Tag Archives: Ministry

Leaving a Congregation: Epilogue.

3 Jan

This is the seventh and final part in a multi-part blog series about leaving the congregation I served.

goodbye

On my last day at the congregation, I packed up my last bags, looked around one final time, and walked out the door with my family.  Never an after-church napper, when we got home that day I crashed on the couch.

I thought that would be the end. I had given myself a week between positions, mostly to catch up on stuff around the house. I knew I would still have some processing to do but there were still elements of it that surprised me nonetheless.

I was surprised by how different my facebook feed looked. Over 100 congregants had friended me over the years. Though I had chosen not to unfriend them, I put them all on restricted status so that they would only see my public posts, and I unfollowed them so they would no longer show up in my newsfeed. I never truly understood how lonely ministry is until I saw my newsfeed over the next few days after I left, for it was filled with updates from people I hardly knew.

I also found myself struggling with my role in the larger community. Prior to leaving, I had been consulted by both media and justice organizations asking for my opinion or involvement on a variety of topics. Because I’ve stayed in town, I have realized that it is better for me to get involved in new social justice organizations so that I can create a new role for myself in these regards.

I have also realized that my departure from the congregation while still staying in town is much more difficult for the congregants at the church I served than it is for me. I am easily able to make small-talk when our paths cross, but I know it is hard for them to not fill me in on the latest at church and in their own lives. They struggle to maintain boundaries and this means they err on the side of not saying much and not asking me questions about how I am doing.  This is probably exacerbated by the fact that they will be without a minister for several more months.

But the most surprising struggle for me is in my identity. I am no longer the minister of a congregation. For some people, this seems to mean that I am no longer a minister. But I am still a minister, even if I don’t fit into an easily identifiable box the way I used to. This gives me sympathy for the rest of you community ministers out there – I frequently find myself explaining to people that I am still a minister, even though I no longer serve a single congregation.

Two months after I have officially left, I continue to be surprised by how my leaving process progresses internally. This blog has been in process, in various stages and pieces, for the past four months. I started it two months before I left. I’ve decided that, though my process may continue, the blog needs to end and be published.

The changes in myself in these past four months have been intense. It has been a rollercoaster of emotions. And, at the same time, I am blissfully happy in my new vocation. I know that it was time for me to leave, as emotional as the process was.  I am not sure whether I left a year too early, or a year too late. Or maybe, possibly, I hit it at just the right moment.

If you are leaving, or are contemplating leaving the church you serve, you have my love and my sympathy. I can tell  you that it will teach you a lot about yourself. And that, if you are in a situation where you are able to be present to the bitter and to the sweet, it can be a gift both to your ministry and to the church you serve. May you and your congregants, present, past and future, be so blessed.

Stage 4: Fallout/Resolution.

3 Jan

This is the sixth part in a multi-part blog series about leaving the congregation I served.

goodbye

In the last six weeks of my ministry with the congregation, all of us seemed better able to hold the duality of being both excited and sad at a same time. The feelings were bittersweet – something to be cherished.

Soon after the announcement of my departure, I had sent an email to every member and friend inviting them to schedule time to meet with me. Nearly a third of the congregation did so.  In those final weeks, I no longer had two jobs (starting the church year and saying goodbye) – I just had one.

Sometimes my meetings with people were long – pushing an hour.  Sometimes they were short – 10 or 15 minutes. Sometimes we talked about all we had done together. Other times we talked about our hopes for the future.  Sometimes they had questions for me. Other times they talked, and talked, and talked, while I sat and just listened. Sometimes there were tears. There were almost always hugs.

I was surprised that, even a week before my departure, some people were just finding out. It had been in every order of service, it had been announced at the pulpit multiple times, it was in the newsletters, and had been blasted out in email. But there were still a few people, usually only peripherally connected, who were late at hearing about it. The closer it came to my last day, the more upset people would be that they were just learning about my departure. I’m not sure what we could have done to prevent this, but it was difficult nonetheless.

In between meeting with people, everything I did was in preparation for my departure.  I documented passwords, procedures, and points of information that others would need to know. I transitioned all the technology that my account “owned” to other people (google groups, yahoo groups, calendars, the church facebook group, etc). I went through my own facebook page and started shifting congregants to “Restricted” status (meaning they would only see my public posts) and unfollowing them (so that I would no longer see their posts).

I changed my plans for Sunday services. I shifted my second-to-last sermon from a sermon on the ministry theme for the month to a question box service. In part, this was to respond to the questions I knew people still had for me. In part, it was self-preservation – I did not have the emotional energy for a sermon on “Reason”.

Throughout my ministry, I had always had firm boundaries on my Sundays off: I only attended if my children were participating in the service.  In the last month, on the Sundays I had “off” I asked the speaker if they would like me to be liturgist. They all said yes.  Unlike the situation most ministers will find themselves in when they leave a church, I knew that the congregation would be lay-led for up to 9 months before the interim minister arrived, so this was helpful to them. And it was helpful to me to be able to participate in worship without the heavy lifting of sermon-writing. It was part of saying goodbye.

img_5722My last sermon was emotional. The Worship Associates had predicted that and put tissue boxes at the front of the sanctuary and throughout the seats – easily accessible to all of us.

It was difficult for me to be present in the moment. I was afraid that I would burst into uncontrollable tears, so I put funny little emoji’s into emotionally heightened portions of my text so that I would have that half-second of wondering “What the heck is that?”  – just enough time to stave off great heaving sobs by putting me back into my frontal cortex.

img_3092There were several sweet surprises during the service: gifts that were lovingly explained and given. I took a panorama picture from the pulpit.  The receiving line at the end of the service was longer than ever. There was cake – someone saved me a few pieces when they realized I might not make it to the social hall in time. There were hugs.

I packed up my last bags, looked around one final time, and walked out the door with my family.  Never an after-church napper, when we got home that day I crashed on the couch.

go to Epilogue: Having Left

Stage 3: Blaming.

3 Jan

This is the fifth part in a multi-part blog series about leaving the congregation I served.

goodbyeLeaving the church was exhausting. I was constantly both excited about the upcoming transition and sad about leaving behind people I loved.  I know myself well enough to know that if I am  constantly vulnerable and exhausted, I am more likely fall back into my own bad habits, including bad habits around leaving.

In CPE many years ago, I learned that I hate long goodbyes. If they are quick, I can process my feelings and move on. But when they are longer, I don’t like to sit with those uncomfortable feelings. In these situations, my old pattern of behavior is to find fault in every little thing the other party does; I nitpick. Doing this makes it easier for me to leave because, for me, anger is a much more comfortable feeling than the pain that comes from sadness.

I knew I didn’t want to nitpick and blame as I was leaving the congregation, which meant I had to allow myself to feel the pain. This meant I had to be strong and healthy enough to do so – to sit both my own and the pain of others – some of whom were blaming me.

One of the areas that caused pain to congregants was the sermon I had done in January where I had recommitted to the congregation and wondered what the next seven years would bring.  Since this sermon was a recurring source of pain as I was saying goodbye to people, I ended up writing a newsletter column about what was going on with me at the time.

There are only two things I would change about my leaving process: first, I would leave during the regular transition cycle (which unfortunately wasn’t an option) and second, I would not have given this January sermon. 

A tipping point came six weeks before my last day. The Board held a leadership retreat and I was invited to come and lead the retreat for the last hour. During that hour, I presented suggestions for how the leadership of the congregation might turn this transition into an opportunity. I utilized a paper I had written for my “Strategic Human Resource Management in Nonprofits” class about executive transition, my understanding of the history of the congregation, and my own hopes and dreams for them as I outlined 3 pitfalls they would want to avoid, and my suggestions for how to best make use of this opportunity.

At the end of that hour, all of us were in a new place. The leadership understood in a new, visceral way that this vocation change of mine (from parish ministry to denominational/community ministry) was not about them but was about how I was called to serve our faith.  They were excited about what the future might hold – for me, and for the congregation. I walked away feeling proud, and hopeful.

In some other traditions, the standard amount of notification for a minister ending a settlement is six weeks. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, it is basically twice that: 90 days. When I first gave notice, I lamented how long that is – it seemed excessive. However, this retreat came right smack in the middle – the day before what would have been my last day in another tradition. It was at this point that I began to appreciate the wisdom of the extra time that Unitarian Universalists work to achieve. Up until the retreat, I had been all business – getting things done, passing on information, coming to terms with my own feelings. But after the retreat, right at the 6 week point, all of us seemed more comfortable holding the duality of being both excited and sad at the same time. Rather than being overwhelmed, the experience became bittersweet – something to be cherished.

go to Stage 4: Fallout/Resolution

Stage 2: Drama.

2 Jan

This is the fourth part in a multi-part blog series about leaving the congregation I served.

goodbyeI had thought that breaking the news would be the most difficult part of the leaving process and that things would get easier from there. While I was indeed relieved after having broken the news to the congregation, that was just the beginning of a lengthy and emotional process.

As the news began to settle in, people began to grieve – not only were they losing their minister, but for many of them I was the minister who was supposed to do their childrens’ weddings, maybe even the minister who was supposed to perform their memorial service. It was difficult for them to lose their vision of the future. This is where Thistles and the Berry Street Essay were the most helpful – in dealing with people’s grief.  It was indeed as though I were dying to them.

I repeatedly normalized their feelings. I told people it was okay to feel grief, to feel anger. And to feel excitement and wonder at what was to come.  The temptation was to try to problem solve with them, to try to fix their feelings and my own, but I knew I could not do that.  So I sat with them.

At the same time, the church year was just getting started. I felt like I had two jobs: getting going for the fall (with water communion, RE startup, all the normal church-year busy-ness) and, at the same time, leaving.

I scheduled an open house at my home, just for church members. I also noticed that people were not reaching out to meet with me the way I thought they would so I sent out an email to every member (and called those without email):

Hi!

I was wondering if you might want to meet with me before I leave First U on October 23 – maybe to talk about future plans for the church (any hopes or fears you might have), to hear more about my plans, or maybe just to check-in.

Towards these ends, I am scheduling 30 and 60 minute visits (daytime or evening) with First U folks throughout October.

If you would like to schedule something, let me know what works for you!

Blessings,
Rev. Dawn

The email also caught some people who hadn’t yet realized I was leaving, so I continued to have to explain the situation and go over the same details repeatedly. I was also amazed at the people who wanted to meet with me – some new members, some visitors, some long-time members who said “I always meant to sit down with you before now.”   I started spending more time in the office, available for drop-in visitors – something I had not really been available for before.

It was exhausting.  I began to shift from a time-management perspective to an energy-management one: I had to prioritize leaving, but I could only spend so much of my energy on it without feeling drained. I knew I didn’t want to feel too drained because that would increase the vulnerability hangovers that I was feeling each night. And I know myself well enough to know that in that vulnerable, exhausted state, I would more than likely fall back into my own bad habits around leaving. Namely: that I would begin to get angry at people in order to make saying good-bye easier.

go to Stage 3: Blaming

Stage 1: Breaking the News.

2 Jan

This is the third part in a multi-part blog series about leaving the congregation I served.

goodbyeAfter a lengthy planning process with my Director of Religious Exploration and Music Director, my first step was to send a message to the Board President suggesting we meet after worship on a Sunday in July when I wasn’t set to preach. We had several things we needed to catch up on, and my plan was to tell her as a part of that.

It was very hard to be present to the other business we had to discuss. My hands were shaking. My heart was pounding. I was sick to my stomach. But I managed to muddle through the other agenda items. And then I shared with her: “I also have other news for you. I have taken a new position. My last day at the congregation will be October 23.”

She exhaled and looked at me. I let the news sit out there in the silence for a few moments. Then I said “I know you probably have a lot of questions, and I am happy to answer them. But before I do, please know that this does not come out of any conflict.”

She was sad, but to her credit, not surprised. She had seen the evidence and had begun to put the puzzle together for herself. We talked. We cried. We laughed. I shared with her the documents I had prepared:

We came up with a plan:

  • Monday (the next day) I would meet with the staff who reported to me who didn’t already know
  • The Board President would call an emergency Board Meeting for Tuesday
  • Letters to the congregation would go out on Wednesday
  • Wednesday through Friday I would meet with a few key leaders in the congregation
  • And one week later, Sunday, I would deliver a homily at a service that our Music Director (who knew what was coming) was leading.

Not surprisingly, the reactions spanned the gamut. Some people were shocked. Others were not at all surprised – some were almost fatalistic about it. Some people were angry. Some were just sad. Some were confused.

One thing that was particularly interesting to me is that people didn’t stay where I thought they would: someone might start out not very surprised, and then quickly move to angry. Someone else might start out sad, and then move to confused.

On Tuesday, the Board swiftly moved into problem-solving mode: What was next for the congregation? I was glad that the ministry team and I had come up with one possibility to use as a starting point for the discussion.  Though I was not in on the planning in future meetings, I did walk with the Board in this first meeting by talking about the transition process and what might be next for them.

I was very surprised by one mistaken calculation I had made. I had thought that the newer people in the congregation would be the ones who were most upset: I was the only minister many of them had ever had. I thought that the longer term members, who had been through this before, would be less anxious.  In fact, the reverse was true. Newer members on the Board (and within the larger congregation) who had not been through this process were the most hopeful. Members who had been through this process once, or twice, or even more, were very, very nervous. Would they be able to find a good interim? Would they be able to find a settled minister? After living through a negotiated resignation and a failed search prior to calling me, they did not want to go through that pain and struggle again. One of the stories that I would repeat over and over again in the coming weeks was that we had done excellent ministry together and so they were a more desirable congregation than they had been a decade earlier. I hope that these assurances turn out to be true.

For me, and I am sure for most of the leadership, this was an exhausting week. Calling leaders out of the blue to set up coffee dates with them alerted them that something was up.  They were all so full of love and hope for me. I was surprised that our conversations often triggered old feelings around disappointing my parents. And at the same time, the conversations confirmed what I knew to be true: it was time for me to leave, not just for me but for the congregation. My gifts and their needs no longer matched up.

By the time the next Sunday rolled around, most people were aware of what was happening. In my homily, I talked about the mutuality of the relationship – how we had been an excellent match for seven years, and how much I loved them. While there were tears (I tend to cry in the pulpit pretty frequently) there were not as many as I was afraid there would be.

After having had the sword of Damocles dangling for a while, I thought that this stage of breaking the news would be the most difficult and that things would get easier from there. While I was indeed relieved, in many ways this stage was just the beginning of a lengthy and emotional process.

go to Stage 2: Drama

Stage 0: Discernment.

1 Jan

This is the second part in a multi-part blog series about leaving the congregation I served.

goodbyeAs many colleagues have told me, most ministers leave either a year too early or a year too late. I have no idea where I fall, but I aimed for a year too early.

Just over a year ago, my family hit a crisis that took much of my emotional energy. The congregation I served held me in care and love and gave me the time and space I needed to attend to the crisis.

When something like this had happened before, I had returned to the congregation with renewed commitment and appreciation, ready to serve. But this time it felt different. I realized I wasn’t happy, but I attributed my discontent to being drained from the family crisis – I thought I just needed time to heal. I wanted to want to stay.

After the winter holidays last year, I thought I had internally recommitted to the congregation. I led a worship service where the congregation and I recited the promises we had made to each other during my installation. I shared that I looked forward to 7 more years together and wondered aloud what they might bring.

At the same time, I was finding the day-to-day of ministry no longer as satisfying as it had been. Even though leading worship is one of my favorite privileges of this vocation, it became more and more difficult to write sermons each week. I enrolled in graduate school, hoping it would engage me in new ways. I traveled more than previously because I had said “yes” to many commitments outside the congregation. In hindsight, I realize I was looking for reasons to get away from the congregation – reasons not to preach, not to engage.

There was no major conflict – no single event that precipitated my decision. To this day, I dearly love the people and institution of the congregation I served. But parish ministry was no longer working for me. I looked at what the congregation and I needed to work on in the coming years and found myself lacking enthusiasm. I began to realize that I was ready for a new challenge and the congregation needed a different type of leader to take it into the coming years. It was time for me to move on.

I decided to look around, not really expecting any positions would be open since the timing was wrong. But then I found something that I realized I was excited about, that would combine the degree program I was enthusiastically beginning, the ministry I was doing, and service to our larger faith tradition. I pursued it, went through the application process.

I was terribly excited when I was offered and accepted the position. But I was on summer vacation! How was that going to work?

While I did not feel I could share my process (at that point) with the lay leaders of the congregation, I did share what I was doing with my ministry team (Director of Religious Exploration and Music Director). We had always worked as a team, and I felt they needed to know. It is telling, perhaps, that those who worked closest to me, who I shared my ministry with and relied upon, were not surprised at this news. They had seen the telltale signs even better than I had. And so together, we began to brainstorm what the congregation would need to know/hear as well as what some of the possibilities were for the congregation since I would be leaving off the regular ministry cycle.

I spent my “vacation” working on a plan for who to tell, how, when, and what. For a few weeks, I felt the sword of Damocles hanging not over my head, but over the heads of the beloveds in the congregation I served. I knew this would take most of them by surprise.

When it was time to pull the trigger on my plan, I thought I was ready. And logistically and rationally, perhaps, I was. But I was not emotionally prepared, even with all the reading I had done.

go to Stage 1: Breaking News

Leaving a Congregation.

1 Jan

goodbyeAs the ministerial search season kicks off for Unitarian Universalist ministers, I thought I would share my recent experience of leaving the congregation I served for seven years. Leaving is difficult, and I am proud of how the congregation and I navigated the process together.

A little background. The congregation I served had gone through a negotiated resignation after four years with their previous settled minister. Then had a “failed search” – so three years of interim ministry. Prior to that, their previous two ministers had both had tenures of more than 10 years.

It was with this history in mind that I determined that my final ministry to the congregation would be for me to leave well. I have often heard that ministers tend to leave either a year too late, or a year too soon – I wanted to hit it just right. Towards these ends, I read the required texts: Running Through the Thistles and Mark Morrison Reed’s Berry Street Lecture After Running Through the Thistles the Hard Part Begins. I talked to the Transitions office of the UUA, and to my regional staff.

My story is different than most in that I did not take a position with another congregation. Also, I did not move out of town and my family continues to attend the congregation I used to serve (something that the congregation has a history with so is not quite as strange as it may sound). But while there are aspects to my leaving process that may be unique, there was much I learned from talking to colleagues who had recently left congregations that they served. This blog series is an attempt to formally share my experience. It contains both personal reflections, as well as some logistics on how I did things.

I have found it helpful to utilize the structure provided by Jane Jordan-Meier, in her book The Four Stages of Highly Effective Crisis Management, outlined below, with an added “Stage 0” for the discernment process and an epilogue. Each link below will take you to a separate blog containing reflections and resources.

All that said, this is my experience and yours will undoubtedly be different. But sometimes it is nice to have a place to start. I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to take any/all of this material and edit it to suit your needs.

Stage 0: Discernment
A minister leaving a congregation precipitates a crisis for the congregation. But before I even announced that I was leaving, I had to decide that it was time.

Stage 1: Breaking News
This stage details how I shared the news of my departure with the congregation and their initial reaction.

Stage 2: Drama
After breaking the news, the focus quickly moved from the initial shock to wondering how this could have happened.

Stage 3: Blaming
I was determined to avoid finger-pointing (either my own, or from the congregation.) Jordan-Meier suggests it is best to skip this stage if possible, but I think that intentionally managing it was more effective in my case.

Stage 4: Fallout/Resolution
As the congregants and I came to terms with my departure, we were able to move into a new way of being together – one characterized by a lot of joyful tears, hugs, and celebrating what we had achieved together.

Epilogue: Having Left
I thought the leaving process was done on my last Sunday, but I was wrong.

If you are leaving a congregation you have served, I hope you find my experience moderately useful. Leaving a congregation is hard work. It is emotionally draining, whether you are leaving on good terms or not. Take care of yourself, approach the task with intention, and know that you are not alone.

the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.

7 Nov

My good-bye sermon, delivered at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY on October 23, 2016.

As we all know, today is a very special day. Today, we celebrate the Cubs making it into the World Series.

Just kidding. Unless you are a Cubs Fan.

No, today is special because it is the last time I will stand before you as your minister. At the end of today, I will turn in my keys, say my final goodbyes, and take a week off before I start my work for the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

rebuilding-wayside-pulpit

The wayside pulpit at First Unitarian Church on the night of a devastating fire in December 1985.

Last sermon for you. Oh my goodness. There are so, so many things I want to say. When I write a sermon, I usually throw out a rough draft or maybe two, but this sermon has had at least 5 different versions. At one point, I thought I’d do a narrative: tell my story, tell your story, tell the story of our time together, and then talk about your future and what hopes I have for you. Another version had me listing all your ministers – I was going to ask you to raise your hand or stand up for each minister you remembered. I wanted to demonstrate that though my ministry with you is transient, the ministry continues. This is why ministers generally cut off contact with congregants when they leave – to make room for the next minister to fill the role.

I even made a spreadsheet with all your ministers – settled and interim (I am number 28!) – and I included not just their start and end dates, but how old they were when they started. It was pretty neat to discover that in terms of length of ministry and age when I started, I’m actually a pretty average minister for you! But as fascinating as spreadsheets and data mining are to me, it is not a suitable topic for a last sermon. And, truly, this last sermon – it’s not about me. It’s about you.

I want you to walk away from today uplifted, hopeful, and grateful for our time together. I want you to walk away emboldened and energized to live your mission. No, I won’t be with you, but again, it’s not about me. It’s about how First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY embodies our saving faith in this neighborhood and beyond. I want to remind you that you are a beacon!

So many of you have told me, these last few weeks, how this church has saved you – not in some other life, but in this life, here and now. In a world that tries to convince people otherwise, you shared with me how healing it is to be told, each week, that you are lovable and that you are loved.

So many people are looking for a place where they are accepted, no matter their educational background, their theology or lack thereof. People are looking for a place where their gender identity and sexual orientation are not only accepted but celebrated. People are looking for a place where their quirks are tolerated, where it’s okay if they’ve served time, where their family structure is supported, where they will be told that black lives matter, and where they can get into and out of and around the building independently whether on wheels or on legs.

There is so, so much pain in this world. So much “othering” of anyone who does not fit society’s arbitrary standards. So many people are looking for ways through the confusion, looking for the transformational power of love that First Unitarian Church offers. And then, once you experience it and begin to heal, it is natural to want to give back. To serve this congregation that helped to save you.

This is what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist – that you know it is your responsibility to love and help others once you have experienced that love and acceptance yourself. Mark Morrison Reed wisely wrote that it is in being loved that we learn to love. We cannot, must not, hide our light under a bushel – it is not only irresponsible, but it is wrong. Wrong to keep this saving faith to ourselves.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to put ourselves out there. To help bind up the broken, the love the hell out the world and to love each other out of hell.

How will First Unitarian continue to do this? How will you continue to embody and incarnate your mission, even in these few months before the interim minister arrives?

When I look back, I see that we have done great things together in the last 7.5 years. We’ve worked on what it means to welcome people – the welcoming statement that’s on every order of service and the website is a living document that is constantly being added to, expanded. We joined CLOUT in an effort to use our privilege to amplify the voices of those too often silenced. We made our bathrooms accessible to all genders. We gave Religious Exploration its own hour and welcomed children into worship. We have used this building as outreach to the community: offering affordable space to Central Louisville Community Ministries, FORward radio, and two other worshiping congregations! We have strived for excellence in worship and in all we do. We have argued, debated, and even changed positions when we thought we were entrenched.

We have done amazing ministry together.

Now you are at an intersection – my ministry with you has reached its end. We each will go our separate ways.

Which way will go you?

Will you turn inward? Let any anger or frustration, or even fear, or sorrow about my departure cause you to pull back into yourself? Will you hide your light so that only those already here will see it?

Or, will you use this time to flourish? Will you continue to be a beacon of liberal religion here in Kentuckiana? Continue to share our saving faith with those who need it? This, this is my hope for you.

But how do you do that between now and when your next minister arrives? I’ve told the Board and leadership that the #1 thing that I think you need to, in order to continue to be the beacon you ought to be, and indeed, even to help you figure out who to call as your next minister, the #1 thing you need is a plan. A strategic plan.

You need goals. Priorities and objectives that you can measure against – priorities that can drive your budgeting choices – whether that budgeting is financial, or even when you are budgeting how much volunteer or staff energy you have. Because you can’d do and be everything.

One thing I do not recommend you put in that plan is to grow your membership. For too many years, Unitarian Universalist congregations were told that they were only successful if they were growing. What we know now is that the vast majority of congregations, Unitarian Universalist and otherwise, are dying. Growth in membership, for the sake of growth in membership, is an unrealistic target. And then it feels like a failure when it doesn’t happen.

But there are other important ways you can grow: you can grow in how you incarnate, embody, your mission and vision. You can grow in spiritual depth. You can grow in your organizational capacity.

The reality is that your options are not limitless. They are bounded by your financial capacity and the amount of energy needed to accomplish something. But you are are so rich both in terms of finances and in terms of volunteer and staff energy, you certainly have many, many options!!

Yes, you are financially very well off. I’m taking a Finance Management for Nonprofits graduate class right now – we are learning about debt ratio and assets. Let me tell you: no one should ever claim that there is “not enough” here – because there is abundance! You have no debt, you are generous pledgers, you have an amazing endowment and you are wrapping up a wildly successful capital campaign.

And yes, you are very well off in terms of volunteer and staff energy. You are a congregation that knows how to support your minister, that strives to be fair in how you pay your staff. You are a congregation that says “yes” to ideas that members come up with. You are a congregation that has learned how to rise above conflict to do the right thing, even when it is HARD. You have abundance, in finances and in the amount of talent, skills and energy people have to get the job done.

What you don’t have, yet, is a plan against which to measure your decisions. You are reaching out in every direction – a mile wide and an inch deep. This applies to how you do your finances, how you do your social justice work, and it applies to pretty much everything. This is the shadow side of being a “yes!” congregation without a plan: everything gets stretched too thin and it feels like there is not enough. But if you focus, if you know where you want to go and can set goals and objectives, then you will know how to prioritize your resources and how to better utilize and manage them. There is abundance here. It just needs to be be harnessed properly, and pointed in the right direction.

Of course, this means change. It means potentially sunsetting programs that don’t energize people, programs that don’t measure well against your plan or your mission. It means change, and change means loss. But it also means growth and possibility. A new day.

I want you to shine. I want you to pick a direction and point your light that way, and start moving, confidently and with conviction.

I will be watching. And rooting for you. And talking you up to my colleagues. You are an essential part of my ministry – your sap runs through my veins. You taught me, gave me confidence in myself as a minister, helped me grow my gifts and talents. You allowed me to take risks, and to fail, and to know that that is okay. James Keller pointed out that “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” I burn brightly because you lit my flame. And so I take you with me wherever I go.

But I am not the bright light of this church. You all are. You own the ministry. You light the beacon and keep it burning. If you think I hung the moon, it is only because you built a ladder for me to reach it. This is my final task for you: seek to embody your mission, relentlessly, and First Unitarian Church will continue to shine, as it has for nearly 200 years. I love you. Thank you for allowing me to serve you.

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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