Today is my last Sunday with you as your minister. Today is also the last time that I will lead worship as a congregational minister. While I still have hope that my health will improve enough that I can do occasional guest preaching in various congregations, today is an ending for me as well as for you.
Today is also a beginning. You greeted new members today. Each person who comes to this congregation adds something, even if they only stay a short while and move on. The difference each of you make here and in the rest of your lives is significant. It matters what we do.
You will hopefully be getting a new professional minister before too long, so I think it is important to spend my last service here talking about ministry, both professional and lay. Unitarian Universalism fully embraces the concept and practice of the “priesthood of all believers.” “Believer” in this context does not mean only those who believe in God, however they define that term, but also those who have faith in the message of Unitarian Universalism.
If you are a member of this congregation, you are called to the ministry. In affirming and promoting our seven principles, you are doing religious and spiritual work in the world.
Professional ministers do that same work. The difference between professional clergy and lay ministers is primarily one of training, experience, and commitment. The minister’s salary is what allows us to do the work we are called to do.
Becoming an ordained and fellowshipped Unitarian Universalist minister is not an easy process, and cannot be taken lightly.
Ministers are required to complete a Masters of Divinity at an accredited seminary.
In addition to seminary, a potential minister must undergo psychological testing, a criminal background check, provide multiple reference letters, be sponsored by a congregation, write dozens of essays, and complete an extensive reading list. They also must serve a 9-month internship supervised by an experienced minister and complete 400 hours of clinical pastoral education, usually as a hospital chaplain. They must meet in person with the ministerial fellowship committee, present a sample sermon, and spend an hour answering rapid fire questions on history, theology, and anything else the committee might be interested in. If they do all that well, including passing the oral exam, a new minister is granted preliminary fellowship. They then need to spend at least 3 years working as a minister and have satisfactory evaluations each year before they receive final fellowship. Even after final fellowship, which is similar to academic tenure, they are still accountable to a code of professional conduct and can be removed or suspended from fellowship for cause.
Please be kind to Suzanne; she is in the midst of that rather arduous process.
Ordination is a separate step and it is only after ordination can a minister be referred to as “Reverend.” In our tradition, only congregations can ordain, and ordination is for life.
So what does being a minister in a congregation involve?
One way to look at is to understand the various roles of a minister. Lay people do many of them, but usually only ordained clergy do them all. As I talk about these roles, think about the ones that you yourself do and the ones you might be interested in doing. Ministry is not just the professional minister or ministers. In a healthy church, everyone has a ministry.
Let me start with the 4 P’s of ministry: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet, and Priest. There are also a few that don’t start with the letter P. I will get to those at the end.
Preacher first, which is the one hour a week Sunday Morning role, which some folks think is a really short work week. Sermon preparation takes a lot more than an hour, not to mention crafting how the service will flow together. Preacher includes teacher too. Teaching is a lot of what sermons are about.
Formal religious education classes are included here as well as all the more informal sharing of knowledge and hopefully, sometimes at least, the wisdom that comes from the experience of being a minister.
Those of you who lead worship, those of you who teach classes, and those of you who tell others about our Unitarian Universalist faith are doing the preacher/teacher part of ministry.
The Pastor role is one of caring, and care-giving. It includes being with individual people during some of their hardest times, listening, trying to provide some comfort.
It also includes caring for the spirit of the church as a whole, paying attention to how we treat each other, trying to set an example. It includes caring for the world, for its people and the environment. The caring committee is one obvious example of how lay people are involved in this pastoral role, but it also happens when you just listen to someone else’s troubles and offer them emotional support.
Prophet –This is the social justice role of speaking truth to power, standing on the side of love. It is raising difficult issues and asking hard questions. Those of you who write letters to the editor, to the city council, the board of supervisors. who attend meetings, rallies, and marches, who pick up trash when you see it, recycling what you can, you are doing prophetic work. You work to change the world so that it can become a place of both justice and compassion, and you remind us that this church is not just here for its members but has a higher calling as well. All praise to the prophets among us.
Priest. Yes, Unitarian Universalist ministers have a priestly role too. The work here is one of ritual and rites of passage. Weddings and memorials, baby blessings, and the many elements of our worship services, especially prayer, all call upon the priestly role. Our worship associates and our musicians and our choir, they all minister to the rest of us in that priestly role
Preacher, Pastor, Prophet, and Priest; those are the 4 P’s. The two S’s are steward and shepherd.
To be a Steward is to take care of the congregation, making sure that it continues to exist and to thrive. Many of you do ministry as stewards.
If you are on the membership committee, if you help with fundraisers or the stewardship campaign, if you help at coffee hour, you are being a steward. Stewardship is all the practical and necessary parts of church life. It is supporting the church with your resources and your time. It is pledging generously so this congregation and our larger faith can have the resources it needs to fulfil its mission. Stewardship creates and maintains the foundation we need if our spirits are going to have the ability to soar.
The last “S” is shepherd, and Shepherds are leaders. It does not mean that the people being led are sheep, however. We are not at all famous for being a people who blindly follow wherever their leaders suggest they go. No, the shepherd role is one of trying to keep the church as a whole safe and reasonably together, but still always moving forward, keeping the focus on the vision of where we both need and want to go. The members of our board of trustees do ministry as shepherds. Many other leaders in our congregation also serve in that role. Drafting and approving the new covenant of Right Relations was an act of leadership as well as being pastoral.
Those are the 4 P’s and 2 S’s and I hope in particular that each of you saw some of your own ministry in one or more of them. Are you a Preacher/teacher? A pastor? A prophet? A priest? A Shepherd? A Steward? All of you should raise your hands on that one, because all of you help create and maintain this beloved community. Some of you raised your hands, multiple times. The roles are, of course, intertwined.
Preaching can be pastoral and it can be prophetic.
Social justice work is ineffective if it is not grounded in a pastoral quality of love and caring. Stewardship is a part of everything and everything needs shepherding at times.
I want to share some personal comments now about my time with you. It has been hard for me not being full time here, even though I wanted to be part time. Part time ministry means you can’t do all that you feel called to do.
While at UUP, because of limited hours, I needed to focus mainly on the shepherd and preaching roles, and only performed the others in a rather limited way. It was hard for me not to have the time to visit our elders in their homes, to teach formal classes, or to attend community events.
It is even harder to admit that even those limited roles are no longer possible with my current physical limitations. The little I can still do is not enough for you or for me.
I want to name something else in the spirit of love and care, hoping you will do a bit better with your next minister.
Professional ministers need to be tough and tender at the same time. We need to be tough when hurtful things are said to or about us and we need to be tender with those who are saying them. But it isn’t easy. Ministers are human, and none of us are perfect. My charge to you, as I leave you, is to be faithful to your covenant of Right Relations and keep the criticisms of your new minister constructive, direct and kind. If you hear mean-spirited comments from others, call them back into covenant, and remind them that ministry is what we do together.
That said, it has been a pleasure serving you. I have been inspired by your commitment and willingness to explore and dig deeper into the big questions. I have valued the spirit of community you have created. I have loved your willingness to experiment with new ways of doing things and your passion for creating a better world.
Ministry isn’t always easy, but it is work that has always felt sacred to me. It is an honor and a privilege and a huge responsibility. I have done the best I could for you. Please forgive me for the ways that I have failed.
It breaks my heart to leave you, especially earlier than planned. Please know that I will carry you with me in my heart, just as I still carry those I have served in other congregations. The river of love runs deep and it runs wide. We will always swim in it together.