Saturday, November 13, 2004

To join the union or not to join the union, that is not the question

By my friend Kevin Little. Published in today's National Post.


I read with interest the debate over whether United Church
clergy should join the
Canadian Auto Workers union. I can't say I was surprised,
as a United Church minister I
have heard my colleagues expressing deep frustration over
how they have been treated for
years. My concern is not whether United Church clergy are
unionized or are represented
by the likes of Mr. Hargrove. My concern is whether my
church has a sense of purpose and
a confidence in its mission.

When a parishoner or someone off the street comes to my
office complaining of anxiety
and lack of fulfillment my first questions to her/him are
not about working conditions
and their level of salary. Frankly I know Nuns and Priests
who run soup kitchens and
encounter life disasters each night that I can't ever
imagine. Their salaries can't be
much more than the manager at the Burger King down the
street. But they have purpose and
mission in their work. They know that what they do matters.

I believe that some of the anxiety, the frustration, the
anger that many clergy feel,
that many lay people feel, is a result of what William
Willimon in his study guide "The
Search for Meaning" calls meaninglessness. "Spiritual
emptiness is a precursor of
hopelessness, depression, existential sickness..."

After fifteen years of ordered ministry, serving churches
in rural, small town, suburban
and urban contexts I have discovered that the church often
fails to understand its
mission. Most evangelical churches are more clear about
their purpose. They are there to
save people from damnation, to give people the joy of
Christ in their lives. For all of
the conflict and crisis in these churches there is still a
clear vision of what the
pastor and the church is about. Who needs a union when
everyone understands the rules
and the role of the participants?

But for mainline churches and their clergy this is not so
clear. We are not
fundamentalists. Some of us clergy think our role is to be
chaplains to a social club,
some of us think we are social workers, some of us think we
are teachers, some of us
think we are revolutionaries, and some of us just don't
know. And the churches we serve
are even more conflicted. They want to grow, but why? So we
can restore the legacy of
our forebearers? So we can civilize the state? So we can
civilize the masses? So we can
be a bright beacon shining on a hill? So we can show others
the way? What?

And this lack of a clear mission has real consequences to
the covenantal relationship
between clergy and the churches we serve. When attendance
falls, when volunteers are
tired because no one will replace them, when ministers with
seven years of university
education are paid less than any and all professionals,
when churches are forced to
merge or close, there is the inevitable blame game, finger
pointing. Clergy blame
listless laypeople and laypeople blame incompetent clergy.

My point is this; dwindling numbers in the pews wouldn't
matter to anyone if the church
felt it was making a meaningful difference to the
community, to each other. Volunteers
would find the time if they truly believed in the mission
of the church. Clergy would
take jobs as nightclerks and serve the parish by day if
they believed that the mission
of the church was crucial to providing purpose to their
lives. Churches wouldn't care if
they merged, moved to the school gymnasium down the street,
or just met in people's
living rooms, IF the congregation was motivated by a common
sense of mission.

Instead churches will draw up job descriptions that make
being the new CEO of Nortel
look like a cake-walk. They are looking for a Messiah to do
it all! Clergy quickly
become disillusioned with their churches and start looking
for Chaplain positions,
staff positions at Conference or National Office or
Outreach ministries. Why? In all of
the above the purpose and mission are much more clearly

My sense is that the church is the very place in our
consumerist, individualistic, and
narcissistic culture where the search for meaning can have
real consequences. Where
Jesus can speak to us. One possible solution for the United
Church of Canada is to adopt
a model for mission along the lines of the Church of the
Saviour. There to become a
member one must complete a rigorous two-year education
program in five fields; Old
Testament, New Testament, Doctrine, Ethics, and Christian
Growth. When I was confirmed
at 13 I can't recall a thing the Minister and my class
talked about. At Church of the
Saviour new members serve an internship in one of the
mission groups, usually in a inner
city context. Community discipline includes tithing,
keeping a personal journal,
reporting weekly to the group's spiritual director,
fasting, and renewing one's covenant
annually. Tithing is almost unheard of among members of the
United Church.

Still we in the United Church have a rich history of social
activism I am very
proud of; the equality of women, medicare, refugees, gays
and lesbians, care for those
with HIV/AIDS. If every denomination had our courage in
addressing these issues the Body
of Christ would be a bolder and more dynamic force to be
reckoned with! The missing
link, it seems to me, is to connect our hungry Spirits with
the nourishing work of Jesus
in our midst. Mission cannot be an after-thought or a busy
alternative to a deeper and
more profound encounter with the Divine. It has to permeate
every aspect of the church;
our Bible studies, our prayer life, our worship

Many of our churches are figuring this out. It is slow
evolution from being a church of
privilege and status like we were in the 50's (where
cabinet ministers would routinely
appear at groundbreaking ceremonies) to churches today that
offer sanctuary to illegal
immigrants and risk serving jail time. But this painful and
yet re-energizing
transformation won't be helped or harmed by unionizing
clergy. In fact it is irrelevant,
a distraction. Pay every clergy person six figure incomes,
empower Mr. Hargrove to
negotiate our contracts, engage Mr. Greenspan to represent
us every time we are in
conflict, and it won't change a thing if we don't believe
that what we do really
matters. That it has intrinsic meaning and purpose.

Kevin Little is a United Church minister serving in Ottawa.

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