A matter of simple dislike

An astute reader points out that there are any number of Web sites devoted to giving advice on what to do if you don’t like the minister of your congregation. But these Web sites are all written from an evangelical Christian point of view, and may be summed up as follows: if your minister cannot be accused of heresy or unorthodoxy, then it is your duty to stay in the congregation. This advice is useless to Unitarian Universalists, who are by definition unorthodox and heretical.

So here’s my advice on what to do if you don’t like the minister of your Unitarian Universalist congregation.

First of all, let’s assume that you simply don’t like your minister. If you know your minister is engaging in misconduct, that’s an entirely different conversation; or if you can prove gross incompetence, that would also be an entirely different conversation. Let’s assume that you just don’t like your minister. There are some people whom we just don’t like, and there’s not much we can do about it. (My Unitarian mother used to say this sort of thing was based on sense of smell — some people just smell wrong to us — and while it sounds a little kooky I think there’s some truth in it.) Given that assumption, what would you do?

When I was in my teens and early twenties, I didn’t much like the senior minister at my UU church. I respected him, and he was obviously competent and clearly ethical — but I didn’t like him. So when I was in my teens, the assistant minister became my primary minister — I got to know him because he led the youth group, and I really liked him. After he left, when I was in my twenties, I’d just go to church and sit up in the balcony where I could hear the organist better, and I’d pretty much ignore the sermon. Sometimes I’d be one of the ushers, and I’d slip out of church after we took the offering and go downstairs to talk with the sexton or one of the other ushers.

I suppose this will sounds horrible to some people — here I am, a minister talking about how I avoided my minister. It will sound even worse when I tell you that the minister I avoided was Dana Greeley, one of the truly great UU ministers of the 20th century. In partial defense, I will say that I have never been a strong auditory learner, so that listening to sermons has always been a struggle for me; I will also say that I knew the problem was mine, not Dr. Greeley’s, and I dealt with it in non-destructive ways. I don’t know if Dr. Greeley ever noticed that I never paid attention to his sermons, but if he did he was far too gracious and far too much the compassionate minister to let that bother him.

And I think this is a fairly common phenomenon. In my ten years as a religious educator, there were lots of good Sunday school teachers who were the people who either couldn’t stand the senior minister, or who couldn’t sit still through a sermon. There is no cosmic rule that says you have to like the minister in your church. And let’s face it, the church is far more than the one human being who happens to be the minister, so there is no earthly reason why anyone should feel compelled to like any given minister.

Therefore, my advice on what to do if you don’t like the minister of your church is quite simple: do what you have to do to avoid the minister, without making a big deal out of it. Go to worship services and enjoy the music; or teach Sunday school; or join the men’s group or the Women’s Alliance; or go to the Sunday morning forum and then drink coffee instead of attending worship; whatever you can do without being destructive.

Because ultimately I believe church is not about the minister, and it’s not about your relationship with the minister. Church is a spiritual practice, and no one said spiritual practices are easy; in fact, any good spiritual practice should make you confront parts of yourself that you don’t really want to confront; so if you dislike the minister, fold that into your spiritual practice of going to church. Church is a covenanted community in our tradition, and you don’t step out of a covenant just because you dislike someone, and there’s always someone in a covenanted community whom you will not like.

(Actually, maybe I need to write another post on church-going as a spiritual practice. It’s funny how lots of people are willing to suffer the agonies of sitting in the lotus position while meditating for hours, but don’t make the connection between that kind of pain and the pain that inevitably comes through regular church-going in a covenanted community. But some other time for that….)

I’m sure many of you will disagree with the above, or will have very different advice to give on this topic. I hope you will comment, and let us know what you think about this — just remember that this is not a forum to talk about clergy misconduct or incompetence (see third paragraph) — also, be sure to be polite and thoughtful.

8 thoughts on “A matter of simple dislike

  1. Jess

    I look forward to your further thoughts on church-going as spiritual practice — this is spot on! It seems that far too often ministers are pulled in many directions trying to “please” everyone who complains, caught up in the heat of the moment, and that far too often members think they should be so catered to; but that just isn’t what it’s about, folks.

    Connections and covenant and intentional community — those are what make a church work.

  2. Tracee F

    I wholeheartedly agree. I used to attend a UU church, however, that took issue with people sitting out the church service. It was a church that had a determinedly atheist/humanist bent, but an active CUUPs group I was a part of. The services rarely held anything of substance for a theist, and the CUUPs folks had much more lively discussions of faith and theology in the parlor. We weren’t causing dissent, or trying to take people out of service, but it was seen as creating a rivalry for the minister, and people were quite upset about it. The CUUPs leaders ended up putting out a call for the group to stop gathering in the parlor and instead attend the service, because it was strongly suggested that the CUUPs group was “allowed” to be there at the sufferance of the church, and shouldn’t be behaving in that fashion.

    Needless to say, I wasn’t long for that church.

  3. unitalian

    I’d be interested to know if the UU church in the US is as athiest and unaccepting as it sounds. The minister of my (old) church in London is a yank but although he too purports to be an athiest, really as most of the congregation believe in “something” it’s a pretty, er, liberal place. Time and again though I seem to read about this hostility to belief in the “supernatural” in the US church.

  4. Dan

    Unitalian @ 4 — You write: “I’d be interested to know if the UU church in the US is as athiest and unaccepting as it sounds.”

    I suppose it depends on which Unitarian Universalist church you wind up attending. All the churches I have been a part of were pretty accepting of a wide diversity of belief. Here in the New Bedford church, we have atheists, humanists, liberal Christians, neo-Pagans, etc., and so far no blood has been shed.

    As for the national organization, the liberal Christian UUs all say it’s too atheistic, while the humanists all say it’s too theistic — I feel it’s pretty accepting of a range of beliefs, unless you have a chip on your shoulder (and of course, many individual UUs do have chips on their shoulders).

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