A Recently Resigned UU Speaks

This comment appeared recently in response to this old post. I think it’s worth sharing with you all:

I discovered Kevin’s posts and this thread after I resigned my UU membership recently. I found Kevin’s views a bit cynical but interesting and noteworthy nevertheless. Maybe some UU congregations are beter than others. In recent years, the Sunday Services at my UU church had degenerated into a carnival-like atmosphere with antics such as guess the minister’s weight, someone turning cartwheels on the stage, and songs from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Every week there skits with people dressed in silly hats or animal costumes. One Sunday morning they had a belly dancer on stage. During one service members were invited to come up on stage and show off their tattoos. On a couple of Sundays, the minister tossed a beach ball into the audience and invited parishoners to bat it around during the service.

When I wrote the check for my pledge, I thought, I’m paying for THIS??? NOT! The church had become a spiritual wasteland and my soul was sad and starving for nourishment. I decided to get past my “Christophobia”, which originally drew me to the UU faith almost 20 years ago. The situation at my UU church made Christianity seem so much more appealing. My spouse is still a UU but is considering becoming a Quaker. There is only one UU church in our town. The UU minister was not open to input and there was little use of the democratic process. Members who dared to offer criticism were labeled “anti-clerical” and extruded from participation. It became a toxic, embittering place for me. I recently joined a Protestant faith community that feels like a spiritual home to me. What a breath of fresh air. I was reluctant to leave the UU church because it was my chosen faith of my adulthood, but I just couldn’t take it anymore.

First of all, I’m dumb-struck by the description of what is going on in this worship service. While joy and humor are, I think, essential to the healthy spirit of congregational worship, I believe these antics denigrate the very word “worship” and sound to me like excruciating efforts to be hip/cool/relevant in an entertainment-addled culture. In short, I’m horrified. Having heard recently about a congregation that collects its stewardship pledges in a so-called “Ark of the Covenant,” which is a big ark festooned with spray-painted Barbie dolls*, this was not news of our worship life I was ready to hear.

People resign from UU and other congregations for many reasons. We are too political for some people. Sometimes we are too traditional or “too Christian” (a comment I’ve gotten at my congregation by those who were too turned off by our traditional liturgical structure to realize that the content is highly non-traditional). We fight or discuss too much for some folks. Other are dissatisfied with our religious education programs. All legitimate, all understandable complaints. It’s all part of the balance: for every elated new member who proclaims with teary eyes that we are the spiritual home she’s been looking for, one goes away still seeking. But this report of beach balls and cartwheels and inane carnival routines… this is a really big bummer.

I’d like to speak a bit about the writer’s comment that she is “paying for THIS.” She’s right, but I want to speak a bit more about her decision to cut her pledge and to resign from the congregation. First of all, our pledges to our congregations do support the minister’s salary and the worship program. Beyond that, however, our pledges are made and fulfilled to support institutions that exist to uphold and incarnate our most cherished values for individual members and within the wider community. I sense that if our writer had felt that the democratic process worked in her congregation, she might not have quit the church and withdrawn herself and her financial support. Bad programming happens. It happens when a congregation loses its way, makes an honest mistake, tries something innovative that isn’t well-executed, or trusts people with leadership roles for which they may be ill-suited. Failure happens. However, when the congregation is not allowed to reflect on failure, to express when they feel it is occurring, and to feel a welcome part of casting a new vision (and an improved program), we cannot and should not blame them for leaving.

I haven’t paid my church pledge yet and I’m doing some nail-biting about it. This was an expensive year. Not only did I have doctoral tuition to cover, I traveled the world on a wonderful five-month sabbatical! But I’ll make sure that pledge is paid. Beyond my role as minister in the congregation, I am a member. I am in covenanted relationship with its people and our God (however we express that Ultimate). I am well satisfied that my most cherished values are being supported, promoted and lived with sincere intent by this generation of the Church, and if I have to scrape the bottom of my savings account to fulfill my financial commitment to this coming year’s programs and ministries, I’ll do it. And when I do, I’ll do it with extra gratitude that I can do so with a contented heart, and in sorrowful memory of this writer and others who have left our communities spiritually hungry and insulted in their souls.

The Church is a human institution and is prone to human error. May we be big enough to hear those who leave us on the way out the door and to consider what they have said.

* It’s not the campiness or the Barbies that I object to. It’s the co-opting of one of the most holy relics in the Jewish religion for cheap giggles that offends me and, I think, makes a mockery of our claims to be a respectful, mature people.

14 Replies to “A Recently Resigned UU Speaks”

  1. I wonder if a crazy circus like this ever happens in a Christian church? Surely some out there must have also lost their way in, maybe, trying to be more hip and cool and attract more progressive audiences. I cant imagine that UU churches alone are repleat with these kind of issues. Or does being a UU church–without dogma and a standard proscribed liturgy–give people unlimited license to do what they want where-ever they are?

    I hear that my own church was once very unstructured, that pulpit was basically an open-mike for people to get up and express their own personal political and philisophical ideas. I wasn’t there back then, though, to confirm it. When that previous minister left, the congregation selected a new one. I have heard that she really brought a lot of structure to our service. When I first attended, I was comfortable because of its structured service… I dont think I would have liked this church in its old format. But I guess some people in our congregation did because they left. [Hey MG, you’re right that shenanigans happen in Christian churches, too, but Unitarian Universalism’s lack of liturgical tradition makes us, I think, uniquely susceptible to particularly embarrassing “innovations.” Lord knows I’ve lived through a number of them in my UU lifetime, but at least they were undertaken in a spirit of earnest attempt to achieve a spiritual or ethical transcendence of some kind. This jokey stuff strikes me as really troublesome because it panders to people’s nastiest impulses to mock authority and tradition. Just not cool. – PB]

  2. The brief mention of a member or members dissatisfied with a congregation because the “traditional liturgical structure” struck home with me. The congregation of which i’m a member has just passed through a two year interim period. The interim set up a structure very similar to that encountered in mainline Christian, Protestant churches. i found it difficult. Several others found it difficult. We had little trouble sticking around because it was an interim, a limited period. But i do wonder how ministers evaluate or weigh one liturgical form over another. i know from experience that questions over service format rarely come up during the Search process. Yet it seems to be highly relevant to “consumer satisfaction.”
    [Hi B, thanks for writing. The Order of Service is one of the most hot button issues in any congregation — UU or not. While some traditions have a set liturgy, many Protestant traditions have flexibility in their liturgical structure and whoo boy! Whoa to the man, woman or youth — ordained or not –who messes with it without careful consultation over a lengthy period of time with all the appropriate parties! It is a rare congregation indeed that will go with the flow of change easily, and that’s to be expected and, I think, even appreciated. We want to feel invested in our liturgies or orders of service. Adding, taking away, or changing any of the elements can signal important shifts within the worshiping community and should never be undertaken lightly. So anyway, I agree with you that every minister and congregation in search should not only discuss the worship tradition, but should also be mutually clear on what kind of process is followed before changes are made. Many a ministry has gone down in flames when a clergyperson believes he/she has the authority to make changes without consulting a committee or committees. Since the liturgy is “the work of the people,” it is my firm belief that all changes should be preceeded by conversation, or at the very least, advance notice and invitation for feedback. When I wanted to introduce a special Second Sunday liturgy at our congregation that would focus on service and outreach, I had an absolute blast deciding how to arrange the elements over a dinner with the Worship Committee, Service Committee members, our DRE and our Music Director. As to how ministers evaluate liturgical form, a lot of is is trial and error. No matter how much we study tradition, it is through the living of a worship experience with a specific community that we really learn how things best work. I teach Worship and Liturgy to UU seminarians and am amazed that so many of us went through divinity school with no liturgical training at all; just a course or two on preaching, as though the sermon is the be all and end all of the Sunday morning experience! – PB]

  3. I’ve also often felt horrified by what passes for worship in some UU churches, and humiliated at the same time knowing that I share this tradition. But there have been some really excellent experiences as well, at least one of which (this past Mother’s Day, in my own church, with me preaching) included a belly dancer! All very contextually appropriate, with a related “Moment for All Ages” (AKA Children’s Story) that spoke about the cultural place of belly dance in the lives of Middle Eastern Women as a celebration of female life and power. Then a child dedication, and finally this Sermon which is still, like it or not, the most important part of most UU services. “If you want to fill the church, fill the pulpit.” And if you want to have them running for the exits (with apologies to the Rev Erik Walker Wikstrom, who is a notable exception to the following pronouncement), Send in the Clowns.

  4. I’ve also often felt horrified by what passes for worship in some UU churches, and humiliated at the same time knowing that I share this tradition. But there have been some really excellent experiences as well, at least one of which (this past Mother’s Day, in my own church, with me preaching) included a belly dancer! All very contextually appropriate, with a related “Moment for All Ages” (AKA Children’s Story) that spoke about the cultural place of belly dance in the lives of Middle Eastern Women as a celebration of female life and power. Then a child dedication, and finally this Sermon which is still, like it or not, the most important part of most UU services. “If you want to fill the church, fill the pulpit.” And if you want to have them running for the exits (with apologies to the Rev Erik Walker Wikstrom, who is a notable exception to the following pronouncement), Send in the Clowns.

  5. Every religious tradition has ways in which its worship format can degenerate. I have been to UU churches where what passed for a service was a jokey, mockery of Christian liturgy. I’ve been to Quaker meetings where the spoken ministry out of the silence degraded into a platform for people’s opinions on politicians. I’ve been to Epsicopal services that were over-wrought orgies of obscure liturgical traditions. Bad things can happen anywhere.

    The particular UU weaknesses are around a lack of liturgical tradition, combined with a lack of spiritual practices shared throughout the tradition. Unfortunatly, this puts the weight of liturgical practice upon the tastes of ministers or lay-leaders. No Episcopal prayer book to reference. No Quaker practice of shared silent waiting on the Spirit. And I’m not sure how things are resolved by merely voting on it.

  6. Dear All:

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I should have explained the belly dancer incident at my UU church a little further. I think that belly dancing can be a beautiful and exotic art form. The offensive part of the performance was that the dancer came out on stage covered from head to toe in a burka sort of garment, and did a slow striptease show of removing the burka. It was totally inappropriate for a Sunday Service. She wore a standard belly dancing costume underneath the burka. Her process of disrobing from the burka appeared seductive. That’s not what I want to see in church.

    I was similarly dismayed to see, on the cover of the Order of Service one Sunday morning, a clip art image of a meditating Buddha, seated in lotus position, with his head covered by a “smiley face” sticker. I thought it was sophomoric and disrespectful. I cannot fathom seeing an image of Jesus Christ on the cover of any Christian church bulletin with his face covered by a smiley sticker.

    Additionally, on a Sunday morning when the sermon topic was Substance Abuse, the Order of Service pictured an image of a human brain with a needle and syringe sticking into it. I found it so disturbing that I was afraid I would have nightmares about it.

    At our Christmas Eve service, there was a rap song performance done by our Caucasian UU minister wearing a baseball cap backwards, about “da little baby Jesus and da baby mama Mary”, complete with rap-style hand gestures, body language, and dysphoric facial expressions. One of our UU members resigned shortly after that.

    Peace to all,

    Nurseholistic

  7. Gasp! *sigh* This whole experience must have been difficult for you, Nurseholistic, and I’m sorry for that. And I assume the children were in their classes during the striptease? Please tell me the children weren’t there.

  8. I agree that those “worship” experiences don’t sound very worshipful at all.

    But it sounds like the bigger problem is that there appeared to be no working mechanism for feedback or change. Any worship leader could misjudge appropriateness or have a silly idea. If a few congregants openly enjoy and appreciate the over-the-line stuff, that reinforces those choices, so the worship leader might well make those choices again. How can congregants who want appropriate worship act effectively to bring things back in line?

    I’m really curious about this, because it sounds so harsh:
    “There is only one UU church in our town. The UU minister was not open to input and there was little use of the democratic process. Members who dared to offer criticism were labeled “anti-clerical” and extruded from participation”

    How close is the next town over with a UU church? How many members left over this issue — enough to form a tiny UU fellowship in your town, meeting in each others’ homes? Those are things I would personally rule out before I left UU in response to a bad experience at the congregational level, though others might feel differently.

    What does “not open to input” mean? Didn’t return your calls? Cut you off mid-sentence as you described the issue?

    What does “little” use of the democratic process mean…at least one vote was taken? That sounds like an attempt to take your concerns into account. I’m not assuming the democratic process is a panacea, but I wonder what made it ineffective in this case. Was there a majority in the congregation who enjoyed the way things were? Would those folks’ needs have been met by worship the way you (and I, and apparently most commenters) envision it?

    What does it mean to be labeled anti-clerical and extruded from participation? Were names posted on the church door under “Anti-Clerical Persons To Be Shunned”?

  9. First, some disclosure: I serve on the worship committee of my church, serving once or twice a month either in the pulpit with the minister or handling candles of joy and concern, not to mention monthly planning meetings.

    With that said: What bothers me most about all the “carnival antics” described is their lack of context. I could live with doing the occasional skit, cartwheel or stunt if there was a meaningful spiritual context to it. As part of the offering during our Earth Day service, I actually held up a prop — a bag of discarded bottles and cans I had collected — but with a relevant message that each of us is capable of doing something which contributes to the whole, be it picking up trash or giving what we can to our community. And don’t knock the idea of having a belly dancer one Sunday, so long as it was relevant to the sermon (ie, the connection between spirituality and sensuality).

    It’s also important to remember that, while worship is central to a spiritual community, it is also not all that makes a spiritual community. There is also pastoral care, religious education, and social justice work. A spiritual community is strongest when all of these components work in consort, all rooted in the shared values and vision of that community.

    I’d agree that the community described here does not sound to my liking — but not because of the carnival atmosphere. My questions would be about what this community believes, how it acts on those beliefs, and how each person can be a part of that. How does a Rocky Horror skit or bouncing a beach ball reflect what this community believes? And if people with questions or criticisms are so easily dismissed, then how are people to get involved, other than helping this minister put on a good show? I have nothing against mixing some mirth and mischief into our worship — so long as it doesn’t drown out our message.

  10. Dear Eve:

    I appreciate your thoughtful inquiries. I did branch out at one point with about 20 other UU members who were unhappy at our church. Our goal was to form a second UU congregation in our town. We worked on becoming an emerging church in 2004 and 2005, and were looking forward to having our group get chartered and recognized as a new church at GA in St. Louis. Sadly, the group got derailed by some unhealthy behaviors – substance abuse, sexual acting out, the Steering Committee meetings held in secret with no minutes being kept and no accountability to the members, and poor stewardship of resources leading to fast depletion of our Chalice Lighters grant money. I was very disappointed when the group folded. Then I was asked to be a committee chair at the existing church, so I agreed and strengthened my resolve to participate more fully again and try to help make it a better place.

    The closest UU church in a nearby town is about 40 miles from my house. Not an ideal driving distance.

    When I attempted to ask a question about our Worship Services at a Program Council meeting earlier this year, the minister literally cut me off mid-sentence and said “I can do whatever I want on Sunday mornings!” Our governing board VP promptly whipped out a copy of the ministers letter of agreement and read a section of it aloud that states “the ministers shall have untrammeled freedom of the pulpit”. There was no room for further discussion. I was dumbfounded. It was pretty clear to me at that point that I was in the wrong faith community.

    The “anti-cleric” accusation was made verbally behind my back by a board member after the minister devised a plot to overthrow the Program Council earlier this year. The plan was to set the minister up as the Program Council Chair. The minister would prepare the agenda and lead the monthly meetings, and the elected Program Council Chair would be asked to step down. I was outraged, and shared this information with other Program Council members and trusted friends in the congregation for support. The plan was thwarted. After exposing the minister’s plot, I was seen by some as being “against” the minister. I was dismayed that board members couldn’t see the true nature of the problem. A minister shouldn’t be secretly plotting to overthrow lay leaders who are elected by the congregation. What kind of religious community is that?

    Increasingly, the circle of leadership narrowed, with only two board members being kept in the loop about church business. Program-related issues were handled by only a minister and one or two other people via private emails or unofficial meetings. Information was not shared openly with all the stakeholders via the official email listserves or at the monthly meetings. It seemed more like a private club than a church.

    I would also like to mention that the same minister, after being hired, admitted to committing vehicular homicide in another country in the past. It took several years for the church to find a minister after the previous settled minister left, and there had been a series of interims, some good and some not so great. The search committee reported that applicants for the settled ministry job included a cross-dressing transvestite and a 70 year old with no prior ministerial experience. So people weren’t exactly breaking down the doors to work at that church. It seems almost like a bad sit-com now that I have some distance from the situation and my anger is waning.

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