One of the sole romantic stories that Unitarian Universalism allows itself is that of English minister John Murray’s arrival on this continent. Widowed and heartbroken, Murray gave up preaching to sail to America and begin his life anew. However, his New York-bound ship became stuck on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey when winds died, and Murray was sent ashore for provisions. There, he came across one Thomas Potter, who, as the story goes, had been waiting for him. For ten years. Potter had built a church, in fact, believing that God would send him a minister to preach the radical message of universalism.
Potter makes a deal with the reluctant Murray that if the ship cannot sail before the sabbath, Murray will come ashore and preach Sunday morning—and ultimately, the American era of Universalism is born.
A miracle, it hath occurred. If this had happened in any other faith, there would be a shrine and a pilgrimage route.
As befits our faith, however, the question I want to consider belongs purely to the pedestrian side of this equation:
Where was the putative congregation in all this?
One assumes that Potter’s offer is predicated on the understanding that there were people, come Sunday, who would wish to be preached to. If so, these people had been waiting for years for the arrival of their minister.*
Possibly the early universalists were more patient than the modern UUs I know. Imagine us, sitting ever so quietly in our pews. Praying, “Send us a minister!”
I have been thinking about this because we modern Unitarian Universalists are in the midst of the season known as “the search process.”
This is where, and how, congregations and ministers find one another.
And for the first time ever, I am a participant. (A player? A pawn?)
The whole baroque process is frequently compared to dating (read: group blind dating, with the intent to marry—it’s more like The Bachelor than dinner with the guy from next door), and there are certainly analogues. A focus on photogenic details. Will-they-call anxiety. Casual social media stalking. The occasional messy breakup. And delightful pieces as well—the unanticipated giddy joy, the previously-uncontemplated attractions, the writing of names, together, for effect.
There are modern sandbars, to be sure. Unexpected blizzards, Skype mishaps, and missed connections literal and figurative have all played a role this season.
And like their early American counterparts, the people are waiting. Have been waiting, in some of these congregations, for years. Finally, we are ready to call a minister.
And yet, unless we plan to put a level of trust and patience in divine providence that would be—let’s say unusual—in this movement, the truth is that “Send us a minister” is not what this process looks like.
Go fishing for a minister, maybe. Purchase a minister on the commodities market, if we forget the deeper call of our theology. But not, generally, “Sit here and wait patiently until someone else sends us one.”
And each year, participants on every side of this expensive and convoluted process lament that. If only God (actually no one says that) If only Keith Kron/the transitions office/the UUA/somebody would just “do the matching for us.”
Send us a minister.
Or send us a sandbar on which we might catch one.
I wasn’t sure when, after months preparing to interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, I’d ever voluntarily read the Cambridge Platform again.
But friends, the answer is now. I am reading it again now, and am considering the magic and miracle of a history that believes that our congregations—that our people—know best.
And so, we don’t “send” ministers.
We cultivate faith and hope . . . and then we send packets. We send paperwork. We send greetings to the people who are themselves the deciders, and thus we decide, with every e-mail, which send-off to use. Sincerely? Too cold. Fondly? Too warm. Warmly? What are we talking about, here? Blessings! (I have “blessed” more people in the past six weeks than in the whole of my life before this. )
And eventually, if things progress to the point of “serious relationship,” we send ourselves, in person.
We ministers in the congregational-polity tradition claim a significant amount of agency over our own futures. Over the spaces in which we will live into our calls. And this is true not merely incidentally, but because the freedom of the pulpit–and the pew–that inheres in our covenantal theology requires this. We choose freely and discern together at every step of the way, practicing and modeling exactly those skills we will need for our journey together in shared ministry.
And yet we grasp, sometimes, for something easier, and there is a reason for that.
Because this is hard.
This year, I’m engaged in this process as a minister, but the truth is, search is also very difficult for our congregations. It’s expensive, and there may be budget worries. It’s time consuming—four hours per week, on average, for an entire year (and that “four hours” gives little perspective; try 20 to 30 hours on precandidating weekends; more if you happen to be the committee chair and de-facto “host”), and everyone is busy.
And yet, these people do this on volunteer hours. They are keeping the faith and communicating a theology of people and place out of love for both. I think we forget this sometimes, both as ministers and as a denomination: that what happens in our congregations—that they exist in the first place, and that they continue to thrive–is a beautiful miracle.
This truth, that we are covenanted, not legislated, holds deep import for how we will search for an engage our ministers.
And yet there’s another piece of this that deserves mention: the heartbreak. This process is a path to heartbreak.
This is true because we meet each other in the same spirit of voluntary openness required to forge true partnership. Our communication happens tentatively at first, and then with greater and greater openness; the kind that leaves hearts on the line. The kind that demands risks, individually and together.
Tears will be shed this spring, my people. They already have been, and what I hope we understand is that this is not a bad thing.
On the contrary.
Because what happens, underneath it all, is that our ministers and our search committees use faith—their own, and our collective assurances—to hold ambiguity, so that everyone else doesn’t have to.
In a free faith, creativity and self-determination are key, and to allow those to be part of the selection process, someone has to tolerate the uncertainty. The search committees, and the candidate ministers: We are the designated feelers in this process. Not to appease the demands of hierarchy, but as a function of democracy. Because our history and our hope are staked on the radical notion that congregations know their needs best and must chart their course freely—and that ministers must be equally free to follow the dictates of their own call and consciences.
A process that takes this equation out of our collective hands, while administratively neater and in many respects, much simpler, would bear little resemblance to what ought to be our touchstone: life in our congregations.
An uncomfortable truth lurking within the 1646 text of the Cambridge Platform is that our congregations do this—hold, know, and care; preach, teach and lead—they do all this—with, and also without their ministers.
We ministers can help hold a vision, but it is unto the members of our congregations that the container for it is entrusted. We ministers can speak to the spark of our highest aspirations, but is our congregations who must keep the literal fires burning.
We remember this at pledge time. But how deep is our consideration of congregational ownership and the sacred demands of a shared ministry in the moments that are mere precursor?
As we send pieces of ourselves—and then our bodies, our families—across the country, repeatedly, in the name of call?
We Unitarian Universalists affirm the democratic principle: one person, one vote. We carry forward the sacred trust of our history. We believe in the bright magic of our dreams.
And so, what other process could there be?
We need a bishop.
It is true, friends, that this process is hard. Holy moments hold space with disillusionment and sometimes, with betrayal. Thousands of dollars are spent, and more are promised. Hopes have grown large, and hearts will yet be broken. But where else, I wonder, are hopes and hearts and dollars on the line? For what larger dance are we rehearsing?
I want, even now, to be making ready for it.
But it would be so much easier if we had a more formal matching process, with fewer choices.
Just send us.
I beg to differ.
This has been an awesomely challenging few months. We are all tired. And certainly, we and this process need both pastoring and guidance from the larger denomination. Beyond Categorical Thinking is a key example of input-from-above that shapes a process with more fairness, and more joy, available for all.
But in the end, I have to cast my lot with the committees and the quorums.
I choose this process for the same reason I choose our congregations, and I hang in when it’s hard for the same reason that we come back to the table, and to our covenants, time and time again.
I have, in the words of poet Adrienne Rich, no choice but “to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”
Those are my people.
And this is all of our process.
Not from a ship, then, and not from denominational authorities, either, but from this long and sometimes awkward dance— from these very committee meetings, these phone calls, these e-mails, these questions and answers and these half-articulated hopes . . .
There is appearing, already on the horizon, the future we have dreamed of.
It is our ministry.
*Fun fact, as best we can tell: The “congregation” was composed of Potter’s friends and neighbors, and they had indeed been waiting for 10 years—because they thought he was an idiot, and that Universalism was a heresy. Our sermon illustrations are at times imperfect. Wrestle with this as you will.