CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice


Clare and I were walking together. We had fallen into a habit of doing so for an hour or more before breakfast that week. We were both attending a UU residential conference and taking part in a workshop on shared ministry. It was a bright, cool July morning, in Emerson’s word “refulgent,” and, excited by the light air, the greenery, the birds in their early exchanges, our conversation roamed widely over matters of ministry, of belief and practice, of right action and justification. Then, I had a sudden insight, almost an epiphany:

I said, “Clare, I understand the bases for our differences on these topics. You, as a minister, see a congregation and assume a Minister. I, as a layperson, see a congregation and assume a ministry.” We explored the thought in depth, carried it back to the workshop and, each, in the months to come, reflected upon it.

Since then I have come to see the comment as illuminating one of the fundamental questions of ministry among the liberally religious and, especially, ministerial leadership in UU churches and fellowships.
That fall, the congregation was seeking a part time consulting minister. During the final interview, Paul asked the following question of a candidate: “In the UU movement, in which no person can claim a special relationship with the holy, the divine, where does the authority of a congregational minister come from?” After a pause for reflection and consideration, the candidate answered: “It comes from the congregation and it must be earned.”

That seemed right and correct to me, then and on later reflection. However, I kept coming back to my summer walk with Clare and to my insight on our difference points of view, our different approaches, about ministry to and within a congregation. The candidate was, of course, seeking to serve the congregation as a professional. He and the members of the congregation had assumed a Minister.

But suppose, instead, they were to assume a ministry? How then would the question be answered?

In the beginning of the second section of the UUA Congregational Handbook Larry Spears wrote this evocative sentence, “A congregation has a ministry.” What does this mean?

It is all very well for me to ask members of the, “What brings you here and what keeps you here” - but what is here and why is here? To understand the relative roles of ministers and ministry here, we must first understand what here, the congregation and where it meets to worship, is:


Here is NOT:   But-------------------:
A hospital   Healing takes place here.
A school   Here there is learning and teaching.
A cathedral   Here is a place of preaching and precessing; of deep silence and melodic praise.
A train station   There are arrivals and departures; journeys begin and end here.
A concert hall   There is singing and performing.
A service station   Here filling and emptying takes place.
A factory   Here there is work.

And, as others have remarked, here is not a public utility to service your individual needs.

Here is a congregation, a church. Conrad Wright, writing of church (including churches, fellowships, synagogues, mosques, anywhere groups of people gather in worship) defined it as:

“A covenanted body of religiously concerned men and women.”

Let’s work backwards through his definition:

Men and women: not the faithful; not the elect, not predestined, not anointed, but just people - each with inherent worth and dignity.

Concerned: not baptized, not saved, not bar or bas mitzvahed, not confirmed, not ordained but merely thoughtful, alert, searching for truth and meaning.

Religiously: not concerned for the moment about work or about jobs or about money but about matters of the spirit and the higher life of humans and the human community.

Covenanted: not shackled by blind adherence to creed but bound together by principled agreement in intentional community.

A church is not the building or the property or the investments or the staff or even the programs - but the people, the gathered intentional community.

Community is an idea as old as mankind. When the first mated pair opened the circle around the fire to include aunts and uncles, grandparents, orphans, widows and the traveler, then community began. Community led inevitably to clan; to tribe; to village; to canton; to city state; to county; to province; to republics; to democratic nations; to the European Community; to the United Nations. This social evolution was inevitable, given the nature and fundamental goodness of human beings.

And when the first people looked up at the moon and wondered where they came from and how it all began or were terrified by lightening and wondered what would befall them and when it would end, and, then, in spiritual need, turned to their companions, community became congregation.

When we gather we are a community, and a community becomes a congregation when, in Wright’s words, it is religiously concerned.

What happens here?

* We help each other to find and get what we need; what is missing from our lives.

* We raise up our children in love, and compassion and with moral intuition, as we wish we had been raised ourselves.

* We each call and are recalled to our better selves; to consideration of matters of the spirit and of the human condition and of human destiny which we ignore in the day to day hustle and bustle.

Think of here, this place, as a trading post on the edge of the wilderness: from here we will go out into the undiscovered country of the future.

What do we each bring and what do we each need to take away?

In this question, and its myriad personal answers, are the roots of community and of congregation. From those answers spring our ministry to each other.

A congregation has a ministry. Our congregation has a ministry.

Recently, continuing our conversation of that summer morning, Clare and I attempted to define ministry more concisely (and briefly!) Here is our working definition:


“Ministry is the intentional and ongoing effort of members of a religious community to help and support each other in their efforts to make the ideals of their faith more real in the larger world.”


A workable draft, but providing little guidance to the complexity of this reflection on ministers and ministry and the interaction between them.

Let us continue to presume, for the moment, as we have so far, a ministry within the congregation. As the congregation grows and becomes more diverse, in age, outlooks and needs, many feel poorly served by that ministry and seek to add professional ministry to the existing lay ministry. Early in the discussions, the question arises, “What will the Minister do?”

Of all of the accounts which attempt to answer this question, the most striking to me is that of Urban T. Holmes, III. Writing more than 30 years ago, in the context of Episcopal Church practice, Professor Holmes identified eight roles or elements of the conduct of ministry within a congregation:


Preaching the Word
Administering sacraments
Care (including counseling and community organization)


Holmes further commented, again in his religious context that the first three functions are “priestly” (professional) responsibilities and concerns, while prophesy and evangelism are the responsible function (duty) of all Christians (believers) and the latter three reflect a need for various degrees of professional preparation and training, of either the ordained or laity.

How can these comments be translated to the life of a liberal congregation whose members, in Thomas Starr King’s famous phrase, believe in, at most, one God?

We, the members of this virtual congregation, all preach from our own lives, whether in the pulpit or not. We join in community performance of our sacraments, whether of child dedication of remembrance of those past for our presence. And, by and large, we are immune from discipline, since we have arrived here voluntarily and will remain only as long as our spirit leads us to.

Prophecy and evangelism: For me, every thought or idea, coming from who knows where, is prophetic, sharing some of the nature and mysterious origin of the words of the great prophets of the past and present. We evangelize by our actions and example: by the simple act of being ourselves and taking our principles into the community, we awaken and attract those of like mind and spirit.

As to administration, teaching and care, no matter how well trained any one person, profession or lay, is, they cannot be all things to all people. We see this in Olympic competition: the Decathlon is a magnificent human achievement for any one, male or female, who finishes it, let alone excels in it. However, decathletes rarely set world records or are even strongly competative in more than one sport. And so it is with us. In any congregation, there are certainly people with training and experience in single fields whose talents and abilities exceed those of the professional generalist, the Minister.

So where does this leave us? Paul has from time to time been upset by this line of reasoning, for he is a trained professional, serving a significant church and, in turn, depending upon it for her livelihood. My response has been two fold:

First, I think that there is a role for the traditionally seminary trained minister in a liberal congregation, such as a UU church or fellowship. While such a person cannot (and should not) be seen as the head or the spiritual leader of such a group, there is much that he or she can do:

* While not The spiritual leader, the Minister can be A spiritual leader, contributing to the rich process of individual and group development of values and beliefs.

* Any group of individuals setting out on a joint task or undertaking, even if committed to fiercely congregational, participatory democracy, needs and can benefit from a coach and mentor, such as a professional minister.

* Any professionally trained minister, like any other member of a congregation, has an area or area in which he or she excels. There should always be room for individuals with specialty interests, training and achievement to serve the community, whether they are laity or professionals.

* Finally, for a congregation to be more than the sum of its parts, it must develop a focus, a cohesion. In the same way that a seed can promote the grow of a gemstone, a snowflake of a great oak, a professionally trained minister, called from and to the service of a congregation, can provide cohesion, a template for orderly growth and right action.

So, you may ask, where do I stand on the relationship between lay and professional ministry, termed shared ministry? Let me relate a somewhat offensive joke, with two parts:

First: Is sex work for a Jewish American Princess? No, because if it was she’d have the maid do it!

Second: Is ministry work? No, because if it was, we’d have the Minister do it!

When I first told this joke to Clare, she was not amused. But later, after some reflection, she came back to me and said: “You know there is a lot in what you said. In congregations where Ministers regard their efforts as work, there is often both ministerial burnout and widespread lay dissatisfaction.”

Let me repeat the evocative phrase: “A congregation has a ministry.” It is the duty, responsibility and the joy of all in such a community of religiously concerned persons to nurture and further this ministry. And, as in any family or group enterprise, each comes with needs to be met and, in exchange, gives of their talents and experience to the benefit of others and the congregation. The only valid ministry for the liberally religious is shared ministry.

Therefore the distinction between laity and professionals in a liberal religious community, such as a UU church or fellowship, can only reflect training and experience, not divine right or secular authority. Each plays their part and the result is, as Thomas Jeavons observed about the Society of Friends, all are ministers and there is, in the final analysis, no laity.