Ministry as Art Form

Sidney A. Peterman

Berry Street Essay, 1990


Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

June 21, 1990


            One of the most terrifying and desperate experiences I have ever had happened to me not so many years ago when I revisited the small town in Idaho where I had spent my childhood.  It had all the elements of revisiting the past: the bitter-sweet of nostalgia, the changes which were so challenging, and the sameness which felt so secure.

            I had planned that the high point of this visit would be to go back and picnic in the small town park where I had spent so many happy days during my childhood, playing, laughing, running, swinging, sliding, and eating with my family.  I even had selected the place I wanted to have my picnic lunch.  It was at the foot of a statue which had special significance for me.  I was there as a small child when that statue was dedicated with all the excitement of a small town ceremony—bands, balloons, and interminable speeches.  But it had special meaning for me, because it was the statue of a doughboy in the First World War.  On it were the words: "For our boys who gave their lives in the War to end Wars.”  All I knew about two of my uncles was their names, as they had been killed in that war.  So this was their statue.

            As I ate and reminisced, my eyes went on past that statue down the paths of the park.  There was, for me, another, and new, statue.  This time it was of a typical G.I. Joe in the Second World War.  I went over and found these words: "To those who gave their lives for their country—1941-45.”  As I stood there my eyes were drawn on to a yet-to-be-completed monument to the dead of the Vietnam War.  And then it hit me like a blow to all of my being and meaning.  How many more statues?  How many more monuments?  And it was as thought I was spinning aimlessly down a path where all my fine and brave words, all the glorious concepts, the music I loved, the poetry which had challenged and consoled me, and the beauty I had witnessed no longer held meaning for me.  To use the metaphor of Schopenhauer, it was as though I stared into the abyss and found only the emptiness of the abyss staring back at me.  Not quite, as the paths in that quiet small park were running with blood, and the grass was strewn with broken and torn bodies.  Buffeted and twisted by pain and desperation I found myself literally on my knees without any ability to find the balance to rise.  And I didn’t want words, ideas, concepts, meaning.  All I wanted was to be able to stand up again.

            As I was twisted and turned down those paths of despair and meaninglessness, I tried to reach out and find something which would make me able to stand.  In reaching out I found myself touched by the most basic experience of my life—one I am sure we all have had in one way or another.  Mine happened when I was so young that I had neither the words nor the concepts I now find to describe it.  I was young enough that, even in those prudish days, I didn’t have to wear a bathing suit when I went to the beach with my family.  I stepped out into the water and, as the adults were otherwise engaged, I found myself over my head in the water, being swept away by the current.

            How clearly I can feel that experience even now.  I bobbed up and down in the ocean.  There certainly wasn’t any time for yelling for help or crying.  Every moment had to be used for catching some air.  Somehow I knew that if I struggled I would soon drown.  After a while my family looked out at the ocean, saw me bobbing away, and ran out and pulled me back to shore.  I had been buoyed up enough by the water—by reality if you will—that I had the time to be saved.

            In all my agonized twisting and turning in front of what those statues and monuments cried out to me, the only way I could find the balance to get off my knees and to stand was to enter into and to be touched by that experience, so basic, so simple.  In so doing I ministered to myself in a way that no theology, no idealism, no expressions of beauty could.  In touching that which was most real for me, I found my balance.

            My thesis this afternoon is really quite simple to state and easy to understand, but difficult to live.  It is that ministry is an art form and the minister is above all an artist.

            Tolstoy, not only the great student of aesthetics but one of the world’s premiere artists, points out a distinction between the artist and the artisan that is well to recall.  The artist, says Tolstoy, is seized by the world and then co-creates beauty.  The artisan, on the other hand, seizes the world by some tool of mind or hand and then finds himself only a sometimes-lonely creator.  Add to this Wieman’s epistemology, which he spoke of in terms of the Creative Interchange, and it is clear that what we are about, at our best, is following the path of the artist, not the artisan, however satisfying, reassuring, and remunerative the latter path may be.  To this we may add the insight of Santayana, again not only a student of aesthetics but a world-class artist, that the core of art is balance.  There can be no art without balance, and indeed, in the process of balancing artistry is expressed.

            One of the art forms which I most admire and which most frightens me is the art of tightrope walking.  At least in analogy it is a most appropriate art form for a minister.  Certainly it is an essential element for survival in our world.

            In reading a bit about tightrope walking—a far easier task than trying to do it—I found that one key to this art is the slack or "give” in the wire or rope to be walked.  A fully taut rope is impossible to walk.  This certainly seems to make sense, but it is easy to forget.

            When I took my first courses in abnormal psychology before the Second World War, I was impressed (as most bookish students are) at how much we knew in this area.  There seemed to be so much sure knowledge available.  Of course this sureness was to be found in following rigidly one or another of the schools of analysis.  This was especially so in one of the most challenging areas of study: human sexuality.  We knew so much.  We knew what caused that kind of sexual behavior and attitude which related to orientation toward same sex or differing sex.  To this body of "wisdom” the sociologists and cultural anthropologists added extensively.  We knew what "causes” that kind of sexual behavior termed homosexuality, which was fortunately to be found only among a small number of human being.  "Character defect” and "developmental failure” were some of the terms used.

            Since this was a period of great oppression for women, we even asserted that male homosexuality was the fault of "overly protective mothers” or "overly dominant women.”  The rope was stretched taut and there wasn’t much in the way of ministry for men and women who were the true "invisible minority.”

            One event which occurred in our two predecessor denominations, and in which we can take no pride, happened about this time.  One of our colleagues in the South was involved in a rather seamy scandal regarding an occurrence in a bust station.  Because we knew so much, the word went out and denominational officials scurried hither and thither in what could only be called a witch hunt.  (Even though at the same time we were loudly bemoaning the witch hunts being led by Senator Joe McCarthy.)  The target was single ministers, since our "knowledge” about human sexuality wouldn’t allow for the possibility of bisexuality.  Being single I found a few of my parishioners coming to me and looking at me in a funny way because some denomination "big-wig” had inquired of them about my sexual preferences.  I passed whatever litmus test had been used, but a number of our colleagues found themselves eased, sometimes gently and sometimes painfully, out of the ministry.

            The famous Kinsey Report had not only challenged the taut rope of our confident knowledge, but frightened us by its assertion that far greater numbers of our population than we had thought were involved in the "sexual perversion” of homosexuality.  The rope had been stretched taut because of our "sure knowledge” and our fear.  We lost our balance and ability to examine our world and make an ethical response to it.

            If balance is as crucial to the art of ministry as it is to all the other arts, we can only attain it if the rope we walk is not too taut.  But in addition to a rope with some give, the tightrope walked also needs a balancing pole.

            It is obvious what I am going to say next.  And simple.  The balancing pole or rod, which is essential if we are to maintain balance, is our faith.  In using the word "faith” I am not speaking of a body of knowledge, but motivation for living.

            I become ever more sure that ministry is not a profession, but a calling.  Indeed, when we function mostly as professionals we tend to be artisans, not artists.  We can argue endlessly (and we do) as to the source of the call and even the nature of the call, but all such arguments prove is that we feel called, even if we argue about this core experience of our work.  We don’t even know when that calling happens.  It may be very early in life, sometimes as we consciously enter theological studies, sometimes when we are ordained.  I have had ministers tell me that they only really "felt” the call after spending some time in the ministry.  But it is a call.

            I have heard a great many sermons in my life and, unfortunately, like many of you, mostly my own.  Sometimes they were great, sometimes not so good.  Has anyone following a sermon said something like this to you?  "Well, we were glad you were there anyway.”  Often in the course of listening to others I have tried to get some good ideas to use in a sermon of my own.  Mostly what I call a good, or great, sermon is not necessarily based on intellectual content, but sometimes on a few words to ponder, and always a sense of fullness or wholeness.

            Recently Sara Campbell preached at the ordination of Beth Cox.  Like all ordination services, the experience of seeing someone formally entering into this balancing act we call ministry moved me and gave me a feeling of fullness and wholeness.  But I also left that service with these three words ringing through my mind: Mission,Passion, Vision.  I am not at all sure that this was what she intended in her sermon, but in trying to cope with the continuing resonance of these three words I came to the conclusion that the placement and priority of these three words is crucial to ministry.

            Sometimes in using the term "calling” for our work, the implication is that we see vision, become passionate about it, and enter into our mission.  But I think what Sara said and what I feel is quite different.  The passion comes first, whether it is the complaining of Jeremiah that God’s demands were too great, or Jesus at Gethsemane crying out in spiritual pain, or the "full feeling” of the Tao as one enters into the Way.  Passion evokes vision; not vision passion.

            The artist is so seized by passion that he is able to see the vision of a David in a block of marble and then engage in the mission of cutting away that part of the stone which blocks the vision for others.

            The obvious statement is that we as a race are great at seeing visions of what might be, but unless these visions emerge from passion-filled experiences that tear us and rend us and move us, no mission ever is achieved.  So many great visions have been negated by being objective, impersonal, rational.  Take away the pain and joy I have felt in life and I am sure that I could not see, could not envision, could not even live.

            Stephen Jay Gould inWonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, says: 

…the question of questions boils down to the placement of the boundary between predictability under invariant law and the multifarious possibilities of historical contingency…a boundary sitting so high that almost every event of life’s history falls into the realm of contingency.

This book, which is essentially a philosophy of history with a far wide world view than the merely human-centered philosophies of a Toynbee, Spengler, or Hegel, challenges the view of life which has permeated most of human thinking.  Instead of a gradual and implicitly deterministic picture of development, he sees a world of irregular, perhaps unrelated, contingencies.

            As one who was reared on the West Coast (especially in California), I became aware quite early that the solid ground on which I stood often wasn’t so solid after all.  And the eternal hills toward which my gaze wandered for strength had a bad habit of occasionally blowing their tops.  Having gone through so many experiences of the ground shaking and moving, being thrown out of bed at night, driving down a freeway which rippled and swayed as I tried to stay on it, walking into my safe and secure home only to find myself thrown on the floor, I find myself a bit skeptical about the possibilities or value of "earthquake prediction.”  For many years I have been questioned as to why people live in a land which sometimes moves and shakes.  I am far less concerned about knowing when the next movement will come than in the need to prepare for it in terms of building structures which are safe, careful placement on the shelves of precious objects, and being sure there are batteries and water on hand.

            Balance here is not in knowing when or how or where it will happen as much as in being aware that at any time my balance might be threatened and seeking to find ways to maintain that balance even so.

            Robert Adams, the Secretary of the Smithsonian says:

We live in a world where the abrupt and unexpected have become commonplace.  That new set of expectations apparently is also diffusing into the seemingly quite isolated world of arcane scholarly inquiry….

            Like many of you, I have in recent years done a lot of study in the area of institutional development, particularly in relationship to the institutions we love and seek to serve well.  There are wonderful charts about normal development and growth.  But then we serve a congregation which, in its growth or lack of growth, doesn’t begin to follow the regular patterns we are told about.  Suddenly, one morning a congregation really begins to take off and we wonder where all the people are coming from.  Why this sudden new vitality?  So we decide we are better preachers than we thought, or that the demographics were badly underestimated, or that a new program is producing some spectacular results.  We can spend so much time wondering about this that we don’t have time to ride the wave, and soon it is the old humdrum, safe way of regular and predictable planned growth.  Or sometimes we look out into our congregations and wonder not at
”where have all the flowers gone,” but at where have all the people gone.

            We will sing a song about "what a difference a day makes” and think so much about why it happened that when much of Europe tastes a new freedom in the short space of a few months, the song is lost and the opportunity, rather than being realized, is gone.

            I am not at all sure that we have ever really lived in a world where "the abrupt and unexpected” were not commonplace, however much we thought to the contrary.  Grace has so many meanings and yet one meaning.  To maintain our balance with grace while the earth is either literally or symbolically shaking is one of the most important arts required of ministry.

            When I have spoken to those in other fields of work about my feeling that ministry is a calling, they have commented that they too feel they have been called to do their work.  I certainly can’t question such a feeling.  But I am sure that the art of ministry is a calling—a calling not only to the service of ideas and ideals, causes and people, but also a calling to serve in a community.

            Recent actions of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee have understood ministry as service in communities other than the usual local parish which is the base of our institutionalized faith.  This recent action once again expresses the truth that ministry is conducted within a community.  One of the most delicate balancing acts we must perform is to balance between the service to a community and the service in a community.

            For almost two decades now the most demanding part of my job has been to work in situations of conflict which often reach the crisis stage.  Usually this is expressed as minister/congregation conflict.  If there is any common theme I have been able to detect it is that there has been a serious loss of balance, most often on the part of the minister.  Trivial acts, a few words, an occasional sermon—all these are exaggerated into major events.  Major faults and failings, continued carelessness, and outrageous behavior threaten and sometimes destroy the balance of both congregation and minister.  I see this occurring not only in younger and less experienced ministers, but also in those who have been tempered by years of experience and service.

            We must not forget that our art is a calling to serve in a community, or forget to grasp tightly—but not too tightly—the balance rod of faith, or forget that we must have some slack in the tightrope we walk.  We must also be sure that our congregations have slack as well.  To forget, in the words of Robert Adams, that "we live in a world where the abrupt and unexpected are commonplace” is to destroy that delicate balance which is the art of the minister.  Or else soon we find ourselves living in a world, which in the words of Betty Friedan in her seminal work The Feminine Mystique, is a world characterized by "purposeless, passionless passivity.”

            Some years ago while serving a small church in a crisis situation, I exchanged pulpits with a dear colleague and friend who is now deceased.  After the service he excitedly told me that this congregation of seventy-five was the largest congregation to which he had ever spoken.  He served a succession of small churches.  These congregations were, unfortunately, sometimes not only small in terms of membership and attendance at Sunday Services, but also in terms of spirituality.  He was often treated by these congregations with callousness and even occasionally with cruelty.  So when he spoke at the twenty-fifth anniversary of his ordination and shared with us some of the trials and pains he had experienced, there was more than a tear or two in the eyes of those who knew and cherished him.

            When he concluded with the words, "Yet what more could I ask?  I have my loved ones, I have my God, and I have my faith,” there was not only a tear in our eyes but a joyous cry in our hearts.  Artisan he may not have been.  He built no wonderful new church buildings, gathered no large congregations, but he had been faithful to his calling, he had been an artist in the work we all share and cherish. 

            He had cared passionately; he had endeavored to be a true servant of his faith.

            I should like to conclude with my own testimonial, my own "bearing witness.”  I can envision (and note I used the word "vision”) that sometime in the not distant future some of the ministers in the district I serve will come to me and say, "In view of what you said in the Berry Street Essay how come you continue to nag us to expand our programming, enlarge our membership and, above all, pay our full share in the APF?”

            The response of my passion will probably be that nagging is an essential part of the art of ministry.  But beyond that let me again assert that our calling, while it is an art practiced in service to a community, needs that community in which to serve.  The balance we arrive at in accepting this dual task is not only difficult, but as we come to the end of our active ministries, it is one of the greatest satisfactions in our lives.

            Why is the Service of Living Tradition acclaimed by laity and clerics as the most moving and important part of our gathering at GA?  Is it not the open, passionate statement that we are all embarked on an incredibly magnificent adventure of faith?  And that on this journey into adventure we find that dear friends, comrades, colleagues surround us; the living and the dead and those yet to come speak to us of the sacredness of our calling.  The idea that we are not about the task of saving our souls, but using our souls—our lives—speaks of the nature of our adventure most clearly.  The call is to be an artist, not so much to create as to co-create.

            In a situation with which I was working, an elderly woman parishioner (God bless such folk who have taught us so much, supported us so often and shared with us so compassionately.) spoke to me of her minister.  "He is a fine person who is able to walk on water,” she said. "But he doesn’t know how to swim.  Since we are trying to learn how to swim, this causes there to be a bit of confusion around here.”

            The Zen teacher, Daisetz Suzuki, when asked how he would characterize the experience of satori or enlightenment, replied: "It is much like everyday experience, only about three quarters of an inch off the ground.”

            Teaching others how to swim when we are always in the process of learning how to swim ourselves, maintaining balance when we seek to be about three quarters of an inch off the ground.  Quite a work for us, my brother and sister artists.  But this is that to which we have been called.