Shared Ministry, Lay Ministry, Everyone’s Ministry

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive MillardLighting the Flaming Chalice

“Ministry is a quality of relationship between and among human beings that beckons forth hidden possibilities.
“Ministry is being present with, to and for others, in their terrors and torments, in their grief, misery and pain, and it is knowing that those feelings are our feelings, too.
“Ministry is believing in life even in the presence of death, struggling for human responsibility against principalities and structures that ignore humaneness and become instruments of inhumanity.
“Ministry is all these and much, much more than all of them, present in the wordless, the unspoken, the ineffable. It is speaking and living the highest we know, and yet doing so with the knowledge that it is never as deep, nor as wide, nor as high as we wish.”
from “Anyone’s Ministry” by Rev. Gordon McKeeman

People often come to church because they’re looking for something: a place where it’s not only safe but also encouraged to ask question; a place with people who share similar values and world-views; a place where they can feel part of community.  At it’s simplest, there’s a yearning for a place, like the bar in the TV show Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.”

Sometimes such a community is described as a family.  Or, at least, how families can be at their best.  Nobody looks for a congregation because they want to get into arguments about who has to sit next to the uncle with the inappropriate political views at Passover!  But one aspect of family that does apply is caring for one another.  When somebody is sick or recovering, we care by taking them meals.  When they’re grieving, we send them a card or flowers.  When they need help getting to an appointment, we give them a ride.  So common are these responses to physical needs in congregations that they’re known as the three Rs of caring: rides, roses and rigatoni.

Now in congregations with professional ministry, there can be an artificial sense of distinction between what the minister does and what the congregation does.  What the minister does is ministry by definition, but the latter — somehow — isn’t?  And most people would say that it shouldn’t be the minister who’s taking people meals or giving them rides to the doctor, anyway, perhaps not even the minister organizing those activities, and yet caring, in the sense of those three Rs, is just as much ministry, too.

Think about some of the other things we do as a congregation.  When a layperson leads a service and preaches, that’s ministry.  When someone teaches — whether they’re teaching children, youth or adults — that’s ministry.  When someone serves food to the hungry or takes parts in a civil rights demonstration or lobbies a law-maker on some issue, that’s ministry.  It’s obvious that when these things are done by someone who’s studied theology or gone to seminary to prepare for them, then they’re ministry.  But if they’re done out of a sense of shared religious values, and with the blessing of a congregation grounded in some theological tradition, then they are ministry, too.  That’s why the title the late Rev. Gordon McKeeman gave to his reflection is “Anyone’s Ministry” — though it could just as well be described as “Everyone’s Ministry”.

Still, there is a sense that some things ought to be the specialty of professional ministry, even though Unitarian Universalist theology says that we all have access to the sources of insight and wisdom and compassion whether we’ve been ordained or not.  But preaching and teaching, prophetic witness and pastoral care aren’t restricted to professional ministers — we just have some training in them and, more importantly, congregations pay us to devote ourselves to continually develop those skills.

But there comes a time when a congregation needs more than one minister than give.  Actually, the minister is usually the first one to realize this!  There are only so many hours in the week and we’re only human.  And in terms of relating to people, even with the best memory in the world for holding onto the details of what’s going on in other people’s lives, we run up against a cognitive limit known as Dunbar’s number.  This is, in short, the number of people with whom, thanks to the physiology of the human brain, the average person can maintain stable social relationships.  The most commonly quoted value for that number is 150.  In other words, even with the best will in the world, once any of us try to maintain connections with somewhere around 150 people, we start running into problems simply because of the way our brains are wired.

It’s no accident that most congregations find themselves reaching Dunbar’s number in size and then being unable to grow any further.  There are a few things that can happen at that size threshold to prevent a congregation from growing past it, but one big reason for not growing is that the minister is unable to relate to a bigger number of people.  To be a bigger congregation, in other words, it’s necessary to let go of the idea that everybody can know everybody else — to let go in particular of the idea that the minister can know everybody — and yet still provide ministry to everybody.  And so it is absolutely essential, if it is to cross that threshold, that the congregation engage in shared ministry, where the minister, for want of a better word, deputizes laypeople for certain functions.

Every congregation larger than our Fellowship — if it isn’t in the process of shrinking back down — has some form of shared ministry.  And these aren’t just programs run by lay people, but programs where lay people show up to do certain things just as if the minister showed up to do those things.  It’s not a substitute for professional ministry, but an expansion of professional ministry.  Now if this sounds like a new concept here at the UUFP, you should know that we’ve been faithfully practicing one form of shared ministry for many years, namely Fellowship Circles.  Known more generally as Small Group Ministry, each Fellowship Circle consists of up to ten people, including a trained facilitator or two, in order to provide deep, compassionate listening to one another.  And trained facilitators are essential for this to work, because while I could lead such a group by myself, I can’t lead half a dozen of them!

During the last couple of years, we’ve been starting to try out another form of shared ministry, this one focusing on individual pastoral care.  The fact is that I can’t visit as often as I’d like every person who might benefit from a pastoral conversation because they haven’t been able to get here on a Sunday morning.  For that matter, given life’s realities, I may not always be able to provide what is essentially “spiritual first aid” when someone is struck by existential crisis.  (Especially when that happens five minutes before a service is about to begin!)  So in order to expand upon professional ministry, a growing number of congregations are training (and then, just as importantly, coaching on an on-going basis) a cadre of “Lay Pastoral Care Associates” who can offer this form of ministry, too.  As such, they are assigned to visit church members who can no longer make it to Sunday services or to other programs, offering the simple gift of pastoral presence through compassionate listening.

To be clear, any such program of lay ministry is an extension of the minister’s own presence, adding to — and not substituting for — professional ministry.  Each lay ministry associate also acts in the congregation’s interest as the minister would, and is accountable to the minister for that.  Being an associate is thus different from being a volunteer in a similar area of congregational life.  Lay ministry is not merely getting a job done, but is engaging deeply in the spiritual companioning of meeting other people where they are.

And that, really, is what being here is all about.  A congregation is a group of like-hearted people who gather in community to share the gifts of their lives with one another.  Each of us may possess some form of expertise that we choose to offer one another in response to needs in our personal lives, but a congregation is not a social services organization or a counseling center or a legal aid society.  At the end of the day, the most important thing we can do for one another as a community is to be present, to listen to one another with deep compassion, to hear one another’s pain without making it a competition, and to remind one another that no matter who we are, this is a special place where we are loved, where we will always be loved.  What we do as a congregation is not only anybody’s ministry, but everybody’s ministry.  It is “never as deep nor as wide nor as high as we wish”, but that’s why we are a community.

First UU in Richmond is offering a Lay Pastoral Care training on November 11th (a Friday) and 12th (a Saturday).  The nine-hour training will equip attendees with a basic knowledge to become part of a minister-led team that provides caring presence, spiritual support and hope to those in a time of need.  Members of First UU will provide home hospitality.  Please let me know if you are interested in attending the training.

About acmillard

Andrew serves as minister to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in Newport News, Virginia.
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