One of my goals during my sabbatical is to attend a wide variety of worship services. My reasons for this are several.
1) Like many ministers, I hardly get to attend worship for myself. I need to worship too, so I am using this time to renew my own spirit and given that I love creating worship for others, I especially like to receive it myself.
2) I want to better understand the community I live in. The Greater St. Louis area has tremendous religious diversity and I want to learn about it and experience it myself so that I grow in my understanding of the place where I am doing Unitarian Universalism.
3) I want to see how others do worship. I learn by doing more than by reading or going to class or studying. I’m a hands on learner. I am always looking for the “what next” in our own worship services. How can we do what we do better? So, I’m looking for new ideas.
So here is where I’ve attended so far, with notes on my experience, learnings, thoughts, etc.
1) Wednesday January 4. Eliot Unitarian Chapel, Kirkwood MO. Eliot Chapel has a Wednesday evening Vespers Service that is offered by their Eden Seminary Ministerial Student. We are fortunate to live in a city with a progressive Christian seminary. Their student is not a UU seminarian but she and many progressive Christians share our values. With a bit of intentionality we can find ways to serve in their churches and vice versa. The service was small, about 12 people. It was very simple. A classical guitarist played a wonderful prelude, there were opening words, a unison reading, and very short homily, followed by silence, prayer, music, and closing words. Half an hour tops. The homily was quite meaningful to me. It was on feeling the fullness of our emotions. The basic message is that our society is afraid of strong emotion. We have learned this and often tamp down our feelings – good and bad – and this creates a spiritual vacuum. Connecting to our emotions is to connect to the fullness of who we are, to God, to the spirit. It is a path that leads us to a deeper place.
Why was this meaningful to me? The hardest week of my sabbatical was the first one. After the (over)fullness and busyness of ministry, the first week stretched before me, exhilarating but also empty and menacing. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was a nervous wreck, filled with loneliness, anxiety, boredom, fear, anger, sadness. In the emptiness, it was as if I was finally having to feel all the emotions that I had to put to the side in order to do my work, not an unusual thing in the helping professions. I was so glad to have a Vespers service to go to with all the emotional crud going on inside me. This homily helped me to feel the normalcy of this experience, something that has since been validated by other clergy colleagues. The first week is one of withdrawal and all you can do is submit to it and let it run its course.
On a more educational note, I wondered if it would be worth trying vespers services at Emerson again. One year I held Vespers one Wednesday night a month. I had anywhere from 5 to 0 people attend. Many who attended found it very meaningful and needed. However, attendance grew smaller and smaller over the year. In the end I let it go because as a solo minister, I have to be very mindful of how I prioritize my time. The amount of time it took to prepare a Vespers service didn’t seem to correlate to the number of people it served. Eliot is a congregation with 450 members with 12 at the service (and there were comments that this was a high attendance). While other churches have a tradition of Wednesday programming, we don’t. At least not now, and we don’t seem to have the critical mass to make it happen at this time. Perhaps as we grow this will become a possibility. And perhaps we might even get to the point of becoming a teaching congregation, and then we will have a ministerial student every year! Wouldn’t that be something!
2) Sunday January 8, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield MO. As some of you know, my life partner lived in Springfield MO until just last year. Our life was spent driving back and forth on I-44 so we could be together. My first experience of a UU church in the U.S. was in Springfield MO. This church was a lifesaver for me. The culture shock of moving from Toronto to the Midwest was huge. The people in this church held me and took me in and loved me. It was a god-send.
When I started attending in September 2002, I had just finished seminary, and their last minister had just resigned. So, there was always this thought in our minds that maybe I could be their next minister. But, there were some problems. The parting of their last minister was not a good one. The church was in very low morale. They were broke. And, there were a lot of divisive issues and factions. They just couldn’t seem to pull out of this place. Another factor was that I would definitely need a church that was healthy and financially stable because I would need a church to sponsor me to work in the U.S., first for a VISA, and then for Permanent Residency. I couldn’t afford to put my eggs in a basket that was leaking. So, I waited for a while, hoping that they would find their way, but it didn’t seem to be happening. So I moved on. I got my first interim ministry in New Orleans, and then I applied to Emerson Chapel, which was a half time position at that time. Emerson was an ambitious congregation that had done its homework. I got to move to Missouri, be closer to my partner, start the immigration process, and do what I loved, parish ministry.
So, my first fall at Emerson, I spent two weeks of the month in Springfield with my partner, and one Sunday I decided to attend at Springfield UU to see my beloved friends. And what do you think happened? They offered me a job. I was so mad! I waited for them, for years, and then just when I move on, they offer me a job. I told them, quite frankly, that they had kind of missed the boat. I was now the called minister of Emerson. We were in a covenantal relationship with each other, and we were working together to grow into full time ministry. However, there was no doubt that I needed supplemental income. Half time ministry is half pay ministry. I could offer them six months half time, but that was it. And because Emerson was my immigration sponsor, they would have to work through Emerson unless they wanted to sponsor me for a second VISA, which would cost some thousands. They agreed to my terms.
So what was the reaction at Emerson? Some were understandably nervous. There were fears that I would leave Emerson for Springfield. I reassured them that was not the case. Deep down, I really am a person of honor. Call it old fashioned, call it antiquated. Call it what you like. I believe a promise is a promise. And I made a promise. So, Springfield UU got me for six months and we worked very hard. I treated it like an interim. I was there to help them do their homework so they could get out of their rut. We had record worship attendance and one of the most successful canvasses ever. Within a year of me leaving they hired a half time minister who is still there, now at 3/4 time. Another great thing for me is that I saved everything I earned at Springfield UU and it formed the bulk of the downpayment on the house my partner and I bought the next year. It also helped pay for some of my immigration costs.
I hadn’t attended Springfield UU since I finished my service to them in June 2006. In our tradition, you take a time of complete separation so the church can let go of you and welcome in a new minister. You don’t set foot in the church, you don’t call any of the parishioners, email, text message, nothing, until you have the permission of the new minister. This seemed especially important because some members couldn’t get it out of their head that I should have been their permanent minister. I had to be gone. So, I texted Rev. Jane Bechle and asked her permission to attend a worship service. She said absolutely. It was great to be back. There were lots of old faces and I loved seeing them all. It was a bit like a homecoming.
I have only a few comments about the service, mostly about the sermon, which was delivered by a woman who is transferring her ministerial credentailing from Disciples of Christ to Unitarian Universalist, not unusual. Her reason being that DOC will ordain LGBTQ people but it’s damned hard to actually get hired. Most churches balk at a gay minister. That is not the case in UU. She preached on spiritual wounding. I imagine she spoke from deep experience. It was good. She talked about how to be kind to yourself and to give yourself permission to go into the places that hurt so you can emerge from them. The one thing I wished she had spoken about is how we as UUs can do this in a more healthy way. Our response to spiritual wounding is often to try and be churches that don’t act like churches. We protect people from their pain rather than welcome them to walk into it and through it. A lot of us are tired of this game. You don’t heal from broken relationships by creating quasi relationships with less commitment, less love, etc. You don’t heal from religion by running from it. I give her credit for her hard work. Also, I know she is very new to UU and she probably hasn’t yet experienced some of our growth edges. She is likely still learning the quirks of our culture. I actually hope that she is in her UU honeymoon, which is generally what happens when you first find out about UU. I loved my honeymoon. May her’s bless her and keep her with us when she faces her first challenges in our faith tradition.
Well, this is more typing than I expected to do. Stay tuned for Sabbatical Church Hopping Part II.