Response to "Imagineering Soul,” by Christine Robinson

Rev. John A. Cullinan

25 June 2008 at Ft. Lauderdale, FL

My deep thanks to you, Christine, for the time and the wisdom you’ve shared with me this year. Thank you for entrusting me with your baby this past month, for sharing some of the joy and the struggle of its creation with me, and for allowing me to add my voice to yours. I am honored and, to be honest, just a touch terrified at the prospect of ending my rookie season by responding to you and addressing my colleagues. Thank you for sticking with this topic in spite of the struggle. It is far too important to let go of. You have spoken a piece of what has been on my mind and in my heart this first year in ministry.

There is little I can add to what has already been said, other than to stress that, besides those experiences of spiritual shame and fear of the Holy that you list as impediments to the role of minister as Imagineer of the soul, I would add that we are often impeded by the fact that the expectations of this profession have shifted -- and not necessarily for the better. A long-time friend of mine, a Catholic priest who for years was the director of vocations for a diocese in Massachusetts, once told me that he felt the major reason for the crisis in vocations that the Catholic church was experiencing was that the nature of the job had changed so radically in the past several decades. The priestly role had been diminished and been overshadowed by the role of administrator, the balance between the two had been lost, and "who in their right minds,” he asked me, "would willingly profess vows of chastity and poverty so that they could take up a career in middle management?”

Over the years, more and more Unitarian Universalist ministers have taken up vows of poverty as well, loaded at the front end of formation and cunningly disguised as Stafford Loans. Many of us do this willingly, and yet the shift in demands are no different for us.

In your essay, you wager with us that we came into this profession because "[we’d] found heart and soul in the church and in its people and [we] wanted to join the sorcerers who created more.” This is certainly part of my story, part of what drew me in through the seminary doors, but very early in formation students are confronted with the other demands of the profession. The desire to be the sorcerer’s apprentice is met head on with the realities of today’s shifting expectations. We soon learn that the minister needs to be both Imagineer and manager. Both roles are necessary, and they need to exist in balance with one another; but, just as my friend observed about the Catholic church, the latter role is threatening to swallow up the former. This becomes a source of anxiety for the minister in formation. It’s not the job we thought we were signing up for.

Some may be unsure of their skills and readiness for the role. Others of us who’ve done our time as corporate flunkies certainly don’t relish the thought of taking up the role again. The desire to assuage this anxiety begins to shift our focus away from our role as Imagineer, and unfortunately many of our congregations only add to that anxiety. Every indication as we go through the first search process points to the desire of our congregations for management. Outside of the wish for "good preaching” -- whatever that might mean in any given location -- all of the expressed desires of our potential new churches seem to be centered on issues less than sacred.

If they’re looking for an Imagineer of the soul, they’re not saying so. Of the many congregational packets I read throughout my own recent search, very few made more than a passing reference to the worship life of the institution. One congregation actually provided no information about its spiritual life: no orders of service, no description of traditions or holidays celebrated, no pictures of the inside of the sanctuary (in use or empty!), no indication whatsoever that anything sacred ever happened there on Sunday (or any other day), ever.

But they’re looking to call a minister. Whatever for?

It would be reasonable to assume from what’s explicitly stated that they’re looking for the manager and not the Imagineer.

Thus, in the final year of seminary, my classmates and I seem focused, sometimes to the exclusion of all else, on issues of management. After all, our vows of poverty are soon coming due. We want jobs. And our churches want managers. Our conversations turn almost exclusively to what one colleague of mine has termed "ministrivia.”

How do we manage the pastoral to program shift?

How do I read a balance sheet?

How do I supervise staff?

What’s a discretionary fund?

How do I negotiate salary?

How the hell do my taxes work?

Will the staff respect me?

What if I have to fire someone?

How do we raise more money?

What if we don’t raise enough money?

What’s going to get me fired?

Somehow amidst all this agonizing, I’ve secured a job and moved my family halfway across the country, and all the while my focus continues to narrow, until I can begin to see only systems that need repair and not people who need pastoring, the call to be the sorcerer’s apprentice is lost in the shadow of my administrative anxieties, my only spiritual practice is my morning cup of coffee, and the only prayer I can remember is "Dear God, please don’t let them figure out I don’t know what I’m doing!”

In light of this, it could likely be that I’m doomed before I’ve even set foot in my first pulpit on that first Sunday in that first year.

It could be, but for the voices from out the past reminding me who I need to be in that moment.

The first is the voice of my internship supervisor, Alan Taylor, who would speak to me each week what were, at first, the four most terrifying words in the English language: "How’s your prayer life?” In beginning, I hated this question. I thought then that I’d forgotten how to pray. However, I had been handed the task of praying with the congregation each Sunday, and in learning to pray with them, to speak the needs and the purpose of the community into being, my own spiritual life became more focused. The question, "How’s your prayer life?” becomes a reminder of my purpose.

The second voice is that of my father. He’s a devout Catholic who is, let’s say, bemused by UU worship practices – but he likes to hear the prayer. "Don’t forget to keep doing that with them,” he tells me. "Somebody needs to.”

These two voices call me back to that primary purpose, just as I am ready to give in. I have come to this place, chosen this profession, because (Yes!) I found heart and meaning in the church, and I wanted to join the sorcerers. I must live my spiritual life, and I must give its fruits to those who have called me.

It begins for me with that prayer. Praying with the congregation has become more important than preaching to them. My work as the Imagineer is the building of a fire that grows out of the church’s commitment to what is just, and right and true. Everything that happens on Sunday can be fuel for that fire, but only if the spark is tended to. To pray, to give name to the shared needs and purpose of the community is to tend to that ember; in the words of Archibald MacLeish it is to "blow on the coal of the heart” of the community.

The congregation says they want a manager. In truth they probably need one. And, yes, it is an important role, and, yes, I will be that for them. But the manager and the Imagineer must live in a balanced tension, and so I must be the Imagineer, as well. It is not an easy part to play, and they may never ask me to be one because, yes, the Holy is a terrifying place for many; and, yes, as I’ve witnessed first hand this year to my ever increasing sorrow, many of our people have been shamed away from the life of the Spirit. But to be that Imagineer of the soul is the essential thing, the role I was called to play, the thing that keeps me from being just another middle manager, the thing that makes that sneaky vow of poverty worthwhile.

And so, snatched back from the jaws of the beast of my anxiety, on the first Sunday of my first year in my first pulpit, I pray with my people, as I have each Sunday since. They may never ask for it outright, indeed some would be thrilled if I never did it again. But still, I pray.

Somebody needs to.

Thank you, Christine, for naming the need. Thank you for being another voice calling me back to my purpose.