On Church Work

Here are some reflections on my philosophy and approach to parish ministry – a summary of my learnings from practical experience, and the current direction of my professional development.

RELIGION, CHURCH AND MINISTRY

The core of religion is coming to terms with what is within and what is beyond our abilities – this, in traditional theological language, is called the question of grace and works. Coming to terms means recognizing the difference between what is within and what is beyond our power – the line between them moves – and developing acceptance and gratitude for grace, as well as forgiveness for works gone wrong. This in turn requires a foundation of love and trust in human relations and toward all that is beyond them.

Within a church, love and trust are the foundation for worship, pastoral care and religious education. On these core ministries of a church, in turn, rest all that goes into achieving the mission and maintenance of the church organization. Worship is where we unite as a community to affirm the values we share that nurture and sustain us. Pastoral care is how we make our church community safe for one another, especially at our most vulnerable times. Religious education is where we learn skills to deepen our spiritual lives as individuals and as a faith community.

All ministry is shared, because it is beyond the ability of any one of us – even the minister – to achieve excellence in a church’s worship, pastoral, educational and missional life. Each of us can do our very best toward excellence in our own efforts; the excellence of the church is a group effort. Besides my own direct efforts in these core ministries, I can offer coaching to groups of lay leaders committed to their excellence. A congregation that maintains core teams for the support of worship, pastoral care and religious education will be in a position to take best advantage of my skills. (It might seem obvious that a congregation would do so, but I have experienced otherwise.)

Many congregations desire to grow. The ones that do, first achieve excellence in worship, pastoral care and religious education. Excellent worship inspires repeat visits. Excellent pastoral care – in the form of a conscious ministry of friendship with visitors and newcomers, committed to help them form six real friendships with church members within six months – helps repeat visitors to affiliate. Excellent religious education empowers newcomers to go deeper in our faith. Inspiration, real friendship, and spiritual empowerment produce durable growth in membership. Opportunities to socialize and to work together on specific projects can assist, but to rely on these alone – invite them to dinners and get them on a committee – is to engage in wishful or even magical thinking. It is in our power to truly worship, to truly befriend, and to truly practice our spirituality. When we do, visitors want to be with us, and they stay.

The four core ministries of a church – worship, pastoral care, religious education, and mission – may be present within a single program, in twos or threes or even all four. Part of assessing any given program is identifying what ministries of the church it serves. A measure of the excellence of a given program is its degree of integration with the ministries it serves. Even opportunities to socialize or pursue intellectual interests together at least participate in the friendship ministry of pastoral care and can be conducted with attention to that ministry.

In addition to my specific responsibilities listed in your serving agreement, I can (as an ex-officio member of your board and committees) offer you leadership by example, by coaching and by encouraging you to assess the programs of your church by its core ministries.

Social Ministry

Effective social ministry is built on enduring partnerships with our neighbors and flows from the meaningful relationships we build beyond our doors. Thoreau Congregation’s participation in the City of Stafford’s annual Spring Clean-Up Day grew from its efforts to work with the city to build its building. I instituted a weekly in-kind offering in our worship service to deepen our involvement with the local food pantry.

Beyond congregation-based social ministry, I have at times volunteered my professional services in the community. While serving the Live Oak congregation in Goleta, California, I served as a volunteer on-call chaplain. More recently, I have worked as a hospital staff chaplain – a community ministry.

Denominational Service

My career began in denominational service, as a transition minister in Sacramento. I have since served twice more in that capacity, in Pasadena and Goleta.

While serving congregations in southern California, I joined the Pacific Southwest District’s congregational consulting team, leading Board and committee retreats, and workshops on music and policy governance.

Currently, I serve on the UUA’s Music Leadership Credentialing Committee, which oversees a certificate program for church musicians.

Professional Development

Throughout my career I have pursued various opportunities for developing my professional skills. For example, the annual retreat of the Malibu Study Group has been a regular part of my professional development since 2002. In twelve years of ministry, however, I never took a sabbatical. I decided when I left the Thoreau congregation that, instead of jumping immediately into the search process, I needed to take a self-funded sabbatical to reflect on my past ministries and prepare for future ones. I funded this time away from parish ministry through work in hospital chaplaincy, supply preaching, weddings, dedications and memorial services.

I also enrolled in the FIND Spiritual Director Training Program of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. My tuition was funded in part by a professional development grant from the UUA. I graduated from this three-year program in June 2014. Spiritual direction is one-on-one shared reflection focused on the directee’s spiritual practice and experiences of meaning and the sacred, meant to assist your journey of spiritual growth. (Though the words “director” and “directee” are used, the work isn’t actually “directive” but rather a ministry of support and empowerment for the spiritual life.)

 

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