I always cry at weddings and funerals. Maybe this is not too seemly for a man, but I do. I don’t bawl like a baby but instead I sit there with my handkerchief at the ready to dab away the inevitable tears. How could you not cry at a wedding or funeral? These events are rife with emotion, unless you hardly know the people involved. Unsurprisingly, I cried at my mother’s memorial service five years ago. I cried in September when my father remarried more than sixty years after marrying my mother. And I found myself crying today when our new minister was ordained and installed.
So now, I cry at weddings, funerals and ordinations. There must be something about formal ceremonies that mark major life-changing events that make my tears flow. Crying at wedding and funerals makes a certain amount of sense, but it makes less sense at ordinations. After all, I hardly know our church’s new minister. She arrived in August straight out of seminary, having paid us a whirlwind candidate visit in May. Then we checked her out and found much to like. Aside from her sterling letters of recommendation from various esteemed professors at her seminary, the profound way that she seamlessly integrated with various communities within our Unitarian Universalist church, the powerful services she led, she is also youthful, blonde and attractive. It was no wonder then that ninety eight percent of the congregation voted to call her as our minister. What was there not to like? Over the forty years of our congregation, we’ve had a half dozen ministers or so, including an alleged philanderer. We also had an interim minister so desperate for a settled ministry that he wrote fraudulent recommendations for himself under the guise of our church leaders. We felt entitled to a minister fresh out of seminary who is full of vitality and promise.
Perhaps this ordination would have made less of an impact had not every member at the ordination not actively participated in it. If this been an ordination for a Catholic priest and even if I was still a Catholic, unless I was a friend of the new cleric it’s unlikely that I would have been invited. It’s also likely that my role would not amount to anything more than passive participant. That is because in most faiths some bishop or some other high-church official (often under the sanction of God) usually ordains new ministers. It works differently with Unitarian Universalists. Only a congregation can ordain a minister.
The difference is significant but profound, and was probably the reason that I was crying. A new minister must first pass through a number of tough academic and other hurdles. In this case, it required several years at the Lombard Theological School in Chicago, a year in residency and three months as a chaplain ministering to the dying and infirmed in hospitals and nursing homes. However, all that effort and expense is moot if the candidate cannot find a congregation willing to ordain him or her. Not only did we have to choose to formally ordain this new minister, and she had to take the vow of ministry, we had to make the association real through the laying of hands. If it were a Catholic ordination, I imagine there would have been song, chiming bells and incense. For this ordination, the new minister was first surrounded and touched on the shoulder or arm by family and close friends (an inner circle), then by participating clerics (a second circle, who were touching those in the inner circle), then by the ordaining congregation (who were touching the second circle) and finally by any others at the ceremony.
The effect was amazing and moving. There is something tangible in the act of touching that cannot be replicated by chimes, music or incense. You could feel the energy of our collective body. It surged between all the participants during the ceremony. It felt electric. This simple mass act of laying of hands gave this ordination both extraordinary dimension and meaning.
At its essence, ministry is all about connections between people and helping people surmount the many obstacles that challenge them. This is why an ordination through a mass laying of hands was both a symbolic and a deeply meaningful experience. For many, if not most people, religion is about God and ministers guide us to living according to God’s plan. For Unitarian Universalists, ministry is about relationships between people, some formally in covenant with each other, such as members of the same congregation. However, ministry also expands to the community and world at large. We acknowledge that we are all connected.
In some ways, we are all ministers, helping each other as we find energy and strength. Our minister plays many roles including leadership, acting as a role model, helping forge deeper bonds of fellowship between us and helping us through personal crises. However, she also helps us engage with a larger network of people outside our comfort zone. These latter activities extend to the usual stuff like food drives and helping the homeless to more personal people-to-people connections, such as the English as a Second Language (ESOL) classes that one of our lay ministers took up as her call. Much of her ministry extends to the unlikely community of largely cloistered Muslim women who see much of life behind thick veils.
Ministry must be a calling because, except in a few rare cases, is does not pay very well. Our minister won’t be starving, but she likely will earn half as much this year as I will, and I suspect her work is much harder. Perhaps that was why I was crying. I suspect that her life will be full of very hard but very meaningful work. While she will minister to us, we will minister to her as well, providing her with the support she will need for the very hard and often thankless work ahead of her. She will be engaged in making the world a better and more harmonious place, a seemingly impossible task.
I hope that through our laying of hands during her ordination we have fully charged her battery for the long and Herculean tasks ahead of her.