Our ministry theme for this first month of 2023 is Finding Our Center. It has always been abundantly clear to me that the practice of shared ministry lives at the center of our congregational life—meaning our life here at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester. Given that, as a way to begin talking about this theme, I want to share my thoughts on shared ministry. Full disclosure: I preached a version of this sermon at the Unitarian Society of Hartford in October. A number of UUS:E members were in attendance. Afterwards, all of them said some version of “You have to preach this sermon in Manchester.” I am taking them up on their suggestion. I call this sermon “What Shared Ministry Means to Me.” The short response is: it means everything.
When I say “shared ministry” I’m referring to all the ways in which a congregation—the collective of lay people—shares, collaborates, partners, cooperates, or teams up with its professional staff: its minister or ministers, its religious education professionals, music professionals, membership professionals, etc. And of course, not every congregation has that full array of professionals. Not every congregation has a minister. So then the question becomes, how do the lay people share ministry among themselves? And a further question, which is somewhat beyond my scope this morning, though not completely absent: how do the area congregations with the same denominational identity share ministry? And even further beyond my scope, though not completely absent: how do congregations of all denominations and faiths in a particular region share ministry?
Ministry is never a solo act. Even if one person visits you in the hospital, the congregation, by some means (which is not always visible, which is often taken for granted) has authorized that person to be there; while it has also authorized, by some means, someone else to prepare worship for Sunday, someone else to attend the interfaith coalition board meeting, someone else to volunteer in the nursery, someone else to make the coffee, someone else to greet people as they arrive for worship, someone else to edit the newsletter, someone else to chair the board, someone else to handle the technology so that people can participate safely from home. And behind all that authorization (which is an admittedly bureaucratic term), giving rise to it, is a beautiful, sometimes messy set of very human relationships, human conversations, human covenants, human love and multiple avenues for connection to all that is holy in our lives. The ministry is shared. We share ministry because we are human in relationship with each other and with divinity understood and experienced in a multiplicity of ways. Our sharing means everything.
The best way for me to illustrate this in more detail is to tell you the story of my encounter with shared ministry here at UUS:E. As you know, I am serving in my 20th year as your solo professional minister. While UUS:E is not the only congregation I have served as minister, it is the one I have served for most of my career, and thus its conventions around shared ministry have shaped me far more than the conventions of any other institution in our Unitarian Universalist Association.
The first thing to know about our model of shared ministry, something which we don’t often name explicitly, but which becomes apparent to Sunday guests after about a month of visiting, has to do with how my time is structured. I am a full-time minister; however, I am a part-time preacher. I lead worship and preach, on average, twice a month. I sometimes co-lead a third monthly service—what we call an all-congregation service, where the children’s ministry worships with the adults. We do that at least once a month. Some of those services are staff-led, some are lay-led; some emerge out of a lay and staff partnership. One or two Sunday services each month are lay-led.
This model developed out of necessity. The congregation called its first full-time minister, the Rev. Arnold Westwood, in the 1970s. Very quickly they ran out of money to pay him full-time, so he started splitting his time between UUS:E and the UU congregation in Amherst, MA. So, for us he was a part-time minister and a part-time preacher. And, out of necessity, lay people began leading worship on the weeks when Arnold was in Amherst.
The congregation liked this arrangement, so much so that it became a central part of our identity. To this day, the lay people of the congregation share the worship ministry with the professional minister. Allegedly—I don’t have the full story—the minister who succeeded Arnold in the 1980s didn’t like this model and, among other things, was overheard saying, “Wait until they hear a real minister preach; they’ll get rid of this model.” That minister moved on a few years later. The sharing continued.
Fast forward to the spring of 2002. I am the candidate for the minister position at UUS:E, getting ready to succeed the Rev. Connie Sternberg. Not once, not twice, but three times before I show up for what we call “the candidating week,” the chair of the search committee, Fred Sawyer, calls me to ask: “Are you sure you are OK with preaching only twice a month? You’re not gonna get into the position and then tell us you want to preach every week, right?” There was a lot of anxiety around this question. Was I just saying I liked the model so I’d be sure to get the job? Carol Simpson, Nancy Madar, Malcolm Barlow and Sylvia Ounpuu were members of that search committee. I trust they can vouch for what I am telling you. That anxiety was quite palpable.
I really liked the model, and wasn’t entirely sure how to convince the search committee that I really meant it. On the surface, I liked the model because I struggled with writing sermons. I think I prepared pretty good sermons, but the process took me forever. I didn’t relish the idea of sitting down every week, week in and week out, to prepare worship. The thought of doing that was exhausting. I knew that by the end of every congregational year, full-time preachers were tired, burned out, out of ideas, bone-dry, desperate for some down-time. I didn’t want that in my life. But that was mostly my anxiety, which is common to many new ministers—a need to be perfect, undergirded by a secret, hard-to-share knowledge that we are not perfect, undergirded by a fear that our imperfections will be discovered, undergirded by a nagging question: do I really have what it takes?
I also knew from experience that if I had, on average, two weeks to prepare a sermon, it would inevitably be better than if I had, on average, one week. Two weeks allows time for ideas to gestate. Two weeks allows time for more research. Two weeks allows time for more editing. Two weeks allows time to get the rhythm and the poetry of the words just right.
But this was just the surface of my embrace of the model. This was me struggling with the mechanics of worship design and sermon writing. There was much more underneath, though I understand it much better now than I did then.
Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “the prophet-hood and the priesthood of all believers?” This concept emerged in Europe during the Protestant Reformation—mid to late 1500s, early to mid 1600s. There is a complex history to it which I won’t share here. Suffice to say, the concept meant that the people in the pews had some agency in matters of the spiritual life and the conduct of the church’s ministry. They are not passive recipients of spiritual ministrations; they are active participants in the ministry. “The prophet-hood and the priesthood of all believers.”
Although we weren’t really using that language anymore, I took the concept seriously. I had always wondered: in a faith that values the individual’s spiritual search, the individual’s hard-won personal theology, the individual’s evolving set of spiritual practices—in a faith that values personal experience as a source of truth and as a primary ground for meaning-making and theological reflection—where does any of that find expression in the life of the congregation if the minister preaches every Sunday? This question had been nagging at me ever since I had begun working in congregations in the mid-1990s. The answer wasn’t clear to me and, frankly, I was afraid to ask. I won’t tell you how many times colleagues of mine have said demeaning things about lay-people in the pulpit, but I will tell you that I’ve learned to push back hard when I hear it today.
I found an answer to my question when the UUS:E ministerial search committee presented this model of shared worship ministry to me, saying “this is central to who we are,” saying “we want to hear from you, but we also want to hear from each other,” saying “this is a fundamentally democratic way of being church.” I said “yes!” I meant it, and I’ve never looked back.
Of course there are many other ways of sharing ministry. This one, admittedly, is big. It’s rare. Professional ministers are trained to lead worship. Lay people, generally speaking, aren’t. How is it even possible? Well, it requires a huge commitment, not to mention a lot of enthusiasm, from lay people. It’s certainly not for every congregation. It works splendidly for UUS:E. It works splendidly for me.
Here’s why. I love preaching. I love creating worship. But that has never been all I wanted to do in ministry. A long time ago, before I landed at UUS:E, I wrote a personal mission statement for my ministry, which hasn’t changed much in the nearly 25 years since I first wrote it. “I am a theistic Unitarian Universalist; an aspiring antiracist, feminist, queer ally; a liberal, suburban American minister practicing a modern version of New England’s old ‘congregational way;’ a loving husband and father; and a spiritual leader dedicated to transformative preaching, teaching, healing and social justice ministries.” And precisely because I don’t have to come back every week and create a liturgy for Sunday worship; precisely because I don’t have to come back every week and spend the 10 to 20 hours it takes to create a decent sermon, let alone an excellent sermon, I have time to be very present to our people who are in crisis, who need pastoral care, who need a listening ear. I have time to teach. I have time to meet with visitors and newcomers to the congregation. I have time to supervise our staff.
Most importantly for me (although the pastoral care is very important), I can engage in social justice and antiracist organizing in the wider community. I have time to serve on the strategy team of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance, and then share that ministry with UUSE members and friends as they participate in our GHIAA core team, on GHIAA issue teams, or in GHIAA trainings and actions. I can serve as a partner with Moral Monday CT and Power Up CT on Black Lives Matter organizing, and then share that participation with members and friends of our congregation. I can serve on the Coordinating Committee of Recovery for All. I can serve as a clergy leader with the Domestic Worker Justice Campaign and the HUSKY for Immigrants Campaign. I can serve as a leader with Equality Connecticut’s new interfaith clergy organization in their effort to maintain and advance the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people across the state. Over the last twenty years I have had time to bring Unitarian Universalist principles into the public arena in what I believe is a very potent way, precisely because, most specifically, I share worship ministry, but also pastoral care ministry, administrative ministry, social justice ministry, and many other ministries with the lay people of UUSE.
Is it perfect? No. Do we have trouble finding volunteers? Yes, all the time. Do I invite sharing only to be met by crickets filling the summer evening silence as they rub their scrapers together? Yes. Do I fail to respond to lay people who want to share some ministry with me? Absolutely. It takes work, discipline, intentionality, and a tolerance for conflict. We often miss the mark. But on the whole, I have the time in my calendar to fulfill my entire ministerial call, to live out that personal mission of pursuing transformative preaching, teaching, healing and social justice ministry.
I have this time because, at the heart of our model, lives a belief in the prophet-hood and priesthood of all believers.
I have this time because, at the heart of our model, lives the belief that ministry is never a solo act, that it emerges out of a set of very human relationships, conversations, covenants, love and avenues for connection to all that is holy in our lives. Whether we know it or not, we share ministry with each other. I say it works better if we know it. It works better if we can name all the ways we share ministry, understanding that this is what it means to be in covenantal relationship with one another, understanding that this is how we manifest the principles of our faith, understanding and believing as my dear colleague, the late Hope Johnson said in her meditation we heard earlier, “we are one,” understanding and believing that our capacity to share ministry means everything.
Amen and blessed be.