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April 29, 2007: “The Art of Ministry”

Sunday, April 29, 2007
Because we Unitarian Universalists don’t take kindly to commandments, I originally wrote THE TEN SUGGESTIONS as part of a wedding ceremony:

THE TEN SUGGESTIONS Rev. Arthur G. Severance

Find Out who you really are and what you want out of life; then find out what life wants out of you. Find your own way to be religious.

Give up the need to be right( usually you’re not!).It’s usually better to be loving than to have to be right! When there is stress in your relationship, find your part of the blame and admit it; be the first to apologize, and then change that part of your behavior.

Cultivate love all around you; develop and nurture a deep and profound love of life and people.

Be slow to anger and quick to forgive. Grudges are much too heavy to carry around, and they tend to multiply the longer that we hold them.

Take care of your heart, mind, and body – practice love, intellectual stimulation, and physical health.

Find a way to make the world a better, happier, more loving and just place for your having lived in it.

Beware the “sin” of cynicism; attempt to see the positive instead, and avoid putting others down. The world has enough ‘devil’s advocates!’

Be kind to animals- yes, but also to each other, your elders, yourself and to all people, be akind to as you would toward animals! Be kind to Mother Earth.

Have lots of fun; don’t work too hard, and don’t take life too seriously. No one on their death bed wishes they had put in more hours working.

Learn to truly share, working for social justice in the world and relational justice in all your relationships.

Let us come together to worship, to explore what that might mean, to become part of this beloved community; let us enter together, maybe even holding hands, into the religious dimension where all are welcome.

‘The ART of Ministry: Who In Their Right Mind Would Want To Be A Unitarian Universalist Minister’
Rev. Arthur G. Severance
East Shore Unitarian Universalist Church
April 29, 2007

Three clergy were asked: ‘When you are in your casket, and friends, family, and congregants are mourning over you, what would you like to hear them say?”
The Baptist pastor said: “I would like to hear them say that I was a wonderful husband, a fine spiritual leader, and a great family man.”
The Catholic priest: “I would like to hear that I was a vicar of Christ and a servant of God who made a huge difference in people’s lives.”
Unitarian Universalist minister : “I would like to hear them say, ‘Look, he’s moving!'”

We all have a different idea of what ministers do, don’t do, should do, and of course, should never do, and our different ideas come from many sources, besides the last minister who served this church. We all have, well, some psychological baggage that we carry around, and it may be from as far back as our childhood and the religious way we were brought up. We ministers often have that same problem as well, especially we UU ministers, because we are free to have such a wide range of beliefs about who, what, and why we serve. The original title of the Sermon is from the name of my newsletter column and is an obvious play on my name. It is subtitled: ‘Who In Their Right Mind Would Want To Be A Unitarian Universalist Minister’

A student comes to the Guru and says that he or she wishes to become a teacher of the truth.
“Are you prepared,” asked the master, “to be ridiculed, ignored and starving until you are 45?”
“I am,” said the student. “But tell me: what will happen after I am forty-five?”
“You will have grown accustomed to it.”

Why would anyone in their right mind want to be a minister, and does that perhaps explain it? I don’t know why I wanted to be a minister; I can only explain that I felt called by God to be one when I was in 6th grade, sitting in the Congregational church in Laconia, New Hampshire, with my family during the sermon which was about the young boy Samuel who God called to be a prophet. Samuel had been the young temple assistant to Eli and was bring trained to be a temple priest. One night God called his name, and Samuel thought it was Eli calling, but Eli said he hadn’t called. Again God calls and finally God tells Samuel that he will be, not a temple priest, but a prophet! One of those times that the minister said God was calling Samuel, I just remember that I felt shivers go down my spine and an overwhelming feeling that I , too, was being called by God to become a minister. There was something about the spirituality of being in church with my family and singing those hymns which were designed, let’s say, to bring on the religious dimension, the feeling of being connected with all of life under the guise of God and Jesus, though the concept of the trinity always was difficult for me. But frankly, I didn’t think about the logical inconsistencies, because I liked the way I felt when I was in what I am calling the religious dimension.

In high school, however, I was in the youth group; and that I loved. Someone saw beyond my clowning and asked if I would like to be the church youth representative to the NH State Youth Ministry Council, and that changed my life and confirmed my call. I was asked to preach the youth sermon in my junior year and I did so gladly. I think the title wa something like, ‘If there’s dust on your Bible, there are cobwebs in your Faith.’ I went 500 miles away to college that was affiliated with the church in 1967, but no one told me that the college was in an area where the church was conservative, just as I was getting more liberal, even radical, as well as counter culture.

Perhaps it was the conservativeness of the college in those tumultuous 1960’s, or the many courses I was taking on psychology and comparative religions, the plays of Existentialists like Camu and Sartre that Was in, or the books I was reading like Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, Herman Hesse, and other counter culture writers, perhaps because I was a folk singer singing Dylan, Phil Ochs, and other protest singers, perhaps it was the anti war activity and the peace marches, and the church seemingly becoming more conservative, but I lost my childhood faith, though always retained a spiritual fascination with religion I loved the community of college friends

After college, I found that sense of community with the staff as a counselor in a Residential Treatment program for troubled adolescents and with my friends. I didn’t know any friend who was active in a church. I sure didn’t know about UUism, but like many of us, when we started our family, it was time to look for a religious community. We tried a United Church of Christ, but I actually felt angry after church because I was seeking something, and I didn’t know what, just that I wasn’t getting it from this church. We joined another more open church that was more new age and lay led. We liked it, but there was really nothing for the kids. Finally, my college roommate invited us to a UU fellowship he and his family had just started going to. Many of you may resonate with the wonderful feeling of Eureka, I have found what I didn’t even know I was searching fro! Amazing grace, I once was lost but now I was found!

It was a lay led congregation with visiting ministers once every six weeks; indeed, there was an anticlerical feeling to the fellowship so much that there was ar rule that we couldn’t have a minister more than once every six weeks. That did two things for me. 1. It made me aware of how much more I got from minister led services than most of the lay led services. I felt a deep sense of worship of the holy, however we wanted to define that.

It made me decide to put a service together. One of my creative passions was photography, so I decided to put together a slide show of my photographs and since another of my passions was folk singing and song writing, I would sing original and traditional folk music in the background. It was a spiritual experience putting it together and an even deeper religious experience presenting to the fellowship for a Sunday morning service.

As a result I once again felt called to UU ministry, though as humanist, I wasn’t sure WHO was calling. As I liked to say later, they didn’t leave their name. No one at the fellowship knew what I had to do for the next step, so I called the UUA in Boston and found out the first step was to have an interview with a UU minister. This began a process that would finally take about 5 years to go to seminary while I continued to work part time. Interesting enough however, the UU minister In my home of Laconia,NH was good friends with the youth minister at the Congregational Church. SO many years later when I again felt like I was being called to ministry, I wrote that minister a letter and asked for his advice. At the time he was serving as your minister, Brad Mitchell! I came across the letter he sent back which was very helpful, and now I stand before you wanting to be your minister.

Another of your ministers, Brad Greeley, was on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee! Then another herculean task, the search process to find a church or fellowship that will have us! A good match, we call it. The first settlement where we might also be ordained. Then each year of Preliminary fellowship one goes through an intensive evaluation form the church, fellowship, or community one is serving. And if you run into a problem with a difficult church,or board, or if the minister is having problems, one could be denied the tenure of ‘Final Fellowship.’ If everything goes well, after three years of preliminary fellowship, one would be granted Final fellowship.

I wanted to be a UU minister because I believed that I had “found my true self” at long last. I wanted to love what I did, and I wanted to be intellectually, creatively, and spiritually stimulated by my profession. And most importantly, I wanted what I did to have meaning, both for me and for others. I wanted and continue to ,want to be a UU minister because I believe it is the most meaningful thing I can do with my life. I want to be a UU minister because I believe wholeheartedly in our movement. I want to be a UU minster because I feel I can motivate and touch people. I want to be a UU minister because I am a lover of people, of religion, of life, and can find no better way to serve the “interdependent web” than the UU ministry, and no better way to work for social justice.

The journey toward UU ministry has been a long and painful one, for growth involves pain. Growing up, when one of us would complain about an unspecified, non bloody, non fever, pain, my mother would say that we were just having “growing pains”, and not to worry. It was just our bodies’ way of letting us know we were growing. And it seems the catch-phrase of the body-conscious 1980’s to say,”No pain,No gain.” If you’ll allow me to mix my metaphors a bit, then I’ll say it’s the same thing with psychological and spiritual growth- if there’s no growing pain, there’s no growth gain. No growth equals stagnation, whether it be a person or a congregation or a denomination. So the pain of growth is bittersweet, but the rewards are great.

Why would anyone in their right mind even want to do all that is required, with absolutely no guarantee that once you are done, you will be approved and credentialed. Indeed, we are often counseled by experienced ministers when we express a desire to become a minister to give it a lot of thought, to realize that it is not glamorous and often the opposite, that it has long hours and working most weekends! We are often counseled not to become a minister, unless we just can’t avoid it, unless there is such a deep and wondrous call from the holy within, that we must become a minister. In my 20 years or so of ministry, there have been many times when I questioned my ‘call,’ when I thought about quitting, yet the sense of what I had been through, the times when I know I was most helpful to those in need, and it was especially the leading of worship, the preaching, the weddings, child dedications, and yes, even, or perhaps especially the memorial services, the number of death beds I had visited that I know I did well, that I couldn’t give up. Isn’t that what worship is for, no matter what religion? To mysteriously evoke the religious dimension into which we can then enter and find our meanings, our love for the world and for ourselves and each other.

Personally and from many colleagues I have talked to, ministry, even the preparation for it changes us; indeed it transforms us, no not into religious super heroes, but if anything the opposite, humble servants to the great mysterious calling in our hearts, minds, hands, that is so deeply religious we cannot put only one name on it. My friend and colleague, Dennis Hamilton once put it right when he said, ‘ministry has made me a better person that I ever intended to be!’

I served First UU Church in San Antonio for almost 16 years, learning to become a minister; it doesn’t happen all at once! And of course there was conflict, and, as you might imagine, THAT is the hardest part of ministry, trying to minister when you know there are people who dislike you! Humor often helped me through, and I learned to be less defensive. I wrote this ‘Prayer for Those Who Have Suffered Too Many Meetings’ during that time:

‘I think it was John Lennon who said that life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans. Religion is like that, too. So is ministry. Perhaps we could say that life is what happens DESPITE our making plans. Religion is like THAT, too. Ministry is SO like that!

In the running of churches, (and my educated guess is that denomination doesn’t matter), we might say that religion is what happens DESPITE meetings, that way we have of TRYING to make plans. Occasionally, religion happens DURING meetings, and it perhaps those occasions that keep us who are part of the church running team going. Meetings are a must when ministry is shared.

Prayer for Those Who Have Suffered Too Many Meetings

O Lord, save me from myself, and save me especially from myself at meetings when ego confronts criticism and raises the thick walls of defensiveness. Give me infinite patience, understanding, tolerance, but especially patience! Give me wisdom and temper my wit, lest I joke insensitively and hurt. And Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’ve been called to be part of the church’s leadership, the but give me humility and faith to share the ministry of the church. Help me to believe in others. Let me be slow to anger and defensiveness, and quick to forgive. Save me from cynicism. Give me strength to sit for long periods of time. But most of all, remind me why we are here and restore my vision of working lovingly together to build a beloved community, which our souls thirst for, and which can transform us and the world to a fuller, more just and more loving world. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’

Ministry is about being in religious relationship, which like romantic relationships takes plenty of hard work, especially to get over feeling like you have to have your way or the highway. Religious relationships are about learning to compromise and letting go of the need too be right and.or in control. My idea of ministry is of a loving relationship, a shared ministry, working together to grow, both spiritually and numerically. Indeed, we do not need to convert anyone, we need to reach out to those who we often describe as UU’s without knowing it. who are often desperately searching for a church like ours that they don’t know exists!

In a lecture at a minister’s convocation in 2002 titled, ‘Deepening Our Call: Madly, Truly, Deeply: Loving the Work,’ Rebecca Parker wrote about why we are in ministry: ‘To love the work madly is to love it with passion borne from an ecstatic encounter with life’s beauty. You minister because you have fallen in love with life with irrational fervor. You’ve seen the moon rise over the night ocean. You’ve watched an old man’s face soften into a radiant smile that holds worlds of memory and awareness. You’ve felt how this existence we are inexplicably given is shot through with glamour — with the glimmer of an incandescent presence. From the uncurling of the fern frond, with its spine like a sea horse, like a human fetus, like the arc of a galaxy’s spiraling throw of fire, this earth, this universe, this multiverse has captured your heart and you answer with devotion. You will do anything so madly do you love it. No ritual of thanks, no life of committed service will ever fully satisfy your desire to make your whole life an act of praise.’

The privilege to be at the death bed is to experience death deeply and yes, lovingly. In memorial services we try to celebrate the love and life of a person with whom we may have worked closely for years and grown to deeply love; so we, too, feel the deep loss.

I think that all of us yearn for what I call the ‘religious dimension,’ that kind of religious inspiration which sparks us to become religious in our own way., The highly spiritual Jewish writer, a survivor of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel, writes in his book Souls on Fire , about Hasidism, a mystical, emotional sect of Judaism which loved to dance and sing. ‘Do you want to know what Hassidism is?’ He asks, ‘Do you know the story of the ironmonger who wanted to become independent? He bought an anvil, a hammer, and bellows, and went to work. Nothing happened-the forge remained inert/ Then an old ironmonger, whose advice he sought, told him ‘You have everything you need except the spark.’ That is what Hassidism is: the spark.” That’s what I would hope ministry is, to share that spark with the beloved community. It is that spark that I might call the God or divine within, that spark that sometimes happens s in the religious relationship of you, me and the universe when we gather in community worship. It is that spark that we UU’s also need to kindle when we become too cerebral!

But so often it is in the ordinary day to day work of the church, the endless meetings, sometimes challenging us to continue to love, even those who we find unlovable. Yet if we lose that capacity to love, we may fall out of religious relationship. Sometimes it is in the hugs after church that some people tell me is their only human touch all week .

No you can’t be in your right mind to want to be a minister, you have to in your heart as well, and balanced with the hands of service- so mind, heart, and hands.

I usually close with these words:

Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum (may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. ‘Vaya con Dios’ is SPanish for Good-bye, but literally is ‘Go with God,’ so I adapted it to say ‘Vaya Con SU Dios, ‘Go with your idea or interpretation of God.’