On Church Leaders
We must encourage church leadership by considering the word encourage literally: to fill with courage. Courage comes from the heart, from coeur (French for heart). If the church has been a place of personal transformation and meaning-making for someone, they will grow to love it. In the meantime, they will likely have experienced healing and spiritual growth and achieved a measure of evident health and wholeness within the community. That’s a person who’s ready for leadership, and who should be approached to discern where their talents would be best used; where they want to do some good. Church leaders must be equipped with opportunities and language by which they can express and share the inner and outer events that brought them to the place of being ready for leadership with the larger congregation, so that everyone knows that leaders are not just people who are doing drudge work out of a sense of obligation or a love of power or influence, but out of devotion and gratitude for the blessings they have received. I may be hearkening back to the Cambridge Platform when I begin to consider that it’s wrong to appoint church leaders who have not demonstrated love, gratitude and spiritual maturity within the community.
Does this seem too idealistic? Sure it is. We all know that we’re short on leaders. But we’re not short on love, if I may be so corny. But hear me out. Changing consciousness comes first. Intention matters. When we have the intention to have every leader of every ministry team be someone who has experienced and demonstrated a sense of blessing from his/her church experience, that matters. That’s operating out of a blessing model rather than a desperation/poverty model. It matters how we think and how we set our spirits and our intentions.
Church members, friends, newcomers and leaders should be nurtured in spiritual practice and equipped with the language of our faith traditions so that they can articulate the gifts they both give and receive from their experience with the church, the community that is gathered by God (or by the deepest yearnings of the human heart, if you’re a humanist). The congregation should be in the regular practice of spending time discussing their spiritual experience. It should be as natural as a potluck. We should be ready to turn conversations away from petty gossip to deeper reflections. The congregation should consider that part of being in covenanted community together. Not to do so in a shaming, chastising way, but a thoughtful and pastoral way. “Okay, that was fun, but given that we don’t know what anyone else is thinking, we should either ask them directly or change the subject. Who should we be calling on this week?”
If I go to the gym and people are sprawled out napping on the floor of the aerobics studio, I will think the gym management is not just remiss, but nuts. It’s no different in church. We’re all there for heart strengthening of a different kind. Leaders should be empowered to be able to say: “Get off the aerobics floor, please. You can nap at home.” This isn’t about not loving people. It’s about being clear what church is for. “Napping on the floor of the aerobics studio is not part of our mission, so we won’t be addressing your complaints about the pillows.”
Leaders should be able to challenge people who constantly want to talk about the minister to talk about their own ministry, or about the church’s ministry. As a clergyperson, I am always amazed how often people take my name in vain. I hear that “Vicki doesn’t want us to do ___________” or “I didn’t ask because I heard that you didn’t like ______________.” Most of the time this is totally manufactured information (tr: lies). Misunderstandings, sometimes. In any case, these statements should always be treated as suspect and the minister should be asked about such claims. Taking the minister’s name in vain is one way that change-resistant folk maintain the status quo. It’s the same game as “Lots of people are saying….” Who, exactly? Are they contributing in any positive or productive way to the ministry and mission of the church? No? They’re there because their mother and grandmother went to this church, and they’re only known to be critical? Then I think we can move along.
Are leaders in your community allowed to actually lead? Or do they have permission only to establish careful, traditional agendas and to ask for permission for every tiny step they take toward institutional health and mission-fulfillment? For every step forward, is there an interminable process of obtaining permission from every critic and worrier? Why? Who holds your congregation hostage?
Every congregation I have ever worked with at any point in the process of change has someone raise their hand to express the fear that “if we do such-and-such, we will leave someone out.” My response to that is simple: Then don’t leave them out! Bring them along! Tell them that change is coming, visit with them to help them adjust. Teach them a new technology. Assign “change mentors” to make sure they know the new times, practices or expectations. Use change and innovation as an opportunity to forge generational bonds. If we believe that revelation is not sealed, neither should we resist responding to new times with new practices. To resist change is to deny our theological tradition. How is that any less hypocritical than the hypocrosies of which we love to accuse religious conservatives? Move on! If your church slogan says “God is still speaking,” your congregation should appear to be listening!
On Ministry and Mission
Liberal religion must have a broader mission than to collect the religiously wounded and enable them to stay that way. It is a natural psychological response to express relief when one finds oneself in a group of people who have similar dissatisfactions and wounds from traditional or conservative religion, but that’s no place to stay and build an identity.
It especially confounds me when Christian congregations enable perma-victims, as to do so is so obviously contrary to the gospel. Do you or do you not worship a healing God? Do you or do you not seek to follow in the path of the man who, again and again, bade those who came to him wounded to pick up their pallets and walk? I don’t get it.
Do we work as hard to dismantle entrenched victimization as we do to dismantle oppressions? Just as we challenge the separate specialness claimed by the privileged, so should we critique the divisiveness perpetuated by those who build victim camps at the edge of our communities and throw rocks from the outskirts. We must say, “We are all welcome here. There is a hospital wing here. But no one takes up permanent residence in that wing. They get better and leave the bed open for the next person.” We must monitor that wing of the church, recognizing that ministering to just one person in one bed requires tremendous pastoral resources. We are companions, fellow pilgrims. We are not saviors, social workers or even nurses. Be clear about the difference.
What would liberal religious communities look like if there was no religious right? What if we spent much less time analyzing what they’re doing, engage with them as equals with whom we simply disagree, and get on with it? What would our sermons sound like, our readings, our prayers, our inner lives? As is said of adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) in 12-Step meetings, “we had become reactors rather than actors.” How would we — especially Unitarian Universalists — articulate and talk about our religious life, commitments, theology and community if we could not use fundamentalist or conservative religion as a way to define ourselves by comparison?
Have we not yet realized that to most of the unchurched world, all religions are basically the same? The theological and doctrinal distinctions between us which we love to debate over centuries are invisible to the unchurched. And they don’t care. To the non-affiliated and unchurched, churches are places where people do weird, old-fashioned stuff and think weird, old-fashioned things. If we’re not out in the community virtually and actually, being known and respected, interested and interesting, pushing back against the broad cultural assumptions about “church people,” we are hiding our light under a bushel. You can’t just put out a pretty church sign and newspaper ad and expect people to come over anymore. Unless we live in the Bible Belt (or perhaps especially if we live in the Bible Belt!), we have to work to actively shift the perception of church and church people. Evangelizing by smugness has no integrity. We have to risk being genuine, sincere and enthusiastic about our religious communities and the good they are doing in our lives, hearts and souls.
To put it in images as I did this weekend in Iowa, to those of us who love the church, our churches look like this:
To those who have not experienced vibrant, 21st century church community but who have only heard its bad press and seen its sentimentalized irrelevance as portrayed in the entertainment industry and fiction, they imagine it like this:
Shift the focus from the minister to the ministries. Encoeurage leaders. Make healing and spiritual maturation an expectation and provide ways for it to happen. Move the nappers off the aerobics floor; don’t just walk around them (for every body napping on the floor, there’s less room for someone who wants to boogie). Stop defining ourselves as a reaction to the religious right. Push back against the common perception that church people are petty and fusty.
Let it shine.