Unconditional Love and Other Horror Stories, Rev Denis Paul

Start Date

Every once in a while, a minister writes a sermon, then at the last minute has to lay it aside and start all over, in order to deliver a completely different message that addresses an issue suddenly made visible.

What has come up is a question asked by a number of people, pretty much all at once. (I heard it a couple times in the last week, and figured, rightly it turns out, that there were plenty of others saying it. Just not to me.)

And since the lay leadership and I said early last year that we would answer questions in the most appropriate and effective manner possible, I figured right now, this morning, is the best time to address this simple but very loaded question:

Since we have a 3/4 time contract with our developmental minister, why doesn't he preach three out of four Sundays?

Every time I talk with ministers of other faiths, they are shocked by the expectations Unitarian Universalist congregations have of their ministers.

Catholic priests I know acknowledge that they have it kind of easy. They are given readings from the lectionary every day of the week, and on Sunday they get four: one from the "Old Testament," One from the Psalms, and one each from the Gospels and the Epistles of the New Testament. They pick one, do a little research, read commentary from other theologians, and talk about it extemporaneously for five to ten minutes, making one simple point, and repeating it.

That's because the most important part of a priest's job is not to preach, but to celebrate the mass, which is a series of rituals, most notably the Eucharist, which remain the same, week after week, year after year, century after century.

Ministers from Protestant traditions have a similar task. They preach from a lectionary. And everything they say in their sermons is commentary on one book: The Christian Bible. And their message is always the same: "The only way to God is through Christ."

Whenever I tell these Christian preachers that I have to preach from different texts or groups of texts, that I have to choose myself, they have the same response: "Oh my God! How can you do that week after week? Where do you come up with ideas? How do you get all that reading done? How can you possibly think of something new to say every Sunday? And how the heck do you choose all the music?"

Never mind readings, and stories, and rituals and synthesizing the personal reflections of congregants, whose stories our listeners love. All while staying on top of current events.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. I love my job. I love that I get to preach while I am in relationship with you all, in response to what is going on here and in the world. Preaching just takes time.

Since it has always been the tradition of our ministers to treat as our sacred text the whole world and not just one book, we've never been expected to preach every week. The expectation has been that a full time minister will preach 30 to 33 times a year. That's 3 times per month for 10 or 11 months of the church year. Everyone gets a month of vacation. Some get an additional whole month just for study. The rest of us get a 3 or 4 study weeks scattered through the year for reading and research.

Either way, full time ministers preach 3 times a month.

It's not exactly fair, but a half time minister preaches twice a month, so 20 to 22 times a year.

When I was hired last year as a 3/4 time developmental minister, there was an idea floating around that I would preach at least as much as Judy Bagley Bonner did before me. She preached 37 times a year for two years. No months off. But, that was pretty much all she did, along with some hospital and home visits. No meetings. No committee work. No developmental work. No social justice work.

For me to do any developmental work, plus all the other full service minister types of things being asked of me (like the goals I'll talk about later) I cannot devote nearly all of my time to preaching the way Judy did.

The Transitional Committee on Ministry and the Board of Trustees and I agreed contractually that I would be responsible for 27 services a year, and that the Worship Arts Team would be responsible for the rest. That doesn't mean that I have preach every single one of those services, just that I am responsible for making them happen.

Last spring, at Regional Assembly in Niagara Falls, a whole bunch of us from East Shore heard a talk by Scott Tayler, Director of Congregational Life for the Unitarian Universalist Association.

He shared a concept he calls Multi-Site Ministry, the radical idea that multiple congregations geographically close to one another can share their complementary resources to help one another meet individual goals. Sharing resources... facilities, equipment, community connections, the skills of lay people. They can attend one another's events. Share the work of contractors or support staff, like bookkeepers, secretaries or newsletter editors. Even share ministers.

When you think about it, sharing ministers is the most obvious thing in the world. We all spend so much time crafting meaningful and engaging worship. Worship that engages the senses and appeals to different learning styles and includes many generations and theologies and political points of view, all from a vast collection of sacred texts that spans the world.

And we present each worship service once.

Add to that the realities of human beings as ministers. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, the things we whip through with ease and grace and the things that we lumber through. The things we avoid because we can't even comprehend how to approach and don't have the time to learn about.

So, Scott Tayler said, some congregations pool their ministerial resources. Each minister writes one or two sermons a month, and delivers one or both of them in two or more congregations. This allows them time to develop better worship services AND have a little more time to devote to the other tasks of ministry.

Most multi-site clusters of congregations make all of the ministers regular rotating preachers, each with a specialty. One minister might be the personnel supervisor for every site, while another teaches adult religious education classes everywhere.

One great advantage of having multiple preachers in each site is diversity. There's a joke, shockingly true joke across denominations, that every minister has one - maybe two - sermons that they tell every week, with slight variations. So, rather than hearing the same minister and sermon constantly, congregants can be treated to a variety of voices to better address their huge diversity of spiritual and intellectual needs.

That's a good thing, because I can tell you, no matter how much you may love (or hate!) your one minister's preaching, there are many others who feel exactly the opposite.

If you've been around for a while, you know that my fiance, Joe Cherry, is the minister at our UU Society in Cleveland Heights, which had at least a dozen people at that Regional Assembly. As Joe and I sat together listening to Scott Tayler's description of multi-site ministry, we looked around at the folks from our two congregations, all of whom were looking over at us, expectantly. At the end of the talk, they pulled us aside separately, and said excitedly "we could do that! East Shore and the Society could have a multi-site relationship!"

It's all about complementary resources, right?

East Shore has big facilities and small financial endowments. The society has a big endowments, and small facilities. They are urban, we're rural. Their membership lives in a couple zip codes, ours live in 36 zip codes. They have lots of young adults, we have only a few.

Joe and I have totally different skill sets. He's a musician, I'm a visual artist. He's task-oriented, I'm more big-picture. He's an extrovert, I'm an introvert. He calls things like he sees them, I'm more diplomatic.

Folks from both congregations saw the potential.

So this idea that we could have a Multi-Site relationship made sense to everyone, even though, frankly, both Joe and I were a little freaked out by the amount of work and time and finessing it would require to make it happen. And we've always been clear that we don't want to be co-ministers.

The Regional Assembly attendees brought the idea back to our respective Committees on Ministry and Boards of Trustees, and they in turn talked about maybe someday possibly doing something that looks something like some variation on multi-site ministry. Maybe. 
Someday. But it would take time.

Let me be absolutely clear about this. Multi-site relationships are about connection and collaboration, NOT merging into co-dependent relationships. NEVER has there been any discussion of merging East Shore and the Society. Even if a multi-site relationship were to be formalized, sometime in the future, after much discussion and input and direction and voting from the members of both congregations, East Shore would continue to be East Shore and the Society would continue to be the Society, each in its own home. Each preserving its own character, culture and identity.

But if we want to support each other and have a closer relationship, which is in line with the wishes expressed by a of majority of members that we begin to reach out beyond our own walls, then the place to start is by doing regular and frequent pulpit exchanges, and inviting congregants to one another's events. Both of our boards charged us with taking those first tiny steps.

That's why this church year you'll notice two things.

First, we are announcing events that are happening at the Society, events that would be open to us and to the wider community. Things like workshops, adult religious education classes, special worship and regular monthly events. And they are doing the same for our events.

We've even scheduled recurring Friday night events to complement one another, rather than compete. On the first and third Fridays we have Community Kirtan and Movies Making Meaning here at East Shore. And on second and fourth Fridays they have the Spiritual Writing Group and Art Gallery Openings at the Society.

So, you can go to all of the events regularly and never miss anything.

The second thing you'll notice is that Joe and I are exchanging pulpits eight times during the year. We've already done one of the pulpit exchanges in August, will do another next week, and have six more planned through June.

I will be leading worship here 22 times, and Joe will be leading 8 times. Plus, hopefully, we'll be exchanging pulpits with colleagues from other UU congregations in our district two more times. That means from my contractual obligation for 27 services, you'll actually get 32. And instead of having to hear me over and over again, you'll get three other voices.

What I love most about this plan is that I get more time to craft better services, as do Joe and our other colleagues. I get to preach every bit as much (actually a bit more) but I get to fine tune the sermons. Best of all, I can do all that while continuing to provide what I think is pretty good pastoral presence and work with the board of trustees and the Committee on Ministry to do the developmental work you hired me to do.

Worship schedules are complicated. We have to start planning a year in advance to fit everything in. Things like holidays, annual ceremonies, rituals and milestone celebrations. Study leave, ministers retreats, multigenerational worship, and the added complexity of my 3/4 time schedule. So, Joe and I coordinated our calendars way back in May.

The calendar included a furlough week in mid-June, then ten days at General Assembly in Portland OR, then a week at Summer Institute and three weeks of vacation. The first pulpit exchange fell on the second week back, in a month with five Sundays.

It felt for a moment like too much too soon, being gone seven weeks, preaching once, and being gone another two weeks before preaching a second time. That meant preaching twice in 11 weeks.

But we said, "well, if we're going to do these pulpit exchanges, we have to just start. If we wait until September or October, we'll barely get any in. People will understand." East Shore likes Joe. The Society likes me.

Now the crazy thing here is that I went against my own best advice. I always tell people here that if they think something they're doing might cause upset, they should pay attention to it. If they think it, even for a nanosecond....it's true. So plan for it.

We shouldn't have planned the first pulpit exchange for August. But the deed is done, and for that I'm sorry. I should have paid attention to my own advice and my own split-second gut response. Worship is planned through early October, with Joe here next week, and Workman's Circle on September 20th...a service which has been in the works for months. Choirs are rehearsing. Worship Associates have prepared their parts. Sermons are written.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not the sermon I wrote for today. All the other elements are the same though, including the story of The Giving Tree, which has turned out to be oddly appropriate. It's a story about appropriate relationships.

You know, at times each of us is like the boy. We all have moments in our lives when we need someone to pay attention to us, to give freely, and love unconditionally and radically so that we can overcome the hurdles we face. Maybe we've lost a job. Or we're struggling with the demands of ill spouses or children with special needs. Maybe we're facing our own health crises. Maybe we're just lonely and afraid. We find ourselves for a period taking more than we give. And that's okay once in a while. As long as it isn't always the same person doing the giving.

As a child, what I took away from the story was that my parents would always be there for me, always giving everything they had. And THAT was what I understood to be love. Unconditional love.
I was pleased this morning when Che said to me that she thinks to the story of the Giving Tree is depressing. That's an insight I didn't have until I was 30, and she's only 13.

As an adult, I see the story as a reminder that we can't give so much of ourselves that there is nothing left. I don't see the tree as a motherly heroine, I see her as a tragic figure of co-dependency, giving herself away habitually, to her own detriment. She gives of herself until she is no longer herself. She goes from being a tree to being nothing but a stump.

She makes of herself a god that gives the boy everything he needs.

In some traditions, clergy are the representations of god on earth. Clergy give themselves completely to the church and its members, and in return are granted special status, special authority to make proclamations about what is right and what is wrong. Even decide the fates of the people they serve. They give the ultimate as Jesus did, and reserve the right of judgment.

That's not the kind of clergy we want in Unitarian Universalism. With our clergy we want relationships of mutuality and respect, not domination and guilt.

As I serve you, I don't want to be that tree. And I don't think we want that either.

I love my job. I love that I get to preach and serve you and be invited into the most intimate moments of your lives as a guide and a witness. But there are more than 200 of you, and I have to be there for each of you, equally. And if I give too much of myself, there will soon be nothing left to give, and like any mortal, I'll be reduced to nothing but a stump, defeated, expecting recompense.

So there are a few things I have to do, to guarantee that I can cheerfully serve you all, for years to come.

I have to honor the fact that I am 3/4 time, by staying away during the furlough periods when I am not paid to be here. (These furlough weeks are not vacations. I'm working around my house, doing chores I don't have time to do during the weeks I am here. Or, I am doing other work, much of which pays, compensation I need to make ends meet.)

I have to take care of myself, eat healthy foods, get plenty of exercise, tend to my family and relationships, and take the vacation that I've earned.

I have to have relationships of respect and affection with every single one of you, without playing favorites.

I have to leave space for you all to share your stories, the way Pat has today, and I have to allow you to be the leaders of this congregation, in our democratic, grass-roots, non-hierarchical tradition. I must not be the one person you turn to for all of your needs.

Most importantly, I have to not be the focal point of this church.

That's why we are in a circle.

This circle is a symbol of our theology that none of us has the answer to the most important questions of life, that each of us holds a piece of the Truth that is crucial to our shared understanding.

This circle is a symbol of our Unitarian Universalist polity, our historic system of governance in which the people - all of you and only you - have the right and responsibility to determine for yourselves the course of your future.

This circle is a symbol of our covenant, the commitment you make when you join to make your relationship with one another a priority in your lives, so that you may be guides and witnesses to one another.

This circle, with the flames of our most important cares and concerns at its center, is a reminder that you all have to see each other and hear each other. You all have to show up, no matter who is preaching. Because to not be here is to diminish the circle. To not be here is to be disconnected.

When I was hired to come here, there were four goals outlined by the board that we would work on together, goals affirmed by both successive boards:

to enhance a sense of community in the congregation

to define and articulate mission and vision

to enhance the financial standing of the congregation

and to expand membership numbers

These goals are amazingly chronological. If we focus on those first three, in order, membership will take care of itself. Last year, I worked on connections by meeting one to one with everyone who wanted to and establishing new practices that increase collective energy and a sense of belonging.

This year, the Committee on Ministry and I, are going to, as planned, focus on Mission and Vision.

The Committee on Ministry is made up of five people: (each stands)

Kristine Burkwood

Kaaren Biggen

Don Clason

Tiffany Griffith

And myself.

Thank you all.

We, the COM, are going to hold four workshops with all of you to figure out what it means to Love, Revere, Discover and Connect, and how those four words relate to our corporate intentions for being with each other.

In those discussions, we'll also figure out what working outside of our walls could look like. Do you want to work together to try to make the world better? Do you want to work with other Unitarian Universalists? Other organizations with similar goals? And if so...how?

The COM will not only be working on this mission and vision work, they are also the people you should go to if you have anything to say about the direction of the ministry of East Shore.

Bring to them - to us - your concerns, compliments, suggestions. Even your complaints and criticisms. You should know that I am trained as an artist. I learned really young how to accept critique graciously. If you have something to say, say it directly, without speaking for others. And please. Don't let anyone else speak for you. Because to give away your voice is to give away your power.

The COM is here to serve you. You have power, and our voice matters. We want to here from you.

Any questions?

Event type
Worship Service