The Parson’s Handbook found online

From time to time, I consult Percy Dearmer‘s The Parson’s Handbook to test the standards of liturgical norms. I don’t always agree with him — little wonder as we come from very different places within Christianity — but you can’t fault him for his thoroughness and style. (To tell you the truth, I read it for pleasure, as I do travel guides and cookbooks.)

The book went through twelve editions in his lifetime, with a thirteenth (heavily altered, I gather) thereafter. Some are in the public domain, and I’m making a list below as a directory.

A new, favorite minister’s binder

So, ministers: how many of you, particularly in the free traditions, have your own “book” — often a three-ring binder — where you keep sermon and service texts, and perhaps a calendar and other flat items? (I keep Geneva bands in mine.)

I’ve written about this subject before and have bought several of these books myself but they tend to be utilitarian and covered in vinyl, and the best-looking of these are perversely the ones that fall apart the fastest.

Cloth-covered board and glazed paper covers are sometimes available. There’s one book I’ve had for years, with a textured surface looking more like leather, but made of paper; it’s falling apart, and no longer for public use.

A few weeks ago I found this binder from the Martha Stewart collection. I got it on Amazon for $6 and the red color seem suitably ecclesiastic. (There is also a teal version.)

The description wasn’t clear but it’s the same kind of pebbled paper that my old standby has and seems sturdy, if a bit stiff. I think it’s going to be a favorite.

Tilden lectures on the ministry online

There’s a shortage of historic works — Unitarian or Universalist — on the preparation and exercise of the ministry. So — while researching — I was happy to see a printed set of lectures by William Phillip Tilden (1811-1890) to the Meadville Theological School, in June 1889. So we can consider these the mature words of a respected pastor.

I’ve not read this, but will put them on the list. Thought you might like to read it, too.

The Work of the Ministry: Lectures Given to the Meadville Theological School

The UUMA Guidelines and the limits to criticism

It’s funny — I am, quite deliberately, not a member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, but its Guidelines continually affect me, and all Unitarian Universalists. In particular, there is a troubling culture that has grown up around one of the expectations of conduct:

I will not speak scornfully or in derogation of any colleague in public. In any private conversation concerning a colleague, I will speak responsibly and temperately. I will not solicit or encourage negative comments about a colleague or their ministry.

These Expectations of Conduct apply to all forms of public or private media including electronic and internet communications.

Which is fine, as written, and a bit embarrassing that it needs to be spelled out.

But the rule, as applied, has grown legs and can run. Too often, it claims the power of “covenant,” which so far as I can tell means “because I said so” and which really comes from our Unitarian and New England-ish approach to interpersonal power.

That power gave us strength — in the past. The kind of principled, theological debate that once marked our traditions is long gone. So, there’s a decided chill to not only not “speak scornfully or in derogation” but to not speak negatively about another minister, his or her thoughts or behavior or conduct in the ministry. Or really say anything that could be read negatively. I’ve spoken to several ministers over the years who have decided to self-censor and not criticize or challenge bad ideas for fear of being hauled up on charges of unprofessional conduct. There’s no reason someone’s reputation should be menaced by a fragile personality, yet our system allows it.

And we are the more bland, insular and stupid for it.

We are at the beginning of an over-long campaign for the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a position that (for the life of me) I can’t imagine anyone wanting. Two ministers were nominated, one has since dropped out. Another candidate, almost certainly a minister, will be presented by the same nominating committee to be run though an ersatz grassroots nomination by petition. I suspect others will see the opportunity and run. The process is in tatters, but where is the analysis? Ministers are candidates, nominators, campaign supporters, whips, funders and voters. What, in our subdued culture, is right to say?  I suspect we can demand little from ministers, and get less. How is that leadership? What can we demand of the candidates in public, however nominated?

I add in public because when there’s a pressure not to speak candidly, back-channels and coded language takes its place, in this election and in all our business.

So, first, let’s look at this rule and not over-function. To “speak scornfully or in derogation” assumes the application of emotion over reason, and presumably to speak against the person — ad hominem — and not the ideas, prospect, record or plans. It means to use the rhetorical skills associated with the ministry carefully, and the care means asking those tough questions — in public — among the ministerial college.  Apply the rule as written.

Our heritage, dignity and reputation demand nothing less.

The last of the licensed ministers

There has been some buzz, both associated with the #sustainministry theme and the fear of shortages in the ministry, that there should be some intermediate ministerial status. To which I noted to those within earshot that the Universalists once licensed ministers, and that we could consider doing so again.

There were licensed ministers — holdovers from before consolidation — within my time as a Unitarian Universalist. They even had their own section in the UUA directory, but year by year their numbers declined by death.

In time they were all gone; I don’t know who was the last. The right the UUA reserved (or at least claimed) to recognize such licensed ministers seem equally a dead letter, so it was cleaned out of the bylaws at a General Assembly.

When? More recently than you might think. The year 2000.

I was present at that GA and was both sad at the moment passing and thought that without a prior claim, any church was free to so license ministers. And I still feel this way.

Here’s how the bylaws read, just before the provision was removed, for those who want the details.

effective June 28, 1999
[…]
Section 11.4b
[…]
The Ministerial Fellowship Committee may also with the approval of the Board of Trustees make rules pertaining to the status of, and recognition by the Association of, lay preachers and the granting of licenses to them.

A year later, that was gone. The bylaws effective July 1, 2000.

Economics of Ministry, 1856 edition

Before the #sustainmininstry thread fades (presumably to revive at General Assembly) I wanted to meditate on how our ancestors coped. In my last blog post, I opined that ministerial shortages were practically a tradition. So is coping with meagre funds. This theme cropped up continuously when I worked on my never-finished master’s thesis — golly — about a quarter century ago. But those lessons learned over microfilmed antebellum newspapers made an impression.

  1. Have a sideline. Perhaps seasonal. Perhaps not farming.
  2. Your sideline? Call it media production. There was a reason why there were so many Universalist newspapers. (Which inspired me to create my first websites.)
  3. But don’t expect to get paid. Those minister-editors had a terrible time getting their subscribers to pay.
  4. Seminary may not be in reach, but an apprenticeship may be.
  5. If you can’t get a minister full time, perhaps you can be in a circuit. Some little societies only saw the minister every few months. But it was consistent. Ish.
  6. Be ready to pool your resources to memorialize a dead minister, or to support surviving dependents. But people may still mumble and grumble about the expense…
  7. Plant churches to make better use of public transportation. Who can afford a carriage, horsed or horseless?
  8. And follow migration patterns. When church members move, start a church where they go.
  9. Inactivate churches when there’s no minister, leadership or money. Call them dormant, but don’t lose contact with with a would-be reorganizer: it may be re-started.
  10. Use home hospitality at conventions. Well, I guess that one never really went away.

A ministerial shortage is practically our tradition

It’s hard for me to get too wound up about the prospect of a perceived ministerial shortage in the parishes, as reported in the UUWorld. (“Demand for interim ministers outruns supply“)

Until a generation or so ago, ministerial shortages were common. Low pay, poor prospects and frequently harrowing conditions meant that ministerial supply has been less than demand, often leading churches to do without a minister, or share one. A broader view of ministry means you can’t limit faithful service to the parish, and the whims of those who dwell therein.

What’s different today is that there are more ministers, but evidently no more who are willing to face the parish. And with so many churches reputed to be “clergy killers” or otherwise dysfunctional, who can blame them? And even if the church is even-keeled, the pay may be far less than what one’s skills would fetch in another field. Is it the minister’s duty to bear the time and cost of preparation, and then effectively subsidize the church through lost income?

Ideally, the burden should be (at least) shared. And since I don’t recall the same measure of concern in that relatively brief period when there was an oversupply of ministers, I have to wonder if the ministerial college isn’t expected to sacrifice too much again. Having a rich pool of ministers for parishes to choose presents huge costs for those preparing for the ministry and a huge financial and professional cost for those who have to necessarily “sit out” this year or that, and take whatever other employment is available.

Good people have left parish ministry, but not the ministry itself. The ecosystem will have to adjust, and congregations seeking ministers will have step up, or adjust.

The automated ministry

The prospect of job automation is more than a bit scary. Everyone likes a bit of help, provided that bit doesn’t help them out of a job. NPR ran a feature (“Will Your Job Be Done by a Machine?,” May 21)

Selection_135While some professions will almost certainly be automated to some degree, there’s only a 0.8% chance that the clergy will be automated.

This made me think of a particularly odd episode in Universalist history where it wasn’t the clergy that was to be automated, but the works of divinity.

To be fair, John Murray Spear had left the Universalist ministry in 1852 for Spiritualism, which was intensely popular (and controversial) among Universalists.

In Lynn, Massachusetts, he gathered a group of followers to “[create] the ‘New Motive Power’, a mechanical Messiah which was intended to herald a new era of Utopia.” [citation] Like made of machinery.

It didn’t work. But it is an intensely weird and wonderful episode that deserves a read. (One version of the story.) But in re-reading the story today I discovered that Spear channelled Universalist founder (and namesake) John Murray, and published his revelations in Messages from the superior state: communicated by John Murray.

“Important instruction to the inhabitants of the earth”? That’s something I’ll have to read!

Should Christian worship have non-biblical readings?

Having non-biblical readings has become such a canon among mainline Unitarian Universalists that Unitarian Universalist Christians face a crisis on the subject of readings. Is it proper to have non-biblical readings in worship?

The question of authority isn’t clear-cut. My home library has several works of daily readings: selected sections meant to be read regularly to enrich one’s faith, and not just in private reflection. Robert Atwell, the compiler of one such work (Celebrating the Seasons) notes in the introduction (page iii.) that

In monastic custom… the Scriptural reading at Vigils was supplemented by a non-Biblical lection. In the words of St. Benedict’s Rule: ‘In addition to the inspired words of the Old and New Testaments, the works read at Vigils should include explanations of Scripture by reputable and orthodox writers.’ The reading of commentaries (presumably on what had just been read) enabled the monk not only to engage with Scripture more intelligently, but also to place his personal meditation within the context of those of other Christians from different ages and traditions.

We’re not monks praying Vigils, but in our liberal-Reformed tradition we insist on the considered and thoughtful expounding on the lessons in the sermon. The lesson does not disclose itself, and we rely on the preacher to unfold its meaning.

In this sense, the non-biblical reading acts — or could act — as a replacement for the sermon, not the revealed word. But current Unitarian Universalist practice is far removed from this. When — about a century ago — Unitarian and (to a lesser degree) Universalist ministers cast abroad for non-biblical preaching texts, they drew from weighty stuff: often the classics, or a work of philosophy, or — as a standby — a bit of Shakespeare.

But today, it’s not uncommon for a liturgical element from the back of the gray hymnal, or a segment from a ministerial contemporary to be pressed into the role of scripture. It an odd thought that a minister might visit a church and hear her or his words — not unjustly quoted within the sermon — elevated to the role scripture once held. It’s hard to shake off our flippant and shallow reputation if that’s the norm.

So, there may be a place for non-biblical readings in Christian worship, but to help us hear and understand the word of God: not to become it.

The economics of supply preaching

I’d love some feedback from my readers — anonymous with a legitimate email address is fine in this case — to find out what supply preachers are getting paid, if anything. A denominational identification and a general sense of the area (region and relative cost of living) would also be very helpful.

Why? Because supply preachers — paid per service or sermon — is likely to continue as a solution for churches, particularly as the decline of the influence of churches in the United States escalates. But I worry that the rate is too low. And if it’s too low, the people who will preach supply will be students, retirees, plus perhaps those who have well-paying work (and may not have much opportunity to preach) or who are desperate for every penny. Too low for what? Putting together a living with part-item gig. That itself isn’t ideal, but is probably going to become more common as the United States economy also changes. Supply preaching will have to pay as well as other casual opportunities. This is all the more complicated since prospective mission churches are the ones more likely to need supply services, and they’re less able to afford them.

No answers now, but something worth flagging.