My hope for every worship service is that it will move hearts and give participants something to practice or continue reflecting upon as they move into the rest of their week. I create or choose every element of worship to add to or strengthen the overall message of a service, which I normally present as an invitation to join me on a journey of growth. When people walk out of worship (or sign off), I want them to feel warmly connected to one another and, ideally, more connected to our larger community and world.
My presence in worship and elsewhere is described to me as calm, centered, and centering. During the pandemic, Zoom worship has been a challenge, both in how it confines movement to a camera square and, especially, in how it eliminates the immediate feedback that being together in one space affords worship leaders. (I notice that I attempt humor less for that reason, and drama is circumscribed.) Yet it also affords us creative opportunities to use new music, video, and slide shows as part of worship and to reach people who cannot be present in our sanctuary on Sunday morning. We probably never will go back to exactly what worship meant before.
Even without being able to see everyone in the room, I know I need to hold space for polarities: We encompass a diversity of faiths, including humanism and atheism. On any Sunday, someone with a broken heart will be present alongside someone who is celebrating. Some are comfortable in our space, and some are anxious. We must hold them all.
The reality is that worship happens in the mix of the energies we all bring to it: the minister, yes, but also those who make music, the storytellers, the sound team, those who arrange flowers, members who lend other talents, and every person in the room, whether it is a physical space or electronic. Together, we make worship.
“The Words of My Mouth”
as given at Peterborough UU Church
November 22, 2020
“It’s Not About Us” (getting over white fragility—a long sermon even by pre-Zoom standards)
given at the UU Church of Belfast
May 12, 2019
“What Grows in the Dark?”
as given at Peterborough UU Church
December 6, 2020
“Casting a Circle of Love”
given at the UU Church of Belfast
July 19, 2017
Rites of Passage
Rites of passage require planning and grace in ways similar to worship, but they also ask the minister to listen pastorally to individuals involved. This is true whether it’s a major life event, such as a wedding or memorial service; a congregational tradition such as a child dedication or coming of age ritual; or something less common—a house blessing, for example.
I have led one traditional UU memorial service and three briefer services for unchurched families who wanted to honor their loved one more quietly, co-led child dedications and a new-member ceremony within worship services, and look forward to working with couples on their wedding ceremonies. I have also created a marriage dissolution ceremony. All of these events were sacred ceremonies that I approached with consultation and great care and thought.
I’ve mentioned Unitarian William Ellery Channing’s belief that human beings have a unique capacity for moral and ethical growth. In his theology, this meant that we can choose to grow in ways that make us more like God. At a time when most ministers preached that humans were hopeless sinners but for the chosen few, this was revolutionary, but Channing offers ground for reflection even today. What Channing proclaims about our capacities for growth, writes theologian Rebecca Ann Parker, means that education is a sacrament in Unitarian Universalism.
A sacrament, a channel to grace… This means that offering meaningful religious education to children, youth, and adults of all ages is central to the ministry of our church. We must give RE generous support in our budget and in our volunteer energies. As minister, I want to know every child’s name, as well as every adult’s, and something that interests this person. I want to know what are the pockets of interest shared by several or many in our congregation.
Wanting to be prepared to support the RE professional in our congregation and to participate as appropriate, I’ve volunteered and also worked as a paid teacher in children’s RE and have sat in on dozens of hours of Coming of Age classes and youth group meetings, including those for a five-church youth service program. I’m an approved OWL—sexuality education—facilitator for k-1 and 4-6 curricula and would be thrilled for the church I serve to offer every level of OWL; this might be done in collaboration with other churches. For much of my own adult life, I’ve been a teacher of adults and would relish opportunities to lead book discussion groups, classes or workshops—anyone interested in performing UU mime skits?—or a spiritual poetry-writing group, in addition to “New to UU” classes. (Not all at once!)
It is the work of the church and the church community to help every one of us to expand our capacities for spiritual and ethical living. This is very much a shared ministry.
Seasoned by life and aspiring to be a conduit for love, I experience pastoral care as a natural priority. I am repeatedly told that people feel cared for and safe when they interact with me. Such trust is sacred to me. I greatly value the authentic connection of listening deeply to someone who is struggling with a spiritual challenge, even when I am full of sorrow over what this person is experiencing. The work of pastoral care is far more about listening than giving advice, but our UU principles, covenants, and the question What does love demand in this situation? are my foundations. Often I need to urge the persons before me to be more compassionate to themselves. Sometimes I observe out loud what might be a growing edge for them.
Although I’m a persistent proponent of right relations, I tend by nature to be non-judgmental, believing that each of us is an imperfect being, mostly doing well and trying to do better. I’m sensitive to the possibility that someone feels shame. I honor confidentiality carefully.
Boundaries are essential, however. In my state and most, ministers are mandated reporters if child or elder abuse is suspected. I am very clear that I’m not a therapist and will refer someone to an appropriate professional if a matter requires more help than I can offer or if we meet more than twice to discuss the same issues. For this reason, becoming acquainted with services and resources in the community is vital to me.
Small Group Ministry
The gift of sustained and intentional listening is a spiritual practice that is unusual in our culture. This quality of listening is at the heart of small-group ministry (SGM), a way reflecting on discussion materials (oftentimes readings) and sharing our thoughts and feelings about those materials in light of our individual values and life experiences.
The depth of sharing that can occur when individuals speak confidentially for, say, five minutes–with compassionate listening and without interruption–fosters a closeness among members that cannot take root in coffee hour chatter or the like. At the end of a small-group session, time for cross-talk is allowed and members respond to some of what they’ve heard.
In leading two small groups within my home church, one at my internship church, and “my” SGM cohort in our Roots & Wings Lay Justice Ministry Program, I have seen respect and love blossom again and again. If the church I serve does not already have small-group ministry, I will explore whether there’s interest and train lay facilitators if there is.