Sunday, 25 August 2013

So what is it that you do?

“What does a minister do?” By Bruce T Marshall

Last Sunday the kindergarten class stopped by my office for conversation. The question came up, “What does a minister do?”

That’s a tough one. I have a hard time explaining to my wife what I do. What do I say to five year olds?

“Makes speeches,” one child volunteered helpfully. We all quickly agreed on that. Yes I make speeches.

“Talks to people.” That’s true, all the talking I do is not in the form of speeches. I expect many of these five year olds have witnessed the scene in which somebody wants to go home but the minister is still “talking to people.”

“Solves problems.” This also was suggested by a participant. I was about to equivocate and say, “Well, lots of times I may try to solve problems, but the problems are difficult, and one person can’t do it all, and I can’t think of many problems that I actually have solved alone, but I try to do my part.” I thought about saying that but decided it would just confuse things. I swallowed hard and said, “Yes, I solve problems.”

“The minister talks to people when there are problems because it’s better to talk about problems than to hit each other.” What an elegant statement to come from a five year old, to come from anybody.

I’ll let that statement stand. Couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Some questions are just impossible to answer...

I was out with a friend recently. He was getting money from the hole in the wall and I was just kind of lingering on the street. Suddenly a friendly, attractive, young woman approached me saying “I bet I can guess your name”. Now please don't get too excited she wasn’t chatting me up, she was actually working for “Friends of the Earth” and was attempting to get me to give money to the organisation. 

She persisted and kept on saying “I bet I can guess your name, in a friendly slightly flirtatious way.” I just smiled and answered “Go on then” and she said “Dave, Steve, Andy, Mike” I shook my head and said “My middle name is David”. She carried on, but didn’t manage to guess. She then asked if I could guess her name, which I failed to do. My friend then arrived and she asked if he was my brother? To which I replied, “don’t insult him, he’s far too good looking to be related to me.” 

Frustrated she changed her tack and the next thing she asked was "so what do you do?" Now if I'd been really sharp, no doubt I would have responded "Well I mind my own business," but I'm not that sharp and besides she never gave me the time. Instead she quickly said, “are you unemployed.” To which I replied, “Of course not, why would you think that?” She said, "well most people walking round here at this time of day are”. I suspect that this is the answer that most folk give in order to stop her pestering them and interestingly I had just been to the job centre with my friend, who is on the job hunt. 

She continued attempting to guess what I do. She looked me up and down and said “I bet you work in construction” I just shook my head, she continued “are you a chef?” “Do you work in sales?” I bet you’re a civil servant?” This went on for quite some time and I just kept on shaking my head and saying, "you will never guess."

She didn’t.

In the end in order to put her out of her misery I told her what I do (Well really what I am). I said “I am a minister” at which point she stopped and her jaw dropped, again she looked me up and down and then looked at my friend who said, "yes he is" as he began to snigger. The young woman looked like she had fallen into a state somewhere between shock and terror. She stared for a few moments, which seemed like an eternity and then began to mumble “Well then you know what Friends of the Earth are all about then”, to which I replied “Yes I know all about Friends of the Earth”, she then said a few barely coherent things back at me, as all her confidence and brashness had now left her, I just smiled and chuckled. There then followed a short silence, that seemed to last for an eternity and then she turned and kind of lept in the air and pounced on an unsuspecting young man passing in the street and began her patter again “I bet I can guess your name” I turned to my friend and we burst out laughing and off we went for a coffee and a chat.

Now I don’t generally get a kick out of sucking the wind out of the sails of young women, but this encounter did amuse me.

I know I’m not your typical minister; I’m not sure I’m your typical anything; I’m not sure I’d want to be in any case. People who don’t know me are often surprised when they discover what I do. I was asked by someone recently and a few weeks later they confessed to being shocked at first. That said they had thought that at first I meant that I was a minister in the government and not a minister of religion. Now I wonder if that’s what the young woman thought...maybe, maybe not.

This of course brings to mind another question that I’m often asked... “So as a minister what do you?” Or sometimes, “what do you the rest of the week?” I’m also asked how is it going, the job I mean? Again this is hard to answer. My usual response is “Well they haven’t chased me out of town yet.” Which is quickly followed by, “I am loved, they love me”, "the work's a real blessing"

Oh if only people would ask me simple question like "What is the Meaning of Life?", or "If there is a God why is there so much suffering?", or "What happens when we die?" These seem far easier to answer than "So what exactly is a minister and what does a minister do?"

I love the responses that the children given in words by Bruce T Marshall above. I also love his final concluding words

“The minister talks to people when there are problems because it’s better to talk about problems than to hit each other.” What an elegant statement to come from a five year old, to come from anybody.

I’ll let that statement stand. Couldn’t have said it better myself.”

I do believe that it points to what the role of a minister is or what it means to minister. Now of course etymologically speaking to minister is to serve; and I believe that to serve is to love in the truest meaning of the word. Now the love I am talking of here is agape love, self giving love, love without prejudice. Which I believe is perfectly exemplified in this verse from Matthew’s Gospel chapter ch 5 vv 48 “Therefore be the perfect, like your father in heaven is perfect”. This is the love that is the root from which ministry must grow. Perfect love is love without prejudice, love for all regardless of where a person has been, who they are, where they are from, what they may or may not have done in the past. This is the love that is expressed in the prodigal son parable. To me this is the essence of love and service; this is the essence of ministry. It is the purpose of my role and it is the primary purpose of a truly religious community. This I believe is the spirit that must run through all that I do and the communities I serve do. Now of course I fall short of this as does the community of people I serve, but we do aspire, we aim at this and accept that it is ok to fall short.

No one can get everything right. I need to remember that. I believe that every human needs to remember that.

I recently came across a wonderful meditation “The Church Where Everything Goes Wrong." by Elea Kemler. She is writing about her experiences of being a minister in a new congregation and all the problems and difficulties that she has to endure in attempting to keep her fellowship of love afloat. At the end of a piece filled with frustration at everything that goes wrong she writes:

“But I also imagine a God who is touched and a little honored by our efforts, however halting, to worship and give praise. I imagine a God who is moved by our attempts to care for one another and to name the things we know as holy. There is a warmth in this congregation that is new to me, a simple friendliness that shines through the fumblings and failures, a love that makes the ragged edges smooth. I have always wanted to believe that our mistakes aren't the most important parts of us. I have always wanted to believe that kindness and compassion matter more than anything. I sense that I can learn this here.”

I too want to believe that kindness and compassion are what matter the most; I do believe that they are the essence of love and service; I do believe that they are the root of true religion.

The Unitarian tradition that I belong to has emphasised not only the priesthood, but also the prophet hood of all believers. I am not the only one who ministers in the congregations I serve. I believe that everyone in the communities ministers to one another in one degree or another; the diverse communities of individuals minister not only to one another, but also to the wider community. We offer love and service to all. We welcome all, to come as they are, exactly as they are, but not to expect to leave in exactly the same condition; to be transformed in a loving and accepting way when they leave and to carry that out into their world.

I keep on wondering about that conversation with the young woman. It matters to me what people think. I care what people think, not only of me, but of what I do. It bothers me that a person can look with fear at me, because of what I do. Do not get me wrong, I do not take it personally. Nor am I ruled by what people think of me, but I do care. To no longer care about things sounds hellish to me.

The fear I would guess stems from the way that religion is viewed in this country. This is of course the fault, to some degree, of religion itself which at times does not come across as loving and accepting of all, quite the opposite, it can be divisive and against some people. That said I do not believe that this is the essence, the true essence, of religion.

Religion for me, or at least the free religion that I aspire to is about love and service. It’s about walking with people in their despair and their hope, in their suffering and their bliss and all that lies in between. It’s about accepting them as they are in all that they are. This is love in its truest sense. It’s about offering perfect love and making that love manifest in the world in which we live and have our being.


  1. I get asked a lot what I do, the conversation goes like this (me being an English girl in the USA)
    Where are you from? -Manchester England
    Why are you here? - I work here.
    What do you do/where do you work? - I teach religious education in a church.
    Which church? - The Unitarian Universalist church on kingston pike.
    Then I get one of three reactions - 1. They were excited about the church until they hear which one then they go quiet. 2. They got nervous when I said I work in a church, and often don't ask which one but when I tell them they go - Oh the Unitarians, we love you guys! 3. They have not heard of us, and so then I have to explain what we are.
    The other thing that happens is that since I work in a church people think they can then tell me all their personal details. - These are mainly people I meet at bus stops and shops, not people I have chosen to interact with. - For example they tell me that their husband is addicted to drugs and their church wasnt supporting the in the way she wants. - I am not a minister and am just praying the bus gets there quickly because I am not equipped to deal with this information!

  2. Oh I don't know I reckon you may well be equipped, if you really listen. The real gems of life are often found in the things we feel we can't cope with or are not equipped to cope with. Thanks for the comment by the way, made me smile broadly, just imagining the that all is well

  3. I can't help thinking that in all likelihood the FoE young women really did think you were a Minister of State and not a Minister of religion. And I wonder why you don't routinely describe yourself using those three words rather than the one, as so few people these days are familiar with the jargon of religion. Thank you for this (and other entries on your blog) - always thought provoking and often conscience-pricking.

  4. You may well be correct, although if you'd met me it would appear even less likely and of course you would expect her to perhaps recognise me. Maybe in future I will, although I suspect there is a naughty part of me that enjoys seeing the reaction, it is certainly interesting. Thanks for your response and encouragement