Monday, August 20, 2007


Until today, when I read the 25th-year talk of my seminary classmate, I hadn’t realized how many years had gone by. At seminary Peter did exactly what he was supposed to do, got a fine suburban church, and has stayed there the full twenty-five years. He is quite a bit younger than I am, so he may get to do the fifty year speech as well. I won’t be there to hear it. (I'd be 118 years old!) But I wasn't there to hear this one either.

There were four of us at the beginning of our class: Now Harris Riordan has a church in Boca Raton, FL. Gary Gallun appears to be doing interim ministry. Kenner Swain came late and left early: he’s evidently selling wine in San Francisco. I haven’t kept up with any of them, so I only know through Google.

But I think that enough time has finally elapsed for me to begin to talk about ministry, esp. in view of the current obsession with religion in its many manifestations. I’ll weave the blogs in with my other preoccupations, but keep the same title, adding numbers.

In the Eighties I had a parishioner/friend who wanted to give me his “Vicar of Dibley” tapes. If you don’t know this BBC series, it’s about a chubby, boisterous, resourceful minister of the Church of England and her slightly crazed and certainly stereotypical parishioners. He said it reminded him of me. I was very glad he couldn’t bear to part with the tapes, because that was exactly the image that finally drove me out of the ministry: the minister as mom, as tour director, as fixit queen, as social director. Argh. At the same time, I recognize the truth of the image, which is my facade when I’m not centered.

In 1975 when I was promoted from a street animal control officer to an office education director (a CORNER office and a county car which was terrific since it was an old sheriff’s stake-out car and had a top-of-the-line sound system), I thought I should find myself a church. While I was mulling over this, I happened to pass a brick wall that had in neat metal letters at the top: “First Unitarian Church.” “Unitarian” raised some distant vibes (my father the self-declared atheist was excited when the annual General Assembly was in Portland in the Sixties) but mainly it appealed to my Puritan minimalist side that this facade was so matter-of-fact, so I went back on a Sunday. It turned out that I was coming in through the back of an addition. The “real” church building might have been designed by Thomas Jefferson, plain (no stained glass, gray-painted paneling) but VERY elegant.

After one service I knew I’d been hooked, partly because the minister, who looked like Tyrone Power, preached in an angry/ thoughtful/amused voice, and wore a bright red Harvard robe, was too easily the object of a white crush. (A Maurice Chevalier term meaning a crush with no sex involved.) This almost involuntary strategy of mine had several times led me to get interested in a strong person and, by following their interests, expand my own. So in those Unitarian years I read a lot of Ernie Gann, whose airplane stories were a true love of this minister’s, and tried to read a lot of esoteric theological books (Ellul, for instance, or Hans Kung) without much success. This minister didn’t leave the Christian context but followed the most liberal and intellectual strands. He often said, “God is too good an idea to surrender to the Fundies!”

Go back much earlier. When my mother had just had me, her first child, she lived between two women: Mrs. Otto to the south was Swedish and Mrs. Hanisch to the north was German. Mrs. Hanisch had lost a daughter to polio and welcomed me unconditionally.

Mrs. Hanisch providing a friendly lap.

Mrs. Otto had raised a boy to be a school principal and remarked to my mother, “You’d better break that one early or you’ll never break her.” My mother tried to break or at least control me right up to the end. Much of my life was a matter of evading or resisting people who wanted to shape my identity, one way or another. Many people had an impact on me, but Bob Scriver was the only one I gave control and he didn’t quite understand that was because I let him. Later, I didn’t let him.

Old Lady Otto casts her spell on me in my baby buggy.

What I didn’t understand going into the ministry was that congregations are often determined to have control of their ministers. I had understood it the other way around -- that the minister was a person who was exempt from social control because of being in a direct relationship with either God or some rational principle of behavior. A minister was a person who could refuse to testify in court, could go into intensive care in the hospital with family, could talk to murderers or sex offenders without being considered a client of them, and who was on an equal footing with kings, professors, and witchdoctors of all stripes. Maybe a superior footing. If you said my notion of my identity had to have been inflated to take on such an agenda, you’d be right. Old Lady Otto, as we came to call her later, was also right. And so was Bob Scriver who said finally that my Indian name, “Iron Woman,” referred to my disposition. I would not be “broken.” But I sure as hell came close.

Loss of one’s identity is a mental condition -- not quite a psycho-pathology because sometimes it leads to transformation but certainly a dis - ease. If it is due to organic causes (head trauma, genetic wiring flaws, infection, drugs) then it’s hard to know what to do about it. If it’s a social condition and on a reservation, then there is plenty to do and the more “ministers” the better. A society that destroys identities cannot but destroy itself. All societies try to control identities.

Beyond the culture is the land which CAN support an identity. Shape an identity. Create a tribal identity. IF one stays in touch with it through the classic means of ceremony, participation in nonhuman life, daily ritual, climatic sensitivity. Unitarians are fond of saying, “We are all ministers.” The phrase is "the ministry of all believers." We minister to ourselves and others. Quite true, but the ultimate church (cathedral) is the land, the planet. No wonder I didn’t get a lot out of Ellul, who thought mostly about the city. I suppose a city can support an identity, but it demands a toll, mostly some kind of human conformity because humans are the environment.

This first Unitarian minister of mine told me two things that I didn’t understand at the time. First, Unitarianism is not a rural denomination. (Univeralism was and the fact doomed it.) Unitarian congregations are in cities or at best university towns.

Second, the true community of the minister is other ministers, but one spends one’s time with parishioners. The minister both is and is not part of that community. I brushed those considerations aside, not realizing what they meant, which was that at the heart of ministry is loneliness. The Christians fill that loneliness with God, a personification of... something. I couldn’t do that.


Chas S. Clifton said...

I had understood it the other way around -- that the minister was a person who was exempt from social control because of being in a direct relationship with either God or some rational principle of behavior, which might be why some of them end up embezzling congregational funds. That and feeling lonely and unappreciated.

prairie mary said...

I'll get to the money part later, Chas. Smart ministers make sure they never handle any of it, except for putting fees for weddings, baptisms and memorials into a fund they can use to help people in emergencies without having to justify it to a committee.

Prairie Mary