Sermons: “Claiming a Larger Ministry”
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
April 25, 2004
On the surface community ministry is a fairly simple concept—it is any ministry that takes place in the community beyond the four walls of the church. Here at UUS:E we engage in many community ministries. The Interfaith Coalition for Equity and Justice, Congregations United for Racial Equality and Justice is community ministry, STARS tutoring and Washington School tutoring, our participation in the same-sex marriage movement, our participation in the Manchester Area Conference of Churches, donating food to local shelters and food pantries, Covenant to Care, the Third Sunday collection, working on voter registration—all of these are community ministries of UUS:E. Community ministry is our faith in action in the world.
However , the notion of community ministry becomes more complicated when we realize there are ordained Unitarian Universalist ministers, like the Rev. Jeanne Lloyd, who our denomination classifies as community ministers, as opposed to parish ministers, like me, or ministers of religious education. It might not seem complicated. Jeanne is an ordained UU minister; she went through essentially the same preparation for ministry as I did; but instead of working in a church, she works in the community. She is called to practice ministry in the community.
It's complicated because there just aren't a lot of job opportunities for community ministers. How does someone like Jeanne earn a living? I'm a parish minister. The parish pays me. Jeanne is a community minister. Does the community pay her? Compared to parish ministers and ministers of religious education, it's a little more difficult for community ministers to find "real" jobs. This is not to say that their ministries aren't real. Their ministries are very real. Often, a community minister has a vision for a wonderful, life-giving ministry, but there's nobody to fund it. Community ministers often struggle, attempting to create a niche for themselves; or they find one of those rare secular institutions that has a ministry position on its staff.
Jeanne has created a niche for herself. She's going to tell you about it now. I'll preface her story by reminding you that Jeanne was the original organizer of the Greater Hartford Unitarian Universalists Against Racism, which is now known as Congregations United For Racial Equality and Justice or CUREJ. This past summer she stepped down from her consulting role in CUREJ because, after many years of seminary, student loans, living on one income, and now contemplating sending a child to college, she needed to find a ministry that was more financially secure. And, since I'm sure she will downplay her accomplishments in her ministry at FAVARH, I'll also preface her story by saying that in the field of spiritual care for people with developmental disabilities, Rev. Jeanne's vision for this type of ministry is becoming well known not only in the state of Connecticut, but also across the country.
Many of you have asked me, "what are you doing now that you're ordained?" There is still—always—some confusion about what this thing called 'community ministry' is. I am the community minister here at UUSE (and at the Universalist Church of West Hartford). However, my ministerial settlement is not here at the church, but rather, with the blessing of this church and the Unitarian Universalist Association, at The Arc of the Farmington Valley, otherwise known as FAVARH. FAVARH is a service organization for people with developmental disabilities. The essence of my ministry at FAVARH is to work for justice and promote human dignity for our clients and their families. Like other ministers, my ministry includes pastoral care, administration, justice work, and teaching.
I provide pastoral care to clients, staff, and families, no matter what their ability, in moments of grief and loss or difficult transitions. I conduct workshops and trainings for our staff. I also work through FAVARH to create opportunities for people to join communities within the larger community. I attempt to build bridges to civic groups, educational programs, and congregations so that all people may be authentically included. More than that I create opportunities for these same community organizations to be transformed by expanding their sense of self to include people with different gifts and abilities.
If Jeanne provides ministry to the clients, their families, and the staff of FAVARH—people who come predictably from all sorts of religious backgrounds—what makes Jeanne a Unitarian Universalist minister? Her ministry does not require her to preach to UUs on a regular basis, to provide pastoral care to UUs on a regular basis. Nor does it involve the nurturing and management of a UU congregation. She's a minister on the staff of a secular organization. So what holds her accountable to Unitarian Universalism? Well, much thought has gone into answering this question. Jeanne needs to be in relationship with a UU congregation if she wants to remain in good standing with the denomination. Technically, a UU congregation must endorse her ministry. There are two congregations whose boards have voted to endorse Jeanne's ministry. The Universalist Church of West Hartford is one. Ours is the other. Our board voted to endorse Jeanne a little over a year ago. This endorsement holds Jeanne accountable to Unitarian Universalism. This is why we can say Jeanne is our community minister.
This relationship also holds us accountable to Jeanne. And, our relationship with Jeanne is one of the avenues through which Unitarian Universalism remains accountable to the larger world. She is out their practicing and spreading our good news. Just as she needs us, we need her to do what she does. She an ambassador. And her work is hard.
Ironically, the path of a community minister can be isolating. This is in part because we act as bridges between different worlds. Though endorsed by two UU congregations, my ministry is lived out in the secular world. Navigating that in-between space between secular and religious worlds requires daily adaptation of language and strategy if I want to effectively promote UU values. As you may imagine, this movement back and forth between the congregation where UU values are understood and the secular world where they are not understood—or understood differently—or understood but not appreciated—creates some stress.
It is common for people to ask me and other community ministers,
"Are you a 'real' minister?"
If I'm in a UU congregation they may ask it because they don't see me in the pulpit most Sundays—or doing religious education.
If I'm working with other people of faith, they may ask it because they don't understand Unitarian Universalism's rich history in forming this country or they confuse it with other "Uni" faiths where one can be ordained over the Internet. When these things happen, I try to remember that this is a 'teaching moment' while quietly grinding my teeth. ;-)
It is also common for people in the larger community to be wary of anyone with the title "Rev." The fear comes from their past experience and assumptions they make about 'organized religion' and my presumed role in it. Most often they are fearful that I will force my particular 'brand' of religion on them. If they practice a more fundamentalist faith, they may resist my ministry altogether.
Often their fear goes unexpressed and I can only assume what their misperceptions are. And, frankly, it doesn't do a lot of good to tell them our principles. It doesn't do any good to intellectually explain it—all that matters is how I live it.
And, if I do so in a way that is compelling they may eventually say, "You are different than I thought. What is it that Unitarian Universalist's believe?"
Then, and only then, I find, are they ready to make an effort to understand what Unitarian Universalism is.
This same problem does not exist for parish-based ministers.
In a congregation the language, assumptions, and perceptions are, at least for the most part, understood. It's different for community ministers, not just occasionally but every day. A community minister must pastor to the needs of both their settlement in the secular world and the needs of their endorsing congregation. Sometimes these needs conflict, and the community minister ends up serving two ministries, sometimes with little or no relationship to one another.
For example, a community minister usually works Monday—Fridays at their settlement. Church meetings at night and preaching on weekends can make it difficult for them to meet everyone's needs and practice self-care. And, yet, it is exactly the support of the congregation and the parish minister that the community minister needs most.
It is the congregation that literally and figuratively becomes a sanctuary for the community minister. It is a place where we do speak the same language and where the community minister can rest.
Like Josh, I have a committee on ministry that serves as the one touchstone where all the spheres of my professional life come together. The members of this committee are drawn from my two endorsing congregations, and from experts in the field of developmental disabilities. They provide input from both the religious and the secular world, and they support me with inspiration, wisdom, and reality checks.
What does it mean to say that the Rev. Jeanne Lloyd is our community minister? Perhaps the best answer is that we all need to figure this out together. Most of us don't know Jeanne well. Given that, our first task—which may take a few years—is to get to know Jeanne, and for her to get to know us.
Jeanne will have an impact on UUS:E. She will preach from time to time. She will, on occasion, present workshops and adult religious education classes. She already participates in our Accessibilities Committee and our Journey Toward Wholeness Anti-Racism Committee. That's a lot right there.
But there's more to her impact on UUS:E than her direct participation. There's an intangible impact, harder to detect, but just as real. Jeanne is a theologian, and she will, in various ways, communicate her theology. She will minister out of her theology. Jeanne is a mystic. She talks about the divine as mystery, as chaos, as process. I look forward to experiencing Jeanne's theological musings in this place. They will bring richness and vitality to our congregation. They will have impact.
Jeanne is also deeply concerned about oppression. She is one who seeks to include all those who reside at society's margins. As such I believe she will find a home here. I also believe she will challenge us in ways we don't expect. I say this because Jeanne has learned through experience how difficult it is to build bridges across the great social divides in our nation. She does not shrink from the task, but she certainly appreciates its complexity and difficulty. If at times you feel Jeanne is moving too slowly or acting too cautiously, trust her instincts. It means she has been here before, and she knows what can go wrong if we rush.
Finally, Jeanne will model something special for us—something uniquely UU, but certainly applicable to all people. She will model how one struggles to find their voice. Like many of us, Jeanne struggled to find her own voice, and her journey into ministry has been one of recovering that voice. It has been a joy for me personally to journey with her through this process. She has gained much wisdom, she has much to share with us. And as a way of concluding our shared sermon today, I've invited her to speak about her vision for community ministry, to speak from the cutting edge of her life and ministry, that place where her voice is most powerful.
I remember my first steps into ministry. Josh is right. Ministry is in fact where I found my voice . . . my life . . . my core . . . my center. Before. . . all those things were elusive and without them, I felt cast adrift and out of relation with myself and the world.
I was searching for that which would help me feel whole. I found it in Unitarian Universalism. I found it in our faith community.
Yes, friends, I got religion!
With all its imperfections, my faith is what inspires me to find the best in myself and others, reconnects me to ideals by which to measure and ground my life, and calls me to create the space and opportunities for others to also find the sacred within and the sacred in others. Even if they find it through a different faith.
I believe with all my heart that Unitarian Universalism is a profoundly relevant and transformative faith tradition that can change the world for the better. I believe so, precisely because in our best moments, we do NOT insist that others follow our faith, but that they find the faith that brings out the best in them and helps heal the world.
Because I am a Unitarian Universalist minister I can support any number of people seeking the Sacred from a frame of reference that makes sense to them.
My hope, is that by working together with Josh and with you, we each find and give to the other the mystery that makes life worth living. More . . . I hope
- that by working together, we as a congregation open our hearts to welcome the kaleidoscope of ways in which the sacred can bring meaning to our lives and others.
- that we as a congregation open our doors to welcome the people who are not at our table and find out why.
- that in the process of doing so, we grow , too.
Because community ministers live a religious life in both the secular and faith communities, we can act as a bridge for our congregations to commit themselves to something bigger than ourselves. I believe our members and congregations are truly ready to take the next step and expand their individual spiritual journeys to include the broader community, even though this will take us beyond our comfort zones.
In doing so, we breathe Life, Purpose and Spirit into ourselves, our congregations and our communities.
It will be an honor to serve UUS:E in this way.
I invite you to cross the bridge with me.
Thank you Jeanne, for doing what you do. I am glad to have had this opportunity to formally introduce Jeanne, my colleague and friend, to you this morning. Unitarian Universalism is a profoundly relevant and transformative faith tradition. My prayer for us today is that we take to heart Jeanne's vision of community ministry and, through the years, continue to grow and expand our presence, our witness, and our love beyond these walls. Amen. Blessed Be.
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.
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Last updated on Tuesday, February 19, 2013.
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