As above, so below

I probably spend too much time thinking.

I can’t help it. It’s what I do. I tumble ideas around, bang them off each other, watching for sparks of inspiration as the rough edges grind each other away.

The hardest part is when I get to the point in the process where I have something shiny that I want to hold up and say “Hey, look at this!” and I don’t quite know how to answer the inevitable question, “Where the heck did that come from?”

I have been thinking a lot the last few months about the idea of similarity at scale: how patterns repeat at levels large and small. The laws of physics that govern the smallest subatomic particles apply also to the vastness of intergalactic space and everything in between. Patterns repeat all over the natural world – the way the veins in a leaf make lacework like the bare branches of trees against a winter sky, or how a wisp of fog rising from the river curls up like the steam rising from a mug of coffee. The science of mathematics is basically the abstraction of patterns: if you understand that one plus two equals three, then one hundred plus two hundred equals three hundred is not so hard to understand. The relationship is the same.

And so, being fascinated by this idea that patterns writ on the world at one scale repeat larger and smaller, I see it happening all over the place. It is a thing that, once looked for, cannot be unseen.

All this is grist for the idea tumbler.

Anyway. This is the lens through which I’m observing two parallel processes: my own personal journey into (and maybe eventually through) the ministerial formation and credentialing process, and my home congregation’s engagement with the Leap of Faith initiative. It seemed clear to me when I preached back in August on the subject that these were, on a deep level, the same process – once at the scale of the individual and iterated at the scale of a faith community – and so far that seems to be bearing out. I am delighted to see my community engaging in this kind of collective discernment process. I think we will come out stronger and more clear for it – however we come out in the end.

Just so, I think – and I hope – that I will personally come out stronger and more clear for having engaged in my own discernment and formation, to whatever end that happens to lead me. I would love for it to be clear, but it seems necessary at this point not to be: that the unclearness and ambiguity are essential to the process, the fuzzy random chatter from which the patterns emerge. (Fractals. My brain puts fractals here.)

We, my community and I, are sitting in parallel with the big hard-to-answer questions:

  • Identity – Who am I as a person? (Who are we as a community?)
  • Calling – What am I called to become? (What is this community’s purpose for existing?)
  • Engagement – How do I get there from here? (What do we do to realize our shared purpose?)
  • Sustainability – What support is necessary for me (this community) to succeed in realizing my (our) calling?

* These ideas were articulated in our Leap of Faith leadership retreat last month, but they mapped backwards onto my own personal process so perfectly that I’ve appropriated them here.

And so the broad rule of thumb that I am working with right now is that if it is a question to which there can be a clear answer, then it is most likely an incomplete question, one that is superficial to the actual root of the issue. This is territory I’ve become personally acquainted with – it is not the most comfortable space in the world, I like certainty and clarity as much as the next person, but I am coming to understand the need for formlessness, for vacuum, for the vacant shapeless pause between the ideas in which there is neither one thing nor another but a space where something else can happen. (This is welling up from the theology workshop at CGUUS – my goodness, my brain was so full but something seems to have stuck.) We jump quickly from assumptions to answers – it’s human – but we need to resist that and make space for space and let uncertainty exist. The threshold is a holy place, neither in nor out. Betweenness, liminality, ambiguity, paradox… Mystery.

So. Where is all this going?

The last couple of weeks have thrown a new idea into the tumbler.

It is generally known, at least among UU seminarians, that UU’s have one of the most demanding clergy credentialing processes of any denomination. I am surely neither the first nor last person to declare that what we lack in dogma we make up three times over in bureaucracy. It’s a perennial subject for discussion, from general kvetching to pointedly gallows humor, but underlying it all is a broad anxiety, summed up by one student colleague (who shall remain anonymous until self-identified) as “How Does This Work If I’m Not Young, Single, Childless, Perfectly Healthy, and Independently Wealthy?”

It’s a sensitive topic, and one upon which many students are understandably reluctant to address in public forums. It is no secret that entering this process demands a commitment of time and treasure and trust – more of each than any student will reasonably imagine at the outset. And any complex process leaves room for a certain degree of anxiety – have I dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s? Did I submit all the forms timely and with appropriate signatures? Am I the only person who is completely confused about this? Am I the first person who has tried to go through this process with a particular set of limitations?

One thing that I carry from all the sheltered conversations on the subject is a deep sense of how many of us feel isolated by the complexity of our system. Just talking openly about the process is, I think, necessary and helpful. But the conversation needs to be broader than just among seminarians – there’s a chance of any conversation confined to those “in the process” being dismissed as just whining from the peanut gallery.

So I have been sitting on this post, discerning whether I want to attach my identity to this conversation in a public way. Because I am coming to imagine that the UUA ministerial credentialing process – to which I am committed – needs to be rebuilt. We need to look at the deep questions – What do we have? What are we trying to do? How can we do that? and How can we keep doing it? – and create a process that does those things instead of continually patching the process we have inherited, one that seems rooted in some assumptions about the socio-economic position of ministerial candidates that are at best obsolete and limiting. (We profess to value diversity and anti-oppression but as an organization we so seldom discuss the economic reality in which so many of us live.)

We already have the tool within the UUA to do this discernment: we are using it in our congregations. We need to take that tool – the Leap of Faith process – and apply it reflexively to our ministerial credentialing system. It would have to be adapted, of course – the congregational process is structured for conversations and relationship between paired congregations – but the deep framework for reflection is already built.

It is a hard conversation to start, one that asks us to leave aside both the incriminating details of our personal vulnerabilities and our urgent desire to fix things quickly so that we can move forward. But I think we can, and I think we need to.

I probably spend too much time thinking. It’s what I do.

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