Change in Religious Institutions

The Dallas Morning NewsTexas Faith panel question this week was “How do religious institutions or organizations know when to change?” It sprung from President Obama’s support of same sex marriage and his talk of how his position has changed over time. Let’s put aside the issues of marriage equality and Presidential politics and look at the question as it was asked: how do religious institutions know when – and how – to change?

This question can be difficult for Pagans to answer because we are far less organized than the larger religions. But it isn’t irrelevant. I’m a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m a member of CUUPS at the national and local levels. I participate in events like Pagan Pride Day, CMA Beltane and the OBOD East Coast Gathering. We don’t think of these entities as “institutions” in the same way we think of the Roman Catholic Church or even the Unitarian Universalist Association, but they all share some key characteristics: they’re groups of people who come together in a common tradition for a common purpose.

Further, I continue to advocate greater institutional thinking and structures for Pagans. Even the greatest individuals get tired, get sick and eventually die. Institutions are multigenerational. Institutions endure. I want to be a part of an enduring religion. There’s a line we use in many of our rituals – I think it originated with ADF: “As our ancestors did in times of old and our children may do in times to come, so do we now.” I take comfort in knowing that while some day May 1 will come and I won’t be here, there will be people celebrating Beltane for centuries. Regardless of what else does or doesn’t come after death, a part of me will live on in those celebrations.

So part of the attractiveness of institutions is their stability – they change slowly. The danger, of course, is that they change too slowly, or not at all. In an authoritarian society, an institution that changes too slowly becomes oppressive. In a free society it becomes irrelevant.

Back to the original question: how do religious institutions know when to change? The panelists have some answers that are interesting but none that are perfect.

Darrell Bock, a professor at the evangelical Dallas Theological Seminary, says “On issues of moral principle, religious organizations should not change.” This assumes that whoever first articulated the moral principles was exactly and perfectly correct for all time. I doubt I have to say much about that idea to readers of a UU Pagan blog, other than to point out that just as our scientific knowledge has increased over time, so has our moral knowledge. Two thousand years ago both Christians and pagans agreed that slavery was the proper order of things. Today both Christians and Pagans agree that slavery is a terrible evil. Simply saying “religious organizations should not change” is flat-out wrong.

Daniel Kanter, senior minister at First Unitarian of Dallas, talks about the democratic process. I think most of us would agree that democracy is good. But despite the progress our society has made in accepting people of differing sexual orientations, every time a marriage initiative has been on a ballot marriage equality has lost – every time. Committed gay couples rightly ask why we’re holding referendums on their marriages but not on others. Democracy suborns moral principles to the will – and frequently the whims – of the majority, and true democracy is easily co-opted and perverted by political rhetoric and the money behind it. As good as democracy is, it is no Holy Grail.

Taoist Amy Martin says change is continuous and unavoidable and we should quit pretending we can stop it. She says “Taoism advises to step past your beliefs and instead focus on your goals. What is the end result that you hope acceptance of your beliefs will lead to?” She has a good point, but not all change is inevitable and not all change is good – think of the current debate on climate change.

Presbyterian Cynthia Rigby continually reminds me that not everyone in the Reformed line agrees with the Calvinists who have taken over the Southern Baptist Convention. She says “God’s Word is not static, but living and dynamic” – a Christian expression I think most Pagans would agree with. She points out the ways her church has changed its thinking on slavery and women’s equality and that it’s currently struggling with full equality for gay people.

When we all agree on how we should change, change is easy. The trouble comes when we disagree on how or if we should change. Here I think Dr. Rigby has the best answer in the panel:

When we disagree … we try to emphasize what we agree on and engage on these points together. We are called to search the Scriptures, to pray, to converse, to worship and break bread together, and to keep reading the newspaper as well as books from multiple disciplines. We are called to listen to and learn from those with whom we disagree. And we are called to be open, ourselves, to transformation.

As Pagans who are still in the very early stages of building institutions, what can we learn from this? Change is hard and the process of change is hard, but pretending we shouldn’t change is counterproductive. Democracy is good, but it’s not the total answer. Neither is simply accepting or accommodating every change that comes down the road.

As we build institutions, we need to build structures and processes that encourage reflection, study and engagement. We need to build traditions, rituals and practices that bind us together strongly enough to allow for spirited disagreement without fear of attack or abandonment. We need to understand what is a core principle and what’s simply a means to live out that principle.

These aren’t engineering specifications – there’s no simple “how to” with five easy steps. You can have all the rules and processes you like and still be an organization that can’t handle change (see the Roman Catholic Church, among many). Successfully navigating change is dependent on a deep and mindful commitment to the core principles and mission of an organization and the willingness to put the needs of the organization and all its members ahead of anyone’s personal desires.

That’s a tall order. If we charge in blindly or if we refuse to deal with reality we’re sure to fail. But if we go into it mindfully we can be successful with whatever the Wheel of Change has in store for us.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.


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