Once again, the number of official Unitarian Universalists has declined. As the Board of Trustees shrinks its mission (congregations only), I wonder whether I even belong here myself. Most of my spiritual life comes not through a congregation but through several Formerly Affiliated Independent Associations. As a community-based minister, I tend to do a lot of overflow services — the weddings and memorial services for people who suddenly find themselves called to us, not for congregational covenant, but for a major event that needs open-minded, faith-and-ethics-based pastoring, for a moment along their journey.
This would be true no matter where I lived; it’s not a Vermont thing any more. I read the New York Times Ceremonies and Weddings pages every Sunday to see whose officiating, and Universal Life ministers, “friends designated for the day,” “rabbi who is also an uncle of the bride” are winners, hands-down. Young adulthood is not a settled life phase anymore, and that isn’t going to change any time soon.
This abandonment of the new young adulthood is a major reason our religion is dying off. We are reaching out instead to the poor, the imigrant, the imprisoned, because they are in one place, in a long-term situation, conducive to congregational connection. But the verdict is in: this will not build our faith community. Once these people get into the same peripatetic search for meaning in life, they become as irrelevant and inconvenient as our own young adults — in a sense, regardless of age, young adults at last — and they, too, disappear from our lives.
And yet, my weekend is filled with an ancient function of our Unitarian Universalist faith — uniting in marriage a Jew and a Roman Catholic who want to start a new life together combining the best of both faiths, examined through the lens of their life experiences. The clergy they wanted wouldn’t touch it. For me, it was a transformative invitation — to study more deeply Jewish marriage theology and ritual, to rejoice in the Unity Candle next to the Ketubah as I officiate. And their first real connection with our faith was that they got to see and approve the whole ceremony text in advance, selecting writings and naming particular priorities. That is our hallmark –to seek and give voice to the authentic spirit of the worshipper, as they bow before that which they allow to be larger than themselves.
God is killing what our religion has become, not what it was in its prime. It was, itself, a young adult — wandering from place to place, carrying only its search for meaning and its educational enthusiasm for gaining supportive skills. It was poor in possessions, but it did not care. It wrote and preached and sang with an ageless enthusiasm, drawing freely from all it encountered, and asking only to have no door shut behind it too soon.
Scott Wells, at http://www.boyinthebands.com, pondered long ago the value of the Master of Divinity for those who would lead our faith in service. At the moment, I can’t help noticing that the religions which are dying off — the mainline Protestants — are those who use the M. Div. for preparing and credentialing their clergy. It’s a wonder to read how the exploding evangelical faiths educate their clergy through networks, basic texts, hands-on mentoring ladders — all the stuff we did until the early twentieth century. I suspect they maintain clearer boundaries between Continuing Education in Skills of Ministry, and Continuing Education to revive the minister’s sense of purpose or enthusiasm for this life. They focus on numbers, yes, but they also add clergy much more quickly for specialized functions. These adjunct clergy were a major casualty of the recession, but I do not doubt they will be back as soon as the megachurches can afford them.
I find my faith being revived outside the congregational setting this fall, in ways too numerous to mention. There is a congregation in my life — and there will be more — but as a community-based minister, I cannot make myself too available to it. We have our terms of relationship, we have our purposes for each other — more like merchants than spouses. This, too, is a killer of our faith, for they only have access to my Formerly Affiliated Faith Life in highly defined ways.
I have ideas of what we can do… but that’s for another time. Right now, I can only comment that God is killing this religion — this way of being bound together — but never has the Spirit of this Faith Process been in better health.