My impression of the Service of the Living Tradition

The Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly has a key religious service: the Service of the Living Tradition, which casts ministerial transitions — fellowship and retirement — in the context of the lifetime of service of the last year’s deceased ministers.

It’s a remarkable service. The first I attended was in 1993, at the last Charlotte General Assembly. Something about it made me know I was forever wed to the religious tradition.

But last night’s was, in a perverse way, even more powerful and impressive. Now I want never to retire or die.  It was something like a cross between a high school pep rally, a parochial fund raising dinner and forgotten out takes from The Lion King. Crass, and tacky. A poor representation for the ministry and a disservice to those whose lives were putatively honored.

A shame.

24 Replies to “My impression of the Service of the Living Tradition”

  1. I am confused. Was your take of the service positive or negative? Or both? This is my second GA and I have yet to attend the Service of the Living Tradition — after such a long day and two services already I was in need of a break.

    What did you think of the UU Christian Fellowship service?

  2. I hated the service last night. Neither retiring nor dying is my best way of keeping away from such a mess.

    The UUCF Communion Service was pretty good — it isn’t always — but it’s also much harder and less meaningful to review (no video and fewer participants, for instance, for context)

  3. Makes me glad to have missed it then – we’re walking to our hotel (15 – 20 mins) – and the UUA programing of pre-8 AM to 11+ PM means that we have to miss something if we want to stay healthy.

  4. See, I loved it.

    Found it inspiring – the ministers not all walking in together, but getting up from where they were sitting with their congregations. Although part of me gets why folks don’t like the applause and cheers…I think going into ministry/being fellowshipped/etc. is something we ought to be cheering since it sounds like a not-so-much-fun life at times.

    I don’t think this is the “key” religious service, however. That’s Sunday Morning.

    I think they could partway split up the evening into pre-worship celebration/cheering the ministers, then ok everyone put on your worship hats.

    I’d be interested to hear from one of the ministers/DREs/Music Minister folks who experienced it this year. Because even though I loved it, I’m not going to project on to them that just because I loved it they loved it too.

  5. I can’t speak for all the musicians, but as one of the 20 or so from the Silver Spring church, I enjoyed learning, rehearsing and performing all of the music. I think Michael Holmes and the planners did a wonderful job of incorporating a diversity of music and reinforcing the emotional and spiritual arc of the service. Personally, I am hurt by the dismissive “Lion King” reference.

  6. Scott – For those of us who are not there, could you say more about what made it a crass, tacky, and pep-rallyish event?

    I am somewhat adverse to the reported cheering of those going into fellowship. As a youth pastor, I was recently a guest at a local high school graduation. I was troubled by the fact that some students got cheers when their name was called and they crossed the stage; and others were greeted with silence. It hurts to be the person who is either invisible or unpopular. And I can imagine a parallel dynamic evolving among us, if this becomes the norm for GA. Our ministerial college does not need those dynamics in the name of celebratory emotions and spontaneity.

  7. The video is up now, so you can see for yourself, if you missed it. The names were called quickly, and the applause is pretty much continuous so there were no silences while anyone came up to the stage. There were punctuating cheers, but I didn’t see anyone arriving onstage looking sad or neglected. Most were glowing with excitement, and quite a few were smiling and teary-eyed. Several newcomers expressed to me they appreciated the meaningful symbolism of the ministers and other professionals “emerging” from the mostly lay audience.

    Would like to hear the participants’ perspectives.

  8. Scott, was it just a matter of the cheering, or was there something else about the SLT that for you was crass? Did the crass emanate from the masses, as it were? I generally don’t like applause or cheering during a worship service, unless it is in response to music or a sermon that has so rocked one out (which happens from time to time), that there is no resisting it. It would be a simple enough request to the congregation, as we do in church when we need to remind folks not to applaud in response to Mozart or Bach (though sometimes it just happens in response to gospel or rock, and that sometimes seems ok … hmmm …).

  9. If you want the UUCF worship service to be video’d next year, email me to request it. I’d love to see more events video’d. – Margy Levine Young, UUA ITS Web Team Manager

  10. As music director of this year’s Service of the Living tradition, let me offer my own perspective. I and the service planning committee worked tirelessly since late December with the intention of creating a service that was fully integrated, acknowledging important precedents, and to make improvements that would emphasize the spiritual flow of the service. There is no doubt in my mind that every word of text that was spoken and sung had full thoughtfulness and intentional connection to that flow. In the many conference calls I had with the brilliant ministers with whom I collaborated (your esteemed colleagues!), it was always evident to me that they had put an enormous amount of thought and consideration into its presentation. I am not disappointed by your opinion about the service, but rather how you present that opinion. And yes, the “Lion King” reference, as someone else stated above, is hurtful.

  11. I don’t think that Scott’s out of line here. No one’s impugning the intentions of the folks that put the service together, just the overall effect, which is a legitimate target for honest, even strident, critique.

    I thought the Lion King line was funny, and a lively way to make a lively point. If you really are hurt by that, by advice would be get out more.

  12. There is no conflict between honest critique and respecting each other as people. The Lion King comment may have been funny, but it was hurtful. I doubt if Scott meant to hurt. I am hoping Benjamin also did not mean his comment to be either patronizing or dismissive.

  13. When did Scott disrespect anyone as a person? Your having _taken_ it personally doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t allowed to giggle a bit at a vivid (and apt) comparison to explain his impression of the service. Just because you didn’t want to hear it doesn’t mean it was out of line.

    When people act like crybabies rather than shrugging like grownups and saying “sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea,” or (even better) trying to understand the critique? Yes, I can get dismissive. It’s often a pretty good way to get children to stop crying.

    Try not to take it personally.

  14. As the major planner of the new liturgy, I would remind those who have been around since 1993, and let those of you who are new know, that the SLT leaders have tried everything from explanations to pleading to scolding to humor to try to get people to not applaud at the SLT….and not only did they go ahead and applaud and cheer anyway, they whistled and cat-called. Among my goals for the service were that people would be content with clapping and cheering, and that once that celebration was over, we could move into worship mode. It did seem to work that way and the feedback we got was overwhelmingly positive.

  15. My problem with the SLT was from a teaching perspective in that the liturgy literally misrepresented the LIVING TRADITION for which the service is named.

    I am truly disturbed by this.

    For those of you who weren’t there, all of the ministers — both in preliminary fellowship and final fellowship, were “called out” of the GA congregation. They arose in their robes, cheered by their friends and the larger crowd, to ascend the stage. No problem with that, as it is part of our historical tradition to call out ministers from our congregations. I did hear a lay woman in front of me ask, “What’s preliminary fellowship?” In past years there was a brief explanation or review of what it takes to become a minister in our movement but that teaching moment has been jettisoned in the larger (and in my opinion, far less important) concern about avoiding cheers and whooping.

    What happened within this moment of calling ministers out of the congregation is that the accredited DREs and music directors — who are NOT, in our polity, called out of the congregation or “called” at ALL, were also invited to come to the stage in exactly the same way as the clergy, thereby conflating the roles of hired staff and called ministers in our congregations.

    In addition to this lamentable and revisionist liturgical development is the, to me, disrespectful cramming of the Retired Ministers in with the newcomers to religious leadership. Those who have given their lives in service to our movement deserve a more dignified and set apart moment in the SLT to be honored and acknowledged. If people want to cat-call them, then let’s chalk that up to bad manners and keep working on trying to establish a more reverent and appropriate tone to the SLT. The solution is not to push all of the “graduation” exercise to the beginning of the service where it becomes relegated to a kind of pre-service series of announcements.

    I also believe we could do much better with “scripture” than funny little ditties by Clinton Lee Scott. His reading was cute at best. The SLT deserves something with more gravitas.

  16. If I may, I would like to add this:
    Please know this, btw: I believe in a broader definition of minister, not a more narrow one. I do know that many of our religious educators and musicians do come out of congregations. I support the renegade congregations that ordain the ones who have gifts of ministry. I am *thumbs up* on that. If they’re called, and they have a vocation, and the congregation affirms their call, go into discernment together and ordain them! Yes! However, if they’re hired staff, they are hired staff. Don’t give them the obligations and expectations of ordained clergy without affirming their calling in a religious and institutional way. All of which is to say: practice congregational polity for real or don’t practice it at all.

  17. While I appreciate Peace Bang’s request that the retiring ministers be treated with more dignity, as a person who has just retired and was included in the service as such, I have to say that I rather liked being included with the new ministers just entering the profession. For me, it was a “here we all are, from beginning to end” moment.

    Because I was called home from the GA where I was to be acknowledged for receiving final fellowship, and thus missed my chance to walk across the stage (they were still doing it then), I was especially thrilled to be in the service at all.

    And I thought the people who planned the service did a good job with the “if you can’t lick ’em, join ’em” situation with the applause and cheers. Okay, let’s just get all that noisy celebration over with (and yes, I liked it!) and then we’ll get on with the serious business of worship. It’s always bothered me how people flagrantly ignored the pleas of the person doing the welcome and made noise no matter what. This seemed like a good solution, and I thought it worked.

    Remember, folks, this is the first time the SLT has been done this way. Of course there is room for improvement, and I’m sure that the people responsible for next year’s service are already thinking about how to make it better. I thought it was pretty darn good already.

    Now for what I thought was MOST noteworthy about the service: did anyone notice that NO ONE from the Department of Ministries and Faith Development was on the stage? They used to run the show, but this year they sat in the congregation; everyone up there was from an organization that plays a role in ministerial formation, but not staff. My friend Sarah Lammert, Director of that department at the UUA, said that the service is about our ministry, not about the UUA staff (and yes, I know that many of the staff ARE ministers) and I thought that this service made that point well but subtly.

    Sorry, Scott, but I disagree with you. I loved it.

  18. As a colleague, I couldn’t agree with you more in your thoughtful distinctions and caring critique of such an important worship opportunity. We can and should do better at making it more reverent, more about the holy ground we sanctify and more about honoring service – those who have given generously and those who aspire to do so. And I agree that increasing the meaning requires that we grab the teachable moments and work them – and that’s a valuable part of our tradition, too.

    I’ve noticed – is it just me? – that our worship and our plenary meetings have merged, creating at best a spirit of revival, and at worst the forced energy of a pep rally. Maybe I’m getting older and crabbier, but I’m not sure we serve our congregations well by muddling the two kinds of gatherings to the degree we do. The SLT worship has increasingly slipped into this muddled space for me.

  19. FWIW, I wasn’t there but I heard the idea of putting the “graduation” stuff (which I think will be catcalled no matter what. Someone in St Louis had an air horn.) at the beginning of the Service and adopting a more respectful tone afterwards called “brilliant” by a minister I respect.

    As far as I can tell, it would be almost impossible to have this service go smoothly and I applaud those who organize it, though I’m sure some of the criticisms are valid as well


  20. PeaceBang has hit on an important point, IMO.

    I didn’t even know what it meant to be ordained vs. fellowshipped until I went through what I’ll call “advanced-beginner” lay leadership training. I had no idea what it means to be fellowshipped. Had no understanding of the consensual accountability or the levels of experience involved.

    I wish there was a way to remedy this, because in the UU congregation I used to serve, there was so much ignorance about the ministry that it had a profound affect on the relationship between an interim and my congregation. Obviously, there were many factors that contributed to the demise of this particular ministry. But after I had the lay leader training wheels removed, so to speak, I’d sit through some worship committee meetings with a lump in my throat. The lay worship leaders seemed convinced that they knew more about worship than the interim, and would occasionally openly deride the minister as if the minister were ill-informed or obtuse.

    After the ministry ended, I found myself sitting with frustration with my peers. I couldn’t imagine how insulted one worship associate would have been if a lay person had walked into his operating room, taken the surgical instruments out of his hand and explained “We do this procedure differently here.” I couldn’t imagine how horrified a college professor would have been if a lay person walked into the classroom and said “this isn’t how we run a classroom in this neighborhood” and took over the class. The assumption was that we were smart UUs, and this was “our” congregation. Oh, the gaping mouths I saw at a church-wide meeting when a conference executive said “it’s not *your* church!”

    None of these things happened because lay leaders
    were mean people. These things happened because our congregational polity has deflated the ministry, and has not taught its congregations what ministry requires.

    Now that I’m involved in a different denomination, this deficiency is more clear than ever.

    I don’t know that the SLT is the place to address what appears to be a denominational ignorance, but when a minister hears someone ask what a preliminary fellowship means, we’re not in a good place. More than likely, that lay person sitting there wondering aloud is a board member or church leader. Yeesh.

  21. The Service of the Living Tradition is a worship service and works for people ONLY to the extent that they give themselves to it. Criticizing the Service of the Living Tradition is regular sport of ministers; it is never good enough and many sit through it taking notes. It is a chance for the spiritual weaknesses of our tribe to be noted. The most tiresome people in my congregation are the ones who do not give themselves to worship, but stand back and let me know every problem, misstep and weakness of the service. All for my improvement, of course, but the hostility shows through.

    The Service of the Living Tradition is a high moment to me — I never forget my Dad whose name was not read there at either retirement or death — I am always sufficiently moved to write or pledge a lot to the Living Tradition Fund. Yes, I have heard sermons that are weak, or even self-indulgent, and it never is quite as grand and magnificent as I hope, but I come to worship and I usually tear up at least once. I come to honor the LIving Tradition which is quite real to me, and I join in others who do so.

    I have been hearing my senior colleagues for all the time I have been in ministry complain about it. Now I hear my peers and soon, I suppose, that I will hear my junior colleagues do the same.

    As to the specifics: the problem of the conflation of fellowships ministry with every form of credentialing professionals is a much larger issue than the worship service. And that ship has sailed. Do we as ministers not have enough generosity of spirit to share a service with them as they begin the careers in the congregations we serve?

    I thought the reading was cute, but spoke to a problem that had passed. It is not that the laity in Unitarian Universalism expects too much of their ministers. It is that they expect too little, and quite often, we live down to their expectations. Mostly we talk about ministry as a constant struggle to engage in sufficient self-care.

    I do wish that Deborah Pope-Lance had been invited to preach the Service of the Living Tradition to call upon us all to expect more from each other and to quit being so sensitive that these events fail to honor us sufficiently.

  22. I, too, really disliked it. It was the first time I attended but I have watched all the of the available ones online. I didn’t like that they were sitting in the audience (and it was an audience, not a congregation, in my opinion). I like watching them process in. I think it’s important and meaningful for them to symbolically take the same walk as those who came before them, and to pave the way for those who come after. For their path to ministry to be in their footsteps, in a path made more defined by their predecessors, knowing it will be additionally shaped and defined by those who come after them.

    I also think that they applause are unnecessary and problematic. It becomes a popularity contest, those who get cat calls and standing ovations. As somebody who doesn’t, and has never been, the “most” celebrated person in a situation it’s heart wrenching and not something we should endorse. A huge amount of applause at the end of each group, fine. Or some other way of showing appreciation.

    But the service was, yes, a pep-rally graduation, not a worship service.

    I hope it changes back by the time I have reached the stage in my ministerial journey to participate, should that continue to be the trajectory I am on.

  23. On a more practical level: I would move the honoring of the retirees and the deceased ministers to the 25-50 year service held by the UUMA on Thursday, perhaps moving it into the Berry Street lecture spot. I would move the Berry Street to right before the 25-50 and move the UUMA business meeting and collegial conversations earlier into the morning.
    I would stop calling the fellowshipping celebration a worship service since doing so seems to set an expectation that can never be met.

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