Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

General Assembly Day 2: Lions, Tigers, and Ministerial Authority, Oh My!

One of the things that always amazes me about my time at a General Assembly is how different my experience is depending on what I wear.  Now, for most people this might not be literally true, but it my case it is.  Let’s take the first and second days of General Assembly this year… yesterday I wore my military uniform (at the request of the UUA Military Chaplaincy Endorser) for the opening ceremonies.  Today I wore a set of civilian khakis and a button down shirt. Both days I wore a name badge that said “Rev. David Pyle” on it…

Now, there is the obvious difference… when I’m in uniform I’m much easier for all of you denizens of the Celestial Lands to come and tell me what you think about my efforts at writing here.  When I write these articles, I’m mostly writing them for myself… and so I’m always a little surprised and humbled by the thoughts that many of you share in person with me at GA…  Especially the senior minister whom I deeply respect who came to tell me today how much my writings here have made him think…  thank you…

I just wish you’d all share your thoughts as actual comments on the blog!

That being said, the difference between the authority I am granted because I hold the “office” of being a military chaplain, and what I am granted without the visible reminder of that office is striking.  Now, it is not like the authority I hold as an actual officer among my soldiers… members of my current congregation in Midland are still a little freaked out by the fact my soldiers call me “sir” and occasionally even salute.

No, when I am walking around GA in uniform there are generally two reactions… either people tell me what a wonderful person I am… or they look away seemingly embarrassed.  Ok, there is a third reaction… and that is all the veterans or parents of military members who stop me to tell me the story of their military service or the service of their child.

I cherish those conversations.

When I walk around GA in civilian clothes, I have only the moral authority of who I am as a minister, not the authority of the office I hold as a military chaplain.  That authority may be fairly minute (I am a fledgling minister after all) but it is something that I have earned myself, not simply granted to me because of people’s perceptions about military ministry.  I am certainly not as angelic a person as some people make me seem (Oh, you must be a saint to go be with soldiers), nor is my uniform something anyone needs to feel embarrassed about… they are not the one wearing it, afterall.

Tonight, during the fantastically redesigned Service of the Living Tradition (kudos Sarah and everyone else involved!) the Rev.  Michael Schuler gave an amazing sermon (and pastoral diagnosis) on the conflicts, trials, and challenges our denomination has around ministerial authority.  He framed it with a wonderful parable from Clinton Lee Scott on the search for a minister who, to paraphrase Led Zeppelin has “never ever ever been born”.  The sermon that followed delved into the changes and patterns of the relationship in much of Liberal and Mainline faith regarding the role of the minister and congregational relationships to ministerial authority.

Among the points was the always profound distinction between Authority of Office and Personal (or I say Moral) Authority.  Both are fragile and must be grown… but Authority of Office is granted while Personal or Moral Authority must be earned.

As he preached, it came to me that I am granted all kinds of Authority of Office as a Military Chaplain… but I do not become my soldier’s “Chaps” or “Chappy” until they have learned they can trust me… that I will be real with them… and that I will meet their standards before attempting to inspire them to meet mine.

Earlier in the day, I attended the installation service of Rev. Meg Riley as the called minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship… and I thought of the particular challenge she faces in light of this distinction of different kinds of authority that Rev. Schuler named.  Being and moving into a ministry that is often virtual, a church without walls, and a parish without borders, how does Rev. Riley build that kind of personal, moral authority based on trust, on authenticity, on personal connection, and on shared experience?

I do not know… and as I watch her move into this ministry, I hope to learn.  It will be fascinating.

Yours in faith,

Rev. David

3 Thoughts on “General Assembly Day 2: Lions, Tigers, and Ministerial Authority, Oh My!

  1. marsha mcdonald on Thursday June 23, 2011 at 21:20 +0000 said:

    This is not a terrifically serious comment — I just love the thought of a bunch of guys calling you “Chappy”! Not only does it signify an affectionate respect, but it’s just funny and wonderful!

  2. Ok, just yes? Thank you for saying pretty much everything I was going to blog. Yes. and again…..yes.

  3. I agree David, this evening was a great sermon about authority.

    Your reflection on wearing your uniform made me think of last night after opening ceremonies when someone passing by said to you “Thank you for your service.” I believe your response to this person was something to the effect of that you will pass on her thanks to other service members. I am always humbled by how you take your authority and honor it; know it is not just about you. You know it is an authority with a greater representation than one person but also of that which is greater than you-whether that be God when you are in a clergy robe or your fellow service members when you are in uniform. In reality you represent both at all times and you seem to always remember that and you respect the authority given to you and don’t take advantage of it. Thanks for being a great example!

    Rev. Katie

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