Monday, May 4, 2015

Ministry in the Congregation

Leadership is a vital aspect of congregational ministry. In my ministry, the leadership I offer comes in two primary modes: vision-casting, and facilitation. Casting vision comes from exploring with a church not only its goals and priorities, but also its collective gifts and characteristics, and discerning a way forward, a plan that meets the goals while remaining true to the unique character of that church. To cast vision means offer a vision to the congregation, consistent with this exploration and discernment, of how the church can live out its principles and values, and engage its liberal religious mission within the church, and in the larger community. This also involves presenting that vision and mission to lay leaders and members in such a way that they do not feel forced to assent to the minister's view, but feel invited to buy into this vision that rises out of the congregation, to claim ownership of it. Especially in times of transition, there is an important call for the church to live into its vision, and to live out its mission, while always keeping our focus, not inward, but out toward those to whom you minister. As I summarize these points: “Affirm your identity. Discern your calling. Serve your community.”
A significant aspect of my leadership role is to help set the conditions in which all stakeholders can claim their voice at the table, while also enforcing appropriate boundaries through any decision-making process. Both in my settled ministry, and my various interim church settings, I worked closely with the boards of those congregations to rethink their understanding of governance, and clarify which issues truly demanded direct board involvement, and which were better delegated to staff members, lay leaders, board committees, and/or ministry teams. This involves gathering and equipping the people of the church, or larger community, in such a way as to promote their use of their individual and collective power to gain insights, reach decisions, and make changes that benefit the whole group.
I have found that for in-depth exploration of intellectual themes, the classroom or small group setting is a far better context than Sunday morning worship. Adult Religious Education (RE) classes provide opportunities for the give-and-take exchange of ideas that fosters deepening of insights. Small group ministry, whether affinity groups or (especially) a more coordinated small group program, can also meet this need for intellectual stimulation while pairing such exploration with the fellowship and intimacy of an on-going group meeting. I greatly enjoy teaching in a small group setting, and will pursue regular opportunities to "proclaim" in these interactive settings in any church I serve. More importantly, I will seek ways to establish an ongoing adult RE program where one is not present, and support or strengthen one that is active.
I also strongly support children's RE, and will look for ways in any congregation I serve to be present with children and parents throughout their experience of church life. In College Station, for example, I attended the monthly RE Committee meeting on the first Sunday of each month, and often participated in some way. That said, I find that I most effectively can support children's RE by entrusting the DRE to do their work well. I intend to collaborate regularly with the DRE, offer support and advice when needed, and otherwise offer them the trust and freedom to accomplish the work effectively, according to the church's broader ministry goals.
Pastoral care is one of the aspects of ministry where the importance of shared ministry comes most clearly into focus. As an interim minister, whose work focuses on helping the congregation discern its present and future roles in the church's various ministries, it has been important that I NOT act as the primary pastoral caregiver. Sharing the caregiving ministry of the church means empowering lay caregivers, remaining in close contact with them, sharing information on those in our church needing care, and referring each other to members we can aid. Other care needs such as rides to church or medical appointments, temporary help with meals while recovering from surgery or illness, or casual conversation partners to alleviate loneliness, best can be filled by lay caregivers. An active member care team is invaluable in any church. Much of my pastoral role as interim minister is to educate and equip these team members to meet the needs they encounter.
Speaking with congregants after worship
Olympia UU Congregation
August, 2017

That said, there are certain aspects of pastoral care best entrusted to the minister, interim or settled. One of the more sensitive and complex aspects of ministry is that of companioning others in their experiences of grief. As I prepared for ministry, I completed my required unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) not at a hospital, but with a hospice agency. Meeting with hospice patients in nursing homes, and in the hospice unit the agency maintained, immersed me in the dying and grieving processes, for families as well as patients. This chaplaincy internship was difficult, but also invaluable in equipping me with the experience to walk with people toward death. I’ve also found that my experience has helped me in working with people grieving for any number of reasons - divorce, relocation, ending of a previous ministry, etc.
Another deeply valuable aspect of my chaplaincy service came after graduating seminary. It was my work in the psychiatric and chemical dependency treatment facility next door to the main hospital, during the year-long CPE residency that followed my graduation from seminary. Regularly attending group sessions in both the inpatient and outpatient programs, and frequently meeting one-on-one with patients, vastly increased my awareness and sensitivity to mental health issues, especially depression and addiction, but also bipolar disorder, various personality disorders, and other conditions. My familiarity with these conditions, my knowledge of how best to support those living through them, and my ability to set appropriate behavioral boundaries with those who struggle to manage their actions, has been greatly enhanced.
In both these modes of leadership, I strive to remain engaged, emotionally and spiritually present with those I'm leading, without getting caught up in the anxieties or worries of those feeling overwhelmed. Maintaining this "non-anxious presence" is not easy for anyone, and even the best of us fall short from time to time. Promoting as much openness in communication as I can, helps; the majority of church conflicts I've experienced have involved miscommunication or lack of communication. Plus, I work to offer new insights to church leaders, with whom I work closely, that can open new ways of considering and resolving issues that face the lay and ministerial leadership alike.

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