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Nurturing a Ministry of Activism

by the Rev. Victoria Weinstein
Channing Memorial Church, Unitarian Universalist
(At time of writing)
Columbia, Maryland

So you want to be a social justice activist. Of course you do. That’s one of the primary reasons you got involved with Unitarian Universalism (UUism) in the first place. The wounded world called out to you for justice, and you ventured into congregational life as a layperson or a minister in order to answer that call along with others of good conscience and liberal ideals. So far so good. In fact, so far so wonderful.

However, if social justice work was easy, and if social activism undertaken in religious community was simple, the world would be in far better shape than it is right now. What we know, though, is that changing society for the better—even a little bit for the better—can be a difficult endeavor even for folks who share a deep simpatico. This article is for you, ministers all, ordained or not, who dare to do this work together. How can we best nurture a mutual ministry of activism in our congregations?

Challenge the spiritual/political dichotomy. How does the relationship between spirituality and social conscience play out for you? Within our movement, there has been an unfortunate tendency to promote a false dichotomy between spiritual and prophetic ministries. The stereotypes may contain a grain of truth but are decidedly unhelpful. You may have heard the contentious remarks in your own congregation:

  • “This is a church! What’s politics got to do with it?”
  • “Unitarian Universalism is a hands-on religion. All of this spirituality stuff is just a self-indulgent fad.”

Are these unfortunate prejudices present in your congregation? Air them out; challenge them. Celebrate the different ways that the spirit of Justice makes itself known to the many different personalities in your congregation. Honor various expressions of social protest; make room for a diversity of styles. Let it be known that your social justice program is one area of congregational life where all, despite theological differences, can reach accord and cooperation. Make it a tradition.

To that end, encourage your members to articulate how their theology informs their social justice efforts. Even if you belong to one of the rare, fairly spiritually homogeneous Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations, it might be very inspiring to broach conversations about how religious beliefs influence our approach to social justice work. If we can try to talk about gender difference, sexual identities, race, abilities, age and class in our congregations (whether or not we do it particularly well), we ought not keep spirituality or religiosity out of the conversation.

I attended a protest outside a Planned Parenthood clinic recently. A pro-choice Episcopal priest looked around at the many UUs present and praised our commitment. “God bless the Unitarians,” he said. “They always show up. The only thing is, none of them seem to be able to explain why.” The desire to work for social justice doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it arises out of deeply held moral convictions and beliefs. If we can work to find theological language for those convictions, I believe we will have come a long way toward strengthening our collective religious identity. People will know why Unitarian Universalists have shown up.

Be aware of how social justice efforts are initiated in your congregation, and how it affects your shared experience of social justice ministries. Let’s look at the two most typical scenarios:

(1) Response to cultural or community crisis: This is a common way for a congregation to become gripped by the urgent call to social action. A hurricane sweeps through the area, and the immediate need for food and housing galvanizes instant response. A gay teenager commits suicide and the congregation agrees with one voice to support the local gay-straight teen alliance at the local high school. The minister leaves under a cloud of suspicion for sexual misconduct, and the congregation quickly comes to the conclusion that education and outreach about sexual ethics is necessary.

Each of these events, or series of events, works convincingly on the hearts and minds of Unitarian Universalists in a way that provides an obvious focus for activism. Such action is often successful, inspiring and extremely good for the morale of the fellowship or congregation. The impetus was so clear! It was so easy to get a majority of the fellowship involved!

In the absence of such focus events, social justice concerns can become mired in endless swamps of congregational process: boards, committees, votes, conversations, consensus seeking—all common obstacles resulting from our beloved democratic process. We will suggest some of solutions to this problem later.

(2) Personal evangelism: For clergy and laity alike, our most compelling social concerns tend to arise out of personal experience. Thus, we come to the table with a burning intensity to seek justice around that issue. This intensity can be inspiring to the congregation, or it may be intimidating. In the latter case, we may speak of a passionate person as having an agenda. Listen for that word when it pops up in your congregations in reference to folks with social justice concerns. Is it being fairly applied? Would it not be fairer to acknowledge that most of us, if life has touched us at all, do have an agenda?

At any given time in our congregations, there may be a certain degree of tension or competition about how to direct the groups’ efforts toward social change. Consider making time available for the sharing of personal stories of how individuals have come to their political convictions. During this time of disclosure, afford equal time for all. The public expression of these sacred narratives can be very helpful in alleviating the tension around perceived “agendas.”

Be willing to hear a variety of voices for social change. Consider: is one person or group invited to speak out in your congregation far more frequently than the others? Does one charismatic and persistent individual, for instance, consistently dominate the social justice landscape? If so, why? Real support for this person’s concerns? Guilt? Apathy? Appreciation that because this person is achieving so much, “I/we don’t have to?” How can you gently but effectively unbind this monopoly in your congregation?

Congregations with a commitment to social justice issues should assess whether or not a variety of voices are heard and a variety of causes considered for their collective enterprise. Is everyone getting a fair opportunity to promote their issue? If not, is the congregation honest about the reasons for its lack of support? Perhaps a congregation prefers to focus on one effort at a time. Whatever the case, allowing a cause to wither and die on the vine is not as caring a response as a clear “no” or “not right now.” If a congregation includes social justice work in its long-range planning, there will be less confusion or hurt about how the community sets priorities in that area.

What about the people who take a long time getting “on board” with a social justice effort? Moralizing and coercion are almost never effective ways to engage anyone in social justice work. Some folks, no matter how passionately we feel about an issue, are just not going to care. Sometimes they will openly object to our efforts. Is there room for this kind of dissension within your congregation? Or does self-righteousness prevail over the right of conscience?

Again and again I have seen UUs turn away from an issue not because they were uninterested but because of the demanding manner in which it was presented to them. Allow for your congregants to come, slowly and prayerfully, to their own conclusions. If they are persuaded to care and to help, they will have done so with their dignity intact. Remember that most “come-outers” to Unitarian Universalism are extremely sensitive to strong-arm tactics in the church setting.

Along this line, we should be exceedingly cautious not to label persons who come slowly (or not at all) to sympathetic alliance with an issue by one of the odious “isms”. Words like “homophobic,” “racist,” “patriarchal,” and “sexist” are powerful weapons in the hands of angry people; terms that imply terribly serious accusations and implications. Acquaint yourselves with the definitions of these terms and refrain from tossing them around at the first sign of contention. Ask yourselves: even if I believe my detractor to be sexist/homophobic/racist/etc., is my/our applying that label likely to help them achieve any more enlightenment about my/our social justice concern? Is my accusation likely to educate them about the issue at hand, or will it further alienate them from me/us and my/our issue?

Social change is a ministry and should always be undertaken within the ultimate value of love. Insulting labels are fearful reactions, not compassionate responses. We can never fully know why someone has a resistance to working on an issue. Forgiveness and respect for individual conscience become much more than cliches in this case.

Ordained clergy and personal evangelism. Ministers have a special responsibility to keep lines of communication open about the scope of their involvement any specific cause. Certainly no minister intends their congregation to feel abandoned while they pursue prophetic (rather than pastoral) ministries, but this can be the case. While some congregations call parish ministers precisely for their impressive background as activists, they almost never intend that their minister be more devoted to that endeavor than to them.

A minister needs his or her congregation’s support in achieving a healthy balance between pastoral and prophetic work. Most Unitarian Universalists expect their clergy to be present and attentive to the issues within and without the congregation, but this is easier said than done. The talented social activist may not be as adept in pastoral work, and vice versa. Ministers and lay leaders should not be afraid to name the minister’s strengths, acknowledge their weaker points, and work to recruit strong social justice leaders or hire community ministers to augment the prophetic ministries of the church.

Some congregations prefer that their clergy focus on congregational issues but fail to make that clear to their ministers. In this case, congregations may act out in passive-aggressive ways to hamper ministerial efforts in that arena: controlling the minister’s schedule, failing to provide administrative support in order to keep the minister “at home”, admonishing the minister in evaluations for time spent “away” from parish concerns, expecting the minister to count time spent on social justice work as vacation or study leave, and so on.

If a congregation does not seem to be supportive of their minister’s reform work, it is imperative that there be discussion why this is so. The problem may not be so much about time commitments as a reflection of deeper concerns or questions. It may be that the minister has failed to invite the congregation into his or her passion, and has unwittingly set up a “sibling rivalry” between pastoral and prophetic ministries. Similarly, it sometimes happens that the minister takes such an emphatic leading role in social justice work, he or she implicitly denies the congregation permission to feel called to action on another issue. Whatever the case, minister and congregation must find the courage to explore this tension together, or they risk casting a pall over the whole social justice enterprise in that congregation for decades to come.

Suggestions Toward an Empowered “Mutual Ministry of Activism”

Make it easy to pursue justice work through your congregation. Every congregation should periodically review its bylaws and discuss its practices of approving and funding social justice work. Look for discouraging aspects of your process and consider reforming them. Do you require a lengthy congregational meeting in order to green-light every social justice effort? Is there one stalwart individual who has a habit of stonewalling such efforts? Isn’t it time to lovingly confront this person(s)? Do you unwittingly require programs to compete with each other for a (usually very small) portion of the budget? Do social responsibility funds get cut first because it’s such a vague line item? Are all congregants, even youth and young adults, equally welcome and enthusiastically invited to join in social justice efforts? Is social justice work an “insider” activity in your church? If so, discover ways to open it up for wider participation, even if that means training and integrating enthusiastic but relatively uninformed newcomers.

Local work may be scarier, but it’s often most transformational for congregants and society. Over the years, I have been curious about why so many UU congregational outreach efforts focus on remote locations and peoples. The implications of this question are far beyond the scope of this article, but certainly bear consideration. Is your suburban community at all involved with “the city next door?” Supporting our urban ministries is an urgent charge for the coming era.

Use Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) resources mindfully. Our Association makes many resources available to its member congregations, and they should be reviewed and considered regularly. Anti-Racism training or Welcoming Congregation work might be just the thing to start your congregation on a path toward more active role in society, but be mindful of the assumptions made by the program and its leaders. If you have questions, ask your UUA field staff to clarify the philosophy of the program. They will be happy to help you and to discuss any concerns you may have. If you choose to engage the services of field staff, do your homework first. In the interest of morale, try not to host a major social justice training without plenty of time for shared congregational discernment, preparation and time to develop an enthusiastic critical mass.

If your congregation has a strong tradition of social action, pride yourselves on mentoring other UU communities in their development of an equally effective program. Celebrate your lay leaders who are making notable contributions to justice work in the community and in the denomination.

Practice discernment rather than debate. Unitarian Universalists are not always comfortable acknowledging that our instinct toward justice is an essentially religious one. Although we may hear this principle preached from the pulpit, few of us have practice articulating our heart and souls’ reasons for pursuing social change. Often shying away from transcendent or explicitly religious language, many of us prefer to rely on the intellectual detachment of statistics, the evidence of professional researchers, and the testimony of experts. We are more accustomed to debating our opinions than sharing a period of quiet and careful discernment with others of diverse views.

Keep the faith. Changing the world changes us. It is serious business. As we walk together the path toward justice, there will be great successes, and there will be times of great despair. This is why we dare not walk alone.

May the Spirit of Justice guide you, may the Spirit of Love guard you.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Wednesday, August 24, 2011.

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