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Community ministers help build bridges

Unitarian Universalist ministers in service and justice agencies.
By Donald E. Skinner
Summer 2006 5.15.06

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Connie Yost’s ministry is deeply rooted in a four-acre garden in a public recreation area in the middle of metropolitan Los Angeles. There, amid a voluptuous tumult of growing fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs, she leads a job-training program for at-risk youth, teaching them the values of responsibility, teamwork, leadership, and the environmental benefits of organic farming.

Yost, who will be ordained later this year by Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church of Pasadena, California, is supported in her work by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, by grants and donations, and by Los Angeles-area Unitarian Universalist congregations—including volunteer gardeners from two of the congregations.

She is a community minister, a once-rare and now-proliferating kind of UU minister choosing to base their ministry in the larger community rather than in a congregation. Community ministers generally do healing or justice work, serving as chaplains or in a range of social service and social justice organizations. More than a third of today’s Unitarian Universalist seminarians are focusing on community ministry.

There are three types of UU ministers: parish ministers, ministers of religious education, and community ministers. As of this past fall all UU students at theological schools are required to train for all three ministry areas. General Assembly delegates recognized community ministry as a legitimate form of ordained and professional religious leadership in 1991. To remain in fellowship with the UUA, community ministers are required to have a relationship with a UU congregation, district, or UUA-associated organization. Such an association, called “endorsement,” is useful to both the minister and the congregation. The community minister benefits by having the support of a spiritual and social group. The congregation benefits from its relationship with a minister who has connections with community justice work.

“Having a relationship with a community minister can only strengthen a congregation,” says the Rev. Dorothy May Emerson, who is co-writing and editing a book on UU community ministry. “A vital congregation is one that is deeply involved in its community.”

Yost’s EarthWorks Enterprises is an endorsed social justice project of Neighborhood Church and the UU Congregation of Whittier. She founded EarthWorks to help youth develop job and personal skills and to teach them about living responsibly in the world. “My heart has always been more in street ministry than in having a parish,” she said.

Neighborhood Church’s senior minister, the Rev. Jim Nelson, says his members’ engagement with EarthWorks has increased the congregation’s focus on environmental issues. “I hope that in the next few years programs like EarthWorks will engage more people in the congregation,” Nelson says. “EarthWorks is helping us become a strong advocacy congregation.”

Unitarian Universalism sometimes plays a secondary role in the work that community ministers do. There are no specific references to Unitarian Universalism in Yost’s EarthWorks Enterprises, for example. But the content of the program, about environmentalism and sustainability, is very much a part of her faith, says Yost. “And the youth do ask us questions one-on-one about religion,” she says. “I think people are very interested in how a minister does this work in which the well-being of youth, the community, and the planet is our religious message. It’s a new way of experiencing religion for many people.”

Community ministry is playing a dramatic role at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Texas, an urban church with 539 members where the Rev. José Ballester practices another form of community ministry. Called two years ago, Ballester joined the Rev. Gail Marriner, who has been there eight years, and they divided ministerial responsibilities in a way that works well for both of them—and for the congregation.

They share preaching, committee responsibilities, and staff supervision equally. Where they diverge is that Ballester spends half of his time engaging with the larger community, while Marriner does most of the congregational pastoral work.

“I love this partnership,” Ballester says. “My focus is mainly outside the church. I bring the community back to the congregation. And I also let the larger community know that Unitarian Universalists are here to help. This past year with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Gail held down the church and I went out and did outreach and relief work and we helped the congregation get involved in that. It worked so well for us. We describe it as two intersecting spheres.”

Ballester has helped First UU get more involved in the African-American neighborhoods around the church. Members have also helped clean up a dump site, provided hundreds of volunteer hours helping hurricane survivors, and are taking the lead in a movement to get the mayor of Houston to support the Kyoto Accords on global warming. “I do not believe in working alone,” Ballester says. “The congregation has a role in whatever I do.”

One challenge many community ministers face is finding a congregation to endorse them, says the Rev. Jeanne Lloyd, president of the UU Society for Community Ministries, a professional organization. She says most congregations are not aware of community ministry until a community minister approaches them. “We hope that congregations will see that having another trained minister in their midst can strengthen their congregation,” she says.

Lloyd is endorsed by UU Society: East, in Manchester, Connecticut. Her responsibilities there include consulting with three of its committees—accessibilities, Journey Toward Wholeness, and social justice. She occasionally preaches and fills in at other times for the Rev. Josh Pawelek and is available to conduct rites of passage. In return, the church pays her for preaching, and pays a stipend for her to attend General Assembly. Members of the congregation serve on her committee on ministry and help support The Arc of the Farmington Valley, a nonprofit organization where she serves as director of community services.

Emerson, who is editing the book on community ministry, believes that professionalism is an asset community ministers bring to the job. “Volunteers can do a lot of social justice work, but having a professional involved can be really valuable,” she says. “Community ministry is where the potential is today for Unitarian Universalism.”

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