Preached on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Terry Davis, on Nov. 14, 2010, at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta
The word Yes is a small word, a small opening of sound. But when Terry says it during the Act of Ordination, later on in our service, nothing less than an ocean is going to come roaring in. Everything changes. For the rest of her life, she’ll be sailing that ocean, circumnavigating the globe upon it, in a craft that can only be as strong and seaworthy as her personal integrity.
In ordination, an ocean—and it’s absolutely key to know that this ocean is fed by four different and distinct religious covenants, which to me are like rivers, flowing with love. Covenants are about promises made between people or between persons and larger realities to the end of cherishment. Covenants say, “I will do this out of love and respect for you, and out of the same love and respect, this is what you will do.” “From you I receive, to you I give, together we share, and from this we live.” Covenants flow like rivers nourishing parched lands, bringing renewal and hope and life.
That’s what I want to explore with you now: the four religious covenants, which feed the ocean that ordination is. How responsibility and responsiveness to them is what professional ministry is fundamentally about.
The first covenant involves the promising that goes on between ministerial colleagues. Sounds something like, “If we respect and support each other professionally and personally, then we’ll be mutually strengthened for our awesome work of changing lives.” The Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association has articulated this covenant at length, in its Guidelines for the Conduct of Ministry, and in it, we read such things as, “I will not speak scornfully or in derogation of any colleague in public. In any private conversation concerning a colleague, I will speak responsibly and temperately. I will not solicit or encourage negative comments about a colleague or their ministry.” No negative gossip, in other words. Doesn’t matter how juicy. Don’t do it. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The current version of the UUMA Guidelines is thirty-one pages long (!), because it tries to speak to as many issues and situations as possible. But the basics are simple enough: respect and support each other, professionally and personally. The work is hard enough. Don’t make it harder!
But sometimes we do make it harder. An example comes from the Rev. Carolyn Owen-Towle, who describes what it was like for women ministers in the 50s and 60s and 70s, in their relationship with their male colleagues. How the challenge had been and at times continues to be women claiming their unique style and their unique power. “Ministers meetings,” says the Rev. Owen-Towle, “were epics of competition where one-upmanship—the height of one’s steeple or the size of one’s budget—comprised the level of discourse.” And I need to say that, as a man, in 2010, I still feel the dynamic that the Rev. Owen-Towle talks about, and both women and men play the game. A focus on who’s got more members, who’s got the most exciting new program, who’s got the biggest budget and highest steeple. I call this “worldliness:” a focus on externals that is really nothing but a way of covering up anxious feelings of being imposters in the work. Professional people of all stripes know what I’m talking about. Relationships which are mostly about trying to appear perfectly in control to each other, perfectly competent. Ugh. Every time it happens, I feel the Spirit of Life in our midst diminish and fade. I feel the river of our collegial covenant drying up, until all that’s left is dust. But our collegial covenant, lived fully and truly, moistens things up and gets the energy flowing again. It follows Ralph Waldo Emerson in his cure for deformed religion: “soul, soul, and again soul.” We remember that soul emerges when we can be vulnerable with each other, when we trust each other enough to open up and ease up on projecting illusions of knowing everything and having it all together. When we can sing the Pie Queen song to each other wildly and without any embarrassment at all (my SEUMMA colleagues know what I’m talking about here….). There is simply no way to claim our true power as ministers unless we claim it from a place of authenticity. We need to help each other do that. That’s part of what the collegial covenant is all about.
But now let’s turn to the second covenant, which relates to the specific context in which the minister serves, either a congregation or some community-based ministry. Here I’ll speak to congregation-based ministry, since that’s what I know. The mutual promising goes something like this: “If, by your freedom of the pulpit, you empower the freedom of the pew; and if, by your freedom of the pew, you empower the freedom of the pulpit; then together, as minister and congregation, we will share in a religious journey that takes us into wonderful adventure and discovery and fulfillment.” That’s what the covenant with the congregation sounds like—a covenant of mutual freedom, in relationship. But what does it mean? Some of us know the language of “freedom of the pulpit” and “freedom of the pew,” but others of us might not. It’s so important to know, too, since it gets to the DNA of who we are as a people…..
The key quote that helps us understand comes from the 16th century Radical Reformation, a movement in Protestantism that sought to separate church from state, as well as to affirm that the individual’s connection with God did not need any human interceders, in the form of church or priest. Church and priest help the believer to strengthen the sense of connection, but the connection is always already there and does not need church or priest to create it. The key quote comes from a remarkable man known as King John Sigismund of Transylvania, the first and only Unitarian king in history. In 1568 he said, “In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve.” That’s what King John Sigismund said, a radical statement in a time when preachers were supposed to preach only the company line, and congregants were supposed to take it in, without question. But King John disagreed. King John said that ministers must be free to communicate their Gospel, whatever the particular topic: religion, politics, where the congregation is going, where it needs to go. As for freedom of the pew, that’s every congregant’s assurance that they belong even if they disagree with what the minister says. It’s their reminder that though what’s communicated in the pulpit always comes with force, and can feel like a summary of what every good Unitarian Universalist is supposed to believe, it’s just not so. Congregants are ultimately accountable only to the dictates of personal reason and intuition and conscience; they are free to believe as the Spirit leads them. Souls need to be satisfied. “We need not think alike to love alike,” said King John’s religious advisor, who was none other than the great Francis David.
Freedom is precious among us, always has been, in our tradition. Upheld by the covenant between ministers and congregations, it’s like water of life that heals and saves us. Temptation, though, is always around the corner. We cannot forget that right after the ordination of Jesus, at the hands of John the Baptist, and a voice from heaven was heard, saying, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased”—right after this, Jesus went straightaway into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan: “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” The dynamic is mythic, in a Joseph Campbell-like sense, and operates in all times and places. Captures something about what it means and has always meant to be human. That’s why one of my ministerial mentors, the Rev. David Bumbaugh, says, “When one is accountable to a congregation, the temptation to say what the congregation wants to hear, to go where the congregation wants to go, to do what the congregation wants to do, is great, indeed. But once a minister begins to shape sermons so that they will offend no one, or to devise goals that will not arouse opposition, or to urge policies that will not be challenged, the minister has prostituted the profession. The minister’s duty is to speak the truth as she or he understands it, to challenge conventional visions whenever they seem inadequate, and to offer the congregation what he or she believes it needs, even if it is not what the congregation wants. In our kind of free religion, the minister must cherish personal integrity above all other things….” That’s what the Rev. David Bumbaugh says. Ministers must promise to their congregations to speak and act out of personal integrity, always. To challenge worldliness when it pops up in congregational life. To risk taking a definite stand, when the entire system wants to stay stuck-together in one big gooey gob of ambivalence. To risk being calm, when all around is anxiety. Without the minister’s personal integrity, the creative tension of the freedom of the pulpit/freedom of the pew relationship disappears, and all the adventure and discovery and fulfillment drain out of our mutual lives. We go dry. The river dries up. The love dies.
But ministry at its best is meant for the ocean. It needs deep and wide rivers to get there. Promises to colleagues, promises to congregants, and also this: promises to our shared heritage of Unitarian Universalism. That’s the third covenant ordination makes a minister accountable to. Here’s what this one sounds like: “If you do not forget me—if you are willing to wrestle with me—then I will bless you. I may be old, but there are blessings aplenty in me yet.” That’s our Unitarian Universalist history talking to you, Terry, and to every minister here.
Fact is, congregations can lose their way and drift and feel like they’re not going anywhere … because they don’t know where they come from. Too often they play at being orphans, when, in reality, their family is right there with them, and it is the most amazing family around. We simply cannot underestimate this tendency to play the orphan. I see it as related to Unitarian Universalism’s age as a religion—its constituent parts old, of course, but when they came together in 1961, a completely new being was born. So I count Unitarian Universalism as just under 50 years old, and from the perspective of other world religions, just under 50 years old is miles away from maturity. Miles away from adulthood. It means that we are often like the teenager whose dependence upon his elders feels utterly humiliating. “Mom!!” whines Unitarian Universalism at its Christian roots. “Mom, stop embarrassing me!” We want to cover up the dependence. We want to be anything else but like our parents. We pretend we are orphans. But we will not grow as a movement until we grow up. Until we find ways of being ourselves even as we accept how our parents have gotten underneath our skin and we just can’t help doing some of the things they do. Until we honor our parents’ hard-earned wisdom despite all their other shortcomings which we’ve seen up close and know only too well.
Ministers must lead the way. To have a future, we need to have a past. More than ever before, we have to go back to our Christian roots, and wrestle with them, discover things that can help us solve some of the weird puzzles of our present, as well as recover insights that can only help us become truer to ourselves and to whom we aspire to be as a post-Christian, more-than-Christian faith.
Here’s just one example of weirdness: our collective Unitarian Universalist superego. The voice within a minister’s head as much as within a congregant’s. The voice that says, Get back to work. The mentality that believes it can force congregations into numerical growth by finding and implementing just the right silver bullet solution, and if growth doesn’t happen, well, we’re not working hard enough. The mentality that takes an admirable value like diversity and says, “If we’re gonna do it, then let’s do it crazy big. Let’s do Noah’s Ark. Let’s gather two of every possible kind within our walls.” But that’s only something a God could do. We’re trying to act like the God that most of us don’t even believe in. That’s what Noah’s Ark diversity is really all about. It’s insane, and it evinces the kind of pride that always goes before a fall, but the Unitarian Universalist superego makes us do it anyway. Get with the program, it says. Get back to work.
What’s going on? Where does this institutional workaholism come from? Historically, I’d argue that it’s part of the legacy of our Unitarian side which, not too long ago, characterized itself with this slogan: “Salvation by character.” Salvation was something you earned by good works, including going to all the right schools, reading all the right books, making all the right friends, shopping at all the right places, doing all the morally muscular things. Develop good character, said the Unitarians, and this is what will save you. If you don’t you will be condemned. Sounds elitist, doesn’t it? And it was. It was religion for the middle and upper classes of Boston.
On the other hand, you had the blue-collar, Wal-Mart-going Universalists. Not from Boston, but from the sticks. And their view was far more radical, far more egalitarian, given immortal expression by one of its finest thinkers, Hosea Ballou, who, in response to hearing about the Unitarian slogan “salvation by character,” wrote an article entitled “salvation irrespective of character.” Salvation was not something anyone could earn by works; salvation was a gift of a gracious God, a gracious universe in which every person has inherent worth and dignity no matter where they do their shopping. You do your best in life not because you’re trying to escape hell and trying to earn your right to deserve love (either here or in the hereafter) but because your actions, however frail and flawed, make life on earth better for all. All we can do is to try, and to care.
This is just one example of how wrestling with our past can bless us. Help us be better balanced. Help us have a brighter future. We can just get so caught up in a Unitarian works mentality that we need Universalism to help us remember that we are loved no matter how much or how little we do, that our ultimate self-worth and the worth of another is not about class. It’s not about accomplishment. It’s not about any of that stuff. It’s about who we are, or, rather, whose we are: a child of the gracious universe, a child of God.
And this takes us to the fourth and last covenant, which ordination makes a minister accountable to. The covenant with the Holy. If I can be so bold as to put words into the mouth of the Holy, here’s what it says: “This ministry, which I originally called you to, is impossible. It is. It’s all too much. But if you learn how to take refuge in me, if you learn how to call on me for strength, then nothing is impossible.”
Just listen to this list from the Rev. Edward Harris, about what “real” ministers are supposed to be like:
Real ministers are never late.
Real ministers remember everybody’s name.
Real ministers have actually read every book in their library.
Real ministers’ congregations are always growing.
Real ministers always know who is sick and who is in the hospital.
Real ministers know where the church vacuum cleaner is located.
Real ministers never worry about their sermons.
Real ministers work only one hour each week, on Sundays, when they’re in the pulpit.
Real ministers make everybody happy.
What’s really real is that ministers are called to work that is not well understood even by congregants who sincerely care about them and love them. What’s really real is that the job description calls for people who walk on water and turn water into wine, and this is only intensified by that works mentality which is the Unitarian Universalist superego lodged in our heads. What’s really real is that no matter what a minister’s success on a Sunday has been, on Monday morning the slate is wiped clean and he or she is back at the beginning line again. What’s really real is that, over the course of the week, the minister does nine impossible things but there’s always something who complains, “What about that tenth thing? What are you doing with all your time?” Says the Rev. Barbara Merritt, “Often when we are feeling weak and vulnerable, we must take command, and turn the other cheek. Often when we’re in bad mood, and we want to stay home and feel sorry for ourselves, we must make a hospital call, or go to a committee meeting, or deliver a hopeful, inspiring sermon. Or when we are painfully aware of our own inadequacy and ignorance and weakness, we, the wounded healers, must conduct worship, and remind others of their strength.” In light of all this, what’s really real is that despite the love of our ministerial colleagues and the love of our congregants and the wisdom of our Unitarian Universalist religious heritage, it’s still not enough. It’s just not.
“Ministry teaches us humility,” says the Rev. Barbara Merritt. “[It teaches us] through direct experiences of our own powerlessness and inadequacy. […] And eventually, in crises, or in the routine, endless requirements of the day, it’s bound to occur to us, ‘I cannot do this. I cannot ‘give’ faith to anyone. I cannot save anyone. I cannot produce inspiring sermons week after week. I cannot always be the kind and benevolent minister.” I cannot. I cannot.
We hit the wall. The wall hits us. The only way forward is getting out of our own way. “We say quietly, not my will, but Thine, Oh Lord. This is the most important prayer of a minister.” That’s what Barbara Merritt says, and she’s right.
This is where our covenant with the Holy takes us. It all begins with a Call, and ministers, quoting the Prophet Isaiah, respond, “Here I am. Send me!” Which leads to going to seminary, going to see the MFC, going to work, and we work hard. But it is only when the wear-and-tear of the work reveals our true limitations—the fact that there’s never ever going to be any walking on water for us—only then do we truly understand what we were being called to in the first place. Not to be a Jesus, or a Buddha. Not even to be ourselves. Not even that. But to be this: a channel, a way, through which a Love that is larger than we can ever know flows. To know this Mystery humbly, and be amazed. “Not my will, but Thine, Oh Lord.”
Ordination is an ocean. An ocean of challenge and delight and adventure and justice-seeking and seriousness and fun and accomplishment and frustration and humility and discovery and so much more. Amazement. Terry, when you say YES, you begin your sailing journey, which will last you all your days. Your colleagues are with you. Your congregations and places of service will be with you. Our history will be with you. The Holy will be with you. So be with them. Be in right relationship with them. Let love come to rest in you, this day, and in all ministers serving courageously and faithfully, and in everyone here, all of us. Love.