Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Bumbling Ministry

A colleague is planning a book on long term ministry and is interviewing me. Interviews are one thing I don't do very excellently, so I asked for questions in advance. As I look them over, it suddenly comes to me that one thing that has allowed me to stay in ministry and stay in ministry in one place is a high degree of personal tolerance for bumbling....just the opposite of all this excellence-talk that we've been doing for the past two months on this blog.

Yep. Even after 30 years in this business, I feel pretty inept at many things I do, day after day. Leadership development? All I can say is that I try to let people do what they really want to do and fill in the gaps (and patch up the problems) that come. Stewardship? It's definitely not something we do excellently here and I'm not sure how to fix it. We specialize...perhaps even excellently, in chearful frugality. Building Planning? This is my third time around and I still find it messy and confusing and I've been very little help to our committee. Governance? See "leadership development." Staff management? Don't get me started. Pastoral Care? Never my speciality. I do the best I can. It's an important part of the job. Contemporary worship? Small Group Worship? As we start trying to do these thing I realize how very narrow is my realm of excellence. I can do really good worship in a sanctuary, with a hymnal, a pianist, a choir. The rest is bumbling. Now that four of our six weekly services are in the these non-traditional categories, I feel downright inadequate to the need.

Anti-Racism and Multi-Culturalism, the current darlings of ministerial competency? Well....I know a bit of the theory. I'm told we have a pretty multi-cultural congregation by UU standards, but it's mostly because we've been successful in drawing young adults who come by this trait more easily than their elders. How did we do that? I don't have a clue. I noticed it was happening, smiled at them, and dispatched our intern to see how we could help them organize themselves. Now they fill a section of the sanctuary, week after week. Teaching? I did a lot of it as a solo minister and assumed that people just didn't much want courses, these days. Now I have a colleague whose classes draw throngs. I can only assume that that's something he does much better than I ever did. I'm told I'm an excellent preacher, but I know, week after week, how flawed my contributions are. There's only so much time.

Now lest you think that this recital shows that my mental health is in jeopardy in this post-holiday season, please be assured that I have come to regard all of these non-excellencies as just the way things are and I am not deeply bothered by them. Obviously there's a gestalt of ministry around here that is working about as excellently as anyone could expect. We grew by 10% last year, both in membership and in contributions, yet another year on a growth spurt that has outpaced the growth of our city and has now topped 50% in the past 8 years. And in this hard time, the congregation almost doubled it's Fall contributions to the UU Service Committee and to our local Food Bank over last year, which I consider a sign of spiritual maturity that warms my heart. We've just had to add another service (The contemporary one I feel inadequate about) because we're bursting at the seams (and because I couldn't figure out how to initiate a building process 5 years ago when we should of...).

Which brings us back to tolerance for bumbling.

I think, especially in this generalist business of ministry, you have to be downright chearful about all the things you don't do very well, lest you sink under the weight of depression. It's probably important to have a speciality you cherish as your area of excellence. But in the long run, it might be even more important to give oneself a wide latitude for bumbling and trust in the Great Powers of Healing and Renewal to fill in the gaps and patch up the problems.


jfield said...

Do you think this reflects the power of not having a false sense of confidence in everything you do? Is an honest awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses a prerequisite to excellence?

Chutney said...

Thanks for this post.

Robin Edgar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
jb said...

I love your humility, candor, and introspection.

And I think that jfield (above) asks a very good question!

Anonymous said...

this, to me IS the beating of the pastor's heart & very excellent!

Christine Robinson said...

Is an honest awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses a prerequisite to excellence?

Honest awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses is a prerequisite to health, maturity, love, forgiveness, spirituality, leadership, ministry, and probably wealth.

kgoheen said...

This post is a refreshing and powerfully clear exploration of the dynamism flowing in the genius of our covenant tradition. Between its lines I read the beautiful, enduring truth of caring relationships formed around a consistent, loving pastoral presence.

Its not what we do, its who we are. I am reminded of words of a hymn: "Life of ages richly poured, love of God unspent and free". Christine, I suspect that what is most enduring about your ministry is not you, but what pours through your ministry. Amid your bumbling, your congregants are finding a more excellent love, one that needs no perfection but rather perfects by its presence. As a hospital chaplain, I am regularly aware of this presence as it brings healing despite my imperfect prayers and awkward expressions of concern. "What wondrous love is this, oh my soul?"