(At ordination services in a Unitarian Universalist setting, it is traditional for an older minister to offer mentoring advice to the one who is just starting their career. Thus the “Charge to the Minister” message.)
American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes about a time when she was invited to co-teach with the eldest son of HER teacher—evidently a very great honor. But no one made it clear what her actual status was at the event. “Sometimes,” she says, “I was treated as a big deal who should come in through a special door and sit in a special seat. Then I’d think, ‘Okay, I’m a big deal.’ I’d start running with that idea and come up with big-deal notions about how things should be. Then I’d get the message, ‘Oh, no, no, no. You should just sit on the floor and mix with everybody and be one of the crowd.’ Okay. So now the message was that I should just be ordinary, not set myself up or be the teacher. But as soon as I was getting comfortable with being humble, I would be asked to do something special that only big deals did. This,” writes Pema Chodron, “was a painful experience because I was always being insulted and humiliated by my own expectations. As soon as I was sure how it should be, so I could feel secure, I would get a message that it should be the other way. Finally,” she says, “I said to the Sakyong, ‘This is really hurting. I just don’t know who I’m supposed to be,’ and he said, ‘Well, you have to learn to be big and small at the same time.’
Welcome, Duncan, to professional ministry.
We have to learn how to be big and small at the same time.
There is so much to learn, because the work is THAT hard.
The reality is that the job description calls for people who walk on water and turn water into wine, and unfortunately so many of our ministers buy into it because they are people-pleasers or perfectionists. The reality is that the job can be like that of parenting young children, and it takes 20 minutes to brush your teeth because you are interrupted constantly, and, quite apart from the amount of things you do, there is the actual weight of the worries you carry about what’s going on and how to hold everything together, worries that don’t go away when you are trying your best to take time off. The reality is that people can forget to thank you and let you know that they appreciate you, but they don’t forget to criticize you. They don’t forget to let you know when you fall short.
The work is THAT hard, Duncan.
And what I have to say to you today, as your pastor and your friend, is this: love and courage.
Those are your own words that I give back to you. Seven years ago, when we first met, I remember receiving an email from you, and in the signature line was that phrase: “Love and courage.”
I have since then stolen it for my own use. It says it all.
Love and courage.
Now part of that is remembering to distinguish between performance and presence.
I remember how, one time, someone in the receiving line after worship was telling me that they liked my sermon and then they mentioned the previous Sunday’s preacher, how that person did a great job, and then he said with a wink, “You better watch out! You may have competition…” I laughed, of course, but it also struck me as a very strange thing to say, and only later did I realize why. Because the relationship between a minister and the congregation that calls him or her is very much like that of a marriage. For him to have said what he did is like a spouse saying to his or her partner, “You see that guy over there, with the six pack abs and the Mercedes? You better shape up or else!”
That’s NOT for better or for worse, in sickness and in health…
People will say stuff like that, even ones who love you, because we live in a time where ministry is not well understood. They have never been to events like this one, when the meaning of ministry gets at least a little clearer. But, Duncan, YOU must know. YOU must know that your value to any congregation you serve is not so much about being better than other people as it is about you being vitally yourself and, out of this, living in relationship with a community of people who aspire to do the same. Sharing life together. Growing together. Knowing and being known.
There will always be better administrators, better fundraisers, better preachers, better pastoral caregivers, better somethings. The words of Desiderata say it perfectly: “always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself…” But what there can never be is another you. That’s what’s so rare and so precious. Your story. Your heart. Your presence. Plenty of people have seen it and cherish it and that’s why you are here today. They have seen the minister in you. You would not be here otherwise.
Our colleague John Burciaga once said, “In the chemistry or our remarkable calling, to be lovingly wrong is far better and more healing than to be lovelessly right.”
Throw away any expectation you need to walk on water and turn water into wine. Please don’t try to be Jesus. Be yourself.
Love and courage, Duncan.
Love and courage.
A second part of this involves giving yourself to the journey ahead.
You know how we Unitarian Universalists like to affirm our Fourth Principle of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning? Well guess what? Ministry is the Fourth Principle on steroids. Ministry will take you deep into this world and deep into yourself. You will meet the coolest people, from all walks of life, and get to serve with them in the creation of Beloved Community. You’ll also meet people who are more in the “extra-grace-required” category, and you just might learn the most from them. You will be opened up like you can’t possibly imagine, heart and soul.
So give yourself to that. It means that you can let go of any expectation of needing to have it all together right now. Of needing to know, right at the get-go, how to be big and small at the same time, or how to be yourself without reference to better or worse, or how to carry the weight of this work—how to do this work that can feel so intense and relentless and it IS like you are the parent of a young child and brushing your teeth can take 20 minutes because of all the interruptions…. Feeling like we need to know how to do all this, right at the get-go, can fill us with anxiety. But let that expectation go. It’s unrealistic. It insults us and humiliates us.
Let go, and let God.
Become curious. Let curiosity lift you. See where your path takes you. See what happens next. Let the suspense of it carry you forward. Every moment the Mystery of your life is unfolding. See where it is taking you. Everything is grist for the mill. All the joys, all the pains.
Let not-knowing take your hand and lead you forward. A great journey awaits, and there is room enough for all your learnings to unfold, in their right time. Let it happen, school of hard knocks-style or in the style of effortless ahas.
But let it happen.
Love and courage, Duncan.
Last thing I’ll say to you, my friend, is this: Be prepared to be ordained again and again.
Now I’m not talking about another event like this, again and again. (REALLY want to emphasize that, in case all the hard-working folks who put this together, including yourself, faint.)
What I mean is this. I want you to fast-forward yourself to the end of your ministry career. Look back. Duncan, what you will see is not pettiness, it’s not the paperwork.
What you will see is a host of faces.
Faces of people who took the mask they usually wear off, because they are with you. Faces of people who unburdened themselves of guilt, and hurt, and anger, and fear. Faces of children you dedicated, their beaming parents. Faces of people you married. Faces of family members whose loves ones you buried. Faces of people society hurts, and you spoke up for them, you spoke truth to power. You will remember all these faces. You will remember the emotions. You will remember.
And the substance of such memory—the essence—is the incredible profound precious privilege of ministry and what called you to it in the first place and how it really does matter, how we really do change lives. These are the moments that ordain us again and again.
In the midst of times, Duncan, when the job feels terrible—even then—something will happen and with crystal clarity you will be returned to your sense of call and it will renew you and restore you. Give you perspective. Give you hope.
This is not the last time you will be ordained, Duncan.
No matter what, love and courage to you, in the amazing journey ahead, in which you will be big and small and everything else in between. But you are enough, and more than enough. And you are not alone.