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Introspection and the “Set Apart” Life of Ministry

There are times where the internal shifts necessary to be in a life of ministry in our liberal faith tradition are more obvious than others.  As Unitarian Universalist ministers, we often emphasize a radical leveling in our ministries, and many UU ministers react against the classical understanding that ministers should live “a life apart”, or that ministry requires a kind of existence that is subtly separated from those we serve… be it through spiritual reflection, or a life of dedicated academic study, or even through physical separation and emotional boundaries.

I remember that each year of the seminary I attended, there was some third year seminarian preparing for ordination, and therefore looking closely at the realities of a life of ministry, who would give the first year seminarians some “sage” advice, usually about having all the fun you could now, because once you were a minister…

My thought was then, and still is today, that if you are close to ordination and thinking of all that you are sacrificing, then perhaps you need to take another look at your call to ministry.

What has sparked this line of thought was that my own internal transformation as a minister was put in stark relief this week.  Simply put, it was made clear to me that, at least on the topic of introspection and self-evaluation, I am quite different than most of my congregants.  I don’t think I’ve always been this different in relation to introspection… I think it was trained into me through the process of ministerial formation.  Yet, the difference is there, and on Sunday after the sermon it was as clear to me as Tiffany crystal.

So, here’s the story.   Last week, in presenting a story from the Islamic Hadith during the Story for All time of the service, I had left the impression for some congregants that I was saying something negative about Judaism.  I do not actually see that in this story of Mohammed choosing to forgive rather than seek vengeance, and naming such forgiveness as a high ideal in Islam, but others did see this in the story, as the person who was forgiven was Jewish.  Some of the reaction was emotional, (understandable) and I did not pick up on the level of emotion that was involved when I was asked where the story came from.  (In true Rev. David fashion, I initially thought it was a great opportunity to introduce the Hadith to someone, and I love the Hadiths of Islam.)

When I picked up on the passion and the depth of the concern, it set me on a path this week of exploring many things.  It set me on the path of a deeper exploration of the story, to see if I simply was not seeing an anti-Semitism in the story that was really there.  It set me on the path of looking in depth at my own motivations in choosing the story.  It set me on the path of analyzing how I had told the story, and what others might have heard in the way I told it.  It set me on the path of seeing the experience through the eyes of those who had taken offense, and listening to their stories, while also having dialog with them about what was “live” for me in the experience.  It set me on the path of looking at other stories I had told, looking for patterns in the telling.

I spoke with two different Rabbi’s this past week, one directly about the issues that were raised and one indirectly.  I listened to one Rabbi share their feelings and thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and another on the generational cultural experience of many people who are Jewish.  Someone helped me to see some of the connections between my own Native American ancestry and the experience of many people who are Jewish.

I apologized to those individuals who had felt offended, and explored with them what making amends looked like.  I named to them the places where I could honestly apologize (in that I had not told the story very well) and also what I could not apologize for (as I do not regret choosing to tell that story in the first place).  I was with them through the reactions to this kind of measured apology.

It just so happened that I was preaching this Sunday, the Sunday after telling the story, on a “Spiritual Practice of Atonement”.  Our congregational theme this month is Forgiveness, and the week before my ministerial colleague had preached on how the idea of Universal Salvation means we are already “good enough”.  My sermon was meant to engage the idea that we are given the gift of already being “good enough” not as an excuse not to learn from our failures to be our best self, but rather so that we can move into the work of self-understanding and growth without the debilitating feelings of self-condemnation and shame.

And so, at the end of the sermon, I recounted my own journey of the past week.  It let me apologize to anyone who had felt offense but not come to see me, and it also allowed me to name what I meant by a spiritual practice of atonement… part of the “modeling” that I believe is central to a life of ministry.  It let me name some of the growth in awareness I think I can claim from the work of this last week, and invited others who might need or wish to enter into a dialog with me about it to do so.

Now, all of that is the set-up…

After the sermon, and in several emails that have come since, some congregants have wanted to acknowledge what a “hard” week I had apparently had the week before.

A “hard” week?  Actually, this past week has been the most rewarding weeks I have had in months.  Before this week, I’ve been in board meetings and committee disputes.  I’ve been reading by-laws and writing charters for working groups.  I’ve been planning a health ministry and developing curricula for RE.  I’ve been imagining a leadership development program, and searching online for dog-tag vendors for a social justice project on homeless veterans… and more and more “stuff”.

In this past week, I’ve explored in some depth the theology and intent behind a sacred scripture.  I’ve spoken with ministerial colleagues of another religious tradition not just about their reactions to this story, but what the implications of that story might be for events that are happening in the world today.  I’ve had some very “real” conversations with members, friends, and staff of the congregation that got past our intellect and to our emotions and deeply held values.  I’ve worked at a level of introspection and self-exploration that I have not reached since the end of my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency (where that level of internal work was both facilitated and required).  I’ve learned more about my faith and tradition, about several other faiths and traditions, about the congregation I serve, about some congregants in particular… and about myself.  I have seen some ways that I have grown in the past week, and see new paths to continued growth and development.

If that’s a “hard” week, then I want every week to be “hard”!

Reflecting upon this difference in perception has highlighted for me that the life of ministry is indeed different than that of most other people.  Not “better”, and certainly not “more holy”, but different. The life of a minister is different because the role a minister is called to play in society, in a congregation, and in a faith tradition is different.  We are called to practice a level and kind of reflection, a level and kind of “seeing inward” and “seeing outward” that does set us apart.

What I had described to my congregants as almost a joy of a week to experience, they had heard as deeply difficult work… and they wanted to make sure I was “okay”.  It highlighted for me that ministerial formation really does substantially shift who we are.  There was a time when the work of this last week would have been soul-wrenching… instead it has been one of the most amazing experiences of recent memory.

This difference does not make ministers better or worse than anyone else… ministerial formation merely makes us different.  That difference allows us a different vision, a different perspective.  It allows us to have enough of connection to serve with compassion, while maintaining enough of a distance to serve with boundaries.  This difference allows us to enter authentically into some of the best and the worst moments of people’s lives, and yet remain centered in our pastoral practice.

To be a minister really is a life set apart… but it is not set apart by any supposed holiness, or wisdom, or value…

It is to be set apart by transformation and training.  We either accept that, or we find another calling for our lives.

Yours in Faith,

Rev. David


One Thought on “Introspection and the “Set Apart” Life of Ministry

  1. Pingback: Speaking up for change, congregational vitality, and other UU blogging « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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