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Growing a soul in office


he columnist Anna Quindlen recently wrote, "To lead a national advocacy organization requires a robust constitution and a thick skin." I can certainly attest to that. Still, when I think back over the eight years that I have been privileged to serve you as President of the UUA, it is gratitude that I feel more than anything.

Sure, the job turned out to be different than what I expected. As a parish minister, I'd envisioned it as pastoral ministry on a larger scale. It is that-in part. I've tried to visit as many congregations as humanly possible, travelling virtually every weekend.

Yet being President has also stretched me in several other respects-as an administrator and organizational strategist, as a fundraiser, as a public intellectual, as a social activist, and as a diplomat. I've had to learn more about foreign affairs, public policy, mortgage banking, and the economics of publishing than I ever could have imagined. My skill sets have been stretched in directions I never contemplated in seminary or the parish.

It has been heady representing the Association of Congregations-not only to its member groups (at 135 building dedications, for example), but also to others. And to do so in settings from the Vatican to the Pentagon, from the Middle East to Northern Ireland to Japan, from the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to the White House, and from Kolosvar, Romania, to Jowai, in Northeast India.

The most profound change, however, has been spiritual. I pray more-more often and more deeply. My sense of the Real is more relational. Possessions, achievements, the illusion of the isolated ego -all have diminished in importance.

I know that some Unitarian Universalists still resist or even despise the language of spirituality. Well, I have become convinced, as Michael Lerner puts it in the title of his latest book, that Spirit Matters -- not just to you and to me individually and in our relationships, but also to the creation of a just, sustainable, democratic society.

Despite the fact that much of our culture pressures us to be nothing but self-interested consumers and "survivors," your altruism, your inner life and your relational life matter deeply. All are aspects of spirituality, of what it means to stay connected to what really matters.

In Tuesdays with Morrie, writer Mitch Ablom's bestseller about what he learned from a dying mentor, he asks why so many people have unhappy lives. Morrie replies, "Well, for one thing, the culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. We're teaching the wrong things. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn't work, don't buy it. Create your own."

The culture I am interested in creating, however, is not one shaped by my personal consumer preferences. It is shaped by a sense of accountability to those whose lives are exploited; who have little; who are marginalized and disempowered. The most transforming experiences I have had were not in the halls of power but in communities of color and the poor.

Our UU Holdeen India Partner, Vivek Pandit, the leader of some 15,000 tribal people who have been freed from bonded labor, starts every day with a prayer that says,

I wish to see my life's dream
Come true before my eyes,
I wish to see human beings
Live as human beings . . .
Let those who have neither food nor dignity
Be my inspiration,
May every step I take today
Be in the service of this spirit.

To feel such accountability, I have learned, is what it means to "grow a soul." My deep thanks go to all those who have shared these eight years of leadership with me and helped me to grow my soul: our amazing Moderator, Denny Davidoff; my "right hand" in administration, Kay Montgomery; all the staff; all the volunteers, and all of you!

Blessings on you all.

J O H N   B U E H R E N S
President, Unitarian Universalist Association

UU World XV:3 (July/August 2001): 5.

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