Saturday, July 19, 2008

UUA MINISTRY: COMING TO TERMS


This snapshot was taken at Meadville/Lombard, the seminary where I earned my M. Div. in 2004. Yesterday, as sometimes happens, I got a phone call from someone wrestling with the whole problem of ministry in the UUA because they had Googled and came up with my blog. Maybe I can use this photo to reflect on the UU ministry in a personal and rather off-hand way.

First of all, in the background is the Curtiss Room, the reception and “relief” space (the morning room, as it were) of the building, which is paneled, hung with imposing portraits of older white men, and furnished with, well, serviceable furniture. I’d call this a rather English model. We were just starting out together in 1978. The gleeful fellow in the middle is Peter Luton, then the youngest of us and now the Senior Minister of the Eastshore UU Church in Bellevue, WA, one of the “tall-masted” big ships of the congregational fleet. His path has been quite classical. With undergrad degrees from Princeton, he’s on the conservative side, but has a lovable sense of humor that is an antidote to stuffiness. However, he’s a team player. We used to tease him that his thesis had more footnotes than content: he rarely stepped over the lines.

On the left is Gary Gallun and his wife, Paula, but their son is not shown. He was just an energetic little kid but an enlivening force and a full participant in the class of six. Six. This is half the class. Gary came out of the Jewish tradition and many of us participated in our first Passover with his family. He was warm, intelligent, inclusive, and was diagnosed with MS while he was there, which explained a certain lassitude. The Galluns had sold their house to pay for seminary and it was Paula who finally figured out the cost of a year: $11,000 in 1978, which is chicken feed now but shocking then. The denomination helped through various means, which they represented as generosity and investment in our student careers, though it was really to keep the seminary from going bankrupt. Religion needs the appearance of success and permanence.

So the Galluns lost their house and shortly after seminary lost the marriage, but raised the kid well. Gary has remarried. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t settled permanently in any congregation but moves around for interims, consultancies, and so on. Paula remarried another classmate but that marriage ended, too. That classmate never entered ministry. I don’t know where Paula is. If I were a guy, I’d propose immediately. She is a woman of warmth, good sense, and strength and I profoundly hope she’s found someone who deserves her.

Then over on the right is myself, all frisky and confident. I was one of the first “older women” (barely forty), my first “charge” was four Montana fellowships which I served as a circuit-rider for three years while living in a van. By 1999 -- then in Saskatchewan -- I was broke, heart-sick, disgusted, fighting chronic bronchitis and holes in my retinas. As soon as it was decently possible, I just went back “home” to Browning, Montana. My CPE had been destructive, my internship had been miserable, my graduation had been compromised (I gave up the D.Min. and settled for an M.Div. which is the normative degree anyway.) and my role models had turned out to have very clay feet. I accepted the idea that I was just not meant to be a minister. I hated the politics, the moving, never having enough, the pretending, and having to constantly break off relationships.

I’ve changed quite a lot since then. Mostly because of aging, but also out of a struggle to come to terms with disappointment per se, which is also why that person called me to talk about ministry. A part of the denomination intended to weigh ministry carefully and wisely had instead made this person a target of sneering and goofy politics. Happens all the time. This person’s older and wiser minister friends said, “Gee, I can’t believe you were so idealistic in the first place. Haven’t you ever heard of protective cynicism?” Or maybe that’s just another name for corruption and compromise. One of my changes is that I refuse to eat shit anymore.

My “life problem” has been faithfulness: how to maintain commitment when the person or institution to which one has pledged devotion turns out to be faulty and/or rejecting. Meadville has changed more than any of the beginners in this photo. For one thing, they are about to move out of their dignified, classical, history-soaked building into a modernist steel-and-glass space the U of Chicago encouraged them to accept. It’s more than symbolic -- the reality of a different space will make a plate tectonic difference. For another, they’ve dropped the high scholastic standards that attracted me in the first place -- a sort of PhD model -- and gone to a far more sale-able sort of counselor model. As nearly as I can tell, they still pretend that management issues are beneath ministers.

The truth is that humans and institutions are processes rather than permanent objects. If they try to stay the same and if the circumstances change sufficiently, they will disappear. It’s an ecological model: everything is connected, everything is changing, so the way to survive is to either refit yourself to the niche or find another niche. But then what happens to a person deeply in love (attachment, guidance, contributing) with a niche/a person/an institution that is nourishing and supportive but slowly erodes into a kind of ice cave where no one could live?

The two other women in my seminary class complained about the cold even as we went through the first year. One left. The other struggled with depression while soldiering on. One man went psychotic. I survived by running an air hose out to Richard Stern’s classes and by raging through a page of writing every week. (The Scriver Seminary Saga!) One man counted on his friend Mary Jane. I also signed up for a ministers’ therapeutic “sharing group,” innocently assuming it was a safe and confidential environment. I took a few unrelated hits like the death of Bob’s granddaughter (I had bullied her through her last year of high school and three broken pregnancies.) and the exploding of Mt. St. Helens. (Geology is as close to Theology as Cleanliness is close to Godliness.) And I built up a reservoir of rage.

So this reservation is a good place for me: I fit in. A good niche right at the edge once I got back to it. And the most surprising part is that the ministry continues. I blog instead of preaching, which saves on gas. I still end up at community meetings, trying to understand what to do. I still end up trying to comfort others (though I resist). I still find money grabbing energy. But as far as the denomination and the seminary are concerned, I simply don’t exist. Shrug. Their loss. Their niche. I watch as their ice cave melts.

4 comments:

Whisky Prajer said...

Just a footnote of my own: $11,000 in 1978 comes out to $37,234.71 in 2007 dollars, according to the inflation calculator. I'm not sure what tuition rates are at the moment, but 37 grand still strikes me as crazy expensive for a young family.

prairie mary said...

Several problems bothered me. One was that no one at the seminary ever frankly told us what the cost would be. They just insisted that if we "really" wanted to be ministers, we would find a way to pay the bill. Which was a kind of extortion.

The other was that a person could drain all savings and go into debt, assuming that once they were in ministry, the money could be paid back, which let to two other dilemmas. The first of those was that at the end of three or four years the denominational committee on ministerial fellowship could deny entrance to the ministry on sometimes capricious grounds, and-- second-- there is absolutely NO guarantee that ANY minister will earn a decent salary, though a few lucky ones occupy high-pay positions. Once someone is hired for those pulpits, they tend to stay for the rest of their lives, which may be decades. There's not much turnover.

Prairie Mary

prairie mary said...

Joke: Someone says on the phone, "It's three o'clock here-- what day is it where you are?" Plainly I don't even know what year it is! I didn't graduate from seminary in 2004 -- my degree was awarded in 1984, a time lost in the mists of faulty recollection.

I'm having trouble with dating checks, too. Most commonly writing a year in the Fifties. Sheesh.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

I really appreciated this blog. Much of it seems to be the reality that I am facing now going through Div school at Harvard for UU ordination. To be quite honest I am terrified of the financial burden this is taking on my very new one year old marriage. My husband is extremely supportive but it weighs on me. I love school and I love the challenge but I simply cannot decide if it is still worth it, and not even just financially. I am hoping to do hospice chaplaincy and it seems that that is an even more difficult field to pursue with many more years of "internship" status and CPE hours than parish ministry. I wish someone could just give me a YES- it's worth it, or a NO- get out! I know you can't provide me with that answer but I find myself writing you none the less. Maybe it is your frankness I am drawn to?