This post is going to be on the edge of indiscreet. That means it’s about things that many people are curious about BECAUSE you aren’t supposed to talk about them, because they raise questions that are hard to answer. I’m going to talk about the ministry; actually, the Unitarian Universalist ministry, which has as much scope for indiscretion as the Roman Catholic church but in quite a different way. UU ministers don’t go in for little boys -- they prefer rich women, which is much more practical. Of course, having a lot of female ministers sort of interferes, especially since many are women in declared same-sex relationships.
The group I belong to now is technically “former UU ministers,” because ministers are defined as specifically trained and certified persons serving a specific constituency, normally a congregation but sometimes a hospital, a school, or a prison. I left voluntarily and in good order and actually -- after stepping away -- served as an informal interim Methodist minister for a year. I just wanted to come back to this place. I would love to see a list of former UU ministers, both those who left voluntarily and those who were thrown out and door locked behind them. The UUA is very secretive about it. In denial. We have no union or organization: most of us were anti-institutional anyway.
So I was a little surprised to get inquiries about two different cases of men not quite in ministry. One was a young man, a high school English teacher who attended a church that had a female UU minister. At least he attended a UU church -- some aspirants don’t. They have no idea what they’re getting into. He said he was considering which seminary he should approach and, cleverly, saw that my blog posts were the only comments about Meadville/Lombard that were at least in part negative, so he contacted me directly to discuss the situation, with the idea that I’d be more realistic.
The trouble is that Meadville/Lombard as I knew it no longer exists. They have sold their capital assets and are now operating as a sort of distance-learning program. That’s not so fatal as the fact that they have severed their connection to the University of Chicago Divinity School which used to be the real core and rigor of an M/L education. Evidently the original founding concept of M/L was that they would start at the top by hiring geniuses and then work their way down -- a process hastened by the contentious nature of the geniuses. The assumption seems to have been rather like that pop psych book going the rounds, claiming that crazy people make the best leaders and therefore all the people we revere as having saved the country, etc., are in retrospect crazy. I think one could argue the other way: that since so many of our historically finest leaders would not qualify as models of mental health we use today (mostly a matter of conformity and prosperity) then the models must be trash. That may be the covert idea of the book.
So I began to quiz this prospective minister. What books did he teach, what was his childhood religious experience, had he made contact with anyone besides his own home minister? It became clear that he was a “good boy” with a happily employed wife, a philosopher brother to whom he was close, and that he was happy to have abandoned his childhood fundamentalist assumptions. It also became clear that his teaching contract might not be renewed -- not because he was a bad teacher but because the district was strapped and cutting deeply into faculty. He needed a new profession.
The weak point was in his understanding of the nature of the UU ministry. There are three “polities” in the organization of churches: the Roman Catholic hierachical model with top-down one-authority; the free-standing congregation that is entirely self-governed; and the presbyterian model, which is kind of a compromise between the two. This young man kept thinking in terms of a hierarchy which would both restrain and direct him. He might be happier as a Lutheran or a Methodist, who keep that structure though far more loosely than Catholicism.
The other man I want to mention is somewhere in Montana which is the only reason his friend appealed to me to make contact with him in order to help him. He is near retirement age, has an MFA and a life as a writer, and just blew out of his little church (not a UU church) with congregational polity -- no outside authority. In fact, he explodes in the face of authority, even the minimal amount of conformity necessary to be certified in the UU context. His friend called him “self-destructive.” But lovable. He blew out of a long marriage not too long ago but remains friends with his ex-wife. In short, he is exactly the sort of “leader” described as gifted and necessary in this book that asserts madness is a qualification for leadership.
Sam Keen, Robert Fulghum and Ralph Waldo Emerson might be examples of other former UU ministers with proven accomplishments, though their madness was only preoccupation and maybe passion. Note that this “leadership and madness” notion doesn’t include women. To be a raving prophet, you have to grow a long beard.
Thinking about these issues, I cruised the UU Internet presence. I don’t recognize it. Kind, energetic, bright, politically correct and very bland, most of these ministers and congregations would not tempt me out of my self-imposed solitude. (I would argue that my solitude is not a madness, but a meditation.) It was not until I got to the “retired” ministers that I began to find photos of ministers I once knew and still admire. There were not many madmen among them, though some turned out to be far more invested in prestige and prosperity than I had hoped. Many were benign and cheerful presences, quite quite sane. Never the nose of the plow.
When I was aspiring to the ministry and considering Meadville/Lombard, my own minister, Alan Deale (who is now, with the able assistance of his femme fatale wife, serving the organization of retired UU ministers) said I should consider two things. First, Unitarianism is an urban denomination. Only where population density is high are there enough people of that inclination to support an affinity group. Second, much as I loved UU ministers and wanted to be like them, being actually IN the ministry meant rarely keeping company with them.
And Alan was right. When I look back with nostalgia, it is not to preaching brilliant sermons or deftly guiding committees (if I ever managed to achieve either), but to the ministers’ meetings before all the woman entered the ministry. The small PNW District group -- still international in those days before Canada went off in a huff -- would choose some conference center at the beach or in the mountains (defying the big-church people with big budgets who wanted to stay at luxury resorts). Their main meeting room usually had a fireplace. At first light one or two of us would be up and building a fire. Those moments of quiet togetherness and chatting about big ideas or trivial politics or even telling terrible jokes were what I cherished. (The women always slept in.)
I guess my question to these two problematic men would be, “Can you build a fire? And keep it going? And share the moment?”