DEAR REV. _______
So, your ministry to the congregation is drawing to a close. You may not be aware of this yet, but all the signs are there: falling Sunday attendance, declining membership, fewer activities and meager attendance at those which take place and, for the second year in a row, the proposed budget could not be funded through the pledge drive. Soon will come a meeting with the President and the Committee on Ministry, the negotiations will begin and, then, it will be over.
This might be a good time, before the regrets and recriminations begin, to look back and try to understand what happen. It started, as all good love affairs do, with high spirits and great expectations. You had favorably impressed all who spoke with you, your candidating visit went well, with broad participation, penetrating questions and thoughtful answers and your first few sermons, although nervously given, were viewed as showing promise.
The early signs of trouble also appeared. One which concerned me is that you went to congregational leaders asking what you should do. Now, on the face of it, that might not seem unreasonable. But, before the search which resulted in your selection, there had been extensive polling and interviewing of the members and friends. The carefully collated results were provided to you as a candidate. There was nothing unusual in the results; you were asked to preach 16 times a year, there was a wish for more spirituality, etc. You were sought and, after the congregational decision, offered and accepted a covenant as a part time minister.
Perhaps this is where the problems began. Professional ministry, ministry for pay as an occupation, is, like any other professional occupation, full time. The professional wakes up thinking about the tasks and challenges of the day, the week and all the time ahead, goes through the day with them and, often, quite late, takes them to bed, seven days a week. A doctor can reduce the number of patients she sees, a teacher can teach fewer courses, a dentist can hire assistants but a minister, full time or not, has a whole congregation.
So what does it mean to be a part time minister? First, it means to be a minister to the community; to look at it as a whole and as separate parts, and determine what ministry is needed and where you, as a professional, can contribute directly and where to, a degree, you can guide the overall ministry of the congregation. That’s what professionals do and that is perhaps the most important role of the professional ministry: to provide cohesion, gentle guidance and, from time to time, point out unmet needs and unavailable but necessary talents.
Second, being called part time reflects both the congregation’s choice as to what it desires in professional assistance in its ministry and, often, also the state of its finances. So, the part time minister must set priorities; perhaps the hardest part of the job is making wise choices, knowing when to say no.
And don’t make the mistake in thinking that full time is 40 hours a week and part time is therefore a fraction of that. Full time for professionals passes the 40 hour mark at a dead run and stretches to 50, 60 even 70 hours and then the day is still not done: your relationship with your “clients,” the members and friends of the congregation, means that when they call, if they are in need, you have to make time and, often abandon what you planned and go to them, if only to be there while they move through the present crisis. So, perhaps the only important difference between part and full time is that you are entitled, within your professional judgment, to say no more often.
The part time minister is in a difficult personal position. You need to do other things, in order to earn sufficient support for you and your family. One possibility you tried was also to be a part time minister for another congregation. But it was difficult to the point of near impossibility: while you were part time in each community, you were necessarily the minister to the whole community. Now, no person can be minister successfully to two congregations any more that he can ride two horses at the same time. Crises are never scheduled, feelings are easily hurt, confidentiality must be maintained and so, reluctantly, you soon abandoned the other congregation.
But you still had to work, so you never seemed to be around. And although you are a UU in spirit, you find your spiritual sustenance in another faith practice, so we rarely saw you at Saturday activities or on Sunday mornings when you were not preaching.
Preaching, there was another sign. UUs are a wordy bunch; famously they’d rather attend a discussion about heaven than actually go there. But, a sermon is not a lecture. It is a gem set in the surround of the service, it is an opportunity to speak through the mind and senses directly to the heart and spirit of the congregants.
I had a friend, beloved of Sunday morning “talkback,” the congregational response introduced to us by John Murray, who said that he went to church for a good argument. He is in the minority, for you and I both know that, as you look out from the pulpit, all the persons you see here this day have brought their different needs and desires with them.
There are out there ones who have just received bad news, who have made life changing decisions, who are in fear of death, their own or that of a loved one, who are depressed, who are struggling with additive behavior, who may be considering suicide, who need guidance, uplift, reassurance, solace. And your duty, as a professional, is to try to offer something, both for the moment and to take home, for everyone.
Clare once said to me, “A good sermon has something local, something global and something personal.” The global you have easily, the local you can learn but the personal is the most difficult. You must preach your life to the congregation; make love to each one of them and make them at least like, if not love, you in return. You don’t get there by speaking softly and in a disorganized fashion, by showing slides or waving books in the air, by rambling on well past your allotted time or by assuming that the congregation shares your interest in lily growing.
These were errors mostly of omission, of failing to assume your professional responsibilities and of disappointing in the pulpit. But there were also disturbing acts of commission. There was the time you spilled the gathered waters, intended for use in a child dedication, substituting ordinary tap water. All water is holy, but your mistake was in telling your lay leader but not the congregation. Jaws wagged and your credibility was damaged.
Or the time you were caught short in writing your monthly column for the newsletter and used one of the many generic ones which circulate amongst ministers, but without giving the appropriate attribution. The congregants assumed you had written it. It was your misfortune that essentially the very same column had previously appeared in a nearby congregation’s newsletter and members of you congregation noted it, assuming that you were a plagiarist. More credibility was lost.
And the unanswered telephone calls, the emails without reply, the double scheduled meetings, the missed opportunities to just sit and talk: each time a little more was lost.
But, as I look back, perhaps your biggest problem was underestimating the members of the congregation. It is easy, as a professional, in a congregational setting, to forget that everybody else is an adult, with a fully developed life, with jobs, family, relationships, with judgment, skills, talents, and gifts. The essence of the shared ministry movement is recognizing this great wealth and promoting a seamless fabric of ministry, in which all contribute according to their abilities and desires, professional and lay person alike. Each time you did a task badly or ineffectively, there were those who, some with good cause, looked at you and felt that they could have done better. And even that would not have been bad, if there had been a possibility for you to be a student to their teaching, to learn how you yourself could do better and, at the same time, discover the powers and possibilities of your instructors.
Ah, well, it is too late for these observations. The high spirits and expectations have given way to depression and sadness. You will leave, the congregation will mend and, perhaps both you and they will have benefited from the experience. For life continues and we have opportunities for growth in the hours of each day.
In fellowship, depart in peace,