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

Our Feelings on Supporting Ministries

Over the past few months, I’ve been surprised by some of the reactions from colleagues and former colleagues about my decision to accept an Assistant Minister position.  Those reactions have covered a broad range of concern and emotion… all of which was heartfelt.  I do not want this article to be taken as criticism of anyone who expressed their concerns and feelings to me… far from it.  I cherish those who expressed concern for me.   I instead want to look at some of the assumptions in our denomination (indeed in many denominations) about supporting ministries.

Let me say a few things upfront about my decision to become the Assistant Minister of the UU Church of Ventura, California.  I went into search looking for an Associate or Assistant Minister position, or for a sole minister position in a smaller congregation.  Why? Because I am seeking to find a better balance between full-time congregational ministry and reserve military chaplaincy than I was able to find in my last congregation, or would be able to find in full-time hospital or hospice chaplaincy.  When my wife pointed out to me that I took exactly 1 day of vacation last year (and that only because I skipped UUMA Professional Days and went to a waterpark instead), it highlighted a problem I was already feeling… that my military duty takes up much of my time away from the congregation.

I chose to come to Ventura because I sensed that Rev. Jan Christian and I have compatible personalities, perhaps too compatible in that it might be better if we didn’t agree with each other in certain areas…  Our senses of humor “work” with one another, and our congregational styles are close enough to work together, and different enough to keep it interesting.   One colleague who knows both of us described it as Jan being the chocolate, and my being the peanut butter…

I chose to come to Ventura because I saw in the congregation a willingness to move on faith… to move into a new building, to move to year round stewardship, to move to theme based ministry, to move the community on homelessness, to move on bringing in a new Assistant Minister when other congregations are struggling with how to keep the ministries they have.  Now we are moving in new directions in Religious Education, in our Great Expectations Covenant, and in health ministry…

I did not choose Assistant Ministry because “things went badly” in my last congregation, and now I need to make up for it by being an Assistant Minister.  Things went rather well in Midland Michigan, and I am honored to have been their Interim Minister, and that they called my dear friend Jeff Liebmann to be their new minister.  I achieved every goal we set for my time there, and a few we didn’t plan on.

I did not choose Assistant Ministry because I am having a crisis of confidence as to whether or not I can handle being a sole or senior minister.  “Lack of Confidence” has rarely been a problem in my life… more often the opposite is true.  Most of my major “opportunities for growth” (read as abject failures) come from periods of over-confidence on my part, not the other way around.

And, let me just say that, in my limited experience and from talking to many current and former Supporting Ministers over the last year, it seems to me it is more difficult in some significant ways to be a Supporting Minister than to be a sole or even a senior minister.  I will write more about this in a later article.

These are just two of the myriad of reactions to my accepting an Assistant Minister position.  Now, when I say that I accepted this position because of my reserve military chaplaincy responsibilities, people seem to say “Oh, well, that makes sense, then”, as if my special circumstance makes what would otherwise not be okay, now seem justifiable… and yet many then follow it with, “so how long do you think the military thing will keep you from having a church of your own?”

There are some pre-conceptions and prejudices in our congregations and ministry about Supporting Ministry, about being an Assistant or an Associate Minister, as well as those who are Music Ministers, Congregational Social Justice Ministers, MRE’s or Lifespan Religious Education Ministers and others.  Somehow our Inherent Worth and Dignity of all People does not translate into the Inherent Worth and Dignity of all Ministries.  We see another shadow of this in the perception that those serving in Chaplaincy are not “real ministers” because they have not served in the Parish.

I’m finding that learning to share a ministry in a congregation, learning to support and engage in the called ministry of another minister is a greater and more rewarding challenge, both practically and emotionally, than almost anything in my CPE Residency or Interim Congregational Ministry experiences.  It is building and maintaining an intentional relationship based in Right Relationship and beloved community, in front of an audience of hundreds of congregants, as a model of such Right Relationship.  It is learning to be in good standing with a colleague, not once a month at a chapter meeting or twice a year at a retreat… but every day, amid a sea of potential triangulation and splitting.  It is, for the whole congregation, an intentional exercise in honesty and grace.

As we Unitarian Universalists, through the Commission on Appraisal, are embarking on a study of our faith’s relationship to Ministry and Authority, I call on us to include in our work some engagement with how we relate to supporting ministries: how they function in our congregations, what our attitudes are about them, and where the roots of our preconceptions and prejudices lie.

For our congregations to grow, we need to deal with the lingering image of “One Minister, One Ministry”.

Yours in faith,

Rev. David

9 Thoughts on “Our Feelings on Supporting Ministries

  1. Knowing you I think your decision was a good one. You need some mechanism to help you from overdoing. This might be a good one. Don’t forget to take time off.

  2. Christine Robinson on Monday September 12, 2011 at 17:27 +0000 said:

    I believe that the prejudices that the ministry has towards staff positions is one of the things that has kept UU churches, and therefore UU’ism small in the past generations. When a church gets to be a certain size, it needs a second minister, and it needs that second minister to be of high caliber. Furthermore, there is no better way to learn how to be the senior minister of a large church than by serving on the staff of a large church. Most ministers who come to large church ministry via success in mid-sized churches have a lot of un-learning to do. So…congratulations on your new job! I hope it is wonderful for you and for your church.

  3. Thank you for this, dear friend. I will share this with my partner in ministry, as we work toward an understanding of covenant and right relationship with one another. I think we will all be learning much in the coming year!

  4. Nothing substantive to say other than, “Thank you”

  5. Thank you all for your thoughts… And ES, keep me in the loop, as much as you are able, about your experience, would you? We should swap stories from time to time (but not on the blog!)

    Christine, thank you for articulating something so well that I have had a feeling about, but not the experience to affirm. The way I’ve formulated it (and may write about it soon) is that, like not having enough parking spaces or enough seats in the sanctuary, there are other limiting factors on congregational growth. Availability of ministry is one… fluidity and leadership development in a congregational leadership and governance structure is another.

    How often have we heard “Well, I don’t know if this is important enough to take to the minister, they are so busy and all.” And we ministers often present how busy we are, for many reasons. Yet I’ve come to believe that actual or perceived lack of access to a minister presents potential congregants with the question about whether or not there is enough room for them in the church.

    I have also been working with the idea that lack of a Leadership Development Process does the same thing… it limits congregational size by begging the question whether there is room for them in the congregation…

    Thank you so much!

    Yours in faith,


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  7. Great post, David! This is an issue that’s surprised and perplexed me. I told a minister friend who was considering a job change that I thought he’d be a great associate minister (he was considering some associate positions). He took it as an insult, startling us both. What I meant was that he has a very collaborative spirit, and I thought it would be a good fit for his personality to do team-ministry.

    We stress teamwork for our layleaders — why the attitude about “only one chief”? We bemoan the isolation of being a parish minister, but diminish the potential value and importance in ministering together.

    Love what you wrote about “a model of such Right Relationship.” People are constantly learning how to be in relationship with each other, whether it’s life partners, co-workers, parent-child, friends, congregants, etc. Seems like watching two ministers living out their covenant with each other and the church, could help immensely.

  8. David, you have some strong points here. And I’m as much a believer in supporting ministers as anyone — my wife is one right now. But I’ll tell you honestly that I was surprised to see you take that job, not because I think it’s beneath you, but only because of the success you seem to have had in your last job and how well it seemed to fit you. I wonder if any of the reaction you have gotten has been of this sort: surprise to see you in a different role.

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