I’ve been watching and listening to the online discussion about “Excellence in Ministry.” I have to admit that something in me cringed at the term. Maybe it’s the old memories from grade school when instead of “letter grades” we got either “E” for “Excellent,” “S” for “Satisfactory,” or “U” for “Unsatisfactory.” That sense of constant evaluation still permeates the word “excellence” for me.
Not that I am completely opposed to evaluation. I’m just aware that there very few people that I would trust to understand the complexities of ministry well enough to truly evaluate “excellence.” It’ s sure not going to happen on a survey with a scale of 1 – 5. “Rate the minister’s sermons with 1 being ‘excellent’ and 5 being ‘boring as hell.'”
For the sake of full disclosure, let me explain a bit about my own situation. In the past two years, I’ve dealt with a child who developed a serious addiction, the end of my marriage, and a minor, but scary health situation. I’m also in the seventh year of ministry in my current congregation–a time known for being complex and even difficult–and often referred to with knowing glances and the phrase, “Ah, the seven year itch…”
With all that on my plate, I am well aware that my ministry, while certainly adequate and even still inspiring at times, has not been “excellent,” if what is meant by “excellent” is “top-notch, above average, better than most…” I think I’ve done a good job managing all that’s happened and still doing my job, but I’d have to grade myself as “Satisfactory,” not “Excellent.” Now that the crises are past, I feel the energy and passion returning and feel “excellence” back within reach.
Even so, it takes time for even small disappointments to be healed and reconciled. One of the most important tasks of religious communities is forgiveness and we are learning truly Unitarian Universalist ways to do that. I think we’ve been pretty smart about it, getting help to work through the issues, the feelings, and finding a way to begin again in love. Of course, some in the congregation are blissfully unaware that there was any stress at all, while others don’t know that any of the healing work is happening. It’s very hard to communicate the complexities of these relational aspects of ministry to the wider congregation. And all of it gets tangled up with perceptions and feelings of “excellence.”
All that was a long preface to what I really want to say. In her recent update from the Excellence in Ministry meeting, Rev. Christine mentioned the term “Soul-Satisfying Ministry.” Wow! Does that ever feel better! Am I ministering in a way that is true to my soul? That satisfies the “soul needs” of my congregation? Do I offer ministry that stretches, deepens, feeds, challenges, comforts, and otherwise engages soul? Do I have the support and resources I need to satisfy my own soul? When, as a fellow human being, the minister is dealing with stresses that drain the soul, how can that be addressed openly and compassionately?
Those questions get me excited. They open my mind and heart and make me want to really explore how I can do those things better. They hint at the partnership between minister and congregant–a relationship that goes beyond evaluating “excellence” with questions like “Do the sermons interest me?” or “Did the minister return my phone call right away?”
“Soul Satisfying Ministry” seems to me a goal worthy of our history and faith tradition. It invites us to discuss deeply the expectations, needs, and spiritual life of both the congregation and the minister . It frames ministerial leadership in terms that aren’t only managerial, but spiritual and not only about satisfying the congregation’s desires, but helping them grow and change and maybe learn to desire new things: like being of service, being generous, being welcoming to all, celebrating pluralism…
As you can tell, these ideas get me excited! Please, discuss!