Monday, November 02, 2009

To a Church I Love at the Beginning of a New Ministry

The Unitarian Church of Winnipeg was my spiritual home during my youth, where my development was nurtured and my call to ministry was inspired. Founded as the First Icelandic Unitarian Society in 1891 and now known as First Unitarian Universalist Church, presently located on a lovely ‘new’ campus across the river from its earlier homes, this church stands in unbroken line with its earlier incarnations. Individuals from five generations of my religiously promiscuous family have found a haven here, at differing times, when we weren’t otherwise hanging out with the Lutherans. So it was a genuine pleasure for me to be present at the installation of the congregation’s new minister, Rev. Millie Rochester, and it was a distinct privilege to be asked to deliver the Charge to the Congregation. This is what I said …

It is a delight to be with you this evening and join with you in celebrating the beginning of a new ministry and a new era in the life of First Unitarian Universalist Church. After Millie asked me if I would offer the Charge to the Congregation, I fretted about what to say for some time, as ministers are wont to do. As my anxiety grew, I awakened in the middle of the night several weeks ago—one of those measurable marks of middle age—having dreamt about this very evening! It was a classic ministerial panic nightmare: I arrived at the church late, couldn’t find my robes, and lost my way in the building. When I realized I hadn’t prepared anything to say, the words flowed as if from somewhere outside myself. Sitting on the edge of the bed that night, it struck me that what I had dreamt was exactly what I would have wished to say to you this evening, so I hurried to my desk and wrote down the essential points. “I was not looking for my dreams to interpret my life,” Susan Sontag once wrote, “but rather for my life to interpret my dreams.” It is my fervent prayer that the ministry to which you have called Millie Rochester will interpret this dream, so here is my charge to you, the congregation of my youth and the people of my dreams:

Acknowledge your minister’s rightful authority. Unitarian Universalists sometimes display an almost allergic reaction to authority, which is both unhealthy and unproductive. The minister is a servant-leader. Too many congregations emphasize the “servant” part while minimizing the minister’s role as a leader. If you are to thrive together, you will encourage and welcome your minister’s leadership in both spiritual and temporal matters, offering her the tools and support she needs to nurture a healthy spiritual community while building a strong and vital institution. You should expect to be challenged as much as you expect to be comforted.

Forgive your minister for whatever may be her human frailties and shortcomings. One of the real difficulties when a congregation calls a minister who is warm and wonderful, insightful and inspirational, earnest and energetic, is that they may expect her to be perfect, too. Millie is magnificent but beneath the superhero’s cape we call vestments is a human being—fundamentally good but not necessarily perfect. Since I know just how pernickety the members of this church can be at times, I would admonish you to get over it. Just get over it! Churches don’t need perfect ministers; they need human and humane ones. If your minister is doing her job well, she will sometimes disappoint you and, if she’s doing it exceptionally well, she may even offend you. Grant her a wide margin of forbearance whenever your feelings are a little bruised, or whenever you discover that her viewpoint is different from your own. In so doing, you will both grow in spirit. There will be times when she’s too busy or distracted or overwhelmed to give you the amount of time or attention you may crave. When that happens, remember her humanness and that she is struggling to serve the needs of this community with just two hands, however nimble; one mind, however wise; and one heart, however loving.

Compensate your minister as generously as you can. Although it is common to hear people speak of a minister’s salary, there is, in fact, a tradition of long-standing—as old as the institutions of church and synagogue themselves—which says that clergy do not receive a salary at all. That is to say, they are not paid for services rendered and they do not track billable hours. Instead, churches are called to assure their ministers a living—a decent living, I would emphasize—so that they may be freed from so-called worldly pursuits in order to seek spiritual ends and render service to the community. This may seem like a hair-splitting distinction to some, but it’s an important one. A minister who is free of worry about her material welfare will be free to serve the community without distraction, for the love of the Holy and the good of the people alone. Your generosity in providing your minister with an abundant living will enrich you more than it will ever benefit her.

Remember to mark your milestones and anniversaries together and to celebrate them lavishly. You could do a lot worse than following the customary gift sequence for wedding anniversaries. At the end of your first year together, the paper anniversary, send her notes telling her what you like about her ministry with you. If you can’t think of anything to write, send banknotes. For your second anniversary, the cotton one, send her on a shopping spree and pick up the tab. For your third, which is leather, a fancy executive chair would be a nice way to confirm the managerial authority you will have entrusted to her, while for the fourth, flowers, you might plant an even more spectacular garden than usual, below her office window, to remind you all just how much you will have grown together. On the fifth anniversary, which is wood, she’ll be so much a part of the furniture that you’ll likely need to work at reminding one another what a comfortable fit you have become. The next anniversary after that is the sabbatical anniversary. Start planning now.

Finally, strive to live into and up to your potential as a congregation. First Unitarian Universalist Church is the heir to three vibrant liberal congregations: the First Icelandic Unitarian Society, which advocated an unfettered faith among the early Icelandic immigrants; the Winnipeg Tabernacle, which emphasized the spirit over the letter in religious matters; and All Souls Church, which strived to live up to its name by welcoming a breadth of people and labouring for a society characterized by justice and goodwill. It time, these three came together as First Federated Church and, through changes of name and generations, along with an evolution of mission, stands today as First Unitarian Universalist Church. Along the way, there have been remarkable accomplishments and achievements, along with some follies and failings, but the congregation has always managed to find a way to live into its promise and its possibilities. This evening I am here to tell you that the most exciting chapter of your history began this fall, and that the promise of this new chapter is sealed here tonight. It is up to you to fulfill the promise of your unfolding future.

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