In the words of the late Rev. Gordon McKeeman, “Ministry is what we all do . . . together.” In Unitarian Universalist congregations, ministry is not confined to ordained clergy, but rather is done by all committed community members.
To “minister” is to serve and tend faithfully what is given into our care; other individuals, the community of which we are a part, our society, and our world. At its richest and most meaningful level, ministry is done with the awareness that whoever and whatever we serve is part of the interdependent web that connects us all with God. We are called – in the words of novelist Alice Walker – “to share God” with one another and ministry is that sharing at its deepest and most intentional level.
Congregational life is a smaller version of the interdependent web; linked by shared values and a common purpose, individuals pursue personal ministries of pastoral care, prophetic witness, education, administration, and Sunday celebration that create a complex, interdependent whole. When individual congregants approach their work as “ministry,” rather than just “volunteer service,” there is a qualitative difference for both the worker and the beneficiary of the service. Through “ministering” we embody our deepest values and share God; through volunteer service we donate some time to a worthwhile project.
Congregations that are places of ministry create energy; congregations that seek volunteers consume energy.
Having been specially educated, trained, and credentialed, ordained “ministers” serve a critical role in communities of faith. Ordained clergy are a community’s resident theologians, experts on religious scripture, tradition, and history, practiced liturgists and preachers, and trained caregivers. Their highest calling is the spiritual care of congregants.
Ordained ministers need not know or do everything in a church, but they need to set a moral, emotional, and spiritual example for their people. They are the “non-anxious presence” with a clear mind in times of crisis, and the comforting, reassuring presence in times of grief. In our high speed, high expectation 21st century world of constant contact through technology, ordained ministers remind people that the deepest, richest, most important connections in life are human and Holy, and must be consciously, patiently cultivated over time.
The nature of institutional religion in America is changing and congregations are struggling to find their footing in uncertain times and on uncertain terrain. Effective ministry, lay and ordained, is grounded in the spirit and our tradition, responsive to the demands of justice and the needs of the people today, and focused on the future and how best to achieve the vision of which we dream.
Unitarian minister and chaplain of the United States Senate from 1909-1913, Rev. Ulysses G.B. Pierce wrote, “The aim of religion is not to get us into Heaven, but to get Heaven into us.” I believe that to be true and this belief guides my understanding of ministry.