Monday, May 11, 2009


Why isn’t a minister considered an emergency responder? It appears that Catholic priests still are called when someone is dying -- at least they were called when the Last Rites were considered important as a ceremony for a person crossing over into the dark and unknown land after death. In fact, part of the reason the liturgy was reassigned the title of “Sacrament for the Ill” was that “Last Rites” -- at least partly because of Hollywood -- had acquired so much magical power that if someone truly ill received the Last Rites as a precaution, it might actually “scare them to death.” On the other hand, if someone died without the Last Rites, relatives might be distressed by the idea that the person was liable to go to hell, or at least purgatory. Sticklers pointed out that "Last Rites" were often given AFTER death, which means they aren't "last" but "post."

So it’s mostly Protestant ministers who aren’t called in the event of impending death. In fact, my experience was that people didn’t even want their minister to call on them in the hospital, evidently because they have the idea that one should dress up, present oneself well, put on a front for the clergyperson. One should not throw up, bleed, moan, stink or otherwise make a mess when such an important person comes. This must be a Victorian idea.

Surely it has nothing to do with army chaplains, who are out in the fox hole mud (or sand) with the soldiers, praying for the souls of all present (aren’t they? even the enemy?) and trying to comfort those who are suffering. Or police chaplains who listen to tales of evil that shade back and forth between what is good and right and what is forgivable but also deplorable in the reactions of law-enforcers. Have these situations become so morally ambiguous that no one really wants to address them “in the raw?” Could this have something to do with our discomfort about battle trauma?

I surely don’t have any answers, but it seems to me that in the mainstream denominations that are supposed to be losing members, there aren’t even many good questions being asked. We’ve turned from sacredness to psychology, from the nature of virtue to the nature of propriety, and -- driving it all -- the way to the “good life,” meaning prosperity rather than right action. (Ready for Last Rites, that idea!)

Like physicians, ministers respond to the public (media invented) image, which particularly affects the people who aspire to join the ranks. So if you want to be a rich golfer, the stereotype says, be a specializing dermatologist. And if you want to just hang around a nice office looking friendly, with an easy speaking engagement on Sunday morning, become a minister. Plus, when there’s a potluck you won’t have to bring anything and you’ll get to lead the food line. You’ll only have to associate with nice people, the kind who come to church.

In the case of Unitarian Universalists, that will mean nice people who are well-educated and like to hike in beautiful places. If you have a congregation in Texas or Oklahoma, where people tend to be truly rich, you will receive lovely gifts. One minister even received a sports car! Of course, if you preach against plutocrats you will soon be out on the street. In a strange double image, when I was circuit-riding in Montana in the Eighties, denominational insiders considered me a great pioneer and hero in one context and a total fool, a loser, in another. If I’d had any value, I’d have a big coastal city church -- that was the criterion.

What IS the role of a minister anyway? A PRIEST, now, a priest is in a direct relationship to God that cannot be broken after sacramental vows are taken. It’s MAGIC. A priest is like those wizards in Tolkien or Harry Potter movies. If he (always he) goes bad, he’s REALLY bad, because he’s effective. He changes things and he’s not afraid to deal with death and evil. He has magic potions and incantations, even animal messengers. The Blackfeet understood all this right off, though they didn’t really “get” congregations and denominations. But then, Jesus had neither of those either. There were assemblies of people but there were no exhortations to create a new religion -- Jesus asked people to do what they were already supposed to do according to the existing teaching, pushing back out all that vengeful punishment they had managed to smuggle in. It was later that the magic was added, including tales of miracles.

Today a Protestant congregation is a sort of NGO devoted to networking and maybe doing some good in the world, mostly by lobbying and listening to talks, but also by occasionally serving breakfast at the local shelter for the homeless. So the minister is a kind of CEO of the NGO, not that different from the heads of a national humane society or the ACLU or Amnesty International or the Sierra Club -- in fact, those kinds of organizations are often headed by trained ministers. Not that most ministers are trained in such matters, despite the efforts of the Alban Institute.

There are really two kinds of education for ministers, which don’t appeal to the same kinds of people. One kind is the theologian, what was originally called a “learned minister” and which is probably the source of our idea that ministers live in an ivory tower and never get soiled or shocked by real contact. A big church might support such a person. Some folks think that’s a good role for a genius who is slightly antisocial.

The other kind is the CEO, the maintainer of the organization, who tries to teach the laypersons how to run a decent committee system and pledge drive, who can keep the Religious Education people under control and the Music Program from making Sunday morning into a concert. This sort of person could run the Boy Scouts or an Organic Ag group -- whatever. They tend to have a pretty good grip on psychology and so their sermons tend be be on counseling issues or maybe politics. A small church loves such people and counts on them livening up all the parties with their sparkling personalities. The denomination loves them. The community loves them and wants them on boards.

My original models for ministry were nothing like these. Neither really works for me. The idea that has been sticking in my mind lately is from the Westerns: the mountain man who comes to the camp of his peers or possibly his enemies, and quietly takes a seat in the campfire circle. Doesn’t have much to say, but sees a lot and knows a lot about the world out there in the dark behind everyone’s backs. The question is how much such a person can be or ought to be “magic.” That is, efficacious in emergencies. And please define emergency.

1 comment:

Diggitt said...

Oh, Mary -- please let me know when you've got this one figured out, because that's who I want to be too.