Monday, August 5, 2019

Companions on the Journey, Rev. Tom's first service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami

When I was in search for a Unitarian Universalist congregation to serve, a funny thing happened at least a few times during the interview process.  One member of a search committee would ask me to tell a joke.  I thought for a while and realized I only remembered Unitarian Universalist jokes, like: Q: Why did the UU, Unitarian Universalist, cross the road?  A: To support the chicken in its search for its own path.  And a Unitarian Universalist dies, and on the way to the after-life encounters a fork in the road. The left path has a sign “To Heaven” and the right has a sign “To a Discussion about Heaven” Without pausing, the UU turns right.

            It is not a surprise that, like most people my age, I’ve seen some transitions in my life.  One that I reflect on regularly is my decision to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.  More than 20 years ago, I was a member of Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, Texas, in the community adjacent to NASA-JSC.  The minister there resigned after several unethical acts.  As a result, he lost much of what gave his life meaning and purpose—the UUA removed him from fellowship, which meant he could no longer be a minister, and his counseling license was stripped from him, so he could no longer practice counseling.  His resignation triggered in me a series of emotional reactions that only later did I realize was the surfacing of my call.  I asked myself if I lost everything that gave my life meaning and purpose, or if I knew my life would soon be over, would I have any regrets, anything that I had left undone.  And as if from no-where a summoning came from deep inside; I was called to Unitarian Universalist ministry.  I struggled with this concept.  I lost a lot of sleep.  I talked with Unitarian Universalist ministers, most of whom vigorously dissuaded me from my call. They said being a Unitarian Universalist minister was a hard, demanding vocation that would break my heart time and again.  They each affirmed that I should only follow my call if I wholeheartedly believed it was what I must do.  Doubts and second-guessing piled up.  Could I afford seminary? How would my family be impacted by my decision? Would I still have time for the simple pleasures of life that I had become accustomed to, pleasures that helped me cope with the stress life presented?  Questions with no clear answers.  My soul was really struggling.  This path would mean significant life changes and sacrifices for me and my family; my comfortable life would be turned upside down.  And there were no guarantees if I started down this path that I would eventually become a Unitarian Universalist minister. 

            Then I met a person who would companion me along this journey, Reverend Bob Schaibley.  Bob was there as I was struggling with my call, holding up a virtual mirror to my words, allowing me to realize that when I said I felt something deep within pulling me toward ministry, I sounded genuine, passionate, honest.  He told me that he too had had experienced such a call and was as scared and uncertain as I was.  He could not guarantee that if I followed this call that I would become a Unitarian Universalist minister—of course no one could do that--but he would be with me as I tried.  He would make time to listen to me; he would hold up that mirror to me so that I could understand what he heard, not just in words, but also what my heart expressed.  He affirmed for me again and again, it was possible for me a Unitarian Universalist minister.  And it was my choice to make this terrifying journey, no matter how many UU ministers were telling me to choose something—anything—else to do.  Bob didn’t sugar coat any of it. The sacrifices—the ones I would choose to make, the ones my family would have to make because of my call.  The debt, the night-long study, being short on sleep, and the relationships I would have to let go of because after my job, my family, and seminary, I wouldn’t have anything left over to give.  He told me what it would take to become a UU minister; and he told me what I would face as a UU minister.  He didn’t pull any punches, but he also held out hope and was willing to companion me through the process of seminary and fellowship. 

            My first ministry was with a 40 member congregation in Beaumont, Texas—Spindletop Unitarian Church.  I was asked to serve them before I was even ordained.  I felt like I couldn’t let them know how nervous I was. After all I was their minister and they needed me to the expert.  That’s what a minister is right?  An expert! On everything! All the time!  I wore my academic robes while I preached, a visible emblem of my expertise and my separation from the rest of the congregation.  But here’s the thing, I quickly learned, ministry is not about being an expert on everything, all the time. Ministry is about being a companion to a congregation.

            Think back on a time in your life when you were going through some difficulty or transition.  Maybe that was last year or last month.  Maybe it’s right now, today.  Who was a presence in your life while you were navigating this transition?  What do you remember about how that person?  Maybe you don’t remember what they said, but I bet you remember how they made you feel.  Supported.  Heard.  Hopeful.  Companioning is a term often used in grief work or in working with people with mental illness, but I have come to see it in broader terms.  Companioning, to me, is about holding holy space for a person or a group so that they can discover a path forward.  Here are some qualities of companioning that I ascribe to:

(Adapted from 11 Tenets of Companioning developed by Dr. Alan Wolfelt)

1.Companioning is about being present.

2.Companioning is about listening with the heart and mind.

3.Companioning is about being willing to go into the wilderness of the soul with another human being—or a congregation--bearing witness to the struggles without judgment.

4.Companioning is about walking alongside; it is not about leading or being led.

5.Companioning is about embracing curiosity and holding hope.

The benefits or gifts of this kind of relationship are:

(Adapted from “Companioning is about learning from others; it is not about teaching them” by Alan Wolfelt.)

We, together, find wholeness among fractured parts.

We come to know who you are in new and unexpected ways.

We come to a more profound understanding of your origins and your future directions.

We discover a story/a narrative that takes you into the future.

We determine how adversity has enriched your meaning and purpose.

We learn your truth in this present moment.

            In our relationship, the one you and I will build together, I will share my experiences, my knowledge, and my training with you.  I will not tell you that you need to do this or that to be the best, healthiest, highest performing person or congregation that anyone has ever seen.  I will listen, I will ask questions, and I will help you discern direction and priorities.  What is your identity?  What are your covenants?  What is your mission?  What are your goals?

            This congregation is a unique ecosystem.  You have been tending it, nurturing it, since its beginning.  There has been exciting growth and discouraging decline; there have been times of cool serenity and of cyclonic conflict; there have times of when there was a barrenness of meaning and times when a new purpose bloomed from fertile minds.  This is a time when there seems to be too much work for you, the people of this ecosystem, to manage all the components of this environment.  I bring an extra set of hands to help tend this ecosystem.   My roles here include staying on site to help tend the ecosystem and checking in with all of you spiritual environmentalists to see how you are doing.  I will also listen as you report on how you think/feel this ecosystem is doing.  I will learn from you what has worked and not worked so well as you have watched your ecosystem endure over the years.  And I will remind you and inspire you to stay focused on the tasks set before us. 

            When I met with your Board, your Search Committee and many of you in June, I found people eager for a companion on your journey.  I am here.  For the next five years I work with you.   One important aspect of this work is asking a lot of questions.  Here are some I will be asking in the coming weeks:

Which of our Unitarian Universalist Principles touches you most deeply and why?  Here are the Principles. 

Which of the UU Sources fills your spirit so that you can cope with the chaotic world we live in? And here are our Sources.                    

What social justice issue most calls to your heart and why?  How does being a member of this church impact your daily life?  What was your most moving moment here at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami?  Imagine coming to this church five years from now.  Tell me about what you hope to see and who you feel about it.  Imagine a Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami superhero.  What would his/her/their name be and why?  To that end, I will be reaching out to each of you during these first few weeks, to try to meet or at least talk with you.  I want to get to know each of you and, heads-up, I will ask you these questions.  Our shared journey begins now, no one of us ahead or behind the others, but all of us, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, heart to heart.     

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