Yesterday, a parishioner pointed me to comments about ministry from a colleague, The Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein. What interested me in the minister’s comments were,
What would it look like if our congregations accepted that today’s church-goers are mostly looking for a ministry for a season in their life and not looking to sign up for a lifetime, as was true for past generations? How much hand-wringing and sense of failure might the Church overcome, how much energy might we free up, and how much more effectively might we minister? What would it mean for joining, becoming a member and pledging? Would our language change? If we made this shift, would our Free Church tradition be in danger, and our covenantal tradition irrevocably eroded? One comment that stays with me is a colleague’s remark that people accept that even marriage isn’t for a lifetime anymore. These ancient institutions are changing: are we creatively adapable enough to meet the moment?
I heard about the blog post in a meeting where we were working to create a strategic plan, which requires commitment. Part of our dilemma (at the church) is that we have plenty of members who seem to like the church but we’re concerned that a major push (such as a new building, which we desperately need) would show a lack of … commitment. And so yes, it does take us looking at our culture, which encourages people to bounce from thing to thing, in order to figure out how to do ministry. But truthfully, I join religious community not despite its request for commitment and covenant but because of it.
So often, everything around me decries commitment and encourages an individualistic, get-what-you-want-or-get-out attitude. In a world where we can never actually fully get what we want, we need to learn how to live differently. And besides, part of what I understand Unitarian Universalism to be is a faith that says we ask you to put aside your particular preferences to help the health of the community (church, local, national, world) and its progress. For far too long, we didn’t need to adapt to a culture that placed low expectations on membership or covenant – we WERE that culture, embodied in a church building. For most of our churches, the decision to be social together can be decided for or against not based on whether we are all the same faith, or even whether we like each other or not, but on whether or not I get to drink alcohol for two hours. Often, commitments to the church have lasted only as long as someone was happy with how things were going.
So yes, at this moment, our generation of UUs are generally asking people to step it up. To live the covenant we say we want by sticking through hard times.
What surprises me about the quote from a great minister is that my reading of it implied the idea that today’s culture are looking for that lack of commitment and therefore church should give them what they want. It may be true that people are looking to avoid commitment (aren’t they usually – my poorly-read sense of history is that never has there been a society where people longed to make commitments and then held them forever). Still, we try. So in the face of commitmentphobes being out in full-force, I think our religious communities – which say that their bedrock is community, covenant, and commitment – should actively dissuade people from opting out of commitments unless absolutely necessary.
So why the title, “The Middle Way”?
Talking to my wife – whom I married even though I’ve had lifelong concerns about commitment as well as lifelong hopes of a lasting marriage – I mentioned that in my view, Unitarian Universalism was meant to be the middle ground between two polar opposites – absolute control/conservatism/being locked in vs full openness/liberalism/no commitments. We know that we cannot be on the side of the conservative theologically because our whole purpose is tied to the idea that revelation is (as James Luther Adams would put it) ever unfolding. We eschew being tied down to tradition so heavily; we want to be able to create for ourselves. Our congregationalist polity encourages us to make decisions on our own that may be different from what every other church does. On the other hand, one might say we have given fully liberal Unitarian Universalism a try before. Certainly there are periods of our existence where there were few rules, few expectations, and many mouths closed about what was seen, heard or practiced.
Still, I think it’s fair to say that we have learned that those behaviors are not truly in line with our faith. We ask for some boundaries, though not quite the boundaries of our religious siblings.
My hope, and bias, is that Unitarian Universalism speaks a truth because there are people in this world who cannot or will not live by absolutes. And at the same time, we speak a truth because there are people in this world who cannot live totally free, without any encumberments. Unitarian Universalism allows us the possibility of learning something new, of using new methods and messages to connect as cultures change, and still says that there are parts of history to which we are bound (and have been for centuries, and even if that’s not in style now – it may still be a value worth holding). If someone wants to join us for 3-6 months but leaves because work moves them – I think that’s fine and I’m glad they got the ministry they wanted. If someone joins and then after the 2nd sermon in a row that they don’t like, they never really attend again, were they really members in the first place? I do think we reach a lot of people that we don’t count as members and we count a lot of members who have no presence in the church.
I’m okay exploring new technologies so that people can hear sermons from across the country, etc. But instead of insisting that www.whateverministryworksforme.com is the answer, I wish that we would recommend to those people that if the faith is what speaks to them, then they should visit a congregation (or help start one). It may not be the same humor or voice or presence or slant as www.whateverministryworksforme.com – but ministry shouldn’t be about a sermon or even really one person’s personality. When I hear or read ministers that I like (or whose words I dislike but really get me to wrestle with a topic), I bring them into my ministry. We all should. It’s not about agreeing with what I hear – it’s about listening to it and out of the experiences I’ve had, seeing what truth looks like to me on the other side of having listened to another person.
When I was in search to be called to the great congregation I serve now, I told them that I would rather serve 60-75 UUs who had a strong UU identity and commitment than I would the 130-150-175 church IF the majority of those people didn’t really care about the church. My point then, and remains, that my ministry is one that hopes to encourage commitment (through traditions, rituals, covenant) and simultaneously encourages openness (in experience, having the Spirit entering the discussion, etc.). If we cannot find a way to merge those two, to marry them (if you will); then I, like many a UU ministers before me, simply wonder what we’re here for.
As someone who fits many of demographics people think of when they think “today’s generations” (though I’m aging out of that, rapidly), I want things fast and I want to work with people and organizations that evolve. And yet, if it’s too messy or chaotic, it doesn’t have its essence together and will fail in a heartbeat. As much as we all like creating our own thing, once you’ve seen a startup bust, you see the heartbreak there. So let’s take the tools that we like from each side and find a way to encourage commitment – to our faith, to a partner, to our communities, whatever we can commit to. That commitment may end if it needs to under serious circumstances, but hopefully healthy commitments will hold. Let’s use the technology we have before us to help us when we feel the commitment wavering.
I appreciate the prompt to think about commitment – but it also prods an existential question for me. Should we follow the culture we live in, or are we meant to be an oasis from those tendencies?