Role of the Minister

Advent service, 2018, Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston

Ministers are spiritual leaders of our faith communities. They help us explore life’s questions, challenge us to live out our values, and comfort us in times of suffering … UU ministers are a diverse group …their personal beliefs are as diverse as Unitarian Universalism and all are committed to UU values. Rather than telling others what to do or believe, ministers encourage people to make sense of the world in their own way, supporting them on their life’s journey.

From the Unitarian Universalist Association

Being a minister is weird.

At root, I suppose that’s because being a human being is weird. It’s incredible. It’s demoralizing. It’s awesome and awful. Being human is, quite literally, “all the things”. And that may be the best explanation for why we have clergy.

The role is an anachronism. Acknowledged and amen’d — more on that later. And there is something to just voicing that, here, in the early part of the 21st century. Here in the U.S.A, we live in a culture of many cultures, with many views on truth, value, and meaning. It would be awesome if none of those overlapping spheres of understanding were in conflict with each other, that “making sense of it all” would be easy, or straightforward, or even remain stable. In the face of the new, sometimes it helps to know where you stand. Where you came from. Because wherever we end up, with whatever future we chose to wrestle out of today, that will not be a creation “from nothing”. It will build on the stories that we tell. The stories we’ve been telling for generations. I suppose you could argue that an anachronism might help with that.

We talk about the “modern worker” in many unhelpful ways. One of those is “knowledge worker”. I think that’s meant to imply that their value is what they know rather than in what they can do. Ministers are not knowledge workers, though perhaps that is part of it. Becoming a minister means having to know a lot of stuff. But a minister is asked for more than that.

Perhaps it helps to think of it in terms of trajectories. ‘Heart’ and ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ — whatever those terms mean to you — where they intersect? That is where you find clergy. That’s probably a good place to start.

“The Four P’s of Ministry”

When I was in seminary, I was taught that “being a minister” meant simultaneously holding four distinct roles. The roles regularly overlap, of course, because why not.

Of course, their relative emphasis varies by location, by the times, by the needs of the community, and by the personality of the minister.

I call them the “Four P’s”: Priest, Pastor, Prophet, and pAdministrator (where that final ‘p’ is … silent … ahem).

Let’s take each in turn.

Minister as Priest

As a UU, being called “a priest” tends to make me itch. That term brings with it a lot of history, and not all of that history is good or comfortable. Point taken. Nevertheless, the term fits. In claiming it, I want to simultaneously affirm that I am not claiming any special powers, insight, or worthiness. Instead, what I think this role suggests is that there are times in life when history, tradition, and ritual become not only a connection point with our larger human story, but are also themselves deeply meaningful and powerfully comforting.

I tend to think ‘ritual’ when I think of the role of the priest. Rites of passage, like naming ceremonies, Coming of Age, weddings, memorial services — all of these and more are “public rituals”, traditionally marked by some public event that recognizes that something fundamental has changed in the lives of the participants. And, much as rituals of many kinds can give shape, scope, and direction to our lives, “Sunday morning” can likewise give shape, scope, and direction for the week. Crafting a worship service that blends word, song, visuals, and movement into a coherent and moving experience is the cornerstone effort of the minister and their team.

My belief is that a worship service is best when it engages us. I am not a musician (because I apparently lack a sense of rhythm), but I do very much believe that music is central to Sunday morning. A service that can engage our senses tends to be one that stays with us all week long. I also believe that Sunday is not so much about “me, the minister” as it is about “we, the community”, about our connecting with each other and with something larger than ourselves.

My sermons weave together humor, personal story, current events, and the words and deeds of amazing people. As someone who believes firmly in salvation through bibliography, I also tend to rely on “scriptural” inspiration, whether that is the Bible, the Lotus Sutra, or the TV series Cosmos. The voices of people of color, of women, of LGBTQI+ identities, of the differently-abled, all are among the “common threads” that I seek to bring into the tapestry of Sunday morning.

Wedding at Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston
Handfasting ritual

Minister as Pastor

Like ‘priest’, the term ‘pastor’ may sound a bit old-fashioned, and I suppose it is. It’s not that the minister is a literal “shepherd” that is “in charge of” the congregational “flock”. That’s paternalistic. I am not “the boss of everyone”. I’m just here to help.

The point we’re trying to lift up with this role is rather simple — it’s about “being human”. Too often, we humans lose track of life. Each of us may be called to live a life that is full of meaning, a rich complexity that includes the fullness of experience and expression, that is overfilling with life’s great gifts, that is abundant in love and connection, a life of continual improvement on a trajectory to personal wholeness and societal perfection.

Now, if only life actually went like that!

As we know, “Life Happens”. Things go wrong. We get sick. We grow old. Fortunes change. Sometimes (often?), we feel we’re at the mercy of forces beyond our ability to predict or control. Life in America can be really hard — and even if that isn’t equally true for all Americans, it is nonetheless still true for most. We are disconnected, disjointed, and hollowed out. Regardless of our identities, we are working longer, and working harder, and doing all that for less than we ever have before.

And then we are chagrined to admit that our lives are not perfect, because even as we have struggled, even as we have suffered, we are aware that so many others have so very little or have struggles that are so much greater than ours, that we feel foolish, petty, and ungrateful for daring to complain.

That is quite a needle to thread, isn’t it?

My role as a pastor is to be there. For you. With you. A pastor is not a doctor, or a psychotherapist, or a life coach, or a social worker. A pastor cannot fix you. And that is okay. As a pastor, what I can do is listen to you, hear your stories and hold your truths, and be that living reminder that you are not alone.

I believe that life is best when it’s actually lived, and to do that, sometimes we need someone to hear us, to actually listen, before we can get on with healing, with growing, with living more fully. And, sometimes, life does more — too much more — and hands us a bag full of rotten fruit, with no possibility of making drinkable lemonade or anything else. And when it does, the pastor is the center of a network of support to help you and your loved ones navigate through.

We are better together. We are, quite literally, made for each other.

Reston PRIDE team 2018
Reston PRIDE team 2018

Minister as Prophet

This is another old-fashioned term, ‘prophet’ — at this point, perhaps you’re sensing a theme. I tend to think of a prophet as wild-haired and wild-eyed, talking about repentance and end-times. I also apparently watch too much TV.

There is a Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, or, “repair the world”. The idea is that we are obligated to become better human beings and likewise obligated to create a better world. You could frame this as an answer to the question, “Why are we here?”, and say, “To learn, to grow, and to help others do the same.” Micah 6:8 says it a little differently:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly, and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

I like to say that it is the prophetic voice that calls us out of our cave and into the light of a new day. My personal hope is that the prophet calls us back to wonder, mystery, and awe. The Psalmist says we are “children of God”, both “fearfully and wonderfully made.” I love that — fearfully and wonderfully. Just as the universe holds untold secrets, so too do we — so much is locked away, hidden within us! So it is the prophet who reminds us, reminds us that we are more than our jobs, more than our feuds, more than our families, more than our bank accounts, more than our worst day, more than a long-past success.

Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another. — Carl Sagan, Cosmos

The prophetic voice is not always popular — but of course, that’s not the point.  Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said that “God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” It’s that last bit, the “afflict the comfortable” part, that calls us from our comfort to working for justice. And it is not a new call.

  • The Tanakh (the Old Testament) is, in the view of many, one long story of struggle and the call to liberation.
  • Springing from that root, the Christian struggle for justice has a history almost as long as the Christian Church itself. From the martyrs in the 2nd Century through the liberationists in the 20th, the Church has inspired millions to rise up for the oppressed, the marginalized, the poor.
  • This is not a Western idea, either — in Mahayana Buddhism, the Bodhisattva Vow is the promise to work for the liberation of all, for: “none of us are saved until all of us are saved.”
  • Finally, and perhaps more pointedly for me, all Seven of the Principles of Unitarian Universalism directly speak to the cause of freedom, liberty, and solidarity.

Today, we are overworked, overscheduled, resting less, getting sick, and going broke. Our schools no longer feel safe, our society doesn’t feel safe, the planet doesn’t feel safe. And there seems to be a rising belief that the police won’t help, that the Government won’t help, and that maybe we shouldn’t help, either. More and more, we are lost, scared, vulnerable, and alone.

“It doesn’t have to be this way.” That is what the prophetic voice tells us.

Prophecy asks us to get uncomfortable. To learn, grow, and change. To transform ourselves and our world.

Time for All Ages, Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston
Time for All Ages

Minister as Administrator

Like education, administration is not something you actually finish.

Rev. Lee Barker, the former President of Meadville-Lombard and one of my professors, taught me that administration is also ministry — he called it “administry”. Like all the other items on this list, administry covers a lot of ground. Part of it is managing staff. Part of it is managing property. Part of it is managing volunteers. Part of it is managing the mission. Part of it is “other duties, as required.”

How you care for your institution is how you care for its people. A culture of care, of support, of gratitude, is both inline with our UU values, and also one that promotes participation, community, and excellence. In my professional career, I’ve managed a great number of incredible people. Helping them to grow, to further their goals, to advance their careers, has been one of my biggest joys. In that role, I see myself as a coach, a mentor, and a “clearer-of-obstacles”. I am also reminded that church is not like a Fortune 100 company (at least, it really ought not to be) and that at any given UU congregation, a great many of our volunteers are not only likely to be remarkably competent but may well have gifts that dramatically exceed my own. My belief is that the job of the leader is to set the mission, to empower the team, to help create the plan, and then, to get out of the way.

When it comes to the ministry staff, my vastly-preferred approach is “co-ministry”. In addition to what the minister brings, a good team includes capacities for music and education. A professional educator and a talented musician are incredibly valuable to the congregation’s mission, growth, and success. Finding them, caring for them, letting them do their best work, that’s what can allow a congregation to thrive.

I am a fan of “policy-based governance”, but I’ve had experience with other models, including models transitioning into a policy-based model. My hope is that, with good governance, the minister and Board can remain strategic, the Committees can remain focused on their missions, and the whole can serve the needs of the community.

My vision of church is one that serves its membership, the larger community that the congregation is a part of, and the “larger world”. This can take many paths, but generally speaking, I believe that such a path should include three things:

  1. Celebrates meaning-making and spiritual growth;
  2. Fosters a community that celebrates diversity in history, identity, and belief;
  3. Acts for peace and justice in the world.
Ministry team at UUCR 2017-18
Ministry team at UUCR

In the end, “the minister” is many things. Priest, pastor, prophet, administrator. Leader, teacher, organizer, neighbor. Most ministers are great at some of these things. Most are not great at all of them. Ministers are, of course, only human. Which is why “ministry” is a thing we do together. To learn. To grow.  To heal ourselves. To help each other. And, just maybe, change the world.

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. And somewhere, out there, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

–Carl Sagan, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage