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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

The Road Goes Ever On and On:
Reflections on Ten Years in Stoughton

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 7, 2003

 

Things of significance will often cluster in bunches, it seems, and this is a week or two of anniversaries for me, it seems Today, we mark the tenth year of my coming to Stoughton and assuming the ministry of this church. On Tuesday, the ninth of September, Elizabeth and I will mark our 25th wedding anniversary, and will commence our “jubilee year”, as it were. (It’s also my birthday next Saturday, but because this year’s ends neither in a “0” nor a “5”, it would seem of only limited significance to everyone except perhaps my dear mother.)

In some ways, of course, there is really nothing different about the particular days that we name and set aside as milestones. I noticed no shooting stars in the sky as I awoke this morning, no great comet pointing the way to our sanctuary. Likewise, I expect no celestial apparitions when this Tuesday morning dawns.

It is not in the particular day or date that a milestone’s significance lies, but rather, in what it symbolizes: what meaning it represents; what import its history imparts; what lessons we have learned along the way. “We live not by things, but by the meaning of things,” St. Exupery wrote. (If you have hung around here for a while, you have heard me repeat that line more than a few times.) It is not particular days that are important, but rather the meaning those days have imparted to our lives.

On his 50th wedding anniversary, Henry Ford was asked the formula for a successful married life. The father of the Model-T replied that it was the same formula that had made his automobile business so lucrative: “Stick to one model.”

As far as marriage goes, I would not argue with that advice; I know how blessed I have been to have found my soul mate back there at Hickory Farms in the Lincoln Mall in Rhode Island, more than a quarter of a century ago. I pray that life may give us many more joyful and exciting years together.

But as for ministry, I wonder how well Ford’s advice stands up: “Stick to one model,” he said. One model. One way. One vision. One way of doing things.

Even as I have considered how much this world has changed over the past decade (and not for the better I fear)-- and the more subtle ways in which this congregation has changed (for the better, I sincerely believe)— and even as I have pondered the numerous ways in which I have changed, as an individual— I have been struck with how consistent my vision of ministry has remained down through the years.

Now, as you may know, I am not one who worships blindly at the altar of consistency for the sake of consistency, and I am a firm subscriber to Emerson’s dictum about a “foolish consistency” being the “hobgoblin of little minds”. I crave different experiences, different tastes, different impressions. My summer reading list this year ran the gamut from Jack Kerouac to the Abbess Thaisia of 19th century Russia. I am never happier than listening to Dvorak one minute and Pink Floyd the next. I will preach on paganism one week, and Charles Dickens the next, and the spiritual significance of hip-hop a few weeks hence—and I feel very alive and energized in so doing.

But in deeper matters—including matters of ministry—there is much to be said for an abiding and undergirding consistency. Consistency and integrity are at least related to one another, it seems to me. So what have been the lodestars of my vision of ministry down through the years?

One has been my ideal of the minister as equal—as a partner along the spiritual way, and not as “expert” or “guru” or final, unimpeachable, unquestioned authority. This is not to say that there are not skills of ministry that I have (I hope) honed and developed in over 20 years of parish experience. This is not to say that I ought to be reticent about sharing my talents with you, and timid about expressing my views of questions that face our church (and I hope I have been neither).

But I have always recoiled from the top-down minister-dominated view of the church. I’ve never liked the ministerial title “pastor” very much—because I always thought that if I was the “pastor”, then that made all of you the sheep. And how dynamic is a congregation of sheep?

It is not up to the Minister to “build the church”. That is the work of all of the people of the church. If a church is to grow and prosper, it is as much up to the people of the church, as it is to the minister, to step up to the plate and take their swings: to engage the church’s potential and problems creatively; to take responsibility for church programs; to make their church a priority in their lives; to support their church to the full extent that their time, talent, and treasure will allow. You can have the most eloquent, imaginative, efficient, engaging minister on earth. But if the people of the church don’t support the church adequately, then many of our efforts will, simply, go for naught.

Another lodestar of my vision of ministry is a vision of ministry that is personal—that prefers meeting simple human needs to making grand and ostentatious public gestures. I have preferred making casseroles to drafting organizational flow charts; the intimate ministry of the moment to the speculations of five year plans. Of course, in an ideal world (and in an ideal minister) you would have both. But I have always sought to keep our ministry alive to the spontaneity and surprise of the moment, rather than a cataloguing and a close-counting of the hours.

A church is not a wall we build brick by brick. It is, rather, a precious garden that we do all in our power to cultivate.

So many aspects of church life in general, and ministry in particular, just cannot be quantified (which is why people who try to attach traditional business measurements to the work of the church are so often frustrated). We are doing the work of the Spirit here, and while that is not an excuse for inefficiency or for slovenliness or for not paying adequate attention to our building and finances, it does remind us that matters of the Spirit cannot be bottled up and measured and bought and sold like ketchup. (My personal opinion is that instead of always talking about how churches need to be run more like businesses, we ought to be looking at how businesses should be run more like churches.) We can model to the world at large more compassionate and humane and genuine ways of being and relating.

I have always felt that, while ministers should speak in a language that could be understood by their congregations, they ought not to speak down to the people of their churches—that they ought not to fear uplifting the men and women of their churches with new ideas, fresh insights, and even radical and provocative perspectives. You have guaranteed to me a free pulpit, and I know what a precious gift that is. I know that many ministers are not as blessed, and have to choose their words so much more carefully, and back away from controversial issues, and pull their punches so much more than do I. I hope that, in return, I have taught you all a few things during my ten years as minister here in Stoughton, and have broadened your perspective just a little, and have helped you to look with new eyes on a world that is always expanding, always new, to greet with eagerness and curiosity along a road that goes ever on and on.

You have been so kind to me, and to my family, over these past ten years. You have shown me the graciousness and hospitality that is at the heart of this dear old church. Perhaps that is what we have to offer a world which needs it so very badly: a radical hospitality which welcomes all people, whoever they are, wherever they have been, wherever they are along the journeys of their lives, not as strangers, but as friends.

We have been as well matched, you and I, in temperament and disposition as minister and congregation could be. Sometimes, I fear that we have grown too comfortable in our smallness, and that we need a vision for this church which is larger. Sometimes, I fear that our comfort level has lulled us into complacency, and that perhaps we need to challenge each other more if we are to grow. But mostly, I shake my head in wonder and delight at whatever force it was (and I believe it was the grace of God) which brought me here to minister among you, and stand side by side with you. I am so proud to be minister of this most down-to-earth, hard-working, caring and compassionate church. And I look forward eagerly to the new spiritual creations which we will birth together, you and I.

 


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