Charge to the Minister: The Rev. Taryn Strauss

Taryn

So, my part in Taryn’s ordination is the “charge to the minister.” A “charge to the minister” is when I get to say things and Taryn gets to listen. Although I hasten to say that there’s been plenty of times when Taryn is the one sharing wisdom and I’m just absorbing.

I’m grateful for the mutuality of our collegial relationship. I’m grateful we’ve been able to be a team together.

So: the charge.

“The choice to bless the world,” says the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker,

is an act of recognition,
a confession of surprise,
a grateful acknowledgment
that in the midst of a broken world
unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.

In my charge to you, Taryn, I’m going to use these words as my guide to exploring the world of ministry. It is a world itself, or a part of the world, and as such, it shares the same brokenness and the same opportunities for unspeakable beauty and mystery and grace.

You know I have to start with the brokenness part.

In his blog “Eleven Things You Might Not Understand About Your Minister,” Mark Love identifies one of these things as ministers thinking about quitting a lot. “Behind closed doors,” he says, “most ministers talk about moving on with regularity. The job is hard in a way that people who’ve never done it cannot understand. Not physically, or even mentally. But emotionally it can wreck you.”

What feels so wrecking are all the complaints.

With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

How do I complain about thee? Let me count the ways.
I complain about thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach….

Complaints come, because congregants love you and want the feeling of connection with you. There is a deep bond that develops between minister and congregant, and it moves a congregant to a place of sweet vulnerability. The place can achieve such “depth and breadth and height” that, unconsciously, they come to experience you not as you are but as a parent who is supposed to meet their every need without having to ask. Nothing is wrong with this. This is completely natural. But you’re going to fall down at this job of mind-reading. No one teaches mind-reading in seminary. Mind-reading can’t be taught. You’re going to fail, and they are going to complain. They are going to sulk. The fact that you need to be told is Exhibit A of your failure and it is hotly resented.

Because they have come to love you.

They love you, and they want to be known by you. All hundreds of them. But you are only one person and they are many.

Complaints also come because congregants will have written their very own job description for you. Usually it is wildly inaccurate. Too often, the job description is a single sentence: “The minister is working only when they are leading worship and preaching a sermon from the pulpit.” In a church that runs two Sunday services, as UUCA does, that’s a two-hour work week. That’s the cushiest job imaginable, right? So they will want to give you more work to do. Because you have all that free time available. Because, somehow, the organization of the congregation—all the teams, all the committees–runs itself according to some mysterious pre-established harmony. Because you don’t need the 20 hours it actually takes to craft the worship service and wrestle all your research into a sermon form that is not a mere lecture but is instead a spiritually inspiring event.

Nah. You get in this pulpit, you flip a switch in your brain, and you channel Emerson’s Oversoul. That’s what you do.

You just work two hours a week! So when you can’t get around to doing what a congregant has helpfully suggested you do, to fill in an otherwise empty week, well, the complaints come.

Let me count the ways.

So often, I have had to say, “I wish I could be two people or three or five, and be in several places at once, but I cannot.”

Which leads to a different category of complaint. The complaints I make against myself.

I say that I wish I could bilocate—and I still feel guilty. In any given week, I might have accomplished ten impossible things, but that eleventh thing–I didn’t do it. And the inner critic lays into me.

Congregants might be praising me to the skies, but inside I feel intensely my failure to be omnipresent.

The complaints come.

The reality of the job is that it’s like parenting young children, which you and your husband are very familiar with, and something as simple as brushing your teeth can take upwards of 30 minutes to accomplish because you are interrupted constantly. Interruptions are the norm! It gets to the point that, at the end of the day, you ask yourself, How come I feel so exhausted, even though I didn’t really check off that many items on my to-do list?

What’s wrong with me?

The kicker is when you actually take time off. You do as some “self-care” experts say, and you throw yourself into activities that, as seen from the outside, are decidedly “not work.” You go see a movie. You go blow bubbles. You go walk a labyrinth. But you can’t let go of the things that are messy and incomplete. Perfectionism has you in its grip. That conflict between congregants wriggles its way into consciousness as your mouth is stuffed with popcorn and you are trying to watch the Avengers deal with Thanos. The face of a congregant who has suddenly disappeared and there’s rumors swirling that they’re angry with you—that face appears on one of the bubbles you blow. You walk the labyrinth and your worries about who is going to lead the next stewardship campaign cause you to blank out—and there you are, at the center of the labyrinth, at that holy center, and for the life of you, you can’t remember how you got there.

Your entire world has become tainted by work worries—there is nowhere you can run and hide from the self-complaint that you have failed to fix everything.

The complaints come, in so many ways.

This, Taryn, is the world you must choose to bless through

an act of recognition,
a confession of surprise,
a grateful acknowledgment
that in the midst of a broken world
unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.

The world needs your ministry, Taryn. The world needs your blessing. We can’t afford to have you emotionally wrecked by your ministry experience.

Here’s the key insight, which I have learned the hard way: the degree to which I feel emotionally wrecked in this work is the degree to which I have succumbed to the happiness trap. It’s when I equate success with the absence of complaints, either external or internal. It’s when I equate peace with the absence of struggle.

A blessing comes, through the act of recognizing this.

A blessing comes, when we confess surprise that we should ever have been duped by such an unrealistic and irrational standard.

A blessing comes, when we can gratefully acknowledge that there is a better standard to hold to.

Other people will always complain, because of their deep need to feel connected to you, frustrated by the limitations of your time and energy. But you are not blame for your limitations. Blame God. You need your sleep. You need your down time. You need your away time. You need your dance time. You must never apologize for that.

I will say that congregants would do well to revise their inaccurate job descriptions for ministers by learning more about what ministers actually do, and about the complexity of congregational life in general. This would easily reduce some kinds of complaints against ministers and make their lives a lot easier.

A useful rule of thumb is that if a minister is at church or is attending some church function, the minister is “on” and they are working. Even if they are just sitting there. Yup, working. Even if it’s an accidental meeting with congregants around town, such as at a grocery store or a restaurant—during that accidental meeting the minister is working.

A great resource is Gil Rendle’s on-line article entitled “The Illusion of Congregational Happiness.” This is something everyone should read about ministry. It talks about how congregants can often equate success with a lack of complaints, or equate progress with eliminating complaints. But the focus on complaints tends to reinforce the status quo; and what if the Spirit of Life stirring in our midst wants us to try new things, wants us to be more than we are now, wants us to experience a larger joy than we ever thought possible?

Furthermore, in communities that are diverse, you fix one complaint but that so-called fix inevitably creates discomfort in others! There’s never a final fix!

“Leadership,” it is said, “is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can stand.”

And to this I must add—this quote is original with me–“Followership is the art of expressing frustration at a rate that doesn’t cause good leaders to want to run away, screaming.”

There will always be frustration; but let the expression of it be tempered by understanding the complexities of a minister’s work in an institution as complex as a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

Taryn,

in the midst of a broken world
unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.

Your ministry must not be centered in wrestling with the complaints of others, or the complaints you bring against yourself. Your ministry must be centered in purpose and priorities. That is the success standard. You must cultivate congregational leaders who will join you in discerning who the congregation is, what it is called to be in this place and time, and what are the goals that point you on the right path towards true success.

Minister from the Beauty of that.

Minister from the Mystery of that.

The Spirit of Life stirs in you. That is your true ordination which will ordain you again and again over the course of your career. The Spirit of Life is irrepressible! It will want you to do 50 impossible things every week! And you won’t be able to. And therefore comes the discomforting self-critique of your perfectionism. But your truest self-care is in staying loyal to both yourself and the Spirit of Life.

Stay loyal to your limits. Don’t you be the one who sacrifices your needs. Don’t you be the one who just can’t say no.

And stay loyal to the Spirit of Life. Stay loyal to its calling. It is the grace of a long-run marathon, not a sprint.

Stay loyal to yourself and to the Spirit of Life, without allowing your perfectionism to spoil things. Your truest self-care is in learning how to tolerate the critical inner voice that is so disappointed you can’t get everything done now–not to engage it, not to get into an argument with it, but to let the energy be, to not allow its fearful threats to entangle you, just let it wind down of its own accord, which it will if you let it be.

Trust that the Spirit of Life, which inspires you with 50 exciting, impossible visions, will also carry you though, carry you in its arms.

God knows.

The God of the Bible, whose beautiful Garden of Eden creation also held within it the Serpent—that force for disruption, leading to all the challenging plotlines of the entirety of human existence, and all the subsequent complaints.

Yet God blessed God’s creation, and called it Good.

God rested on the seventh day, too.

So can you rest, and so can you bless, despite all.

AMEN

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2 comments

  1. Anthony, I have watched you since the beginning of your relationship with you you CA. I have always admired how are you evolved into the man you are today.The way you express yourself has impressed me so very much. I wish you all the best in your future. This is a beginning. With warm regards, Judy Saucerman

    Sent from my iPhone Judy Saucerman

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  2. I so appreciate this, Anthony. I too could not be in all places at once so was not in Atlanta for Taryn’s ordination. Your words would be a good annual posting for all congregations (and ministers). Parts reminded me of my dad’s words that if everyone is happy you are not doing your job. Easier said than felt. My love to you. I wish you well and do plan to visit West Shore on one if my trips north! You have been a bright light in my life, keeping me centered in a faith that seemed elusive at best 😉. My care and love go with you.

    Nancy

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