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Community Ministry
Takes Many Forms

by   J O H N    M I L L S P A U G H

As long as there have been churches, there have been ministers who felt that their calling lay beyond church walls. Because Unitarian Universalism's polity derives from individual congregations, our movement took decades to embrace the idea of honoring ministers who were less bound to church buildings than to the vision and principles those buildings serve.

The UUA traditionally held the view that "minister" was a role played to serve the internal needs of a particular congregation, not primarily to serve the needs of the world beyond the meeting house doors. Most UUs, for example, know only their local parish ministers and ministers of religious education.

There is, however, a third group of ministers whose numbers have grown to include an astonishing variety of creative ministries — in academia, administration, music and the arts, and legal services; in programs for AIDS, the environment, peace, and social justice; as chaplains in myriad contexts; as leaders of camp and conference centers; in ministries focused on community issues or gay/ lesbian/ bisexual/ transgender concerns; in programs for men, women, youth, and young adults; as pastoral counselors or psychotherapists.

This third path — which the UUA calls "community ministry" — today stands as one of our faith's most visible aspects in the larger world. Our professional clergy use the resources of religious thought and practice to address problems secular society has not been able to resolve. The Rev. Jody Shipley, director of the UU Community Ministry Center in Berkeley, California, estimates these ministers account for 15 to 20 percent of all ordained UU clergy.

Reaching out to the larger public community has been an essential part of Unitarianism and Universalism since their beginnings. For example, Unitarian minister and theologian William Ellery Channing and several colleagues founded an at-large, cooperative effort to minister to the needs of the poor in Boston's slums. In 1825, he asked his friend Joseph Tuckerman, who was leaving parish ministry, to take on the role of minister-at-large to Boston's poor and develop the ministry into a continuing institution. One hundred and sixty years later, the Benevolent Fraternity has evolved into the UU Urban Ministry, a force for social change supported by 57 Boston-area UU societies.


The Rev. Dr. William Schulz is just one very visible example of many UU ministers whose callings have taken them far beyond the pulpit. The former president of the UUA and now executive director of Amnesty International USA, Schulz's pulpit is the world stage. His efforts to advance the cause of human rights have taken Schulz around the world to speak with leaders and heads of state in hot spots. Two years ago, for example, he traveled to Northern Ireland to meet with prime minister David Trimble, a tough political realist and a staunch defender of the Protestant cause, following the breakdown of peace in Portadown and the murder of a young Catholic man by a Protestant mob. Schulz knew he had to touch a common chord of humanity with Trimble, which he did by appealing to the leader's human side and sense of compassion — to the point where Trimble's eyes welled up with tears.

"Politicians and world leaders who try to represent themselves as hard-edged and oriented only to the politics of their situation are in fact in considerable denial about the pain that swirls around them," says Schulz of his meeting with Trimble. "I had to speak pastorally in order to call this man to a wider, more religious loyalty than the loyalty to which he was most commonly attracted, a sectarian loyalty that had demonized the Catholics in the same way that Catholics had demonized the Protestants."

The variegated ranks of UU community ministers include troubadours and politicians, counselors and activist clowns, builders of institutions and weavers of myths. Some community ministers build community infrastructures, while others help individuals piece together their shattered souls. Some ministries have great sweep, such as that of the Rev. Meg Riley, who as director of Faith in Action in the UUA Washington Office tries to advance national policy that respects the inherent dignity and worth of every person. Other ministries are one-on-one, like those of the pastoral counselors who use both clinical and theological training to support people in their spiritual growth. What holds these women and men together is a common commitment to extending the values, teachings, and practices of Unitarian Universalism to the world beyond congregations. They may keep their particular theologies to themselves, serving not as evangelists for Unitarian Universalism but as midwives for the work of the spirit, wherever it may be found.

The Rev. Dr. Neil Shadle, a professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School and an experienced community minister, tried to define the goal of community ministry in a 1995 report on the Starr King Community Ministry Project: "In all the activities of our vocation, we seek to be present at those points at which the sacred discloses itself among us, those points at which the brokenness of life is most pressing, those points at which creative and restorative power is operating in behalf of the whole being. Our task at those points is to become part of the action, to encourage it, to draw the attention of others to it and to engage them in it with us, to interpret its meaning in the perspective of liberal faith, and to cultivate ever-fresh means of celebrating the image and activity of the spirit among persons and in the events of history."


The UUA's traditional view of ministry began to be dismantled in 1971 by an unassuming UU troubadour, whose tools were his high-school education and his 12-string guitar. The Rev. Ric Masten has a career that stands in contrast to those of most community ministers who walked through the door he helped to open. Many community ministers have more academic or vocational training than parish ministers, because their ability to find a paying position often depends on special credentials beyond those required for ordination. Masten is the only contemporary UU minister who never graduated from a college or seminary. He grew up with undiagnosed severe dyslexia and a serious hearing problem, and went on to flunk out of five colleges.

Masten is a poet, musician, and troubadour. He considers himself a "Universalist Unitarian" and explains, "I've always felt that I had more in common with the Universalist ministers who were out helping folk raise barns than their Unitarian counterparts who were back in Boston thinking."

After flunking out, Masten trained himself to become a master at homespun spiritual poetry. He sought his vocation on stage as a "stand-up poet." Masten's UU parish minister, the Rev. Bob O'Brien, saw a performance. O'Brien immediately understood that Masten was not just a lyric bard with a sense of the spiritual, but a man whose wisdom matched his wit. Impressed by Masten's music and message, O'Brien asked him to lead a Sunday morning service for the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula. "That was the only sermon I was going to give in my life," Masten says. "But Rosemary Matson, whose husband, Howard Matson, was co-minister of one of the big churches in San Francisco, happened to be passing through town and fell in love with what I was doing. She wrote every Unitarian minister on the West Coast and said, 'You have to have this guy come do his thing for you.'"

Masten's engagements over the next two years led to his being hired as an entertainer at the 1968 General Assembly in Cleveland. Ministers from across America heard him perform, and soon he found himself funded by the Billings Lecture Fund to take his unique brand of ministry on the road. Over the next four years, he spent most of his weekdays warming secular college audiences to the spirit of Unitarian Universalism.

Masten spent his Sundays shaking up stolid UU congregations — leading programs like "Let It Be a Dance," which included the Social Action Twist, the Educational Slam, the Parental Fox Trot, the Relationship Limbo, and the Aging Shuffle. Many congregants loved these untraditional services — which started Masten thinking.

"The words minister and minstrel come from the same root word meaning servant," he says. "Poets and pastors are servants who help us see things more clearly, who help us recognize what we already know. It slowly dawned on me that what I was doing was ministry." Masten's sermons were his poems and songs. His communion was the deep fellowship that people found at his performances. His congregation was a patchwork of audiences and ministers nationwide.

Yet when Masten sought recognition from the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in 1971, he was met by what he describes as "hemming and hawing," as the committee wrestled with what a folk singer and poet had to do with UU ministry. He explained to the committee, "I think I do ministry, an evangelical circuit-riding kind of ministry. I come in and sing the songs of joy, and everybody gets fired up, and then I go on to the next town. It's the way the circuit riders did. I'm doing exactly the same thing for liberal religion." Eventually, the committee agreed, and granted preliminary fellowship for the Rev. Ric Masten, "Troubadour Minister."

Masten's ordination, the first of its kind, opened the door to swirling controversy. As Masten reports, "Following right behind me were people who wanted to be ordained Minister of Law and Minister of Groceries or whatever, and the line started. The MFC said, 'How can we tell if these are real ministries or not?'" Quickly realizing that it was outside its area of expertise, the MFC announced that it could grant ministerial fellowship only for ministries it knew something about. The MFC shut the door to less conventional ministries only six months after it had opened.

Although many parish ministers continued to engage in some form of community work, it was not until 1991 that the UUA General Assembly honored and legitimized full-time community ministry by making it an official category of ministry, alongside parish ministries and ministries of religious education. Community ministers can belong to the Society for the Larger Ministry. Unfortunately, because of a lack of resources, the UUA's Department of Ministry cannot help community ministers with job placements the way it assists parish or religious education ministers.

One important new development: The MFC now requires all community ministers to formally affiliate with a congregation or district.

"Ten years ago community ministers did not have an institutional or ongoing relationship to congregations," explains Shipley, of the UU Center for Community Ministry. "The problem with that pattern is that it perpetuates the notion that 'ministry' is the work of ministers, rather than 'ministry' as the work of the church and all of us. Slowly some community clergy are beginning to see that — just as parish clergy are coming to learn and implement shared ministry — this can happen in community ministry. The path is affiliation."

Masten's own ministry has transformed over the years. In the decades following his ordination, Masten spent more time on tour than in his California home, averaging more than 300 readings a year and taking his brand of truth-telling to more than 500 UU congregations. He was forced to stop traveling when he was diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer. But his community ministry continues via his Web site, www.ricmasten.com, which receives more than 500 visitors each week. Most of the hits are on the poems in what Masten calls his "Cancer Pages," which deal with the tribulations of living with cancer. This has led to a new congregation of those whose lives are also affected by disease. "Every week I have people who have visited the Web site call from around the country wanting to talk," he says.


Community ministers remind us of the pervasive presence of the sacred. They leave the crafted confines of meeting houses to plunge into the places of the world's greatest needs. Explains William Schulz: "Part of good ministry is helping people confront the ultimate elements of existence, including the most painful. Staying engaged with these very painful issues takes great courage, which is a matter of religious faith in some measure. Community ministers help people engage the world's most difficult realities in a way that allows them to remain whole and hopeful. They help us look on the abyss while remaining whole and emotionally and spiritually healthy. They break through our outer exteriors to touch our hearts, without letting our hearts be ripped apart."

Community ministers need not travel to Northern Ireland to engage the deepest and most challenging aspects of human existence. In 1991, the Rev. Don Robinson founded Beacon House Community Ministry to support the youth and families of northeast Washington, D.C. Beacon House strives to reduce delinquency, decrease the school dropout rate, and improve the achievement of at-risk students and families.

And consider what may be one of the oldest forms of ministry beyond meeting house doors: chaplaincy. Chaplains are ordained ministers who work in hospitals, prisons, retirement homes, colleges, and the armed services. Chaplains make their vocations by fully entering some of the most painful and traumatic moments in the lives of people who are hurting, standing with them and recalling to them that there is a ground to their being which they can trust.

Emma, six years old, had been hit by a car. Weeks later, her legs hung above her in a metallic spider web of traction, immobilized and useless. The children frozen in the pictures hanging on the walls of her hospital room seemed to be laughing gaily, but Emma rarely had visitors and rarely smiled. She remained in that room of the Minneapolis Children's Hospital for six weeks. During this period, one of her most frequent visitors was the Rev. Abigail Abbot Davis, a UU chaplain.

At first, Davis and Emma "just talked about anything, getting to know each other's favorite colors and types of ice cream," recalls Davis. Later, Davis discovered that they shared a love for singing, and that Emma's favorite song was "Mary Mac." "So I began a ministry of music," Davis says. "I would sing her any camp song from my childhood I could remember. Then she would make up words to sing to the tune of 'Mary Mac.' She sang about the food she ate that day, the car that hit her, feeling bored, being angry with her father for not visiting her. Then it would be my turn again."

As a chaplain in a children's hospital, Davis relies less on hymnals than camp songs, less on Bibles than board games, less on sermons than stuffed animals. "I have to be very creative with my ministry," she explains. "Adults can articulate how they are feeling and what's going on inside. Children might need a stuffed bear to talk to them to begin to understand their emotions, and for me to glimpse the state of their spirits."

Chaplains are not simply parish ministers who happen to find themselves in these nontraditional settings. Most chaplains have completed years of specific, intensive training for the work, beyond the years of graduate training that UU ministers usually complete.

"Chaplaincy is part of a holistic approach to professional heath care," explains the Rev. Bonnie Meyer, chaplain to the Hospice of the Bluegrass in Cynthiana, Kentucky. "Pain can be spiritual as well as physical or emotional." Meyer works with hospice guests who have decided to let go of aggressive treatment for the remaining six months that doctors have told them they have to live. "Our nurses, social workers, doctors, and case managers handle the physical matters. My role is spiritual caregiver."

Chaplaincy differs from the shape of parish work. "Parish ministers have longitudinal exposure to their congregations," notes the Rev. Arthur Berman, a chaplain at Vancouver General Hospital in British Columbia. "I've worked in the parish, and unless a crisis happens, you don't usually get to go deep with a lot of people. Here, I work on units like cardiac and transplant. My work is more like a series of snapshots. I'm often moving from crisis to crisis, and when people are in crisis, they cut to the chase."

The Rev. Shelley Dugan, a healthcare center chaplain in Woodbury, Minnesota, agrees. "My job is to get down and dirty, fast," she reports. "Sometimes I walk into a room and I know that this may be my only chance with this person or family I've never met before. It's my job to say, 'So, how do you feel about dying?'"

Chaplains provide a safe means for patients to get in touch with their deep questions and fears, by playing a role that the person's parish minister sometimes cannot. "For example," says Dugan, "most patients won't want to say to their own parish minister, 'Why is this happening to me and where the hell is God?' But with a chaplain who they hardly know, they can drop their good spiritual front and get to the real work."

In a hospital serving Hmong, Somali, Native American, and Latino people, Abigail Davis finds that much of her community ministry extends beyond patient care to educating staff about important cultural and religious issues. For example, Somalis must be buried within 24 hours of dying, and the body must be washed by the family, not by hospital staff. Some religions strongly discourage autopsies. And most staff members are not aware that in some Southeast Asian cultures, outsiders should never touch a child's head.

In addition to cultural differences, staff may unintentionally tread on religious sensitivities. Dugan works in nursing homes where many residents are Christian, but others are Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, and humanist. "I can help people understand that the point is to be wonderfully respectful of other people's belief systems, not to convert everyone to your own faith. As chaplain, my job is to facilitate the faith journey of every resident. This is not a place to proselytize."


Because community ministers often occupy the spaces between communities, religions, and worldviews, one of their most important jobs is convincing us that what unites us is deeper than what divides us. The Rev. Chris Moore has taught thousands of Chicago children that lesson using a simple idea that has blossomed into an internationally-acclaimed institution.

When he graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1956, no one could have guessed that he would go on to found one of the most effective community outreach organizations in Unitarian Universalist history. Moore himself had only modest aspirations when he started a children's choir at Hyde Park's First Unitarian Society of Chicago. But Moore had been raised by a mother deeply involved with the Unitarian Service Committee's work in Navajo reservations and Nigeria, and grew up equating Unitarianism with internationalism and the need for understanding across boundaries of all kinds.

Eight years before Moore's arrival, the church had passed a resolution encouraging its members "to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church." When Moore banded together a dozen children for First Unitarian's church choir, he intentionally drew them not only from the relatively affluent Hyde Park neighborhood surrounding the church, but also from the economically depressed African-American neighborhoods that bordered it. He built his choir on the belief that children from diverse backgrounds could better understand each other — and themselves — by learning to make beautiful music together. His intent was not to obviate the children's cultures, but create a common ground for those cultures to interact and possibly harmonize. From the beginning, the choir's repertoire included classical works, American spirituals, and folk songs from around the world, all in their original language. By 1960, Moore was recruiting singers from parochial and public schools.

UU parish minister Rob Eller-Isaacs joined the choir in 1958, when he was just seven years old. "What was so powerful about the experience of singing in the choir," he recalls, "was the combination of making excellent music and the visceral experience of harmony, both literal and figurative. Here we were, middle-class kids from the chronically overeducated Hyde Park, getting to know and become friends with kids who lived in the projects. Kids from all over the city. Not out of noblesse oblige, but out of a common commitment to musical excellence."

By the time Moore died in 1987, the choir he founded was growing into the independent Chicago Children's Choir, now the largest youth choral education program in the United States. Moore's 12-member church choir has grown into an organization reaching almost 3,000 Chicago-area children who sing in 68 choirs at 44 schools, 4 diverse neighborhood afterschool programs, and a 125-member Concert Choir. The singers reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of the city's schools. Although 90 percent of these schools serve economically or socially distressed neighborhoods, virtually all of the members of the Concert Choir go on to college.

The Choir has grown in stature as well as size. It's now an independent nonprofit organization with an operating budget of $1.7 million. It has shared the stage with Pavarotti, the Vienna Boys' Choir, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and performed for the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela. The Concert Choir has toured Great Britain, Italy, Ukraine, South Africa, Canada, Russia, Japan, and Israel.

The Choir is deliberately constructed to expand awareness in both its members and audiences. Unitarian Universalist parish minister Mark Morrison-Reed was one of the first people of color to join the choir, and notes, "In the beginning it meant being one of a few Negroes in a sea of white. It meant awkward situations, embarrassment and an acute self-consciousness; I bore the pain and had no way of naming much less understanding it." For all that the choir attempted to undo the harms of racism and segregation, it could not completely overcome them in the lives of the children it served. Still, Morrison-Reed notes, "The choir opened worlds that otherwise would have been closed to me." Four UU ministers, in fact, point to the Choir as the force that steered them to their vocations: the Revs. Robert Eller-Isaacs, Sidney Morris, Mark Morrison-Reed, and Thomas Yondorf.

Because of the Choir, Eller-Isaacs knew that he wanted to be a minister by the time he was 12. Already deeply respectful of Moore's vision at that age, he says, "I began to understand that the church had provided him with both a place and a kind of financial and spiritual support to do this work. Church could be a cradle for these kinds of community ministries. I decided to focus my efforts on nurturing the church itself, so that it might become a more effective instrument for community ministry in the larger world."

Like many, Eller-Isaacs believes that parish and community ministries have the most power and potential when they are affiliated with one another. Community ministry is not just the work of a few individuals, but of the UU movement and all of its members. "We have great need of community ministers," he says. "We haven't been as aware of them as we should, or as supportive as we should. Community ministers are people in the midst of our congregations who wake us up to the world outside our walls. They remind the larger society of spiritual and ethical values that often otherwise marginalized or ignored."

Community ministry is sometimes undervalued and often underpaid. Believing strongly in the importance of UU community ministry, the UU Veatch Program at Shelter Rock has made a priority of providing what funding it can. "Community ministry directly speaks to so many of our principles, particularly the respect for the interdependent web and promotion of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations," says Marjorie Fine, the executive director. "Community ministry grows Unitarian Universalism in terms of meaning."

John Millspaugh recently finished a two-year community ministry internship with former UUA president John Buehrens, while completing master's degrees at Harvard Divinity School and the Kennedy School of Government. In November he will begin a parish ministry internship at the First UU Church of San Diego. His article "Swimming with Dolphins" appeared in the May/June issue. Millspaugh is at work on a book, tentatively titled Unitarian Universalists and Other Animals.

UU World XV:4 (September/October 2001): 21-25.

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