STATEMENT ON MINISTRY FROM MY UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST MINISTERIAL PROFILE
As a child growing up on a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin I experienced God in two very different ways. The first of which was worshiping at the Methodist country church which had been founded and built by my grandparents and the other European settlers in that community at the turn of the last century. There were only twelve pews, filled mainly with extended family. My grandmother played the pump organ and my aunts and older cousins taught Sunday School. God was our benevolent father and his son was not only our Savior, but because we knew him within the context of a family church, our kin. The second manner in which I experienced God and God’s presence through the Holy Spirit was while walking in the pastures and woods of our farm. One of my earliest memories is of standing in a grove of oak trees feeling the wind flow over me knowing that it was the Divine Presence caressing and caring for me.
One of the most transformative of my faith experiences occurred when I was mugged while walking home from the theater one night in New York. I had been dragged into a construction site and just as one of the men was going to run a knife through me while the other one held me I had what is known as a Near Death Experience. I left my body and went to a place of peace, light, and all knowingness. God and the angels were at a bright opening waiting for me, as were people whom I loved and knew, but for whom I had no names.
The experience that led me to finally answer my call to ministry was watching the towers of the World Train Center burn and collapse on September 11th, 2001. As I stood with my dogs and my neighbors at the end of our block on the Hudson River in Greenwich Village watching people leap to their deaths and then comforting those who had escaped and were making their way from the scene, something moved in me. Not only was my world changed forever, but so was I. Questioning where God was in such immense suffering and tragedy led me to seminary.
In the congregations I have served the goal of my ministry has been to change people’s lives. Actually, I do what I feel is necessary to open people up to a greater reality or to create a worship environment conducive to the presence of the Holy Spirit and then let God do the rest, for it is God who has the power to transform us, if we allow God to work with us. I recently had a congregant ask me about my ministry and I told him about this goal and he responded by saying that he didn’t want to change or even felt he needed to change. Ha! That’ll teach me to assume that people come to church in order to grow and evolve! For some people it’s the coffee hour. And you know what? God is most certainly present there, too.
Revelation is ongoing. Wisdom, knowledge, truth, and guidance are to be found in the scriptures and writings of all religions and in the oral traditions of native religions and spiritual practices. God speaks to us through other people and in a myriad of other ways. In Gethsemane Jesus exhorted the disciples to “stay awake” and to “watch and pray.” So, too, with us, we must remain spiritually fit through the practice of meditation, prayer, and mindfulness in order to hear God’s voice and feel God’s presence. At all of my congregations I have taught prayer classes and also yoga and meditation at my latest. One of my greatest sources of guidance other than the Bible comes from the daily reading of the Bhagavad Gita. The parallels between the teachings of Jesus and those of Krishna are enlightening.
The Hebrew and Christian scriptures which comprise our Bible are an ongoing source of joy and amazement to me. The more fully I live and experience life with all its joys and sorrows the more I find solace and inspiration in the Book. As I grow in my faith, the scriptures take on new meaning. The more I live the more answers I find in them. For instance, the other day I was reading the daily office before I got out of bed. The Gospel reading was John 5:1-15, the story of Jesus healing the sick man by the pool outside one of the gates of Jerusalem. He had picked up his mat and walked away, but was spotted by the Temple authorities who told him, “It’s the Sabbath! You’re not allowed to carry that mat around!” I realized that lately I’ve been like them, so focused on the little things so that I don’t see the miracles!
The longer I do ministry the more I realize that it’s not all about me doing for others or leading a congregation, but about my ministry being a mechanism by which God can work among the people—that we all do ministry together. Congregational ministry is where I continue to learn about who I am by having the people reflect back to me what it is I must be working on in myself and how it is I am relationship with them. In my last congregation a black woman who I had noticed attending services for a number of weeks came to speak to me after the service. I noticed she had an accent and because she was black I asked her, “Are you from the Caribbean?” She looked at me and replied, “No. I’m German, just like you. (My mother was from Germany.) What a great lesson! I had made an assumption about her based on her race. Bless her for teaching me. For me to lead and learn simultaneously is a wonderful challenge and is one of the gifts of the Spirit. We can do these together through the power and gift of Covenant. This is also a good example of how Christian education begins with what all of us in the church do and say. Our young people are observant and internalize what they see going on in the life of the church and in the relationships of the members and pastor.
On Sundays when we enter the sanctuary for worship “me” should become “we.” By being in community—by being the body of Christ—we put the needs of the church and the community before our own and by doing that our priorities become reordered. By the grace of God, together we are greater than we are as individuals. The many young adults that were at my last church were really good about this. They, more than the older adults, had this spirit of “us” and “ours” and how can “we” be in covenant with one another. They, of course, had their own personal needs and expectations (some of which I heard about in pastoral counseling sessions) but because of their excitement about the church those things took a back burner to the experience of being together for worship and service. Their inclusiveness is due partly to the egalitarian nature of social media and they were instrumental in transforming how we got the message out by teaching us how to utilize different communication platforms.
The congregation should be focused outward rather than inward so that we can see the world around us and then respond through the visioning process to what it is God calls us to do. Jesus so perfectly modeled for us how to love our neighbor as our self and how to do onto others what we would have others to do onto us. At one of my congregations there was much anxiety about how we were going to be able to maintain the buildings and make repairs to them. Well, that’s always a challenge with churches and always will be, but they were really focused on this “problem.” They also did almost no missional work. So, when a social justice team formed and identified some ministries that were needed in the neighborhood of the church and then people started doing those ministries, suddenly repairing the buildings didn’t seem as important, or, at least, not as urgent. My job was then to equip the people to do these ministries.
Worship is a time for laugher as well as praise, prayer, and learning. God loves a “joyful heart” and a “cheerful giver!” I’m naturally a joyful and fun loving person and that comes out in the liturgical elements of the service as well as my preaching, but sometimes I think that more people have been healed by laughter rather than something they heard in sermons. As an elderly woman told me one Sunday morning, “When you get us laughing, that’s when I feel God’s presence, not the prayer, not the readings—the laughter.” Amen to that!
I am committed to anti-racism, anti-oppression, anti-classism work within the congregation, which is a difficult, but fruitful undertaking. I am dedicated to multiculturalism and have found inspiration in my colleague, the Rev. Dr. Marion Miller, pastor of the multicultural service, Later@St. Lukes. At my latest congregation we focused on creating multi-cultural worship, striving for there always to be peoples of color, different abilities, ages, economic status, and sexual orientation and gender expression/identity involved in planning and leading worship.
Every day when I awaken I give God thanks for the great gift and responsibility of ministry. It is rare that I don’t think to myself, “You are the luckiest man alive.”