association Sunday.

4 Oct

A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on October 2, 2011.

This morning, we join with thousands of Unitarian Universalists around the country in celebrating Association Sunday. Since 2007, the Unitarian Universalist Association has asked congregations to participate in annual Association Sundays to recognize and support, both spiritually and materially, the national work of the Association.

Each year, the UUA picks a particular theme for Association Sunday – a theme around which congregations can explore, rally, celebrate. This year, the theme is focused on celebrating our professional ministries. Funds raised from special collections at participating congregations will support the UUA, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network, the Liberal Religious Educators Association, and other professional organizations. Grants to these organizations will support a range of activities, including scholarships, continuing education, an assessment of our ministries, and other projects that help religious professionals get the ongoing training they need to support thriving congregations.

This topic of training and continuing education for professional ministers is on my mind quite a lot these days. I have the pleasure of working with two professionals – Edward, our Director of Religious Education, and Phillip, our Music Director – who are both amazing to work with. I don’t think any one here would doubt that what they do is ministry. Either of them, if they were to choose, are able to pursue training and credentialing in their area of expertise. But the funds for such training and credentialing are scarce. I appreciate the effort to raise the funds for grants for such endeavors.

Additionally, I am aware of how I benefit from such ongoing training. This January, I was able to attend a week of continuing education with my ministerial colleagues – a week where I learned about leadership, where I celebrated worship daily, where I was challenged, and learned, and grew in my ministerial presence and understanding.

And finally, today is important to me for a reason that, perhaps, many of you are not yet aware of. A few weeks ago, Meadville Lombard Seminary – our Unitarian Universalist Seminary in Chicago – informed me that a new student had requested that I be his teaching pastor as he begins his seminary education. I met with the student and agreed to work with him. I had amazing mentors throughout my formation, and I can only hope to be as good of a mentor to him.

Meadville’s model is for each student to have a teaching pastor that walks with them through the journey that is our ministerial formation process. In this, the first year, my role as teaching pastor is to help the student process and reflect on what he is learning and experiencing – to help him go deeper. In the second year, you will see him around the church as he observes the life of the church. In the third year, he will do a part-time internship here.

Part of the funds we donate today will also be available help this student and others to pay for necessary endeavors on the road to ministry such as the career evaluation he will undertake after his first year of seminary is complete.

I am excited to embark on this role as a mentor. My experience here with you has helped me to deepen my understanding of ministry in ways that I want to share.

While I cannot speak to excellence in professional ministry in religious education or music ministry, I do feel that I can speak to excellence in ministry in the congregation. Not because I always embody such excellence myself, which I think most of us ministers do sometimes and don’t others – but because it is something that I myself strive for.

But how to speak on this? To stand up here and lecture about excellence in ministry feels neither productive, nor celebratory. As Jill read in the reading by Gordon McKeeman, ministry is based on a quality of relationship. And so what I share with you this morning is a letter, written to anyone who may be hearing a call to ministry.

Dear One,

For the past fifteen years, I have been a lay leader, or a professional leader, in Unitarian Universalist congregations. And most of that time, I was somewhere in between – in a land that you are about to enter – the land of ministerial formation. I have been privileged to be in a variety of ministry settings along the way: a mid-sized suburban congregation, an urban humanist congregation, a minister-led fellowship in a university town, a small fellowship in a college town, a hospital chaplain, working for a district, and now the minister of an historic urban congregation.

These different ministerial settings have each formed my understanding of ministry, and of what it means to be a minister. You see, the day to day tasks of many of these ministerial settings were often different. As a chaplain, I would visit patients in times of dire need, and would never see them when things were going well in their lives. In the suburban congregations, I never had to consider how to deal with the homeless people who might want to find a safe place to spend the night. In the humanist congregation, the sermons were 25 minutes long at a minimum and at the small fellowship they liked them even longer.

Each ministerial setting had different tasks, different priorities. But no matter what the ministerial setting, there were certain things that remained consistent. Skills of the heart, if you will, that they don’t teach you in seminary but that you will need to be an effective minister.

For instance, there are three things that you will want to get used to saying: “Thank you”, “I don’t know”, and “I’m sorry.”

The best way to not take someone for granted is to tell them “Thank you.” Thank you for being on the RE ministry. Thank you for filling in for a worship associate in the last minute. Thank you for sharing your concerns with me. Thanking someone lets them know that they matter – and as their minister, you want them to know that they matter to you – because they do. Ministry is not something that can be done alone – it is relational.

“I don’t know” is another important phrase. Often, in seminary, I think we are taught that we should know the answers. And we often don’t. We might not know the author, or the poem, or the systematic theologian’s name. These are the easy ones, for if we don’t know them, we often know where to find the information. The harder ones are often process related. What is the healthiest way for the church to make a decision on going to two services? Should the abuse victim confront her abuser on his deathbed? We don’t always know the answer, and it builds trust to let people know that. Not knowing something is not a weakness – pretending we have all the answers is.

Connected to this is saying “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry that I left your name out of the volunteer list. I’m sorry for hurting you. I’m sorry if I came across as not paying attention to you. “I’m sorry” goes a long way in ministry. And trust me, you will have to say it a lot. We ministers are not perfect, just as no human being is. We make mistakes. And when we own our mistakes, it helps to build the trust that is necessary in a ministerial relationship. Plus, it models to others what it means to be strong and vulnerable at the same time.

And there is another kind of sorry. I’m sorry that you have such sorrow in your life right now. I’m sorry your loved one died. There are many times when, as a minister, you will be let into the most intimate of details of people’s lives. Nine times out of ten, they are not asking you to fix the problems, they are asking you to join them so that they don’t feel so alone. Sitting in silence after offering a simple “I am so sorry for your loss” can be the most healing thing you might do for someone.

If you want to be the kind of minister who transforms minds, hearts and lives, these are the things that matter. It doesn’t matter if you have the book of Psalms memorized, or all of Mary Olivers poems. What matters is how you relate to the people that you minister to. Which means that you will want to be prepared to be transformed in this formation process and then transformed more in your continuing ministry. Just get used to transforming 🙂 It doesn’t just stop once you have graduated and been fellowshipped. That’s my newest learning – that I am continuing to be transformed, to be shaped by this vocation. The sermon I give on ministry today is not the sermon I gave last year, and it is not the one that I will give five years from now.

The excerpt I read from Mendelsohn also mentions power, and responsibility. This reminds of me the comic book Spider Man, when Uncle Ben advises Peter Parker that “With great power comes great responsibility.” Ministry is like that, though at times it may feel like you have no power at all, much less great power. It is much easier to remember that you will always have responsibility – lots of responsibilities. But you do have power. A harsh word from you can burn and sear into a person’s heart in a way that a harsh word from a fellow congregant would not. And it is up to you to decide what sort of power you will have: will you not be content unless you have power over people – such that you control the plan and outcome? If so, I recommend that you consider a different calling. Even if the ministerial setting you end up in is structured so that the minister is in the CEO model, you will not have power over people, and when you forget this, they may remind you by negotiating your termination.

You can, and should, however, have power with. This is the kind of power that builds relationships, creates alliances – whether it is with lay leaders, or the other professional staff at the hospital you work at, or with the oppressed who need your strength of leadership.

Power is not to be confused with authority, which is something that is hotly discussed in the ministerial formation process. Ministerial authority is one of the things that our credentialing bodies look for in a candidate for ministry, but that cannot be taught. It has to be claimed. Try as our credentialling body might, it is not something that is easily defined, but people know it when they see it.

From what I can tell, it looks like someone who is grounded. Who knows in their body, mind and soul that this is what they were called to do. Someone who has found their groove. Perhaps you have heard by now the oft-repeated adage “If you can do anything else, do it, don’t do ministry.” I have always chaffed against this, because there are lots of things that I could do – as I am sure there are for you as well. Instead, I prefer the question: Can the fullness of who you are live in this vocation? Can the fullness of who you are live in this vocation?

For a long and healthy career in ministry, the answer has to be yes, because ministry is hard work. And if you have to spend valuable time and energy squashing down a piece of yourself, you are going to wear out very, very quickly. It is essential that you take care of yourself. It is not the tasks of ministry that are so difficult, though there are many of them. Instead, it is hard because of how many things that will weigh on your heart and your soul. Things that you can never put down, even when you are not actively working. Things like the pain and suffering of the family of a dying person, the stories of the abuse victim, the awareness that every Sunday morning you are expected to get into the pulpit and say something that matters. And really, you are never really off the clock – a part of you will jump every time the phone rings, particularly after 9pm. Is everyone okay? This all weighs on you, always, even if you aren’t consciously thinking of it. It is absolutely essential to find ways to take care of your whole self – mind, body and spirit.

One of the best ways to take care of yourself is to make collegial friends who understand. I have a pretty good imagination, and people would tell me how lonely ministry is, but I didn’t get it. So just take my word for it: it is lonely. But having good relationships with your colleagues makes the loneliness less so. Go to collegial gatherings as soon as they will let you.

And, perhaps most importantly, as lonely as you may be, remember that you are not alone in caring for your congregation. As Mendelsohn said in our reading, great congregations and skilled ministers create one another. In our tradition, ministry is not just the job of the ordained professional. It is also the job of the congregation. It can be hard to figure out what ministry is best left to the lay leaders, and what is best for the professional to handle. So remember those three phrases (Thank you, I don’t know, and I’m sorry), and add “Help me.” And your congregation will help you to help them. Reach out to them, and build those bridges.

You have a long journey ahead of you – perhaps not in terms of physical time, but in how far you will likely travel in terms of your self-awareness and your formation. It will most likely be bumpy, which may not be a bad thing at all. You may even come to the conclusion that this is not the road for you, or not the road for you right now. And that is okay, too, because you will have been better for the time you traveled on it. Regardless, may your journey in this land of formation be fruitful, may you get lost only enough as you need to, and, when you make it to the other side, may you realize the journey has just begun.

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