Unitarian Universalism

Spiritually-Sound Impulses: Pulpit Exchanges & Congregational Polity

Yes, this one might be a little boring.  Yes, the topic is not particularly sexy.  You could still read it though…

As part of my ministerial formation, I have thrown myself at far too many opportunities to preach from a variety of pulpits, broadening my exposure not only to different UU congregations, but also to a few UCC congregations.  This practice is called pulpit supply (cuz, I guess, I am filling a pulpit – doesn’t that imply it should be called…oh, well, never mind).

For a year, I preached regularly at a small church that no longer has its own minister and relies solely on pulpit supply.  I have preached at a congregation where the minister was on medical leave, or sabbatical, gone for a specific amount of time with plans to return.  I have preached at a congregation whose minister moved onto their next settlement, yet the congregation had not yet identified a replacement.  I have preached at congregations where the minister needed to be elsewhere for a Sunday and the congregation, either due to choice or capacity, did not fill it with lay-led worship.

It has been a wonderful experience – to see how different congregations enact and embody worship, how comfortable they are with guests and a change of pace, how they understand hospitality as a spiritual ministry (or not).  I see glimmers of their relationship with their settled minister, small windows into loyalty, into attachment, into connections to their wider association.  My skills at conducting worship have matured significantly through these opportunities and I feel a deep gratitude to each congregation who has helped me along the way so far, and to those yet to come.

I was recently in the Midwest and learned of an area in Ohio where five UU congregations have established a tradition of pulpit exchange.  Pulpit exchange is different than pulpit supply.  In this particular case, from what I understand (and I hope I am getting this mostly right), on a particular Sunday once a year, these five ministers exchange places with one another – Minister A preaches at Congregation B while Minister B preaches at Congregation C and so forth.

This way of associating has deep historical roots: the Cambridge Platform of 1648, which established congregational polity, proscribes this tradition of pulpit exchange, as well as many other aspects of how congregations should organize themselves and associate with each other.  These Puritan ancestors of ours (yes, they are ours, even if our theologies are so vastly different as to seem to come from different planets) understood that how we structure our congregations is a spiritual, not logistical, act.  Their intention to was to have congregational organization (or polity) reflect the embodiment of Christ.  In developing the Cambridge Platform, which was a response to English institutional church’s attempts to control who could interpret and preach the gospel, it was created as a pre fix dinner, not a cafeteria plan.  All or nothing.

It is my understanding that pulpit exchange is not common among UUs.  Though UU congregations are proudly and solidly congregational, choosing our own ministers, determining our own authority structures and membership parameters, we are selective in our interpretation and implementation of congregational polity.  Like a common critique of those who use Leviticus to justify homophobia but ignore that Leviticus also forbids the mixing of fibers and shaving of facial hair, we apply selectively the injunctions of our congregational forbears.

Don’t get me wrong: if we are to find wisdom in ancient texts, be they scriptural or significant religious in nature, we moderns must be both thoughtful and selective and non-literalist.  Just as I think it wise to ignore much (all?) of the injunctions in Leviticus, I think it wise, to ignore many parts of the Cambridge Platform – for instance, the ability to excommunicate is not something I think we should have retained.

Yet, perhaps there is wisdom still in those aspects of congregational association that our Puritan mothers and fathers found inseparable to embodying Spirit (more accurately, Christ).  While I do not want to resurrect the capacity for excommunication, I do know that it is a spiritually-sound impulse for our congregations, as we address sexual misconduct and cultivate healthy boundaries in our covenantal relationships, to create policies regarding disruptive persons and to commit to educating and empowering around Safe Congregations policies.

The practice of pulpit exchange would serve UU congregations is many positive ways.   It would keep limber both minister and congregation in their engagement in the act of congregational worship.  It would make intentional and regular the act of hospitality, approaching it as the spiritual ministry it can be, could be, should be.  It connects congregations to each other; a wider sense of identity and belonging would emerge.  This is particularly important given the UU tension between individual and collection accountability.

Other benefits that come to mind include that when a minister leaves (moving onto another congregation, retiring altogether), the congregation will have already been experiencing little leavings.  When a minister is temporarily away, there is the potential for a relationship with a local minister who could provide emergency pastoral care.  There is the beginning of a path for sharing of resources beyond those of the pulpit.

Can you tell I am a fan of this practice?  Can you tell that I want you to be one, too?  I get that there are hindrances.  As a minister, it can be rather vulnerable to expose oneself to comparison — what if my congregation likes the other minister better?  What if I like the other congregation better?  What if I think this is a good idea but my congregation doesn’t? (Though, it’s my understanding that this is a common, perhaps daily, tension for any parish minister, so this is just a particular flavor of an ever-present dynamic.)

Other than this, I am unclear what the drawbacks are.  On this side of parish ministry (e.g. I am not yet a minister and I do not yet serve a parish), maybe this is simple in a way that once I am a minister and am serving a parish, I will understand otherwise.  Guess I will have to wait a few more years to find out.

5 thoughts on “Spiritually-Sound Impulses: Pulpit Exchanges & Congregational Polity

  1. There was a fine and robust tradition of pulpit exchange in the 19th century in Unitarian congregations. We should totally reclaim it. I’ve been preaching pulpit exchange for ages. Plenty of good reasons to do it. I don’t understand what the barriers are to it, truthfully. The only reason I can come up with now is a green reason: people driving farther for preaching in neighboring towns. I haven’t figured out yet how to make it part of my district board work, but I am thinking on it! Have any ideas???

    1. Melinda, thanks for the historical richness. It makes sense. Not sure that green concerns are an original impulse rather than an after-the-fact justification…

  2. In my experience the problem with pulpit exchange is that it takes the minister out of the pulpit without giving the minister a day off. Ministers like their days off. The congregation likes to see the minister in the pulpit. So pulpit exchange is the worst of both worlds.

    In the nineteenth century, when sermons were longer and ministers didn’t get many Sundays off, pulpit exchanges worked because the ministers could recycle the same sermon in front of different audiences. Today those issues aren’t so important. So pulpit exchanges are rare.

    It is definitely a loss. A hundred years ago I would know every settled Unitarian minister within thirty miles. Today, when it is the minister’s day off, we have a guest speaker who is generally not a settled minister in the area. It’s okay, but not the same.

    1. Tom, thanks for your comment. Ministers having a Sunday off each month (or whatever regular period a congregation has) is really important, yet pulpit exchange need not be seen as encroaching on that. If it is understood as a ministerial Sunday, rather than my minister in the pulpit, and if people are connected not only to the fact that a minister is speaking in their pulpit, but that their minister is speaking in a nearby pulpit, it need not be seen as the minister is not here, so must be her/his day off. I guess that is where congregational buy-in is important, rather than it just being an agreement among ministers…

  3. Pulpit Exchange is worth the experience. It affords the Ministet to appreciate and understand people who share the same spuritual heritage in a different cultural setting innicative ideas are made through Exchange of Pulpit

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