Over ten years ago, when I was a very junior minister in another state, I made an egregious collegial error by accepting a request to perform a memorial service for a member of another congregation without making sure it was all right with the minister of that congregation. It was sort of an accident, but one that should not have happened, no matter how ignorant I was of the existing UUMA guidelines.
Subsequently, I had a lot of explaining to do, much of which was inadequate, and managed to avoid being hauled up in front of a national good offices person, mostly out of the kindness of the colleague and district UUMA folks. The reasoning was that I was a rookie, that the copy of the guidelines I had been given was out of date, and it was not a malicious act. I apologized as deeply as I was able at the time and tucked away my much improved and clarified knowledge of our UUMA guidelines.
But tension remained between me and the colleague. Every time I would see the person, I was embarrassed and self-conscious, interpreting every glance as hostile or at least mistrustful. We'd be cordial, but there was pain between us.
That person didn't come to a lot of district functions for a time and this helped me avoid thinking much more about it. But then, there s/he was, at our recent UUMA retreat, and we ended up in the same small covenant group. Gulp.
The first two sessions were unremarkable, just sharing about various ministry roles and situations. But the final one was about end of life issues, memorial services, and grieving.
You may remember from an earlier post that I have been grieving the loss of one of our most esteemed congregants, a man who took a terrible fall in June and has been declining ever since. During our retreat, I was aware that he had only a day or so more to live and I had made plans to say my last goodbyes when I could stop by and visit him in hospice, on my way home.
During the conversation in our covenant group, my sense of remorse and regret began to intensify, as I made the connections about how I would feel if someone had pre-empted my chance to say goodbye to this precious congregant, and I realized just how hurtful my action had been toward my colleague, even though it had not been deliberately inflicted. I knew I had to say something to my colleague, something that would let him/her know that I finally understood the meaning of this guideline.
I had an opportunity at lunch to sit down with him/her and express my deep remorse and sorrow over having hurt him/her at that time, saying that I now understood what I had done from an entirely different perspective and that I wanted to tell him/her of my new awareness. S/he accepted my apology and, I like to think, the mistrustful expression changed a little bit. S/he said thank you and we went on with lunch.
We often think of our UUMA guidelines as "turf" issues, but I know personally that they are not. I know that now; I didn't always know it. A few times over the years, congregants have had someone other than me perform a rite of passage for them---a marriage, a blessing, a memorial---and it has hurt a little bit. I wish those other celebrants had had the courtesy to check with me first; I wish those congregants had understood that a minister's relationship with his/her parish is deep and bypassing it when celebrating a life's passage can be painful to the minister. But I've discovered that professional guidelines in other denominations are not as well-thought-out as ours in UUism.
For me, making mistakes is a surefire way of learning. I often have to be hit smack between the eyes with some revelation before I really understand what the mistake was and what it means. It took me ten years to realize the depth of the hurt I had inflicted and make amends for that in some way. I am grateful for the patience of my colleague. I hope nobody else will ever have to wait that long for me again.