We value our freedoms
Sometimes more than our lives
The martyrs are many
Who have died just for words.
What does this mean
For the Pulpit and Pew?
What does it mean for me and for you?
Words sometimes hurt
Bringing pain from our pasts
Swirling to memories
Of being abused
Those same painful words
Bring others great joy
A longing for comfort
A longing for peace.
How can we balance
Such contrary needs
When freedom for some
Causes others to weep?
Our spirits are hardy
This I believe
Compassion is called for
And gentle support
We’ll find a way forward
Both caring and free
If our faith is a building
Open hearts are the doors
How full can a heart get
Until it can take no more?
How many tears can our eyes release
Until the well goes dry?
We move through a desert land
Where the winds of hate blow hard.
It shatters lives
And scatters despair
We can only hunker down.
Send me a dream, a mountain stream
A gentle touch, a kiss.
Hold me close
As I remember love
And find the courage to hope.
Give me enough strength
To help with the work
Of healing a broken world
With my eyes closed
The images still flicker
Just in front of my eyelids
Bright flashes and splashes of color
What is the story,
This movie playing
In my body
In my brain?
The lamp is out,
But still the light shines
A bright glimmer
I will follow
Sometimes you get to say just what you think….
Partisan politics was something I stayed far away from when I was serving a parish. Aside from the need to retain the congregation’s tax exempt status, it also just felt wrong to be telling people that looked up to me as their pastor how to vote. Ministers’s voices and opinions can carry a lot of weight with their congregants. I may be on the heavy side, but I don’t like throwing my weight around that way.
I am not serving a congregation currently, however.
If I serve as a parish minister again, I will again stay away from obviously partisan positions while still advocating for compassion and justice. Being anti-racist, for instance, should be something we all are working on; it is something our faith demands of us. Caring for the poor, the homeless, providing a healthy environment for our children and ourselves (which includes clean water and air) , welcoming the refugee, providing jobs that pay a living wage, should not be considered controversial among people of faith. Individuals and groups can disagree about methods and strategies, but the goal of all political parties should be to insure a decent, peaceful, free, and prosperous life for all of our citizens and ultimately, for all the people in the world.
I have said most of the above from the pulpit and will do so again when I get opportunities to preach.
Now, however, not having parish ties, I can say publicly that I think Hilary Clinton is the candidate that is most likely to move us forward at this particular time in history.
I like Clinton for some of the same reasons that other people heap criticisms on her head.
- She has changed her mind over time about a lot of things. All politicians do this. All people do this, at least they do if they aren’t fossilized. Changing opinions and positions doesn’t mean Clinton is dishonest, quite the opposite is true in fact. It means she is capable of listening and learning.
- She has strong convictions, but doesn’t seem to particularly self-righteous about them. Contrast this with Bernie Sanders or (shudder) Ted Cruz. Cruz is clearly a zealot, a true believer, and he is even scarier than Trump for that reason. I am not as sure that Sanders is a true zealot, but he sounds like one when he talks. Clinton doesn’t. There is some humility in evidence. Obama has some humility too, which has been refreshing and real. Only Clinton of the current candidates exhibits any humility at all. No one knows everything. It would be best to have a leader that understands that.
- She’s practical and willing to make some compromises. I think that is a good thing. Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good. Obama compromised on health care and we have something much better than we would have had otherwise – which was nothing. It is not perfect, single payer, medicare for all, would have been better, but it just wasn’t possible. Sanders now wants to throw it out and just start over. That is exactly what the Republicans want too. We could easily end up with nothing.
- She has the experience. She is in fact more qualified to be president than any other candidate in my memory. She has been part of the system and knows it well. I think that is a huge advantage and not an indictment as some seem to believe.
- She supports Obama and pledges to continue his policies. I love having Obama as our president. I love all that he has been able to accomplish despite the huge and racist opposition he has faced. I also love what Clinton has been able to accomplish despite the huge and sexist opposition she has faced. I think she will do even more as president.
- Obama, as our first African American president, just by being who he is, has done so much to enlarge the vision of what is possible for our young people, especially our young people of color. I’d like to see what a female president, just by being who she is, can do to enlarge the vision of what is possible for our young women, including our young women of color.
One last comment: the recent debates between Sanders and Clinton were what helped push me more firmly toward Clinton. Sanders repeatedly used his white male privilege during those debates, reacting grumpily every time Clinton interrupted him while arrogantly speaking over her many times. I do not remember any of that going on when Clinton debated Obama, perhaps because both were aware of and sensitive to the racial and gender dynamics of the situation. Sanders seems simply clueless of any such dynamic at all. We don’t need any more clueless leaders. We have plenty of Republicans to provide that perspective. The two photos above and below demonstrate what I am talking about. Clinton mainly uses open-handed gestures directed to the audience. Sanders mainly points and he directs many of his gestures toward Clinton. Body language speaks volumes. Someone should tell Sanders to clean up his act. Maybe he can learn and grow.
Ministers can refuse to be martyrs. They can refuse to sacrifice themselves on behalf of people or institutions who either ignore them or who toss their help rather rudely back into their faces.
I am not talking about social justice work. There, although the odds of success may be low, the effort has its own rewards. Without many peoples’ efforts, the arc of the universe will never roll the way we all need it to go. It is an arc, not a wheel, and it often needs a push to bend it toward justice.
Throughout the centuries, many people of faith have been martyrs. They have put their bodies and their lives on the line for what they believed. From Michael Servetus who was burned at the stake by John Calvin in 1553 to the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Luizzo who were murdered in Selma, Alabama in 1965 , more than a few Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists have given their lives and their livelihoods for this faith. Today, Unitarian Universalists have stood and marched for justice wherever human dignity has been at stake, risking beatings, arrest, prison, deportation, and also death.
I am not talking about that kind of martyrdom. That kind of martyrdom makes a difference. It is a risk well worth taking if you have the courage.
No, I am talking about the more mundane martyrdom of sticking too long with congregations that use ministers as punching bags, launching personal attacks with regularity. There are reasons congregations get that way, and it isn’t because the people are inherently evil. They often have a lived history of boundary violations, sometimes committed by religious professionals. They haven’t learned how to set their own healthy boundaries, and rarely limit the destructive activities of church bullies. They fear authority of all kinds and don’t really understand congregational polity and representative democracy. It is a sad system, and like in all forms of healing, they have to understand that they have a problem before they can even begin to heal.
All congregations are not like that, of course. All groups of people have issues, and all behave badly at times, but the truly problematic congregations have long established behavior patterns and are well known for being difficult. Thankfully they also are relatively rare.
Ministers go to such congregations for a variety of reasons. Some are fresh out of seminary, geographically limited, and desperate for a job. Many a promising career in ministry has been cut short for the new ministers that make that unwise choice. Many ministers also think they can do what no one else has been able to do. That is simply hubris, and even strong egos will wind up taking a beating as old patterns simply continue to play out.
Ministers also stay too long in those congregations because they see some improvement. They think things will get better, and in fact, sometimes they do, but how much better is really good enough? They also get attached to the people, ministry is about love after all, and their heartstrings wrap firmly around the tender souls of the majority of the membership. “How can I leave these people?”
But in the end, the other question must be asked, as Mary Oliver did, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
There are other places to serve, other people to love, other ministries to do, and other places where it will be easier to make an actual difference. As Kenny Rodgers sang, “You got to know when to hold them, and know when to fold them.”
There comes a time when even ministers need to walk away.
And not that we need scriptural permission, but even the Bible advises us to do so.
“Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet.”
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.” That song has been running through my head lately, only with the words I used in the title above.
I am a minister. Being a minister is always hard work. There is a reason people struggle against a call to ministry. “Oh no, not me, God, send somebody else.”
But we are called. We know it deep in our bones and we have to say yes to that call. Resistance to that call is futile.
Ministers are called to serve, to comfort, and yes, sometimes, to challenge and confront. I am serving in a specialized kind of ministry, a ministry with a congregation that has a troubled history and long established patterns of dysfunctional behavior. Ah, but it is also a congregation with a proud history, and it is filled with people yearning for something more that what they have been. Old patterns are hard to change, however, and this ministry has required me to point out systemic problems and to be relatively firm in maintaining what I consider to be appropriate boundaries.
I never expected this particular ministry to be easy. I never expected people to agree with everything I thought should be done or not done. Reasonable and caring people can disagree about how to do things, and any change also brings some loss with it. Pain and anger are so close together in most of our hearts. Some anger is to be expected. I have felt strongly, however, that if I did not raise the issues I thought were important, then I would be failing this congregation in the ways that matter most. Ministry should not be about just coasting along, about taking the path of least resistance, about always doing what some or even most of the people say they want. Passover is almost upon us. What would it been like if Moses had said, “oh, ok, you all don’t like it here in the desert, sure, let’s just go back to Egypt, no problem.” And no, I don’t think I am a Moses. But you know, Moses didn’t see himself that way either: “Send someone else.”
I also expected that some in the congregation would have issues with a minister exercising any real authority, even and perhaps especially over worship. Quality in worship is important to me. Mediocre just isn’t good enough to offer to folks that are hurting or who are seeking more meaning in their lives. We need to hold our worship time as sacred.
What I did not expect, although maybe I should have, was the way the criticisms would play out. Very little is about actual things I have done or not done. No, the real critique is pretty much all about my style.
My style is pretty direct. I grew up working class, among people who said what they thought. I am also a lesbian, a dyke if you will, and although I don’t identify as transgender, I definitely don’t fit many of the feminine stereotypes. I come off as both assertive and confident. I always try to be respectful, but when I have an opinion, I express it clearly. This style is freaking a few folks out.
It didn’t occur to me for quite a awhile, but in the last week it has become pretty clear that part of the dynamic going on between me and a small group of my congregants is simply because of who I am and what this congregation has experienced in the past. I am their first openly gay minister. I am also only the second woman minister in their over 50 years of existence. This is very unusual for a UU congregation. We have as members a few gay men, a handful of trans folk, and a number of people who identify as bisexual. So far anyway, I have met no one else here who is an open lesbian.
This congregation has a history of expressing suspicion and hostility toward most of their ministers. I expected that as well. But there is an undercurrent in a lot of it that I don’t think would exist if I were either a male or a straight minister. Hostile people will use whatever weapons they have available. Homophobia will come out, if it exists, during a conflict, just as racism will. Even among liberals and self defined radicals and progressives. It is in our culture and individuals can’t always help it, but it is also important to name it when it happens.
I have been accused of “unwelcome touching.”
I have been called a bully.
I think they were really calling me a bull dyke.
I think they are afraid of me.
I hope I can find a way to walk with them through that fear. It isn’t everybody. It is only two or three people that seem to be acting out of a deep, maybe even a subconscious, fear. One won’t agree to talk to me directly, even with a facilitator. There are a number of other people that don’t agree with me about one thing or another, but they are willing to talk with me about those issues. That’s normal, respectful, and reasonable. If we can talk to each other, we can also listen. Ministry is about listening as well as leading. That, too, I know in my bones. What I am hearing now from a few people is fear.
We’re all a long way from home. Give us the courage we need for the journey,
They ache sometimes
My arms my legs
The work is hard
The path is steep
The lifting can be heavy
Sometimes sweat drips down
Into my eyes
My hair a wet halo
A crown of tears
One could imagine
None of that matters
In the end
That ultimate reality
That stands beneath us all
Did I love enough
Did I speak the truth
Did I find some ways
To help the spirit do
What the spirit needs to do
One beating heart
It’s all I have
With hurting souls
It keeps me going
That strong muscle
Not mine alone
A gift of grace
I pray it will not quit
Until my work is done
Opening Words (here)
The words church and God in the reading may have made some of you uncomfortable. Remember what I said the other week? Listen to your discomfort. It can be a good thing. In the story I told the children, I imagine the person who was asked the question about the purpose of the church was more than a little uncomfortable.
So why are we here? Why are you here? Why does the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalist even exist? History could be referred to of course, there were reasons this congregation was formed. There were reasons that some of the founding members mortgaged their homes in order to purchase this land and build these buildings that we enjoy.
I love questions. You will learn that. I think most Unitarian Universalists love questions. One could even say that asking questions is a part of our free faith. We don’t have creeds, but instead we have guidelines for ethical behavior, which is what our seven principles are about. If you don’t remember them, they are on the back of your order of service. This is not a faith tradition where everyone can do whatever they might feel like doing, whenever they feel like doing it. It is an accepting tradition; we do acknowledge our imperfection. We aspire to high ideals and know we will still sometimes fail, sometimes dismally. That is OK, but the demanding part of our faith is that we keep trying. We have goals and visions of the world we would like to create. It isn’t an easy task.
This fellowship has a mission statement. Did you know that? It pretty much answers the question of why we are here. It says what we are supposed to be doing here together, on Sundays and throughout the week.
The mission statement is on the front of your order of service.
“Building character, enriching spirits, promoting community, and serving humankind through spiritual growth and social action.”
It is a pretty great statement, I think. Do you all like it too?
But what does it mean? Building character: this fellowship intends to build the characters of those who participate. Someone from another congregation told me that they came to Sunday services to learn how to be a better person. Is that true for you? It matters how we live our lives and how we treat each other. Character also includes other things like integrity and responsibility, practicing compassion and forgiveness, being open minded, curious, inspired to make a positive difference with our lives, both for the people we are close to and for the wider community and world.
We are also here to enrich spirits, to help people feel whole and to experience joy and sorrow in ways that are real. A religious community needs to provide comfort to those that are hurting. Has this fellowship ever done that for you?
Promoting community – this is what we practice because we know that we are all connected. Our congregations can be places where we can discover how to get along with people who are different from us, who will change us and who we will change, because we are all a part of that interconnected community of life on this planet. We can then take what we have learned out into the world and help others learn about living with both respect and with love.
Our purpose is also to serve, all of humankind the mission statement says. Unitarian Universalism is not a “sit back and enjoy own spiritual understanding. No, we are called to serve, and spiritual growth is what fuels our social action. We can learn to love the whole world, including ourselves.
But why do you come here? Why do we need a congregation like this one here in this town? Why do we need a religion like Unitarian Universalism in the world?
So think for a minute about why you came here this morning. You are here after all, so you must have a reason for coming.
What are some of them? Go ahead and shout them out. I know some of you are not shy.
Robin Bartlett, a Unitarian Universalist Religious educator, in her blog post from which our reading was taken, has heard a lot of people say they come to church for their children, because the children are asking questions about God, or because a neighbor or friend is trying to recruit them into a more conservative religion.
Some people say they come to church because the sermons are entertaining. The crazy preacher can be really funny; you never know just what she will say. You could find much better entertainment, however, on TV, in the movies.
Maybe you come for the music, but you can find great music a lot of places, at concerts, festivals, and even on I tunes.
Some people say they come for the intellectual stimulation, to hear words and ideas that make them think. Of course you could attend a college level lecture for that. There are a lot of other places you can go to stimulate your brain cells.
Maybe you come because you care about social justice. This community works very hard in many ways to bring more justice, equity, and compassion into our world. But if social justice action is your only reason, there are literally thousands of other groups you could join that are doing fabulous work for a wide variety of social causes.
If you are looking for inspiration here, for motivation, for ideas on how to live in this complex world, you could read poetry, listen to TED talks, or join a self-help group.
If you are hurting and looking for comfort or if you are trying to find yourself, you could go to therapy.
Some people come to church to make friends, or even to find a life partner. You could also do that at a bar, a health club, or through social media.
Some people also come to church to find God, the holy, to connect with their inherent spirituality. There are other ways to do that. Go out in nature, watch a sunset, plant flowers, or play with your children. You will surely find the holy there.
Did I cover everything?
I did forget one, which reminds me of another joke. I’d heard it before, but one of our elder’s shared it with me the other week.
It’s Sunday morning and the alarm goes off. A woman turns over in bed and groans. She turns to her partner and moans. I don’t want to go to church today. I know the sermon is going to be boring. People will ask me to do things I don’t have time for. I’d rather just stay home and sleep in today. Her partner turns to her with a sigh. Honey, you have to go to church today. “Why? Why do I have to go to church?”
The answer? “Honey, you have to go to church because you are the minister.”
There are many reasons to come to church, but unless you are the minister, there are many other options. Even ministers can decide on a different career choice. Almost none of us are do it for the money in any case.
But how many places can you go where all of those reasons can apply?
Robin Bartlett tells us to go to church
“for community, for learning, for solidarity, for a good word, for love, for hope, for comfort, even for salvation. Go to church because you can’t imagine not going. Go to church because (of what) your church …demands of you. Go to church because you cry in the worship service at least once a month. Go to church because you look forward to seeing the people.
Go to church because your church forces you to put your money where your mouth is–to use your financial resources to make a statement about what has worth. Go to church because you are known here. Go to church because you want to be known. Go to church because you pray for this same imperfect, rag-tag group of people all week until you meet again. Go to church because you need to in order to get through your week. Go to church because if you miss a week, you feel like something was really missing in your life. Go to church because your church community helps you to go deeper; to risk transformation; to yank you further down a path–to ultimate reality, to truth, to God–kicking and screaming. Go to church because it is a statement to yourself and your children about what has value and meaning. Go to church to find your purpose and live it. Give yourself the gift of church.” http://uuacreligiouseducation.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/dont-go-to-church-for-your-children/
She goes on to say, specifically addressing parents who say they come to church for their children,
“If church is not a gift for you, it won’t be a gift for your children.
You know that old (line) that we borrow from (the) plane instructions we hear read by flight attendants–… apply your own oxygen mask first before you apply your child’s, right? Well, you are your child’s religious educator and oxygen mask. Not our (religious exploration) curricula. Not our volunteer teachers. Not (the) minister. You. That’s a big responsibility, and (maybe) you don’t feel up to the task because (few) of us do.
But if we aren’t getting our spiritual needs met–our religious yearnings satiated; our deepest cries in the night soothed; our need to serve and be served; our God-sized hole occasionally filled, emptied and then filled up again– then we are never going to be up to the task of helping our children do the same.”
She says, “Don’t go to church for your children; go to church for you. You deserve it. Your children deserve it. And this brutal and beautiful world needs you to.”
That last line is worth repeating, “This brutal and beautiful world needs you to.” How important is this congregation, not just to those of us who gather here each Sunday, but also to others in our town, in our state. I think we offer a vital service just by continuing to exist and to thrive. We offer hope to the young person wondering if their life is worth living because they are gay, to the man just released from prison expecting to be shunned by everyone he meets, to the recovering alcoholic, to the person who is homeless,to the eccentric thinker who everyone else thinks is just crazy, to the members of conservative religions who worry that their questions are somehow sinful, and to all the people who are suffering in so many ways from a culture that is far from accepting of differences and difficulties. Even if they never find their way here, even if they never sit in this room with us, if they know about us, we have given them some hope. We have made a difference. We have offered an alternative, a radical alternative, a community based on love.
So if you have been thinking this morning about the reasons you come here, I assume you have thought of more than a few.
I have another question for you. How much would it cost if you went other places to get what you find here at this church? How much more would you be spending on tuition, on therapy, on concert and movie tickets, or on drinks in a bar, if you did not come to church? What about the things that are truly priceless? How could you possibly meet anywhere else the diverse and wonderful people we have here in this religious community? Where else would you be welcomed with such open and loving arms no matter who you are and how you are feeling? Where else are tears and laughter both not only acceptable, but treated as precious?
One last joke so we can end on a lighter note
“If you don’t know what eschatology means, it’s not the end of the world.”
Hilarious right? OK, for those of you who don’t get that joke, eschatology is the theological stance of a particular religion on the end of the world. It isn’t something most Unitarian Universalists worry about much. We definitely don’t take the book of revelation literally. We may worry about environmental disasters or wars ending life on this planet, but our various views of God and the divine do not include the idea that God will destroy the world at some future date.
No, our theology is about life, about continual new beginnings, second, third and fourth chances. It is a life saving, life enhancing theology. We stand on the side of love, and that is why we are here. Amen and Namaste.
Call to worship (here)
Well, today really is the day, the day I say goodbye to being your minister. I will be in town for the next week, until June 30th, but I am taking vacation time so that we can pack up the house. So today is really it, the end of the ministry we have shared together for the last seven years.
I made this short so I could hopefully get through it, but we will see how that goes.
After we do the litany later in the service, I will no longer be the minister of this church. It doesn’t mean that I will never see any of you again, but if we do see each other, it will be in a very different relationship. Good professional boundaries mean that while I will, of course, respond to any requests for information or advice from the ministers that will follow me, I will not be available to any of you for anything that concerns this congregation. Similarly, I will not be available to any of you for pastoral care. This is standard practice when a minister leaves, and it is a good thing. It creates the necessary space that will allow you to develop a good relationship with your incoming minister.
Have I said enough times that I am really thrilled that the Reverend Shelley Paige will be here in August as your interim minister? I so love and respect Shelly. We went to seminary together. She is warm and smart, and I can’t think of a better person with whom to leave you. I have faith in her and I have faith in you.
This congregation will prosper and continue to do many fabulous things. I am counting on it! It would not be nice to disappoint your mother!
Our last hymn this morning was one we sang at my first service here. It has really been a dance we have done together. I now want to read the poem I wrote back in 2007, when I first learned I was coming to you. Catherine Zublin had it printed inside this stole, which she also made.
As the mountains rise
Above the salt flats
In majesty and wonder
We will listen
For the quiet call,
The still small voice,
A guide with measured steps,
Scouting out the trail.
And we may be amazed
By the thunders’ clap
The chance encounter,
A wild and crazy shout,
Rhythms that will make us dance.
And within it all
The precious beat of human hearts,
Of hopes and fears and dreams,
Open now in anticipation.
Live with patience
Grace, I must believe,
Awaits us all.
And then, in the spring of 2008, when you decided to call me as your settled minister, I wrote the following:
The mountains called to me
Their golden glow a beacon,
Shining, leading here.
Tears and laughter both
Mingled with the rain and snow,
Loving hearts and holding hands,
Good work to do.
This salty soil holds the miracle of life.
A garden, precious and rare,
Flourishes and grows.
Let us now dance together,
For a harvest time is here
And more are yet to come.
And come they did, those harvest times. We have done so much good work together. This church has changed in the time we have been together and so has this town. Those two things are not unrelated. It has always been a partnership and a shared ministry. We have learned from each other and we have all grown as a result.
We have lived through troubles and we have held each other’s hands for courage. We have stood together in graveyards, saying goodbye, and we have blessed the new babies that were born, saying hello.
Those memories will last, those tender connections of the heart are one of the greatest blessings of ministry, giving and receiving. Saying hello, and saying goodbye, is part of it all.
Another poem which expresses some what ministry has felt like to me here:
A traveler can get weary
The mountains are so high
A boulder comes from nowhere
To roll onto the path
You push it back
It comes again
Is there a way around?
Your compass has a crack
You did not see before
Supplies are getting low
Rest awhile; take in the view
Rejoice in all you’ve seen
You are only human and
The desert takes its toll
Let the fog wash over you
Listen to your dreams
Hear the sweet birds singing
Their melody’s for you.
Share your water
Share your food
With dear souls you will meet
Hold their hands
Wipe their tears
Find courage in their prayers
A traveler does get weary
Before the journey’s done
The ground beneath us all
Is what will help us stand.
God, give us the strength
To travel on again
Guide our feet
Lead us to our home.
And as a message for your future, this poem:
If God could weep
For all the pain
That in this world abides
The tears would flow like rivers
The rain would never stop
Ocean waves like thunder
Would reach the mountain tops
If God could shout
A message out
For all the world to hear
The roar of words
Would echo round
This green and spinning sphere
If God could act
We’d surely have
Peace in all the lands
Food for all the hungry souls
And care for all the sick
If God is sleeping
I’d like to know
How to wake the Holy up
Most likely God is asking
That same question
Of every one of us.
This church is awake. You have the spirit and you have the will. Blessing to all of you. I love you. May you fare well as I bid you a heartfelt farewell. Namaste.
A Litany of Farewell
Catherine Zublin: In the Unitarian Universalist tradition of religious freedom, the authority and privilege of calling a minister rests solely and completely with the members of the local congregation. Likewise, a Unitarian Universalist minister freely chooses how to respond to that call. Minster and congregation enter a sacred covenant, a committed promise to be in relationship in a particular way. As the chair of the search committee that brought you here, I affirm that our relationship has been one where that promise was fulfilled.
Bill Hackett: As the board president when you first arrived, my goal was to help create an environment in which the minister could succeed. This has been a successful ministry for you and for us.
Laura Anderson: As the second of the three board presidents who served with you, I affirm that as you have dwelt among us as our minister, you have lived and spoken the truth in love as best as you were able. You have been our minister in times of sorrow and of celebration. You have helped us live our values as we worked for justice and as we gathered in religious community.
The Reverend Theresa Novak: I began serving as your minister in September of 2007. Over the years, I have loved you both as individuals and as a church community. You have inspired me and you have reaffirmed my faith each and every day. We have been together in sorrow and in celebration. We have made this town and the world a better place. I am very proud and very humbled to have served as your minister.
Doris Lang: As the President of the Board of Trustees of this congregation, it is now my duty to relieve you of your role as minister of this congregation. Will the members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden please now rise in body and/or in spirit? Please join me in reading the words printed in your order of service.
Members of Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden: We chose you, Reverend Theresa, to be our Minister. You have served us well, and you have been a strong advocate for love and for justice. It is now time to let you go. We are grateful for the years we have spent with you, for the gifts and the wisdom you have brought to us. We wish you well, as we release you from your calling as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden.
The Reverend Theresa Jane Novak: I chose you, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden, to be my church. We have shared tender times as well as exciting ones. They have been some of the very best years of my life. It is now time to let you go. I am grateful for the years we have spent together and for all you have given me. I wish you well, as you release me from my calling as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden.
Doris Lang: Although you will no longer be our minister, the love that is between us will not go away. I offer you now this small vial of our sacred water, symbol of our gathered community. Please take it with you, knowing that our prayers and love will follow you for the rest of your days.
The Reverend Theresa Novak: Thank you. Please know that my prayers and love will be with all of you for the rest of my days.
I have hesitated on whether or not to write this post. Starr King School for the Ministry (SKSM) is important to me. It is the seminary where I studied for the ministry, and there is so much pain there right now. I don’t want to add to that pain. But it seems to me in all the discussion about the disclosure of confidential information and the board’s response to that disclosure, several important points have been lost. Three of them are, in my opinion:
1. The underlying racism of the reaction to the selection of the Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt as SKSM’s next president
2. Ignorance of the power dynamics of institutions, including those of small religiously liberal seminaries
3. Hubris and confusion about what the “empowerment ” of students actually means.
You can read the public documents from the school here.
Facebook has been totally popping, but I only know of one UU blogger who has commented so far. Scott Well’s comments are here. I found some of Scott’s comments less than generous in tone and that is partly why I have decided to add my own voice.
Disclaimer first: I have no inside information, just what I have gleaned online. Most of the discussion seems to be about an anonymous email that contained confidential information and the students whose degrees have not been granted while the school investigates to see if they were involved. Publicly disclosing confidential information is a serious ethical breech, not something that a minister should ever intentionally do, except in cases where there are legal reporting requirements. This wasn’t that kind of case, however. It was instead because a student or students (or others) were upset with the selection of the next president of the seminary and believed the selection process was flawed.
There were 3 finalists for the position, all well respected and highly qualified individuals. When the African American woman was selected as the new president it triggered a lot of frankly racist nonsense about her being somehow less qualified than the other two candidates. This is a major problem for a school that has as an emphasis on social justice work and educating to counter oppressions. It is also something that always happens when a person of color rises to a position of power and authority, so I guess no one should have been surprised. Think of those that still question where President Obama was born. It happens to women too, and there was a very similar reaction when the now outgoing president, Rebecca Parker was first selected. Everyone can have a favorite candidate and is certainly entitled to be disappointed if someone else is chosen, but would the reaction have been the same if the white male had been selected instead? Would his qualifications and credentials be disparaged? Would the selection process have been declared corrupt by anyone?
2. Ignorance of power dynamics
If you chose to attend a small school or if you chose to work for that school, there is an expectation that you will generally support the institution, and also the board and administration. Don’t bite the hand that you want to feed you. Understand where the power lies and approach it with respect. Constructive criticism is one thing, advice offered in love is a gift that, in my experience, is usually reasonably well received, even if it is not followed. A milder version of this incident occurred while I was a student there. One student took it upon herself to state publically that academic standards were being ignored by the school’s administration in certain selections. She at least signed her name, but the personal advice I gave her was that if she really felt that way, it was probably time for her to look at transferring to a different school. Similarly, faculty at a small school need to support school policies and the decisions of the board and administration, at least in all public discussion. If you can’t do that, you don’t belong there. You might even be fired. By the way, this is also true for the staff who work for our local congregations. An office administrator should not be trash talking about the minister – or visa versa for that matter. The whole really is greater than the parts.
Whoever said that the students at the school should get to pick the faculty and the new president? Being able to give some input into such decisions is a gift, so to be outraged when another decision is made is just hubris in my opinion. This may be one of the systemic issues going on. Students are encouraged to speak truth to power and to be vocal on all sorts of social justice issues, but not enough attention appears to be given to the need for humility. The school is about so much more than the current student body and their opinions or even their careers. The outraged students don’t seem to understand that. If they hope to be effective ministers someday then they need to understand that the good of the congregation as a whole always trumps whatever personal issues the minister might have. Always. It can be a very difficult discernment process, but it is one that needs to be done. It should never just be about you; it has to be what is good for the whole, not what individuals think they want necessarily, but what will help them grow in their faith and also make a positive difference in their own lives and in the wider world.
I hope all involved can spend some reflection time on the following question:
What is the best thing I can do for the future of the school, for Unitarian Universalism, and ultimately for our world?
I happen to believe that both Unitarian Universalism and the world need the Starr King School for the Ministry. It is a very special place. It isn’t perfect, nothing is. If we want to be faithful and effective religious leaders then our mission must be to build things up and to make things better. Let’s all try and pray about it. That could help.
Tom Shade has some important things to say about power and authority (here)