Stressed out

When a minister is removed from fellowship, or resigns from fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee sends out email announcing the minister’s name, and the reason for removal from fellowship, or the reason for resignation. These emails go out to all other ministers, and also, I believe, to key congregational lay leaders such as Board presidents.

Starting last year, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee finally began maintaining a list of these ministers online at this web page: “UUA Clergy Removed or Resigned from Fellowship with Completed or Pending Misconduct Investigations.” This list goes back to the 1960s, although there is a specific warning that the list “is in no way a complete historic record.” I would assume it is fairly complete for about the last twenty years.

So I just received another email notice of a minister removed from fellowship. That makes four ministers out of fellowship since September. This seemed like a high number to me. But is it?

According to the online list, in the period from 2000 to 2020, twenty ministers either resigned from fellowship rather than face misconduct charges, or were removed from fellowship on misconduct charges, averaging one per year. (The list has not been updated for 2022.) Thus four ministers out of fellowship in six months is a high number compared to the historical average. However, four ministers went out of fellowship in 2019, the highest number in any one year. So having a high number of ministers out of fellowship cannot be blamed solely on the COVID pandemic.

Nevertheless, four ministers out of fellowship within six month is still a high number. I believe the pandemic has contributed to this historically high number. Which makes sense. We know that people in other helping professions are feeling burned out by the pandemic, so we should expect ministers and key volunteers to be feeling burned-out and tender. We also know that emotions are high in all workplaces, and “rage quitting” is a thing, another symptom of workplaces stress. I’m thinking the common thread running through all this is pretty obvious: both lay people and ministers are feeling stressed out after almost three years of pandemic.

What can we do to address all this stress?

Well, many ministers would probably benefit from talking with a mental health professional, to get an outside opinion about their emotional well-being (that is, if you can find a mental health professional to talk with, since there is a shortage of such people). I’ll be talking with a therapist myself in a week or so.

Congregational leaders, for their part, would probably benefit from talking with denominational officials or congregational consultants. Again, the point would be to get an outside perspective: How stressed out is the congregation? And where there is a lot of stress, then start thinking about how to reduce that stress.

To help reduce stress, I would also heed the advice of Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University, from a recent Religion New Service article. “Everything has to be hyper-intentional now,” Thumma said. “The focus should be, how can we become a better church — rather than, how do we re-create what we used to have?” In other words, let’s shift expectations away from what we used to do, and instead set expectations about what we can realistically do now. That should lower stress on lay people and ministers alike.

“Healthy Congregations”

Pam, the minister at the Unitarian Universalist congregation just down the street in Scituate, told me about “Healthy Congregations,” a nonprofit that carries on the work of Rabbi Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke. Friedman applied Murray Bowen’s family systems theory to congregational life, which is outlined in his book Generation to Generation. Beginning in the 1990s, Steinke developed workshops to train workshop facilitators in systems theory.

I read Friedman’s book years ago. Family systems theory really does provide good insight into how congregations work. (I feel it also provides insight into how any face-to-face membership organization works.) Somehow I’m going to have to figure out how to fit one of their online workshops into my schedule….

An expert look back at the pandemic

STAT News takes a look at what most surprised experts about the COVID pandemic. STAT senior writer Helen Branswell’s article is well worth reading.

The point that I found most interesting: “How long the damn thing has lasted.” Branswell reports:

“[In the past,] the pandemics that have been recorded have mainly been caused by flu. And in the recorded flu pandemics, there was generally a wave or two — sometimes, in some places three — and then humans and the new virus reached a detente. The new flu virus settled into causing seasonal flu activity, not pandemic flu.

“A lot of people STAT spoke to thought that was the way this pandemic would play out. They didn’t anticipate that we’d be where we are now, with waves of transmission still occurring at various points in the year, rather than during the winter, as is the way of most respiratory pathogens.

“‘I never would have imagined that three years later we would still be dealing with this in the way that it’s ever-present in our conversations and in our society,’ said Messonnier, the former CDC official….”

As a layperson, I never dreamed that after three years, we’d still be dealing with high levels of virus transmission, and serious health consequences. I’m glad to know that the experts are equally flummoxed.

And the second most interesting point, from my point of view: “The ripple effect.” Branswell summarizes what one expert said:

“…Hatchett, for all his studying of previous pandemics, wasn’t anticipating the geopolitical impacts of this one. He likens it to a meteor strike. [emphasis added]

“In addition to the crushing waves of illness, the lives lost, the swamping of hospitals, and the disruption to routine health care, he points to the economic disruption of the past couple of years, the onset of inflation, the spike in energy prices, and the upheaval in supply chains as all being of a piece….”

Another ripple effect not mentioned in the article, but which I see every day: the COVID pandemic has changed the shape of religion in the U.S. permanently. The pandemic accelerated the ongoing trend of disaffiliation from religious organizations. The pandemic is finishing off a fair number of congregations already weakened by the Great Recession in 2008. The pandemic deepened the divide between the conservative Christians who were vaccine deniers, and everyone else who was religious (and who had to explain that yes they were religious, but they were vaccinated). The pandemic advanced livestreaming acceptance incredibly rapidly. The pandemic is causing quite a few religious professionals to seek other lines of work….

The list goes on. Yes, it was like a meteor strike. Organized religion in the U.S. will never be the same.

Marketing for congregations

When I arrived at First Parish in Cohasset in August, I started watching for newcomers. Of course, I didn’t know most of the people, but each Sunday I would ask the long-time members if there were any newcomers.

We had no newcomers in August. One in September. None in October. Then two so far in November.

As a former salesperson, when I see so few newcomers I immediately assume that there’s no marketing going on. That’s what marketing does — it reaches people who are new to your business (and a small nonprofit organization like a congregation is a business). The primary form of marketing for most Unitarian Universalist congregations is a website. So I decided to take a look at the First Parish website. I found that since the COVID pandemic had started, there had been very little new material added to the website (no surprise there, people were busy doing other things). The administrator and I started adding content to the website at least weekly, beginning in October. Sure enough, we got a couple of newcomers stopping by in November.

I’d like to believe the tiny uptick in newcomers is a result of our markting efforts. Of course I know this is the worst kind of evidence — it’s all anecdotal, there’s no way of proving a causal relationship, etc., etc. I know that I could simply be deluded by confirmation bias here — I see something that confirms what I already believe, and continue to believe what I believe.

But I still think marketing works. If your website is your only form of marketing, then paying attention to your website should yield dividends.

Borrowing vs. appropriation

In an interview with Religion News Service, author Liz Bucar talks about the difference between religious (mis)appropriation, and religious borrowing:

“Religious borrowing has always existed. It’s certainly a big part of the way religion in America is experienced and consumed, especially if you think about the spiritual but not religious or the nones. Some forms of cross-tradition borrowing are positive. For me, borrowing is the bigger category and appropriation is the problematic form. And the reason it’s problematic, for me, is when the borrowing happens in conditions of injustice, oppression and power inequities. That’s what generates harm.”

In fact, we might say that syncretic religions (and most religions have at least some syncretic elements in them) depend on religious borrowing.

But it’s religious misappropriation that we have to be concerned with. And I believe Unitarian Universalists are particularly prone to religious misappropriation. Here’s Liz Bucar again:

“I think that progressive secularists, a community which the academy is full of and which I’d probably identify with, haven’t always been understanding of religious communities or thought of them as a source for what human flourishing can look like. They often think about religious communities as problems to be solved, or as people ruled by hierarchical institutions or arcane rules and doctrines. This position sets them up for maybe not being as respectful or deferential to religious claims as they could be.”

Honestly, this sounds like Unitarian Universalists. We look a lot like progressive secularists. Many of us treat religion as a problem to be solved, rather than a source of human flourishing. We set ourselves up to be less than respectful to other religions — even perhaps less than respectful to our own religion.

Global chalice lightings

The International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) is now defunct, another victim of COVID. According to Inga Brandes, ICUU President in 2021, “With the Covid Pandemic, the climate Emergency, and underlying funding issues, ICUU is facing major problems of sustainability and impact.” And so we now have the International U/U Collaboration.

This is sad, but not entirely surprising. As I understand it, ICUU funding has been precarious for some time. All best wishes to the new group.

However, in the transition, the old ICUU website disappeared, along with some 212 “global chalice lightings.” The global chalice lightings were words for lighting the chalice, submitted by Unitarian / Universalist communities from around the world, and often translated into multiple languages. These were a tremendously useful resource. Not only did they give insight into the internal diversity of global Unitarian and Universalist communities, not only were many of them useful in worship services, but they also were one of the only linguistically diverse Unitarian Universalist resources we had.

Yes, we have UU hymns and readings in Spanish. But here in the United States, there are Unitarian Universalists who are fluent in many other languages, and/or whose first language is other than English. For example, in my past two UU congregations, I shared global chalice lightings in Portuguese, French, and German with native speakers of those languages. I’ve known one or two African American Unitarian Universalists who felt some connection to global chalice lightings from Nigeria, and the occasional Filipino American Unitarian Universalist pleased to see global chalice lightings from the Philippines.

I hope someone has saved all those global chalice lightings, and makes them available again. The new website of the International U/U Collaboration has less than a dozen of them. I can’t find them on the UUA website. I did manage to get all the global chalice lightings from 2003 through 2014 from the Wayback Machine. But after 2014, it’s much more difficult to pull the global chalice lightings from the Wayback Machine.

The ICUU global chalice lightings are undoubtedly covered under international copyright. So I’m not going to post any of them here on my website (though I’m willing to share them with individuals if you email me directly). And if you happen to have a collection of ICUU global chalice lightings from 2015 on, and you’re willing to share, please leave a note in the comments below!

Clerical stoles

In two earlier posts (one and two), I wrote about preaching gowns. Personally I’m not a fan of preaching gowns, but I understand why they can be of use. Now I’d like to think out loud about clerical stoles.

Stoles are those long pieces of cloth that clergy drape around their necks. The stole comes from the Christian tradition. I don’t remember Unitarian Universalist clergy using stoles until the 1980s. My recollection is that Eugene Pickett, when he was president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, insisted that clergy should wear stoles. By the 1990s, clerical stoles were pervasive in Unitarian Universalism. And by 2003, the year I participated in the Service of the Living Tradition as a newly ordained minister, I think I was the only minister who didn’t wear a stole.

Some people understand the stole to be a symbol of ordination. But choirs that wear robes often also wear stoles, and we generally expect most of our choristers to be non-ordained persons. So I’m not convinced that the stole is a symbol of ordination, and only to be worn by ordained clergy.

Also, stoles are reminiscent of other special religious clothing in other traditions. A stole is somewhat similar in appearance to the Japanese Buddhist wagesa, though the wagesa has very specific symbolic meanings (as I understand it) which obviously differ from any symbolism a stole might have. A stole is perhaps slightly reminiscent of the Jewish tallit or prayer shawl, insofar as it’s something to drape over your shoulders when engaging in religious observances.

It seems to me that there are other cultures that drape long pieces of cloth around your neck. Think of Hindu men who wear a dupatta over a sherwani for their wedding. I feel like there are other examples, though I can’t think of any right now. So even though there’s a strong connection between the stole and Christianity, it you take the cross off a stole maybe it’s not a Christian stole any more. When Unitarian Universalist minister Hank Peirce wears his Boston Bruins stole, there isn’t much connection between the stole and Christianity.

I don’t like wearing a preaching gown, but I feel reasonably comfortable wearing a stole. I think of it as a uniform. Like when I worked at the lumber yard, and I had to wear a shirt with a “Concord Lumber Corp.” patch over the shirt pocket, and my first name embroidered on the other side of my chest. (And yes, I’ve thought of having a stole made with a patch that says “First Parish Unitarian Universalist” on one side, and my name embroidered on the other side, but rejected the idea for obvious reasons.)

I wish I didn’t have to wear any special clothes to be a minister. As a Universalist, I think all humans are of equal worth, and wearing special clergy clothing sets my teeth on edge. But I realize that people want to see their clergy wearing some kind of uniform. For me, a stole represents a reasonable compromise between egalitarianism and the need for a uniform. So on Sunday, when I participate in the Town of Cohasset 9/11 observance, I’ll be in uniform, wearing a stole.

(Getting a stole for Sunday proved to be a challenge. I have a stole that my younger sister gave me when I was ordained, but it’s still in a moving container somewhere. I just found out about the Cohasset 9/11 observance, and had to get a stole on short notice. But finding a stole without any Christian symbolism on it, that could be overnighted to me, was a challenge. I finally found Threads by Nomad, a small company that’s trying to provide clothing that doesn’t do “damage to people or the planet.” They had clergy stoles on sale and they were able to overnight one to me. Sadly, it looks like they’re selling off their stole inventory, so maybe it hasn’t been a good business opportunity for them. Their website tells me that the stole I bought was “made from a fabric called mud cloth from Mali. Mud cloth is dyed using fermented mud — a traditional dying technique in many parts of the world but notably in West Africa. Our mud cloth is not mass produced and therefore every piece is different in design.” Since I’ve been strongly influenced by African philosophy, this seemed like a serendipitous find. Plus the stole was made by an “artisan [who was] fairly compensated.”)

Preaching gowns, part two

In a previous post I outlined some reasons why I don’t want to wear a preaching gown. In this post, I’ll do my best to give some of the many good reasons why Unitarian Universalist ministers should Geneva gowns, or other types of preaching gowns.

First, women ministers are held to impossible standards of dress, and for them a preaching gown makes sense. I have heard from many women ministers about the comments they have to endure from congregants about their clothes. I’ve heard about other women giving backhanded compliments on articles of clothing, compliments that are really criticisms. I’ve heard about men making inappropriate comments on how “sexy” or “attractive” a woman minister looked. As a man, I could deal with that kind of comment by wearing exactly the same kind of clothes all the time (which is in fact what I do), but women are held to a different standards and if they don’t wear a variety of clothes they are subjected to criticism. So if I were a woman minister, I wouldn’t want to deal with this kind of bullshit, and I’d seriously consider wearing a preaching gown.

Second, ministers who are not white typically experience varying levels of racism in our predominantly white Unitarian Universalist congregations. As an example, recently I heard about a minister of color who was told that they were very well-spoken — well of course they are, they have been trained in the art of public speaking, as have all ministers — white male ministers don’t receive this sort of backhanded compliment (sadly, white women do hear similar comments). If I were a person of color and a minister in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, chances are good that I’d want to wear a preaching gown.

Third, there are ministers who are poor dressers. I’m one of those ministers. I simply don’t pay attention to clothes most of the time. On one memorable occasion, I showed up at church on Sunday morning wearing a coat and trousers from two different suits. I frequently forget to fasten collar and cuff buttons. I have poor taste in ties. I try to remember to pay attention to my appearance, but I frequently forget; it’s not that I don’t care, I’m simply not aware. Ministers like me might to do better to wear wear a preaching gown, to save our congregations from occasional embarrassment. In my case, however, I’m sure I’d find ways to look slovenly in a preaching gown; the gown might hide some of my sartorial blunders, but not all of them.

Fourth, a preaching gown is a symbolic tie to Unitarian Universalist history. It’s not a wholly bad thing to be descended from the Protestant Reformation. Some of our most cherished values — freedom of individual conscience, the priesthood and prophethood of all persons, etc. — derive from the Reformation. Ralph Waldo Emerson wore a preaching gown, as seen in Daniel Chester French’s sculpture of the seated Emerson. Wearing a preaching gown can symbolize the tie to our most brilliant Unitarian minister, and to a host of other Unitarian and Universalist and Unitarian Universalist ministers.

In short, there are very good reasons for a Unitarian Universalist minister to wear a preaching gown. There are very good reasons for Unitarian Universalist congregations to want their minister to wear a preaching gown. Perhaps most importantly, given the persistent and pernicious sexism and racism in Unitarian Universalism (which is a reflection of the racism and sexism in our wider society), preaching gowns make a great deal of sense. Wearing a preaching gown can serve as a symbol that the person wearing it is a highly trained and skilled professional. Well-meaning white parishioners, and parishioners of all genders, may need this weekly reminder. The reminder of professional competence offered by preaching gowns might also be useful for ministers who are young, disabled, LGBTQ+, etc.

Indeed, white male ministers like me should probably consider wear preaching gowns to show solidarity with our ministerial colleagues. However, this must be balanced against another consideration. In my experience dealing with the aftermath of ministers who engage in unethical behavior and misconduct, I have a strong sense that misconducting ministers use all the little signs and symbols of authority to insulate themselves from being held accountable for their ethical violations. I believe some misconducting ministers have used the symbolic power of a preaching gown to allow them to hide from accountability. So white male ministers who choose to adopt the signs and symbols of ministerial power — preaching gowns, titles, and the like — must be careful to ensure that there are robust institutional structures in place to hold them accountable for their behavior. Actually, all ministers should make sure there are robust institutional structures in place to hold them accountable, but white male ministers need to be especially sure of this.

For me personally, the decision on whether or not to wear a preaching gown comes down to two competing demands. If I were to wear a preaching gown, I could express solidarity with non-white and non-male ministers. Balanced against that is my strong sense that wearing a preaching gown can serve as one of those little things that can serve to insulate ministers from ethical accountability. For me — not for anyone else, mind you, just for me — the balance is tipped in favor of any slight increase in ethical accountability. But I think for most ministers, and for most congregations, the balance will be tipped the other way.

Preaching gowns

I was trying to explain to someone why I don’t wear a preaching gown, or any other clerical vestments. It’s kind of a long explanation, so I thought I’d turn it into a blog post.

Unitarian Universalists ministers who wear gowns to preach typically wear one of two types of gown. If they have a doctoral degree, they can wear a doctoral robe. When I was a teenager, the minister of my Unitarian Universalist church was Rev. Dr. Dana Greeley. As I recall it, he wore his Harvard doctoral robe to preach: crimson fabric with black insets, and black velvet bars on the sleeves.

The other choice of robe is the traditional Geneva preaching gown. This is the gown worn by ministers in traditions that trace their lineage (to use a Buddhist term) back to the Protestant Reformation, particularly to John Calvin in Geneva. The Protestant Reformation put the emphasis on preaching the Word, and they wore gowns that resemble academic gowns showing the importance of their education, their focus on the Word.

Since I don’t have a doctoral degree, I’m obviously not going to wear a doctoral degree. My reasons for not wearing a Geneva gown are more complex.

First, I feel that Unitarian Universalism has drifted far enough away from Protestantism that Geneva gown have little symbolic value for us any more. A Geneva gown symbolizes Protestant shift from priest to preacher, where preaching the Word became central to the Protestant religion. Our worship services no longer focus on preaching as much as we used to — I remember sermons lasting for close to half the worship service, but today my sense is the typical Unitarian Universalist sermon lasts for about 15 minutes of an hour-long service. So we are not preaching as many words as we used to do. Nor is it clear to me that we are preaching the Word — capital “W” — that is, the Word of the Christian God. A Unitarian Universalist minister who is Christian might want to wear a Geneva gown. But even Unitarian Universalist ministers who are Christian need to preach to theologically and religiously diverse congregations, so the Geneva gown might be about as appropriate as the saffron robes of certain Buddhist monks. A Unitarian Universalist minister who wears a Buddhist saffron robe is making a definite statement about their religious outlook; if I were to wear a Geneva gown, I feel I’d be making an equally definite statement, and I’m not sure it’s a statement I want to make.

Second, Protestant ministers wear a Geneva gown to set themselves apart from ordinary members of the congregation. The gown is a sign of their special religious status. I’m not sure that Unitarian Universalist ministers actually have that kind of special status. I feel that my position as a Unitarian Universalist minister is closer to the position of rabbis as described by Coffee Shop Rabbi: “Rabbis are ordinary people with specialized knowledge. Unlike a priest, we do not have special powers. A rabbi is a person who has studied Torah, Jewish law and tradition. Someone, either an institution or another rabbi, has declared that they can call themselves ‘rabbi’.” As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I consider myself to be an ordinary person who has specialized training: a three and a half year graduate degree, a one year internship under an experienced minister, and clinical pastoral education. Both a local congregation and the Unitarian Universalist Association have declared that I can call myself “minister.” In my understanding, my specialized training does not give me a special status such that I need to wear special clothes to lead worship.

Third, anyone can lead a Unitarian Universalist worship service. We are not like many Christian denominations, where only a priest or ordained clergy can preside at worship services. (Nor are we like the Church of the Latter-day Saints, where only men can preside at services.) So you don’t need a special person to lead worship, and the worship leader doesn’t need special clothes to lead worship. Alternatively, if ministers wear special clothes to lead worship, then maybe ordinary Unitarian Universalists should, too.

Fourth, I’m a cheapskate, and Geneva gowns are expensive. Yes, you can purchase a polyester Geneva gown for under three hundred dollars. But I don’t want to purchase any artificial fiber clothes any more — artificial fibers are one of the chief sources of microplastics in the environment. And a natural fiber gown will cost upwards of $1,000. I find it hard to explain to myself why I’d spend well over $1,000 on a garment that I’d wear at most 40 hours a year. Better I should either put that money into my retirement savings, or give that money to a local homeless shelter.

There are lots of arguments about why Unitarian Universalist ministers should wear some kind of special clothes to lead worship. I’ll outline some of those arguments in a follow-up post.

Three books on Transcendentalism

Three recent books provide new insights into the nineteenth century Transcendentalist movement.

The Transcendentalists and Their World by Robert A. Gross (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2021).

Robert Gross is perhaps best known for his brilliant use of social history techniques in his 1976 book, The Minutemen and Their World. Social history was a mid-twentieth century intellectual movement that, rather than focusing on elite powerful figures, focused on the mass of people in a given historical era. In The Minutemen and Their World Gross and his research assistants pored through historical documents like voting records, deeds, tax rolls, and the like. Using both quantitative techniques, like statistical analysis, and qualitative techniques, he was able to tell a much richer story about the Minutemen of Concord, Massachusetts, and why they decided to take up arms against His Majesty’s troops.

After completing that book, Gross extended his research into nineteenth century Concord. He wanted to figure out why such a small town became the home of both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two major Transcendentalist figures. He also wanted to find out more about the social and cultural milieu of Emerson and Thoreau, as a way to better understand their intellectual accomplishments.

Continue reading “Three books on Transcendentalism”