"On Issues Affecting Parish Ministry"

Judith A. Walker-Riggs

Berry Street Lecture, 1997

 

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Phoenix, Arizona

June 19, 1997

 

            Beloved colleagues, great richness of old friends, and even more good folk unknown to me who hold in your hands and hearts the future of this movement where I quite literally, with love, have spent my life—from the moment I hung up the phone after being notified of this great honor, one question filled my mind and heart: What on earth can I say to you that is worth your time?  On issues affecting parish ministry—that’s what I was told it should be about.  Issues affecting parish ministry.

 

            What the hell can I tell them that they don’t already know?

 

            Three days ago, my husband, David, and I lugged six bushels of weeds over to the compost heap for the umpteenth time this season, from a garden that isn’t all that big and is relatively well-tended but that still, in the middle of England’s four-year drought, produces bushels of weeds every fortnight.  A very different world from Phoenix. 

 

            A different world religiously, too.  Christian Century recently reported a drop in U.S. church attendance.  Forty-five percent of people attended church once a week just five years ago; now it has dropped to 38 percent, which is barely above the 1940s all-time low of 37 percent.

 

            Down to 38 percent every-week attenders, they tutted with concern.  Well, they ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  In England, 4 percent of the population attends church in a given year, including Christmas and Easter.  Four percent.  Rural villages who glory in 7 percent are much envied, but they are few and far between.  The Church of England has opened more churches than it has closed these past three years, but attendance overall continues to fall dramatically.

 

            Average attendance at Sunday church services across all denominations in England today is 18—that’s one eight—18.  If the Observer newspaper is correct (and it is one of England’s best papers, and our papers are good), there are today more people in training to be Unitarian Universalist ministers in North America than there are in training for the ministry in the entire Church of England.

 

            So when Congress considers allowing prayer in public schools, something many of us have rightly fought for years, another part of me rebelliously wonders whether we shouldn’t let them in.  After all, in England religion in the schools is exactly what killed it in the country!

 

            In England’s Education Act of 1944, religion was the only subject required by law to be taught every day.  Not even the English language had to be taught so often.  But with many teachers teaching halfheartedly and having to balance between vociferous competing beliefs, the end result is watered-down religion—effectively, a vaccination: just enough of the debilitated bacteria to activate your antibodies, but not enough to infect you.

 

            Parents, meanwhile, knowing that "the children get all that at school,” see no need to get up on Sunday, get everybody organized, and haul the kids to Sunday school.  Abracadabra, before you know it, a thoroughly secularized society.

 

            A thoroughly secularized society with a gnawing, pervasive, underground, haunting spiritual hunger.  A spiritual hunger denied by most of my generation who, frightened by what they feel, frightened of the hole inside, cling to old materialist certainties.  Their children, however, and their grandchildren not only recognize, acknowledge, and keenly feel this hunger, but they are also looking for ways to address it.

 

            Take one family in the chapel I serve.  Daughter Liz and fiancé Phil went from church to church trying to find something that actually spoke to them.  They found the chapel, liked it, and settled in.  One Sunday, at Liz’s parents for Sunday dinner, they spoke of this wonderful church they had found where they wanted to have their wedding.  As his daughter and fiancé left the house, Liz’s dad, senior vice president of a huge multinational company whose name you would recognize, turned to his wife and said, "Liz wants to get married in church.  Where did we go wrong?”

 

            The next Sunday, Liz’s parents were in chapel to see what kind of weirdo outfit this was.  They’ve even joined, although they don’t come very often.  And they don’t want anyone else to know.  In there set, going to church just isn’t done.

 

            For decades now in Britain, going to church just "isn’t done.”  Part of our "New U” program is helping people handle the loss of status they see happening in other people’s eyes when it is discovered that they actually go to church.  However, that is rapidly changing.  Nowadays, some of our younger members are finding that their friends are asking them if they would mind terribly if, some Sunday, they came along, too.

 

            Because the middle class’s sons and daughtersare looking—cautiously, silently, looking.  They mostly discover that the Anglican church doesn’t help, except for those who get caught up in its most triumphalist, fundamentalist forms, the only branch of Anglicanism that is growing.

 

            But the Anglican church’s rigidities are legion.  It won’t remarry divorcees, won’t allow interfaith marriages (both parties must be baptized and confirmed as Anglicans), won’t permit gay people to be godparents (to be a godparent, you have to renounce your sin, and if you’re going to go on being gay, well…), and so it goes.  And Anglican sermons are mostly a joke.

 

            No wonder psychic fairs boom, as do weekend workshops in neurolinguistic programming.  To our shame, the English mostly don’t know the Unitarian church is there, or that it might help them.  And a lot of Unitarian churches are trapped in the past and don’t see today’s spiritual hunger or seem moved to do anything about it, even though it throbs around them, as it does through much of secularized Europe, echoing in millions of souls.

 

A Poem for the End of the Century, by Czeslaw Milosz

When everything was fine

And the notion of sin had vanished

And the earth was ready

In universal peace

To consume and rejoice

Without creeds and utopias,

I, for unknown reasons,

Surrounded by the books

Of prophets and theologians,

Of philosophers, poets,

Searched for an answer,

Scowling, grimacing,

Waking up at night,

Muttering at dawn.

 

            Even peace and prosperity are not enough.

 

            Perhaps the poet scowls and grimaces over his books because he is looking in the wrong place.  Perhaps he is "searching for meaning.”  Now "Religion is a search for meaning” has been a very popular definition among UUs.  Victor Frankl’s best-selling book about surviving a concentration camp perhaps brought it to our attention.  However it got there, religion as a "search for meaning” was certainly all the rage in my seminary days.  To judge by the UUMA chat line, there’s still a lot of "search for meaning” going on.

 

            Perhaps I’m thinking a lot about meaning and its limits these days because I’ve had the rather dubious honor of being chosen for a "brains trust” to plan Britain’s celebrations for the coming millennium.

 

            More than £700 million and counting were given by the Tory government, just before they were thrown out, to fund the building of a millennium site at Greenwich, from which all of the earth’s time zones are calculated.  What festivities, we were to decide, should go with it?

 

            The building will be the world’s largest plastic dome (whoopee) with restaurants, theaters, and exhibitions inside.  The architects are top old boys, builders of endless faceless office towers polluting London’s skyline.  Suddenly this giant dome thingy.  As if, tired of being criticized for constantly building giant pricks, they said, right, let’s do a tit this time!

 

            We, the brains trust, were to decide on the festivities to go with this monstrosity.  First we were asked, who should light the flame, the big bang at midnight?  My colleagues named Gorbachev, Julius Nyere, Nelson Mandela (if he lives that long), and Bob Geldof.  I am never on anyone else’s wavelength.  I suggested the oldest person in Britain holding the newest baby in Britain , to symbolize human community across time.  The silence greeting my proposal was not complimentary.

 

            Next we got to evaluate the "meanings” of the millennium as devised by the best creative minds already hired for this event.

 

            Oh, my dears, what were they on?  First up:  "One to the Power of Millennium!”  "Use the power of the millennium to enhanceyour personal life!”

 

            I asked, "What power of the millennium?”  Still worse, even if mathematics isn’t your subject, think about it.  What is one to the power of millennium?  Ten to the power of three is 10 times 10 times 10, or 1,000.  So, one times one times one, no matter how long you do it, is only ever…one.  This mere fact had not occurred to the creative team.

 

            We moved on.  "Dump the Old Britain,” "It’s time to get rid of everything and everyone we don’t like.”  I asked, "If we all get to dump everything and everyone we don’t like, will there be anyone or anything left?”

 

            But my all-time favorite of 11 attempts at meaning for the millennium was, "Third Time Lucky,” "This time, make it a good millennium.”  I said I wasn’t sure that would go down too well with traditional Christians.  "Why ever not?” they asked.  "Well, if you believe your Savior was bron at the start of the first millennium, you might think that was lucky enough.”  "Really?” they asked.  I felt like Charlie Brown in "Peanuts”: AAAARRRGGGGHHHH!

 

            [The week I gave this speech, Parliament was discussing canceling the whole thing and using the money for those in need.  I still had hope.  Alas, the project goes on, cost over-runs now have it at more than £1 billion ($1.61 billion) and rising, and the Prime Minister’s chief spin doctor turns out to be the director of the company with the contract.  Oh, sigh.]

 

            You see the problems in a search for meaning?

 

            And I’ve come all the way over from England to say to you:  Give it up.  Give up this idea that religion is a search for meaning.  Because it is often only when you give up meaning that truly creative responses can come.

 

            What might happen if we gave up the idea that religion is a search for meaning?  I know saying this is supremely out of fashion.  From Hillary Clinton to the book of the moment, The Politics of Meaning is where it’s at.

 

            But I didn’t come all this way just to feed your prejudices, so I say to you, giving up meaning is sometimes, often, the healthiest thing you can do.  Because whenever we are too conscious of the meaning of things, we no longer see things as they are; we just see things as we are, dimly through a veil of our own meanings.

 

            And just thing.  If we gave up meanings, we really would be different from the fundamentalists!  Because if there’s one thing the fundies have got, it’s MEANING.  EVERY meaning.  Sewn up and defined forever.

 

            Of course, they can run into trouble because of all this meaning.  It turns out that fundamentalist churches are having as hard a time as the British getting people to train for the ministry in Nigeria.  The Nigerians say that, until you’re willing to accept our ancient tradition of polygamy, forget it.  Now there’s a dilemma.

 

            And I say to you, give up this search for meaning.  As if we could ever find it or nail it down once and for all if we did!  As Douglas Adams’ Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has on its flyleaf, "This guide is definitive.  Reality, however, is frequently inaccurate.”

 

            There are so many meanings that we already know are wrong.  When I had to have serious surgery, the young woman surgeon was delightful and brilliant.  The anesthetist, another young woman, was 4’ 11”, bouncing along in running shoes.  Doogella Howser!  As I sat in the waiting room, it hit me.  These two women were younger than my own children.  I turned to my husband.  "I can’t let these kids take my life in their hands!”  "Face it, honey,” he said, "If they’re older than you, their hands shake.”

 

            I had to give up the meaning of "responsible adult” as "older than me” to get good surgery.

 

            Clinging to meaning often does us harm.  An actual radio transcript from the United States Chief of Naval Operations, October 10, 1955:

Station No. 1: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the north to avoid a collision.

Station No.2: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.

Station No. 1: This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Station No. 2: No, I say again, you divert YOUR course.

Station No. 1: THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER ENTERPRISE. WE ARE A LARGE WARSHIP OF THE U.S. NAVY. DIVERT YOUR COURSE NOW!

Station No.2: This is the Puget Sound lighthouse. It's your call.

 

            Caught up in the meaning of being a United States aircraft carrier nearly brought disaster.

 

            Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God is within you.”  He did not say, "Go find the Kingdom of God.”  He did not say, "Philosophize and philosophize and maybe someday you’ll find the Kingdom of God.”  He said, "The Kingdom of God is [already] within you.”

 

            He didn’t even say, "Now define the Kingdom of God.”  Concentrating of religions as a search for meaning can lock us into an endless definition game, ostensibly searching for meaning but often saying, "Ah, but how do you define that?” which definition has to be in more words, of course, each of which we further insist be defined, which requires more words, each of which we further insist be defined, forever and forever, thereby protecting ourselves from ideas that might otherwise threaten our habitual assumptions.

 

            What would giving up the search for meaning look like in parish ministry?  In overall orientation to ministry, and specifically in preaching, pastoral work, prophecy, pride, and prayer?

 

            Overall Orientation:  Giving up the search for meaning, and the idea that we’ve found it, might raise to the forefront a question that I believe should be central to our UU way of working:  "Why should what I want or like take precedence over what they want?”

 

            From the wedding couple who want Who’s Sorry Now as the recessional to the family who wants no words at all at their mother’s funeral, just two elderly Italian cocktail bar marimba players to play for half an hour because their mother had followed them from bar to bar for 50 years—both true events in my ministry—why should what you want, like, or think appropriate take precedence over what they want?  I’m not saying your wishes never might take precedence.  I am saying if and when they ever do, you should be damn sure you’re justified, and on what grounds.

 

            We say that we believe in the inherent dignity and worth of every person.  The best way people learn that that is what we are about is not through advertisements, classes, or lectures about our values.  The best way people learn that we believe in their inherent worth and dignity is that when they ask for something, we respect their ability to know what is right for them.  Why should what you want take precedence over what they want?

 

            Preaching:  We have a long tradition of freedom in the pulpit.  Our heretic forebears needed that guarantee as they preached new forms of Christianity not welcomed by all.  We still value this guarantee—freedom of the pulpit is written into many a Unitarian Universalist minister’s contract.

 

            Still, I sometimes wonder a bit.  Freedom of the pulpit for whose godo?  So you can exercise your own hobby horses week after week?  How does this care for their souls?  And isn’t it their souls, not your own, you are meant to be caring for when you exercise your profession in worship?  As you who are parish ministers well know, when you conduct services, you are not, yourself, going to church.  They are going to church.  And the service is not about you, or even about what you believe.  It is about helping everyone present get in touch with…THAT.  The wonder and the glory.

 

            Are you worried?  "I can’t be expected to preach what I don’t believe, or use language with which I’m not personally comfortable!”  Why ever not?

 

            The week I started getting this lecture down on paper, I had just returned from France.  I have to go to Paris every spring (such a heavy burden) to conduct worship at the UU Fellowship there.  Here’s the point.  When I speak French, I am not comfortable.  Neither am I lying.  I am just using a different language to communicate.

 

            Perhaps as Unitarian Universalist ministers we need to become comfortable in as many languages of the human heart and soul as we can.  We’ll all have our native tongue, the one we use when we’re alone or with others who speak the same language.  But aren’t we also responsible to the people who speak other languages and come through the doors on a Sunday, responsible to try to learn to understand and even speak to them, occasionally, too?

 

            After all, if we really believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person—and every one is different—if we are really to practice this tolerance of which we speak, there should always be things going on in your congregation that you do not like, even if you are the minister.  Otherwise, you’re only serving people exactly like yourself.  A rather limited market, if you don’t mind my saying so.

 

            Worship you lead is not about you.  It is about mystery, vision, God, Spirit, Goodness, so many names, so many languages.  Don’t we need to learn to use more than our own favorites?

 

            Pastoral Work:  In developing this lecture, I suddenly realized how much of my counseling over three-and-a-half decades has been precisely helping people give up meanings.

 

            From the woman who answered the door one day to discover a social worker with a child her husband had fathered before their marriage and never told her about, to the married woman so tortured by her unspoken lust for a younger married work colleague that she would lie in bed every night, fists clenched, saying, "I will not dream of him, I will not dream of him”—there has been so much need to give up meanings.

 

            Only when she gave up the meaning of marriage as "you tell your partner everything” was the first woman able to deal lovingly with a child in real need actually standing on her doorstep.

 

            Only when she gave up the meaning of "mustn’t think about him, mustn’t think about him” and allowed herself to dream about him every night did the dreams, and the lust, go away for the second woman.

 

            Training in counseling can be dangerous if you start to see people through screens of theory, squishing them into your framework.  Sometimes you can hardly see them at all unless you put your screens aside.

 

            Oppressed people know what it is like to be seen by meaning—you’re black, you’re gay, you’re fat—seen by meaning, not as they really are.

 

            Prophecy:  Surely, Judith, when it comes to prophecy, meanings are all-important?

 

            But even then, even our most impassioned meanings are only partial.  In the early days of Civil Rights, we fought to have little black children come to school in our nice white suburbs.  It would have improved their access to academic education in our style.  We never even questioned whether our style was the best there could be.  Nor did we ever wonder whether making them just like us was the best possible goal.  Our meanings may have been more enlightened than our tight-assed neighbors who stood up in town meeting and predicted rapes and muggings in the playground if five black first-graders came to town Monday through Friday.  Many white folks in this denomination are still struggling to give up their earlier Civil Rights’ meanings and move on to other, more challenging and open ones.  Even in prophecy, you have to give up some meanings to get to a truly creative response.

 

            Pride:  A subject dear to all our ministerial hearts.  Not, necessarily, that we are filled with it.  Many, in this unmeasurable, unquantifiable work of ours, aren’t so much filled with pride as desperately seeking some grounds on which to have any.

 

            When I first began attending Unitarian Universalist ministers’ groups, in the check-in, as we all did, I would talk enthusiastically about what I had managed to achieve, long-overlooked issues finally, under my leadership, dealt with, new programs started, growth in the congregation, and the general correction of the faults of my predecessor.

 

            I’m more cautious now.  First, I have lived long enough to hear others talk about they have done to move things on after me, and second, I have given up a lot of that meaning to what I do.  Oh, it’s great when things grow and all that.  But.  I am moved by the words of the late Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky:  "We’re impressed with ourselves, but in the view of eternity, it’s forgettable.  As far as this room is concerned.”  (I think of the interior of the chapel I serve as I say this; perhaps you can think of a church you know or serve.)  "As far as this room is concerned, I think it was empty just a couple of hours ago, and it will be empty again.  Our presence in it, mine especially, is quite incidental from the walls’ point of view.  What matters is the lives of the people who come and go in these rooms.  The walls remain standing—for other speakers, in different decades and succeeding centuries.”

 

            I wonder if you noticed.  I used a very careful form of language just then.  "The congregation I serve.”  Not "my church” or "my congregation.”

 

            In the Church of England, it is true that the settled vicar actually owns the freehold of the church and can do what he likes, wardens/church board or no wardens/church board.

 

            That is not who we are.  And I find it a helpful discipline to be always careful and say, the congregation, the church, I serve.  For it is not mine and never will be mine, no matter how hard I work.  And I want to talk with you a bit about hard work.

 

            I felt a twinge of recognition, hell, a near convulsion of recognition when I read this about government workers in P J O’Rourke:

 

Government people work so hard for the curious reason that their output can’t be measured.  There are plenty of ways to determine bad government, but good government is hard to quantify.  How can streets be too clean or crime rates too low?  A poverty threshold is easy to establish, but nobody’s ever too rich.  The casualties of war are simpler to count than the augmentations of peace.  And that’s why government employees work so hard—since output can’t be measured, input has to be.

 

            I couldn’t help but think, Ministers work so hard because their output can’t be measured.  There are plenty of ways to determine bad ministry, but good ministry is hard to quantify.  How can office hours be too often, or hospital visits too many?  Complaints to the ministerial relations committee are simpler to count than happy congregants.  And that’s why ministers work so hard, since output can’t be measured, input has to be.

 

            I tell you that one of the most damaging things ever to happen to this profession during my lifetime has been the institution of ministerial office hours.  We should never have gone along with it.  I suppose it seemed an easy way to look accountable in the face of businesspeople wanting their money’s worth.  But office hours were the biggest waste of time, ministerially speaking, that I have ever experienced.

 

            Do you write good sermons in your office?  Congratulations if you can.  I never could, except on Saturday, when no one else was around.  And how many really good counseling sessions have arisen from drop-ins during your advertised office hours?  That, supposedly, was one reason for office hours: accessibility.  Yet in my experience damn few counselees dropped into the office.  Many spoke to me in the parking lot after a committee meeting, or in the queue at the supermarket, or over the phone at home.

 

            Office hours actually impeded my accessibility.  Stuck in that office, I was not out and about, visiting, meeting, living enough to get ideas for sermons, for goodness sake.  But it sure helped to overwork and underachieve my ministry.

 

            Maybe now that even businesspeople are learning to work from home, we can change things a little.  We may need to.  The Murdock Charitable Trust recently released the results of their survey of hundreds of laypeople, ministers, and seminary professors.

 

            "What’s the most important thing in a perfect minister?” the survey asked.  "Theological knowledge,” seminary professors said.  "Relational skills,” ministers replied.  "Spirituality,” lay folk begged.

 

            Spirituality, fourth out of five on the ministers’ list.  Spirituality, omitted entirely from the seminary professors’ list.

 

            Meanwhile, management abilities, second on the ministers’ list, was omitted entirely from both the professors’ list and the laypeople’s list!

 

            Spirituality and character are what lay folk want, while ministers struggle to be managerial with good communications skills.  The ministers honestly reflected the shape the job has taken, I believe.  But it does take two to tango, last time I looked.  How have we connived in a pattern that at least partly destroys us, and destroys, perhaps, why we came into ministry in the first place?

 

            For the question is, this pattern—which means that we are professional, we take our job seriously, we are giving people their money’s worth—does this pattern actually serve the church, or serve our movement, let alone serve the basic health of ministers?

 

            Some years ago, in a General Assembly conversation with ministers, Bill Schulz was asked, "What one thing would do most to turn this movement into growth?”  I don’t remember what Bill said, but I muttered under my breath, "A thousand ministers who pray every day.”  I was so surprised to hear myself saying it that I looked around, as if to ask, "Who said that?”

 

            Yet I believe it more and more with each passing day, each holy month.  And I grieve for office hours and prayers jammed in before 6 a.m. or after midnight.  Me, I’m a Muslim.  Five times a day, at least.

 

            Just sit.  Listen.  Feel.  Be.  Give up your search for meaning, or at least (if you’ve been listening, you may have figured it out by now) your search for verbal meaning.  Let it be without your interpretation.  Sit.  Or run.  Or swim.  And listen.  Feel.  And be.  And then, like Joseph Brodsky, "Until brown clay has been crammed down your larynx, only gratitude will be gushing from it.”

 

            Or, as Martha Burrows put it:

 

Is the moon only a distant satellite

and the ocean nothing but an echoing

immensity, inert and emptied of delight?

 

Are the deep and wide heavens above

no longer full of storied images but simply

patterns of racing ancient light that move

 

as dwindling energy?  Are these but things

of matter without vital form, mere objects

causing us to calculate but not to sing?

 

We taste each holy fragment of this world

through clumsy instruments of speech, and

reach by the wisdom of our flesh a hurled

echo of descending grace.

 

To taste it we must listen with patient

and singular hearts, —a ritual ancient

 

and yet always new.

We require no argument in any season

to wrap ourselves in the wonder of the day,

 

Simplicity…is also radiance

an unbounding of our vision,

the first step towards…everything.