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.

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