The Art and Practice of Ministry

Join us as we welcome our new Developmental Minister, Rev. Dr. Stephen H. Furrer as he gives his first sermon at East Shore!

“The Art and Practice of Ministry – Part 1”
August 5, 2018

The beginning of our five years together has led me to contemplate ministry. What do ministers do? Or what are they trying to do? For me, the whole subject is conscience stirring. It forces me to think about what people like Chadbourne Spring, Leon Hopper, Joan Montagne, and other ministers—including me—are supposedly up to. And to consider the standards (Isaiah, Theodore Parker, Olympia Brown) by which our craft is—and always should be—measured.

Old timers say one should preach on ministry at least twice a year. As your Developmental Minister, I’m trying to foster a conversation that asks many questions, none less central than “what is ministry?” So I will preach on that question repeatedly. But I must tell you at the start, I always find writing and delivering such sermons incredibly difficult, mostly because ministry, as I understand it, is an almost impossible job.
• 2nd oldest profession;
• Rabbi Jerome Malino: “If you’re not almost losing your job, Steve, then you’re not doing it.”
This often leads to problems…
• Young seminary graduate: preached his first sermon on “Following the Teachings of Jesus.” And then his 2nd, 3rd, and 4th sermons. Until….
• Theodore Parker preached on abolition something like 75 times in a row.
• William Ellery Channing’s anti-slavery sermons irritated his largest contributors, many of whom made their fortunes in the shipping and textile industries.

The problem: There are several implicit contradictions woven right into the fabric of ministry. Success in the ministry, it seems to me, is the art and practice of turning these contradictions into creative contrasts.
• It’s like the “+” and “—” of electricity;
• Teamwork and competition within a company;
• Or the sometimes lead/sometimes follow involved in marriages and other significant relationships. The art is turning it into a dance—creative contrast—instead of a brawl.

Well, how does one do this? How to avoid the pitfalls and turn the interactive relationship we call parish ministry into a dance? The first step, it seems to me, is to recognize and identify some of the implicit contradictions; whereby we’re less likely to be trapped by them unconsciously.

* * *

The first potential contradiction grows out of the various roles ministers are asked to assume. Get clear on what you’re looking for, and then express it—to me, to my successor, but also to yourselves. Do you want me, do you want your next settled minister, to be a prophet, a scholar, a comforter, a friend, a toastmaster, an administrator, a PR man, a hipster, or an Old Salt? Probably—if you’re like just about every other church—you want all of these things. Well, good luck! Since that’s impossible, just be attentive to when your minister is wearing which hat. And talk to him or her—talk to me—about which hat you want the minister to wear today.

Take, as just one example, the prophet role…. Churches say they want to be challenged; to be inspired and motivated to new heights, new levels of social action and personal growth…. But the truth is that most of the time we don’t want to be challenged all that much. We want to be patted on the back. We want the minister’s spiritual blessing on our all-too-conventional lifestyles and social complacency. We want to be affirmed and supported in our social and psychological ruts.

That’s all right, but…. Many of us tend to think in terms of the ‘60s civil rights and anti-war movements and to forget that, by and large, the church, along with the University, is a great supporter
—a bulwark, really—
a foundation
of the status quo. And the Unitarian Universalist church is not that much of an exception. Even in the ‘60s most churches were conservative and most Unitarian Universalist churches were fairly staid.

Churches—even UU churches—are essentially conservative organizations. In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s when A. Powell Davies of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, DC was preaching to four members of the Supreme Court every Sunday he was not preaching revolution. And ministers—or professors—that do (like Jesus or Socrates) tend to get in hot water, to say the least.

Consider: many of the denominational heroes we celebrate today had, when they were working, one heck of a time.
• Ralph Waldo Emerson resigned from the ministry under pressure;
• Olympia Brown was forced out of her pulpit in Bridgeport, Connecticut; and
• Theodore Parker was shunned for years by nearly all of his colleagues.

Keep in mind: religion is an irritant, not a salve. The prophetic message (whether East or West, activist or mystical; from Jeremiah Wright to Theodore Parker to Sister Simone Campbell—the “Nun on the Bus” who was the Ware Lecturer at four years ago at General Assembly) …the prophetic message puts the lie to complacency. And what’s funny about all this—a contradiction—is that at the same time religion is an irritant, the minister is called upon to be a healer and physician. To balm our weary souls and help us go forth and carry on.

“Say something spiritual,” congregants are forever asking of me. “Remind me of the grace that abounds. Give me a glimpse of infinity. But don’t run over twenty minutes!”

Almost more than members want to be challenged, they want to be touched. To be reminded of the beauty all around them; of the meaning—the deep meaning—
in our families,
in our capacity to take pride in good work
to be inspired
and fortified—to keep at it!
To “keep on keepin’ on,” as Marvin Gaye once put it, for another week.

And most of all we want to feel, for a moment, our souls.
• The rush of discovery;
• Of awe, amazement, or wonder;
• The rekindling of affection;
• And a sense of thankfulness, or gratitude.
One learns, over time, how to do these things…but it’s never easy. The key, I think, is humility. There’s a lot of beauty and wonder and meaning in the world, but one has to get off their high horse before he or she can see it. As the Unitarian Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Humility, like darkness, reveals great lights.”

And here we come upon another contradiction woven into the fabric of ministry: by helping us come back to our senses people can begin thinking that the minister herself or himself is someone special. We may be good at what we do (and a lot of us are, actually), but it’s not really how brilliant or hard working or creative the minister is; it’s about our ability to share with lay members of the church our thoughts and feelings and to hear the same from them; to be in full-hearted and open-minded dialogue.

At the core of our Unitarian Universalist tradition is the idea (the mythic idea, really) of covenant, like the Unison Affirmation you repeat every Sunday at the end of the Order of Service, where you covenant to be loving with one another, and truth seeking and of service. Covenants affirm our commitment to be in an ongoing conversation with one another, in search together for the sacred, the really real. The minister—in our tradition—is not supposed to tell congregants how to think or how to feel… but to challenge and encourage them to think and to feel.

Covenant is based on dialectic (truth-seeking) as opposed to eristics (debate). Ideally, this is what most of our congregational efforts are about: truth-seeking. Too many of our day-to-day conversations are, unfortunately, eristic; we know when we’re in an eristic conversation whenever we find ourselves framing an answer while our interlocutor is still talking. Dialectic, on the other hand (as Guest Preacher Joseph Bednarik reminded us last week), happens—a la Socrates—whenever we admit to our uncertainty… and go searching together.

Unitarian Universalism can sometimes be like my 10th grade biology class. Whenever one of us asked Mr. Chadbourn a question, instead of simply answering he’d ask: “How would you devise an experiment to figure that out?” His method could be wearisome, but he taught us how to think…and how to learn. AS Mr. Bednarik also reminded us last Sunday, unlike orthodox congregations, at UU churches: “Here all your answers are questioned.”

Well, okay then; so there are no “answers.” Still, one should be able to expect—even if the world itself is never-ceasing open-ended flux—at least we can expect our minister to be solid and dependable. Somebody we can count on, always knowing where she or he stands.

And yet here it is where we come upon another contradiction, perhaps the most difficult one to get beyond, i.e., to transcend and turn from a contradiction into a creative contrast. For if the world (as modern physicists tell us) is in constantly transforming open-ended flux, then we, too—if we are to be truly integral and whole in the world—must recognize ourselves as being in flux, too. And yet the world of social institutions and organizations finds this almost impossible to accept. The open, changing person is threatening. We want to know what we can expect from our leaders, not always to have to be responding to something new.

It was when Jesus didn’t play to the expectations of his followers that they allowed him to be killed. And in just the same way, political and academic mavericks tend to be platooned or marginalized. While dependable—i.e., predictable people (the kind who take a position and don’t change it for forty years)—go far. Like Jesse Helms or B.F.Skinner, they develop a whole political faction or philosophical school behind them.

The rub, the contradiction, is that this whole “dependably consistent” thing is essentially ego, or mask—which is precisely the problem. To grow—spiritually and psychologically, and together as a community—we have to learn how, and become open enough to, take off our masks. And yet, too often, the whole religious enterprise is set up to keep our masks on.

I often lament that long-time church members will suddenly go through a crisis—
a divorce,
loss of a job,
a disabling or disfiguring illness—
And, when they most need a loving and non-judgmental support community, stop coming to church out of embarrassment, or shame. At the very time they’re most in need!

But if members have difficulty taking off their masks, how more threatening it is for the minister! How much easier it is to stay hidden behind the pulpit,


formally garbed in a clerical robe.


Make no mistake: all ministers—your next minister included—are only human. We can only lead with our strengths and our weaknesses.

Our faith, Unitarian Universalism—is centered upon two great heresies. First, the Unitarian heresy: that ALL is ONE. Not three, but ONE, wherein everything is internally connected. And second (Universalism): that we’re ALL SAVED the way we are. The gig is up! Just accept it. Accept yourself. Accept each other, with all our foibles. Thus we can be open and honest with each other. We don’t have to wear masks at all.

This is nothing to be embarrassed or afraid of; indeed, it’s our greatest asset, our profoundest truth. Here, in this sanctuary, this place of art and music and self-discovery, and foremost of search….
Here among friends, or soon-to-be friends,
here we can come off our high horses,
take off our masks,
offer one another our hands, and hearts,
and enter into the dialectic of beloved community.

For in reality, true ministry is a relationship—a relationship between an open, loving congregation and a learning, growing, learning-to-love pastor. A vital ministry emerges between a congregation and its minister. Or doesn’t.

I’ve been in the professional ministry for thirty-five years come December. I’ve come to know a lot of ministers. Across the board, whatever their style, their theology, their gender or orientation, we Unitarian Universalists have a remarkably talented and able group of women and men out there in our ministry. Some of my colleagues have truly great capacities—and though I haven’t known any of them, I’d be inclined to include your former ministers Barbara Wells, Peter Luton and the rest in their number—committed and loving human beings doing their best. But none of us is perfect. Or without flaw. Certainly I am not. Any more than anyone. So please, don’t look to me for perfection. Look to me for a relationship.

A relationship nurtured by mutual humility and openness to change. And by openness to each other’s weaknesses, as well as our strengths. So that we can grow—together—in the art and practice of ministry.

This is my prayer.

Amen. Shalom. Namaste.