Tag Archives: UUA

Unitarian Universalism’s relationship to Christianity, part 3.

15 Oct

In the first part of this post, over on the The Lively Tradition, I argued that whether or not we are Christian (which varies depending on how you define Christian), we are part of Christendom and that by saying we are not, we lose some of our power. In the second part, which I posted on this blog, I worked on some of the “so what?” issues.

All that being said, I also think Unitarian Universalism is moving toward something, as was mentioned in the comments on the original post.  Perhaps it is like cell mitosis, only instead of being an exact replica of the original cell, we are evolving into something different.

But I don’t believe we can move healthily in any new direction until we make peace with where we have come from.  Unitarian Universalists have had so many folks who came/come to us wounded and accepting “all religions except Christianity” for so long that, now, as our congregations embrace a more spiritual or theistic humanism it can look/feel like we are going backwards. But I truly don’t think we are – we are healing, which is absolutely necessary for us to move forward with strength and power.

Albuquerque UU, taken by Denis Paul.

Albuquerque UU, taken by Denis Paul.

A Universalist message of loving the hell out of the world is powerful.

A Humanist message that it is our responsibility to do so is powerful.

A Unitarian message of not having to think alike to love alike is powerful.

A Pagan message of we are all connected is powerful.

We need all this, and more.  Not one over/above another.  And not “all except this one…”

Indeed, if we look at our congregations, we see how they vary. Particularly if we break it down geographically, we find vast differences in how our message is incarnated in our congregations.

How wonderful that different aspects of our message appeal in different contexts, geographies, and congregations!  This flexibility, this fluency in a variety of different ways of being religious, gives us strength and power. It makes our faith tradition both unique and highly relevant to contemporary life.

problems with being on the fringe.

15 Aug

This blog entry originally appeared over on The Lively Tradition

I have heard Unitarian Universalist congregations described as “Islands of Misfit Toys.” This metaphor comes from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV show from the 70s that many of us are probably familiar with.

The problem with acting as though we are islands of misfit toys is that we just stand around doing nothing. Toys are meant to bring joy to peoples’ lives. Television viewers celebrate when all the toys leave the island and go find homes where they can live into the fullness of their creation. If we, as Unitarian Universalists, relegate ourselves to the fringe, to being islands of misfit toys, then we are not out there living into the fullness of our past, present, and future.

Taken one step further, if we want to be about cultural transformation, we cannot abdicate our power by putting ourselves on the fringe. We need, instead, to be out there, amongst people, speaking the language of the culture that we are trying to transform. Goodness knows they need us actively loving the hell out of the world, particularly in weeks like this when hell is on display in every window.

A few years ago, I saw an increase in my colleagues taking Spanish lessons as we prepared to have a very unique General Assembly in Phoenix. We wanted to be able to speak to people on their terms, about their lives. This is as it should be.

Beyond Phoenix, and beyond Spanish, I believe we are uniquely positioned to be multi-lingual. We have the ability to speak to those on the fringe (where many of us, are, frankly, more comfortable). AND we have the ability (if we are willing to claim it) to speak as peers to those in power.

If we, as a faith tradition, are content with being on the fringe, then we might as well write our obituary. Not only will we not be about cultural transformation, but we will have lost our way entirely. Let us instead use our power and privilege in solidarity with those who need it. So many do.


Comments redirected to The Lively Tradition.

being part of Christendom, pragmatically speaking.

30 Jul

This is part 2 of a blog exploring Unitarian Universalism’s location in relationship to Christendom (that is, the world of Christianity).  Tom Schade graciously hosted the first part at his blog “The Lively Tradition“.  Since I wrote that first part, I’ve been thinking about the next logical question: So what?  So what if UUs are a part of Christendom?

Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship

One way to address the “So what?” question is to look at what it means internally.  Does being a part of Christendom affect our congregations, our people, our mission?  I believe it does.  I have sometimes heard people describe UU congregations as places where “We welcome people with all sorts of theological beliefs…except Christians.”  Indeed, many of our congregations are hostile places for UU Christians.  This closes these congregations off to religiously liberal people for whom the definition of Christian may be quite broad and inclusive; people who are looking for what we uniquely offer.  Since we have not disassociated ourselves from Christendom, the hypocrisy of these congregations is glaring, and irrational. It is hampering our ability to live our mission. It is hampering our ability to get our saving message to those who so desperately need it.

As an aside: I am sure someone will correct me if I mistaken, but it seems to me that our congregations in the South are a little bit better (on the whole) at welcoming a liberal Christian.  Perhaps it is because of the deeply religious culture that they are surrounded by.  I think this is especially notable, as it is in the South and the Bible Belt in which our congregations are experiencing the most growth…

Getting back to the issue at hand: There are also external ramifications to being a part of Christendom.  For one, it gives us not only the power to critique others who reside in Christendom, it also gives us the authority.  Let me explain with an example.  First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans recently had an encounter with Operation Save America, wherein OSA disrupted First UU’s worship service and harassed the church members.  There is a wonderful interfaith letter written to the New Orleans Advocate about the event.

An OSA member briefly put a YouTube video online, with footage he had shot during the encounter and his rationale for what/why they were doing it.  In it, he shared that they were disturbed that the UU “church” (their quotes, not mine) was actually a cult and was leading children astray, etc, etc.

Now, if we had disassociated ourselves from Christendom, then we could critique their actions and subsequent justification, but it would be coming from an outsider position, speaking mostly to our own experience of the encounter and the pain it caused. It might have power, but it would not have authority. But becuase we have not disassociated ourselves from Christendom, we can stand with both power and authority and firmly say “You do not hold the monopoly on what it means to be Christian. And you behaved in a manner that was decidedly not Christian.”  We can pull rank, as it were, as our faith tradition is older than the belief in the rapture, a hallmark belief of Christian Fundamentalists.

The “So what?” question also leads me to reconsider how our congregations relate to other religious organizations when working for social justice.  I was moved by this year’s Ware Lecturer  Sister Simone Campbell to reconsider my response to an ecumenical organization that had contacted me wondering if the church I serve would be interested in joining with them.  I responded then that since they were not an interfaith organization, I could not in good conscious recommend this to the congregation.  I have since reconsidered and hope to start a conversation with the congregation I serve about joining this organization as soon as I return from my sabbatical.  This ecumenical organization is doing amazingly good work. It is our loss for not participating.  And…

This leads to a final “So what?” So we might be able to change the conversation, provided we stay in it!  Perhaps we can help that ecumenical organization become an interfaith one, but that is not going to happen if we continue to absent ourselves from the conversation.  Unitarian Universalists are notoriously uncomfortable with our  collective privilege.  Being a part of Christendom is a privileged position in this country, so it is not surprising that we have tried to distance ourselves from it. Especially with Christianity becoming synonymous with fundamentalism (something that is driving many Christians crazy).

Those of us who are in places of privilege (or perceived privilege) in our individual lives are learning to use that privilege to be better allies, as is demonstrated in the video below. As a faith tradition, Unitarian Universalists can collectively use our privileged location within Christendom (no matter our personal theological bend) to become a force that cannot help but impact the future of Christendom, and beyond.

That is why it matters.

emotional cutoff.

11 Apr

By the time I was midway through my freshman year of college, I thought I had completely cut ties with Christianity. I was sick of hearing about a God who would wreak violence and destruction on the world in Armageddon, I was sick of a God who could choose to act in the world but didn’t. I was sick of being told that because Eve had eaten a bite of apple eons ago, all humanity was doomed unless we believed the right thing. After years of repenting, years of being born again (multiple times), years of trying to have faith, I was sick of it. Done.

My friends and I explored other religions and we stumbled NeoPaganism. I traded my mean, vengeful God for a life-giving goddess. For a few years, I traded my rituals celebrating the life and death of one man for rituals that celebrated the cycle of all of life.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not angry about this anymore. But I was. I was very angry. That anger also covered up the hurt that I felt. Hurt by a God that would base eternity on one wrong decision. Hurt because I had tried all those years to be a Good Christian Girl and all it had done was left me feeling shut outside of everything. Hurt by a church that told me that, because God had made me a girl, there were certain things I was unfit for (such as Ministry).

When my spouse and I eventually started attending a Unitarian Universalist Church, I wanted nothing to do with any “language of reverence.” In fact, much of my new path had been formed directly in opposition to anything that reminded me of what I had left behind.

In many ways, my story is not unique. Many of the folks in our Unitarian Universalist congregations come out of similar experiences, and carry similar wounds. They have cut themselves off from the faith traditions in which they were raised, and no longer want anything that reminds them of it AT ALL.

So it was with much surprise that I found my world opening and my wounds healing at the Methodist Seminary that I attended. There, I found Christians whose understanding of God was not the old, white-haired pointy-fingered God of my youth but was instead right in line with how I now understood “The Ultimate.” I found Christians, studying to be ministers, who did not believe in the literal interpretation of the virgin birth or resurrection. I found Christians who were trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, not the religion that had been founded upon his death. And I began to heal.

I changed seminaries when we moved, and I started attending a UCC seminary that was even more religiously liberal. There I found professors and ministers whose theology and ethics and sense of the spiritual lined up with mine so well that we could easily worship in the same church, but they chose to stay with Christianity and I chose to leave it. I found my own way to translate and understand such loaded terms like “God” and “Salvation” and “Atonement” – so much so that, though I still understand myself to be more of an agnostic, mystic humanist, I can visit and be comfortable in almost any liberal religious congregation. Quite a difference.

I am reflecting on this right now, because I have recently finished a course in Bowen Family Systems Theory. I took the course to better understand how the way we are in our families is replicated in how we are in our congregations (both as ministers and lay people). It was enlightening.

One of the key concepts in Bowen Family Systems Theory is the concept of emotional cutoff. “The concept of emotional cutoff describes people managing their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them.” However, the person who cuts themselves off from their family still has all that anxiety and emotional reactivity, and nowhere for it to go. We can try to bottle it up, wall it off, but even if we try to ignore it it can build up and cause stress in unrelated parts of a person’s life, even physical illness.


Using Bowen Theory, I can describe my experience with Christianity as one of intense anxiety leading to cutoff. But I still had so much reactivity that I could not even hear language that reminded me of the pain I had experienced! My blood pressure went up whenever I heard someone talk about “faith” or “prayer” or anything that reminded me of what I thought I had totally given up on. This left entire areas in which I was bound up and in which I could not grow.

The only way to heal cutoff, according to Bowen, is to bridge it. For me, seminary served that role in unanticipated ways. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to heal, and begin to grow again.

Many of our congregants are still cutoff, hurting from previous experience and trying to distance themselves from the faith traditions in which they were raised. This is particularly problematic now that we are getting more people who are raised in our congregations or come to us without this history and who are more comfortable with a language of reverence. There is a clash between those who are cutoff (and thus unable to form their own understandings of commonly used religious language) and those for whom this language comes naturally.

Plus, cutoff gets passed down through the generations. So if my grandmother was cutoff from her family, I would likely see that tendency arise in my mother’s generation, my own, and even with my children.

This has me wondering about our congregations. If so many folks came to UUism through a cutoff with their previous religious tradition, does this explain why so many people reject UUism as adults? Is cutoff built into our system at this point? If so, how do we begin to help folks bridge the cutoff – for their sakes as individuals and for the sake of our congregations?

Bowen Theory would suggest that the only way I can impact a system is through working on myself. For me, this has meant beginning to utilize this language reverence more often by telling my own story. Perhaps, if others who are cutoff recognize that they are still living their lives in reactivity to the faith tradition in which they were raised, in my story they will realize that there is hope for more – hope for a whole, healthy spirituality that is not formed in reaction against one tradition but instead allows for exploration and growth across the spectrum of human experience. For me, this has been powerful, indeed.


9 Apr

I have another blog post that I am working on, but I just read some of the materials that the UUA Board will be discussing at their next meeting and I am fascinated by some numbers.

First, the average congregation size is 151. In fact, over 68% of our UU congregations have 160 or fewer members.

Our smaller congregations are also growing, particularly in the south and midwest.

With these numbers, I am glad to read that the Board is discussing changing the bylaws to reduce the number of members required to join the UUA. This will also allow small, covenanted communities (of whatever form, congregation or not) to join and have a say in our present and future. That is exciting news.

I hope that these numbers mean that there will be more discussion about how the UUA can more effectively support these smaller congregations (who often feel overlooked) and other emerging covenanted communities. The numbers would indicate that they are our present, and our future.

Surprised People React Poorly.

15 Feb

One of the first things I learned in ministry is that surprised people react poorly.  A corollary to this is that people who feel left out of the process also react poorly.  Combine the two, surprised people who feel left out of the process, and you get the recent burst of energy around the new UUA logo.

UUALogoA little background: On Thursday, the UUA announced and unveiled a new logo as the first step of what seems to be a multistep process to update our image.  You can read about it in this UU World article.  Needless to say, the blogosphere and social media exploded with critique.

I want to take a number of steps back, one at a time, in order to better understand the critique.  I am not going to get into the value or design of the new logo – I want to look at process.

0 Steps back:  This was a surprise.  Most of my clergy colleagues had no idea this was underway.  In addition, the announcement indicates more changes are ahead but, other than an upgrade to the website, does not indicate what those changes may be, or even what the nature of those changes may be.  Surprised people who felt left out of the process reacted poorly.

1 Step back: This is the second surprise in two weeks.  Just 10 days earlier, the UU World reported on the UUA Trustees meeting where the UUA Administration urged a change in how we think of the role of the Association, moving toward being a “religious movement focused on cultural transformation.” Unfortunately, it sounded as though congregations were being left behind in this transformation, and this made many people very upset.

2 Steps back: Many of us are mourning the loss of the historical Beacon Street location as we move to a new building.  Even as we understand the reasoning, we grieve.  Change is hard, as it requires losing something.  It can be hard to focus on what we might gain.  From here, the level of anxiety in the UU system is already  high due to the nature of this identity change.

3 Steps back: Increasing the anxiety in the system is the awareness that the President and previous Moderator had such conflict within the last few years that the UUA Board brought in a paid mediator.

A view from the balcony:  Combine the anxiety in the system with our love/hate relationship with authority (whether it be in the form of a minister or in the form of “the UUA”) recently highlighted in the Commission on Appraisal report “Who’s in Charge Here?” and one could probably predict this reaction.

Towards a 2-part solution: Trust is a 2-way street. I encourage those of us on the sidelines to recognize our own reactivity, our own distrust of authority, and remember that we are the UUA.  The people we tend to point fingers at care very, very deeply about our faith tradition and are hard at work trying to ensure our future.   We do a thorough job of holding them accountable, but can we practice occasionally cutting them some slack? Apparently, this new logo wasn’t a whim and wasn’t created out of thin air, but has been a year-long process of dialogue with 50 different UU stakeholders (according to the recent VUU episode available here, particularly at 30:49).

And, for the UUA Administration, it would be much easier to cut some slack if we had confidence in where we are going.  I am reminded of a GPS I use which won’t ever give me the whole map of where I am going, but only shares one turn at a time. I hate it because I never really know if it is directing me to my desired destination.  Give me the whole map at once (rather than just pieces at a time) and then I will be more likely to trust each individual turn. I want the same from my UUA Administration. You seem to have been working from a plan – please share it in more detail. If it concerns the future direction of our Association, publish it beyond the Board.  The recent Presidents report to the Board mentioned this change in “branding” but if someone isn’t on the Board, or isn’t a geek that goes to read the Board reports and minutes, s/he would not have known this turn was coming up. All of the info I have read about the new logo focuses on how we engaged consultants to come up with this logo, but what matters to me is that UU stakeholders were involved.  Trust us enough to give us information that will better enable us to trust you.

The anxiety in our UU system is quite high right now.  Just as surprised people who feel left out of the process tend to react poorly, so also is the inverse true: Informed people who are brought along in the process tend to be more invested in the outcome.

Loving each other out of hell.

9 Jan

On many days, usually in the middle of the evening, I get tired. Exhausted, really. When this happens, I get hurt by things which normally would just bounce off me. I have less patience. I get defensive about things which are no big deal. I have learned that when I get to this point, I have to stop looking at the computer: no reading blogs, no reading news, no email, no facebook, nothing. Because I am not at my best when I hit this point of exhaustion. Not even close.

I suspect there is a lot of this exhaustion being expressed in a discussion of a UUA holiday e-greeting that is making the rounds on facebook. Rather than get into the details of the conflict, I want to get up on the balcony and look at how we are treating one another in this discussion. Because that, my friends, is telling.

In short, someone shared that the e-greeting had hurt them. And the response was not one of sympathy or empathy, but one of defensive posturing. The people who shared how they were personally hurt were told they should not feel that way. The responses were judgmental and dismissive. It reminded me of how I feel when I break my rule and go ahead and write an email after I have hit the point of exhaustion. This discussion has not typified our best selves and, indeed, is destructive.

Tom Schade points out that we, as Unitarian Universalists, may be exhausted “as a seam of coal might be exhausted in a minining operation.” I think we are the other kind of exhausted as well – the worn out kind. I believe we are exhausted from our attempts to be perfect – perfect as individuals, and perfect as a faith tradition. And since this is a sisyphusian effort, we keep watching that boulder roll back down the hill. I am not sure how much longer we can take it.

I see the message of our failure to be perfect everywhere. We are not growing the way we “should” be. We are not attracting the “nones” the way we “should” be. We are not, we are not, we are not. The message I hear is that we are not perfect, but we “should” be. This is a lot of pressure, and it is exhausting.

In our exhaustion from never being good enough, we turn on each other. We are drawn to the familiar and hunker down with what we know. When we are challenged or confronted with difference, we lash out becuase it is yet another reminder of our imperfections.

But we are not supposed to be perfect. I learned that the hard way, too. Perfection is a noose that chokes creativitity, that chokes our relationship with ourselves, with a higher power, and with one another. And it is not our heritage! Our Universalist forbears didn’t say we had to be perfect to earn the right to be with God. We didn’t have to believe the right thing, do the right thing. Simply being was enough to earn God’s love.

If our mission is perfection, we are doomed to fail. But I don’t think that is our mission. Neither do I believe our mission as Unitarian Universalists is to be larger in numbers or have larger churches. Our mission is not to be the religion of our time, our mission is not to be a religious home for the “nones.” Our mission is not even to make sure we don’t die out. These are all perfectly fine as goals, but they must not be thought of as our mission because they are too self-serving and do nothing to ease the pain and suffering all around us and inside us.

Instead, I believe is our mission is to love the hell out of the world. This means being in relationship with the world. It means constantly expanding who “we” are. It means challenging ourselves to listen more and put down our need to be right all the time. It does not mean we will always agree – we won’t – but it means we will stay in conversation without trying to convince the other person we are right. We will stay in conversation because we will want to hear more about their story.

Loving the hell out of the world means loving each other out of hell. It means realizing how hard it is for someone to say “this hurts” and celebrating their strength and honesty rather than trying to correct them. It means being curious about why I get defensive if someone points out how I might have unintentionally hurt them. It means being aware of when I am more likely to get defensive and setting limits on myself. It means paying attention to the log/plank in my own eye rather than focusing on the speck in someone else’s eye.

Loving the hell out of the world also means not just being willing to fail but actually failing. It means eating some humble pie and getting used to saying “I am sorry” without blaming the other person. It means developing an ego and an identity that is not based on some unobtainable perfection but on our ability to be vulnerable with each other so that we might find strength in that vulnerability.

Because, dear ones, that vulnerability, not perfection, is what connects us. And I believe that in the end, it will be what saves us as well.

trouble at the “borders.”

5 Jan

I just spent two days at Meadville Lombard Seminary for their annual Learning Convocation. The topic this year was “Power at the Borders: Stories of Change, Vulnerability and Solidarity.” During these two days, we explored a metaphor that I have recently been exposed to: The border as a place of change and transformation. We were encouraged to be border “crossers” rather than border “guards.”

I found myself chaffing against the various ways this metaphor was used during these two days. Since I was sitting in an airport with some time to kill, I thought I would explain my discomfort more than I could during convocation itself.

Before I do, though, I should be quite clear that Convo was addressing what I assume is a particular school of thought in the world of ministerial formation. I have not done background reading, I could be horribly misunderstanding the concept. My response is based solely on my experience in the past 2 days. I am not advocating any use/disuse/action/reaction/etc. I am simply sharing my own thoughts and perspective in an effort to spark further conversation and reflection.

And I want to add that exploring my own reaction and response to the concepts put forth at Convo has been a transformational experience for me – connecting dots that needed connecting, and encouraging me to go deeper than I usually do. So although what follows may be a critique, I am deeply, deeply grateful to have had the experience.

So. First, a part of my frustration is what I feel is a lack of clarity around the usage of the metaphor of being “border crossers.” It was used to describe any/all of the following:

  • moving towards what we personally or system/institutionally find uncomfortable
  • making room for personal/spiritual/emotional growth experiences
  • allowing ourselves to become vulnerable
  • standing in solidarity with people who are oppressed/marginalized/excluded
  • something that takes an individual or community into a new place or new way of being

This broad usage of the metaphor seems to obfuscate rather than illuminate. The application was too broad. Indeed, there was even someone who was there because he thought the Convo topic was a continuation of the conversation about immigration that was held at General Assembly in Phoenix this year!!

Second, it bothers me theologically. Which is an interesting thing for me to say, as I do not generally think of myself as much of a theologian. However, I do believe that we are all “of a piece” – connected at an ultimate level. Whether it is because we are all made of star stuff (ala Sagan) or that you are mine and I am yours and that even if we are strangers we are not alien to one another (ala Merton, whose Epiphany, I should note, occurred just 3 blocks from my congregation), or because we are part of the interdependent web – the logistics of how we are all connected do not matter to me as much as the fact that we are.

This is the basis on which my efforts in social justice ideally reside – in my understanding of intertwined fates, and that at our core, we are one.

With this perspective, I understand borders to be artificially constructed by those who have the power to do so. They are a way of delineating “us” versus “them.” Borders between countries, between states, are all constructs…a way of making something discreet out of something that is really continuous.

When we cross a border, rather than dissolve it or transcend it, we are reinforcing the borders existence. We are recognizing it as valid. If you can cross a border without dissolving or transcending it, that means you can cross BACK to where you came from, because the border still exists. Which continues to perpetuate “us” vs “them.”

If we are talking about crossing borders as a euphemism for personal or institutional transformation, this is troubling to me. Transformation is a spectrum, like a rainbow. In a drawing I might make of a rainbow, there is a red stripe, an orange stripe, a yellow stripe, etc. There are distinct borders between the colors – clearly delineated lines. But if we look at a real rainbow, we can see how the red and the orange are a spectrum – we can not point to a specific place where it is no longer red but is now orange, or no longer orange and now yellow. It is a spectrum.

Transformation is a spectrum as well.  It is rare that we wake up one morning and are suddenly totally different people – it is a process that happens over time.  I didn’t become an adult the day I turned 18, or 21, or graduated from college.  It was a process that occurred over time.

Saying transformation is a spectrum does not deny differences – there is a place where orange is truly neither red nor yellow. I was definitely not an adult when I was 10 but I was by the time I was 30.  There are not hard, fast borders in a spectrum.

If we are talking about crossing borders as a euphemism for moving toward solidarity with a population that has been oppressed/marginalized/excluded, the metaphor is even more troubling to me, as it seems to discount the theological possibility of the unity of our core experience (described above) and to again, reinforce differences rather than transcend them.

Which leads to the question of power, which is another issue I have with the idea of being border crossers. Most of the seminarians and ministers present for the discussion were people of privilege. It was patiently explained to me that being border crossers is a way to recognize that privilege and to use our considerable power for the greater good. I see that point. However, there was nothing in the conversation about opening ourselves to allow our own borders to be crossed. In addition, there seemed to be an assumption that we are able to cross whatever borders we feel “need” crossing. This continues to reinforce an unbalanced power dynamic.

I am not encouraging us to stay put and wait for “them” to come to “us” – I am saying this is not a healthy metaphor to be using at all! If, however, we must continue to use the metaphor of borders, then I believe it is more appropriate to talk about “dissolving” or “transcending” borders, rather than crossing them. I believe it is our job to name their artificiality (a theological statement) and, as such, work to remove them as a means of sharing our considerable power and privilege.

And finally, I am concerned because, particularly without the theological reflection piece, we are urging our ministers in training (and their future congregations!) to engage in even yet still more social justice activism without taking the time to reflect on the whys of the matter. This is a personal concern to me, as I struggle with the concept that if I just do more, I am more worthy. I spend too little time as a human “being” and too much time as a human “doing.” I remember a sermon I heard from a UU Social Justice Coordinator many years ago. He was relating a story about how he was telling his mother all the different projects that he was involved in. He was busy, busy, busy. His mother, who must have been a very wise woman indeed, interrupted him and said to her beloved son: “What are you running from that you keep yourself this busy?”

What am I running from? What are we running from? I fill my life with important things to do because deep down, in a place beyond conscious thought, I struggle with my own sense of inherent worth and dignity. I know that I am not alone in this. And I see this in congregations as well as in individuals. We go out and try to save the world because we feel, inside, that we are not enough on our own and that our lives will be judged by what we accomplish.

Social justice work can come from at least two places: this sense of not being good enough if we don’t do it (we “should” do it, or it is “our responsibility” to save the world, etc), or from a more holistic, theologically grounded understanding of our own inherent worth and dignity, and that of our connectedness.

If we are being urged to get as many stamps on our passports as possible, we are using busy-ness as a badge of honor. I believe that, instead, what we truly need is to enunciate a holistic, integrated theology of social action and power sharing. To see that, at our core, we each have an inherent worth and dignity, whether we serve meals at the homeless shelter or not. To trust that we are connected to one another and our fates are intertwined, and that our social activism comes out of these two theological experiences rather than out of a need to be busy. Crossing Borders is not that theological underpinning, at least not for me.

No metaphor is perfect. I am well aware of that. But we must choose our metaphors with care and intention, and that does not feel to me like that is the case when it comes to urging us to be “border crossers.”

association Sunday.

4 Oct

A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on October 2, 2011.

This morning, we join with thousands of Unitarian Universalists around the country in celebrating Association Sunday. Since 2007, the Unitarian Universalist Association has asked congregations to participate in annual Association Sundays to recognize and support, both spiritually and materially, the national work of the Association.

Each year, the UUA picks a particular theme for Association Sunday – a theme around which congregations can explore, rally, celebrate. This year, the theme is focused on celebrating our professional ministries. Funds raised from special collections at participating congregations will support the UUA, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network, the Liberal Religious Educators Association, and other professional organizations. Grants to these organizations will support a range of activities, including scholarships, continuing education, an assessment of our ministries, and other projects that help religious professionals get the ongoing training they need to support thriving congregations.

This topic of training and continuing education for professional ministers is on my mind quite a lot these days. I have the pleasure of working with two professionals – Edward, our Director of Religious Education, and Phillip, our Music Director – who are both amazing to work with. I don’t think any one here would doubt that what they do is ministry. Either of them, if they were to choose, are able to pursue training and credentialing in their area of expertise. But the funds for such training and credentialing are scarce. I appreciate the effort to raise the funds for grants for such endeavors.

Additionally, I am aware of how I benefit from such ongoing training. This January, I was able to attend a week of continuing education with my ministerial colleagues – a week where I learned about leadership, where I celebrated worship daily, where I was challenged, and learned, and grew in my ministerial presence and understanding.

And finally, today is important to me for a reason that, perhaps, many of you are not yet aware of. A few weeks ago, Meadville Lombard Seminary – our Unitarian Universalist Seminary in Chicago – informed me that a new student had requested that I be his teaching pastor as he begins his seminary education. I met with the student and agreed to work with him. I had amazing mentors throughout my formation, and I can only hope to be as good of a mentor to him.

Meadville’s model is for each student to have a teaching pastor that walks with them through the journey that is our ministerial formation process. In this, the first year, my role as teaching pastor is to help the student process and reflect on what he is learning and experiencing – to help him go deeper. In the second year, you will see him around the church as he observes the life of the church. In the third year, he will do a part-time internship here.

Part of the funds we donate today will also be available help this student and others to pay for necessary endeavors on the road to ministry such as the career evaluation he will undertake after his first year of seminary is complete.

I am excited to embark on this role as a mentor. My experience here with you has helped me to deepen my understanding of ministry in ways that I want to share.

While I cannot speak to excellence in professional ministry in religious education or music ministry, I do feel that I can speak to excellence in ministry in the congregation. Not because I always embody such excellence myself, which I think most of us ministers do sometimes and don’t others – but because it is something that I myself strive for.

But how to speak on this? To stand up here and lecture about excellence in ministry feels neither productive, nor celebratory. As Jill read in the reading by Gordon McKeeman, ministry is based on a quality of relationship. And so what I share with you this morning is a letter, written to anyone who may be hearing a call to ministry.

Dear One,

For the past fifteen years, I have been a lay leader, or a professional leader, in Unitarian Universalist congregations. And most of that time, I was somewhere in between – in a land that you are about to enter – the land of ministerial formation. I have been privileged to be in a variety of ministry settings along the way: a mid-sized suburban congregation, an urban humanist congregation, a minister-led fellowship in a university town, a small fellowship in a college town, a hospital chaplain, working for a district, and now the minister of an historic urban congregation.

These different ministerial settings have each formed my understanding of ministry, and of what it means to be a minister. You see, the day to day tasks of many of these ministerial settings were often different. As a chaplain, I would visit patients in times of dire need, and would never see them when things were going well in their lives. In the suburban congregations, I never had to consider how to deal with the homeless people who might want to find a safe place to spend the night. In the humanist congregation, the sermons were 25 minutes long at a minimum and at the small fellowship they liked them even longer.

Each ministerial setting had different tasks, different priorities. But no matter what the ministerial setting, there were certain things that remained consistent. Skills of the heart, if you will, that they don’t teach you in seminary but that you will need to be an effective minister.

For instance, there are three things that you will want to get used to saying: “Thank you”, “I don’t know”, and “I’m sorry.”

The best way to not take someone for granted is to tell them “Thank you.” Thank you for being on the RE ministry. Thank you for filling in for a worship associate in the last minute. Thank you for sharing your concerns with me. Thanking someone lets them know that they matter – and as their minister, you want them to know that they matter to you – because they do. Ministry is not something that can be done alone – it is relational.

“I don’t know” is another important phrase. Often, in seminary, I think we are taught that we should know the answers. And we often don’t. We might not know the author, or the poem, or the systematic theologian’s name. These are the easy ones, for if we don’t know them, we often know where to find the information. The harder ones are often process related. What is the healthiest way for the church to make a decision on going to two services? Should the abuse victim confront her abuser on his deathbed? We don’t always know the answer, and it builds trust to let people know that. Not knowing something is not a weakness – pretending we have all the answers is.

Connected to this is saying “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry that I left your name out of the volunteer list. I’m sorry for hurting you. I’m sorry if I came across as not paying attention to you. “I’m sorry” goes a long way in ministry. And trust me, you will have to say it a lot. We ministers are not perfect, just as no human being is. We make mistakes. And when we own our mistakes, it helps to build the trust that is necessary in a ministerial relationship. Plus, it models to others what it means to be strong and vulnerable at the same time.

And there is another kind of sorry. I’m sorry that you have such sorrow in your life right now. I’m sorry your loved one died. There are many times when, as a minister, you will be let into the most intimate of details of people’s lives. Nine times out of ten, they are not asking you to fix the problems, they are asking you to join them so that they don’t feel so alone. Sitting in silence after offering a simple “I am so sorry for your loss” can be the most healing thing you might do for someone.

If you want to be the kind of minister who transforms minds, hearts and lives, these are the things that matter. It doesn’t matter if you have the book of Psalms memorized, or all of Mary Olivers poems. What matters is how you relate to the people that you minister to. Which means that you will want to be prepared to be transformed in this formation process and then transformed more in your continuing ministry. Just get used to transforming 🙂 It doesn’t just stop once you have graduated and been fellowshipped. That’s my newest learning – that I am continuing to be transformed, to be shaped by this vocation. The sermon I give on ministry today is not the sermon I gave last year, and it is not the one that I will give five years from now.

The excerpt I read from Mendelsohn also mentions power, and responsibility. This reminds of me the comic book Spider Man, when Uncle Ben advises Peter Parker that “With great power comes great responsibility.” Ministry is like that, though at times it may feel like you have no power at all, much less great power. It is much easier to remember that you will always have responsibility – lots of responsibilities. But you do have power. A harsh word from you can burn and sear into a person’s heart in a way that a harsh word from a fellow congregant would not. And it is up to you to decide what sort of power you will have: will you not be content unless you have power over people – such that you control the plan and outcome? If so, I recommend that you consider a different calling. Even if the ministerial setting you end up in is structured so that the minister is in the CEO model, you will not have power over people, and when you forget this, they may remind you by negotiating your termination.

You can, and should, however, have power with. This is the kind of power that builds relationships, creates alliances – whether it is with lay leaders, or the other professional staff at the hospital you work at, or with the oppressed who need your strength of leadership.

Power is not to be confused with authority, which is something that is hotly discussed in the ministerial formation process. Ministerial authority is one of the things that our credentialing bodies look for in a candidate for ministry, but that cannot be taught. It has to be claimed. Try as our credentialling body might, it is not something that is easily defined, but people know it when they see it.

From what I can tell, it looks like someone who is grounded. Who knows in their body, mind and soul that this is what they were called to do. Someone who has found their groove. Perhaps you have heard by now the oft-repeated adage “If you can do anything else, do it, don’t do ministry.” I have always chaffed against this, because there are lots of things that I could do – as I am sure there are for you as well. Instead, I prefer the question: Can the fullness of who you are live in this vocation? Can the fullness of who you are live in this vocation?

For a long and healthy career in ministry, the answer has to be yes, because ministry is hard work. And if you have to spend valuable time and energy squashing down a piece of yourself, you are going to wear out very, very quickly. It is essential that you take care of yourself. It is not the tasks of ministry that are so difficult, though there are many of them. Instead, it is hard because of how many things that will weigh on your heart and your soul. Things that you can never put down, even when you are not actively working. Things like the pain and suffering of the family of a dying person, the stories of the abuse victim, the awareness that every Sunday morning you are expected to get into the pulpit and say something that matters. And really, you are never really off the clock – a part of you will jump every time the phone rings, particularly after 9pm. Is everyone okay? This all weighs on you, always, even if you aren’t consciously thinking of it. It is absolutely essential to find ways to take care of your whole self – mind, body and spirit.

One of the best ways to take care of yourself is to make collegial friends who understand. I have a pretty good imagination, and people would tell me how lonely ministry is, but I didn’t get it. So just take my word for it: it is lonely. But having good relationships with your colleagues makes the loneliness less so. Go to collegial gatherings as soon as they will let you.

And, perhaps most importantly, as lonely as you may be, remember that you are not alone in caring for your congregation. As Mendelsohn said in our reading, great congregations and skilled ministers create one another. In our tradition, ministry is not just the job of the ordained professional. It is also the job of the congregation. It can be hard to figure out what ministry is best left to the lay leaders, and what is best for the professional to handle. So remember those three phrases (Thank you, I don’t know, and I’m sorry), and add “Help me.” And your congregation will help you to help them. Reach out to them, and build those bridges.

You have a long journey ahead of you – perhaps not in terms of physical time, but in how far you will likely travel in terms of your self-awareness and your formation. It will most likely be bumpy, which may not be a bad thing at all. You may even come to the conclusion that this is not the road for you, or not the road for you right now. And that is okay, too, because you will have been better for the time you traveled on it. Regardless, may your journey in this land of formation be fruitful, may you get lost only enough as you need to, and, when you make it to the other side, may you realize the journey has just begun.

%d bloggers like this: