The Reverend Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull
Unitarian Universalist Minister

"What is Your Ministry?"

A Sermon by Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills
Kingston, NY
September 26, 2010

Imagine! In the vision of Erik Walker Wikstrom, “Imagine [this congregation] not as [an entity] led by a few overly taxed volunteers but one where leadership is a broadly shared ministry that members of the community undertake for the deep joy of it.” For many here this is the case, but I ask each and all of you this morning, “What is your ministry?”

I believe each of us has one, at least one. Yet I’m wondering if some of you might be shaking your heads, musing to yourselves,” “Isn’t it enough that we honor our pledges, that we volunteer our time, that some of us take on positions of leadership in this congregation? Now we’re supposed to be ministers! Linda was our minister. Now we have Jan as our Interim Minister, and she’s full of chutzpah! They’re ministers, not me!”

Let’s back up. Let’s back up into what I mean when I talk about shared ministry, about the ministry we’re in together, and then what informs my bravado when I ask you as individuals and as an assembled congregation, “What is your ministry?”

We can blame our specifically Christian forebears, especially our Protestant forebears, for this notion of shared ministry. And we can blame something called congregational polity for the focus on shared ministry within our Unitarian Universalist practice. And we can blame that quip of “deeds not creeds” for our emphasis on putting our faith to work in what we do over the ever gristy matter of what we believe.

Shared ministry emerges from a notion called “the priesthood of all believers.” It’s grounded in the early Christian understanding that experience of the divine was mediated solely through the figure of Jesus, whom devout Christians understand to be God in the flesh, the son of God, if you will. The early Christian church had no priests. It was informal and egalitarian, with each believer expected to use her or his individual gifts to build up the Christian community, which was pretty wobbly in those days of the Roman Empire. This understanding receives especially strong emphasis in the First Letter of Peter. Believers are implored to “Come to him, to that living stone….and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.”

Of course a quick trip through the history of the church tells us that this non-hierarchical approach to building “a spiritual house” was honored in the breach. When Martin Luther took up his hammer and nailed his 95 theses—or points of utter frustration—on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in October of 1517, he had had it with an established church that had reached a point where access to the holy was not only mediated by an exclusive cadre of priests, but mediated for a profit. The Reformation had begun with one angry monk.

And we Unitarians—not even known as Unitarians yet, but already simmering with the ingredients of what has been called the “radical Reformation”—went even further. Thirty-six years almost to the day after Luther had committed his act of defiance, the Spaniard Michael Servetus, was burned at the stake on orders from Luther’s colleague, John Calvin, for questioning the authority of the Trinity. Was Michael Servetus ordained? No, Servetus was just one of those living stones, but with a different set of beliefs than what had hardened into the hierarchy of the Christian church. Servetus helped put the “radical” into Reformation.

We who are Unitarians and Universalists and now a blend of both have long been notorious for our radicalism. We’ve been dubbed heretics as if it were an insult, when a heretic is simply one who exercises choice. To be creatures of choice is core to our practice of faith and doubt.

So it is that we move into the notion of congregational polity, its own special form of choice. Our Unitarian Universalist congregations, including Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills, exercise this choice, this heresy, with each congregation calling its professional ministers, ordaining us, and governing in a mode of relative independence. Yes, we’re a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association, but it’s an association of interdependent congregations who connect and collaborate by covenant, not by hierarchical dictum.

A few years ago, a commission of our Association spent several years pondering this notion of congregational polity and came up with a report that spoke to the interdependence that defines us. It was a report written by committee—how else would we UUs take on a non-hierarchical topic?—but I found myself reading it with relish. Within the topic of congregational polity, there’s a provocative discussion of religious leadership, which moves into a discussion of shared ministry. I found this passage jumping off the page:

“One key aspect of Unitarian Universalism is our belief that ministry of the congregation does not belong exclusively to ordained clergy, but to everyone.”

The text continues with some commentary that comes to us from an earlier committee’s report on ministry in which commissioner Neil Shadle explained:

"Ministry is the vocation of every person of faith, [and] Unitarian Universalism, as a democratic faith, affirms the “priesthood of all believers;” we are all lay ministers, whether or not we choose to be professional religious leaders."

Here we are, coming full circle back to that notion of the “priesthood of all believers.”

But the circle had already expanded, thanks to that great giant of a 20th century theologian, James Luther Adams. Adams taught over the many years of his career at Boston University, Meadville Lombard Theological School, Harvard Divinity School, and Andover-Newton Theological School when Harvard was so graceless as to retire him. He occupied fully the slice of history that was his, commenting, writing, engaging students, and taking on the brokers of power and privilege through the questions that rocked his time. It’s not surprising that he stretched the “priesthood of all believers” into the priesthood and prophethood of all believers. Prophets, we might remember, were those annoying flower children of the Old Testament—Jonah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos. Troublemakers all, they called the populace of their day to take seriously stuff like loving your neighbor as yourself and honoring the divine by so doing.

Adams himself had a prophetic gene or two. Why else would he have written so forcefully about what we’re called to do as prophets, a ministry that makes most of us entirely uncomfortable? “The prophetic liberal church,” he claimed, “is not a church in which the prophetic function is assigned merely to a few.” Adams had more to say.

“The prophetic liberal church is the church in which persons think and work together to interpret the signs of the times in the light of their faith, to make explicit through discussion the epochal thinking that the times demand. The prophetic liberal church 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 the cherry on top of his sundae?

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

If we take seriously the priesthood and prophethood of all believers, if we take seriously shared ministry, I’m guessing that the first act of faith is to hyperventilate. Once we catch our breath, we can take stock, probably sing a hymn or two, pray desperately, “Why me?”, and trust that the coffee and sweets and soup and sandwiches will be really great today.

On the other hand, shared ministry can be doing our part as a spiritual practice; it can be spiritually transformative even. Such is the case made by Erik in his article. Making soup and sandwiches for this community or sometimes for folks who have hardly anything else to eat is as spiritual as meditating at sunrise. Serving on a committee or leading a Small Group Ministry gathering or teaching in our religious education program or posting a banner that proclaims “Torture is a moral issue!” is as spiritual as the deepest reflection. And sharing your gifts of time, talent, and treasure ensures that no one here need suffer from burnout.

I’m not alone in these sentiments. Donna Newsome, my pulpit partner this morning, came to me during my first weeks here with high enthusiasm around the prospect of … shared ministry! She was like manna from that place we’re not even sure we believe in! Donna went so far as to prepare a draft of her thinking on the topic:

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

she writes. And she has more to say for this community so devoted to addressing injustices in our larger world:

“As we are called to care about and work to end injustices in the world, to care for our planet, to enact love and beauty—we are called to practice for these actions in the wider world by ministering here in our community.”

Many of you have or are finding your ministry within and through the shared ministry that sustains our congregational life. Some of you may still be wondering, pondering, and even resisting the notion that “works” go hand in hand with faith, that “spiritual” goes hand in hand with “practice.”

I believe all of us are here in this Sanctuary for a purpose. It’s about faith, but faith isn’t enough. At least that’s what the author of the New Testament book known as The Letter of James proclaimed:

“What gain is there if a person claims to have faith but doesn’t have works?”

James didn’t know enough to let it drop with that. He kept going.

“If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Can you imagine having James on your committee? Well, we have a James-like figure at the helm of our Board of Trustees. When your October newsletter arrives this week, you’ll read in the President’s column these words of Mark Howenstein:

“The new paradigm is one of shared ministry, in which all members and friends are responsible together for the healthy operation of the congregation. In shared ministry, all are called to contribute their time, treasure and talent, in ways that are distinctive and appropriate to their circumstances, their bounty and their skills.”

“Time, treasure, and talent!” That’s a lot, perhaps overwhelming for some of us. When I get overwhelmed, I start thinking in steps, one step at a time. Let’s try that right now.

What is your ministry? What are you doing right now that speaks to the faith and works of this congregation, that feeds the hungry, that teaches our children, that shouts to the powers that be in our own time to change course, that keeps the kitchen clean and the facilities painted, that gives the lawn a haircut and helps the flowers grow and helps us all grow? I believe there are four simple questions to consider when you feel that the attack rabbit of shared ministry is about to pounce:

1) What am I good at?
2) What do I like to do?
3) What needs to be done?
4) Is there stuff happening in my life right now that suggests I scream for help?

What am I good at? Sometimes what we’re good at is what we least like to do. I’m really good at cleaning a bathroom. I’m really good at turning a messy paper into a fairly coherent document. Do I like to do these things? No. So what am I good at that I like to do? Or even that I kind of like to do? I suppose it would be honest to say that I’m good at chairing committees, and I kind of like to do this, but that’s not what I need to do here, and the last thing I want to do is to usurp your power.

Okay, on to the next question: What needs to be done? Well, I believe both the joy and heartache and celebration and rites and tasks of interim ministry need to be done. I believe there are tough corners to turn and new chapters to write.

I could stop here, but there’s that fourth question, and it’s so subjective: Is there stuff happening in my life right now that suggests I scream for help? For me right now, probably not. Miracle of miracles, all three daughters and their families are doing fairly well at the same time. With amazing grace, Dan and I have a wonderful marriage, given our status as the parents of a blended family. With the luck of the draw, we’re both in good health. However, there have been times when I’ve had to scream for help in my life, and I know that some of you have had to do this too, even if you first scream silently.

So what is your ministry? Let those four questions swim in your mind for awhile. Let them play out in your heart for awhile. Then step back into your understanding of your own priesthood, your own prophethood. Step back into the circle of this religious community and ask once again, “What is my ministry?” How will I work my faith?

And your answer? May your answer be some kind of gratitude that you are, that you are here, and that we are here together on this September Sunday morning. May your answer be some kind of celebration for the bounty of beauty wrought by autumn in the Hudson River Valley. May your answer be some kind of harvest of love and friendship and soul stretching of which we can all partake. May your answer be some kind of Alleluia for the miracle of life in which we find ourselves, no matter which side of the bed you woke up on this morning, no matter how you might have felt as you brushed your teeth or scarfed down your coffee, no matter how you hoped or despaired as you walked out the door, risking once again religious community.

May we open our hearts and minds and hands, giving and receiving the gifts of who we are and who we can be in this faith that we share and this life that we live.

So may it be. Amen.


Sources:

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.

The Bible (Revised Standard Version).

Mark Howenstein, September nUUzletter, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills, September 2010.

Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity, Section Nine: Religious Leadership, A Report by the Commission on Appraisal, Unitarian Universalist Association, June 1997 (also http://www.uua.org/polity/sect9.htm)

P.G. Matthew, “The Priesthood of All Believers,” 1996. at http://www.gracevalley.org/articles/Priesthood.html.

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

Erik Walker Wikstrom, “The Spirituality of Service,” UUWorld, The Magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Fall 2010, 33-35.

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