Part I: Lessons From Our Bishop: Weaving Webs of "Wide Usefulness”
The Rev. Thomas A. Owen-Towle
Part II: Lessons From the Heart
The Rev. Carolyn S. Owen-Towle
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly
Salt Lake City, Utah
Berry Street Essay, 1999
I have experienced two intense tugs ever since we learned that Carolyn and I would deliver the 1999 Berry Street Essay. First, I hankered to know if, since two of us are sharing the Essay for the first time since its inception in 1820, we should divide or double the normal length of address. Alas, one of the pesky lessons in my ministerial evolution has been the dawning realization that it is harder—and invariably better—to write short than long. Halfway through my ministry, I grew brave enough to heed Thoreau’s charge to write leanly; so you will be pleased to know that we are splitting the given time slot.
Second, I sought to address a theme that is not only espoused but hopefully embodied in our partnered ministry, thereby speaking with sufficient authenticity. Well, egalitarianism, or living the interdependent web up close and personal, has been the Owen-Towle life-theme—for better, for worse, forever—so that will serve as my text.
"Advancing Religion and Ministerial Usefulness”
In 1820, William Ellery Channing presided at the first meeting of the Berry Street Conference and delivered the opening address. Although Unitarian Universalists refuse to idolize our forebears—they are sages, not saints—it is ruefully noted that we have often lost track of Channing during the intervening years, yet his ministry remains utterly germane as we migrate into the next millennium. My portion of this joint essay will offer reflections in accordance with Channing’s vision.
The stated purpose of the Berry Street essay was to promote "the best methods of advancing religion and ministerial usefulness.” Emerson echoed this sentiment when he wrote, "The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” In underscoring our summons to moral usefulness, the Sage of Concord elsewhere remarks, "God ahs need of a person here!” In short, God, the Creator of the Universe, needs, not merely wants, persons rather than roles…and where? Not elsewhere, but here, right where we are presently planted.
Contemporary poet Marge Piercy, in her poem "To Be of Use” (excerpts of which serve as our hymnbook reading 567), states this imperative vividly:
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I believe there is a causal connection between advancing a responsibly free Unitarian Universalism and the usefulness of professional ministers. I would go so far as to say that clergy become useful not when we meet personal or even vocational goals, however worthy they may be, but when we advance the cause of a liberal and liberating religion. Quintessential ministerial value lies in being useful in our local outposts, be we parish, community, or religious education ministers of the Unitarian Universalist gospel.
However, one must concede that the common 19th-century term "usefulness” pales next to our modern goals of ministerial presence and satisfaction. After all, who of the current seminarian lot actually enters ministry to be useful? I’ll wager that most religious professionals still claim to be called out of inner drive or allegiance to divine summons or societal cry. Being useful or serviceable somehow rings pedestrian, even archaic.
Yet it is my measured perspective, after 32 years in this hallowed and harrowing craft, that Channing had it right when he proclaimed, "Some say religion is a private thing—not a social principle.” Indeed, ministry is not mainly about individual enhancement but about building empowering communities of purpose. To accomplish this requires not that we be famous or fulfilled persons, but that we keep finding ways to be useful. Over the long, often convoluted sweep of our particular ministries, I dare say: Usefulness will supply the litmus test for both our worth and our legacy.
I will delineate but four paths of ministerial usefulness: 1) Living the interdependent web up close and personal; 2) Embodying collegial respect as the cornerstone of our calling; 3) Yoking spiritual freedom and social action in our professional journeys; and 4) Staying evergreen or evolving to the end of our careers. These four invitations have been spun in alignment with the ministerial vision of William Ellery Channing. I have accordingly titled my essay "Lessons from Our Bishop: Weaving Webs of ‘Wide Usefulness.’”
Living the Interdependent Web up Close and Personal
If the enduring center of Unitarian Universalism is showing respect for the interdependent web of existence, then our ministerial usefulness is best exemplified by holistically serving that web.
This aspiration presents a towering challenge, for while Unitarian Universalists, both in pew and pulpit, are prominent advocates of the seventh principle in its fullest ecological as well as existential and ethical senses, we tend to undervalue, if not ignore, its ecclesiastical relevance.
Yet, touting a cosmic "declaration of interdependence” holds little bearing unless we professional ministers incarnate what Channing called "The sense of vast connections” in our daily duties, unless we establish interdependent web-sites that serve values beyond our own "compulsive little egos,” to use William James’ cutting phrase.
Lamentably, too many of us, laity and religious professionals alike, remain underdeveloped in the craft of what Unitarian Universalist process theologian Bernie Loomer called "relational power.” We still treat freedom as a terminal rather than an instrumental value. Dominion in our congregations is more often hoarded than shared. We remain hamstrung by an erroneous ideology of frenzied independence that both compromises institutional robustness and diminishes our own pastoral vitality.
Incongruence between our espoused and practiced theology prevails whenever board meetings are led autocratically, however benignly, rather than democratically, whenever sexism and racism run uncurbed in our local tribes, and whenever we heed faddish theologies rather than submit to sound ecclesiology. Dissonance occurs whenever our children and youth are geographically and socially "disconnected” from adult campus life and whenever we pose as a welcoming church to persons of different classes, capacities, and orientations but extend halfhearted hearts. And our liberal intolerance is apparent whenever Unitarian Universalists whose persuasion is either theism or humanism or pagan feel strangely out of place in their chosen faith home that purports to be hospitable to diverse beliefs. These all-too-common vices, and you could generate your own laundry list, result from our tendency to deify freedom over community, solitariness over solidarity, private quest over beloved community.
This insidious defect is more than a matter of personal penchant; it is systemic. Lone Rangerism often holds sway in our ranks. We create havens all to cozy for egotists and soloists. People are still drawn to Unitarian Universalism expecting to forge their own spirituality without commensurate duty to weave a religious community. Yet the wind of the spirit must be harnessed, directed, critiqued, and celebrated in the bosom of organizational life. Authentic theology comprises personal convictions transformed into viable commitments, then embodied in communities of power and purpose.
Religion is not personalized but institutionalized spirituality, and Unitarian Universalism is a religion. Of course, institutions are, and always will be, complicated, messy and in need of constant repair. But that is precisely why ministerial usefulness is so crucial. Entrusted with the shared ministry of Unitarian Universalism, we are neither encouraged to be unaccompanied pilgrims nor permitted to be roving prophets. Rather, ours is the vocation of web-builders and web-tenders. We possess neither the legacy nor the luxury of being dreamers, revolutionaries, or free-lance philosophers. Pure and simple, we are stewards, literally, "the keepers of the hall.” Yea, we are called to be useful.
The forecast, while not optimistic, is promising. In the past two decades, or Association has made considerable progress toward operational interdependence. This is evident in the wondrous range of interweaving cultures and theologies represented in our hymnal. Interdependence is palpable in those words in our Purposes and Principles that denote explicit mutuality: congregation, compassion, community, conscience, counsel and covenant.
Furthermore, the bell has been sounded for all to hear in the recent Commission on Appraisal’s report, Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity, when it boldly beckons "for a paradigm shift from individualism to interdependence, from the autonomy of congregations to a community of autonomous congregations.” (p. 3) And during our 1998 General Assembly, sociologist of religion Robert Bellah, in analyzing the continental survey results of Fulfilling the Promise, ushered us to the woodshed for some harsh spanks. He exhorted us to "give up ontological individualism and affirm that human nature is fundamentally social. That would mean making ‘the interdependent web of all existence’ the first of your principles and not the last.”
Bellah concluded that if Unitarian Universalists could get a firm yet friendly grasp on our explicit mission to become individuals-in community, we would make a most valuable contribution to contemporary religious life. Toward that end, I place the ball squarely in our court as religious professionals.
I know, I know, we clergy aren’t the sole culprits in promoting the independent will over the interdependent web. Self-sufficiency is a disease that infects the entire UU commonweal, but it is our job as clergy to challenge fellow colleagues. It’s our responsibility as religious professionals to become empowering leaders, so that our movement might, as Gandhi urges, become the changes we want to see. As we approach the 21st century, we possess a kairotic chance to display ministerial usefulness—that consummate duty urged by our forebrother, William Ellery Channing.
Throughout the sweep of our heritage there has been a creative tension between autonomy and community, the individual opposing institution. Certainly, the organizational credentials of Henry Whitney Bellows are well-documented in Donald Kring’s splendid biography, where Bellows contended that we "have a great deal more obligation to the visible than to the invisible church. The invisible church takes due care of itself and of us; the visible church is committed to our hands…the visible church is our charge, because of the two, it alone is within our voluntary reach.” (p. 195) Bellows, called by many the intellectual heir of Channing, held "that every radically important relationship of humanity is, and must be embodied in, an external institution.” And, for Bellows, the primary institutions were family, society, state, and church.
However, I find the institutional commitments of Emerson and Channing grossly underrated; in truth, both forebears were more than spiritual freedom fighters. Emerson, as intellectual historian Robert Richardson notes, is too frequently misread as a simple-minded individualist. In fact, his concept of self-reliance signaled a sense of personal fulfillment developed specifically to better serve society.
Likewise, Channing is often misinterpreted as positing a privatized religion. Hardly. Personal, yes; cloistered, no. Despite his unswerving commitment to internal moral regeneration, Channing unquestionably affirmed an interdependent vision, ministerially and politically. His concept of "self-culture” referred to spiritual maturation, which for him was feasible only in community, not in solitude.
Indeed, Emerson, extolling Channing as an organizational leader, referred to his colleague as "our Bishop.” Channing’s convening of the Berry Street Conference in 1820 and his sizable, persistent role in the formation of the American Unitarian Association (1825) indicate his emergence as the "father of American Unitarianism.” William Ellery Channing was a local parson who felt drafted—in spite of reluctance of personality and reservation of conviction—to establish an institutional presence beyond self-culture and congregational scope. Neither self-appointed nor formally anointed, Channing became our bishop.
As with all constitutionally introverted Unitarian Universalist clergy from yesteryear and today, we, like Channing, must periodically rise up and take our turn as social commentators and make our mark as political shapers. Our ministries, to be "useful,” must burst forth from the comfortable closets of study and retreat.
Collegial Respect Constitutes the Cornerstone
I offer a second summons to ministerial usefulness. "Respect for the interdependent web” must dwell at the center of our ministries, beginning with our peers and associates. Unquestionably, collegial respect constitutes the cornerstone of mature ministries. Respect means gazing directly and caringly at each and every strand of the web. Respect denotes what Denise Levertov referred to as "looking full at another with a long regard, steady, acknowledging, unbiased.” We don’t need love or even adoration, as fellow Unitarian Universalists or as colleagues, but we do covet and deserve full-fledged respect. As colleague Jay Atkinson puts it: "Now I don’t think being agreed with is a fundamental human need, but I do think being understood is.”
A chief concern of ministerial usefulness is this: In spite of life’s impermanence, can we take the vow of stability in relation to our ministerial sisters and brothers? Can we offer one another fidelity, internal discipline, and mutual responsibility on the road toward celebrating our common joys and confronting our intractable differences? Can we promise to hold and be held by one another?
Frankly, pulpit-pew health banks on pulpit-pulpit soundness. Being in right relationship with our colleagues puts us in working order for equitable bonds with congregants. If we’re going to truly "see” and esteem our parishioners, we must start by full respecting our ministerial peers. Indeed, the plants and animals, strangers and deities rejoice when we ministers sincerely look into one another’s countenance and (in accordance with the words of hymn 402) venture the following pledge: "From you I receive, to you I give; together we share, and from this we live.”
The precise ways of collegial cohesiveness will vary in each chapter. Personally, in the past six years, the bimonthly, half-day sessions of sharing deep dragons and delights and desires with a dozen other colleagues in our San Diego Cluump have thickened the web of my ministry, furnishing scheduled encounters without which my professional sojourn would be less sure and brave.
What has produced collegial solidarity for you? Have you felt welcomed when you moved into a new area? Has your cluster composed a professional covenant? Are you among the 400 clergy on our internet chat line? Have you wrestled honorably with the pesky intergender dynamics buzzing in your chapter? Have you been willing to speak difficult truths in love to a ministerial sister or brother? How do large, small, and medium-sized church ministers relate to one another in your district? Do those ministers living on the economic margins feel included? How about the retired parsons, or part-timers, or community-based clergy or ministers of religious education? Who of your peers is ill, disabled, or scuffling? Who needs to be mentored and who needs to be tormented? Which strands of your collegial web are missing, and how will you weave them into the next kinship circle?
One particular. Are we practitioners of right speech among colleagues? Hence, do we offer words that harm or heal our associates? Do we refrain from malicious gossip and jealous criticism, innuendoes and misleading half-truths? In my more than three decades of ministers’ meetings, we have evolved from a climate of sniping and competition to one of disclosure and collaboration. We are progressing but must stay on course.
My point is simple yet foundational: What does it profit us to work for economic or ecological, gender or racial justice in our community if we are not webbed with our own ministerial sisters and brothers? If we are not attentive to building mutual equity within our own profession, what value comes of courageous preaching and noble pronouncements?
Channing modeled extraordinary pastoral friendship as a colleague. I offer but two examples, both occurring when he defended beleaguered progressive clergy. Abner Kneeland was imprisoned under an old statute that permitted a person to be jailed for "atheism.” The city was furious over Kneeland’s refusal to profess belief in a deity. None could be found to come to the support of this Universalist parson except the distinguished minister of the Federal Street Church, William Ellery Channing, whose own belief in God was well-established. Yet Channing could not bear that anyone, let alone a colleague, would be thrown into prison for their dissent, so he entered the filthy cell and sat with Kneeland to prepare the petition for his release. Channing companioned his colleague. He was useful.
And when fellow ministers were roundly chastising, even ostracizing, Theodore Parker for his radical views, it was Channing who urged him "to preach what he thoroughly believes and feels.” Unitarian pillars Francis Parkman and Ezra Gannett, even Convers Francis, Parker’s oldest buddy in Boston, stood aloof, but Channing refused to desert his colleague, saying: "Give my love to Mr. Parker—let the full heart pour itself forth.” Channing knew that magnanimity of soul begins with colleagues, especially those with whom he disagreed. Genuine respectfulness is not extraneous but essential to being "useful” in ministry.
You and I need to be fully present for our colleagues in times of celebration and strife. We are brothers and sisters in shared faith and common vocation. We are colleagues: literally, co-leagued—leagued together—as allies sent on the common mission of bringing forth vital faith communities.
Yoking Spiritual Freedom and Social Action
The third touchstone for our usefulness as Unitarian Universalist ministers is to tether spiritual freedom with social action. In so doing, we become what I like to call "freethinking mystics with hands.” Social responsibility and spiritual discipline are as Siamese twins—if torn asunder, both wither and die.
Channing undeniably affirmed the inherent worth and power of the mind as central to the shaping of religious sensibility. In the Bishop’s celebrated sermon preached before the Governor and legislature of Massachusetts on May 26, 1830, titled "Spiritual Freedom,” Channing desired that our minds be utterly clear and free, urging us to protect our rational powers "against the usurpations of society,” and to resist "the bondage of habit, which does not mechanically copy the past, nor live on its old virtues….” But Channing never considered the free mind an end in itself. He contended that truth was in order to goodness. The core of his gospel was thus:
I call that mind free which sets no bounds to its love, which, wherever they are seen, delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering: which recognizes in all human beings the image of God and the rights of God’s children, and offers itself up a willing sacrifice to the cause of humankind.
Why do we need free minds? To do the work of social reformation.
Furthermore, in his sermon "Religion a Social Principle” (1820) Channing exhorted his congregation to consider religion never merely a private dynamic between humans and their God but a pervasive social principle, one to be embodied in the greater world. Channing practiced rigorous spiritual discipline throughout his life, and he believed that "without this inward spiritual freedom outward liberty is of little worth,” but his personal piety was maintained to effect societal change. For the Bishop, internal and institutional renewal was intertwined; one failed without the presence of the other. As Bellows put it, "Dr. Channing’s public character was his private character. He knew no distinction between public and private morality…an undisturbed serenity reigned over his soul.” As we might phrase it today: May spiritual disciplines and prophetic imperatives be well married in our ministries.
Accordingly, Channing dedicated the substance of his ministerial life not only to informing hearts and transforming souls but also to reforming the structures of society. His causes ranged from child labor to alcoholism, slavery to juvenile delinquency. Channing was concerned for both prisoners and the poor.
Our own esteemed comrade Jack Mendelsohn, in the best extant biography of Channing (1971), aptly portrayed our Bishop as a "reluctant radical.” Church historian David Robinson labeled him a "reformer,” and Channing himself urged his colleagues to be "moral revolutionists.”
Flawed Channing was, reluctant to be sure, occasionally irresolute, but not much different from most of us practicing parish ministry today. He still did what he could. Channing agreed with Emerson that "Ideas are tangible things to be lived.” So he lived freedom, lived justice, lived mercy, however imperfectly. We modern-day colleagues would follow in the Bishop’s footsteps, not to mimic Channing’s ways but to resemble his determination to complete rational religion through societal change.
While focusing upon 19th-century Unitarian forebrothers in this particular essay, I would exhort us to salute the pioneering feminist preachers of the Universalist movement in the same epoch of American history, women who have equally equipped us with a hopeful, courageous legacy. These feminist "agitators for equality,” exemplified—many well into their 90s—fullness of personal and public witness.
In addition to serving as a parish minister, Olympia Brown (1835-1926) was a devoted partner, mother, and unrelenting advocate of women’s suffrage. Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford (1829-1921) at 8 years of age signed the temperance pledge and at 13 wrote for the press. She served Universalist congregations from 1868 until 1891, and in her splendid book, Daughters of America, Hanaford saluted the contributions of an astounding array of female poets, scientists, reformers, physicians, business leaders (Such as Universalist Lydia Pinkham), lawyers, agriculturalists, historians, and others. On and on flows the legacy of our Universalist collegial ancestors who lived seamless and moral lives at home and in the field, who blended in their ministries both interior and social transformation.
A closing reminder of ministerial usefulness is demonstrated in Channing’s progression as freedom fighter and spiritual leader. Truly he epitomized the spirit of our 16th century religious founder, Francis David, who prodded colleagues to be semper reformanda: "always reforming.” Our Bishop urged fellow clergy to:
Live a life of faith and hope. Believe in God’s great purposes towards the human race. Believe in the mighty power of truth and love… [and] carry to your work a trustful spirit. Do not waste breath in wailing over the times. Strive to make them better.
Channing prided himself in keeping his ministry useful and his soul awake. Indeed the self-description upon which Channing based his life was "always young for liberty, I trust.” And he was.
Channing kept maturing throughout his 62 years, being recognized for his evergreen spirit by Theodore Parker, who noted that my colleague’s "faculties grew brighter as old age came upon him.” And Emerson, who often criticized Channing for being "tame,” confided in Elizabeth Peabody: "In our wantonness we often flout Dr. Channing, and say he is getting old; but as soon as he is ill we remember he is our Bishop, and we have not done with him yet.” Channing is surely our Bishop for the next millennium as well…nor are we done with his message or ministry yet!
Perhaps Channing’s foremost growth as a minister occurred with respect to his anti-slavery work. He had been so impressed by Lydia Maria Child’s viewpoints on slavery that, despite his ill health, he walked a couple miles to her place to discuss the issue. After a three-hour conversation, Channing credited Child with goading his conscience to speak out on the question, even if not as zealously as she desired. A deepening but never full-bore abolitionist, Channing pushed to bring an end to slavery in what he considered "a calm, self-controlled, benevolent” Christian spirit.
In truth, Channing’s views on slavery proved too radical for the alienated Unitarian conservatives and too tepid for the radical abolitionists. He was a moderate with courage, what Mendelsohn called "a civilized controversialist.” Channing preached week after week to stodgy, stubborn Bostonians, nudging the most recalcitrant toward "cheerful, vigorous, beneficent action of each for all.”
Perhaps responsible protester would be another fitting phrase, since Channing was a prophetic pastor who denounced wrongdoing while delineating the righteous path—protesters being those who literally "testify on behalf of” the values they cherish. As a minister of a life-affirming gospel, Channing’s nay-saying was ventured in the name of holy resistance. By nature and conviction, he preached human goodness more ardently than he railed against human evil. Sound doctrine, I say, for Unitarian Universalist parsons of any era.
While enmeshed in parish duties as well as community outreach, Channing maintained his own spiritual autonomy and requisite professional distance from congregants. And so must we. But it’s never easy. Freedom of the pulpit has been known to quarrel frequently and fiercely with freedom of the pew. Such a clash occurred when Channing preached the memorial service in 1840 for his dear friend and abolitionist Charles Follen, against the wishes of the standing committee of the Federal Street Church. Channing even apologized, during the sermon, to the dead Charles Follen for his overdue involvement in the anti-slavery cause. Always reforming, always evolving, indeed.
Channing thought the committee was interfering with his pastoral privilege to follow the dictates of his own conscience. Saddled with deep regret, Channing felt impelled to resign. Although there was no formal relinquishment of his pastorate, Channing preached only once more in the next two years, in effect ending his association with congregants begun nearly 40 years before. Being a staunch institutionalist, Channing could never bring himself officially to abandon his beloved flock. He died shortly thereafter, at the age of 62. Colleague Theodore Parker paid tribute to our Bishop with these sentiments:
I have today heard of the death of Dr. Channing. He has fallen in the midst of his usefulness. His faculties grew brighter as old age came upon him. No man in America has left a sphere of such wide usefulness; no one since Washington has done so much to elevate his country. His life has been spent in the greatest and best of works. A great man—and a good man—has gone home from the earth.
May you and I be ever wise and brave enough to serve in alignment with Channing’s vision of "wide usefulness.” May we be vigilant guardians of the interlacing fibers of those interdependent websites entrusted to us during our careers. May we pledge respectful loyalty to both colleagues and congregants. May we unfailingly translate spiritual freedom into social change. And may we keep on reforming all our days and nights in this strange and wondrous profession.
I confess that I harbored no delusion that because we are two we would have twice the allotted time to deliver this honored essay. I have come to GA for the past 25 years and well remember how hard it is to stay awake this time of ministers’ day—a day full of stimulation for an assemblage of already weary clergy. Like Tom, I am deeply grateful to be asked to speak to the theme of ministry and reveal some insights garnered in its practice. From the outset, our ministry has been a shared one, yet our learnings have been quite individual.
And it’s probably just as well that our time is limited. The first piece of learning I’ll share with you is how downright intimidating it is to have one’s colleague complete the core of his piece months ahead of time. Especially so when I, as usual, rushing feverishly against a deadline, dried the ink five minutes ago.
This has been a distinct pattern in our ministry. When Tom gets an assignment he calmly walks around the bases gathering his material and making notes so that by the time he returns to home plate, he’s completed the job without breaking so much as a sweat. On the other hand, my motivation switch is activated by a date and an hour. Everything I ministry has a date and an hour, and I can get to each only in their order. So, I usually tear around first, second, then third to home—on time—but catching the beads as they drip from my forehead. Gingerly I slip my fingers between the pages so as not to smear my script.
Philosophically we’re congruent, yet temperamentally we are different. We’re probably a pretty typical couple. Our diverse approaches, believe it or not, seem to add seasoning to our congregational work. I admire and, if sometimes grudgingly, appreciate Tom’s organization. He must be frustrated by what he sees as my dallying, but he insists he enjoys my free spirit. His lines and my squiggles ticklishly yet agreeably intersect.
Two separate visions brought together have served to enlarge our ministries. At our best, we act as catalytic agents for one another. With different strengths and limitations together, we offer choices one of us could not. I can never say enough how appreciative I am for our partnership on all levels, and what it has meant to the enrichment of my life.
Tom talked about Lessons from the Bishop. I’m going to share Lessons from the Heart. More than 20 years into a ministry have taught me valuable lessons about what this unique calling entails. To begin with, the term calling is something generally, if misguidedly, reserved for ministry. All congruent life work deserves to be considered a calling. The word calling is defined as coming from a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action accompanied by conviction of divine influence. Isn’t it ironic that the term is also used for the "sexual heat of the female cat”? One might ponder the similarities. Each, we would agree, elicits a certain amount of passion. Let’s hope ministry lasts longer.
But the term, relegated to ministry, and its "divine influence” has not been claimed in other fields. It should be. To be called to one’s work is to commit one’s life’s devotion to its most congruent course. Mothers, fathers, doctors, farmers, writers, actors, dancers and countless others follow their heart’s directive as if it were a calling. However pedestrian aspects of one’s work may become, it is that insistent tug of certainty, that calling, that enjoins one to fulfill one’s obligation.
Ministry is what I am meant to do. It goes to the very heart of why I am here, and for what purpose I exist. Of life’s privileges, knowing what you are meant to do and being able to do it is deserving of your most respectful effort. It enables one to teach others to seek and honor what beckons them. Clarity about this is the engine that fuels my efforts. An insistent certainty has sustained me as I rise to meet the heartaches, deaths, illnesses, the breakthroughs and ecstasies of life, both mine and others’.
This complex craft catapults one to heights of satisfaction and joy. Just as certainly, it drops one into depths of doubtfulness and unrelieved loneliness. Ministry costs plenty. Ruthlessly, it challenges one’s integrity, one’s coping ability, stamina, and capacity for bravery under fire. It requires one to be an artist, a mechanic, a problem solver, a teacher, a magician, a leader, a storyteller, a compassionate healer. And doesn’t ministry tire the soul beyond sleep’s relieving? How would one summon the necessary courage to undertake this vocation without a sense of calling?
How are we supposed to know when the call is for real? Over the years I’ve heard some pretty lame-sounding reasons for entering our profession. I remember the time someone spoke just once in a worship service and really liked doing it. Therefore, he felt called. And the time another went to a funeral and appreciated how the minister showed great empathy to the bereaved family. "I’m up to that,” she marveled, and claimed a call. Is this calling genuine, one must ask, or simply attractive? Quit now, if the latter is true. Resist the seductive yet false perception that ministry is a vocation that brings self-aggrandizement or personal power. Somewhere, no doubt, but not in this Unitarian Universalist fold.
Over the years I’ve become a dedicated voice of discouragement seriously challenging interested candidates. Scott Peck reminds us that "As to discernment, the most important skill is being able to distinguish between the sound of integrity and the sound of its absence.” Ministry makes serious, life-changing demands on its practitioner and as its instrument one can do either damage or healing. So one had better be sure as to the depth and integrity of the calling. If those who know you well say you have never seemed so enthusiastic or purposeful in your work, you have probably answered the right call.
And a call is not necessarily forever. Circumstances change. One day our calling to that very thing we were sure would be lifelong may weaken. We may be lured to yet another. Let’s summon sufficient bravery to call ourselves out of as well as into the ministry.
Developed over time, each ministry should find its own distinct voice. Ultimately, the core of one’s practice usually sifts down to certain unshakable convictions. They say each of us has about three distinct songs in us, and only if we are tremendously imaginative do we sing variations on them with acceptable variety. I’m no different. I have three primary songs, all of which are grounded and surrounded by love. They are Truth, Justice and Beauty, a slight variation on the classic trilogy. Out of these I minister.
First is truth. I won’t be so naïve as to imply that the realm of truth can be described in absolute terms. The moral question becomes not one of establishing the truth of falsity of what we say, but rather in confirming whether or not we intend to mislead. We each experience truth differently. What we say about what we know is another matter. That becomes a question of moral choice. Do I lie, or do I tell the truth?
Indeed, my children made me an honest person. Not once and perfectly honest—of course it’s not that easy—but committed to truthfulness as a way of life. It was having children that taught me about congruence. When they were very young, I realized that the only way I could be a role model I hoped they would follow would be to be scrupulously upright—not only with them, but most importantly, with myself. The changes made weren’t huge ones. I hadn’t been an outright liar, only a situational ‘shaver of the truth’. As Emily Dickenson put it, "Tell the truth, but tell it slant.”
Unitarian Universalism lays self-honesty right on the line. Figure out what you really believe, then live it! Don’t equivocate! Make your values and your behavior congruent. Make your inner match your outer truth. Ministers are teachers. As such our special obligation is to seek truth, to face truth, to speak truth, and to embody truth as we see it.
We Unitarian Universalist ministers, skeptical by our very natures, are especially devoted to the search for truths. We are not always as successful at facing the truth. Like anyone else, we bury painful insights and memories. Self-deception is our means of psychic preservation, the very currency of survival in which the entire society colludes. Kidding ourselves is sometimes harmless, but it can also be dangerous, as when the minister crosses a sexual boundary with a parishioner. Until we clergy are clear and comfortable about our own sexuality, we will be unable to lead others toward clarity and acceptance.
It takes integrity to establish relationship. For to be in relationship, individuals must be able to trust one another. Trust is such a fragile, necessary thing. There are many who come to church having had their confidence violated, desperately seeking to find something in which they can put their faith. Wounded, they have come to expect betrayal. We may not fully understand the true nature of their quest.
In order to undertake the exquisitely difficult task of helping one rebuild his/her faith, whatever may have been its treachery, the minister must be dependably trustworthy in every exchange, able accept another’s truth, without judgment or breaching of a boundary.
As truth seekers we have our personal work to do. It’s important to our usefulness, our very fitness to serve, to minimize our self-delusion. It is the courage to seek the truth and to speak the truth that can save us from the narcotic of self-deception.
One more example, when the minister sees others dying around her and deludes herself that she herself will not die, that is a danger. More than in any other calling, we are summoned to squarely face our fears and the truth of our own aging and mortality. How can we helpfully ease another’s passage into old age and death until we have faced our own? It helps to cultivate the bonfires of inner wisdom and compassion, for in reality this is where the light continues on, even as the outer glow of youth diminishes. "If the inward work is great, the outward work will never be puny.”—Meister Eckhart
In short, truth is not simply what we say; it is what we do. Congruence is the key. becoming the same person outside that we are inside, is to live truth.
In matters of decorum and valuing, we clergy are usually held to a higher standard than that to which parishioners hold one another. Ministry conforms one to a role of decency, virtuousness and rectitude. It often rankles one’s sense of personal boundaries to succumb to the expectations of others. Can you imagine camping with church members in a forest and being "caught” and "chastised” for chewing a piece of gum as I was? We can all tell our stories, can’t we?
That said, we cannot afford to lose sight of our call. We assume the clerical mantle to serve our calling, which is principally to serve the needs of others. As servants, a choice must be made that basically leads to self examination and regulation. If we would but turn the equation around and reflect on what we would expect in a moral leader, we might be less inclined to rebel at what is being expected of us.
Let me mention an additional contemporary dimension of truth. I may be wrong, but I’ll bet we hear more genuineness about people’s lives than our forebears did. Since the human potential movement of the 1970s, greater numbers of people have shared bigger secrets than in all the centuries preceding. Think of all that revelation! The blessing in this is that such divulgence, even with its downsides, has, more surely than we have ever known, bred the possibility for deeper community with a sense of covenantal commitment to one another. We clergy have a ripe opportunity to teach an eager laity the deep meaning of trust within community that is one of covenant.
If truth is a matter of the head and heart, justice making is where the hands come in. What we ultimately believe in is what we roll up our sleeves to bring into being. When I assumed the cloth, I felt a formal call to make justice.
Actually, the call began long ago. Playing hopscotch at age 7, a group of us were startled when a white sixth-grade girl interrupted our game to cruelly belittle a brown child, our age, because of the color of her skin. I knew I had seen something evil. I felt the injury of it, and I ached for the pain I projected onto my friend. We bystanders stood mute, scared. I was sick with my inability to stop her cruelty or to say a word.
Since that day in third grade, I have had the impulse, if not always the bravery, to name inequity wherever I have witnessed it, and to defend the disenfranchised. Being female has given me empathy for the marginalized as well. My courage to speak out developed gradually over the years. Still, it was not until the practice of ministry that my conscience forced me to find the courage to speak out effectively. The pen, the pulpit, and alliance-building in the larger community have been my primary tools.
Unitarian Universalism’s social gospel is a mandate to ministers. We are the teachers of the faith. We must nurture an active conscience, and feelings of empathy first in ourselves, then in children, youth, and adults.
To preach prophetically about justice is absolutely necessary, but wordsmithing without commensurate action is no more than an abuse of our authority. As speaker Steve Gray said, "A sermon lived is always more powerful than a sermon preached.” Above and below our white-collar ministry is a messy moral craft. It takes bravery to speak out and at the same time get our hands and feet muddy. Ministry requires a dogged adherence to speak and act on principle.
For a society impressed with winning, the word "success” doesn’t even apply to justice building. For success has an end date. When you are successful, the outcome is apparent. Builders of justice are the gritty, undeterred ones—the Sojourner Truths, Gandhis, Susan B. Anthonys, the Martin Luther Kings. By their actions, the proffer models of justice, and the world is moved, but in the short run, not very far. Typically, we need to see proofs of our labor. Resultists are guaranteed to be disillusioned and the trepid minister tends to give up—start over, give up again.
We live in cities that serve their citizens unequally. No amount of right living within our congregational enclaves will change that. Justice seekers ultimately learn that they must cross the river into the city and prop open their eyes to realities different from their own. Our Unitarian Universalist dogma is compelling, but it cannot match individual UUs who, galvanized by their faith, traverse the river to join us allies in the struggle. We are beginning to realize that it is not our reasonable thoughts but our stouthearted deed that attract a diversity of neighbors.
Our task as clergy is not to do the work for others. It is to do our own work and lead in ways that inspire growing numbers to brave the deep waters of the chasm that divides people to address some of the inequities.
I have spoken about the head and the heart of truth, and the hands of justice. The third song, variations on which I sing, is of the soul of beauty. I cannot do truth and justice without beauty. My job as minister is to create, recognize, and nurture beauty. For magnificence is what nourishes the soul. It feeds and strengthens the soul’s powers, whereas ugliness does bruising to the human spirit. Beauty of soul, beauty in the natural world—ah, these enable one to glimpse the transcendent.
Beauty is the spirit and the way in which order is brought out of chaos. We need proportion in our lives. An artist’s painting bound within a frame tells us all there is. It stands alone. It is true or it is false according to the authenticity of the artist. How could a ministry be different?
The effort to create a sense of harmony in my small corner of a disorderly world is a safeguard to my ministry. I find the spirit needs continuous nourishment or it is drained by the vitals-sapping nature of this craft. I am sustained not only in a synchronized and inviting environment but in the respect, civility, and affection people share with one another. As minister I strive to model that behavior.
I came from a family of artists and so I have inherited some of the genes if not the applied genius that is associated with the art spirit. I decided young that painting and drawing were not my strong suits, but what I did not know then was that I would spend my life devoted to eliciting all the beauty possible out of the environment, out of people and our relationships. The quest for sources of beauty does not necessarily solve problems, but I find that it creates a milieu in which resolutions have a better-than-even chance.
We are called to be artists, creating out of the materials of the moment never again to be duplicated. Artists not in the literal sense perhaps, but artisans of our craft. So that we do not become simply writers, or counselors, intellectuals or preachers, we must become craftspeople in our calling. As artists we select what is the best expression of our lives and we set about putting it in some coherent form. Fresh ways are to be invented to assert what others may allege simply by rote. Ministers must live an inimitative way of life.
I have found it not only possible but necessary to create an environment conducive to mending lives: a physical and spiritual place that is orderly, well-kept and beautiful. As artist practitioners, we occasion time for telling of stories, time for words of inspiration, time for simply seeing and hearing, and time for silence. We tell the truth and lay all cards in full view. We show we are willing to return to the table of conflict until discord is resolved. We strive to maintain high standards: standards of worship, standards of communication, standards of respect and love. Yes, and standards of truth and justice, for with beauty these three are inherently interwoven.
Candidly, my colleagues, I am limited in my craft. I prefer generating ideas to the details of tying them down. I leave record-keeping to others. I’m a practical rather than a systematic or speculative theologian, concerned more with what makes life work for folks than with theories about why bad things happen to good people. My public witness to issues around the world is spotty at best. For me, organization comes at a price. I cannot visit everyone I’d like to. I am no miracle worker. But I plod away with intensity, certain that I am doing the work I am meant to do.
And, I love this craft. I enjoy the variety of each fresh day. I’m dedicated to my people and am pastured to by them even as I minister. Tom and I as a team create more than the sum of our parts. We encourage, appreciate, and spell each other. It is a rich blessing and an antidote to the loneliness rampant in this formidable calling.
To be a believable servant of God and humanity, we must ask what calls us to this work and what core values guide our ministries. For it is from the sense of calling and the meanings we serve that we are able to sustain our work. What do you know of ministry? What I know of ministry is that I must walk justly, live truthfully, and create as much beauty as my spirit can imagine.