Thursday, 26 March 2015

Provide Ministry That Enables Ministry

My personal reflections might usefully start with a quote from SYF181

Wake, now, my vision of ministry clear; 
brighten my pathway with radiance here; 
mingle my calling with all who would share; 
work toward a planet transformed by our care.

My starting point for Ministry is the congregation, its ministry to the world and its covenant of membership.

The Covenant and the ministry are intimately linked but it might help to look briefly at each of these:

I believe that it is the task of the congregation to do its ministry and the task of a Minister to help it do this, not to do it for the congregation. As a Minister leads a congregation in its ministry to the world s/he acts as a spiritual leader of the congregation in many ways: acting as repository and explainer of the Heritage; being an example of integrity in action; modelling right relationship; teaching; inspiring & motivating; exploring ethical and social issues with members; enabling; leading the kind of worship that fosters individual growth and a compassionate community that can provide a model for larger society.

The covenant of membership is the expression of right relationship between members in their explorations and the care they exhibit to each other. This is too often implicit rather than explicit and its absence is the source of many splits within congregations. The basis of covenant in a liberal religious community centers on individuals in search, not on answers, but valuing nevertheless the variety of personal developing answers that are shared; valuing personal growth in sensitivity; in skill; in compassion.

A Minister fosters and enables this quality of relationship in a congregation through being alert to suffering, through teaching, inspiring, leading, through Presence and through worship that deepens individual and congregation commitment to bringing compassion and justice to each other and to those in the larger society who suffer.

The ministry of the congregation to the world will take different forms depending on the composition and situation of the congregation as well as the interests and skills of the leader.

The core activity of nurturing, teaching, and living our values needs a community to support individuals as they seek to make their lives meaningful, and meaningful is not just an intellectual exercise but is intuitive, spiritual, and practical. The unique thread of public worship brings things together but is not intended to stand alone and apart from action. As most of our congregations are urban and elderly, and as British society is more secular than formerly, the ministry to the world will often be less theological proclamation and confrontation than in our founding years of the early 19th Century. As our largely secular society is much more pluralist in faith and culture than formerly, our ministry will entail issues fostering and nourishing social justice, protection of minorities, working for community harmony, and providing space for reflection and refreshment. 

There are so many injustices in today's world that only a few can be tackled effectively; this can be discouraging but it also implies a wide range of choice of what issues to tackle and which bodies to collaborate with. The dynamics within congregations should process moral sensitivity among members in ways that lead to specific commitments to action based on their skills and interests.

Some typical issues would be:

promoting interfaith understanding [contact programmes, public witness and even protection, joint activities, tracking religious education programmes];

attempting to alleviate the extremes of poverty in our communities [support for food banks, night shelters, micro-loan schemes];

educating members and the public about changes that are needed to avoid disasters [global warming, personal health, community health];

raising funds for local, national, and international relief work [Red Cross, Oxfam, Guide Dogs];

providing safe communities for people to come together [pensioners' clubs, drivers for events and hospital visits, community education on local fraud];

maintaining civil liberty watches [supporting Amnesty International, Liberty, attending Local Authority meetings]; etc, etc. No individual and no congregation can tackle every issue but these and others are there to be tackled as expressions of ministry to a suffering world.

Historically Unitarians worked more as individuals in social justice than as communities but the modern world illustrates the importance of collaborate efforts; individuals are generally successful to the extent that they can harness the energies and skills of others.

Training our leaders to exercise leadership in this ministry requires both practical skill development [conflict resolution, public speaking, effective committee dynamics, general group dynamics, working with electronic tools] and background information [history of the major religious groups encountered in Britain, sociology of religion, legal requirements of charities] as well as personal insight tools [meditation, research, time management]. Perhaps the greatest priorities for our ministers should include the ability to listen, a basic sense of fairness, an understanding of process, appreciation of historical perspective, and how our individual personalities affect our perceptions. This will, in my opinion, involve a sense of collegiate responsibility larger than the congregation s/he serves and which enables and fosters the congregation's larger identity.

Today's world is radically different to the world I trained in. Tomorrow's world will be radically different to today's world. A Minister's work will change/ develop and a Minister's training must enable maximum flexibility in approach and constant learning through life.

Almost everything about my sense of Ministry also applies to those who exercise congregational leadership on a non-professional basis, but the time available and the entry level skills will vary more widely. This can be good, as closed circles don't grow as well or as fast as open ones, but the commitment level required may be more than can be managed. Congregations that have "lay" leadership may therefore have to adjust their ministry to utilise the strengths of the situation while compensating for the lack of training, skills, and commitment.

Rev. John Clifford

At an induction service I attended a few years ago I heard the words of the American Unitarian Universalist Minister Gordon McKeeman that repeated a familiar refrain 'ministry is everything we do together.' I thought that those were very nice words, and certainly poetic and powerful. But they got me wondering; because, in a way, those words negated the very thing that was happening at that very moment. If 'ministry is everything we do together' then why do we need a person called a 'minister'? The purpose of that service was not for the congregation to commit to the work before them (though that might be a very good purpose for a service); the purpose of that service was for one particular person to be called by that congregation to a specific role. And yet what can we say about this process of calling a particular person to a specific role? In today's Unitarian community the answer is 'very little.' When asked to talk about 'ministry' the first thing we say is 'ministry is everything we do together.' Which is fine as far as it goes. But if there is nothing more to be said than that, the logical conclusion is that we should not have a separate 'ministry.' If we do have a separate 'ministry,' if we have 'ministers' then we need to be able to say why we have them.

That's why I'm glad the Ministerial Fellowship has been pondering this question about the nature of ministry. I believe we need to ask the theological question, 'Why do we have ministers?' This is a seriously pressing question. As the Unitarian community struggles under the secular world of the 21st century, as financial pressures hit hard, congregations are asking the question: Can we afford to pay the stipend of a minister? Why should we have a minister? What is a minister for, anyway? These are good questions.

It seems to me that in regard to ministry we are stuck between two 'theological instincts.' One can be labelled the instinct towards equality. The other is the instinct towards education. Both instincts have always existed in our tradition and both are good instincts, but they sometimes pull in different directions and we are stuck in the tension between them.

As Unitarians we affirm equality: our theological commitment is to the idea that each person has sacred inherent worth and value and is capable of discerning religious Truth using their own reason, understanding and spiritual experience.

And we also affirm the value of education: our theological commitment is to education, reason, the pursuit of truth and science. Ignorance is not a virtue, and all of us are called to deepen our understanding of truth by taking in as much truth and wisdom as we can.

Is it possible to construct a model of Unitarian ministry that respects these two instincts while serving to clarify the role of 'ministers' in today's Unitarian community? I believe so.

I believe there are some phrases that help us understand what a Unitarian minister is, that are built upon our commitment to equality and to education.

The Unitarian minister as ministry coordinator

Ministry is everything we do together. Ministry is the work of the church. The word 'ministry' means the work of serving.

The Sunday school teacher, the flower arranger, the committee member, the pastoral visitor, the marcher in the protest: all of these people are most certainly involved in ministry, as they are all ministering, they are all serving.

But none of these activities happens by accident, or purely spontaneously. They take some organisation and coordination. Every human community, if it is to last the test of time, requires structures of organisation. As much as any group might resist it, structures are always needed. Even Quakers have clear structures. There are 'elders' primarily concerned with worship and 'overseers' primarily responsible for pastoral care. Roles and structures of ministry help a religious community to function.

So, for the ministry of all to function effectively, Unitarian communities need some kind of ministry coordination. Though, conceivably this could be done in all kinds of ways, the easiest way is for one person to be in the role of ministry coordinator.

Ministry coordination is not easy. A person in this role will need specialist skills and training. Everyone can offer their own form of ministry, but the task of coordinating that ministry of the whole community is a specialist skill. David Heywood, an Anglican priest, in the book Re- imagining Ministry calls for ministry to be seen as something that is the work of the whole church. But he goes on to say 'the role of the clergy in this new model of ministry requires of them more professional expertise rather than less. But... their social role is no longer to be understood as that of the "professional", whose status is based on the possession of specialist knowledge. Instead, their calling is to give away their status and power their training might qualify them for and by using their expertise to empower the whole church. Explicit in this model is the Unitarian commitment to equality. It must be affirmed that the person in this role is in no sense spiritually superior to others. The ministry coordinator does not belong to a separated and ordained class of people who are 'holier' than others.

The Unitarian minister as theologian-in-residence and community spiritual director.

The model of ministry coordinator captures a great deal about what we mean by ministry in Unitarianism, but not all of it There is another dimension to ministry. This dimension takes seriously the theological commitment to education. We can understand this dimension by using two phrases: minister as theologian-in-residence and minister as community spiritual director.

Historically, theologian-in-residence seems to be the most dominant understanding of Unitarian ministry. Being a theologian-in-residence requires the skill, the science, the art of relating the tradition, the intellectual understanding of the tradition, and ultimately God to the situation at hand in a particular community. The minister must lead the community into its own theological reflection. This requires teaching, prompting, questioning, inspiring.

Laurie Green calls this role being the 'people's theologian'. David Heywood writes, 'Rather than relating as professional over/against the community, she works within the community in something of the same way as the animator in community work, exercising the skills of the adult educator. While soaked in the Christian tradition, she must remain the servant rather than the controller of it, using her expertise to guide the process rather than claiming the right of final judgment, a role that requires considerable spiritual depth.'

The role of community spiritual director is many ways the same as theologian-in-residence. By using both phrases I do not want to suggest a sharp distinction between two different roles. Rather I want to suggest two vital dimensions to the same activity. Both dimensions ultimately ask the question 'how does this relate to the Holy?' Theology asks this question with the mind, spiritual direction asks this question with the heart. Again I must emphasise that these are not separate but two dimensions of the same process 

Whereas a spiritual director accompanies an individual in their spiritual journey, the minister accompanies the whole community. The minister does not dictate the will of God but prompting questions of the congregation: "Where is God? What is our mission? Where is our joy? Where are we being called to go? Why are we here in the first place?" The minister asks the questions, but the community must answer them.

The ministry of a theologian-in-residence and community spiritual director is not one that anyone can fulfil. It requires a level of intellectual and spiritual depth and maturity. It requires thorough education and training. It requires a great deal of resources to invest in this. And yet without it, there is a danger of spiritual stagnation and decline in a congregation; without it a congregation may be so busy getting on with things that it cannot remember why it is there in the first place.

We need ministers!

It seems that Unitarians are much better at articulating our commitment to equality than we are at articulating our commitment to education. This means we find it much easier to say 'ministry is everything we do together' than 'we think it's really important to have certain people called ministers in our congregations.' We need to be able to say both.

I believe by thinking of Unitarian ministers as ministry coordinators and theologians-in- residence/community spiritual directors we can keep both of our instincts of equality and education in our sights and be faithful to both of them. We need the coordination and encouragement of the ministry of all in serving, and the presence of someone who helps us to understand our deepest why. 
For both of these reasons, we need Unitarian ministers.

Rev. Stephen Lingwood

Gertrud von Petzold (First woman Unitarian Minister in UK)

1 comment:

  1. When I mention my church affiliation and suggest to a friend to 'give us a try' ,the most likely response is ' who is your minister ? ' The Quakers don't have them ;they are the exception that proves the rule. The free Unitarian approach to worship in particular requires well trained worship leaders ; lay ministers in the CofE can work from a liturgy but the open service requires extensive preparation so we either need more fully trained ministers or more well trained lay ministers and pastors.