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Interim Ministry: Our Shared Experience
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, October 4, 2015

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Our first reading this morning is from the Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama. It could surely be claimed that it is hardly an ancient reading. But it could also be said that the Dalai Lama's wisdom is as ancient as it is modern. He wrote:
Responsibility does not only lie with the leaders of our countries or with those who have been appointed or elected to do a particular job. It lies with each of us individually. Peace, for example, starts within each one of us. When we have inner peace, we can be at peace with those around us. When our community is in a state of peace, it can share that peace with neighboring communities, and so on. When we feel love and kindness towards others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace. And there are ways in which we can consciously work to develop feelings of love and kindness.

Our modern reading is from the book, When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron, an American writer who is an ordained Buddhist nun:
Feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we're holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we'd rather collapse and back away. They're like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we're stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it's with us wherever we are.

"This very moment is a perfect teacher, and lucky for us, it's with us wherever we are." (Pema Chodron)

I had the opportunity last summer to take my bicycle out to Chicago on a family visit. Some of you may have had the occasion to visit Chicago; maybe some of you even know the city well. It's a place that I know and love and one that I find quite beautiful in many ways. Especially appealing are its many beautiful miles of lakefront on the shore of Lake Michigan. And most appealing of all, especially for someone who loves to bicycle, are its more than 20 miles of pedestrian/bike paths along that lakefront. I love heading out for a 40 to 50 mile ride on those trails, skirting along the edges of beaches and harbors, rolling through the lush parkland that make up Chicago's lakefront.

So there I was last summer pedaling along on an exquisite Sunday morning. By the time I reached North Avenue Beach, the pedestrian traffic was picking up a bit and a number of folks were crossing the path to get over to the beach. Pedestrians and bicyclists tend to be pretty cautious of one another there. And I was being cautious. Then all of a sudden, from nowhere, someone I hadn't seen coming, stepped right out in front of me. I squeezed hard on the right handle grip for my rear brakes, which immediately locked the wheel into a skid on the sand covered blacktop. The collision was avoided, but now I found my bike leaning into a slide, out from under me, and heading for the ground. The rear wheel had skidded out from behind me and brought the bike broadside, at a 90° angle from the direction of the path.

All of this happened in a nanosecond. There I was, going sideways into a fall, and fast. Somehow, either accidentally or instinctively, I released the brake. The rear tire then stopped skidding and began to roll again. In syncopated motion the rear wheel dropped back behind the seat; the front wheel came back up to its forward position, and the bicycle simply up-righted itself. Perhaps it was some kind of a minor miracle; maybe it had all merely been an exercise in applied physics. Either way, with a bit more adrenaline in my system, I continued riding on towards the South Side on an otherwise beautiful Sunday morning.

I'm guessing that interim ministry is a good bit like this moment in my riding experience, though maybe more so for you, the congregation, than it is for me as minister. I chose this path, while you found yourself on it through no real choosing of your own. James Ford was here with you as your minister for seven years, and then he chose to retire. He respectfully let you know that was coming, well ahead of time, but you all didn't really play a part in the decision-making process. It is true that ministers come and go, and that it is the congregations that are the constant. It is the congregation that was before and that will remain. And yet still, the road you had been traveling on, all of a sudden has you sliding into a very different reality.

James brought a good deal of stability to this congregation. I've heard that from many of you. With him, you had developed a good sense of balance and you were moving along quite well with the benefit of his leadership. Perhaps going into a skid might be an overly dramatic analogy for what is going on now, but a sudden loss of that balance seems to me to be right on the mark. You all knew, to one degree or another, who you were with James. Things moved in familiar patterns. I trust that expectations were largely shared and met. When things are going in a positive, a good direction, time often allows us to grow familiar and comfortable with our terrain, even as we are moving through it.

And then, oy, there is change! The familiar, or at least a major portion of the familiar, suddenly disengages from the journey. Things are not what they once were. A new person comes along to take the place of the one who has left. It's a very natural thing for a system, for a congregation, to try to reconstruct itself and its comfortable ways of doing things, just as things had been. The only thing is that things aren't as they were, and they can never be just that way again. A good many things do remain familiar, but many things do not.

A congregation having lost a minister, needs to find a new one. And that new one will never be James Ford. And many of the ways James did things will never again be the way things are done. There's a very real loss in that experience and from it a very profound sense of grief. It's important to recognize the loss and to experience the grief. They belong to each of you here and to all of you, to this congregation, collectively. Even if you have stepped into this room for the very first time today, to some extent you have stepped into this process of loss and grief of what has been; perhaps you've even brought some of your own along, to begin with.

Here's the thing I want you to know — I am not the one who was brought here to replace James Ford. Instead, I am the one who was brought here to help you prepare to be in relationship, in right relationship, with the one you will call, not to replace James but to take his place. I am the one who was asked and who accepted the challenge of helping you to transition from the end of one ministry to the beginning of the next. I'm wondering if maybe some of you, even after only a month of me being here, might be thinking that the skidding metaphor really isn't all that hyperbolic after all.

In all likelihood, this spring your Search Committee will bring before you a candidate whom they believe embodies the characteristics, the skills and the vision that you all will have informed them you want in your new ministerial leadership. In all likelihood, you will vote to call the candidate that they will bring. In all likelihood that person will indeed be standing here in this pulpit, as your minister, less than a year from now.

What I am most concerned about is that the person who you will call as your minister will still be here in this pulpit three years from now; five years from now; perhaps 10 years from now; maybe even longer. The very vital work that we will be sharing between now and the onset of that ministry will, I believe, have a great deal to do with its success and its longevity. What I commit to you in this process is that I will do my utmost to help you through the grief of your loss; do my best to help you open your minds and your hearts to the possibilities of new ways of seeing, doing and expressing the age-old values that are at the heart and soul of this congregation; do my best to help you envision a future that in this moment has more unknown elements than known ones.

So here is what we know... We know that your new minister will not be James Ford. Your new minister will look and feel different from James. She or he will have a different style in worship and in preaching, yes. But they will also have a different style in the way they relate to individuals, in the way they relate to various ministries and groups and committees within the congregation, even in the way they relate to the various and vital social justice ministries of the church. In as many ways as there are human characteristics, your new minister will appear and be different from James. Those ways have nothing to do with good and bad or with right or wrong. They will simply be different.

So I have to ask myself — how can I be most supportive, most effective in my ministries with you, in helping you to prepare for what will be different, even while holding dear to the values that are at the core of this congregation?

For a moment I want to mention those core values as I am coming to understand them. What I have heard from you repeatedly already, is the centrality of the same Unitarian and Universalist values which I, too, hold dear. This church has embraced Unitarian values almost from its origin. As stated by historian Earl Morse Wilbur, those include freedom of conscience, religious tolerance and the application of reason. To that, more recently the congregation has added the values of Universalism, which guide us in the recognition of our common humanity and the potential of love that embraces us all.

The covenant of Unitarian Universalism expresses these values well. We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and to affirm and promote the interdependent web of existence of which we are part. A way which you might hear me sometimes refer to these values is this: that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves; that, within that largest sphere that we can imagine, we are called to pay attention, called to be in awe, filled with awe just for being; to be grateful, to allow our awe to give way to gratitude for the gift of being; and finally to serve, to respond out of our gratitude with our service to that which is larger, to that which is life. And of course a value that is agreed upon and articulated similarly by all of us here is that we will each do our own naming of the elements of those commonly held values.

I promise to hold fast to these values and their many expressions as we go about traveling this road of transition together. Given that, what do I need to do? What do I believe you need to experience in me that will best prepare you to embrace the minister and the ministry you're about to call? You and I may not always agree on what might be most needed; I'm sure of that. But one thing you can trust is that I will be offering you the best support I am capable of providing — my best and most authentic ministry possible.

What can you expect? You can expect that, while some things will surely be the same, many things will look and feel different. You can expect that there will be differences in my style of worship and preaching. You can expect my authenticity — and not someone else's — in my relationships here with individuals, with the various groups and committees and ministries within the congregation, and with the social justice ministries that reach beyond these walls.

You can expect that things I do will look and feel different because those things are and will be different. The historical values will remain true; I promise. And those things here that I have nothing to do with, will continue to be your things to determine, just as they have always been. That's not to say I won't comment when I feel that you might benefit from my perspective, but what's yours to do, is yours to do.

I am making a commitment to you this morning that you will receive the best that I have to offer. And I ask for a commitment from you in return. Will you enter with me into this process of change and transition? Will you express your loss of James and the era represented by his ministry in ways that are both healing and regenerative, for you and for the congregation? Will you be open to new and different ways of doing things in worship and in other areas of congregational life so that you might be better prepared for the new face of ministry that will be here to greet you in the not so distant future? Will you be open to taking the next unknown step of this congregation's journey — in faith — in faith that is based in the history of tradition and values that go back 300 years?

I know that what I'm asking will at times be a struggle. And I want you to know that I'm here to be with you, to walk with you through the struggle. I'm not asking you to like the struggle; I'm asking you to risk being in it. And I'm asking you to do that within the spirit that emanates from our shared religious values.

I truly believe that if we all can commit our best efforts and spirit to this process of transition, this congregation will, as it has so many times in the past, step into the future with a cultivated confidence and a determination to do well at doing good. This congregation will step into the future bringing with it the light of religious values that our world is so desperately in need of.

18th Century Unitarian minister, philosopher and transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson commended the Class of 1837 at Harvard Divinity School, in his famous Divinity School Address, to preach to the congregation by raising up the events of their day so that those events might be better viewed by the congregation through the lens of religious sensibility and value. To what end, we might ask? So that those in the congregation might better relate to those issues in intentional, transformational and religious ways.

Emerson's philosophy has provided the ambition for any sermon I have ever preached. The events of the day that I hold before you this morning are these moments of transition in which you now find yourselves. You may or may not agree with any of my conclusions. And that's okay. My hope is that, by having regarded them, you might better find your place in this critical process that your congregation is in the midst of. And more, that you may better find your way toward being a constructive participant in determining its good outcome.

I began this message by relating an experience I had while riding my bicycle in Chicago last summer. I want to say one more word about that. When I let go of the brakes that day, and the bicycle up righted itself, it did so because of the forward momentum that I had already generated.

This is a fine church, a strong and healthy church that I have already grown fond of. It is also a church in transition. This congregation has a great history of forward momentum. Even still, over the years the congregation has needed to regain its balance many times. This interim period might make you sometimes freak out and want to squeeze those brakes just as hard as you can, and bring things to an immediate halt. But it's not the brakes, not the stopping that will get us, get you where you need to go. It's the moving forward. We'll help each other find our balance along the way.

Our work is cut out for us this year, my friends. And I look forward to your continued partnership as we face that work with love in our hearts and hope in our souls.

This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it's with us wherever we are.