Monthly Archives: June 2012

Be Careful What You Ask For

In 1 Samuel chapter eight we read a story recalling the evolution of the Israelites’ movement from a theocracy–where  a god or gods are seen as the ultimate civil authorities and priests claim to speak for those gods–and they were moving to a monarchy, where powerful kings were the ultimate human authorities, and priests would sometimes serve as their spiritual directors and theological advisors (until they upset the kings, that is; then things could go downhill rather quickly for those advisors). Some scholars place the writing of this story around 700 B.C.E. when this community was already divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. By this time both kingdoms had already experienced both healthy and unhealthy leadership, and things weren’t going so well for either kingdom. So perhaps this story was their way of looking back and trying to make sense of their situations by basically saying, “Well, Samuel told our ancestors this would happen if we had kings.”

According to this passage the people wanted a king to rule over them so they would be like all the other nations; and they wanted a king who would lead them and fight their battles for them. Perhaps the Israelites looked around at the nations around them and saw wealth, military power, strong administration and security. And they saw a powerful, charismatic leader at the head of it all–a leader, by the way, who you could actually see and hear for yourself; not a leader who spoke through an old man with sons who were already corrupting your weak governing and religious system. Perhaps they observed these things and thought to themselves: “THAT is what we’re missing–a charismatic leader who will lead us and fight our battles for us! Combine that man with the God of all creation being on our side and we can’t lose!”

Yet lose they did–big time. First the northern kingdom fell; and by 580 or so B.C.E. Judah fell, and the best and brightest of these communities were taken into Babylonian captivity. What happened? Some people believe since the Israelites rejected God by demanding a human king, God was punishing them by allowing them to be conquered. This belief is somewhat like people today saying the challenges the United States faces reflect our rejection of God. At the same time, it could simply be that Israel and Judah fell because that was the way life often worked in that particular time and place. Kings, kingdoms, gods and their religions rose to prominence and then crashed and burned. It was all part of the evolutionary process.

My focus, however, is on the reasons–the motivations–for their insistence on having a king in the first place. Basically the Israelites wanted to be like everyone else, and they wanted a leader who would fight their battles for them. We can apply these motivations to many areas of our lives today, too–including church.

First, I think the Israelites were demonstrating a very basic concern for survival–and that’s normal. Samuel was old and his sons were corrupt. They needed a new way of governance and leadership, and witnessing the success of the nations around them, they decided that was the model to copy. Samuel would appoint a strong leader who, in turn, would lead them and fight their battles for them. And we can’t really blame them for wanting to survive, can we? Of course not! What we can question, however, is how that survival seemed to be all about them and no one else. Beyond that question, too, is the idea of wanting someone else to fight their battles for them.

So here’s my question: “What are our motivations for having these communities we call “church”?

That is, why do we say things like, “We just HAVE to have children and young people!” “We absolutely MUST update our music and the words used in our worship services!” “We need to get back to basics and make sure we’re preaching the ONE , true message that Jesus is the only way to heaven!” “We need more programming for the 20-30 somethings!” “We need to welcome LGBTQIA people!” “Come as you are, believing as you do!” “We need a stronger, entertaining presence in the pulpit who isn’t too intellectual!”

Depending on your particular church, none of these things are wrong in and of themselves; still, the question is WHY do we want them? I think if we’re honest we will admit that concern for the survival of our churches is at least part of the reason. After all, no one likes to preside over the funeral of a church–especially if you’ve put your heart and soul into that community (like Samuel may have put his heart and soul into serving the Israelites). And these feelings are often as strong for committed laity as they are for clergy–sometimes even stronger, since even committed clergy tend to leave churches after a period of time while committed laity tend to stay in those churches for longer periods of time.

Yet, if our primary reason for wanting children and young people, catchy music and programming and entertaining preachers is to put bodies in the building who will pay the bills and guarantee the survival of our churches, aren’t we just using people to fight our battles for us, rather than examining our real reasons for existing as a community of faith? And what happens when people start feeling used? They leave. Sometimes they leave organized religion altogether, too. And who can blame them?

Here’s a thought: What if, rather than looking around at what everyone else has and deciding we need what they have in order to be successful and complete, we allow our churches to evolve as they will–trying new things to be sure, and not being afraid to fail and try again? And what if, rather than focusing on our survival, we focus on making the world a more peaceful, just, and loving place–even if that means “losing our lives” in one form of community in order to gain those lives once again in other more healthy ways of being with one another in community and in the world?

Just remember, be careful what you ask for. For what you receive may be more challenging–and in the long run, more fabulous–than you could ever imagine.

Brand Loyalty

I recently notified the Board of Directors of the church I serve and the Director of the Office of Formation and Leadership Development (OFLD) of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC)  that I am seeking plural standing in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). There was no weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth–which I consider to be a good start. I have also affiliated with a nearby Unitarian Universalist (UU) church. The senior minister understands I “work” most Sundays; so I will connect with them primarily through small group studies, monthly Taize worship services and other UU functions as I am able.

As I explained to the board, Director of the OFLD, my spouse, some colleagues and other family and friends, there are multiple reasons for my decision. First, all you have to do is read this blog, listen to a few of my sermons or just sit down and chat with me to quickly realize that theologically and spiritually I am a UU. Trust me, this realization did not happen overnight; and it was just as much of a surprise to me as it was to some of my friends, family and colleagues. So it makes sense for me to seek spiritual growth, challenge and community with other UU’s as I am able to do so.

There are also professional considerations. Whatever else you choose to call it, ordained ministry is also a profession. Most of my colleagues from all denominations and associations studied for years, made sacrifices and incurred signficant student loan debt in order to pursue what they feel is their life’s calling. And not only did we make sacrifices, many of our families did so as well.

It is no surprise, too, that the changing religious, cultural and economic landscapes have made finding suitable employment increasingly difficult for a growing number of clergy regardless of affiliation. More and more warm and loving congregations need strong leadership, yet can’t afford to pay their ministers a livable wage. And finding adequate part-time work to supplement part-time ministerial wages is often difficult at best–especially given the on-call nature of pastoral duties. That is, it’s rather hard to leave one job in the middle of a shift to address a pastoral care emergency and expect your supervisor to always understand.

These realities are, for the most part, no one’s fault. They just are. And since most denominations do not guarantee employment (nor should they, in my opinion), I believe it’s reasonable for professional ministers to expand not only their options for spiritual growth and challenge, but for future service opportunities as well. It is also important for clergy like me, who are incredibly blessed to be fully employed at this time, to be aware of the evolving nature, needs and challenges of institutional religion as well as the larger culture itself; and then do what is necessary to serve in those ever-changing scenarios while remaining fully engaged in and available to our current communities. Either that, or pray we win the lottery so we can retire when our positions and institutions–as they currently stand–lose their value and relevance. And they will, if we don’t find creative ways of living out our callings in the 21st century and beyond.

“But what about loyalty?” some may ask.

I understand the question. After all, when you have one foot in one world and one in another, isn’t your loyalty somehow divided? In years past, I have used that same logic when people hold dual membership in churches. So I guess the answer to this question largely depends on how one defines “loyalty.” In this particular example, I was probably questioning loyalty from a “branding” perspective, which when it comes to churches usually involves concerns over sharing resources of time, talent, and finances. In other words, when you’re at Church A, you’re sharing resources you could be sharing with US. How could you? Where’s your loyalty?

To me, loyalty primarily relates to whom or to what you feel ultimately accountable, and I was given a chance to explore that question at a recent UU District Conference in a workshop led by Rev. Marilyn Sewell. One of the group discussion questions was simply, “To whom or to what do you feel ultimately accountable?” In traditional Christianity, that “ultimate” is usually expressed as “God,” or some Christians may narrow it further to God as expressed in Jesus Christ; and people tend to express that loyalty through participation in a local community of faith. In UU world–and in a portion of MCC world–however, that “ultimate” includes those viewpoints and several others. It was quite the conversation, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

In fact, it was that conversation that convinced me I am doing what is right for me by seeking plural standing in MCC and the UUA. You see, for me, I am ultimately accountable not to a particular brand, but to doing what I can to serve the Greater Good–to do what I can to leave a positive print on this world. Some people would call that serving God. At this time in my life, my chosen path for this service is through ordained ministry. So the more I can learn, grow, challenge and be challenged, the more opportunity I have to effectively fulfill that accountability as the world continues to evolve over time.

So, I leave you with a question: “To whom or to what are you ultimately accountable?”

May we all find our answers to this question–and then peacefully live out those answers through our words and actions.

Blessed be.