Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Spiritual Journey: lessons from 20 years of ministry

Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 14, 2015
It was my turn to speak that day in September of 1992, our homecoming service at the beginning of the new church year at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, CO. As a member of the Committee on Ministry, I’d volunteered to give a brief homily or sermonette on the ups and downs of the past year and our dreams for the new church year. I figured I could handle a bunch of Unitarians; after all, I’d been rasslin’ junior high kids in classrooms and lunchrooms for a couple of decades.

So I got up in the pulpit, delivered my remarks with a couple of stories and reminders of what our congregation’s year had meant to us and to the community, and returned to my seat. I figured I’d done all right---people paid attention, I saw a few nods, even a few smiles and maybe some tears.

Our minister, the Rev. Robert Latham, was next in the pulpit and when he got up there, he turned to where I was sitting in the choir and said to me, “Kit, you missed your calling. You ought to be a minister.”

It was like the proverbial thunderbolt: I was stunned and sat for the rest of the service with Robert’s words echoing in my ears. I ought to be a minister? I ought to be a minister? I ought to be a minister!
Reviewing 50 years of my life so far as I sat there, I realized that I had accumulated a number of the skills I could see that a minister needed: counseling, teaching, music, writing, herding cats---or rather junior high kids---, even public speaking, if you count lunchroom duty and the use of a bullhorn on a playground. Maybe I could be a minister! Maybe I could do it! Yes, I think I could!

But over the next months, reality set in. I wasn’t very close to retirement; my son was barely out of high school and still living at home and I was pretty well loaded down with the responsibilities of a single parent household. So it didn’t make any sense at all to quit my job as a school counselor and start studying at the local theological school. My calling was put on the back burner and eventually even set aside.

But in 1995, three years later, the thunderbolt took a second swing. I had been elected a delegate to the UU General Assembly which was meeting in Spokane that year, and it was impossible to ignore the deeply buried desire in me to someday be one of the ministers participating in those events. I had been able to retire that year, unexpectedly, would be receiving an early-retirement bonus from the school district, and my son was living on his own.

After a long conversation with one of the women ministers I knew best, I went straight back to Colorado and enrolled at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, a very liberal United Methodist seminary. And in May of 1999, I graduated from Iliff and was ordained to the UU ministry by JUC, all in the same weekend.

Now, twenty years after that decision was made, I’ve been looking back over that stretch of time, from the thunderbolt that called me into ministry those many years ago to this moment today, here in this room, with this congregation of loving people, and have been thinking about all I’ve learned about ministry that might mean something to you all, as a congregation and as individuals.

Because ministry is about service to others; it’s about bringing one’s experiences, learning, and compassion together in one desire—to bring hope and courage to one’s fellow humans, acting with integrity and purpose in creating positive change in the world.

Learning about ministry started for me at a very early age, as the eldest child of an American Baptist minister. From my dad, the Rev. Merritt Bernhardt Ketcham, I learned the importance of public service. I saw my dad serve on the library board of his small town, do electrical work for needy parishioners, drive migrant workers to their jobs in eastern Oregon fields, and serve his community in countless small ways.

I also learned from him that sermons should never be boring! My dad wasn’t a particularly gifted preacher, but he wasn’t boring! And I learned that ministry is very stressful work, that you can be the lightning rod for disgruntled members, and that you MUST take good care of your health because the stresses of ministry were a factor in my dad’s early death at age 60.
I learned from being a member of the Ketcham family how valuable a faith community is. Our family was literally supported by our congregations at times, since my dad’s salary was probably never much more than $400 a month and on this he made sure his kids went to college. And I learned well the value of membership in a faith community and have been a member of a congregation almost ever since I was a child.
In the congregations I joined, whether it was Baptist or Unitarian Universalist, I watched the politics of “church” unfold. I saw how easy it was to criticize and that it can have hurtful, permanent consequences. As a member of the Committee on Ministry at JUC, I saw the pain of petty criticism and the value of constructive, kind critique that took place face to face, not as an anonymous comment on a survey or in the parking lot after a worship service.

I saw how easily a promising career can be derailed by a vindictive person. And I saw how important, no, essential, it is to expect and demand ethical behavior from a minister. I saw people, both women and men, damaged by a sexual relationship with a minister who exploited their neediness.

But the negative side of ministry did not deter me. I knew I had learned a great deal from being a preacher’s kid and from being an active layperson in several congregations. I thought I knew where most of the potholes were and vowed to avoid them. So off I went to seminary.
I loved this experience of scholarship, writing, exploring Biblical literature, designing worship. I was not so crazy about the emphasis on doctrine which is a normal byproduct of a Christian seminary, however liberal.
There were times I thought I would scream if I heard another word about Paul the Apostle! And the Trinity, for most of my fellow students, was a given; a Unitarian view was exotic and as one of about a dozen UU students at Iliff, I felt like the yeast in a loaf of bread dough! It had never occurred to many of my Christian peers to question the concept of Trinity!

Nevertheless, I loved my seminary experience, finally learning what the word “theology” meant in practical terms. A chaplaincy internship and a full year of parish internship at the Boulder UU Fellowship with my mentor Catharine Harris led me to believe that I was pretty hot stuff!

I was a top student at Iliff, did well in my chaplaincy and parish experiences, and when I got ready to go to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in April of 1998, I was pretty sure they’d pat me on the back and give me an A Plus Plus and send me back to seminary for my final year as the best candidate for UU ministry they’d ever seen.

You can probably see what’s coming here, can’t you? And it was from the MFC that I began to learn probably the most important lesson a minister can learn: humility. Instead of the A Plus Plus I expected, they told me I was too intense (I think they might have preferred the word “cocky” but were too polite to use it) and needed to undertake a year of spiritual direction before they would grant me preliminary fellowship status.

A year of spiritual direction----that meant sessions with someone who could help me figure out some of the spiritual issues I was struggling with—like humility, for example, or spiritual practice, or how to be in right relationship with family members who were very conservative and were sure I was doomed to hell.

It was one of the most valuable years of my entire life. I learned how important an active spiritual life and a regular spiritual practice are to me. I learned to pray, to pray to a Power I couldn’t describe or name or see or touch, yet who felt like a second skin, part of myself.

After graduation and ordination, in Colorado, I packed all my stuff, my cats, and headed for Portland, where I would be the first fulltime minister for a small congregation named Wy’east. And there my real education about ministry began to take shape. Everything else, it turned out, had been preliminaries.

During the four years I spent serving Wy’east, a congregation which had been formed out of conflict with a minister in another church, I encountered some of the typical problems of a small group undergoing dramatic change: disagreements about worship style, power struggles with each other about a multitude of issues, deep deep fear that a minister would try to change everything they loved, even the time of day the congregation met.
And I was a rookie! I was a rookie who had recently undergone quite a shock, learning that I didn’t know everything there was to know about ministry. Many mistakes later, on the part of the congregation and myself, we patched things up and I made preparations to move on.

But the lessons learned from that experience made me a much better, much wiser minister. I learned that too much ego is very dangerous; when one thinks too highly of oneself, one becomes a target! I learned to listen to and learn from criticism but to let go of unkind or anonymous criticism.

I learned that my strengths can also be my weaknesses, when I push them too far. My friendliness and warmth can become intrusive or too personal; my leadership can be seen as bulldozing; my way with words can lead me into eloquent defensiveness!

I learned how important it is to say that I am sorry for a mistake, for a remark that seemed unkind or insensitive, for an action taken in haste. I learned that I needed to atone for mistakes, to make amends, to repair damaged relationships. And I learned, perhaps most importantly of all, that I am only human, that I will make mistakes, that I need to listen when called to account, and that my behavior as a minister speaks far more loudly than any sermon.

These are personal lessons, as well as ministerial lessons. These are things I needed to learn as a human being. All of the lessons I’ve mentioned can be useful in ordinary life, the life of a retiree, for example, or a teacher or a parent or a musician or a cook or spouse.
We’ve each of us experienced these kinds of learnings over our own lifespans. Some of the lessons have “taken”; some of them we may have ignored, preferring not to look too hard at our own lives.

Many of us, I suspect, myself included, have looked at other persons in judgment and said to ourselves, “boy, that person really needs to learn a thing or two!” Negative judgment of others may be one of the hardest lessons to learn and I confess I’m still working on it, every day. It may be that the best I can ever achieve is learning to keep my mouth shut, instead of speaking my negative judgments out loud!

So what does this all have to do with you and me and our relationships with each other, in this congregation? Or in any congregation or group that we may belong to in the future?

Here are a few lessons I believe are valuable for us as a congregation now and in the future to take to heart and keep in our memory banks, in our history, in our everyday work together. They are in no particular order and I rather imagine they are not the only lessons we need to learn! They are just the ones I’ve come up with as I thought about this sermon.

#1. Conflict is a product of living together. Conflict will always arise when people work and play together. It is normal. But it doesn’t have to hurt people if it’s handled thoughtfully. And by thoughtfully, I mean that differences of opinion must be stated tactfully, without conveying scorn or impatience with the other person. Conflict builds up in an unhealthy way when it’s handled secretively, with mean words and actions.

Talking about someone critically behind their back is not helpful; speaking face to face with someone, tactfully and caringly, is much more effective. And I always remember my dad’s admonition at this point. When I think about criticizing someone, I must ask myself “is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?”

#2. Human beings sometimes act out the pain in their personal lives by disrupting congregational life, causing heartache and pain in others by stirring up trouble in the congregation. This is a time for others to act with compassion and love, not by taking sides but by understanding the pain that has come forth in an inappropriate way and helping to alleviate that pain, if possible. And, if not, taking steps to protect the community by creating policies to deal with disruptive behavior. This kind of covenanting is better done during peaceful times, by the way, not in anger.

#3. And great turmoil can open us up to great joy, if we remember our mistakes and learn from them, rather than shoving them underground, refusing to deal with them or to make amends. You may remember the movie “Love Story” in which a favorite line for many couples was “Love is never having to say you’re sorry”. Unfortunately, this romantic line is untrue.

Love means saying sorry whenever it’s appropriate, not glossing over mistakes but owning up to them, making amends if necessary. Many couples carried that line right into the marriage counseling office and left it there, sadder and wiser.

Let’s go back in time again, to that moment at the General Assembly in Spokane in 1995 when the call to ministry came again to me. I woke up the next morning in my hotel room with an old song running through my head.

On my way back to Colorado, after deciding I would enroll at Iliff as soon as possible, I stopped by my parents’ gravesite in Goldendale and sat at their headstone to sing this old song. For me at that moment, it was a personal commitment of myself to the journey of ministry, a moment when I understood that I was taking steps which would change my life forever, giving me a responsibility that I would never shed, that would shape my character in ways I could not predict, and give me challenges that I could only hope to meet.

I’m just going to read the words of the song, as my voice gets wobbly at times, but it occurs to me that these are good values for a congregation as well, that if we can strive to be together in these ways, we will continue to be the healthy, growing faith community that we have become over the past few years.

I would be true, for there are those who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care.
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer;
I would be brave, for there is much to dare (2x).

I would be friend of all, the foe, the friendless;
I would be giving and forget the gift.
I would be humble for I know my weakness;
I would look up, and laugh and love and lift (2x).

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
Hymn #298, “Wake Now My Senses”

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that our lives are a series of lessons, no matter what our circumstances have been. We can learn positive ways of being in the world from these lessons or we can retreat into misery and unhappiness, causing unhappiness in others around us. May we as individuals and as a congregation strive to use the lessons of our lives in helpful, not hurtful ways, seeking always to give love and justice and compassion to each other and to the larger community. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

No comments: