A Charge To The Congregation

Given to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading, MA

The Installation of Rev. Hank Istvan Peirce

March 8 2018

It is good to be back with this congregation. Twenty-one years ago, and freshly ordained, I was your summer minister. I had a wonderful experience. Thank you for launching me into parish ministry with so much joy and support.

It falls to me to Charge the Congregation this afternoon, as one of the last elements to the liturgy we call the Installation of the Minister. It seems worthwhile to point out that what is for us today a happy and unworried occasion was for those who founded the Congregational Way a more solemn and even somewhat anxious ceremony, as those Separatists whom we today know as our “Puritan forebears” were persecuted by the Church of England for their rejection of the bishop’s authority to assign clergy to their congregations. This is a sore point in our history but as you can see from the presence of Episcopal clergy here this afternoon, we have worked it all out.

Those who established congregational polity in the 17th century wanted to see to it that the local congregation, gathered by a covenant made between themselves and their God, had the right to call their own minister and to covenant with that person to walk “in God’s ways as known and to be made known,” as they often said in their covenants.” For this innovation they were persecuted, imprisoned and in some cases executed.

Remember that when you are having a brownie in the parish hall later.

You, the congregation, own the church. This is not just a polite compliment; you literally own the property and are the stewards of all your assets. The minister is not. You, the congregation, also run the church. I am fond of reminding my own congregation that church is one of the only institutions for which the members pay for everything and do all the work.

There is no punchline. That is the punchline.

I exaggerate a bit on this point but I do it in order to make a corrective to the tendency for people to speak about their church by referencing the Minister. Sometimes I will run into parishioners in the grocery store and they will say, “I haven’t come to one of your sermons in so long!” I respond, “You haven’t attended worship? The community misses you.” I notice that your church website lists this event as “Rev. Hank’s Installation.” This is not quite right: it is YOUR installation, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading. This guy is one of the thirty-two clergypersons whom you, the church of the past and the church today, have found worthy to serve as minister among you. It is not Hank’s Installation, it is yours. By the authority vested in you by the congregational tradition, you can uninstall him any time.  The power rests with you, the community.  (sung) “The people have the power!”

Therefore I charge you to be the church, and to support the minister in being the minister – no more, no less.

The Minister’s job is to support the congregation in living into the mission which it sets out for itself, in discernment among its members, its history, the demands of the current moment (which are profound and urgent), and its God. There will never be unanimous agreement about what this mission should exactly be; do not let that stop you. I charge you to expect your minister to hold before you the vision and mission which guides and commands you. Expect him to preach it well, with evidence of deep attention to ancient and historical sources of wisdom, contemporary scholarship and the Scripture of your shared lives. Expect him to support your vision and mission in programming, prayer and pastoral work, and to be your chief teaching elder in connecting that mission to our Unitarian Universalist theological tradition.

I charge you each to take your own ministry seriously and to work faithfully in partnership with your settled minister. How can you be a healer, a helper, a lay pastor, a peaceful presence within the church?

In this effort, be ye direct communicators with one another. Remember that in congregational life, a triangle is a problematic shape. Do not talk about your minister, talk to him. And do the same for each other. Relationship is perhaps our most significant spiritual practice in Unitarian Universalism. It is a hard, time-consuming and it not always successful one. Remember that much of the work your minister spends time doing is attending to relationships and to process, which is invisible to the eye and noticed mostly in its absence or neglect. Rev. Hank has not been called here to keep everyone happy, but to help the church to remain faithful.

I have a special charge for you because you have called a special minister to serve you. I charge you to be aware that Hank Peirce is a minister to ministers, and is dear to many of us who are, like you, finding our hearts sore and our spirits sometimes inconsolable over the ugliness of the present moment in America, and across the planet.  I selfishly ask you – on behalf of a strained, sarcastic, and at the moment highly dysfunctional and hurting clergy cohort to be a good ministry setting for Hank because we need his heart. Hank is the lead elephant to whom many of us in this circus attach our trunks as we try to stay together. We need his spirit to be strong.

In the end, we all need each other. May this installation be an outward sign of an inward commitment not just to your new minister (and his wise and wonderful wife and daughters), but to one another, to your covenant, to the greater good that calls all of us out from our aloneness and fear and into engagement in the world, in the name of Love.

 

 

2 Replies to “A Charge To The Congregation”

  1. “Those who established congregational polity in the 17th century wanted to see to it that the local congregation, gathered by a covenant made between themselves and their God, had the right to call their own minister and to covenant with that person to walk “in God’s ways as known and to be made known,” as they often said in their covenants.” For this innovation they were persecuted, imprisoned and in some cases executed.”

    This paragraph came to mind as I was reading about the grand jury’s report on the Catholic Church in PA.

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