Minister’s Mind: Tradition

“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

~Chinese Proverb

Each generation inherits the traditions of the past and creates the traditions of the future. Sometimes we do so knowingly, sometimes we are almost unaware, thinking of these traditions as “just the way things are.” I’ve been thinking a lot about tradition and how it is a building block for any particular culture. Sometimes, that’s a good thing, like the Unitarian Universalist traditions of religious freedom and social justice. But sometimes, traditions and culture are not so positive. Cultures built on the repression or marginalization of others can make it very hard to make the world a better place.

Our openness to change–keeping up with new developments in science, for instance–is something to be proud of. It’s also something we have to work at. It’s very easy to assume that the way things have always been is the way they should always be. Especially in congregations, we can sometimes judge things only by the comfortable standard of “it has always worked for me.” When things change, we get uncomfortable and anxious.

I’m writing this while following the unrest and protest after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. I’m also writing it just after having attended our Mid-America Regional Assembly. The keynote speakers and worship leaders for the assembly were ministers at the forefront of racial justice work within Unitarian Universalism. The presentations and conversations were both inspiring and troubling. It seems like every step forward toward justice was met with confusion, resistance, and pain. The changes required to really build relationships across difference are never easy.

This happens a lot in our congregations. Often, Search Committees are given a mandate to find a minister willing and able to lead a congregation in a new direction. At Tree of Life, the vision of change included changing worship services to make them more meaningful, and drawing new people, especially young people, to the congregation. But when it comes down to it, change is hard. If we change, we can’t stay the same.

It reminds me of this cartoon I found on Facebook a few weeks ago:

by MKM on the french language site Quebec-Meme

How human of us to struggle this way!

I think it is both possible and important to balance tradition and change. I try to do this by being careful to avoid taking traditions away from congregations I serve. Instead, we add to them. For instance, you’ll still hear traditional hymns and classical music on some Sundays.  But we’ll also learn new to sing new songs together and hear more recent music like “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M, which the women of the choir sang a few Sundays ago.  We try to widen the possibilities, not limit them.

Of course, some change is just inevitable. When there’s a change of leadership, we feel it most acutely. No two ministers are alike and no single minister is able to do everything equally well. Change is going to be part a very real part of congregational life, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by accident.  Traditions that some people love are uncomfortable or irrelevant to others. New projects sometimes inspire and sometimes don’t. If we want to grow and thrive, we have to learn how to change together.

One of the best ways to handle change is to be open, honest, and compassionate with each other. In my fifteen years in the ministry, I’ve occasionally had someone come to me after the service and say, in an angry way, “That (sermon, music, reading, story, theology…) did NOT work for me!”  When I’m at my best, I’m able to smile and reply, “Thank you for telling me. Let’s hope it worked for someone else. If everything worked for you all the time, it would NOT work for someone else. That’s the challenge of diversity.”

That’s the mindset I bring to our focus on Tradition this month. I”m paying attention to the need for tradition and also the necessity of change. For Tree of Life to flourish, we have to have a healthy balance.

This month’s Soul Matters resource packet on Tradition is especially rich, and includes movies, books, poems & readings, questions and exercises about Tradition. I hope you’ll make use of it!

And for all of you who read all the way to the end, here’s a bonus cartoon:




One Response to “Minister’s Mind: Tradition

  1. It is SO true, & I hope our congregation can embrace the necessary changes.
    Glad you’re here, Sean, to assist in those changes.

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