Sunday, January 05, 2014

Adventures in pastoring Fellowship congregations

One of the things I've noticed during my years of active ministry has been the atmosphere, in small layled fellowships (which are fairly common in the Unitarian Universalist world), of anti-clericalism that pervades many of these tiny groups.  These fellowships tend to be populated by folks who've been disappointed or even hurt by rigid, domineering clergy in both traditional and UU congregations.  There is often an attitude of "we don't want to be churchy or too-religious; we don't want a minister taking over the congregation; we just want to do our own thing".

Typically these congregations don't grow much and they are often dominated by leaders who feel very protective of their turf and are reluctant to share leadership.  "Worship" is not called worship; it is a program or a service or a meeting.  The "W" word is  associated with adoration of a deity and "we UUs don't do that".

Eventually, these small groups are faced with the challenge of needing to grow in order to continue to exist.  Many suffer the challenges of members who don't pledge much or at all; there is often in-fighting over issues of governance and theology.  And so leaders may quit in disgust, leaving holes in the governing body; members may drop off without saying goodbye; visitors are few and far between.

When the district executive or a local member suggests that the congregation might do better if they had a minister, even a very part-time minister, these small groups often marshal their resources and send out feelers, looking for someone to perform fulltime ministry for quarter-time compensation.

When a saint who is willing to try this is found, the conditions Rev. Saint comes up against can be daunting.  "She's trying to take over!"  "He keeps asking for money!"  "I like his wife but not the pastor himself!"  "We can't afford her!"  "I just can't take a woman minister seriously!"   "When is he going to ........?"

The first minister a small fellowship employs often takes a beating from the congregation.  These folks have no idea how to treat a minister; they resent being asked to up their pledges so that the minister can afford to provide service; they often resist even the small changes the minister suggests.  "He uses the G word and it offends me!"  "She wears a robe!" "We don't want to change joys and sorrows!"  "Ministers really only work one hour a week; we shouldn't have to pay him/her so much!"

Sometimes the fellowship is so opposed to a real minister that they continue to "sit on the franchise" and refuse to grow or to give up.  Sometimes the fellowship hires a part-time minister and harasses that person so badly that the minister quits.  Sometimes the minister fights back and gets fired.  Sometimes the part-timer is a big success and goes on to help the congregation grow and prosper.

I've worked with several formerly lay-led congregations and have had mixed experiences, but most of it has been pretty positive.  The worst experience I remember was when I was invited to give a Martin Luther King sermon at a fellowship which shall not be named.  I had worked hard on my sermon, thought it was pretty good, selected hymns to support the theme, and suggested that a children's story to fit the theme would be great.  What did it turn out to be?  Some guy taught the kids how to make a sailor hat out of newspaper.  I never went back.

In every congregation I've served I've had my good and bad moments.  In every congregation there were people who did not want a minister, thought I was too expensive and that they could do their own thing just as well as anything I could offer.  In every congregation there were people who gave me a hard time about not deserving the compensation I received.  In every congregation there were those who bridled at the G-word, the W-word, and all the other taboo words that had stuck in their craws after negative church experiences.

But in every congregation I've served there have been people who genuinely appreciated my care, who listened to the sermons and wanted to discuss them after the service, who cared for me in return, who came to the workshops I offered, who countered my theological observations courteously, who said goodbye to me when I tendered my resignation(s) with tears and sharing of memories of the time we had spent together.  And it was lovely.  I don't regret any of it for a minute.

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