This fall, Rev. Tandi Rogers, Affiliated Faculty, will start teaching the Spiritual Direction Formation & Certification program offered by the Leadership Institute for Growth, Healing, and Transformation (LIGHT) at Meadville Lombard. We asked her about her ministerial journey, spiritual direction, and her vision for the future of Unitarian Universalism.
I would say that my core identity is as a religious educator. My core value is liberation and always has been. My core motivation is liberation. By that, I mean anything that we can do to peel back layers of oppression and “should’s” to get to that relationship with God and Beloved Community. By God, I mean the god of your understanding. The thing that's larger than us, the Spirit of Life. Life is hard. Society is hard, and has all these layers and expectations. One of the roles of religious community is to hold up a mirror to who we are, for times that we've forgotten. Religious education's purpose is liberation, to bring us back to who we are authentically, and who we are with God.
My first vocation was teaching. I was a teacher on the Muckleshoot reservation for all of my twenties. It was an amazing place to grow up. It did not look like a public school. We started when people came, and we ended when we were done. Often people will ask, "What grade did you teach?" and it’s like, "Well, whoever came." I taught specific grades but, often parents would come, or siblings would come. I had a baby in the middle of teaching. He came right in the classroom with me after I had him. I would hook him up. He would eat. I would be teaching math as if that were the most natural thing to do, because it was the most natural thing to do. I really think that I got to experience what religious education is and could be, during that time I was teaching there.
These were people who had been so oppressed. The alcoholism and the sexual abuse on the reservation—the poverty—have affected people's brains in such a way that I don't know if we'll ever know because the science community doesn't seem to prioritize looking at that. I know that it damages brains, and it damages souls. So, with my teaching, it was “by any means necessary.” When a kid would get really angry or the school psychologist would say, "This child has a behavior disorder,” I’d respond, “Behavior disorder, my ass. It's righteous anger." Let’s help get that anger out for the individual and the community. It was a whole community learning. It wasn't an individual with individual grades.
I call myself a multi-vocational minister because my paychecks come from a lot of different places. I'm coming up on my 20th year of institutional ministry. I've worked for the Unitarian Universalist Association for 20 years. Proudly, I hold the prize for the most titles of anyone who has worked at the UUA. They have been some magnificent titles! Now I am the Learning Strategist for a conflict engagement project that is called Hope for Us. I have been wanting this title and they finally gave me the name tag for it, which says Minister of Abundance and Possibilities. I think that's how I just go in the world.
I teach at Meadville Lombard as Affiliated Faculty. I think this is my 10th year, which just seems impossible. I started out as a substitute teacher for a colleague when he had something come up. He said, “Could you teach this class, Faith Formation in a Changing World?” I said sure! He sent me notes, but I could not for the life of me read his handwriting. But I knew what I wished ministers knew about faith formation from having worked in the field for so long. So, I made up this class. I think it was pretty similar to what he had in mind. I soon got a phone call from the Dean who said, "Can you teach this again next year? Whatever you did, do that thing again."
So, I just kept making time. For the longest time, I would use my vacation time. That would be what I would do for my vacation time at the UUA. People would say, "Wait, wait, wait. For vacation, you're teaching a week-long class at a university? That's a weird idea of vacation." For me, it is total bliss. Absolute bliss. That's where I find my flow.
Every year is different, although the class is called Faith Formation in a Changing World. So, most years, I got to take it down to the brass tacks and start over. Because the world throws me something new that I would never have seen coming. You can imagine—teaching in the Obama years is different than teaching in the Trump years. Then they started giving me more classes, which meant I had to take more vacation!
Out in the field, I'm one of those institutional ministers that often accompanies congregations. When people call me, I answer the phone with, "With what kind of ears would you like me to listen? With consulting ears, with coaching ears, with pastoral ears?" Those are all really different. More often than not, people would say, "Oh, I need a coach; here's the situation," or "I need consulting; tell me where the resources are." And we'd get into the conversation. But then there would be a switch. With religious leaders, you have to keep confidentiality. It's not keeping secrets, that's really different. But there is confidentiality that you keep out of respect for the institution in your care and the congregation in your care. So, who do you tell this stuff to? Well, I'm one of the people that people tell stuff to. As a Congregational Life staff, that's part of our role. The conversation, even if it started as coaching, would end with pastoral care.
The Trump years really just sucked the living energy out of our congregations. Sometimes our leaders would call up and say, "I'm dealing with a really hard thing. I need pastoral care." Which, honestly, sometimes felt like cheerleading. I would just coo at them. I thought, "Oh my gosh, I've had training as a minister, like pastoral care training, but I need some more training." I went to Benedictines and found out that they had this program called Spiritual Direction. It was all about deep listening. I thought, yes, that's what I will do! I will learn about deep listening with them. I was the only non-Christian, the only openly queer person there. So, I was out of my bubble. I love being out of my bubble. It was a two-year program and the second year was a practicum. So, I had my directees, and it turns out I was good at it.
I took on a couple of clients, and then a couple more clients. What I found, after being with folks for about six months and seeing how deep we went and some of the changes they made, was that I have a niche. Leaders from a lot of other denominations will come to me because they can tell me things. There's always confidentiality in spiritual direction. I had folks from other institutions who would come and say, "I just need to lay this down." I'm like, "I got you." They wouldn't have to re-explain how congregations work. I would say, "Oh, I know. It's the same anywhere." It doesn't matter if it's a temple. It doesn't matter if it's a synagogue. People are people. They're going to be people. I got a full practice pretty quickly, and it feels like this is the most impactful ministry of my career.
Some people at the UUA were saying, "Oh, good luck on your retirement." Because I left the UUA after 20 years on June 30th. But I’m just getting started! I have to turn away so many people and it's not because of who I am as a spiritual director. It's because there's such a craving for spiritual direction. People are craving both guidance and time out of time, quiet time, that Kairos time. Especially while we're trying to make sense of these liminal times. That's so important for leaders. I think it's important for everybody, but there's a lot of pressure on leaders. Spiritual direction can be a way of alleviating some of that pressure or giving you the tools, the courage, the breath to meet those challenges again.
The fact that Meadville Lombard said, "Yes, let's do this thing. Let's create a spiritual direction formation program with the certification at the end for, specifically, Unitarian Universalist leaders," thrills the heck out of me!
It's not just Unitarian Universalists who are craving UU spiritual directors. Other traditions love Unitarian Universalists as spiritual directors, because part of our spiritual practice is code switching. We're not trying to evangelize. In spiritual direction, you absolutely are not trying to convert people. You're trying to bring them back to themselves. I think UUs are particularly positioned to be the kindest spiritual directors that the world needs right now. We've got the code switching, we have spiritual practice, we have holy questions. The program that Kate Lassiter (Sr. Dir. of Lifelong Learning) and I have envisioned is one that helps Unitarian Universalists surrender more to the holy and get comfortable in the silence. Those are two things that we aren't particularly known for, but we can be really good at it.
The program has three parts to it. It's a two-year program. It relies on re-learning and deep listening. I know some ministers are like, "Oh, can I just skip over that part? I know that part, I got that." It's nuanced. It's a little different than pastoral care, and it's a little different than chaplain care. It is its own thing. Spending that formation time of being listened to in new ways, and learning to listen in new ways. Every other week is being in that deep listening online together. It's a virtual program. It’s accessible. I'm not saying that virtual is the best pedagogy. I think right now it's the most accessible, and that's what I'm prioritizing. I'm one of the people that it would be very bad if I got COVID, so I've been extremely careful and I want other people to be able to thrive holistically. So, we're going to stay virtual for a good bit.
I'm also really hopeful. I love a good puzzle and a good challenge and, oh, the things we can do online that you can't do face to face. I get excited about that, and I just go there. The virtual times that we're together will be deep listening, and it will be designed very worshipfully. Then the other weeks, when it's asynchronous, will also have a very worshipful vibe to it. It's different than the academic work that I do on the other side of the Meadville Lombard house.
It's not less than that academic work, and it's not more “shallow.” I wouldn't call it that. It's just different. You’ve got much more reliance on rethinking your presence, rethinking your questions, exploring things like grief, transition, ecstasy, joy, savoring your own concept of God, dealing with things that make you nervous. There'll be a big piece on reflection, both your own reflection and then responding to other people's reflections. That’s really what the program is made up of. The first year is the formation, the re-formation. The second year is the practicum year.
I hope that they banish the phrase “we can believe whatever we want” from people's vocabulary. I live in the Northwest where we live in times of pandemics, plural. Whether it be COVID, police brutality, the prison system. Marijuana's legal out here and how many people are still in prison on marijuana charges? The school systems are a complete mess. Climate change. It goes on and on and on. So, if we haven't figured out by now that what we do matters, and what we believe matters, and what we believe informs what we do, then I hope honestly, our tradition does get smaller. People who are here for a social club can go somewhere else and have a social club. I was the Growth Strategist at the UUA. They hired me and then they found out my growth strategy was actually to weed the deadwood, the wood that really thought what we believe doesn't matter.
I want to be with people who understand our spiritual practices are to be awkward, to surrender, to not have the right answer. I want to be with people who understand spiritual practice can look like being followers particularly of people in the margins. Most of our members right now are not. We’re asking, “Who’s been trying to get at the table?” But how about we make a bigger table, or make a different table, or just get rid of the table.
I'm holding my breath on the future. I don't know yet. The Pew research has been telling us traditional religion has been circling the drain for years, but that doesn't mean that religion or people's religiosity is circling the drain. What I think—what I know—is, certainly Universalism is rising in the world. I have this image of Universalism rising, but I have a caution for the Unitarian Universalists. We are one boat on that water. Do not confuse the boat for the water.
Another piece for our people is humility. Our Principles are not precious. I went to a Jesuit seminary. Almost all of them had some sort of expression that was similar to our principles, except for maybe a free and responsible search for truth, and even that, they had in their own way. But the way that we covenant together as Unitarian Universalists, that is a little bit different. The fact that each congregation is responsible to figure out what the meaning of membership is, and the meaning of their purpose, and that we are interrelated. That's what we really found out during the pandemic up here in the Pacific Northwest. We've always been hyper relational up here, but when the pandemic hit, we got really clear and said, "Okay, what's essential?" We are only doing the essentials and we're going to do them together. So, who does this piece well? Who does that piece well? Different congregations took different pieces. We just pooled our resources.
I got excited about that. I thought, "Oh, now we're about to see what the future could be." Because it was hard and it was scary. Getting down to our essentials and doing it together, that's what our future is going to be all about. Again, spiritual direction. What do you need? I go to my spiritual director to figure out what are my essentials, what is mine to do in the world, and to listen closely to the voice of God. What is God requiring of me in this moment?
I hope that we can sometimes ditch our boat and jump in the water and see what happens. It's the water we came from. There's nothing to be afraid of.