Sunday, August 08, 2010


This cool damp weather in Valier is a godsend [sic] since I’ve been promising myself for quite a while that I would sort and edit my multiple file cabinets of Unitarian Universalist ministry archives. Since my seminary (Meadville/Lombard) is selling the building and disbanding, though it pretends it isn’t, the time seems right. Even my denomination is in enough trouble that my major urban home church in Portland, Oregon, had to close for a month last summer to catch up on finances.

My files are out in the attached garage. It’s a little spidery, in honor of Jonathan Edwards, who said we are all sinners in the hands of an angry god who dangles us over the open flames of a cookstove by our own slender threads, threatening to dispose of us. Of course, after church he and his wife went for long walks across the New England countryside, feeling that god shone through nature like the sun striking through a stained glass window, so beautiful that they held hands and wept.

Actually, much of what I’m sorting through is from the University of Chicago Divinity School and I discard very little of that. I save all the UU history as well, both about the denominational movement and about the small Montana fellowships I served for three years in the old-fashioned circuit-rider style with a van instead of a horse and breakfast bars in a backpack instead of dates in a “wallet.” Part of the reason for sorting is to begin work on a book called “Circuit-Riding” which will match some of the major theological circling (if God is good, why does he tolerate evil?) with human phases of organizing and disbanding.

Much of what I’m throwing out -- I’m impressed by how much -- is schemes for growth: how to give the people what they want. We don’t proselytize like those lower class Christians, you see. But we were out there looking for growth formulas before there was a word for “algorithm.” For a long time the thought was that the minister was the key. Charismatic leaders, THAT’s the ticket. For a little while there was a movement to encourage leadership among lay people, but they didn’t always lead the way the Important People wanted them to, so that became obsolete.

I keep finding “self-analysis,” “self-improvement,” “self-evaluation,” as well as evaluations of my progress and my evaluations of the seminary or the internship or Clinical Pastoral Education. UU’s are forever evaluating because the scope of achievement, the scale of goals achieved, is forever moving. We are pluralistic. We can’t seem to find either the top or the bottom of the mountain, so we circle. This is not cause for blame. It may be the best human condition: looking for the path, “nomadism.” Too many people want to play king of the mountain while all the time standing on a common boulder.

Here’s a list of leadership qualities I found.

1.  A person must come to that place where he knows that the real issue is always an internal one.  (A willingness to be out alone in a strange land.)

2.  The capacity to take hostility.

3.  The capacity to accept another person where he is.

4.  Perspective which enables us to sort the little issues from the big ones.

5.  A willingness to fail and to let other fail.

6.  A deep caring for people.

This is not a list that Big Shots fancy. It is a list that separates Jim Jones (bad) from Cecil Williams (good) ( I was not all that good at it. (See #5)

Today in the NYTimes there is an editorial by a disillusioned United Church of Christ minister reacting to the mass exodus of peoples from the Big Box Prosperity Churches. The headline is “Congregations Gone Wild.” He thinks “The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them.” In other words, he’s angry and despairing because he knows what they should do and he tells them, but they don’t do it. He accuses them of being at fault, only wanting “soothing and entertaining.” He says, “The advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves.” Right. You don’t do that? The congregation walks. No pledges. No minister. Quite true. Seen it. Done it.

We’ve come to a strange time when the political leaders who can get elected are not the ones who can run the country (we won’t let them!) and ministers cannot do their job within a congregation (they won’t let them). So what does such a knowitall do for a job? BLOG!!! He’ll just get on the Net to scold us. (Of course, there’s a book.) His current post recommends that cynics never be chosen as leaders, so I guess that’s “self-insight.” I laughed and laughed.

I’d love to see the algorithm Google has assigned MacDonald’s blog. I don’t care how they define mine: I love disrupting algorithms. Anyway, what I consider to be my continuation of ministry is local, practical, by request -- there is a little overlap with blogging when I post a memorial piece. Because ministry is only a dimension of being human and Christian ministry is only cultural, historical, familiar because of that.

Seminary is supposed to (and I think did in my case) “break open your soul” and find the kernel within it that burns in every human being, joining us each to each. This can destroy one’s vocation in ministry since it is against status elevation. But the only responsible reason for a denomination to subsidize and indenture future ministers is to support them in the work of doing the same “breaking open” for others. Isn’t it? But a denomination is chiefly invested in keeping itself afloat and MacDonald is right -- people don’t necessarily like being broken open. Denominations (religious organizations with names) are based on dogma/economic status/ethnic/prestige. So it’s lucky that the UU ASSOCIATION is actually an association of FREE congregations with VOLUNTARY leadership, even as those are probably the seeds of their destruction. We can expect from them nothing but change.

And yet I love the small congregations where I sometimes go, like the Blackfeet Methodist Church in Browning with the pulpit and communion table that Al Racine carved, the stained glass windows that Brent Warburton made, the people that I’ve known so long, the history and struggles and simple persistence of the members and clergy there. My affiliation is local and human.

Jonathan Edwards had a special calling to minister to Native Americans, you know. Edwards himself was not Alpha Clergy as he is often portrayed. He knew well this little leadership list. Denominational leaders were not fond of him. Back to the garage. I’ll spare the spiders.

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