Last Sunday, as I pulled on my clergy robe to prepare for the second service of the morning, my fingers slipped again and again on the tiny clasp at the neck of the robe. At last I realized why I could not work the clasp – the stitching had come loose and one end of the small bit of metal was dangling free. One of the founding members of the congregation saw me walking toward the sanctuary with a slightly puzzled look, and asked if everything was all right. “Oh, this little clasp at the top of my robe came undone,” I said, smiling and shrugging. “Oh, we won’t notice!” she laughed, clapping me on the shoulder as I headed in. And she was right, of course. In the grander scheme, those little details that feel like they may derail us often wind up being unnoticeable to anyone other than ourselves.
After my first six months of my internship at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland, I feel as though I’m learning a lot about the little details of ministry. I bought the first lint roller I have ever owned in my life once I started wearing my simple black robe every week. (I store the robe at the church, but the cat hair travels with me!) Last week I started to tell the Story for All Ages and realized I’d picked a frame for the story of heaven and hell – and sure enough, when I said “hell” at least a few eyebrows went up. The culture of every congregation is different, of course – every group of folks will find different ways to relate and reflect with each other, different ways to move through conflict, different ways to celebrate their joys and share their sorrows.
At first my temptation was to compare everything at UUCF to all I’d learned in my years at UUCC – both as a member, a volunteer, and as staff. And some of those comparisons to past experience were useful, and sometimes they got in the way. To truly learn how to be in right relationship with the community in Frederick, to learn how to be fully present to them as a minister, I had to put all I thought I knew in the backseat for a while, and let myself be open to the wonder and pain of human relationships. Not that my past knowledge hasn’t come in handy! But I could not do the work at Frederick with my past experience held in front of me like a shield.
Brene Brown, in The Power of Vulnerability, talks about maintaining a “strong back and a soft front.” To learn to lead – to be placed in a position of religious leadership particularly – means navigating a unique blend of strength and softness. To be vulnerable is to be real and fully present. To be vulnerable is to move without fear of all the little mistakes that will inevitably come, the times I forget to use that lint roller, or choose my words thoughtlessly, or allow myself to become defensive in the face of any of these being pointed out to me.
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, I have missed you. And I have come to truly appreciate the time away, to concentrate on my new role, my new community, and the long road to ministry ahead.
That road grows shorter every day! In the spring of 2021, if all goes according to plan, I will receive my Master of Divinity degree and also appear before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association, seeking preliminary fellowship. There are a lot of little details to give attention to in the intervening time, some of them vastly more important than others! Through it all, I will remind myself to live in the way that you all have taught me to live, my home community and my first introduction to Unitarian Universalism: as fully myself as I can be, with strong back, soft front, and fully engaged heart. I could not have done any of this without you, because none of us can do this alone.
I look forward to meeting that future self — where you stand strong, soft, and engaged and where the unmistakable patina from your origins here remain, even as they blend into the whole of your glowing presence.
Thank you, Ross!
“I could not do the work… with my past experience held in front of me like a shield” – I have a strong suspicion this particular bit of what you shared will be staying with me for quite a long time. Thank you, Jen!