The Art of Ministry: Being and Doing Revisited
C. Leon Hopper, essayist
2001 Berry Street Essay

 

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Cleveland, Ohio

June 21, 2001

 

 

Fifty years ago, I heard two calls of love and responded with covenants that have framed and informed my life.

 

The first call and covenant was to marriage. In our pledge to each other, Dorothy and I took upon ourselves the commitment to relationship with each other, to a mutual responsibility for our children, and to the wider community. The second call was to the Unitarian ministry, and I responded by entering Harvard Divinity School to "prepare" myself for a minister's life and work.
 

These two covenants--marriage and ministry--forged fifty years ago, are the story of my life. The relationships, which emerged from them, have become entwined at times, divergent at times, and have always informed and enriched each other. From them I have learned the truth that deepening covenantal relationships grow through acts of acceptance and entrustment. To entrust is to place the self or something valued in another's hands for safekeeping. This is a risky act indeed. To take up the ministry, to enter upon marriage, are investments of entrustment.
 

How simple, rational, ordered it all seemed, half a century ago (1951) when gas was 20 cents a gallon, a stamp 3 cents, bread 16 and the average income $3,515. J.D. Salinger had just published "The Catcher in the Rye," and Mickey Mantle joined the New York Yankees. Remington Rand launched the first commercially available computer. It would be three more years before the Supreme Court would rule in Brown vs. the Board of Education that racial segregation violated the 14th amendment. Out of somewhere there emerged within me an unspoken sense of pilgrimage for my life, a quest for answers to the meaning of life: Why? Why prejudice, injustice, inequity? Why the hurt, pain and cruelty people perpetuate against one another, and Why also the human capacity for caring and wonderment... Compassion and love.... Beauty and creativity? I strived to encompass the whole of life and its human community, to experience its extremes of failure and frustration along with fruition and accomplishments.
 

I was moved by the hope that in some small way I could do my part to make our community more creative and caring, and the joint venture in which I engaged with others more loving. The Unitarian and then the Unitarian Universalist church and movement provided the venue for a living out of the quest of an uneasy spirit. Powerful teen-age experiences work to inform an emerging spiritual quest and the way to see the world.
 

So it was with me. The summer just after I became 16, I worked for the US Forest Service as a fire lookout. That summer, alone and isolated, dependent on my own skills for survival, I received two great gifts. On a remote mountaintop I became aware, as never before, of the incredible vastness of the world, humbled in the presence of the mystery of creation. I realized too, in that remote isolation, how dependent I was upon a single strand of telephone wire stretching from tree to tree through the wilderness for survival. Though alone, I was connected, inter-related. There too, I experienced the art and wonder of solitude; and realized that an essential element of my spirituality was grounded in the mystery, wonder and power of the world of nature. The poet said, "When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of mountains and canyons deep in an old land. Feel the exultation of high peaks, the strength of moving waters, the simplicity of forests and lakes and the silence of growth." And the silence of growth.
 

Ministry is in its Presence.

 

Soon after I was settled in my first church, I quickly discovered that all my learning did not equal being a minister. I begin to ask myself what were the qualities needed for effective ministry? From a practice and reflection of fifty years I have learned that ministry is grounded in the quality of presence. Without a presence to persons, without presence to the moment, without congruity between self, word and action, without authenticity, ministry can neither be nor become.
 

This insight came about early in my ministry in Petersham. MA, a hilltop town with a population of 850 and a classic church on the town common, the First Congregational Parish Unitarian. After a year in town I thought that I knew every road and every house. One wild and stormy Sunday afternoon I received a call from a person I did not know. She was not associated with our church, or with any church at all. From the other end of the line I heard a plea: "My mother is dying, she is restless, agitated. The doctor can't do anything will you come? Now!" "Yes," I replied, for what other answer could I give? I asked for the location of their home. I thought it had been a vacant house. The wind and sleet made the road slippery and did not help settle the queasy feeling churning between my heart and stomach.
 

All the way I continued to wonder--if the doctor couldn't do anything, what in heavens name could a young, inexperienced minister do? Greeted at the door I quickly realized that the mother was not the only one anxious and disturbed. Being ushered to the bedside, I saw that the mother was not just agitated, she was delirious, incoherent. There were probably a dozen family members gathered there. It felt like a hundred. They were in that darkened room, waiting, waiting for the pastor to do something, to intervene, to make it all go away. (All my rational humanistic Unitarian education had not prepared me in those pre-CPE days to deal with this moment.) I looked about the room, into the eyes of a caring and bewildered family, I touched the bedside of the thrashing mother and did the only thing possible to do: I prayed--a prayer of gratitude for the life which had been present, for the love which had been given, for a release of suffering and pain. It was not a long prayer. When it was over, the amen pronounced, there came from the lips of the mother a prayer in response. Though the words were not ones we could comprehend, we sensed by tone and cadence that the prayer had been heard and answered.
 

Calmness settled into the room. I left. Two days later the family called to thank me for my visit and to tell me that their mother had died peacefully. The humbling recognition--ministry at its core is a presence. Presence in ministry emerges from a confluence of disciplines, which I'll spell out momentarily.
 

Sometimes it comes in very testing circumstances. One such situation happened to me early in my ministry in Colorado. The church and ministry were not going well. During luncheon with the board president he commented, "Leon, I don't think things are going too well. Would you be willing to meet with some of us to talk about it?" "Yes," I responded, "let me know when." On the agreed-upon evening, I arrived at his home, apprehensive, but hopeful, to be greeted by 24 men (yes, all men) who carefully and succinctly one after the other spoke of their concern and the ways I had disappointed and failed them. I listened as carefully as I could, and when it came to my turn, acknowledged the lack of success we had had in building a church, acknowledged my part in the problem, and added, "This is not just my problem, it is our problem. With your support and commitment I believe that together we will be able to turn things around." What could have been a devastating confrontation proved to be the significant turning point in the life of the church.
 

Over the years I have tried to tease out the lessons from that engagement, contributing to a deeper understanding of the qualities of presence in ministry. They included:

 

·       The realization that I went with the conviction that those present would have the same hopes and dreams I had. All of us wanted a strong, viable Unitarian presence in the community. They wanted me to succeed as much as I did. In fact they had as much investment in me as I did in myself. And, probably, they brought as many anxieties to our gathering as I did.

·       By good fortune I didn't become hooked by my ego. Instead of focusing on my feelings (or theirs toward me) I worked to focus on the common issues before us--the life and program of the church.

·       By my listening respectfully, acknowledging their discontent and affirming them as persons, they in turn were able to listen to and affirm me.

·       From an acknowledgment of common goals and deeper trust in each other, we agreed to work together, and from an exchange of trust, we entered into a deeper covenantal relationship for our congregation.

Two questions quickly come to mind: does presence evolve or change with the size of a church or institution, and how is the ability developed? A brief response for each.
 

The practice of presence is most readily felt and understood in the context of pastoral relationships of one-with-one, whether in casual conversation or moments of crisis and need. But it is also essential to recognize that presence is practiced within the structured realities of large institutions: committee and board meetings, workshops and classes, community engagement, and yes, the pulpit and public platform. The how is more difficult to answer because presence, as I have experienced it, emerges from a way of being rather than the exercise of a set of skills. Thus I believe that it begins with the acknowledgment that ministry exacts the quality of presence which is nurtured from a cultivation of quietness at the heart of one's life – times for meditation and reflection.
 

There must follow development of the virtue of awareness: awareness of setting, persons, and emotional climate, being attuned to the moment. And most critical is a realization that the self is a vehicle, conduit for the wider purpose of wholeness and peace. Martin Buber identifies this essential aspect of relationship when he writes: "...true community arises through [people] taking their stand in living mutual relation with a living Centre and second their being in living mutual relation with one another...community is built up out of living mutual relation, but the builder is the living effective Centre." (I and Thou, p. 45)
 

Presence:--presence to persons, presence to the moment, presence in congruity between self, word and action. Without authenticity, ministry can neither be nor become. Presence is both reality and mystery exacting perpetual nurture and awareness. The presence is in the person not in the skills. And presence is not about self, but about love and wholeness. It is easier to talk about than to practice.
 

The Art of Ministry is in the Vision.

 

The art of ministry has a center, which emerges from an exercise of vision for the Unitarian Universalist faith and church. Without a clear vision for a ministry informing the specifics of daily or weekly activities, there is the likelihood of being drawn into reactive responses to immediate demands and crises. A vision establishes an overarching objective for a ministry, broad and engaging, a dream that lures one on. For me it has been to bring my skills and abilities to the strengthening of the Unitarian Universalist movement and churches to ensure that our world community and persons within it may become more whole, experiencing peace, equity and justice. This is a wide vision for church and life.
 

However, such a global vision must be transformed from generality to specific goals within the vision for each particular settlement. Therein to further evolve through dialogue with both individuals and church. Two brief examples from early ministries:

 

1.     My first parish in Petersham: to assist them in grieving their loss of a beloved pastor, and to support the church by developing a renewed confidence for the future with a continuing presence for liberal religion and values in the town.

2.     As Executive Director for the LRY: To work to ensure the integrity of a strong credible denominational youth program, to secure support from adults for youth work, to develop programs for youth and adult leadership development, and to provide accessible resources for the program.

 

Having goals within vision gave direction and motivation for ministry. It can also lead to frustration and disappointment. Upon being appointed UUA Director for Ministerial Education (1976) one of my goals to ensure the ongoing aliveness in ministry was to try to put a structure in place for on-going continuing education support for the ministry. I left the UUA with a sense of failure for not having established a structure for ministerial continuing education.
 

The hope, vision, goal still persisted within me. A few years after leaving the UUA I was still lamenting my failure when Brandy Lovely, UUMA President, called to tell me that the UUMA Exec had made continuing education for ministry a priority. Would I be willing to chair a UUMA Commission on Continuing Education to develop a program/structure to address the continuing education needs of our ministry? An invitation I could not refuse. Six colleagues (Helen Cohen, Bob Doss, Junella Hanson, Patrick O'Neill, Ralph Stutzman and Judith Walker-Riggs) joined with me to address this opportunity. Working together, our dreams for ministerial continuing education give birth to CENTER. My vision, at last, had become reality. Vision and presence are essential to the art of ministry.

 

Being and Doing Revisited

A quarter of a century in ministry and I was still pondering the keys to effective ministry and its art. From rumination on a series of candidate interviews with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) I wrote a paper, "Being and Doing: Reflections on the Changing Nature of Ministerial Identity" (1979). I introduced the paper with these lines: "No matter how many times I hear the statement, it always evokes surprise when I hear theological students today (1979) speak about wanting to "do" ministry. When I attended divinity school at Harvard, I said that I was going to become "a" minister. Between these two statements there seems to be difference in perspective more subtle than clear. "To become a minister. "To do ministry." "I believe," I wrote, "that there is a profound difference between these two statements."

William Glasser in "The Identity Society" (1972) had observed that persons born pre WWII found their identity from their goals, those born after 1945 found stronger identification from their roles. Pre WW II "goal before role." Post 1945 "role before goal." My goal was to be a minister and that (for me) "ministry is in the being" from which roles follow. In the paper I wondered whether there was a trend where ministry was perceived to be more reflected in the doing (the roles), which can be identified with skills and duties rather than a poetic, artistic concept of "being." In retrospect, I have come to believe that being and/or doing are not inherently generational, but twin lenses for understanding the practice and art of ministry. But, I wonder if we seduced ourselves in a desire to define and describe the roles of ministry in order to ensure necessary boundaries to our being in ministry.

It is easier to set limits to the doing of ministry than to the being of ministry. By way of illustration, compare the first letter of call I received to Petersham and today's standard "Letter of Agreement" between minister and congregation. The letter informing me of my call to Petersham went something like this: "Dear Mr. Hopper: "I wish to inform you that on Sunday, May...1953, at a duly called meeting of the First Congregational Parish (Unitarian) in Petersham you were called to be our minister by a vote of... "You will begin your ministry on September 1. "Your salary will be $2,000/year. "Sincerely yours, "Ruth Coolidge, Clerk of the Parish" Contrast this rather simple letter of call with the multi-page documents now routinely exchanged between ministers and congregations detailing the many roles and responsibilities of minister and congregation. I recognize that in today's complex and ever-changing world we must give attention to the details else our being will be consumed in the expectations of the doings. But it is hard not to believe that these letters are contracts rather than covenants between minister and congregation.

 

Being, Doing and Retirement

In my exploration of being and doing in ministry 25 years ago, I neglected any thought of the minister in retirement. So, a few observations on the art of ministerial retirement from nine years of experience. I pick up from the theme of being (goal) and doing (role) to suggest that "retired minister" or "minister emeritus" have neither goal nor role inherent in them. Exercising the goals and roles, which served so well in the 'active' parish ministry, will not leave space or presence for the new minister, our successor. There is little being and not much doing in minister emeritus.

This is not a lament, it is an observation. I knew that when I became a minister emeritus at East Shore the covenant the congregation and I had held dissolved. With the call to a new minister I affirmed that my covenant would be with Peter Luton. During Peter's installation I stated my understanding of the covenant in these words: "Peter, my covenant...is to support you in your ministry here in whatever ways you may determine--to follow your lead, to encourage you in your hopes, to respond to your initiative and--above all--to stay out of your way."

What is required, I believe, is nothing less than re-imagining a self and ministry. The being remains constant. It is the doing that must change. For some this has been easy. They have become practiced in other ways of being: family, gardening, photography, reading, travel, and writing. What had been hobbies can now be full time focus. For others, and I count myself in their number, our calling to ministry exacts from us some continuing (and appropriate) presence--being in ministry.

I have been fortunate to be able to pursue my calling and being with organizations and programs to further the vision and mission of the Unitarian Universalist faith and principles. The greatest pleasure and challenge has been with the creation and development of the UU Partner Church Council. What begin as a spontaneous response to an invitation to support and be present with our sisters and brothers of faith in Romania, emerging from the repression of a communist state, has evolved to become a truly grass-roots movement for global partnerships which engage the participants at the deepest levels of faith and mutuality.

I am reminded of Drucker's challenge: "Organize yourself to see the opportunity...the problem of organizing the new. It must be organized separately." In the spring of 1993 many of us were dismayed when the UUA decided that it could not continue to provide service and support for the fledgling partnerships. Responding to the vision pronounced by Judit Gellerd (Zizi) to "Save Transylvania Unitarianism," I joined with others and acted to organize the new. Now, from initial partnerships with Transylvania, there has been expansion to global partnerships beyond Europe.

Looking back on nine years of retirement, I realize that I have re-imagined my self in ministry. I felt profoundly blessed and humbled by the opportunities given to me.

 

Concluding notes

Fifty years ago it seemed so simple, so rational, so ordered to respond to calls of love with covenants to marriage and ministry. Covenants, which have framed and informed my life in ways I could not have imagined.

Marriage and Ministry: Both have taught me the pain and joy of constancy, tested my capacity for mutuality, and revealed that growing relationships evolve, change with time. Be this in a family with our children shifting with growth, age, and independence, or with a growing, evolving church. Yet the covenant remains grounding for family and church. Family, church grow with my capacity for presence with all the congruity of being I can muster. And presence needs also be coupled to a vision, which stretches beyond the narrowness of self to a wider world of being and need.

I conclude with a word of deep gratitude for those with whom I have walked these fifty years--humbled by their support and love, drawn on by what still needs to be done. Ministry is indeed an art of both being and doing.

C. Leon Hopper
Bellevue, WA
June 15, 2001