Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Call to Ministry with Youth

People often ask ministers about their call to this work, this life of ministry.  The seed of my call was working with our teenage youth.  I taught junior and senior high religious education classes in my church, wrote curricula, attended youth conferences and trainings, helped develop youth leaders through district and continental events and organizations, and simply listened.  As a youth advisor, I met amazing people, many of whom I now see as congregational and denominational leaders, workers for justice, even other ministers.

When I entered seminary, I had to leave my youth work behind so that I could expand my base of experience and knowledge.  A major element of the discernment process involves finding the direction of one’s ministry.  Some people find their path in chaplaincy.  Others find attraction in community ministry and lives of public service.  Of course, many aspiring ministers pursue a dream of parish ministry, eventually serving as the spiritual leader of a congregation and speaking from our free pulpit with the prophetic voice spoken by generations of courageous forebears.

I now enter my first settled position, having been called to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland, Michigan.  Unexpectedly, I find the cosmos wending full circle on one element of my ministry, calling me back to youth work.  My new congregation stands poised to expand its outreach into the community, and I have every reason to believe that many new faces will cross our threshold in the coming years.  In particular, I hope to build a lifelong learning ministry that attracts many children, youth, young adults, their families and friends.

New ministers face many demands and choosing where to devote their time and energy presents a daunting challenge.  I have decided that among my commitments will be providing my leadership and energy to the Youth Group.  And, beyond a broader emphasis on addressing the needs of young adults – be they students, single, young parents, mobile professionals – I hope to specifically focus on ensuring that youth and young adults in those tumultuous years know that they are loved, that this congregation cares about their spiritual development, and that we invite their active engagement.

Every year at General Assembly, I listen to the recounted history of the struggles of the Unitarian Universalist Association with anti-racism and anti-oppression.  I cannot count the times I have read about and heard accounts of infamous events and actions in recent decades during which we learned in painful ways the hurt felt by people of color in our movement.  The Unitarian Universalist Association continues to travel toward wholeness and must never forget its legacy of effort and growth.

We also possess a checkered past with regard to our youth ministries.  One does not minister with youth long before hearing about past betrayal: the abdication of adult participation in the late 1960’s and 1970’s; the dismantling of Liberal Religious Youth in the early 1980’s; and the recent refocusing of efforts away from the directions taken by Young Religious Unitarian Universalists in the past 30 years.

At the Synergy Bridging ceremony at General Assembly in Charlotte on June 24, 2011, Betty Jeanne Reuters-Ward spoke of this most recent bend in the historical road of youth ministry.  Her passionate words resonated with a visceral pain, much like the hurt I have heard for years from LRYers.  As a long-time youth advisor, I shared Betty Jeanne’s emotions, and I felt that tightening in my chest of loss; that pang of grief for a life ended prematurely.

Our denomination has what can only be considered in my opinion a shocking record of failure to retain Unitarian Universalists as active congregational participants from youth into young adulthood.  I have often heard estimates that 90% of our youth leave our churches as they bridge into young adulthood.  Many never return.

I am enraged by this statistic.  I seethe with fury that we, as a denomination, too often accept this effect as expected, even normal.  I never want to lose any member of our churches for any reason.  But to accept the loss of so many talented, loving, and dedicated people – most of whom were born and raised in our movement – without massive outcry and response i s appalling and unconscionable.

So, I am rededicating my effort to minister with youth.  In my congregation, through denominational effort, through distance outreach and social networking, I will do whatever I can to minister with our youth.  And, I call on each and every Unitarian Universalist minister to increase their commitment to this important ministry and to heal this history of disappointment and neglect.  Meet with your youth groups. Help them learn more about worship and spiritual growth.  Work with them on service projects.  Dance, sing, and act; dream and envision; teach and be taught; empower them to lead.  Be their ally.  Sit with your youth in person and in spirit and guide them toward a lifelong love of our religion, commitment to our principles, and fellowship in our congregations.

General Assembly: Painful Reminders and the Work Ahead

As joyous as this week can be, General Assembly also reminds us of our failures and mistakes, and of the enormous challenges still lying ahead for us as a denomination.  Many program sessions this week have spoken of declining church attendance and the urgency for our congregations to be more relevant in peoples' lives and in our society.  One speaker after another reminds us that church cannot simply be about the Sunday morning service, but must be the about the way we live every day.

Today, thousands of Unitarian Universalists and others marched in downtown Charlotte to call people to act against proposed actions before the North Carolina legislature discriminating against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals, their families and friends.  The rally featured dynamic speakers and members of the broader faith community in impassioned appeal to act for justice.  The gathering reminded me that I must remain diligent in the ongoing struggle of people seeking rights I take for granted, and equal treatment in the eyes of our society.

In the evening, the annual Synergy worship service honoring the passage of our youth into adulthood featured many speakers addressing our history of ministry with youth.  Betty Jeanne Reuters-Ward spoke of growing up in Young Religious Unitarian Universalism (YRUU), and the hurt felt by many when the program was dismantled a few years ago.  As a long-time advisor and advocate for youth, her words brought back that pain for me, as well.  And even though I know bear the full portfolio of ministerial responsibilities, Betty's words reminded me of the roots of my calling and moved me to once again reach out to our youth and, hopefully, help to heal the wounds caused by our reorganization efforts and our chronic inattention to the spiritual growth of our children and youth.

And, throughout the week, conversations with my colleagues from seminary have reminded me of the enormous challenges facing Meadville Lombard Theological School.  Faculty departures, the sale of our historic campus, and other administrative actions have left many of us feeling estranged from our alma mater and concerned for the future of ministerial education in our denomination.

I love the singing, the hugs, the warmth and caring of dear friends.  But, General Assembly also reminds us that we still have much work to do.  One speaker today discussed the notion that "god" is a verb.  Our spiritual beliefs are not some static bunch of words, or ritualized acts we repeat without further thought or commitment.  Being a Unitarian Universalist is a full-time vocation and every day provides us a variety of opportunities to live our principles, to walk the path to justice, and to reach out to others in compassion.  Every new dawn presents a fresh day for action, for healing, and for love. 

How will you live your faith today?

Friday, June 24, 2011

General Assembly: Traditions

A vital element about attending General Assembly (or any denominational event beyond the walls of our congregations for that matter) is the experience of traditions - rituals that we may not conduct in our own religious communities, but that unite us with other Unitarian Universalists, wherever they call home.  For me, the Service of the Living Tradition is one of the most important of our rituals.

Every year, the Service of the Living Tradition celebrates Unitarian Universalist ministry, particularly highlighting the achievements of fellowshipping, retirement, and the lives of ministers recently passed.  I have worked five years to become a Unitarian Universalist minister, and waited five long years to walk proudly and sing loudly in this jubilant event.

In recent years, applause after each read name was discouraged.  This year, the organizers recognized that in our tradition, the recognition of ministerial authority arises from our congregations.  So, rather than march us to the stage in one unbroken line, this year we all sat among the attendees until our names were called, able to join with our congregants, family and friends.  When called, people were free to applaud, whoop and holler as we rose and walked to the stage.

My adrenaline spiked as I heard my name and leaped from my seat surrounding by the voices of congregants, friends from seminary, and colleagues.  In particular, I was thrilled to have my daughter Ashley and son-in-law Kevin in attendance, who drove from Jacksonville just to see the old man get his "diploma."  I couldn't have been happier...joyful...jubilant.  Ashley is carrying my first grandchild, due to arrive for my spoiling pleasure in early September.

There is simply no greater rush than singing Rank by Rank Again We Stand with thousands of Unitarian Universalists.  A tear rolled down my cheek during the Chalice Lighting, and the rest was a blur until the recession.  I walked back through the auditorium, singing at the top of my voice, robe flowing, to For All the Saints.  I then hugged everyone, from former congregants, to fellow ministers, to young adults I have known for many years as advisees and now lifelong friends and colleagues. 

This was a special night that will forever live in my memory.  When people ask me about my call, the work and sacrifice, and living the life of a minister, if you see a little smile arise on my lips, then you will know I am thinking about this celebration, this wonderful Unitarian Universalist tradition.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

General Assembly: Reconnecting

The first time one attends General Assembly, the worship services dazzle and the vast array of programs impress.  In my 10th General Assembly, it's all about reconnecting with dear friends, past acquaintances, and valued colleagues.

During the Ministry Days programs, I chatted with cherished friends from Meadville Lombard Theological School, some still finishing their course of study.  Others, like me, are newly minted ministers facing the challenge of settled positions in new congregations.

Walking through the exhibit hall, I rediscovered fellow curriculum writers at the UU Curriculum and Resource Developers booth and others like my good friend Jennifer who prefers to be called an "extremist" (rather than "fanatical") vegan and animal rights advocate. 

At the Mid-American region meeting, I ran into long-time acquaintances from youth and religious education work who are now serving as district staff for either Heartland (my new district), Central Midwest, or Prairie Star.  And I found my two on-site delegates from my new congregation, Judith and Sara, from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland.  I am proud that we also have two more delegates participating off-site, back home in Midland.

Then, at the banner parade, I met old pals from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, from my original home congregation, the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, and from other miscellaneous travels over the years in UU circles.

Reconnecting with people makes General Assembly special and reminds me of the critical role churches play creating and fostering relationships.  In our modern world, where the focus is so often on individual over community, "me" versus "us," our religious homes ground us in valuable and often lifelong relationship with others.

Days like this remind me of the origin of the word "religion," which shares the same root as the word "ligament.  Re-ligio means to bind together again and again.  For me, reconnecting in meaningful relationship is the key to successful congregational and denominational life.

General Assumbly: Ministry Days

I spent most of the morning over my keyboard as my sermon muse arrived early.  I have learned to never ignore her visits, and so dutifully attended until my July 3 piece was completed.  I had a basic theme for this sermon in my head already, an important message since it will be my last visit to my home congregation, the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh.  I welcome the opportunity to say goodbye to old friends and long-time acquaintances.  This will also be for me a sort of pre-launch to my new called ministry position in Midland.

In the evening, the ministers gathered together to socialize, worship, and listen to the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales.  While I do not consider myself much of a social butterfly, these events reunite me with dear friends from seminary - fellow travellers on this crazy path to ministry.  The food was great, the drinks pricey, and I could have done without having a glass of wine spilled on me by a senior colleague!

During President Morales' talk, one theme struck me again and again.  We are a denomination with an opportunity to grow, to reach out to millions of people in search of our message who no longer find solace in traditional religions.  But, for the most part, congregations are on their own to address this opportunity.  The root "grassroots" arose many times, indicating that we should not expect a lot of help from the UUA in terms of funding or extensive staff support in order to expand programs and reach out to our communities.

While I do not welcome the content of this message, I do accept its honesty.  I very much want to see this religious movement grow in membership and influence on our society.  As a minister, I will be a primary mover and shaker in my community.  But, my principal task will be to encourage, harness, and support my congregants to become ambassadors of Unitarian Universalism.

In the search process, one observation appeared over and over again to me.  Our churches are often fantastic places - if one actually manages to find us.  It is natural that we build loving communities and then work to sustain them, even against perceived threats that new blood might visit upon us.  But, we must shed our fears and address those thousands (I would argue millions) of people out there who need us.  We must open our religious homes to the stranger out there desperately searching for spirituality, for comfort, and for the chance to make the world a better place.

Will reaching out to others change our congregations?  I hope so!  Will we lose what we love so much about our religious communities?  Not if we work with intention, with love, and with commitment to sustain them.  So, while I wish we had vast resources to fund innovative efforts and broad-reaching programs, I accept the challenge laid before us.  The task of changing the world and offering the hand of fellowship to our friends and neighbors is ours to accept or to ignore.  And I vote that we embrace that grassroots challenge.

Monday, June 20, 2011

General Assembly: Arrival

I just checked into my hotel here in swelteringly hot Charlotte.  I swear that the temperature rose 20 degrees as I crossed the border from Virginia into North Carolina.  The drive was thankfully uneventful, although I find myself taking more breaks than in my youth.  Ah, the delights of growing older!

I stopped at a couple of antique malls on the way down and spotted a few more that I will catch on the return trip.  Otherwise, it was a gorgeous drive with one tree-covered mountain after another.  There was a stretch in Virginia where the view was breathtaking.  Even in the slightly overcast sky, I imagined that I could see at least 20 miles into the distance.  There was an ominous looking mountain rising up from the plain, which (being the geek that I am) reminded me of Mount Doom rising from the dark lands of Mordor.  I suppose had it been nighttime, I might have seen the eye of Sauron watching for me.

Official activities do not begin until tomorrow afternoon, as Ministry Days begin for the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association.  The UUMA events precede the opening of General Assembly each year, and offer a great opportunity to put faces to names and meet new colleagues.

General Assembly is intended to be a business meeting and an opportunity for learning and interaction.  But, for me (and this is my 10th GA), this week has always been about remembering that we are not just individual churches located here and there - a blip on the religious radar of America.  GA reminds me that we are a significant religious movement, a denomination with a storied history and the potential to impact our society still today.

I always return from General Assembly invigorated and loaded with ideas.  As the week progresses, I hope to check in with all of you.  I especially recommend that you check out the live streaming events throughout the week here.  If you can't be here in person, these broadcasts are the next best thing.