Interim Minister Rev. Lyn Cox
I was a seminarian when I met the Rev. Gordon B. McKeeman. He was not a large man, but by reputation and moral authority and ministerial talent, he was a giant. He was an influential theologian and mentor from the Universalist side of our UU faith tradition. McKeeman was also a former president of Starr King School for the Ministry. I met him at a Starr King event later in his life, long after his presidency.
When we met, McKeeman took my hand so gently and listened with patience as I gushed about the research I had been doing on Universalist history using primary sources. I was aware that I was in the presence of a primary source of Universalist history, yet not able to bring up the courage to ask questions.
Gordon McKeeman, by his complete attention to the present moment and to the people who shard that moment with him, changed the temperature in the room to one of grace. From him, I learned that acceptance of people as they are and encouragement of their gifts are two ways to change lives.
We heard his poem, “Anyone’s Ministry.” He speaks of ways of being and doing that are not divided into ordained and lay, not divided at all, but a current we can share throughout the spiritual community. Though we may have specialized roles and responsibilities, ministry is something we share.
Shared Ministry & Inclusive Community
Shared ministry is yoking our energies together in a vision of what we could be together. It is encouraging and training and resourcing each other so that each person connects their talents and passions and search for meaning with the larger mission we are pursuing as a community. Shared ministry is creating an environment where people can channel their gifts to bless the world. As McKeeman says:
Whenever there is a meeting that summons us to our better selves, wherever
- our lostness is found,
- our fragments are united,
- our wounds begin healing,
- our spines stiffen and
- our muscles grow strong for the task,
there is ministry.
My friends, in times such as these, I believe one of the most pressing forms of “lostness” is white supremacy, and the interlocking oppressions such as misogyny, ableism, classism, and transphobia that feed on white supremacy culture. If we want this congregation to be a place where anyone’s ministry can thrive, it is incumbent on every committee, leadership team, and small group to examine how specific forms of oppression affect the way we treat each other, our assumptions about culture, and how the work of the church gets done.
In order to summon each other to our better selves, the freedom we treasure cannot include the freedom to be unkind without consequence, or to perpetuate oppression on purpose, or to allow careless harm to continue. After all, no one can unlock their potential–the full flowering of their talents–when they are disrespected, not even if that disrespect is unintentional or unconscious.
For the environment of shared ministry to thrive, we voluntarily covenant to honor the boundaries and limits that create brave space. (Brave space is an alternative frame to the idea of safe space. Brave space allows for the discomfort and challenge that are necessary in order to move toward beloved community. See Arao and Clemens, 2013, building on Boostrom, 1998.) We keep each other accountable in our quest to dismantle the racism, misogyny, ableism, heterosexism, classism, and other oppressions that we unconsciously carry within ourselves. Meanwhile, we’re working together to dismantle those oppressions out in the world. We covenant to treat one another with love and respect, to speak directly and truthfully, and to respond with thoughtfulness and care in times of conflict.
Creating and sustaining a covenanted community that strives for hospitality, inclusion, and justice is extremely difficult. Yet that is what we are called to do. Respect is core to our faith. We want people to bring their whole selves to church. Tell someone near you, “All of who you are is sacred.” Tell someone else, “All of who you are is sacred.” Now tell someone, “All of who you are is welcome.” Tell and listen again, “All of who you are is welcome.”
That is the beacon we are called to shine in the world, the shelter we are called to offer, the base from which our further purposes of love and justice can be launched. It won’t be easy, and we will mess up sometimes. We will take chances, make mistakes, and get messy. The good news is that everyone can do something to help sustain the dream of an inclusive, beloved community. Each one of us can welcome a newcomer, read and reflect on dismantling white supremacy, thank a volunteer, add our strength to a justice movement, and be kind. We won’t stop there. Each one of us can make a start.
Shared ministry is, in part, channeling the talents, passions, and interests of members and friends toward the united mission of the congregation, in such a way that congregational involvement helps each person make meaning and find their calling. To achieve this, it is vital that we continuously work toward a welcoming, anti-oppressive community. May our lostness be found, and may our fragments be made whole.
Another time I experienced ministry was when I was newly a Unitarian Universalist, joining my Fellowship on a Habitat for Humanity interfaith work day. There were a lot of things I could not do on a work site. I wasn’t very strong or very skilled.
The Habitat volunteer leader listened to my concerns about my limits. They showed me how to plaster, and how to finish the corners of the room by filling the gaps and reinforcing the corner with paper tape. Pretty soon our team got into the rhythm of our many separate jobs, working together in groups by room, within a larger group on one house, within a larger group of a new community of homes being built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity.
Feeling ministered to in that situation had many layers. I was heard and accepted for who I was in that moment, with my limits and my flaws and talents that had not yet manifested. I was challenged to learn something new, to be slightly uncomfortable, and to use my gifts for a greater purpose. I could see, hear, and feel my connections with something larger than myself, a diverse community of neighbors united for a common purpose. In all of these ways, I felt ministered to, and in all of these ways, the volunteers and staff and homeowners and team leaders were providing ministry to each other.
In a way, that first experience with Habitat for Humanity was a model for the concept of a spiritual calling. Calling isn’t limited to religious professionals, or even to people who live out their calling through their paid work. Calling is for everyone. It begins with discernment about finding your path, your part of the ongoing creation and repair of the world, your role in being a co-conspirator with the forces that create and uphold life.
Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner has a famous quote about calling. Buechner speaks of God, because that’s his tradition. I want to honor his own words, and then we can translate. In his book, “Wishful Thinking,” Buechner wrote:
Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
Buechner offers these two requirements, your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger, as one of the tests to figure out if your sense of calling is coming from a spiritual source or somewhere else, like the social expectations of an oppressive society, or from self-interest alone. Sacrifice by itself is not enough to define calling, the hair shirt is not a requirement, though some amount of risk-taking and sacrifice might be involved. Contentedness, the soft berth, comfort, is not enough to define calling, though there is a sense of satisfaction that comes from answering the call to bless the world.
For Buechner, the source of calling is God. As Unitarian Universalists, there are theists among us who would find that helpful, and there are atheists who don’t find God to be a useful concept, and there are agnostics and polytheists and skeptics and seekers of many varieties. I hope we can agree that a life rooted in love, by whatever name we call it, is also a source of calling and vocation.
When I went out for my first experience volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, I didn’t know what it would be like, or what I would do, or what my place would be in a community of volunteers and prospective homeowners working together. I knew of the world’s deep hunger, and that our congregation had chosen that particular aspect of the world’s deep hunger as part of our community’s mission, and I trusted the people in my congregation who arranged our visit. Calling begins with mystery and trust.
To meet that hunger with my deep gladness, it helped to feel like I could belong, with all of my limits and flaws. It helped to know that there was support to help me to be part of that ministry to the best of my ability. I had a role that was challenging, but within reach, given the gifts that I had to offer that day. Intentional community building, gentle encouragement and challenge, and the satisfaction of being able to make a difference brought gladness.
Congregations can do this, too. Congregations can organize themselves to help people find the place where the world’s deep need meets their deep gladness. We do this by focusing congregational energy on places where we have leverage when we work together. We do this by providing training, resources, clear organizational structure, and concrete goals. We do this by letting go of the false idol of always having done something a certain way. Let’s figure out what we’re building together, and help each other find the ways we’re called to be part of that. We may have to trust our leaders to coordinate our efforts. We may have to put some projects on hold so that we can move together on one aspect of the world’s deep hunger.
You don’t have to be a religious professional to feel a sense of calling, yet some people are drawn to specific roles and offices. There are many ways to translate your gifts into blessing the world. Some people are drawn to Board leadership, or teaching Religious Education, or finance, or gardening.
And, a few are drawn to professional, ordained religious leadership. We’ll celebrate that later today at Alexa’s ordination. There’s another event to know about, at 1:00pm on September 9, we’ll hear from this congregation’s Transition Coach, Carolyn Morrissey. She’ll be able to tell us more about what the search for a settled minister will be like this year. Please plan to attend and to learn how best to prepare this congregation to partner in shared ministry with your next settled Senior Minister.
This congregation has hopes and dreams and goals. We’ll work on articulating some of them a little better this year, and we’ll work on community building and planning to help manifest the vision you share. It’s OK if you don’t have a road map completely figured out yet. It’s OK if you find yourself drawn to a leadership or a volunteer role that you aren’t yet an expert in. Being perfect or all-knowing is not the point. The point is being some of the organized co-conspirators that the Spirit of Love has in this world.
We have this church year ahead to explore shared ministry together. May this congregation continue to work toward being a place where each person is welcomed as their whole, authentic selves; where each person is encouraged and equipped to connect their gifts with the congregation’s united purpose; where we discover together the place where the world’s deep hunger meets our hearts’ deep gladness.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.