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.