In my last post What’s a Congregation? I promised to talk about the role of the religious professional in this era of changing church, ‘free range’ church and ‘spiritual, but not religious’ (SBNR). But as usual, I will get there indirectly.
Well, no, the church is not falling, but there is stress and anxiety in the system.
I love our free religious tradition. I love that the decisions about faith and moral values ultimately rest with individuals. I love that our religious professionals only have the power to suggest and persuade, not to prescribe and require. And as I study these cultural shifts and their potential to affect the shape and life of our congregations, I feel both excited and anxious.
I’m excited, because I believe that new communication avenues are allowing us to spread our message both more widely, and in a more targeted fashion. Interested people can explore our net presence and find messages about our faith that match their experience. Perhaps it will be found in a local congregation or perhaps it will be found far away. The new ease of information access gives us so many more options for exploring our faith. That’s great.
In my role as President of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), I am happy to say that much of our growth around the world has come from individuals and groups finding our religion on the internet. At last month’s Council Meeting in the Philippines (our largest ever) we welcomed Kenyan and Burundian churches into membership. They found us through the internet.
Still, I’m also anxious. I have been a minister for 24 years and have grown fond of a steady paycheque that comes not from the net, but from members of a congregation who voluntarily support the church and by extension, the work that I do in their name. It is not hard to look at the shift away from institutions implied by this new digital reformation and wonder how secure the future … OK, MY future… will be.
But I’m not a Chicken Little thinking the church will fall and here’s why. At some point even the grazers at the Spiritual Buffet of World Religion need someone to work in the kitchen and prepare the meal. That role falls in part to the religious professionals: the lifespan educators, the musicians, the other church staff and yes, even us ministers. The reality in this age of the declining volunteerism is that even more of the work is falling onto those folks who are paid to go to church.
Sure there are a lot of talented amateur ‘chefs’ in our movement who organize the nourishment on many Sundays, but even they need support.
There is something gained by having leaders who are trained to think in religious terms – to think in UU religious terms, who have taken the time to study in depth the ancient and modern traditions of religion, who have learned their craft and who strive to perfect it constantly. One of the joys of being a religious professional is that I get paid to think about the church, its well-being and its needs for all of my working day. That’s not something volunteers have the time or energy to do.
It is the professional who often (not always) puts out or shares the ideas that are the topic of conversation around the movement, who helps to shape the communities of support, who works to keep congregations healthy and true to a tradition and not just subject to the current vogue ideas. We are the ones who look at society and interpret today’s events in terms of a beautiful and caring religious tradition. And, sometimes it is the professional who shovels the snow and makes the coffee, too…who does the jobs that simply have to get done whether its part of the job description or not.
I have known fellowships that have survived well and proudly for decades without ministers…but most of them have had paid religious educators, Lay Chaplains (in Canada) and often musicians and administrators. Very few thriving congregations have no paid professional support. Someone has to do the work the good-hearted volunteers can’t get done.
And while you don’t necessarily have to be a minister to perform rites of passage: child dedications, weddings and memorials (or as we say in the biz: “Hatch, match and dispatch”), I can’t tell you the number of times people have expressed relief at having the support of a professional to help them organize meaningful family rituals. And I can’t tell you the number of times that church members have been proud to have a professional speak on behalf of the church at social justice events, or in press interviews or at public ceremonies.
People love their congregations, and they take pride when the minister (or educator or musician) they call or hire represents them in the wider community. It’s part of belonging – belonging over time – that I don’t think can be fulfilled by an ever-changing free range church. I’m not knocking these other exciting approaches to religion and spirituality – I think they are important. They provide entry points to our UU tradition for folks who would never likely darken our doors. But they won’t be the whole answer. And some people will come through those groups and eventually come into our congregations when they find they would prefer some deeper connection.
I don’t think congregations are in danger of extinction, friends. I do think they will have to evolve, and so will the religious professionals who serve them.
The challenge will be to keep our congregations strong enough and financially viable enough to support a large enough core of professionals to keep our beloved Unitarian Universalism strong, vibrant and focused.
I would love to hear from ministerial students and how they see our ministry evolving from the perspective of those just starting out. What’s exciting for you? What makes you anxious?