To Be Entrusted

Sermon Audio: 

The Rev. Susan Milnor
April 30, 2017
It was my first year of ministry. I was not so terribly young, but I was filled with enthusiasm.    When a member asked to meet with me, I thought, great!   Perhaps we could engage in theological reflection or relationship building. 
 
After we sat down, this person, who radiated some tension, said that she needed to tell me something. She had always had male pastors, and she could never regard a woman as her minister.  If she could, she added, it might be me, but in truth it was never going to happen.
 
Now this is not a “poor me” tale. I was fond of this woman, who continued to attend worship nearly every Sunday morning.  If she had not since left this Earth, I would welcome seeing her again. But nothing in my training had prepared me to respond. In the moment, I was not very creative. “Well, thank you for telling me,” I said, and we parted awkwardly, never to speak of the matter again.
 
But over following days, her confession cracked open many questions that ministers and congregations need to answer, at least for themselves. Was I only an employee who was supposed to do what my bosses wanted?  If so, what if they didn’t even acknowledge my right to be there?  And what was my authority as a minister based on after all?  My professional credentials?  The congregation’s consent? My own qualities?  Was I supposed to serve people who didn’t consider me their minister? 
 
Soon, you will be electing a Ministerial Search Committee to identify your next settled minister.  Calling a minister is one of the oldest passages in our tradition, rooted as it is in our congregations’ right to make such decisions for themselves.   It is a passage I hope you anticipate with excitement and energy.   Heck, this event excites me even though it will put me out of business!  But I invite you to consider something serious.  In forming such a new relationship, you entrust your vision of the congregation to that minister, and the minister entrusts that person’s vision of ministry to you.  More importantly, you both entrust your mutual inheritance of the mission of this faith tradition and this congregation to your partnership.   Together you will be challenged to live the promise of an open and inclusive faith, the promise of transforming lives, here, in this city, in this place, in the years to come. 
 
To do that, you need to understand on what basis someone would come here and assume, for a while, this free pulpit.   A minister starts by having the authority of the office of ministry.   I think of it as the bones of the beast.  An important element of this authority is the professional credentialing granted because a person has met the requirements developed over centuries of training ministers.  To be “fellowshipped,” a Unitarian Universalist must earn a Master of Divinity from an accredited theological school; complete a unit of pastoral care or chaplaincy training; do a year of internship in a parish or community setting; pass a battery of psychological tests and professional counseling; read a long list of books; and appear before a Ministerial Fellowship Committee, where lay and ordained panelists ask questions about everything from our tradition’s history to the person’s spiritual development; they then make final judgment on that person’s readiness for ministry. 
 
In addition, if “Reverend” appears before a minister’s name, it means a specific congregation has ordained that person in a ceremony.  Ordination is a congregation’s way of entrusting not its own future, but that of Unitarian Universalism to this person among others.   Any minister who has been fellowshipped and ordained has earned the authority of the office.  And let me be clear.   This is not about privilege or power, and never about abusing the office; it’s about intention.  Generations before us have affirmed that religious communities are important enough to set aside and then hold accountable leaders with training, expertise, and commitment. 
 
A story from history reveals how hard it can be to get to that point.   Universalist Olympia Brown, author of our reading today, was the first woman to be ordained to ministry by a denominational authority in this country.   A Universalist through and through, by the time she graduated from Antioch College, she felt called to ministry.  She applied to Oberlin, where the president said while she could study theology, she could not, as a woman, study for ministry.   The head of Meadville Theological School held that although he himself was not prejudiced against women, he could not go out on a limb for anyone else.  Ebenezar Fisher, the head of St. Lawrence Theological School in Canton, New York, said that he did not believe women should be ministers but that Brown could come live off campus and study Greek (meanwhile, I’m sure, paying tuition).   Leaping on this tiny opening, Brown shocked the administration by arriving in Canton.  Apparently, Fisher thought his letter would be enough to warn her off. 
 
When Brown managed to enroll and began her studies, her course was not smooth.  She was ridiculed by the other students for her high voice and her petite size.  (Don’t say it!)   When she graduated and petitioned the Northern Universalist Association to ordain her, Mr. Fisher’s wife predicted doom: “Next year there will be fifteen women in the class, and then women will flock to the ministry.”  Olympia Brown went on to serve the Westport CT congregation faithfully for some years, but then she took a brief maternity leave.  In her absence, a church leader brought in a guest male minister, who proceeded to tell the members, “What you need here is a Good Man.”  Soon after, the congregation passed a resolution laying out that in the future they could engage “any gentleman of good standing.”  For Olympia Brown, It was all over but the leaving.
 
Being the human, fallible creatures we are, we liberal religionists have struggled at different times with granting the authority of office not only to women, but to people of color, to gay, lesbian and transgender, and differently abled people.  But we must never accept anything less than full inclusion because our very mission as religious people is always to widen the circle.  And so pioneers and others often have to rely on another kind of authority, the kind that really is ultimately more important in any ministry, and that’s what I call relational authority
 
And, yes, relational authority comes in part from the flesh the minister puts on the bones of office:  the passion, integrity, honesty, and compassion that person brings.  But relational authority rests on the congregation too, because in the beginning, and in the end, parish ministry is a partnership between minister and congregation engaged in a mutual vision.  Look at your past two ministries, which lasted between them for over 50 years.  Bert Steeves and Harold Babcock are both very fine ministers in so many ways, but they are very different, in spite of which this congregation embraced both.   Again, congregations get nervous waiting for the search process to conclude, feeling everything rests on the search committee, wishing you could do it instead (because let’s be honest, we’d all like to fly the plane ourselves).   But what they do, as important as it is, is only the first step.  The it will be up to you and the minister to meet with open heart and mind, to find an ethic of respect and trust, to come to love one another.   
 
It was that relational authority that saved Olympia Brown as minister.  After her trials in Bridgeport, she eventually moved west to serve the Church of the Good Shepherd in Racine, Wisconsin, which had fallen on hard times.  She spoke the bald truth of it in her autobiographical writing, “".. . . the pulpits of all the prosperous churches were already occupied by men, and were looked forward to as the goal of all the young men coming into the ministry. .  . All I could do was to take some place that had been abandoned by others and make something of it, and this I was only too glad to do." 
 
And so she brought to Racine what she always brought: passion, enthusiasm, joy, a longing for justice. The congregation met her with open mind and heart, and together they worked to save their future.  In the process, they both remained true to the third authority, perhaps the most important of all: that of serving something higher than oneself or even a congregation.  Brown was deeply committed to justice, and she held a deep faith in a loving, non-judgmental God who was always ready for people to do better.  She did not waiver from that throughout her years of service.   As a biographer says, “Olympia Brown believed that freedom of religious thought would supply the groundwork for all other freedoms.” In Brown’s own words, which we Unitarian Universalists still recite: “Stand by this faith. . . [Rejoice that you are strong enough to work for a true principle without counting the costs.”   That is what Racine and Brown did together.  She called them a “very happy company of believers, bound together by the great principles of Universalism.”  Today over 300 members in Racine are known as the Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church.
 
This sermon appears not because you have had trouble respecting or loving your recent ministers, not because it is uncertain whether good candidates will be attracted to serving you; they will.   But the time of a ministerial search is in some ways an odd beast, and it is always accompanied by a certain level of inevitable anxiety.  You will be tempted to think there is one minister out there who can serve you well and you will want to tell to tell your search committee that they must find someone who preaches this way or leads that way or is just like Harold, or Bert.   And you deserve to tell them your hopes and dreams as much as they will need to hear them. But, in truth, the magic doesn’t lie in a list of traits or competencies, but in the relationship formed between both minister and congregation who are both committed to each other and to the higher and deeper values – love, forgiveness, justice, respect.   
 
If I could time travel back in time to respond to my congregant’s confession again, I would try to do better by her and this faith.  I would say that our congregations affirm a diverse ministry because it is right but also because it enriches our our faith. I would then ask leave to minister unto her to the extent possible in our time together.   Doing that would be to confess my deeply held belief that the divine slips into the creative spaces between and among people acting in good faith in the face of all the obstacles we give ourselves. 
 
Friday, in the Atlanta airport, I receive a fortunate cookie.  Cracked open, it delivered what I take to be a call straight from Olympia Brown:  “You will stand by your strongest convictions.” For us all, may it be so. 
 
 
Copyright    Susan Milnor   2017
 
 
Sources:
“The Life of Olympia Brown.”  sites.google.com/a/ysschools.the.org.life-of-olympia-brown/the writings
 
Cox, Lyn.   “The Many Faces of Olympia Brown.” sksm.edu/up-content/uploads/2014/olympiabrown.pdf