General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Conducting a Public Ministry

General Assembly 2001 Event 5041

Sponsor: Ministerial Conference in Berry Street

Speakers: Rev. John Buehrens and Rev. David Hubner

It's Easier to Throw a Brick Than Build a House: Conducting Public Ministries

"Public ministry is how ministers, educators and laity relate to the public role of religious faith," Rev. John Buehrens began. But public ministry can be a stretch for many ministers, a large number of whom are introverts, preferring reading, reflection and introspection to recharge their energy. A spiritual challenge in taking the church into public ministry is finding the courage to become more outgoing and, at the same time, to learn the skills to be more sophisticated in an increasingly complex age.

Much of the content of the workshop was drawn from the experience of a 4-day workshop for ministers sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Department of Ministry called "Leadership Skills for Effective Public Ministry."

Rev. Forrest Church, of New York's All Souls Church, focused on the topic, "Choosing Your Issues." Beginning with the assumption that "no one should publicly opine about everything," he went on to talk about using reflection to identify the issues with a sense of calling behind them and building congregational support. "Congregations would do very poorly to imitate General Assembly (GA)," he added. Instead of arguing resolutions, then studying the issue, then taking action and expecting to get systemic change, he suggested that the effective congregational model is to begin with doing something—even if small and not about systemic change. The educational process will arise naturally, people will begin to witness for a better way, and then the congregation will find ways to be involved corporately in systemic change.

Church also shared some thoughts about what makes preaching on public issues powerful and effective. Preaching is how many issues come to the attention of the congregation as religious issues, and Church stressed the importance of remembering "who we are and where we come from"—that we are religious people, and that our authority has a spiritual root. We are not simply another political action group. "What makes religious witness powerful is the spiritual calling that makes us speak."

From there he moved to talking about writing for public witness: remember that the minister, writing an op-ed piece, is not an expert or pundit but should be speaking from the soul. Inclusivity, even of those who disagree, is important. Opponents should not be demonized—Church reminded the audience of our Universalist heritage, where theologians argued that even the devil must ultimately be saved. He summarized by recalling a religious aphorism: "Love your enemy as yourself."

Buehrens then added that "we need more of our clergy who can do the deep reflection and then work with the press." He introduced Fred Garcia, a media expert who volunteers his expertise to All Souls' Church, who began by saying, "Too much public witness isn't public and isn't witnessed." Knowing how to work with the press, he said, is central to making sure the message is not misunderstood.

He outlined the "Five C's" that "commit news"—five things which reporters will listen for, whether shared intentionally or not. First, conflict, the most interesting angle for a reporter. Second, contradiction: behavior that contradicts values or conventional wisdom, for instance. Third, controversy: if a topic is already a subject of public debate, it will be news, but more so if it also has conflict and contradiction. Fourth, colorful language: reporters love ways to frame a story that make captivating headlines. Garcia's example was Buehren's statement in the Boy Scout/UUA controversy, "It is not homosexuality but homophobia that is the sin." And fifth, a cast of characters: Garcia reminded the audience that reporters prefer to include people in stories, but they tend to characterize those people in stereotyped roles, such as villains, heroes or victims.

Garcia went on to say that, in trying to get a message out via the press, one should never talk with a reporter "unless you know what you will say." His suggested approach was this: First, think of the readers or viewers of the reporter's story, and then define just one thought you'd like them to internalize. Remember that thought. Then think of another thought that, if they remember the first one, you'd also like them to internalize. Make note of that thought, too. Then think of a third thought that, after they internalize the first two, you'd like them to remember. That's your third point, and now you've got your speaking outline. "Include one or more of the c-words if you want to be quoted," Garcia added.

Buehrens closed by noting that "more people need to think about the effectiveness of our public ministry. It's partly a matter of professional development, and partly a culture change.

Rev. David Hubner, acting director of the UUA Department of Ministry, and recently responsible for ministerial development, added that "we need to pay attention to the vertical dimension of how we work together"—it's not enough to know facts and practical skills, the horizontal dimension, but the spiritual depth must also be connected.

The panelists mentioned several possible future training sessions for ministers, and added that lay leaders also need training to learn to become more visible and learn how to learn from coalition partners.

With the attention at this General Assembly to the potentials for public witness and public ministry, participants were excited to hear the practical advice offered in this workshop.

Reported by Jone Johnson Lewis.