Reflections on Ministry


Reflections on Ministry

Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly

To the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green

On June 6, 2010

Well, I’m a first-year minister and you all are a congregation learning to work with a minister in close quarters for the first time. And though it’s not a year since I came on board as your called minister, it has been about ten months, and in just about three weeks I will leave for a month of vacation followed by two weeks of study leave, so I thought that today would be just about the right time to make a report to you of what I’ve been up to, what I have learned, and how I envision us growing together in ministry to this church and this community.

We have worked closely enough together over the past ten months that many of you and I know about one another’s various roles through those experiences. But a minister moves in various worlds at various times, so I expect that few of you are familiar with all the facets of ministry, all the ways that I’ve found myself called to serve you and, in fact, all of the various ministries that your fellow church members have provided. I thought I’d start us off by just listing various charges and duties

At your request, I have been called to officiate at weddings; preside at memorial services; prepare and deliver sermons; to work with church members to prepare services. I’ve attended church services presented by others; have written newsletter articles and inserts for the order of service and texts for promotional materials and fact sheets and petitions and announcements and proposals for the Board of Directors to consider and letters of recommendation.

I’ve been writing monthly minister’s reports for the Board and for the Committee on Ministry. Attending Board meetings and committee meetings and committee meetings and committee meetings. Interviewing job applicants; being interviewed by local media; learning how to respond when being interviewed. Community involvement, sometimes as an individual, sometimes as one of several church members. Supervising office staff; evaluating job descriptions; amending job descriptions. Editing newsletters—copy editing and line editing; reviewing every order of service, suggesting an adjustment here, a modification there. Meeting with the various leaders of a church with more than the usual number of leaders, sometimes at their request, sometimes at mine.

Coordinating a service project; engaging in various trainings; facilitating adult education classes; co-facilitating a covenant group. Continuing my own education as a participant in a “Building Your Own Theology” class; by watching and discussing video presentations on various topics with many of you at our Adult Forum meetings; a nd by attending presentations at “Food for Thought” and the thought-provoking discussions that follow.

I even took a computer class—but I’m still pretty hopeless at that. Attending and enjoying affiliation group meetings such as our Wednesday evening meditation group and our monthly Zen gatherings; and, of course, our fledgling “Hunting Club.” (Valerie promises a bird-watching venture soon, once she is able to coordinate with “one of the most knowledgeable birders East of the Mississippi.”)

Visiting with you at home or in hospital when you or a loved one are experiencing a setback in your health. Meeting with you for pastoral care when you feel the need for it. Providing a ride home from hospital when you need it. Sitting with you at the sad occasion of a funeral when the life of a loved one has passed. Accepting an invitation to your home for dinner and to talk about church life.

Writing out thank-you cards or cards of congratulations or of condolence. Engaging in interfaith work. Engaging in the work of social action and religious witness. Giving advice to the colleagues in my ministerial cluster at our monthly meetings— or, more often, receiving advice from them. Attending retreats sponsored by the Heartland District where I get to meet ministers from the other 53 churches in our widespread district and learning that the word “retreat” usually means “more work.”

Attending special events like the installation of the Rev. Dawn Cooley at the First Church in Louisville or my own unforgettable installation here in this well-loved place.

Meeting monthly (when it works) with my mentor, the Rev. Elwood Sturtevant about the complications, large and small, that come along with church life. Meeting monthly or as often as I can with a local minister from one of the Christian churches in town who agreed (I won’t say “volunteered”) to be my “spiritual advisor” for the year as I stumbled into well-hidden landmines, sometimes of my own making.

Enjoying simple collegiality with other UU ministers when possible, but with other ministers here in town as well. John Wesley of the Disciples of Christ Church brings together the ministers of his church, the Presbyterian church, the Episcopal church and First Baptist for casual, but thought-provoking lunches once a month—or as often as our schedules permit. Attending the monthly meetings of the ministerial association here in town and learning, in the process, a lot about the piety and practices of the churches in this part of the country.

Taking in a lecture at WKU on race relations and another on teaching the children born to poverty and enjoying being with some of you in each case. Helping to organize a Dialogue on Earth Care and acting as an agent of encouragement to see that that work continues in the guise of a newly created Interfaith Coalition on Earth Care.

And greatly enjoying Circle Suppers, potluck lunches, stewardship breakfasts, afternoon teas and wine and cheese gatherings with so many of you who have become not just fellow church members, but friends. And reciting poems at the Ten-Bean Coffeehouse; and greatly enjoying the contributions of our amazingly creative church community there. And submitting some paintings to the Spring Art Show and enjoying your many contributions to it. And buying art work I have no place to display. And enjoying the most fun-raising fundraiser ever in the form of the church auction for which we again give thanks to Pam and Duncan as well as technical masters Susan Ammons and Brian Foster.

And sending letters to new visitors. And asking sociable and dedicated members to make follow-up calls. Thank you to Jennifer Hundley Batts who has been known to say “You know me; I can talk to a brick wall.” And composing sayings, witty or wise or perhaps somewhere in between, for our roadside pulpit.

And rewarding fellowship with you at a wedding reception; watching the Super Bowl, our national secular holy day with Charlie & Linda (and Brent & Holly and Mike & Susan). My first visit it to a dog park—that was an adventure. Sledding down the hill on which our sign is placed—that was fun—it made me late for a meeting, but it was worth it. Music at Greener Groundz. A moving-day expedition. A housewarming party. NCAA basketball on TV. Earth Day events. Irina’s graduation party. A cookout and a Hot Rods game on my birthday: thank you Charlie & Linda. And keeping a log of all this activity, of course. And that’s about it.

A few weeks ago, as I was heading into my office to robe in preparation for our worship service, I was stopped by Sonja who was engaged in conversation with one of the kids.

“Here he is,” she said. “Why don’t you ask him?”

“Are you a pastor?” was the question.

“Well, I said, “that’s one of the things I am. Here in the South, people seem to use that term a lot. The woman who calls me from the local newspaper calls me ‘Pastor Connolly.’ And that’s one of the things I’m called to do: to pastor people when they’re feeling down and could use an encouraging word or a visit in the hospital or something like that.

“I call myself a minister because a minister, traditionally, has four jobs: preacher, pastor, priest and prophet.”

“Well, that’s the long answer for you” Sonja said. “More than you needed to know, I bet.”

That’s probably as good a formula as any, I guess, as to what ministry is, though the categories tend to overlap and there are other things involved, such as teaching, that don’t fit so neatly into those categories.

It’s probable that most of you here know me in the role of preacher, which is an old word and an odd word, I’m sure, for many of you here. When you hear the word “preach,” you may, as I always did, associate it with a preposition, such as “preach to” or even “preach at.” As in “Nobody wants to be preached at.” There is an implication that to preach is to force someone to listen to a diatribe or a moralistic lesson or guilt-inducing message or something that makes you squirm and want to release a frog into the pews, as Tom Sawyer does, just to “liven things up a bit.”

One of the on-line dictionaries defines “preach” as “to proclaim or put forth in a sermon.” That doesn’t help much, does it? If you don’t want to be preached at, you most certainly don’t want a sermon because a sermon is something that gets preached at you. Another definition is “to give religious or moral instruction, especially in a tedious manner.” See what I mean? Even the dictionary-writers think it’s ainted, this term.

Another definition I like better: “to advocate, especially to urge compliance with.” The example given is “preached tolerance and peaceful coexistence.” Now, that’s more like it. I have, in fact preached to advocate and to urge acceptance for various positions and to urge actions to back them up. That’s where the prophet piece comes up, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

And I want to point out that you, too have preached in this room and have invited others to preach here, too— or to give a talk. I guess that not all services have included preaching. Here’s a list (because I like lists) of the titles of the fifteen services I’ve been present for that others have delivered. You might want to close your eyes and see what images come up as you hear the titles and remember what a rich year of services we have had:

In August, Cindy Snyder and Forrest Halford spoke on the concept of “Full Spectrum Dominance: The Underbelly of the Iraq War,” a reflection on their analysis of that venture, self-described as such by its architects. Also in August, Daniel Reader spoke on “Sustainability: Negotiating a Crisis of Faith,” a talk that struck the first note of a theme we were to return to throughout the year. Our closing August service was the wonderful “Water Ceremony” planned and coordinated by Linda Pickle.

In September, Katrina Phelps presented a program urging us to find a way to balance service to the church with our other duties and pleasures. Jim Martin’s service was called “We Laugh, We Cry.” Fred Gott spoke on pain and suffering from the perspective of a medical doctor. Doak Mansfield preached “The Only Sermon Worth Giving” in November, causing me to ask myself, “If that is true, why should I be preaching other sermons at all?”

On the last Sunday of the year, Chris and Janarae Conway presented a Winter Solstice service that was not only informational, but moving. Jerry Gibbs told us about “The Greenhouse Effect on Evolution” in January. Paul Markham told us about his work at Western in a talk called “The Unifying Role of Compassion and Work.” And few of us will ever forget the emotions raised when, in March, Katrina spoke about the “Natural Act of Dying.” The standing ovation lives on in memory, but the depth of the experience will live on longer.

Jan Garrett talked to us of the work of Riane Eisler in a sermon called “The Chalice and the Blade,” also in March, a contrast of the communal and domination models of societal structures. Jack Montgomery spoke expertly on the “Spirituality of the American Folk Healer.” This past month we all had our spirits lifted as Forrest, with Katrina and Tracy led us through the singing of that “Old Time Gospel Music.” Deeply refreshing. And last week Marvin Russell gave us his thoughts on “Adventures in Ideas.”

So if it’s a minister’s job to preach, you all have done a lot of it and it’s been of an exceptionally high quality. I have not minded being preached at one bit.

The work of pastoral care is jointly done in this church by the Caring Committee and the minister. Linda Pickle has taken the lead in organizing that committee so that everyone in the church has a pastor, of sorts, a member who has volunteered to follow up when we get news that anyone is in need. This really is remarkable, I want you to know. I’ve been a member in a church where one person has comprised the Caring Committee and has had to make pleas for help during the times of announcements. That’s good, but this process works better.

We’ve done our best to minister to you in times of need. I know that sometimes we’ve fallen short because the news of not every need makes its way to us, but all in all, I think we’ve served you well. The most enjoyable times, of course, are when we’ve ministered together. I don’t think I’ll soon forget the time that Jennifer and Mary Grayson and I decided to “take church” to LeeAnn because she so much missed being with us on Sunday. We brought our hymnals and delivered a very uneven performance, I’m afraid. After one hymn, LeeAnn said that that would be enough.

Pastoral care has aspects that you might expect, like hospital visitation, but other aspects that you might not think of: folks begin to come to church for all kinds of reasons. I always remember Terry Burke’s observation to understand that it is often in times of need that folks turn to church, sometimes because they have not been able to find comfort or meaning anyplace else.

So, when I’ve sat with a visitor whose life has become a burden because for one reason or another life has gotten out of control, I find it a deeply touching experience to lend the ear and hand that says there is a refuge here and a community for you if you want it. And how satisfying it is when it works out and that person stays and you enjoy the smile upon their face when this spiritual community takes wing. When UUs get razzed for being “not quite a church,” I say “Well come on in, pull up a seat and stay a while. And then you’ll find out if we are a church or not.”

What else is pastoral care? It’s your response to a woman who says “I can usually put up with his unkind comments, but sometimes it’s just too much.” It’s sitting with a couple for pre-marital counseling. It’s working on conflict resolution between church members. It’s signing a petition for a young man who wants to make sure that the government knows that in the event of a draft, he is determined to conscientiously resist. It’s talking to someone who is suffering from a life-threatening disease and figuring out a way, together, to cope, to put together a support group, perhaps. It’s listening while someone opens up about what it means to suffer from alcohol dependence or post-traumatic stress or grief after the loss of a loved one. It’s sitting with someone at a funeral or visiting at a wake. It’s helping plan a memorial service. It may be that I’ve done all those things this year, but it is also true that you have done many of them with me.

Now this dimension of ministry that’s called “prophecy”—what might we mean by that, exactly? Well, it’s not seeing into the future, exactly. It’s more like seeing deeply into the present, naming those things that threaten our safety, our security, our sense of what is just in the moral universe and charging us to change our ways and laying out the consequences for us if we do not change.

My September sermon on the barbaric, though we call it “civilized” way we have institutionalized meat production through the device of what are called “factory farms” or CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) struck a nerve as I found out that members of the congregation were far more familiar with the phenomenon than I was.

If you’ll remember, we found out that this practice has so many negative consequences that when we talked of it, it produced feelings of disgust if not actual nausea: the inhumane practice of close confinement, the callous treatment of mostly immigrant labor resulting in a sense of purposeless in workers’ lives; the effect on the environment The “stickers” who sever the carotid artery of a steer every ten seconds; the “knockers” who stun cattle on arrival to the slaughterhouse by shooting them in the head with a captive bolt stunner. The illness and disease caused by fecal contamination of meat; the political strength of the industry that lives off government subsidies; the wash off of fertilizer used to produce corn for corn-fed beef polluting the streams and causing dead zones for fish in the Gulf of Mexico.

Well, we identified ten such disturbing consequences. Disturbing enough for me that two weeks later, I issued a challenge to the congregation to take at least one action that would bring your eating habits or the way you procure your food more in keeping with your own ethical beliefs. You responded by pledging to 95 separate changes. We won’t change the world by making such changes as these (at least not right away), but we will change our own culture here and we will strengthen our community by uniting in such a way.

Another result of that sermon was that over 40 of us signed petitions that were delivered to every franchise of McDonalds and Burger King and Wendy’s in town— fourteen or fifteen as I recall, in which we stated that we would not patronize their businesses until they stopped getting their meat from factory farms. In the process, we educated the managers and staffs who, in almost all cases were curious and polite. (And I learned something then about Southern culture because I can guarantee you that that is not the response we would have received in the neighborhood I grew up in in Boston.)

It would have been a lonely exercise to deliver these petitions on my own. Jana Shobe stepped up as she so often does and I got to learn a bit of her story as we drove and talked through the morning. And Jennifer and Mary Grayson stepped up. As we entered the McDonalds on Walton Drive (yes, there is one in Wal-Mart), Mary Grayson tried to convince me that the atmosphere there is so toxic that she once saw a fly die in mid-air upon entering the store.

If you attended the installation of the minister here two weeks ago, you held in your hands an order of service that Reverend Carl Scovel, who has been around the block a few times (he delivered the sermon on behalf of ministers celebrating 50 years of ministry at last year’s general assembly) called the most elegant he’d ever seen. Its design was the work of Joan Martin. And the graphic on the front of the planet Earth in full color with the flaming chalice sitting on it, off-center, was the work of Claudia Hanes.

I chose it as the symbol for that service because I take it as the symbol of my ministry. Ours, at this place and time, must be a ministry to the planet Earth. For all our talk of social justice and all the valuable work we do to promote social justice, ecological justice has become the work of our time, the work that we are called to do across denominational lines, across the lines of faith traditions, across the spectrum from faith to faithless, sacred to secular.

For that reason, I am very pleased that our church was one of the three religious institutions that most strongly supported the Interfaith Dialogue on Earth Care in February. And I’m pleased that those of us on that planning committee agreed to continue on under the aegis of the Interfaith Coalition on Earth Care. Our Earth Day event was more a small ceremony than an action of witness, but it was moving and profound for those of us who participated.

The call that comes to us now is from the Gulf of Mexico and it is my hope that the genuine outrage that is a product of the search for righteousness will propel us to dramatic action, this Earth Care Coalition and help promote the message that is so profoundly clear now: that we have to find alternatives to fossil fuel that will ensure a planet that will sustain the life it has evolved to sustain. We drew very good press coverage for our February Earth Care event. Drawing attention to issues as pressing as this is part of the work of justice-seeking people, part of what it means to bear prophetic witness.

“Publicity” is not usually listed anywhere as a ministry that I am aware of, but every month that I file a minister’s report with the Board, I realize that there is something to list under the publicity heading. In January, Natalie Jordan interviewed me for an article on “Roadside Sign Language,” wherein we explained the function of what we call our “wayside pulpit” or “roadside pulpit.” In February, I was asked to provide a UU perspective on “angels”, of all things. I don’t think that there is just one UU perspective on angels, by the way; or much of anything else. In February, also, the Daily News gave two days of coverage to the Dialogue on Earth Care, including front page coverage. Also in February was an article on our new building with nice photos and accurate text.

Thank you to Susan Sirvain and John Smiley of Builders by Design for the information they provided at an on-site visit. In April, the Western campus paper the Herald did a nice feature on our fledgling young adult group that Katrina has done so much work with. And in May, we got front page coverage for my installation, thanks, in large part, I’m sure, to the press release expertly written by Sara Shipley Hiles. Well, that’s an extension of preaching, I guess. And we can thank Zee Evelsizer and Susan Ammons for the work on the Communications Committee that has us on the WKU -FM airwaves among other things.

Well, I can’t acknowledge the ministries of all of our various committees—it would take too long. But I do need to let you know that the Membership Committee did more work this year than you can possibly imagine in seeing to it that being a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green is a meaningful thing. I was surprised to find out at our first meeting that membership meant “signing the book,” but “signing the book” did not have any particular meaning.

There was no covenant statement that indicated what one was agreeing to. There was no expressed expectation of support of the church. It just was not clear what it meant to be a member. Ann Groves and Sharon Crawford deserve your thanks for their work on establishing what is called a “high threshold membership,” something that says that membership to this institution is meaningful and something that has been shown increases the strength of churches because it gives us something to coalesce around. But Nancy Garrett is the one who did the yeoman work in researching the policies of other churches and putting together a tightly constructed, well-conceived document.

Well, you are asking, what’s this about “priestly functions of ministry”? I’m glad you asked. Ours is not a tradition that relies too heavily on ritual and that is where the priestly function comes in. I suppose my most meaningful priestly function this year has been the anointing of St. Joan Martin for her work in leading us through the installation process.

The other priestly functions that get done here on a regular basis are the design of the weekly worship service, which is the work of a truly sterling Sunday Services Committee and the ritual lighting and extinguishing of the chalice, the recitation of the opening and closing words, the offering, the wonderful ritual of singing out the children, the moving singing of hymns, the opening musical selection, the closing ritual of singing “The Peace Song.” Who would have thunk it? In this church, you are the priests.

As we learn together the language of church, I meet with some ministers in town and try to teach them a little bit of what Unitarian Universalism is about and the traditions of this church, some of which I found surprising. At one lunchtime conversation, I told them that, to my surprise, this congregation has a tradition of applauding after the sermon. Matthew Covington of the Presbyterian Church, without missing a beat, asked “Can I preach there?” It is an unusual tradition and it has come up as a topic for discussion at the Sunday Services Committee meeting.

My guess is that, as you have mostly had guest speakers and it is the common and polite practice to offer applause in such cases to show appreciation, it’s a secular practice that has become a spiritual tradition. Some folks have expressed disapproval and I’ve found myself defending the practice. Churches have their own pieties, their ways of expressing what it means to be church. This is a joy-filled church with lots of laughter as well as seriousness and if applause reflects this exuberant piety, I have been all for it. And, after all, how can I ever forget the standing ovation that greeted my closing sermon just before your vote to call me on May 3—yes, I remember the date.

But I had an experience here a couple of weeks ago that made me question this tradition of applause, at least for this minister. The last time I spoke to you here, my sermon topic was “A Language of Reverence.” In it, to illustrate the point that language is a reflection of what lives in the heart, I told the story of Mary and Chuck and the loss of their twins due to a miscarriage. Now, because this was the personal story of a real couple, of course I changed their names to preserve their privacy.

There are those who say that that is not enough: the story of this private couple is a private story and no preacher has a right to it. With them, I disagree. The story is a human story. It belongs to all of us who are human because it reminds us more truly of what it means to be human in our love and in our losses. To share the story is to help spread the practice of empathy, of identifying with another in their pain.

But to accept applause after a sermon that included that story—and there was just a smattering of applause as everyone sought their own way to respond— well, it felt very uncomfortable to me. As one of my high school students twenty years ago might have said “That’s yucky, Mr. Connolly.” Then, it really did feel like a violation.

One offers a sermon, anyway, not as a performance, but as a service. It’s best for me, anyway, if the congregation accepts the work of the sermon as a gift to sit with in the silence that helps you make sense of it. Sometimes we are uncomfortable with unresolved tension. A burst of applause may relieve that tension—send it splintering in a hundred directions when, sometimes, sitting with that tension might be just what we need to do. I will join in offering applause for our guest speakers, but for myself, the gift of silence is reward enough.

“What would I change?” I am sometimes asked. I’d like to find a better way to feel that I am the minister to the whole congregation. To that end, I met with the RE Committee this morning to see if there’s not a way for me to spend more time with our youth and to provide them with a more complete religious experience, worship as well as instruction.

I wish we’d find a better way to welcome visitors. When someone introduces himself or herself, I wish that we would ask them where they are coming from. That way there’s a possibility for a connection at coffee hour—something that someone may have in common to talk about. If the visitor says his name is David, I say “Welcome, David.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we all offered welcome in unison? Imagine how welcoming that would feel.

Today we welcomed Dave Rickard who has spent the weekend with us, helping us to plan our Capital Campaign. David, I wonder if you would mind standing up again and telling us your first name and where you are coming from. [Let’s hope there is a warm round of welcome here.]

Dave helped us plan our drive to meet our goal for our stewardship campaign. Charlie and Lisa Dalporto led that effort. We more than met our goal. As part of our social action work, every third Sunday of a month we take a collection to support a cause we believe in. We do remarkably well. In the fall we will begin a campaign that will help us pay for a beautiful new building that will extend our mission. Another goal, another ministry. More work; more reward. Something to talk about when we meet here next June to celebrate the work we do together in ministry to this church.

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