Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Ministry is Big, so Have Faith

I want to give thanks to my colleague Christian Schmidt for being one of two inspirations for this post, through a question he posed to me in a comment on my article on our denomination’s feelings about supporting ministries.  It is a topic that I have thought about engaging many times in many different ways, and could never find the right handle to explain my thoughts and feelings on this.

You see, Christian discussed his surprise that I would move into a different kind of ministry than what I had been practicing before, considering that I had done fairly well as both an interim and as a minister of a pastoral-sized congregation.  Not only had I done well, that work has brightened my days and fed my soul.  So, why would I step out of that (the opportunities to stay in solo ministry were certainly there) and move into a different area of ministry?

I’ve discussed this with friends, and they’ve proposed some interesting theories.  One suggested to me that she thought it was because I get bored easily.  I can see how it might seem like that from the outside, but internally I’ve never felt bored with any ministry I’ve ever been in.  Each has been a challenge, often at the edges of my capacity (though I apparently seem more competent and confident than I actually am).  Founding the Great Lakes Military Ministry and helping to keep it afloat was just as big a challenge the day I handed it off as it was when Seanan Holland and I started it… if in different ways.  The most challenging, and most rewarding day of my Interim Ministry was the last one.  Though we accomplished a lot, there was so much more we could have done.  I grieve not being the one to continue the walk with them as much as missing the people of that congregation.  I remember Rev. Barbara Pescan’s words from the pulpit of the Unitarian Church of Evanston as my ministerial internship ended and I became their summer minister… as she sang “How can we miss you if you won’t go away?” Being their summer minister was a different challenge than being their intern… as was preaching a four part sermon series there a year later.

Oh, and my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency… I’m still having withdrawal symptoms from the end of my Residency… which the last few weeks I have lived vicariously through the experiences of our congregation’s Intern Minister as she has told stories from the CPE unit she just finished.

No, in every case, I was just as engaged when a ministry concluded as when it began… and ministry has never been boring to me.

Another friend of mine says that I have “Congregational Commitment Issues”…

This may actually be more on point.  Not that I can’t commit to a congregation, I certainly can, and have.  Sandy and I hope to be in Ventura/Oxnard for a long time.  There are worse fates than to settle on California’s Gold Coast.  Though I chafe at it sometimes, I’ve certainly made a commitment to the U.S. Army and military chaplaincy in the reserves.  And, I have longed for years for a congregational home.

I think back to what attracted me to the position at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura, and I realize that there were two aspects of this church (besides California’s Gold Coast) that drew me.  The first was, as I stated in a recent article, the congregation’s willingness to make some bold decisions (read as risks) as a congregation.  But there was a second aspect of this church that intrigued me… that on reflection was the root of the first.

The denizens of Celestial Lands who are Unitarian Universalist Ministers will understand what I mean when I say that there are some peculiar aspects of being in Search as a UU Minister.  One of them is that you read dozens of “Congregational Records”.  These are each about 8-10 pages long, and are the congregation’s attempt at capturing their essential nature, discerning what they are looking for in a minister, and trying to “advertise” why they would be a great location for a ministry.

In most of the Congregational Records you read, the congregation has done some very specific work to determine what kind of minister they want.  The UUA provides all kinds of tools for the congregation to discern what their ministerial needs are, what their vision of a minister is.  It even rates all different areas of ministerial practice, and asks the congregation to give ratings to which is more important to them.

As I read through packets, I saw congregations that might have been a good fit.  They seemed to be looking for something close to what I might have to offer, as the minister I am in this moment.  Some were solo ministries, some were supporting ministries.

And then I read the Congregational Record for the UU Church of Ventura…  and sat for 5 minutes with my jaw open…

It basically said this… “We have no idea what an Assistant Ministry in our congregation will look like.  We want someone to come, to bring their ministry, their talents, and their skills… and help us learn together what we want and need to do and to be together.  We have some ideas of things we would like to do, and want an Assistant Minister who will also have ideas.  But we can’t tell you what you will be doing here, because until it happens we have no idea.”

At first I thought, “Well, they can’t really mean it.  Maybe they put this Congregational Record together fast, and that was all they had time to put in.”  Then, I spoke with their search committee and soon-to-be Senior Minister, and realized they really did mean it.  They really had moved into their search for a new assistant minister as an act of faith, with little to no idea where it would take them… and they were challenging someone to join them in that act of faith.

As the saying goes, “they had me at hello…”

Two nights ago, one of the members of that search committee, a long-time and deeply loved member of our congregation and one of the most faith-filled Unitarian Universalists I have ever met, died.  He had a long-running battle with cancer that finally ran out of treatments and options.  He faced that end honestly, with great courage and with a deep and abiding faith not only that this was not an end but a transition, but with the truth that he had been a “good and faithful servant” of his church, of this world, and of all life.  His name was Tom Berg.

I can honestly say that had it not been for Tom, I would not be the Assistant Minister of the UU Church of Ventura… for two reasons. First, he was a guiding light in the vision to bring an Assistant Minister to the congregation, spiritually, practically, and financially.  And second, because I believe he helped shape this congregation to be as faith-filled as he was.  That stance of faith is his Legacy… a legacy I know I am a part of.

Ministry, not just the professional ministry but all of ministry… all of the things that all of us “do” in our congregations… ministry is big.  It is as big as the world.    Ministry cannot be held in any particular practice of ministry, it escapes from whatever boxes we try to create for it.  We can’t define what ministry is, or name a set of attributes.  When we do that, we lessen the power of what it can, what it could, what it should be.

Why have I rebelled against specializing in a particular kind of “ministry”?  Why have I not settled down to become the best parish minister / military chaplain / hospital chaplain / hospice chaplain / assistant minister / outreach minister / whatever minister I can be?  Because ministry is bigger than all of these, bigger than all of our ideal images of all of these… and faith calls us beyond such boundaries.

Ministry is big, my friends… so have faith.

Thank you, Tom.

Yours in faith,

Rev. David



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