What is Ministry
Ministry is a lot like parenting. When you are a parent your heart is walking around outside your body. For the minister that heart is the movement as a whole, the people you minister to, and the web of existence, with its heart of love, to which you are accountable. When you are a parent you encourage your children to become their best selves, cheer when they do, and ache when they struggle. A parent or a minister must model, teach, nurture, and challenge the individuals in beloved community to reach for a common vision of what is good.
Some may object to the imagery of minister as parent because they have experienced parents who are controlling, non-self-differentiated, or downright dangerous. We have probably all experienced or heard stories about ministers who present similar problems. And that is another way in which ministry is like parenting: It is an awesome responsibility. A struggling minister can make a lasting destructive imprint on the congregation. A successful minister can be a powerful force for good.
The art of ministry is to call people toward their best selves. That takes the form of modeling, where the minister constantly strives to live a life of integrity, harmony, humility (humor), and vision. Being our best selves requires that we heed the call to do the work of nurturing and teaching and challenging others and are faithful to ourselves, to each other, and to the work that must be done. We are constantly transforming ourselves, being reborn into who we will be. This requires that we learn to ride the roller-coaster of change, embrace and celebrate it, and pay careful attention to the process of change.
Harmony, not balance, is possible when you know that sometimes the focus must be outward, and sometimes inward. Sometimes self care takes a back seat and sometimes a deeply renewing vacation is the right thing. All things come around again and again in a spiral, but they don’t come neatly in balanced packages.
Ministry takes the form of teaching or fostering an atmosphere where mistakes are a part of the glorious adventure of being human, and at the same time, every individual is held accountable for failures of nerve or heart. A harmony of forgiveness and vision creates a congregation that is safe enough to join, but challenging enough to encourage transformation. The minister and congregants must forgive themselves, and each other, many times over and must learn from those mistakes, and trust that the opportunity will come around again to begin again, in love.
Teaching itself has gone through a transformation in our culture as we move from a modernist sensibility to a post-modern sensibility. The teacher of old was the sage on the stage providing the wisdom from on high to the assembled masses. The teacher now is a guide on the side, facilitating learning and offering a piece of his or her journey and reflection to those who wish to participate in the dance. Teaching and learning is a process of entering into dynamic relationship with others.
Ministry takes the form of articulating a vision where everyone is intrinsically valuable; and at the same time reminding us all that our task in life is to make the world a better place. Each of us is a child of the universe, constantly being reborn into something new. Each individual, where-ever they are in their life process, is precious and deserves to be treated with respect and provided basic human rights. We each bring a gift to the world in the blessing of our existence. This blessing also comes with a responsibility. We are responsible for our selves and for the world around us. This is the task I was taught when I first started camping: Leave the campsite in better shape than you found it. The minister also has the responsibility to leave the congregation and members of the congregation in at least no worse shape, but preferably better shape than they were found in.
Vision is many things, including teaching, speaking truth, and nurturing. Vision is not a one way experience. It needs to be articulated and held up, but it also needs to be received. Vision must be embraced as learning, accepting challenge, and relying on those who sustain you.
Finally, ministry nurtures the community in which this work is done. We need each other and we need to do the good work of loving well with and for one another. Nurturing one another, the community as a whole, and the Unitarian Universalist movement cares for individuals and the world. This may take the form of calling others to be accountable for right relationships with one another. It may take the form of being open to learning what I have done that has hurt another, or broken our covenant. This beloved community is the congregation, where we learn from one another, are sustained by one another, and are called to be our best selves.
Caring for people and the entire web of life, loving deeply and well, is sustaining and inspiring. Regardless of whether you spell God as “good” or “love” or something else, we each bring a piece to the table about what God is and our many gifts can be honored and celebrated without diminishing our companions’ gifts. Commitment to this work is renewing when it is done in joy and love. Our deep selves recognize when this work is being done in a loving way. We recognize people who are committed without guilt and passionate without hate and are attracted to them because we instinctively know that this work can and should be done this way.
"It is a blessing each of us was born. It matters what each of us does with our lives. What each of us knows about god is a piece of the truth. We don’t have to do it alone.” These words from our youth sustain and inform my vision of Unitarian Universalism, of being human religiously, and of being a minister.