"It’s the Minister: The Mystery and Magic of the Role”

 Ken Sawyer, First Parish in Wayland, MA

Berry Street Essay, 2007


Delivered at the Ministerial Conference

June 20, 2007

Portland, OR


I begin with two scenes, the first giving me a chance to be the first Berry Street Essayist to commence with a quotation from a movie star, the well-known actor Kirk Douglas.  "As [he] tells it in his autobiography…, once when he was driving to Palm Springs he offered a lift to a young sailor who, when he got in the car and recognized the famous driver, exclaimed in his shock: ‘Hey! Do you know who you are?’”[1]

The second and more serious scene, from a life that may be much like your own:

There has been a sudden serious illness, or perhaps a death, and you have gone to the home, where the family has already gathered.  You ring the bell, and the door is opened by a relative who has driven in from a nearby town.  She has attended services at the church where you serve, or you have been introduced to her at some point as the community minister who has been of service to the worried or grieving relative.

She knows who you are.  She may even know that you are from Iowa; served briefly in the Air Force and in computer sales before you entered theological school; that you are divorced with a seven-year-old son, who is having behavioral problems in school; that your parents are both social workers, one of whom is very ill; that you love international music, pick-up basketball, and Mexican food, and don’t understand the appeal of science fiction, oysters, or jazz.  

Or provide your own biographical data – you know what a complex and interesting person you are. Maybe the person who has answered the door does, too.  At least she knows your name.  Still, she turns to the people in the next room, who can not yet see you but one can assume are curious who this newest visitor may be, and says, "You know who it is?  It’s the minister.”

And with luck, she is right – it is the minister, someone ready to play a particular, crucial, and powerfully helpful role.  They should be able to count on that.  In that moment you are not you the fan of jelly donuts, the Red Sox, and Monet, a disbeliever when it comes to creationism and certain aspects of American foreign policy – you are you in the role of the minister. That is who you are, at that time, in that place.

I want to talk about the mysterious, almost magical power of the minister’s role. Of course the role can be constricting, painful, potentially duplicitous, dangerous, and sometimes hard to come by, and for some more than others, sad to say.  But I want to acknowledge and hold up and celebrate the chance that the role allows us – if we are given it and we take it and it pretty much fits and we use it well – to accomplish more than any of us mere mortals might imagine possible, enabling us to counsel, console, educate, conduct special services, lead other worship, preach sermons, offer opinions, stir people to action, and help tend the institutional needs of religious organizations with an authority we both earn and are given as a trust, as a gift.

I have had a fair number of ministerial interns over the years.  Not uncommonly, there comes a time – often when the new calendar year begins, four months into the internship -- when interns report that they feel that they are being treated differently by the congregation, that they are being granted a status, that they are being regarded as ministers. It can come earlier or later but whenever it does, the intern can feel some measure of discomfort, or at least surprise or curiosity, some sense that they are being regarded as having a trust, respect, and authority beyond their deserving.

When this happens (or even I suppose when it doesn’t), I read them a section of a sermon I gave many years ago at the ordination of Maggie Rebmann that addresses the wonder of it all.  In that sermon, I spoke in heartfelt, poetic, inspiring ways about "the nature and purpose of this odd job of ours,” suggesting that we are called to be mediators of mercy, agents of love, instruments of redemption, and revealers of grace.

I even quoted St. Paul, of all people, from his second letter to the Corinthians.  Paul was writing to the whole congregation in Corinth and other Christians thereabouts, but his words strike me as suited to the ministry and as such, perceptive. He wrote,

"Honor and dishonor, praise and blame, are alike our lot: we are the imposters who speak the truth, the unknown people whom everyone knows; dying we still live on; disciplined by suffering, we are not done to death; in our sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring wealth to many; penniless, we own the world.”  [2 Cor. 6: 8-10]

I said then that, "There is a lot in there worth noting, still relevant to the liberal ministry of today.  For instance, anyone who would take up this odd profession must be prepared for praise, no easy task in itself, and also for blame, or (as the King James Version puts it, for good report and ill report) – for honor and dishonor, for hearing one’s name spoken of well and poorly, often enough without relation to our true accomplishments and weaknesses….

"But [I went on to say] I want to focus on what Paul is talking about, I like to think, in the lines that say, ‘We are the imposters who speak the truth, the unknown people whom everyone knows.….’

"’The unknown people whom everyone knows.’  Not everyone, but many people do know most of us, of course – in the bank, at the drug store, wherever.  There are not many jobs as public, as on stage, as is ours, or more demanding of personal revelation. And yet it remains true, we are unknown: there are parts of ourselves outside the equation.  We are not only who we seem to be – which we need to remember.  It is not easy when your close acquaintances, your clients, your neighbors and your employers are all the same people, as can be the case in our trade.  Ministry requires that we remember that though many think they know us, there remains that part of any of us that is not tied to public perceptions, not touched by good report or ill, which must not become unknown to ourselves.”

I pause to interject another nearly-contemporary citation.  In his retirement, the celebrated big band leader Artie Shaw had an "upbeat outlook he attributed to analysis. ‘One day,’ he recalled, ‘the analyst told me, ‘You’re through.’ I said, ‘How do you know?’ And he said, there’s nothing I can tell you about yourself you don’t already know.’ That was when I knew I’d finally rid myself of Artie Shaw.  Soon after that, someone came up to me in a motel and said, ‘Aren’t you the Artie Shaw?’

"’I said, "No, I’m the other one.”’”[2]

I have begun working out at a gym again, as I hadn’t for years – because I now go to a gym just far enough from where I serve that no one there knows who I am or what I do.  They would be incredulous at being told.  "Him, a minister?  But he never says a word to anyone!  He can’t be the Ken Sawyer who’s a minister in Wayland.”  Right – I’m the other one.

But, to return to St. Paul, Maggie, and me, I said, "It is the other phrase from Paul’s letter I like even better. ‘We are the imposters who speak the truth.’ Those are not necessarily the words you will find in your Bible at the office or home.  The original text in Greek is so cryptic as to be almost incomprehensible.  So all translations are interpretations, the translators’ version of what Paul was trying to say.  I am using the New English Bible, because of how well Paul describes our job there.

"For we are, of course, imposters, even if we do sometimes manage to speak the truth.  Mediators of mercy, agents of love, instruments of redemption, revealers of grace -- who’s kidding whom around here?”  I said, "Even after this service this morning, Maggie, you will still be only yourself – which is a perfectly good thing to be – a fine thing to be, indeed, but probably not much nearer than I am to what people can take us to be.

"And here is the amazing part: not only do they expect us to be something we aren’t and can’t be, but something in the chemistry between our own absurd self-expectations and their deluded trust in us makes us the thing we cannot be.  Paul has caught the paradox well – imposters who may speak the truth, and do more than that; imposters, pretenders, who do the thing we cannot do, who mediate forgiveness and are midwives to communities of love and faith” – just as Maggie has been for twenty-six years in Montpelier, Vermont, because of the role of minister that she has had there.

I am aware that "role” is a word that is also applied to acting.  Macbeth is a role, Carmelo Soprano is a role.  As ministers, are we acting, performing?  Aren’t we supposed just to be ourselves, to be authentic? No, it is more complicated than that.

It surprises me whenever anyone suggests absolute authenticity as a possibility or even a desirable goal in ministryif by authenticity it is meant that a person is exactly as he or she appears.  We cannot be who we seem to be exactly, beginning with the matter of confidentiality, the significance of which to our lives as ministers I do not think can be overstated.  Again and again we are in conversations where we seem not to know things we actually do know – and even when we don’t know anything, people can never know that, because we are always someone who might know more but won’t let on.

Of course, everyone finds herself or himself in that situation on occasion.  But for us, confidentiality is a defining fact of the role we take on as ministers, so wecan not be purely authentic, can not always be honest and open.

And it’s not just that. There was a man in my church who died during this last church year, a delightful, funny, creative, hard-working soul who had been devoted to the church since the 1940s.  He was on the Search Committee that called me.  I had to write a part of the eulogy, and find a poem to add to those that the family had picked.  It took all day.  I had the choice of poems down to four, all of them good, which I read over and over and wept every time.  That was authentically me.  The next day I did the service, read my eulogy, read the poem I had picked, and though I know my feelings for the man were evident (you could hear it in my voice), I did not lose control (though if I had had to go on for one more word…).  I was minister.

And it’s not just that.  Daniel Handler is the author of the Lemony Snickett books for children, A Series of Unfortunate Events, which are far less roseate than traditional fare in this field, so much so that in an interview on public radio he was asked by Terry Gross, "Have you run into any parents, teachers or librarians who object to either the tone or the content of your books?”

Handler replied, "Not nearly as many as I thought I would….  There have just been a few isolated complaints that I’ve heard.

"…A woman once in Oregon came up to me at a bookstore and said, ‘You know, in one of your books, you teach that it is sometimes necessary to lie, and that seems like a very disturbing lesson to me.  Can you name one time when it would be absolutely necessary to lie?’ And I was so happy that the answer came to me right away instead of, you know, as it usually does when people say something to you, and then you think three days later ‘Oh, that’s what I should have said.’ Instead, it came right away and I was able just to turn to her and say, ‘Nice sweater.’ I was just really proud of that….”

He went on, "I mean, of course you have to lie, and I can’t imagine that you would want to teach your children never to lie under any circumstances.  That’s not going to serve the child well when the child goes to a birthday party and is forced to say whether or not he or she had a good time.”[3]

I even know one colleague who was once at a wedding reception and an attendee  told her a story that was not all that interesting.  If you can imagine.  And this minister feigned interest instead be being authentic and saying, "You are boring the living daylights out of me.” 

The humorous writer Lenore Skenazy imagined this mental process at work in an encounter at the office: "Oh PLEEEEEASE let’s not talk! I know EXACTLY what you’re going to say: ‘How is your summer?’  Everyone says that.  And nobody cares!    You think I care how YOUR summer is?  Think again, you old windba—

"’What’s that, Ted?  Oh, great summer.  And yours?’

"Welcome to my world,” she writes, "– both of them. There’s my spoken world: polite, cheerful, tolerant.  And my inner world: silent, snooty, snide.”[4]

The truth is, it is difficult to succeed in ministry if in your spoken world you are silent, snooty, and snide.  Inauthentic as it may well be at times, polite, cheerful, and tolerant are what the role calls for, and fairly. 

The people we serve are so nice, so many of them, that early on in one’s settlement or placement some good soul is apt to say, encouragingly, "Don’t worry – just be yourself.”  And in one way, that is a great goal, to do the ministry that is yours, in your own way.  But being told just to be myself, part of me thinks, "Oh, no – you deserve so much better than that!”  You deserve the minister I can often be if I work at it and things happen to go well.  Myself?  You are paying good money for someone better than that to show up.    

Those of you who have taken part in a preaching course or workshop with Jane Rzepka and me or read our book may remember the poem by Wendell Berry:


Do not think me gentle

because I speak in praise

of gentleness, or elegant

because I honor the grace

that keeps this world. I am

a man crude as any,

gross of speech, intolerant,

stubborn, angry, full

of fits and furies. That I

may have spoken well

at times, is not natural.
      A wonder is what it is.


But if being a minister involves playing a role, let me add quickly, lest you take these remarks to be a justification or even a celebration of inauthenticity, it should be a role that suits us, that we do not take on fraudulently.  I think that this is implicit in our professional relationships with those whom we serve:  What they want is that minister each of us is uniquely suited to being – something between our real self, whatever that may be, and a phony self, at odds with who we really are.  They want someone who can play that role in their lives and in their institutions.  Having someone in that role enables persons and religious communities and agencies to accomplish the amazing, or at least the important, or at the very least the necessary, depending on the season.

 It is not a role that suits everyone.  For some, their personalities do not fit snugly enough into the role and they are discomforted by it; or there is an incongruity between their personalities and the role that discomforts others, that comes off as forced or inauthentic. 

There is an outlook I credited for years to Paul Tournier, a Swiss Christian psychiatrist and author whose work was slightly popular when I was in theological school well back into the last century.  Since taking on this assignment, I spent some time looking to see just where he made the point – without success.  So the following point is maybe Dr. Tournier’s, or maybe my response to the issues he stirred up, writing as much as he did about the self or person, one’s actual being, and one’s persona, who one is taken to be by others.

The language – person and persona – was popularized by Carl Jung.  For many of his followers the persona is something to try to overcome to become more truly the person you are. But others have shown appreciation for the indispensability and value of the persona as the way the person has of being in the world.  As Jolande Jacobi wrote, each of us is "obliged to play various roles in life and consequently to wear a mask….  To the extent that everyone is part of an organized world and member of a social group, [one] has to have a persona. The development of the persona is, in fact, a universal, human, archetypal process, which forms the growth of the soul and is essential to the attainment of maturity.”[6]

This can be taken to extremes.  Some will recall the disturbing suggestion made in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Mother Night, that "We are what we appear to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”[7]   Or the ads for Canon cameras that proclaimed, "Appearance is everything.”  One does not want to leave behind all thought of authenticity, self-expression, being oneself, and the rest.

From my encounter with Tournier’s work I took this two-part line of reasoning: One, Our public appearance or persona and our personal personhood can never be the same.  I mean, people are projecting stuff on us all the time, because of what we look like, what our job is, even what our names are.  Maybe both the Kens you dated in high school were obnoxious.  We all know what can happen when the person sitting next to us on a plane finds out our line of work: how the projections can fall into place, and in many different ways.

Two: The goal is that person and persona should fit together well.  They are two different things, and always will be, unless something has gone wrong and a person has lost herself or himself and has become her or his persona.  I think maybe we all feel at times that that has become true, that we are no longer in touch with ourselves, so demanding has it been that we be the minister, that we fill the role.  But this is not a desirable state to be in for long.  

 The opposite threat is that our persona and person will become disassociated, so our ministries become just play-acting, unrelated to our true selves.  This essay suggests that a degree of that disassociation is natural and to be expected, but I say again, my intent is not to champion inauthenticity or fraudulence.    

Having been on continental Unitarian Universalist groups like the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, I know that people can dissemble, can at least for a time present themselves as ministers when the role is merely a charade.  Or the gap can take a more subtle, sadder form. I once heard a colleague reflect back on his long career in ministry and his own rich and unusual spiritual life in a way that led me to ask how much his congregants had been aware of that spiritual side of his life.  He said none of them would have had any idea of the spiritual ideas that had captivated his adult life.  Imagine. 

But maybe his sense of his congregation was that his particular outlook was one that would not have fit the role they had called him to fill.  There are times when the minister’s dilemma is to decide how much we are to be transparently, specifically ourselves, honest and authentic, and how much are we called upon to be the person they want us to be, or the person they seem to need us to be.

At times the role may be constraining and even objectionable in its expectations; and we may well choose not to surrender one bit of ourselves. At other times, who we really, truly are or what we are thinking or feeling needs to be conceded in part for the sake of the transforming, healing, consoling, guiding, even inspiring power of the ministerial role.

I need to acknowledge that this role that I think has such promise and reward is not equally available to everyone.  The strides we UUs have made since I entered ministry in 1970 are wondrous and wonderful, as one prejudice after another has been dramatically reduced.  But there is still work to be done.  I am well aware that there is something a bit iffy about the role of ministry being celebrated by someone who looks the part to many people, especially to outsiders to our movement, and who does not have to overcome most biases. 

At the church I serve just this past year we had a woman from outside the congregation book the building for a wedding, agreeing that one of our ministers would perform the service, which was fine with her until she heard that it would be the associate minister or one of the affiliate ministers, all of whom are women.  No, she said to our administrator, I have always dreamed of just the wedding I want, in a beautiful old New England church, conducted by a minister who is a man.  She may even have visited one of our services when I was preaching and been excited that central casting had provided not just a man and but one of grandfatherly years with a gray beard.  For her wedding, she went elsewhere.

But even white straight men like me know at least some small part of the struggle to gain legitimacy in the role.  At 26, I was minister to people my grandparents’ age.  And as an atheistic existentialist, my theology is not one that all UUs -- and few other religious people – respect a whole lot.  And being a straight white male is definitely not an asset in gaining legitimacy with some, who have their own negative stereotypes of who that probably makes me.

I long for the day when any qualified person is given an equal chance to try to earn and then to receive the gift of the role of minister – and when the word "qualified” excludes no one for any of the wrong reasons.

I say again, it is a gift, even if it comes with strings attached.  It comes with expectations we may not welcome.  In describing her decision to leave parish work, the Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "in my role, I could act out my best nature for days at a time.  I could produce kindness when all I felt was fatigue.  I could produce patience when circumstances warranted irritation.  I could shine like the sun until long after dark when I needed to, but my soul did not operate on a solar calendar.  My soul operated on a lunar calendar, coming up at a different time every night and never looking the same way two nights in a row.  Where my role called for a steady stream of bright light, my soul waxed and waned…. The problem with the collar was that it did not allow for such variations.”[8]

In various situations, there are other disadvantages as well.  But so often, the role is such a gift.  Brown herself acknowledges this, in passages like this: "As much as I hated hospital waiting rooms, I never doubted I could do some good in them, simply by showing up and staying put.  It was one of those times when transference worked in my favor, by letting me go into parts of people’s hearts where only God has any right to go.”[9]

That is not my theology, but I know the feeling, I know how favored I have felt to have a role that let me go into parts of people’s hearts where love and care could make a difference, and where they wanted me to be, because they had given me the gift of that role. 

They give the gift because of the trust we have earned and go on earning.  That is what happens with the ministerial interns by the time they have been around long enough for people to see that they can handle the role: they get given that gift.  And those of us in our many forms of ministry get given the same gift, when things go well: a role that lets us love and serve them – the congregation, young and old, the counselees, the hospital patients, the military personnel, and all the rest, including the movement itself. And isn’t that what we are in ministry for, the chance to love and serve, both the people we serve and the values that brought them and us to Unitarian Universalism? 

And all of them, the people we serve, they collude with us to let us be who we want to be, because they want and often need to have that person in their lives: the minister, the one qualified and willing to accept the role and work with them at creating effective ministry.

Now there are times for any of us in the ministry when having to be the person in the minister’s role is discomforting and difficult at best, and other times when we are just not in the mood, as Barbara Taylor Brown points out, times when it is sort of faking it.  I am not free to decide in the middle of a counseling session that I would rather be fishing and just leave. No, I am going to look like I am paying attention, even though, while I am trying hard and maybe mostly succeeding, I am not always succeeding completely. 

It happens in preaching, too, at least for me.  You know that wonderful state of having your words and your thoughts and your diction and your body all in synch, and every sentence comes out with just the ideas and inflection and the emotion you had when you prepared for this sermon.  But there are times when my brain is thinking, I’m not sure I understand what I just said, or what I am saying now.  Still, maybe if I keep going and read it well – obviously I work from a manuscript – they will hear better than I am just now.  (And so often they do.)

There is a poem by Billy Collins that contains these lines:


I am listening to a blues singer

named Precious Bryant

singing a song called "Fool Me Good.”


If you don’t love me baby, she sings,

Would you please try to fool me good?


Yes, Precious, I reply,

I will fool you as good as I can,

but first I have to listen to you

      with my whole heart….[10]


Actually, as to the love itself, the love we have for them and for the religion we share, I do not think that that can be faked for long. But the way that love is lived out in our ministries is not always an expression of our truest nature or our mood at the moment. No, it is our effort, in our own ways, of filling the role of minister as best we can.

We owe that to them.  We may not owe them our true authentic selves at every moment of every day – or we are doomed – but we owe them that, to stay in the role as best we can.  They did not ordain or call or employ us to be ourselves but to be the ministers we are capable of being, all of us in our own ways. And to listen with our whole hearts.

Because then we can and do become, at least every now and then, mediators of mercy, agents of love, instruments of redemption, revealers of grace, proponents of peace, instigators of justice, and midwives of communities and relationships of affection and faith.

As the sailor said, Hey, do you know who you are?  Of course you do, and they do, too.  You are their minister, someone willing to take on that role, to be that person in the lives of those who give us that gift, those people who can see us and say and know and be grateful that, "It’s the minister.”   


[1] Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, Review of Kirk Douglas, The Ragman’s Son: An Autobiography (NewYork Times, August 4, 1988).

[2]New York Times, October 18, 1994, C10.

[3] Daniel Handler on NPR’s "Fresh Air With Terry Gross,” December 10, 2001.

[4] Lenore Skenazy, "Want Honesty? Talk to Yourself,” Funny Times, July, 2006, 5.

[5] Wendell Berry, "A Warning to My Readers,” Collected Poems (San Francisco: Oxford University Press, 1988)

[6] Jolande Jacobi, Masks of the Soul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976) 34, 41.

[7] Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Mother Night (New York: Bard Books, 1961) v.

[8] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006) 147.

[9]Ibid, 97

[10] Billy Collins, "Fool Me Good,” The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 2005), 79, 80.