Hey, Seminarians!

A seminarian of my acquaintance is doing her first funeral and commital tomorrow. I am so glad that she posted that information on FaceBook with a request for any support, advice, etc. that others might have. Many of her friends wrote, “You’ll be great!” and other supportive sentiments, but she needs and deserves much more than that; she needs real collegial resources.

We just got off the phone after a long conversation about everything from whether or not to throw dirt on the casket to the uncomfortable question of fees for services to crying while presiding to the overall extreme trauma of Clinical Pastoral Education.

I was more than happy to be able to send her the manuscript of a funeral service and commital I thought would work well for her setting. She hasn’t had any seminary classes yet on presiding over special services and had nothing but a book of readings. Whoo boy, it’s way too much to ask of someone who’s working 60+ unpaid hours as a hospital chaplain under clinical supervision to do their job AND figure out how to do a funeral service for the next day!! I did my first funeral as a summer minister in Reading, Massachusetts immediately after I was ordained and had graduated from div school. When someone died, I freaked out and the Rev. Jane Rzepka responded from her vacation to provide me with an outline and manuscript for memorial services that I used for years until I gained more experience and developed a different format. I would have been sunk without her help. All I had at that point was a loose-leaf notebook of readings. Believe it or not, because Harvard offered no courses in Unitarian Universalist liturgy and worship, I had had no training in how to design special services. We covered it briefly in Polity class, but polity and liturgy certainly deserve their own separate courses. Preaching class is also limited; the sermon is just one part of worship and won’t do beans for you in planning a funeral.

Seminarians, newbie colleagues, please: don’t hesitate to ask for help!! Even if you don’t know a UU colleague or hardly know them, give us a call!! Even if we’re on vacation, busy, whatever… don’t go out there alone and inexperienced. We’ve all been there and we really, truly don’t want you to try to figure everything out yourself. That’s not fair.

We’re here for you!

7 Replies to “Hey, Seminarians!”

  1. AMEN I say, for the colleagues. I had a similar experience, the summer of my second year of seminary. I was worship coordinator for the summer at First U Chicago. A beloved child of the church died at 19 on her way home from college. The minister was in Texas, attending to her own dying father. The faculty at Meadville all seemed to be gone on vacation. I was a scared little bunny, thinking about leading not only my first funeral, but one that was so charged. I called Kendyl Gibbons, mentor to all scared little bunnies at Meadville in those days. She walked me through it over the phone, and in 20 minutes, I still felt scared (appropriate!) but like I could do it. As it turns out, I didn’t have to. The family called Jack Mendelson, Minister Emeritus, to come, which he gladly did. I orchestrated things in the background.

    I still think of Kendyl’s “five messages” that need somehow to be communicated in a UU service. I use them myself. I’ve also used them when talking about death in sermons.

    They are:
    1. A death happened. Say it outright, don’t use euphemisms, don’t say “he is watching us now” or is “in the arms of Jesus”. He died. Others speaking in the service may say such things, and often do – that’s fine. But I don’t.
    2. Death hurts. I hate services that urge us to not be sad, he wouldn’t want us to grieve, etc. Baloney – death hurts.
    3. A human life is not replaceable. You cannot go out and get another mom.
    4. Death is mysterious. We don’t know what happens afterward.
    5. You may trust the universe. That has not changed.

    Thanks for this post, PB, and for the chance to give Kendyl a well-deserved shout out. And yes I would always be there for someone to do the same.

  2. The aspect of UU land I respect the most is memorial services. The five messages above are most appropriate.

  3. So nice to read such a supportive blog post. Too often I feel like we are somehow ON TRIAL as candidates/seminarians and it is always about proving ourselves, being worthy, going to the right workshops, etc. One of the saddest things of my journey is that I always felt like the process was about keeping new/unworthy/outsider people OUT rather than helping us in a thoughtful and kind process of discernment and welcoming us to the journey of potential ordained ministry. Not so much from ministers in general, but via the official process. Which sets quite the tone. So amen for asking for help (goodness knows I/we need it and have so much to learn!) and for feeling welcome and wanted 🙂 Thanks!

  4. What is Unitarian liturgy?> I would like very much to know. Please consider a column on this which I find to be the biggest hole in our faith. Thank you. At present except for the mingling of the waters, lighting of the chalice and the flower communion it seems to me to be whatever the current minister likes or wants. This I believe related to the laying on of hands(do what you think is meaningful with no even broad parameters)

    [Hi Beverly. Unitarian Universalist liturgy is far too broad a topic to do a column on — I know that sounds like a cop-out, but it’s true! Part of the problem is that, amazingly enough, classes on our own liturgical tradition are often not part of ministers’ training since they are not offered at seminaries! The main commenters on this thread have spent long years researching and reading Unitarian and Universalist and Unitarian Universalist hymn books, prayer books, orders of service, etc. out of sheer nerdy interest in the subject. We bid against each other for old Unitarian and Universalist materials on e-bay. We’re liturgy geeks! I would recommend to you Kathleen Rolenz and Wayne Arnason’s new book Worship That Works, as well as Frank Schulman’s A Manual For Worship. For deeper background on Congregational liturgical tradition, Horton Davies’ The Worship of the American Puritans will give you some insights into ordinations, installations, laying on of hands and other very old practices among us, and if you can find Von Ogden Vogt’s out-of-print books. You can often find great treasures in your local congregation’s library or reading room — or ask a minister for a chance to look through our older hymnals, which contained Orders of Worship. Thanks for asking and happy reading! – PB]

  5. It’s not just UU seminarians who are called to do funerals without training; those of us who are lay leaders in congregations without ministers also are called to do funerals.
    My wife and I co-lead the funeral of our friend the previous lay leader, we helped with visitation, provided some support (we lived 30 miles away) selected music, and wrote the service while working our real jobs and dealing with other issues (a good friend of mine for 35 years also died that week, etc.).
    I emailed for advice on the two small UU congregation lists, which was happily given. UUs have much excellent printed resources (which I fortunately already had). The funeral home was not equipped to play MP3s – but we luckily had other music. Seminarians and lay-leaders you need to be prepared. You never know. [Good point, and thanks for reminding us. – PB]

  6. PB, I am undergoing a similar experience, though a little on the more joyful side. I am a pre-seminarian (i.e., someone who is seriously considering divinity school, whose friends and family know and encourage this), and one of my dearest friends from college asked me to officiate at her wedding this fall.

    Cue my panic. I’ve been to a few weddings, but attending and performing are two entirely separate things. I did some research online, found a few guidelines, suggestions. Then I contacted the best resource ever– my childhood minister. I didn’t want to presume experience or understanding of the ceremony, but I also wanted to preside over it with some dignity and solemnity. Even if I was “just” a friend marrying them, I refuse to allow my best friends’ wedding to be a smash and grab (“Do you? Do you? AWESOME.”). He gave me a lot of advice, guidelines, and confidence in my abilities. Colleagues (or not-yet colleagues, as the case may be) are truly priceless.

    Best of luck to the seminarian. I love those five messages, though; they definitely feel right.

    -Sarah K [Thanks for a wonderful story. I’m sure the wedding was lovely! – PB]

  7. PeaceBang,

    I am a PCUSA Elder who will enter seminary in the next year or so. As I move on toward my ordination as Minister of Word and Sacrament, I really appreciate your support of those of us starting out in ministry. Your advice is proof positive that we can easily reach across denominational lines. Blessings on your continued ministry.

    Dominus vobiscum,

    Presby [And also with you, my friend. – PB]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.