Thursday, December 17, 2009

Garrison Keillor Is no "Companion" for Unitarian Universalists

Many Unitarian Universalists, myself included, are regular NPR listeners.  And among them, many listen regularly to Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion."  It's on weekly at about the time I leave church, so I have listened to it many times.  Garrison Keillor makes a regular practice of poking fun at Unitarian Universalists on his show.  I've often had church members come and tell me he mentioned us again, often with delight, because we're so rarely mentioned in the media.  One example of a Unitarian Universalist joke attributed to Garrison Keillor is: "A sign at the Unitarian church said: Bible study at 7:00. Bring your Bible and a pair of scissors."  So, yes, some of the joke are funny, some point out our foibles and idiosyncrasies.  But lately I've been turning off NPR whenever "A Prairie Home Companion" comes on.  Listening to him talk about us over the years it's becoming more and more evident that he isn't laughing with us--he's laughing at us. 

In a recent article by Garrison Keillor, "Don't Mess with Christmas" at, Keillor stops joking around and comes out swinging at Unitarian Universalists.  (It can also be found under the title "The Christmas Dividend" at the Chicago Tribune in a slightly modified form.  The Salon.Com is the one I'm quoting from, as it is even more offensive than the other.)  It's all right there in the subtitle on "It's a Christian holiday, dammit, and it's plain wrong to rewrite 'Silent Night.' Unitarians, I'm talking to you!"  In the article Keillor attacks intellectuals, Cambridge, First Church of Cambridge (Unitarian), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Unitarian Universalists.  About Emerson (and of course Emerson was Unitarian) he says:  
You can blame Ralph Waldo Emerson for the brazen foolishness of the elite. He preached here at the First Church of Cambridge, a Unitarian outfit (where I discovered that "Silent Night" has been cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God), and Emerson tossed off little bons mots that have been leading people astray ever since. 

About Unitarian Univeralists he says:
Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that's their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite "Silent Night." If you don't believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn "Silent Night" and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough.
And if all that wasn't enough, there's a bit of anti-Semitism thrown in for good measure: "And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck."  Not enough?  He also trashes Pagans: "Christmas is a Christian holiday -- if you're not in the club, then buzz off. Celebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice. Go light a big log, go wassailing and falalaing until you fall down, eat figgy pudding until you puke, but don't mess with the Messiah."

Well, Unitarian Universalists have a lot of claim to the holiday he's protecting, of course.  People of our faith wrote the carols "Jingle Bells," "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."  Unitarian Lydia Marie Child wrote "Over the River and Through the Woods," too.  And, of course, Charles Dickens, who wrote A Christmas Carol, was a Unitarian, and with that publication deeply influenced and even changed Christmas as we--and Keillor--know it. 

Keillor's big complaint is that we change the words to songs in our hymnal, and, in particular, "Silent Night."  The changes that's got him all irate come in the second verse, where we drop the chorus "Christ the savior is born" and repeat the chorus from the first verse, and in the third verse similarly dropping "Jesus, Lord at Thy birth," and changing "son of God" to "child of God."  Now, I don't know what's better about saying "child of God" then "son of God," since I don't think there's any debate that Jesus himself was actually male, granted.  And on Christmas Eve I usually print the more familiar words in our order of service rather than going with our more theologically correct ones.  This is pure practicality.  The one year I didn't do this, I had people singing two sets of words, and it was a big mess.

On the other hand, Keillor is falling prey to a major fallacy that says, "the way I remember things from my own childhood is the way things always have been and always should be."  His personal history has become the authoritative version of what Christmas should be, and what hymns should be.

But, of course, neither Christmas nor hymnody is like that.  It's part of the grand tradition of hymnody that we take old hymn tunes and put new words to them.  For example, take "Onward, Christian Soldiers."  Yes, in our hymnal the tune that many know as "Onward, Christian Soldiers" is set to different words: "Forward Through the Ages."  This hymn tune, St. Gertude, is older than both hymns, and the author of "Onward Christian Soliders" lived from 1834-1924, whereas the author of "Forward through the Ages" lived from 1840-1929.  So the songs are actually both relatively old, and relatively contemporary with each other.  But "Forward through the Ages" is less famous than "Onward, Christian Soliders," so many might mistakenly think that we had just decided to write new words to replace a militaristic song we didn't like.  Another example of the pattern of hymnody is the British patriotic song, "God Save the Queen."  Our American patriotic tune "My Country 'Tis of Thee" is written to the same tune.  There are church hymns written to it as well.  Another example is the old English folk song "Greensleeves" which we sing at Christmas as "What Child Is This?"

Those are examples of putting new songs to old tunes.  Of course, simply changing the words is done quite a bit, as well.  The aforementioned song by Lydia Marie Child is a great example of this.  Some sing it as a Christmas song, some as a Thanksgiving song.  Some sing it as going to Grandmother's house, some as Grandfather's.  The original lyrics might surprise you--they are, in fact, Grandfather and Thanksgiving, not Grandmother and Christmas.  "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" has verses of the original poem dropped and reordered.  "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" probably has a verse dropped in the Lutheran hymnal Keillor sings from (sorry, I don't have a Lutheran hymnal nearby to confirm, but this site skips the pivotal and important third verse).

Now, do I tell any Christians who sing Unitarian and Universalist Christmas carols wrong to get their own holiday?  Do I call it spiritual piracy or cultural elitism?  No, I call it hymnody or the oral tradition.  (But that's probably intellectual elitism for me to say so.)

As for "Silent Night," the original lyrics are in our hymnal: they're in German (well, we only have one verse in German in our hymnal, but it's there).  And the translation most Americans are familiar with isn't a literal translation at all.  We don't have that bit about the baby's curly hair in our words at all.  And there were a few translations before Americans settled on just one as our most dear and familiar.  So changing the words to "Silent Night" is part of a grand tradition that we, as Unitarian Universalists, are continuing. 

Keillor writes, "Christmas does not need any improvements. It is a common ordinary experience that resists brilliant innovation."  Well, if we took away the Pagan "improvements" to Christmas, we'd have to take away his holly and his ivy, and, most importantly, his Christmas tree.  If we took away the Unitarian "improvements" to Christmas, we take away the Christmas turkey, the carols I mentioned above, A Christmas Carol, and the idea of focusing on charity and giving to those less fortunate during the season.  If we take away "improvements" to Christmas that happened during the Victorian age, we take away Christmas cards and Santa Claus, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," and all the eight reindeer.  If we get down to the original American version of Christmas, we wouldn't be celebrating the holiday at all.  The Puritans didn't celebrate it.  His precious "Silent Night"?  An innovation.  Mary didn't sing "Silent Night" at the birth, you know.

Keillor rightfully calls all the trappings of Christmas not what the holiday is really about.  But the song "Silent Night" is just one more of those trappings.  His attachment to his particular set of words for the song isn't about the spirit of the season.  It's about one more chance to attack Unitarian Universalists and other religions.  And I'll tell you what Christmas is not about: this type of religious prejudice.  Peace on Earth, goodwill to all.  This Unitarian Universalist has had enough.  On Sunday afternoons, my radio will get tuned elsewhere.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

December 17th: The Unitarian Christmas Holiday?

Last year I did a series of post about "Chalica," a holiday that's been invented in which Unitarian Universalists may spend the first full week of December reflecting and acting on the seven Principles. Last year I focused on Chalica for the whole week, and I did find that meaningful.

This year, however, I'm focused on a different idea for a Unitarian Holiday. December 17th is the day Unitarian Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol was published. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we all spent every December 17th remembering the Unitarian ideals he brought to Christmas with that publication, and acting in a way consistent with Scrooge's transformation?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

God is Love?

My uncle asks, "If God is love, how does that work?" To elaborate, he means does God still act in people's lives the way God does in the Old Testament? How is a God who is love different from a God who loves? Does it mean God is all kinds of love--eros, agape, etc.--or just some?

Paul Rasor writes in Unitarian Universalist views of God, "Others may use the term God to convey very different ideas, such as the creative power of evolution in the universe, or the power that makes transformation possible in our lives, or the ongoing power of love, or simply the ultimate mystery within which we all must live" (emphasis mine). God, in Rasor's description, is not the God of the Old Testament who acts directly in people's lives, who is a larger-than-human but human-like personality who speaks and makes demands and rewards and punishes. This God who is love is more like a power, as he uses the word in the two preceding phrases about God. God is the power of love, the power that love has in the way that it transforms our lives.

Rev. Kate Braestrup said on Speaking of Faith recently, "If nothing else, and that's a big if, but if nothing else God is that force that drives us to really see each other, and to really behold each other, and care for each other, and respond to each other, and for me that is actually enough." I was very caught by Braestrup's remarks on Speaking of Faith and by her description of God. I'm not going to transcribe it, so I encourage you to listen to it. She talks about how if you base your religion on life, well, you'll be disappointed in the end. We all die. So reverence for life is a path to disappointment. But what's in life that has this amazing transformative power is love.

One important phrase to me about the way I at least try to have faith is the Rev. Theodore Parker's words: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice." Or, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King put it more simply, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

This is something we have no proof of. The arc of the universe may bend towards chaos. It may bend towards annihilation. It may bend towards civil disorder. It may bend towards hate. But this bending towards justice is something I want, something I believe we must have faith in, despite any seeming trend towards its opposite.

Similarly, I believe saying "God is love," is saying, the ultimate force in this universe is the force for good, for love. This means that our inherent nature is loving, that the universe does want to bend towards the good, and that love is stronger than hate. It does not ignore that there is evil in this world, but it says that this goes against the Tao, the way. It goes against God.

"God is love," to me, means that this is what we must strive for, this is how we work to bend the arc. When things are right in the world, there is love. We create God through creating a more loving world around us.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Costs of Becoming a Minister - Part Two, Including a Modest Proposal

In Part One, I left off here: I think the only options that are really viable and just are to either fund our seminarians or ministers better or to decrease our expectations about the seminary process.

Decrease Expectations?

Some people have proposed interesting models of becoming a minister that are not seminary-focused. These are certainly intriguing. As a seminary-trained minister, I see the value in seminary and I am perhaps too invested in this system to step outside of this box adequately. I see our "learned ministry" as an important and defining tradition that is part of our make-up as Unitarian Universalism. It is also in keeping with the denominations that we are closest to. I'm not quite willing to drop seminary altogether. However, there are some interesting proposals about modifying the process. Here's mine.

Shortening seminary is entirely doable. A four-year process to become a minister does seem a bit outrageous. What about a one-year process of essential courses, during which the career assessment is done, followed by a three-month summer CPE and 9-month paid internship and seeing the MFC or RSCC at the end. With one year of seminary expenses, and one year of debt load, the new minister is in preliminary fellowship. The first year would be much of what is the required coursework now: pastoral care, preaching, and UU history and polity would certainly be included. This allows the minister to be in a congregation with a mentor minister and the preliminary fellowship review process in place. The first ministry position would be a two or three-year hired-not-called preliminary position, probably in a smaller church or an association position. Churches taking preliminary fellowship ministers would know that this is the duration of the position (but there could be an option to call the minister at the end).

During preliminary fellowship, rather than just saying what the minister is intending to improve upon, the minister is actually required to take additional courses, which would be readily available as on-line courses or intensive one-week courses. The UUA could provide stipends for these courses to the new ministers. There would be one course per semester or quarter, and therefore three years of this would about equal one year of seminary. Among these classes would be more on church administration, theology, world religions, ethics. Churches taking ministers in preliminary fellowship would know that this was part of the minister's work-load, and adjust expectations to it, and maybe compensation would be decreased accordingly, paying even as low as $25,000 but also paying the part of tuition that the UUA is not paying. Thus the minister has tuition on these classes paid and is making a minimal income. This would be attractive to congregations struggling to pay for full-time ministry, who often have, by default, a series of starting ministers for short tenures. This would institutionalize that and give these congregations a sense of their role in the formation of ministers. And the load for ministers would not be unlike doing a D.Min. during full-time ministry. It's doable. I've been doing full-time ministry and teaching one class adjunct to make ends meet, and teaching one class is at least as much work as taking one class. These three years could also be framed as part of an educational process, allowing student loans to be deferred for the three years.

At the end of three years, five years after starting seminary, the minister is reviewed by the MFC, with an interview that looks much like our current MFC interview. The MFC can give the minister the all-clear to pursue called ministry or can require more work of them. If requiring more work, the minister's current congregation could keep the minister on, or the minister could move to another short-term congregation. In extreme situations, another internship, full-time seminary year, or CPE could be required at this point. More ministers might "fail" the process than currently fail the MFC process, but not more than drop out of seminary, and they would be failing with less debt load, albeit a year later than many see the MFC. The yearly evaluations, however, would give ministers a sense of what to expect at the MFC.

The danger of such a model is the danger that exists when we put fewer controls on our ministerial formation process--that unfit ministers could be serving congregations and doing a lot of damage. This still happens in our current process, of course. This would be lessened by having a process in the first years of ministry that is much more watchful than ours is now, where one graduates seminary, has yearly evaluations and regular conversations with a mentor, but where one is otherwise left alone. During the preliminary fellowship time, a minister would be, therefore, viewed by both congregation and UUA as not really a full minister yet, and this would be more appropriate. It would clear up the problems we have now where the preliminary fellowship process puts congregation and minister in a relationship that is not really appropriate to a minister who has gone through a four-year degree and is now a called minister. The preliminary fellowship process, which requires a board evaluation, makes it feel to the board and the minister like the minister is an employee of the board. In this new scenario, the minister would be an employee-hired and not called, and it would be clear why this is the case.

There are other models, of course, for decreasing the expectations of seminary. This is mine, because I think there are problems with the other suggestions I've seen. I'm not going to go into all of them here.

Increase Funding

Unless the model is drastically changed, such as above, I believe the only other option is to increase funding. Period. This can be done a number of ways. A lot of people favor funding the ministers rather than the seminarians, because then we're not paying for all the people who drop out along the way. This is pretty reasonable. It's akin to proposals where people, like doctors, go to work in under-served areas and their student loans are paid off over time. Even if model for ministerial formation is drastically changed, one must remember, we still have the problem of the current and past graduates who have lots of seminary debt. It would be good to see something beyond what the Living Tradition Fund grants currently are for those ministers with high debt and low income. It's good that there's some funds there, but it's not nearly adequate to what our ministers are facing.

Costs of Becoming a Minister - Part One

A number of UU bloggers have been taking on the issue of the cost of becoming a UU minister. To see some of that discussion, check out PolityWonk, Elizabeth's Little Blog, iMinister, the Interdependent Web, Planting God Communities, Rev. Scott Wells... iMinister, in particular, has been doing a number of blog posts looking at every angle.

In a previous post I outlined the process for becoming a UU minister. The issue is that this standard process is too expensive, given the wages that many UU ministers will make, particularly in smaller churches, which we have a lot of in the UUA. (For full-time ministers, which right there is an assumption, the range starts at 37,600.)

The cost of seminary is around $15,000 per year for tuition alone, and then books and whatnot, until you're looking at a cost of around $35,000 for the year. Remember that four main choices for seminary for UUs are Andover Newton, Harvard, Meadville Lombard, and Starr King. They are in the Boston area, Boston area, Chicago, and Berekely -- not low cost-of-living areas where rent is cheap. Part-time jobs can whittle away at that, but not substantially. As I detailed in my post about the ministerial formation process, there's precious little time for part-time jobs with the whole secondary issue of constant applications during seminary.

Thus if you figure that for the four-year degree you might take out three years of loans (managing to live on the maybe $1500/month during your internship that the internship congregation provides), that might easily be a debt load of $90,000. If you have a debt load of $50,000 that you're paying off on a ten year plan at 8%, according to the UUA document linked to above, your payment will be $606. That's $7272 per year, a hard load for a new minister. Obviously if your debt load is more like $90,000 that's going to be more. If you add together the payments for the $40,000 and $50,000 loans, that's a payment of $1091 per month, or $13,092 per year. Subtract that from the lowest ministerial position and you're left with $24,518 to live on. Good news: that's slightly more than the 200% of the Federal Poverty Level that many agencies use as the cut-off for assistance... if the minister has no dependents.

But, you say there are options other than taking out the loans. Yes, there are:
  • The slow route to ministry: Going to school part-time while you work full-time
  • The superhero route to ministry: Working full-time while being a full-time student
  • The rich route to ministry: Having enough money from other sources that you don't need to take out loans.
It's also possible, of course, to choose a cheaper seminary and lower costs that way. I can't argue with that. However, I think we need to make it possible for a UU minister-to-be without independent means to attend a UU seminary and graduate with a liveable debt load.

And, of course, a fair number of ministers will go into churches that are paying more than the minimum. Smaller churches in areas with better costs of living will pay more, but the costs of living will be higher, too. And many ministers go directly into larger churches. But there are also many ministers who will start at the bottom. Something tells me that those ministers who are in the "rich route to ministry" are not all taking the lowest-paying churches.

So you get to this issue of ministers with incredible debt loads. And basically the system needs to change. This is not a good situation to have ministers with this level of debt making these wages. It produces a high level of anxiety in the minsters, for one.

What to do now? Again, there are some options:
  • Make the slow route more standard.
  • Make on-line courses more available, thus lowering the need to relocate to highly expensive areas. Note: this does not necessarily lower the cost of seminary, except for relocation issues. There is often an underlying assumption that on-line courses make it available for the seminarian to continue in a pre-seminary job while completing seminary. In essence, this is a variation on the slow route.
  • Require students to have money to become a UU minister. Couch it in politically correct terms that make it look like you're concerned about the minister and like it isn't classism. (Ouch! Did I say that? Yes I did.)
  • Lower the cost of seminary, or at least our UU seminaries since we can't control the others. (But even so, there's still living costs.) This would require our UU seminaries being more funded by the UUA, which arguably they should be because they're our institutions. (I do think we should be funding them more. Period. There's exactly one UU library that I know of in this country. It's at Meadville Lombard. It is a valuable resource for our denomination. And it's at risk right now. Meadville Lombard is selling its building and has a future uncertain. If you care about our history and our future, care about this.)
  • Lower the cost of seminary through requiring less of it--a two full academic years plus one year of internship? The arguments I see for decreasing seminary time are mostly arguing three years and the internship is separate from the seminary process. Folks, this doesn't change the amount of time spent, it just shuffles it around. Two academic years' worth of classes would be a decrease. It could be done over three years with part-time internships, but only if all the neighboring churches around a seminary take in the interns or if the classes are electronic.
  • Provide more funding for seminarians from the UUA.
  • Provide more funding for seminarians from individual congregations (in congregational polity, such as we have, this would be difficult to mandate).
  • Provide more money for ministers after graduation to pay back loans from the UUA.
  • Require the minimum salaries to be higher (probably would just result in more part-time ministries and under-served congregations, and be detrimental to our movement, but an impoverished ministry is also hurting our movement in ways not fully understood).
  • Assume a bi-vocational ministry as more standard (pass the buck! have other companies help pay off ministerial debts!)
While I think that adequately funding our UU theological schools is a denominational imperative, it is somewhat aside from this issue, as only about a third of all UU students attend our UU seminaries, so the problem of debt load would still be in existence. Although it is arguable that if UU seminaries were among the cheapest for UU students to attend they would be better attended. While at Meadville Lombard and at Starr King I saw UU students attending the other ACTS and GTU seminaries in order to get a lower tuition rate and still have access to the UU classes and resources of our UU seminaries. In some cases, they would transfer to the UU seminary in the last year or two in order to have their degree be from the UU school. The reason that these other seminaries, located in the same city, are cheaper are varied, but one major reason is that they are better funded by their denominations. And seminarians in process with other denominations are better funded, as well, it seemed, as I saw some seminarians go through the motions of being in other denominations until they switched over to UU and let their funding go.

I think the only options that are really viable and just are to either fund our seminarians or ministers better or to decrease our expectations about the seminary process. I'll pick up there next.