I recently responded to a post entry at Transient and Permanent’s blog entitled “How would you feel about a layperson as UUA President?” which led him to write a new blog, “Do Unitarian Universalist Ministers Have a Calling?”
I wrote in response to the first post after stating that I did not see it as incongruous for a lay person to be president the following: ” …perhaps the greatest advantage that a minister has is the knowledge of how different running a religious organization is from running a corporation. And it would most likely be from the corporate model that a lay leader would arise to run for president of the UUA. It is this clash that many of our corporately trained boardmembers have with their ministers currently, namely the reference point or grounding of their leadership orientation. To risk stereotyping, these individuals tend to see ministers as hired personnel and not as individuals who are following a calling. Few people outside of the ministry, understand what a calling is and how it shapes our individual ministries. It is this understanding that, in my mind, would be essential for a lay person to become president of the UUA.”
There is a difference between being called to the ministry and being hired to the ministry. In recent years this confusion has been surfacing not only in our denomination but in religious bodies of all stripes.
Years ago, a Rabbi friend of mine was having a difficult time within his congregation. He blurted out, they don’t want a Rabbi they want a corporate Chief Executive Officer who will simply do the board’s bidding. The board, all good intentioned people, had confused the difference between called and hired.
To them the Rabbi was hired to fulfill a set of expectations and duties that they were in control of designing and developing. He was not to challenge them on these expectations, nor to place expectations on the congregation unless the expectations were set by the board. He was not to challenge their spiritual and moral development but to work within the parameters he was given. He was given concrete goals with hard and fast deadlines to meet. If these were not fulfilled he was to be replaced with someone who would.
This is the corporate model that many of our lay people are familiar with because they are in the corporate world, many with positions of leadership. And within the corporate world where a product is produced to market, it is a model that is important. There could be debates on whether the corporate model is functioning as it should in today’s world but that is another topic.
The Rabbi, however had an understanding of being called. For him, there was a higher standard he needed to follow in order to serve this congregation as their Rabbi. It included not only doing various day to day executive tasks but also being a prophetic voice for justice within the congregation and in the community. That meant for him being willing / able to challenge the leadership of the congregation when they veered away from their religious principles in favor of expediencey or maintaining prejudices or biases. It meant developing a relationship with the congregation that was intimate and personal. It meant voicing visionary leadership of who this congregation could be; not only for themselves but for the community at large. And it meant recognizing that this congregation was made up of people who are fallible and will fail but with whom to covenant with to begin again.
I purposely used my memory of my Rabbi friend’s experience to illustrate this because I wanted to take it out of the Christian construct which my friend at T & P suggests comes from within our movement. I could easily have used a Buddhist example of calling, tho my friend and Buddhist Abbot might not use that language, but as I watched his formation from lay Buddhist status to Buddhist Monk to being a Buddhist Priest and now Abbot of a sangha in CT, calling is all I can use to compare his passion for his charge. It is supreme in his life.
I am currently “hired” at the congregations I serve in MS and AL. I have a one year contract which could be renewed or allowed to end at the end of my year. As such I am at the whim of the board. Fortunately for me these two congregations have a sense of what calling is for a minister. So while I am “hired” and not “called” to be their minister, they respect that I am called to the ministry. It allows me the freedom to be their minister in the same manner that my friend wanted to be rabbi for his congregation. Being called sets a level of standard and accountability that is higher than the entity that simply hires.
Who or what that accountability is may vary between our ministers. Matt Tittle, at his blog, answers it is God. For others it might be the integrity of the prophetic tradition. But the accountability of the called minister is indeed higher than the entity of where she or he works. Blessings,