[If you're interested, I've been working with the extremely skilled and talented Rev. Mark Hoelter. And he's but one of the UUMA's team of clergy coaches, although Mark was already doing this before that program got started.]
Recently Mark and I were talking about whether or not I have a vision that guides my ministry and for the first time, really, I found I was able to articulate a pro-active response. What follows is that response:
Over the years I have often been asked to articulate my “vision for my ministry.” This is a favorite question of search committees as they interview potential clergy partners. And generally I’ve answered in essentially the same way – I downplay the idea that I have any kind of premeditated, predetermined vision. I have said – and I believe deeply – that ministry is a collaborative interplay, a dance among all of the ministers of the church. (And by this I mean the ordained clergy person(s) as well as all of the members of the faith community – including both the “official” members and the so-called “friends.”) If I have a vision, I have said, it is that together we co-create the vision of our mutual ministry – for me to have my own map in my head would betray this essential process.
And yet . . .
In a little over a month I will turn fifty. I will have been an ordained clergy person – a professional minister, if you will – for nearly twenty years. I have served three different congregations, and even did a stint as part of the Association’s national staff. And while this summarizes my professional ministry, I have actively and knowingly been a minister for more than thirty years – through my work in camp and conference ministry; my freelance parish-based clown ministry; and the ministry of my years as an itinerant juggler, magician, and clown.
Looking both backward and forward – as well as at where I am right now serving as Lead Minister for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia – I’ve come to realize that my ministry has had some recurrent themes, and that I do have a vision I want to explore before I’m finished.
Three strands weave together to form this vision:
First, during the 1980s I worked with The Midway Caravan, an interactive family entertainment company. We provided shows to venues such as county fairs and theme parks, yet did so in a way which subverted the traditional performance paradigm. Traditional performances gather together a group of people for the purpose of watching trained and skilled individuals do something that the gathered crowd cannot. “Look how good you are!” is the audience’s response to the performer’s demonstrations. With a Midway Caravan program on the other hand –the quintessential example is their Backyard Circus – a group of people is brought together for the purpose of, themselves, putting on a show for one another. Here the professional performer’s primary skill is the ability to facilitate the transformation of this group into a community. “Look at what you can do!” says the performer to the audience; “We didn’t know we could do this!” is what the audience says to itself.
The second strand that weaves into the tapestry of my ministry is the faith formation that I experienced in my home church (the First Presbyterian Church of Baldwin, Long Island), in the camp and conference centers of the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church (camps Epworth and Quinipet), and in my work of “clown ministry.” What I learned in these places was that religion isn’t about catechisms and creeds, it is about learning to live a life of love. I learned that people can have all sorts of different ways of describing the divine, that the sacred can be given all sorts of names, but that the heart of the matter was just that – a matter of the heart. Can I be alive to the absolute miracle that is life – my life, all life – in this universe? The brief definition I have developed to describe Unitarian Universalist theology was born during this time: we are one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous Universe, bound by love. And it was clear to me that the “priests” and the “professional clergy” did not have a monopoly on this truth – either living it or encouraging others in their attempts to do so. All of us humans, and all of creation, are ministers of this gospel.
While there may well be a myriad of other strands, the last I will lift up is the influence of some of the Universalist ancestors who have inspired me. One such is the Rev. Kenneth L. Patton who, in his 1964 magnum opus, A Religion for One World, wrote: ““Engaged with the religious task before humanity, it is time for the liberal church to cease being a group of neighborhood dispensaries and filling stations, operated for the amusement and dilettante dabbling of discontented intellectuals, and to become creative workshops wherein the problems of humanity can be investigated and alleviated. [. . .].” His idea that the local congregation is a workshop or, as he elsewhere calls it, a “laboratory” in which a congregation actively engages with experiments in living was thrilling to me when I first encountered it. And this echoes nicely something written by the Rev. Clarence Skinner back in 1931: “[We] may set [our] hand[s] to the task of building a new kind of church adapted to the new age, thus creating a demonstration center that will prove what can be done by a radical reconstruction.” I began my career with the declaration that Unitarian Universalism is a “Grand Experiment” in religious community. This constitutes the third thread.
Where does all this lead me? I realize that I do have a vision, a passion that’s guiding the ministry with which I’m currently engaged and which I can imagine engaging me for some time to come:
- I aim to inspire, cultivate, and nurture the congregation’s understanding of itself as a laboratory, a workshop, and a “demonstration center” that is engaged not only in the specific Grand Experiment that is Unitarian Universalism – the development of a creedless, multi-faith community and the “radical reconstruction” of the forms of religious community – but also the individual on-going experiments in the lives of its members to make sense of the twin realities of being alive and having to die (which is, arguably, the fundamental purpose of all religion).
- I am continuing the subversive work of the Midway Caravan and expanding it beyond the realm of theater into the realm of religion. This work dissolves the distinctions between “lay” and “ordained” ministry and, by extension, encourages the dissolution of the categories of “us” and “them.”
- The Holy Fool & Trickster which has been my companion since the earliest days continues to lead me forward in not only proclaiming the truth that “we are one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love” but also exploring the practical ramifications of living this gospel.
This is my vision for my ministry.
PS -- I have, in past posts, raised some questions that might be part of this experimental program. See, for instance: It Is Us; The Member-less Church; The Member-less Church, part two; The Member-less Church, part three; Membership, Openness, and Thinking Outside of the ...; Open Source Church: a sermon; What's In A Name?; and Open Source Church, continued . . .; Print this post