Monday, January 05, 2009

Freedom of the Pulpit

There's been ministerial interest in Freedom of the Pulpit again, so I've brought this post forward from July of 06, and added a bit to it.

iMinister defines Freedom of the Pulpit as freedom from advance censorship. This important doctrine exists to protect a minister from a demand that s/he "never speak of that issue" or "don't tell anyone what you believe about that." It exists because we cherish the integrity of the minister and because it is sometimes good for a congregation to hear things they don't want to hear.

Freedom of the pulpit doesn't belong to the pulpit, and you don't get it by virture of standing behind the thing. It is a trust bestowed on persons who are in covenant with the congregation to speak the truth in love, to honor the congregation's mission, to be fair, balanced, and wise etc. All called ministers, many hired ministers, and, if the congregational covenant is strong enough, members of the congregation can be said to be a part of this covenant.

Guest ministers are often granted Freedom of the pulpit by courtesy (If we didn't trust them, we wouldn't have invited them.) In my congregation, everybody else is asked to speak on a particular topic and, if there's any question about what they are going to say or how they plan to say it, we ask for a manuscript.

We do this more for reasons of quality and length control, than to censor their ideas, but neither I nor our worship committee would hesitate to disinvite a speaker who was not being truthful, loving, or productive about what they had to say. In practice, we mostly help people get their point across more effectively, rather than censor content, but I have done it once. (The speaker was a mile over the "no partisan politics in a non-profit organization" line. It made it easier that I could invoke the IRS on the matter and I managed to salvage the relationship.) We came to this policy after some difficult experiences.

A congregation will entrust its desire to hear many sides of the truth, spoken in many loving, careful ways, to its minister, worship committee or both. Those so entrusted must have and use some discression, because "Freedom of the Pulpit" is a principle meant to serve the needs of the people, not the egos of the mouthy.

"Freedom of the Pulpit", even for a called minister, does not mean that "you can't be fired for what you say, "

A minister who gets obsessed with one issue and preaches about it out of proportion to its importance to the members, who uses the pulpit to scold those who disagree, who preaches in a way that causes damage to the church's reputation in the community, and who does not speak responsibly about the pros and cons of the issues s/he talks about will probably be judged out of bounds of the covenant and can very appropriately be asked to make changes in their preaching subject, manner, and priorities. If the covenant stayed broken for long, the congregation would probably dismiss the minister by it's democratic procedures.


PeaceBang said...

I LOVE this! I love that you speak about going beyond the bonds of the covenant -- right ON. I believe UUs have taken the concept of freedom of the pulpit to sloppy, irresponsible extremes. I always work with speakers to help them clarify their message, to respectfully ask them if parts of their message are respectful and productive (around here, it's usually some form of "I used to be a Catholic and here's why Catholicism sucks"), and to emphasize, when necessary, that the pulpit is neither podium nor soapbox. Thanks so much for this.

PeaceBang said...

I should have added that your straight talk about how ministers abuse FOP and why it should result in our dismissal when it happens warmed the cockles of my heart. And I am sure that from beyond the grave, my late and dear parishioner and lay leader extraordinaire Jackie Magazu is cheering you! We used to talk about this all the time.

Robin Edgar said...

To what extent, if any, can the UUA and its department of Ministry Exercise and/or the UUMA hold a minister accountable for misusing and abusing his or her "Freedom of the Pulpit"? I am mainly thinking of a situation where a minister who preaches in a way that causes damage to the church's reputation in the community, and even Unitarian*Universalism's reputation in the community, or is otherwise harmful but the Board and/or congregation of the church that the "less than excellent" minister serves are unready and unwilling to dismiss or otherwise discipline the minister.

Robin Edgar said...

It looks like Peacebang aka Rev. Victoria Weinstein chimed in while I was writing the above comment, which brings me to ask a follow-up question that I had intended to hold in reserve until you had answered the first one. To what extent, if any, does the UUA and its department of Ministry Exercise and/or the UUMA consider a minister's blog to be a form of very public virtual* pulpit?

* or in the case of certain unmentionable U*U ministers anything but virtual. . .

Christine Robinson said...

Thanks, Peacebang and Robin,

In congregational polity, the UUA has very little power over individual ministers unless a very serious complaint of misconduct is registered with the MFC and found to be valid. Misconduct usually involves bigger fish than Freedom of the Pulpit; sermonic plagiarism, for instance, has brought down several ministers in the past few years.

A violation of Freedom of the Pulpit is a violation of the covenant between the settled minister and the members of a congregation, and if they, as a democratic body feel aggrieved, they must take action as a body, according to their by-laws. The UUA supports such congregational action, and the democratic process to which we are devoted, with much staff time and energy, to further the good of the congregation.

Blogging is not covered under Freedom of the pulpit. The standards to which ministerial bloggers are held fall under another rubric, much more general, to live a life of love, service, and integrity. That's a general rule to which we should all be holding ourselves.

Robin Edgar said...

Thank you for your prompt reply to my questions Rev. Robinson. I just had a look through the UUMA Guidelines
for the Conduct of Ministry
(PDF file) to see what it had to say about how ministers should conduct themselves outside of the pulpit and quite unexpectedly found something which suggests that blogging may actually be covered under Freedom of the pulpit. . . The UUMA Guidelines and Code of
Professional Practice
for the Unitarian Universalist ministry say the following about Freedom of the Pulpit (and the ministry) -

Freedom of the pulpit is delegated by the membership to the minister. The minister is accorded the
freedom to speak the truth as she or he understands it when in the pulpit or when expressing views through other channels such as the parish newsletter or the newspaper.

I put it to U*Us that in that "other channels" is not clearly defined, but specifically mentions parish newsletters and even newspapers, the personal blogs of U*U ministers could be, and perhaps should be, considered to be part and parcel of those "other channels" especially if they identify themselves as ministers on their blogs.

The UUMA guidelines go on to say -

The minister does not, however, necessarily speak for either the society or its members. It is the minister’s responsibility to do everything possible to make clear when she or he is speaking as an individual.

My own take on this would be that if and when U*U ministers identify themselves as a U*U minister on their blog, even when blogging under a pseudonym they are *not* speaking as an ordinary individual but as a U*U minister. What they say on their blogs, and more importantly how they say it. . . reflects on the Unitarian*Universalist religious community as a whole and may even reflect on their own parish church if they are not blogging under pseudonym.

I will have more to say later but would be interested in hearing what you have to say about those UUMA guidelines regarding freedom of the pulpit and my take on them.

BTW I would be interested in knowing what prompted ministerial interest in Freedom of the Pulpit again and where it is being discussed elsewhere.


Robin Edgar

Robin Edgar said...

Hi Rev. Robinson,

I really would be interested in hearing/reading what you have to say about the above comment. There is no great rush but if you could give it some thought and post one of your trademark thoughtful replies it could be of benefit to the whole wide U*U World.

Have a great weekend,

Robin Edgar

P.S. I am of course interested in hearing what other U*U clergy and non-clergy have to say about this issue.

Christine Robinson said...


Everything we all do and say reflects to some extent on the groups we belong to. For ministers, this issue is greater than for many people, but just notice what happens to a public school teacher who writes a letter to the editor about an education issue or a lawyer who is convicted of drunk driving or even a college applicant whose facebook page doesn't reflect their well-scrubbed face.

For all of us, our freedom of expression must be tempered by our sense of responsibility to the groups and institutions we care about and carried out with an eye to the sensibilities of others.

Robin Edgar said...

Thank you for your response Rev. Robinson. I only just saw it now (about midnight Sunday January 11th). I am quite tired so I will not reply immediately but I will get back to you about this issue soonish.

Best Regards,

Robin Edgar

Anonymous said...

I had to google 'freedom of the pulpit' because I have never heard of the term or concept before, until a UCC minister of mine used it on me recently. He said his council was very upset with him for preaching some very contraversial topics over the past two years and had finally had enough, after many parishioners have left the congregation .........leaving them now economically strapped.

When confronted (both in private by the Pres. and VP, and a week later by the entire council) he defended himself with "FOP". Their reaction was that he was pushing his own agenda at the expense of many who disagree and it was damaging the congregation. Last year they cut his salary significantly because their numbers had so declined. This year they are seriously thinking of removing him all together.

The pulpit, and any "freedom" a pastor has, is purely to preach the Gospel. It is not "freedom" to preach personal ideology or agenda. His council acted responsibly.

I have been studying theology for thirty years and never even heard the concept before.....which, to me at least, was an indication that it was a BS (excuse me) thing he was using to defend himself. Pastors / Preachers serve at the call of a congregation. They are called because they believe the pastor / preacher can instruct them on God's Word. When that sacred trust is violated, they have the right and duty to remove the person.

- Lutheran Clergy