At a clergy meeting in Bridgeport last week we were asked to pair up with someone we didn’t know and introduce ourselves, telling one another how we got into ministry and what keeps us in it—what feeds the spirit, if you will.
The clergywoman with whom I met asked, “So, what church do you serve?” When I said the Unitarian Church in Westport she responded, with a wry smile, “Oh, the U.N. church!”
It’s always interesting to find out how we are seen by other clergy. I took my colleague’s response as a compliment – it’s a nice analogy. I referred to her comment at last Sunday’s United Nations service, where we celebrated the U.N. and our Unitarian Universalist Office at the U.N. The United Nations recognizes the sovereignty of each of its member states — we recognize the independence of each of our members.
The United Nations exists with the hope of settling international disputes without violence, and to achieve peace by working for justice. “If you want peace, work for justice.”
The clergy meeting in Bridgeport – which we call ‘the clergy collective’ – is an attempt to organize for social justice work. Our central organizing ingredient is the one-on-one meeting. Between monthly meetings we commit to visiting one another and meeting, one on one, for 45 minutes or so, simply to get to know one another in a personal way. The brief meeting I mentioned above was a mini-one on one, like the meetings we have at coffee hour.
Our clergy collective has been meeting for a couple of years. By getting to know one another on a personal level we build trust, which is the basis of any organization. We hope to work together to improve the quality of life in Bridgeport.
The great Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, suggested that we have two categories of relationship: the I–It relationship, in which we see other persons are objects, such as a potential customer or sex partner; and the I–Thou relationship that results from an honest, open, caring way of relating in which we feel truly known, respected and appreciated for who we are. The bond created in the I-Thou is sacred. God, for Buber, emerges in the I-Thou relationship.
Erich Fromm, in his wonderful little book, The Art of Loving, suggested that love has four essential ingredients: knowledge, care, responsibility and respect. The first of the four ingredients requires us to listen, to get to know the other person. You can’t love what you don’t know; you can’t feel loved unless you feel known.
The central ingredient of our small group ministry work is the process of turning the I-It relationship into an I-Thou relationship. Every instance of such a way of relating gives meaning to our affirmation’s opening words: ‘love is the spirit of this church.’ It’s only the spirit when we get to know one another in a meaningful way, building trust through knowledge.
Come to think of it, that’s what this little Soundings letter is about. That’s why I try to keep it personal, and try to avoid using it as an extension of the pulpit by offering mini-sermons.