Unitarian Universalist Pastoral Ministry

Unitarian Universalist Pastoral Ministry

Back when I had fantasies of writing UU history books, I spent several months in thrall to the shining idol of capturing our journey with pastoral care. The method can be summarized succinctly: we have relied on the Reformation model of a husband-wife ministry, in which the father handles the major theological issues, polity, and authority, while the minister’s sweet wife — or sometimes a talented son or daughter — handles pastoral care. It is my firm contention that the reason ministerial salaries have gone down over the past few decades is that the end of this model deprives congregations of an efficient team ministry, and they have adjusted their prices accordingly.

But what is this pastoral care minister doing? And when we describe some of our male ministers — some in every era — as models of pastoral presence, to what are we referring? They are not out trying to align people’s theologies, because we don’t do that. We are not necessarily trying to get them back into the faith, because you can’t really slide out of an all-encompassing, interconnected cosmic energy or divinity (thank you, Ralph Waldo Emerson, for giving us our visions from the Upanishads, when Professor Muller first translated them).

The best description of Unitarian Universalist pastoral care comes from the Prophet Isaiah, in the 45th chapter, beginning at 19b:

 I the Lord speak the truth,
I declare what is right.

Idols Cannot Save Babylon

20 Assemble yourselves and come together,
draw near, you survivors of the nations!
They have no knowledge—
those who carry about their wooden idols,
and keep on praying to a god
that cannot save.

21 Declare and present your case;
let them take counsel together!

Here are the key elements:

1) When someone feels their life has descended into chaos, recognize that they have lost their sense of connection with God, and are vulnerable to the quest for identifiable wooden idols. We we are looking for people whose worlds are breaking down, or shattered.

2) God is Truth, not God is God. This is key. Somewhere inside this person resides a core of belief, a vision of a harmonized, self-nurturing life process.  The pastoral ministry is to support this person’s recovery of the ability to see, feel, and witness that inner vision.

3) You have such a vision (whether or not you are ordained) and your job is not to impose it, but simply to state it as yours.

4) Having presented your case, you let the person talk out their issues, work it out, with your assistance and guidance.

This, of course, is what clergy of every basically liberal faith are taught to do in Clinical Pastoral Care Education, which is why it is demanded of everyone who enters our formal ministry.

So if this is everyone’s model, why do we not claim it, use it, and pay for it?

Simple answer: in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pragmatism diverted us from the ministry as a vehicle for resolving people’s problems. If they had lost their inner truth, therapists were better able to provide that special assistance. If they were struggling with real world issues, our roots in civil religious duty called us to support their political requests, or, if we were hands-on types, to build a service-delivery vehicle through private philanthropy.

So there’s the book summary. Everything else is just footnotes and stories.


One thought on “Unitarian Universalist Pastoral Ministry

  1. “If they had lost their inner truth, therapists were better able to provide that special assistance.” This became true only after UU’s started asking believers in their midst why they remained a UU… “Wouldn’t a believer be happier somewhere else?”, as someone asked in the UU World FFRF advertisement dust up.

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