UNDERSTANDING MINISTRY

A SERMON IN TWO PARTS

SEPTEMBER 17, 2000
JAN VICKERY KNOST, INTERIM MINISTER (Part 1)
R.M. FEWKES, MINISTER EMERITUS (Part 2)
FIRST PARISH IN NORWELL

Text: “Preach the word...make full proof of thy ministry.” II Timothy 4:3,5

At the outset of this shared endeavor I want you all to know how much I have enjoyed working with Dick Fewkes. Not only has he been a longtime friend and colleague, but he has bent over backwards to assist Lorna and myself in solving the numberless problems and answering the many questions normally associated with moving into a new place. Regarding this opportunity this morning, too, it isn’t often one gets the chance to focus on ideas and problems with a colleague.

During one of our many telephone calls - which go back to the time Lorna and I were packing to leave Santa Fe, New Mexico, our conversation turned to the work of the Congregation. We agreed that one of our tasks during this period would be to assist you all in preparing for your eventual new spiritual leader. Later on, we decided this sermon would help clarify the various roles in ministry.

To begin, I will talk about the work of ministry in general as well as to try and familiarize you with what Interim Ministry entails and what it does not. Then, Dick will speak further on the topic of our profession and then turn to the important subject Minister Emeritus and what it has come to mean for him. Both of us, with Elly and Lorna, find ourselves on similar journeys - journeys of transition. We believe this morning’s sharing of our feelings and our understanding of all this will assist you all greatly in moving smoothly from a long and distinguished ministry to a new ministry.

The word “ministry” in its broadest sense, means “being of service to a community.” There is meaning in the word “laity” as well. According to a new book about congregations titled All Are Chosen,

“...the root word for laity {is} the Greek word laos. It means `the chosen people’. All-too-often today, the word `laity’ has the connotation of `not quite as good’ or `not professional’. How far our understanding of laity has grown from the original meaning!”

The use of the word “all” in the book’s title, All Are Chosen, fits well with our Universalist roots. “All”, not just “some” are chosen for lay ministry and leadership. Our congregations, our members and the wider world need and deserve the best we can offer, and they need all of us.

Ministry, then, is a kind of creative tension between those who “are chosen” to do full time what the laity can only do part time. The term “full time” is precisely what I mean. Seldom it is that a minister is not ingaged in some way in that ministry. Dick will agree, I am sure, that the lives of one’s congregation; their joys and sorrows, their hopes and dreams and fears remain part of a minister’s life whether at home, on vacation or sitting alone in one’s study.

Lots of people have nightmares. Ministers have them, too. The classic “Ministerial Nightmare” is the dream of the missing sermon manuscript. No matter where one looks, it cannot be found. Time is passing. People are in their seats at church. The appointed hour has arrived. Visions of disappointed or even angry members come to one’s mind. Then one awakes - usually in a state of near panic and perspiration.

My personal nightmare is one where I am doing something important (or even frivolous) and suddenly I realize that I should be somewhere else! It may be a wedding or a memorial service or an important appointment. There are variations, too. Being unable to find a shoestring while knowing one is late. Or sitting in the minister’s chair up in the chancel and suddenly seeing one has put on a red sock and a blue sock.

Once in San Antonio I spilled a glass of water on my manuscript on the shelf in the pulpit. It sat there soaking the papers into a soggy mass of paper mache’. I still remember trying, ever so nonchalantly, to peel each page from the others and somehow not indicate my plight.

So then, ministers are fallible; flawed; not perfect. Yet it seems to me that the profession of ministry has actually strengthened over the past two or three decades. The old authority figure of a latter day has all but disappeared. The model in those days was of a spiritual leader wise beyond years, aloof yet somehow in total control of all the decisions of the congregation. That is no longer either a healthy or true concept. Perhaps the minister was thought of as being “in charge” but it was a dubious distinction, and, I might add, an unhealthy one at that.

Misunderstandings regarding the ministerial office are broad indeed. Here’s an illustration of what I mean. I found it in a book on rural English life titled Akenfeld. It is a delightful passage that depicts an interview with a retired brigadier general. He has been asked his opinion of the state of religion in England. His answer follows:

“Well, the Church is going to pot because of all these young, inexperienced Parsons. Servicemen make the best Parsons. They are men of the world used to handling people. You take these who are getting ordained in their twenties . . . what do they know about life? What you need is a Padre type - someone who will have a drink with you at the pub and who has a right to say to you, `Now look here, old boy, you’ve been grizzing away about your Ethel and her shortcomings, but do you ever think about how she feels about being left alone all evening while you’re lining up the empty pints of bitter here? I mean...fair’s fair, old chap. . . .(No,) a man shouldn’t be a Parson ‘til he’s in his forties; can’t know about life ‘til then. The best advice I ever had was given me by a Parson, you know. Changed my whole life, you know. `Think of the other fellow,’ he said. Something like that...changed my whole life, you know....”

Ministers live with hollow perceptions such as this. People look, on the one hand, for a “hale fellow and well-met” as the old saying goes. Or a studied intellectual who delivers penetrating lectures each week. And the old adage that “we only work one day a week” is perhaps one of the most uncreative and incredibly wrong-headed ones we often hear.

My colleague, the Rev. David Rankin once wrote about a few letters he had received during his ministry in San Francisco. Listen to the extremities of expectation:

“Dear Pastor: I hate churches and ministers. Could you see me on Thursday, I have a problem.

Dear Reverend: I am pregnant. My husband it cheating on me with another woman. I know this because he is not the father of my child. Could you help?

Dear Sir: Politics has no place in the pulpit. When you said that in choosing between Nixon and Humphrey we should vote for the best man you were obviously attacking Mr. Nixon!

Dear Reverend Rankin: I am moving to San Francisco. I need an apartment, a good-paying position and a park for my dogs. My father was a Unitarian in Needham, MA. Could you help me?

Dear David: Could you speak louder on Sunday mornings. Those of us who always sit in the back cannot hear.

So then, as I bring this first portion to a conclusion let me say very emphatically that ministry is far more than such misunderstandings. It is to stand before a religious community of individuals, Sunday after Sunday, offering up the experiences of one’s life and study passed through the fires of thought. That is a solemn trust.

With it goes the privilege and the burden of knowing and caring about your hopes and dreams; your fears and failures; your anger or loneliness; your joys and successes; your sorrows and your silliness. A minister is included in an extended community of relationship and religious integrity and wholeness. What more could one ask?

The Interim Ministry -

Interim Ministry is a singular calling. While an Interim does not carry some of the long-term joys of the settled ministry, possessing the necessary talents in order to assist congregations during times of transition is second to none. The necessity for such professionals is becoming more and more evident and accepted in today’s changing world. It is a true ministerial relationship, but it is different.

Speaking then, out of a hopeful mode I would ask what does an Interim Minister in congregational life bring to that relationship? What do we do? The list for each congregation is different but no task is less important than another.

When I arrived at the church in Clearwater, Florida, I found a congregation which, by degrees, was plagued by broken morale; hung up on anger, guilt or revenge; confused, hurt and in continuing pain. My task was clear. It was to find ways in which to assist them to identify the things that they needed to work on and to move forward. It was to help them name some of the challenges before them while using gentle catharsis in order for them to give themselves permission to give or receive forgiveness.

In Santa Fe, the situation was quite different. The problems were more subtle. The challenges had already seemed to be named; whether to grow; whether to move; whether to stay the same, what to do in regard to crowded space.. But my task was more than this. It was to find ways to do what I call “the pastoring” while the congregation awaits a new minister. And, though we have not achieved success on all fronts, we continue to work together and I think we have moved a long way toward it.

One of the phrases I often use when asked about my work as an Interim is to say, “I have to work with you in order to provide as level a playing field as is possible so that my successor will have an excellent chance for success.” Interims are often agents of change. They have are required to be. The subtle problems I’ve already mentioned go largely unnoticed by the majority simply because they’ve been around so long. Also, there may be some additional program or idea, the lack of which creates a vacuum in congregational life - and it may not have been apparent when viewed more subjectively by the members of the congregation.

Thus, in order to assist you and your leadership in finding ways of addressing such matters, it takes a person whose tenure is limited. That way, he or she is able to speak about them without fear of reprisal or retribution. I am asked and trained to say “uncomfortable things”.

Also, (and believe me, this is difficult for most Interims) in order to be to be a good Interim Minister, notwithstanding all the sermons and meetings and social events that are part of the task, the most important thing we have to do at the outset is to “begin saying Good-bye.” It is really flattering to hear people say, “Oh I wish you could stay..” or some such. But that’s not possible. We sign an agreement which states unequivocally that we will not be considered in any way as the eventual “settled minister” of the congregation. It would be unfair on many counts. Finally, let me share an insight regarding the relationship of any minister to a congregation. It involves a very important word. That word is “covenant”.

Covenant is not just a contract or an agreement between two parties that is mutually beneficial to both. Covenant transcends contract. Covenant means to bond and to stay together through the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows of life. Covenant means a faith in the future; that the values conveyed and preserved by the church will live on to serve its children and their children. Justice, compassion, consideration and love must prevail if this tenuous experiment of human life called a liberal religious community is to prevail.

One might say, then, that Unitarian Universalists are “People of the Covenant”. For instance, though we write our own covenants, through practice and faith we are, for instance, related to the children of Israel and seek with the prophet Micah “to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with their God”. We are also related to the Christian people of the New Covenant who seek to follow Jesus’ example of love and service. And we are related to the Puritans though far removed from their theology. It was the Puritan minister, the Reverend John Winthrop’s who once said:

“Delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, always having before our eyes our commission and our community, as members of the same bond.”

To which I would add a very hearty “A-men!”

Now my beloved colleague, Dick Fewkes, will bring you the last part of our message. It is perhaps the most important part. It asks you to hear, not only with y our ears, but with your hearts.


FROM GOLD STANDARD TO OLD STANDARD MINISTRY

R.M. FEWKES, MINISTER EMERITUS

It is good to be back in my old pulpit in Norwell with your new interim minister, Jan Knost. I’ve known Jan over the 35 years of my ministries in Middleboro and Norwell. He is an old friend and colleague who was minister in Attleboro when I was minister in Middleboro in the mid 1960s. We go way back together. You are already learning that he has a rich experience of ministry in a number of churches over the years and that he brings people skills and organizational skills to his position of interim ministry, and also a good voice to sing with in the choir and a great sense of humor. I could not be more pleased to know that this church and pulpit is in good hands and that you will do just fine in the days and months ahead. I can tell you this, Jan Knost is held in high regard by his ministerial colleagues, and for very good reasons. He has proven himself over his long career to be both an excellent minister and an excellent interim minister. You’re lucky to have him. So treat him well and make the most of your year or two together.

As most of you now know I have accepted a half-time position as interim minister with the First Parish Church in Bridgewater. Like Jan I held my first service last Sunday. I am pleased to say it went very well. I have heard things went equally well for Jan and this congregation last Sunday. I want to say that I wholly concur with Jan’s reflections about the purpose of interim ministry in contrast with longer term settled ministry. I would like to share with you the thoughts I shared in my newsletter column with the congregation in Bridgewater about my new position as interim minister. I titled my column, "Hello, I must be going." Here is what I said:

The comedian, Groucho Marx, used to introduce himself with the phrase, "Hello! I must be going." I think that expresses how I feel as I begin my challenging but welcome duties as your interim minister beginning September 1. But as I say hello I realize that my ministry among you will be a short one. Our contract is for one year with a possibility of an additional year if that is mutually agreeable. My task and purpose as an interim minister is to provide essential services of worship and pastoral and administrative duties during this period of transition, and to offer what guidance and direction I can as you prepare to seek new ministerial leadership. I believe in the work of the liberal church and in the promotion of a vital Unitarian Universalist presence in whatever community it can be found. The First Parish Church in Bridgewater has an active and growing congregation with great potential for further growth. But as we say hello and welcome one another let us not forget that this ministry will be brief in comparisons to longer term settled ministries. Hello, I must be going. Somehow that is okay. The long and the short of it is, life and ministry is always in transition and we are forever learning to say hello and goodbye to one another.

And so I find myself in that same position as your Minister Emeritus—saying hello and goodbye yet again. My mind goes back to the wonderful retirement party you threw for us last May. Once again Ellie and I would like to thank you for all the cards, letters, gifts, accolades, videos and photos of our last year with you. Those of you who were here will remember that Peter Fairbanks after the dinner led the program here in the Meeting House. He told you all that the interim search committee had been in touch with the Department of Ministry at the UUA and that they had sent them some vital information about the standards of ministry. The UUA had established what they called the Gold Standard for ministers. Peter then reached behind the pulpit curtain and brought forth a life-size poster photo of "yours truly" dressed in my ministerial robe with big black letters along the side reading "GOLD STANDARD." We all laughed heartily.

I want you to know that I was so touched by that life-size photo that I had the movers bring it to our home in West Dennis. It lay on its side for a couple of months in the basement until some family members wanted to see it and I brought it upstairs and propped it in front of the fireplace. Much to my surprise and chagrin we discovered that three letters G-O-D had fallen off the poster. Maybe there was a message there for me. God was missing, or maybe it was a reminder that Gold Standard or not, I was not God. I can accept that. Well, a few days later I looked for those missing letters in the basement. I found two of them, the O and the D, and I restored them. The photo now said OLD STANDARD. So that’s what I have become. I’m no longer a Gold Standard minister. I’m just your Old Standard minister emeritus. Gold Standard ministers never die, they just drop their G’s and become Old Standards. My friends you now have a new GOLD STANDARD minister. His name is Jan Knost. And so it gives me great pleasure to present Jan with the big "G".

Minister Emeritus of the First Parish in Norwell is an honorific title and position and one that I am deeply proud to be able to claim. It gives me the right to register and vote as a minister at future UUA General Assemblies whether I am serving another church or not. And it gives me great personal satisfaction to know that the congregation in Norwell thought of me with such regard and affection as to confer the title upon me. What it does not give me is any right to interfere or co-opt the ministerial rights and privileges of any future ministers, and that includes Christenings, weddings and funerals. People have asked whether I can come back and perform those rites of passage. The answer is, yes I can, but only with the prior approval and concurrence of your future minister, including your current interim minister. Jan and I have conferred about this and he is perfectly willing to accommodate the wishes of the congregation as needed. That is very kind of him. However, I remind you that I am a part time interim minister somewhere else, and that must take priority, and as Jan reminds me, the trek from West Dennis to Norwell is 120 miles round trip.

In closing I remind you of what I said in my final report to the congregation last June. Please give Jan Knost the space and the opportunity to serve you as your minister, even though it is an interim ministry. Make him feel welcome and give him your support and your acceptance. His job as an interim minister is to help you work through the transition period towards a new settled ministry. He has had two successful interim ministries in Clearwater, Florida and Santa Fe, NM. Let Norwell, Mass. be his third successful interim ministry and you will all benefit.