Waiting for a great novel about UU ministry

Waiting for a great novel about UU ministry

Contemporary authors have yet to plumb the true depths of Unitarian Universalist ministers' lives.


Looking for a sure-fire party buzzkill? Confess to the people around you that you’re a minister. What was once a free-flowing, even outrageous conversation will come to a screeching halt, complete with apologies and a quick mental review by all present of every possible blasphemy uttered in front of you. This is often followed by an effort at Deep Meaningful Talk: the struggle between good and evil, the ultimate meaning of life, and assorted ethical dilemmas you specifically went to the party to avoid in the first place.

Before I was ordained, I used to wonder why minister friends of mine often cautioned me not to mention the nature of their work. I thought at the time that they bore some secret, internalized embarrassment about their call. Now, nearly a decade after my own ordination, I’m guessing what they really wanted was a break from living with all the stories people make up about ministers: the fantasies and projections about who we are, how we live, what we think about, the private dreams we hold close.

To be sure, some of us bring it on ourselves. One of the best descriptions I’ve ever seen about this in print comes from my UU colleague the Rev. Elea Kemler, in the opening passage of her meditation “Too Close to Death”:

At a ministers’ retreat someone read a passage about why ministers make people feel uncomfortable. It is because we dress in earth-colored clothes, and when we shake hands with people, we hold their hands a second too long and gaze into their faces and say earnestly, “How are you?” All the ministers in the room howled with laughter at the accuracy of this picture.

But the passage went on to say that the real reason people find ministers weird and don’t really want us to come to their parties, even if they invite us, is because we are too comfortable with death. (From How We Are Called: A Meditation Anthology, published by Skinner House Books.)

I don’t disagree, either with Kemler or her source, but I also think some of the problem is that we think too much about life, often out loud. It’s not that we mean to be so earnest and so serious every waking moment. It’s just that if you are accustomed to encouraging yourself and others to see more than the obvious about the world, it’s hard to stop viewing everything in that same frame. I learned this from my husband during the first month of my first settled ministry. Coming in from a long day of tough pastoral work, I flopped on the couch next to him and said, in greeting, “So, how are things with your soul?” To his credit, Bob looked at me and replied, “You know, honey, most people come home from work and just say Hi, maybe ask about the day.”

The stories people write about Unitarian Universalist ministers reflect the same levels of imbalance and confusion. To be sure, there are not many contemporary portraits of liberal religious ministers in fiction. Our living tradition has yet to produce our own Susan Howatch, the British writer who created the richly layered Starbridge series concerning the Church of England in the twentieth century. Nor are we lucky enough to be blessed with steamy murder mysteries like those written by Julia Spencer-Fleming. Her series of novels featuring the Rev. Clare Fergusson, a single Episcopal priest in an upstate New York hamlet, have been the highlight of many a summer’s beach reading. (Why is it that Anglicans have all the fun?)

While we wait for a more robust, realistic portrayal of a Unitarian Universalist minister, though, we can still have a pretty good time reading books from two authors—themselves UUs—with very different perspectives on the work of ministry. By far the more literary effort comes from Michelle Huneven, in her 2004 novel Jamesland. The story, set outside Hollywood, California, in the community of Los Feliz, revolves around three primary characters: Pete Ross, a former chef and foodie now living with his mother (a nun) while recovering from significant mental illness; Alice Black, the great-great-granddaughter of psychologist William James, part-time bartender, and unlikely mystic; and the Rev. Helen Harland, a Unitarian Universalist minister with an indifferent boy­friend and a supremely annoying congregation. Helen’s only respite comes with her requisite summer off, spent in France with her boy­friend Lewis, an administrator at a work farm for recovering alcoholics. Out of patience with Helen’s critical flock, Lewis advises her to spend less time on theological readings and more time studying Machiavelli.

As minister of the Morton Uni­tarian Universalist Church, Helen has already been told early and often that she is too spiritual, too earnest, too eager to change things. Helen diagnoses her congregation as stuck, attributing this to the unspoken grief felt by members after years of service by her predecessor, an old-school humanist with an eye for the ladies and a low tolerance for pastoral presence.

But she won’t give up on the people of Morton. Her goal is “to draw in new members, build up her own constituency, and slowly, inexorably dilute Morton’s powers that be, namely an executive committee of elderly white men who’d hired her, a woman fresh out of seminary, because they thought—correctly it would seem—they could push her around. Which they had, her entire first year.”

Recovery and redemption are the themes of this wry and observant novel, the second for Huneven, who once aspired to the Unitarian Universalist ministry. (She is a member of Neighborhood Uni­tarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California; her third novel, Blame, has just been published.) These themes are supported by the ongoing subplot driven by Alice’s Aunt Kate, who, between flights of hallucinogenic fancy and moments of genuine insight into her great-niece’s restricted life, is writing a book about their ancestor William James. The author is at her best in two arenas. She charts the wary, hesitant growth that both Pete and Alice undergo under Helen’s benevolent gaze; conversation after conversation, gourmet meal after gourmet meal, these two lost souls find their way back to wholeness in a story line that is both edgy and tender. Secondly, Huneven has a genuine ear for the whiny, petulant UU congregant who confuses inherent worth and dignity with an unseemly sense of entitlement. She is even better when it comes to satirizing what passes for a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, as when Helen asks Pete what he thought after attending his first service:

“I think . . . you should find yourself a real big stick and go in swinging. Instead of practically apologizing every step of the way.”

“When did I apologize?”

“Each time you said ‘the overarching spirit that I choose to call God.’”

“Oh, that,” said Helen. “I have to do that. If I say plain old ‘God,’ they freak out and think I’ve gone Baptist on them.”

And yet Helen has such boundary issues it’s hard to imagine her surviving the ministerial life. She is lonely and isolated to the point of foolishness, and thus finds herself desperate to make friends with Alice. This despite the fact that it is clear early on that Alice is likely to become a congregant. For ministers of my generation, that would have made Alice officially off limits. It’s also pretty clear that Pete is developing a massive crush on Helen, and she is almost too kind in managing his expectations. I kept talking to the book and asking where Helen’s colleagues were, or why every time her phone rang another unhappy church member was on the line. Jamesland is an enjoyable read by a skilled and graceful writer. But it’s hard not to wonder how different this book would be if that grace and skill had been matched with the bittersweet, rather than merely bitter, experience of parish ministry.

Emilie Richards, by contrast, enjoys only one degree of separation from the ministerial life. Married to the Rev. Michael McGee, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia, Richards is the author of more than sixty books in a variety of genres. In her “Ministry is Murder” series of novels, Richards introduces us to the Rev. Edward Wilcox, minister of Consolidated Community Church in Emerald Springs, Ohio. More important than Ed, however, is Agate Sloan Wilcox, minister’s wife and loving mother of two daughters, little Teddy and preteen Deena. It is through Aggie’s eyes that we see the life of a liberal religious minister. Ed, she says,

chooses to use his healthy intellect on questions like: “Why are we here?” and my personal favorite: “If salvation is only granted to a few, then why aren’t the rest of us whooping it up?”

Unitarian Universalism is only a backdrop, however, for the requisite traditional mystery. In the first book of the series, Blessed Is the Busybody, the church’s Women’s Society is set to visit their drafty parsonage. Ed is upstairs, working on his sermon. Young Teddy is in the midst of conducting another cat funeral, attempting to work out for herself a theology of death. Deena is skulking about, already complaining about the forthcoming visitors, including Gelsey Fallowell, the president of the Society and the bane of Ed’s existence. Aggie is baking up a storm in preparation for her very important visitors. A series of hair-raising screams interrupts this cozy scene. Fearless Aggie opens her front door to find the body of a naked, dead woman, along with the two members of the Women’s Society who found her first—including their nemesis. While they’re waiting for the police, it’s Gelsey who begins the interrogation: Who is this woman, and what was she doing dead on the parsonage steps?

It turns out that Ed knows precisely who she was: a woman who had come to the church office a couple of times seeking his counsel. Unlike Helen in Jamesland, however, Ed has clearly defined boundaries, even in the midst of a mystery, and gently ushers his nosy parishioners away:

“I’m sure the police will want statements from the three of you,” Ed said, addressing the Society board as he headed for the front door. “Then I’m sure you’ll be anxious to go home. Aggie will let you out the back way.”

These mysteries are well-plotted and fun to read. Ed’s service to Tri-C, as it’s known, is the reason Aggie is living in Emerald Springs, but he’s not really the focus of the four books in the series. Rather, he is the Unitarian Universalist minister as a vehicle that allows for small revelations about theology and ministerial life between scenes of domestic life or the insertion of a clue or two. By the second book, Let There Be Suspects, his UU identity has disappeared, and Ed plays a much more traditional role—that of exasperated husband hoping to convince his sleuthing wife to stay out of police business.

It’s not fair, really, to expect books like these to serve as recruiting tools for liberal religion, or to say something profound about the nature of ministry. Genre mysteries aren’t meant to say anything profound—that’s why so many people read them.

But as pleasurable as they are, none of these stories successfully captures the complexity, the ambivalence, the sorrow, or the satisfactions of parish ministry. The story that does still waits to be written.

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