“Rewarding the Responsible”  by Mark W. Harris

 February 17, 2019 – First Parish of Watertown


Opening Words – from Martin Luther King, Jr.

No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” 

Reading –

 “For Those Whom the Gods Love Less” by Denise Levertov
When you discover
your new work travels the ground you had traversed
decades ago, you wonder, panicked,
‘Have I outlived my vocation? Said already
all that was mine to say?’There’s a remedy –
only one – for the paralysis seizing your throat to mute you,
numbing your hands: Remember the great ones, remember Cezanne
doggedly sur le motif, his mountain
a tireless noonday angel he grappled like Jacob,
demanding reluctant blessing. Remember James rehearsing
over and over his theme, the loss
of innocence and the attainment
(note by separate note sounding its tone
until by accretion a chord resounds) of somber
understanding. Each life in art
goes forth to meet dragons that rise from their bloody scales
in cyclic rhythm: Know and forget, know and forget.
It’s not only
the passion for getting it right (thought it’s that, too)
it’s the way
radiant epiphanies recur, recur,
consuming, pristine, unrecognized-
until remembrance dismays you. And then, look,
some inflection of light, some wing of shadow
is other, unvoiced. You can, you must


Reading – from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The western land, nervous under the beginning change. The Western States, nervous as horses before a thunder storm. The great owners, nervous, sensing a change, knowing nothing of the nature of the change. The great owners, striking at the immediate thing, the widening government, the growing labor unity; striking at new taxes, at plans; not knowing these things are results, not causes. Results, not causes; results, not causes. The causes lie deep and simply – the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times; The last clear definite function of man—muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need—this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving. For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments.


 Most of you know that I was once a football player.  I played the game in high school and college; the defensive end whose job it was to hit people and knock down scrambling quarterbacks.  But a few years ago, I began to sour on football. This started in college when I realized many of my friends were apolitical oafs, but later the feeling increased when I began to be disturbed by the violence of the game, with much of this culminating in the mounting head injuries suffered by players. So, I stopped watching football, with the lone exception being the Super Bowl. But for me it is more than that. I must also confess that I loathe the New England Patriots. This is mostly because of the triumvirate of leadership figures associated with the team.  I despise the owner, the coach and the quarterback. While I find the owner smarmy, and the quarterback insufferable, it is the coach who makes my blood boil. While the Boston television newscasts often devote 28 minutes out of a 30-minute show to football cheerleading, they also often show us a Belechick news conference so we can listen to him mumble absolutely meaningless drivel.  He says nothing about anything and comes across as arrogant, disdainful and removed. 

So, imagine my consternation then when I realized that his life’s work mantra is “Do Your Job.”   Incredibly, the philosophy about work that I live by, is, I humbly admit, the same as Bill Belichick’s.  Roughly translated, “Do Your Job!” means being prepared, working hard, paying attention to the details and putting the team first.  One could say that following through on this philosophy has helped make the Patriots the successful team that they are. Could we also suggest that it applies to our lives, and even our religious community?  I am going to say that I have been somewhat frustrated in church environments by the philosophy of do your job!  Sometimes churches have not been concerned about whether a job is done well or not, but whether we like the person doing the job. For example, we once had an employee here who was a great raconteur.  He could keep you entertained all day, but was he good at his job, and did he do what he was supposed to do to fulfill his job responsibilities?  Did he communicate directly with people? Why did he spend all his time on what he wanted to do? I had a friend in the Milton church who used to say you cannot evaluate the minister, because the success of the ministry is based on feeling. It is all personal.  For someone who is somewhat literal about what a job requires, what could be more frustrating?

“Do Your Job” may sound like the old American dream philosophy, that if you work hard you will get ahead. This is what fueled my parents dream to succeed. Yet we all know there is only some truth in that.  Some people work hard, and do not get ahead. Full time minimum wage does not even pay for housing around here. Moreover, I wonder whether hard work or being responsible in our work results in any appreciable degree of affirmation. Sometimes it seems like people do not suffer any consequences when they are not fulfilling job responsibilities. How often do you find yourself standing in line at a super market and the cashiers ignore you because they are talking to their friends or looking at their phones?  The genesis of this sermon was a time where I had scheduled a meeting with someone, who then had to reschedule with me because a person they were trying to meet with simply did not respond to their repeated attempts to communicate. Finally, when they did respond it was for a meeting time smack in the middle of our original meeting time.  I had to ask myself why responsible people who reply to others promptly and clearly and communicate in a responsible fashion are punished for being responsible.  We end up accommodating the irresponsible person.  Should the irresponsible person be the ultimate winner, while the responsible ones feel frustrated and manipulated?

I have a colleague who I like very much, but he may be the world’s worst communicator. An email sent to him almost always disappears into a blackhole. The frustrating thing about this colleague is that an email from him appeared a few months ago asking me to meet for lunch, in order to talk about some advice he needs planning for retirement.  Sounds sincere, right? And yet, what was my experience? A reply back with some possible dates, ended up unanswered for weeks, so that the dates I suggested all passed by. I tried again.  Still nothing. Finally, I gave up, explaining in an email that he probably will never read that it is difficult to communicate with him because he does not respond.  I would like him to be my friend, but correspondence with him always disappears in a Bermuda triangle of messages. Maybe I need to be clear about the limits of taking responsibility for everyone else.

So, the first lesson of the Belechick Do Your Job philosophy is communicate the game plan. If there are emails sent, please respond.  If there is a deadline for reservations, please sign up. You want to tell me something, then do it directly. The idea is rather than talk about the minister, talk to the minister.  Successful churches operate on a system of open communication and trust.  Belechick has learned that communicating the game plan directly strengthens trust and leads to greater accomplishment within an organization.  Are we aware of what the church is trying to do?  Do we have a plan for growth? Do we even know if we want to grow?  Something to think about in the transition process.

The second lesson of the Belechick Do Your Job philosophy is to set expectations for each player. Everyone has a role to play, and we need everybody to make the organization work well.  Some people are not more important than others, and if one person fails to do their job, we may suffer defeat.  Everyone has to do their part.  We cannot sit back and wait for one person to pay their pledge, as everyone needs to participate in the programs we have. We need you on a committee because that is how the church programs will succeed. But if you are on a committee and volunteer to do the PR, you need to do it. In addition, we cannot be dependent on the minister. If the next minister believes that members should invite newcomers into membership, he or she may expect that the members will do that. But if they have never done that before and are reluctant to do so, then we may never have new members. Setting expectations for committees means we believe that they should get certain things done because that is how the church will move ahead, and be successful. Having no expectations may mean we cannot hope for any results. “We’ll see what happens” does not give us much hope that the team will win. Give your committee or project a goal, and then make it happen.

The third lesson of Do Your Job is practicing the fundamentals.  The team does this so that each player can develop the skills needed to live up to and exceed expectations. Practice leads to confidence. Church is a perfect place for lay people to try out new skills. But we also need to let the staff develop their skills.  What follows from developing skills is the need to give feedback, which is lesson number four. How do we give affirmation so that people will know they have succeeded and you want to see more of their skills?  In the fall at our Parish Council meeting, I wondered how the church could begin to see itself as an employer. What means of affirmation do we give to our employees? How does the minister know if she/he is doing a good job? Is a handshake from some of the people on Sunday morning enough?   

Some of the problem with this philosophy is that it may not translate very well to a church environment. I am sure I learned much of the philosophy from my parents who worked all the time so that work became their life.  It means I have put in long hours, I do everything I can to preserve the community wellbeing from shoveling snows off of roofs, to attending most every meeting, to being conscientious about preparation, but to what end? For someone who works all the time, the question may arise that I am working too much. But moreover, is there any reward for such work? Does it fulfill the job expectation, or is it my expectation? Or is feeling all that really matters?   

The final Belechick Do Your Job element is that we gain trust by inspiring confidence. Belechick promotes team values, endorsing loyalty and instilling a strong sense of “being in it together.” So, the winning congregation is not developed by members getting what they want or need from church, but, that we are in it for each other..  If we do things well – have a great RE program, wonderful music and inspiring worship coupled with plenty of programs and loyal members, we will develop that great church.

How do you produce a happy, successful staff to lead a great church? You begin by committing yourselves to the congregation’s well-being as a whole, but you also commit to what will help make the staff do the best job they can to carry out your dream that this will be a great church.  The book The Grapes of Wrath is an American classic about the value of work. The story tells us that hard work is good for you, but not purely because it is hard work. In his emphasis on the spiritual necessity of work, Steinbeck makes a point that is crucial to his overarching message in the book: while the workers’ rights movement demands higher wages and fairer treatment, it does not demand an alleviation of hard work per se. Rather, the movement seeks to restore the dignity of hard work to the migrant workers like the Joad family. When the workers are respected, when the Joad family is valued, when expectations are high and achievement acknowledged, this is when human beings can begin to find in their labor the transcendence described.  This is why a church must think of itself as an employer.  Then you give your employees a chance to see if their work produces great results – you are moved, you come all the time, you tell them you appreciate what they do. You may say they know we love them.  But how do they know that? 

Is there any reward for being responsible?  I answer emails promptly. I make sure things are done. Does it do any good?  A few years back when I was searching for a church, not because of dissatisfaction with you, but to have the opportunity to serve a large church, my wife sized up my prospects.  While my credentials generated much interest, and I had opportunities to preach, she said that my anxiety and inability to sell myself were limitations in the search process because churches tend to go for a flashy person who is skilled at selling themselves.  She said I am someone who proves his/her worth over the long haul. My work reflects loyalty, devotion and steadiness.  While not traits to win jobs, I hope they are traits that have reflected institutional trust for 23years.

To some extent work has to be its own reward. Those of us who are parents know that generally no one is going to tell us we are great parents.  Parenting is a sacrificial work that must be its own reward, and that reward may come in who they become as adults, but it also may come in knowing that you have tried your hardest and done your best and given it your all to produce a better, happier person for the next generation. The reward may be a day when they hug us, or tell us they love us. There is a mutuality to parenting. We give a lot, and we also must tell them how proud we are of them, but it often comes back when we feel appreciated. Overall there are rewards for work itself that do not need accolades.  I appreciate you for giving me the time to teach, to write and to think about the history and polity and theology of our faith.  But even that I believe has come back to you in a variety of ways. I have done much of that in that context of your history, and the life of this people as a religious community.  So, there are some personal rewards from my work, but in the bigger picture it is work that improves the excellence of this religious community.  There is a mutuality of respect and affirmation which can create a positive environment for everyone.

As you begin a search process, you need to remember that clergy are just people like you, but also that we have committed our lives to the well-being and growth of this faith.  It is our life, our breath and our meaning that you do your job and build up great churches. And so, you need to know that we care deeply about whether or not people go to church, and how they are.  I was upset a few years back when a neighbor of mine stopped coming. Another member said, “oh don’t take it personally, it just doesn’t fit in with their life right now.” The person still wanted to be our friend.  Here’s the problem with that. As my colleague Robin Bartlett says, “We ministers do take it personally, and so it feels like a rejection.  If you have been coming to a church and then stop coming, your pastors stay awake at night and obsess all day wondering if we did something or said something wrong. We replay every scenario of every conversation and every sermon we ever preached in our heads. Every pastoral care issue we may have missed. We know not to make it about us, but we are human and we do anyway.” This fact gives me empathy for every teacher or other helping professional who has wondered what they did wrong to hurt someone, or push them away. It’s hard to be humans who care so much. So, if you get up and walk out during a service I wonder why.  Did I offend you, or do you need a bathroom?  I take the work personally because it means so much, not just to me, but for the lifeblood of the community. I want to build a church culture that can sustain the challenges of people who walk away, or are selfish, because I want it to be a community that flourishes into the future.

One thing that is true of work is that people want to do something that other people really want. My parents sold retail oil so that people could heat their homes.  Their customers really needed that commodity, and appreciated it if they got a good price on this basic need in cold New England winters.  We all love to find good bakeries or oven fired pizza. In my teaching I want to provide my students with stimulating discussions and helpful lectures.  In the long run we both believe it will make them into better ministers. To teach that class I have a plan, and I am very responsible about fulfilling that plan, and I make sure that each of my students lives up to their part of the plan. Then we end up with a good class. Remember those professors on tenure who used out of date lectures, and sometimes failed to show up, and when they did, their enthusiasm was muted. I appreciate students who love my class and want to be there.  I notice when they are missing or half-heartedly participate.  We don’t garden to get our hands dirty or to pass the time.  We garden to grow vegetables for ourselves because fresh food is wonderful and good for us.  We grow it to give to others, because we want to share the bounty. We grow it because we want to feel part of creation, and it provides a disciple and a devotion to the interdependence we all feel with earth and each other. Whether we are teaching or growing vegetables we try to communicate our enthusiasm for life and the greater community..

Why do I preach?  It is a self-satisfying practice of writing, researching, and discovering deeper meaning, but perhaps it inspires you to look at your own story and find meaning in your life.  Would you tell me if you felt engaged by the sermon? Maybe you will uncover something remarkable if you take time to consider your own life in depth. There is an old church joke that I first heard in England many years ago.  A new preacher came to the church, and he gave an astounding sermon. The next week the people came back, but the preacher gave the same sermon again.  A little odd, but . . .the third week arrived, and the people came to church, and astonishingly  heard the same sermon for a third time. One of the church elders had to comment, this is a fine sermon, but we have heard it before.  The preacher replied, and you’ll hear it again, until you act upon it.  We know that the wisdom in the Denise Levertov poem is true. You cannot find new truth every week, but must rely upon the old wisdom, the recurring truth, that continues to bring inspiration in our lives.  UU sometimes mistakenly think that everything must be new and different in worship, undisciplined, alternative and free. But as the Do Your Job philosophy tells us, if you want to be successful at anything, you have to be in it for the long haul. We do it over and over again, to get it right, but we also do it over and over again because great truths or what Levertov calls radiant epiphanies are revealed to us over and over again, but in new ways, becoming deeper and deeper. We know each other.. It is why we make love over and over again.  It is why we say I love you over and over again. It is why in work, we keep telling each other how much we need each other, and how much we value each other. In work it gives us the motivation and desire to continue, when we say I am glad you are here.  You do good work. Perhaps in my 23 years we have not done that enough. But it is still a good lesson to remember for the new day.  I have given what I could to this ongoing community, and now as Levertov says, you can hold on to the light of the message and move on. “You can, you must proceed.”

Closing Words – from Wendell Berry

 [All the ancient wisdom] tells us that work is necessary to us, as much a part of our condition as mortality; that good work is our salvation and our joy; that shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom. We have tried to escape the sweat and sorrow promised in Genesis – only to find that, in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy. (pg. 44, “The Unsettling of America”)”