HEROES AND MENTORS OF MINISTRY

MAY 7, 2000
R.M. FEWKES


When I applied to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA in 1964 I did so as a transfer student from the Congregational Church. Believe it or not they accepted my transfer without my ever having preached or had field education experience in a Unitarian Universalist Church. That would never happen today. The Fellowship Committee had very lax standards back then. They suggested I attend a summer conference at Star Island to get to know some UUs and to read some books from a suggested list on UU church history. I barely knew who Channing was. All I can say is thank God they've tightened up their requirements and now screen out unqualified candidates like myself. But I'm glad they let me in. Now the Fellowship Committee requires of all students clinical training, field education and a supervised internship in a local parish, and the latest requirement, participation in a UUMA administered Mentor Program for ministers serving their first churches. I could have benefited from such a program when I came into the ministry more than a quarter of a century ago. It has given me pause to think back upon who some of the heroes and mentors of ministry were for me as I sought for models to measure my aspirations for becoming a minister.

Mythologist, Joseph Campbell, and poet, Robert Bly, have popularized the notion of heroes and mentors. In his popular book, Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell said we need heroic models to mark out the pathways of our own human ventures. We need heroes to become heroes to and for ourselves and others. Robert Bly talks about the need for "male mothers" or mentors who can help initiate men into the male mode of feeling. Men need to learn from other feeling men what it means to be a man just as women need to learn the same from other women. I think the same lesson applies to becoming ministers. Ministers in the making need to learn from other ministers still in the making what it means to be and become a minister.

I recognize that a hero and a mentor are not one and the same, but they are related. We can learn from both, but heroes tend to be more idealized, less human, while mentors are those from whom we learn in a more caring teaching/sharing human relationship. When we get too close to our heroes they lose their lustre and we see their flaws all too clearly. Our heroes can disappoint us and we may or may not learn from their mistakes. A mentor is not afraid to share his or her humanity, strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, and to offer them as material for learning how to be the best minister one can be with one's flawed but authentic humanity.

The American Heritage Dictionary notes that in mythology and legend a hero is often born of a human and divine parent, endowed with great courage and strength, favored by the gods, and celebrated for bold and daring exploits. The word hero derives from the Greek, heros, which means "embodiment of composite ideals." So our heroes tend to be half human and half divine, and though they often have a fatal flaw, what we admire in them is their ability to rise above their limitations and become something greater than they were before. Secretly we want to turn them into gods, and find it hard to forgive them if they fail to live up to the composite of ideals we project upon them.

Colleague Paul L'Herrou says that "a hero is a figure whom we feel to be charged with some quality which we desire but seem to lack--courage, intelligence, wisdom, charisma--and with whom we can identify so that we can experience a transfer of that quality to ourselves." This means, therefore, that as far as our heroes are concerned, we are more interested in the image they embody rather than the person they are. Not so with mentors. We are more interested in the person they are than the image they project. A mentor is a counselor, guide and teacher. A hero is a model and an image which lacks real human substance. The two overlap, but the mentor is the more important in terms of learning the art of ministry.

The concept of mentor derives from Greek mythology. The dictionary notes that Mentor was "Odysseus' trusted counselor, under whose disguise the goddess Athena became the guardian and teacher of Telemachus." So we see that the term mentor has a feminine quality to it, the goddess Athena in disguise as a guardian and a teacher. Thus the justification of Robert Bly's clever term "male mother" as a metaphor for mentor. Paul L'Herrou says that women often have a difficult time culling up heroes or heroines whom they wish to emulate. Perhaps the reason is not only the one-sided prejudice of our patriarchal culture. Maybe a deeper reason is that women need heroes less than men. What they are looking for and can offer one another better than men are mentors, Athena in disguise, the guardian and teacher of what it means to be a caring human being in relation to other human beings, the true model of what it means to be a minister.

When I first heard the song, "The Wind Beneath My Wings", it was sung by a western male singer, and I thought of it as a man singing it to his wife or lover. But in the movie that made it popular Bette Midler sang it to her dearest and closest female friend. Bette Midler had all the glamor, fame and glory of a singing star. Her friend had all the relationship skills with people and family that she lacked and sorely needed. And so she says to her in the song, "Did I ever tell you, you're my hero. You're everthing I want to be. Because of you I can fly higher than an eagle. You are the wind beneath my wings." A good mentor helps gives us the relationship skills we need to be caring and loving human beings and in so doing learn to become ministers who can mount up with wings as eagles, to do the work of the ministry, to walk and not faint, run and not be weary, preach and not be boring, because our preaching comes out of the lives we live more than the books we've studied.

One thing we have learned about heroes in our media conscious culture is that living heroes are hard to find and hold on to. That's because living heroes are still subject to change, failure, exposure and disappointment. To become a hero and to remain a hero it is essential that one be dead, preferably long dead. Columnist, Reynolds Price, says that we live in an age of anti-heroes, that in fact "there are no present heroes" and that "most of the dead ones were frauds." Charles Lindberg, for example, flew across the Atlantic in 1927 and remained a hero for more than a generation. Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, three years later was a teacher at the University of Cincinnati and no one cared. "Every hero becomes a bore at last", said Emerson. Especially when they are devoured by the media.

Daniel Berrigan reflects about the burden of becoming a political hero: "The trouble is, they want to devour you. They need heroes, yes--but what they want are hero sandwiches." We devour the merciless flood of intimate information pouring forth from the mass media about our heroes' private lives. We become bored and set our sights on another, and yet another. No one measures up to our expectations of composite ideals. Even after our heroes have been laid to rest the devouring process goes on.

In the space of a decade posthumous allegations of illicit sexual adventures were brought forth against FDR, JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., President Eisenhower, and even an intimate biography of Thomas Jefferson. Since his death Joseph Campbell has been accused of antisemitism and sexism. No one is safe, my friends, not even Jesus. Biblical scholar Morton Smith once tried to show that Jesus' secret initiation rite into the Kingdom of Heaven was an act of homosexual love with disciples and devotees. And so it goes in this age of anti-heroes. The ministry itself also has its share of fallen heroes with tarnished halos, and not just the T.V. evangelists. The hero business is in a sad state of affairs. It could be said, the hero is dead, long live the hero.

I am reminded of some of the "identity idols" of my youth who inspired me to go into the ministry—the first eventually left the ministry to go into teaching because of disenchantment with church politics, and then later took on a part time ministry while continuing with teaching. He also struggled with his bisexual orientation and had to hide his true self from colleagues, parishioners and denominational officials. But he was still a good minister and a loving human being. The second, a college chaplain, later divorced his wife. Again I was disappointed (because I idealized them both) but he chose to stay in the ministry. The third had an affair with a counselle, refused psychotherapy for himself (which he needed), divorced his wife, and left the ministry. Yet again I was disappointed. In spite of his flaws, however, he was a good pastoral counselor to me when I needed help.

Sooner or later we discover that our heroes have clay feet. My ministerial role models turned out to be poor heroes, but looking back on them, I realize that they were each in their own way, good mentors, even if not intentionally so. They did teach me some important things about the stresses of ministry—contending with church politics, knowing your limits in the pastoral counseling relationship, resolving your own sexual identity so as not to look for it in a counselle or parishioner, finding time for caring relationship with spouse and family, owning your own shortcomings and failures, being a caring minister and human being in spite of falling short of heroic ideals. Maybe there's a time to leave the ministry for awhile and then to come back, or to leave it for good. That too is part of what it means to learn about ministry, testing our capacities and evaluating our strengths and weaknesses, and our readiness and willingness to stay with it when the going gets tough. One thing my mentors taught me is the need for sabbaticals and periods of self-renewal when you've been at this business for an extended period of time. And also, know when you need to retire.

A few words about Jesus as a model of ministry. My colleague, Clarke Wells, says that Jesus never took as a hero of his youth because of his being presented "in a pinkish gown." Well, Jesus took hold for me in high school through the preaching of a liberal congregational minister, my first mentor. He was a big heavy set man, a large Swede, with much gusto and love of life. Jesus took hold for me as a figure of great strength, deep compassion and understanding. I had trouble later on when I had to contend with the Jesus of Dogma, but the Jesus of my youth held fast and I weathered the theological storm. When it was over I was a Unitarian and happy about it. I still am. I realized that we often choose the Jesus we need and discard the one we don't want. No one knows who the real Jesus really was so mine is as good as yours or better, at least for me.

Too close an identification with the figure of Jesus can be a dangerous occupational hazard for clergy. Messianic complexes, delusions of grandeur, self-engineered crucifixions at the hands of some all too willing parishioners who are only more than happy to hammer in the nails for us, can often be the result. I like Jung's advice. Rather than trying to imitate Christ we would be much better off trying to live our lives as authentically as Jesus lived his life. Or as an ancient Hebrew teacher taught, at the last judgment, God won't ask you why you weren't Moses. He'll ask you why you weren't yourself. Why weren't you Dick Fewkes or Judy Campbell?

In my search for a historic role model of what it means to be a minister I found myself drawn to the figure of Sam'l J. May, abolitionist minister and uncle of Louisa May Alcott, who served First Parish in Norwell from 1836-42. It was May who challenged Channing to finally go public with his opposition to slavery. In a relatively short ministry he made a significant and lasting impact. I admire him because of his capacity to be an effective preacher of social conscience while at the same time being a pastor of great warmth, compassion and human understanding. He could tell his pulpit critics that "it is not the business of the minister to please the people, but to tell them what he thinks they ought to hear, whether it pleases them or not. I must preach to satisfy my conscience," he said, "not to gratify your tastes." Yet he was always there when people needed him and they knew his love and compassion were genuine and real. In addition to everything else he did—advocating women’s suffrage, working for temperance—Sam'l May ran a mini-theological school out of his parsonage and helped train and educate some future Unitarian ministers from within the parish. I have tried to emulate his mentoring model in my own way.

I expect that the heroic model of human development will continue to have its place in the order of things, but I would argue that the ultimate goal of human becoming is to outgrow our need for external heroes and to become heroes to and for ourselves. More important is to shift from a heroic model of becoming to that of the mentor, which is a relational model of human learning. Even the fully enlightened Bodhisattva, you will remember, chooses to return to transitory existence to be a teacher, model and guide to others engaged on the same journey. They choose to do so not because they need to but because they want to. What do they get out of it? They receive a continual reminder of what it once was like to be in an unenlightened state, and that's something that even Mentor-Bodhisattvas had better not forget. I don't know about you, but I haven't met very many Bodhisattvas on the path to ministry. I'm still trying to become one and I've got a long ways to go. Maybe I’ll finally become a Bodhvisattva in retirement.

I have been in the ministry for some 35 years, 31 of them in Norwell. In that time I have been a mentor of sorts to 15 or so UU theological students, four of whom were ordained in Norwell, and in addition taught two sessions of UU Polity at Andover Newton to another dozen or so future UU ministers. It is a work I have enjoyed. I hope I have been a good mentor to my students, most of whom are now full fledged practicing UU ministers. But I hope to God I haven't been a hero to any of them because I can only disappoint them. I know my human flaws all to well, and I have not surmounted them, and if they have been observant students they know them too, their own as well as mine. I hope that in spite of those flaws, even because of them, we have all learned to be effective ministers, and are still in process of becoming so.

If I have been a mentor in a more or less formal sense to some I have in turn found mentors among my friends and colleagues in ministry. A good mentor, I would suggest, continues to learn the art of ministry from other ministers, both those younger and older, more and less experienced than him or herself. I continue to draw courage and strength and example from people like the late Ed Atkinson and Elizabeth Tarbox, my friends and colleagues Robbie Walsh, Bob Thayer, Carol Egan, Fred Gillis, Ken Read-Brown, Judy Campbell, and yes, Rachel Tedesco. Good mentors can learn from their mentees as well as anyone. To the members of this church I would say, let us continue to teach and learn and mentor one another in this strange business of ministry. Whether we are aware of it or not, each of us, be we laity or clergy, is Athena in disguise, the teacher and guardian of Telemachus, our fellow brothers and sisters in ministry.