It’s been ages since I thought there was any point in writing about polity among the Unitarian Universalists. Nor does my return to the topic, at this cataclysmic moment, indicate either a sense of hope, or much interest. These days most of my emotional energy resided in the purely personal. Still, people who have meant so much to me would like a small bit of perspective, so here’s what I can offer.

For those who don’t know, we have had, on the same day — March 30, 2017 — not one but two earthshaking ministerial downfalls. What can’t be overlooked is that they come from the two opposite poles of polity. It’s as if God wanted to wake us up to both dangers, and to do so with enough clarity that none of us can miss it. So without commenting on the content of either event, here are my evaluations.

First, on the resignation of our denominational president over concerns about staff appointments. The problem itself is as old as we are. When we were only New Englanders, a call went out for more leaders from and in the west (a changing place over the centuries, but never a different issue). When we were only led by men, women agitated for a place at the decision-making tables. In each case, the protesters wanted their superficial differentness to harbor a deeper difference in how our congregational approach religion. The UUA, following the lead of its Unitarian forerunners, the Boston Clergy Association and the National Conference of Unitarian and other Liberal Churches, instituted closed selection processes for approving clergy, always claiming their only aim was protecting the innocent and/or sacred. Yet in each case, the victors in writing the bylaws turned out to be elitists convinced that salvation for others lay in control only by folks carefully selected to resemble themselves or at least, show deference to their co-called wisdom and devotion.

In 1899, when Samuel Atkins Eliot I and his co-conspirators on the board of the tiny American Unitarian Association instituted an anti-congregational coup over the decentralized and congregationally-based National and Western Conferences, they thought they had good reasons. In particular, the rise of both evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholic political influence led these folks to believe that educated, rationalist, humanist-driven Protestantism needed to strengthen its ability to speak up in the public realm. This is the tendency which has led us to tighter and tighter staff leadership and more and more strident political advocacy. It was probably inevitable that eventually, heads would roll as that advocacy has finally begun — as once did geographic outreach — to bring in some long-desired but little known new members.

So now, if our ministers and parishioners of color want more staff members that not only look like them, but understand the spiritual ups and downs of their personal lives, I say they only continue an honorable and completely worthy line of disrupters who have always, eventually, made our denomination more rewarding for all of us. It is worth noting that part of their concern is the way racism plays out differently in different parts of the country, meaning regionally-driven leadership is the only legitimate way to truly minister to people where they live. The question raging now is whether the necessary change can be accomplished by appointing better people to the same offices — what denominationalists always have insisted — or whether there will be more folks like me, who believe the only effective answer can be systematic.

Meanwhile, from the opposite end of the polity spectrum, we have a lone wolf who wound up devouring innocent lambs. Really. This minister and community activist, now accepting charges of receiving pornography featuring violence against children, always raised the most fiery and least reasoned supports of my complaints about over-centralized denominational personnel management. It is worth pointing out that when Henry Whitney Bellows laid out the framework for the National Conference, he explicitly enumerated the duty to monitor clergy, which, to his mind, could only done by those in the same locales. Likewise, I have not mentioned our Universalist forebears, because their decentralized polity, for most of their existence, had no relevance to the new structures. Yet their state and regional conventions also included and exercised fellowshipping and disfellowshipping of clergy. The centralist shibbolith that localism means immorality has no place in either of our histories; that was a tool for the coup-plotters of 1899.

 

Of all the time I have spent in organized Unitarian Universalist activities, there are two gatherings, superficially different, geographically and racially unlike, which proved nevertheless to mirror and echo each other. They come back to me at this time, because on both ends of the polity spectrum we are going need a way to heal among ourselves. Each of these events was a gathering of sincerely-committed congregation members, usually assembled to click through meetings to manage something important to parishioners. Yet in each case, we committed to listen to each other’s voices as equals and as seekers. We were not seeking to elucidate on some topic, as small group ministries do, but to share some part of our vulnerable soul by telling our personal stories. The first occurred at All Souls in Washington, DC, when one option in our then-annual retreat was to share the spiritual journeys that brought us into that congregation. I closed my eyes to listen, and marveled at how little difference there really was around distinctions of race. Decades later, at First Church Unitarian in Jamaica Plain, MA, we met to implement the Welcoming Congregation curriculum, whose first step is to simply hear the story of parishioners’ journeys as LGBTQ individuals.

Recently one of my Facebook friends asked which was better, to be transformative or to be effective. In my experience, transformation is the only long-term effectiveness. I failed in my efforts to transform this association’s polity, although I do take credit for raising its prominence as a worthwhile general focus. As I prepare to turn 63, to help my wife (yes, after a lifetime of bisexual wanderings, I finally landed on this side of the fence) confront her revolutionary self-management of advanced Huntington’s Disease, those of you who come after are my comfort. If I made less and less effort to write, and became more and more of a lurker, in large part it is because your voices began to open parts of my mind and soul in ways too new and exciting to limit by language. Still, I do live in covenant, so if it helps, here’s my little offering.

With prayers for us all, especially the victims in both of our disastrous ministerial implosions.

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A Death in Summer

Last week a colleague I knew in seminary took her own life. She was younger than I, ministering steadily in stable congregations, but beyond that, I knew nothing of her life since graduation. Mostly, those who knew her are declining to speculate what might have happened, draping her death in the dignity it deserves.

My new wife and I are having a blissful first month of marriage (one month today), but my colleague’s death prompted me to reflect on what July has been at different stages of my life. As an elementary school child, I remember looking forward to summer vacation because school had not provided me with the hoped-for playmates. My family’s intellectual focus meant we did not — and do not — play well with others. We ask too many questions, most of them being, “Why?” But during long summers on our little foothill in Colorado we could indulge in all manner of history-based fantasies. We reenacted novels and movies, sang along with our mother at the rickety old basement piano. It is this epoch of life that my current newlywed July brings most to mind; it goes far to explain why Vermont felt so instantly like home.

Around ten years of age something inside flipped this formula of program-year agony, summer bliss. School got better that year, fourth grade, thanks to a caring teacher and a solid friend. When classes ended, my parents consented to my first self-initiated foray into the outside world: Vacation Bible School at a nearby Methodist church. Then we moved to a more congenial neighborhood and I began making friendships that sustained themselves twelve months a year.

After two years of this came magnet school. Once again, social isolation cloaked summers in pain and dread. Until I could drive (I hated bicycling, and it would not have supported my careful fashion statements anyway), the days dragged in hours of reading, listening to records. My father took us on long camping trips in places I treasure, but “roughing it” was never my style. Mostly I counted the days until I could reconnect with friends. It is instructive that on our camping trips,I would be looking as much at the other campers as at the scenery. What I remember most from those years is a night some strangers invited me to join them at their bonfire, and we laughed into the night.

The news of my colleague’s death, at the height of a beautiful summer, thrust me back into the longing, the dread, the agony of the decades when the waning of school and church opened into a dark season of loneliness. Through the 1980s and 1990s, I did my part in a strident group of UU Christian leaders who insisted on holding worship every Sunday in summer. We couched our commitment in theological terms, insisting that God does not take summers off. Many UUs heard it as liturgical arrogance, and on some occasions, I’m sure that’s what I intended. But the underlying purpose was pastoral. All summer long, there are people whose personal lives deplete rather than restore their hearts and souls. Economic and social dislocations often erupt in summer, as northern hemisphere families use the long, warm days to move house. Many of those moves are unhappy ones: divorces, job loss, house loss. These things might actually feel worse when flooded with sunshine, surrounded by flowers and green leaves.

In that long-ago Vacation Bible School, I learned to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” at a moment I needed a friend. For decades, that conviction was enough to console me in hours of loneliness, not because of the song, but because I could open one of my Bibles to the Sermon on the Mount and recover that blissful personal presence. The volunteer ladies who taught us, fed us, played piano to our scraggly singing. The minister whose own kids probably wished they were on a camping trip like the ones my father arranged. These are the sacrifices of faith that brought a real Jesus into my life.

Where were we, these emissaries of that Jesus and his community of healers, prophets, teachers, when our colleague needed someone for a summertime vacation? Where were we, these friends and classmates, when her soul hit its long, dark night on a bright summer day? My Facebook feed reminds me that UU clergy treasure our summers as “time away.” We need tp recharge our batteries and our families need our undivided attention. But with the oversupply of trained and credentialed clergy, with the difficulties of our downwardly mobile, planet-grieving social milieu, may her death call us outward, a second, deeper layer, ready to steady those whose pain increases when regular — rhythmic — life subsides.

(I notice I cannot bring myself yet to say her name; it is too painful to shift her identity away from the bright young woman I knew to the one she must have become. RIP.)

Post UU Memorial Services

So if this blog no longer concerns itself with Unitarian Universalist polity, what will be its new center of gravity? This is not so much a blog question as a ministry question. 

Spiritual liberals and progressives no longer see a value in organizing themselves into parishes or congregations, and it’s about to slam up and hit them — the free rangers — in the face. This is my experience in Vermont, which has the highest per capita UU self-identity, and an anomalously large UU society. Its meetinghouse is the not only the most identified landmark of the major metropolitan area, but the most widely trusted for the numerous “I’m not religious” lefties who have re-rooted our once-barren landscape and blossomed into a national arboretum of left-wing courage.

Here’s where my ministry comes in: I have no position on the staff of the Society. I have no formal UU ministerial affiliation, other than “retired community minister.” And yet, in the ceremonial seasons of spring and fall, my skills are needed for formal celebrations of a departed life. We are not yet off the old divinity school chart, in which one axis is “worship style” (high or low) and one is “theological style” (formal or informal). when I substitute “polity” for “theology,” I can see the same issue: people who have never “been to church” in their lives still know good liturgy — and they want it when it’s time to commemorate someone’s passing. They just don’t want formal polity to extend its timeline.

That makes total sense, because “liturgy” means “work of the people.” Lately, I find myself crafting memorial services which give more and more space for speakers from the family and community — no more eulogies, at least not many. What they want from me is structure: a framework of readings, silences, music to stop their thoughts from rambling, their tears from exploding, the throats from choking closed. On the day itself, my carefully-chosen selections have no more weight than the way I call the names of the participants, standing calmly beside them, a little way off, as they speak or play. Make sure there are tissues on the podium. The microphone picks up their voice.

No longer are there any particular words which can universally signify the comfort that “life remains as we intend.” There probably never were. But now we acknowledge that each individual death requires different readings — from global literature and world scriptures — to celebrate the life which has brought us together. As an avid secular reader, I’ve begun to let myself delight in finding the right passages, even as my Jewish-Christian spirit mourns the ebbing of a once-revitalizing tide. And the wider I cast my net, the more delighted are the fish stuck in my boat.

The problem is: how does one tie off all this shared passion? It’s rather like trying to decide whether to settle into sleep after a passionate one-night stand. Are we ready to face each other’s disheveled morning grunge, deal with who likes to talk over coffee and who just wants to listen to NPR? What do you say to each other when there is no, “What time will you be home tonight?” available? the Reverend Richard Leonard performed hundreds of weddings at The Unitarian Church of All Souls, and he used to send a card to each couple on their anniversary. I can’t do that at this age, although if I were starting out, I might try it.

Once I admitted I couldn’t be Dick Leonard (and no one else can), I understood the beauty of “C & E’s”. “High Holiday Jews.” The Membership Committee, the Canvass Chair, they are squinting through the candlelight to figure out who are all these strangers. In synagogues, I am sure the leaders are fighting off Yom Kippur hunger to see who might be ready for more than the annual ticket.  In the departure line, regular Sunday worshipers fidget impatiently as unfamiliar faces draw the cleric’s lingering conversation. What is happening is that the regulars are seeing the free rangers. The umbra and penumbra are uniting briefly into one shadow with a distinguishable shape. Beyond the boundaries of covenant, edges which bear its shape cut into the barren terrain exactly as the original fills the air inside the sanctuary. Every time I am done with one of my services, I passionately wish there were a C & E, High Holiday calendar in this religion, because then we would all know when we would meet again… maybe not just this year, but in five years. Maybe just next time someone dies.

But what is the value of this to the regulars? Free rangers (which is not the same as wanderers who stumble through ) know they have a vested interest in the regulars who covenant. On special occasions, the free rangers probably want to be asked to help out. In my favorite book about Hindu village culture, the long-ago anthropological study, “Behind Mud Walls,” William H. Wiser and Charlotte Vail Wiser describe how, on routine days, it’s just a few women who show up at the temple each day to do puja. But when the temple needs repairing, suddenly the entire village — and all the men as well — present themselves ready to work and donate. It’s a wonderful productive week, and then everyone goes back to normal life. Once again, daily puja draws only a few women and the priests. But that work week has shown that even though a lot of people don’t appear to feel a need for the temple very often, they keenly feel the need to know it will be there once in awhile.

This works better for supporting buildings than supporting clergy. I am starting to suspect that my profession — community ministry — needs to negotiate a radical restructuring of fees with the cremation industry. As caskets have gotten smaller, and usually disappeared into urns. the ceremonies have gotten larger and more complicated. No more does the cleric just pull down the standard text and appear at the appointed hour. “Attention must be paid,” as Arthur Miller wrote, in “Death of a Salesman,” and that attention comes out of our lives. It’s take-out dinners instead of the slow-cooked economy model. It’s gas for the home visit, hours to read through all the old familiar quotes, the ceremonies that worked best, for elements that start the crafting of this one unique ceremony.

As I say, with all this beloved work, when these ceremonies end, the good-byes can be a little awkward. I’m not good at closure anyway, which is the main reason I want to get out of this industry. That’s what I liked about parish work — the stable, ongoing relationships.

But perhaps a lot of folks feel this discomfort — both the mourners and the clerics, the free rangers and the regulars.

So instead of just saying, “I quit, ” I’m putting it out there. What are other folks finding, both in settlement and beyond? 

I Think We’re Done Here

Yesterday was my sixtieth birthday. Today we finally got enough warm sun for me to get into the raised bed and pull out all the little trash tree sprouts the leaf mulch left behind. Calming. Centering. The next time the sun reaches one of its heavenly markers — on the Solstice — I’ll be heading into church to marry my sweetie. After a lifetime of journeying, hiding, running, hiding, questing, craving, my heart has found a home. It had other chances, but now it hears the call, feels the embrace, rests on the smallness of it.

Fewer and fewer are the occasions, the durations in which denominational efforts inspire equivalent energy. Love, yes, for religion is key to our life. But not so much with the cultivation and care of institutional religion.

So Politywonk is leaving. My mind returns to that last chapter of The House at Pooh Corner, when everyone knows that Christopher Robin is leaving. Hopefully my changes will not result in the decades of detached neglect that Christopher Robin inflicted on his stuffed menagerie. That always used to be my fear — that if I didn’t do this stuff, no one else would. Nowadays, it’s the opposite: I do it less because so many others do it so much better.

(There might still be posts using this title until after the wedding. And I’ll probably continue some commenting. But fading… fading…)

 

Sharing Space as Part of a Different Polity Model

Sitting in our beautiful meetinghouse this morning in Burlington, Vermont, sun streaming in, great new minister, strong choir, the whole nine yards… and remembering back to the so-called Golden Era, aka, late Victorian-Edwardian hey day of Unitarianism and Universalism. Tom Schade has us (those of us who care about institutional Unitarian Universalism) imagining a single movement-wide denominational database of members/friends, etc. The key to making this work, in my mind, is the counterintuitive management tool, which is, offering all these people loyalty to more than one board.

That’s how this congregation got and stayed large, in the midst of a small general population. Unity (Young Adults), Women’s Alliance, Sunday School Society, Men’s Group/Laymen’s League — they didn’t just have their own committees, they had their own bylaws, budgets, and bank accounts. They had their own national staff consultants. They published their own worship materials (copies of which are in my library upstairs, this is neither wishful thinking nor undocumented rumor). They kept their own records, published their own calendars, worshiped and ate as part of festive, demanding meeting sessions.

They were not fragmented, but interconnected, mostly by the Executive Committee of the Women’s Alliance (which also handled Membership for the Society until WWII). It is possible to see the Parish Committee as detached and aloof, but it’s also possible to see the oversight of the pulpit and meetinghouse as having their own safe space, where programmatic and generational wars had only visiting privileges. Usually, what is now “the executive committee” was in those days the minister’s family. The wife was not optional, but, in effect, the associate minister who spent most of her time with the Women’s Alliance and maybe the Sunday School Society (although most of the male ministers here in Burlington preferred to maintain Sunday School Society leadership themselves, especially in its ties with The Religious Book Society, aka, the Library).

From a building point of view, something similar happened in many rural towns, where several denominations would go together to build a town church. Each would have their own itinerant minister in on a somewhat regular basis, agreed among themselves. But across interfaith lines, the system failed. The animosity among the co-owners ranged from vague dissatisfaction to outright horror that “those sent by the Devil” were preventing the growth of the saved. So while it might be useful to have separate boards, separate theologies are not productive. 

This, however, is precisely where the separate boards within a single larger Society can promote lifespan ministry and religious education. Everything about each generation is different from those who went before and those who are coming after. And within each generation — which is, in effect, a geographic interest group — there are individuals whose primary personal vision is not about where they are at the moment, but some particular interest, some primary calling or skill. This is why the calling of any new parish minister is usually attended by the loss of established members: those who were down have been brought up, while those in the leadership have been urged to consider stepping back.

Up here in Burlington, having various leadership nodes and gathering cultures meant everyone got used to coming together in one space from time to time, and the rest of the time, feeling strongly supportive of your sibling groups in the same Society. And we’ve very seldom had only one minister (again, counting the ministers’ wives as unpaid, full-time, under-discussed professional-level ministers). 

I’ve been up here ten years now. I arrived as one of the staff members, and now am one of the objects of pastoral concern, both supporting and celebrative. Both my fiancee and I have been able to navigate the changes in our circumstances among the various pools in the Society. But we’ve only got one Board right now, and we’ve only got one parish minister. The DRE is, in effect, a full time minister, and the Administrator and Facilities Manager have major ministerial presences as well. So in a very real sense — and recognizing the incredible class prejudice this religion maintains on who gets ordained and credentialed as an official “minister” — our functional areas of ministry are staffed.

But what about other congregations? And what about the UUA? What about the formerly-affiliated interest communities? There can be too many boards and budgets, but there can also be too few.