Do Unitarian-Universalist Ministers Have a Calling?

An interesting comment on the earlier thread (about whether a layperson would be acceptable as UUA president) suggests that a layperson might be inappropriate because they don’t understand the sense of “calling” that UU ministers have.  The idea of a UU ministerial calling is an intriguing one, inasmuch as it is unclear what exactly this means in the modern UU context.

Traditionally, the concept of calling emerges from Christian ideas of God calling out to a person to enter the professional ministry in order to fulfill the destiny that God intends for them.  This marks the person out as special in some way, designed by God to fill a prophetic or similar role above the normal fray of lay life.  This concept is still very much alive in North American Christian communities.

But what about in Unitarian-Universalist circles?  God’s had a hard time of it in UUism over the past two generations.  While there have always been significant numbers of theists in the denomination, strong anti-God or simply non-God constituencies have had a prominent voice in some congregations that have been virtual “no God please, we’re UU” zones.  Christians as a specific type of theist are  a minority in the denomination and in the ministry, though certainly not a voiceless one.

So who or what is calling UU ministers?  Is it God?  If so, is this understood in the same way that non-UU Christians who created the concept of calling understand it?  If it isn’t God, then who/what?  What does it mean to have a calling if you are a non-theist or strong Humanist?  How does one go about recognizing a calling?  Is this ultimately an anti-egalitarian concept that elevates a small group as God’s chosen people over those intended to be the passive flock? Do ministerial committees have the right to admit or bar candidates based on their assessment of the authenticity or presence of a future-minister’s calling?

Probably the concept of calling varies among UU ministers (like everything else).  Some have a traditional understanding, while others reinterpret it in ways that make a better fit for their particular UU spiritualities.  Surely some ministers discard the concept, though then we might ask the opposite question and wonder why someone would go into the ministry without a sense of calling?

Do Unitarian-Universalist laypeople support the ministers’ feelings that they have a special calling?  Do their understandings differ from those of the ministers?  Is this difference of opinion so significant that they shouldn’t be elevated to the presidency of the UUA?

And does the presidency itself demand a particular sense of calling?  Could a layperson receive that call, from God or whomever?

It seems that this is another realm of inherited concepts from our Christian past that offers both opportunities and challenges for our contemporary situation.  And it points to the continuing efficacy of (often subterranean) Christian concepts in the denomination.  By way of comparison, Buddhism, which is enjoying a heydey in Unitarian-Universalism at the moment, lacks a concept of calling for its professional religious class.  That we take it for granted that a minister might have a calling and that this might be a legitimate concept, even one so powerful as to qualify or disquality someone for clerical or leadership positions, shows how much possibly unexamined Christianity is still operative amongst us.



Filed under Unitarian-Universalism

12 responses to “Do Unitarian-Universalist Ministers Have a Calling?

  1. Rev. Matt Tittle has an interesting post this week on this subject of calling:

    My own feeling of “call” is so strong, it’s, in my mind, not debatable. Kind of like “It was an experience, how can you debate an experience?” (Well, we’re UUs, baby, we can debate anything!)

    But I don’t see “call” as limited to ministers, or for that matter, religious people. Doctors, scientists, politicians … I think that everyone can have an inner mutual longing for unique purpose with the Universe/God/choose-term-of-your-choice.

    So, could a layperson — say, Gini Courter — be “called” to the presidency of the UUA? I’d say, but of course!

    • Transient and Permanent

      That’s an interesting comment, LE, thanks very much. It expands the notion of calling beyond the ministry to apply it to other people in (potentially) service positions in society, and I think it is fair to say that many of these people do indeed experience a sense of calling.

      What isn’t addressed overtly is the matter of where the calling comes from, or what it means to use an action verb like “calling” when there may be no being to voice the call. Must one anthropomorphize–if even on the most attenuatedly abstract level–a higher power in the universe in order to maintain the concept of calling? Could you clarify by what you mean by the “mutual” in “inner mutual longing”? I’m curious to learn how different people understand what is going on with this concept, especially those who indeed have a strong sense of such a calling. How did they determine it was a calling, and for the ministry in particular? What does this say about their theology? Perhaps the key to this issue of calling lies in your reference to longing for a unique purpose?

      I wonder if the sense of a calling to the presidency of the UUA by a layperson would be acceptable grounds to someone who expected the president to understand the sense of calling to the ministry.

      This is a bit of a side note, but I do wonder if the sense of calling to the UU ministry specifically can be mistaken. We have few spiritual practices, and many UUs who thirst for spiritual deepening or greater religious knowledge seem drawn to the seminaries as a way of indulging these understandable desires. Some may believe this represents a calling, when their real motivation is not service to others or to God/whatever, but personal questing (not a bad thing in itself). Because we lack monastic orders and systematic religious practices, the ministry may seem like the only option to UUs who want more and are already conditioned to fulfill religious needs by yet more reading and debate. But is this a calling as it has been usually understood? Not meant as a slam on people who enter seminary for mixed or questing reasons, just an open question that seems somewhat related.

  2. The Eclectic Cleric

    Of course we have a “calling.” In some ways this is so obvious the question itself seems a little silly. But taking it seriously, I personally believe that as people of faith we ALL have at least two callings: both a general calling to be decent and sociable human beings, and a more specific calling to “cultivate” (“Self-Culture”) ourselves until we are the people “nature and nature’s God” intended us to be. Likewise, my own understanding of my calling is constantly evolving — and it is a call I hear in many voices: that “still, small voice” that speaks to our souls in quiet times, the voice of God’s indwelling Spirit; or perhaps a “messenger” – “angel” — who might even speak to us in the words of other human beings, friends and strangers alike; or the calling of my community, my “congregation” — the people who have gathered together in the hope of finding some sort of inspiration in what I have to say to them. But do Unitarian Universalist minsters have a Calling? They’d Goddamned better, for Crissakes…or what the Hell are they doing passing themselves off as ministers in the first place?

  3. Chuck B.

    I like Lizard Eater’s response, and agree with it. Actually I believe that there are UU ministers who have not actually been called to be UU ministers but are UU ministers because their birth religon will not accept them. This results in ministers trying to turn their church into whatever they really wish they could be a minister of, much to the ire of their congregants.

    I disagree with calling the question silly. It is intriguing. In a faith of no creeds, no One Way, how do you define the minister’s desire to …well…minister.

    Are UU ministers similar to Quaker Clerks? I’m willing to be that too many thinkselves as such, or at least what they assume a Quaker Clerk is. That would explain how some UU ministers talk about being activist, but then never lead. Or UU ministers who think being able to marshal 10% of their congregation to an activist event is a major accomplishment.

    Calling, to me, denotes a passionate drive, an unassailable demand that exists independant of your other drives. Therefore, it would seem to me that a called UU minister would lead and demand his congregants to be the voice of passionate compassion first and worry about their tax status second. Sadly, from my little experiance that sort of passion is rare within the current ministers of our faith. Or at least not held up to attentiona near enough.

    We have some great talkers, though, and no body can beat us when it comes to debating minituae of an issue. And when it comes to commenting about compassion and listening to others…well I would put a UUminister up against any other Cleric in the world.

    I love the idea of a calling to be a UU. I agree.

  4. Hey, T&P … I was about to go way too long-winded for a comment, so I posted on my blog:

    Thanks for starting this “conversation”!

  5. A few, I believe, related thoughts…

    I believe in call in the sense that one’s whole being feels pulled to some particular thing.

    It doesn’t have to involve a divinity touching someone’s soul, although that might happen. Just as easily it is the confluence of many completely natural events in one’s life that takes someone to that thing, in this case, ministry.

    That said, I don’t believe a minister’s call and subsequent ordination creates some ontological shift as is believed within some traditions such as Catholicism.

    I’m as is our historical position in the functional camp. That is one is a minister when one is doing ministry. So, call is one step, acknowledgment by the community of faith is another, and actually doing the work is the last essential mark.

    I’m cool with respecting a retired or former minister with the honorific “reverend,” and would hope when my time comes people do so. But it is strictly a sign of respect…

    • Transient and Permanent

      James, I think you may have pushed the discussion forward by using a slightly different verb here: “pulled.” Calling seems to indicate some sort of intelligence that can beckon to the called–there is a sort of theology implied (and explicitly intended, in its original Christian usage) in the verb, even though it may be interpreted in all manner of ways. Being pulled, on the other hand, need not imply agency: one can be pulled toward the ministry by God, or be pulled to it by the force of one’s convictions, or be pulled to it by the needs of others, etc. After all, the impersonal natural force of gravity is said to pull objects downwards. That said, there’s less emotional content to saying “I feel pulled to the ministry” than “I feel called to the ministry,” I think. Or, maybe I’m just a sentimentalist.

  6. ogre

    Speaking only for myself (of course…)

    “Call” used to be a term I understood as poetic, a way to say “I found a job I really love.”

    And then I got one.

    I’m not complaining (anymore). I’ve given into it. I’m enjoying it, even.

    But let’s not beat around the bush about the experience; it was an invitation you can’t refuse, a compulsion. Drafted.

    Damned if I know what it was–and damned if I am going to try to tack a label onto the it (arrogant and silly to even think about it). Might have been me; the voice I heard was distinctly *my* voice (and in my head). But it was telling me things I hadn’t been thinking, and didn’t care to think, that threatened to shatter my life rather completely.

    And it demanded my attention whenever I wasn’t busy with other things.

    And once I threw up my hands and just went with it, things that were demonstrable obstacles to being able to do this now sort of slid aside. Very… peculiar… experience.

    So the simple answer to the question? Hell yes, UU clergy get calls. They come in a wide range of forms, and some are subtle and nagging… and some are as subtle as a brick through the window.

    Having grown up UU, having grown up agnostic and being a comfortable religious naturalist of vaguely pantheist (or pandeist) leaning, the notion of it being God is discomfiting. Damn, that’ll screw with my tidy understandings of things, if it is.

    I don’t experience it as elitist–my firm perception is that it’s a call to service, not to some elevated place of power (and yes, I understand that it’s complex…).

    Oh, and the notion that one has to be a minister to be a viable candidate for the presidency rots my shorts. Nonsense.

    Knowing at least one Buddhist priest who appears to have a clear sense of calling, I question that line of thought….

  7. serenityhome

    Fascinating indeed. One never knows what kind of firestorm one starts when one makes a comment on a blog.

    First of all, to be fair, I did not say that a lay person could never be a viable candidate for the presidency. In fact, I opened my comment by stating that I did not see it as incongruous for a lay person to be president.

    Second, a slight misinterpretation, I also did not say/ suggest it would be inappropriate for a lay person to be president. What I was attempting to point out was the importance for the lay person to first understand the differences between running a religious organization and a corporation. Second for the person having an understanding of the difference between being called to the ministry and being hired personnel. These are two crucial understandings, in my mind essential, for any leader to be president/ceo of a religious organization. And to be more specific and concrete, I believe our current Moderator, Gini Courter is a person who gets these distinctions.

    I will say more about called vs. hired at my blog.

    • Transient and Permanent

      Perhaps I should have put the “might” in the first sentence in italics, that could’ve helped to convey the point that it was an open concern, not a statement of firm position.

  8. Pingback: Called vs Hired « A Unitarian Universalist Minister in the South

  9. serenityhome

    Thanks for asking the questions…
    I have continued this conversation with a longer post at my Blog…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s