When I left full time ministry, I was burnt out. I was down on religion, and angry.
I never thought I’d set foot in a church again.
I was tired of saying things just because I was supposed to and not because I really believed them. I was tired of what I perceived to be a lack of ardor in my congregation for actively reaching out and helping people, and a lack of curiosity about what could be possible. I was tired of people saying that our only mission was to show up and receive communion. I felt restricted, nearly claustrophobic, by the way the lectionary—the traditional weekly Bible readings—limited what we could talk about in our gatherings. I was angry at the hypocrisy of talking the Christian talk and being unwilling to take any risks or make any changes. I was fed up with arguing at board meetings, and with the way people would use financial issues to control the direction of the church. And many other things. The list is long.
So when I left my position as a pastor, I became a spiritual hermit for awhile, keeping to myself and doing much study and reflection. It was a time of healing and recovery for me, but after awhile I began to feel a lack of connection to other people spiritually. It wasn’t a specific desire for church, but rather a need to be around some like minded people. A therapist told me I needed to try going back to church; she could tell I was getting depressed. I was reluctant.
I was living in Dubuque Iowa, and there was a place I was curious about, called the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Dubuque, or UUFD. I decided to try it. Imagine my surprise and delight at attending services there for the first time. I discovered a group of down-to-earth people who were, like me, trying to recover from a former belief system. The people were interested in highly intellectual sermons on a wide array of topics, ranging from religious pluralism to social activism to the latest knowledge of the cosmos. There was an openness and variety of belief that I had not encountered before. There were atheists and believers, agnostics and freethinkers, Catholics and Protestants, and everything in between.
Having been a minister, I was curious about the fact that the UUFD minister, Rev. Kent Mayfield only preaches at the UUFD once a month. (Imagine that! The cumulative pressure of weekly sermons is a stress factor on pastors not generally understood.) The rest of the time the lay people run the service. Those lay services were very important to my first experience as a UU, because they showed me that a) it was possible and b) average people were committed to making that happen, and therefore c) there was a diversity of voice coming from the pulpit.
Anytime you go into a place for the first time, there is apprehension. Will these people welcome me? Will I like them? Is this a complete waste of time? And so on. But from the first, I felt at home, and felt that I was accepted. The people were friendly but not suffocating or over-eager. They did not give off the “desperation vibe”—a well-intentioned phenomenon of new member committees everywhere who descend upon the new person and actually make them feel uncomfortable enough not to come back. They were not overbearing in any way, they simply “were.” That quiet confidence attracted me.
I attended services there for about a year and a half. I learned much from Rev. Kent, a wise gentlemen, a man of the world, an appreciator of the arts, and in general a person whose mind can adapt to and accept anyone. I took his “Building Your Own Theology” course, and received much personal encouragement from him. I also saw how attentively everyone listened to his sermons, which were based frequently on a wide-ranging combination of scripture, philosophy and poets. Spiritual leaders such as the Vietnamese Buddhist and Zen master Thich Nhat Han featured prominently in Rev. Kent’s thinking.
I have since moved away from Dubuque, but this past May I visited UUFD again. Even though I don’t live in Dubuque anymore, I encountered an increased sense of connection, as everyone treated me as a part of things. My kids learned about communion from a pluralistic viewpoint as we went up to the front and took a flower, learning about the history of this ritual for UU’s, and experiencing the meaning of “communion” as a bond between people.
Thanks, truly heartfelt thanks, to the people at UUFD for re-introducing me to church.