Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Unreal Presbyterians

My dad used to come home from session* meetings and loudly complain that other people on the session or in the church "might be Christians, but they weren't Presbyterians." What he meant was that loving Jesus was one thing, but understanding the Presbyterian polity, the balance of power between the session and the minister and the role of the Presbytery was what being a Presbyterian was really about and to be a real Presbyterian you had to understand those distinctions. And yes, it takes a lot of real Presbyterians to run an effective church.

I would never call UUs who don't understand UU polity "not UUs", if only because my voice would give out before I got through saying that to half the people I've met who deserve to hear it.

But maybe we need to get back into teaching some of that stuff. The amount of ignorance about it is embarassing.

who freely admits that Steve Caldwell can kick her ass on the minor details, but has a good idea of the basics and wishes most other UUs had a Chalicechick if not a Caldwell level of understanding.

*the Presby equivalent of the board. Yeah, you probably knew that.


Desmond Ravenstone said...

All true, but ... There's also a point at which adherence to the "letter of the law" becomes a form of idolatry.

Idolatry, to me, is the transposition of means and ends. It is becoming so invested in the means of acheiving a desired set of ends that it becomes an end in itself -- and we lose sight of the greater goal.

All of the methods of church governance -- congregational, presbyterian, episcopalian, connectionalism -- are means to and end. Not to mention the various rules, traditions and "insider" language. The two questions we need to ask ourselves are:

How do these means connect us to our desired ends -- our values and vision?

How invested are we in these methods, as compared to the ends we seek to reach?

Chalicechick said...

Obviously, one can be an extremist in the other direction. I didn't intend to suggest one should go that far, merely that understanding the way that things get done is a crucial part of getting things done.

My dad would make the distinction between the Catholic model, where the priest is more or less king (answering only to those higher up in the church) but has greater responsibilities, and the Presby model, where the session does a lot more of the running of the church and the minister has to run lots of things by the session.*

If you want to get something done, knowing who has the power to do what is crucial, no matter what the answer to that question is.


*Yes, that information combined with the ChaliceDad's complaint does imply that the ChaliceDad was peeved that he couldn't boss the minister around as much as he wanted to.

Steve Caldwell said...

Just curious -- is this related to a recent attempt by a UU blogger to visit 25 Beacon Street during the Christmas holiday season who was surprised to see they were closed?


Also - thanks for the compliment about my knack for soaking arcane trivia. I guess 4 years of high school Latin and 20 years as an Air Force navigator have honed my mind to absorb trivia.

Happy holidays.

Bill Baar said...

I don't think most people join a Church to get anything done.

They join to recieve the things a Church offers, and that's it.

If the Church isn't working for them, they find another, or quit.

Chalicechick said...


That blogger's work over the last few months has really made me think about what it means to be a new UU, to still have a lot of baggage from an older religion that shapes your perceptions and to percieve problems in UUism and want to leap in and help without totally getting the roots of those problems or what the most effective way to "help" would be.

This post is partially a response to those thoughts, as was the last one on new UUs. I see integration of new UUs as a really important deal. It seems like it is very hard to do well and just leads to lots of frustration all around when it isn't done well. (It isn't always our fault, some religious experiences leave one needing therapy rather than a new church right away. Again, the marriage comparison applies)

New UUs (especially from Conservative religions) frequently strike me as the religious equivalent of a college Freshman raised in a conservative environment who is released on a college campus. There's a certain "Well, you can SAY I have to go to calculus, but isn't college ABOUT making my own choices? I can get drunk all night and sleep all day if I WANNA!" rebelliousness in all that. The resemblance is especially strong in that people often come to UUism with huge authority issues and get off on picking fights with authority figures about pointless things, then complaining that nothing ever gets done. I recognize the new UU's claims about how they can say whatever they want about other religions and how church should be all about what they want or it has no value and ministers and the UUA should do this and that because obviously they should since it's something that a brand new UU thought up five minutes ago that surely no UU has ever thought of before and there couldn't possibly be an idea like that in place already that the new UU just hasn't heard about yet*. Watching it makes me wince and makes me wish we could harness all that energy into something productive.

Indeed there is a wonderful energy in all of that, and often the desire of a truly good person to help and fix things, it just tends to get wasted because new UUs just don't know how things are supposed to work and what has already been tried and what is a reasonable request and what isn't.

As far as I've ever seen, you and I don't agree on very much, Steve. But we know enough about the premises that UUism is based on and how UUism is structured to have our disagreements within the context of UUism. I'd like to help new UUs get there as their ideas and their energy have real value.


*That last issue is this blogger's specialty. He didn't use the term, but he essentially reinvented "voluntary simplicity" as asked why the UUA had never had such a campaign. *Headdesk*

Chalicechick said...


That's really depressing. I hope you're wrong.


TK said...

Dear ChaliceChick,

Been reading you for a little while now via RSS feed and thoroughly enjoy your posts.

I'm a new UU, myself, having signed the book only 9 mos ago, read only one short book about the theology/history, attended one district conference, and read some blogs and papers. (I come from a very conservative background.)

Somehow, I got volunteered to be on the Board of Worship (BoW) actually before I signed the book, so now I'm in a leadership position, planning Worship meetings, for a church that I only moderately understand the theology and even less understand the polity.

I'm just trying not to step on toes. Of course, as we're a "Society," I keep accidentally saying "church" and I see a couple people wince when I do so. It's just a habit, not a policy decision.

Anyhoo, that's my situation. Please have some sympathy for those of us who have great deal of energy and enthusiasm and are trying to bumble our way through.

It would be wonderful if you more experienced UU's wrote some stuff, say, here, about the relationships between the laity and the minister and other relationships within the church.


hafidha sofia said...

How ignorant am I ... didn't even know presbyter was a *word* ...

My experience is that new UUs who show any level of enthusiasm (as opposed to keeping a real low profile) get snatched up into positions of leadership. UUs are so wanting for bodies to run their churches, and the seniors and retirees get so jazzed about "young people."

There is not any kind of educational test ... the UU equivalent of a citizen test. And beyond that, religious history and theology classes you often have to pay for!

Kim Hampton said...


As I was a Government major 50-million years ago when I was an undergrad, anything governing-related is interesting to me. And having just spent 6-plus months in an in-depth study of UU History and Polity, I can attest to the ignorance that many UUs have when it comes to issues of both history and polity.

That said, I don't think this has as much to do with what a person was raised (if they were raised anything), and more to do with the fact that it's really hard to make Polity sexy (although it can be done). Most people, no matter what church/denomination, have little interest in church governance unless or until it affects them. Which makes me believe that a lot of Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians are taking a really close look at things polity-related.

However, on the UU-front, I think part of the ignorance that many members have has as much to do with the fact that Adult Religious Education has taken a backseat to children's RE for a really long time. If we talked about polity as a religious issue, and not just a governance one, I think things would become a lot better.

DairyStateDad said...

I wonder if this is a subset of a larger problem: intra-church communication. (I'm a professional communicator, so there's always the risk of the tool = hammer, everything = nail problem where I'm concerned.) I'm always astounded at what information people don't have about what goes on in our church. Yeah, we have a weekly order of service w/ umpteen million announcements in it, and a monthly newsletter, plus spoken announcements before each service on Sunday. Yet there's lots going on that people don't know/understand about. (Example: we've taught OWL forever. Yet invariably when I tell people who've been long time members about my own activity in OWL, I'll have someone ask, "What's that?" Or: Our church went from the portfolio board model to the board/program council model many years ago, and I suspect lots of people have no idea about that or what it means. And so on...)

Our church has a 3-session "New UU" class for prospective new members. But as I write this -- and despite having been a member for 20 years, and long ago being part of New UU when I was president of our board -- I have no idea whether a) New UU is required for membership, or b) how much it includes these days on polity -- although I think it should be required and should include a lot on policy.

Oh, and completely what hafidha sofia said.

Chalicechick said...

First off, Hafidha, it didn't help that I left off the "Y." I will go fix that in the post in a second.

A Presbytery is what UUs would call a "district," though they don't have all the same powers.


Your response was excellent and deserves a post of its own. One is in the works.


Stephanie said...

Just a side note---and I don't mean to be snide---I think more people would understand what OWL was and is if it was not only discussed as an acronym. As are so many things. I can remember a post where Philocrites went through an spelled out all the acronyms for me. And I'm pretty much a cradle UU.

DairyStateDad said...

Oh, indeed when I refer to it I use the full name, not just the acronym. (As another side note, I hear second-hand that there is an effort underway to avoid the acronym and avoid Owl imagery associated with it out of concern that it is misappropriating a Native American symbol.)

Stephanie said...

I don't know about the misappropriation (Couldn't we say that about any animal?) but I think the literal animal imagery is a bit odd....

Bill Baar said...

Why depressing CC?

People join a Church. People join a Religous Community. People join with expectation of getting something out of it. They expect to give in return too.

They don't join "to get something done".

If their Church isn't delivering, the switch or drop out of religous life.

The larger issues of polity and getting something "done" at that level are outside of most peoples scope.

hsofia said...

Owls are supposed to be wise .. sp maybe the idea is "wise up" about your sexuality? Or get some knowledge about your body?

ogre said...

Misappropriating the image of the owl? WTF?

I'm sorry, "the" owl doesn't have just one meaning and iconic image among Native Americans. So the suggestion is... daffy.

Besides, the melanin-deprived have a perfectly legitimate set of European-origin claims to owls. Hey, how about Athena's owl--wisdom.


As to the rest, I've preached polity and history. I'll damned well do it again. And my M.Div integrative paper (thesis) will be about a project seeking to teach something of our history and the fundamental outlooks behind it.