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A Grownup Stays at the Table


by Vol-E

There are many things I love about the Unitarian Universalist denomination. I especially appreciate that it's about behavior rather than belief, which (in theory at least) cuts through the biggest problem most people have with religion, and that's hypocrisy. Rather than 10 commandments, which give rise to an infinite array of questions, we've got seven principles. These can be boiled down to "Be nice to one another -- we're all in this together." We do a pretty good job when it comes to looking out for the environment, trying to prevent war, and ensuring that marginalized folks around the globe are recognized, and their voices heard.

But oh, brother, do we screw it up when it comes to just being decent to the other people in the church building!  Having been a member of my congregation for nearly 9 years, I've observed myself drawing back by degrees, attending services less often, and being increasingly unsurprised at some of the shenanigans my co-congregants indulge in.

I've seen power plays -- Person A says "Hey, there's a tract of land on our property that's all grown up with poison ivy, but if we spent the day clearing brush we could turn it into a bird sanctuary." All well and good, until Person B decides they know more about environmental issues than anyone else in the congregation and should sign off on the project, managing through sheer tactlessness to discourage anyone from wanting to work on it ever again. Paid positions in the church become the focus of gossip and back-biting and suddenly the person who's done the job exceptionally well with little help gets the idea that everyone wants them gone ... only to discover upon deeper investigation that this sentiment is shared by just one person: The person who wants the job.

Other offenses include an extreme lack of tolerance for unfamiliar points of view; refusal to observe the most rudimentary rules of etiquette during meetings, and just plain repulsion-level meanness.

The main underlying reason that people behave this way in our denomination is, they can. This is actually not much different from other denominations. The difference is, other denominations will sometimes pull punches, mindful that, at least according to their own tenets, some Higher Power is jotting this down in a record book somewhere and that when He wields His Big Hook in the Sky, the hookee may be confronted with such a lengthy list of offenses that they will be summarily shown the door, thereby precluding any hope of reunion with previously departed loved ones...

This doesn't really prevent traditional Christians, Jews and Muslims from being mean to one another, but they have to work a little harder at justifying it, paging through the Bible and/or congregational history to find a precedent. Best-case scenario for these folks is being able to say they are "saving" someone from someone else or from damnation.

Unitarian Universalists don't have those sorts of constraints. Most, though not all, UUs are humanists, agnostics, freethinkers, skeptics, atheists, or some other orientation that is not bound to a creed or scripture. They make the choice to behave a certain way in life because they want to and believe the world can go on in a positive direction if many people make the same choice.

But that's the trick: they have to choose for themselves. And it seems to me that sometimes, UUs argue, defy, rebel and just generally act like brats because they know they couldn't get away with it in most other types of congregations. They don't think they're being mean and ugly. They just think they're "asserting themselves" and "not letting themselves be pushed around" by a minister, a board of trustees, or a committee head.

Too often, the solution that these people hit upon is to just...leave. They probably believe they're doing a bang-up job of being peacekeepers by making a curt announcement and never darkening the church's door again. But in two years, I've seen this "nuclear option" exercised as a form of punishment, or just plain spite. People will see an opportunity at first to lead one or more committees, serve on the board, volunteer for everything under the solar panels, and then, when a dispute arises, they "up and quit." Take their toys and go play at somebody else's house. These departures take place with virtually no notice, and people who depended upon them are left high and dry. Committee projects are derailed. Contact information and notes from previous years just disappear. And people are left to wonder if they did something so bad as to scare the departees away. Guilt and soul-searching ensue.

Having been on the receiving end of these behaviors more than once, I have basically resolved to return the favor when this happens and delete the leavers from my contact lists and social media pages. As far as I am concerned, they do not exist. If they come back at some future date, I'll certainly acknowledge them, albeit cautiously at first, but meanwhile, they wanna be gone, I'll let them be gone. To my way of thinking, they are yellow-bellied, lily-livered cowards, and nothing more.

It was something my mom taught me way back in pre-kindergarten: Your little pal wants to take her toys and flounce back home because you did something she didn't like? That's her choice.  Let her live with it.


Anonymous said…
I am reminded of political revolutions where the revolutionaries get to fighting amongst themselves about who would be king and end up behaving as badly as the deposed king.
It's all my fault. I tell the people at work, "You are not the boss. If you want to be the boss, go volunteer to run your Church."


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