This sermon was offered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick on Sunday, July 10th, after my the ceremony that made me a Commissioned Lay Minister.
I remember the moment it happened. The exact moment I accepted my call to service. I was just a kid – nine or ten years old. There was a commercial playing on television – an advertisement for jeans of all things. The music in the commercial was what did it. The song that was playing was a modernization of “this little light of mine.” A very recognizable song, and one I already knew from singing it in various children’s choruses. I’m not sure what it was about that particular arrangement of the song, but the lyrics hit me profoundly in that moment.
I was overcome with the idea of carrying light and sharing it. Of letting light shine through me. I began to pray. I come from a family that is Presbyterian in name but more atheist in practice. So my prayer wasn’t directed at any particular deity. I was praying to All That Is – to whatever was out there. My prayer was so simple:
“I will do ANYTHING if you will make me a bearer of light. Anything at all. I will pay any price. Let me carry light.”
And then the moment passed. There was no big revelation, no huge mystical experience other than that heartfelt prayer, that deep knowing of exactly what I wanted out of this life. But looking backwards now, I see the path. I think my offer was accepted. I’ve been a helper human ever since that moment. I’m not sure what my nine-year-old-self thought sharing light looked like, but what I’ve come to believe it is, is service.
As a teenager, I was a daycamp counselor on my summers off from school. Before age 18, this was a volunteer gig – I didn’t get paid for it. It should come as no surprise that I was the Nature counselor, leading kids on stream hikes and telling them stories about the trees and animals around us.
When I discovered Paganism in high school, I quickly became the person in my little group of proto-Pagans who wrote and led rituals. Someone needed to do it. So I did. (They were terrible, by the way. My ritual work is much better now.)
I joined the Marine Corps straight out of High School. It’s a funny thing to talk about it now – people who know me as I am these days sometimes find it hard to believe. But the center of why I joined the Marines was service. I truly believed in serving this nation, even if it meant my death. I was more than happy to make that agreement. I wanted to help. While I was in, I ended up with the nickname Mother Goose. When a Marine was having a personal crisis at 3 in the morning, I was the one that got woken up to talk them down. I wish I had the knowledge then that I do now, but I did the best that any nineteen year old can do. I looked after my Marines.
After the military I went back to leading rituals and teaching Paganism. I got into yoga and became a teacher of that as well. Teaching, for me, is sharing. When I find something that works really well for me I want to share it with the world, to tell everyone about it. The best way to do that, to my mind, is to be able to teach it. So that’s what I did, and what I continue to do.
And so the pattern reveals itself. I gravitate toward situations where help is needed. I look at what’s going on around me and figure out what needs to happen. If no one is doing the work of that piece, I do it.
I found my way here in 2008. I had just gone on a retreat that was centered around using a walkable Labyrinth for spiritual practice. It was a profoundly moving retreat and Labyrinth practice remains part of my regular spiritual practice to this day. I found the UUCF because it’s listed on the World Wide Labyrinth Locator website. I saw that there was an outdoor labyrinth, and I lived in Frederick at the time, so I drove over.
When I got here, it took me well over half an hour to find the labyrinth because it was so overgrown. So I did what I always do. I walked into the front office and asked if I could clear it off. I’m pretty sure Dottie, our front office manager at that time, thought that the strange, pink-haired, heavily tattooed twenty-something in front of her had been dropped off by aliens. But she said yes. So I cleared off the labyrinth. The first time, it took me three days of work and I did it on my hands and knees with a hand trowel. String trimmers work much better, but it took a little while for me to figure that out.
I started coming to services here. I discovered that we had a small CUUPS chapter – the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. It seemed like it needed more support, so I started helping with that, too. I took on more and more responsibility – I built us a website, facebook page, and newsletter. I expanded from offering full moon Labyrinth walks to leading the Earth Centered Spirituality Service each month. Pagans celebrate eight high holidays of the year, so I started leading some of those rituals as well. When Cosette, the previous president of Frederick CUUPS moved south, she handed the reins to me. I have been the squirrel herder in chief for seven years or so now.
My service to the UU Pagan group here is how I ended up in the Commissioned Lay Ministry program. Sea Raven Morse was the person who encouraged me to become a Lay Minister. She also sits on the board of Frederick CUUPS and took one look at all the work I was doing and informed me that there’s a name for someone like me within a congregation: Lay Minister.
“Strong lay leadership is a hallmark of the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. The priesthood and prophethood of all believers has been a theological stance since our movement began. While many ordained ministers have been visionary leaders in our faith, we are equally supported by many talented and committed lay members. Not everyone feels the call to the ordained ministry, but Lay Ministry offers an alternative path to service other than becoming a professional minister.” (UUA.org)
It is my belief that at this time in my life, I am not a good fit as a Unitarian Universalist minister for a whole host of reasons. But Lay Ministry? As it turns out, I’m really good at that.
Roughly five years ago, I entered the Commissioned Lay Ministry program, or CLM program, through the Unitarian Universalist Association. Right now, the program is only available in the Southern and Central East regions, but I hope that it becomes available to all UU lay leaders in time. The CLM program is designed to help lay leaders take their ministry and service to a deeper level. Good CLM candidates are already active within their congregations and are interested in deepening their connection to Unitarian Universalism as well as increasing their skills and understanding within various areas of congregational life. CLMs generally have a particular area of focus that they wish to strengthen: worship, pastoral care, adult faith development, leadership development, denominational affairs and more. The program is flexible enough to meet most lay leaders’ needs and build skills, wisdom, and useful perspectives around their work within their congregations.
I’ve taken this next paragraph directly from the UUA website because it’s a succinct overview of the program:
“Those accepted into the program are considered “CLM Candidates.” They are assigned a liaison to the CLM Council to track their progress, and are also assigned an ordained minister as their mentor, who works with the candidate in developing a learning/serving plan. A typical candidate takes 2-4 years to complete the training; others have taken less time. When the mentor and the candidate both feel the candidate has completed the needed training, the candidate submits completion documents and schedules an in-person interview with the CLM Council. Upon successful completion of the interview, the candidate is issued a Commissioned Lay Minister certificate, which is good for three years, with the possibility of renewal in three year increments. CLM’s are then commissioned by their congregation in a ceremony in their home congregation. CLMs who wish to continue to serve three years after the initial commissioning time can apply for a renewal.”
My own experience of the CLM program was excellent. It took me five years to complete, which is a little bit longer than average. Over the course of those five years, we had a pandemic, I lost my father, I released a book, and I got married. So I honestly don’t feel too badly about the extra time. As my own mentor, Rev. Joan, was so good about reminding me, I was also doing the program while already doing the work of a CLM.
The training materials in the program are fantastic. We have an extensive reading list with optional texts for additional skill-building in areas in which we want to focus. There are also online trainings on the UUA website – videos with accompanying written reflections or quizzes that support learning in a particular area of congregational life. My favorite training was the Lay Spiritual Care training series. It’s truly excellent and is applicable across the board in terms of becoming a better listener and friend. I would encourage everyone to take that training. We’ve all been through a lot since 2016, and having skills around being a non-anxious, non-provocative presence is a good and necessary thing.
I found the reading list helpful for so many reasons. The books that focused on the history of the Unitarian Universalist movement helped me feel more grounded in this faith. In turn, they made me proud to be a UU and also deeply aware of how much further we need to go, particularly when it comes to racial justice. Black Pioneers in a White Denomination by Mark Morrison-Reed was a real eye opener. Our early history – the struggle between the unitarian and trinitarian branches of Christianity – as outlined in David Bumbaugh’s Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History proved both really interesting and also revealing. Apparently we’ve always been rabble rousers. It’s good to know we come by that honestly.
One book on the reading list that proved absolutely revelatory for me was House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-First Century by Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens. This book helped me explain to myself why I spend so much time, effort, energy, and literal sweat on building community. I think this quote from the book pretty much sums it up:
“Hope rises. It rises from the heart of life, here and now, beating with joy and sorrow. Hope longs. It longs for good to be affirmed, for justice and love to prevail, for suffering to be alleviated, and for life to flourish in peace. Hope remembers the dreams of those who have gone before and reaches for connection with them across the boundary of death. Hope acts – to bless, to protest, and to repair. Hope can be disappointed, especially when it is individual rather than shared, or when – even as shared aspiration – it encounters entrenched opposition. To thrive, hope requires a home, a sustaining structure of community, meaning, and ritual. Only with such a habitation can hope manifest the spiritual stamina it needs to confront evil, endure through trouble, and “hold fast to that which is good.’”
I build community because some deep, instinctive part of my brain understands that hope, the most precious yet fragile of the trinity of Faith, Hope and Love, needs the company of others in order to survive. When we have lost our own light or seen it grow dim, it is interaction with our friends, families, and spiritual or intellectual kin that causes the illumination to return. This book taught me why I serve.
Another area that was truly life and practice changing for me were the books that focused on Pastoral Care. I read that entire collection including all the optional texts, plus the online training. For those of you who do not know, Pagans do have clergy. I was first ordained in 2003 and have been in service to the wider Pagan community since then. However, because we are not centralized, our clergy training materials vary widely. For my own part, the Tradition of Paganism I was in (and Traditions are a bit like denominations), did not offer a lot of pastoral care training material.
When I began the CLM program, I knew a lot about liturgy and the area Pagans think of as ritual arts. I knew a lot about devotional practice. I knew a lot about how to run events and support community. I’m good at organizing events and people. But I had a big gap when it comes to pastoral care. It was truly wonderful to have that blank space in my ministry healed. Those particular training materials were so valuable that I have begun teaching pastoral care through a Pagan lens at the Pagan festivals and conferences I teach at.
And it’s not just the reading list. Having a minister mentor to check in with and ask questions of was such an incredible resource. Rev. Joan helped me navigate some complex situations involving interpersonal conflict. She helped me write better sermons and become a better bridge between the UU and Pagan world. She helped me become a much better lay leader, simply by virtue of sharing her wisdom and allowing me to pester her with questions.
I am often asked why and how our CUUPS chapter is so large, so strong, and so healthy. We are one of the largest in the country – by rough math, one of the top three. My answer to that question is that our leadership – the other strong lay leaders within the community and I – understand service. We have a phrase within Frederick CUUPs that reflects our Pagan culture. “Hail the Do-ers.” We hold service to community and Spirit in the highest esteem. For us, good leadership is good service. From what I have learned in the CLM program, those who are truly in service to something greater than themselves really do make the best leaders.
I can’t say enough good things about the Commissioned Lay Ministry program. So if you’ve been listening to this sermon and finding resonance with it, if you are also a helper human, if you find that you’re naturally becoming more and more active within this congregation, I invite you to consider applying. One of the ways I will continue to support this congregation is to offer my own help to anyone who wants to go through the program. We are a growing community, and strong lay leadership will keep us healthy and thriving.
I will close with a quote from Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
It is my honor and joy to serve this amazing congregation as a commissioned lay minister.
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