Imagineering Soul

The Berry Street Essay, 2008

Delivered in Ft. Lauderdale, FL

by The Rev. Christine Robinson



Finding Soul at Disney World

When my son was a young teenager his career goal was to become a theme park engineer, so, on one spring break, I took him to Disney World. Now to properly appreciate the parental challenge involved here, you have to know that I don’t do “fast,” and I don’t do “high,” so he was going to have to do all the exciting rides by himself, which was fine with him. One day he met me for lunch with great excitement. He had been on the “Journey to Mars” ride. He said I had to go. He told me that I would like it. He told me that it didn’t go high, and it didn’t go fast, but you did experience some “g’s” at takeoff, and he remembered my tales about the one amusement park ride I had ever really liked, which involved gravity play. I was so touched by his attentiveness to my likes and dislikes that I walked over and joined the line.

At every turn in this line, there was some version of the following sign: “You are about to embark on an INTENSE EXPERIENCE. Pregnant mothers, persons with back, neck, or balance problems, persons with claustrophobia, and any others who think they should not go on this ride, SHOULD NOT GO ON THIS RIDE.”

This was starting to feel a little risky. I told myself: “My son knows I don’t like fast, or high. I’m not pregnant. I don’t have neck problems. I’m only a little claustrophobic.” With some anxiety, I strapped myself into my little cockpit, and watched instructions flash in my little window. And then, with much rattle and roar, we were off.

It was only 2 g’s, but it was impressive. My little window flashed instructions during takeoff, and then switched to an outside view of Mars, which was getting rapidly bigger. There was the inevitable volley of asteroids to dodge, and then it was time to turn around to land. In my little window, I saw the red planet edge off, and then the vast darkness, and then I saw the earth rise in space. My beautiful, precious home.

My son was right. It was totally worth it. I had several strange flashbacks to dizziness in the next couple of days. But I’ve been to Mars, and I have looked back to see my home from space, and I was touched to the core of my being.

I know that the Spirit blows where it will, but I hadn’t expected to have a religious experience at Disney World, and it was abundantly clear that it was no accident that I’d had it. They put that little iconic picture of the earth in my window on purpose and they hoped that it would do just what it did. At home, my son showed me an article from the journal of the Themed Entertainment Association. (That’s the folks who design and engineer things like theme parks, casinos, and the Rain Forrest Café. Disney calls them “Imagineers.”)

The article mused about what themed entertainment people can learn from museums. Church people can learn something from both.

”Why do people go to museums in the first place? … If you ask (museum) visitors why they came, the top answer isn't generally "to learn something," so purely educational motives don't explain the attraction. What does? I think the answer is at the core of what drives much of the human experience. It is the same reason some people read books, raise families, go to church … "meaningfulness." We'll go to the aquarium to feel a connection to the environment, the science center to ponder mysteries of the universe, the zoo to witness the truth of our evolutionary human ancestry. We go to quench a thirst, fill a void.”


The author points out that, while people come to theme parks and other entertainment venues mostly to have fun, they are looking, even there, at least in part, for the kind of authentic experiences and meaningfulness that museums, churches, families and books offer, and recommends that designers strive to evoke these realities in their fantasylands. He concludes,

“Of course, (we who design themed entertainment) know this instinctively, and even at our most cynical moments on entertainment projects yearn wistfully for more. We call it heart.”[1]


The Minister as Imagineer of Soul

I have to tell you; the idea that even theme park designers know that it is "heart" and "thirst" and "meaningfulness" that bring real satisfaction to a human life is humbling, especially after my eyes were opened to how well they can do it. I would have said that “heart” and “thirst” and “meaningfulness” were what I was supposed to be doing. But my special effects budget is otherwise known as “flowers and candles.” I can’t produce two g’s in my sanctuary by any means. There are no seat belts in my seats and no need of them, because the biggest physical thrills I can offer are singing, laughter, and the sound of sheer silence.

Why do people come to church? It is not to learn. People don’t even go to museums to learn. It’s not to be entertained. People don’t even go to Disney World just to be entertained. They come to church, especially they come to church, to quench a thirst, find meaningfulness, to have an authentic experience, or in a more traditional religious language, to connect with mystery, to see themselves, sub species eternitatis, to deepen their souls. We ministers, then would be the Imagineers of soul, Sorcerer’s Apprentices in the art of quenching thirst, filling voids, opening the doors of meaning.

I’m guessing that many, perhaps most of you agree that evoking heart and depth and meaningfulness should be at the center of our ministries; and even at your most cynical moments in your ministry, you wistfully long for more. Whatever your theology, whatever your language of reverence, I’d wager that you came into this especially difficult and not well compensated profession because you’d found heart and soul in the church and in its people and you wanted to join the sorcerers who created more. Come along and join the fun! But be warned. There will be few props, and the special effects you’ll create yourself, if you have the courage, out of the only thing you’ll really have to work with, which is yourself and what you are willing to share of your own, precious and always threatened spiritual life.

There are lots of other interesting and worthy parts of our vocation and the ministry of our churches; teaching the children, comforting the dying, changing the world, but when we do these things in church, they, too evoke the holy, and if they don’t, we’ve failed at the only thing we can uniquely do. And we mostly fail.

 I’ve been working away at these matters for my whole career, and I know I’m not alone. That’s what my second wave of Baby Boomer ministers and women ministers were doing, as a whole. I think I’ve had some success in helping two churches do what the majority wanted to do, which was to bring spirituality, heart, and depth more fully and explicitly into our life together, and I think that that aim has had something to do with the fact that both of my churches experienced significant growth.

The Gen X’ers, judging by their rhetoric, were trying to do the same and new ministers are still trying. Some things have changed over the years. Now I see in internship applications comments about spiritual practice, a phrase completely absent from my theological education in a Methodist theological school. We have a Unitarian Universalist spiritual directors group now, and spiritual practices are offered to lay people, even at GA. There was a great hue and cry about our president’s call to develop a language of reverence, as if he meant to impose creed-like definitions on our life together, but after the dust settled, our freely chosen vocabularies started to thicken and deepen. It doesn’t matter which reverent words you use, after all, or exactly what they mean to you. What matters is that you use some.

These are all good changes but I’m not altogether happy with my career or the development of my abilities as Imagineer of soul, and the fact of the matter is that we Unitarian Universalists are failing at this crucial task of manifesting meaningfulness in our congregational life.


Heart in our Churches

How do we know we’re failing?

There is our practically non-existent denominational growth during a population boom. There’s the fact that pollsters tell us that between 300,000 and 800,000 Americans claim to pollsters that they are Unitarian Universalists but don’t belong to a church,[2] many of whom, no doubt, are among the two generations of our children who feel a part of the tribe but have no interest in our practice.

Then there is our own internal dissatisfaction. The Fulfilling the Promise survey told us that 75% of us feel that there is something missing in our faith. What is that “something?” Well, our people said, it is “spiritual discipline and depth,” or “spirituality”. 75% is a very large number of restive people.[3]

Roaming coffee hour, looking for visitors, I spot one with her brave yellow mug set in front of her, a shield and a hope. It draws me. This visitor, a young adult, tells me that she loved the service and is so happy to have found us. She tells me that she and her husband are about to start a family and he wanted to have a church. They came here because she had grown up a UU, she tells me, but in the church she grew up in, they refused to talk about God, so she drifted away. “This,” she said, “this is promising.

Our children leave us because we don’t give them enough to stay for. We use the precious hours we have with them to teach them everything they ever wanted to know about sex and we play “Don’t ask, don’t tell” about matters of the spirit. We teach them to be respectful of all the things we don’t believe and don’t tell them what we believe, in part because their teachers are not prepared to talk about such frightening, personal, delicate matters as spirituality. It’s just too embarrassing.

Listen to one of our young people, a Northwestern University student who wrote this in her school newspaper last year.

“It wasn’t that I minded Unitarian Universalism; I loved the people, the intellectualism and the freedom. But it never felt like a real religion to me .... — hell, I didn’t even know how to pray.”

Some of the dissatisfied stay with us anyway. Here’s the comment of a young adult seminarian:

"My affection for actual church attendance was quashed once I experienced a strong spiritual awakening. Defining my spiritual self through what I did not believe was no longer sufficient. And spending every Sunday questioning rather than worshiping began to ring rather hollow. The local Quaker meeting I sometimes attend has the same theological breadth as any UU congregation … but when they worship, they worship. They focus not on their differences but on their common need to find a power greater than themselves that is reassuring and supportive in a dangerous and confusing world. That is what I came to desire from my UU community and which I found lacking.[4]

Peter Morales reminds us that we’ve tried everything we could think of to grow our churches: hospitality, social justice, restructuring, PR, everything – except religion. He didn’t mean that we don’t have choirs, buildings, principles, and polity. He meant we didn’t have heart, spirituality, depth, mystery – at least, not enough. We’ve known this for a generation, we’ve worked on it for a generation. We’re still not succeeding. Why not, I wonder? And in particular, what keeps us, the ministers, from being Imagineers of soul and what would help us do better?

Well, I hear you say, “I don’t do it because I’d get fired.” And this is a real fear. So let’s talk about our parishioners first, and what goes on in their hearts and minds, and then we’ll talk about us.


Their Stuff: Shame

The sheep of these pastures – some of them, anyway, and it does seem sometimes as if they are the biggest and most ornery ones – get all bent out of shape about “spiritual”. They hear the God word or the prayer word and go into reptile mode, bawling, “No religion here!” oblivious to, even scornful of, the faith and needs of the other 75%, and that in spite of the democratic values we all supposedly share. What’s going on?

              Some were actually hurt by traditional religion. Most were, much more profoundly, shamed. This shame, like all shame, comes from feeling or being told that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. In contrast to guilt, the knowledge that you’ve actually done something wrong, shame is existential.

              We live in a culture that conflates faith and certainty, the material and the spiritual. Far too many of our people, when they didn’t feel God’s presence in their lives, or didn’t feel it any more were told, not, “That happens sometimes”, which is the truth of the matter, but, “There is something wrong with you.” They respond intellectually by proclaiming that “all this is a crock,” but at a deeper level, they take in the shame. “I don’t have the faith gene,” they say. “They told me I must have such a rebellious heart that I’m blind to what others see.” And because of that deep, shaming message, their rejection of what others believe and often, what they themselves used to believe, is not simple or freeing, but is complex, angry, brittle, and defensive. Any teacher can tell you how hard it is to teach children who have been told that there is something wrong with them that keeps them from learning. We Unitarian Universalist ministers know how hard it is to minister to the spiritually shamed.

Unitarian Universalists are mostly what Martin Marty called wintery spirits; our religious experience is of doubt, shades of gray, and absence. Although there are plenty of wintery spirits in conventional religious communities, what is celebrated and held up as real is the summery, “Jesus loves me!” style of spirituality, and most of our folks couldn’t connect with that in either mind or heart, and so they left, with a burden of shame.

The sheep of our pastures will be much easier to live with, my dear fellow shepherds, if we tend to this shame. Many of our people come to us thinking that, since they don't have an unending conversation with their friend Jesus, they have no spiritual life at all, and they do care. They care deeply and painfully, and they are trying us to see if here, by any chance, someone will point them to experiences of depth and wonder and meaningfulness, sans dogma; if something will bring tears to their eyes and strangely warm their hearts. They are hoping to be introduced to a spirituality for agnostics, theists, transcendentalists, pagans, liberal Christians that is not dependent on unending sunny days of the soul. They need someone to elicit their story about the time the world stood still for them, or how one day, out of nowhere, on a bus, they were released from anxiety and freed to move ahead in their life. To hear those kinds of stories and say, “That’s it. You got it. In spite of how it went away – it does that, you know.” And then they will be healed.

 It’s a matter of teaching spiritual psychology. They need to know something about “Wintery and Summery.[5] They need to hear about William James. They need to learn the part of our religious history about the ever so sunny Puritans and their Half Way Covenant for wintery believers like their own children, and what that led to, which is us. If you preach about Buddhism’s understanding of summery bright faith and wintery verifying faith[6], they will be grateful and they will be able to say to themselves, “There’s not something wrong with me after all!”

              A few years back a woman among my leadership got all bent out of shape about the word “prayer”, which we do in some form almost every week in our church. She was so upset she spoke of quitting. I talked to her about the possibility of broadening her definitions, and that didn’t seem to sit well, and we drifted into an uneasy stalemate. Until the first, beautiful, Sunday of spring.

“Beautiful Day,” she said as she stood on our patio. “Absolutely,” I agreed. She gave me a weighted look and then said, “It reminds me of my favorite poem!” “Oh?” “Yes. e e cummings,” she said, and paused, as if trying to remember the words. But I could tell that she remembered the words perfectly well, she just couldn’t come out with them, and anyway, she wanted to hear them from me. Lucky for her, I happened to know this prayer by heart. “i thank you god for most this amazing day.” I said, with a smile and an emphasis on the “amazing”, which I thought, would be the way she would say it, if she could have taken the risk, and she glowed, and continued, happily, “and the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and the blue, true dream of sky!” Her smile was so brilliant that I knew somehow a healing had happened. Somehow she had come to see herself as among the ranks of the spiritual, and it was good.


Their Stuff: Scorn

              Until the healing happens, though, if there is one thing a person who has been shamed knows how to do: it is to shame others in return. That’s how it happens that, in this pasture, the tools of reason are so often used to scare off the Spirit.

It’s a meeting of the worship committee and one member suggests that one thing that would make her a better leader is if the group would spend some time talking about the spiritual aspects of worship. “I don’t know why you’d want THAT!” someone says, his voice tinged with scorn and dripping reptile. That was the end of that topic. He knew not what he did, and if he’d been called on it, he would have protested that he was just speaking the truth – he can’t imagine why anybody would want to talk about spirituality. If it had been a debate team or a science lab, this rational argument would have done no harm; it might even have provoked those who disagreed to work harder, but in a spiritual community, scorn is deadly.

 Our faith, our thinking about our faith, and our conversations with others about faith don’t do well around belligerent language, close questioning or scorn. Very few people are willing to talk about their spiritual lives if they think they will be ridiculed or misunderstood.

If I think you are going to laugh at me, ridicule me, or try to prove me wrong, I’m not going to say that when the congregation really gets to singing and clapping with the musicians, that’s when I feel the spirit move through the room. I’m certainly not going to tell you about that one precious time, when I was scraping the bottom of my barrel, I felt, for an infinitely sweet half hour, held in the palm of God’s hand, and that sometimes my longing for a repeat of that amazing few moments is so strong that I could just weep. Nope. Not gonna tell you that. You’ll just laugh at me, and since I really couldn’t bear that, I’m just gonna shut up and wait, if I don’t wander away, for someone to Imagineer a place where it’s safe to speak about my tender, precious spiritual life.



Sacred and Scared

A shame-ridden people deals with pain by flaming every intimation of spirit, and that makes things difficult enough, but the heart of the matter, actually, is that the realm of the holy is a fearful place, and not just for us but for all religious people. It’s one thing – an important thing – to bring “authenticity” and “heart” to life in your amusement park. We church people edge sideways into trying to bring the holy into life, and that’s a bigger deal. Annie Dillard suggested that we ought to issue crash helmets and signal flares at the doors of our churches, just in case the Spirit we sing to actually does show up and lay waste all our neat little liturgies.[7]

Someone in a very reptilian mood left this comment on my blog:

 I just wonder who elected you to minister?
What credentials do you have?
Do you have any documents singed by God himself/herself?

Freud would have smiled, and I smile, too, but it’s a wan and rueful smile. There’s only us chickens here, and I’m no less chicken than the rest, but they elected me and seem to still seem to want me as their spiritual leader. The documents that are signed are all from them; the singing, though, that’s another matter. I do the best I can to bring some piece of the holy into the world, not unaware of the sheer audacity of asking that the creator of the Universe show up in our lives and in our hearts, something like plugging our iPods into the 220 line behind the dryer and hoping to hear nice music. The miracle is that we are not singed more often.

I caught on to this fear factor early in my ministry. The search committee of my first church told me that they wanted to be a “real” church offering something, something they called “spiritual” as in, something deeper and more satisfying than what we’ve got but nothing too scary, too much like what we’ve rejected, too alienating to our beloved other members, some of whom just wouldn’t, you know, like this at all. They were, in short, among the 75% of the disaffected Unitarian Universalists who want something more than, as one group put it, the “concert-lecture-show.”

They owned a lovely little building that had once been an Episcopal chapel. But just looking around at their sanctuary you could see their mixed emotions about being a real church, up to something important on Sunday morning. The back pews held the fellowship’s extension ladders, the large chancel behind the pulpit featured a couch left from the last performance of the play-reading group. The sound engineer had taken up residence at the base of the pulpit, the better to remind everybody that this wasn’t really a church that he was there to make sure that nothing scary and sacred would happen here.

After I’d been there long enough to gain their trust – I though a few months was sufficient –  I ventured to say, “All of your homes are better kept than your church. If this is important, we should find a way to keep things clean and straightened up.” I thought that if I just pointed out this obvious fact that they were blind to, they would eagerly set the problem to rights. I took this “wanting to be a church” at face value. I had no idea how scared they were. Or how scared I was.

This was a family-sized church whose matriarch and patriarch were the children of Baptist preachers[8]. They knew something about a priestly ministry and craved a liberal form of it, and probably also very important, they had daughters the age of their young and foolish minister. So they smoothed us all into some early victories, and we were all absolutely astonished at how satisfying the Sunday worship service became. They thought it was the preaching, and some of it was. But more of it was the care put into the worship experience, the invitation to silence, the cleaned-up church that proclaimed that something important might happen here. It was their own sharing, when it got contained enough to resemble the prayer request that it ought to resemble, and the tears they found in their own eyes. They had enabled their green and young minister to Imagineer some soul, to conjure some heart into their life together, some depth, some meaning, some spirit.

In spite of all that help, the fellowship fought “real church” at every turn. Somebody should have said it at the installation: “You are about to embark on an intense INTENSE EXEPRIENCE. If you don’t have the heart for it or a strong back and a sturdy sense of balance, TURN BACK!”

It was a blessing that I didn’t really know what I was doing. If I had done it too well I would have scared them to death and gotten the boot. Instead we transitioned from family to pastoral to program size. They resisted that growth too, of course, in all the ways we are all so conversant with, but I believe that we succeeded, not because we understood everything there was to know about size transitions or about hospitality, but because the little glimpses of heart and wonder and depth and thirst buoyed us through all the hard work of growth.

In Albuquerque it’s been a larger and longer, and rather more contentious version of the same story. They, too, had to clear their sanctuary of old living room furniture, and what was harder, to get the string quartet off center stage so that scary Imagineer and her pulpit could come out of the corner of the room.

               This is my 20th year, and it has been an intense experience, full of pressures which at times, could have been measured in “g’s”. But we took the risk of religion, and it paid off. It turns out that the world is hungry for the opportunity to grow in spirit, free of the constraints of dogma and enriched by theological diversity. Lots of people do want to understand their own kind of spirituality, to claim as spiritual those fleeting moments of wonder that they’d half forgotten, and to connect those experiences, and their halting words for them, with the halting world of other people of faith. It turns out that they want to understand a way to be rational and spiritual, to save the world and to be saved, to both belong to a community and to have deep conversations within that community.


It’s the board retreat, and the dinner is about to begin. Some hang back, wondering if grace should be said, some, perhaps, will have, almost belligerently forged ahead. Somebody takes the risk of saying, “Let’s say grace!” and holds out her hands for others to grasp and says a few plain words, blessing the gathering and the work, the cooks, the bountiful earth, hallowing the moment in a language that most, at least, find nourishing.

It’s a hospital room. The dying person has closed his eyes to escape the relentless, trivial chatter of the relatives. The minister arrives, bringing a seriousness of purpose and signals this by asking to turn off the TV. “I wonder what still needs to be said,” he says, turning them from their denial. “How can I help you make this a sacred moment?”

It’s a send-off for a work trip, a dedication of infants, a parent-child potluck before the coming of age service, the teen’s worship service where they are about to present their credos. The minister gathers everyone around and prays: “Bless these children,” she says, and the catch in her voice is audible to every person there, “Your spirit incarnated in human form. Keep them safe and growing, loved and loving, through all the days of their lives.” And suddenly, those who were just there for the ride are touched to the core of their being.


Our Stuff: the Scared Minister

Taking spiritual risks and being the carrier of depth and meaning and thirst into whatever we are doing, invoking and evoking the holy in the service of healing and transformation is the very heart of our calling. I know that I can teach, preach, organize, administer, conduct rituals, and lead the world to change without reference to this role; frankly, I mostly do. I can even pray without really invoking the holy in my heart, and I bet you can, too. We’ve all heard that kind of prayer. Probably written in a pretty way, it is read without much feeling or worse, recited in ponderous, ministerial tones, as if the weight in our voice and the length of our vowels could fool somebody, or God.

Which brings us to the minister, the spiritual leader, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, alone with all this power and all this risk. The minister, whose most important, most sacred job is bringing the light of the holy into the pasture, coaxing the people out of their rational heads, helping them understand their shame, express their gratitude, put words to the prayers they don’t think they can say. What does it take to do that?

Ministry is one long, joyful, painful sacrifice of love. You enter it because you discover that a worship service feeds your spirit, that community is a vital part of your life and, perhaps, because you have a certain way with words. And then you get into ministry and what do you discover? You discover that the leader of worship must sacrifice their own experience in worship, that the minister in a community doesn’t really exactly belong to the community any more, and that all your facility with words doesn’t help much when you get to the things that cannot be named.

Worst of all, you come to love those counter-dependent, shame-angered folk, and it’s only later that you discover that their anger, their stuckness, their inability to open their hearts to any language of reverence at all has changed your faith.

A few years into ministry, the new minister comes to GA to sink into a worship service that she didn’t have to craft, to be just one person in a community she doesn’t have to lead, and she discovers that they’ve changed her. The doubts, angers, and shame of the beloved people she’s served have discomfited her. Because they rolled their eyes at her desire to say grace over their potlucks, she’s given up, not only on blessing potlucks, but on blessing her own food in the privacy of her own home.

We who believe in the forming power of community can’t possibly imagine that its influence only works one way. There’s a reason many, perhaps most ministers – and not just Unitarian Universalist ministers – awaken at least once in their ministries with their faith in tatters and their spiritual practice nonexistent. These are our people. Their comforts and discomforts become ours unless we are very intentional about protecting and nurturing ourselves, and very intentional about taking the risks of spirit in spite of their comfort and of our own.

There are some real and dangerous shoals in the seas of spirituality, and swimming in the current is just plain hard work. To follow this calling of Imagineering soul, we have to know the waters and we have to have more support than we currently have. Here are three dangers the Sorcerer’s Apprentice must face.


The first is the danger of becoming eccentric, which is real, and the crippling fear of seeming eccentric, which is just fear.

Eccentric means uncentered, out of balance, and in the spiritual realm it has overtones of fraudulence. My picture of spiritual eccentricity comes from the Harry Potter movies. Divination professor Tralawny, who once uttered a real prophesy, but is, during Harry’s school years, completely out of touch with her abilities and her center and anxiously covers it up with hackneyed props, transparent foolishness, and wild guesses. Hardly anybody is fooled by her pathetic charades. She’s the fake we all fear to be. Her center has not held and she has not found a new one. Her real eccentricity stands as a warning to do the work of staying deeply in touch with our center as our lives and work change.

 And on the other hand, there’s Harry’s peer, Luna Lovegood. She appears eccentric and her parents definitely are eccentric. The other students call her “Loony” and tease and bully her. But Luna has had the hard work of grieving her mother’s death, and her centeredness becomes more and more evident. She’s the only person in all of Hogwarts' schools who can comfort Harry when his godfather dies. She does so by sharing her own experience of grief and by reminding Harry of their shared experience of mystery, which he had – typically – forgotten. Toward the end of the series, after the death of yet another beloved character, Harry and his friends are standing awkwardly around a hastily dug grave, and this is England, where spiritual shyness is an art form, and nobody knows what to do or say and they stand around in uncomfortable silence. It’s Luna who is centered enough to take the risk of spiritual leadership, to make a ritual out of what had started as just a terrible necessity. “I think we should have a few words,” she says briskly. “I’ll begin.” Her childish eccentricity, since it isn’t fake or anxious or showy, matures into ministerial presence; she is the centered person whose life gives them depth and wisdom to share.

Spiritual Dryness

The spiritual leader swims in dangerous waters because it's in the very nature of spirituality to ebb and flow. Even the great saints have written of the months and even years in their lives when they had no present sense of the holy. We will have those times too. But we can’t just retire to our cells and mope or even pray about it. We have sermons to write, words to say, ceremonies to lead, bringing the weight, the joy, the sense of spirit for others. If our spiritual life has ebbed, because the work has been too hard or the shaming too heavy-handed, or just because it does that sometimes, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice begins to feel like a fraud and begins to wonder if it’s all eccentric affectation. If our spiritual life has ebbed for long enough, we may start to joke or lecture our way through sermons, rush through prayers, shave seconds off the moment of silence. I know whereof I speak.

I hung up the phone after Alice’s invitation to do this lecture 15 long months ago, thinking, “but my God, what will I say?” and the phrase came to me, “Spiritual Risk Taking.”[9] It took months to get clear that what I wanted to say was that if Unitarian Universalism is going to thrive and grow it needs a depth of spirituality it hasn’t had in living memory, and that we ministers just have to figure out how to take more risks to bring this about. Writing this lecture was hard in part because my own spiritual life was at a pretty low ebb. My practice these days is a discipline of going through the motions, and I encourage myself to value my willingness to do that as a sort of grace, once removed. All through the winter, I asked myself what other topic I could write on but in the end l decided to treat my low spiritual life as a gift to the lecture; it would keep me, I hoped, from sounding pompous or proud. But, oh goodness, I do so hate that fraudy feeling! It’s a discipline to continue to take the risks of spiritual leadership in dry spells.


A third danger for the spiritual swimmer is the danger that the ego will become inflated by the very spirituality that aims to keep ego in it’s place. If the Imagineer gets too fascinated with the magic, or too pleased with her ability to engineer the conditions of magic, if her ego gets too inflated, she’s lost.

Outdoor education leaders, who specialize in helping people who don’t have enough risk in their lives to climb towers and hang from mountain cliffs, know something about the spiritual risks of risk-taking. They remind each other that if their clients start thinking that they have “conquered” their fears or worse, that they have “conquered” a mountain, the ego is there, sometimes crowing like a rooster, sometimes bathed in addictive adrenalin, sometimes thinking itself better than all others, sometimes all too willing now to take foolish risks for the sheer high of it.[10] In the Pueblo traditions, the legitimate spiritual leaders are followed around in public ceremonies by clowns making fun of all they do, to keep them humble. “Coyote waits,” they say. Coyote waits for the inflated ego to misstep, waits for the spiritual leader to do something foolish or downright evil. It’s easy for the shaman to begin to think that he or she is so special and so hard-working that the usual rules don’t apply. Coyote waits for the peacocks, the self-important, the proud. That way lies disaster.

Moving towards Heart

              So what shall we do, my good colleagues, to assure that we keep our feet on the ground? How do we develop as spiritual leaders, able and willing to take the risks and pay the prices?

Although I’ve always thought that this was the important role of ministry, that I’ve practiced it enough to see some of the fruits and to think I’m onto something, I have to also say that I don’t think I’m very good at it, especially when I can’t plan ahead. I’m impossibly tongue-tied in informal situations. I lose my focus and let all kinds of opportunities pass to pray, to point to soul, to deepen a silence. Still scared after all these years. If I’m going to do this Sorcerer’s Apprentice thing well, consistently, and joyfully, I need three things: I need to tend my own spiritual life, I need my denomination to edge this quest for spiritualities authentic to our tradition more into the mainstream, and most of all, I need my colleagues.

              Across the religious traditions, the recipe for a spiritual leader to nurture their own spirituality includes at least two things: daily spiritual practice of whatever kind, and somebody to talk about it with. More is possible but these two, a daily practice and somebody else, seem basic. The somebody can be a group or an individual, a companion or a guru, but apparently we just can’t do this by ourselves. The time can be spent in silence, in reading, in prayer, even in certain kinds of art or writing, but we just can’t be without it.

Mostly this is a self-help project. We’re professionals; that means society trusts us to attend to our own health and vitality. We Unitarian Universalist ministers are the envy of the clergy world for the sheer time we get for self-care and burnout avoidance. We’ve got no excuse not to have a regular spiritual practice. We’ve got to take the time to find compatible spiritual companions to help us over the rocks and ridges of this strange calling. Finding a spiritual director who won’t gulp if your scripture of choice is the Tao Te Ching, or a group of compatible clergy for support and prayer if you’re not a standard-issue Christian is hard. No doubt about it, but we just have to.

There are some ways we can urge our denomination to help us do this work and the most important of these is to push for the creation, at the denominational level, of a culture of expectation about the need for churches to deepen their spiritual lives. A culture of expectation is huge. If we could create as much buzz and interest about deepening our spiritual lives as we have in becoming a program size church, we might actually be able to make that leap more often. And I’ll know that we’re well on our way to that kind of health when the sixth-grade grade spiritual education curriculum is as extensive as the sixth-grade sex education unit, and nobody would think of letting someone teach it who hadn’t been to a weekend training retreat, where their own spirituality is nurtured and they have a chance to think about what they believe and how they want to talk about it.

A second denominational change would be encouragement for long ministries. I learned 10 years ago from the Alban Institute that long ministries do not deserve their bad reputation, that it is possible – if the minister continues to grow throughout their ministry – for churches to thrive in special ways when they have a continuity of ministry over 10 to 30 years.

Our good and wise colleague, Rick Warren notes that we tend to vastly overestimate what we can do in five years and vastly underestimate what we can do in 20 years. This is especially true if our aim is to deepen our congregations. Given how scared everybody is to put heart and soul and spirit into our churches, it takes a long haul of trust to do this work.

I don’t say this lightly. Several of my 20 years in my current church featured major conflicts, one of world-class proportions about which the only good thing I can say is that there was no physical violence. I thought about leaving more than once, and thought I’d be asked to leave more than once. I was deeply hurt more than once. But something has happened in Albuquerque that wasn’t going to happen if they had continued their succession of 3-10 year ministries. That something drew me, motivated me, allowed me to stay.

How do we sustain long ministries? At minimum, it requires of the minister two traits that are spiritual to their core: the ability to continue to learn, deepen, grow and take the risk of bringing that growth to the congregation, and the ability to forgive and move on. Those are both spiritual disciplines, nurtured in the quiet time, in the sitting, in conversation with wise colleagues.

Finally, there are the things we can do for each other as colleagues to help each other attend to, puzzle out, and work from the spiritual side of our lives.

 We ministers meet regularly. Most of us value our meetings as a safe place to share how it really is with our lives, by which we mean our work and our family. Could we also take more risks of sharing our spiritual lives? Could we ask each other, “How is it with your spirit?”

What’s happening in that tender and difficult part of your life? How is it affecting your ministry? What practices sustain you? What poetry feeds you? How are you bringing what you have to bring to your congregation and how is that going? Would you like us to pray for you? It’s the work of an evening at a retreat, or two hours of a monthly meeting a group of four or five. That’s a lot of precious time, but it would deepen and heal us and be a living out of the change we want to see in our churches.

In most chapters, we ask a senior colleague among us to tell the story of their professional life, their odyssey. These odysseys are often the highlight of our collegial year. We could build on this success. How about asking one among us each year to speak deeply of their spiritual journey? What have they believed, what have they loved, what has nurtured, betrayed, held them? When were the shipwrecks of faith, and how did they put things back together when they were washed up, battered and burnt? What practices kept them faithful and which were discarded? What a rich evening that would be!

To do those things, we might have to give up something else; another program session, another aimless bull session, another party, some free time. We’d have to decide that our spiritual lives were worth the time and that our colleagues could be trusted to hold and understand them and perhaps even, to offer a word of insight or healing. It would change us profoundly. It would make us better ministers.

 Why do people come to church? It is not to learn something. People don’t even go to museums to learn something. It’s not to be entertained. People don’t even go to Disney World just to be entertained. They come to church, especially they come to church, to quench a thirst, find meaningfulness, to have an authentic experience, or in a more traditional religious language, to connect with mystery, to see themselves, sub species eternitatis, to experience spirit, to deepen their souls. It’s our responsibility as ministers, not only to tend the institution, care for the dying and the grieving and the marrying and the children, but to be Imagineers of soul, taking the risks of spirit, that the people who look beyond us to the holy with such mixed emotions will be not just taught and bandaged, but fed and healed. That’s our calling.


This lecture is dedicated to the people of the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who let their Imaginer move the pulpit to the center of their platform and have hung on for a wild ride over 20 years. With special thanks to the Unitarian Universalist ministers of New Mexico, who supported the writing of this lecture with their conversation and collegial caring.

[1]             Humanity’s Search for Meaning: What Education has to Teach Entertainment By Joseph Wisne 2007 TEA Annual and Directory (

[2]             Pew research, see report at UU’s are under “Unitarians and Other Faiths”.


[3]             from the Fulfilling the Promise survey, discussed in Parker, Rebecca, Blessing the World, p. 87

[4]             FROM THE UUMA Chat used with permission on condition of anonymity


[5]             Martin Marty A Cry of Absence 1990 Harper Collins

[6]             Sharon Salzburg Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience 2003 Riverhead Trade

[7]             Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm p.52 1988:Harper Perennial

[8]             Frances and Howard Boozer, to whom I am unendingly grateful.

[9]             This phrase came from a communication to search committees from our colleague the Rev. John Weston, and he was generous enough to spend an hour chatting with me about it. Fear of eccentricity was his idea, too.

[10]            Spiritual and Emotional Risks in Outdoor Activities, by Denise Mitten, President, AEE Board of Directors (