For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard
I attended my first General Assembly in 2001. The congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association were meeting that year in Cleveland and I stayed with a group of Ohians I’d met through the World Pantheist Movement. I probably could have gone to GA as a delegate of the Unitarian Society of Hartford, but I’d only just become a member there and I was still figuring things out.
I was excited to be going to my first General Assembly, and a few months before I had filled out the registration form with considerably more anticipation than I did those of any of the academic conferences I was used to attending. When the form asked for a title to go along with my name, I didn’t think much of putting “Dr.” in the box. From what I already knew of the value placed by Unitarian Universalism on education, I didn’t think such a thing would be out of place at GA.
One afternoon of General Assembly, though, I was at the exhibitor’s booth that my Ohio friends and I were staffing when another GA attendee came over. She glanced over the World Pantheist Movement materials we had on display, and then she noticed my name badge. I don’t remember how our conversation started, but I quickly found myself being quizzed on Unitarian Universalism. I didn’t know then that eight years later I would be similarly examined by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, the body that oversees the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “quality control” process for would-be ministers, but at that GA I was neither a seminarian within months of graduation nor even a reasonably experienced lay Unitarian Universalist. I didn’t know the answers to any of her questions.
It quickly became clear that she was annoyed with me. Finally she asked a question I could answer: she asked why there was a “Dr.” on front of my name, and I replied that I had a Ph.D. in physics. On the one hand, clarity dawned in her eyes as to my ignorance in the face of her questions. On the other hand, her annoyance with me peaked. Waving a finger at me, she scolded me for putting that title on my name badge. And with that she stalked away, but not before I’d been able to see that in front of her name on her badge was “Rev.”
Obviously I wasn’t too happy about this experience. My pride had, of course, been hurt, and it wasn’t much of a consolation to look back and realize that putting that title on my registration form may have had more to do with vanity than anything else. More than that, though, I was disappointed at having been treated that way by someone who was not only a fellow Unitarian Universalist but also a UU minister. It didn’t seem in keeping with the values that I’d heard described and promoted in services, values such as compassion and encouragement that could so readily have come into play in an exchange between UUs of different levels of learning and experience.
A dozen years later, I have since found myself more than once called to appreciate someone for what they have done and to gently urge them to stretch themselves and do more. I know I have benefited from somebody doing those things for me, and I hope I have employed lovingkindness in doing them for others. As our Unitarian Universalist Principles assert, the purposes of a congregation include meeting one another where we are and encouraging one another to spiritual growth, doing both at the same time. Some have said that church is where we go to grow a soul; UU theologian James Luther Adams noted that church is the place where we get to practice what it means to be human. Sometimes these entail one person giving another a dose of reality, something that isn’t often pain-free, but neither shaming nor scolding have any place as part of the process.
Ministry is something we all do, whether we’re ordained or not, whether we’re within the Fellowship’s walls or not. Each of us carries the good news of Unitarian Universalism with us, and each of us shows the world what it means to be a UU. None of us have all of the answers or expertise we need, whereas all of us have challenges and baggage. Let’s do the work to which we are called, setting aside the temptation to shame or scold and instead approaching one another with appreciation and encouragement. Let’s reach out with open hands so that we might grow the Beloved Community together.