A Congregationally Based Movement? On Community Ministry and the Work of Our Faith in the World

Long long ago, a curious, excited, idealistic, and somewhat-wounded undergraduate student was three years into her studies. She had registered for a religion course her first year at school because, as a lowly first year student, she could not get into any of the courses she wanted to take. But, in the beautiful world of finding-yourself-undergraduate land, this was just the way that many found their calling. And so, between the pages of Hittite-Suzerain treaties and in a large lecture hall filled with works on eschatology, a scholar-of-religion-to-be was born.

In time, this intellectual interest in religion began to fuse with personal interest in religion and spirituality. The young woman had found a lot of love and healing in Christianity, even if she had also found a lot of pain and fundamentalist judgment. Even in all that creepy, way-too-cheerful Jesus-saturated blah blah, she was also able to find a peace. A connection. She was able to help make sense of things that did not make sense. Part of her interest in religion in an academic sense was the amazing and exciting ways that people all throughout time had managed to do that sense-making, too, in their own creative ways. It was beautiful and amazing. It left her hungry for more.

The young student, only one year away from graduating with a liberal arts degree in religion and political science realized that she needed to figure out her next step. A little voice in her head said, “Did you ever think of becoming a minister?” The young woman laughed. Ha ha ha. A minister. Wouldn’t the family find that interesting-ish/weird/curious. She told that little voice to be silent — perhaps facing life-after-undergraduate school was making her brain say and think funny things. Minister. Ha. Double ha.

But, time came and went, and the little voice stayed. As the young woman thought more, she was able to envision the possibility of a ministry that was not about preaching on a pulpit and being in a church and with a congregation, things that were fine for some people, but not really a place that tugged on her heartstrings. Rather, she felt the presence of the divine on the streets and in the mountains and in the “out there” beyond church walls. She loved being in the mountains of Appalachia, learning about the ways that they did their sense making. She loved being with the people that didn’t usually go to church as they did religion in their own non-church way – breaking beans on the porch, talking about things. Communing over french fries and soda, loud souped up cars clunking by. She liked being with the people who weren’t always welcome in church. In living rooms. At the hospital. In everyday life. Fumbling along in some difficult yet holy and sacred and beautiful way to make sense of a world that was not just. Maybe, the little voice and she discussed in the way that people discuss things with voices in their head, just maybe there was a way to be a minister, to be present to people in a journey of making sense of the world, that didn’t involve being a church-minister. Maybe. She thought.

She made an appointment to talk to a liberal Episcopalian priest in the DC area. She asked, “So is it necessary to actually believe everything the Episcopal church says is true? Do you have to believe in Jesus as God, and Savior of the world sort of thing, or can you sort of pick and choose, or use Christianity as one among many frameworks for making sense of the world?” The young woman could not imagine that the minister would say that you really had to believe that all the stories were true as in capital-T True. But, the minister did tell her just that in the most solemn and how-could-you-even-ask-that way. You couldn’t just think that it was a nice idea. You had to think it was real. Real. Real-Jesus-raised-up-from-death sort of way. And so that was that. The Episcopalians seemed like the only hope for a church where she could fit in and that would maybe consider making her a not-in-a-church-minister. So she told that voice to hush. There was no ordination for her. She would just have to free-lance it somehow. She knew she liked to study religion and so she applied to the schools where she thought the best feminist theology stuff would be taking place. One of those places happened to be Harvard Divinity School.

Come to find out, she had missed a church that might take her. All over New England and Harvard Div. School there were the Unitarian Universalists. She and her partner visited a church because they had seen a quote outside a UU church that said “unquestioned answers are more dangerous than unanswered questions.” Time passed. Classes passed. She met other students in this UU church. She and her partner joined a UU congregation. The little voice had grown, was not so little anymore, and was jumping up and down in her head saying “We’ve found it! We’ve found it! Sign up for this! Yay!” But she went slowly, trying to calm down her voice. There was a community ministry option in this church that would let you be a not-in-a-church minister. You didn’t have to say things you didn’t believe or stick to a particular framework for making sense of the world. You could draw from various traditions, centered in the seven principles. This might fit, she told herself.

And, in many ways, it did fit. But, yet, she heard from several people that Unitarian Universalism was a congregationally-based movement. Hmmm. Would she fit in a congregationally-based movement if she wanted to be a non-congregationally based minister (horrors of all horrors!)? She was happy to affiliate with a church, to be a member of a church, but that could never be the center of her ministry. She found out that even though she didn’t plan to ever be a parish minister, she was required to do a parish internship. Another time,  Unitarian Univeralist minister was telling a story about how someone once said, “Oh, I’m a Unitarian Universalist at heart, but I don’t belong to a church,” to which the minister replied that you MUST belong to a church (or the Church of the Larger Fellowship) to be a Unitarian Universalist. Hmm.

The young woman wondered if our congregations make places for everyone who might be a Unitarian Universalist at heart. She thought of the young men she mentored in the inner city; the Appalachian families she knew; those who had been wounded by a church experience; those whose souls did not fit well with committee work.

The young woman thought of Buddhism, and loving-kindness as a part of Buddhist practice, and thought that while there are many who belong to Buddhist communities or sanghas, there are also lots of Buddhists who do not belong to an official faith community. Isn’t it possible to be Unitarian Universalist in our everyday lives, without belonging to an official congregation or the CLF? Must we be a congregationally based movement or can our congregations be just one part of our movement? Does it make sense to use parish ministry as the primary paradigm by which to train and teach our ministers, or would it not make sense to envision new ways of being ministers that does not follow a congregational/parish framework? What would a cadre of real actual equal-to-parish ministers who were not PARISH ministers look like if they were to meet the needs of the hurting and seeking people in this world who don’t want to or can’t or don’t fit in a congregational setting? What might we be able to do outside a congregational setting that we can’t do within one?

The young woman loves her new religious home. She loves Unitarian Universalism, its ministers, its congregants, its songs (well, many of them), and sermons. But she has great hopes for a Unitarian Universalism that has room for all those who are UUs “at heart” and don’t fit into congregations or who are able to give and get in rich and valuable ways outside of parishes. She thinks of approaches to living out Unitarian Universalist faith in the world that make space for new sorts of communities, new visions of religious practice, new ways of doing justice and loving that are big enough and flexible enough for all beings and ways of being.

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4 Responses to A Congregationally Based Movement? On Community Ministry and the Work of Our Faith in the World

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think this a beautiful essay full of everything that is quintessentially Christian and loving and peace-making. I think this is what Christ had in mind, and it is too bad that someone with so much to give has to flog herself in this manner and use verbal gymnastics to try to find a religious home. For me, this journey/story points out how Christianity was a simple idea which became distorted, bastardized and beaten out of shape by doctrinalists who thought that semantics and obscure rules were more important than finding the simple truth. You are a brilliant young woman. You must have come from brilliant genes.

  2. […] have already been said. (For now, I might just refer readers to an older post I wrote in 2006 – A Congregationally Based Movement? On Community Ministry and the Work of Our Faith in the World – about my call to community ministry and how I struggle with how that fits into a […]

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    A Congregationally Based Movement? On Community Ministry and the Work of Our Faith in the World | Elizabeth’s Little Blog

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    A Congregationally Based Movement? On Community Ministry and the Work of Our Faith in the World | Elizabeth’s Little Blog

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