The Reverend Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull
Unitarian Universalist Minister

“Shared Ministry: The Language of Listening”

Sermon by Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills
Kingston, NY
February 6, 2011

Shared Ministry has been our mantra this year. This morning we begin a series of Sunday services focused on the “language of shared ministry.” Some of you are asking: “What exactly is shared ministry?” Some of you have been privy to conversations on this topic and were here in September when I asked from this pulpit: “What is your ministry?” My question and message carried the assumption that each of you has a ministry and clarified what that means. I refer not to a professional ministry like mine or that of my colleagues but a ministry that is just as valid and is every bit as essential to being a healthy, vital, and growing congregation bound by covenant and grounded in love.

The notion of shared ministry comes from the early Christian concept of the “priesthood of all believers.” In the early Christian church, there were no ministers, no priests. It was informal and egalitarian. Each believer was expected to draw on her or his distinctive gifts to build up the Christian community, not an easy task in that tumultuous time of the Roman Empire.

As Unitarians and Universalists and, for the last half-century, as Unitarian Universalists, we have evolved as radical heretics—as a community committed to faith through choice as distinct from faith decreed through hierarchy. Congregational polity is a form of governance that formalizes this. Our congregations are in association with one another, but each chooses its professional minister in a process of mutuality with those of us who are professional ministers and our Unitarian Universalist Association of interdependent congregations.

It gets so muddy sometimes that I think a few Unitarian Universalists unwittingly long for a system that tells us which way is up, and more than a few refer to our principles and purposes with the solemnity of a creed. Yet we’re ornery individualists struggling with all our might to be or resist community. And those principles and purposes are only 25 years old, a young adult in human terms!

Ours is religious community that is covenantal, not creedal. It functions through the system of governance that is congregational polity. Covenant and congregational polity blend into a soil fertile for shared ministry, for the “priesthood of all believers.” It was the 20th century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, who extended that particular brand of shared ministry into the priesthood and prophethood of all believers. “The prophetic liberal church,” Adams proclaimed,

“is the church in which all members share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional), with the intention of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it.”

And, just in case we didn’t quite hear what he had to say the first time, he continued:

“Only through the prophetism of all believers can we together foresee doom and mend our common ways.”

A little over ten years ago, a commission of our Association took on the task of pondering congregational polity. They drew feedback from congregations throughout our association and talked and talked—after all it was a Unitarian Universalist committee—before committing to the written word. The fruit of this harvest was a rich narrative that moves into the sticky matter of religious leadership, which becomes more or less unsticky, depending on your perspective, through their agreed upon observation that a common belief of Unitarian Universalists is

“that ministry of the congregation does not belong exclusively to the ordained clergy,
but to everyone.”

We can either hear this as “Nobody’s off the hook!” Or “We’re all in it together!” or both!

Some of our congregations, like this one, were organized as fellowships, with no professional minister. The ONLY way you functioned historically was if a critical mass of congregants carried your weight in time, talent, and treasure. Even when you asked Linda Anderson to be your first called minister, the only way you continued to function was because a critical mass of congregants carried your weight in time, talent, and treasure. Linda’s leadership was crucial, but it was non-authoritarian leadership, leadership in the mode of covenant, not hierarchy. So it is with my ministry among you; it is leadership in the mode of covenant, not hierarchy. It is leadership in the mode of a covenant that drives congregational polity that surfaces a theology of shared ministry. It is still the case that this congregation functions and is sustained ONLY if a critical mass of congregants—actually, every member and friend—joins in the practice of shared ministry.

It’s a gift to us all that the governing body of this congregation has adopted shared ministry as a “new paradigm,” in the words of Mark Howenstein, our Board of Trustees President, a paradigm “in which all members and friends are responsible together for the healthy operation of the congregation.”

Early in September, Donna Newsome, our Board Vice-President, came to me in high enthusiasm over this notion of shared ministry. “Yes!” I responded, “Yes! This is what I believe in!” Donna had more to say in a written overview of her thinking on the matter:

“You’re not fully ‘here, now’ unless you’re actively involved and pulling your share. Shared ministry lets each of us ‘be here now.’”

Donna had echoed, unwittingly perhaps, the observation of the Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh: “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence.”

Shared ministry has a language. Above all, it is the language of presence offered in community. Core to the language of presence is the language of listening.

Listening heals. As listeners, we partake of the shared ministry of healing, of health, of wholeness, of the holy—words from the same linguistic family.

At the beginning of our service this morning, we sang about our heart being in a holy place. What does that mean? The lyrics tell us:

“When our heart is in a holy place,
when our heart is in a holy place
We are bless’d by love and amazing grace,
When our heart is in a holy place.”

The second verse carries the message of what we’re about in the shared ministry that is listening:

“When we tell our story from deep inside,
And we listen with a loving mind,
And we hear our voices in each other’s words,
Then our heart is in a holy place.”

That is, a healthy place, a space of healing, a state of wholeness.

We are each fragmented into bits and pieces of hope and longing and yearning. We each have cultivated habits of what I call “silo solace,” coaxed by a culture that values independence and competition over interdependence and cooperation. None of us can become whole as a solo act. Religious community is healing—not a community where we are told what to believe and what to do, but a community in which we tend to what matters most through telling our stories “from deep inside” and heeding one another’s stories. Such is the foundation of our religious education, our worship, our justice making, our music making, and our pastoral and prophetic ministering to one another and our larger world. All are grounded in listening and being listened to, hearing and being heard.

Why is it amid the sharing of Joys and Sorrows that we hear our stories and mark them only by dropping a stone into the water of a simple glass bowl? We don’t speak out in response to a story of a family member who’s suffering the final throes of cancer or an account of a friend caught amid the strife of an oppressive regime in Egypt. We don’t butt in and say, “Oh, I can fix that!” No, we listen. We hold one another’s stories of joy and sorrow, hope and hurt. And when those stories are told in the fullness of silence, we hold the silence in faith that we can hear through the ears of our hearts.

How many times has any of us heard a story of pain from a friend or a family member and were tempted to rush to some quickly manufactured solution? Or to say: “Oh, I know just what you mean.” Or to identify with the teller to the extent that we were drawn into the sphere of pain such that we melted into the feeling rather than simply holding it?

“One of the easiest human acts,” writes margaret wheatley, “is also the most healing. Listening to someone. Simply listening. Not advising or coaching, but silently and fully listening.”

It is also one of the most difficult acts. We listen not just with our ears. We can listen if we’re stone deaf. We listen with our eyes, our hands, our posture, our touch, our stillness, and our mindful letting go of the inner chatter that seduces like the song of the Sirens. As a minister, a mother, a wife, a grandmother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, the most important thing I do is listen. I don’t always do it well. My “inner monkey” is so eager to jump in and chatter away about to-do lists or what I forgot to do or what I need at the market or all those other Siren songs that draw me away from being fully present.

In our home in Red Hook, there’s a red kitchen stool that I call our “Kandinsky bench,” because its basic red is spattered with so many other colors. I’ve used it to get what was out of reach, to paint rooms in our home, and to hold pots and pans of whatever as I prepared a meal; but its most memorable function is as a story stool. It was on that same kitchen stool that I sat as a child in a long ago kitchen and told my Mom what happened in school that day or about the playmate who wouldn’t play fair or about the bee that had just stung me. And most of the time, she listened. She was present. Most of the time, I was heard and reassured and healed just because I was listened to.

So it was with my own children who sat there or nestled into a corner of the porch swing. The stories poured forth. What was I called to do? Listen, simply listen. Kitchen stools and porch swings are every bit as sacred as sanctuary seats when blessed by stories told and stories heard, for they hold the history of a ministry of listening.

Close your eyes for a moment. Think of a time when you were really listened to about something that was close to your heart. What did it feel like? What did it mean to you? What does it feel like remembering it now? What does it mean for you this morning?


With your eyes still closed, think of a time when you listened, when you really listened to a friend or a family member of maybe even a stranger. What did it feel like for you? What did it mean to you? What did it mean in your relationship with that person? What does it tell you about your capacity to listen as deeply again and again?


Eyes still closed, think of a time when you were in conflict with a person or a group or an entire community and that conflict was resolved in a way that still feels right and good. How did it happen? What made it possible to come to a meeting of minds? How did that experience change you?


Here we are, gathered in the community that is this Sunday’s congregation. We come from so many places of heart and mind. We bring all the baggage we have ever carried with us to this place and this time, some of it uplifting, some of it weighing us down, preventing us from being present, sealing off that precious gift that we can offer at the altar of community. How will we find healing? How will we heal? How will we find health and wholeness? How will we enhance the health and wholeness of this community? How will we find ourselves amid the holy? It has happened before. It can happen again.

It is the language of ministry that is shared. It is the language of listening.

When we listen with full heart and mind, we are present to each other and are at risk—precious risk—of transformation.

Amen. May it be so.


James Luther Adams, “The Prophethood of All Believers,” (1947) in The Essential James Luther Adams: Selected Essays and Addresses, Edited and introduced by George Kimmich Beach, Skinner House Books, Boston, 1998.

Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity, Section Nine: Religious Leadership, A Report by the Commission on Appraisal, Unitarian Universalist Association, June 1997 (also

Dr. Donna Newsome, “Shared Ministry,” unpublished paper, 2010.

margaret j. wheatley, turning to one another: simple conversations to restore hope to the future, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, 2002.


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