The reading and sermon below were delivered at United First Parish Church of Quincy (MA) in September 2006.
From Living on the Border of the Holy, by L. William Countryman
The first thing to say in our exploration of priesthood…is that priesthood is a fundamental and inescapable part of being human. All human beings, knowingly or not, minister as priests to one another. All of us, knowingly or not, receive priestly ministrations from one another.
...What, then, is priestly ministry? It is the ministry that introduces us to arcana—hidden things, secrets. In one sense, priestly ministry is the most ordinary thing imaginable. All our lives, we are repeatedly in the position of finding, revealing, explaining, and teaching—or, conversely, of being led, taught, and illuminated. Everyone is the priest of a mystery that someone else does not know: how to construct a budget, how to maneuver through the politics of the workplace, how to roast a turkey, how to win the affections of the [one] to whom one is attracted. The experience is so common that much of the time we do not notice it at all. We are all constantly serving others as priests of mysteries known to us and not to them. And we are constantly being served by those who know what we do not.
It’s a great pleasure to be here with you today. I greatly admire what you’ve done to keep this historic community alive and still serving a broader liberal religious vision in this area. You have been gifted with a legacy that still stirs the American heart, and I thank you for your willingness to share that legacy with so many who come through these doors.
I am particularly grateful to you because I know how hard you have had to work to keep the very roof on this place, how you have had to ask some difficult questions of yourselves related to what truly embodies the past and how important it is to your present and future. And this question stays before you always, for the tourists from all over the world who come here may drop their dimes in the buckets by the doors, but it is you who must give your energy, your resources, your time to keep this as a religious community and not just a museum.
I would imagine this legacy is an ambivalent one. On the one hand, I could see why you could come here every Sunday glowing with pride in being a part of this place. On the other hand I would suppose that at times you might feel weighed down by what may seem the burden of the past. Both of these are understandable feelings. I work with historic congregations all over this area and encounter many people who feel these same mixed feelings.
So I have been asked here to talk to you about how you might understand your leadership role in this congregation as an opportunity to continue the spirit of this place, and not just to bolster its building. For the founding spirit was all about freedom of belief and the desire to bring our whole selves to this altar: our thinking selves, our conscience, our different perspectives, our different needs, our different offerings, our spiritual longings that spring out of our daily experiences of love and loss and gratitude and frustration.
This, of all churches, should not be a cookie cutter church, expecting the same thing of everyone. That is your true legacy. So what are the ways in which you might understand leadership in this congregation as a calling to live out the spirit of the past, yes, but also to bring your needs of the present and the future to bear as well?
And why am I talking to all of you about leadership? Isn’t Sheldon (Bennett, parish minister) the one in charge? Isn’t Kirt and the Board of Governors? Actually, every one of you are leaders of this congregation, as well as those members who couldn’t be here this morning. For in Unitarian Universalist congregations we are what our theologian James Luther Adams called “the priesthood of all believers”. It is a priesthood as Countryman describes above, where we all “constantly serving others as priests of mysteries known to us and not to them. And we are constantly being served by those who know what we do not.” And that is the kind of leadership I want to hold out to you today.
Leadership in our broader culture is itself an ambivalent project. We are in a time of change when we’re not really sure what we want from a leader: practical experience or charisma, an open and inclusive spirit or a determined vision of the future. Any and sometimes all of these things are asked of leaders, and not all are possible within the same person. So I want to propose that we begin to think consciously about leadership in a different kind of way.
Leadership is a particular interest of mine, formed not just by experiences in ministry, but also formed at an early age during my young adulthood in Texas when I was an active political progressive. Now I know that may seem like an oxymoron to some of you when speaking about Texas: political progressive. But during the time I was in college there was a new wave going on in Texas in which all the top office holders were progressives. Jim Hightower and Ann Richards were a part of this “Camelot time” in Texas, and it was my particular privilege and frustration to work for Jim Hightower. I’ll explain why it was both.
Now you need to understand the context out of which we were operating. Even though progressives were at the top, much of the rest of the political world was politics as usual, in which business was conducted as dog fights between people with particular fiefdoms to protect. Both sides of the political aisles were susceptible to being drawn only to the power of their position, losing sight of who they served, and even their basic humanity.
I remember a particular battle which had Oscar Mauzy and Babe Schwartz, two Democratic State Senators on one side, and John Rogers, a leading Republican on the other. They fought about absolutely everything. And then suddenly, Rogers dropped dead of a heart attack. As is the practice, they laid his body in state in the rotunda of the capital. And as was the form, Oscar and Babe lined up to pay their respects. Oscar was ahead of Babe in line, and when they got to Rogers’ body, Oscar reached out and touched him in what looked like almost a reverential way, and stayed there looking at him for a long time. After they were through the line Babe pulled him aside and said, “Oscar, what was that all about? You actually looked sorry he was gone!” Oscar replied, “No, I just wanted to make sure the sun of a gun was dead!”
So this was the context, and in came Hightower bringing his radical notions of building coalitions of disenfranchised people together to create a powerful base of dispersed power. He wasn’t interested in politics as usual, and refused to go to the legislature begging for his disbursements. As one of his legislative liaisons, I was supposed to help grease the wheels, but on top of the oil I tried to pour over these troubled waters, Hightower was shooting flame throwing rhetoric of derision. I both admired his principles and refusal to compromise, and could have wrung his scrawny little neck, all at the same time.
So I left politics, and decided to enter into the peaceful world of congregational life. And discovered peaceful it was not. I encountered people having knock down, drag out fights, not over policies and vision, but over what color to paint the parlor. And I found that rather than leaving politics behind, I just entered a new realm of it, and that what I learned in Texas actually helped me in my ministry, and formed many of my ideas about leadership.
I’ll offer you a few of those learnings. First of all, success in leadership is not always about personality. We still often cling to this myth that there is some kind of particular charismatic personality required of leaders. It’s one of the reasons Deval Patrick has emerged as a front-runner in the governor’s race, for he is the embodiment of what we dream of in a leader (he also happens in my opinion to have some good ideas as well) but mostly what I believe people respond to is his “leaderly” personality.
But it is not always the case that such personalities hold sway. The dearly departed Ann Richards (and I do mourn her passage—she was indeed a great lady) was one of the most popular governors Texas ever had. When she tried for a second term everyone thought she was a shoe-in for her positives were so high. And people went into election day still thinking she was wonderful. 62% of the voters felt good about her leadership. But only 48% of them actually voted for her. What was that about?
Garry Wills explains this in his wonderful book Certain Trumpets. In example after example he shows that people don’t need exactly the same kind of leadership at any time, but that what they require is the kind of leadership that helps them achieve a common goal. And just as that goal changes, the demands of leadership change. He describes leadership as a three legged stool: it is an act that requires first of all a common goal (even if it is subconsciously felt), a leader or leaders who have the particular attributes needed for that particular goal, and followers who articulate and support the goal thereby getting their needs met.
So the point of all this is that nearly anyone can be a leader at certain times, depending upon how their particular skills or interest blends with the larger interest. Which gets us back to the democratic construction of our Unitarian Universalist congregations.
By theology and by principle, we try to affirm exactly what Wills and many other leadership experts are now finally coming to understand: that the best leadership comes from people who have three things: an understanding of a larger goal or mission toward which we aspire, an understanding and self-awareness of themselves as individuals with both strengths and ways in which they can grow; and people who will trade off roles from time to time, recognizing the particular offering of different leaders, and therefore stepping back and letting them be leaders for that time.
We’ll unpack all this in the workshop this afternoon. But for now I want to concentrate on the spiritual aspect of this. For what I have also grown to understand is that we are not just political institutions with particular power bases and agendas to fulfill (although that is certainly a part of what takes place in congregations if we are honest about ourselves). It is also about how we bring our spirits to share not only in the details of how to run a church, but in the mutual exploration of the deepest parts of ourselves, that deep “arcana” that Countryman talks about that is made up both of the day to day experiences of life, but also about our deepest desires and longings, our hidden experiences of what I call the divine within us, those moments when we find ourselves both loved and fulfilled, and awed at the small place we inhabit in the larger power of the universe.
What congregational work ought to be about at its deepest core, is bringing those hidden places to light: trying to make meaning of the moments when we feel overpowered by the realization we are not in control of all aspects of our lives; and also feeling support in being empowered to bring our unique gifts to the surface—gifts we may only have glimpsed at times—but which call us to fulfill ourselves by placing them in service of something larger than ourselves.
Of course congregational life does at times seem mostly comprised of committee meetings and demands on our time, and efforts that often seem unrewarded. We all have to participate in the mundanity of community at times. But in the course and the midst of this mundanity we must also find ways to feed our soul: to feel honored for the gifts we bring, to feel challenged to grow by being confronted with different ways of understanding the world, to feel emboldened and motivated by a vision of something beyond our individual selves that we know we can only accomplish with others who join us on the quest.
This is what I hope you can find here. This is what will serve the vision of the past. And most importantly this is what will sustain you through your present and your future together. I wish all this for you and more.