Answering the Call

Answering the Call

One of the defining features of Unitarian Universalism is the dispersion of responsibility for ministry throughout the congregation. The congregation as a whole shares responsibility with the minister for the ministry of the congregation and each of us as members of the congregation have an opportunity and a responsibility for our personal share of that ministry. Ministry in this context refers to anything we do that furthers the mission and work of the congregation as a spiritual community. For many of you, this may be obvious and old news, but for me until recently this idea was never a central organizing feature shaping my understandings and my actions as part of this community. I had always thought of ministry as something that our professional minister or ministerial staff does or that our specially-trained lay ministers do.
I imagine that most UU ministers experience a call to the ministry. They don’t just wake up one morning and decide to become ministers. The initial experience of being called to the ministry appears to be for many a process that unfolds over time with progressively greater degrees of breadth and depth to that call. UU ministers are also called by their congregations and through a complex process UU ministers respond to that call as they enter into a covenantal relationship with their congregations. But what about ordinary members of the congregation? How are we called to our shared ministry and how do we even recognize the call if and when it occurs?

One reason it never occurred to me that I had a personal, shared responsibility for the ministry of FUUSN was that I had no way of recognizing that I was being called to ministry in the first place. In retrospect, my call to ministry showed up initially as a vague recognition of an unfulfilled need in myself: a need for greater community and connection with others; a need for affirmation by others of some of my most cherished values; a need for greater meaning and purpose, and a need to engage my personal agency in making my community a more just and equitable place for all. The call to ministry also arose as I recognized the needs of others and the needs of the FUUSN community and realized that I possessed certain talents, skills, knowledge, and capacities for caring that positioned me to make a difference in the lives of others, both within and without the FUUSN community. As my personal needs and the needs of the Congregation began to align with one another, I shifted from resisting the requests to volunteer for things to willingly embracing those requests. None of this recognition came easily or quickly, however, and none of it felt like a calling. I was constantly feeling challenged to understand FUUSN as an institution and to develop my place and identity in FUUSN.

What was missing was a clear understanding of the relationship between ministry and mission on both a personal and a congregational level. Mission is our identity and our purpose, our reason for being who we are and for doing what we do, in this case within the context of our spiritual life at FUUSN and beyond. How we are in the world and what we do in the world becomes ministry when our being and our actions are tied to our mission. Mission in this sense defines our being and our doing as ministry. Once I understood mission and its relationship to ministry, I was able to make sense of the evolution of my active engagement with FUUSN in terms of ministry and mission. In other words, I was able to retrospectively recognize that I had been called for some time to personal ministry.

For me there is an intimate and intricate organic relationship between one’s personal mission and ministry as a member of FUUSN and the broader mission and shared ministry of the Congregation. They co-develop and co-evolve, each shaping and influencing the other. The mission of the Congregation can be thought of as an emergent product of the personal missions of each and every member of the Congregation and these personal missions in turn are continually influenced and shaped by the broader mission of the Congregation. The shared ministry of the Congregation is similarly an outgrowth of the personal ministries of each and every member, and these personal ministries combine and interact to produce our shared ministry.

Our congregational mission is not to be confused with a congregational mission or purpose statement. Such a statement is an attempt to capture and articulate our shared mission at a given point in time. These statements are important because they help orient us in broad strokes to the identities, values and purposes shared by the Congregation as a whole. And these statements can work because in broad terms congregational missions tend to be relatively stable over time. But these statements can also be misleading if they stop us from inquiring with awareness into our own living and breathing sense of personal mission as that mission shows up in our everyday experience. Mission statements are also problematic when few if any members of the Congregation are even aware of them. At a governance orientation for the Board of Trustees this past fall, not one Board member including myself could spontaneously and clearly articulate FUUSN’s mission. Only after it was pointed out that FUUSN did have a mission statement circa 2009 in the purpose section of the FUUSN bylaws did I realize that FUUSN’s mission statement has been hiding in plain view for almost a decade and may have been operative for as long as 20 years before that.

So how does all this matter for our immediate future? This matters because ministry and stewardship can be viewed as two sides of the same coin. As I mentioned in last month’s newsletter Board column, stewardship arises when we take on shared responsibility for the present and future flourishing of this community. Stewardship involves our generous gifts of our time, talents, skills, knowledge, and financial resources to support our personal and collective ministry—our everyday actions and the everyday actions of others that further FUUSN’s mission. Ministry is the vehicle by which we realize our mission.

For me, the crucial piece in recognizing and owning my call to shared ministry has been realizing that FUUSN’s mission is as much about FUUSN’s future potential as it is about FUUSN’s present or past reality. It is the recognition that I need not be bound—that we as a Congregation need not be bound–by our personal past with FUUSN, our emotional reactions to FUUSN’s past or recent history, or the community’s cultural inheritance in shaping our present and future practice of shared ministry. While all of these factors are important to take into account, it is our present and future mission that is crucial in guiding our practice of shared ministry. It is our willingness and ability to recognize and hear our own call, to clarify our shared mission, to take on our shared ministry and to invest in our shared stewardship that will determine how deeply and fully we are able to realize our future potential. For too long we have been at times a house divided, our energies fragmented by disappointments, disenchantment, distrust, and unresolved grievances. So I invite you all to take the time necessary to listen closely for your personal call, to answer that call, to discover or rediscover our shared ministry, to work together towards clarity in our collective mission, and to align our collective energies towards fully realizing FUUSN’s potential as we go forward together. -Cris Krebs