Introduction: When I heard Michael Schuler, my colleague, minister of the congregation in Madison, Wisconsin, deliver a sermon at last summer’s General Assembly – the gathering of Unitarian Universalists from across the country – I thought: “I’d like the folks in Westport to hear this.”
I hope to give you a good taste of the sermon he titled, THE FACE OF GOD OR A FACE IN THE CROWD? And I hope to spice it up with some red-hot chili peppers from my own garden.
After the meal I’ll bring out the dessert with a personal comment about my own plans, short and long term.
Schuler begins with a parable written by Clinton Lee Scott who served Universalist congregations from 1914 to 1971 – 57 years, and remained in active ministry until he was 84 years old. (Note: it is not uncommon for our clergy to continue to serve into their 80’s)
Shuler read from Scott’s book, “Parish Parables,” a whimsical but revealing collection, in which he copies the formal style of the King James Bible — Parables first appeared in print in 1946.
“Now it came to pass that while the Elder in Israel tarried at Babylon, a message came to him from a distant city, saying, ‘Come, thou, and counsel with us and help us to search out a priest, for he that did serve us hath gone mad.’ And the Elder in Israel arose, and journeyed to the distant city.
And when the men of affairs were assembled, the Elder spake unto them, saying, “What manner of man seek ye to be your next priest?”
And they answered him and said unto him, “We seek a young man, yet with the wisdom of gray hairs; one that speaketh his mind freely, yet giveth offense to no one; that draweth the multitude to the temple on the Sabbath, but will not be displeased when we ourselves are absent.
“We desire one that hath a gay mood, yet is of sober mind; that seeketh out dark sayings and prophecies, yet speaketh not over our heads; that filleth the temple and buildeth it up, yet defileth not the sanctuary with a motley assortment of strangers.
“We seek one that putteth first the instruction to the young, yet requireth not that we become teachers; that causeth the treasury to prosper, yet asketh not that we give more of our substance. Verily, we seek a prophet that will be unto us a leader, but will not seek to change us, for we like not to be disturbed.”
And the Elder in Israel answered, and said unto them, “When I have found such a priest I will indeed send him unto you, yet will ye have to wait long, for the mother of such a one hath not yet been born.”
Schuler writes: “Unitarian Universalists have long been of two minds about the ministerial office. The gifts ministers bring to our churches, the services they render, are eagerly sought after and gratefully accepted. But there is also this queasiness about the influence clergy exert, and the preeminence they enjoy in congregational life; it is sometimes a cause for complaint.”
He quotes former UUA President John Buehrens: “We may be a relatively small denomination, but look at it this way: We’re the largest, longest-lasting, most widely dispersed therapy program for people with authority issues that American culture has ever seen.” Often as not, the focal point for this pervasive resistance to authority is the minister.
The first signs of disquiet appeared (when) the Pilgrims and Puritans had barely gained a foothold in New England when their leadership convened to draft the Cambridge Platform – a landmark document designed to safeguard their newfound religious liberty. The Platform outlines a covenantal system of church governance that curtails the authority of clergy and ensures congregational sovereignty.
The Platform reads “A church, being free, cannot become subject to any but a free election,”, and even as the church’s members “…have the power to choose their officers, they have the power to depose them.”
We Unitarian Universalists are, in this respect, the direct heirs of our Puritan forebears. In our tradition as well, it is the dutiful laity who select the pastoral leadership and craft the policies that regulate parish life.
This is not to say that these early innovators lacked regard for the ministry. Far from it…the Platform … entrusts clergy with considerable authority in matters both social and spiritual.
(It says,) “Members…may not oppose or contradict (the minister’s) judgment … without sufficient and weighty cause, because such practices are manifestly contrary to order and government, cause disturbance, and tend to confusion.”
(That statement was written in 1648, before most of us were born!)
Shuler writes, ”The seeds of this profound ambivalence toward ministerial authority were sown very early, then. Over the decades the fortunes of clergy have waxed and waned; at times its members have enjoyed more respect and influence, and at other times considerably less.
But perhaps at no time have its representatives felt more superfluous and less consequential than at present.
Schuler says, “I once attended an ordination ceremony in which a colleague’s charge to the minister included this admonition: “Never forget – to your congregation you wear the face of God.” It was her way of saying, “Pursue this vocation with the utmost integrity, for yours is indeed a high and holy office.”
(This is where he got the first part of his sermon title: the face of God.)
He says, “Today, however, a healthy percentage of Americans would beg to disagree. Fully half of those recently surveyed by Gallup expressed serious reservations about the morals and ethics of clergy.
After a quarter-century career as a church consultant Loren Mead lamented, “I have watched the ministry go from high respect and low stress to high stress and low respect.”
Current trends are not encouraging. Nones — people who have abandoned organized religion altogether — now represent the fastest growing segment of the religious population. Opinion polls show that with respect to spiritual matters, Oprah Winfrey’s is currently the most trusted voice in America.
There was a time when ministers’ opinions really mattered, when we labored in the vineyard confident in our calling. But today many of my colleagues share the surrounding culture’s ambivalence and are less convinced of their vocation’s relevance. In a study of 1000 pastors conducted by the Fuller Institute, 70% reported a lower level of self-esteem than when they first answered their call (and went into ministry).
Eugene Peterson, a highly regarded Presbyterian minister, summed up the situation in his recently published memoir:
“Men and women who are pastors in America today find that they have entered a way of life that is in ruins…. Any kind of continuity with pastors in times past is virtually nonexistent.” What, then, are our prospects? Have ministers become, as Peterson glumly observes, “America’s invisible men and women” – ill-defined, unheralded faces lost in the crowd?
(This is the source of the second part of his title: The Face of God or a Face in the Crowd)
He says, “Now, if I believed that the disintegration of this “old and wondrous calling” was a foregone conclusion I wouldn’t be standing here before you. It is indeed true that in years to come ministers will have to confront an increasingly dubious or indifferent public. But the future could look a good bit brighter if organized religion learned to do a few things differently.
And you know what? An honest reappraisal of ministerial authority would be an excellent place to start.
Authority – which has been loosely defined as power freely conferred in consideration of services rendered – normally has two components: positional and personal. One may be said to possess “positional authority” simply by virtue of the office they occupy. Thus we speak of “presidential powers” that can be exercised the moment a chief executive is sworn into office. Likewise, a Roman Catholic priest is authorized to celebrate the sacraments by virtue of his ordained status. So long as an office, sacred or secular, is perceived as legitimate its occupants can, for certain specified purposes, speak and act with authority.
Schuler says, “It is often the case that what we say and do as ministers under normal circumstances isn’t taken all that seriously. Consider, for instance, the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial means of birth control.
Despite repeated, forceful admonitions to the contrary, 98% of Catholic women have adopted this technology. And despite priestly disapproval, dissatisfied Roman Catholic couples also routinely skirt the church’s rules regarding divorce and re-marriage.
He says, “I received my first lesson about the limits of positional authority as a newly minted Divinity School graduate. Having been called to a pastoral-sized congregation, I imagined its seventy-five members would welcome their young minister’s direction without quibbles or qualms. But like many small churches this one had endured a succession of short-term ministries of varying success. Accordingly, its stolid lay leaders had learned to be their own source of confidence. They definitely wanted ministerial support, but they were also quite clear about who called the shots and it wasn’t going to be me!
Beyond question, the ministerial office carries less clout than it once did. Fortunately, a second and more viable source of authority is available to us. Indeed, whatever respect and credibility a minister enjoys today will, for the most part, reflect the community’s estimation of him or her as a person. But unlike positional authority, which is automatically conferred, personal authority has to be earned.
So how is that trick accomplished? Among the many factors that could be mentioned four are especially noteworthy: Love, Trust, Authenticity and Partnership.
“Love is the Spirit of this Church,” James Vila Blake’s well-known covenant reads, and it is a principle no minister can afford to neglect. Clergy can challenge, contend with and occasionally even chastise their congregation but, as former AUA president Frederick May Eliot (1938-1958) once said, “There is no substitute for love of the brethren.”
Now, love is a notoriously ambiguous term and each generation understands it somewhat differently. For Frederick May Eliot it probably stood for “mutual acceptance,” the emotionally neutral state of harmonious co-existence.
He writes: “This is certainly how Unitarian Universalism struck me as a child of the 1960’s. UU ministers then, as Bill Schulz observes, were authoritative “wisdom figures” – “mediators of truth, rational instructors of the congregation” who seldom let their emotions show. In that era ours was without question a faith more of the head than of the heart and “love” was less a warm and fuzzy feeling than an ethical proposition.
But then an amazing thing happened on the way to the 21st century: women moved out of the pews and into pulpits. Lutheran educator Ann Svennungsen describes this as “the most significant transformation in pastoral leadership… since the Reformation.”
It has certainly altered our understanding of what love is all about and shifted our expectations of clergy – male and female – significantly.
Unitarian Universalists still prize a thoughtful and articulate ministry, but they are also less accepting of clergy who are distant and emotionally disengaged. Congregations today want a person who will lead with compassion, not just cool logic.
Richard Sennett writes, “One definition of authority is someone who will use his or her strength to care for others,” and the caring dimension of ministry has become much more important over the past few decades. In this harsh and disconnected world, the minister who exhibits genuine warmth will win more plaudits than one who relies primarily on eloquence.
Love is a critical factor in any committed relationship and so is trust.
So how does a religious leader gain a congregation’s trust? (A religious leader gains a congregation’s trust) by loving them in the manner already described and by showing a willingness to listen and to learn.
According to Bill Schulz, one common mistake ministers make is to equate leadership with air-time. We like to talk – why otherwise would we have chosen to be preachers? – and we suppose that the congregation’s confidence in us will increase as we speak often and well. But this is to overlook the importance of the ear, because what a congregation really wants — especially in the initial stages of the relationship – is to tell its story. For them it is vital that the minister develop a lively sympathy for the context in which he or she has been called to serve.
“The bottom line is that all ministry is local, and a congregation comes to trust its spiritual leader when it is clear that he or she is in touch with the genius of that particular place and its people.
We live in an age of haste, but in a matter of such importance a minister can’t be in a hurry. The growing season for a stable, trusting relationship is often quite long. It took at least a decade for established members of the Madison congregation to grant me half as much trust as my predecessor, who had served them for thirty-five years, still retained. “Don’t try to use any authority until they give it to you,” John Buehrens cautions, “for in the end it is conferred by trust and that must be earned.”
Sandburg has a little poem about this – he called it Primer Lesson
Look out how you use proud words.
When you let proud words go, it is
not easy to call them back.
They wear long boots, hard boots; they
walk off proud; they can’t hear you calling—
Look out how you use proud words. .
Trust and authority also increase when the community judges us to be “authentic.” Professional competency is important but hardly sufficient because today religious seekers are looking for wholeness, integrity and spiritual maturity in their ministers.
…Whether we are aware of it or not, whether we like it or not, people are watching us, scrutinizing us, taking our measure. They seek reassurance that we really practice what we preach.
“…ministry … is all about modeling — demonstrating in deed as well as in word what it means to be a fully-formed, high-functioning human being.
The demand is not for perfection…Authentic people make mistakes, misjudge people and situations, get rattled and upset. “Parishioners do not really want super-saints as leaders,” Diana Butler Bass writes. “They want…mature men and women who…exhibit the balance they hope to achieve in their own lives.”
Above all else, authentic leaders are self-aware, honest about their strengths and weaknesses and resilient enough to rise above the petty hassles of daily life.
…What this means is that ministers must be secure enough in themselves gracefully to share the church’s ministry, to equip others for ministry, and give ample credit to all who are actively engaged in that ministry. In today’s egalitarian culture clergy who compete for power with the laity or who function poorly as part of a team will wear out their welcome in relatively short order.
But sustainable leadership also requires clergy to avoid over-functioning, actively look for ways to release the power of the laity, and take pride in the entire team’s accomplishments. As Lao Tse observes in the Tao Te Ching: “When the Master’s work is done the people say, ‘Amazing: We did it all by ourselves.’”
As the foregoing might suggest, I harbor significant concerns about our Unitarian Universalist movement and its ministry. Too many of our churches are underfunded and their ministers under-compensated. Too many congregations are conflicted and too many ministers dispirited. We are not yet doing our best work together…
Still, there is great vitality in our (ministry and in our congregations) … But if this promise is to be fulfilled we simply must come to terms with the “authority issues” that have divided and disabled us in the past. They have caused too much disillusionment and drained too much of our energy.
“Without an answer to this key question,” Phyllis Tickle writes in her book The Great Emergence, “individual personalities and groups fall into disarray and ultimate chaos. It is Hell where there is no clarity about authority.”
In keeping with the historic tenets of Universalism we, of course, dismiss Hell as a metaphysical possibility. Our task now is to forge ahead with hope and courage, working together to create a spiritual climate that will keep the devil from our door in today’s world as well. “May it be so.”
I want to thank Michael Schuler for the sermon and for permission to share it with you.
Now I’d like to make a personal comment:
Some have asked about the procedures for ministerial transition.
Our Constitution says the minister is called by a 2/3 vote of those in attendance at a congregational meeting, and once called ‘the senior minister shall serve for an indefinite time.”
The Constitution says that to terminate the relationship, the minister should give 90-days notice…in writing.
The Constitution lays out a detailed plan for ministerial succession.
While a 90-day notice is sufficient, in terms of the congregation being able to put the wheels in motion to find a new minister, I think a longer notice – more like nine months or even a year – is more appropriate; it’s not uncommon, in a long-term ministry, to name a date two years in advance.
Three years ago, when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I told you I hoped to have five more years with you; I repeated that hope two years ago, one year ago, and two weeks ago.
I said that the moment I am ready to set a definite end-date that ‘you will be the first to know.’ I’ve decided that it’s time for me set that date – it’s the one I’ve been talking about for three years: June 2013. It’s important that you know that I am not being forced into this decision – I have not been forced into it, except, perhaps, by my constant companion, Mr. Parkinson!
Three years ago I wasn’t sure how things would progress, health-wise…whether my hope for five more years was realistic, or whether an earlier date would be necessary.
Now I’m confident about the five-year plan.
While I readily acknowledge the challenges and the struggles during this time, it is – perhaps because of those challenges and struggles – this is the most rewarding, meaningful and gratifying chapter of my ministry.