Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Once one has made the decision to enter ministry, there are many more decisions to be made, like which seminary to attend. In 1977 there were three options for UU’s. One was Starr-King, out there in funky Berkeley with all the fun stuff that was going on sexually (in the years between the pill and AIDS), chemically (grass was the main drug unless you were a jazz musician), and doctrinally (anything goes, as long as you’re not hurting someone; war is always bad; American Indians are always good; Eastern religion is the way to go). They only held classes two quarters of the year and there were no scholarships. I figured that was a little rich for my blood. My minister, however, though it would be good for me to loosen up, learn some people skills, etc. Maybe even get laid. (He assumed -- wrongly -- that that wasn’t happening in Portland.)

His own seminary was Harvard Divinity School. I ordered the catalogue and couldn’t even understand the course descriptions. He didn’t push it because he was afraid of being a chauvinist. Or maybe he was worried about how I would reflect on him.

The third option was Meadville/Lombard Theological School, which was attached to the University of Chicago. If one was accepted, money was there for tuition all the way through. It boasted a high standard: a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) as compared to an M.Div. at the other two schools, with an MA from the University of Chicago Divinity School embedded in it. In short, it was a way to go to the formidable University of Chicago without having to meet their higher GRE scores (though mine were high enough to clear the low end) and higher tuition. Oh, the prestige of it all! At Northwestern in my undergrad years we had understood that we were mostly just nice folks in bermuda shorts who had rich parents but had to drag in some blacks to win any football games. Well, except for we theatre majors, of course, who were in touch with real life, brilliantly creative, and living on the bitter economic edge of existence as we would for the rest of our lives in devotion to the More-Divine-Than-Religion Theatre.

I never admitted to anyone that this was way down in my duffel bag of motives, that I had ALWAYS wanted to be an “intellectual” without a real grasp on what that was. I’d slickered my way through the system by being two degrees off plumb with my eccentricities, even before the Blackfeet Reservation years when all whites were considered a little nuts. Even recently, when I’ve tried to explain my longing to be an “intellectual”, I’ve been met with outright hostility. Not only do they not understand what I’m talking about, but also they think I’m just showing off, saying I’m better than they are. I’m still not exactly sure what I talk about when I talk about being intellectual. I’m sometimes suspicious that I’m just talking about prestige, but earned prestige.

Kenner Swain, my classmate who ducked out on the ministry, always described it as the moment when one got one’s MA hood and Hanna Gray, then the president of the U of C, said, “I welcome you to the company of scholars.” Indeed, describing myself as an “independent scholar,” buttressed by that degree, admits me to conversations where I would not otherwise be welcome. Some of it was just a matter of knowing how to find out things, but also there was the issue of “method.” Particularly at the Div School, one always had to be aware of and disciplined by one’s “method.” That meant the approach, the assumptions, the strategy one was using, because one’s method was the compass that pointed to north. Without it, one became hopelessly muddled and discredited all one’s results. It’s an idea from hard science.

It was soon clear that I had no methods but intuition and narrative, which were not “in.” (You couldn’t write your class paper on “Modern Thinkers” on a female thinker either, which was a clue that the method had to be white male Euro method. And lit crit was in the midst of the tyrannical grip of unintelligible “theory.”) To get the MA at the U of C Div School, one had to pass six comprehensive exams. One other older female classmate, whose method was largely poetic, failed every single exam. But I knew none of this in the beginning.

Meadville/Lombard had an “interesting” past. The Meadville part was a little seminary in Pennsylvania, largely based on the career and library of a physically frail young man interested in the ministry, which was an arduous job in frontier days, so he taught. Lombard came from the inadvertent acquisition of the larger college when merging with its smaller internal school of religion. Lombard was Carl Sandburg’s alma mater and when it joined Meadville in Chicago, the state license to teach horse-shoeing and home ec came along with it. I can think of ministerial applications for both.

For a long time, it was thought that young men who went into the ministry, a large proportion of which were physically underpowered but prodigiously learned, were best off on a kind of monastic model: rural, protected, full of fresh air and the presence of the natural God. But then times changed and it became obvious to some that the core of a learned ministry should be study at a respected university. (UU’s have a learned ministry, which means a graduate degree. Some others have an “enthusiastic” ministry, which means they were simply inspired, grabbed their Bibles and began to preach. All the Pentecostal-type ministers on the Blackfeet Reservation are “enthusiastic”, inspired, though some also have some Bible College.)

What the “learned ministry” was expected to master was the history of world religions, scholarly method, a foreign language, and a certain amount of formal ethics. Also, any of the studies of humans like psychology, sociology, and so on. Literature sort of wiggled in there. The actual business of “doing” ministry, like the protocols of managing a congregation, performing rites of passage like birth and death, the history of one’s own congregation, monitoring buildings, and so on was pretty hit or miss and depended on M/L.

M/L had been started with high hopes and great optimism. “Only the best” was the idea and titans of the UU movement (If that isn’t too amusingly oxymoronic) were hired, one as the president and one as the “prime scholar.” As often happens with titans, they ran athwart each other on ego and theory, and the president fired the scholar, who had tenure and sued, taking the most beloved of the red brick buildings (the one with the dorm and kitchen) with him as the fruits of the law. Then the faculty imploded, leaving a remnant of unripened men who struggled on as best they could. (No women had anything to do with all this.) Bitterness abounded. Also a certain amount of paralysis. All this was hinted to me as “politics.”

Being the granddaughter of a “contentious Presbyterian,” I wasn’t too surprised, but I was disappointed when I finally realized what was going on. By that time, it was too late to quit. It was a far cry from leadership school.

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