The Minister and the Congregation


 The Minister and the Congregation

By the Rev. Peter Connolly

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY on October 13, 2013
One of the texts that I will be drawing from for today is called Fun with Peanuts by Charles M. Schultz, also known as “Sparky.” In one of the scenarios in the book, Charlie Brown and Lucy are standing under a tree in the pouring rain, their backs to each other. Charlie Brown, baseball cap on his head, baseball glove on his hand, says “Well, there goes the old ball game!”

Lucy replies, “My daddy says we need rain… he says our lawn is just about dried out…” and in the third panel, continues, “He says our garden needs rain, and our new hedge needs rain, and he says…” until Charlie Brown interrupts her by saying “Oh, Shut up!!”

Charlie Brown and Lucy are experiencing the same situation, but from distinctly different viewpoints. In church life, we will often find ourselves in such a situation, sharing the same experience, but bringing to the experience distinctly different viewpoints.

Except, we don’t have the luxury of saying to one another “Oh, shut up!!” At least not if we wish to continue in a right relationship with each other, seeing one another as of inherent worth and worthy of being treated with dignity.

We have chosen to live together in covenant. The first sentence of that two-sentence covenant says that “We promise to live in harmony and civility, with awareness, tolerance, acceptance, and celebration of our diversity.” In order to live in harmony and civility, we need to first of all be aware that, faced with the same situation, we may have diverse views.

Then, we need to commit to tolerate the fact that, though our views are different in a certain situation, each person’s view come from somewhere and the fact that we have promised to live in harmony and civility means that such differences will be tolerated. But, further than that, we will accept the diversity of viewpoints– which does not mean that we agree with every viewpoint– that would be impossible– but, we understand that differences of opinion will emerge and that we will accept that– in fact, we promise to “celebrate” our diversity.

How about that? You can’t go any farther than that, can you? But, still, we must commit to state our own views plainly, put them forth cogently and trust that in the process of authentic communication, an agreement will be reached which will benefit the community as a whole. “Trust,” in other words, is essential. And “communication,” difficult as that may be between human beings, is also essential. Thoughtful, dignified, respectful communication.

At a meeting of the Board of Directors last year, I shared a request that had come to me that we allow a group from the community to use our space for a worthy endeavor– to establish classes for teaching English as a Second Language and a Spanish language GED program. I don’t remember the details, but I think they needed a space for four times a week, two to three hours each time, except on Saturdays, when a four- or five-hour block was needed. I had met with this group in the past and even shared a meal with them because they had been using the same space we use for our monthly chapter meetings of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

After a period of discussion, all the Board members were in agreement that this was not something we could offer– it would tie up too much of our space for too many hours each week, would make that space unrentable should another potential renter came along, and would make more demands on our members (in terms of opening and closing the building and providing security and possibly more clean-up responsibilities).

Well, everyone was in agreement but me. I asked for an opportunity to present a different point of view. I said that we were committed to social justice and providing support for those less fortunate who were working to improve their lot. I said that we wanted to increase diversity on our campus and here we were presented with an opportunity to do just that. I said that, as an association, we were committed to immigration reform and it was highly likely that some of these folks have uncertain legal status.

The Board listened carefully, and in the course of discussion we established that the group had a connection to WKU. One of our members, our current President, actually, volunteered to see if space could be found at WKU where so many classrooms are empty at night. As it turned out, the group’s need for childcare could not be accommodated on campus and they found another church in town that could better accommodate their needs and one more likely to share their religious views.

In a group of eight, one divergent view was expressed, was considered carefully, taken seriously and addressed responsibly. No one said to me “Oh, shut up!!”

One of the roles of the minister is to be a prophetic voice for justice. This may mean challenging the institutions of the church, including its Board of Directors, whose authority derives from the congregation in their vote at a congregational meeting, such as the one which we held in May of this year.

But, institutions of authority do not always take kindly to being challenged, even when such challenge is appropriate.Each member of the Board has his or her own conscience which will be developed in a way different from mine, but must still be honored. Each will have a point of view that has been established over a lifetime of growth. And in each case, more growth will be called for, as more growth is called for all of us as we move through this learning experience we call “life” and more narrowly, this learning experience we call “church.”

Some churches hire a minister. Some churches “call” a minister. Most churches will do both over the course of their history. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, Kentucky, has recently hired a minister. Their settled minister of thirteen years, Rev. Cynthia Cain, resigned that position and retired from parish ministry in June.

As is usual in such a case, the Board of Directors was entrusted with the responsibility of hiring an interim minister whose job will be to get the church to look at itself and understand its historical development, its present composition, areas where growth is needed, and to gain a more conscious understanding of its place in the community. There is a contract in place between the interim minister and the Board of Directors.

A hired minister is not in a good position to challenge the wisdom of a Board of Directors because she is directly employed by them. That’s one of the reasons that congregations, as a rule, do not hire ministers. A church who seeks a settled minister, one whose ministry agreement with the congregation is open-ended, “calls” a minister.

I expect that we are all familiar with the idea of a “calling” to do a particular kind of work. The expression means that we are experiencing a subjective “calling” by something larger than we are to engage in a particular kind of meaningful work, work that is in line with our most profound sense of self, work that we were created to do, some might say. I’ve spoken about such a calling before and I continue to claim that as something of great worth, but that is not what I am referring to here.

Here, in its “Standards of Professional Practice” is the language used by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association:

“By the corporate act of call, the members of the local congregation acknowledge their need for the service of one prepared by education and personal commitment for the work of ministerial leadership. They pledge to labor with the minister in bringing to fruition the promise of the free church, and to provide for their sustenance. (T)he ministerial call signifies creation of a distinctive partnership in which minister and congregation alike affirm their intention to share in a religious pilgrimage of mutual care, joy, forbearance, self-discipline and a desire to serve the common good.” (See UUMA Guidelines.)

We have entered into a partnership, and from time to time, it is a good and a responsible thing to investigate together what that means. It does not mean that the minister leads the congregation by issuing directives and it does not mean that the congregation or its elected Board lead by issuing directives.

Our relationship is a partnership and partnerships are relational, not hierarchical. All associations within a church are relational. The Board of Directors is elected by the congregation to represent them, so our actions (I say “our” because the minister is an ex officio member of the Board of Directors) need to represent our best understanding of the will of the congregation.

The minister has a special role, though, in challenging the will of the congregation if he does not believe it to be in service to the mission of the church. This is because the minister is charged by the congregation to be a prophetic voice for justice and in its day-to-day stresses to get things done and to make its budget work, the congregation, yes, even the congregation may wander from its mission.

And when you ask the question “Who owns the church?” the answer is not “the minister.” The answer is not “the Board of Directors.” The answer is not even “the congregation.” The owner of the church is its statement of mission. Our mission is “to be a caring community which encourages spiritual growth and actively works to improve our society and the environment.”

When your friends from other churches ask you how Unitarian Universalist churches can claim to hold a worship service when they don’t worship anything or believe in anything, your answer is “To worship is to hold high those things we believe in and we believe in the mission of our church.” You will not succumb to the temptation of Charlie Brown to say “Oh, shut up!!”

When a church has existed for fifty-one years and for forty-seven of those years has not called a minister, it is not surprising that even in the fifth year of partnership between minister and congregation, we are still seeking ways to define our relationship. This is especially true with a congregation of 129 members.

This size church is called “pastoral size” and in the ordinary course of development, would have developed a “pastoral style,” a style of church life where the minister is at the center of everything. He (or she) is consulted about every decision, makes many of the decisions, some in consultation with the Board, others on his (or her) own. The minister is considered the font of information and often the font of wisdom (sometimes wisely, sometimes not).

But, this church has had a curious and unusual course of development from the family style church of seven persons sitting around a table determining who does what, growing with the guidance of patriarchs and matriarchs to a pastoral-size, but program-style church, where much of the decision-making power officially rests with the Board, but unofficially, in the hands of whoever wants to do the work– the mark of a family-style church which lingers on past the time when such style of decision-making can effectively represent who we are.

So, my suggestion to you– which, really– is as much a challenge as it is a suggestion– is to find a way for us to forge a new style church, one where the partnership is made more clear and the roles are more defined.

We already began this discussion, the Board and I, when I brought up the idea of starting an ecological ministry. It was not brought up as an information item, which would mean that I had made a decision to start such a ministry and was now informing the Board. And it was not brought up as an action item where I was requesting permission from the Board to initiate this ministry.

It was brought up as a discussion item for us to talk through and examine, to name the pros and cons, how it might be implemented, who would be in charge, who would be accountable– but along the way, the question arose: “Are you asking for our approval, Peter?” “Or are you telling us that this is what you are going to do?”

The next questions, of course, were “Do I need to ask your permission?” and “What are the parameters of those things the minister has authority to initiate without Board approval?” My answer was indirect: This is a good thing to talk with the congregation about. This kind of questioning is good for the church. We need to all be thinking about questions like this because we are a questioning community who believes in thoughtful deliberation, the democratic process and righteous action.

As we deliberated the question, it was natural, I suppose, that we test the proposal by bringing up extreme examples. One question that arose was “What if you decided that you wanted to start a ministry for aliens? Should you be allowed to do that without Board approval?”

My answer is this: The reason that you invited a minister to candidate for the position of settled minister for eight days of meetings with committees of every stripe, and the Board of Directors and with affiliation groups and with the Youth Group and for luncheons and dinners and “get to know you” sessions is because you wanted to be good and sure that the person you were calling to be your minister would not be likely to start a ministry for alien life forms.

You were calling someone to provide spiritual leadership with both authority and responsibility. You had planned to invest your future as a church in a partnership with someone whose judgment you would trust. And to insist on approving his every decision does not demonstrate that trust. And let me be clear, no one ever said that the Board had to approve every decision– that position had to be articulated in order to make progress in the discussion.

When this church called a minister, I covenanted to provide you with these qualities and these services, as stated in the UUMA Standards of Professional Practice:

  1. The minister’s life and vocation would reflect honesty, forthright love, leadership, and service.
  2. The minister would fulfill the responsibilities of leading public worship, nurturing spiritual growth, and cultivating a strong community.
  3. The minister will offer counsel and comfort , and help people connect, in order to encourage and support one another.
  4. In keeping with the tradition of intellectual freedom in the pulpit and the pew, the minister will preach and teach the truth as he sees it without fear, and with openness to new understanding.
  5. The minister will show respect and compassion for all people, and to summon to the community to display to the world actions of justice, peace, goodwill and the ethical life.
  6. The minister will bear witness to the realities of the world, the ideals of the common good, and the power of people for love and change, endurance and delight.

In addition, the minister is responsible for assessing certain needs (well, many needs) and sometimes directly providing the services needed to address them: preaching, administration, pastoral care and counseling, rites of passage, religious education of adults and children, art and aesthetics, small group ministry, theological reflection, social witness, concern, and action, connections in the local community, outreach and growth, community building and living in right relationship, being involved in the affairs of the national association and the region or district.

It’s quite a portfolio, and no minister can do all that alone. Another reason that we have covenanted to work in partnership together.A covenant is different from a contract in this way: A contract binds two parties to commit to fulfilling, at least minimally, an agreement between them, entered into in order to protect the interests of each.

A covenant seeks to do more than that. I never signed a contract with this church. In 2009, I signed a letter of call and ministry agreement. The key passage in terms of our working agreement, in my view, is “The Minister and the Congregation share responsibility for the leadership and ministry of the Congregation. Achievement and maintenance of this collaborative relationship must likewise be shared. It is a relationship of discovery, of both self and other, in a context of mutuality.”

You probably have signed a contract of one kind or another in your life. Did it ever include a clause such as this?

So, today, I would like to formally invite you once more into the achievement and maintenance of this collaborative relationship. At the last Sunday Services Committee meeting, I suggested to the committee that in most churches, it is the function of the minister to lead prayer.

Here, of course, there is no formally stated prayer, but when we share our personal joys and concerns, we invite one another into a deeper dimension of our personal lives than we generally share with others; then, we enter into a period of silence for reflection, meditation and prayer. Because there are more than personal concerns that bind us together, because there are social concerns and cultural concerns and ecological concerns, it seems to me that they should be shared, too, and what better person to state those concerns and lead the congregation into the silence than the minister?

But, does that mean that the minister takes away a cherished role for the service moderator? For some moderators, yes, it does mean that. Does it mean that there’s too much getting up and down, too much activity at the front of the sanctuary, disturbing the mood and ambiance of the worship service? That concern was shared, as well.

So, we made no decision except that I would share it with you today. Because I have no wish to lead by directive, and I believe that the preference of the spiritual community probably provides the wisest counsel.

None of us has perfect wisdom. All of us are fallible and will make mistakes. Part of the role of the spiritual community is to forgive one another for our mistakes, perhaps more than once; perhaps, time and time again.

In Fun with Peanuts, Lucy says to Charlie Brown “Can you take a little friendly criticism, Charlie Brown?” Charlie Brown says “Why, of course… I’m not above that sort of thing at all… a little friendly criticism can always be helpful to a person. What was it you wanted to say?” To which Lucy says “You’re kind of stupid.”

Well, we are not above a little friendly criticism, but when you offer such criticism, on a ministerial evaluation, for example– remember that there’s another person on the receiving end of those comments– someone who is doing his best to serve you, someone you have called to provide spiritual guidance, someone who admits to fallibility and to making mistakes. So, offer the kind of criticism that you yourself would be glad to receive.

Church work is always relational, never hierarchical. Remembering that each of us brings our unique sensibility as well as our rationality will help us all grow together in partnership. Partnership demands trust. So, let us covenant together to learn to grow in trust, to speak our truths with awareness of the tenderness of the feelings of others. This is a relationship of discovery, of both self and other, in a context of mutuality.

So may it be.



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