This Is What Church Does: Ministry As A Lifestyle

This lovely video of a beautiful, young engaged couple being aged by make-up artists and revealing themselves to each other is going viral. Take a look.

A few things to think about in terms of our earlier conversation about the function and purpose of the Church as it morphs, evolves and dies in its current building-based, institutional form.

First, while the majority of viewers of this video see this clip in personal terms (emotional, touching, romantic, a love to aspire to, etc.), I see it in ministerial terms. My first thought was, “If this couple isn’t a pair of actors, they seem eminently ready to marry. Blessings on them.”

Thinking ministerially is different from thinking romantically or individually; it is a mindset that laity and clergy alike share when they are steeped in a lifestyle that constantly keeps before them the presence of Death in the midst of life. This is what church does. We observe the sacred moments of life’s passage and our covenantal commitments ostensibly bind us to each other in community even as we individually (or two by two) marry, welcome and bless children, suffer the inevitable greater and lesser losses of time together, and then hold each other in care until death comes. And when it does, we say the customary prayers and give thanks to God/Life and incine ourselves toward the consolations of memory and the promise of eternal life (for many UUs, not so much eternal life in heaven as a “shining name” in the shared memory of the community and a spiritual existence beyond our comprehension or imagining).

What other community is going to deal with mortality and death the way the church does? Nope. Not going to happen. You know why? Most other communities have a product to sell or a lifestyle to promote that promises good looks, better health, more popularity or legacy-making that conveniently skips around the inevitability of death. We in the church, well, we hang out with Death all day and we’re very comfortable with it. I didn’t shed a tear while watching the couple in the video because I have a front row seat to the ravages of time. I could only affectionately wish them strength for whatever fate has in store for them. “God, prepare us for what thou art preparing us.”

The lens of ministry is what we must prepare to bring to the world whether or not we meet in buildings or attend Sunday worship together — although in my heart of hearts I want always to be able to do that. I still believe that corporate worship is essential to the teaching of ministry as a lifestyle, which is what I believe the legacy of the church is and must be.  When we speak as Unitarian Universalists of Standing On The Side Of Love, I always translate that to mean ministry as a lifestyle and way of showing up (I am not a fan of slogans and suspect that SOSL will soon begin to sound as dated to many ears as it already does to mine).

Be that as it may…

My chief observation about the couple in this video is that they regard each other with compassion even when revealed in subsequently older versions of themselves. At no time do they laugh at or mock one another, or use sarcasm meanly to comment on the ravages of time. This orientation of kindness and tender regard is what the church can teach, and does teach by the simple fact of being one of the only natural multi-generational points of intersection in our culture. When elderly people are your friends and mentors, it is harder to objectify and dismiss them as sad, shuffling figures. The multigenerational nature of congregational life is something that must continue however the church convenes itself in its new, more sustainable forms.

I did not expect the young couple in the video to have Big Issues on their minds when they entered into the aging experiment, but it did occur to me as they considered the years to come that they were thinking in purely personal terms.I wondered what seventy years would reveal not only in the faces of this couple, but in society as a whole.  This is also what Church does: it orients the individual away from thoughts of self- survival and happiness and toward the well-being of the wider community and world. No couple preparing to wed in a month should be thinking about social unrest or climate change or the precarious future of their children — but there it is. By the time this couple develops bushy eyebrows and sagging chins, will we have less poverty, a much smaller prison population, a stronger or weaker infrastructure, better or worse public transportation, affordable housing for more people? Will the children this beautiful couple assumes and hopes will be born to them be able to afford higher education? Will black lives finally matter by then? Will the oligarchs still own Congress? Or will the Supreme Court have decided that, in fact, corporations are not people?

This is what the Church does. It says that “my liberation is bound up with yours” and sees many faces when it looks into the eyes of the Beloved.  The Church exists to train us to see the faces of many we would otherwise not see — to choose not to see, even to reject or turn away from in revulsion — when we look into the eyes of the Beloved.

In a culture that still conceptualizes big thobbing heart LOVE as a phenomenon between two people, the Church (or “organized religion,” if you like), represents, teaches and promotes a lifestyle that regards heartthrob-style love in communal terms. God loves us first, and we love in response. We’ll never look as sexy and appealing when we incarnate this love as does this sweet, young, beautiful, white, heterosexual couple out of Central Casting, but the power of what we do, and what we are, and how we love will more than make up for that.


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What Happens to Worshipers When The Traditional Church Closes Its Doors

It’s late and I’m not going to have time to flesh this post out to the extent that I’d like to, but I do want to get something down because I haven’t blogged here in way too long and I’m feeling mightily burdened by the massive unhappiness around me in the Unitarian Universalist ministry.

I want to say right up front that my blogging about church matters is never a passive aggressive way to complain about my own congregational work, so please do not try to read between lines. You’d be amazed how much projection goes on with bloggers. Whenever I make oblique references in posts, commenters inevitably assume they’re blind items about my own life.

This is about the misery I am hearing pouring out all around me from all regions of the country where ministers are scrambling to adapt to the seismic quakes in religious and congregational life.

Seminaries are imploding. There have been cataclysmic conflicts or scandals at Starr King School For the Ministry, Andover Newton Theological School and other, non-UU seminaries.

Unitarian Universalist seminarians have just learned that an important component of their formation process has been de-funded.

UU districts are merging into regions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it requires nimbleness and a lot of effort. The UUA has cut staff following a major budget shortfall in 2014.

Congregations are likewise running out of money.

Ministers are exhausted from living in the old way of doing church (leading worship, supervising staff, attending to the pastoral care of the church, creating and leading programming, representing Unitarian Universalism in the wider community) while groping toward new ways of being church (becoming part of the missional movement, using social media, meeting social justice demands that are urgent and critical, managing administrative shifts around hiring/firing staff for doing church in the new way).

If you’re not an insider, 90% of these references won’t mean anything to you. You probably have no idea what I’m talking about (“missional church? Huh?”).

Because everything is changing so fast, even those of us in the profession can’t keep up with the framework, the lingo or the expectations.  The fancy name for all of this is adaptive leadership, which is a nice way of saying that we’re all running like Indiana Jones a few yards ahead of the boulder of cultural change that threatens to flatten us at any moment.

It is obvious that for those in non-conservative religious majority regions, Sunday morning worship can no longer be the main focus for getting newcomers through the door, let alone be the program by which they integrate into the life of the congregation and eventually join the church.

Except, wait! All of our existing programs and models for church vitality and growth make that now-erroneous assumption, so we’re simultaneously watching the trends change, observing the decline in our numbers, grieving the loss of numbers and volunteer energy, and trying to figure out — while trying to stay out in front of the boulder — what new models will work to create community. Pub theology? Parenting groups? Doing away altogether with the concept of church membership in favor of something else? What something else?

Not incidentally, tbe congregational polity of the UUA member congregations relies on traditional concepts of church membership in order to function. Voting members — defined how, now?  – elect officers, call ministers, often vote on the budget, and serve on boards and committees of the board. Some congregations are paralyzed by their own bylaws which require a quorum or minimum number of voting members present for even the revision of the old by-laws! You can’t make this stuff up.

Did I mention volunteers? The concept of volunteering is also changing radically as patterns of participation change completely from what they were a couple of decades ago. The percentage of younger newer people to our congregations who have any experience with church life is low, and the workings of the organization seem obtuse to the unchurched (can’t say I blame them). Attempts to change organizational structure to simplify and facilitate involvement create anxiety in the system and it may take years for leaders to do the relationship work necessary to implement new structures.

Ministers report rampant dysfunction and abuse — years of struggle to establish basic boundaries with mentally ill or abusive members, angry push-back against attempts to do anti-racism work with the congregation, triangulating and betrayal between clergy or lay staff, clergy sexual or emotional misconduct never properly dealt with by previous colleagues, fiduciary bullying amounting to paychecks being withheld or salaries arbitrarily cut mid-year, unreasonable and even conflicting expectations of ministers demanded by 100+ “bosses,” all of whom feel entitled to direct the minister’s priorities, and general chaos. Secret board meetings, ministers resigning mid-year or being forced out.

I hope you didn’t read this far hoping for a solution.

I don’t have any.

Nor do I have hope that everything is going to work out for the best — not in the traditional sense, anyway, where “the best” is defined as some version of the current status quo.

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Posted in Mind of the Minister, The Church, Theological Reflection, Unitarian Universalism | 9 Comments

How (Not) To Train A Beagle

Please click on the photos to enlarge them. – PB

Please do not get a beagle if you don’t believe that dogs have real feelings. Beagles are truly sensitive and they most certainly get their feelings hurt. They mope when over-corrected and when treated with severe discipline, their hearts break. You cannot “break” a beagle, nor should you ever try to. Humiliating them, spraying them in the face with water, shocking them, abusing them for barking, or in any other way applying cruel measures to their normal behavior will destroy their spirits. Those of us who love beagles beg you to consider carefully before bringing one of these brown-eyed darlings home. They are the cutest dogs in the world, among the smartest (hey, just because we don’t know what it’s like to millions of scent receptors doesn’t mean beagles are dumb — it means WE are dumb for expecting them to listen when they have an interesting smell up their snouts!), and incredibly loyal.

There is a reason that this breed is used for almost all of the laboratory experiments done on dogs. It is because they are so sweet, cheerful, trusting and responsive to human attention, they do not become aggressive even when kept under the horrible conditions in labs, and tortured in the name of science or product safety. Beagle people support The Beagle Freedom Project, a group that will figure prominently in the story I am about to tell. But before I tell you that story (which really is about training, I promise), let me tell you about my own beagle, Maxfield.

Max was one of the lucky ones. He was raised from a puppy by a family that loved him a lot and provided him with everything he needed. Unfortunately, they had to surrender him to the shelter when they faced a housing transition and could not take him with them to their new home. Although he had known great love and was treated very well and with lots of affection by the great folks at the Scituate Animal Shelter in Massachusetts, Max’s heart was broken. He was nervous, skinny, and skittish, with stressed-out bloodshot eyes and an air of deep insecurity.

Max Comes Home 030

When my then boyfriend and I filled out an application to adopt Max, the shelter director really grilled us. Did we have a fenced in yard? Beagles can climb chain link fence. Beagles can — and will — dig to escape enclosures. Did I own my own home? Beagles can be destructive! Beagles can chew through floors! My eyes got bigger and bigger and I looked at Greg like, “Do we WANT this dog? Are you nuts?” Greg stood stoically while the director continued on. Are we prepared to love a dog who barks, who “counter-surfs” for food and steals every bit he can get his paws on? Beagles are stubborn, they’re willful, and “you’re going to need an obedience trainer.” She asked us to sign up for obedience training right then and there! Greg and I looked at each other and at Max, the small, smooth guy who was sitting at our feet pressed against Greg’s leg in a position we dubbed “The Max Melt-In.” We politely declined the obedience training and took our beagle home. The shelter required a one week foster period to make sure the adoption would work out.

Given all the warnings we had received, we were very nervous about our new beagle addition to the family. We expected him to howl and bay a lot.

He never howled and bayed. He just cried and cried when we put him in his crate at night.

We expected him to chew everything.

He never chewed anything but the pads we put in his crate.

We never let him off leash because we had been sternly instructed to NEVER do that. EVER, as beagles are scent hounds and if we let a beagle off the leash, he would immediately run off and get lost or killed.

He didn’t get let off leash for over a year.

Eventually I tried traning Max with treats, and to my great delight he proved responsive to training. Food, my friends. I never leave the house with him without snacks on hand. I use a special whistle and a hand signal to alert him that I have a snack for him. He runs right to me.

Of course I am taking a risk, the way any dog guardian takes a risk in letting her dog off leash. Some beagles cannot be trained this way. You have to get to know your own dog.

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Eventually, although we had been told by everyone in the dog world that dogs LOVE crates and that Max would grow to LOVE his crate, we had to listen to him and respect his sincere, insistent crying message that he did not LOVE his crate and felt very hurt that we were making him sleep in a crate, and so we had a long talk about it. We told him that he could sleep with us but that we were worried that he was going to destroy everything in the house if we didnt’ crate him when we left.

He was so much happier sleeping with us. That’s all he wanted.DSC02188

Please don’t get a beagle if you’re not prepared to cheerfully lose many the typical dog-person arguments. Beagles will persist. You have to love their persistence and give them a chance to be who they are or they’ll become hurt, bewildered and miserable, and probably act out.

Beagles are obsessed with food. They’re never NOT going to be obsessed with food. As I said, they have more scent receptors than the other breeds, so if your childhood golden retriever was notorious for occasionally snitching the roast beef off the counter, prepare to guard all of your food all the time with a beagle.  You’ll get used to it, and to commanding DOWN or OFF a thousand times a day. If you can’t love an animal who will watch you eat with huge, pleading eyes, pre-clean the dishes while they’re stacked in the washer, tremble and moan when there’s a chicken roasting (the first time Max did this I thought he was having a seizure), and counter-surf, please do not adopt a beagle.

He’s not counter-surfing yet, but he’s thinking about it.

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I belong to a Facebook group called I Love Beagles (I know), and we regularly hear about beagles being rejected by — to put it bluntly — unkind and stupid humans. Recently, in early February of 2015, a member of our community found a Craiglist ad by a woman who said she was giving away her beagle because she was incorrigible.

First of all, please — no matter what — please don’t ever give away a dog on Craigslist. They will mostly likely meet a terrible, torturous fate. Please for the love of God, find a local shelter and leave them there. Even if they’re euthanized the dog won’t suffer in a lab or be used as bait in a fight dog. Beagles are mostly submissive and get stolen for these two purposes. The best thing you can do is get in touch with a regional beagle rescue organization or a no-kill shelter, of course.

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Posted in Random Reflections | 4 Comments