Monday, November 05, 2007

A dilemma of part-time ministry

A colleague nearby wrote to the ministers' email chat recently asking about how often a half-time minister should be preaching per month. Most responses to the question dealt with the number of hours required to write a sermon, how many hours a month the minister is expected to work, and other "quantitative" issues. The logic was that if a minister is half-time, s/he should preach twice a month.

I disagree with that logic, not because it is unreasonable but because it fails to address a fundamental need of a growing (or hoping-to-grow) congregation. That need is for an ongoing, steady, informed presentation of Unitarian Universalist theology, principles, and sources from the pulpit. If our primary public outreach is our worship service, which is open to all comers, every time we open the sanctuary doors, visitors should be treated to Unitarian Universalism. They shouldn't get some off-topic speaker or clumsily-done pet cause; they should get a real UU message.

Years ago, when Robert Latham was my minister at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado, he was preparing to go on sabbatical for a few months and gave his sabbatical committee, of which I was a member, some very good advice, as we started thinking about how we would fill the pulpit while he was gone. He said, and I'm paraphrasing, "Every service has to have a Unitarian Universalist theme. It has to deal with our theology, our principles and sources, our values, our social justice outreach, and it has to be grounded in what we believe to be our saving message."

When I worked with the worship committee in my first pastorate, I taught them this same principle and I have emphasized it in every one of my congregations. The first one was getting ready to offer services all summer long and I insisted that each service be planned with this theme in mind. I called it protein, UU protein. Without UU protein, a UU worship service isn't much different from a Rotary meeting. It doesn't satisfy our religious mission. Protein forms the building blocks for our physical bodies; religious protein forms the building blocks for our religious selves.

And this is what growing congregations need to have, every single Sunday. If that means that a halftime minister preaches twice a month, the other two services need to offer just as strong a UU message as if it were the minister in the pulpit. Lay people can do this very well, if they understand the principle of protein. Guest speakers from a nearby non-profit or university can offer something nourishing if adequate effort is made to link his/her topic to UU values. If it means that the halftime minister preaches three times a month, leaving one service for a lay or outside speaker, the same principle applies. And the halftime minister who is preaching three times a month should cut back on other involvements within the congregation. This, of course, depends on the priorities of the congregation, which, in a small group, are not always growth-oriented, unfortunately. And I'm not talking growth in numbers but in strength, commitment, and UU identity.

A small congregation which can only afford parttime ministry needs to consider how important it is to their growth to have a steady UU message from the pulpit every week without fail. Otherwise, visitors who come looking for a faith community may get an erroneous message about our faith. And that is not conducive to healthy growth. We want people to get a clear picture of what UUism can mean to them.

10 comments:

uuMomma said...

As a lay leader in a church with a half-time minister, I say a huge and heartfelt THANK YOU for this perspective. (and thanks to everything else you do...you rock!)

The Eclectic Cleric said...

Since you and I both so happen to have been predecessors to this poor, part-time cleric-in-question, and thus perhaps share some of the blame for having raised expectations about the performance of preachers in this particular congregation, I think we should also bear some of the responsibility for the mixed-messages we've delivered.

Following the thread on the CHAT, I've noticed two very distinct voices: 1) UU clergy don't preach often enough (compared to other, mainline clergy), and 2) UU clergy spend WAY too much time preparing their sermons (likewise, in comparision to other, mainline clergy). And I guess I'm wondering whether this isn't really just a classic example of trying to squeeze more juice out of the lemon -- more quantity, but no reduction in quality, and with ever greater efficiency...throw in flat wages and....we might as well go back to making bricks without straw.

I guess that's really all I have to say. I agree with the writer on the CHAT, who basically noted that writing a sermon takes exactly as much time as we have to give it. I use to be proud of being a "Saturday preacher," until my (now-former) spouse pointed out that I actually started "writing" my sermon (in my head, at least) the previous Sunday evening, typically "wrote" about three different sermons each week, and then on Saturday decided which one I would keep and preach.

I do agree that, for better or worse, preaching is at once the most widely-visible (and therefore probably the single most important)thing we do, and that therefore we shouldn't shortchange it at any cost. And yet, if I have learned anything about ministry in the half-a-lifetime I have practiced this strange and wonderful profession, it is that the work will basically take everything you have to give it, each of us have different gifts, and still it will never be enough. So, if you have what it takes to be a great preacher, for godsake do it as often as you can, and work as hard at it as you are able. And if your real gifts for ministry reside in other areas -- well, do that work and let it support your preaching. And give your folks a break by letting other people into the pulpit every once in awhile.

ms. kitty said...

A very good point---or three, Tim. Thanks.

Lizard Eater said...

Ms. Kitty, if you could please clone yourself, so that we could hire one of your selves, that'd be extremely helpful. Thanks-so-much.

ms. kitty said...

LE, you sweetie, you just made my day. I will get busy on it right away.

EC, my point is more about the message from the pulpit than who delivers it and how often. I've suffered through many a pet cause service which fell far short of a UU message, put together because the worship/program committee had a speaker who was willing to speak but knew nothing about the congregation or UUism or a layperson who was crazy about such and such an idea and wanted a platform.

I'd sit and cringe, wondering what kind of picture visitors were getting of Unitarian Universalism. If we want to grow, we need to be educating our members and our visitors about who we really are---diverse, yes, but with a central message of hope fueled by action and commitment.

I hope that the messages both you and I gave at that former congregation we've shared were that our visitors deserved to hear about UUism, not about so and so's work with a good-works group UNLESS (and I emphasize this) that work can be directly tied to and pointed out as supporting the UU message and that this pointing out is done in an engaging and informative way. Too often that pet-cause message is not tied to UUism and left up to the hearer to make the connection, which many don't.

hafidha sofia said...

This has been very helpful for me as I'm giving a sermon in Seattle again this winter. This really helps to narrow my field of vision - the process of choosing what to say is made much easier.

Mystical Seeker said...

To cite another example of visitors witnessing discontinuity, I have visited UU churches that were in transition between ministers, and the total lack of continuity from week to week as various guest speakers come was always disconcerting to me. (When I was in Colorado Springs in 1988 during such a period, the UU church there had guests that included a wide range of people, from a speaker who opposed Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative to the UU minister from the Pueblo fellowship.)

I don't know if UUs have the concept of interim clergy like the UCC and some other denominations do when they are between "settled" pastors, but that would at least give continuity during those periods.

As for half-time ministers, there is a small progressive Christian denomination that I attend that until recently had a half-time pastor, but she preached every week, and frankly I can't imagine what it would have been like if she had not done so. I realize that some UUs, especially those who are hostile to Christianity or religion in general, may have a more intellectual take on it and sometimes are fine with their services resembling a guest lecture series at the local community college. But I personally would not be that crazy about it. (By the way, the church that I am speaking of sold their building, which allowed them to have enough money at their disposal to change the pastor from half-time to full-time.)

ms. kitty said...

Hafidha, I'd love to know where you are preaching in Seattle, because I'd like to hear you and to see you again.

Mystical Seeker, UUs have gotten better about interim ministry, but you're right, there can be big holes in continuity for small or unpastored congregations.

Thanks to both of you for your thoughts.

ms. kitty said...

I think that some small congregations are hesitant to have a minister in the pulpit every (or most) Sundays because it feels like a threat to their independence, which is a whole 'nother ball of wax.

Anonymous said...

The "principle of protein" speaks volumes to me as a UU lay leader. We lose our direction, our glue, our essence, when we do not connect weekly with our principles and values. I've often thought our church's Rotary Club lectures (troubled minister, sabbatical and now, interim) were devoid of divinity or spirituality and so, fell short. Now I see that we have been lacking UU protein to tie us together and inspire us to service and growth. Well said, Rev.Kit. You are so good at seeing the depths of what seems to be the obvious and simple with your kind of bam...bam...genius.
Off to Worship Committee.