May 5, 2008
Five years ago today I was ordained a minister by the Universal Life Church, a church that preaches that every human being is a minister. Every year since then, on my anniversary, I've written a review of my year in ministry, culminating in the declaration that I've "leveled up" as a cleric. Yet this anniversary, I find it tough to say I've advanced as a minister. I've walked away from church, and for the first time in my life, I've found myself repelled by the thought of religion. I feel like I've wasted my efforts. I want to take down my website, disassociate my true self from this "Reverend Jack" character and hide my spiritual history. I'm ashamed of it all. What value is my guidance to others, if this is how I've lead myself?
Looking back over past years in review, you can see how quickly enamored I became of the Unitarian Universalist institutions in my town. They weren't the ones who had ordained me, but they asked me to preach. They put me in charge of things. They stroked my ego and generally gave the appearance that I was more than welcome in their community, and my efforts as a minister became almost exclusively focused on them.
So how is it that this year I walked away in disgust? Why is it that the thought of entering either of the UU institutions in town now fills my stomach with bile? For someone who has so loudly preached forgiveness and universal acceptence, I find little compassion in my heart for these people who were supposed to have been my spiritual community, most directly within my spiritual care. I let them down. They let me down. It's tough to shake the feeling that my years of ministry with them have been a failure.
And yet, buried beneath my UU tribulations, I also find much that has been successful in my ministry. Not by the spectacular measures of success I've used in the past: lists of sermons preached and events organized, notes on attendance rates and audience reactions. I've done nothing in that regard this past year, and have little desire to do so again any time soon. But in little ways: small moments of trust, gratitude and sincerity that would barely be noticed by someone looking for religion, yet seem to be at the heart of what religion's really about. I still seem to be a better minister than ever, even as I seem on the verge of giving up religious ministry completely.
I don't want to waste any more of my life pouring over the details of what went so terribly wrong (or failed to ever be right) between myself and the Unitarian Universalist community I worked with. But some amount of introspection is now warranted, as I try to sort out those small things I did right, so that I might build on them in the years ahead.
Here's something I didn't quite grasp when I set out on this journey as a minister: "religion" used to mean "that which binds." At least, according to the etymology of the word provided by my online dictionary (I Am Not A Linguist.) Most of the recent definitions of the word tend to associate it more with belief, ritual and the supernatural. But I've gotten back to the old definition, and it has come to contextualize how I view both my past failures and my future hopes.
You see, I never really bound myself to anything. Before understanding this meaning of religion, I laughed off my lack of bindings as typical male fear of committment, and spoke of my religion using words like "independance" "freedom" and "choice." Unitarian Universalists spoke similarly of their own religion; and so, I thought, what do I have to fear from them?
In hindsight, though, these oxymoronic conceptions of non-binding religion only served to help us avoid the really hard questions of what any of us were bound to. So when push finally came to shove in our community, and these questions started to matter at all, we didn't have the answers we needed. All our flowery ideals of universal human community quickly gave way to the steely impersonal etiquette of board room politics, and it became clear that whatever we were each bound to, it wasn't each other.
As things were going downhill in my church life, my family life was falling apart as well. Over the past five years, both my grandparents on my mother's side died, and within the past year, my parents' marriage failed. Depression and a staling career also lead me to quit my job, thrusting me into months of unemployment. These harsh realities made the struggles of my church community seem all the more childish and unimportant, and strangely, most everyone in my church community seemed to agree with that assessment. The overwhelming response of my UU and free-thinking peers was, "Let the church stuff drop; it doesn't matter. Tend to the things that do matter."
This was, of course, totally reasonable advice, superior to a church community that would inhumanly expect a minister to weather such troubles without wavering in their public presentation. But it also helped highlight how far we were from fitting that ancient meaning of religion. Of the many things we could conceive of that would bind a person, our religion was among the first we were willing to let loose!
It was within all this turmoil that I really began to understand my deepest priorities in life. My true religion, if you will--that which I cling to, when all else crumbles around me; the mast I am bound to in the storm. I found there was another word besides religion to fairly describe these core bonds. When I looked for what was most important to me, what I found was family.
I don't just mean blood family, or legal family, but also and foremost those friends who are close enough to be called family. The people to whom I am tied, flesh and soul, and I cannot leave them behind without also leaving part of myself. The people I care about and love.
And I thought, "Eureka! Religion and family really mean nearly the same thing!" And I saw, in scripture and practice, how the familial terms used by religious authority were not mere metaphor or parable, but rather reflected recognition on the part of the leadership that their role was in essence the same as the role pursued by mother, father, brother and sister. They're playing the same game--not to imply that it is mere game--whose goal is nothing less than that which is most important, meaningful and binding in life.
The UUs I knew for the most part just weren't playing that game--not as an institution, at least. There was nothing there to be bound to, and it would simply seem presumptuous to call someone brother or mother simply by virtue of shared Unitarian Universalist identification. That's not what most folks there signed up for. They came to Unitarian Universalism to be unbound, seeking freedom and advice, not familial responsibility. This is in many ways to their credit, the virtue they are known for--heck, it's why I joined them. But in retrospect, it makes it tough for me to call what we were doing "religion." It was a secular community organization, not to be taken more seriously than the local camera club, lest one set oneself up for disappointment; after all, "it's just politics."
Don't get me wrong. I know better than to generalize about a group as diverse as the Unitarian Universalists, and certainly there were those among us (especially among the "born & raised" UUs) who sought to make our practice more familial and binding. As I began to see what Unitarian Universalism lacked as a religion, I began to sympathize a great deal with this quest. But while I admired and shared their goals, I found we had little to no knowledge of how to effectively pursue them.
Absent from our church was the patient introspection of priests and rabbis, whose rituals of initiation and advancement help ensure that everyone involved takes the religious bond seriously. Absent was the carefully considered theology that allows us to understand the commitments being made. Instead, we relied on various forms of bait-and-switch, calling people together in the name of religious freedom and independence, then arguing over responsibility and commitment only after they've signed up. These convoluded expectations mostly just created bitterness, burnout and resentment among our volunteers.
It's an easy mistake to make, but ultimately, it just doesn't work. Casual membership leads to casual dissolution when time gets tough; if you want a functional and healthy religious family that can weather life's difficulties, you have to approach membership with all the seriousness and reservation you'd give to any other familial bond. Yet the more you do that, the more you lose the openness and freedom that made our "universalist" institutions particularly worthwhile in the first place. There's always a tradeoff.
What can I say? I didn't know. I thought that the world's many denominations were split because they put boundaries on their membership; I thought that all that was needed was more universalist preaching, a reminder that we are all members of one great family. But looking at the world around me, I'm embarrassed that I ever thought it was so simple. Most of those Christians out there believe in a God that at least approaches the infinite mercy of the universalist God's universal family. But only such a creature of myth could pull it off. We who are merely human have a limited capacity to love, and we must make choices about who we will commit to as family. Poetic exclamations of our universalism only serve to obfuscate such discernment.
So now, on the fifth anniversary of my ordination, I want to get real. I'm walking away from the UU church and the trappings of institutional religion, but towards the friends and family to whom I am bound in love. That's where my successes lie, in those few close relations who come to me for confession and ethical guidance, who gather to indulge me in my parables of giant fighting robot saviors, who invite me to eat at their table, who ask me to say a few words at their special occassions, who have come to call me "The Reverend" even as they see my deepest human flaws. Because it is not my religious training or stature that bring me success with these people, but rather my ability to love them as would a brother or father. Because being good family, as far as I can tell, is isomorphic to being a good minister.
Whether I've even come close to serving my friends and family as I should is something I'm still struggling with, and involves introspection of such a private nature that I'm not going to address it here. Suffice to say, I do not hold myself up as a paragon, and I'm ashamed that calling myself a "Reverend" might seem to imply otherwise. It's very tempting for me to declare today the end of my ordination, to abandon the context of religious language and symbolism and tend to my closest family without the pretension of calling it religious ministry.
But when all is said and done, I think this is more rightfully called religion than anything I was doing with the Unitarian Universalists. And I have not wavered from the ethic of those who ordained me, the Universal Life Church, who declared that every person is rightfully recognized as a minister. In turning away from the pretensions of institutionalized religion and towards my friends and family, I feel I am only better living out this call to universal ministry. Sure, I cannot love the whole world as family; thank goodness, then, that there are nearly seven billion other ministers out there to help in that task.
Being a level six cleric may not include the grand acts of public ministry that I hoped to be achieving by this point, but in learning to better love and serve my friends and family, I continue to progress. Looking forward, I shall endeavor to be more honest about where I stand, to more clearly define what binds me and to show more reservation regarding my religious commitments and affiliations. But to say that I have failed as a minister or that I've abandoned my calling would not be honest. I'm still on the right track, even if it's a track I never anticipated, even if it's nothing to brag about. Praise God.
Jonathan "Rev. Jack" Prykop
Level Six Cleric