Saturday, June 04, 2011


A young man has asked me for advice about Meadville/Lombard.  Actually, he is asking about ministry in general and whether and how he could fit into it.  Presently he’s a high school English teacher, bored out of his mind, teaching to tests, thinking there must be more to life.  He’s right, of course.  He sent me a TED vid url:   It’s a nice one, especially at the end.  In part it prompts these thoughts.

I think one of the problems about ministry is how to “locate” it.  This young man asked me about what he has to do to qualify for ordination so he can be hired for a church.  That’s the way it works for teachers.  But in the UU tradition, it is the congregation that ordains.  They are saying,  “We value you and accept you as our leader, therefore we ordain you.”  Of course, that’s gotten corrupted and faded like everything else and a lot of congregations just rubber stamp the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee which has a set of minimal requirements.

One of the most useful of those requirements is not a class or set of classes or list of books to read.  It is Clinical Pastoral Education, which is a system that takes ministerial candidates into a hospital or other high stress situation (prison, factory) -- no one has done a CPE in combat so far as I know, but CPE is combat in itself -- and exposes them to reality to find out what they are made of.  Regardless of dogmatic conviction, the person goes to others, sits by their beds, and opens up to their needs and beliefs, responding to them in some way that helps them to heal, to die, to accept a new infant, to accept the loss of legs or eyes, whatever.  All the miserable and challenging things that happen to humans.

This is the heart of ministry.  Not supernatural formulas so that some other world acts through you.  Not representation of a denomination, no matter how powerful and distinguished.  Not the tradition of an admired seminary.  Just the human capacity for being truly heart-to-heart with someone else, no matter what it costs you.

I’d be willing to bet that only ten percent of all legitimately identified ministers of all kinds actually do this -- actually and truly ARE ministers.  The rest go through the motions, enjoy the office and robes, and feel free to pretend as the congregation wishes -- with a little sneaking around on the side.  Like politics.

I would also bet that ten percent of human beings at large, undesignated and unqualified, are capable of and willing to embrace other humans intimately and feel what they feel.  The nice thing about seminary education is that it gives you a lot of good words to say and gestures to make, a vocabulary.  CPE throws you right up hard against life and death.

If a person wants to be a minister or is a natural minister, no institution is necessary.  I don’t mean a person SHOULD be a minister without a denominational identity or a congregational salary and office, but that it is NOT necessary.  One can minister as a nurse, a teacher, a truck driver, a janitor, and so on. (I will say cynically that if a person tries to minister as a doctor or lawyer or banker, he or she will go broke in a hurry.)  One can minister TO or IN SPITE OF an institution like a school, a stand-and-fight strategy, change-making.

Or if you have real “balls” as we genderly render courage, you can start a new institution or invent a new role or just be yourself in the world with no title at all.  Eating could get to be a problem.  You might need sponsors.  You might need to learn how to raise funds.  (That’s a big part of what the minister in a church does.)

This construction of the ministerial role has nothing to do with privilege or “chosenness” or being the “beloved leader.”  It’s about obligation and risk.  I learned this from Blackfeet.  When whites come in with their everlasting Victorian class convictions, they see “chiefs” as the most important people, the people everyone must obey.  Big male warriors with impressive regalia.  But the key person, the one who has the fate of the entire tribe on their backs, is the little bent-over ancient woman who has stayed pure of heart and whose choices control the fate of all the people.  The key instrument is not the war spear but the digging stick.

You won’t believe this, of course.  Doesn’t matter.  It just “is.”

If you contact me, you can expect to be written about, one way or another, unless you ask me not to.  I’m not unsympathetic to this young man, but his problem looks to me like a life that’s too easy:  nice big historic home church that can afford THREE ministers; good job, well paid; lovely wife, gainfully employed; and so on.  He’s not in Pakistan carrying a gun.  He’s not in surgery with a life depending on him.  He doesn’t even have to write his own curriculum.  Just keep up the lock step.  But he has a good mind and, I presume, an itchy heart. 

When I was in the ministry, I used to do a little workshop about “being where you are.”  I never perfected it; no one thought much of it.  A man came to my talk and said he was baffled how to participate in this discussion about the meaning of place, because he lived in a house in a development that was “no place.”  He said there was nothing under his house.  Nothing had ever happened there.  But the problem was not in the place -- it was in his relationship to it.  He wasn’t digging deep enough.

So this young man is wondering which seminary to attend, how to get the best credentials.  And I’m wondering how to throw him end-over-end into where he is right now.  Volunteer someplace?  Get deeper into the lives of his students?  Teach English to prison inmates?  Guard Planned Parenthood from attackers?  Ridealongs with cops?  Because I don’t think the world needs one more civilized, handsome, charming institutional minister.  I think the world needs more people holding digging sticks.

1 comment:

Art Durkee said...

One of my closest friends is one of these ministers you describe here. He's the one who keeps the digging stick, till someone in heart-need comes to his hearthside and needs to talk through their problems. Mostly he just listens, but you really feel HEARD, unlike most of the time.

My met through the Radical Faeries, which I have to say among gay subcultures AND in contrast to mainstream non-gay culture contains a much higher percentage than average of the sort of non-ordained (and ordained) ministers of the type you're talking about here.

This is the best description I've ever read of what it means to really be a minister. You really nail it. You also get into the territory of soul-healing, as opposed to medical curing. I remember the great Lakota shaman Frank Fools Crow, a man who I have seen at times as a personal mentor even though we never met, once said when someone came to him with cancer: "I can heal you, but I may not be able to cure you." Meaning the life could be healed, the soul could be ministered to, but the cancer might not be taken away. That important distinction between "healing" and "curing" has stayed with me every since.