Fear and Loathing In These Pages

Sometimes I have so much to say that the limiting factors are time and typing speed.  Sometimes I am so deeply challenged by everything that’s going on that all I could write would be a list of questions.  And then, fortunately not so often, there are times like now.  Blinking cursor times. Image

Times when I avoid even sitting down to write because it’s scary to think of what will happen.

I used to be a spelling bee geek; I’d walk around with a single word in my head for simple love of the sound.  Absinthe. EnnuiMacadam.

I’ve learned words this year, too: eschatology, theodicy, cisgendered–but the word on repeat is much less interesting.  Short, sharp, and familiar–and very, very unwelcome. It’s Can’t.

A big mouth in a small body, Can’t never works alone.  It inevitably brings its best friends, Fear and Doubt.  It’s hard to tell for sure, because I’ve been too scared to take a close look—but at a glance, F & D seem huge.   Gigantic, even.  They are definitely the muscle of the operation.  And I know their game—they don’t just intimidate; they grab and hold tenaciously.  So when they appear, I run and hide.   I even avoid the places they like to hang out.  Blank pages, for example–fear and doubt love white space.

But tonight, I’m writing.

Make no mistake; it’s not because I’m brave.  I’d grant fear & doubt adverse possession of this page in a heartbeat if they’d just leave me alone.  It doesn’t work like that, though.  They are expansionists at heart.  Their version of manifest destiny would leave my life looking something like this:

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So, what does a writer do when fear and doubt threaten to take her down for the count?

Well, if you’re me, first you avoid thinking about it.

50 Facebook quips will fill a single-spaced page. 

Failing that, you simply wait for it to pass.

20 days?  30?  Pay for each with small shards of your soul.

And then you start to wonder if you could simply think of that well-worn “lean in” admonishment, sitting with the butterflies and breathing through the dizziness to Just Do It?

Sure, but buckle up: the worst part comes next.  Fear is prickly and Doubt packs a sucker-punch, but certainty sits, hollow yet heavy, right in the middle of your stomach. 

And then you know: You will never be able to do this.  What were you thinking?  You?

And it’s not just about writing anymore.

It’s about everything—dreaming. Trying. Risking.  This certainty says “Don’t. You. Dare.”

If any of this sounds familiar . . . well, first of all, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry you’re struggling.  And I’m sorry that I don’t have an answer, not for either of us.  The thing I can say—that refrain of liberal religion, perhaps the most saving and relevant and real message any of us has to offer—is this: you are not alone.

It is that message, and a friend brave enough to share it, that helped me; it even came with a lovely cartoon.

And today, that was enough.

And so today, I am taking my words back.

And may tomorrow be a day when neither of us loses them.

j

Guidelines and Goodfellas – On Living in Fellowship

This is guest post #3 of 3 in what it means to make the transition from “congregant” to “seminarian” and, ultimately, to “minister.”  Click here to read Rev. Patrick McLaughlin on navigating changed relationships with one’s home congregation, and here for Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern on finding what feeds one’s soul as a minister.  Thanks, now, to Rev. Audette Fulbright, for this perspective on “living by the code”–following a new set of rules in our interactions with our colleagues in ministry.

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Dear UU Seminarians:

Recently, I’ve been walking down memory lane, back to those heady seminary days – back when ministry was so new and mysterious, and seemed to present an unending parade of increasingly complex relationship dynamics. Those age-old questions “Who am I?” and “How do I live in relationship with you?” are essential for ministers at all stages of the journey, but perhaps never more so than when you’re first discovering yourself as a minister.

Early in formation, you will be introduced to critical standards — for example, the UUMA Guidelines for the Conduct of Ministry. It can be scary, and you may not not always be sure where you fit, or how the guidelines will be applied to you. Here’s something to hold onto: these guidelines are, at their best, an invitation to spiritual practice. Consider them in that light.

As those of us in Fellowship welcome you into collegial settings–ministerial groups, partnerships of ministry (think mentoring relationships, internships, teaching ministries)–we all need to share some common understandings of how we will live in relationship. Thus, we make explicit our covenants.  Most commonly, we all agree to abide by the UUMA Guidelines for the Conduct of Ministry. (For the purposes of this discussion, I am not going to address relationships that are conducted outside of formal association with the UUA or membership/anticipated membership in the UUMA.)

But let’s admit it: the UUMA Guidelines are a rather dry and sharp read. While they delineate, they don’t much evoke. That’s ok – the work of the guidelines is to guide. It’s the work of the Fellows to evoke. It’s my job to evoke. Whether in my former role as Good Officer in the Southeast District, in my formal relationships with colleagues and interns, or as a listening ear to those of you in formation, hopefully I can, through conversation, reflection, and example, begin to share with you the beauty and power of what it means to be in Fellowship with one another.

It probably makes sense to start this conversation by looking at the UUMA Guidelines themselves.  With regard to our collegial relationships, they read as follows:

From “Expectations of Conduct:”

“Within the limitations of law, I will respect confidences given me by colleagues and expect them to respect mine.

I will not speak scornfully or in derogation of any colleague in public. In any private conversation concerning a colleague, I will speak responsibly and temperately. I will not solicit or encourage negative comments about a colleague or their ministry.”

And from “Concerns and the Role of the UUMA Good Offices:”

“In most instances, a member who believes a colleague’s behavior to be inconsistent with the Code of Conduct should express their concern directly. As an alternative, or should the direct approach not achieve the desired result, a Chapter Good Offices Person (GOP) should be consulted. A GOP is initially neutral, advising the member, and exploring the possibility of an informal resolution of the concern.”

In a “reading-without-relationship,” you might be tempted to believe that the guidelines are concerned more with appearance than substance.  You might also worry that they are slanted toward making it difficult for us to provide honest feedback to one another.

The living out of these guidelines in Fellowship, however, is quite different. They insist we learn how to deal directly with one another.  They demand that we speak honestly and openly together, in a spirit of inquiry.  And in following them, we have to uncover real concern for someone else’s experience and perspective– that’s something we’re never in a position to understand without their input. Finally, the guidelines create an atmosphere of respect and trust, even when there seems to be a challenge in that.

Fellowship means we are called ethically to assume goodwill, good intention, and that concerns can and will be addressed and resolved. It calls us to hold fast to this promise until it is proven clearly that trust and relationship are just not possible at this time. It holds in front of us the simple truth that there is accountability.  This means a process of discipline within a context of relationship; and it may include a regrettable but sometimes necessary end – the removal from or the refusal of sharing Fellowship.

Living the guidelines as a spiritual practice, especially when it’s difficult, makes us practice right relationship in a very deep way. Viewed this way, the guidelines are understood for what they are: the path to a spirit of trust, a position of respect, and an attitude of inquiry.  To live them together, we must bring a high level of integrity and personal responsibility to a never-ending process of relationship.

Here’s what experience has shown me:  Fellowship means mutual responsibility. It means I need to tend to my own ethical life. And if I am going astray, a good colleague will call me back to my best self.  That person will sit with me and draw attention to concerns by asking questions.  They can help me see problem areas, remind me of my strengths, and encourage me to get help or support if I need it. They may even companion me as I address any wrongs I may have done. Here’s the thing: It’s about discernment and relationship, not judgment and punishment. That’s not to say that we will not be held accountable for wrongdoing. It is only to say that the first goal for all of us is a restoration of wholeness whenever possible.

Guidelines and covenants hold before us high ideals and expectations, but they also are meant to build the bridges necessary for us to reach them.  See them as the planks and beams of what helps create good ministers and ministry: relationships of trust and support, some shared expectations, and a system of accountability to hold it all.

So don’t get hung up by the legalese we use from time to time. It’s meant to call something beautiful from us, and it really can. Let the work transform you, and enjoy the journey into full Fellowship. I can’t wait to see you there.

In faith,

Audette

The Rev. Audette Fulbright is the Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne, WY. Originally from South Carolina, she has made her way to Wyoming by way of Berkeley, CA, Asheville, NC, and Roanoke, VA. Serving congregations and doing community ministry for over 13 years, Audette is an evangelical UU who loves her UU husband, her two cradle-UU daughters, reading, writing, cooking and ballroom dancing, among other – mostly geeky – things. She is very proud to have already been asked to leave Wyoming for annoying the state’s legislators.