“Mutual Ministry” by Mark Harris
First Parish of Watertown – April 28, 2013
Opening Words by Jane Mauldin
For our community gathered here, for the spirit that called us together and drew us to this place:
We give thanks this day.
For moments we have shared with others; for times when we have reached out across barriers of distance and fear; for times when others have reached out to us; for moments when we have discovered another along our path:
We give thanks this day.
For this community of celebration and growth, introspection and solitude, and for those moments of “that peace which passes all understanding”:
We give thanks this day.
For our gathering together out of distant places; for our weaving together out of many separate selves this hour of celebration and worship:
We give thanks this day.
Reading – from Being Liberal in a Illiberal Age by Jack Mendelsohn
It is good to be home. A week ago I was worshipping with the congregation in Sanford, ME, served by a former First Parish of Watertown intern, Sue Kingman, who now goes by the last name of Gabrielson. Several people there said to me, please thank the Watertown congregation for sharing you with us today. Please give them our love and concern for all they have endured this past week. In my remarks today I cannot really summarize how anxious and concerned I was a week ago that all of you were alright. I know you had sufficient measures of trauma and sadness as Watertown became the epicenter for world news. I am deeply appreciative of all that Andrea and Margaret and Lauren and Guy and Charlyn did to make last Sunday’s service supportive of all your emotional and spiritual needs.
It was difficult to be away from you all. It is good to be home, even if safety and security are a little less so. Today, because it is annual meeting day, I wanted to reflect upon our mutual ministry as a congregation, how each of us lay and professional are part of a larger ministry to each other, to Watertown and to the world. Events such as those that happened last week only make that more apparent. In a religious community each of us knows personal pain from life’s slings and arrows, but we also know the pain of others, and the pain of the world, where people who live with hate and fear can be led to do violent things. In response to that violence, we can live in fear, too; fear that might breed hatred or more violence, or we can live with courage to meet each other with hearts that open to each other in compassion, so that together, we might touch the pain of the world together. When we do that, as a speaker I heard this week said, when we touch that pain, we begin religious community, and we release hope. This past week our community experienced a lockdown of homes and businesses. When fear predominates, then we experience a lockdown of our hearts, too. It separates us from each other, and makes the building of community impossible to achieve. In a mutual ministry, together we touch the pain of the world, and say, despite the pain and fear, we will begin again in love.
Unitarian Universalist congregations have a long history of lay involvement in the governance of the community. Some of this tradition goes back to the very foundations of Protestantism. Martin Luther declared the priesthood of all believers when he nailed his 95 theses to the door and attacked the Catholic Church and its traditions of priestly hierarchy. By implication there was no special class of clergy who were set apart as closer to God, or as H.L. Mencken once described clergy, “ticket speculators outside the gates of heaven.” Clergy were no longer seen as arbiters of who would gain entrance to a blissful beyond. And then the Universalists offered complete assurance of salvation, almost like the owners of the Boston Red Sox, offering the comfort of a sell out every single game. Yet like the team owners, the myth of a full house every time had to come to an end. For us liberals, there is now the dilemma of realizing that these kinds of convictions of a heavenly abode are strange, unsettling or unlikely.
For Luther, if everyone can be a priest then each of us can read the Bible, discern the truth, and understand what is needed for faith development. We all have equal access to God. Our Puritan ancestors took this a step further with the development of congregational polity, where each congregation was declared a church sufficient unto itself, without need of clerical hierarchy or church traditions, plus their direct understanding of a relationship to God meant that each congregation could elect its own officers and clergy. The idea was that a minister was one of the community who were called forth from the people to preach and teach the Word. But if the minister was just one of the gang, then what kind of special role did they hold in the life of the congregation, if any?
It is, as they say, complicated. In the Catholic and Episcopal traditions, only the hierarchy of clergy ordains clergy, and the role holds sacramental significance. Among Congregationalists (which includes us) a minister was traditionally only a minister when he (there were only he’s then) had a relationship to a congregation. What became clear was that in these democratically led groups there was no reason to set clergy apart as having any special powers that lay people did not possess. In England they even stopped ordaining dissenting clergy because it felt like this rite was a superstitious tradition that was undemocratic. One minister said these “priestly usurpations and ghostly pretensions . . . fell into deserved disrepute.” Thus Unitarian and Universalist congregations have historically been organized with a power-sharing, co-operative model between minister and congregation. Congregations have long been cautious of vesting too much authority in a minister or congregational leader. In Charleston, South Carolina, the Unitarian minister Samuel Gilman said he couldn’t simply “set out his own duties from his own point of view, but had to consider the sentiments of the congregation,” so that in effect he sometimes led and sometimes followed in a kind of dance of reciprocity. But this could be threatening to those clergy who wanted to exercise a degree of authority. William Christie who took over the ministry of the church in Philadelphia after its founder and first minister Joseph Priestley left, declared that the members had more power than the minister, and he promptly resigned.
The sharing of power in a congregation makes ministry a delicate balance between pastor and people. Who is in charge? Lines of authority are complicated. Many of our members assume that the congregational elders or elected leaders are in charge, as we are governed by a democratic structure with no place for authority figures. The Parish Committee, the governing body of the church often discusses policy matters at their monthly meetings, and makes decisions relative to the values we celebrate and uphold together in operational and religious matters. Like the Puritans before us, we build up communities where we walk together watching out for the well being of each other, and the larger whole. Thus the ministry of a free church is the task of the whole church. It is a mutual ministry where all members are ministers in a sense. If we are all ministers, some make the distinction among us as to those who perform ministry by vocation or calling, or profession and earn the title the Reverend, and the congregational members who we may call lay ministers who we might say do ministry by avocation. Yet when I looked up the definition of avocation, it said hobby. Somehow the application of your religious values in community seems more significant than stamp collecting or a cabinet full of spoons representing all fifty states, even though many of us have passions for obscure yet wonderful collectibles.
Ministry is a partnership; a working together of the professional and the laity toward the building of a beloved community. The professional is at once the challenger, the comforter and the cheerleader; the instigator and the institutionalist; the worship leader and the worrier. He or she asks, where are we going? What do we need? Who are we? Yet these are everyone’s concerns, too. How do we help one another? How do we make the world less violent and more compassionate? What can one community do to make a difference in people’s lives? And so we listen deeply to one another, and together through ministerial and lay leadership try to be more fully human, present and on the line for each other. The true test of ministry, lay and professional, is what kind of person are you or are you becoming.
Any time we speak of a ministry, we mean more than “the minister.” We must be cognizant of the contributions of other staff who have given their hearts and souls to this community, and to all the laypersons who join with the staff to covenant together to build a church that is strong and healthy where everyone pastors to one another, shares in the work load and leadership, tries to be present and supportive of one another, and calls to each other to live and speak the truth in love to one another both here, and most significantly every day of your lives. Trying to create a mutual ministry often brings out issues of who is in charge, how much can lay people effect change, where is the line between ministerial power and influence, and how do we accommodate differences, some of which may be endemic to every Unitarian Universalist congregation by their very freethinking and democratic natures.
It is interesting to me how our culture has celebrated strong leaders in the last decade. While certain sports coaches are labeled as leaders worthy of emulation for their rate of success, our congregations might balk at people who wielded that kind of authority. Because of our democratic nature we want to hear every voice on every issue, and this tends to make it difficult for strong leaders to lead. We tend to become uncomfortable when someone wants to be directive. Unitarian Universalist congregations seem to attract those who are likely to react against strong leadership. There is a lesson here from our Universalist forebears, who declared their belief in a “gospel liberty.” This hampered their willingness to let leaders lead or establish and maintain effective and well organized institutions. They always felt like someone was trying to take away their authority or their control, and consequently were always disorganized, couldn’t cede power to anyone, and consequently declined. I think we have a stronger mutual ministry when we let those we have elected to lead, go ahead and lead, and thus give them some authority. And I think we have a strong mutual ministry when we listen to people, but in that listening allow differences of opinion to be spoken, and to exist within the congregation. We have avoided conflict sometimes by not allowing it to exist, but the result is the loss of diverse voices in our congregations because some are silent, or they simply leave. As we often see at annual meeting, there may not be one right answer, but all of us are called to support whatever the majority decides.
Institutions like ours need to be both conservative and innovative. We have long wanted to embrace everything that is new under the sun thinking we’re rejecting tradition, but this has meant trying experimental worship where the visitor is unclear where it begins or ends, and how exactly it is meant to be religious. Just like innovative and conservative, we also need formal as well as informal. Some people have the idea that informal is friendly and welcoming, but when there is no indication of what the plan is for how things will unfold, or who is doing what and when, we can have chaos. Formal does not have to mean an Anglican King’s Chapel prayer book, and conservative does not have to mean Barry Goldwater. Formal can reflect the need for guidelines and boundaries and standards for making it possible for newcomers to know what is going on, and for institutions to organize and plan for the future. Our lives are chaotic and uncertain enough, and we need to remember that people seek church, including the liberal church, for its comfort and stability, as well as its freedoms and innovation.
Mutual ministry means we will welcome participation by everyone. We will be democratic, but we will be democratic in that we will try to prevent anyone from controlling what we do either lay or ministerial, and we will welcome participation that fits the responsibilities and obligations that will make the church stronger institutionally, and not a house for chaos. Ministry is all that we do together. In mutual ministry we will affirm human dignity. When we do that we respect the leaders who are elected or hired to lead. We will not try to undermine them, or go around them, or try to emotionally manipulate a group with our own personal issues. UU congregations tend to appeal to a niche rather than having a broad mutual ministry. We describe ourselves as free and democratic, but the free and democratic can make it seem like only the alternative folks are welcome here. We broadly say we want the Nones or non affiliated to come to our churches, but while it is good to welcome the spiritual but not religious, why not welcome in a few of the religious as well? While it may seem like we are justice seeking when we say we welcome the marginalized, the unfortunate result is that our congregations may turn away those who are not marginalized.
Mutual ministry recognizes that everything we do together is ministry. Everything. And our ministry becomes broader when we cultivate less of the alternative and more of what we hold in common. When Sue Gabrielson became my intern here, I was suspicious of her because she had a background in police work. I thought I could never trust a police officer. Yet many years later when a vandal burned our rainbow flag it was the police who called me first, monitored our church and then led the parade back to the church after a demonstration in the square. And as we saw last week, it is the police who keep us safe when terrorists threaten. We learn to trust and engage in mutual ministry when we embrace liberal and conservative, formal and informal. I hate war just as much as the next guy, but our troops need a ministry of compassion and understanding when living in traumatic circumstances, just as you do.
Mutual ministry celebrates all of life’s triumphs. Together we see that life’s joys do not receive the kind of appreciation and affirmation that they should. We are together when a child is born among us, or when years of preparation result in a long anticipated job, or when we stand together to affirm the need for justice for an immigrant. As congregations mutual ministry means more celebrations of all that is fun and happy and wonderful in our lives – the first flowers of spring, the graduation from high school of an autistic child, a remission from cancer.
Mutual ministry acknowledges all of life’s sorrows, too. Together in community we see that pain and sorrow and death do not receive the kind of understanding and compassion they merit. We are strengthened in our need when others hold our hand or stand besides us when we lose a loved one who will never walk life’s path with us again, or when a terrible illness makes our muscles tighten or our bones brittle, and we find someone offers their experience, their solace, their cooking skills to warm our stomach, as they have lightened our burden of loneliness and fear. We are able to try again when a job is lost, or a relationship fails, or our loved ones rejects us, and we can give thanks for another’s support, forgive ourselves for a failing, or merely feel we can go on.
In grief we hold each other up. In joy we hold each other up, and our mutual ministry becomes a realization that all we do is still never enough. But together your arms of compassion will lighten our pain, and together your smile of joy will increase our happiness. These human moments of affirmation and understanding fall short of truly embracing all of life’s pains and joys. Life is hard, and we are reminded that we do fall short. We cannot do enough, and yet, we come together in mutual ministry, and realize in community that we can keep striving to give to one another our friendship, and we can hope for a new tomorrow, by being strong, by enduring, by finding new avenues for compassion. This we do together. Not long ago I attended the memorial service for one of our great UU leaders of the last generation, Jack Mendelsohn. Jack once said that the only meaningful sense of the word ministry is one that “speaks of a human fellowship of joy and pain and believes that persons do not come to themselves and to one another until they share the deepest levels of caring and compassion.”
The professional minister tries to uphold that fellowship as her or his life’s work, and the lay ministers as their life’s crucible of deepest meaning. Together we are all ministers trying to achieve, through the medium of our congregation, what the ancient rabbis called “tikkun olam,” a Hebrew phrase that suggests our shared responsibility to heal, repair and transform the world. This is our community – those who we hold in joy, like those babies we welcome; and those we hold up in sorrow, like those elders who bequeath the community to us; so that this spirit of love will be present tomorrow fulfilling our dreams of healing the broken world and creating the beloved community. It is not about me, or about you, it is about us. Those who were, and are and, we pray, will be.
Closing words – from Susan Manker-Seale
Much of ministry is a benediction
A speaking well of each other and the world
A speaking well of what we value:
honesty, love, forgiveness, trust
A speaking well of our efforts
A speaking well of our dreams
This is how we celebrate life
Through speaking well of it
Living the benediction
and becoming as a word