Rev. Stephen D. Edington
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These are excerpts from sermons I've delivered in recent years in the congregations I have served.  They sum up much of my thoughts on the meaning of ministry in the Free Church tradition.

 

Let's start with some history. Many of the explanations as to why certain things are done the way they are in Protestant churches begin with the Protestant Reformation. While most Unitarian Universalists today would not identify themselves as Protestant Christians, that is where our historical roots are. The Protestant Reformation was just what its name implies, a “protest” against some of the ways in which the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century was exercising, and abusing, its authority; and an attempt "reform" the Church; i.e. Protestant Reformation.

Like many movements of this kind, what began as an in-house attempt at the reformation of 16th century Catholicism soon took on a life of its own. It became a full fledged Reformation Movement with its various factions. These factions were united in their opposition to the Catholicism of their day, but they were not all on the same page when it came to things like theology, beliefs, and church governance. This is why we have such a variety of Protestant denominations today.

 

One of these factions was called the “Free Church wing.” The freedom, in this case, was not the wide ranging freedom of belief we UUs now affirm, but freedom from the authority of any kind of ecclesiastical hierarchy beyond the congregation.

Among the bodies that grew out of this free-church wing were the Baptists, the Congregationalists, the Quakers, the Unitarians, and the Universalists. We’re all leaves on the same historical branch; it’s just that the Unitarians and the Universalists took a hard left turn—theologically speaking—over the past century or so. Theology aside, however, the common ground in each of these denominations is that the final authority, when it comes to how a church conducts it business lies with the congregation.

What this means, when it comes to ministers, is that ordaining a minister is something done by the congregation itself. Most of the free-church congregations, we UUs included, do look to a denominational body to determine if the person requesting ordination has the proper credentials and has met certain standards. But it is not the denomination, or ecclesiastical body, that makes the candidate a “Reverend." That is done as an act of the local congregation.

 

The same goes for calling a minister. In our tradition it is an act of the congregation itself that determines who their minister will be. And it is this means of calling a minister that provides the framework for the relationship between the minister and the congregation

The paradox contained within this relationship is that a called minister in our tradition is both set apart and called into close engagement all at the same time. S/he is set apart in that they are expected to have a certain level of knowledge—generally typified by a Master of Divinity degree—and demonstrate certain personal and professional qualities that make them fit for the job. They’re also set apart by being given a title ("Reverend" or "Pastor"), and given an especially unique role in the life of a congregation—a title and a role that the other members do not have.

But in an equal measure a minister is called to engagement with, and into a relationship with, that very same congregation. Being set apart is not to be confused with being put on pedestal—something I’ve never had much of a desire for myself, since I’d probably lose my balance and fall off. Ministry in our free-church tradition, then, is primarily about relationships.

Ministry is not something a minister “does to” a congregation. Ministry is what the minister and the congregation do together, and engage in together, to fulfill a common mission. In our case that common mission is well stated in our Unitarian Universalist Purposes and Principles. Yes, they each—minister and congregants—have their own particularly defined roles in seeing that mission advanced; but it is the relationship between them that makes the fulfillment of the mission possible. If there is no relationship then there is no chance of fulfillment.

I’ve had the advantage of stepping outside of my ministerial role, and into another realm, that has given me a good appreciation of the distinct nature of the ministry. I have, on occasion, taught a course on the Beat Generation writers down at U—Mass., Lowell. There are a few similarities between what I’ve done there on a very short-term basis and what I do in the pulpit on a much more long-term basis. I stand in front of a bunch of folks, for example, and hold forth on a topic. Some of the personal conversations I have with my students may spill over into some more personal areas of their lives in ways that are at least slightly "pastoral," although that's not a term I use in an academic setting.

To the extent that I had the opportunity to get to know them, I've liked my students. But our agreement with one another was that I would offer them a certain body of knowledge, they would try to learn as much of it as they could in the time we had together, and then I'd determine how well they'd gained that knowledge so they could get a course credit towards a degree. That was the nature of the relationship: It was a well defined agreement for a certain specific length of time.

 

The relationship between a minister and his/her congregation is something quite different. It’s not a contract in the manner just described, but rather a covenant which the minister and the congregation enter into, with the understanding that ministry is a shared task and challenge. As noted earlier, the professional clergyperson is recognized as being particularly prepared and equipped for ministry in such a way that then allows him or her to call the congregation into a covenantal relationship in which they all take part.

On this note I offer the wisdom of the late Rev. Dana McLean Greeley. Dana was the first President of the UUA when it was formed in 1961; and he served UU congregations in both Concord, New Hampshire and Concord, Massachusetts. Towards the end of his career Dana was asked what it takes to make a great minister. For all that he could have said, he kept it quite short: "It takes a great congregation."

Rev. Greeley wasn’t trying to be cute or flip. He certainly knew from a lifetime of experience what an often complex and highly challenging and demanding thing it is to be in the professional ministry. But he was also speaking straight out of the heart of the free-church tradition; i.e. that ministry is not the exclusive domain of the professional clergy. Ministry happens, and achieves whatever greatness it may come to, when that covenant between the minister and the congregation is lived out to its fullest.

 

Given the covenantal and relational nature of the ministry in our tradition, it is really an ongoing process of mutual empowerment.  A congregation calls a minister to lead them, and empowers him/her to do so. The minister, in turn, empowers and encourages the members of the congregation to use their skills, interests, passions, and commitments to strengthen and enhance the overall life of the congregation.

 

With all this as backdrop, let's focus now on the more specific tasks of ministry. I can frame them up with some sound counsel I heard in a sermon many years ago about the four tenets needed for a full and meaningful life. They are:

*Show up

*Tell the truth

*Do what you do with intensity

*Don't get attached to outcomes.

While these four tenets can be well applied to life and living in general, they also provide a good operational understanding what ministry is about.

The first one: Show up. Woody Allen once said that 90% of life is just showing up. The number is pretty much the same for ministry. Some of my congregants would joke with me when they'd see me helping out with some routine task, like stacking chairs after a church event, by asking: "Is this in your job description?" Well, maybe. One thing I've learned about ministry is that a good piece of your job description is to simply show up.

By that I do not mean that you're supposed to perform every single task, or take on the responsibility for every single thing that has to be attended to in the life of a congregation. That's a sure-fire recipe for a quick and sure-fire ministerial burnout; and it dis-empowers the congregation as well. Showing up is more a matter of being where you need to be, and developing a good feel for that. There are no hard formulas for when it's time for a minister to show up. This is why ministry is much more of an art than it is a science.

As a minister you, of course, have to show up in some specific ways: Worship leadership, pastoral care and counsel, adult education, church/staff management, being at Board and Committee meetings, and representing the values and principles of our faith in the wider community in which the congregation is located. Beyond these kinds of specifics, however, showing up means maintaining a presence, making your availability known, being where you need to be when you need to be there.

 

The second: Tell the truth. This can be a tricky one for UU ministers. In a more orthodox setting the role of the minister is to proclaim the truth as based on the teachings and practices of a particular faith tradition. It doesn't quite work that way in a liberal religious setting. For a UU minister "tell the truth" means speak your own truth and do so in a way that will encourage and challenge those who hear you to seek their own truths as well, whether or not it corresponds with yours.

Telling the truth also applies to the life of the congregation. It means encouraging the positive aspects you see in congregational life, as well as speaking to any kinds of behaviors or attitudes that may be detrimental or even destructive to a congregation's life.

A minister in our faith tradition, then, is called speak his/her truth on matters of religion and spirituality, as well as any "institutional truths" s/he feel need to be addressed.

The third tenet: Do what you do with intensity. This one is pretty simple. Simple to state anyway, but challenging to do. It really means to show that you care, that you have a certain passion for what it is you're doing. I've come to see this tenet as the basic rule of leadership in a free religious congregation, for the minister and lay leaders alike: Do what you do with intensity. Passionate commitment, as I've learned is infectious. If one, or a few people can catch fire with an idea, it can often spread.

 

As a corollary to this third tenet, I've learned that sometimes the best leadership a minister can offer is that when someone comes along with a good and productive idea, and has some good energy around it, then get out of the way. The minister will very likely have to guide and direct and help channel that energy at times; that's yet another role of the minister. But s/he must do so without stepping on the intensity. 

I'm reminded here by something one of my colleagues shared as he was talking about getting a Covenant Group program going in his church. He said wasn't sold on the idea at first, but then realized that there was a lot of energy in his congregation for such a program. As he put it, "My leadership skills are such that I know when to get in front of a moving parade!" Sometimes ministry means just that--getting in front of a moving parade and helping to guide it along, even if you didn't start the parade yourself.

The fourth one: Don't get attached to outcomes. This can be easily misunderstood, but in some ways it's the most important of the four. It doesn't mean you don't care about the outcome of anything you undertake. "Don't get attached to outcomes" has to do with being aware of what you control and what you don't.

 

To put it another way, in any endeavor you undertake, or any issue you have to confront, if you can tell yourself: I showed up, I told the truth, and I did what I did intensity--then you are positioned to let the outcome be what it is. Don't allow your personal sense of who you are be destroyed or diminished if the outcome you want does not happen even when you've given it your best shot. If you showed up, and told the truth, and did what you did with conviction and passion, then you've accomplished the things you can control; and the outcome is the outcome.

These are some of the guideposts that have helped me along in my journey of ministry. They have served me well--and I'm sure I still have more to learn.

Rev. Stephen Edington

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