Ministry as Companioning

Rev. Dr. Elizabeth H. Baker

Minister Emerita, Community Unitarian Church, White Plains, NY

Berry Street Essay, 1992


Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly

Calgary, Canada

June 27, 1992


            It was one of those gorgeous days Georgia frequently bestows, with golden sunlight playing with the russet leaves of the scaly oaks.  Conrad Wright and I were riding in the back seat on our way to a ministers’ conference at The Mountain.  I had known Conrad and his family for many years.  He had taught church school when I was director of Religious Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  We were discussing the preaching ability of the various ministers who had served that historic church.  Conrad mentioned that Henry Ware, Jr., professor of Pastoral Care and Harvard Divinity School from 1829, in commenting on ministry had said that a minister did not have to depend primarily on his sermon as long as he did his parish calling.


            That statement agreed with my concept of ministry as companioning, the theme of this essay.  Companioning: walking hand in hand with our parishioners and others in joy and sorrow, sharing our insights, knowledge and questionings, and learning from theirs, supporting and caring, helping them to be all that they can be and to accomplish what they hoped, being truly present in each relationship.  For me, the traditionally named pastoral function of ministry, which I prefer to call "nurturing” or "companioning,” takes precedence over the preaching or prophetic function, including the priestly, and is, in fact, the method or tool of education, one of my prime concerns.


            When, in 1936, I was graduated from St. Lawrence Theological School, I was convinced that religious education for all was the primary function of the church, and I worked to have it recognized as such and for religious educators to be recognized as ministers.  I served on the Curriculum Committee and the Advisory Committee to the Department of Religious Education, on a sub-committee of the Commission on Theological Education chaired by Taylor which issued the so-called Taylor Report, on the Commission on Education for the study entitled "The Free Church in a Changing World,” and on the Convocations for Theological School Deans.  I met with the Department of the Ministry and attended chapter meetings and led workshops.  I served on many community projects and was listed in the first volume of Who’s Who of American Women, but I was not considered to be doing a ministry.  After thirty years, religious education still had very little status.  Religious educators had no pensions, no insurance, no seat at the General Assembly except as lay delegates.  "Enough is enough!” I said to myself.  I applied to be in fellowship as a parish minister, was accepted and ordained.  As I covenanted with the Community Church at White Plains "to speak the truth in love and freedom, to minister to adults and children in their joys and sorrows, and to set forth by example as well as precept the principles of our faith,” I knew that my ministry would continue to be companioning.


            I have always served multiple staff churches as a religious educator with the exception of last year when I served as the only minister of our church in Ventura, California.  There I preached almost every Sunday.  There I experienced for the first time the power that conducting the service of worship and regular preaching gives a minister.  There I experienced for the first time the gratification of the weekly strokes a minister receives because of the sermon.  And I became aware of how seductive preaching is.  Indeed, sermons and the Sunday morning service are important.  Parishioners almost always rank preaching first in their qualifications for ministers.  Our reputations and positions correlate with preaching and speaking ability.  Thinking about, preparing for, reflecting on, and talking about the Sunday morning service and sermon preoccupy us.  Preaching is important.  It is also seductive.  It entices us to spend more and more time and effort in it.  But, truly effective worship and preaching result from companioning.  I am convinced that the ministry of a Barzillai is more to be emulated than that of a Ralph Waldo Emerson.


            I must confess I had never heard of Barzillai Frost until 1956 when Conrad gave me a copy of his monograph Emerson, Barzillai Frost and the Divinity School Address.


            You may recall that on February 1, 1837, Barzillai Frost was ordained by and called to the Concord church to assist the ninety-year-old, almost blind, Dr. Ezra Ripley.  Frost immediately began to make a place for himself.  By March, he was elected to the school board and served effectively for many years.  He made parish calls on three hundred families, and most of the time he gave the sermons.  Unfortunately he was a dismal speaker.


            Emerson described his style as "a ragged, screaming bass” and his preaching as having "not a surmise, a hint that he had ever lived at all.  Not one line did he draw of real history.”[1]


            Frost was also theologically conservative and so sure that the conclusions he had come to were valid that he spoke with great confidence.  He had no patience with the abstract, and whenever discussion verged toward poetry, or sentiment, or mysticism, he dropped it.  Emerson found him extremely irritating, and it was primarily out of the relationship of Emerson to Frost that the Divinity School Address was born.  The criticisms of the ministry in that speech were criticisms of Frost, presented as generalized criticisms of what Emerson perceived as the dead and formal preaching of the time.


            Despite his shortcomings, Frost had many strengths.  The clarity of his mind and the firmness of his convictions always sparked discussion among his colleagues, and he was a valued and respected member of the Ministers’ Association.  He was active in the community and in reform movements.  But above all, he was a successful parish minister.  Henry A. Miles at Frost’s funeral service said:


No small part of his sturdy influence was wielded in other places than that pulpit.  He was ready everywhere for an earnest talk—in the streets, in the fields; and few had more ability or relish for an improvised discussion…one who through the week was diligent in your service, a guide in your schools, a counselor at your firesides, a comforter at your sick and dying beds….  With unfailing cheerfulness and healthy mind (for twenty years he went about Concord doing good, author’s note) daily lifting up this community to a higher time.[2]


            With all his faults, Barzillai Frost apparently practiced ministry as companioning.


            The matrix of my notion of ministry was the example of my father.  He was a Unitarian Congregationalist minister who served federated churches in small towns.  My father’s ministry was not a pulpit ministry, although he was a good preacher and well prepared.  His ministry was companioning all the people of the village.  To me, he could have been the prototype for The Village Preacher in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village.  A Hebrew scholar and an expert in the rabbinical writings, he guided and counseled the Orthodox Jewish junkman in adjustment to American culture.  The unwed pregnant girl came to him for help.  The parsonage always had a meal and a bed for the vagrant.


            The village idiot "took” him fishing.  Alger Hiss talked with him about Whitaker Chambers.  He met weekly with high schoolers and was the first one called when tragedy came.  He participated in community plays and dances and Grange activities.  He and my mother companioned together in church and at home.


            The November 1945 issue of Holiday featured him in an article on Peacham, Vermont.  There were pictures of him preaching to a smallish congregation in the Peacham church, meeting in the parsonage with ten or twelve young people and addressing the town meeting.


            When my father died six years later, twenty men, including the then editor of The Christian Century, came in a bad snowfall from all parts of the country to that isolated town to attend his memorial service.  They had all been young people in the churches he had served, and he had led them into the ministry.


            The years I spent at St. Lawrence Theological School in Canton, New York were very important years.  Angus MacLean had been professor of Religious Education for four years.  He was forty years old, vibrant, young at heart, passionate in his respect for human potential and his belief in the value of religious education.  Early morning bird walks, excursions, social service projects such as making toys and working for free glasses and free lunches for impoverished children, and frequent dinners at his home were part of his classroom.  With his Scottish background still present in his voice, he talked with us, listened to us and opened new vistas of understanding.  Always his credo, The Method is the Message, came through loud and clear.  Angus ends his book The New Era in Religious Education with a statement I incorporated into my concept of ministry:


Good [ministers] will walk with their people (young and old) to the end of human trails, where footprints of pioneers grow dim and disappear; and there ministers will [help] save them from disillusionment, cynicism and despair, and lead them to take on the responsibilities of pioneering themselves.[3]


            A good minister companions his people.


            Some years later I was director of Religious Education at our church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Frederick May Eliot was president of the American Unitarian Association.  His report on the world of the Commission on Appraisal titled "Unitarians Face a New Age” and his implementation of that report as president changed a faltering, fearful movement to a courageous, growing Association.


            As director of Religious Education, I sometimes conducted morning services and preached the sermon.  Busy as he was, whenever I preached, Dr. Eliot was in the very back seat of that large auditorium, where, parenthetically, there were no amplifiers.  After service, he would seek me out and critique my service and my style.  I well remember one particular Sunday.  I saw him coming, tall, formal, impeccably dressed.  His spectacles glistened, and his hair, parted in the middle, was smooth and perfect.  He was an awesome figure.  He greeted me formally, and then he said:


Every Sunday service should have three goals.  First, a minister should have something to say, and say it loudly.  I missed some of what you said because I couldn’t hear you.  Second, a sermon should have a story or anecdote by which people can remember it.  Yours was fine.  Lastly, always remember there is someone close to desperation in the congregation.  Have something for them.  This morning you didn’t.[4]


            The conversation alerted me to the need to reach out to those who struggle in secret with the dark side of life, and to make sure they know we are there to companion them.


            But Dr. Eliot also exemplified that ministry includes our colleagues.  That so busy a person, so great a denominational figure should take time to help me—a director of religious education—become a better minister amazed me and inspired me.  His words still speak to me:


Each of us must stand on our own feet and make our own way onward, but we are not alone in that struggle.  The road is thronged with pilgrims, and we may cheer each other with words and songs of hope at every stage of the journey.[5]


            I am grateful for the words and songs of hope so many of you have given me as we companion each other.


            Companioning ministry requires intellectual discipline.  Its goals are those that Alfred North Whitehead assigned to religious education many years ago.


Religious education is an education which inculcates duty and reverence.  Duty arises from our potential control over the course of events.  Where attainable knowledge could have changed the issue, ignorance has the guilt of vice.  And the foundation of reverence is the perception, that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude on time, which is eternity.[6]


            "Where knowledge could have changed the course of events, ignorance has the guilt of vice.”  The men whose ministries I have experienced and cited were knowledgeable.  My father was Phi Bea Kappa from Dartmouth and was graduated with honors from Bangor Theological School.  He was not only a Hebrew and Greek scholar, but as a rural minister, he had studied and learned about agriculture.  He knew, for example, that asparagus originated by the sea and did better if salt was added to the soil.  Angus MacLean had spent many years preparing for his work at St. Lawrence, and his research was highly respected and quoted.  Dr. Eliot was outstanding in his knowledge of the humanities, science, and world religions.  My own disciplines have been history, philosophy of ethical theory, and education.  Ministry as companioning demands that we have insights to share, and those insights are forged by intellectual discipline.


            My lifetime preoccupation with the theory of education and religious education is seminal to my ministry.  One theory posits religious education as interpretation.  It focuses on the task of explicating and interpreting religious tradition in relation to a person’s present experience.  The metaphors are meaning and pilgrimage.


            Thomas Groome, a Roman Catholic educator, advocates the interpretation theory of education.  The concern is not only with the experience of the here and now and of the personal but also in linking it with tradition or the past.  It recognizes that "the present holds within itself the whole amplitude of time, backward and forward”—past and future.  I extrapolate this theory to ministry.


            Thomas Groome has truly informed my thinking.  For him, we are all on a pilgrimage through life—a pilgrimage to find meaning.  He finds his meaning int eh Catholic Christian tradition.  I find mine in Unitarian Universalism.  Both of us are on a pilgrimage.  With each experience meanings change, ever deepening or lessening.  We all need people who interpret their meanings and the meanings they find in tradition to us, and we in turn, reflect on and incorporate or dismiss those meanings.  We share our meanings with others and act on them to shape the future.  In this framework, the minister is also a learner; in Groome’s terms, a leading learner.  Our companions are pilgrims on a perilous journey—that of creating their own meanings, their history.  The minister is also a pilgrim but one whose vocation is to guide others—co-creating meaning and history.  So it is that preaching and teaching become an important part of companioning.


            For we serve not only the individual but the institution.  Companioning of both demands courage and humility.  Courage to tell it as we see it, despite possible confrontation.  Humility as we recognize that we may be wrong and that we do not, cannot, and should not control.  We co-create meaning and history.  We do not create by our efforts alone.


            One instance will serve as an illustration.  I was engaged for a short-term ministry.  Because of special circumstances, I had never met the Board of Trustees or any members of the congregation except the senior minister and the chair of the Board of Trustees.  When I arrived at the church, I found that the religious education facilities were completely unacceptable and the program in utter disarray.  I went to my first meeting with the Board of Trustees.  The members welcomed me and said nice things.  I thanked them and then said I didn’t know how long they would want me to be with them.  I remember exactly my next words.  I continued,


In my worst nightmares, I have never imagined such bad surroundings for a church school.  I have never seen such a terrible environment.  If I were to come in the door with my child, I would turn around and leave with my child.  I do not blame the senior minister, or the directory of religious education, or the parents.  I blame you, the Board of Trustees and the congregation, for the complete neglect which has allowed such a situation to develop.


            Saying that took all the courage I possess.  And, in all humility, I knew that unless the board believed my observations to be correct and gave me cooperation and help, I could do very little alone.  I was also concerned that perhaps I was overreaching.  Perhaps I was wrong.  Fortunately, the board saw it as I did, and with the help of the congregation, the foundation was laid for what is now a very fine educational program for children and adults, in warm and attractive surroundings.


            Courage and humility helped co-create meaning and events that became history.  As I studied Groome’s work, John Bunyan’s classic book The Pilgrim’s Progress came to mind and I reread it.  You will recall that as the tale begins, Christian—that was his name—is reading the Bible and realizes he has a heavy load of sin and that his city and all within it will be destroyed because of their sins.  He stands, bowed down, weeping, and the Evangelist appears and tells him he must leave the city, cross the plains, go through a wicket gate and travel to the Celestial City if he is to be saved.  Christian tries to get his family and friends to go with him, but they refuse, although Obstinate and Pliable go with him a little way.  At last after many difficulties he comes to the wicket gate which says, "Knock and it shall be opened unto you.”  The gatekeeper, Goodwill, opens the gate and pulls him quickly through, as Beelzebub tries to kill him with arrows.


            Goodwill sends him to the house of the Interpreter.  There, the Interpreter shows him many things to help him on his way—a way fraught with peril, dangers.  After Christian has been helped to see the way and its danger, he leaves for further adventures and trials, saying to the Interpreter:


Here I have seen things rare and profitable

Things pleasant and dreadful—things to make me stable

In what I have begun to take in hand,

Then let me think and understand

Wherefore they were showed me.  And let me be

Thankful, O Good Interpreter, to Thee.[7]


            I am thankful to all the good interpreters who have helped me find meaning, and I hope I have been a good interpreter to others.  For the pilgrimage to new meanings is difficult indeed.  How hard it is to wrest with competing ideas, to decide what the true meaning is.  To live with suffering, sorrow and guilt but find meaning in them.  How hard it is to recognize our finiteness and the finiteness of those we love in the face of infinity; to recognize evil and still find that good has its meanings, too.


            We are all valiant pilgrims as we journey toward the Celestial City—the City of Light, the City of Meaning.  But how much more valiant are some of the children Robert Coles worked with in the research for his book The Spiritual Life of Children.


            They were ten-year-old fifth graders in the aging industrial city of Lawrence, Massachusetts in an old and inadequate school.  Sociologists would classify them as from a "marginal socio-economic class.”  Their parents were factory workers, automobile repair mechanics, store employees, or on relief.  Most were Catholic, some Protestant and many black or Hispanic.  They cursed and used bad language.  They were sometimes insensitive, callous and even cruel.  Yet, as they discussed notions of God, the human predicament and survival, one central fact became apparent to Robert Coles and his wife.


            In the discussion one girl told about hearing her mother and grandmother and grandfather talking, especially when they had lots of trouble.  They were trying to figure out what to do.  First they were upset, and then they calmed down as the grandfather, who had been an army officer, reminded her mother and grandmother that God had his bad times, too.  "You march through life,” he said.  "It’s a long march if you’re lucky.”  This comment sparked a great deal of discussion in the sessions that followed.


            As Robert Coles and his wife analyzed the many classroom discussions he had taped, his wife commented, "These children are pilgrims marching through life.”[8]  They decided to explore the notion of pilgrimage further.  The metaphor appeared again and again.  He records one more conversation:


Ginny is telling how on her way home from school she met a very agitated old woman who was talking to herself.  She asked the lady if she could help.  "Oh, if you only could,” the old woman responded.  She was lost, trying to find the home of her daughter who had recently moved to the area.  She showed Ginny the piece of paper with the directions written on it.  Ginny tried to explain to her how to go, but the old lady was too upset to understand.  Ginny didn’t know what to do.  She needed to go home.  She had chores to do.  But then she decided that this was a chore to do also.  She would take the woman to her daughter’s and then go home.  They kept walking.  Ginny didn’t need the directions but the old woman was afraid they would get lost without them, so Ginny would look at the piece of paper and pretend she needed to follow them.  At last they reached the place where the daughter lived.  The old woman was tired.  She was breathing heavily.  Ginny felt bad the old woman was tired.  Perhaps she had been walking to fast although she had tried to go slow.  She had tried to be considerate.  Her mother always told her, "Be considerate.”


They said goodbye.  The woman thanked her again and again and told her God had sent her and that she would pray to Him that night and thank Him for bringing Ginny there.  At first Ginny was going to say it was an accident but decided not to.  On the way home Ginny wondered if she would live to be old and some kid would help her.  "Maybe God puts you here and he gives you hints of what’s ahead, and you should pay attention because that’s Him speaking to you,” she thought.[9]


            As Robert Coles was listening to Ginny’s taped conversation, he began to reflect on his friendship with Dorothy Day toward the end of her life.  Her writing and speaking of her pilgrimage gave him help in understanding Ginny and her pilgrimage and that of children the world over who "march through life.”


            He concludes this chapter with these words:


So it is we connect with one another, move in and out of one another’s lives, reach and heal and affirm one another, across space and time—all of us wanderers, explorers, adventurers, stragglers and ramblers, tramps or vagabonds, even fugitives—but now and then as pilgrims: as children, as parents, as old ones about to take that final step, to enter that territory none of us ever knows.[10]


            Ministry as companioning and the companions I have known have enriched my pilgrimage through life.


            A year or so ago I was visiting the nursing section of the lifetime retirement community in which I now live.  As I walked down the corridor, an old woman (whom I later found out had Alzheimer’s disease) was sitting in a wheel chair babbling.  Suddenly she pointed her finger at me and said clearly and loudly "Where is your God of ages past?”  I was taken aback.  Could she have sensed that I was a religious humanist?  "What?” I said.  She repeated, "Where is your God of ages past?”  Then I had a flash of inspiration.  "Oh,” I said,” Do you mean the hymn by Isaac Watts?”


O God our help in ages past

Our hope for years to come

Our shelter from the stormy blast

And our eternal home.


            Her agitation ceased and her face glowed.  "Oh,” she said, "I’ve been trying to think of that all morning.”  Like the old woman in Ginny’s tale, she thanked me again and again.  And I’m sure I was smiling, too, for suddenly I knew that even thought I may never again speak from a lectern or pulpit; even though I may never again lead a children’s worship service or help plan a curriculum; even though I may never again conduct a wedding or a memorial service or a child dedication—even so, my ministry will continue as long as I live.


[1] Conrad Wright, "Emerson, Barzillai Frost and the Divinity School Address,” reprinted from The Harvard Theological Review, 49:1 (January, 1956), 23, 22.

[2] Ibid., 23, 24.

[3] Angus MacLean, The New Era in Religious Education (Boson: Beacon Press, 1952), 269 [adapted and de-genderized].

[4] Frederick May Eliot, "Unitarians Face a New Age.”  A report on the work of the Commission on Appraisal in 1936 was published by the American Unitarian Association (AUA) in 1936.  This report, as implemented by Dr. Eliot who became president in 1937 changed the structure and direction of the AUA in every way.  See Stiernotte (below), xxi.

[5] Alfred P. Stiernotte, ed., Frederick May Eliot, an Anthology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), 216.

[6] Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education (New York: The Free Press, 1967), 14.

[7] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (New York: Washington Square Press, 1961), 36.

[8] Robert Coles, The Spiritual Life of Children (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), 332-34ff.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.