CIRCUIT-RIDING AS ORDEAL
Updated: Dec 31, 2021
By Mary Strachan Scriver
When Emil Gudmundson and Russell Lockwood set up the UU Montana Ministry circuit-riding structure (1982–85) it hinged on my willingness to accept minimal money and to drive the hundred-mile spans among the four congregations in a vehicle I somehow financed and then lived in, mostly. It was preposterous. Why did I really do it?
I’m considering the possibility that on some level it was an ordeal, a rite of passage that took the place of a proper graduation from seminary. In fact, if we had thought of it that way, we would not have done it. To Russ it was a bid for growth, though he was a little wary of the PNW (Pacific Northwest District) context I had come from, one that put itself ahead of “Boston,” was international, and eventually was punished for its hubris by being torn in half between the nations. (“Boston” refers to the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association.) To Emil it was sympathy with me and my struggles.to become a minister. I just needed to be back in Montana.
At the partnered U of Chicago I found my value and probably earned my MA in Religious Studies quite apart from religion courses but by attaching to Richard Stern’s body of work on narrativity.
The point of an ordeal when defined as a rite of passage is to cause enough “pain” or at least hardship to mark the transition between one state and another. Truthfully, M/L — the denominational seminary — felt to me as though nothing happened. This was not true for others. It was a most minimal school with only three professors and one added dean in my last year. They were my age and less experienced than me. None of them had expertise in my interests — indigenous people, landscape, narrative.
At the partnered U of Chicago I found my value and probably earned my MA in Religious Studies quite apart from religion courses but by attaching to Richard Stern’s body of work on narrativity. When I received my degree and “hood” from Hannah Gray, no UU’s were present, but I was cheered by my writing class who stood and clapped despite frowns from the mandarins. We were only four women, as small as M/L, (i.e., so it was not a matter of size — they were all younger than me, but just as intense. (Meadville-Lombard Theological School trains Unitarian-Universalist ministers.)
I would probably not have been admitted to M/L except for the sponsorship of my UU minister in Portland, who was the chair of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee and therefore powerful. By the time my fellowship came up, he had been replaced and the new head was not favorable to me. My degree went into limbo. By the time the scholarly new Dean had been hired, almost a dozen of us were in that limbo of being technically qualified while the resentful little faculty tried to find some way to knock us out.
Part of the problem was that the school had aspired to grant Doctor of Theology degrees but couldn’t pull it off. Finally the new dean just gave us all MDiv’s, and shooed us away. That was two years after I’d already left. This circuit-riding deal was more or less pushed onto the Montana fellowships — two refused to participate — though they weren’t opposed to me. We did our best to figure it out.
There was nothing “spiritual” or inspiration-based about it, though the original historical circuit-riding pattern was very much a gospel-based, inspired phenomenon more in the Appalachians than out West where distances made the idea impractical before cars and highways. The UUA was not opposed — merely skeptical — and the PNWD ministers were intrigued but not really involved. The Mtn-Desert UU District was not much interested. My family was not in sympathy or understanding. But I needed a rite of passage, even if it lasted three years.
The trouble was that it was private, almost secret. Even narcissistic. No one else saw me as quite legitimate or my sermons and urgings as quite real. More as entertainment to tempt them or keep them in the UUA. They thought of me as a relative, maybe an auntie.
Ordeals often involve pain and even mutilation, like circumcision, because they convey seriousness. The symbolism of each group differed. In my case I was not disfigured but my life was often at risk because of all the driving in Montana weather. It was a time before cell phones, so I was on my own. To the groups I just appeared and disappeared. To me, hurtling through the snow-thrashed night, I was on the edge of death.
The closest I came to disaster was with a young woman loaned to me as a guide when returning from an event in Lumsden to Regina in the midst of a storm. My old van’s heater would not keep the windshield clear and neither did the windshield wipers have any impact. I was insane to even try to travel blind on the rain-freezing-over-ice frictionless highway. To do it with a hostage, brave as she was, did not made it less an ordeal. I could have caused her death, which was different from risking my own.
All this stuff was unknown, unappreciated or inscrutable to the lay people, the UUA officials, or my presumed colleagues. They thought it was nuts. And there was no money in it. The point of ministry, to their minds, was status and prestige, hard-won learning and distinction. Security. I was undercutting all that. When it was time to “ordain” me, I had to plan it myself. The lay people didn’t know how. The same when I had been installed and the same when the end came, and we had a farewell ceremony. It was an auto-ministry. A conceit.
As such, it was in line with American independence and self-determination. But it also removed all the supports and justifications for doing such a reckless thing as circuit-riding. Was it an ordeal for me as an individual? I had intended it to be a display of courage, a dedication of allegiance, and other fuzzy things. I was over forty. I slept out in cold weather, got bronchitis and have snored ever since, which made me highly unpopular at minister’s retreats except for those who went to sleep a bit drunk, one of the perks of a retreat.
The effect in the end was more like being a determined zombie than like an exalted or transformed new being. It was too important to pay attention to driving and the content of sermons than to pursue personal growth. I was often too cold in several ways. I was outside the norm, not initiated into the larger culture, performing a heresy. The seminary shrugged. By now it has nearly dispersed, sold its building.
My own minister, who had seemed so powerful and charismatic, had told me that I would not be able to have a church that wasn’t in an Eastern city, that I would rarely interact with other ministers, and that I should expect to move every few years. I should have listened. Even he didn’t realize how bizarre a Montana person could seem to standard urban UU’s. He himself was pushed out of power, criticized by the very church he had made strong.
But being admitted to the company of scholars, the rigors of writing, and the ironies of both, worked powerfully to make me who I am. Not particularly wise or knowing, but one who travels, always returning. There was a sense that both seminary and circuit-riding were ordeals, but perhaps more accurate to say they were “way-finding.” The way was out.
Mary Strachan Scriver is a retired Unitarian minister in Valier, Montana