Excellence and Oppression

–a commentary by Rev. Sean–

Clearly, Rev. Christine and the event she attended about “Excellence in Ministry” got me thinking. Today’s thoughts revolve around the ideal of excellence and how oppression works.  If, by virtue of being part of an “historically marginalized group” I am seen as very different from the image  of the “ideal minister,” how will that affect perceptions of excellence?  For example, as a transgender man, my very identity causes anxiety in many congregations and search committees.  I am often perceived as a “risky” candidate–not because of the quality of my ministry, but because of worries about my identity.  Those worries are not something I create, but are created to serve the status quo–stigmatizing, punishing, and planting fear of any who differ from the norm.

But wherever they come from, fears about identity get in the way of perceiving excellence.  A “marginalized” identity looms so large that the quality of a person’s ministry is overshadowed and hidden.  This is the reason it is openly admitted that ministers from “historically marginalized groups”  have to be twice or thrice or ten times as good as ministers whose identity fits the ideal. Even as women have slowly become the majority in our ministry, this is still known to be true of their ministry.  Imagine how it is for ministers even further from our Unitarian Universalist “norm!”  There is little room for them to be ordinary. Or have a bad year. Or–and this is especially sad–have time to acquire the skills and wisdom they need to become truly excellent. So many people from historically marginalized communities leave ministry within just a few years.

There’s another part to this.  Every time I’m rejected because of my identity, I begin to question my own excellence.  My confidence suffers and with it, I’m sure my ministry does too.  This is internalized oppression at work and it wears at the soul of any minister who is marginalized for differing from the norm.  I’ve seen it time and time again–a slow-growing soul weariness at having to explain, educate, and sometimes defend one’s right to minister and even one’s right to exist.  And even when that battle is won, there is the soul-deadening work of “covering.”

“It is a fact that persons who are ready to admit possession of a stigma (in many cases because it is known about or immediately apparent) may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large. . . . this process will be referred to as covering.” Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963).

The need to manage identity, stigma, and difference magnifies the vulnerability of these ministers exponentially.  The hard work of covering makes the need for self-care and other soul-satisfying activities and relationships vitally important.

And yet, most of these vulnerable ministers end up in small, struggling congregations. These are the congregations for whom the hunger for ministry outweighs the “risk” of having a “non-ideal” minister.  The ministry of these churches is often conflicted, poorly paid, and full of the stresses of trying to grow and change in order to survive.  Thus, our historically marginalized ministers are most often serving congregations where they are managing many things at once, far from colleagues and chances for ongoing support.  And in some cases, colleagues themselves may struggle to understand and accept a minister whose identity is outside their comfort zone.

I have just one more point.  Those of us from historically marginalized social locations are not really free to talk about these challenges. (It’s one of the bigger aspects of “covering” to maintain the fiction that we are fine, everything is fine…”)  If we do admit that we are exhausted, disillusioned or angry, we are often labeled as “whiners” or “trouble-makers.” It’s only been said to me once, but it has been said to me: “You should be grateful to be a minister at all.”  To be perceived as “excellent” most ministers of color, ministers with disabilities, genderqueer or transgender ministers, gay, lesbian and bisexual ministers, (and many more who challenge the norms of our culture of ministry) are expected to hide our struggles and offer unending hope and encouragement to our movement–sometimes to the very people whose words stung so badly or whose rejection hurt us to the core. And with that, I’ve probably said too much…

*cross-posted at ministrare

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2 Responses to Excellence and Oppression

  1. Pingback: Excellence, Ministry & Oppression « Barb’s Bantering

  2. Elenor says:

    Thank you! I’m not a UU’er, but found these words were exactly those my heart needed to hear.

    As a transsexual woman and a noviciate nun in a traditional lineage of a certain non-Abrahamic religion, I’ve given myself far too little kindness and understanding for the weight of the “covering” I need to do in this life. I currently live a stealth life, but have been activistically open. Whether closeted or covering, both require enourmously taxing energy investment. I’m not an energetic person, and often have “bad years”. I am neither brave nor “excellent”, and it rankles.

    One needs to be a type-A superqueer just to survive in this society, especially in a clerical or religious capacity. Yet Heaven bestows a calling not only superqueers, but to normal, failing and flailing people. As such, “excellence” may merely be a smug word, an engine of conceit in rejection of divine guidance. We had best live without it, with our mortal bodies and lives.

    What can we do to aid each other in desperate moments? What more can we do and say to make it ok to speak out as you have done here? Is it still too early for cisgender people to hear our anger and despair before our education, or can we admit to needing to vent and challenge our disadvantages as part of the education process? Perhaps they will not accept us until we are allowed to be whole, breakable persons before them. Perhaps the superqueer image we bear is just another symptom of our oppression.

    Whatever steps we take, out or stealth, it’s great to know others are chomping at this bit. Thank you for a bit of perspective, to see that in your struggles is a resonance of mine; a reassurance that yes, this is all hard, and that’s just fine.

    We aren’t alone.

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