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Rev. Erik Wikstrom argues that the head of the congregation could be the "Chief Faith Formation Officer," and solicits  your opinion or dissent... – Ed.  

What If The DRE Ran The Church?

Of all the things I've done in my career perhaps the thing with the best title was when I was hired by the Canadian Unitarian Council to be a "provocateur" for one of their annual conferences.  Professional Provocateur -- arguably the role I was born to play.

So I'd like to be clear that what I'm doing in this post today is being provocative. Intentionally. Consciously. I'm not saying that I don't believe what I'm writing, but only that my goal is not to convince you of its rightness or wrongness. I'm hoping that a conversation might ensue. I'm hoping that others might stop for a minute, cock their head to one side or the other, maybe squint one eye, and say to themselves (and anyone who happens to be around them), "Huh.  I never thought about it like that.  I wonder . . ." That's what I think "What If . . ." questions are really all about. To get us to see things from a new angle, to try on a different perspective, and to remind us to wonder. Today's What If?  What if the Director of Religious Education ran the church? Let's start with a few assumptions. I am writing about the religious community I know best -- Unitarian Universalists. Others may find something useful in all of this, but it's really to and for UUs that I'm writing right now. And let us for the moment at least agree with one another that I consider Unitarian Universalism to be its own religious tradition. You may not think so -- and there are certainly folks with divergent opinions on this issue -- but I'm the one writing and I am beginning with the premise that Unitarian Universalism is its own distinct and unique religion. We grow out of Protestant Christianity, that's true. But Christianity itself grew out of Judaism and nobody's running around saying that Christianity should feel compelled to adhere to Jewish traditions, norms, and forms. So I'm writing primarily to Unitarian Universalist and with Unitarian Universalism in mind, and our tradition is its own thing. All that said, I think it can also be agreed -- and if you wildly disagree remember who's writing this! -- that the forms of our tradition still look awfully like the Protestant traditions from which we were born. Many of our churches are called, well, "churches." And lots of them look like churches. What with the pews and the pulpits and all. And lots of them have an ordained clergy person (or two) who are seen to a greater or lesser extent as the CEO of the church. This makes a certain amount of sense. Our tradition grows out of the Protestant strains that advocated for a "learned clergy." And today's ordained UU ministers spend a fair amount of time (and money!) preparing for the roles through which we serve our congregations. We study preaching, and church history, and theology, and pastoral care, and comparative religions, and . . .  If we're not all really smart folk we at least have a whole lot of learning! But here's where I want the head tilt to come in. Does it make sense for a Unitarian Universalist congregation to have an ordained clergy person at its head? Let me play this out a bit. In some traditions the clergy person -- Rabbi, Imam, Minister -- has been, not to put too fine a point on it, the smartest person in the room. At least, often, the most educated. And for certain the most well trained to do things like interpret sacred scripture. It seems self-evident that traditions that value such things would look to someone who looks a whole lot like a modern ordained minister to lead them. But Unitarian Universalists don't necessarily fit this mold. In the vast majority of UU congregations today the ordained minister is decidedly not the most learned person in the room! Per capita, UUs have more Ph.D.s than just about any other religious tradition. And our clergy don't even necessarily know more about scripture and religious history than the people in the pews, not that that's a particularly powerful need in most UU congregations. We don't have a sacred text that is in need of interpretation. And is a seminary-trained, ordained clergy person the only one who is able to draw meaning out of life? In some traditions the clergy -- priests, let's say -- are thought to be imbued with a special authority to perform certain acts. Only an ordained priest, for instance, can officiate the sacraments. But UUs don't have sacraments, per se, and even if we did it would be the rare congregation that would say only an ordained clergy person could perform them! Where am I going with all of this? I have heard it articulated, and have said it myself, that everything a UU church does is in one way or another part of the process of "faith formation." Everything we do is part of that "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" that we affirm is one of our guiding principles. It's long been noted that ordained clergy are woefully uneducated about issues of church governance and administration. But I think it can just as certainly be asserted that another area in which our training is generally underwhelming is faith formation. A cursory course in religious education, sure, but that is not the area of expertise most of us were encouraged -- or even assisted -- in developing. It is, however, precisely the purview of the Religious Educator. In recognition of this, in fact, more and more congregations are changing the title of their Director of Religious Education to Director of Lifespan Faith Development. And, so, I'm just wondering -- why, if there has to be one person who is at the "top" of the UU org chart (if you will), why is it the clergy person and not the religious educator? To be sure, in many of our congregations the religious educator is a part-time, and even a volunteer, position. The person filling the role does not have anywhere near the training and preparation of the clergy person. These folks may mean well, but they are in no position to "run the church." I acknowledge that this is so. I don't, however, assume therefore that this means it should be so. It may be that we've been putting our preparatory energies in the wrong place. Perhaps, rather than putting so much time and energy into clergy preparation we should be developing better prepared, and better supported, DREs! I also want to head off any argument directed at the idea that I'm saying clergy are unimportant. I am not. We bring skills, and training, and sensitivity to the game that's important. Even essential. Clergy have a capacity for seeing connections, and weaving things together that is, indeed, a part of our training. And while I do believe that nearly everyone is qualified to "pass life through the fire of thought" (as Emerson described the art of preaching), I also know that the clergy's training in homiletics and worship theory make us indispensable in training and guiding the laity. There is no question -- in my mind, at least -- that ordained clergy bring great value to congregational life. I do not, however, believe that that ipso facto translates into the elevated role most of us have inherited and are assumed to deserve. It seems to me that it would be ideal for the religious professional, and the "ministry professional" (for want of a better term), and perhaps even an administrative professional to work together as a team -- each one bringing their own particular skills and perspectives to the task. But I want to question the virtually unquestioned assumption that it is the ordained minister who is -- and should be -- "in charge." And, to be honest, if I had to pick only one role to be "on top" I think I would choose the DRE. So . . . thoughts? Pas texum, RevWik   Read this and other posts by Rev. Erik Wikstrom, Settled Minister at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist, in Charlottesville, Virginia, on his blog "A Minister's Musings".  

About the Author

  • Ted joined the staff of the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries in February 2010. He brings more than twenty years' experience using media to create social change by creating communications strategies and content for progressive non-profits, political campaigns, and cause...

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