"Making a Path”
– Lindi Ramsden –
Celebrating 25 years in Ministry
June 22, 2011 – Charlotte, NC

Because Rev. Ramsden talk was given from notes rather than text what follows is an edited transcription.

Isn’t Cathy (Rion) great? When I was informed that I needed to invite someone to introduce me, at first I thought about asking Rob Eller-Isaacs because he’s the minister that jump-started me into all of this; however, he’s not available, because of a family wedding. Then I realized, "No, it actually needs to be Cathy.” When celebrating 25 years, I should ask someone coming on up into our ministry, someone who has taught me so much going forward. So here I am at age 57, celebrating 25 years of ministry, being introduced by Cathy in the same service with Dick Gilbert, on the 50th Anniversary of the merger.... I mean, how much better does it get than that?

So, let me begin by congratulating you all on making it here after another year of ministry!

I was remembering my first General Assembly after my first year in the parish. That first year in the parish looked very long. I looked at all those Sundays stretched out for months ahead, then I looked at how many sermons I already had in the bag from my internship, and I figured out.... I could dole out one a month from the already written pile so I wouldn’t totally crash along the way. When I got to General Assembly, I could quite believe I had arrived. I had made it through a whole year! To witness colleagues talking about 25 and 50 years of ministry seemed like... well, I don’t know what it seemed like, but it didn’t seem like me.

When you get ordained, it’s not like they give you a roadmap. They ask you to enter into a promise, and they ask you to be thoughtful about who your guides are along the way. I haven’t really had much of a roadmap on this journey of ministry, but I have had some great guides.

I’ve also had a lot of those, "So now what am I supposed to do?” moments. Moments when I’m really not sure which way to go.

In church we sing the song "Never Turning Back”; the song's message is true in that we are committed to moving forward. However, having spent a lot of my time back-packing in the Sierras (I am fatefully drawn to cross-country travel), I know that there are times when forward movement appears blocked, and while you are still trying to get to a certain goal, you are definitely are not going in a... "straight” line. ….... Yes, that was intentional.

My spouse Mary Helen has been essential to that journey. She has always tried to maintain her own pulpit. Not that she’s another minister, but that she has her own calling. I found that her having her own calling to be an essential component of a collaborative family life over the years.

And then there is our son, Ben, who’s now 26, almost 27 and who was nine months old when I started this journey. To be able to grow up with your son as you grow up in ministry, and as he grows up into Unitarian Universalism has also been an incredible window into what it means to be family inside our Unitarian Universalist faith. My ministry has also been blessed by incredible lay leaders and so many colleagues.

People have been important to the journey and so has my sense of Spirit. Each morning, when I am trying to figure out "OK, what do I do now?”, a simple prayer comes to me "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace”. It does help to feel connected to reality that is bigger than my own will. Although when I am really in a bad place, it is less like a prayer and more like a moan, "Make me an instrument of thy peeeease!”

I remember April of 1986, very early in my ministry, when Reagan decided to bomb Muammar Gaddafi's compound in Libya and killed Gaddafi's adopted baby daughter. I thought, "OK, I’m the minister of the church, Sunday’s coming up... this is the first heart breaking US bombing during my young ministry, what am I supposed to say?” I remember later in my parish career in 1995 when the church burned down. "What am I supposed to do now?”

In addition to some of hard realities for which I did not always feel adequately prepared by seminary classes, there were also great opportunities – such as our Salvadoran janitor Edgar asked us, "Why don’t we have services in Spanish like they do across the street at the Episcopalian Church?” Or when a homeless teenager asked if he could become our foster son and move in and live with us. The decisions in both cases launched us on incredible journeys.

Ministry is kind of like hiking cross-country. You just never really know how you’re going to get there. Along the way, I have walked into dead ends. I’ve gotten lost. I’ve been confused.

But.. you do start to make a path by walking it.

I feel very fortunate to have begun my ministry in Silicon Valley where the culture values entrepreneurial risk-taking. Just go try out an idea! Failure is really not such a sin, rather, it’s a way to learn and prepare for the next step along the way.

Currently, I’m serving in a community ministry with the UU Legislative Ministry of California, and I find that those, "Now what?” moments continue to challenge me, even more strongly. (At least in the parish ministry there are a lot of us, and we can figure it out together.) In starting a statewide advocacy network, we not only lack maps, there are not many guides, nor colleagues nor blueprints from which to build.

Recently, we've been working on a ‘Human Right to Water’ bill package. We’re so excited about this collaborative effort with UUSC, which has sent their lobbyist out to California to help. They know that what happens in California, in contrast to Las Vegas, doesn’t stay in California; it rolls out beyond our borders.

While most of the bills in our human right to water bill package are attracting bi-partisan support, I just found from a text I received in the airport while arriving here, that our main Human Right to Water bill is stuck in committee. The text message reads, "The bill is stuck in rules committee. If it doesn’t get out by today it’s done.”

So let’s see: 916-651-4006, that’s Senator Darryl Steinburg’s number, and those of you in California, please talk to me afterwards, we do need to call today!

Twenty-five years is a lot of ministry. Some of my 25 year colleagues are here and many others who are not able to be here wrote back when I sent them an inquiry asking about what they have learned and seen over the years. All have done incredible service.

Our 25 year class includes ministers who have been serving in solo parish ministries, in teams, consulting, as interims and on the UUMA Exec. Our folks are writing books, offering spiritual life coaching, wedding ministries, interfaith and multi-cultural ministries. They’ve served in Canada, Wyoming, Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Florida, Maryland, New Hampshire, Minnesota, North Carolina... and that information only represents the colleagues I was able to reach.

Over those 25 years, our class reports serving in some satisfying, growing, healthy congregations as well as experiencing moments of being totally burned out. There have been negotiated resignations and a pained wonderment about how such dis-ease can be allowed to flourish in some of our congregations.

Since 1986 we’ve seen a kind of tipping point as more and more women came into our ministry. Sexual ethics was brought to the fore, and LGBT clergy now have a much easier time finding work.

In remembering these couple decades of ministry, I flash back on General Assemblies early in my career where the LGBT clergy would have to meet secretly, gathering at 10 or 11pm late in some room in the convention center when the hall ways were empty. We’d pass around little notes to each other to spread the word of where the meeting was. I believe we were called the Lambda Ministers Guild. Closeted ministers serving congregations had to show enormous courage just to walk down the hall and enter the room.

But look what we’ve done over the years. Look what you’ve done. Look what we’ve all done!

I know that my own role in this change has been to just show up and be myself; other people actually did the hard work of prying open those doors. I thank Bill Hamilton-Holway for essentially assigning me to San Jose as an Extension Minister. Having been in the search process, I know that when search committees have so many different clergy that they can look at, they’re a little bit intimidated to go back to their congregation and report, "Well, the best we could do was a 30 year old lesbian with no experience!” I’m very grateful to be an affirmative action girl!

In hearing from my 25 year colleagues, one of the most helpful comments that I got back was from Ruth Gibson, who served in our ministry of religious education. She commented how when she was growing up in our faith that there was an assumption that children should be free, "to choose a religion for themselves when they grow up, and that it really didn’t matter at all which church we chose to belong to. There was nothing to invite us or welcome us into membership, and in nearly every gathering in UUs, 80-90% of us were ‘come-outers’.”

Ruth went on to write about how excited she is about the advent of Coming of Age programs, and a shift in our culture. She says, "I believe that we now have an intention to raise children in our faith tradition, with a clearly expressed invitation and hope they will stay with us. It reflects a change in our assumptions about ourself and our faith. It’s not so unusual now to find people in our congregations who grew up UU, and 25 years from now, I trust it will be even less so.

Let’s say, "Hooray!” to that!

I personally care about youth engagement because that’s how I got into ministry. In 1970 I was 16. I was on a bus and we were riding back from Tijuana. It was 9 hour ride on the bus, and I was trying to write my first sermon for Sunday morning on a napkin with a flashlight. (Some things haven’t changed. Maybe the napkin and the flashlight, but I still write on Saturday night and early Sunday morning. You can see a lot that way. One morning I got up, there were four raccoons in my kitchen. If I hadn’t been a last minute writer, I never would have noticed!)

In any case, our church youth group had gone to the Christian Hacienda in Tijuana. We had done a weeklong service project. We were two busloads of high school kids, coming back full of faith, full of spirit, full of ourselves, full of each other. Really, what more could you ask for? The minister had asked me to be the co-chair of that trip. In his own quiet, humble way, he modeled and guided me into a servant leadership ministry.

And so I went to college to study with Dr. Robert McAffee-Brown. I thought I was going to be a UCC minister; however, the more I studied theology, the more I realized that I didn’t exactly believe in the theory of atonement, even though I am a fan of Jesus and his teachings. Not long after, I figured out I was a lesbian and I knew there wasn’t a big line for lesbian ministers who didn’t exactly believe all the Christian doctrine in the UCC church.

I started thinking about Plan B and graduated in Human Biology.

Along the way I started meeting UU seminary students, including Anne Heller, whom I first met when I was 18 while working in a Girl Scout Camp. Actually, it was Girl Scouts that, in many ways, lead me to Unitarian Universalism. I met Mark Belletini at Girl Scout camp, I met Barbara Pescan at camp, and they started saying, "Well maybe you ought to think again about seminary. You could come to the UU seminary; we’ll take you.

And so I went to seminary, never having been to a UU church in my life. I was not, however, initially planning to be a UU minister. I kept my day job. I knew there wasn’t a big line for lesbian ministers, even though there were others ahead of me who had been opening those doors.

It really was through the encouragement of Rob Eller-Isaacs saying, "Come on, come do an internship with me” that I got a chance to work with him and the amazing First Unitarian Church of Oakland. They helped me fall in love with congregational life all over again. Bill Hamilton-Holway helped me to gain access to ministry in San Jose, and as they say, the rest is 25 years of history.

So here we are, looking forward. For those of you starting out, and for those of us continuing, I’d say we are finding ourselves in an even more "mapless” era. Climate change is enormous! It’s stunning! It throws everything into question! Communication systems are breaking everything open. This is a moment in which we really must make a path.

As we move forward I believe we need to focus on two things:

1) continuing to invest in our young leaders, because this is a multi-generational endeavor

2) training, education, and collaboration in our justice ministries, because the issues are far too big and complex to be left to lone congregations or separate UU institutions to solve.

In order to be more effective, I’d also like to see us expand our concept of congregation. Having served both in parish and community ministry, I know that our congregations are our vital gems, at the core of our faith. However, if it is true that five out of every six people who say they’re Unitarian Universalists are not currently in congregations, perhaps our concept of congregational memberships and dues is a little off. Perhaps we need to find a way to measure our mission and our ministry.

As to money, let's think about how each of us can invest in our shared ministries.

First, we must invest in your young people. That seems obvious.

Second, whether or not you are a member, do invest in a congregation. If you’re not currently active in a congregation, find one to support financially. You can give to Ricky Hoyt’s congregation in LA, they are an historic justice oriented congregation on the mend and they need the money! Find a congregation which you feel you can support, even if you’re not personally there.

And lastly, it is critical to donate to that which will build the collaborative infrastructure that can connect and sustain us. We cannot do this alone.

As the poet Adrianne Rich writes:

The rules break like a thermometer,
quicksilver spills across the charted systems,
we’re out in a country that has no language
no laws, we’re chasing the raven and the wren
through gorges unexplored since dawn
whatever we do together is pure invention
the maps they gave us were out of date
by years…. *

When we enter ministry, we are not given maps into the unknown future. But we can be faithful guides and companions to one another as we make a path.

Thank you for such a gift.


* The quote from Adrienne Rich is from Twenty-One Love Poems in Dream of a Common Language