Monday, May 11, 2009

Glory Days

Glory days well they'll pass you by
Glory days in the wink of a young girl's eye
Glory days, glory days
--Bruce Springsteen
Growing up in Virginia in the 1950s and 60s, there were lots of opportunities to reflect on "glory days." With Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all Virginians, it was easy to reflect back to the glory days of Virginia, the Mother of Presidents.

With the pride and the offended honor that only the defeated possess, there were also the glory days of the Civil War, immortalized on Monument Avenue in Richmond. If Virginia has a saint, it's Robert E. Lee; a martyr, Stonewall Jackson.

I compounded the problem by falling in love with Greek mythology. We were an agnostic household, but every boy must have his gods. With wonder, I contrasted these glory days of ancient Greece to Greece's standing in the modern world.

OK, OK, I bet you're wondering what the above is doing on a blog on examining for UU ministry. Like Virginia and Greece, UUism has a proud and significant history. In a culture where so many have never heard of us or confuse us with Unity or Unification, UUs wear "famous UUs" tee shirts just to claim our identity and differentiate ourselves from followers of other religions.

In this reverence for our history, we risk falling into a glory days syndrome. Let's return to the Boss for a reminder:

And I hope when I get old I don't sit around thinking about it
but I probably will
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
a little of the glory of, well time slips away
and leaves you with nothing mister but
boring stories of glory days

If you'll excuse the cliche, we must find a way to honor the past while preparing for the future. In a religion where the average age is creeping upwards past 55 and we've remained at about 200,000 members (adults and children) since consolidation in 1961, we want to make sure that we're not left with nothing "but boring stories of glory days." Our stagnancy in numerical growth has resulted in a dramatic decline as our percentage of rapidly growing U.S. population.

Currently, I'm serving as an organizational consultant to a Fellowship where the average age is much, much higher than the nationwide UU average. The minister and the Board are supporting the development of a young adult program and an oral history project so that this congregation's wonderful legacy of social justice work may be passed on to another generation. The Fellowship is participating in a "quadrilogue" with two other congregations and the Starr King School for the Ministry to see how all four UU institutions may support one another.

We are cheered and inspired by the stories of growing, vibrant UU "breakthrough" congregations. While it's clear that many factors--including lay leadership, governance, location, and facilities-- contribute to such breakthroughs, the role of the minister is significant. As we contemplate revising the examining process for UU ministry, we should focus on the lessons learned from these successes to identify ministerial performance and competencies that will lead to a whole new set of glory days.

1 comment:

  1. I've thought about these ideas a lot over the past thirty years, and the more I think about them, the less satisfied I am with the simplistic answers. Our "glory days," frankly, were mostly in our own minds; while the influence of people like Theodore Parker (in particular) on subsequent generations of Unitarian clergy has in many ways been more harmful than good. Healthy, "breakthrough" congregations make the difference no matter where you find them, and are often merely the combination of the right leadership, the right location, the right circumstances, and (frankly) happy accident.

    We have also always nurtured "feeble congregations" within our midst, and the apparent urgency of figuring out how to sustain and succor them has often distracted attention away from the larger issues. More often than not, the problem is not so much not knowing what to do as it is resistance to doing anything at all, along with a profoundly myopic inability to see ourselves -- not so much as we "truly are" -- but simply as others see us.

    All ministry is local. Execution is key. We know what it means to practice radical hospitality, but we don't want to pay the price of change - emotionally, financially, institutionally, spiritually. When ministers can create effective partnerships with their people, this dynamic can sometimes be overcome, but the tendency of the dynamic itself tends to set up a lot of "us/them" thinking which is ultimately self-destructive.

    Here's another often overlooked dynamic. For most of our "modern" history, Unitarianism saw itself as mostly as the progressive vanguard of a broader, Mainline Protestant Christian faith. Universalism, ironically, held itself up as a radical critique of the conventional Christian theology of sin and damnation, only to discover that it truly HAS become "the general religion of the United States," with some 90% or more of Americans not only believing that there is a heaven, but that they are going there.

    But now that we seem to be drifting more and more into the area of seeing ourselves as our own sort of Post-Christian "New Religion," no longer interested in leading the broader culture forward, but rather setting ourselves APART from the mainstream as radical and outspoken sectarian critics, we have also in many ways cut ourselves off from something vital and essential, which I can only describe as a non-sectarian desire to focus on the things that we all have in common, rather than springing on the differences that divide us and bring us into conflict with one another (although frankly, some of that Marxist/Hegelian dialectic is still an important part of our historiographical self-understanding, going all the way back to our views of the original Unitarian controversy itself). Meanwhile, this whole talk about how "it's not just a numbers game" combined with an apparent inability to talk about anything else is another self-destructive and self-defeating attitude. In absolute terms the numbers we are talking about are so tiny anyway that they really DON'T make any difference, one way or another.

    Finally, the question of leadership, and ministerial recruitment, formation, and competencies. There's no doubt in my mind that leadership is key, and that the right leader thrown into the right set of circumstances with a clear vision of the possible and the skills to gather around them the key allies they need to make that change happen is the "secret" behind every breakthrough congregation. I also believe that this style of leadership can be taught, but that our institutional life often works to sabotage it instead - knowledge is power and power corrupts, therefore we must disempower the knowledgable in order to prevent them from corrupting "the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process...." But maybe this is a topic for another day. I feel like I've written way too much here already.