Central East Region: Gould Discourse: An Annual Lecture Sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association St. Lawrence Chapter

2005 Gould Discourse - Samuel Trumbore

By Sam Trumbore

Thoughts on Sharing Ministry and Leadership

Download a PDF of this discourse

Read the responses by Jeane Crane and Scott Tayler

Your Gifts

Your gifts–whatever you discover them to be–
can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind's power,
The strength of the hands,
the reaches of the heart,
the gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing,
any of these can serve to feed the hungry.
bind up wounds,
welcome the stranger,
praise what is sacred,
do the work of justice,
or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door.
hoard bread,
abandon the poor,
obscure what is holy,
comply with injustice,
or withhold love.
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world
can take you into solitude
to search for the sources
of power and grace;
native wisdom, healing and liberation.
More, the choice will draw you into community,
the endeavor shared,
the heritage passed on,
the companionship of struggle,
the importance of keeping faith,
the life of ritual and praise,
the comfort of human friendship,
the company of the earth,
its chorus of life
welcoming you.
None of us alone can save the world.
Together–that is another possibility,
The choice to bless the world is more than
an act of will,
a moving forward into the world,
with the intention to do good.
It is
an act of recognition,
a confession of surprise,
a grateful acknowledgment
that in the midst of a broken world
unspeakable beauty, grace, and mystery
There is an embrace of kindness,
that encompasses all life,
even yours.
And while there is injustice,
anesthetization, or evil
there moves
a holy disturbance,
a benevolent rage,
a revolutionary love
protesting, urging, insisting
that which is sacred will not be defiled.
Those who bless the world live their life
as a gesture of thanks
for the beauty
and this rage.
— Rebecca Parker

I begin with these moving words by Rebecca Parker to open up my exploration this evening of how ministers and lay leaders can more effectively work together. Too often they come into conflict with each other to the detriment of their congregations and to the lives of the ministers. My goal tonight is to share with you what I have learned about sharing ministry with lay leaders with the hope of generating dialogue on this vital issue. I've asked the Rev. Scott Talyar, co-minister at First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York and Jeanne Crane, one of our core teachers of Eagles Leadership School, to add their thoughts and experiences. At the end, the three of us will take your questions and comments.

A newly minted minister just settled in his first congregation was showing off what he learned in seminary on Sunday morning. He had learned how to get out from behind the safety of the pulpit and roam around the platform as he spoke. He accomplished this by using a lapel mike which had a cord attached to it. (this was an older congregation that didn't yet have wireless mikes) As he moved across the platform, he would jerk the cord forcefully and dramatically to magnify his presence.

Unfortunately this young minister wasn't paying careful attention to where the cord landed when he jerked it and got wound up, nearly tripping and falling off the stage before giving it another forceful and dramatic jerk. After doing this several times, a little girl in the third pew leaned toward her mother and whispered, "If he gets loose, will he hurt us?"

Fear of ministers getting loose and hurting a congregation is an ongoing theme throughout our association. What is at stake is power, who is in charge, the minister or the congregation? Ministers go to seminary to gather knowledge, skills and experience, then graduate and roam around looking for a congregation to lead. Inspired by an inward calling, they look for a flock that will respond to their leadership so they can then move it toward their image of Unitarian Universalism.

Most successful ministers discover in their first settlement that congregations already have their own history and identity. Here in the Saint Lawrence District, many congregations have identities that are over a hundred years old. They have seen many ministers come and go over the years. What they seek is a minister who can help them make real and grow the image that already exists. Any identity change they will consider will be to serve their members not the minister's ego.

If a search process works well, minister and congregation find a good match in each other. But this doesn't resolve latent power issues embedded within Unitarian Universalism. Rejecting priestly authority lies at the heart of our tradition. As a birthright UU, I was raised on the rallying cry, "to question is the answer!" We Unitarian Universalists are responsible for our own FREE search for truth and meaning. Each of you may freely receive or reject what I will say this evening.

Not only do we reject priestly authority, we also reject denominational authority. Each congregation is autonomous, governs itself, and chooses its own minister. The Unitarian Universalist Association can exert no power over each of our congregations. Congregations only bind to one another voluntarily without compulsion. Democracy reigns supreme in our free faith ... and is a set up for conflicts between ministers and congregational leaders.

Enter the Leadership School movement. I became a Unitarian Universalist minister partly because I attended the Pacific Central District Leadership School in 1985. I had transformative experiences during that week that opened the door to ministry for me. I love leadership schools like Eagles and wish every leader in my congregation could attend one. Unfortunately sometimes people like me who feel have gotten all the answers to their congregation's problems solved in their minds at Leadership School return home empowered to fix them all by themselves. And they run into the minister.

To the casual observer, it would seem logical that a minister would be overjoyed to have a lay leader return with energy and enthusiasm to put to work. Unfortunately, sometimes the budding lay leader identifies problems in the congregation (they are now fully equipped to fix) as related to the inadequacies of the minister.

And sometimes they are right. Most ministers don't attend seminary because they want to deal with administration, strategic planning and institutional development in their congregations. I know I wanted to study philosophy and theology, learn about spiritual practice, and gain skills in pastoral care. I don't think I took one administration class while I was at Starr King School for the Ministry. "Just let me preach, teach and pastor and everything will be fine," I thought.

There is much more to ministry than these traditional roles, particularly in smaller congregations that do not have much staff. I doubt any of our congregations can afford to hire an MBA to run the business of the congregation. I don't have formal business or organizational development training. Like it or not, ministers find themselves right in the middle of institutional problems and are expected to do the right thing. Whether they do or don't, power struggles often surface and people get hurt.

The embedded conflict between ministers and congregations has its roots in the Protestant reformation. The abuse of power by Roman Catholic priests coupled with Renaissance Humanism set the stage for a rebellion in the pews. While Unitarians and Universalists are on the fringes of the Reformation, we trace our anti-authoritarian sensibility through the Puritans and the Pilgrims who suffered oppression from the Church of England. Recognizing that both Protestant and Catholic clergy could be oppressors further alienated them from ecclesiastical authority.

When the Pilgrims and the Puritans came to our shores, they had had enough of ecclesiastical authority. Their Calvinist theology told them that they were among the elect, those predestined by God to redeem a fallen world and glorify Christ. Because of this free gift of grace, they had the ability to correctly interpret scripture for themselves, or at least recognize true teaching. Redeemed by their Lord from the torment of Original Sin, they would justly govern themselves and the masses. They could select one among themselves to preach but that person had no special privilege in the community to rule it.

Out of this thinking was forged the concept of Congregational Polity, a governance system that has changed little since the Cambridge Platform of 1648. While we have strayed far from the Calvinism of our ancestors, we still govern ourselves democratically the same way they did. The power to choose or remove a minister is still with the congregation. And congregations are still very careful about how much temporal power is allowed to the minister.

The idea that anyone could be called from the congregation to serve an ecclesiastical purpose Calvin called, "the priesthood of all believers." This is an astonishing belief if you think about it. Potentially, each of us here today can have "direct access to the ultimate sources of the religious life." It invests tremendous power, a radical amount of power, in the laity. That power can also be expressed prophetically, as Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams put it, "the prophethood of all believers." In his words:

The prophetic liberal church is not a church where the prophetic function is assigned merely to the very few. The prophetic liberal church is the church in which [people] think and work together to interpret the signs of the times in light of their faith, to make explicit through discussion the epochal thinking the times demand. The prophetic liberal church is the church in which all members share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional) with the intention of *making* history [rather than] merely being pushed around by it."

James Luther Adams from "The Prophethood of All Believers", p 102-103:

When Adams talks about the few, he definitely means it is not just the minister's role to be prophetic. But prophets are always troublemakers as they confront the status quo. Do you recognize these voices: "We should give our money to the poor rather than adding a wing to our building." "No one should have to give anything to be a member of this congregation." "The minister should never speak for us in the public square." "The minister should speak more about (fill in the blank) and less about (fill in the blank)." "Our congregation should be taking a stand and doing something about (fill in the blank) in our community." "Our congregation is too political and needs to focus more on spirituality." "If everyone doesn't give more, we'll have to cut the budget." If all of us are prophesying to each other, you can bet there will be more than a little conflict.

When leaders feel moved by the Spirit, be that Spirit God, the Goddess, tradition, reason, or another personally transcendent motive, come into conflict as they reach for the power to bring their vision to fruition, how do we find a mutually affirming resolution? If both minister and lay leaders are called to priesthood and prophethood, how do we share power in a way that strengthens our congregations rather than tears them apart?

The pervasive model we have for dealing with conflict is linear power. The boss, the manager, the vice president, or the CEO steps in to adjudicate and makes a decision. If you and I have a conflict over where the property line is between us, we go to court and ask a judge to decide. In all hierarchical systems, there are lines of authority enforced by the rule of law or the rule of the sword.

Congregational Polity does not work this way. The power resides with the people. Congregations can and do set up structures and policies of governance but often they are weak and vulnerable to manipulation. A few committed individuals who think they know what is best for the congregation can dominate congregational life. Our anti-authoritarian stance makes us very vulnerable to egotism be it minister or powerful lay leader. We do not have a holy book or creed to check individual excess, only bylaws and democratic procedures. And too often these checks and procedures are not properly used to resolve conflict.

Many might throw up their hands and say power itself is the problem. If we could just put aside these power issues, we could work together for the common good. My experiences working in community organizing have shown me just the opposite. When people abdicate their power they are usually used and abused.

This came home to me attending "basic training" with the Gamaliel Foundation in Buffalo in the spring of 2001. (Our Capital Region community organizing project called ARISE uses them to help us be effective.) Through group exercises we were exposed to the negative effects of our willingness to abdicate our own power. My willingness to let someone else speak for me, not confronting injustice right in front of my nose and accepting unfair hierarchical power to control me shocked me deeply. Social conditioning to be quiet and do what you are told can silence our moral voice that calls us to action.

In reality, none of us want to be powerless. We all want to be able to help shape our congregations in positive life affirming directions. Ideally, all of us should be able share the leadership and ministry of our congregations in a way that strengthens, builds and develops them to become powerful forces in our communities and our personal lives.

To experience a mutuality of shared power we need another vision of it than the linear power we see all around us. We need a model of relational power.

By now many of us have heard about the superiority of "power with" verses "power over." "Power with" is still a very new and fresh idea that is still being explored and defined. The concept of relational power comes from the Process Theology of mathematician turned theologian Alfred North Whitehead.

Whitehead recognized that the universe was made up of interacting processes. Rather than conceptualizing Platonic absolutes from which life was an imperfect reflection, Whitehead met head-on the inability of human beings to grasp absolutes. Thus if we couldn't conceptualize these absolutes in our imperfect minds, where should we look for the divine? His answer was to look for God in each present moment. In every actual human experience, one of the potential influences to shape the outcome, according to Whitehead, is the divine.

Notice any similarity with Congregational Polity? God's message doesn't start with the Pope and trickle down to the lay person. The message begins anew with each individual moment of experience. Every human being is privy to this divine potential. That divine potential is lurking in each person at a congregational meeting. It could move through the vocal chords of the next person standing to speak. It might be moving through my words at this very moment.

Whitehead did not see this divine influence as a coercive influence but rather as a persuasive influence. Human beings are completely free to choose it or reject it. Thus while we may all choose to accept and respond to this persuasive divine influence, we may just as easily follow our selfish interest. That will not shut off the spigot from God. God will continue to present holy possibilities to us. In each moment we continue to be free to choose which path we want to follow.

How many of us attend a committee meeting with this spirit of openness to each other? How many of us hang on each other's words listening for the holy spirit to move through them? It was PCD leadership school that introduced me to this idea.

I'm a task oriented kind of guy. I love to make decisions and get things done. If you're not ready to move forward then get out of my way! As I served as process observer for the first time, I began watching group dynamics. I started noticing how the process of the meeting shaped what happened. The tone of voice, eye contact, joking, eloquence and misunderstanding, confusion and reactivity, all influenced the ability of the group to be effective. Certain voices hindered the process and other voices assisted it. Rather than just noticing if the task was getting done or not, I saw the multileveled complexity of process, particularly on an emotional level.

And sometimes watching the process, it felt like I was witnessing a holy moment unfolding.

Since those luminescent moments in Leadership School, I've continued to witness the holy in human interaction whenever two or more are gathered. I'm agnostic about what might be at work, whether it is God or the Goddess or the Force of Evolution or some unnamed Universal Power. What is clear without any doubt in my mind is that its manifestation is Love. Process Theology is pretty complicated but it comes down to this for me: In every moment I can choose to love rather than to hate. I can choose the path toward peace rather than the path toward war. I can choose the path of self-transcendence rather than the path of separation and isolation.

My challenge has been to make choosing love, peace and self-transcendence an integral part of my ministry. I don't enter a congregation knowing in advance how to fix them. My leadership is shaped by my daily contact with members and leaders of the congregation, the response to my sermons, the events, problems and opportunities around the congregation.

When I came to Albany, I learned how deeply important social action was to the identity of the congregation. I came into ministry, however, with a vision of the importance of spiritual practice. I remember my delight in discovering Buddhist meditation and my enthusiasm to bring meditation to everyone else in seminary.

Attraction to spiritual practice was not all of what brought me to ministry. The Albany search committee saw something else that attracted them to me. As I followed the spirit of the Albany congregation, I found in myself an unrealized passion for social justice. It led me to getting deeply involved in community organizing through which I gained the skills and courage to stand up a year ago, break the law and perform two high profile same sex weddings.

During our Start-Up Weekend one of the congregation's desires that emerged was to expand our building. This isn't what I had signed up for. I knew nothing about how to help a congregation do this nor how we could possibly raise the money needed. But the determination was there and has grown to the point we voted 102-4 to go forward with a 2.6 million dollar project last June.

I KNOW this would never have happened if I alone had been charged with leading this effort. As we struggled along with fights about architectural visions and financing constraints, I also felt a holy spirit moving in our midst. When I've recognized that spirit, I've held it up to the congregation and tried to make it tangible. When we raised 1.4 million dollars in our fall capital campaign, I knew I was in the presence of forces far greater than myself. The work of this building project is truly shared ministry.

As I reflect on what I've learned in my six years of ministry in Port Charlotte and my almost six years in Albany about sharing power in a congregation, might be summed up in the these three points:

1. Define and refine common purpose

2. Influence and be influenced

3. Trust the process.

Mission and vision documents are so important because they are a formal way to merge and move beyond individual visions to craft a shared identity for any group. The resulting document can transcend the group members and give a solid direction which can solidify a group and insulate it from rogue ministers and lay leaders.

Paired with this must be clearly defined roles so both minister and lay leaders know what they are empowered to initiate. When power is shared through clearly defined areas of responsibility, everyone can be held accountable to each other. Without mutual accountability, mutual trust is compromised.

Once the goals and roles are clear, both ministers and lay leaders must let go of their personal agendas and allow the congregation's common purpose to become their common purpose. If they cannot do this, then they must let go, stand aside or leave. There is room for faithful dissent but not room for sabotage.

Because so many of us are strong individualist influencers, I think it is harder for us to recognize the value of being influenced by each other. Our differences reveal our attachments and aversions. Some of these may be critical and worth holding on to. For example, it is not wise to give fiduciary authority to the minister. Good decisions are usually not made through emotional manipulation. Structured debate does make for better outcomes.

Other attachments and aversions may be worth reviewing, revising and even abandoning. Could my opinion have a hidden oppressive dimension to it? How would I feel if the shoe was on the other foot? What displaced emotion or painful memory is driving my views?

This is the spiritual work of both finding the courage to speak what is moving within our hearts and of allowing in the words of others to penetrate our defenses. Our ability to influence and be influenced forms the foundation of relational power. Relational power increases by being able to receive and incorporate an influence, to listen and respond.

Unitarian Universalist theologian Bernie Loomer writes of this kind of power:

Our readiness to take account of the feelings and values of another is a way of including the other within our world of meaning and concern. At its best, receiving is not unresponsive passivity; it is an active openness. Our reception of another indicates that we are or may become large enough to make room for another within ourselves. Our openness to be influenced by another, without losing our identity or sense of self-dependence, is not only an acknowledgement and affirmation of the other as an end rather than a means to an end. It is also a measure of our own strength and size, even and especially when this influence of the other helps to effect a creative transformation of ourselves and our world.

Trusting this interactive process of influencing and being influenced is probably the hardest of the three. Skepticism is a defensive posture many of us present to guard against being seduced by religious enthusiasm. Much as we'd like to be swept up in the emotion of a Sunday service, many worry that it will leave them open to being hypnotized into irrational thinking they will later want to repudiate.

Trust in the process builds over time through witnessing the emergent opportunities and fortuitous directions that could not be seen ahead of time. When a group is performing well together and negotiating obstacles, exciting innovations can appear at just the right moment. I don't want to get too mystical on you but things have fallen into place for our expansion project that send shivers down my spine. The energy available to a congregation guided by relational power in a climate of mutual trust is both enormous and inspiring!

An example of such a congregation is our largest in Madison, Wisconsin. I spoke with the Reverend Michael Shuler about how he has used these techniques to grow that congregation from 500 to 1300 members over the last eighteen years as well as spin off a congregation. The fruit of sharing power effectively releases the energy of the congregation to move outward. The climate of shared leadership encourages the members to find and develop their own power. Energy is created rather than consumed inspiring people to teach, minister to each other's needs, develop leadership skills and move out into the community promoting our values to, in Adams words, make history rather than be pushed around by it.

I firmly believe congregations thrive when leadership and ministry are both effectively shared. Effective power sharing requires common purpose, relational power, and mutual trust. Lay leadership and ministers each have their unique role to play. Both are integral to the success of any congregation. The source of that power is the congregation as a whole. Congregational polity is our precious heritage that opens the way for the Spirit of Life to move through us.

I close with the inspiring words of Universalist minister Gordon McKeeman on sharing the ministry:

Ministry is all that we do -- together.
Ministry is that quality of being in community
That affirms human dignity
Beckons forth hidden possibilities,
Invites us into deeper, more constant,
Reverent relationships,
And carries forward / Our heritage of hope and liberation.

Ministry is what we do together
As we celebrate triumphs of our human spirit
Miracles of birth and life
Wonders of devotion and sacrifice.

Ministry is what we do together --
With one another,
In terror and torment / In grief, in misery and pain
Enabling us in the presence of death
To say yes to life.
We who minister speak / And live the best we know
With full knowledge
That it is never quite enough
And yet are reassured
By lostness found
Fragments reunited
Wounds healed / And joy shared.

Ministry is what we all do -- together.

About the Author

Sam Trumbore

Sam Trumbore is a Unitarian Universalist minister who serves the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, New York, and has practiced mindfulness meditation with Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts since 1984.

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