His friend Jack writes an overview of his previous year as a minister, in his words, "culminating in the declaration that I've 'leveled up' as a cleric." This is one of the world's best Dungeons and Dragons jokes I've ever read.
However, this is where the levity ends. As one reads along, one learns that Jack has encountered turmoil in his ministry and has made a drastic break in his trajectory. Let me quote some of it for you, but it is worth reading the entire thing.
He starts with a very emergent sentence, although he comes out of a Unitarian Universalist tradition, which is a sector that is not very involved in the Emerging movement. Of course, I've been saying all along that it's important to keep track of all folks who are emerging so that we can converge on each other. He says, "I still seem to be a better minister than ever, even as I seem on the verge of giving up religious ministry completely."
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." . . . 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."
He goes on to describe that as his personal life suffered as all personal lives do: death, divorce, unemployment. His church encouraged him to relieve himself of his church duties to take care of these issues. The tone of his post suggests that although their intent was good, their very act belied that church was not religion and that this wasn't necessarily a good thing.
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.
My church is just beginning to talk about how to do membership. At the same time, I've had a conversation with a woman who had an almost identical experience to mine at River City, my old church. She felt like she couldn't get into the in-crowd and that her leadership in the ministry was unwelcome. How do I take that information and help ensure that my new church does not create the same kind of insularity as many of us are in the process of committing to each other as family?
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.
How do we continue to welcome new people while acknowledging that some folks have a deeper relationship with one another because of time and deliberate choice?
Jack decides to leave the church to pursue religion with his family. How do we create a new kind of church that is worth being religious within it?
I don't know but I'm glad we're giving it a try.