A Unitarian Universalist Association posted yesterday, “Ain’t Misbehaving. Saving My Love For You” mentions that a significant number of people who are “free range” Unitarian Universalists - people who are Unitarian Universalists by faith, but without congregational affiliation - are former leaders of those congregations.
One of the regular tests of faith - and breakers of it for many - is serving faith communities, where we can carry over the same expectations and behaviors from the larger political arena over to our congregations. That is, leaders can be held to unliveable standards. Leaders can be gossiped about, cut sharply and severely in their friendships, and even find people treating their families poorly.
There also can be congregational cultures without models of generous and healthy transitions from formal leadership back into congregational life. Leaders know how to be followers, or they are not really leaders. Giving people the opportunity to move from one role to another teaches and offers them new blessings and allows them to use their gifts for goodness in different ways.
Yet there are even some situations where either rule or “best practice” is considered to be separation and absence from the faith community for three to five years. Those rules or practices arise from a fearfulness of misuse of power. But they don’t actually address how to participate again in religious life as another congregant. Professional and volunteer leaders both face these same dynamics and issues.
I’ve witnessed these dynamics in many faith traditions. Breaking the faith of faithful leaders in the context of religious community, by breaking the leader’s relationship with the faith community is not a new problem. Faith communities seeking to sustain the faith of faithful leaders and community as a whole have to live into at least six realities.
- Covenants are not behavioral rules to batter people with and gain power over them. They will not prevent troubles, only remind us of promises we’ve made in faith.
- Covenants - even the ones with the Holy that are supposed to last for all time - are reentered and reengaged. The people recovenant with the Holy multiple times in the Scriptures. How could we expect not to have to do the same thing?
- Leaders who serve faithfully might actually lead in a direction you don’t like or that is outside your comfort zone. Holding that against them for the rest of their lives, or being surprised when you serve in leadership and meet the same expectations of compliance with your friends’ views, is trouble. Faithful leadership is not doing what our friends believe in every instance. It would be extraordinarily unlikely, particularly in diverse communities facing new challenges.
- Forgiveness is a way of life. Generosity and graciousness are spiritual practices, for every one, without exception.
- We need mentors and faith friends all along the way, from our earliest days entering a community, through our serving faithfully.
- Accountability is mutual. The Golden Rule goes a long way here. If we stop to consider how we would feel about what’s being said and done were we the ones being “held accountable”, we will move more often back to mutual relationship and not into throwing around rules and holy words to bind and control one another. Accountability is mutual responsibility for the health and vitality of the relationship. If anyone chooses not to attend to their responsibilities, or views accountability as a one-way situation (“they” are accountable to me, not all of us together and not me to “them”) then faith communities have work before them to draw those individuals back into responsible relationship.
Learning how to live faithfully together, in our diversity, without everyone agreeing all the time, without everyone being alike and loving alike, is one of the great purposes of religious communities. When we eject or make it extraordinarily difficult for people who have served the community to stay in community, we are avoiding that commitment of continued relationship, in all situations and times and risking the faith of others to protect our own. We all grow stronger and more faithful when we engage faithfully the difficulties of community life. There are amazing joys that can happen in religious community, amazing gifts and blessings that communities can offer the world. Leadership and service go together, and leaders who have served faith communities can only fulfill giving their gifts and blessings when communities make it possible for leaders to resume regular community membership.