February 17, 2002
Reflections on my journey toward ministry: Part I
Inge shared with me last Friday I believe that we needed someone to speak today and asked if she could put me down. I said, sure. I’m not sure what the topic will be but I’ll let you know. Well, since the average sermon takes about 20 hours to develop, according to UU folks who keep up with statistics like that, I surely wasn’t going to able to do something from “scratch” with all of the other work I had to do this week. So I thought that I might just share with you some reflections on my journey toward ministry thus far and include within it some of the information about the books I’ve been reading and read some of the critiques or reflections that I’ve written as a part of this process.
First of all let me share with you the steps in this process, just in case you’re wondering about things like – “what does it mean that she got a green light!!”
The first thing one does if she or he is interested in UU ministry is to inform the UU Ministerial Education Office and/or the appropriate Regional Sub-Committee on Candidacy office indicating intent to pursue fellowship as a UU minister. At that point they will list you as having “applicant” status and send you a packet of information which SHOULD scare any but the most serious applicants away!
The next stage in preparation is the Aspirant status and before you can be given this status you must be accepted to an accredited theological school. As you all know, my choice was Meadville Lombard’s modified residency program. The application process for that program was quite extensive and included sharing an 8 page reflection and a formal interview. There were only four openings in that program for this year so I was fortunate be accepted. Now in addition to showing the regional committee evidence that you’ve been accepted into a Masters of Divinity program at a theological school, you must also complete an Initial Inquiry form and a 1 to 2 page essay on ministerial aspirations and relevant biography. Additionally, you must be interviewed by another Unitarian Universalist minister and that individual completes the required interview form assessing their perceptions of you as a potential minister and submits it to the committee. When all of that is in, you are designated as a Aspirant. As an aspirant in the South Regional Subcommittees charge, I received a newsletter called “Rising Stars” with helpful information to prepare one for candidacy. Additionally the subcommittee holds retreats for the aspirants. I was unable to go to the one last year but will attend this year and have been invited by the committee to preach at the retreat’s worship service. The next step you go for is candidate status. This includes completing an approved career assessment program. That means you have to choose a center off of their list. The nearest one for me was Decatur so I made the appointment for the two day individual assessment and received an extensive report that was quite interesting. You also fill out some more forms for the committee agreeing to abide by various rules, etc. and complete a year of so of studies in theological school. You also have to send in a couple more essays and complete a review of your financial situation. Plus you must give them the names of four references they can call and check up on you. When you’ve done all of this, they schedule an interview with you. And that’s why I was in Orlando last weekend.
Now, let me tell you, they do their homework before you get there. I think they knew more about me, my strengths and my “rough edges” than I knew about myself. Anyway, they invite you to a dinner and they invite other area ministers as well. That’s where they look to see if you eat your peas with the right fork. Then they have a meeting to supposedly share with everyone there what they do, but believe me, it’s all a part of your evaluation. They are observing all you do and say during that meeting time. Finally, the next day they complete the formal interview. Then you leave for 30 to 45 minutes while they talk about you, then they call you back in and share the results and recommendations. Fortunately, I received the coveted “green light.” They did make some very appropriate recommendations and I’ll be working on those as I continue my preparation.
Now, that I’ve been approved for candidacy, I’m expected to complete the approved reading list. Thankfully, some of them (but not all) are books that we are using in classes that I’ve taken either at Meadville Lombard or on-line from Starr King. For the Meadville Lombard classes, we received the readers and lists of other books to buy back in July so that we would have plenty of time to read these and do our written assignments before arriving on campus. Usually the written assignments were essays or critiques of the readings. I’ll share an example with you today. In addition to numerous other assignments, my worship and preaching class required us to do three essays related to a variety of books and readings. The one I’ll share today relates to books that were assigned on preaching. I entitled it, Traveling with the Preachers.
Traveling with the Preachers
When my seventy-five year old dad heard that I was going to be working on a Master of Divinity degree he said, “Whatcha gonna do? Be a preacherette?” To most men and women in my dad’s generation, to be a minister is to be a preacher. That is what ministers do. Ministers preach. Today we realize that the role of minister is much more complex. However, the responsibility to preach maintains a position of profound importance.
The readings assigned served as helpful guideposts as I journeyed into the world of homiletics. The first road I traveled was with Fred Craddock. Craddock’s book entitled Preaching is described by its author as a textbook on preaching. And it is. Therefore, I am glad I read it first. The text begins with a list of assumptions discussed by the author. It was during the reading of the first assumption (learning to preach is difficult) that I realized that the overriding “assumption” of the author concerning his readers is that we were all Christians and that our sermons would all be based on biblical scripture. That was important for me to understand up front. It allowed me to travel that road with the knowledge that the foundation of the highway was the authority of the scripture. Then having accepted that road for the trip with Craddock, I was ready to learn all he had to offer. One of the lessons he offered early in the text is an explanation of how “the word” becomes “The Word” in preaching.
The preacher takes the words provided by culture and tradition, selects from among them those that have the qualities of clarity, vitality, and appropriateness, arranges them so as to convey the truth and evoke interest, pronounces them according to the best accepted usage, and offers them to God in the sermon. It is God who fashions words into the Word.(19).
I quoted that because I underlined it. Craddock’s book is one in which the reader underlines a lot. Usually one underlines profusely because the author writes with such authority that you certainly expect to see it on a test or something. But sometimes you underline because you connect to the words. And you want to make that connection something more permanent. Here are a few of those places where my pen lines demonstrate a connection between Craddock and me
No one can increase the volume in the pulpit to such a level as to muffle the echo of lost convictions. Passion makes one persuasive. (24)
Preaching is not only set in tradition but is itself an act of traditioning, not only done in a pastoral context but is itself a pastoral act, not only located within a liturgy but is itself a liturgical act….not only has a theological context but is itself a theological act. (47)
Time spent in study is never getting away from daily work but getting into daily work. (70)
Those who pray as though all depends upon God still bear the burden of working as though all depends upon themselves. (154)
These and many other gems are inscribed within a carefully laid out text which organizes the study of preaching into three parts, eleven chapters, and thirty-nine subheadings. Craddock’s road was fairly easy for me to navigate since there were signs and mileposts all along the way to let me know where I was and where I was going. However the road itself was built for a traditional Protestant Sedan and therefore, it was somewhat uncomfortable for my more radical vehicle. Nevertheless, I did gain a great deal of foundational information as well as invaluable ideas concerning sermon preparation and delivery.
At the end of Craddock’s road, I decided to turn onto Lowry’s Lane, also entitled: The Sermon: Dancing the Edge of Mystery. Eugene Lowry’s style of writing was a problem for me. Because I’m in higher education, I do value appropriate referencing of scholarship. However, Lowry threw so many names and quotes into the mix of his ideas that it was difficult to focus on the major points. For example, when he discusses the centrality of movement, he states:
You can feel it inside Craddock’s observation that preaching depends not just in getting something said but in getting it heard. Paul Scott Wilson named it well when he said, “We want something that will encourage us to think of the sermon. . . as growing, organic, or living, as having movement and rhythm.” Hence, we may choose to “talk about the flow.” To do so is not simply to be “fiddling with sermon form.” Such issues as order, arrangement, and pattern, says M. Eugene Boring, “help the sermon to flow” toward the desired goal of “bearing the hearers along with its movement.” (55)
However, as I traveled this road cluttered with too many billboards, I did reach the destination that Lowry desired. That destination is the understanding of “sermon as plot.”
Whatever the diversity of types of contemporary new homiletic preaching, all involve a sequencing strategy “in which the arrangement of ideas takes the form of a plot involving a strategic delay of the preacher’s meaning.” (57)
His descriptions of the various types of narrative sermons were helpful and revealing. For example, I did not realize until I read his description of the African American preaching style how closely this style seems to mirror a satisfying sexual experience. Lowry himself did not use those tantalizing words. However one easily can see that Lowry used words and phrases in his discussion of the African American preacher that would lead the reader to this climactic conclusion.
Next in my travels, I met Barbara Brown Taylor. Ah, I have found a soul sister here! Although her stated beliefs may not exactly match my own, she walks down the road at my pace and her conversation is moving and enjoyable. The book is entitled The Preaching Life but it is not a book about preaching. Instead, it’s a book in which Taylor shares with readers her life as a preacher. Like Craddock and Lowry, Taylor’s preaching life is firmly based in Christianity. And she makes it plain that her sermons are firmly based in scripture.
For me, to preach is first of all to immerse myself in the word of God, to look inside every sentence and underneath every phrase for the layers of meaning that have accumulated there over the centuries. It is to examine my own life and the life of the congregation with the same care, hunting the connections between the word on the page and the word at work in the world. It is to find my own words for bringing those connections to life, so that others can experience them for themselves. (32).
As I review my markings in Taylor’s book, I see much with which I disagree. So why do I feel so connected? I believe it is because we care about the same things. Taylor always seems to use the Bible and Christian teachings to illustrate those aspects of caring. I sometimes use the Bible but more often use other sources. Yet the end result is the same. As Taylor suggests in her sermon on Love: “So love God. Love a neighbor. Be a neighbor, and let us not complicate things by arguing about the specifics” (120).
Where, oh where is William Shulz? He was supposed to meet me at this intersection and shareTransforming Words to help me continue my journey. But alas, he has not yet arrived. I am impatient. Therefore I will report on my journey thus far and share reflections on that reading later. Perhaps it is just as well to close before the journey is complete. Because in reality, it’s never complete.
Well, the UU’s finally picked me up. I am so much more comfortable riding with Schulz and friends. I do realize that I can learn a great deal from folks that are not Unitarian Universalists and I have learned much from the other assigned readings. But these UU preachers excite me, energize me, challenge me, humble me and, indeed, transform me. Let’s put down the top and turn up the radio! (End of Essay)
I hope this provides you with a glimpse into what my life has been like in preparation for ministry. You may wonder where I go from here. Well, along with continuing my classes – next year and the following year, I’ll be involved in a praxis experience in which I must work 10 hours a week in a supervised experience. I plan to work with a committee in devising goals which will allow me to spend part of that time working here with my home congregation and part of it in establishing a campus ministry for Georgia Southern. Then next summer I will complete my CPE – which is an supervised experience in a hospital setting (usually) doing work as a chaplain. I will need to move to do this since there are no accredited centers in this area. My plan is to do my year long internship after I retire from Georgia Southern (which will be in 2005) unless House Bill 211 passes which will allow for earlier retirement without severe penalties. So hopefully, I’ll graduate from Meadville Lombard in 2006. I don’t yet know what I’ll be doing as a minister. I have been learning some about the extension work that the association is doing – starting new churches. And I may work with that. Or I may work with two or three small congregations. Or perhaps I’ll be a Unitarian Universalist tele-evangelist! Who knows? But no matter what I do, I’ll need all of you to help me along the way. And I thank you and love you for being supportive of me in this journey.
In closing, I’ve chosen one of the essays that I was required to share with the regional sub-committee to share to you today.
(I began with a quote by A.W. Pinero)
Those who love deeply never grow old; they may die of old age, but they die young
The question that I was required to answer in the essay was:
Why did you choose to prepare for the UU Ministry?
“I did it for LOVE.”
Now that old cliché just sounds too simplistic, too naive, and too idealistic. But, indeed, those words do conceptualize my reasoning for preparing for the UU Ministry. More specifically, my choice can be related to (1) my love of Unitarian Universalism, (2) my love of learning, and (3) my love of service.
I became attracted to Unitarian Universalism many years ago. The advent of Cable TV brought with it all sorts of programming which had not been available from our local stations. And one of the programs that caught my interest was an informational segment about Unitarian Universalism and, more specifically, the Church of the Larger Fellowship. I was amazed that there actually was a church that was THAT free! And I secretly sent off for the materials. You see, I was married to a deacon in a Southern Baptist church in rural south Georgia. After receiving UU materials, I would read them when I was in the bathroom with the door closed and I was assured that the smell of my physical and spiritual activity would keep my husband away. Although I had been fairly open with my husband through the years about our different views and ideas, these revelations always seemed to distress him greatly. So it was not really out of fear, but out of concern for a man who easily became depressed that I closeted my spiritual activity. A few years ago, he became even more depressed because he was in love with a young woman who was also married. His despair finally became intolerable for me and I woke up and filed for divorce. Now, as a very active member of the Statesboro Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, my attraction for UU has grown into a wonderful love. Because the association, the members, and the ideas are so dynamic and vibrant, I continue to be amazed and my love grows. This is not to say that I haven’t experienced difficulties in UU or with some of its members. Of course, I have. But the exciting thing is that we are FREE to DISAGREE! How refreshing!
My “love of learning” has also contributed to my decision. Fortunately, my career as a university professor and administrator has enabled me to remain in a setting where continual learning is expected and reinforced. Although I have not been classified as a “student” for many years, I have been able to study, research, write, and present my ideas to others who also enjoy the exhilaration of discovery and learning. Although I have always been interested in the ministry, I have never formally studied in this area. The Master of Divinity curriculum provides a course of study that should stretch my knowledge, skills, and proficiency.
Finally, my “love of service” is a major determiner of my choice. I have an extremely strong work ethic and a high energy level. So I’m not going to “retire” and sit on the porch. More importantly, I have a great need to try to make a difference. I see considerable needs in this region. I am a blessed and privileged person in that I will have a retirement income in a few years that will allow me to serve in a more focused manner than I now do. I want to prepare myself for that opportunity and responsibility by studying for the ministry.
Some may ask, “What about your love of God? Do you feel that God called you to prepare for ministry?” My higher power is the power of love. For me, God is Love. So, I believe that I can honestly answer in the affirmative to that question. Yes, I did it for LOVE.
Amen and Blessed Be