occupying a better world. October 23, 2011Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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By the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on October 23, 2011
The folks gathered came from a variety of walks of life. Some were old, some were young. Some came from affluence, others from poverty. Some were classically educated, others came from the school of hard knocks. But they were all gathered to talk about what matters to them, and to help shape the world in which we live.
Some were familiar with the rules of the gathering, having been there, done that, several times before. Others were new and would feel out the procedures: new business, proposals, points of procedures, points of information.
These rules, everyone knew, were important to ensure that all voices at the table had a chance to be heard and to ensure that the necessary business got done. It is a fine balancing act.
At the end of the gathering, some inspirational words were spoken, the crowd cheered, and the day continued.
So what gathering do you think I am describing? Occupy Louisville? A congregational meeting? Our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly? UN Assembly?
Ideally, I believe I am describing anywhere that democracy is practiced, where democracy can be understood as both the form of government and as the common people of a community as distinguished from the privileged class.
What I am not describing is the way our economic system is run, nor, unfortunately, the way our government is currently run.
And this basic discrepancy is at the core to what is currently called the Occupy movement.
How many of you have heard of Occupy Wall Street? And how many of you feel pretty comfortable explaining it to someone else? I ask because I think this is very important to understand: the Occupy movement is not going away, and as people of faith, and as a religious institution, I believe we have an important role to play. I do not believe that this is something that we can just ignore until it goes away. I believe the Occupy movement is the stuff of peaceful revolution. It has already changed the conversation in Washington, DC and beyond and it has only been active for 5 weeks. What will happen in the next 5 weeks? 5 months? Year?
But I am getting ahead of myself.
According to their literature (which has to be approved by the participants), “Occupy Wall Street is a people-powered movement that began on September 17, 2011 in Liberty Square in Manhattan’s Financial District.”
Occupy Wall Street participants are “fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations. The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.”
What began at Liberty Square is not an isolated resistance movement, but has spread like wildfire across the country and, even, around the world, to over “100 cities in the United States and actions in over 1,500 cities globally.” There is an Occupy Louisville assembly at 6th and Jefferson that started on October 4. How many of you have visited Occupy Louisville in the past 3 weeks? I highly encourage you to stop by sometime. As you heard Gail tell us in our Moment for All Ages, each Occupy Assembly is it’s own unique entity. Decisions such as what sorts of stands to take on issues, approving communications with the public, how to organize, and much more are made through a democratic process of General Assemblies held each day. So each Occupy Assembly has it’s own flavor that is uniquely representative of their own locale.
One of the things you will hear often at any of the Occupy assemblies is that “We are the 99%” This refers to the distribution of wealth and power in the United Sates, where the richest 1% of the population controls 42% of the wealth. The 1% includes the corrupt corporate CEOs who make billions while claiming to not be able to pay a living wage to their workers. The 1% includes the Wall Street executives who have gotten rich on the backs of the 99%, who have somehow ended up with 95% of the debt.
And the 1% is not only the CEOs and Wall Street executives – it also includes our elected officials as well. 50% of congress is made up of millionaires, whereas only 1% of the US population is. In 2009, as many as 55 members of Congress had an average calculated wealth of $10 million or more.
And the 99% are tired of it. Tired of carrying the debt, tired of not being represented in politics. Well, maybe not all the 99% are tired of it, but many of us are. Please understand: being in the 99% is not defined by your politics, not defined by anything you can choose. It is only defined by your financial status: to be in the top 1%, you have to have had a minimum income of $516,000 last year. According to the Washington Post, income is only part of the story. The average wealth of the top 1 percent was almost $14 million. All of us in this room, whether you want to be or not, are in the 99%. And if you somehow are not, I would like to talk to you after the service about increasing your pledge….substantially.
John Stuart Mill said that “Every great movement must experience three stages: ridicule, discussion, adoption.” The Occupy movement has managed to survive the first stage, of ridicule, and so has entered the second stage of discussion. In the course of the discussion, there have been a number of critiques of the Occupy movement. Some might find these critiques annoying at best, misleading at worst, but I think they have an important role to play in understanding the Occupy phenomena, and to assess it’s growing strength and vitality.
The first critique was of the demographic of the people who made up the original Occupy Wall Street assembly. They were all young, the critics said. All students who have taken on tons of student loans, and don’t want to work to repay them. Urban hipsters. Lazy young adults. And that critique has hung out for a while, except that now we know it is not true. Besides students upset at having been falsely told that an education will secure your future (and that of your kids), there are small business owners who want to be able to afford to provide their employees with healthcare. There are single parents angry that they have to decide between spending time with their kids or working 2 jobs to make ends meet. There are retirees upset that their promised pension accounts hav ebeen used and depleted by corporations who used the pensions as pawns in their corporate games. Folks at Occupy assemblies are young and old and everyone in between: students, parents, veterans, former hippies, peace activists, your next door neighbor, black, white, latino, asian, gay, straight and everyone in between. AND it is not just liberal democrats: there are left wing political liberals, of course, but there are also conservatives libertarians and Tea Party members who are tired of “crony capitalism”.
When I visited the Occupy Louisville folks on Friday for their noon general assembly, there were maybe 20 of us there, but the diversity was amazing. In an ongoing self-critique, Occupiers continue to ask themselves how they can remove barriers to participation.
Another early critique was that they didn’t know what they want. Their demands were not clear. Many of us believe that this is not a flaw of the system, but instead is a strength. Without a single leader, who might fail, or a single set of demands, which by their nature will be limited, the Occupy movement has been able to draw people with their own niche issues that they are concerned about. This means broader appeal, which leads to broader participation because every voice has a chance to be heard. And as we pull back the layers, we begin to see how very, very complicated the problem has become.
Similarly, they were critiqued for not offering solutions. This one, frankly, made me shake my head. When has an oppressed body of people who, by definition, do not have the power, when have they been expected to come up with solutions? Does one have to have a fire extinguisher before they can yell out “Fire” in a burning building? But even as I shook my head at what seemed to me to be an unrealistic expectations, solutions are beginning to materialize. Occupy Louisville’s brochure lists 7 different specific reforms that they are currently advocating. And they clearly state that “these demands are a work in progress.” They invite all us us to join them downtown, to share our ideas, and to put them into action. So they are offering solutions, not as a closed set, but as a living proposal that is continuing to be understood, assessed, and reformed. For instance, if you are concerned that your tax dollars might be used to fund a hospital system that must answer to the Pope in Rome, you might head to Occupy Louisville and bring that issue to the stack at General Assembly.
Another critique is that the as the Occupiers rail against corporate greed and corruption, they benefit at least in part from the products of the corporations. A popular picture of the original occupiers was roaming around the internet. The picture labels: hat by J.Crew, shirt by Gap, cameras by Cannon, black marker by Sharpie.
Self proclaimed “Jesus Radical” Nichola Torbet had a blog entry on this that I found fascinating. She writes: “The truth is that we are implicated in everything we indict. Just by virtue of living embedded in a network of social structures that privilege some at the expense of others, we end up participating in oppression, violence, and exploitation.” We demand profitable 401k plans, which means that corporations have to be profitable, which means finding CEOs that are adept at cutting costs.
Torbet does not stop there: “To the extent that our protest movements ignore that, opting instead to present an image of us as the righteous good guys and “them” (in this case Wall Street stockbrokers and corporate execs) as the bad guys who done us wrong, we perpetuate a lie and make ourselves the targets of snide and cynical discrediting.”
Torbet’s solution? A confessing movement, where we can acknowledge our complicity in the very systems and structures that we protest against. Because the Occupy movement, made up of imperfect human beings, is not a perfect system. But, I ask you, if we sit around until such a perfect system exists, don’t you think our butts are going to get damned tired??
Which leads me to why this is relevant to talk about here, from this pulpit.
Oh young and fearless prophet, we sang a few minutes ago, stir up in us a protest against unneeded wealth, for some go starved and hungry who plead for work and health.
This is not some new issue that we are dealing with. This is not some issue that should be relegated to discussions of the secular. This is a religious issue. This is an issue that prophets from times untold have called us to: justice and peace for our fellow human beings.
This is a religious issue, because the word religious means to reconnect, and the issues that the Occupy Movement are crying out about are issues that effect us all – we are linked by them, no matter what our faith tradition, our theology, our politics.
The current system is broken and the beloved community feels far away. Corporate profits and CEO bonuses reach new highs every day, while wages remain low. The gap between the haves and the have nots has grown so wide that 80% of the population of this country has access to only 7% of the wealth.
The current system is broken and the beloved community feels far away. Veterans who fought for the values of our country are coming home to discover that the democracy for which they risked their lives has been co-opted and corrupted by an elite and unaccountable few.
The current system is broken and the beloved community feels far away. Over 200 thousand people in the Louisville area struggle to survive on unemployment – the vast majority of whom crave gainful employment. As Marge Piercy reminds us, the pitcher cries out for water to carry, and a person for work that is real.
The current system is broken and the beloved community feels far away. Higher education, which used to be the solution to climbing the social class ladder, is now out of reach for many Americans. Families everywhere are feeling a economic pinch, and for the first time in our nation’s history, our children will suffer from a lower standard of living than we have.
The current system is broken and the beloved community feels far away. One look at our legal system and you can see how broken we are. The United States is home to 5% of the worlds population, and 25% of the worlds prisoners. Of those prisoners, 70% are people of color. A system is horrible broken when a black homeless man, who stole, and then returned $100, gets 15 years in prison, whereas the white CEO of a mortgage company gets just under 3.5 years for stealing more than $3billion.
The current system is broken and the beloved community feels far away. Even the environment is connected. Environmental activist Bill McKibben wrote “For too long, Wall Street has been occupying the offices of our government, and the cloakrooms of our legislatures…You could even say Wall Street’s been occupying our atmosphere, since any attempt to do anything about climate change always run afoul of the biggest corporations on the planet.”
The current system is broken and the beloved community feels far away. And it is the job of religious communities, of this church, to call us back to our best selves, to call us into connectedness, to call us to create the beloved community. The Rev. Marilyn Sewell reminds us that “The church’s proper role is to stand on the side of the disenfranchised and to call out wrongdoing and injustice in our society. Jesus did not say,” I have come that you might be comfortable.” He said, “I have come that you might have life.””
For years, we Unitarian Universalists have taken the stance that working for a just economy is an important part of our faith. Our own general assemblies have passed statements of conscience and actions of immediate witness that center on economic justice. Our Unitarian Universalist Assocation president and many of our leaders, both lay and professional, are actively participating in and supporting the Occupy movement and call us to join them.
This is a religious issue because it connects us all. We can no longer live in our own little silos and pretend we are safe there. It is up to us to create a more just and compassionate society. But we can not do it and remain comfortable. We have to stretch a little, put ourselves out there, reorder our priorities.
This congregation has a history of being radical. Our esteemed minister, John H. Heywood, was one of the editors of The Examiner, Louisville’s regional antislavery newspaper. He was the only Unitarian minister with slaveholders in his congregation to sign a protest against slavery. Yes, this congregation had slaveholders! And that did not prevent it from taking a stand. In a recent article, editorialist EJ Dionne reminded us that “In their time, the abolitionists were radicals, too.”
I believe this is a defining moment for our country. A time when we can surge forward towards a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. A time when what seems like an overwhelmingly complex system that is impossible to change, might, indeed, begin to change.
Will the Occupy Movement be sucessful? Only time will tell. Earlier this week, I was speaking with someone who described herself as sitting on the sidelines during another time in our history when the beloved community seemed so far away, when it was but a dream. In retrospect, she said, she regrets not being more involved. I don’t want to look back in 30 years and wish I had done more. Do you?
It starts small, with individuals who are willing to risk, to put themselves out there and be ridiculed. But then, an amazing thing happens. Momentum picks up because a few more people decide to buck the conventional wisdom that says to take things slow, or to just work harder, orto wait until they have all the answers. They realize that when proper channels don’t work, you need to make new channels! You need to build a new way. And building a new way is complicated – it is an issue for which old solutions, by definition, won’t work.
With learning and exploration, that new way can get stronger, day by day by day. Until the ridicule has turned to discussion, and the discussion has turned to adoption and the movement that once seemed to be so fringe is credited with changing the world as we know it.
May it be so. May we, the 99%, make it so.
confession. October 20, 2011Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Confession is good for the soul.
By the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on October 16, 2011.
I like to begin sermons with stories: touch-points or examples I can refer back to throughout the course of the sermon. For the topic of confession, there are soooo many different stories I could use: stories about marital infidelity, or cheating on a test, lying about something or saying something harmful to someone.So many possibilities!
The problem with telling a story, though, is that if the story does not work for you, you might not realize that the rest of the sermon will work for you – you might think the rest of the sermon is just for people who relate to the story.
So today, I invite you to think of your own story. Think of a situation in your life where your words, thoughts or actions weigh heavy on you. Perhaps it is the cause of anxiety, or feelings of guilt, or feelings of shame. Something for which you feel remorse.
Private – don’t have to share it. Got it? Good. Whenever I need an example, I will ask you to think of your story.
We have recently started Thematic Ministry here at First Unitarian. Each month will have a different theological, philosophical or cosmological theme that I will preach on at least once in the month. As we get more accustomed to thematic ministry, there will be other ways that we explore the theme, such as in our covenant groups or our adult and children’s religious education programs. This month, the theme is “forgiveness.”
The alignment of Forgiveness with this time of year was not by chance. The Jewish High Holy Days, which begin with Rosh Hashana and end with Yom Kippur, take place in the fall. This year, Yom Kippur was on October 7.
During these days, which are also called the Days of Repentance, Jewish people ask for forgiveness from anyone they have wronged. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, and is the holiest, most solemn day of the Jewish year.
Last year at this time, I spoke about atonement. I talked about the Jewish process that is involved in repentance and atonement that permits people to erase their mistakes and return to a clean slate. The process begins when we feel remorse, and admit our wrongdoing. Then we resolve to never act in such a way again. We make every effort to right the wrong we have done, by apologizing and asking for forgiveness and by making every effort to relieve the pain and distress we have caused others.
Notice the first step: I must feel remorse and admit my wrongdoing. The first step toward forgiveness and atonement is the act of confession.
Now there are various ways, both religious and secular, to understand confession. One might be the way we heard about in the moment for all ages: the Catholic understanding where a person who has sinned confesses his or her sins to a priest in order to seek absolution. In this Sacrament of Penance, the person who may have been wronged is not in the picture at all. It is all between God, the Preist, and the pentiant. How many of you have experienced the Sacrament of Penance? This is not the type of confession we are talking about this morning, though there are similarities.
Another understanding of confession, in the religious realm, is as a profession of faith or belief. In this type of confession, one repeats scriptures and teachings in such a way as to affirm them. It has nothing to do with wrongdoing or forgiveness. How many of you have had to learn, or creedally affirm, a confession of faith like this? Again, that is not the type of confession we are talking about this morning.
Sometimes, confession is meant as more like a testimony. For example, when I confess that my spouse’s coffee cake is better than the kind my mother used to make, that is less of a confession than it is a personal observation I may or may not feel some remorse about making. Sorry, Mom! Again, not the kind of confession we are talking about this morning.
Instead, the type of confession we are talking about today has religious, spiritual and secular components, and it is outlined in the book Rediscovering Confession: The Practice of Forgiveness and Where it Leads, by therapist and pastoral care professor Dr. David Steere. In the book, Steere points out that there are four dimensions to confession. First, we enter a state of heightened self-awareness. Then we begin to understand what led us to the predicament we are in, and how the path we are on might lead toward hope and reconciliation. As we continue in the process, we experience a growing need to do something meaningful about the situation. And finally, if we follow through on the process, we realize that there is the potential for a spiritual encounter, which make take the form of immense personal growth or may be a reconnecting with something beyond ourselves.
Let’s look at these dimensions of confession more deeply. You may have noticed that these dimenstions are similar to the steps toward repentance and atonement that Jews take at Yom Kippur. That is because components of these four dimensions are found in a variety of religious traditions (such as Judaism and Catholicism) and in secular traditions such as 12-step programs.
Steere tells us that the first dimension of confession usually “arises from a heightened experience of self awareness.”i By this, he means that the ‘depressive triad’ of guilt, shame and anxiety get to the point where we notice them in our consciousness, and that this noticing brings us to a place of heightened self-awareness.ii This is the first step in confessing: being aware of the pain and discomfort that we feel.iii Think of your example this morning. I asked you to think of something that weighs heavy on you, that causes you to feel guilt, shame, or anxiety.
These feelings are part of why we avoid confession. No one likes admitting guilt or shame, either to ourselves, or, even harder, to someone else. Admitting our guilt, our flawed humanity, makes us vulnerable. It can be scary. So we get anxious and avoid it.
In fact, churches are some of the hardest places to admit to our humanity. Steere points out that there is a history of church – specifically mainline protestant churches (the ones to which Unitarian Universalist congregations are most directly related) being particularly difficult places to bring our guilt, shame, and anxiety. People claim that “church [is] not a place where they [can] talk about their guilt or matters of which they [are] deeply ashamed. They may [want] to, but everyone [seems] too ‘tidy’ and dressed up for the messy entanglements of their inner turmoil.”iv
So we keep our inner turmoil to ourselves. Perhaps it even begins to eat away at us, degrading our self-esteem, weighing us down. The cycle feeds on itself: the longer we wait, the harder it becomes to admit our mistake, our guilt, our wrongdoing. The harder it becomes, the more we push it off. Until we are no longer whole human beings, but are shattered fragments. Steere says “the pain of concealment from others is fueled by a growing sense of estrangement – not just from others, but from ourselves and [the Spirit of Life] as well.”v
This is not the way to live, we know that. But that doesn’t make confession any easier. Think about your example again for a moment. How long has it weighed on you? If a substantial amount of time has passed, does that make it hard for you consider admitting your wrongdoing?
It is this discomfort that can help move us into the second dimension of confession – exploring the path that may have led to our wrongdoing. We seek to understand why we acted the way we did, to understand our motivation and to look for how we might make amends. We want to lift this burden off our backs, to claim our humanity, and to make important steps towards atonement. As Steere points out, “What begins in painful self-awareness, when fully explored, points beyond itself to the restoration of wholeness and balance.”vi
The process of confession points beyond itself. It points toward the hope of wholeness, of balance. It points toward the possibility of forgiveness, of atonement…at-one-ment.
This is why confession is such an important element in religious traditions…AND in 12-step programs. Because it is a step toward wholeness and health.
In 12-step programs, confession begins in the fourth step, when one is required to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of oneself. This is not a slow process, this searching and fearless moral inventory. There are whole workbooks devoted to it. This process helps a person to look at why she or he acted the way they did. Not with judgement, but to seek understanding.
Then, in the fifth step, one admits to one’s higher power, to oneself, and to another human being, the exact nature of his or her wrongs.
So here we are: Confession starts with an awareness of feeling guilt or shame. There is both a looking back in our lives for patterns and causality, and a looking forward towards hope for wholeness and forgiveness. And then, we feel the need to do something relevant and meaningful about the situation. This is where action is involved, where we make the confession – where we admit our wrongdoing, our failing.
The entire confessional process can still be stopped at this point. We may get stuck, deny the issue, do nothing, or try not to think about it. These are not relevant, meaningful responses. Instead, a relevant, meaningful response requires that we deal directly with the consequences of our actions. Take responsibility. Own it. We seek to openly confront “estrangement from ourselves and from others, [and] we move into a position where we may learn and grow. A relevant response brings more than release from pain. It creates the possibility of learning firsthand what will prove worthy of our best purposes and efforts.”viiOnly then can we move to the next dimension in the process.
Now the response we receive when we make a confession is extremely important. Steere points out that honest confessions arise “when we feel assured that we will be accepted and understood.”viii This is why people often confess first to a minister or therapist. Because we are trained to be nonjudgmental, to help you process through your emotions and to help you move into the place where you can learn and grow from the experience. But a priest or a therapist is not required. Often, the most relevant response we can make in the process is to make amends directly to the person harmed.
Now, being nonjudgmental is not the same as condoning the behavior. Instead, whenever we make a confession, it means that we “can [begin to] clear the air, continue [our] relationship, and start to deal with the situation at hand.” ix That is key: start to deal with the situation at hand. This means addressing implications or consequences of x our behavior or wrongdoing.
In 12-step programs, steps 8 and 9 are connected to addressing these implications and consequences of a someone’s wrongdoing. In step 8, a person makes a list of the people she or he has harmed, and then becomes willing to make amends. In step 9, a person makes direct amends wherever possible except when to do so would injure them or others.
We are all human. We all make mistakes. We hurt each other, intentionally or accidentally. We all need to be forgiven for something, and we all have something we need to forgive. It starts with owning our failings, with claiming them.
When we do, we can begin to move towards the fourth dimension of confession – the potential for a spiritual awakening or deep personal growth. When we move through the other dimensions: heightened self awareness, looking at the path that brought us to where we are, and feeling the need to make a meaningful response and following through on it, we can move toward a clean, unburdened soul, or the wholeness of atonement. At-one-ment with ourselves and with the Spirit of Life and Love.
I invite you, once more, to think about that situation in your life where your words, thoughts or actions weigh heavy on you. Perhaps they cause you anxiety, or feelings of guilt, or feelings of shame. Hold it in your awareness.
Now imagine yourself acknowledging your wrongdoing. What path led you to the situation you are now in? What meaningful action might you take to address the situation? And how might you feel after your confession? Might there be room to move toward forgiveness? Toward atonement? Toward being whole?
Our failings do not make us bad people, they just make us people. Human. And by claiming them, by practicing the ancient art of confession, we can turn our failings into growing edges. What has brought us “anxiety, guilt or shame can lead us to embrace what is authentic and worthy of our belief, our trust, and our devotion.”xi
It is not easy. In fact, it can be quite difficult to confess, or to witness someone’s confession. As Steere reminds us: “How easily we learn to blame, and denounce, and condemn. How profoundly difficult it is to accept what is wrongful in both ourselves and others, and stay in a relationship. Yet our very survival as human beings may depend on it.”xii
Let us join now in a Litany of Atonement, reading #637, which demonstrates to us the power of confession, forgiveness, and atonement. I will read the regular print, I ask you to read the words in italics, the same words repeated each time: We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love. When the litany is complete, we will sit in silence for a few moments before singing our final hymn.
association Sunday. October 4, 2011Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on October 2, 2011.
This morning, we join with thousands of Unitarian Universalists around the country in celebrating Association Sunday. Since 2007, the Unitarian Universalist Association has asked congregations to participate in annual Association Sundays to recognize and support, both spiritually and materially, the national work of the Association.
Each year, the UUA picks a particular theme for Association Sunday – a theme around which congregations can explore, rally, celebrate. This year, the theme is focused on celebrating our professional ministries. Funds raised from special collections at participating congregations will support the UUA, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network, the Liberal Religious Educators Association, and other professional organizations. Grants to these organizations will support a range of activities, including scholarships, continuing education, an assessment of our ministries, and other projects that help religious professionals get the ongoing training they need to support thriving congregations.
This topic of training and continuing education for professional ministers is on my mind quite a lot these days. I have the pleasure of working with two professionals – Edward, our Director of Religious Education, and Phillip, our Music Director – who are both amazing to work with. I don’t think any one here would doubt that what they do is ministry. Either of them, if they were to choose, are able to pursue training and credentialing in their area of expertise. But the funds for such training and credentialing are scarce. I appreciate the effort to raise the funds for grants for such endeavors.
Additionally, I am aware of how I benefit from such ongoing training. This January, I was able to attend a week of continuing education with my ministerial colleagues – a week where I learned about leadership, where I celebrated worship daily, where I was challenged, and learned, and grew in my ministerial presence and understanding.
And finally, today is important to me for a reason that, perhaps, many of you are not yet aware of. A few weeks ago, Meadville Lombard Seminary – our Unitarian Universalist Seminary in Chicago – informed me that a new student had requested that I be his teaching pastor as he begins his seminary education. I met with the student and agreed to work with him. I had amazing mentors throughout my formation, and I can only hope to be as good of a mentor to him.
Meadville’s model is for each student to have a teaching pastor that walks with them through the journey that is our ministerial formation process. In this, the first year, my role as teaching pastor is to help the student process and reflect on what he is learning and experiencing – to help him go deeper. In the second year, you will see him around the church as he observes the life of the church. In the third year, he will do a part-time internship here.
Part of the funds we donate today will also be available help this student and others to pay for necessary endeavors on the road to ministry such as the career evaluation he will undertake after his first year of seminary is complete.
I am excited to embark on this role as a mentor. My experience here with you has helped me to deepen my understanding of ministry in ways that I want to share.
While I cannot speak to excellence in professional ministry in religious education or music ministry, I do feel that I can speak to excellence in ministry in the congregation. Not because I always embody such excellence myself, which I think most of us ministers do sometimes and don’t others – but because it is something that I myself strive for.
But how to speak on this? To stand up here and lecture about excellence in ministry feels neither productive, nor celebratory. As Jill read in the reading by Gordon McKeeman, ministry is based on a quality of relationship. And so what I share with you this morning is a letter, written to anyone who may be hearing a call to ministry.
For the past fifteen years, I have been a lay leader, or a professional leader, in Unitarian Universalist congregations. And most of that time, I was somewhere in between – in a land that you are about to enter – the land of ministerial formation. I have been privileged to be in a variety of ministry settings along the way: a mid-sized suburban congregation, an urban humanist congregation, a minister-led fellowship in a university town, a small fellowship in a college town, a hospital chaplain, working for a district, and now the minister of an historic urban congregation.
These different ministerial settings have each formed my understanding of ministry, and of what it means to be a minister. You see, the day to day tasks of many of these ministerial settings were often different. As a chaplain, I would visit patients in times of dire need, and would never see them when things were going well in their lives. In the suburban congregations, I never had to consider how to deal with the homeless people who might want to find a safe place to spend the night. In the humanist congregation, the sermons were 25 minutes long at a minimum and at the small fellowship they liked them even longer.
Each ministerial setting had different tasks, different priorities. But no matter what the ministerial setting, there were certain things that remained consistent. Skills of the heart, if you will, that they don’t teach you in seminary but that you will need to be an effective minister.
For instance, there are three things that you will want to get used to saying: “Thank you”, “I don’t know”, and “I’m sorry.”
The best way to not take someone for granted is to tell them “Thank you.” Thank you for being on the RE ministry. Thank you for filling in for a worship associate in the last minute. Thank you for sharing your concerns with me. Thanking someone lets them know that they matter – and as their minister, you want them to know that they matter to you – because they do. Ministry is not something that can be done alone – it is relational.
“I don’t know” is another important phrase. Often, in seminary, I think we are taught that we should know the answers. And we often don’t. We might not know the author, or the poem, or the systematic theologian’s name. These are the easy ones, for if we don’t know them, we often know where to find the information. The harder ones are often process related. What is the healthiest way for the church to make a decision on going to two services? Should the abuse victim confront her abuser on his deathbed? We don’t always know the answer, and it builds trust to let people know that. Not knowing something is not a weakness – pretending we have all the answers is.
Connected to this is saying “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry that I left your name out of the volunteer list. I’m sorry for hurting you. I’m sorry if I came across as not paying attention to you. “I’m sorry” goes a long way in ministry. And trust me, you will have to say it a lot. We ministers are not perfect, just as no human being is. We make mistakes. And when we own our mistakes, it helps to build the trust that is necessary in a ministerial relationship. Plus, it models to others what it means to be strong and vulnerable at the same time.
And there is another kind of sorry. I’m sorry that you have such sorrow in your life right now. I’m sorry your loved one died. There are many times when, as a minister, you will be let into the most intimate of details of people’s lives. Nine times out of ten, they are not asking you to fix the problems, they are asking you to join them so that they don’t feel so alone. Sitting in silence after offering a simple “I am so sorry for your loss” can be the most healing thing you might do for someone.
If you want to be the kind of minister who transforms minds, hearts and lives, these are the things that matter. It doesn’t matter if you have the book of Psalms memorized, or all of Mary Olivers poems. What matters is how you relate to the people that you minister to. Which means that you will want to be prepared to be transformed in this formation process and then transformed more in your continuing ministry. Just get used to transforming It doesn’t just stop once you have graduated and been fellowshipped. That’s my newest learning – that I am continuing to be transformed, to be shaped by this vocation. The sermon I give on ministry today is not the sermon I gave last year, and it is not the one that I will give five years from now.
The excerpt I read from Mendelsohn also mentions power, and responsibility. This reminds of me the comic book Spider Man, when Uncle Ben advises Peter Parker that “With great power comes great responsibility.” Ministry is like that, though at times it may feel like you have no power at all, much less great power. It is much easier to remember that you will always have responsibility – lots of responsibilities. But you do have power. A harsh word from you can burn and sear into a person’s heart in a way that a harsh word from a fellow congregant would not. And it is up to you to decide what sort of power you will have: will you not be content unless you have power over people – such that you control the plan and outcome? If so, I recommend that you consider a different calling. Even if the ministerial setting you end up in is structured so that the minister is in the CEO model, you will not have power over people, and when you forget this, they may remind you by negotiating your termination.
You can, and should, however, have power with. This is the kind of power that builds relationships, creates alliances – whether it is with lay leaders, or the other professional staff at the hospital you work at, or with the oppressed who need your strength of leadership.
Power is not to be confused with authority, which is something that is hotly discussed in the ministerial formation process. Ministerial authority is one of the things that our credentialing bodies look for in a candidate for ministry, but that cannot be taught. It has to be claimed. Try as our credentialling body might, it is not something that is easily defined, but people know it when they see it.
From what I can tell, it looks like someone who is grounded. Who knows in their body, mind and soul that this is what they were called to do. Someone who has found their groove. Perhaps you have heard by now the oft-repeated adage “If you can do anything else, do it, don’t do ministry.” I have always chaffed against this, because there are lots of things that I could do – as I am sure there are for you as well. Instead, I prefer the question: Can the fullness of who you are live in this vocation? Can the fullness of who you are live in this vocation?
For a long and healthy career in ministry, the answer has to be yes, because ministry is hard work. And if you have to spend valuable time and energy squashing down a piece of yourself, you are going to wear out very, very quickly. It is essential that you take care of yourself. It is not the tasks of ministry that are so difficult, though there are many of them. Instead, it is hard because of how many things that will weigh on your heart and your soul. Things that you can never put down, even when you are not actively working. Things like the pain and suffering of the family of a dying person, the stories of the abuse victim, the awareness that every Sunday morning you are expected to get into the pulpit and say something that matters. And really, you are never really off the clock – a part of you will jump every time the phone rings, particularly after 9pm. Is everyone okay? This all weighs on you, always, even if you aren’t consciously thinking of it. It is absolutely essential to find ways to take care of your whole self – mind, body and spirit.
One of the best ways to take care of yourself is to make collegial friends who understand. I have a pretty good imagination, and people would tell me how lonely ministry is, but I didn’t get it. So just take my word for it: it is lonely. But having good relationships with your colleagues makes the loneliness less so. Go to collegial gatherings as soon as they will let you.
And, perhaps most importantly, as lonely as you may be, remember that you are not alone in caring for your congregation. As Mendelsohn said in our reading, great congregations and skilled ministers create one another. In our tradition, ministry is not just the job of the ordained professional. It is also the job of the congregation. It can be hard to figure out what ministry is best left to the lay leaders, and what is best for the professional to handle. So remember those three phrases (Thank you, I don’t know, and I’m sorry), and add “Help me.” And your congregation will help you to help them. Reach out to them, and build those bridges.
You have a long journey ahead of you – perhaps not in terms of physical time, but in how far you will likely travel in terms of your self-awareness and your formation. It will most likely be bumpy, which may not be a bad thing at all. You may even come to the conclusion that this is not the road for you, or not the road for you right now. And that is okay, too, because you will have been better for the time you traveled on it. Regardless, may your journey in this land of formation be fruitful, may you get lost only enough as you need to, and, when you make it to the other side, may you realize the journey has just begun.