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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Pastor's pet peeve #1: Sages and stooges

Look: I know I'm meant to be all holy and above such venial misdemeanours as peeves, everyday irritations, and mundane kvetches like impatience with bad drivers, klunky grammar, and people who don't pick up after their dog.

But a pastor is just as human as the next mortal and therefore has the same struggles with his temper, his judgementalism, and the unique make-up of his own 'craw'--that overlooked organ which seems to exist only for things to get stuck in.

But what am I, a monument to justice?

Note the lack of resemblance.

So I achieved a sort of tipping point of peevishness recently over this: the epidemically dishonest practice in UU ministers passing off other people's stories, parables, quotes, poems, and such as their own.

There is a kind of systemic loophole in our tradition that actually encourages this practice. Because Unitarians draw from all sources of wisdom, rather than only from the Bible, ministers are constantly on the hunt for new and improving material to use in worship. This means that, by default, the "book" of the church is only as wide or narrow as the minister's library shelf or Google search terms. The more obscure the material they use, the less likely congregants are to recognise it, and the more tempting it is to just claim credit--not for simply finding it, but for having come up with it. Ego and the fear of drying up or being a repetitive bore clearly play roles in this temptation. See my earlier blog on narcissism in the ministry.

Normally, this practice is not so crass and obvious as ministers actually saying "Here's this cool, sage thing I wrote". Usually, it takes the form of working the obscure 'gem' into your preaching seamlessly. Like all good performers, a talented minister can believe the words he/she is saying in the act of saying them, so they sound and feel like they come from the heart.

"Sage with many wise precepts, I am."

The net effect of building a career on this practice, as many have, is that you sound wiser than you are, and in the eyes of credulous congregants, you take on the aura of a sage. Sages need stooges of course, but it is becoming clear to me that stooges need sages too. The more credulous congregants need to believe that the person at the pulpit is really, truly wise.

An example: I have a lovely congregant and pillar of the church who never tires of referring to a sage UUA interim minister, now deceased, and how transformative her wisdom was. In particular, one bit of sage advice stayed with her:

God has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
God has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours

For this congregant, this cemented her atheist humanism and sense of higher call into one Unitarian identity. And I kept hearing how WONDERFUL this interim minister was who spoke so to her heart.

And hearing this time and again, I ground my teeth and bit by lip and said nothing. Why? Because if you change the word 'God' to 'Christ' (a very Unitarian sleight-of-hand), these words are the words of the relatively obscure 16th century Christian saint,  one Teresa of Avila. Most UUs would of course, not know this.

Actual author

So I sent the congregant an email, citing the source of the quote, and the words verbatim. What do you suppose her response was?

She wrote back that it was remarkable that both these powerful women, from such different places and times in history, had such strikingly similar insights. It must be something to do with gender!

The notion that this was a simple case of common plagiarism never crossed her mind. I gave up. I know of whole careers built on that kind of credulity.

So great is the need, even among professed atheists, to believe SOMEONE has all the answers, that SOMEONE can be looked to make sense of life--this very vulnerability among people coming to church to seek answers, demands that we not aggrandize ourselves unduly, and have them look to us as false prophets, or worse, false Gods.

Now, who wouldn't just love an adoring legion of these little guys?

At their best, most ministers of my acquaintance, are, by and large, not so much prophets as prompters, supplying the missing lines from the wings when we get lost on the stage of life. This is noble and useful, and requires broad reading and a fast mental Rolodex to come up with the right words at the right time. But prompting should not be confused with authorship. As easy as it is to confuse the credulous about this, it is just as easy to confuse ourselves and begin to believe we are the new Isaiah.

Prompter, not prophet.

Now this does not mean that a minister can't work in the prophetic tradition, blaze new trails, and break new ground. But if you're going to go down that road, you'd better be prepared for all the sacrifices, messiness, challenge, burn-out, and existential angst of being a psycho-naut, an explorer of the soul. Not everyone has the pluck for this, and that's fine, because as a minister you're job description probably won't include this requirement. (If it does...re-negotiate!)

The solution seems simple to me: disenthrall yourself and your congregation by paying your intellectual debts and attributing your sources. One of the end-games of the UU project is to empower and inspire others to seek their own answers, not look to the pulpit for them. To make them curious enough to do their own reading and their own web-searching, and to share what they find. Otherwise, you are just one of these, disguised by a gown and a pulpit:

Abraham Lincoln said, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master" (see how easy it is?). Similarly, as I would not have those in my charge be stooges, I must refrain from creating the impression that I am the font of all wisdom.

For that, my friends, is a hard role to live up to for very long, unless you've got the true gravitas for it.

Coming next: the other side of the argument.



  1. Bravo Rob. This is true in so many other arenas of public life. There is nothing wrong with being a curator of other people's insights, provided you give credit where it is due and every now and then have an original thought..... and you have no shortage of those.

  2. Why thanks. I love that phrase "a curator of other people's ideas". To whom should I give credit when using it ;)?