What does a minister mean to its congregation?
The more you think about it, the harder it is to answer the question.
Some of it depends on the minister’s defined responsibilities. The United Methodist Church says the choice of a pastor is “pivotal if the congregation is to fulfill its mission of making disciples for Jesus Christ.” The San Francisco Theological Seminary takes a broader outlook; its doctor of ministry program advises applicants that congregants look to their minister “to provide leadership that is prayerful and discerning, critically reflective, and emotionally intelligent.”
But for many folks who sit in the pews on Sunday morning, the minster’s job transcends responsibilities. It’s all about role. Does the minister model behaviors that a congregation values? Do the minister’s warmth and compassion motivate the membership? Does the congregation need a leader focused on binding people together, does it want a social activist — or would a little of both be just right?
Comings and goings in N.J.
Unitarian Universalism is rare among organized religions in that each congregation’s membership chooses its own minister and the minister chooses the church. It’s the culmination of a lengthy yet democratic process that includes a period of candidating — sort of an exercise in “speed pulpiting.” It’s quite different from most organized religions (Judaism being a major exception) where both the congregation and the minister get what they get.
And in a religion that stresses conscience and compassion over doctrine and damnation, it makes sense. If the minister and congregation are going to work together and grow together, they have to be sure they can live together.
In New Jersey, two UU congregations began the current church year with new ministers. Rev. Kathleen Green settled in at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, replacing USR’s interim minister, Rev. Roberta Finkelstein. At the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, Rev. Bill Neely took over for the popular interim minister, Rev. Meg Barnhouse.
As exciting as the arrival of a new spiritual leader can be, it is also a time for letting go.
Two months into her tenure, Green reminded her congregation of this in a USR newsletter post. “It will be a dance we do,” she wrote, playing on the title of a popular UU hymn. “And from time to time, we will step on each other’s toes and either of us may forget how to follow or lead … but I’m willing to continue dancing, continue trusting, and continue changing. I hope you’ll do the same.”
In Princeton, Neely is working with the board of trustees to develop a new mission statement for the church. It’s a reminder that a thriving congregation evolves with its membership and community, rather than risk sliding toward irrelevance by clinging to a past that may no longer serve either.
In Mercer County, the Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing will begin the process of transition when Rev. Charles Stephens — who has been in the pulpit for 15 years at UUCWC — retires June 30. His last sermon will be June 10 at the Flower Communion.
Sense of loss
A minister’s departure inevitably promotes a certain feeling of grief, loss, or soul searching within a congregation, regardless of whether the break is on good terms or otherwise. Any psychologist will tell you that losses not dealt with spill over into other dimensions of life — sometimes as conflict within the congregation or as a lack of spirit.
The Unitarian Universalist Association handles this by matching congregations with an interim minister for one or two years while the search for a permanent minster proceeds. The transition period allows a congregation time to grieve, air dirty laundry, re-evaluate its course, and be in a better place to welcome the new permanent minster.
For the congregation, the bright side is the chance to decide who the new minister will be. It’s in keeping with Unitarian Universalism’s fifth principle, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” It’s a process that helps the congregation answer the question: What does a minister mean to its congregation?
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