I missed class this week because I was attending a gathering of UU Ministers at a local retreat center. What a joy and a challenge it was! It is always a joy to gather with beloved friends and colleagues – those I have known for years and others that I just met this week. The program was excellent and included a lot of prayerful singing – singing is something I don’t do well, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it. I particularly enjoyed some of the conversations I had with the newer ministers and seminarians. They hold the hope for the future, not only for our faith, but for the world.
No one understands a minister better than another minister. While resting in the embrace of that mutual understanding, there were also challenges. We are human and part of the larger culture and are not unaffected by the wider systems of power and privilege that bring such harm to those who are trying to survive on the margins. I had to do my “Jeremiah” thing during a discussion of white supremacy where I witnessed a few “micro-aggressions.” It is so important to at least name those when they happen.
I am also realizing that I am completely out of patience with the “hurt feelings” of those who feel victimized when someone names the harm they have caused to others. No one expects perfection. If you blow it, when you make a mistake (and you will), apologize, and then SHUT THE F___ up and move on. No one you have harmed wants to hear about how guilty you feel about it or how your intentions were pure. Process those emotions with others who have similar identities to yours if you need to do so, but don’t redirect the attention of a larger group to your emotional distress. Don’t make it about you. This is work, very hard work indeed, that really needs to be done, again for our faith and for the world. The blessing I felt is that everyone there at least wants to do the work, even we bumble and stumble along that journey toward justice making and beloved community where all are truly welcomed in the fullness of who they are.
The other challenge, for me at least, was the food. (This is my weight management blog after all.) The retreat center served very healthy, and mainly organic, food, so it was much easier than it might have been. It was also super tasty. I stressed some though, as I was not able to weigh or measure anything and I had to guess at the calories. The lunches were vegetarian, so protein was harder to find and manage with no lean meat available. It was also hard to pass by the awesome desserts and say to no to the social hour wine. I stayed strong on those last two, however, and next week’s weigh-in will tell me how well I did on estimating calories. This was my Tuesday night dinner plate:
Baked chicken with pesto sauce, roasted cauliflower, and a smidgeon of salad. The salads were all pre-dressed, so I was careful with them. My guess was around 340 calories.
I am also thinking about taking the test in the next few weeks that will tell me about my metabolism – how many calories I burn just breathing. Knowing that number will help me calculate with more precision just how many calories I should be eating each day. It is not good to go too low because too few calories can slow your metabolism permanently and make long term weight loss more difficult. Too many calories, and you don’t lose any weight. The program includes one free metabolism test, and subsequent ones cost $50. The recommendation is to wait and do the test when your weight loss slows, but I want to do it before then. If it turns out I need another one later, I can just pay for it. Given the investment I am making already – in money, time, and attention, I am not going to quibble over an extra 50 bucks if it will help.
There are maybe a couple of weeks left of swim season, before we need to close the pool for the winter. I hope to catch up on my exercise goals this week.
(My stats for the last week – down ? pounds, drank over 7 gallons of water and exercised for 240 minutes. My total weight loss so far is 57.6 pounds.)
I have been reflecting about ministry differently these days, something that I suppose is natural as I have retired relatively recently from serving a congregation. I had health issues to deal with, and it was increasingly difficult to do ministry the way I felt it needed to be done. My health is now improving, but I will not serve a congregation again in the role of parish minister. I am still a minister, however, fellowshipped and ordained, and I will carry a stole on my shoulders for the rest of my days. It isn’t always a stole made of cloth, but is always one of both tradition and commitment. It is sometimes visible to the eye, but it is also woven into my bones. I can feel it on my shoulders, a weight that can be heavy, but also gives me strength.
When I supervised intern ministers, I often told them that ministry is not about the minister, but about the people being served. I also said it is not really just about the individuals in the congregation or other setting, although they are precious, but it is more importantly about the church or institution as a whole. Underneath all of that is the mission of the larger faith tradition, and finally, what is the most important of all, is being true to the faith that called you, to serve God if you will, however one defines that Holy Mystery that surrounds us.
Being someone’s minister is an incredible honor. To sit by a bedside when a beloved soul draws their last breath, to listen to the anguish of a mother worried about a child who is ill or in trouble, to hold someone in your arms while they sob with grief, or to see the light in a child’s eyes as they are blessed and dedicated in the midst of gathered community – those moments are particularly precious and holy, and I miss being that conduit through which the Spirit sometimes shine through.
The stole above was given to me by the UU Church of Ogden, who named me Minister Emerita as I left them after seven sweet years together. Some of the cloth in that stole is also in the banners that hang in that sanctuary where I often felt the Spirit moving as we worshiped together. On the back of the stole are words that I wrote when I felt the call to go there to be their minister.
Every time I put on that stole, I feel the love of the congregation that really made me a minister. Grace, I still believe, awaits us all.
All change involves some loss, of course. I miss being an active minister. But just this week, I realized that in my ten or so years of active ministry, I did not have a minister of my own. Yes, I had friends and colleagues, all of whom ministered to me at times. There were also denominational leaders who sometimes fulfilled a pastoral role for me. But it just wasn’t the same. Before I entered seminary and while I was studying for the ministry, I was close to almost all of the ministers who served my home congregation. It was a closeness that had boundaries, we were not friends, but minister and congregant, a particular type of closeness.
I have lived that ministerial relationship from both sides now, and I know that it can be an incredible and special gift, a bond of tenderness, trust, and love. I have missed being in the congregant side of that kind of relationship, and I was not really aware of how much. But now, somewhat miraculously, I am feeling what it is like to have a minister again.
We rejoined our home congregation recently while there was an interim minister who was about to leave in a few months. I enjoyed her services, but I saw her more as a colleague and not really as my minister. And now, we have welcomed a new minister at our church. I don’t know him very well yet, our previous relationship consisted of relatively brief encounters at denominational meetings. But suddenly it seems, my heart is full to overflowing because I can literally feel his pastoral presence and caring attitude toward me and toward the congregation as a whole. His service this morning was beyond simple competence and clarity of message; it was spirit filled and a delightful combination of warmth, humor, and challenge. I really went to church this morning.
I will remain a colleague of this minister, but he will also be my minister, a relationship that to me is is infused with elements of the Holy. The very idea makes me weep with gratitude. I will continue to miss the active ministry, and I hope to preach once in awhile, and to do some minor ministry in the role of a congregant who is retired clergy. But it is good, so good, to have a minister again. “And within it all, the precious beat of human hearts, of hopes and fears, and dreams, open now in anticipation, live with patience, Grace I must believe, awaits us all.” Hallelujah!
In ministry, we talk a lot about having healthy boundaries. We try to maintain a “non-anxious” presence in the midst of grief, despair, conflict, and crises of all sorts. Therapists and other professionals are aware of boundaries too, a clear bright line that they should never cross. Boundaries are more complex for clergy, however. We counsel congregants, holding some of their most intimate secrets in the strictest of confidence. But we also work and socialize with them. We go to meetings and potlucks together. We play, we laugh, and we strategize for justice. They find out about our personal lives because we live and work among them, Sexual relationships with those we serve are (now at least, thank God) strictly forbidden. If that line is crossed it does so much damage, not only to the vulnerable congregant whose trust has been betrayed, but also to the community as a whole. It can take generations to recover, and even then recovery may not be possible, particularly if the secret is kept and the impact remains unexamined.
But there are less serious boundary violations. We are also counseled not to make friends with congregants, but to always hold solid the space and stance of being their minister. How I have interpreted that is to never lean on a congregant emotionally, to share with them only the parts of my life that are under reasonably well emotional control. We don’t want them worried about taking care of us. While it is fine to accept meals or physical help when the need arises, and being friendly is always good, if we are falling apart emotionally, we need to get our support from somewhere else, from family, friends, colleagues, or therapists. The relationship between minister and congregant is never one of equality, and ministry can be very lonely work as a result.
I am retired now and that changes things some, but it is still complicated. I am now a member of a church, and although I have never served as a minister there, I was an active lay leader before attending seminary and they are the congregation that ordained me. While I am now free to make friends and to share my private life and emotional stresses with other congregation members, I will always need to remember that as ordained clergy, my voice can carry more weight, especially in any discussion about church issues. It is a voice that must be used with care, and always in support of the current ministry of the church. I really do know how hard the job of a minister is, and to undermine another minister for any petty reason or simple disagreement, would feel like a serious sin to me. Only serious misconduct would compel me to speak out in protest, and then I would first approach the colleague directly, and then through collegial and/or denominational channels. We have just gotten a talented new minister at our church, and I expect him do the work very well indeed. I will definitely cheer him on, but I also know there are still boundaries I need to observe in my church community. I am still not and never will be, “just another member.”
All of which makes me, among other reasons, still value so much the other parts of my life where I can just be me, where I can vent, question, and let “my hair down” in ways I have not been able to do in years in a setting larger than my family and closest friends and colleagues. My medical weight loss group is such a place. We meet once a week in person and connect on Facebook in between. I am so grateful to them. They are in fact, another family circle, one of love, compassion and trust. I can let at least some of my boundaries bounce away on their own when I am with them. Huzzah!
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.
We value our freedoms
Sometimes more than our lives
The martyrs are many
Who have died just for words.
What does this mean
For the Pulpit and Pew?
What does it mean for me and for you?
Words sometimes hurt
Bringing pain from our pasts
Swirling to memories
Of being abused
Those same painful words
Bring others great joy
A longing for comfort
A longing for peace.
How can we balance
Such contrary needs
When freedom for some
Causes others to weep?
Our spirits are hardy
This I believe
Compassion is called for
And gentle support
We’ll find a way forward
Both caring and free
If our faith is a building
Open hearts are the doors
How full can a heart get
Until it can take no more?
How many tears can our eyes release
Until the well goes dry?
We move through a desert land
Where the winds of hate blow hard.
It shatters lives
And scatters despair
We can only hunker down.
Send me a dream, a mountain stream
A gentle touch, a kiss.
Hold me close
As I remember love
And find the courage to hope.
Give me enough strength
To help with the work
Of healing a broken world
With my eyes closed
The images still flicker
Just in front of my eyelids
Bright flashes and splashes of color
What is the story,
This movie playing
In my body
In my brain?
The lamp is out,
But still the light shines
A bright glimmer
I will follow
Sometimes you get to say just what you think….
Partisan politics was something I stayed far away from when I was serving a parish. Aside from the need to retain the congregation’s tax exempt status, it also just felt wrong to be telling people that looked up to me as their pastor how to vote. Ministers’s voices and opinions can carry a lot of weight with their congregants. I may be on the heavy side, but I don’t like throwing my weight around that way.
I am not serving a congregation currently, however.
If I serve as a parish minister again, I will again stay away from obviously partisan positions while still advocating for compassion and justice. Being anti-racist, for instance, should be something we all are working on; it is something our faith demands of us. Caring for the poor, the homeless, providing a healthy environment for our children and ourselves (which includes clean water and air) , welcoming the refugee, providing jobs that pay a living wage, should not be considered controversial among people of faith. Individuals and groups can disagree about methods and strategies, but the goal of all political parties should be to insure a decent, peaceful, free, and prosperous life for all of our citizens and ultimately, for all the people in the world.
I have said most of the above from the pulpit and will do so again when I get opportunities to preach.
Now, however, not having parish ties, I can say publicly that I think Hilary Clinton is the candidate that is most likely to move us forward at this particular time in history.
I like Clinton for some of the same reasons that other people heap criticisms on her head.
- She has changed her mind over time about a lot of things. All politicians do this. All people do this, at least they do if they aren’t fossilized. Changing opinions and positions doesn’t mean Clinton is dishonest, quite the opposite is true in fact. It means she is capable of listening and learning.
- She has strong convictions, but doesn’t seem to particularly self-righteous about them. Contrast this with Bernie Sanders or (shudder) Ted Cruz. Cruz is clearly a zealot, a true believer, and he is even scarier than Trump for that reason. I am not as sure that Sanders is a true zealot, but he sounds like one when he talks. Clinton doesn’t. There is some humility in evidence. Obama has some humility too, which has been refreshing and real. Only Clinton of the current candidates exhibits any humility at all. No one knows everything. It would be best to have a leader that understands that.
- She’s practical and willing to make some compromises. I think that is a good thing. Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good. Obama compromised on health care and we have something much better than we would have had otherwise – which was nothing. It is not perfect, single payer, medicare for all, would have been better, but it just wasn’t possible. Sanders now wants to throw it out and just start over. That is exactly what the Republicans want too. We could easily end up with nothing.
- She has the experience. She is in fact more qualified to be president than any other candidate in my memory. She has been part of the system and knows it well. I think that is a huge advantage and not an indictment as some seem to believe.
- She supports Obama and pledges to continue his policies. I love having Obama as our president. I love all that he has been able to accomplish despite the huge and racist opposition he has faced. I also love what Clinton has been able to accomplish despite the huge and sexist opposition she has faced. I think she will do even more as president.
- Obama, as our first African American president, just by being who he is, has done so much to enlarge the vision of what is possible for our young people, especially our young people of color. I’d like to see what a female president, just by being who she is, can do to enlarge the vision of what is possible for our young women, including our young women of color.
One last comment: the recent debates between Sanders and Clinton were what helped push me more firmly toward Clinton. Sanders repeatedly used his white male privilege during those debates, reacting grumpily every time Clinton interrupted him while arrogantly speaking over her many times. I do not remember any of that going on when Clinton debated Obama, perhaps because both were aware of and sensitive to the racial and gender dynamics of the situation. Sanders seems simply clueless of any such dynamic at all. We don’t need any more clueless leaders. We have plenty of Republicans to provide that perspective. The two photos above and below demonstrate what I am talking about. Clinton mainly uses open-handed gestures directed to the audience. Sanders mainly points and he directs many of his gestures toward Clinton. Body language speaks volumes. Someone should tell Sanders to clean up his act. Maybe he can learn and grow.
Ministers can refuse to be martyrs. They can refuse to sacrifice themselves on behalf of people or institutions who either ignore them or who toss their help rather rudely back into their faces.
I am not talking about social justice work. There, although the odds of success may be low, the effort has its own rewards. Without many peoples’ efforts, the arc of the universe will never roll the way we all need it to go. It is an arc, not a wheel, and it often needs a push to bend it toward justice.
Throughout the centuries, many people of faith have been martyrs. They have put their bodies and their lives on the line for what they believed. From Michael Servetus who was burned at the stake by John Calvin in 1553 to the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Luizzo who were murdered in Selma, Alabama in 1965 , more than a few Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists have given their lives and their livelihoods for this faith. Today, Unitarian Universalists have stood and marched for justice wherever human dignity has been at stake, risking beatings, arrest, prison, deportation, and also death.
I am not talking about that kind of martyrdom. That kind of martyrdom makes a difference. It is a risk well worth taking if you have the courage.
No, I am talking about the more mundane martyrdom of sticking too long with congregations that use ministers as punching bags, launching personal attacks with regularity. There are reasons congregations get that way, and it isn’t because the people are inherently evil. They often have a lived history of boundary violations, sometimes committed by religious professionals. They haven’t learned how to set their own healthy boundaries, and rarely limit the destructive activities of church bullies. They fear authority of all kinds and don’t really understand congregational polity and representative democracy. It is a sad system, and like in all forms of healing, they have to understand that they have a problem before they can even begin to heal.
All congregations are not like that, of course. All groups of people have issues, and all behave badly at times, but the truly problematic congregations have long established behavior patterns and are well known for being difficult. Thankfully they also are relatively rare.
Ministers go to such congregations for a variety of reasons. Some are fresh out of seminary, geographically limited, and desperate for a job. Many a promising career in ministry has been cut short for the new ministers that make that unwise choice. Many ministers also think they can do what no one else has been able to do. That is simply hubris, and even strong egos will wind up taking a beating as old patterns simply continue to play out.
Ministers also stay too long in those congregations because they see some improvement. They think things will get better, and in fact, sometimes they do, but how much better is really good enough? They also get attached to the people, ministry is about love after all, and their heartstrings wrap firmly around the tender souls of the majority of the membership. “How can I leave these people?”
But in the end, the other question must be asked, as Mary Oliver did, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
There are other places to serve, other people to love, other ministries to do, and other places where it will be easier to make an actual difference. As Kenny Rodgers sang, “You got to know when to hold them, and know when to fold them.”
There comes a time when even ministers need to walk away.
And not that we need scriptural permission, but even the Bible advises us to do so.
“Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet.”
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.” That song has been running through my head lately, only with the words I used in the title above.
I am a minister. Being a minister is always hard work. There is a reason people struggle against a call to ministry. “Oh no, not me, God, send somebody else.”
But we are called. We know it deep in our bones and we have to say yes to that call. Resistance to that call is futile.
Ministers are called to serve, to comfort, and yes, sometimes, to challenge and confront. I am serving in a specialized kind of ministry, a ministry with a congregation that has a troubled history and long established patterns of dysfunctional behavior. Ah, but it is also a congregation with a proud history, and it is filled with people yearning for something more that what they have been. Old patterns are hard to change, however, and this ministry has required me to point out systemic problems and to be relatively firm in maintaining what I consider to be appropriate boundaries.
I never expected this particular ministry to be easy. I never expected people to agree with everything I thought should be done or not done. Reasonable and caring people can disagree about how to do things, and any change also brings some loss with it. Pain and anger are so close together in most of our hearts. Some anger is to be expected. I have felt strongly, however, that if I did not raise the issues I thought were important, then I would be failing this congregation in the ways that matter most. Ministry should not be about just coasting along, about taking the path of least resistance, about always doing what some or even most of the people say they want. Passover is almost upon us. What would it been like if Moses had said, “oh, ok, you all don’t like it here in the desert, sure, let’s just go back to Egypt, no problem.” And no, I don’t think I am a Moses. But you know, Moses didn’t see himself that way either: “Send someone else.”
I also expected that some in the congregation would have issues with a minister exercising any real authority, even and perhaps especially over worship. Quality in worship is important to me. Mediocre just isn’t good enough to offer to folks that are hurting or who are seeking more meaning in their lives. We need to hold our worship time as sacred.
What I did not expect, although maybe I should have, was the way the criticisms would play out. Very little is about actual things I have done or not done. No, the real critique is pretty much all about my style.
My style is pretty direct. I grew up working class, among people who said what they thought. I am also a lesbian, a dyke if you will, and although I don’t identify as transgender, I definitely don’t fit many of the feminine stereotypes. I come off as both assertive and confident. I always try to be respectful, but when I have an opinion, I express it clearly. This style is freaking a few folks out.
It didn’t occur to me for quite a awhile, but in the last week it has become pretty clear that part of the dynamic going on between me and a small group of my congregants is simply because of who I am and what this congregation has experienced in the past. I am their first openly gay minister. I am also only the second woman minister in their over 50 years of existence. This is very unusual for a UU congregation. We have as members a few gay men, a handful of trans folk, and a number of people who identify as bisexual. So far anyway, I have met no one else here who is an open lesbian.
This congregation has a history of expressing suspicion and hostility toward most of their ministers. I expected that as well. But there is an undercurrent in a lot of it that I don’t think would exist if I were either a male or a straight minister. Hostile people will use whatever weapons they have available. Homophobia will come out, if it exists, during a conflict, just as racism will. Even among liberals and self defined radicals and progressives. It is in our culture and individuals can’t always help it, but it is also important to name it when it happens.
I have been accused of “unwelcome touching.”
I have been called a bully.
I think they were really calling me a bull dyke.
I think they are afraid of me.
I hope I can find a way to walk with them through that fear. It isn’t everybody. It is only two or three people that seem to be acting out of a deep, maybe even a subconscious, fear. One won’t agree to talk to me directly, even with a facilitator. There are a number of other people that don’t agree with me about one thing or another, but they are willing to talk with me about those issues. That’s normal, respectful, and reasonable. If we can talk to each other, we can also listen. Ministry is about listening as well as leading. That, too, I know in my bones. What I am hearing now from a few people is fear.
We’re all a long way from home. Give us the courage we need for the journey,