The Seven Year Itch: Reflections on a "Sabbatical" Year in the Ministry

February 8, 2004
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

from Rainer Maria Rilke "Letters to a Young Poet"
Translated by Stephen Mitchell
The famous German poet Rainer Maria Rilke was in his late 20's when he received a letter from 19- year old admirer and aspiring poet named Franz Kappus. Thus began a famous correspondence that became "Letters to a Young Poet," a collection beloved by people everywhere who have struggled with the question of what to be, and what to become. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of the night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.

. . . A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can't give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you must create.

. . . You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

First, an explanation. I see that I submitted a typo to Karen in my sermon title, and where I meant to say "Reflections On a Sabbatical Year in Ministry," I wrote "Reflections On Sabbatical in Ministry." Which makes it sound as though I am preparing to take a sabbatical, which I am not! But the Hebrew Scriptures gives us a wonderful tradition in the book of Exodus, where the seventh year is one of rest and renewal for the land. In seven-times-seven years, or the Jubilee year, slaves are set free, debts are forgiven, and the land is again allowed to rest from tilling and planting. My jubilee year in ministry would be in 2047 ( I hope to be retired by then, and to have been freed from my debt to Harvard Divinity School). But this is my first "sabbath" year in ministry, and I thought that it would be wise to spend some of it looking out over my inner landscape in appreciation and gentleness.

Seven years ago this morning I was preparing to go before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association. "Each member congregation of our association has the exclusive right to call and ordain its own minister or ministers, but the Association has the exclusive right to admit ministers to ministerial fellowship within the Association" (from the Bylaws of the UUA). It's a checks and balances system. You can be ordained right off the street by the local UU church but if you want legitimacy within the larger movement, and credentials, you've got to see the Fellowship Committee.

By the time the MFC gets to see you, they want to see a minister. You're supposed to have that elusive thing called "ministerial presence" -- and trying to figure out how to get presence, and whether or not you have "it" is one of the major causes of anxiety among seminarians.

On a more practical level, the MFC also wants to know that you are close to completing your three-year Master of Divinity degree, and that you have achieved competence in the fields of theology, Hebrew and Christian Scripture, church history, world religions, preaching, pastoral care and counseling, administration, Unitarian Universalist polity and religious education, professional ethics and social ethics. They want to know you've completed a few semesters of supervised field study and at least one ten-week intensive unit in Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE.

Missing from that list of competencies, and I think glaringly so, are courses in how to work with volunteers, nurturing effective church committees, financial stewardship (including how to read church budgets), leadership development in the parish, spiritual development for ministers, and time management. Oh well. It is after all only a three year degree (although many people take four).

By the time you see the MFC you will have had a psychiatric evaluation (which is as much fun as it sounds), a career counseling session, and have completed an internship -- either a full time 9-month internship or a part time internship over two years -- in a congregation (or other appropriate setting if you're planning not to serve in the parish), where you were evaluated by a supervising minister and an internship committee of laypeople. You will have written essays about your call to ministry and you will have prepared a homily that is no longer than five minutes, that you will preach before the Committee the moment you step through the door. They have a timer, and if you go over five minutes you will be cut off. So you're just a little nervous.

The Ministerial Fellowship Committee will have had a packet of yours containing proof of your fitness to the Unitarian Universalist ministry that they will have been reading carefully for two or three weeks. Mine was 30 pages long, with letters of recommendation and paperwork proving my competencies in the areas I mentioned above, plus my assurance that I had completed enough selections from the extensive reading list. The Committee then interviews you for an hour or so, asking questions that may give you a chance to shine, or that may reveal your weaknesses and areas of growth. They might try to rattle you if they think you have anger or authority issues. They may shoot history questions at you rapid fire, as the Reverend Eugene Navias did at me, or quiz you on the finer points of UU democratic process.

When the committee is through seeing (grilling) you, they ask you to leave and go bite your nails in the foyer (where there are chaplains waiting, and maybe some of your friends), and then spend time in discernment, after which they will call you back in the room and confer upon you a 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. Receiving a one is a full thumbs-up: welcome into fellowship, if a congregation wants to ordain you, we're in full favor. A two and a three indicate there's more work to be done (and in the case of a three, the Committee probably wants to see you again). A four is a kind of cordial, "We're far from persuaded that you're ministerial material but if you feel very, very strongly that you'd like us to reconsider, we might be convinced to let you come before us in a year or so." A five rating is the committee's way of saying, "What were you thinking?"

Fives are rare but they do happen, and when they happen they send waves of fear among the community of aspirants to our ministry.

Let me pause for a moment while you all think a bit about what your professional lives would be like if you had been required to go through this kind of process (I realize, of course, that many of you have indeed gone through similar processes). Would it have sharpened your sense of clarity about what you do, and would you have enjoyed or dreaded it? How about those vocational choices that are not professional but are personal, such as marriage, or parenting? If you had been required to submit a 30-page dossier of your reasons and preparation for parenting? Puts it into kind of sharp focus, doesn't it?

The hardest question that I remember being put to me by the Committee went something like this: "Vicki, we see from your resume that you have a long history in the theatre as an actress. How can we be sure that ministry isn't just another role you've decided you'd like to play?" I thought it was an entirely appropriate question and I responded by saying something like, "This must be a real calling, because if I was choosing an actor for this role in a show I would most certainly not cast myself in it." Which was true.

Up until I became a minister myself, I regarded clergy as, not exactly exotic, but certainly strange and set apart. Holier-than-thou; wouldn't you have to be? I couldn't see myself in the position at all: I was too far from wise, far from patient, far from holy, even far from faithful, and far from self-sacrificing enough to serve in that capacity in any community and certainly not in a parish! Churches had always been places of such disappointment and hurt for me, you see. John Buehrens said once that you should not become a minister unless you absolutely have to. It is the same advice Rainer Maria Rilke gives the aspiring poet. When I got it into my head and heart that I was being drawn to this life I felt a sense that it was beyond my control; a fact which was extremely uncomfortable because I had had my life planned and ministry was definitely not part of that plan. I have learned – am learning – that the big lesson for me in this lifetime is that I am, in fact, not in control and things work out much better for me when I accept that.

There is so much to tell you about what it has been like to live among our congregations and in the world as a "Rev." I could talk about it for far longer than you'd ever want me to. So I thought I would try to focus on the two central aspects of ministry that kept coming up when I began taking notes for this sermon about six months ago. It surprised me very much that these two things kept rising to the top of my list, believe me. They may surprise you too.

What's your guess? Two central aspects of ministry. Love and faith? Community and learning? Spirituality and humor?

No. Fear… and Death.

In all honesty, those are the two most notable aspects of ministry as I have lived it thus far. There you have it.

When I reflect over the past seven years of my life -- the happiest, most fulfilling, most joyful years I have known -- I nevertheless have to acknowledge that since I became a minister, I am almost always afraid, and I almost always feel very much in the presence of death.

And yet, I am also almost always very happy.

How can you be happy and afraid at the same time? You can be, I have found, if your fear is characterized by urgency, and by what I think the Bible means when it speaks of "the fear of the Lord" -- which for me is the fear that I might not be properly awe-struck by life and obedient to its higher calling. You can be happy, fulfilled and afraid if your fear comes from a heightened sense of consciousness that life is too precious to lose a day, or even an hour, to pettiness or to delusions that you know either the mind of your neighbor or the mind of God (and those are two common mistakes for anyone who works with people, which is all of us). Ministry is a profession that will teach you faster than anything that you most certainly do not know what anyone else is thinking. And you most certainly had better not get in the habit of thinking you know the mind of God!

I remember a hospital visit where I went away totally disheartened because my person grimaced at me, and scowled, and wouldn't talk. She didn't want me there. I had done harm rather than good. I was sick about it. I learned later that she was drugged beyond coherence and never even knew I'd been there at all. Pastor, get over thyself.

Humility, too. I'm suspicious of any of my spiritual breakthroughs since the fall of 1995, when I thought I was having intense religious feelings and swooning meditations in the car on the way to my field education work at our church in Fall River. I just felt those rides were so intensely spiritual; something holy was really coming into my life! My mechanic grimly informed me during a routine maintenance check around that time that I had a cracked exhaust manifold and had been breathing dangerous levels of carbon monoxide for months. "Have you been having a lot of headaches or anything?" It's a good thing I had kept my sunroof open to revel in the autumn air! So poison gas was the genesis of my rapturous visions. I'm lucky I didn't die or hurt anyone else keeling over at the wheel. Fear and death. Right there.

I do wish someone in seminary had hinted at how stupid ministry can make you feel, had made jokes about it. I wish someone had said that it's okay to always be a little bit frightened when a community trusts you with the responsibility of being their spiritual leader. Well, I'm grateful for it. Fear and a cracked exhaust manifold made me into a praying woman, which has been another joy of my years in ministry.

Ministry is scary because it's serious and because you grow to love people more than you imagined you could, which is another thing they never tell you in seminary. I worry all the time about you. I worry that something will happen to you. And I worry, perhaps more, that nothing will happen to you, which would be a far worse fate. When I realized during one of my most difficult periods of time in parish ministry that we really are all children of God, and I do mean children, congregational conflict became so much less upsetting. I have come to realize, and not in a patronizing way, that when it comes to religious life, we are all children. We're always beginners. Juveniles. We're awkward and flailing about how to best express and live what is deepest in our hearts. But awkwardness is not as bad as not having anything deep in our hearts, not having anything that commands our reverence, not having anything beyond our own personal interests that makes us desperately want to become better people, willing to do almost anything to become that goodness we seek. That's what church is for! That's what church has been for me. There is only one thing worse than church conflict, and that's when a church doesn't have anything worth arguing over.

After seven years in the parish I would have to identify narcissism and entitlement as current " besetting sins" in our UU congregations. My funniest horror stories about ministry, therefore, are those moments when UUs (lay and ordained) have been most captive to the bonds of narcissism and entitlement.

My first Sunday leading worship for a large congregation in Pennsylvania was a perfect example. During our sharing of Joys and Concerns, a woman lit a candle, took the microphone, and proceeded to hold forth for between seven to ten minutes about her son in Colorado: his engagement! his job! his sex life! I stood there helpless, having done the kindly "hand on the shoulder" reminder, and the gentle attempt to interrupt. Nothing worked until some brilliant folks at the back of the sanctuary broke into loud applause. The rest of the church picked up the cue and loudly clapped Flo back to her seat. It sounds cute, but it's only cute if you're an insider. If you're a new person seeking a church, what do you think of such indulgence? What do these really people worship? you might have cause to ask yourself.

Such moments have clarified for me that a covenant of fellowship in love had better have some teeth to it, or its not love at all. And not much of a covenant, either. Authentic love is love that's willing to hold each other accountable to being our best, or at least better, selves at all times. The minute I walk through those doors, I remind myself that it's time to straighten up and fly right. Not because I'm the minister here, but because this is our church which places before us the highest ideals, and it is therefore holy ground. One of the things I most treasure about this congregation is that we agree on this. Churches without accountability are moral failures and disastrous to society. I've seen too much of that and so have you. If I have fears about our UU congregations today the fear is not that we are not tolerant enough (and we're actually really not tolerant at all, since we tend to gather people exactly like us around us), but that our expectations of one another are too lazy and our religious lives are too comfortable. No teeth.

So I've explained some about the fear. Now about Death. If you asked me when I first felt the full weight of the title Reverend, I would have to say that it was the first time I tossed a handful of soil onto a casket and said "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." It was a dreadful moment of recognition, a dread and awe that I have felt many times since, which is best translated as "Good Lord. I can't believe I'm the one doing this!" There is no more sharp sense of this realization than when I am privileged to be present at a death.

Three or four times in the past seven years, I know my face was the last sight a man or woman saw before they closed their eyes forever. That's a sobering thought. Keeps you on your toes. One time I sat quietly singing show tunes to a beloved congregant and church office volunteer named John Pauly. I thought it was a routine hospital visit but he died hours later. I thought, "My God, the last song John ever heard on this earth was me singing "We'll Catch Up Some Other Time" from "On the Town."

Where has the time all gone to/Haven't done half the things we want to/Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time/ This day was just a token/Too many words are still unspoken/Oh well, we'll catch up some other time/Just when the fun is starting/Comes the time for parting/But let's be glad/For what we had/And what's to come. (Bernstein, Comden and Green)

And I do believe that we will catch up some other time.

That profound sense of privilege stays with you, to have shared those last quiet minutes with someone, or to help coach them through that transition, as I have also done. You're forever haunted by it, but in a good way. It's a minister's job to be willing to be haunted that way. We're not doctors, we're not called to fix and make well. The healing we try to offer is of a different kind. We're called to be companions on the spiritual journey, which sounds good but doesn't much give you direction when you wonder "what exactly am I supposed to do here?" We are supposed to show up. The minister's job is to be constantly preparing to be present -- in love-- at such occasions. Our job is to stay awake and pay attention.

One time I picked up the phone at home to get the news that a very beloved, very elderly congregant had just passed on. Even though you think you're ready to hear it, it's never easy. A friend was in the room at the time and seeing my face when I put down the phone he asked, "What is it?" Without thinking about it I replied, "One of my babies died." We're not supposed to think of our congregants as "our babies!" This is the kind of thing that could lead the MFC to give you a four or a five! But ministry works on the heart; and is therefore not always reasonable. In this era of rampant clergy sexual misconduct we talked a lot in divinity school about how to maintain appropriate boundaries with congregants, but almost never about how much it would hurt to grow to love people and then have to bury some of them. We never talked about how much it hurts to watch dearly beloveds mistreat each other, or themselves, or how helpless you are as their pastor to protect them from suffering.

We also never discussed, in the one preaching class I ever took, that "oh my God" moment that often hits at 3 or 4 in the morning on Sunday when you sit up in bed and think "I'm going to be preaching to a congregation in less than seven hours. Who the hell do I think I am?" I have this moment probably two out of every four Sundays. It's gotten better. It used to be four out of four Sundays. The Sunday after the Columbine High School massacre and the Sunday after September 11th were particularly keen examples of preacher's anxiety. Those were nights I didn't sleep at all. Who the hell do I think I am trying to speak to this moment?

The answer to that question for Unitarian Universalists, of course, is that who the hell we are is ministers who have been ordained by our congregations. If we have authority, it is given us by our congregations. And if we fail to be the ministers our congregations need us to be, our congregants have every right, every authority and every responsibility to divest us of our pastoral, preaching and administrative duties. This is how it works, and that's what gets me back to sleep in those wee hours of the sabbath day. I figure I'll do my best to live as deeply as I can, to work as hard as I can, and you will do your best to also take church life seriously, to make our congregation as a beacon in the darkness, and to live as deeply as you also can. And if this ministry isn't working for you, you will dismiss me. There's great comfort in that. Yes there is.

I've gone on long enough, and you've been patient (and none of you has started applauding!!). Before I ask you a final question, I want to add one more insight about the private lives of ministers that they also never taught us in seminary: Ministers are brothers and sisters, and I never knew that. These strange people don't seem strange at all to me any more – they're siblings, mentors, teachers, littermates, and they're as dear to me as anyone has ever been. In some cases, colleagues really are like my family. I rely on them, and they are very much part of the ministry that happens here. So I would like to lift up some of their names today, the names of the some of the colleagues who keep my life in ministry from ever feeling isolating: The Reverends Parisa Parsa (California), Scott Wells (Washington, DC), Brad Greeley (my retired mentor in New Hampshire), Peter Boullata (Michigan), Paul Beedle (California), Bonnie-Jeanne Casey, Hank Peirce, Tanya Rasmussen, Tricia Hart, Tim Jensen, and Tom Schade (Massachusetts). These are just some of the names of my dearest brothers and sisters in the ministry. I'm grateful today for my colleagues, as well as for you and the other congregations that have paid me the great honor of allowing me to minister among them.

In closing, I would like to ask you, what is your ministry? What is the thing in your life that you could not help but become? And, if you have not yet discovered it, what is your ministry within this congregation? The poet says, "Don't search for the answer, which could not be given to you now. The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." I hope you will.

And I thank you for being such an important part of my answer. Amen.