More on Theological Education In Our Congregations*

More on theological education and worship, jumping off of my earlier post on the UUA elections…

In conversation off-line with a UU laywoman who is working very hard to create more meaningful worship in her congregation, she makes reference to, “political tracts nestled in faux spiritual autobiographies.”

A great phrase, and I think we all know what she’s talking about. She could be referring to the classic “I found UUism after I left that stupid OTHER religion” sermonette, or “Let me talk about my pet political passion from the pulpit and this will be no different than a rally.”

And this is not the fault of the speaker, who has been generous enough to agree to speak to the congregation. It is the fault of the minister, I’m afraid. All too understandable, too. Ministers are busy, they trust the intelligence and responsibility of their parishioners, and we have all too often interpreted “freedom of the pulpit” to mean that we shouldn’t work with lay speakers to help them prepare for their Sunday appearance. But working with and mentoring lay Sunday speakers is not an infringement on anyone’s freedom of the pulpit. Having done a LOT of it in my own ministry, I can tell you that it is possible to respect someone’s freedom while also providing feedback and asking clarifying questions.

Again, our lack of theological education and reflection is the culprit. It’s very likely that no one has helped these lay people connect our Unitarian and Universalist theological tradition to their convictions, except in the most generic way. “Please give a talk about why you care so much about Issue X” is a good beginning. But it is only a beginning. “How does this connect with our Unitarian Universalist principles?” might come next, or “What makes this a religious commitment for you?”

And it’s fun. It’s a teaching moment. It’s bonding. The conversations can be wonderful, even if they start with “I’m gonna be honest with you — the part of your talk about why you left (e.g.) the Catholic church sounds really angry. I know that I often start from an angry place in my own sermons but I know that people can’t really ‘hear’ anger the way they can hear passion or commitment. Sometimes it’s good to just vent for awhile and get it out, and then return to the paper and say what we want to say in a way that people can hear better.” So then they vent, or we vent together, and then we move on in the conversation to theological differences between various traditions, how some theologies hurt and some heal, how private the religious search really is, how fascinating it is that some people can get a sense of transcendent power and strength from a traditions that offends you or me, and so on. And the lay speaker doesn’t bring that anger into the pulpit with them.

I think that every minister’s library should be a lending library. Part of the reason we read constantly is to be able to lend those books out to our congregants whose own religious passions lead them to want to connect their individual experience with the experience of others. Someone wants to rebuild the food pantry? Give them “Take This Bread” by Sara Miles. Someone wants to process through the conflict between their interest in Jesus and the spiritual abuse they felt in their old Christian church? Give them Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time by Marcus Borg. Someone wants to dig deeper than our Principles for the theological foundations of Unitarian Universalism? Loan them Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism, a book containing three seminal sermons by Channing, Parker and Emerson.

Ministers sometimes forget to remind our lay people that we are available for this kind of mentoring. I am so grateful for my church’s Director of Religious Education who maintains a phenomenal (lending) library of his own and a fantastic book table in the Parish Hall during coffee hour. He is an amazing resource for lay people who want to learn more on a variety of religious subjects. And believe me, if he’s lending it, he has almost certainly read it.

I find that UUs are good at teaching about our heretical roots (“we rejected the Trinity, we rejected the Calvinist idea of the puniness of the human spirit”) and not nearly as good at teaching what we affirmed, professed, and confessed (because… shhhhh!! on both the Unitarian and the Universalist side of the family, it was liberal CHRISTIAN faith that we professed until the late 1800’s!). I don’t disagree that there were other important contributing elements to what we now call “UU” faith, but since those other elements are in generally uncomfortable or hostile relationship to Christianity as most UUs define “Christianity,” learning about them doesn’t help us develop a deep theological knowledge of our tradition.

I’m sure that much of this has to do with the fact that most of our clergy are “come-outers” from some form of Christianity.
They’re very often “post-Biblical” and “post-Christian,” and have a master’s degree level theological education. They can construct a deep Unitarian Universalist faith life based on years of study and learning, conversation and discernment. They have been nurtured in faith development and experienced in spiritual practice. They have access to an amazing number of resources to enrich their spiritual growth. And they too often forget that part of their charge is to help lay people travel the same path they have been blessed to travel — without having to go to seminary to do it. Part of that path, of course, is to assure that every member of their congregation has an opportunity to learn the THEOLOGICAL foundations of the liberal religious tradition. Which begins not with committee work or marching on Washington (both worthy activities but with different learning outcomes), but with, for example, Bible study. Close reading of John Murray, Hosea Ballou or a more contemporary liberal religious theologian.

I don’t think this has been some nefarious plot; don’t get me wrong. I think it’s just oversight, and a combination of thinking that people learn best by doing faith rather than studying it, and (ooh, just a wee bit) of a desire to hold onto the title of Smartest SmartyPants In the Congregation. There is also peer pressure. Ministers who spend much of their time teaching get no glory in our denomination. Have you noticed? Who gets their face on the front page of the UUA web site? It ain’t anyone sitting in study with his or her parishioners, acting as theological educator to their adult members. It is very much out of fashion to consider the teaching function chief among one’s ministerial obligations and tasks.

Not every lay person is interested in theological education, and that’s fine. But many are. And ministers who feel pressured NOT to spend their time doing theological education must have more public support for that form of ministry. We talk so much about the minister as Prophet or the minister as Preacher, the minister as CEO, Visionary, Community Organizer, Pastor…
how about Teacher?

Our classical Unitarian and Universalist traditions have riches in store for us. I live for the day when UUs don’t preface their comments about, say, William Ellery Channing’s sermons with, “Once I got past the Christian stuff, I really loved it.”
We emphasize “getting past,” “translating so that it works for me” and “skipping the parts I didn’t like” and rejecting at the cost of understanding. “Writing Your Own Theology” has to come AFTER “Knowing Something About Theology.”

Forward through the ages, Teachers and Students, all. Our congregations should be theological schools and academies for the spirit.

* I have not spoken of accredited DREs or MREs here on purpose, because I have chosen to focus on the Parish Ministers’ role in lay theological education.

21 Replies to “More on Theological Education In Our Congregations*”

  1. I hope you find a way to circulate this to your peers, or perhaps rework it as a UU World essay. I love what you’re saying here.

  2. This is a think piece.

    And I think I’m going to start a personal syllabus using these titles and ask my minister to add to it.

  3. Well done!

    And a superb, brilliant example of what can be achieved in the pursuit of avoidance… 😉

    You, back to the dissertation, PB!

  4. I’m not sure about the whole book thing. Short attention spans rule the day.. On Sunday one of our members will be speaking on Separation of Church and state. I was looking for quotes and stuff for the order of service on the UUA Website and found a treasure of just what he needed to know to make it UU. I sent him a link. He is changing his talk. I love books myself, but links work great. Also I have probably shown him the concept of searching that website.

    How timely that you are thinking about this… i hope the dissertation is going well.

  5. So, between this and Tom’s thick posts about who does (and should) wield real power in the UUAofC, you’ve pretty much monopolized my intellectual curiosity for the next few weeks or more. I’ve always seen my ministry as a “teaching” ministry, and have worked very hard in my preaching to stay well-grounded in the historical “soul” of our faith tradition, including the use of Scripture and the original “gospel truth” of both Unitarianism and Universalism. But I also dismay at the almost complete loss of institutional memory about our most basic ecclesiastical practices, and the “dumbing down” of so MANY of our core traditions (including “congregational poiity,” “covenantal relationship,” and of course “freedom of the pulpit” itself). But you raise a much more challenging point. We can complain all we like, but it is also our responsibility, as ministers, to teach these things to our people, and how can we possibly do that effectively when so many of us understand them so poorly ourselves? Hence, rather than learning how to “Live by Heart,” we find ourselves instead trying to figure out how to be less repulsive, and by extension more attractive to groups of people who at the moment just don’t feel like they fit in. But I would suggest that these two realities are connected, and it falls to us professional “preachers, teachers, pastors and leaders” to correct this situation as quickly and effectively as we can.

  6. A lot of this does depend on the demand of the laity, in particular those who come into UU congregations from overly dogmatic churches. Often these “refugees” feel caught between wanting spiritual sustenance and community, and liberation from the stifling or even abusive environments they have left.

    Let me make it clear I am not pointing this out as in any way a justification for the lack of theological education in our congregations. But given this fact, I can see why it would be a major factor.

    So that leads to my question: How do ministers help such wounded souls not only learn theology, but in a way which can help them to heal?

  7. FWIW, Desmond, the single most attended UU University track at G.A. was–more or less to everyone’s surprise, it appeared–Theology. It’s also the one that had the best, most positive, excited buzz about it.

    It’s something that many UUs are clearly eager for more of.

  8. …it is also our responsibility, as ministers, to teach these things to our people, and how can we possibly do that effectively when so many of us understand them so poorly ourselves?…… it falls to us professional “preachers, teachers, pastors and leaders” to correct this situation as quickly and effectively as we can.

    Yes, EC, but not only yours (although of course PB is focusing this post on the importance of pastors taking that role)… It belongs to us, in the pews, who care about these things, too…

    When PB writes about a lay UU who is working very hard to create more meaningful worship in her congregation… I find myself thinking, ‘Yeah! I’d like to do that here! But how?

    [a disclaimer… I do like my church, and I think it’s nowhere near the negative end of the continuum that runs among UU churches from the banal and secular to the profound and spiritually grounded, but I’d love to see it move further toward the P&SG end…]

    [and I have to say, PB, I always have liked your blog when I’ve read it, but these last several posts have really engaged the UU me to come here instead of just relying on second-hand connection to it through the Presbyterian DairyStateMom!]

  9. Minister as teacher – wow, what a concept!

    I’m still trying to work out what theology means for me as an atheist/agnostic UU. What it means beyond just words.

  10. A UU Minister of my aquaintance once ask why an atheist would be in a church. Those among us who find supernatural answers unsatisfactory are surprised and hurt by such a stance. The reChristianization enthusiast, in their haste, seem immune to the many UUs who do not agree with their Theology. Prayer to an unknown power may be required for some but of questionable use for others. “Give me that ol’time religion” is perfect for stirring up the crowd, but its message hides a world of hurt. [ Ben, this sermon, “The Integrity of Atheism” is for you. -PB]

  11. Several people in my congregation recently got bent out of shape by the word worship. The minister did a sermon on the etymology of the word and I guess they settled down.

    Increasingly I wonder how big a tent we really can build. As someone entering ministry, I also wonder why it is important to us to build something so big. I am all for growth, if it means carrying our message to people who have never heard of it. I am not for growth if it means broadening our definitions until they’re so weak, they’re irrelevant.

    What does it mean if we build a movement for people who say things like “I hate God” or “I hate religion”? If we’re successful, what have we got, anyway?

    I’m happy to have found PB’s blog precisely because PB is unafraid of the word “theology” and even better, is unafraid of what the word means.

  12. My congregation recently threw a major fit over what some of the laity saw as the minister interfering with the lay led services. It became part of a large division in our congregation — to the point where it felt like one was being judged for supporting the minister. A weird us or them mentality that I find repulsive. (And yet, am still engaged in, as I’m firmly supportive of our minister.) In that sort of environment, how can I as a lay leader encourage more spiritual discussion and healing so that we can have more meaningful lay led services in our congregation? [Oof. I don’t envy you. I had a job once where I was “inflicted” on a group of laypeople who really didn’t want a minister interfering with their worship planning. I wish to God I had known that before I was hired, as the subsequent two years were extremely painful for me and for the lay people involved. “Whose worship service is it, anyway?” is an important conversation to have, and ideally a congregation would have it slowly and carefully over a period of time before any changes in leadership or culture are attempted. Many UU congregations have a territorial attitude: THIS service is “ours” and THOSE services are “his/hers” (the minister’s). I myself would be very sad in such a setting — I believe and hope for all congregations that the creating of meaningful, quality worship is best collaborative and joyful. The congregation can feel it when worship is planned in territorial spirit. I will keep you and your church in my prayers. – PB]

  13. In our conference, the laity has also talked about how to nudge congregations into being more open to this kind of teaching. I haven’t really run into an ministers in the region who actively avoid this role. But I have heard quite a few conversations with lay leaders in my conference who are stumped when it comes to leading change in the congregation that would promote more ministerial freedom in the pulpit.

    My attitude toward worship really evolved after an immersion course taught by our district drove home the point that the worship service belongs to the congregation, not to those who conduct worship. Interestly enough, I go back to your post about worshiping at the altar of Dionysus. In theatre, the assumption is always that the show belongs to the audience — why else would the players strain and sweat for authenticity “in the moment” if this weren’t a gift — or something being shared.

    Without a deeper grounding in our traditions and spiritual discipline, the laity is disadvantaged. And if we don’t want that continuing education, perhaps we ought to examine our motives for being in leadership?

  14. I am tired, so don’t have the energy to respond more, but Amen Sister! You are so articulate about the things I think about; I agree with ogre, for crying out loud. Run for president next time! [To quote my late, beloved father Carl D. Weinstein, Kelly, “I’d rather stick pins in my eyes.” But thank you for the compliment. – PB]

  15. Although i admire your position on the laying on of hands i have serious doubts about what a study of Theology might bring. Here is a common definition:The study of the nature of God and religious truth. As a religious Humanist i do not hold that the nature of God is on the same track as a search for religious truth. As an atheist, and having been active in one UU building or another for thirty years i felt at home in the denomination. Not so comfortable these days. Ministers lately graduated seem to place emphasis on their superior knowledge both in Theology and Corporate Expertise (the Minister as CEO) and to minimize the need for anything but a room full of lambs. Sorry to ramble, but i feel very much a voice out of the past. bs

  16. ben, can you explain more what you mean by “i do not hold that the nature of God is on the same track s search for religious truth?”

    unrelated to above: i have to disagree with you about the recently graduated ministers – i know many UU seminarians and new ministers who are anything but superior about their knowledge. Maybe there is a generational difference, however; the ones I know are almost all under the age of 40.

  17. Dear hafidha sofia, When the question of teaching Theology comes up i question what is meant. The common dictionary shorthand is the study for the nature of God and a seach for religious truth. My daughter is a cantor and studies many varieties of Jewish religious thought. For her the idea of searching for the nature of God is very meaningful, because she is intensely involved in a God based religion. We both agree that religion is a verb for us. It is an act, a process, for living out our own conceptions of the Universe.
    It is important for her to think on the naure of God as she acts as filter and teacher for those who hire her. For myself the issue of a God is little more than waste of my time. Both my daughter and myself have concluded that the search for religious truth branches away into many paths. Each offering an opportuinty for rewards. i hope that i have been more clear.
    As to your unrelated..our congregation recently went through an interim period and perhaps that has colored my perception. Although i would recommend you google UUism and Humanism. ben
    ps an excellent book for atheist and humanist is Stuart Kauffman’s “Reinventing the Sacred. bs

  18. Thank you for pointing out your sermon. I appreciate the Christian (and now primarily Deist) tradition in my own congregation, but I know I can’t be the only person who is still working out how to fit their atheism into a Unitarian worship straitjacket.

  19. PB-

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful and meaningful post. As a colleague, it means a lot to have you support some of the things I’m trying to do with the folks in my congregation–and even more that you challenge me to deepen those efforts.

    I am somewhat bewildered at the number of respondents who react to your call for deeper theology with their own pain of being an atheist or humanist in a society or congregation that doesn’t honor them. I hope that we and our colleagues can remember to reiterate time and again that humanism IS a theology–a rich, deep and diverse set of theologies, actually.

    For me, the basic questions I ask people are these: What is greater than you are as an individual and how are you connected to it?

    Everyone–no matter their theology–should be able to answer these.

    in peace,

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