“In the meantime”- Rev. Kendyl Gibbons on installing a minister

Installation of Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long at Fairhaven, MA

Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

April 2, 2017

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Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons is the senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, Missouri

Good afternoon, Fairhaven, and friends from all over.  We meet today to formalize and celebrate leadership in our Unitarian Universalist movement, amidst some political turmoil within the leadership of our association.  Issues around racial injustice in this country have commanded our attention as religious liberals since our founding, and we have yet to resolve the tension between the culture of privilege that we inherit, from which many of us benefit and some of us suffer, and the call to justice, equity, and compassion that is never entirely silent at the core of our faith.  Today we find ourselves again in pain over a hiring decision made by good people with good intentions, that has nevertheless served to perpetuate disenfranchisement and systemic power imbalances among us.  The president of our association has resigned from office for the remaining three months of his term.  No one knows for sure exactly what it would mean to get this right for once.  Nevertheless, this is in fact no time for any of us to despair, and despair is the opposite of leadership.

Rather, this is a time not only to face into both our individual and our collective pain, but in fact to be thankful that there is enough capacity among us – even if just barely – for that pain to be recognized by those who carry it and articulated into a space of potential trust, and heard and taken seriously in locations of power.  I am inclined to think that the transformation of our institutional structures that we all long for — even as we struggle with our resistance to meaningful change – will not happen just because forces of privilege become willing to undergo the discomfort of hearing about the pain that people of color experience.   We won’t get there unless that happens, but it’s not enough.  I think we have to be willing to incarnate pain in our institutional experience, and walk through it together, if we are going to learn to actually behave differently.  As we used to say in seminary, “Oh, great; another friggin’ growth opportunity!”   And yet, without those opportunities, as disorienting and difficult and demanding as they are, we are condemned never to move beyond the limitations and injustices of the past.  Choosing to recognize and face into pain is one of the key manifestations of genuine leadership, and it is at the core of what we are gathered here to affirm.

An installation like this shares with a wedding the same dynamic of joyful connection and hope-filled promises for the future; a covenant of fidelity and support, intended to sustain the adventure of mutual discovery and joint accomplishment.  It is wonderful; a high moment of human intention to be sure; deserving of celebration.  And yet, like a wedding, these high hopes and noble promises can only have their end in some form of sadness.  It can be sudden and dramatic tragedy — the minister dies unexpectedly, leaving the congregation heart-broken and grieving.  Overwhelming conflict comes to a head by ousting the minister, leaving bitterness and anger.  It can be a slow, debilitating erosion of integrity or interest — the people stop coming, the minister stops caring.  It can be nobody’s fault — the local employer closes shop, and demographics doom the congregation.  It can be spectacular moral failure — the minister seduces a member of the church, or the treasurer embezzles the endowment and refuses to pay the minister.  Even in the very best case scenario — the minister enters a well-planned and well-funded retirement after years of loyal and skillful work — both the congregation and the minister will still experience a period of poignant loss, confusion, and sorrow.  The longer and more successful the ministry, the more painful that eventual separation.  It’s the same with weddings; the story only ends either with one spouse grieving the loss of the other, or else with both grieving for the loss of the love that had once brought them joy together.

There is no fixing this; it’s inherent in the proposition to begin with.  The sustenance of the particular connections that give shape and meaning to our lives is always balanced by the grief that comes with losing that bond, either to mortality or entropy.  As Robert Frost says, “However it is in some other world, I know that this is the way in ours.”  As long as we are creatures in a world of matter and energy, we know at some level that everything is temporary.  There are people who look to religion for an exception to this law, for some eternal truth or unfailing love that endures when all else dissolves, and that is indeed what many faith traditions promise.  My own life-long religious humanism takes a different approach.  It seems to me that faith is not about the search for something that never fails, but rather the affirmation that the experience made possible through connection, relationship, and community is worth the pain of inevitable loss.

I cannot prove this proposition, of course.  If you were to say to me, “I have been there, and the pain of bereavement, or betrayal, is far greater than any joy I ever found,” I would not argue with you — only you can know the dimensions of your own griefs and gladnesses.  What I can do — what we all do, I suspect, in this strange vocation of ministry — is testify.  I can tell you the stories of those who have given themselves to love and to covenant, and been so enriched that they would do it again and again, despite knowing that heartache is part of the bargain.  I can bear witness out of my own life in leadership that ‘success’ is a kind of seductive phantom, ever in search of more; it is rather the shared effort, the working together itself, that satisfies both in the moment and in memory.  If you really want to build community, take on a demanding project together, and don’t let yourself quit when the going gets tough.  Whether or not you accomplish the goal, you will be known to each other, and changed by each other, in the process, and that is the foundation of authentic community.

It’s the ‘don’t let yourself quit when the going gets tough’ proviso that is the reason for all this hoopla over stuff like installations.  It will be silly, and humiliating, six months from now, for either Jordinn or the members of this congregation to turn around and say, “Oh, never mind; this is harder than we thought!”  This is why our communities of memory and promise are founded upon covenants; because we all need a defense against the impulse of immediate feelings that challenge our best intentions.   It is necessary to be reminded from time to time of what you said you were going to do, and what you really want, over and above the lure of momentary comfort.  There is more to covenant than just noticing when our interests happen to coincide:  “You want to try being a minister?  Oh, good; we are looking for someone to organize and entertain us.  Let’s do this!”  Now I’m not saying that the bureaucratically organized ministerial search process in the UUA is so perfect that calls don’t sometimes come about for such trivial reasons; but what I know is that if ministry works, it has to grow into something deeper and more challenging and at times more aggravating on both sides, than this.  In fact, in this setting, it is hard not to be reminded of Shel Silverstein’s cautionary verse:

 

Have you heard of tiny Melinda Mae,

Who ate a monstrous whale?

She thought she could,

She said she would,

So she started in right at the tail.

 

And everyone said, “You’re much too small,”

But that didn’t bother Melinda at all.

She took little bites and she chewed very slow,

Just like a good girl should…

…And in eighty-nine years she ate that whale,

Because she said she would!

 

I find this particularly apt given Jordinn’s well-known affinity for sea food!

Now, I do not mean to suggest that every misguided decision must always be pursued to the bitter end, nor that any ministry, however fruitful, ought to endure for eighty-nine years, certainly, but I do think there is a word to be offered on behalf of that which we do ‘because we said we would.’  That word is covenant; it is our solemn promises that counteract the randomness of a future in which anything and everything is possible, by committing us in advance to certain relationships and values that we have selected as references points for our unfolding journeys.  We do this in the knowledge aforethought that there will be both ultimate losses, and incidental difficulties along the way.  We do it because what we build with intention, and even with difficulty, is more satisfying in the long run than the pleasures that we happen to encounter randomly wandering around.  We do it in these time-consuming, somewhat anachronistic rituals — like weddings, and installation services — invoking powers that we scarcely know how to name, and only partly believe, because we are seeking some way to give our lives the density, and dignity, and depth that we suspect, with longing, might yet be possible for us to access.

The conservative columnist David Brooks, a perceptive if crotchety observer of progressive culture, once described the paradox of liberal institutionalism as the attempt to ‘build a house of obligation upon a foundation of choice.’  I think he had an accurate point, with specific application to Unitarian Universalism and its insistent basis in covenant.  We tend to reject family legacy, cultural convention, or the dogmas of tradition as constraints in the project of framing either our specific individual lives or the social structures we must share.  We want to make our own commitments of conscience out of an essential freedom; we want to choose our duties and assent to the responsibilities for which we will be held accountable — not because some external force of history or divinity assigned them to us, but like Melinda Mae, because we said we would.  Rather like a long-co-habiting bride, Jordinn’s ministry here is already well underway — what, if anything, changes today?  I suggest that what changes is that you, the congregation, and she, are about to try to name, and call into being by naming, that ‘because we said we would’ that will bind you both to a shared future, despite the certainty of grief which that future holds.  This is an act of faith, on both sides, and let no one tell you otherwise.

It matters that we do this, in both private and collective life, even though there is no escape from eventual loss, because it is precisely what we enact together in the meantime that gives sacred significance to our days.  If we are faithful to the purpose of church, it seems to me that there are two necessarily uncompleted projects in which we are always engaged, and these are the challenges on the ground of which authentic community arises.  The first is to take David Brooks at his word, and demonstrate what it looks like to indeed build a house of obligation upon a foundation of choice.  What does an institution that incarnates the values of Unitarian Universalism look like on the hoof?  When the curious and the spiritually hungry come to these doors, will they see people relating to each other and to the rest of the world as our seven principles would suggest?  If all someone did was to observe your congregation in action, what would they assume the essence of our faith to be?  As I experience it, that essence and those values are counter-cultural; at our best, we are a subversive organization, challenging a success and power idolizing society, bearing witness to the possibility of more compassionate, liberating, and humble human community.  We do this most effectively, if not most often, by exemplifying such relationships, amidst the all the challenges of life in a voluntary organization.  The effort to be the world we want to see is exhilarating, once we get past the trap of constantly judging and blaming each other.  That’s one project to work on together.

The other never ending adventure we share is our own spiritual growth, into the people each of us wants to become.  Many and various are the forces which urge us at every moment to take stock of what we have, and whether we are satisfied with that, but where in the course of our daily lives might we be held accountable for what we are, or what growth we are striving for?  Who asks us to step into spiritual maturity, to aspire to be grown ups, to identify the qualities that would make our lives worthy of honor, emulation, and blessing?  From what I see, if the church is not a place for this, it doesn’t happen anywhere — and this brings us back to covenant.  Because there is nothing gained by trying to apply my aspirations for personal growth to you; rather, my role as a partner in religious community is to hold up the mirror of accountability to what you said you wanted to be; to bear witness to your achievements and failures and continuing efforts to give your life the shape you most deeply believe it ought to have.  We can share insight and inspiration on this journey, but no one else can do the work of spiritual growth on your behalf — that is not the minister’s job, not even one as talented and passionate and beloved as Jordinn is destined to become.  Besides, she has her own inner life to cultivate, with the added challenge of making it transparent enough to serve as an inviting model and summons for all of you.  But in the end, religious community that is founded in freedom of conscience and diversity of expression can only hold together because we said we would; it can only keep us as accountable as we make ourselves in covenant, to one another and the challenges we have chosen to take on together.

 

Today, my friends, we bear witness as you and Jordinn make explicit your stepping into that covenant with one another.  We bring to this moment our full awareness that struggles and parting, as well as joys and fulfillment, lie ahead.  We bring the testimony of our own past experiences, as well as the centuries of our heritage, affirming the promise that religious community offers, is well worth the price that it demands.  With all the hope and wisdom at our disposal, we bless your future together, and lift up your example to our movement and to the world.  May you grow together, and sustain each other; may you find the community that is not self-serving, but other-serving and justice-serving, and in the process, become the greater selves that you have shown each other, in courage and faithfulness, all because today, in this place, in this joyful, poignant moment, you said you would.

View More: http://erinkavanaughphotography.pass.us/jordinn

Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long is the newly installed minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Fairhaven, MA

Though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times [re-covenant in a museum]

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I spent much of this week in a city I deeply love, which is also a place with which I am in the process of becoming something else.  “Visitor” doesn’t quite get there, and “stranger” never will . . .  but I’m learning the balancing act of living in, and loving, two places, while in some cases un-living and perhaps even un-loving.

It’s tough, and I’m doing it unevenly, unequally, and sometimes ungracefully.  And I’m persuaded that there’s no other way; we create and negotiate relationship, and do change rather than cut-off, by feeling our way through.  It’s a challenging thing for humans to straddle the canyons dividing “I” from “thou,” “this” from “that,”; “here” from “there” while maintaining a sense of balance and selfhood.

We simply move forward in trust, and hope that our mistakes might be small and not harmful. 

I could write a lot of words about that, simply from a personal perspective.  But what occurred to me on this particular visit is that in some way, we’re all here together.  Not in Kansas City, of course, though I’m sure the visitor’s bureau would love that.

I mean that we are ALL strangers living in a strange land right now, trying to maintain communion with what is important and beautiful from “before” even as we reach and lean and lurch our way toward an as-yet unknown “after.”

And meanwhile, we live in neither of those places—we instead exist in a “now” that is present, but undefinable.  And in this landscape, it’s hard to know how to balance the ordinariness of life—the tasks, the priorities, the conversations–with the urgent call to push back against what is changing.  And let’s be clear: what’s happening in our nation is not just change—it’s rupture.  Breakage.  It’s a negation of much of what has come before, including values.  Including lives.

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How do we continue to weave with the threads of “any given Friday” when we know that in the background, damage is being done?

How do we go on, having arrived at a place in which it is normal to eat a four dollar cupcake while reading entertainment on one’s phone, and where it is simultaneously only reasonable to be screaming in the streets and demanding change and answers in the halls of power.

If there are answers to be had to these questions, they will come through our wrestling with and bridging two realities, in those moments when we find ourselves standing atop a widening canyon, a foot on both sides.  And we will do the real work of keeping our balance, first and finally, in the ways we always have: through art—word, image, song, act—, through religion (in churches and before the altars of our own hearts), and through human encounter.

And I thus think it’s not only relevant, but perhaps imperative, to tell you that in Kansas City, right this minute, it is possible to physically weave yourself between the threads of a very old song.  Janet Cardiff’s “Motet” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is exploration of public space, of art and musical harmony, of closeness to one another and to God, of sacred music and the secular curation of culture.

And not unlike custom cupcakes and all varieties of screaming in the streets, it is a product of our social and spiritual hunger.

“Motet” is 14 minutes long.  The room contains 40 speakers, some sound panels, tall white walls, leather benches . . . and a polyphonic memory sung, dissected, reconstructed, and explored.

Though removed in time, space, and cultural context, the song is powerful.  Listeners lean in.  They pause, and then linger.  They close their eyes.  Some cry.

And meanwhile, we do the same, trying to understand what is becoming of our nation.

Writing for NPR, Alva Noë reveals his discomfort with public religion and performance art, both, asserting that “There [is] actually something creepy about [Motet]. A room full of robotlike speakers going proxy for absent singers . . . and a museum or gallery is not a sacred space. There was something almost chilling about the performance of such a spiritual offering in such a secular context.”

This same week for Breitbart, Daniel Nussbaum asserted that the National Endowment for the Arts “has become a controversial agency over time . . . [because] taxpayers should not have to fund art they consider to be against their values, or obscene.”

And simultaneously, writing for the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and for Unitarian Universalism as a movement, Rev. Meg Riley said of covenant:  “I wake up in the morning feeling discouraged by the news of the day before…entire pieces of government being eliminated with no sense that anything of value will be lost; many people I know and love scared for their very lives with the new “health care plan,” news media that focuses on the ins and outs of party politics as if that is what I care most about, rather than focusing on how we are to be together and take care of one another in this time.  So our theme of the month, covenant, feels more and more relevant to me . . . [because it means] that we are all responsible to and for one another; that no one is free when others are oppressed.”

We cannot, in short, be separated from one another.  Cause cannot be separated from effect.  And none of us can be cut off from the context from which we hail—not really.  We are a people who cross borders all our lives, in our hearts if not with our very bodies.

And this is precisely the thing.  “Motet” is powerful because it isn’t separated from context.  It is in fact not divorced from anything that has come before—because it cannot be.

And this, wandering through a place that used to be my home but no longer is, is a revelation I can use.

Janet Cardiff’s exposition on infinite loop lays a song in our laps, parsed to be intimately accessible at the same time that it builds and crescendos to something that cannot be held by walls.  It has the audacity to be both right-sized for our ears and much too big to keep or categorize.

And this, friends, is not what religion has finally been brought to by secular culture.  It is, instead, precisely what we’re all achieving together, in the best moments: a faith that meets us where we are, in the confusion and fragility and human scale of “now,” which then carries us, soaring and together, into something more.

“Motet” is a recognition of all the history we have held, and it’s a simultaneous assurance for the next leg of a journey.  That the ancient song continues even amid displacement, that God may be found amid technological advances, that manna falls even amid changing invitations and varying hungers, and is here for us. still

Not unlike our covenants with one another.

That dusty word–covenant–speaks of the promises that return us to one another, and to ourselves.  The kind that are so strong that they can be redeemed even when broken.  The kind that allow us to straddle, sure of balance, the canyon between “here” and “there.”

In covenant, in “Motet,” in Kansas City: we tread familiar paths equipped with different tools, find ourselves returned to the start of all our wanderings and seeing the place with new eyes, and. know in deeper ways than we were able to before.

Sacred song in secular space is not a break.  It’s a return.

And here is its promise as best I know it:

What has come before is not gone.  It is here with us, here for us, still.  Here for the asking, for the hearing, for the singing.

This is what a sacred motet in a heartland museum can mean.  It is what the institution of church, keeping the songs of the people for millennia, can mean.  It is every cathedral with its sermon in stones, every poem, every protest, every hymn trying to name God by tugging the vibrating violin strings of our hearts.

In two days, “Motet” will close.  The song will once again fall silent.

 

But my people: it is nevertheless not too late.

It is not, yet, too late. 

j

we the people

 

Dear white girl from Kansas: I choose them

Wow, it’s been a few years.  More than that, actually—time flies, right?  We don’t keep in touch, and even though we lived and worked less than 30 miles from each other for the last six years, I haven’t seen you.  We don’t send birthday greetings.  I don’t know that I even understood you to be part of my village.

Until now.  By which I mean last week, when you sent me that message, and invoked the “friend” card.

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Don’t worry; you’re not alone.  I know this story.  It happens every now and again.

While we lack anything that might be taken for a relationship, we have a friendship, and you’re invoking it now to let me know I have put it on the line.

For being out of touch? 

For not knowing your kids’ names? 

For forgetting your birthday?

Nope.

For talking about racism. 

See, we can go a long time without talking, but there are some things friends just don’t do.  And I need to know that.  So you’re telling me.

Here’s the post that crossed that friend line:

“If you voted for Trump, and are also “not a racist,” this might be an important thing for you to read. And reflect on. And speak out about.

If this sort of thing is ok with you, well, you’re entitled to your prejudices. And also: we have a word for them.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-attorney-general-jeff-sessions-racist-remarks_us_582cd73ae4b099512f80c0c2

And here’s part of your response:

“I know I am a sensitive person, but when I see that in the title of your post you mention things like “not a racist”, I really feel bothered. Things aren’t always so black and white. I do think it’s possible to identify more with one party- even while not completely loving your candidate- and not be generalized as a racist. I did read [the article about Sessions] and am intrigued by the choice.

I am worried about President Elect Trump and his choices, however I am hoping and praying too and giving him my hope and optimism. I really am trying to be inclusive and forgiving and allowing people a chance, even if they’ve said and done things that they shouldn’t have. . . . “

You go on to remind me to be tolerant, and, above all, that you are not a racist.

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Dear Facebook friend.

Here are some things I value:

Civil discourse

Dialogue, and the magic I have sometimes found in the midst of it

Learning

Relationships

But we are not having a leveled conversation here. 

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And aside from the things listed above—things that I actually do value—you’re making a strong implicit ask for me to prioritize a couple of things that I do not, in fact, value:

“Friendships” with people I’m not really friends with.

Dialogue about two things (potential of hurt feelings; potential of persecution, harassment, and unequal treatment based on skin color) that are categorically, exponentially different, carried on with “pretend like all concerns are equal” as a ground rule.

“Be nice*” as the fundamental edict of white womanhood.

And friend, there’s also something here about honor.  About respectability as a white woman.  About what we believe, but mostly do not say, about “decency” and “playing by The Rules.”

It’s been impossible not to notice—in fact, I think this is one of the great and unwelcome shocks to upper middle class white America during these last few years—that “don’t be racist” is no longer a rule.  It is my experience that it was a rule, at least out loud, for more than a generation and a half.  But it’s clearly not a rule now.

And yet, don’t be mean to other white women is TOTALLY a rule.  Also: don’t talk about hard stuff.  Don’t say what you’re thinking or wondering or worrying about, unless it happens to be birthday party décor.  Don’t you dare—ever— say something that might indirectly call anyone to account.

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Sister, you’re intrigued?

And you’re asking me to be silent in the face of that?

I am not going to play nice with your casual racism, just because the world we have inherited says that “play nice” is in the honor code, and “check your freaking white privilege” is not.

My reality as a minister in a progressive, anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and multiculturalist faith tradition is that I’m standing atop a widening chasm in maintaining my various relationships.  And I’m not sure how much longer I can do it.

I am no longer sure how to occupy space where I give the same amount of energy—more energy, honestly—to dialoguing about your “a little hurt” feelings than to being physically present with those who are afraid for their marriage rights, for their trans child’s ability to use the bathroom without being beaten or intimidated or psychologically and physically brutalized, for their humanity, for their lives.

I can’t play by white girl rules anymore.  They make real conversation, and underneath that, real movement, impossible.

And I don’t think that’s an accident.  I don’t think my complicity with your comfort is value-neutral.

Thus, as to your implicit threats and explicit invitations: I’m trying to imagine the person you think I might be, the one you’re trying to pull me toward becoming.

I don’t think she’s someone I could live with.

And so, when it turns out I can’t bridge the gap anymore, I will have to make a move.  And the truth is, my choice is already made.

If being in relationship with you means preserving your comfort, keeping your thoughts pure and your cheeks tear-stain free …   if to be “friends,” I must choose silence, over and against solidarity with people whose concerns have never been about comfort—who are acting in a hierarchy of needs that doesn’t get past the physical and psychological safety pieces–

Friend, I choose them.

I choose my humanity.

I choose my soul.

Sound stark?  Feel problematic for your sense of hope, or your understanding of, yes, the magic power of dialogue?

It is.  That’s why it’s taken me this long to say this thing, even to myself.  It violates every “nice girl” norm I know.

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But there is indeed an alternative.  And it looks like you doing some work—to get courageous rather than comfortable.  It looks like you living in flexible, contested space for awhile.

Truly, you want to stay in relationship?  Or establish something deeper?  Or simply read my FB public ministry and not feel personally affronted in considering my words to the world?

That would look like you not expecting me to choose silence as a package deal with “friendship.”

Can you do that?  Are you inclined to?

I don’t know.

What I’m sure of: no one will make you.

And that, friend, is what we call privilege.

j

 

*to those who have social value.  Obvs.

**I’m going, now, to humanize this person.  I’m doing it because humanity and complexity are the deepest call of my faith, and I truly believe that we gain nothing—in any conception of “We” worth having—without that generous willingness.  But before I do that, I want to ask you for a favor.  All of you.  Every single person reading this.

Take a moment, and consider who we are not willing to humanize in our narratives.  To whom do we not offer this gift—this sacred responsibility belonging not to the people we choose to talk about, but to ourselves, as story-tellers?  Who are “thugs” in our narratives, rather than sons, scholars, dads, grads, promise, potential, our future?  Who are “illegal,” in your story, instead of brilliant daughters, future doctors, terrorized toddlers, and the many-centuried hope not just of American shores, but the hope of our nation itself?

I will show you the fuller humanity of this white woman, because we all deserve it.  But remember this: we all deserve it.  And the next time you want someone to look upon you positively in your own story, I invite you to work twice as hard to reframe your internal narrative about someone else.  Especially when it’s challenging.  You’ll know you’re on the right track when you surprise yourself.

So:  this open letter is part of a real exchange, with a real person.  I don’t know if we’re friends now, or if we will be in the future.  I do know that she’s stayed in dialogue as our conversation has continued beyond this point.  I know that she’s been courageous and willing to listen.  I know that she’s working hard to open her heart and hear other, larger stories—and that we can receive that as a gift, because although it is a bullshit way to allocate resources, privilege is real, and it makes willingness optional.  Call-in helps.  So does a willingness to answer when called.

In short, “White girl from Kansas” just might be more impressive than you give her credit for.  May that possibility mean something when it matters.

Someday comes the choosing

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source: Pixabay

There are always some of us living in whispers, tiptoeing through places both as transient as the bus station and insubstantial as the spring spiderweb.

Liminal space:  where our lives stretch taut between past and future; the charged moment; the pregnant pause.

This week, UU ministers and congregations are nearing the end of the search process. Whittling down. Narrowing toward decisions.

Our family is among these, and like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, our children give voice to the questions. (In childhood, fun and wonder occur on an annual cycle, and so our sons are constantly planning for the next go round. “Next year, can we . . .?” )

These entreaties are as predictable as the slam of the screen door in summer, and I’ve never had cause to give them more than a passing thought.

Yes, of course we will go to the pumpkin patch. Yes, of course we can pick apples. Yes, we will have Thanksgiving with–

Until now.

The bland assurances die in my throat.   (I have . . . no idea, friends.)

Eventually, I take a breath, and say with firm cheer that we will DEFINITELY be somewhere, doing something.

Which is apparently as reassuring to them as it is to me. The boys teeter for a moment between the floor-gripping horror of childhood’s early years and the skeptical derision of its middle ones, and then they request specifics. And so we begin again with the litany of possibility, repeated and embellished from day to day.

Yes, I think they have pumpkins in Smithville. Indeed, there are tacos in Springfield.

I promise that Santa will find us on Christmas, and yes, I am positive that we can find someone to make you the dragon fortress cookie for your birthday. (Note to self: am I positive? Will there still be birthday cookies?)

And remember: they have [insert whatever fairy tale feature makes each place a little more delectable . . and a little more unreal].

And so, the boys return again to the maps. Pointing with fingers that are no longer quite so tiny, at the ponds and coastlines and contours that may see these small, curious boy-hands into teenagerhood.

Behind them, out the window, the last stand of hardwood forest in a neighborhood now standing atop it. Beyond that, hills and limestone and prairie, a land of green plains moving westward, flattening as the sky opens wide above them.

These are strange days. A bit fraught. A bit magical. The lobster holds court with the western meadowlark, and cathedral spires rise with the peal of bells over our beloved prairie.

And everywhere around us, the larger country of the unknown; the place in which a map is always yearned for, and for which none shall ever be created.

This unknowing is, I suspect, what drives us mad about liminal space. We feel rootless. Groundless. Unable to build.

But that isn’t entirely true.

Yesterday, in a moving Easter liturgy, Kendyl Gibbons pointed out that the blunt obviousness of salvation by literal, organic presence “was never the point.” The point, instead? That enduring vision is what makes a way out of no way.

My friends, we can, indeed, build in this space. It’s just that we can’t anchor here.

We are building visions, and containing possibilities too grand to exist on the everyday scale. There is no room in the realities we inhabit for the lobster and the meadowlark to live together. There will be no Italian marble on the prairie, no waving wheat in Waterbury.

We choose, in the end, the path less taken (or the one more familiar, come to that) because in the real world, eventually, we must. But not yet. Not here. Here, for an eternity both precious and painful, we can build it all.

And so, we are dreaming, together.

Next comes the choosing. The dawning. The litany, made real.

But for now, there is just this moment, made sacred by our hopes.

For now, let us, each and all, dream.

j

Send us a Minister! (reporting live, from Unitarian Universalism’s Big Dance)

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?)

White chess pawn standing on chessboard

 

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.

SUDBURY, MASSACHUSETTS:  18th century First Parish Unitarian Church

SUDBURY, MA- First Parish Unitarian Church Not currently in search, friends.  🙂

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.

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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.

Brown mail delivery package with tag

No.

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.        

Together.

Amen.

j

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*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.

A container for grace: reflections on white people, privilege, and pitchforks

Woman hand pointing down

These past couple of months, I have been dealing with the fallout from a mistake I made in trying to talk meaningfully about my own white privilege. I shared a facebook post from a seminarian of color, and in doing so, took out a lighthearted hashtag in a deadly-serious paragraph, which I feared my own readers would interpret as a permission not to take my colleague’s words with the reflectivity that they otherwise might. I then wrote to this seminarian to explain what I’d done and ask if it was ok.

It was, to put it mildly, not ok.  Values at issue here included my space-taking and assumptive behavior as a white woman, and a larger obligation to think, and then to think harder, before acting. And there is also, probably, the obnoxiousness of the post I wrote in the first place. No one has said so, but the meditation I wrote to introduce my colleague’s post to my circle of friends feels to me to have touched the white privilege discussion only insofar as naming it and concluding that, “basically, I don’t have to give a shit.”

No, I didn’t precisely say that. And I didn’t mean that, either. Except that I actually sort of did, and having since sat through two excruciating white-folks-talk-about-race panel discussions, I am beginning to think that we white people actually do this a lot as a starting point. (“I have privilege! You probably don’t! Here’s what privilege looks like! WOW, my life is easier!”) It can sound a lot like Criming While White, but for mommy bloggers, and I’m wrestling with whether this piece of our work is even something that’s helpful to do publicly.

At any rate, that happened, and what I came to understand in the ensuing back and forth with this seminarian, my mentors, and my fellow colleagues in formation is that there are many different values around sharing posts, editing words, and claiming space.

And also, I came to understand something else.

Which is that we as Unitarian Universalists have no framework for dealing with true transgression among us—and lacking such a container, find ourselves equally unable to offer grace.

My mistake, from the very beginning, was dealt with extremely publicly, and the responses from my white colleagues fell into two binary buckets (with a third, HUGE space we’ll call “utter silence”).

Two plastic buckets, one full, one empty

That first bucket was “Say it ain’t so!” I’ve held a couple of visible leadership positions in the seminarian community, and my making this kind of mistake was apparently rather stunning for some. I received message after message indicating, “I KNOW this isn’t right—you didn’t do this.”

Oh, friends. Oh, but I did.

Publically, this side of the discourse looked like, “Don’t talk about Jordinn like that!,” and subsequent attempts to shut down discussion of transgression, and of racism in our seminarian community, because this particular incident and its framing felt unfair.

The other bucket, meanwhile, was, “Shame on you!” A seminarian from another school went so far as to say, “When I think that someone among us, someone preparing for ministry, would do SOMETHING LIKE THIS . . . ” Another invited me to reconsider my call. At my own seminary, several of my classmates declined to stand next to me at our weekly vespers service, and one went so far as to refuse to look me in the eye.

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In short, this situation was keen to enforce its own script, and the roles were limited to two dimensions. One was called “Victim.” One was called “Perpetrator.”

That’s the same script on two different sides– and it tries to restrict access to people as complex individuals, constantly in the midst of learning, with behaviors and understandings that sometimes are on mark, and other times miss it and require correction. This script was tempting in a time of great anxiety, however, and I watched even people I knew consider it. And I get it. It’s critically important that I in no way be representative of the larger seminarian community if I’m going to mess up around race—because that would mean that we all have work to do. Or, scarier still, it could mean that we are not going to be able to do all of the work that we need to before the moments when we are called to speak about race.

It could in fact mean that we are going, inevitably, to fall short sometimes. To find ourselves, each of us, on the lesser side of our hopes, or called to see the shortcomings underneath our intentions.

It is perhaps interesting that during this same period, I’ve been doing a lot of pulpit supply, preaching a sermon about sin. It’s Lent, and it’s a good sermon: funny, poignant—and provocative.

It provokes because I am taking pains to explain to Unitarian Universalists—to my people, many of whom have never voluntarily observed Lent and for whom “repent” is maybe an actual cuss word—that our screw ups are indeed inevitable. And that when we accept this reality, it frees us—we become prophets able to live our faith with both integrity and gentleness. We walk with humility, take responsibility in our errors, and extend the hand of healing without encumbering our love with the concern that the person we’re reaching out to may not “deserve” it.

I preach this sermon wholeheartedly, but if I could hold my breath while doing that, I would. Because pushback around anything that suggests a mere whiff of guilt is inevitable in this current moment in our tradition.

And so I was not surprised a few weeks ago in Topeka when a man came up to me and said, I have a gripe with your sermon.

I was surprised, however, about what he suggested I add to my theology: the idea that “sin” should mean only that we have set the bar too high. And that when we understand that, then our screw ups really aren’t screw ups at all.

Stand back, y’all.

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There is indeed a bar here, and perhaps we should take a moment to look at it, and to consider our commitments as people of transformative faith.

I self-importantly edited someone else’s words, acting in my own arrogance. More recently, I yelled at my older son in my own impatience, and just this morning spoke unkindly to a friend out of my own sadness. I have definitely, in this past week, failed to act where I knew better and drawn uncharitable conclusions where I know nothing and also coveted things not my own. I have broken promises, some quite willfully, and while I don’t have Rob Eller-Isaacs’ litany of atonement memorized, but I’m pretty sure I’ve done everything in it to which we might ritually confess. Probably twice.

Also, just last week, seven people were apparently shot by one person in Florida, word comes from Germany that a man chose to deliberately kill 150 people by crashing a plane into a mountain, and the governor of Indiana signed a bill into law allowing optional discrimination against those who identify as GLBT.

But not to worry. We have all just set that damned bar too far beyond our reach.

Denial. It’s what’s for breakfast.

And oddly, I think it’s precisely this inclination toward denial that spawns both the frenzied grabbing of pitchforks that we UUs sometimes do, and the post-pitchfork mystification about what we might then do next. We screw up when we could do better. We screw up when we don’t know how to do better. We screw up when we don’t want to be bothered with doing better.

And in each of those moments, that bar is exactly where it needs to be. It’s not there to shame us. It’s there to set the mark that calls us forward.

And my people, we are that bar. We, so often, are all we have to call each other forward.

So we’d better learn to do it in a way that saves. What we need, y’all, is grace. The kind that finds us where we are. Here. Now. As we stand, leaping for that bar, and missing.

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The trouble is that waiting to offer grace until we think that the other person deserves it is in fact the farthest thing from grace. It’s instead a quid pro quo ritual of the oldest sort, one performed at the edge of an abyss.   Someone needs to pay, and if we can simply figure out whom to push from the cliff, we can feel reassured that our spaces are once again transgression-free. And if in the ensuing conflict-free silence, we detect a whiff of terror . . .   well, at least it keeps our discussions simple and manageable. Who will take the risk to act otherwise?

Friends, our shame around whiteness and our horror at its costs are things we must begin to hold, to process, and to grieve. Even as we learn.

This particular error was a small one in the larger landscape of my own racism. And the truth is, pointing this out does nothing to lessen my involvement in enacting privilege—I’ve certainly done worse, and more cluelessly, and you probably have, too. And in those moments, we may in fact have had our actions not called out but condoned. This system does that.

But without a space able to hold the complexity in each of us—to hold us, sinners all—it becomes critically important that any error that taps into communal shame be an affront so egregious that it’s sure to be a one-off. Not the entitled rudeness that’s common as mud. Not the kind of mistake, in short, that you might make. Tomorrow. Or even sooner.

I heard it asserted, and repeatedly, that I “plagiarized something or other,” or “attacked a seminarian of color.” Consider what it means if we can’t find a space to sit with what actually happened, to ask curious questions about it, to attempt to understand how an inquiry about a hashtag could come to this.

Because it could. It did. And no additional elements are needed for that to be true— so what might happen if we claim some space, in love, to look at the ways in which we humans can hurt one another?

Without this space, what we have is silence, binaries . . . and a very tall cliff.

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Also, statements like the one from the seminarian who suggested that the responsible thing to have done would be to have known better than to screw up in the first place.

When 10 of my colleagues “liked” that comment, I knew we were in trouble . . . and friends, we are. Individually, collectively, in this space and in many others. In places where there is no identified space. On Facebook, and off of it.

Our shared dialogue is imperiled, and this conversation isn’t why—it’s simply symptomatic.

Without the courage to try, the humility to own failure, and the grace to stand up, extend a palm, and start again, there is no way for us to walk forward together.

We have to have conversations we’ve never attempted before. We have to learn to walk with people we’ve never loved before. We have to flex leadership muscles we haven’t used before.

And right now, we are failing to try. That third, silent bucket—the opt out between the two poles—it’s looking pretty good right now. It’s risk-free not to speak up.

Because the responsible thing is not to make the mistake in the first place. We are responsible people when we know better than to make mistakes.  

Truth: this stance is not responsible. It is not helpful. It is not honest. And yet, the bar is still there. And it’s not too high if we are to be people of transformative faith. Though it is quite true that our efforts will often fall short.

That’s a complex space in which to live, but it is our space. And calling ourselves humanists while denying that a lived truth of humanity is that we screw things up, all the time, makes us complicit in the same mental gymnastics and wishful thinking that our theology was designed to eschew.

No acceptance of transgression; no offering of grace.

And that means “cliff,” every time.

How excellent, then, that there are other choices. And how salvific that we have some spaces in which we might attempt them.

One framework might look like this:

For a given situation, let us do some discernment around what is and isn’t our business. Let us find inside of ourselves the muscle we might call our “holy courage.” Let us power it with love. And let us then learn to ask good questions from a place of curiosity.

We can use tools like this to help.

And let us, finally, get a handle on failure and the feelings that come with it.

What does disappointment mean to me? Can I handle it in others? Can I tolerate it in myself?

Do I feel like failure deserves to be met with shame? Where does that come from? Is it serving me—and more importantly, is it serving the larger We?

We must dare to envision something more. A place big enough to hold us all, and which isn’t content merely to hold us—challenge yourself to envision the place which dares to call us all into our next selves.

Let us dare to imagine more beauty. Let us dare to act with more courage, which so very often means with more love.

This sounds like a vision of perfection . . . I submit that it’s more likely the result of dealing truthfully with our shortcomings. They don’t have to scare us to teach us . . . and those who shame us cannot lead us.

In faith, my people.

j

Goofus and Gallant: interview how-tos for seminarians

Dear Readers: Raising Faith is delighted to bring you guest posts from ministers–those who have walked in your shoes, and those who, like the Rev. Meg Riley, just might ask you to come walk awhile alongside them in an internship . . . if you play your cards right this interview season.  Read on, and then get that resume ready.  

j

Student at Laptop

It’s interview season for ministerial fellows at the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which makes me remember the great and not-so-great interviews of years gone by. There’s something I’ve wanted to say to seminarians for a while but haven’t had a good platform, so I was happy when Jordinn told me she often opens up her space to guest-bloggers for just such occasions! So here goes:

When I was a kid, there was a magazine called “Highlights” that I only ever saw in the dentist’s or doctor’s office. My favorite piece was called “Goofus and Gallant” and it featured black and white drawings of two boys–one did everything just right and the other was totally rude. I, of course, loved Goofus, and loved to read about his exploits, and thought Gallant was a total bore and suck-up. But now, as an interviewer and supervisor, I’ll pick Gallant every time.

So here, without drawings, is my depiction of how Goofus and Gallant answer interview questions at the CLF. And, though I’ve changed specifics, I swear to you that I have heard variations on Goofus’ answers and seen Goofus’ behaviors too many times to count by now.

Question: Why do you want to work with the Church of the Larger Fellowship?

Goofus: I’m planning to live on a Greek island for a while, and this is the only internship I can have while I do that. So it’s really important that I get it—in fact I need it! It will work perfectly for me!

Gallant: The Church of the Larger Fellowship does compelling and important work, and I want to be part of the team that’s doing it!

(Hint: It’s not about you. This is a fluff question. If you don’t really think the CLF does compelling work, and it’s truly your only option for an internship, then lie and tell us what we do is fascinating. Or better yet, wait for the opportunity to apply someplace you find more exciting. Your ministry will benefit from your discernment . . . and so will ours.)

Question: What is it about our work that you find compelling?

Goofus: To tell you the truth, I haven’t followed it that closely. I just haven’t had time. I’m really busy. I know you have a … website?

Gallant: I have looked at your websites, visited your online worship, followed you on facebook, and read your daily meditation. I think what is most compelling to me is that you are creating a real, vibrant, online community and I am really curious about how you do that.

(Hint: If you didn’t take time to research us, we wonder why you’re comfortable taking our time now to interview you. We’re online, for God’s sake.  In five minutes you could have learned enough to bluff your way through this interview–though if you really want to impress us, you’ll go deeper in your detective work.)

Question: What are your growing edges in ministry?

Goofus: Self-care. I really need to take better care of myself. I’ll be looking to add yoga to my acupuncture, meditation, sea-shanty chorus, and long-distance roller skating schedule.

Gallant: I am excited to see how my skills from a bricks and mortar church will translate to an online ministry. I think I’ll be growing in every direction as I do this new thing!

(Hint: Later, if you do end up working with us and it seems like self-care is an issue, we’ll be really interested to help you with that. But right now, as you come in the door, we want to know that you are motivated to learn what we want to teach!)

Interviewer: That’s all the questions we have. Do you have questions for us?

Goofus: Yes. I have a lot of them. Will you pay my way to GA? Will you buy me a new computer, because mine is old? Will you give me six weeks off in the winter to attend intensive classes? Will you pay my way to training for video classes?

Gallant: Yes. I have a lot of questions, of many different kinds. Has anyone ever said they were suicidal on Facebook, and what did you do? I’ve noticed that sometimes the sharing in worship gets really intense about difficult life circumstances. Do you follow up with the people who share in any way? I’m also wondering what supervision looks like, and how I will interact with all of the other fellows at the CLF. Oh, and I also have some questions about equipment and time for seminary classes that I’d like to ask you at some point.

Hint: If the only questions you have are about your needs, we wonder when and if you are going to start thinking about the actual ministry that this position involves. For now, you are trying to win us over. These are very good questions to ask if offered the position, as you consider whether to accept it. Because after we’ve thought through all of the people we interviewed, gotten most excited about you, and selected you, then meeting your needs for time and equipment and support will be important to us—at that point we’ll think we can’t live without you! But before we have decided we want you to work with us, you are basically giving us a list of obstacles– and those are reasons to choose someone else.

Additional dos and don’ts :

  • Goofus shows up disheveled, in pajamas, in a dark room with bad wifi.

Gallant checks out wifi capability in advance, practices with a friend, creates a nice visual space and puts on actual professional style clothes.

  • Goofus eats breakfast during the interview and answers texts on a smartphone. (“Sorry. It was a friend about dinner tonight and I had to take it.”)

Gallant looks alert and gives the interview full attention.

In a nutshell: Do your homework. Look (better yet: BE!) hungry for real learning. Give the interview your full attention. And above all: show us what this organization stands to gain if we bring you on board.

Remember that the CLF mission –like the mission of every other teaching congregation–is not to minister to seminarians but to engage seminarians in ministering to the world.

Good luck! Now show us what you’ve got. Rev. Meg Riley

Meg-Brown-hair

Rev. Meg Riley is Senior Minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a UU congregation without walls. She has, by now, interviewed dozens of people to work with her on various projects, and has a pretty good knack for knowing who will work. Riley loves nothing in life more than a strong team, but by now she has decided she’d prefer to go it alone than try to wangle a Goofus into a Gallant.

Wait. Or, why seminarians don’t blog.

drop of blood isolated

A couple of years ago, I used to celebrate a Thursday night writing ritual with a bunch of other mommy bloggers.  It was called Five Minute Fridays, and the idea was to write for five minutes flat on a particular theme.  No edits.  No takebacks.  Feel it, write it, post it, link it.  The post came out just before midnight, and I’d stay up late and revel in the deliciousness.

I loved FMF.  I love to write like I love to run, and I bet even those of you who don’t love either can see that there’s a big difference between dashing through a field of wildflowers, laughing for the sheer joy of it, and running timed laps on a track.

Five Minute Friday, for me, was the field.  It was a place where I could play.

Until I couldn’t. 

I stopped writing FMF right around the time I entered seminary in an official way.  It became challenging even before that, though, as this blog and to some extent my formation process gained a following I never expected.  I spent awhile wrestling with that—layperson vs. seminarian, private citizen vs. public representative, mine vs. ours—and then, eventually, I quit.  In the end, there was no fighting it, not if I wanted to follow this call.  I stopped posting well before I stopped writing, and eventually, I took the entire adventure off my blog.

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There are things you give up on this journey, and no edits, no takebacks, write-what-you-feel is among the first.

And it should be.  Do you want a minister who says, in print, whatever enters her mind at any given moment?  As a representative of your congregation?  As a representative of Unitarian Universalism, or of people of faith, generally?

Of course you don’t.

And so, there are tradeoffs.  You learn, in short, to govern yourself.

A minister I know explained to me a few months ago that she doesn’t feel called to do any particular filtering of her communications, in writing or anywhere else, because the filtering is built into her very identity.  “I am,” she explained, “fully a minister wherever I go—equally so in the pulpit and at the grocery store.  This is part of living into the calling.”

Personally, I cannot at this moment conceive of having thoughts which confine themselves exclusively to the realm of “appropriate public ministerial presence.”  In fact, unless the latter part of seminary education includes a lobotomy, I don’t anticipate ever approaching my identity in quite that way.

And so for me, at least, it’s a question of boundaries.  What I choose to say, and how and where, and what tools I will use to discern it.

And for now, that takes time.  It takes conscientious effort.  And it takes a sense of what the outer limits are.

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You can still be real, inasmuch as anyone can be, on a page.

You can still be vulnerable, if you’ve weighed the risks and benefits and can stand in self-differentiated space with what comes next.

You cannot, however, be raw.

“Don’t bleed on the congregation” is what we tell those taking the pulpit for the first time with a personal story in hand.

It holds here, too.

And that, more than anything, is why I cannot do Five Minute Friday . . . not out loud.  Raw is what gets left on the cutting floor.  Sure, I fix a few typos, fill in some bridge material, and wrestle my inner wordiness demon to the ground.  In between the lines of all of that, though, my editing process is mostly mopping up the blood.

Thus, some of the hardest things I’ve written about here have been on ice for more than six months before being posted.  I have a piece in the works, now, that may actually never see the light of day, at least for any public purpose.  And “hard” or not, there is virtually nothing I post here that doesn’t go through formal editing with draftreaders, feedback, and changes.

My words are my public face.  And my public face, now and going forward, is ministry.

This filtering process is time-consuming.

It’s exhausting, even.

And it’s necessary.

Meanwhile, in the midst of ongoing structuring and editing of my long form pieces, much of my writing is being diverted to other places.  In addition to sermons (a number) and seminary essays (a large number), I have spent the last year experimenting with microblogging—writing shorter meditations and reflections intended for Facebook.  I’ve been posting these publicly, and it’s been a leap of faith, as I try to find a ministerial voice as myself, and not just as my Raising Faith alter ego.

It’s school of hard knocks a lot of the time.  How best can I talk with people who know and care for me, but not necessarily for my ministry?  How might I be a bridge for some of the harder conversations we need to have in this moment in our society?  How can I ethically and respectfully share the words of others while advancing a message that is my own?

In addition to being time consuming, this side of online ministry has also proved frustrating—interactions on challenging topics are indeed happening, and there is little that exposes my growing edges as quickly or as fully as opening myself to true dialogue.  It is hard to be myself as individual and grow into myself as minister while trying also to act my way into the humble, honest reaching out and truth-speaking that I believe is needed right now.

Amid all of this experimentation and musing and flying by seat of my pants, I am deeply grateful to my people—those of you who are primarily from the “real life” side of my world—the people who know me as me, and demand that I keep it real, always— who have also hung in there through this time of change and challenge.

If, on the other hand, you only know me here, please feel welcome to find me on Facebook.  Search “Jordinn Nelson Long,” and hit “follow.”  Comments are enabled . . . it’s an experiment that I’m going to continue, for now, as we all learn together.

The conversation may not always happen here, but it is happening.  And I’d love to hear from you.

 

And finally, I have something to say—about this blog, and about why I have sometimes wondered if I shouldn’t—to those of you who are finding this site as prospective seminarians.  There are a bunch of you each spring (this is our third year at this, gang—can you believe it?), and this year, I’ve been wishing I could speak to you more directly.  And finally, it occurred to me that perhaps I can.  So I shall.

There is indeed a lot of great content here that will help you on your journey.  I took only a coordinating role in most of it.  There’s great advice from ministers (ie, your senior colleagues) in a three-part post about making this transition in your life.  There’s also great advice from your seminary colleagues here, and some tips about the application process here, and something to make you laugh (though perhaps moreso once you’re actually in seminary) here.

Read these things.  They are here because I wished for them when I was in your place.

What I want to talk to you about, though, is other stuff.  Things like this and this.  I cringe when you find them, and even more when you share them, and I wonder if, like Five Minute Friday, I should just take them down.

And I think about a time a couple of years ago when a ministry mentor asked me what I thought I was doing with my blog.  I explained that it was just a space to sort out my thoughts and post my long-form essays, and she said, “I understand what you’re putting there.  I just don’t understand why.”

We talked more, and aside from disbelief that anyone would possibly want to read the tortured ravings of an emo seminarian (and I’m not arguing with her; I’m not sure why anyone would, either), she expressed one other thought: if you’re going to post these things, you’re going to have to keep going.  People looking are going to need to see the range.  They’ll be looking to see that you grow.

And that’s exactly the thing, dear prospective-seminarian googlers.  I worry about you who look and see only a snapshot—and right at that scary, heady moment when you’ve realized that whisper in your ear isn’t going anywhere and you’re deciding whether you might stop running from it and say “yes.”

Here’s the rub, and maybe I should go back and write this at the bottom of every page.  It gets better.  It gets deeper.  If you indeed love it—this calling, this process—you will love it with all your heart and all your soul.

Unfortunately, formation defies words in some key ways—and so I now understand more why my mentors couldn’t say much more than “It’s SO worth it” and “Trust this” and “You’ll be fine.”

So I can’t really write you an explanation, any more than they could give me one.  All I have is a testimony, and perhaps it’s actually an artifact of history, one told, mentor to mentee, across generations:

It’s worth it.  Trust this.  You will be fine. 

Keep that with you, and don’t listen overmuch to anything else I may have said.

Each post is just a snapshot in time, like so many others.  Read it, file it, and keep walking.  I did.

And eventually, I found another word.

Wait.

That was the Five Minute Friday word last week.  It’s been many months, more than a year, since I last looked, and things have changed significantly both there and here in the meantime.  But that word is my word, and now I give it to you, too.  To all of you, and most especially to me.

Wait.

This word, above all else.

That is this process.

And that is why seminarians don’t blog.

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*We do blog, actually.  Obviously.  Case in point.  But it does become hard at times.  We do still believe in blogging, and we still have things to say.

It’s just hard.  And for more on that, read Claire.

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.

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.
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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.