I am reading an interview (on page 10 of this pdf link) between UU minister Wayne Walder and popular spiritual author Thomas Moore. It is giving me a lot to think about, especially in the context of the meaning and worth of my sabbatical :
Wayne Walder: We often try to fix things as Ministers. We might see a broken world, a broken people, or difficult circumstances and we try to facilitate, support, create and improve the situation. Yet the world always requires fixing. So many of us try harder, we might even work longer hours. We get sick or burnt-out as we continue to help. We don’t take time for real self care. Our families suffer.
Thomas Moore: The first thought that occurred to me when you said that was that I usually work (when I work in Ministry) in the model of the spiritual teacher. In many different traditions the spiritual leader is not really called to fix the world. That’s not what he or she does. Rather that person is called to be a holy person – a person who has a special degree of contemplation or reflection. They have the ability to see the world in a certain way and have shaped their life and a personality out of that. People come to that person to be in their presence because of what he/she has achieved and who he/she has become.
So the idea is not to bring your problems to this person. I mean you wouldn’t do that to so many of the spiritual leaders of the world. You don’t bring your problems to them. What you do is you come to them seeking a depth, a vision and a personality that has been really transformed by preparation.
This is the model for me. I’m not saying that a Unitarian Minister ought to suddenly become a guru in the mountains. I don’t mean it that way, but I think that there is something in the model of the holy person that could be used. I bet there would be less burnout too. Less burnout because the point of spirituality is not to keep giving out and doing the impossible, but to constantly “be” somebody…. A “way of being” can be one of the most useful things we can do.”
I am grateful to Moore for making this point. I would never claim to be a Holy Person, but I am a person who, in Moore’s words, has spent most of my life cultivating depth, vision and a personality that is centered on the Holy. Even on the days that I do not feel at all spiritual, I am always a woman of faith, and I am always a religious woman. That makes a lot of UUs uncomfortable — this “faith” and “religious” bit. If anything has contributed to our lack of excellence in ministry, it is that, folks. It is that.
It has occasionally occurred to me over the years that this work alone (“being someone,” in Moore’s term)is intense and demanding of time and life energy, but until I went on sabbatical I had no idea how right I was in that assessment. Even free of all parish duties, my days are full, rich, and demanding. Paying close attention to the world, praying, contemplating, praising God, trying to integrate new understanding with old, reflecting on moral questions on the personal and the global level — I now understand that all those inner workings can comprise a full-time occupation.
I never came into ministry thinking it was my job to “fix” anything. In fact, I find that concept offensive. And it is for this reason that I feel profoundly uncomfortable in many UU collegial gatherings, surrounded by well-intentioned men and women who seem to feel or believe that their/our job is to impose “our” version of righteousness onto the world. I feel alien in these gatherings because I believe that God is the Fixer and that our work is to discern God’s will both for ourselves and for our larger communities, and to do it in the spirit of healing, love and reconciliation — not Fixing. For me, Justice is just our human name for God’s will for the world. It is our privilege and our responsibility to be instruments of that justice in the spirit of “Thy will be done” — not “Let’s go fix the broken world because we uniquely know what’s wrong with it.”
Now we see but through a glass, darkly. I’m frightened of people who march off to Fix things merely on the the authority of their own intellects. As Thomas Moore says later in the article, “Knowing something is not incorporating it.”
(Digression: I have met no less than five seminarians this year who went from the UU to the United Church of Christ ordination track because the Regional Sub-Committee warned them that they used “God” or referred to the Bible too frequently in their interviews. That would “be a problem,” they were told.)
I said to a friend yesterday that I had felt no need to schedule specifically “spiritual” retreats during my sabbatical because I was in no way burnt out on the spiritual level when I began my sabbatical. My faith is strong and sustaining, my prayers and devotions energetic. I love being relieved of preaching duties but I look forward to resuming them. Meetings at my church are generally enjoyable and even inspiring because of the joy of watching good lay leaders in action, and so I did not go into sabbatical sick to death of them, either.
I did need a break from pastoral care. I needed to grieve all the losses of beloved parishioners over the years. I needed to let go of the constant worry and concern that every pastor carries. I needed to not answer the phone for a long time. This has been good for every part of me.
I was not called into ministry to fix. My ordination vows say nothing about “fixing.” My installation vows speak of walking with a community “the path of understanding, righteousness, peace and spiritual growth.”
I am not asked to mow the church lawn, to cook the Easter breakfast, to fix the steeple clock, or to wash the tablecloths. I am not required to lobby for any cause, to feed the self-righteous anger of my mostly politically liberal congregation by delivering partisan screeds from the pulpit (excused as such by being labelled “prophetic” by those who take satisfaction in them). I am not expected to be the solution for every dysfunction or challenge that comes along in our congregation.
I am expected to be the minister, to keep before myself and the congregation the “moments of our high resolve,” (Howard Thurman) to articulate our values and to model them, and to be a presence of love and reverence within the community in a way that is authentic to my personality.
When I do preach difficult, critical sermons that are my attempt to be prophetic, and when I do lobby for causes,my congregation — whatever their personal theology — trusts that these actions are a result of my faith in God’s justice, my daily discernment of God’s will, and my deep belief in the freedom of individual conscience. My congregants do not start from a place of “UUs fix these problems in this way in the world, and that’s what our minister should be doing.” CULTIVATING REVERENCE is the first promise we make each other in our congregational covenant. To promote spiritual growth and ethical commitment is the second phrase. Note that even there, the spiritual grounding preceeds the ethical action. “To minister to each other’s needs and to those of humanity” is the third phrase. We are bound in community first, where we learn how to love. Thence we are called to MINISTER to humanity, not to Fix it.
I appreciate Wayne Walder and Thomas Moore for helping me to better understand why the energy between me and my congregation feels so life-giving. Until I began meeting monthly with a small cluster of local UU colleagues, I often avoided our UUMA gatherings because I felt so exhausted by the frustration, anger and bitterness I heard expressed by my colleagues. It is obvious to me now that too many of them are expected to be Fixers by their congregations, or who expect that of themselves, and want to make of their congregations communities of Fixers, too. Our whole denominational culture, in my opinion, has been focused of late on Fixes — expensive ones, at that.
Meanwhile, Thomas Moore says that “the only solution is to deepen the place from which your people think and live.” The minister is not someone who is the resident expert at this or that — CEO, marketing genius, fundraising guru, community organizer — a minister is the person who (to paraphrase Thomas Moore) incorporates wisdom into themselves and is transformed by it in such a way as people will notice.
It brings me almost to tears to understand now that my congregation has known these things for a very long time, and that I am just realizing them.