I came at my post-seminary professional life with UUism through extension ministry, circuit-riding among four small fellowships in Montana, some of which were quite frank about saying that a sermon on Sunday and maybe one class during the week was NOT worth what they were paying out in pledges to have me coming around. At the end of the subsidy the circuit collapsed, but the fellowships DID grow a bit. This was what the denomination wanted -- it was the goal of the denomination because it meant the existence of the denomination. Grow or die. It was a sharper issue for the Universalists, since the culture in which that denomination had grown (rural, humanist Christian) had faded away, forcing them to merge with the Unitarians, a chafing fit.
Ever since I encountered UUism as a lay person in 1975, the emphasis has been on growth, partly because some major blood-lettings over black empowerment and Vietnam anti-war sentiment diminished our numbers. In the Pacific Northwest District the powerful male ministers were mostly church-builders, organization developers, consolidators. Running a lively and productive pledge-drive was important. Portland First Unitarian Church was a leader among downtown churches, acquiring property until they owned the block. That was thirty years ago. Last summer, I’m told, the church had to shut down for a month in the middle of the summer in order to save money. The big Portland demographic boom that had been bringing in the people had gone quiet.
It’s not just in Portland and it’s not just our denomination. When I retired to this little village ten years ago, there were three ministers. Now the Lutherans are lay-led, the Methodist circuit-rider has a three-point charge, and the priest serves -- I don’t know how many congregations. They work very hard and make little money.
Not that I’m such an idealist that I reject money. To show how crass I can be, I enrolled at Meadville/Lombard because it was a back door to the University of Chicago. Not just the Div School -- the whole blinkin’ establishment plus the “Cluster” seminaries. I reveled in it. I could never have afforded to go without UU support and I’m grateful. I’ve tried to use what I learned wisely in service to the people around me, in a kind of community and maybe Internet ministry now. I was a snob, worming my way to the center: Toulmin, Marty, Browning, Gustafson, Homans (did you see that his daughter has written the definitive history of the ballet?), Schreiter, Maclean, Stern, Stern and Stern. All the time I had been doing my undergrad education at NU on the other end of town (1957-61) and being artsy-smartsy, I thought about Hyde Park. The real elite. I think I had Life magazine fever, that view of the world. Geniuses, you know.
A good dose of 19th century reservation cured all that. Ten years of people yelling at me to get my feet on the ground, and I sort of woke up. Then the five years of nitty gritty as an animal control officer cinched it. Ministry seemed like a good way to marry idealism to achievement. Still I craved the big ideas, not the big churches. But M/L, except for Eliade, had no use for my kind of big ideas. They were status hungry. The students who were most in love with ministry as such left. Odd.
Looking back at Meadville, my fond memories are for the buildings -- not the people. I loved the little suite at the back of Fleck House, even with the din of change-ringing bell practice on Saturday morning. I loved the library stacks when we still had keys and could go over at 3AM to look for a needed book. I loved the top floor “hierophany,” the marble unisex bathroom that Mircea Eliade rendered fragrant with his pipe. So now they’re all either sold or on the market.
My home minister had been the head of the Fellowship Committee, which put us into an odd predicament. I had to make good for his sake; he had to be hard on me for my sake. But I screwed up a lot and events were against me. My CPE was miserable because a failed UU minister supervisor was out for revenge. It didn’t help that Mt. St. Helens, which I had seen daily out my childhood bedroom window, exploded and my granddaughter died in a car crash. My internship embroiled me in strange things I didn’t understand. The library caught on fire and I was blamed since I was the first one there. I was a student member of the Board of Trustees and made an indignant cartoon presentation when I ought to have expressed limitless gratitude. Then Emil Gudmundson and Russ Lockwood saved me with their prairie hard heads by devising the Montana ministry.
An interim year in Kirkland was great fun, even though by that time the PNWD was overrun with female UU ministers. The next place, Saskatoon, is the most brutal place I have ever lived and I’m not talking about the weather. The congregation was turned in on itself, trying to survive. The larger culture hated Indians and women. The weather was the mildest part of the deal. None of this was the fault of M/L but in no way was the education I got at M/L useful. To be fair, the Div School stuff wasn’t that helpful either. Dog-catching was the most useful experience. The Unitarian ministry in Canada in general was about dominance and strategy. The Canadian wing didn’t merge with the Universalists, a compassion-based denomination, and maybe that was part of the problem. Soon the CUC separated from the UUA, ripping the PNWD in half. I turned in on myself and became self-indulgent. Then I went back home to the rez, finally admitting that I didn’t want to shuttle around the country being an interim, which is how most older female ministers end up. A new church every year.
Since then Meadville has changed and changed and changed again. The tough requirements were lowered, the MA from the Div School faded out, more and more people were older and female (bigger and blander), more and more faculty of various kinds. The denomination has also changed. For all that time trying to grow, the chief instrument was market research, which mean pleasing as many prospects as possible. More dilution, more lowest common denominator, more range of interests, more mainstream society. As far as I’m concerned, the whole thing was a sell-out. But “denomination” as a concept is probably worn out.
Not that I don’t see the stark alternative was market or die. As far as I’m concerned today, M/L is irrelevant. The spring that runs through the basement is just a drain now. The church across the way has no bell tower. All things must end and they have. No regrets. It’s okay. I’m busy. And, wow, am I using that U of Chicago stuff ! Except NONE of the economic theory. As the kids say, LOL.