|UU Pagans – Faith in Action|
Sometimes I forget how good I have it.
Denton CUUPS had been in existence for three years when I arrived. There were still a few people in the Denton UU Fellowship who were skeptical about Paganism in a UU church, but by the time I was elected Congregational President in 2005 that was pretty much over. Our current minister is very Pagan-friendly and attends many of our circles, our long-time members understand us and our new members are respectful even if they aren’t all curious (though many are). CUUPS is both a ministry of our church and an outreach program for the church – we bring in people who wouldn’t otherwise show up on Sunday mornings.
So it was more than a little unsettling when I read a Facebook post from someone who is attempting to form a CUUPS chapter at her UU church. A member of their Program Committee expressed concern about “the Pagans getting all this time for programs” and said he was “unclear what Paganism has to do with the Unitarian Universalist Church.”
I’m not going to address the specifics at this church. The Board of CUUPS Continental (on which I serve) is aware of the situation and will get involved to the degree that is desired and helpful. But I do want to talk in general about dealing with a phenomenon I thought was pretty much gone but clearly isn’t: Pagan-phobic UUs.
I’ll begin with the assumption that the Pagans in a UU congregation are doing things the right way: they’re actively involved with the church, contributing their money and time to the congregation, and not just interested in “the Pagan stuff.” And just so I’m clear, I’m not talking about very many UUs… but one is still too many.
The first step is to acknowledge the person complaining. Even if they’re being rude (up to a point, anyway), hear them out. Ask clarifying questions. Would they have a similar problem with Buddhist services? What about Christian services? Are the Pagan services displacing something this person thinks is important?
Maybe there really are too many Pagan-themed services – particularly in a small congregation, there’s only so much people want to hear about anything. I’ve been Worship Committee chair in a lay-led congregation: when you’re staring at a blank calendar you have no idea how to fill, and you’ve got an in-house group who’s ready and willing to lead services and who you don’t have to pay, it’s easy to tap them more often than you should.
Shortly after I became President I had a long-time member tell me “you know, we’re not all Pagans.” I got a little defensive and explained that I knew that and that I valued all our religious sources and expressions. As the conversation deepened, it became apparent she had nothing against Pagans or Paganism. She missed the Christian hymns of her childhood. I spoke to the Worship Committee chair and the musicians, we added a few Christian hymns and readings to our services and this long-time member was happy. And our services were more diverse and broad-based than before.
By acknowledging and engaging the complainer, you can find out if there are legitimate complaints and you can start to get an idea of what the real problem is.
The second step is education. Some people have a very limited idea of what Unitarian Universalism is or should be. The sixth source of our Principles and Purposes is “Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” If anyone thinks Paganism doesn’t have anything to do with UUism, this says they’re wrong.
Pagans have been a part of Unitarian Universalism since the 1985 General Assembly and informally for longer than that. There are Pagan and Earth-centered songs and readings in our hymnals. We have numerous Pagan-identified and Pagan-friendly ministers.
And the common roots go much deeper. You can’t read Emerson and Thoreau without seeing Pagan concepts. You can’t see the social action of Starhawk and Circle Sanctuary without seeing UU concepts. How about the UU Ministry for Earth? The sacred story of evolution belongs to Pagans as much as it belongs to Naturalists, confirming our connection to the Earth and our kinship with all living things. Dark Green Religion does a good job of showing how theists and nontheists can come together religiously around our common concerns for the only planet we’ve got.
On the other hand, a UU Sunday service has to speak to Pagans and Christians and Buddhists and atheists and the visitor who doesn’t know a thing about UUs but who decided to come check us out today. When Denton CUUPS leads a Pagan-themed Sunday service we keep the generic Protestant order of service our congregation uses every Sunday. We occasionally use one of the quarter calls in the hymnal (#446 “To The Four Directions” or #703 “Spirit of the East”), but we rarely ask people to stand and face the directions – we want to keep things familiar. We may use some of the Pagan-friendly songs in the hymnal, but for last Sunday’s service on The Cauldron of Transformation the prelude and offertory were African-American spirituals. Why? Because they’re energetic and they support the theme of transformation better than anything else we could come up with.
When you’re planning a Sunday service, what’s in it for the non-Pagans? Will a first-time visitor be able to follow along or will he be freaked out?
There is much you can and should do to acknowledge, educate and include Pagan-phobic UUs. But for some people it’s not a case of not understanding or feeling left out – it’s a case of control. They want things to be like they’ve always been and they don’t want to consider something new. Or they don’t want to be embarrassed by a “bunch of woo woo stuff” in their church.
Don’t take it too personally, Pagans. I once had someone ask me “do we have to do so much for the gays?” Thankfully, that person is no longer part of our church.
These people are toxic to your congregation, no matter how long they’ve been there or how much money they give. They act as self-appointed gatekeepers, bypassing elected leaders and subverting the democratic process. They limit our scope and reach and effectiveness as a church.
Go around them. Or go over them. Or go through them. Don’t let them be a roadblock on your search for truth and meaning and on your congregation’s path to growth and maturity. And if they’re too entrenched and too powerful and too dead-set on keeping things the way they’ve always been, take your time and your effort and your money some place that’s interested in being a religious community and not a social club.
My experience as a UU Pagan has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve encountered very few Pagan-phobic UUs and almost all of them became Pagan-friendly with a little acknowledgement, education and inclusion. The ones who didn’t realized the Pagans were here to stay and either stopped complaining or went elsewhere.
I hope and pray that my good experience will be repeated at this and every Unitarian Universalist congregation.