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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Rev. Patrick McLaughlin

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

rocks, rivers, and rough transitions

Tonight I attended an incredibly inspiring presentation from our church’s Lifelong Learning Task Force.  Together, a diverse team of leaders shared a vision of religious education–for kids, for adults, for youth, for seniors.  It was articulate.  It was moving.  And, hopefully only for me, it was sad.

After sharing what religious education could look like, and why it matters, a team member invited us to close our eyes as she led us through a guided meditation and visualization.  She instructed us to reflect on the messages we had just heard, and then to envision our own piece of the puzzle–where we might fit in this beautiful picture of the future.

I followed these instructions.*  And as I did I realized, with a knife-edge of sadness, that my own answer is:  I don’t.

Not really, anyway.  Not for now, and less with every passing month.  My job in the next year is to love, to learn . . . and to let go.

I don’t have to do this without support, fortunately . . . and what deep gratitude I feel for those around me who can help.  It–apparently–takes a lot of self-reflection, discussion, and of course, meetings, to be formed (to form oneself?) as a minister.  To that end,  I have, or soon will, a minister, a therapist, a Spiritual Director (wondering what that is?  me, too–I’ll get back to you on that), an In-Care committee, a teaching pastor, an academic advisor and a chaplain.  And probably, somewhere, a large partridge in a pear tree.

What I no longer have . . . what I’m trading in a deal that has never felt transactional in nature, but nevertheless has some of the steepest costs of anything I’ve ever attempted . . . is the security of the covenantal relationship with my fellow congregants.

Our job is to build the future, but my own days within that future, at least in this congregation, are numbered.  Of course, that’s true for all of us–we take a break, we move, we have a change in life circumstances . . . and someday, certainly, we die.  May the spark continue, though we ourselves will not.   I embrace this message, painful though it is; the work we are doing together is simply too important not to.  And of course it’s because I believe so very deeply in the importance of this work that I feel called to further it.

It’s just that I naively did not realize that this call, not merely to ministry, but to die, in part, to my previous congregational life, meant me–or that it meant now.  (Seminary is long, I can’t even imagine the person I’m going to become, and I’m not sure I want to do parish ministry, anyway . . . surely I can just stay happily ensconced in my safe space through this entire process?)

News flash to the willfully blind among us: nope.  In my case, my newly-designated teaching pastor–from whom I am so very honored and excited to have the opportunity to learn–was the one to break the news.  I had asked her, and quite chipperly, I’m sure, what I needed to be aware of in balancing my lay leadership roles with my internship in her congregation.  And gently, but mincing no words, she answered: You need to put your time and your heart into the place where you learn; let me know if you need guidance as you let your other roles go.

I will spare you my mental process as I have worked the past two weeks to understand what this means–with apologies and thanks to those people, and there are several, who merely wish I had spared them.  I will tell you a bit about how I feel now, though, starting with: unmoored.  After all, this place, more than any other, is my rock–a source of stability through the changes of life as a young parent.  I don’t know what it means to live in this town as a grown up (we lived here as college kids before this, but totally different story) without this church.  And guess what: I don’t want to know.

I also feel envious.  This evening I looked upon my beloved community, knowledge weighing on my heart, and I felt pride, love . . . and something rather like jealousy.  Why do YOU get to stay here?  Nevermind that I’m the one who made this choice; I feel, inexplicably and indefensibly, a bit piqued at everyone else who didn’t.

And I feel bewildered: I saw the faces of my friends, supporters, challengers and provocateurs–we who have grown together, we who have changed ourselves and changed one another–and wonder, again, in what possible universe it makes sense to be so deeply in love with the transformative power of church that you lose it.

And this, inevitably, brings me back to the $64,000 question.  Which is: have I lost my everloving mind?

This, my people, is the scariest thing I’ve ever done.  Is “Dear God, I hope you know what you’re doing” a prayer?

How about “I hope you know what you’re doing, because it turns out I don’t, and I feel smaller than I ever have and am hoping there’s something out there I can count on?”

Still no?

How about this:

And so I found an anchor, a blessed resting place
A trusty rock I called my savior, for there I would be safe
From the river and its dangers, and I proclaimed my rock divine
And I prayed to it "protect me" and the rock replied

God is a river, not just a stone
God is a wild, raging rapids
And a slow, meandering flow
God is a deep and narrow passage
And a peaceful, sandy shoal
God is the river, swimmer
So let go

--Peter Mayer, "God is a River"

(just a little message last Sunday from the church I’m trying to fashion into a rock.  I do see that what our faith–what my church–needs to be is the river.  Unfortunately, I also see that in trying to become a person who can remember that continuously, and even celebrate it, I am in for a VERY long three years.  Somebody please go find my partridge; I probably need it.  In the meantime . . . one more step.  Which means Buddhism seminar notes.)

goodnight from my confused, envious, wistful heart,

j

*point of fact: I helped write them.  and this vision.  and mission.  and these goals.  I knew at every point during this yearlong process that we were writing them to give away . . . it’s just that it turns out that it’s one thing to think it, and another to do it.  so is life, no?

pastoral care for humanists? : the Rev. Jill Jarvis responds

This guest post merits a guest reply; Rev. Jarvis, thanks for your words.  Readers, anything to add?  

Peace,

j

Alicia, this is a distressing situation indeed – you’re far from your loved ones, unable to help in any practical way, worried about both your sister and your parents. Fortunately you’re finding good support among your close friends, both online and in person. You know you’re not alone and you have people to affirm your feelings and listen deeply. But it sounds like you’re wanting something more, and wondering whether your nontheistic religion could possibly provide it. What is pastoral care for the humanist?

In any context I’m aware of, pastoral care is pretty much what you’re receiving from loving and trusted friends, and even the internet.  It’s a compassionate witness to those feelings of sorrow and helplessness, a non-anxious presence, and awareness that you’re not alone.

But even with that loving support provided by friends, you long to talk to your minister. Maybe it would be helpful to consider what you feel is missing. 

As you describe what you imagine a Christian minister might say, it seems to be a way of making sense of what you’re experiencing.  What’s the meaning behind all the pain? Is there a larger context, and can it offer hope? I think you’re asking whether your religion can help you make sense of your pain and fear. 

If it ultimately can’t, I’d advise you to consider changing religions. But first, take the time to struggle with understanding your experience of helplessness and vulnerability, in light of your own faith. The Rev. Rebecca Parker, in her book Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now, says that when our current faith is inadequate to explain our reality, we have three options:  reject our faith, deny our experience, or become theologians.  That last option is about wrestling with the stories and traditions and our own experience until it all becomes meaningful, and we have a faith we can rely on to help us make it through this night and the many nights to come.

Chaplains in a hospital aren’t supposed to impose their own theology on a patient struggling through a life crisis.  They’re trained to provide support and comfort to patients of all religions and none. They mostly listen and affirm, meeting people where they are. But if a person in crisis signals a need to understand their situation in a greater spiritual sense, if they’re searching for a deeper meaning, the chaplain helps them do that by evoking the power of their own traditions and beliefs (the patient’s, not the chaplain’s.)

 I think most UU ministers are particularly good at this. We don’t feel called to make everyone’s experience fit neatly into One Great True Story.

Though I’m not a Christian, I really doubt that most liberal Christian ministers would be evoking the Christian worldview in quite the literal, simplistic sense you describe. How would that really help someone in crisis? Only if you’re truly able to ignore the realities of this life in favor of a joyful existence after death, would (it seems to me) you find that comforting.  It’s all part of a larger plan controlled by a God that has the power to make it all better…..really? Just observing life as you know it tells you that things sometimes don’t turn out as we hope, good people suffer, we are all vulnerable all the time.  If you hear the Christian story in that literal sense, you have to conclude that maybe God won’t make things better for you, even though God could. Where’s the comfort in that?

I think you’re longing for this sort of comfort, but seeing it available only if you were able to accept that supernatural literalism, and you can’t.  It doesn’t fit with your experience of life.  But underneath Christian dogma is the reality of human existence that can be evoked, through Christian stories and traditions, to make meaning in a much deeper, non-literal sense that does resonate with people’s experience.  The same can be said for Unitarian Universalism, with a non-theistic focus – but as with any religious tradition, you have to do the wrestling part.  Humanism is not (should not be) just an absence of certain beliefs.  If it ultimately can’t help you find meaning and comfort through the joy and suffering of life, I’d advise exploring other alternatives.  Naturalistic humanism works for me, but the wrestling has taken years, and if you’re doing it right, is never over.

In this case, the first step would be to talk to your minister. He should be able to help provide context and form for the wrestling. Blessings on your journey.

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Dear Raising Faith: on pastoral care for humanists

This guest post, from “Alicia,” asks what Unitarian Universalism, and what our ministers, specifically, might have to offer in times of personal crisis.  These are great questions, and I’m happy to put them out here.  What think you, trusty readers?  

All the best,

-j

My teenaged baby sister still lives with our parents. She’s been suffering with depression for quite some time now, and it’s recently come to enough of a head for our parents to seek psychiatric help for her. spilled pillsShe’s currently on her second prescription in as many weeks (it is always hard to find the right medication and the right dosage), and after spending time with her this weekend (when she seemed to be in relatively good spirits, discussing with me her plans for prom and the future), I got a message from my mom today telling me that they had taken her to the hospital, because she is having suicidal thoughts.

My immediate reaction was one of helplessness. I live not only in a different house but a different state, unable to provide my physical presence as support, nor practical help with household duties, cooking, or anything, really, while they help my sister work through her depression enough to safely leave the hospital. I do what I can to be there for her emotionally, trying to keep up with her through Facebook and text message, making time for her when I visit. But ultimately, there’s nothing tangible I can do to help.

On the heels of lamenting my helplessness, I had an impulse to e-mail my minister. He is great at being aware of the stresses present in his congregants’ lives and asking how he can support them. But as someone who sucks at asking for help, much less directing it, what can I say? Honestly, I have no idea, in this moment of helplessness and brokenness, what kind of meaningful help he could offer.

If I were a Christian, I would be seeking spiritual reassurance, a reminder that even if I am helpless, God is not, and He has both a plan and the power to remedy any situation. A Christian minister would pray with me, for God to soothe my heart and my sister’s (and my parents’), to heal us, or at least wrap divine arms of love around us, providing security as we weather the storm.

But even though I’m sure my minister would give that to me if I wanted it, I don’t – I’m agnostic. If I believe in something beyond physical reality, it’s not anyone moving the chess pieces of humanity about with a grand design in mind to checkmate the devil. I don’t believe in a personal God who knows the sorrows of every sparrow. So while I’m quick to suggest that my mother seek out her Christian minister’s care for her own needs, I hesitate to do the same, even when it occurs to me that I might – that perhaps, I ought.

In the context of a humanistic religion, what does pastoral care have to offer that a good friend – or a good therapist – doesn’t? The space to express my feelings of sorrow and helplessness abounds here on the Internet, and in the hearts of a few loving and trusted friends. They offer me non-anxious presence, love, an awareness that I’m not alone. A therapist (if I had one), would undoubtedly validate my concerns and offer me some secular coping strategies. I am fairly emotionally and spiritually self-aware, and don’t need anyone to tell me to engage in self-care during this time (though it seems a bit ludicrous to worry about myself because of my sister’s pain, I know it’s important). So what does the minister of my humanistic religion have to offer me in this time of difficulty?

This question feels big to me, the crux of a wider (if tired) conversation about Unitarian Universalism, and what makes us a religion rather than a social group, a lecture circuit, or a gathering of activists. And I’ve never really known how to answer that, except that it is a feeling, a sense of wonder and unity that can only be called religious. But while that is nice when all is well in life, what does it offer when all is not well?

(click here for a response from the Rev. Jill Jarvis.) 

fewer lines in the sand, more listening (part I)

Recently, the Rev. Tom Schade published a series of posts suggesting that today’s political conservatism is wholly inconsistent with the values of Unitarian Universalism.  To those who claim both allegiances, Schade says “Show your work”—how do you get from your faith to your politics?  I take issue with this, not because I don’t think the questions are valid, but because I’m not persuaded that it makes sense, given the number of ethical and practical conflicts that we all live with each day, to level these challenges at one particular group of UUs.

Maintaining right relations—with each other, with our communities, and with the broader world—is demanding, soul-searching work.  But it’s not work that belongs most particularly to one group or another—it’s the work of all of us.  And so, perhaps we can say, to conservative UUs, to liberal UUs, and to everyone in between: Tell your story.  Explain your reasoning.  Show your work.  And then listen, in a spirit of honest curiosity, as we consider the answers.  What does our religion require of us, individually and together?

As we examine these questions—stepping up to the plate ourselves–carefully and respectfully, freely and responsibly—we create the safe space that might allow others to do the same.  This is valuable, as those who choose to worship among us have self-selected, perhaps more than they consciously know, to invest some effort in the task of living spiritually-connected lives.  As Unitarian Universalists, we are not the Nones–those who have opted for a life of secularism–but a religious people who have entered into a covenant that includes invitation to spiritual growth.

So let’s provide that challenge to grow, and Rev. Schade has highlighted some areas where discussion in our congregations might be helpful and illuminating.  But let’s also accept that the invitation to self-examination, and the discoveries that follow, are going to change not just the one we think needs to be changed, but us, too.  In talking openly with those with whom we disagree, we will be made different, and we need to be.  Not because we need to believe in equality of opinion, as individuals or as a movement, but because we believe in the power of stories to shape the world–and to reshape our perceptions of it–and we each must tell our own.

On that note, here is a little piece of my story, as it relates to opinions, values, politics, and our relationship to and with the Infinite.  Our minister–let’s call her Jane–occasionally posts an article or meme related to a social justice issue on her publicly-accessible facebook wall.  One recent post was about abortion; I responded to it explaining that I don’t think the discussion needs to be all-or-nothing on either side, and that I, for example, am both pro-choice and a supporter of the codification of some fetal rights.  Conversation up to that point had been a range of “Amen!” and “Rah-rah!” comments about the original post.  After my response–cue crickets.  (Jane respectfully acknowledged my post and looked for areas of agreement, but the silence from other participants felt deafening.  On the whole, I wondered if it was perhaps shameful in UU circles to even frame the issue as two sets of rights to balance, rather than as an outrageous usurpment of one.)

Not long afterward, some members of my church were socializing together before a meeting, and the topic of the anti-abortion movement in the U.K. came up.  Opponents of abortion reportedly staged silent vigils across from women’s clinics, handing out leaflets to women who passed by.  “Those people are just crazy!” exclaimed one member, and the others nodded their agreement.  My husband replied that he didn’t think it was that the protesters were crazy, but that they were living their values—different, but strongly-held—in a way that made sense to them.  Crickets again . . . and then a hasty change of subject.

I share this example because it is one in which my husband and I hold what is—so far as I can tell—a fairly moderate view [namely, that abortion should be safe, legal, and an option of last resort, one particularly eschewed after the point of viability] in terms of the range of opinions in our society, but which is an extreme view in the context of Unitarian Universalism. I will share more about this, from a different perspective, in my next post.  For the moment, a few words about how my take on abortion fits with my larger faith—my response to the calling to account for which Rev. Schade speaks.

I arrived at this opinion—having spent much of a decade information tabling for Planned Parenthood—through my experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and pregnancy loss.  It is a view dictated by my heart and my soul more than by my head, and it’s been both challenged and supported in my journey since then.  I have researched and written in the special education context in support of fetal rights—and the rights to life, dignity, and bodily integrity of all who cannot speak for themselves.  Far from conflicting with my UU faith, it is my deep concern for the inherent worth and dignity of ALL people that leads me to reflect upon and speak about my own views on abortion, counter to prevailing UU opinion though they may be.

Do my fellow congregants agree with my thoughts about this?  I’m not sure, as we haven’t found a space or format in which we can really discuss it [aside: this space is sorely needed, as are the willingness and practical skills to engage, and it’s not just UUs that are missing these–it’s our society], but my guess is no.  Should I be called to account for my reasoning should I decide to stand and speak for what I believe to be just and humane?  Definitely.  But do I have a higher burden of obligation to do that than someone speaking on the other side, simply because my opinion is less common in this faith?  What presuppositions do we make about the values and scruples of those who reach different conclusions—and what do those judgments say about us, as a movement?

To those who would assert that this calling-to-account of some members is not because their opinions are different, but because the opinions conflict with our principles, I ask: how do we get from “our principles” to the intolerance of some theological beliefs within individual UU congregations?  How do “our principles” guide our blindness to the empty plate at our own congregational table, or inspire us to do first for ourselves and share with others what is left over?  They don’t, of course, but our congregations deal with both of these issues–or in some cases, choose not to deal with them–constantly.

I suspect that we each struggle, at least insofar as our eyes and hearts are open, to discern the meaning and the imperative behind our values, and to live in accord with that.  That’s part of why we need religion–it’s hard to live a life of worth and decency without examining our choices.  Thus, the hypocrisy we’re talking about today is just easy pickings–it’s visible, and it’s about “someone else.”  Just this once, let’s skip the low-hanging fruit and see if we can go deeper into what matters.

The reality is, those who disagree with us are, in general, not crazy.  They are people, often people who care deeply about the same sorts of things that we care about, who have arrived at different conclusions.  But a common reaction—perhaps even our default reaction, these days—is to view those people as “the other,” and to see them only through the lens of our disagreement on an issue.  And there are tangible benefits to doing this.  First, fear of the Other can unify a group into a cohesive Us like nothing else—for an extreme example of this, consider the instant national unity, from the mountains to the prairies to the halls of Congress, after 9/11.  Further, it feels good; righteous outrage stimulates the pleasure centers of our brains, and makes the complicated, headache-inducing dilemmas we face everyday seem much simpler.  And while it’s disappointing, we UUs are not immune to this simplification-by-way-of-Other . . . sometimes it is even preached from our pulpits.  (Perhaps this surprises you—I hope it does, actually, as that might mean it is rare—but I have seen it happen.  And friends, it is ugly.)

Drawing a line in the sand.  An old metaphor.

Why is this call to establish [and enforce?] a UU line in our politics happening now?  Is it necessary?  And where else might we choose to go in the call to deepen our commitments to living our spiritual principles?

More on that soon.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on any or all of this discussion.

j

“Recovering Christians”: a UU Minister Responds

Happy New Year, friends!  We are starting 2013 by looking back (but for the purposes of moving forward!) at an earlier post: this one, in which I wondered how we might move past the “recovery” stage in our approaches to religion.  Below is a UU minister’s response to that post.  Raising Faith is about exploring together through ongoing conversation, so I am happy to post this response–and I’d love to hear your thoughts as well.

Wishing you a blessed start to your year.

j

When I first joined a UU church in 1990, there was a popular curriculum called “The Haunting Church” used in an adult education class. That was replaced in 2006 by “Owning Your Religious Past.”  I don’t know how widely this curriculum is used, but wanted to point out that it does exist.
The aversion to all things Christian has been a much-discussed and debated part of UU culture, overlapping with the humanist-theist controversy, for at least as long as I’ve been a UU. Having studied in a UU seminary with fellow students from throughout the UU spectrum – both geographically and theologically – I’m aware now that these issues are moving targets. Some congregations are very open to Christianity and theism – maybe they always were, maybe they’ve actively worked on becoming more pluralistic, or maybe new generations have caused a cultural shift.  Some are still very predominantly humanist and proud of it (sometimes, the “us” vs. “them” mentality you mentioned) – but I have a sense that is changing. 
The congregation I serve was once nearly exclusively humanist, but has been in transition theologically and culturally during the past decade (a result, I think, of numerical growth – or maybe the growth is the result of the transition – probably both are true.)  I’d say about half would describe themselves as some form of theist, and half as non-theist. Doesn’t that make you wonder, what does “theist” mean to those who so label themselves?  Is it about the use of God-language?  Does it include earth-based spirituality?  Is the god/goddess in question naturalistic, immanent, transcendent, personal, anthropomorphic, or…?  Most importantly, what does that mean for how we live our lives?  I find myself wishing that we did have ongoing ways to engage these questions together.
I’ve had requests to use more biblical references in my services.  I’ve heard some wonder whether there’s too much emphasis these days on Christianity in our congregation, and will there be room for humanists? And vice versa.  Mostly I see a willingness to be open to exploring different religious ideas and traditions, and this certainly includes Christianity. Not every individual. But the congregation as a whole.
The willingness to let others engage, even in communal worship, is not necessarily a willingness to engage oneself.  I’d love to see a real interest in exploring together, in small classes or groups, our ideas of God or even religion.  We need to go deeper, in ways that speak to our own experience and open us to the experience of others – that’s where transformation becomes possible. Healthy UU congregations have evolved past the “knee-jerk reaction against” stage, to an atmosphere of acceptance and safety where people can say they’re Christian or Buddhist or theist or atheist and not feel marginalized, but embraced. But engaged/challenged/asked to elaborate?  Not so much. We’ve too recently achieved the “safe space” culture and are hesitant to mess with that.  So in talking about our different theologies (if we do talk about them), we engage in an adult UU version of the “parallel play” of toddlers. But “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations” is all one principle – not two separate concepts.  Failure to engage, explain, question, discuss – for fear of lapsing into hostility or smugness – pretty much precludes encouraging one another’s spiritual growth. I think we can do better, and we should.
Reading your post, I’m pondering what it might mean to be a “practicing Christian” in a UU community,  and how that might differ from being a “practicing UU.”  Does “practicing” mean celebrating certain holidays, sharing the ancient stories, taking part in traditional rituals?  Does it mean intellectual adherence to certain dogmas regarding ultimate reality? And/or does it mean, living the faith?  In thinking about this, I’m remembering an article by the Rev. Victoria Weinstein.*  Rev. Weinstein identifies as a UU Christian; this article appeared in UU World in 2007.  
Rev. Weinstein wrote: 

But where was Jesus in our UU worship life? … Since Jesus’ radical inclusivity, love of humanity, and passion for justice was so harmonious with all the “good news” I was hearing in our congregations, why did our ministers and congregants so assiduously avoid the Gospels? … I could not understand why UUs would allow the perversions of the Religious Right to define the word “Christian” (or “religious,” for that matter), why they would concede religious language to the conservatives, and why they would go out of their way to construct a religion intentionally bereft of theology… where every spiritual path but the Christian path was considered valid and where all evidence of a Christian past was removed, revised, and painted over.

It took ten more years of committed Unitarian Universalist life for me to consider that perhaps my dear UUs were the most strangely faithful Christians of all. Having either intuitively or consciously embraced Jesus’ gospel of love, service, and justice, they could not stand to affiliate with any so-called faithful who claimed to have received their inspiration for discrimination, exclusion, superstition, and damnation from the same source. The well, for too many UUs, had been irrevocably poisoned, and they would thereafter drink of the living waters from another source. Any other source, it seemed, but the Christian well. I felt called to abide with my religious community, to remain patient with my own sense of religious difference among them, and to pursue the ministry.

That perspective resonates with my own UU experience (mostly!)  Particularly so as I’ve come to know this faith as not being defined by a set of intellectual beliefs.  It’s a way of living, of understanding life and love and our relationship to the mystery of that which is greater than ourselves, however we may each experience that. 
I’m aware that the members of the congregation I serve have a great range of experience with Christianity in their former religious lives.  Some have been viscerally, deeply wounded – by misogyny, homophobia, biblical literalism.  They’ve been abused by both church authorities and the teachings themselves.  Of these, some seek healing and would appreciate other ways to understand the Christian tradition.  Others want nothing to do with it, ever, period.  But there are many more who had a mostly positive experience with Christian churches.  They left because they stopped believing in the dogma, or wanted a greater (or different) emphasis on social justice, scientific knowledge, or freedom of conscience.  Their memories of Christian community are mostly fond, not traumatic.
So I think we need to tread lightly when we assume “woundedness” among our humanists (for example.)  For those who are indeed wounded, the church is here for healing, not to further deepen the wound or to give it more power among us. In our enthusiasm to get past our aversion to our own Christian roots, we’ve sometimes sent the message to humanists that, if only you’d get past your childhood trauma with religion, you’d see the light and be open to Christianity (or theism.) Of course, that’s not true and is as insulting as the implication that when you get over your old irrational superstitions you’ll leave Christianity behind.
What would it look like to build a Beloved Community where spiritual growth is actively encouraged?  I think we’d have active groups of members exploring the deep spiritual questions together, feeling safe enough to reveal their own ideas, willing to question and to be questioned, everyone humble about their own beliefs and curious about those of others. And open to being changed by the process. 

*Rev Dr. Victoria Weinstein is active in the blogosphere as “PeaceBang,” where she continues to discuss issues such as those she raised in the essay referenced above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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