Unpacking the “Free Range” Label

Well, we’ll see how long things live in the blogosphere, because after only a few hours I regretted posting intemperate remarks about the congregation I currently belong to. They are good people, and our interim minister is fantastic. It pains me that they would be hurt by what I wrote there.

But I did have a couple of points, so I’m gonna follow the lead of Patrick Murfin and try to focus on a theme here. For my starting place, here’s the part of that post I want to lift up:

“Free-Range UUs” is an attractive phrase (it attracted me), but from a ministerial and denominational level, it needs a little unpacking.

Genuine free-rangers just don’t resonate to weekly, even twice monthly, attendance at congregational worship. I number among those who believe there are other forms and times of ministry and community that could bring more of these folks closer.  Up here in Vermont, as the nights get longer and colder, farmers are starting to talk about where their free-range chickens are going to spend the winter: barns, coops, etc. Out in the drought and heat, large animals have limited their wanderings to convenient reach of the watering and feeding supplements. Our denomination needs to think like these farmers, and get more living water and daily bread out to where the animals want to wander.

Not to be confused with free-rangers are the folks taking fallow time to renew themselves, after tons of time teaching RE, chairing some committee, serving on the board.  I believe that this, too, is a neglected ministerial field.

And then there’s the group in which I put myself yesterday, the “pissed off.” Sometimes we’re just disappointed, but we’re alienated. The denomination’s current approach to this group is to just wait for it to go away. No standardized exit interviews, no workshops like the “Coming Home” series run by Roman Catholics. Either they come back or they don’t.

I haven’t read the whole bylaw change on virtual congregations, but they seem like a good idea. As someone who has spent the last two years finding spiritual community primarily on Facebook, I can testify that in the end, a computer isn’t enough. You start to want to see people, to hear their voices. Facebook friends now figure in my travel plans, and I hope my hospitality for those who want to cool off with a summer week in northern Vermont.

Which means that, in the end, there’s no substitute for ministering to the various groups currently sheltering under the “Free Range Label.”  And happily, there’s a survey asking “Free Range UUs” to take a few minutes to describe ourselves to the denomination. I hope Free-Rangers will do this. Our denomination is taking some courageous steps forward, away from what now turns out to have been the mistaken effort to redefine ourselves as only “an association of congregations.”  Both Unitarians and Universalists achieved their greatest growth and prestige in an era that made provisions for individual as well as communal covenanters.

I took the survey, even though I don’t really qualify as free range, because I pledge to a congregation and worship there regularly.  After all, two out of three types of free-rangers — the fallow and the disappointed — are sitting in our pews right now, trying to strategize an exit that isn’t a total severance of ties.

Applying the Lens of Congregational History to the UUA-UCC Meeting

One way UUA President Reverend Peter Morales explained his recent meeting with his UCC counterpart was by rightly noting their continuing presence with UUs in various social justice campaigns. The UCC caught a lot of UU attention with a television outreach campaign that welcomed same sex couples, and got censored in several major markets. They’ve also taken the most fundamental theological tenet of the Reformation “God is still speaking” and made it look, to our ignorant eyes, like some special form of religious progressivism. As a lover of the Reformation, and living in a same-sex couple, these are certainly good things.

But here at the local level, in 2012, we’d be sadly remiss in believing that the UCC is unique among Protestant faiths in either of these positions. I bowed for ashes last night at the local Episcopal Cathedral, where the homilist was a victor in the long, slow legal campaign for the right right to marry the man he loves. Just as we do at the UU congregation, they include on their order of service — even on Ash Wednesday — a reminder of what they’ve committed to provide for our local food shelf. When I went down to chaplain after a shooting at our Occupy Vermont-Burlington camp last autumn, my call came from a Lutheran Youth and Young Adult Minister serving a coalition of liberal Protestant congregations: Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian. As both our state mental hospital and prisons reach out for spiritual support in new locations, we get updates and plan responses in large part around our local interfaith clergy table.

Which brings us back to the question, in these hard but hopeful times: If God is still speaking, is the voice coming into each humble local heart and ear, to be shared by reaching out and reaching up — or is it being parsed out in scant, broad instructions, vouched safe to special leaders for us to carefully handle with the guidance of these leaders’ most trusted emissaries?

Local history teaches that there’s a bumper sticker truth for our religion as well as our society:

If the People Lead, The Leaders Will Follow.

And maybe that’s why the Association’s top levels don’t invest in lots of academically solid congregational histories: the evidence suggests liberal religions doesn’t really need with a Moses or a College of Cardinals. God is still speaking, and the Universalists were right: God speaks to everyone, with clarity, energy and an emphasis on local practical service to neighbors.


As the United States of America (as opposed to the United States of Mexico or some of the others we never acknowledge) heads into its next presidential election cycle, a universal fear has given voice to anger and derision, and stopped the ears of many who used to pride themselves on openness to new information. I watched Keith Obermann last night for a bit, and was simply disgusted by his reliance on invective to communicate arrogance. For 9-11-11 Paul Krugman launched a column that simply exploited the occasion to complain again about exploitation of the occasion.

I don’t disagree with the politics of either journalist, but I would like to point out, as a pastor and historian, that the purpose of formal occasions like elections and memorials is to pause and listen to each others’ stories, fitting them in with the facts we think we know, double-checking said facts against these stories, and then trying to move forward together. Doing history is so often prophetic precisely because it calls us to surrender to larger stories that may or may not support our personal narratives. That is why people prefer myths — metastories that make key points or offer up acceptable explanations of how “the we of me” (Carson McCullers’s great expression in Member of the Wedding) got to be in a certain predicament or privilege.  The anger which comes from being contradicted is why people in stress hang onto hagiography — the creation of saints who make inarguable virtue of what the individual wants to believe is the right thing to do.

At the end of next month, the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society and the  Harvard Divinity School will join together to present a panel on the late Professor of American Religious History, C. Conrad Wright. It is my honor to be on this panel, speaking on Conrad’s personal mission of using the academically maligned field of denominational history to witness, as a prophet, to covenants that in his time were under attack.

They are still fragile. They are both right and wrong for this new millennium. But that is for another day. Right now, I lift up the example of a scholar who was willing to research, study, retell and affirm stories from history that did not match the feelings of  his contemporaries. Over time, however, those stories became part of who are have become and are trying to be. And in one sense, his point still applies: Covenant means listening with pastoral openness to the stories of people whose stories do not fit with ours. Hearing them out on what they know they need and think they want.  And then, looking into our collectivity with honesty to be sure we are ready to meet those needs, without surrendering our ethics to the most extreme or hurtful of anyone’s passions.

Including ours.

Lent Means Slow Down

Somehow the Holy Spirit gave me a good look at myself the other day, and instead of the usual despair and denial, provided a bit of an answer.  My morning routine on the computer is pretty well set, but it emphasizes getting a quick look at a lot of stuff, reading and recommending a few newspaper articles, and then moving on.  It’s timed for that, and lets me get into the kitchen for breakfast at the exact moment I’ve drunk my two measured cups of tea.

But over the course of a week, this practice generates a long tail of emails marked “keep as new,” waiting, waiting for their deeper examination in a moment that never comes.  Or I get hasty and delete stuff that later I wish I had kept.  And my primary in-box keeps flashing that its queue is overloaded and likely to start blocking incoming traffic.

So it’s a system — which is good — but it doesn’t work.  And the reason it doesn’t work is because I don’t make time for filing.

Who is this Holy Spirit, who has led me not so much to see the need for filing (anyone can see that!) but to yearn for it, and now, to see some processes?  In good congregational fashion, it’s my current religious community — the Facebook friends who have been either filing or cleaning their offices or completely giving up Facebook in order to do something more meaningful.  It’s my roommate, who doesn’t consider her computer routines complete until she has filed each message in an appropriate folder.  It’s my sister-in-law once removed, who has one computer window daily, every morning, after which she goes on to other things.  (I note that she does seem to check for emergency emails from time to time in the afternoon, because she has answered one recently.)

Thanks to them, I am going to limit (not give up) my FB and other computer wanderings in order to spend time filing my messages.

I’ve already done a bit of cleaning.

My problem is figuring out the filing system to use.  Much of my research these days is online, and therefore, I am developing stray papers and folders and even bookmarks on topics of interest.  What is to be done about these?

And if it goes really well, I hope to shift some of my old Politywonk posts from Livejournal over here, deleting the rest and closing out the account.

Sounds like too much to be a spiritual practice.  But spiritual practice means taking small snippets on a regular basis, not so much to “finish” anything as to strengthen ourselves for large projects God puts in front of us.

And the reason this is Lenten work, not just office work, is because cleaning old papers is so emotional.   It brings you face to face with things you wanted to do and didn’t have time for.  People you no longer keep in touch with the way you wish you did.  Projects that fell by the wayside. Great quotes and paragraphs that got cut out of sermons or prayers and never found their way into another one.  In short, the mortality of the mind.

When our Puritan forebears wrote about “mutual religious edification,” this is what they meant: learning from each other’s best offerings in order to better ourselves.  To strengthen our hearts for the pain life sends our direction.  Support for our consciences, to do what is hard to do.

Thank you, democratic congregationalism.

Thank You, Holy Spirit.