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Rev. Joe’s Sermon from “After Running Through the Thistles… A Service About Ministry” February 11, 2024

(You can view and listen to the entire worship service here.)

I rarely build a sermon on a single text. I enjoy the interplay of multiple authors, artists, points of view as they dance together, their meanings changing shape in conversation with each other. In a way, I guess I employ process theology, the creation of sermons, and I enjoy that. But today, I’ve rooted my sermon in one singular text.

Among Unitarian Universalist ministers, we have this thing called the Berry Street Lecture. The Reverend William L. Channing, minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston, invited all to meet in the vestry of his church, whose entrance was on Berry Street, on May 30, 1820. This was the height of the Unitarian controversy, by the way, when all the churches down the seaboard were splitting Unitarian and Congregational. At the meeting, Channing delivered a prepared address. He urged upon his colleagues a bond of union among liberal Christian ministers within which they might meet to exchange practical ideas for strengthening their ministries. Meeting again on the evening of May 31st, 1820, the ministers adopted a few simple rules for ensuring free and broad discussion in the annual conference. In other words, they made a committee, big surprise.

Also, this means that each year they asked one or two of their number to come with prepared remarks and essay. Thus initiated the Berry Street Conference, which has convened every year, save one during World War II, since 1820. Thus, it is the Berry Street essay making it the oldest lecture series in North American continent. As from its beginning, Its purpose is to contribute to the practical strength of liberal ministries. The convening of the Berry Street Conference for the delivery and the hearing of the Berry Street essay has for many years now been the last event in the annual meeting and gathering of the Ministers Association of Unitarian Universalism. We always get there a couple of days before everyone else for GA. We have our time together with the Berry Street and you all show up. which is why we always look tired at GA because you’ve already been there for three days.

Today, neither the Federal Street Church nor Berry Street itself exists. Berry Street got paved over and the church moved to Arlington Street, the big church on the green. But Channing and his lecture series are seminal to the expression of Unitarian and later Unitarian Universalist ministry. In the year 2000, the 180th gathering of the Berry Street Conference, the Reverend Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed delivered the lecture, and the lecture was called, After Running Through the Thistles, the Hard Part Begins. And Jody just quoted from that. Every seminary student in the past almost quarter century is required to read this essay as part of our preparation for ordination. When I first read the essay, I sent a copy to my parents.

I didn’t grow up in a religious household, not a complaint by my parents to be clear, simply a fact, but church life was not a native part of my growing up. There had been a few flirtations with religion, but nothing really stuck for very long. And I wanted my parents and I to have a common understanding of the seriousness of what I was preparing to do. But really, at the time, I needed someone else’s language to help this conversation along because I really hadn’t grokked what a life of ministry was really going to be about. In Mark’s essay, he uses six sentences and explores each of them. The sentences are, you will love your parishioners with all your heart, but never befriend them. You will pour out your lifeblood for the community, but never settle there. You shall die to the congregation so that their ministry might live. And later, as he addresses the difficulty of living the first three sentences, he explores these three. Why, he asks, do we hang on after we leave? First, despite having made religious community in the center of our lives, we live isolated lives. Second, we are confused about the power vested in the ministerial role. And third, having become attached to the congregations we serve, We seek to avoid the pain of letting go.

In these six sentences, at least for me and my purposes today, live the tension of my time here as your minister. I serve you as an interim minister, a minister who comes with an expectation that I will not be here long term, that my job here is to help you transition from one ministry to another. And yet I’m still your minister. I become invested in the lives of the people here. I come to love the people I serve. I pour out my lifeblood, my sweat and tears, my toil, and all the while I know I will never settle here and that someday I will have to say goodbye. But these truths are for all ministers. This was true for James Allen, John Whaley, Cotton Brown, Robert Rogerson, Nathaniel Potter, Joseph Jackson, John Pierce, Frederick Knapp, Frederick Hedge, Howard Brown, William Lyon, Abbott Peterson, Carl Bildorf, Michael Boardman, Thomas Michelson, David Johnson, Judith Downing, Maria, Martha Kneback, Jim Shelburne, Maria Christina Bergosa, Rebecca Bryan, and Lisa Perry Wood. It is also true for me.

23 ministers have served this church, from James Allen to me, each of us with our own strengths and deficits. Of all 23 of us, six have served for 20 years or longer, and Carl Biddulph, who left in 1975, was the last of them. If you remove the tenure of your intentional interim ministers, the average length of the ministry here at First Parish is 15 years. If you remove John Pierce and his predecessor Joseph Jackson from the matrix, the average is 10 years. The two of them stayed 52 and 30 some years in order. Um, that was before the civil war folks. It was a long time ago. And each of us, no matter the time served have had to, or should have struggled with these three phrases. You will love your parishioners with all your heart, but never befriend them. You will pour out your lifeblood for the community, but never settle there. You shall die to the congregation so that their ministry might live. Any minister, every minister, no matter title of it, settled, interim, community, student, assistant, senior, student, has to keep their departure in mind as we go about the business of ministry because it is better not for us, but for those we serve.

I’ll return to Reverend Dr. Morrison Reed’s essay for a few minutes. Mark writes, we do ministry knowing that someday the relationship will end. The challenge is to be there despite this, for unless we can fully be there in authentic relationship with the members, we can go through the motions of ministry, but we can’t really minister. We can’t hold back because the power is in our relatedness to one another, and yet we must hold back or risk conflating the professional with the personal. To minister is to wrestle with this dilemma. I’ve created my own version of this paragraph. I say something like the following. We are not friends. I’m your minister. The affection between us is real, but it is not equal. Whenever we are together, I am the minister. I have professional obligations and boundaries to maintain. Mark says it like this. The relationship of a minister and a parishioner has the qualities of friendship. But no matter how warm and deep, authentic and reciprocal the relationship is, it is not a sustainable friendship. Why? Because it is built on the unavoidable imbalance. The minister is always more responsible for the relationship. He goes further. When necessary, we must be prepared to forsake the role of friend for that of minister and ready to choose the well-being of the community over the needs of a friend. We are not as free to share all aspects of our lives and ourselves, nor can we make friends with whom we please, for that would create two classes of parishioners, the chosen and the not. Finally, when our ministers come to an end, so must the relationships, lest we take up space the next ministry needs if it is to take root.

Our time of leave-taking, yours and mine, is not now. Our time of living into this relationship is now. This is our time to explore what each of us has to teach the other, to laugh together, to cry, to sing, sometimes to dance, but maybe not so likely, but to be in community. During this time, our time together, you, the congregation, are trying to do some very difficult things. or at least they should be difficult. If they are not, you’re not doing the kind of work you need to do to live into the best of your future. You have to grieve not just the loss of the potential of what Reverend Lisa’s ministry might have been here, but the way that you treated each other during her time with you. You have to ask yourselves when you broke covenant with each other, when you acted from a place that was more of self-interest and pain than thinking about the health of the whole. Did you, might you have acted in ways whose origin were from your own unhealed places? Might it have been because to blame someone else is easier than doing your own spiritual work? Side note, yes. I’m not saying what happened here before I got here, I wasn’t here, I don’t know. but I know people and I know me.

I will quote a woman with whom I worked in Cleveland. Her name is Shirley Nelson. And when I met Shirley in 2014, she was the church secretary. In the time between then and now, she’s become the Reverend Shirley Nelson, frankly, a font of wisdom. Shirley taught me early on in our working relationship the following phrase, people do people things, Reverend Joe. I’m a people, you are a people. We do people things, which means we don’t always act right. Sometimes we react instead of respond. Sometimes we say things or do things that are hurtful to others. And sometimes we are the recipient of that hurt. But I know that Reverend Joy Nelson is right when she says, people do people things. Hear the lack of judgment in her statement. Hear the invitation to grace in her teaching. Hear the wisdom and forgiveness there. As you wrestle with each other about what your next ministry might be like, remember that whether this person is a settled minister, a contract minister, a developmental minister, another interim minister, all of them all of us will eventually leave. Only the congregation is eternal, not even the individuals who compose it.

For a moment, think about the folks who were here when you first arrived who are not here now. And yet the church is still here because the people are the church and new ones will come and you’ll embrace them, and they’ll share with you for as long as you walk together, like it’s been happening here since 1717.

Nothing in life is permanent, no matter how comforting permanence might feel. All we can do is come together, our love and imperfections fully present, do our best to be the best version of ourselves we can be when we have the energy for it, Hope for the grace when we fall short of our highest aspirations, apologize when we realize we were wrong, and muster up as much grace for each other as we are capable of. And then, when it comes time to part, to part as well as we can. May love guide our way. Amen.