Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Being a Professional Religous Professional in difficult economic times

A very wise colleague recently told me that she thought that at the core of what we do, is that we educate people on how to "do church." My work is not the same thing as my job description and commensurate task list.

I really like that as a hook upon which to hang my hat. Our work is that we provide leadership in how to live in a certain kind of community that doesn't exist elsewhere. We provide opportunities for people -- adults, youth, children -- to practice the skills necessary to be able to be in right relationship. It's relatively easy with people who think like us and laugh at the same jokes, but our religious community, when done right, includes people we don't particularly enjoy being with, people we don't understand, people we find challenging, angry, or obstructionist, and "doing church" with them takes a lot of work.

When we ask ourselves, "What is a congregation uniquely positioned to provide it's members," we come to that answer. We are a religous movement that affirms the worth and dignity of our most challenging people. We are a faith tradition that expects that people will be oriented toward right relationship, toward health and wholeness; toward, dare I say, liberation from that which limits and challenges us. We are a faith tradition where people covenant to stay at the table together and work things out, to practice and practice and practice again the skills to be able to work things out.

Religious Professionals whose work is in congregations are in a unique position relative to the members and congregations in which we serve. We spend 20 or 40 or 60 hours a week "working" on the doing of church. By the time we've been doing this work for several years, we have engaged in myriad collegial conversations and spent intense time in educational development opportunities at 15 and 25 and 40 hours a pop, learning from our colleagues and foreparents, from those who specialize in understanding particular aspects of our work. We may have spent 1 or 3 or 4 or 10 years in advanced studies in preparation for the work we do, learning how the early Christian church, liberationists in Latin America, marginalized populations and mainstream congregations in the US all have "done church." We've learned about congregational systems theory, and the impact of congregational size on the necessary administrative and program structures; we've worked to be a non-anxious presence.

And the people we serve, for the most part have not spent years and years in this endeavor. They attend worship once a week. They serve on a committee, or teach a class, maybe both. Some few immerse themselves in "being" Unitarian Universalist in an active, core sense. Maybe, after a number of years, they serve on the Board or on committees and boards of the larger association. Or they blog regularly about our Association and our lives together.

But church time is slow time.

C h u r c h T i m e i s S l o w Tiiiiiiiimmmmmmmmmmeeeeeeee.

I came out of Seminary great guns, intending to change the world, to start adult education programs that mimicked the kind of intense bonding and exploration I experienced in Seminary. I was going to start outreach ministries that met the felt needs of the poorest in the community from church basements, empowering the members of any congregation I served to imagine wildly the kinds of needs they, banded together as a congregation, could meet.

And here I am two decades later on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, talking with people, not about the next outreach activity, not about deep intense theological questions about the meaning of life, but about the importance of the Safe Congregation Policies. We explore why it isn't a good idea for a person who doesn't actually believe that the rules are necessary to be the actual person who teaches them to newcomers. Sometimes I practice, teach, and engage in right relationship with my community by saying "No."

Here I am, again, trying to find language for why the word Faith doesn't mean belief in what isn't provable. Or in a conversation about why, just because the word Covenant is printed on the side of big rigs and is claimed by reconstructionist Christians we still get to use it. That, in fact, we must use this language, for it is our language. The very deepest innermost truth of our faith is in our covenant one with another.

Here I am, again, asking a group of incredibly passionate and talented RE Volunteers to remember that they are working with a group that exists in the context of a larger RE Program, which is in the context of the larger congregation, which is uniquely qualified to offer it's membership a certain kind of being-in-relationship.

Here I am, again, (trying to be careful) asking questions about why a congregant who buys fair trade coffee and won't shop at Walmart would entertain the idea that when staff hours are cut, that staff member should just offer up volunteer time to fulfill their job description.

Here I am, not engaged in a deep discussion about multinational economic oppression, but explaining why I think that all staff will support another staff person's raise to the local Living Wage even though none of us are going to get a COLA this year; why it's a justice issue; why we are also bound together in right relation.

Under economic pressure, congregations need their religous professionals to be professional -- that is, to continue to help them learn how to "do church." If my hours or program budget were to be cut further, what would that mean to me as a professional? What would it mean to my family? These are my questions to answer, and they belong in conversation with my family and colleagues.

But, how would the congregation "own" the consequences of choices to cut? This, ultimately is my role as a religious professional under economic pressure -- how might I help the congregation understand that those consequences have to do with how they live their lives together, how they support their children and youth, how they walk together in justice and peace and right relation. Changes in my job description would mean modifications in how they support their own religious community, but it ought not be about whether or not I am hurt or angry. Their reaction to any cuts that are made ought not be to personally apologize to me. Because it's not about me.

My family life is about me, my economic realities are about me, and my solutions will be about me. But the congregation must learn through this as through everything else, how to "do church," how to be in right relation, how to make hard choices and then follow up with right action.

What I do as a religous educator is far more complicated, rich, and meaningful than the exciting work I'd once dreamed. Starting up community education programs to teach basic car repair to single mothers would have been much simpler.

PS. Late breaking news people, Literary License. It's a lovely thing. Remember, I never talk about my congregation on this blog, and so there are no exact literal conversations with exact identifiable congregants; just as I hope you understand that it could not possibly be true, in that literal factual sense, that I had all of the above conversations, literally, this Wednesday afternoon.


Anonymous said...

Cindy, thank you SO MUCH for this post. I comes at EXACTLY the right time!! As I sit here with tears in my eyes, feeling and trying to really understand that I AM NOT ALONE, your words are a calming balm to a very chaotic mind and heart! Blessings and peace, Kelly Belanger Harris, DRE Jacksonville, FL.

Mr. Barb Greve said...

Well put - you have eloquently written that which I've been unable to find the (right) words to say. Thank you! ~ Mr. Barb

Vicki said...

Doing church is what it is all about. Having professionals in leadership keeps us on track and safer. I don't have a professional DRE in my church and I have become committed to raising the money to get one!!!!!!
Vicki Heidorn
UU Society of Gardner, MA

Masasa said...

Well said. I also really appreciate your description of our vocation, and our development into and through this vocation.

Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo said...

Cindy ~ thanks for such a spot-on articulation of what it looks like to lead in our religious communities. Too often, religious professionals of all flavors get caught up in the visible and concrete tasks. Sadly, at times that leads to tussles between programs within congregational life and in turn, between people. Your call to a collective and accountable way of 'being' throughout our lives within the congregation and beyond, firmly rooted in our theology, is what keeps me hopeful about our ability to change the world ~ and ourselves. Thanks for your leadership on that journey. ~ Wendy (Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo, UU Church of Marblehead, President of UU Allies for Racial Equity(ARE))

Kari said...

Did I ever tell you that you're my hero? I'll sing it for you at LREDA Fall Con on Kareoke night.


FANTASTIC post! Thanks so much.

Cindy said...

Glad it was helpful all, thanks for the comments.

Kari, perhaps if enough tequila is involved, we can sing that as a duet...
This would of course, be an exuberant, energetic presence, not to be confused with an anxious one...

Cindy said...

I've been looking all day for a link to the above mentioned "very wise colleague," Deborah Levering, Clara Barton District Program Consultant, and can't find one.

So until she puts her face somewhere public on the internet, this mention will have to do.

Thanks Deb!

Halcyon said...

Thank you, Cindy. As has happened so many times, you have given words to those hard to express ideas that float around in the brain. And it is especially good to have clear sentences when I am all wrapped up in the budget crazies.

Oh, and I am so in for that Kareoke, Kari!

Gail said...

Thank you for this, Cindy. Like my colleagues, I read your post with tears in my eyes, having spent my Wednesday afternoon processing the prior evening's Finance Subcouncil meeting.

This meets my need for a shared reality.

Gail M. Syring
Unitarian Society of Hartford

Anonymous said...

Wow! My co-worker sent me this blog this morning. (Thanks Lisa!) I laughed and cried as a I read it twice. Several committees at our church have spent months working together to present a balanced budget. There are program cuts, pay cuts, and furloughs involved. However, we managed to do so and it was presented to the Board of Trustees last night. It looked like everything was a go board member decided it wasn't good enough! Although his original motion was voted down, a 45 minute discussion took place and prolonged what promised to be a short meeting. I had already worked 3-10 hour days in a row so I was not a happy camper. I sat in my chair, twisting a rubber band on my wrist, and tried to remain a non-anxious presence.

It is so nice to know that we are not alone.

Mary Wiese
Membership and Community Life Administrator, Unitarian Church of Tucson

Lizard Eater said...

This should be required reading for all congregations. I feel like Sisyphus some times. Once again, to explain how and why. Teaching the ABCs over and over, trying to find new ways to communicate the same information. Why parents and teachers are not automatically excused from any RE duties even though they "gave at the office/home" already. Why not having children doesn't preclude you from talking to the children. Why Sunday does not mean "a vacation from my children." How the way we act together is a reflection of our deeply held values.

You wrote beautifully about how it is both difficult and a privilege.