Customer Service Spirituality may seem like a strange concept, but it’s one of the founding principles of The UAC, the body that I serve as Presiding and Founding Bishop. I write about it here not because my intent is to promote The UAC, though I would never object to that as a secondary benefit, but rather because it seems to me one of the major concepts missing in institutional Christianity.
To be honest, we didn’t think of the term Customer Service Spirituality back in those early days of our Church, but we expressed the concept in terms of meeting needs where they exist and of not placing barriers between people and the clergy services they sought. We looked at the tradition of requiring extensive preparation for baptism, to cite but one example, and found it to be an artificial construct that simple wasn’t present in the biblical record. We also looked at the function of Baptism, which had been at one point seen as “washing away the stain of original sin” as well as a rite of initiation into the Church. We acknowledged that the doctrine of Original Sin has never been accepted by the Orthodox Church and, perhaps more importantly, is currently in question by a growing number of responsible theologians. We also considered our experience of babies and toddlers and the truth that it is very difficult indeed to label them as stained anywhere but in the diaper. As to the rite of initiation into the Church, we saw quite clearly that the Church has never been a building but rather the people gathered therein – a community. We also remembered quite clearly the number of people who we had heard complaining when they arrived at church to discover a baptism was part of the service, jeopardizing their lunch reservation time. We agreed that a gathering of friends and family, no matter where they were gathered, was much more likely to be excited about welcoming a child than a stranger with a growling stomach!
There were other points of discussion, but the result was that we came to see the requirements of the institution were self-serving, designed much more to keep people coming back and contributing to the weekly collection than meeting a real and significant spiritual need. We saw the same thing to be true in the institution’s policies around marriage, where the tradition of mandatory premarital counseling has become largely pro-forma, especially for couples who aren’t invested in the process. Research shows that a couple is psychologically married at the time of engagement. Pastors can, and do, compel them to sit in the church and endure an often intrusive and involuntary process. They can even choose not to perform the ceremony based on what they believe they have “discovered” in that process, but the truth is that the couple will find someone to marry them. We came to see that, except for cases of abuse, it is better to marry the couple and in the process build a relationship with them so they feel comfortable calling us if problems arrive than to create an adversarial climate for one of the most intimate rituals of their lives.
We determined that belief in the God of their understanding was criteria enough to qualify for clergy services and that to hold such services – especially Sacraments – hostage to membership, counseling, a record of contribution, or anything else as if we, not God, owned them required an amount of hubris and arrogance we weren’t willing to claim. We also saw that the institution had become the equivalent of the guy who opens a grocery store in an inconvenient location, is only open on Sunday mornings, and only offers one brand and size of the products he sells – and then is mystified when he goes out of business!
There is a lesson here that extends way beyond decisions by our organization. We all benefit from examining the motives behind our choices. Are there times in our relationships that we take stances and dig in our heels when we aren’t really sure why we are doing so? Do we at times respond more out of habit than reason at intervals – and that response could be either a “yes” or a “no”? So many of us struggle to say “no,” often because we weren’t afforded an opportunity to say “no” as children. If we slow down our processes just a bit and ask ourselves the reason behind our automatic answers we may just create the space needed to respond from the heart rather than from habit. We can even learn to say, “Let me get back with you on that,” when we need more time to make a decision.
It’s a solid spiritual practice to regularly consider our motives in responding to life. The institutional Church may have forgotten about that practice, but we have the freedom to reclaim that practice in our own lives to our own benefit. Customer Service Spirituality isn’t the exclusive property of a Church – it can be our practice, too!