Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Sermon: "The Care & Feeding of Interns" (Delivered 8-17-08)

[In preparation for becoming a teaching congregation I invited my friend Elaine Aron to share the pulpit with me on this Sunday. Elaine is a student at Meadville-Lombard, the daughter of a member of the church I serve, and is about to become the Intern Minister at the UU Church in Davis, California. For a note on the title of this service, scroll to the end of this document.]

First Reading by Theodore Parker
“For the last year or two, the congregation did not exceed seventy persons, including the children. I soon became well acquainted with all in the little parish, where I found some people of rare enlightenment, and some truly generous and noble souls. I knew the characters of all, and their thoughts. I took great pains with the composition of my sermons; they were never out of my mind. I had an intense delight in writing and preaching; but I was a learner quite as much as a teacher, and was feeling my way upward with one hand while I tried to lead with the other…

“I sought illumination and confirmation from all sources. For historical things, I sought historical evidence; for spiritual things, I found ready proof in the primal instincts of the soul, and confirmation in the life of religious people. The simple life of the farmers, weavers, mechanics, about me, of its own accord, turned into a sort of poetry, and reappeared in the sermons, as the green woods, not far off, looked in at the windows of the meeting house.

“I think I preached only what I had experienced in my own inward consciousness, which widened and grew richer as I cam into practical contact with living people, turned time into life.”
Second Reading by Wendell Berry

There is finally the pride of thinking oneself without teachers.
The teachers are everywhere. What is wanted is a learner.
In ignorance is hope. If we had known the difficulty, we would not have learned even so little.
Rely on ignorance. It is ignorance that teachers will come to.
They are waiting, as they always have, beyond the edge of the light

The teachings of unsuspected teachers belong to the task, and are its hope.
The love and the work of friends and lovers belong to the task, and are its health.
Rest and rejoicing belong to the task, and are its grace.
Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.

Sermon Part I by Elaine Aron
I think that Wendell Berry, the author of the poem that I read this morning, must have been an intern minister at some point. As I have been preparing to be an intern minister this fall in Davis, California, I keep returning to Berry’s words and finding myself struck by how clearly they speak to my situation. They remind me of how I need to approach this upcoming year in order to be a bold learner and, ultimately, to be transformed into a minister. On a deeper level, his words remind me of how I want to approach life.

Berry warns the reader of the “pride of thinking one’s self without teachers.” Without teachers? Well, that shouldn’t be a problem for me. I mean, I have spent the majority of my life in school at this point. I’m a student, I’m in seminary, how could I think of myself without teachers?

But, the thing is, I want to be really good at this internship. I want to wow the congregation with my preaching that is commanding—yet humble—and betrays a wisdom beyond my years. I want to have an air of compassion and calm that silently announces my skills as a pastor and a counselor. I want to attend board meetings and staff meetings and think, “Oh yeah, I can totally see myself doing this.” I want the reviews from my internship committee to knock the socks off the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Basically, I want to get an A+ at internship.

And my teachers? Actually, in this internship fantasy, I guess I already know mostly everything. So my teachers...would just introduce me to some new curriculum? Provide references?

It’s pretty obvious that this is actually not an ideal internship scenario. Though it could appear to be a picture of perfect ministry, this internship fantasy is not even motivated by a desire to be an excellent minister. This “perfect” picture of internship is motivated by arrogance, and really by fear. This is Berry’s “pride of thinking one’s self without teachers.” And I guess I fell for it.

Returning to the poem: Berry writes, “Rely on ignorance. It is ignorance that teachers will come to.”

What?! Rely on ignorance? Isn’t ignorance the enemy here? This is the twist in the poem that I keep going back for: Ignorance is an asset.

Ignorance tends to be difficult for Unitarian Universalists to own up to. We tend to see education as saving souls. Our Puritan heritage places us squarely in a tradition that demands well-educated ministers. Our roots in the Enlightenment leave us with a legacy of thinking that humanity can be constantly improving and perfecting itself through learning. The flaw of ignorance would demonstrate how far we are from attaining that perfection. Not knowing is a vulnerability that we tend to mask or avoid, certainly not view as an asset.

However, the truth is that we all have our ignorance and we always will. This is true for even the most learned and the most experienced among us. However, the fact that we don’t know everything can be a source of profound religious sentiment, a source of awe and wonder. Our ignorance is also a source of hope, reminding us that there is always room for change and for growth.

“Rely on ignorance. It is ignorance that teachers will come to.”

Where can these teachers be found? They can be found everywhere. And they’re often in disguise.

I encountered a teacher just the other day. For the past two weeks I have been visiting my parents here in Kansas City. On this particular day, I am the only person at home when the phone rings. On the other end is Richard, an old friend of my dad’s with whom he had fallen out of touch over time. Richard sounds a little faint on the other end of the line and our conversation is bumpy at first. I haven’t seen Richard since I was probably fifteen years old. His daughter and I used to play together when we were little girls and I ask how she’s doing. He tells me that she is now a doctor and lives in the area with her family.

He then asks me what I am up to these days. I tell him that I am studying to be a Unitarian minister. He says, “Oh yes, they have a big church on the plaza.” And I say “yes,” thinking back to my youth group days at the All Souls church. Then we talk about the ins and outs of ministry a little bit.

The conversation seems to coming to a natural close he says, “You’re going to be a minister with the Unity church, right?”

“No, not Unity,” I say. “Our movement is called Unitarian Universalism.”

He responds, “Oh, What is that?”

...there is a pause. I feel flustered. I have to be honest: this question used to fill me with feelings of dread and inadequacy. Over the past several years, I have learned to talk confidently about Unitarian Universalism. But that’s usually when the interaction is in person and we have more than 15 seconds together.

But this is over the phone, and I thought the conversation was ending, so I feel like I have about a 5 second window to insert an explanation of our entire religious movement. I stammer and say something about “Trinitarian,” something about “Unitarian”, something about “liberal” and realize that I have committed the verbal equivalent of falling on my face. On the other end of the line I hear Richard go “oh...,” indicating that whatever message I had tried to transmit was not received.

At this point I notice that my dad has come downstairs and is standing next to me. I hand over the phone and get out of there. I am feeling embarrassed and like a sorry excuse for a seminarian. I also kind of want to blame Richard somehow, even though his question was completely reasonable. But I am feeling defensive.

Then, Wendell Berry’s poem bubbles to the surface of my mind and I realize that Richard is, in fact, one of my teachers. His question honed in on a place of ignorance within me. And I should not be ungrateful to my teachers. In this instance, the lesson is small and simple: I need to be able to speak more clearly about our religious movement. In fact, seeing this as a teaching moment instead of a shaming moment began a process of replacing my defensiveness with gratitude.

These kinds of teaching moments are going to fill my life next year, and for all the years to come. Teaching moments fill all our lives if we can learn to see them. Our teachers can come in disguise as people who bring up emotions in us that we don’t like. They can be the people in our lives who make us feel spitting mad, hot with shame or infected with jealousy. There can be teachers in the people who drive us nuts and we would just as soon not have to deal with them.

There is a lot that I am that I am going to fumble or just flat out screw up next year. And if what I really want to be an excellent minister, I need to focus not on perfection, but on taking full advantage of the lessons that are borne out of ignorance and are taught by the myriad of instructors that inhabit the world. I hope that my internship congregation can help me remember this when I forget.

By the way, I have got to tell you how happy I am that this church is going to be someone’s internship congregation. This is not something that every church does and it’s not something that every church is well suited to do. However, as a seminary student who has preached here on several occasions, I think I can say with some authority that this church has got what it takes to help guide an intern into ministry. I have felt warmly welcomed and supported here. I have felt like you’re rooting for me to grow my ministerial wings and fly. I am so glad that Anne Griffiths will get to spend the coming year with you.

I want to end this morning with a final line from Wendell Berry’s poem.

He writes: “Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.”

In the end, it is neither the intern, nor the supervising minister, nor the teaching congregation that is entirely responsible for the process of ministerial formation. As with other forms of human growth and change, it is a mysterious process that we are all a part of, yet it goes far beyond us. We can try our best, aim for our goals, and plan for success but, in the end, the direction that life takes is not fully up to us. Our striving needs to be balanced by the patience and trust to let tomorrow come tomorrow. That’s what’s going to happen anyway, so let’s be here, today. And when the steady giant of time transforms tomorrow into today, may we be open to its unexpected teachers.

Sermon Part II by Rev. Thom Belote
Exactly one month from today we will welcome Anne Griffiths to SMUUCh. She will be our intern minister from the middle of September through the middle of June and will be moving here from the San Francisco Bay Area to come and spend the year, here, with us. Anne will be the second intern this church has had; our first intern was here under Vern Barnett’s tenure, 25 years ago, in 1984.

So, what is an internship you ask? The term has different meanings in different settings. But, I want to be quick to dispel any preconceptions that you may have that we’ve hired someone to go out and get coffee for the staff or pick up my dry cleaning. Likewise, I want to dispel another notion that an intern is just hired help, someone we can just plug into any old place where we could use a staff person. Anne will not be our social justice coordinator or our development director. In her year of ministry with us she will most likely take part in our social justice ministries as well as our stewardship program. But her role, like mine, will be more of a generalist. She will preach regularly and participate in worship. She will teach classes. She will make hospital visits and be available for counseling. She will participate in small groups, work with committees, and, in an immediate and hands-on way, be exposed to all of the multitudes of functions of a Parish minister.

Last November and December we received applications from all over the country from seminarians who wanted to come here to Shawnee Mission for their internship. We are more and more visible as a leading church in our movement. And around the first of the year, I sat down with the members of the intern committee and weighed these applications, most of which were 30 to 40 pages in length. We offered the internship to our top choice and we were delighted that Anne accepted.

An internship is one of the many hoops that prospective UU ministers must jump through. Other hoops include the completion of a Masters Degree in Divinity, at least three months of chaplaincy in a hospital or prison, invasive psychological testing, and successful interviews with both a regional screening committee and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Of all these requirements, the internship is the most heavily weighted.

Let me dispel one more false idea which is that having an intern will make my work load easier. It won’t. Besides the responsibilities of supervision, I will still do everything that I do, maybe with more focus in one area or another or maybe by taking on something new I simply don’t have the time for now. Having an intern means the ministry of the church will multiply.

But, let me caution you, that while the presence of an intern is a boon (and it is) it is wrong to go into this experience with the attitude of what we will get out of it. We will be giving as much as we receive. Or, more exactly, we will receive in proportion to what we give in turn. In serving as a teaching church, we will help to mold and shape a leader in our movement. We will witness and abet ministerial formation. We will be, teachers as well as learners.

And, truly, I can’t say enough of what a sacred privilege it is for me as well as for this congregation to get to be present as a minister develops in our midst. I know. My experience as an intern seven years ago at a congregation in suburban Texas was transformative. I entered a student of ministry and left a minister. When I returned to Harvard for my final year the change that had taken place was palpable. My classmates told me I was different. (And they meant that in a good way.) I had a great supervisor in Dennis Hamilton, a great internship committee, and was the intern at a great church. In fact, when I began seeking out my first called position, a few months after my internship had ended, I compared every congregation that I looked at with the congregation I had served during my internship.

Anne will leave after her internship and take with her the imprint of this church. It will inform the rest of her years in the ministry. Our failings and successes as a congregation will be the model that she draws upon for the rest of her career. If we are cranky, she will expect crankiness. If we are kind, she will expect kindness. If we are unfairly critical, she will go forth into ministry timid and afraid of mistakes. If we are nurturing, she will leave with confidence. A dysfunctional internship sinks a ministry. A healthy and supportive internship propels into the world one who will serve with grace, courage, and passion. You may think I am being a bit melodramatic here, but I am sincere. Of course, it really takes both, a good intern matched with a good congregation, and, as Elaine alluded to, it also takes some ineffable alchemy that we cannot possibly control.

This past Monday I spent the day with Anne in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. We talked about working styles, expectations, opportunities, theology, growing edges, and hopes. In the words with which I opened the service, I read from the journal of Theodore Parker who reflected on being a learner quite as much as a teacher, and his beautiful image of feeling his way upward with one hand while he tried to lead with the other. This is what Elaine will do in Davis, what Anne will do here, what I will do as a supervisor, what we all do as leaders in a congregation.

The reading ends with Parker’s observation that he preached only what he had experienced in his own inward consciousness, which widened and grew richer as he came into practical contact with living people.

Practical contact with living people. This year those beginning internships all across the country put aside the world of books and papers, lectures and seminars and prepare to study a different kind of text: practical contact with living people. And in the magic and mystery of this, somehow, time turns into life.

This morning we bless Elaine and bid to her a fond farewell and deliver to her our best wishes for her year in Davis. We wait in eager anticipation for Anne’s arrival. We recognize in each meeting, one with another, the potential for life and grace and do not take any of it for granted.

[A note on the title of this service. The title of this service was, I thought, a clever adaption of the title of a controversial and hideous book by Laura Schlessinger entitled, The Proper Care of Feeding of Husbands. Actually, it is a cynical book demeaning to both men and women alike. Elaine thought the title was patronizing. As we discussed the service together, Elaine expressed to me that the title made interns sound like cutesy-wutesy exotic pets that are put on display and require special diets and grooming. I concede that Elaine had a point! And yet, I think back to my seminary days and my mainline Christian friends who spoke of being “in care” with the congregations that were helping them to grow their ministerial wings. So, I’ll stand by the idea of “care” and admit that I was too clever for my own good on the rest.]