-contained, self-centered religion is removed . . . Now, thanks to unit packaging, we need never come into contact with or be touched by another human being again.  Just when you thought modern life had depersonalized the gospel to the uttermost, we have another breakthrough—Communion without communion!

And in reflecting upon this, I realized something: that in retreating, for the love of safe ritual and the comfort of what is familiar, to a church not my own, one where I don’t really speak to anyone and one where I incur no obligations–I think I especially love that part– I, too am partaking of Communion without communion.  And what, really, is the value of that?  There is much academic and religious discussion of what “Do this in remembrance of me” might have meant, but I have yet to see an argument that the aspect of gathered community is irrelevant.  That joining together as one, signified by the single loaf of bread from which pieces are shared, is an insignificant part of the ritual.  That I might justifiably avoid what provokes my soul, week after week, for a drive-through wafer and wine experience.

Yep, convicted again.  And so, finally, I chose yesterday to commune rather than to Commune.  On that day, it was the right decision; I got what I needed, if not some of what I wanted, and I helped others to meet their needs as well.

And that, friends, is why we call it the beloved community.

This post could end here.  That would be convenient, but ultimately unhelpful—because the questioning and internal struggle do not end here.  In fact, they simply do not end.  This summer I have discovered that learning about, and indeed, being open to, the powerful messages of humanism neither erased my own theology nor made my questions about it less urgent.  Similarly, this “personal convenience vs. community” struggle will go on in my heart, no matter how I name or explore each side.

This process is a wrestling match, to be sure, but that’s different from a battle: there will not be a “winner.”  Any success will be incremental and personal: gradually, I will develop the strength and patience to truly hold a sense of “both” in a polarizing situation—to simply accommodate what will not be reconciled.  And from there, I might look for creative ways to serve needs more fully, and more beautifully.  It’s hard to think of something more Christian . . . or more humanist . . . than that.

And in the meantime: it’s a serious pain in the ass.  And thus I’m glad that, in this particular case, there is potentially wine involved.

j

*I generally write “communion” in the lower case, even where I’m referring to high-church ritual.  In this post, however, I am following Christian theological convention in capitalization.  My intention in this context is to highlight the distinction, as drawn by Rev. Willimon as quoted in this post, between the ritual act (“Communion”) and the connection with community (“communion”) that may or may not accompany it.

I hate the Indian Paintbrush; it is my favorite flower

I grew up in Wyoming, the child of outdoor-oriented parents who themselves grew up in Wyoming, and the Indian Paintbrush played an almost mythical role in my early years. It’s the state flower, and you hear a fair amount about it . . . whether in school or out hiking, it’s spoken of in near-reverent tones.

Indian Paintbrush are not common in most places, it’s illegal to pick them, and you’d expect—or I did, at least, after all the build-up—that finding one would be tantamount to a religious experience. Indian Paintbrush: it sounds vaguely magical.

This was, of course, before the internet, and we didn’t have a book with a picture of one. So, I imagined the flower, creating something beautiful, delicate, elegant, and a little mysterious.

Everything, I now notice, that Wyoming and my childhood were decidedly not.

Then, when I was about eight, my dad showed me one as we hiked.  Goodness, the thrill of excitement.  Joy, O magical moment.  I caught up with my father—I inherited neither his stride nor his intrinsic awareness of the natural world—looked down . . . and then looked around—and around—frantically trying to find what he was referring to.  It couldn’t be this plant, or that one, or that one over there—these were not beautiful.  These were not delicate.  These were not at all what I had in mind.

photo by Ann Hough/USFWS Mountain Prairie.  Used under Creative Commons license.

photo by Ann Hough/USFWS Mountain Prairie. Used under Creative Commons license.

The Indian Paintbrush is spiky.  It has soft petals, and perhaps a tendency toward showing off, but more than anything it looks like a plant that knows how to take care of itself.  If flowers fought, the flaming red paintbrush would more than hold its own, and would cut quite a figure while doing it.

In short, this is a flower you might admire from a respectful distance; then, you’d leave it to do its thing.  Which is, I suppose, to weather hard winters and long months with little water, to stay strong against the winds, to bloom where and when it may, and to offer its seeds to the prairie.

Upon seeing the paintbrush, I was disappointed to the point of disgust.  This was a flower unworthy of a little girl’s fantasies.  This plant was an embarrassment.  Couldn’t we pick something normal, like the columbine?  (Interestingly, this very question was asked by Wyoming’s politicians at the turn of the last century—more on that here.)

Disillusioned, I felt vaguely embarrassed after that—for myself, for my state, for the flower itself—anytime the Indian Paintbrush was mentioned.  I also felt sadly superior, I who knew that there was nothing to know: I’ve seen it, friends, and that flower is not what you think it is.  It’s not pretty.  We’re just pretending.  Other states have REAL flowers; New York even gets a rose.  I saw plenty of Indian Paintbrush after that, and always noted them, but I don’t think I ever truly looked at one again.

More than a decade later, after my sophomore year at the University of Wyoming, I left the state.  I left suddenly, for reasons that are my own and entirely unrelated to plant life. But I wonder now if I had been, in a way, planning my departure for years . . . perhaps even from the day of that hike with my family.  I had read about so many beautiful things, and it was my bad luck to be born where none of them happened.  Off, then, to find my true destiny, and to put all of this hardscrabble, windswept-prairie business behind me.

Then this past summer I had an experience–a series of experiences–that made me know that it was time to tell a story.  A hard story.  A windy story.  The tenacious, deep-roots-and-spiky-stem-story that, it turns out, has bright red petals at its heart.

Friends, that is MY damned flower.  You can’t take it from me, and I can’t give it away.  I know.  I tried.  But it’s there, waiting.  And it’s here, within me.  It’s hardy.  It’s determined.  It grows and adds color in the extremes of the high desert—it thrives where others cannot even travel.  And, despite the intensity of its “notice-me” foliage, it is, above all things, patient.  It has been here always and will be here always and the only choice is whether I will claim it or continue to hide this story of power and meaning behind a wish for empty beauty.

This is my history.  This is my legacy.  Its roots are interwoven into my future.  Spoken or not, this is my story.  The one I was given, the one that happened, the one that I made.

What’s left is to lift up that spiky, strange and challengingly un-beautiful thing.  What’s left is to tell it.

And so I am.  I have been.  I have begun.  And in the process, I have come to understand that there are more sides to “beautiful” than I ever imagined.  In the process, I have come to realize that I have been standing in the shadows instead of raising my face to the sunlight.

I am awed.  And so very, very grateful.

But there is more, because friends, I have a question for you, too: what’s the spiky part of your story?

What’s the name of the flower that you’d prefer to forsake?  What’s the thing keeping you up at night?  The thing making the days seem long?  What is the thing that you not-so-secretly fear will be the end of you if you look it full in the face?

Name it.  Say it.  You are so right that the story has power.  It will always have power. Name that, too.  And then take it up.  Take it for your own.  You didn’t ask for this, but it is yours.  Even this; it is yours.

You don’t want it on your coffee table, and that’s ok.  Some plants don’t belong in vases. But find it where it grows.  Watch how it is held in the sunlight.  And find yourself held there, too.

You may not be beautiful in the same way your eight-year-old self wanted you to be.  And your story is certainly not the one you chose.  But the sunlight is all yours.  It’s waiting for you.

Some things are simply that extraordinary.

You are simply that extraordinary.

j