Category Archives: Ministerial formation

The lure of the bright lights…

So I was trolling for Universalism in digitized newspapers (as one does) and I found a short article from 1913, entitled with lurid lettering: Clergyman Turns Actor.

Frederick A. Wilmot, a Tufts grad and assisting (presumably licensed) minister at the Church of the Divine Paternity, New York (now called Fourth Universalist) gave notice and left to tread the boards.

“The humdrum of parish life bored me stiff.” That is the real why, the real wherefore of the transformation of Frederick A. Wilmot from parson to actor…”Why should I devote my life to becoming a fair preacher when all my inclinations point to my becoming a good actor?”

Little did he know then; the Broadway stage wasn’t his future. The Daughter of Heaven was his only credit and it closed after 98 poorly-reviewed performances.

But later that year, he was ordained and installed as the minister of the West (Third) Somerville (Mass.) Universalist Church serving until 1916, and later pastoring in New Bedford. Later references point to a Fitchburg, Mass. pastorate (until 1940), writing the religion beat in Providence, and active participation in Christian ecumenicism. Indeed, it looks like he had a successful ministry.

He died July 22, 1952 in Providence and is buried in the Locust Grove Cemetery there. Shall we visit his grave during General Assembly and give thanks for his ministry: the one that began with such doubt?

Good for him Google (or Facebook) didn’t exist then. And good for him the call reappeared.

Clergyman Turns Actor,” The San Francisco Call, April 13, 1913.

Bookmark this online book resource

Does anyone still bookmark sites? (I rarely do since I got, worth every penny of the one-time fee. You can also set it up to automatically save the links you ‘favorite’ from Twitter.)

Either way, keep a hold of this link:

Princeton Theological Seminary’s Theological Commons

As some of you have noticed, when I post a public-domain book, I link to the read-in-browser version, hosted at the Internet Archive. Internet Archives worked with Princeton Theological Seminary to scan and host more than 33,000 items. (A recent fire at their scanning plant cost $600,000 in damage; give if you can.) You can read these at Internet Archive, but I think the search feature at the Theological Commons, and since I seek out theologial works, that improved experience — including searching within books — is a big help. (You then get forwarded to Internet Archive.) And there are plenty of interesting works there.

The ministry, or no?

A few days ago, I got an email asking advise about entering the ministry. Here’s an edited version of my reply.

As a rule I don’t encourage people to enter the ministry. To make my
concern as plain as possible, the cost of preparing for the ministry
is more likely to leave you exposed to financial hardship than
provide a path to engaging pastoral ministry. There is too little help
and too few open churches. Little wonder you hear so much about
military chaplaincies and community ministry now.

My advice? Do as much as you can as a para-professional or a amateur
(in the best sense of the word). Work creatively with your
congregation (and minister, if you have one) to shape what you can to
apart from the formal fellowship preparation process. If that proves,
in time, to be insufficient, then you have your answer.

Let me go a bit further. A para-professional isn’t self-appointed and also needs formation, thought I can imagine informal or non-traditional ways to do so. And self-monitor zeal (or prepare to have it monitored for you.) I’ve heard enough cautionary tales about would-be ministerial cowboys who make trouble for those ministers who have the pastoral trust and authority of the parishes that called them. Don’t be one of these.

Figuring on unpaid ministers

I was drawn to the online Economist article about the admission of women to the episcopate in the Church of England by a tweet by British Unitarian and Free Christian Chief Officer Derek McAuley. It had a wry caption about Unitarian (do see) but I don’t care much about that, or an established church or the episcopal form of church government.

I do care about ministers being able to live with the necessities of life, and in not creating systems that keep poor people from exercising a ministry.

See the chart that shows the growing bulk of Church of England clergy working in unpaid settings. Which means those ministers are scraping by; have independent wealth, family support or a pension (a class issue, surely); or work part-time in another job. At which point I leave the Anglicans, lest I get too wrapped up in their ways. Indeed, Universalists were all but planted in this country by a purse-poor evangelist and a wealthy spouse (who later suffered deep poverty) … and many a cash-strapped minister who gave up so much for the spiritual welfare of others.

But when the costs are too high for too long and the burdens go unshared, eventually the system shrinks and collapses. Let that be a warning.

An old idea about the status of the ministry

I’m thinking about the internal self-conception of mainline “learned ministry” or at least how I’ve seen it articulated in Unitarian Universalist circles. Without saying the pastorate is like a professorship, there are so pretty broad hints that there are — or have been — parallels between the two professions. The advanced degrees, the “life of the mind”, the independence in seeking after truth, summers “away”, the role of speaker — even the genteel or shabby (or both) social role, that even in its humble forms very often represented a gain in class standing. The fact that in many areas the Unitarian Universalist congregation is more a part of the gown than the town. But much of this is simple nostalgia for professors and clergy.

For one thing, the academy is changing. It’s almost the new conventional wisdom that colleges and universities keep their masses of untenured faculty underpaid, unsteady and overworked. How much life of the mind is there when you’re too busy keeping body and soul together. Indeed, one of my proudest achievements is not getting another degree (or following the siren song of the academy). I struggled enough to pay for my life for the ones I got, thank you.

But I can’t but think that this new reality colors how we see ministers, particularly since there are so many compared to open placements, and the cost of formation is so weighted to them and not the churches they serve. Again, not so much a likeness as a parallel…

Pastoral development: “Five Hours with Raja”

It makes a very difficult viewing — it took me three times to finish watching this over the air — but this documentary is worth watching and I recommend it especially for ministers and seminarians.

“Five Hours with Raja” is the story of a child born with am incurable and fatal condition; the preparations made for the tiny sliver of time his family had with him;, and the follow-on (particularly by his mother) who helping others surviving the same situation.

See a background page and watch the documentary online at Aljazeera English.

In memoriam: Mary and Wells Behee

Some very sad news this week in the death of Wells and Mary Behee, lifelong Universalists and church servants. I never met them, but knew much about them from Derek Parker, a friend and ministerial colleague (and successor) to the couple. I asked him to share his remembrances — lest this long-serving couple’s contribution be forgotten — and he’s graciously agreed.

Mary grew up in the Universalist Church of Lynn, Massachusetts.  She was the daughter of a long standing Universalist family in that community.  Following World War II she enrolled at Saint Lawrence College, to study religious education with Angus MacLean.  It was in theological school that she met Wells.

Wells grew up in Medina, New York.  His family attended the First Universalist Church of Middleport, New York.  During World War II, Wells served in the Navy.  His military service included both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of combat, including the Battle of Iwo Jima.  Later in life Wells would frequently comment that the only thing which kept his sanity at Iwo Jima were his repeated praying of the Washington Avowal of Faith.  Following World War II, the First Universalist Church of Middleport sponsored Wells to study for the ministry at Saint Lawrence College.

Mary and Wells served together in ministry.  While Mary was never ordained, she was sometimes licensed to preach.  This was a ministry she seldom exercised, preferring to work with young people in classroom settings.  Together they served the Universalist Church, Dexter, New York; the Universalist Church, Woodstock, Ohio; the Universalist Church, Eldorado, Ohio; and the First Universalist Church, New Madison, Ohio.  Aside from her work in Universalist religious education, Mary also worked as an elementary school teacher in different rural Ohio school systems.  Wells also enjoyed an additional career as a high school instructor of public speaking, Shakespeare and English composition.

Both Wells and Mary were gadfly critics about the Unitarian and Universalist merger.  While their opinions were sometimes abrasive to colleagues, the core of their criticism rested on three points:

  1. That post-merger redefinitions of Universalist theology and traditions were not faithful to the evolving traditions and spirit of Universalism,
  2. The post-merger closure of Universalist institutions like the Jordan School, and the theological schools at Tufts and Saint Lawrence.  Mary and Wells were of the opinion that the Tufts and Saint Lawrence theological schools should have merged.
  3. They expressed concerns about the lack of support for rural churches, and about the post-merger preparation of ministers to do relevant liberal ministry in rural settings.

In retirement Mary became involved in causes related to the humane treatment of dogs.  Wells also dedicated himself to a late life ministry of advocacy on behalf of combat veterans.  Following the beginning of the Iraq War, he would volunteer his time to provide a pastoral ear to young combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  He would also preach on issues related to the extreme psychological cost combat service takes on armed service members.  One of his sermons, “War Never Ends,” was given to a Dayton, Ohio gathering of the American Friends Service Committee.

In retirement Mary and Wells also nurtured the religious vocations of a number of Earlham School of Religion students with Unitarian Universalist, Quaker and Brethren backgrounds.  The mentoring was not always requested, and sometimes made friendships difficult.  But the offer to buy seminarians dress shoes were real and sincere.

Noted advice to seminarians included:

  • “When you are preaching in many churches,  your feet are at eye level with the congregation.  Invest in professional looking shoes.  Anything else is a distraction to the congregation.”
  • “A good sermon is like a good play.  It has a beginning, middle, climax, and an end.   If you give people anything less than this, it is like giving somebody a hot dog, no bun, and a cheese danish; and then calling it a balanced meal.”
  • “Let me show you how to preach without a microphone and amplification.  Seminaries don’t teach that any more.  But how do you think we preached in those big buildings after World War II.  Without a microphone!  If the power goes out, or the sound system blows a fuse, you will need to know this.”

Mary Behee died Tuesday, December 13, 2011 from an automobile accident on a rural Ohio county road.  Her husband, the Rev. Wells Behee, was a passenger and sustained less serious injuries.  He died in his sleep at Heartland Eldercare of Eaton, Ohio on Thursday, December 15, 2011.  Mary was 85 and Wells was 86.

At their own instruction, Wells and Mary chose for the cremation of their remains.  The family will hold a private internment of Wells’s ashes in his boyhood town of Medina, New York.  Mary’s ashes will be scattered on coastal Cape Cod.  A public memorial gathering is tentatively scheduled for summer of 2012, in rural western Ohio. Wells and Mary are survived by their children Kris, Cathy, Carol and Emerson and a number of grandchildren.

  • Wells’s website, including sermons and the page of the New Madison church.
  • On misconducting ministers

    I’d like to say the path to confronting misconducting ministers — whether that misconduct is sexual, financial or otherwise — was direct. Indeed, the unspoken lesson, after sundry scandals (great and banal) has been:

    1. Powerful or well-connected ministers can do what they want.
    2. If you stay in print, this is doubly true.
    3. Accusers (I’m thinking of ministers here) will end up suspect.
    4. Libertines will come out of the woodwork of offer defenses.
    5. The Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association guidelines enable this process by quieting discussion and disabling accusation.

    Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Dan Harper reviewed a book about the late minister of All Souls Church, New York, Forrest Church, and focused on how his misconduct was treated therein. Indeed, since it was in the press — an example from the New York Times in 1991 — his case was one of the few cases that (formerly) young ministers could mention in mixed company without fear of reproach. I’m glad someone’s talking about it, but I’m jaded that anything will really change (short of generations changing) and it’s certainly colored my view of how the ministerial guild works. (I am, by choice and intention, not a member of the UUMA.)

    But go read the carefully written post Dan wrote.