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Sometimes, being a minister means working with some prickly people. They’re among the congregational leaders or visitors or–particularly tenderly–among the people I visit when they’re sick or sad. Not long ago, I was on my way to meeting with a member of the congregation when I passed under a stand of sweet gum trees (I think that’s what they are), whose seeds I love whenever I see them, and have never dared to draw. I went on to the meeting, and in our conversation, the person was both prickly and, to me, very beautiful: honest, caring, vulnerable. When I left, I picked up one of the fallen seeds, and I drew it that evening. In my private thoughts, it has this person’s name.

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A colleague just asked me if a sermon I gave to our chapter two years ago is online. It wasn’t, until now. I sent the text to chapter members right after the retreat at which I gave the sermon, but it felt too tender at the time to put on this blog. Now I’ve added it to the sermons page.

What can’t be conveyed is the joy of singing “Rocky Ground” with a band of colleagues on that occasion. I gave another, very different sermon in my congregation two months later, using the same song, which several members of my congregation, and guest musicians Be’eri Moalem and Yuri Liberzon, performed beautifully.

Jordinn Nelson Long, at Raising Faith, has posed some questions of interest to her and other seminarians, such as who ministers to ministers, if it’s true that on becoming a minister, one loses one’s church. My answers are in this guest post. Thanks for the invitation, Jordinn!

I proposed a course called “Preaching on the Edge” to Starr King School for the Ministry for next year or later, with this 100-word description:

Great preaching takes risks and emboldens the listeners to do the same. When we go out onto the edge of our experience, our words can be more alive and authentic. When we meet the listeners on the forward edge of their experience, our words have more power to transform them. As we observe and practice different approaches to creating and delivering sermons, we will explore: spiritual practices, ministerial roles, use of the body and voice, interaction with other elements of worship, how to walk the line of appropriate risk, and responding to political, pastoral, and spiritual matters.

Few courses are accepted each year, so I don’t know when I’ll get to teach it, but I keep thinking about the ideas and assignments, and refining the syllabus. It encapsulates so much of where my preaching has been heading in the last few years. In fact, things have shifted so much that when I first proposed a course to SKSM, four years ago, no way would I have offered a course of this description, or any preaching class. I wasn’t taking, or asking, the kinds of risks then that I do now. I’m braver. When I first thought of this course, I conceived of it as “Preaching Without a Net,” but that isn’t quite right. There is a net. Finding yours is part of being a better preacher, or taking any of the brave, scary steps that life might demand.

What do you think, givers of sermons and listeners to sermons? Does your experience of the great ones match the description I’ve given?

photo by Dave Pape, released to the public domain

Leadership is a partnership. Just as some of my peak moments occur when I am helping to bring out the best in my congregation, others occur when the people of the congregation are bringing out the best that I have to give. I had one of those moments this past Sunday. I’d changed my topic the moment I heard the news (and oh, how glad I was that I’d turned on the computer. I could have found out about Tucson on Sunday morning on my way in to church . . . ). I didn’t have the kind of time for reflection and writing that I usually do, but that was how it had to be.

Looking down at the mishmash of paragraphs and margin notes and don’t-forget-to-mentions in my hand as I came to the pulpit, I was very tempted to preface the sermon with an apology, which was really an excuse: “Please bear with me if this isn’t as cohesive as I’d like. I was up most of the night, I’m sure you understand . . . ” But that would be a disservice to the listeners.

So I just plunged in. I spoke from the heart, and a bruised and uncertain heart it was, and I could do that because my congregation values it. Sure they want the preacher to make sense, but they care most about passion and are willing to bounce over the rough spots. Because they’ve made that clear, I could let go of my own nerves about wanting to give a more polished presentation than was possible, and give them the passion. They are making me a better preacher all the time. I’m so happy they’re my partners in this ministry.

Like most UUs, I strongly affirm the inherent dignity of each person.  But there is the dignity inherent to being a human (I would say a living) being, and then there is dignity that you either don as a mantle by how you act, or cast aside.  From time to time, I find myself wishing people would behave with a little more dignity so that we might regard them with the respect their roles deserve.

For example, California has a new Chief Justice of its Supreme Court.   The radio piece the day of her swearing-in opened with a little clip of the governor saying, with a dignity befitting the occasion, if an unavoidably comic accent,* “so help you God.”  And then we heard a speech from later in the ceremony, spoken by the new Chief Justice herself, who related how when she was a little girl, she used to walk with her family through the capital, past these very buildings, but they didn’t ever think of actually going in.  Hm, I thought–so far so good, a humble and down-to-earth anecdote–and then she gushed, “And now we’re sitting in the front row!” I was embarrassed for her, and for the state.  Did she really mean to imply that that was the most important aspect of this ceremony?  She is the highest judge in our courts, and anyone who enters her courtroom is subject to the strictest protocol of respect.  Could she maybe reflect that in the ceremony, and save the giggly “OMG, can you imagine, me a Chief Justice!” stuff for her private family party afterwards?

I have been to a few ordinations that lose their balance this way too.   Comments on the personal characteristics of the new minister have their place, but they sometimes dominate to the point that the ceremony feels more like a high school graduation (or even worse, the party afterwards) than a sacred initiation.  The “whoo hoo, you did it!” tone (and words) that I’ve heard directed at the ordinand convey to the congregation that this is just a personal achievement of the minister, not about them at all.  They also say that the whole ceremony is about itself, about that day, rather than about the ministry to follow, which is like making a wedding all about a wedding instead of about marriage.  New colleagues, if that’s not  the way you want your ministry to appear, then beg your participants to focus on the meaning of ministry, not on you.  If they compliment you, smile with the humility you surely feel as you imagine the enormity of the burden you are accepting.  And though you may be thinking “I made it!” yourself–it’s only natural, after the long way you’ve come–then please share it with your friends privately.  It really doesn’t belong in the service.  This is an hour in which we focus, together, on the holy power and the world’s needs that called you to ministry, and devote ourselves to serving them, with your leadership.

*Before I get deluged by the Austrian Anti-Defamation Committee:  I don’t think Austrians are inherently comical.  Just the ones whose accented “hasta la vista, baby”s are seared on our brains.

When I was in seminary, most students did their parish-based internships concurrently with two years of school (part-time internship), or else as a year taken between the second and the final year of school (full-time internship).  The part-time option requires that you have an internship opportunity near school, which was true for many students, since we were in the Boston area, where congregations and internships abound.  But failing that–or if, like me, you didn’t want your internship church to be around Boston (I lived in Vermont)–the beauty of the full-time internship before senior year was that you could go before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee before your senior year, begin looking for a position during your senior year, and potentially have a job waiting for you after graduation.

Also, since you were on leave from a degree program, you were still considered a student during that internship year, so that you didn’t have to repay debt during that period.   Since the official guidelines on internship compensation were that it be, I quote, “High enough so that you don’t end up more in debt than when you began the year”–i.e., not by any definition an actual salary–this was important.

Judging from Bay Area students, this is now a rarity.  They do their internship the year after they graduate.   Since one can’t go to the MFC until after the midpoint of one’s internship, they can’t look for a job that year.  So there they are in June, done with school, done with their internships, with their 1 from the MFC (congratulations!), and with over a year to go before they’ll have a position.  What an insane system.  What do they eat?  An M.Div. leaves you with a huge debt and not a lot of qualification to do anything except UU ministry–and of course, it’s very hard to find a job that pays a living wage when potential employers know you’re going to leave in a year.

When I’ve asked individual seminarians about this trend, they’ve looked rather blank, as if they had no idea there was another option.  Has something changed?  Do seminaries, or churches, or the MFC, press for internship after degree?  And if so, how do today’s students pay the rent during that thumb-twiddling year?

Ten years ago today, on a perfect Vermont spring afternoon, with the blessings of two beloved congregations and family, mentors, and friends, I was ordained a minister. A spiritual practice of the past few weeks has been to reflect on what called me, what the past ten years have meant, what changes I’d make today in those vows. In the hectic weeks before we left for Mexico, I couldn’t find a copy of my ordination order of service, containing the vows themselves; Sean, who’s serving UUCPA in my place this spring, tried valiantly to find it in my office files but it must be in my home files. It doesn’t matter. I remember the gist, and as I remember them, they were as much vows for life in general as for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. We don’t take vows upon becoming human, but the kind of things I committed to do were the things I want to do with my whole life, not just in my service to our congregations or organizations: Cultivate love and wisdom in myself. Speak truth to power. Remember the holiness of every being and every moment. Pursue justice. Celebrate beauty. Help heal the world’s broken places. Act with kindness and patience. Tend my spirit.

The joint choirs of the Champlain Valley UU Society and the UU Church of Rutland sang “Blessed,” by Lui Collins. I knew then, and I know it even more now, how blessed I was to have found a vocation in which the job description lined up so neatly with “live well.” The tarnish of church politics, my own insecurity, overwork, confused priorities, daily routine, trees too crowded to allow much of a view of the forest–it all builds up, but life in church also provides countless polishing moments to clear it away. The next ten years will no doubt bring many changes, but fundamentally I’m still answering the same call. Unitarian Universalism, the three congregations I’ve served, and especially the hundreds of people who’ve touched my life through this work have my deep thanks.

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