Sunday, July 26, 2020

Shared Ministry: The Dance of Partnership, July 26, 2020

Amy Stauber

Way back in February as I was doing my homework as the Selection Committee Chair, I spent an hour or two each morning with my coffee reading In the Interim.  This book of essays, edited by Barbara Child and Keith Kron, got me excited about the possibilities of interim ministry and the search process that I was committed to for our congregation.  

Even before I knew that we would find a minister, I, in my hopefulness, volunteered to lead the services at the end of May after our successful interim ministry search and again at the end of July to welcome our hypothetical new minister.  Based on what the book said, it seemed like the right thing to do.  

My hope paid off.  In May, the Selection Committee was able to present to you our new interim minister, Rev. Ed Proulx.  And today the newly formed Transition Team is preparing the way for him to take over next week as our full-time minister.  

We are here today to prepare for the ministry that is to come and to celebrate the ministry we have been doing for and with each other in this last year.  We are here to celebrate how much ministry 1stUUPB — its congregants and ministers — have been doing for nearly 70 years.  

As our full-time interim minister, Rev. Ed will be leading services 3-4 times a month, and he will be our guide, helping us refine our financial and leadership practices and helping us prepare for our next phase of ministry whether that be developmental, settled or contract.  But I can assure you that one thing will not change with Rev. Ed’s arrival.  The myriad ways we, you and I, each participate in the ministry of 1stUUPB will grow and continue.

Change is coming our way, no doubt.  But we’re no strangers to change.  A little over a year ago, 1stUUPB adapted quite quickly to becoming a lay-led congregation.  And not one of us has escaped the changes that dealing with a world-wide pandemic has caused.   In the midst of this past year we have adapted to being an online community.  

Now once again, the forces of change are among us.  We must each redefine our roles and relationships to the community of 1stUUPB in light of the fact that we now have a full-time interim minister to guide and support us.  The roles of dozens of lay leaders within our congregation will shift and transform.

And this is truly a cause for celebration!  
New life streaming into our congregation and our spiritual lives.  

A new beginning.   

Isn’t that sense of refreshing newness what we all could use right now?  

This past year I feel that I have been unofficially enrolled in a fictional school that I lovingly call UU University.  It began with my first Board meeting in May 2019.   Very quickly, I found myself in need of an education.  Reading our bylaws.  Figuring out just how exactly one was supposed to serve a UU congregation as a Board Trustee.  Very soon I had to figure out how to be a leader when there was no minister, how to help the congregation decide what to do next, and when we did decide that we wanted an interim minister, how we go about getting one.  

Fortunately, I was not alone in any of this.  We went about this process together.

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is Parks and Recreation, which takes place in the fictional town of Pawnee Indiana, but if it were a real town, it would not be far from where I grew up.  The place I still think of as home.  

The show is the brainchild of fellow Midwesterner Amy Poehler.    She plays the undaunted public servant Leslie Knope who loves her town and desperately wants to serve it.  Leslie is infamous for her project binders complete with color-coded tabs, charts, and personalized covers.  Not only does she create these hyper-organized binders for her work, but her friends find her making them for their life projects as well.  

I hate to tell you how many Leslie Knope binders I have put together for 1stUUPB in the last year, but I can tell you, I have learned so much by being a student at UU University.  I have learned about the nuts and bolts of how a UU congregation operates, and I have learned a lot about myself and how to collaborate with others.  

In addition to my binders, I have also developed quite a library of books from In Spirit, the UUA’s bookstore.  I realized what a couple of UU nerds my husband Larry and I are.  Between the two of us, we have a whole shelf of UU books.  Worship that Works by Wayne Arnason and Kathleen Rolenz and Serving With Grace by Erik Walker Wikstrom to name a couple.

Now, I have probably compressed several years of learning into one due to the nature and circumstances of my leadership role, but it has all been extraordinarily valuable.  I learned that UU congregations, or congregations of any faith denomination, do not exist only because of the minister, rabbi, priest, or imam.  They exist because of the lay leaders who, come hell or high water, will make sure that the Congregation continues.  But ministers do make us better.  They connect us to the larger UU world.  They provide spiritual guidance and consolation, pastoral care, staff supervision, and a level of professionalism that is hard for us to do on our own.  They provide a glue that holds us together, but they cannot do it alone.  They need us.  And we need them.  

As Rachel Melcher, our Board president, mentioned in her words back in May, “We share the load, a shared ministry, because we’ve chosen to journey together toward the land of living our best ideals.”

We all have an opportunity to minister to each other just by being present.  

One of my deepest desires for our Congregation is to make leadership easier.  That is a pretty lofty task.  It might even be an impossible one.  After all, what worth doing is ever easy?  Building the beloved community takes some effort, but it can bring us deeper into understanding ourselves.  It can round us out.  Those parts of us that we do not think are our strong suit could become a little stronger.  The deepening of our commitment to UUism could bring us growth in ways we could never have imagined.

The horrific world of COVID-19 has forced us all into the virtual world for connection with people beyond our immediate households.  It ironically and tragically creates opportunities that in no way assuage our grief, our problems, our frustrations, and our loneliness, but there are opportunities.  There can be growth, even if it is just a tiny sprout of green in a vast desert.

A sprout of green that has turned up in our Congregation is that the pandemic has made it possible for at least 10 of our members to attend the UUA’s General Assembly, an annual convention celebrating our faith.  I know the virtual version of GA was no substitute for the shoulder rubbing that happens in person every year at these grand UU exhibitions, but the exposure that I got to the larger arena of the UU movement, even if it was just virtually, was like a shot of adrenalin lighting up these socially distanced, housebound days stretching out into months with no foreseeable end in sight.  

Attending GA made me feel plugged in to a super conductor of energy, strength, and resources.  I learned that the big churches of the UU world have resources to share with us little guys.  It is so easy to get frustrated by the sense that we have a lack of resources — people, money, staff.  But connecting with GA showed me abundance.  

1st UU Church of Dallas, which has over a 1000 members, 3 ministers, and 17 staff members, shared a program they have created for membership development called Faith Forward:  from Visitor to Leader.  It is a faith formation curriculum designed to help members develop their UU faith from the first day they walk in the door of the congregation to when they eventually serve on committees or in leadership positions within the congregation or in the community working to promote our principles.  I signed us up for a free trial of the first module in the series.  It focuses on spiritual practices.  Faith Forward has provided a complete set of videos and lesson plans for 12 one-hour sessions, so if anyone is interested in delving into this goldmine let me know!

Another highlight of my GA experience that offered me a glimpse into the wealth of opportunity in the UU world was a workshop I attended hosted by Rev. Galen Guengerich who is the senior minister at All Souls New York, another 1000-plus  member congregation.  This one with 4 ministers and 21 staff members!  

His talk brought out the poet in me.  I found myself jotting down poems during GA breaks, and the tendency toward lyrical, meaningful thought has continued through the summer.  His talk, which was really an extended sermon, brought me back to one of the very first spiritual practices I developed in life, the writing of poetry, he helped me to recognize the shift that is happening in my spiritual life as I enter middle age.  

He said that spiritual practice is not “a temporary diversion or a tasty escape.”  This statement caught my attention.  He was describing what I thought was true for most of my life—that spiritual practice was something to draw me inward, away from the world into a juicier reality.    Spiritual practices are a chance to connect deeply to oneself, in order to see, but ultimately a healthy spiritual practice leads you into deeper relationships both to people and the natural world.   

Rev. Guengerich states that “spirituality opens us up to what’s terrible and needs changing and to what’s wonderful and needs savoring.”  

The challenge of a spiritual life is to balance the need to connect deeply with ourselves and the responsibility we have of connecting deeply with others.  

There is no ministry without relationship.  
There is no ministry if it is not shared.  

My eyes were again opened by the Ware Lecture delivered by best-selling author Naomi Klein.  She showed how climate justice is at the root of all injustice.  It is a tangled web. Those most affected by global climate change, and the natural disasters arising from it, are those who are racially and economically marginalized.  It is not surprising that in the midst of a pandemic so many people are demonstrating in the streets demanding racial equality.

GA offered multiple opportunities for coming to terms with white privilege — how we tell our nation’s history with blinders on, how we glorify the past, and how we contribute to the erasure of indigenous peoples both past and present with the stories we tell.  From Christopher Columbus and his “discovery” of America to the Mayflower landing and the first Thanksgiving,  to the sanctification of the Founding Fathers and beyond, we are used to a history that distorts, covers up, and erases the genocide and slavery that mark our nation’s founding.

I came away from GA challenged to know about the indigenous people who used to live on the plot of land I now claim ownership of.  I came away from GA wondering what my true calling is.  What my job is.  What my role in doing my part to save the world and its people should be.

My thinking brought me back to us. 1stUUPB. My thinking brought me back to YOU.  As a Board member, I, along with 7 other people, am entrusted with ensuring the continuance and stability of this faith community.  By making sure that we have a minister, that we have smooth transitions of leadership roles, by making sure that we care for our facilities and the spiritual needs and the spiritual development of our members, I, in a very small way, am doing my part to re-write history.  To write a new future.  Right now the UU movement is truly the light of the world, and its congregations are how we can perpetuate and spread that light.

As UUs we accept the challenges of radical compassion and love and acceptance every day.  We model democratic process at its finest.  We participate in People Engaged in Active Community Efforts.  We show up for the Pride Parade and the MLK, Jr. Parade.  We show our humanity by covenanting over and over again with each other.  Knowing that we are human.  Knowing that we fail.  But keeping our eyes on the prize.  Gaze ever fixed on the vision of what we can be when we are serving each other at our finest.  

Are you willing to take up that call?  Are you willing to serve your highest ideals?  Are you willing to learn about yourself?  To grow deeper into your humanity?  

Are you willing to share this ministry, the ministry of Harriette Glasner, who helped found not only this Congregation, but the local ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Emergency Medical Assistance?  Are you willing to share the ministry of Nancy Benjamin, another early member of our Congregation who founded The Benjamin School?  

Are you willing to take up the ministry of Rev. James Reeb, who was killed marching in Selma, Alabama, in 1965?  

Are you willing to join a committee, lend a helping hand, send a card, or make a phone call?  

Can you think of a way to send cookies virtually during coffee hour?

Are you willing to commit yourself to the nobility of striving for a better world, a better life, a better self?

We ask no less of ourselves, my friends.  Unitarian Universalism is not a religion for the faint of heart.  Unitarian Universalism is no religion for the settled, the unquestioning, or the complacent.  It is no place to stand still.  

No one at the UUA headquarters in Boston is wearing a uniform from the Middle Ages.  We venerate no bones of saints, only stories of service and ideals.  We march boldly forward whether the rest of the world is ready for it or not because we know that the world is dying without the light we represent.  

We know that individually we are broken, our imperfections humble us.  We know that our world is broken, shut down, locked down, incapacitated by fear and incompetence and corruption at the highest levels of leadership.  And then there is our planet.  Record heat—100 degrees recorded in Siberia in June.  Raging fires, pandemics.  Our world is melting around us.  

What can we do?

We already know the answer.  We are already doing the work.  We are fighting for what is right at hand.  We are building the common good from where we are.  We are supporting the structures that we know sustain.  We are ministering to ourselves and each other.  We are coming to church.  We are not afraid to get involved.  We are present.  We are witnesses, supporters, and bridge builders.  We are welcoming a new minister.  May the spirit of love guide us from here.

May it be so.