Reflections on Ministry and Departure

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I expect that most of us here have come across questions during a job interview that ask us to state one of our strengths and one of our weaknesses (though this last question is often phrased these days as “an area for growth” or “challenge”). And, though answering questions about our strengths may be difficult for some, questions about self-confessed weaknesses probably prove a challenge for almost all of us. I was asked this question a number of years ago, perhaps in my application for divinity school—perhaps, even in my application for this position.

I remember asking a trusted adviser, who was also a Unitarian Universalist minister, how I should answer this. “Well, you don’t want to expose yourself too much,” he said. “You want to state something that could be seen as much as a strength as a weakness. Why don’t you tell them that you are a bit of a perfectionist?” I don’t remember any more of the conversation, but I do remember taking his advice and confessing to this “weakness” on the form, whatever it was.

Any answer you give to a question like this reveals something about yourself, sometimes more than you are aware of. I imagine now that, if in contemplating someone’s application for employment, I came across this answer, one conjecture I might entertain is, “Hmm, this person is uncomfortable revealing a weakness.” But, I think I’ve learned deeper and even more helpful lessons than this.

I am a bit of a perfectionist. Does it come from being the first-born child, the “responsible one,” whose job it is to see that things work out the best that they can both in one’s life and in one’s surroundings? Does it come from being born under the astrological sign of Virgo, whose characteristics supposedly include being independent, analytical, and hardworking? Does it come from growing up in a family where alcoholism played a role and where there was a high degree of anxiety? I’m not sure about astrology, but I expect the other factors play a role.

Perfectionism is not a quality well-suited to ministry unless you can find a way to temper it with other qualities such as humility, compassion, and a robust sense of humor. Perfection, I don’t have to tell you, is not achievable, so it’s an impractical stance in this imperfect world. But, it does ensure a pattern of behavior that always strives to be better, that strives towards a kind of excellence in the performing of one’s duties.

But, here’s the dark side—if you constantly strive towards something that’s unachievable, you constantly place yourself in a state of anxiety, anticipating those things that can go wrong and preparing yourself for any number of eventualities. And a key role of a minister, especially in times of tension or crisis, is to maintain what’s referred to as a “non-anxious presence.

In addition, once you get in the habit of demanding perfection from yourself, you quite naturally begin to expect it from others, placing both them and yourself in an untenable position. How, then, can you project a non-anxious presence? To the best of my knowledge, it’s by preparing yourself as well as you can and then preparing yourself to deal with the certain reality that things won’t go according to plan and you’ll have to deal with the consequences the best you can with grace and a sense of humor.

None of us is perfect, that’s for sure. In divinity school, I heard much talk of being human as meaning living in a state of brokenness. This was quite openly confessed by my Christian brothers and sisters. I understood them to mean that we are tempted in all sorts of ways to do things that are not good for us or good for the establishment of a healthy community—- which is why there can be no such thing as “Heaven on Earth.” Some of my fellow students of a more evangelical bent relied strongly on the myth of original sin—that the fall from grace that humanity suffered from our symbolic father and mother, Adam and Eve, caused by our failure to live according to God’s will, resulted in our broken condition.

UU’s tend to dispute this account quite vigorously. To be human is to be capable of goodness, and self-reliance means that we are equipped to deal with whatever problems we are presented with by wholly human qualities and capabilities. But, both views, I think, understand that we always live in a state short of perfection and that being human in a healthy way means accepting our inherent imperfections.

All communities, church communities included, UU church communities included, too, are imperfect because they are filled with imperfect individuals. Not only that, we are imperfect in a multitude of ways. Some of us are bossy, some of us are willful, some of us acquiesce too easily to conditions we don’t in our hearts accept. Some of us are too often impatient, some of us are demanding, some of us are slow to forgive. Some of us feel called to challenge everything; others try to smooth things over too quickly for the sake of an uneasy peace. Some of us love drama, some of us expect perfection where no perfection exists. All of us are imperfect. Perhaps all of us are broken in some way and yearn to be made complete, either by communal or supernatural means. How are we saved?

In large part, for Unitarian Universalists, anyway, it’s by trying to live our lives through our seven principles. We recognize, that though appearances may suggest otherwise at times, we all have inherent dignity and worth. When confronted with injustice, we strive to create a more just set of conditions. Even through our bylaws we do this; even in the slow and deliberate and sometimes messy process of creating and revising those bylaws. In a world filled with inequity, we strive to ensure equity. This can mean examining and choosing to rid ourselves of advantages we may have through the circumstances of our birth.

We’ve striven during the course of my ministry here, and I’m sure long before, to identify those ways that we are advantaged through the accident of the circumstances of our birth with certain privileges. The privilege of being white in a society that has historically marginalized persons of color. The privileges that come along with being born male in a society that has for millennia given more authority and respect to those of that gender. The privileges that come along with being heterosexual in a society that has historically seen homosexuality and bisexuality as deviant. The privilege of peace of mind that comes from being cis-gendered in a society that, in general, sees trans-gendered persons as deviant or perhaps even mythical. The privileges that come from being born into a certain socio-economic class.

And in recognizing these unearned privileges, we’ve striven to either surrender them or ensure that others enjoy them, too. In so doing, we run into the perpetual dilemma: do we accommodate or do we radicalize? I expect that there will always be a tension in UU communities between those who push for one and those who push for the other.

Acceptance. We strive to accept one another in our imperfections, especially when those imperfections are just the kind that rub us the wrong way, that stick in our craw, that we have trouble digesting. So, we have to guard against the temptation of fortifying our prejudices by seeking confirmation from others who share those prejudices. We have trouble, all of us, in accepting the weaknesses of others unless they mirror our own weaknesses. And I’ve been witness to noble struggles as I’ve talked with church members trying to work out their difficulties with family members, especially, through the process of putting themselves in the other’s shoes. Which is another way of saying, practicing compassion.

We Unitarians as a group, tend to value our individuality. Do you think that’s true? We value our right to our own opinions and we have no problem, many of us, in voicing those opinions. We say that we hold to no creed, no belief system, that our work in the world, rather than our stated beliefs is what constitutes our faith. And yet, we believe in living in community—a community that seems sometimes united by nothing more than our diversity and how can diversity promote unity?

There will always be tension in Unitarian Universalist communities. Out of tension can emerge dissension or dynamism. How we organize ourselves, how we articulate and express our ideas of responsibility, authority, and power will determine our success or failure in creating a community out of the diversity of individual opinion. I’ve seen that struggle played out on Facebook page discussions regarding the suitability or lack thereof of the various candidates for President of the association. I’ve seen respectful, calm, and responsible exchanges and also streams of commentary that have made me cringe and shake my head and wonder “What on Earth does this person hope to accomplish with these broadside attacks and insinuations?” Even among our ministers, I’ve seen rashness and pettiness and grandstanding.

We can do better. And we will do better by holding ourselves and one another accountable. There is too much that unites us to foster divisiveness because we don’t agree on every issue. Who is responsible to see that the balance we need between individual expression and our shared sense of community is achieved? One answer is that our Board of Directors has responsibility because the congregation has elected them to provide responsible governance of the church. I think that’s true. Another answer is that our Committee on Ministry has the responsibility for overseeing the work of our various committees and teams—our ministries—and offering support when needed. They can provide guidance, but have no decision-making authority.

A third answer is that we all have the responsibility for ensuring that our contributions to the life of the church reflect both our own individual character and preferences and that the harmonious flow of the life and work of the church is maintained. A church where freedom of expression is stifled is not a free church. A church where freedom of expression is exalted cannot maintain a coherent sense of community. It’s a balancing act, sure, and one facet of the minister’s job is to act as the conductor who takes time to recognize and appreciate positive contributions and intervenes in a way that is respectful and compassionate in those times and places where individual expression threatens community cohesion.

A couple of months ago, in early April, this church suffered a break-in. A man named Thomas Ringuette and his companion, a woman named Melissa Kerr, broke a window, then a second window in an attempt to steal anything of value that they could find, in order to then sell those items for some quick cash. We know their names because a week later they also broke into Holy Trinity Lutheran Church just down the road. Holy Trinity has a security camera system set up. It captured their images clearly and distinctly. You may have seen some of those images on our local TV station’s news in the following days.

I was at a meeting of the local ministerial association on a Wednesday morning when I got the news of a break-in as a text message from our office manager. When I arrived at the church, two police officers, our office manager, Laura Mabry-Griffin, and our Board President, Matt Foraker, had already arrived and were surveying the damage. The police dusted for fingerprints, noted the damages, and filed their report. After they and Matt left to resume their respective duties, I spent a good while picking up the larger shards of glass and sweeping up the rest. My emotions ranged from discouragement to anger to discomfort that our office manager had to start her morning this way—there was broken glass on her desk and across the office carpet, as well.

It just so happened that Andy Toopes, the minister at Holy Trinity, and I had planned to meet for coffee the next week. The first thing he told me when we met was “We had a break-in last night,” then he filled me in on the details. The perpetrators were known to police; that’s why they were picked up so soon. They drove to the right address, saw some of the stolen items on the premises and made the arrest.

In such a circumstance as this, it’s easy to identify the perpetrators and the victims, the bad guys and the good guys. Friends on Facebook were shocked that not even a church can be spared such occurrences these days. It was good to feel the emotional support.

As many of you know, I’ve been visiting various inmates at the Warren County Jail here in town over the past ten months. Because of that, it occurred to me to request a visit with Mr. Thomas Ringuette. My primary motive was to meet him, get a sense of who he is, and a sense of whether he is in a position to make reparation for the damage that he had done. What I found out was that he and Ms. Kerr had been living in a trailer park on Nashville Rd. near the entrance ramps to I-65 with their three children. Their rent for March and April was paid for by a tax refund check received by Ms. Kerr, but there was no money for May’s rent. The oldest daughter attends Warren South High School. The couple met in Maine 18 years ago at a homeless shelter; neither has ever really established themselves in any way. Mr. Ringuette says that he had a job recently at Kentucky Fried Chicken for one day, but was fired when a regional manager found him working in blue jeans rather than black slacks. Mr. Ringuette says that he had no money to afford even slacks from Goodwill.

The situation as it stands today is that the children have been placed in foster care; Mr. Ringuette faces ten years in prison because the crime was committed while he was on probation. He recognized neither my name nor the name of the church, presumably because his focus was so completely on the goals of the theft that all other information was extraneous. The couple could steal only small items because their getaway vehicles were bicycles, as they cannot afford a car. The situation is pathetic in the extreme, and I don’t have any easy answers for this couple.

Mr. Ringuette wrote to thank me for the visit and asked me to write. He has had no other visitors and no one else writes to him. I’ve written to him twice, my message the same each time—tell me your plans for your life, what you are dedicating your life to. If it’s a cause I can support, I will do what I can to support you. Without knowing that there is a goal, a minister in this position can easily be viewed as just one more implement for an habitual criminal to manipulate to achieve his ends. Habitual criminal or redeemable human being? It all depends on your point of view, doesn’t it? Mr. Ringuette expresses regret for his act and has apologized. But, that doesn’t take away the damage of the broken windows, the cost to the church of the various repairs, the psychic toll that’s taken when you see your church so badly damaged.

We are all broken in some ways—some by disease, some by disabilities, some by poverty, some by illiteracy, some by drug or alcohol abuse, some by a thirst for power, some by pathological shyness, some through the loss of loved ones long before their lives should have ended. For most of us, there is a path to redemption. Generally, it consists of a combination of things. Living out our beliefs—living out those principles that we say we believe in as if they do, indeed, define us—that’s one ineluctable ingredient. But, another is living in community. Most of us would be glad to never attend another committee meeting—but I can recall many moments of laughter at these times as well as moments of deep appreciation for the service that so many of you provide to the health and well-being of this church.

There’s a danger in naming names—the danger that you’ll leave someone out. I seem to be good at that, but I continue to think it’s worth the risk. In past years, we’ve taken time at our annual congregational meetings to publicly thank the church members who contribute so much to keep this church and its spirit alive. This year, we decided not to do that in the interest of saving time. And we held our shortest meeting ever at 22 minutes. Just goes to show you how unpredictable life is.

Politically, I continue to see life quite differently than John Downing. But, it’s always true that I respect his long dedication to the work of the church, his patience and reasonableness even in the face of unreason, and his contribution to the larger good through charitable relief work in third world settings as well as to the continued good work of this church in this community. I offer thanks on behalf of us all.

I don’t know how many of you who have not worked with him directly are aware of the enormous amount of time and effort Matt Foraker has put into his position on the Board and as this year’s Board President. He stepped into that position at a time when the church was at a time of instability as we struggled to put the ghosts of a crisis to rest and to take on the transition from the church’s first called minister to the next phase of growth which was unclear for much of that time.

Many of you have not had the chance to meet our office manager, Laura Mabry-Griffin, as her hours in the building from Tuesday through Friday don’t coincide with the hours most of us are here. I can’t state strongly enough how much her proficiency, professionalism, and thoughtfulness have supported me and the church’s mission and I hope that you all will express your appreciation from time to time. The simple truth is that our church would not run as smoothly as it does without her contributions.

Kathie Downs kept our Circle Suppers going for years, her only reward being that she was able to participate in those suppers with many of you. Trying to align the schedules of UU’s is nearly as difficult as herding them towards anything.

When we went through our time of reckoning a couple of years ago, Susan Webb’s voice and guidance were invaluable. Personally, I was of two minds about the “listening sessions” that she arranged and felt very uncomfortable in the one that I attended, but came to see the wisdom of that course of action in a very short time. People had a chance to make their voices heard and some were left feeling dissatisfied. But, as Lisa Presley, our region’s congregational consultant, reminded me at the time, my job, our job, is not to make everyone in the congregation happy, but to love them. A crucial difference.

I hold Valerie Brown in high esteem for her ability to weather all kinds of circumstances with a smile and goodwill, always looking for the best in people and in doing so, often bringing out their best. It’s hard to imagine where our finances would be without her steady eye and hand and a knowledge of finances built up over a lifetime.

Could we have a successful stewardship drive without the guidance of Ken Kuehn? I hope the church never has to find out—or if it does—that we find out because another dedicated member steps up to take the reins. Ken has served us as a President of the Board, a dedicated member (and sometime) Chair of the Buildings and Grounds Committee, as our Master of Ceremonies for our Chili Cook-off and as someone who patiently straightens the chairs and cleans up the sanctuary after the service. The things they don’t teach you in seminary.

For every year I’ve been here, Annie Silva has set out dishes for hospitality, recycled our papers and boxes and bottles, washed dishes, and generally made herself as useful as possible. She may sometimes be the last to arrive, but she’s more often the last to leave.

Roxanne Spencer does more than she should—but don’t tell her that or she might stop. She keeps the Hospitality and Caring Committees on their toes, offers wisdom form the pulpit from time to time, organizes our social sanghas, offers honest experiences at our contemplative services. She’s found a way to balance that desire for individual expression with the services that help stitch the community together.

Laura McGee has served on our Personnel Committee for three years now and as Chair, I think, for two. As Vice-President of the Board, she’s chaired our bi-monthly Church Leadership Council meetings with grace and efficiency, wisdom and generosity—characteristics that don’t always blend together in one person.

Before I came to this church, I used to think about meditating much more often than actually doing it. Frank Snyder’s guided meditations and participation in both the Zen gatherings and our early service have been a tremendous help in my own spiritual development and, I expect, in that of many of you here.

Becki Davis was the Chair and the backbone of our Hospitality Committee for years and still devotes untold hours to tending to our children in either the nursery or the RE classes, despite chronic pain from a back condition.

David Wellman makes sure that many of the church’s joys and concerns are shared in a way that helps us all to stay connected; he organizes game nights, is active on both the Caring and Hospitality Committees and will soon serve on the Board. And he doesn’t let us forget when St. David’s Day comes along.

Michele Steiner has led our efforts at the International Festival for years, was our Youth Group leader, is a song leader every month, has been the secretary of many committees as well as our Board of Directors.

Jan Garrett has been the steady presence at our Sunday morning Adult Forum sessions for years, has been a secretary for as many committees as Michele, has several times served on the Board, once as President, and shares his knowledge and erudition with us from the pulpit several times a year.

Where would we be without Judy Tabor? Judy, you’ve kept the lights on and made sure that they get turned off. You’ve reported leaks and repaired all manner of things, have made sure that the grounds have been maintained, helped out in the kitchen, kept us going in all kinds of ways, and always with a smile.

Janeen Grohsmeyer has led our Communications Committee for several years now. If you like the clear organization of the newsletter and its timely and thorough presentation of church news, you have her to thank more than anyone. She spearheaded the work that was done to revise the bylaws and has made sure that policies and procedures are clearly presented and up to date.

As we are running out of time, I won’t be able to thank Michele Newcomb for her dedicated work on the Board, on the Committee on Ministry, as our secretary, as our poet in residence, as our occasional reader. And I won’t be able to thank Jerry Gibbs for his long dedication to the church, his generous financial support and business acumen. Sorry that I don’t have time to acknowledge the steady and reliable gifts of John Forman in many capacities, the fount of good sense that Eileen Arnold always supplies in her role as right relations facilitator, Chair of the CoM, secretary of the Endowment and Membership Committees. Sorry we don’t have time to acknowledge Nancy Garrett’s long service on the Membership Committee or in leading our Guest at the Table Program among many other things. Or Ann Groves and Sharon Crawford for their long and dedicated work on the Membership Committee, especially in organizing our Getting to Know UU sessions.

(This is where the man with the cane starts to yank me from the podium and the accompanist plays loud music to say it’s time to go, Peter; the day is passing, we’ve got places to go and things to do!) And I reply—but what about Forrest Halford and Greg Willis? We can’t neglect to thank them for the wonderful music they’ve supplied over the years! And what about Jeremy and Liza Kelly? What a gift their voices are to us. What about Diane Lewis? You know Diane—she’d rather not be thanked. Just pretend she doesn’t lead our Social Justice Action Committee, our PFLAG meetings, last year’s fundraiser and fundraisers in years past and so many other things.

It’s been a great pleasure to see Jennifer Thomas grow into her call to ministry. I expect that our UUA will be enriched by her gifts and the compassion that she brings into so many lives.

And Deane Oliva and Sandi Joiner and Mark Robinson and Jon and Samantha Williams and Leah Wendt and Chuck Webb and Zee Evelsizer and Jim Haynes—would we even have our new building without the leadership of Jim Haynes? And Lynn Hines and Gloria Owen and Buzzy Groves, Ferrel Rose, Lisa Dalporto, Teresa Ward, and Susan Rigsby, Susan Ammons, Susan Johnston, Susan Sirvain, and last, but not least, a very active newcomer, Richard Mealer.

You know, we really should have done this at the annual meeting.

I will remember other people, too. Jim and Joan Martin; Charlie & Linda Pickle; Eric and Laura Bain-Selbo; Mania Ritter; Susie Likes; Brent and Holly Oglesbee; Jeanne Vallee; Nolan and Erika; Pam and Duncan McKenzie; Delaire Rowe; Peggy and Frank Steele. And many, many more. Just as in our time of joys and concerns, recognize that not all whose names we keep in mind have been spoken aloud.

I am your minister until the end of the month and I will do my best to serve you until then. Once July comes, I am no longer your minister and will suspend my association with the church. I want to honor the ministry of Roger Mohr who will serve as your interim minister beginning on August 1. It could get confusing for me to be present and you will want clarity, not confusion, as you move forward. We will certainly see one another as we cross paths in town. And we’ll greet one another and chat, but we won’t discuss the business of the church because that will be your business, not my business. My business will be to learn how to be productively retired and that will be challenge and opportunity enough.

I’m grateful that you called me to serve as your minister. I hope that my best has been enough, but I’m wise enough to know I’ve made missteps along the way. So, I’m grateful to have had a chance to practice my brokenness and grow towards wholeness with you all. May this be and a place of sanctuary when you need it, a community of peace as you build it, and serve as a stimulus as you do your good work in the world.

I hope to see many of you when we gather again in celebration this afternoon.

Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on June 18, 2017

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