Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Right to Bare Feet

I still haven't gotten around to writing my annual Holiday Letter, which seems a little redundant given the amount of blogging I've done this year. Still, it is a tradition I would hate to interrupt, and perhaps just that small and gentle e-mail with a link to the text of the actual letter itself -- will be sufficient. I sure have enjoyed the cards, letters and e-mails I've received from so many of you. One of my favorites actually contained the suggestion that in light of the recent events of December 14th in Bagdad, we need a new Constitutional Amendment protecting the right to Bare Feet.

And I actually thought Bush showed pretty good composure about all this. He recognizes now that he is the lamest of Ducks, and that he needs to take all this shoe-throwing in stride. And in some ways it's reassuring that he can still be the butt of a joke, and NOT take it too more reason for me NOT to want to turn him over to the World Court following Obama's Inauguration. I don't feel nearly so charitable toward Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld, or Roberto Gonzales. And good luck to Condi in what I imagine will be a four-year cat-fight with Sarah Palin for the heart and soul of what is left of the Republican Party.

And while I'm thinking about it, now that the shoe is on the other foot, let's also hope that the Democrats can keep it together for a change, rather than tearing their party apart bickering over the best seats in the big tent. Already the kerfuffle over Rick Warren offering the Invocation seems silly and ridiculous. I know there's a lot of Gay and Lesbian supporters of Obama who are outraged that such an outspoken proponent of Proposition 8 should be given such a prominent place at the swearing in of the next President. What I don't think they really appreciate though is the very high likelihood that Warren will eventually come around on this issue, just as so many of the rest of us have, once we became more familiar with it ourselves.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Excellence in Ministry

Former pulpit of the 2nd Church in Boston, once used by Henry Ware Jr. and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Now located at the First Parish in Billerica Massachusetts.

Over at iMinister and PeaceBang, my dear friends Christine and Vickie are hosting a conversation about Excellence in Ministry. It's a topic I have no little interest in myself, and so even though I can't really spare the time, I thought I'd toss in at least two cents worth now.

1. I'm one of those anachronisms who enrolled in seminary (Harvard Divinity) immediately after graduating from college, and who had completed my degree, seen the MFC and been ordained by the congregation where I did my field education (the 1st & 2nd Church in Boston) all before my 25th birthday. Of course, no one in their right mind was going to trust a newly-minted 24-year-old preacher with a pulpit of his own, so I ended up spending ANOTHER two years in graduate school studying creative writing and working as a Residence Hall Director, before being offered a year-long position as an intern assistant minister at my "home" church (University Unitarian Church in Seattle), and eventually receiving a call to a pulpit of my own (Midland, Texas) the week I turned 28.

2. Since that time, I have (for the most part) enjoyed a somewhat eclectic up-and-down career which has included work as an extension minister/new congregation organizer, half-a-dozen part-time consulting ministries, some time away from ministry managing a bookstore (while my now-ex-wife attended Law School), an earned PhD of my own (in American History) along with an interdisciplinary Masters Degree (my third, if you're counting) in American Studies, plus work as a graduate teaching fellow (and on occasion a visiting adjunct professor) in the fields of English/Creative Writing, Philosophy, Religious Studies (I was Marcus Borg's personal teaching assistant) and, of course, History. In addition I spent a semester abroad in Denmark as a visiting doctoral student at Aalborg University's "School for Postgraduate Interdisciplinary Research in Interculturality and Transnationalism" (SPIRIT), and since completing my dissertation in 2001 have served a two-year interim ministry on Nantucket Island, a four-year settled ministry in Carlisle Massachusetts, and am now in my second year of a settled ministry at the First Parish in Portland Maine. So I come to this topic with no shortage of either credentials or experience, as well as a perspective that is no doubt quite different from that of someone about my age (or even a decade or two younger) who is currently working in a secular vocation, but still dreaming about becoming a minister when they grow up.

3. So having said all that, let me enter the conversation. People seem to want to argue that there is more than one path into the ministry, and that these paths need to be honored and respected more than they are. With that I can agree. But then they also seem to want to assert that "all ministries are equal," and I'm not so sure that I can agree with that. All these credentials are not just about some additional letters behind my name; they represent real work, real learning, and real achievement which were specifically focused on improving my competence and qualifications for the ministry itself. It's not that I want to discount the achievements of those who are working in other fields, and in effect bringing their "transferable skills" with them. I would suggest, however, that sometimes these "imports" do more harm than good, in that they tend to displace a long and subtle history of ecclesiastical tradition with the "values of the marketplace" in ways that are often inappropriate and damaging to the health of the institution.

4. There also seems to be a lot of complaining about attitudes of ministerial "privilege," and the sense of entitlement that comes from having successfully leapt through all the "hoops." And with this I agree entirely - I think it is one of the most potentially damaging challenges our profession faces, and the sooner we can cure ourselves of it the better. Ministry is indeed a "privilege" -- it's an honor indivduals bestow upon us one at a time by trusting us enough to let us be "their minister;" it is a kind of authority which can take a lifetime to accumulate, and can be squandered in an instant. So notwithstanding all of the letters behind my own name, I am a profound believer in the principle that "All Ministry is Local," and that the credentials themselves are essentially meaningless, and valuable only to the extent that earning them has in some way helped me to become a better minister in the process.

5. Speaking of hoops (the burning, not the basketball kind) and the jumping through thereof, I certainly have a lot of empathy for those who still have that process in front of them, rather than well behind them (as I do). But let's face it, some sort of advance credentialling or process of "approbation" is essential to ANY profession, and perhaps especially essential to one like ours, which unlike either of the other two "learned" professions (law and medicine) typically brings the practitioner into their full responsibilities right on day one, in an environment where they typically work alone without much opportunity for supervision, external accountability, or daily mentoring by a more experienced, senior colleague. Even our internship process is awkward, since it tends to train ministers in large, multi-staff situations only to prepare them poorly for the kinds of expectations they will experience in the small "family" or "pastoral" sized churches where they are most likely to be called. A good portion of the second chapter of my doctoral dissertation is devoted to the history of the Approbation process in our movement, beginning in Puritan times and continuing into the 19th century. Interestingly enough, we still examine our candidates according to the same basic criteria as the Puritans: Competence, Character, and Commitment to the Faith. I don't think these are bad criteria at all. The big questions are how do we define "Competence" and what do we mean by "Commitment?" Character is always going to be a judgement call. Better the MFC though than leaving it up to self-selection, or even the judgement of local search committees (amateurs for whom it is literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience).

6. Another big complaint: the cost of seminary and the amount of debt it often places on newly-minted ministers entering a profession notorious for its low, flat and static levels of compensation. I was lucky, I guess -- between a combination of work, scholarships, and frugal living, I was able to graduate from Harvard (in 1981) with a debt of only $7000. Since I had no college debt at that point either (hurrah for in-state tuition at an excellent public university!), and was able to get through that second MA in Creative Writing with only another $2500 in additional borrowing, I finished my first incarnation as a student with a very reasonable debt load, despite a starting salary in my first settlement of only $30k (TCM. S/H was probably closer to $22k).

In my second incarnation it was a similar story - the teaching fellowships, a few grants (including one from the UU Scholars program), and my work as a part-time consulting minister essentially paid my tuition and kept me debt free, even though my spouse's income as a trial lawyer was perfectly sufficient to support our entire family. So while I feel I understand the concern that midlife career changers might feel about the cost of seminary (and it's corresponding debt load) in comparison to the level of earnings one can anticipate upon completion of the degree, I'm not especially sympathetic either. No one has a "right" to become a UU minister simply because they are "feeling the call," and likewise the decision to pursue a theological education does not necessarily entitle someone to have that education paid for by someone else. I think some combination of competitive, merit-based scholarships together with a systematic process to help ministers who agree to serve small, struggling congregations with denominational assistance in repaying their student loans is still the best strategy.

But this understanding also needs to be linked with a much more intentional method for ministerial development other than mere self-discernment, as well as the more fundamental understanding that NO ONE SHOULD UNDERTAKE ADVANCED THEOLOGICAL STUDY WITHOUT BEING WILLING TO DO SO FOR THE SAKE OF KNOWLEDGE AND SELF-IMPROVEMENT ALONE, AND WITH THE FULL UNDERSTANDING THAT IT MAY NEVER LEAD TO AN ACTUAL "PAYING" JOB IN THE MINISTRY! As for the question of whether or not a seminary education is really essential to being an effective Parish Minister, I would have to say both yes and no. On one hand, there is certainly plenty of "ministry" that can happen in a parish that anyone with a good heart, a sincere commitment, and a certain level of on-the-job training can do perfectly competently. But "doing" ministry and "being" a minister are two very different things. I'm happy to "share" the work of ministry as broadly as possible; in fact, it's an important part of what every minister should do to equip and prepare their people for wider service. But before I'm willing to let someone call themselves my "colleague," and to claim for themselves all of the so-called "rights and privileges" attendant to that status, I want to KNOW that they have gone through a thorough and rigorous program of advanced academic study, and are intellectually prepared to understand and represent the finer points of our theological and ecclesiastical traditions. Perhaps more to the point, I want to know that they were willing to make the same kinds of personal and financial sacrifices that I was willing to make, and that their commitment to the ministry is about something more profound than merely a title and a paycheck.

7. Finally (yes, least for now) there was an interesting point raised by someone about "suspicion" of Excellence in Ministry, and whether or not our congregations are really well prepared to cope with a truly excellent and (by association) ambitious minister. I have several thoughts about this. First, it does often seem to me that many of our congregations (especially small, "stuck" ones) are operating under the informal syllogism that "Knowledge is Power," and "Power Corrupts;" therefore We must Disempower the Knowledgeable in order to Prevent them from Corrupting our Democratic Process. Top-down leadership often doesn't fly in our movement; instead it results in a rapid nose-dive followed by a dramatic crash-and-burn. This is a VERY hard lesson to learn: that churches tend to move "at the speed of church," and that Patience, Persistence, Tenacity and Commitment to a Larger Vision are often far more important to success than mere brilliance and hard work alone. For clergy, the church is not only a livelihood, it is also a lifestyle; we are (or should be) committed to our vocation 24/7/365, and even when we are disciplined about taking a regular day off, we don't stop "being" a minister even for a moment. Yet for most lay people, a 3-5 hour/week commitment to their faith community is extraordinary, while 3-5 hours/month is probably far closer to the norm. Achieving excellence (and with it, "success") has somewhat different rules in this kind of work environment. The ability to work with people, to leverage their efforts rather than wasting their time, to organize the tasks into manageable "bites" and to battle frustration and discouragement with encouraging words and visible a word, to build and coach a team rather than trying to do it all by oneself.... this is the real key to Excellence in Ministry in the 21st century, so far as I can see it. How well does this match up with what other folks are seeing in their situations?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Is it a Phoenix or an "Obama?"

I've never met Robin E*****, the so-called self-titled (not to mention self-appointed) "Emerson Avenger," and frankly I hope never to have the pleasure. I know him by reputation, of course, as I suspect so many other bloggers do here in the UU blogosphere, but since I generally find his posts kind of abrasive and unpleasant, mostly I just try to ignore him in the hope that our paths through cyberspace will cross as little as possible.

Yet lately for some reason he has chosen to take a shine to me again, this time even going so far as accusing me of plagiarism because he apparently ALSO saw the image of the Demographic Map of the United States of America plotting the outcome of the last election in shades of Blue and Red based on the percentage of the popular vote, and "normalized" geographically for population density I wrote about in a previous post, and it also reminded him of a Phoenix.

But before we go too far together down THAT road Brother E******, let me offer you a basic tutorial in communications law for working writers.

Plagiarism is essentially defined as "the purloining of literary work." [Gotta LOVE THAT definition! -- it pretty much just says it all...] Simply having a similar idea based on a similar response to a shared source of inspiration is in no way, shape or form ANYTHING resembling actual plagiarism; it is simply a demonstration that not only do great minds think alike, but sometimes even great minds and not-so-great minds can have similar thoughts...the difference being that a Truly Great Mind recognizes that there is simply "something in the air," while the not-so-great mind foolishly (and some might say narcissistically) mistakes the obvious for their own unique and original thought.

But to bring this back to the topic at hand, writers cannot copyright "ideas" -- they may only copyright a unique and original expression of an idea -- in other words, actual and specific language and phrasing which embody and express a unique perspective of a shared (or private) inspiration, which in turn could then be plagiarized by someone else who saw that unique expression, "purloined" (i.e. stole or copied) it, and then attempted to pass it off (obviously without attribution) as their own work. An even more basic point is that in almost ALL cases an actual plagiarist has to have actually SEEN the original work in order to "steal" it. You can't really copy something you've never even read.

As both an academic and a clergyman I tend to take allegations of plagiarism fairly seriously, since in many ways it strikes at the core of everything I believe about integrity and creativity and their importance to the human soul. On the other hand, I also tend to take a fairly broad and "liberal" view of "fair use;" we are, after all, called upon to Proclaim the Good News, not to copyright it. Yet to palm off someone's original work as your own, when tools like the internet make it so easy these days to find and attribute almost anything, is truly shameful. But if you look back at what I've actually written, you'll notice right away that I've done nothing of the sort.

Quickly now - if you look at MY original post, you'll notice that not only do I compare this image to a Phoenix, I also compare it to the Holy Spirit (in the form of a Dove, as in Luke's Gospel), and make several other references to other aspects of our shared cultural mythology, before finally getting around to making the one statement that might indeed be potentially copyrightable, and name this bird a "Barack." Again, not a particularly obscure idea; it could have occurred to anyone. But it just so happened to occur to me -- and it is unique, and it is original, and as far as I'm concerned, folks can copy it as much as they like (although a little honest attribution is always welcome....)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

What Have You Done in your Life? a meme

What have you done in your life? -- A meme I found on a couple other blogs. (What I've done is in bold, with comments in the parentheses) To play, copy the following list. Bold the things you've done. Post on your own blog...

Started my own blog
Slept under the stars
Played in a band

Visited Hawaii [but I hope to before I die]
Watched a meteor shower
Given more than I can afford to charity (except obviously, I COULD afford it)
Been to Disneyland/world
Climbed a mountain (but it wasn't really MUCH of a mountain - not like Hood or Rainier, for instance)
Held a praying mantis
Sung a solo (during a "cafe night" on Nantucket. "Hey there. You with the stars in your eyes....")
Bungee jumped
Visited Paris
Watched lightning at sea (although I was still on the land)
Taught myself an art from scratch (from SCRATCH?)
Adopted a child
Had food poisoning
Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty
Grown my own vegetables (and hope to again, someday)
Seen the Mona Lisa in France
Slept on an overnight train
Had a pillow fight
Taken a sick day when not ill (unless we're counting mental health)
Built a snow fort
Held a lamb
Gone skinny dipping
Run a marathon
Ridden in a gondola in Venice (could have if I'd wanted to)
Seen a total eclipse
Watched a sunrise or sunset
Hit a home run

Been on a cruise (but I'm planning to soon. Possibly as soon as this summer)
Seen Niagara Falls in person (planning to do this soon too, and also visit the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown)
Visited the birthplace of my ancestors
Seen an Amish community (this may happen soon too)
Taught myself a new language (although not very well. I'm still learning though)
Had enough money to be truly satisfied (satisfaction is such a subjective thing)
Seen the Leaning Tower of Pisa in person
Gone rock climbing
Seen Michelangelo's David
Sung karaoke (and now, admitted it)
Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt
Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant

Visited Africa (again, maybe as part of my cruise)
Walked on a beach by moonlight
Been transported in an ambulance

Had my portrait painted (now THERE'S a great idea. Does a caricature count?)
gone deep sea fishing
Seen the Sistine Chapel in person

Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris (again, could have if I'd wanted to. I'd rather look AT it than down from it)
Gone scuba diving or snorkeling (my ex was the diver. I have used a snorkel though)
Kissed in the rain
Played in the mud
Gone to a drive-in theater

Been in a movie
Visited the Great Wall of China
Started a business (unless you think of a ministry as a "business")
Taken a martial arts class
Visited Russia
Served at a soup kitchen
Sold Girl Scout Cookies (But I've sure bought plenty in my day!)
Gone whale watching (I've seen some though)
Gotten flowers for no reason
Donated blood, platelets or plasma

Gone sky diving
Visited a Nazi concentration camp
Bounced a check
(but it wasn't my fault - the check TO ME bounced first)
Flown in a helicopter
Saved a favorite childhood toy
Visited the Lincoln Memorial
Eaten caviar
Pieced a quilt
(let's say, HELPED piece a quilt)
Stood in Times Square
Toured the Everglades
Been fired from a job
Seen the Changing of the Guard in London
Broken a bone (not even a finger. Can you believe it?)
Been on a speeding motorcycle (don't tell my mother
Seen the Grand Canyon in person
Published a book (this is actually in the process of happening now. A long, SLOW process....)
Visited the Vatican
Bought a brand new car (but now I can't drive it...)
Walked in Jerusalem
Had my picture in the newspaper
Read the entire Bible
Visited the White House (just the outside)
Killed and prepared an animal for eating (Hummmm... maybe after I've held the lamb, I can...)
Had chickenpox
Saved someone's life (they probably would have lived anyway)
Sat on a jury (no competent lawyer is ever going to let ME on a jury...)
Met someone famous
Joined a book club
Lost a loved one
Had a baby
Seen the Alamo in person
Swam in the Great Salt Lake
Been involved in a law suit
Owned a cell phone
Been stung by a bee
Ridden an elephant (but I'd like to before I die)

Chalice Chick's additions:

Read all three volumes of the Lord of the Rings
(multiple times)
Visited the Taj Mahal
Performed in a dance recital
Been on horseback while the horse jumped over something
Won an athletic competition
Gotten a straight-A report card
Prayed to Zeus
Watched news coverage, rapt, to see what was going to happen
Gotten lost in a building more than 500 years old
Kissed somebody milliseconds before bells started to ring. (well, maybe not "milliseconds")

Joel Monka’s additions:

Made love in a moving vehicle (again, if boats count)
Created something you know you'll never better (let's say, suspect I will never better)
Held a pet while they died (just this past October 4th)
Walked the Promenade Des Anglaises in Nice. (and it was...Nice)

Patrick Murfin's additions:

Graduated from college
Been in Prison (well, not as a prisoner)
Written the Great American Novel (it is neither great, nor technically a novel...but it is American. "My life's the poem I would have writ, but I could not both live and utter it.")
Ridden the rails (used to daydream about this quite a bit, but I'm way too old for it now. And times have changed....)
Seen that Alaska (despite having grown up in Seattle, the gateway to "the Last Frontier.")
Been booed and/or heckled (in church, no less)
Been elected to public office (unless Vice President of one's High School Student Government counts...)