ON THE CURE OF SOULS A Meditation on the Liberal Ministry

A Meditation on the Liberal Ministry

10 November 2013

Delivered at the Installation of
The Reverend Meredith Garmon
As the 6th Minister of the
Community Unitarian Church at White Plains, New York

The Reverend James Ishmael Ford
Senior Minister
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island


The pastor
Of grief and dreams
Guides his flock towards
The next field
With all his care

Denise Levertov from A Cure of Souls

Among the many delights in attending seminary all those many years ago was how my school was part of a consortium called the Graduate Theological Union. Not only did this allow access to scholars of various religious traditions, but if we were lucky we also made friends across those traditions. And, indeed, among Jan’s and my friends, were some Episcopalians. I vividly recall one couple telling us about the happenings at their parish. They belonged to a particularly snooty church up in the Oakland/Berkeley hills. Looking at their building I’m pretty sure the congregation purchased an old English country parish church, dismantled it, shipped it across the ocean and then had it restored stone by stone.

Anyway, their minister left and one of their members mentioned how while on holiday she had attended a service in the south of England and thought the priest there a particularly eloquent preacher. It probably didn’t hurt that he had a classic Oxbridge accent and an uncle who was a baron or a duke or some such thing. After a couple of phone interviews, they hired him. A few months later he was ensconced in the rectory, that’s Episcopalian for parsonage, and scheduled to preach his first service.

Our friends then went on to discuss the topic of that sermon. He decided, they told us, to preach on the theme of the four “p’s” of ministry. Hearing this I observed how our friends miscounted. The number is three: priest, prophet and pastor. But I was wrong. First, they counted off the three I knew. They paused. We waited. Then in a single voice they both said, “And prince.”

At a hastily called meeting the congregation voted that very week to sever the relationship with their new prince. In fact it took them a year and a lot of money to actually get rid of him. We Unitarian Universalists have a rather more attentive ministerial search process, and so in general know a great deal more about our potential ministers before offering them our pulpits than did this particular Episcopal congregation. Nonetheless, at some point along the way, you might want to inquire of Meredith what he thinks about that royal aspect of ministry.

To be fair, I can see how both minister and congregation might get confused about the job description. It is interesting how we, even in our most liberal of denominations, relate to our ordained and called ministers. Frankly, it is not always healthy. I know how unsettling it was at the first church I served to discover I instantly had best friends I’d never earned. And, there is a corollary. I also discovered worst enemies, which I had not yet earned.

Small wonder in some religious traditions ordination is believed to be a permanent mark on the soul. There is something powerful about the relationship between a minister and a congregation that I believe we can profitably reflect upon, and today we will. After all, it isn’t just about what you’re calling Meredith to do; it is about what we all do within this our chosen faith which rests so firmly upon covenants of relationship.

In a very true sense we are all of us called to minister to each other, and to this great, lovely, and broken world that is our home. Let me repeat: in truth out of our covenant of presence to each other and to the world, we are all of us called into ministry, into service. In that most important sense we are all ministers.

At the same time the tasks of the called minister are a little different than most of the other ministries of our community. And this can be a challenge to the congregation. We need to let what we designate our called ministry, or less gracefully, our professional ministry to find its shape and to grow. When we do, we move from a gathering of the like-minded into becoming a spiritual community, a community of healing and of hope. Here I find myself thinking of Denise Levertov’s poem, “Cure of Souls,” part of which I’ve taken as my text for this afternoon’s meditation. “The pastor/Of grief and dreams/Guides his flock towards/The next field/With all his care.” The pastor/Of grief and dreams/Guides her flock towards/The next field/With all her care.

Yes, I know the image of shepherd and flock is a little problematic among us. I honestly doubt there are many sheep in this sanctuary, although I bet there may be a goat or two. I’m sure everyone in this room has heard how the pastoral work of a UU minister is in fact less like herding sheep and vastly more like herding cats. But let’s not get tangled and instead let the poetry sing its deeper meanings into our hearts.

Ministers must address the needs of their congregations. In particular, I suggest they need to provide those functions implied in the titles priest, prophet and pastor. For us priest may be the least recognizable of the functions, but it has importance. Our ministers need to have a sense of spiritual community and care deeply for our various rites of passage, how we attend to new life, how we celebrate our weddings and unions, and how we mourn. And each of these has a liturgical place, its own moment in the rhythms of our common life, which we who serve need to understand within our bones. At the center of this is the Sunday worship service. Here our ministers need to never be satisfied with the details of this hour, and most of all with our preaching. So important is this that preacher perhaps deserves its own “p.”

Within the conventional count the next is prophet. Our ministers need to understand what prophetic means. I recall from a list serve for ministers a few years back how a young colleague fretted over what he saw as a necessary prophetic proclamation to the people he served. Finally, he reported back that he delivered that sermon and received a standing ovation from the congregation. An older colleague responded how if it were truly a prophetic sermon, no one would have clapped. As they say a rabbi not in danger of being fired is no rabbi. I certainly am not suggesting every sermon should be castigating or even cajoling us. But, we do need to be called to our better angels, as individuals and as a community. This calling ourselves to the work of justice and mercy is a crucial task of the ministry.

Also our minister needs to be a pastor. Our minister needs to care deeply and to be willing to be present for individuals and the community at large. Here I think of what it means to be a rabbi, a term particularly apt, I believe, for liberal ministers to understand. A rabbi is a teacher and sometimes a judge. We can learn much from observing the rabbinic traditions. The minister as rabbi would be a learned cleric, who has a deep understanding of the human condition as well as our traditions, and can give guidance as needed, even on occasion making a judgment. This making a judgment can be very hard, and should be fairly rare, but when called for, it must be offered. It’s very much a part of the job.

So, these are the givens of our calling, those who attempt the ordained ministry. I do hope you notice the list is in fact impossible to live up to. You are calling Meredith to a job that can’t be done. Or, at least, no one lives up to the full job description. For Meredith to even begin to succeed in this task you all need to be willing and he needs to be willing, to find that place, that ground from which all ministries arise. Here those words of vulnerability and willingness to go ever deeper, to be wrong, and to be corrected, to fall and to get up, to seek that which is worth finding and to win it describes the way this job, this calling, can succeed.

And one more thing. We need to allow that larger vision that the ministry serves to emerge. The ancient text is right, without vision the people perish. Here I find the meaning of Denise Levertov’s poem which points to that larger vision, that possibility, that dream at the heart of our gathering together. Here’s the main task. The called and settled minister has a particular obligation to discern the nature of the journey we share. This is complicated because we are each of us on our own particular and unique journeys while at the same time by coming together into a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we’ve also committed to make a very important part of that journey together.

Our most important task as called ministers, settled among particular congregations, empowered by the community itself, is casting the vision of how that larger which we serve can manifest, articulating where the next field might be, and then helping to get us all there. This is the central task to which you are calling Meredith. Meredith, this is the central task to which this community is calling you. You know our deep message of the precious individual and our complete interdependence, you know the mystery of I and we. If you seek the vision that leads to for this community, if you articulate it rightly, then blessings will flow upon this congregation like spring rains, bringing forth that which is good and beautiful.

And, of course, this is impossible. This is the most impossible of all the impossible tasks of ministry. But it is also a proof of grace in this world, because it happens.

This, my friends, I suggest, is ministry.

May it flourish, and flourish here for many years to come.


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