[BLOG] Ministry & The Seven Month Itch

by BC

I’m a newer minister.  Sure, I’ve long been called to this work but as far as practicing the craft, I’m fresh off the assembly line.  I’m in my first settlement, first year, and there are first firsts all over the place.  On top of it all, there has been and will continue to be this shared hope amongst newer ministers that what we need to learn and do will be more accessible:  Searching for a congregation will be streamlined, settling into a community will be smooth, our credentialing process will be straightforward, compensation for ministers will make sense, and seminaries will teach all of the ins and outs.  No surprises will be left.  It’s a tall order.  It’s an impossible hope.

And all throughout this hope, no matter where I turn, I feel that my colleagues and I are often repeating ourselves with, “Well, this should be here for us…and that, too.”  Some may call it entitlement and certainly part of it is.  However, entitlement or not, we’re feeling our way through a calling rooted in humanity with human systems and human flaws with human needs.  It’s an incomplete system.  It may never be as fleshed out as our hopes demand.

Already in my career I’ve written off ministry as imperfect, frustrating, incomplete, but still somehow the very thing I am called to do as so many others are.  Perhaps the indelible nature of ministry on one’s heart and spirit create a yearning for wholeness within our vocation.  Is wholeness even achievable with the “last great generalist” calling?

I’m seven months in to my first settlement and I’m already looking back and taking a long hard look at this life and this work.  I love it.  I love it in such a way that I cannot describe it clearly or fully.  This is a love that runs deeper than any other feeling for my place on this good earth.  Yet, threaded within this love for ministry is a reminder that it is heartbreaking, incomplete, and reaching out for a wholeness I do not believe is possible.  Seven months in and I need to look back.  Seven months in and I need to make peace with this calling so I may go forward with hopefulness.

A dear colleague of mine, Rev. Dawn Cooley, wrote about the “seven year itch” in a sermon she recently delivered.  I appreciate her words.  I am especially thankful for the wisdom of colleagues in longer ministries and the strategies they employ, the joy they discover and rediscover, and the paths they’ve left for us newer ministers to pursue.  But what about the itch of newer ministers?  What about the things we find in that first year that make us reflect on who we are as ministers and how we can best serve the communities we are called to?  What about the seven month itch?

I do not have concrete answers for this itch, I just have my experiences.  They are, perhaps, the only real currency I have in bargaining with the person I am called to be and the person I’ve discovered along the way.  I very well may reach that place I am called only to discover I was there all long.  It’d be a great Paulo Coehlo story.  What I can offer is not streamlined UUA policies or that one explanation that will fully guide someone into making a decision on the first Tuesday of April when ministers receive a phone call from a search committee (protip:  follow your heart), but I can share only scraps that’ve appeared these first seven months.

You will be disappointed.  You will be delighted.

Ministry is one of those vocations that has great promise.  I remember entering seminary and having a long list of how I was going to save the world with Unitarian Universalism.  I had social justice warrior impulses, a desire for quick changes, and a vision of what church should be.  This is, of course, in addition to my absolute fear at pursuing the call in the first place.  But what I’ve found so far, first as an intern and now as a minister, is that church is an entrenched institution and it won’t be changing overnight.  Social justice requires realistic expectations.  We can’t tackle every issue.  Changes need to be deliberate or well-explained.  Many people come to us for sanctuary and not upheaval.  While we are charged to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” it should not be rooted in making people doubt the sanctuary they long for.  Also, the church I envision for the world can start simply with the people I’m called to serve, and not be an unruly fire.  I remind myself that in the disappointment of not reaching my high expectations, there is a delight in doing good work.

You will learn it really isn’t about you.

It isn’t.  There’s a lot of emphasis on my ministry in formation but the truth is that it is and always will be our ministry.  The work of a minister is not an idle task.  We speak of shared ministry, the covenantal nature of our faith, and how we need to break free from harmful individualism, and yet there is an awkward underlining of personal pastoral authority and a ministry that is entirely ours.  My little experience thus far tells me that ministry is everything but a crown of laurels.  We have to get over our own egos.  The sooner we do this, conflicts and disappointments will hook us less easily.

You’ll make rookie mistakes.

You will move too fast, make too many changes, have far too much enthusiasm, and forget to meet your community where they are.  How could you not?  You’ve found your calling!  And no matter how many times mentors, professors, or the UUA Transitions Office tells you to take it slowly and be curious and learn more in your first year(s), you will find a moment where you dive in headfirst.  It’s okay.  The building is still standing, right?  Someone might be mad at you but the hope of our covenants is that you will call that person back into right relationship.  It’ll be fine.  Make light of the mistakes, admit them, apologize for them — and then go forth and make new mistakes.  Church cannot and should not have the expectation of perfection.

You’ll lose sight of why you’re doing this work.

And you will find yourself contemplating how fast you can pack your car and leave.  It happens to everyone.  There will be moments when you wonder if those rookie mistakes you made are going to end this work for you or if you really can make a change in the spiritual lives of the people you serve.  Is anyone listening to you?  Are you doing anything worthwhile?  Why on earth are you doing this…

You’ll make a difference…without knowing it.

And then, more often when your doubt is at its worst, you will discover that you’ve made a difference.  There will be a member of your community giddy that church is a place where they are excited to be.  The person you thought was mad at you will tell you how much it means to them that you made that small change.  People will notice that you care about this work more than anything.  There will always be someone unhappy with what you’re doing, often around the silliest things.  But even then you could very well be making a difference in a part of their lives that has nothing to do with lightbulbs, coffee filters, or the color of the paint on a closet wall.  If you get through this work with at least one life changed, then well done thou good and faithful servant.  In seven months, you’ve made a difference.  You can count on that.

You will find that moment where it all fits.

Throughout the doubt, more doubt, and even more doubt you will start to feel pieces falling into place.  You may find that the pieces are showing you a picture of ministry that you did not expect.  You could discover that the community that called you is not where you need to be.  The parish might not be for you…or the hospice, the non-profit, the other-place-where-ministry-takes-place.  And still there will be more doubts and more joys but the picture of what you and your community need will lose the haze and speak clearly.  Having something come together and “fit” doesn’t mean it will feel amazing.  Doubting where you’ve ended up or even realizing you’re exactly where you need to be can be a rollercoaster of emotion.

You’ll fall in love.

With your community or with the possibilities you’ve discovered.  I remember clearly the moment when I knew it was love with the church that called me.  It wasn’t during pre-candidating or candidating, it wasn’t even in the first month.  Those moments had the foundations of love.  The moment where it all came together was during our first Music Sunday.  I looked over at the choir singing joyfully, the percussionists drumming away with their eyes closed and moving to the rhythm, and back to the gathered community — this community that called me.  I saw in many faces a commitment to this place, a hopefulness for this faith, and a deep connection with the worshipful moments before all of us.  I want to hold on to that moment as long as possible, bottle it up and keep it, and never lose it no matter where ministry takes me.  Whether it’s seven months or seven years, what is making you fall in love in this moment?  Perhaps the answer is surprising.  Follow your heart.