Tag Archives: Changing Religious Landscape

the transient and permanent in UU ministry.

14 Jun

Delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long
June 4, 2016

You can watch the entire ordination below. Sermon starts at 31:00.

Imagine the scene, 175 years ago, at the Hawes’ Place Church in South Boston. May 19, 1841, was, like tonight. the night of an ordination. The ordinand was Mr. Charles C. Shackford, a mere 26 years old. He would go on to serve the Lynn church for 19 years. The preacher that evening was Rev. Theodore Parker.

Delivering the sermon at an ordination is an honor in our tradition. Then, and today, the sermons are generally not particular to the ordinand but instead address either our larger Unitarian Universalist faith tradition or the institution of our professional ministry. Ordination sermons are a time to stand up on the balcony and survey the view – to look at trends, or challenges, that we are facing, and to offer our observations.

175 years ago, Unitarians were facing a challenge – the theological challenge of Transcendentalism. Parker had heard Emerson give his Divinity School Address three years earlier and had been powerfully moved by it. In that address, Emerson had defined many of the tenets of Transcendentalism, comparing it to a more traditional Unitarian theology. The Divinity School address had begun a major controversy within Unitarianism, a fire to which Parker’s sermon added fuel.

The title of Parker’s sermon was “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.” His main idea was that, in Christianity, there are some things that are permanent, enduring through the ages – such as what Jesus taught: Love your neighbor and the meek shall inherit the world. And there are some things that are transient, changing over the passage of time – such as how particular Biblical passages are applied, an even, Parker said, the authority of the Bible! Hearing his sermon, some declared, “If that is Unitarianism, I am not a Unitarian!” Sean Dennison writes that “Parker’s main point at this particular ordination was that the Christians of the day were missing the point. They had confused what was transient, changeable, and impermanent for what was enduring in Christianity. He challenged them to look at their habits, their rituals, their practices and their doctrines and let go of much that was more about fear than about the core message of their faith.”

So it is with some trepidation that I take my title today from that historic ordination sermon Parker gave 175 years ago. I am not Theodore Parker. I am older than he was when he gave his address. And a woman. And I doubt history will take notice of me the way it did this man who could turn a phrase – the moral arc of the universe and “government of all, by all, for all” are both his.

And at the same time, I believe we are at a turning point not unlike the turning point that Parker found himself in low those years ago. I believe we are at a time when the old ways are rolling away, and the new ways that are coming in are scary, unknown, overwhelming, and challenging to how things have been done in our lifetimes.

But while the crisis in Parker’s day was a theological one, the one today is a crisis around the sustainability of religious life. Church attendance is at its lowest rate in the history of our country. More and more people understand themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Not only are there fewer people in the pews on Sunday morning, but many of those who are there have less time to volunteer to help make the church function. The volunteer bench is not as deep as it used to be as retirees are often finding part-time jobs to help make ends meet, and many families with two parents find that both are needing to work. This might all be fine if people were able to give more financially, but church giving is not increasing at pace with other charitable giving – certainly not at the rate needed to fund positions that used to be filled by volunteers. So we are at a critical juncture within our religious institutions: how do we adapt to this changing religious landscape? I’ve written about some ways congregations might adapt – tonight I’d like to explore what this might mean for our professional ministry.

For there’s no doubt about it: our ministry is changing. I entered seminary in 1997. The ministry that I do now is not at all what I expected going in less than 20 years ago. Speaking with colleagues with more experience than I, I know that I am not alone. One colleague boldly told me that ministry used to be much simpler – more scholarly and more pastoral, not like today with all the distractions.

What might the future hold for the beloved vocation of parish ministry? During the recent summit on The Economic Sustainability of Unitarian Universalist Ministries, many religious professionals (parish ministers, community ministers, directors of religious education) shared that they live paycheck to paycheck, as hours are cut, student loan and seminary debt increases, and salaries don’t keep pace. There is much debate within our professional associations about bi-vocational ministry – professional ministers who have other jobs outside of ministry. In truth, because we are not yet certain how congregations will adapt to the changing religious landscape, it is hard to predict what professional parish ministry will look like 50 years from now. Things are changing. Quickly.

Reverend Khoren Arisian addressed this onslaught of change in his 1998 Berry Street Lecture, which had the subtitle “The Transient and Permanent In Life And Ministry.” Arisian shared that, “As time goes by in this marvelous, maddening world, things get more and more complicated, events move faster and faster, so that we need more than ever to have a reliable point of view, an existential epistemological compass, as it were, by which to discriminate one thing from another.”

In this time of great change in our religious landscape, when events move faster and faster, I am inspired to take a page from Parker and look at what is transient, and what is permanent, in our Unitarian Universalist ministry, for this can provide us with the “existential epistemelogical compass” Arisian mentions. I don’t have the luxury of an hour long lecture or 45 minute sermon, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view – I hear those sighs of relief!), so there is much I don’t have time to address. My hope is that the five points that I touch on here become fodder for further thought and exploration – something (perhaps) to be expanded upon, particularly for those of us engaged in, or contemplating, the professional ministry.

And so: the transient.

Example number one, appropriately enough – the sermon, or, more specifically, how we deliver our message. If it is true that today’s people have a shorter attention span than a goldfish, I can only imagine what it would be like to magically transport Parker through time to be here today – his hour long sermon, bereft of stories and full of academic theology – would undoubtedly find many minds wandering. When I entered seminary, the ideal was a three point sermon, 20ish minutes, logically and coherently arranged. Today, sermons are shorter, and many experts in homiletics recommend one point. One. Ideally, that one point is made through the use of stories. By todays standards, this sermon this evening is dry, long, and uninspiring. Sorry, folks!

There is nothing wrong with this shorter, story-telling style of sermon – the stories keep the listener engaged, and with just one point it is easier to be clear, and go deep. Sermon style falls into the transient category. But I would also propose that the sermon itself may, as well. As we begin to gear our message to a wider audience, with more educational diversity and neurological diversity and generational diversity, we may find that other ways to share our message become more useful and have greater impact. Time will tell.

What hasn’t changed – what is permanent – is how we arrive at the content of our message. In the Divinity School Address that so inspired Parker, Emerson said that it is the role of the preacher to deal out “life passed through the fire of thought.” Whether it is three points, or one, full of stories or full of academic quotes, the role of the minister is to take our experiences – our educational experiences, our life experiences, the catalog of our lives and of the world around us, and to examine them deeply – to take the personal and use it as a lens with which to reflect on the universal. Whether we share that message through a sermon, or a blog posting, a facebook post, or a tweet (hashtag “jordinnation”), a snapchat story or a self-published novella – the medium of the message transient, but passing life through the fire of thought is permanent.

This leads to the next area of the transient: the tools we use. Once upon a time, it was letters and personal visits via horseback. Then it was phone calls and car-rides to the hospital. Today, it is email and facebook. The amount of email needing to be read is never-ending. Facebook presents us with boundless opportunities for positive connections with colleagues and with congregants. The shadow side is that digital connection sometimes has replaced, not enhanced, in-person connection. I vividly remember the time facebook was the method from which I learned that a congregant had died. But facebook is choosy about what it shows. This can cause problems when congregants believe that the minister has seen and been made aware of something that we are clueless about. The relationship between a minister and a congregant can end up broken when a congregant relies on social media to inform the minister of important events in their lives. And the relationship, the connection between the office of ministry and the people we serve while in that office, is something that is permanent.

Those whom we serve want the minister to know them, to see them, to walk with them in times of crisis and sit with them in times of need. With multiple generations in a congregation, this means some will want us to call them, some will prefer email, some prefer facebook or texting, others, well, you’ll have to ask them. The tools of relationship are transient, but the need congregants have for a relationship with their minister is permanent.

Our connections with people both within and outside the congregations we serve, combined with our reflections on our lives and relationships, will lead us to an awareness of the vast injustice present in our world. Which brings us to a third example of the transient and the permanent in our ministry. The specific nature of an injustice we see may be transient since even as we make advances in one area, another arises – racism, sexism, homophobia, fat-phobia, ablism. Our capacity as human beings to turn someone into “other” seems to have no end. And so, while a particular type of oppression might be transient, oppression itself is permanent, and so too is our responsibility as ministers to call out oppression when we see it. We may say that we work to create God’s kingdom here on earth, or say that our role is to “endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few.” We may say that we are putting our hands upon the moral arc of the universe and bending it towards justice or that it is our job to love the hell out of the world. How we phrase it changes with the generations, just as the form of oppression changes. What is permanent is our role, as liberal ministers, to hold and proclaim the vision of a world made fair and all her people cared for – to call humanity to its best self.

Prophetic voice, staying in relationship, sharing our message- it can all get overwhelming. Rev. Sharon Ditmar, preaching at my installation at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, shared something that has stuck with me and that I have held onto for years. Ministry, she said, is a marathon, not a sprint. She was talking about how it is necessary to pace ourselves, to understand that we can’t run mile after mile at a sprinter pace or we will burn ourselves out. And she is so right! Trying to juggle church life, family life, personal life – it can be exhausting. But this is also misleading, because unlike a marathon, there is no line that we cross where we suddenly say to ourselves “We have ARRIVED!” Or at least, I haven’t found one.

Instead, ministry is like trying to drink from a firehose – there are hundreds of little things that constantly need to get done, so that as ministers we can try to guzzle it all, or to take little sips. And sometimes we need to pull away from it entirely, lest we drown. Jordinn, I promise, when you miss a Board or Committee meeting, or neglect to answer every email within 72 hours, the church won’t fall apart. This is the message I tell myself every year, especially this time of year when my energy is low after Easter, the pledge drive, the annual meeting, and a year’s worth of guzzling from the firehose.

And so these trappings of ministry, these things, events, activities – they are a fourth aspect of the transient in ministry that distracts us from the permanent, which in this case is that ministry calls us to be our whole selves. To be authentic human beings. And for me to know, at my core, that I am enough. For you to know that you are enough. That ministry is not something we do, it is something we are. Ministry, this call to be in the world, to speak truth in love, to meet people where they are, to challenge the world to be better, to walk with those in need, and to model all this for those we serve – this is the permanent, and my imperfect, insecure, constantly falling short self is exactly enough to live this ministry into life. And so is yours.

I am enough. You are enough. But it is not about me, and it is not about you. In fact, the reality is that as individual ministers, WE are what is transient. This is the fifth and final observation of the transient and permanent in ministry. Us. We live our lives, we do the best we can, we hope to make a difference- and I think that we usually do. But our ministries end, and someone comes behind us to take our place. As Mark Morrison Reed observed in his Berry Street Lecture from 16 years ago, we must die so that the ministry will live. It is our duty to fill the jar and leave it for the next traveler. And this is as it should be! This is what it means to be part of a living tradition that grows and changes with each generation. What is permanent, what is lasting, is this tradition that we are a part of. We have beloveds who came before us, paved the way and broke through barriers and ceilings; beloveds who will come after us and drink from the wells we tend; and beloveds who are on this journey with us, who can encourage us when our energies flag, who can call US to be our best selves. One generation passes over into another and our ministries will end. But the ministry continues.

Indeed, from time immemorial there have been shamans, priests, wise-women, and elders who have been the voice of the divine, the keepers of wisdom, the face of God for those in need interpreting the mysteries of the universe and what it means to be human. Those in this role have buried the dead, welcomed the newly born, told the stories, kept the rituals, communicated with the divine, and shown the people where to go. The specific manifestation looks different in each cultural incarnation, each human epoch, but the need for such religious leadership itself remains constant. People will always needed ministers, in some capacity.

The transient changes, with time and generations. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad – just that it’s shifting sands upon which to build a ministry. It often demands our attention, urgently. It can distract us and we can get lost in it’s cacophony: read this email! Write a blog entry! More stories in your sermon! Go to more community meetings!

As ministers, we sometimes get caught up in what is transient and lose sight of what is permanent. And so it behooves us to look at our habits, practices and the stories we tell ourselves about ministry – and let go of that which demands our attention so that we might dig deeper and remember what is enduring about ministry.

When we pause and listen, we can discern that which is permanent, hear it whispering to us, sustaining us. It tells us that we will be neither the pinnacle nor the nadir in this ageless institution, but that we are enough just the same. It tells us that our vocation is about relationship, paying attention, and speaking the truth as we know it. We are called to watch where we are going. Lean in toward love. And when in doubt, tell our truth. May that which is permanent sustain us, and may it set us free. Blessed be.

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