Service as a minister
I really do not find a lot of common ground with my UU traditions professor. Lately I’m starting to wonder why we’re assigned readings about the UU tradition but asked questions that have more of a bearing in the private and abstract.
This is the first: Where do you derive your authority to be a minister? God? Tradition? Congregation? Relationships? Self? What gives you the right/authority to preach?
This is one of the hardest questions to answer for me as a Unitarian Universalist coming from the faith source of an Earth-based tradition, specifically the path of a modern Druid. On one hand, becoming a UU minister is not merely a means to an end; I didn’t go down this route solely to find a way to do my job as a Druid in a church or organization that was large enough to potentially employ me. I spent a year between my first moment of vocation and my second with what became my home UU congregation in Rhode Island. If Unitarian Universalism had really not been where I wanted to serve those two personal calls to ministerial service, I would not be here today at ____divinity school. Conversely, I was called to service as a Druid; nobody and no spiritual force said ‘you are my UU minister.’, rather they said ‘you are my Druid.’ Figuring out what it meant to answer that call was up to me.
Only an imprecise archeological and literary record remain from the time that Celtic tribes depended on a clergy of Druids for spiritual care-giving, and some of the traditions we can confirm from the iron age and late antiquity (also known as the age of Arthur, the Dark Ages, the Early Medieval period) are simply not morally practicable today—such as human sacrifice. As a result, the Druid path of the modern era, particularly the last forty-odd years is intuitive and meditative in nature—we draw inspiration and insight from meditative contemplation. Some of us don’t combine that discernment with any evidence (of the non-sacrificing variety!) from the original Druid period in archeology or folklore. As it happens, I do; I and many other Druids adapt our spiritual practice through a combination of primary source material, meditation and yes, on occasion we develop (or make up) a new practice. There seems to be a similar pattern of spiritual formation in the large-scale modern Druid groups—many of whom hold the status of formally recognized religious organizations in countries like the United Kingdom.
While this may seem like a bit of a digression, Druids are not such a numerous religious sect in 2014 that I can expect people to be widely familiar with how I operate. I hope that this brief outline can demonstrate that we are an earth based tradition that does not have a codified, linear, written theology or spiritual practice. Now of course, the UUA has got all these things, and I’m pursuing ministry as a Unitarian Universalist. I was not however, called in the context that many of my fellow seminarians were or even the same that many of our authors from the week’s readings were. I was not called in a Christian, Judeo-Christian or (in the case of what I consider a refreshing number today) Humanist context.
None of this is a prelude to claiming that I derive my call to ministry or any authority I may someday wield as a minister from within myself. I didn’t. It is also not an attempt to present my ministry or path as a druid as unique or solitary. I am far from being the only one called this way.
I am a servant. And like any servant (cue the Downton Abbey music in five…), let’s say, Anna Bates as created by Julian Fellowes, I have my home base of operations—in her case, Downton Abbey, in mine, this continent. I started out doing one type of spiritual service –let’s continue the whimsy and say I was the under-keeper of the duck and fish ponds and I may end my career in a different wing of the house—I hope—a church congregation. This continent has many servants that perform large varieties of caretaking and spiritual stewardship. Our First Nations, Native Americans, don’t need a druid or a servant whose family hailed once from County Meath or the Jewish communities of Prussia. That needs to be said. But other people live on this continent now, and while it would not be appropriate for us to pursue First Nations’ spiritual practice (if we do not belong to one of those Nations or have another legitimate connection to one) we’re still in need of our own. I am perfectly content—even joyful—to be a servant of this continent. And I suspect I have more fun than Anna Bates. (Even though she gets to have Mr. Bates as a husband between murder accusations…)But where does my authority to preach or minister come in?
I believe that a good minister is a spiritual caretaker for a congregation or a group. They maintain the congregation’s covenant of worship, they live and encourage their community to live the principles of their faith—in our case, of course, seven—and they serve as spiritual counselor. They can do this one on one, or, through preaching each week, they can seek to help their congregation gather and focus in on one particular idea, or principle or spiritual issue through the focused lens of a sermon and group prayer. I do agree with all of our readings where the authors stressed that preaching is not supposed to be easy. This is not a weekly broadcast of a talk-show; we are not up in those pulpits to be entertaining or to say only comforting and placid words. (Given how many awful preachers go on from coast to coast in every religious sect in existence I hope nobody thinks of it as entertainment). I think it is easier for some of us in some respects because we may have more training or aptitude for public speaking, we may be better storytellers and we may be able to read our listeners enough to engage them, and even engage them through occasional laughter without losing the force of our message.
Still not doing a great job with where my authority comes from. I can say “I am here because my Gods told me to do this” and that would be so. I can say “some of my authority comes from knowledge and experience and I have that knowledge and experience of service to land and people because I answered a call and it took me places that people in a congregation who are lawyers or doctors or bakers don’t really end up going when they learned how to do their jobs.”–and while that would be true I think that may be more part of my identity as a spiritual resource than authority. I can say my authority would come from my willingness to do the job of ministry that others frequently are not, except I believe it would be too easy to fall in to ideas about guilt or obligation or misplaced authority if I did that.
Any minister who has been ordained, let alone any who have served a congregation for a long time holds authority over me, personally because they are my elder and my superior in rank. That does not render them infallible; sometimes it even fails to render a senior minister likeable or one that I could respect! But since this is not added to my personal authority—being where I am in my process—I add it only because I have not successfully answered this question. I would submit, however, that those of us aspiring ministers who may struggle to do so, have as much to offer as those who are certain of the nature of their authority.
Aside from what I submitted above I think it worth mentioning what my field education supervisor–also a minister had to say about questions like this “nobody is ever going to ask you that.”