What Makes Ministers Nervous

I recently posted that the one thing that UU Congregations could do to grow the faith was to stop
making their ministers so nervous.  Nervous preachers preach mush-mouthedly, and religious communities grow when they have a powerful and engaging message that mattered. I've gotten some pushback that tells me that some think that I am against discussion, debate and reasonable differences of opinion. Hardly.

I don't know of any UU minister who is not open to congregants expressing disagreement with them. We know that we preach to opinionated people who know how to speak up for what they believe. Most of us enjoy a little give and take on the content of our sermons, although coffee hour is not often the time for in-depth dialogue: too many other obligations and our own immediate post-performance tenderness.

And I don't know of any UU minister who is not anxious to hear of life experiences that were not included in our sermons. One Mother's Day, I met a man whose mother died at his birth and his father never re-married and he could say that he never had a female parent-figure at all in his life. He didn't really get Mothers' Day, at all. I was informed by his experience, and happy that he shared it with me.

What makes us nervous are kinds of criticisms:

One starts with "I'm offended that .... " To be offended is to be mocked, or scapegoated, or personally diminished, or disrespected. It's not that we don't think that we ever offend, and we want to hear about it when we do. Giving offense is a serious mistake on our part. Many of us define the work of the worship service as creating, with words, an inclusive community. We work hard at it. Saying that you were offended by the service is like telling a surgeon the patient died on the table. It's a terrible failure, the nuclear weapon of criticism.

Ministers get nervous when the language of offense is used too lightly.

After all, disagreeing with the content of a sermon is not the same as being offended by it. Even having the position that you hold on a public issue satirized is not being offended. Being disturbed by prophetic preaching and made uncomfortable is not grounds for offense. Hearing religious language, music and rituals that you don't subscribe to is not the same as being offended. A sermon that doesn't include your life experience does not offend, per se.

Ministers are sensitive to the possibility that we might offend people. Because of that, the accusation packs an emotional wallop; it gets our attention. To escalate into the language of offense makes a minister nervous.

The other trigger for ministerial nervousness is the response that starts with "I don't think you have the right to ...."

I know that we all have authority issues. Authority in UU congregations is fluid and conditional. It is constantly being negotiated, which tends to make every week seem like candidate week, but without the optimism. And that there are times when authority is not clear. But most of the time, what is really meant by "I don't think that you have the right to ... " is "I don't agree with what you did or said..." Ministers who have to defend their authority over and over again feel endangered.

I am defining "Making a Minister Nervous" as using language that escalates differences of opinion into areas that seem threaten a minister's call to that congregation. It's conveying the message the ministry is on some sort of double-secret probation. Imagine your bosses reminding you every time you failed to meet their expectations that you have a job only at their discretion.


  1. Steve Cook10:23 AM

    Yes, that's the phrase: "Double secret probation." The Dean Wormers of our congregations are accorded too much power (perhaps also by the nervous minister.) Myself, I'm troubled less by the open attacks--perhaps because, as an interim, it is to be be expected as I work with an anxious system--than I am by the insidious tendency toward self-censorship that occurs without even realizing it.

  2. Josh Snyder10:25 AM

    Well said sir! Any time you can drop an Animal House reference in a blog ("double-secret probation") I am on board. Funny how differences of thought are framed in differences of relationship. The implication being that there is a breach in our relationship if the preacher does not reflect my opinions or beliefs. It is the new form of creedalism in Unitarian Universalism - that we are a community because of common belief and not covenant. A pernicious attitude that we have yet to mature out of.

  3. Spot on. I still remember well the sting from a September 1997 comment from a founding member, "You really offended me when you didn't include [name of hymn] today -- it's our tradition." This was immediately after one of our first services in a new congregation, and we had no way of knowing that singing that hymn with the water ceremony was "tradition" and in fact they had held exactly one previous water ceremony. I was nervous about every other holdiay and liturgical tradition there for at least a full year's cycle.

    Or the question if I really believed ta Native people's creation myth I had just told -- quite well IMO. "No" "Then how dare you -- HOW DARE YOU -- tell that lie to our children!"

    On the other hand, I loved the gentle corrections from the history professor and the request from a founder to meet for breakfast, "because I just don't understand those four-letter religious words you use, like 'God'."

  4. I agree that people in the pews can be a little careless when they take issue with what we say. And I'm glad when people - as Tom did - lift these issues up for our examination.
    I think, though, that we give away our power when we let these outliers trouble us.
    "Thanks for sharing your opinion," I say as I shake their hand.
    The thing is to resist biting the hook. Or as the saying goes, don't show up at every argument you're invited to.

  5. This series of posts makes me think that many UUs could benefit from participating in a writing workshop, and learning the skills of providing feedback that actually helps. Most writers (and ministers are a kind of writer) have a powerful inner critic; when the outer critics join forces with the inner critic, it's a wonder any sermon-writing gets done at all. I wonder how much procrastination happens because the critics' chorus drowns out the creative spirit.


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