Behind the Robe and Beneath the Stole

Behind the Robe and Beneath the Stole

Rev. Marti Keller

Dr. Tony Stringer

Dr. Stringer: I’ve served our faith movement on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA for four years.  This committee, which goes by the acronym AMFC, looms very large in the lives of our ministers.  And therefore, it looms large in the collective life of our faith movement.

Now I recall, growing up, were I to ever sass my mama, were I to ever give my mama lip, were I to ever roll my eyes in front of her, she would not hesitate to use the phrase that for generations has struck terror in the hearts of misbehaving black children.  “Boy,” she would not hesitate to say, I brought you in this world, and I can take you out.”   Now I knew she loved me, but I was never completely certain that she was only kidding.  If I didn’t watch my step, perhaps she could, and perhaps she would, “take me out.”  That’s right.

That, in a nutshell, is the authority of the MFC.  And, unlike my mama, make no mistake——we’re not kidding.  We examine candidates to determine their suitability for Unitarian Universalist ministry.  We have the authority to say ”yea” or “nay” to their careers.  And, if a minister, being human, falls into ethical peril, the MFC serves as the Supreme Court, possessing the authority to adjudicate, and when justified, to bring a minister’s career to a permanent close.  We do literally bring UU ministers into the world of our faith movement, and, we literally can take them out.  We are, in a real sense the guardians of the gate to Unitarian ministry.  Small wonder that a first visit to the MFC can strike terror in the heart of even the best prepared candidate for our ministry.

Three times a year, I travel to Boston and stay for a week examining 10 candidates for our ministry.  Prior to each of these trips, I spend another six weeks studying the roughly 150 page electronic document each candidate submits for consideration by the MFC.  In total, we’re talking 1500 pages, three times a year.  These highly confidential documents cover nearly every aspect, both professional and private, of each candidate’s life.  Included are a resume, a photograph, undergraduate and graduate transcripts—–as our ministers must have Masters of Divinity degrees.

Included are a forensic background check, a biographical essay, additional essays covering the candidate’s theology, philosophy of religious education, and personal and professional commitment to anti-racism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism.  And this is only the beginning.

The candidate must list all books, courses, and life experiences that demonstrate he or she has mastered 16 areas of ministerial competence.  The candidate must submit a detailed psychological evaluation, five letters of recommendation, and three evaluations of their performance during a congregational internship.  The candidate must also complete a pastoral care rotation in a hospital or other setting, and submit at least two evaluations of their skill as caregivers.  All this is required, not to become a Unitarian minister, but rather, just to earn a chance of being examined by a panel of ministers and lay persons whose job it is to discern whether the candidate truly has a ministerial future.  And sometimes, despite all their preparation, we do say no to that future.

After reading these packets of information, I feel that I know these candidates very, very well.  And let me tell you, they have absolutely nothing in common.  They are male, female, and transgendered; they are straight, gay, and questioning.  They are from small town rural America and they are from the big city ghetto.  They are theists and atheists; they are Christians and religious humanists.  They are in the third decade and first career of their short lives, and they are in the seventh decade and second career of their senior years.  They are from that fortunate one percent of America we hear so much about these days, born with silver spoons and guaranteed futures.  One candidate admitted to being a member of a club for the children of one percenters.  And another candidate grew up in post-revolutionary Iran, barely escaping a conservative, fundamentalist family and an oppressive, life-negating existence.  Barely escaping, in fact, with her life after witnessing her teenage peers murdered in front of her for the crime or rebelling against fundamentalist Islam.

They come to us from lives already filled with success and they come to us with lives scarred by tragedy.  I’ve examined former physicians, attorneys, and captains of industry.  I’ve also examined victims of rape, people who have suffered physical or mental illness, former drug, food, sex, or alcohol addicts, people who have known more pain and defeat than promise and potential.  One can be called to ministry by the bounty of life as well as by the misery of existence.

I have seen and examined candidates for our ministry fitting each of these descriptions, sometimes even on the same day.  Of any contemporary religion, we can justifiably claim to have the most diverse group of people aspiring to our ministry.

And that is the one thing that they do have in common.  They have a calling to ministry.  They have heard the voice of God.  Even if they don’t believe in God.  Even if God is only a metaphor.  They have heard that metaphor’s “voice.”  They have a calling.

Rev. Keller: With all due love and respect, I have always resisted the word calling. When I applied to theological school at Emory University, I was asked to write about my calling. When I filled out my initial paperwork as an aspirant for Unitarian Universalist ministry, then for Candidacy, I was asked about my calling. When ministers apply for positions as interns or settled ministers in congregations, they are asked about their calling. When we gather as colleagues for continual education, when we take seminars on spiritual growth and renewal, we are asked about our callings. I have heard other calling stories over the years, read them in the seminary applications of students I have supervised as a contextual education supervisor genuine experiences of messages from God at very young ages, or at the end of a recovery process of one sort or another to take up the mantle of ministry.

I have to say I envy them, just as I sometimes envy or at least am intrigued by religious communities with two thousand year old creeds and millions of devout adherents.

But mine is a Jewish Humanist Unitarian-Universalist feminist faith (with some transcendentalism and Hasidism and Quakerism thrown in) so if calling means

“be good for something” (Thoreau) –  Live into the image of God and choose life – (Hebrew Scriptures) – “Do anything that pleases you and belong to the Holy” (Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor) – or “Give back for what you have been given” (my atheist father), then I have known what it means to be called.

I was privileged to be part of the first class of lay ministers here, shortly before I made the decision to enter into preparation for ordained professional ministry.

At the end of what was then a two year term, I spoke in this sanctuary about my experience, saying even then that I didn’t think I really believed in calling if this meant a sudden blinding revelation of who one is and what one should do here in response to some transcendent force. But I do believe that there are certain times in our lives that compel us in powerful ways to stretch ourselves, to cross personal boundaries into areas we may never before thought of as welcoming territories. For me, crossing the boundary between being a member of this congregation or a recognized minister of this or any congregation was this kind of defining move. A move from comfortable, sometimes critical, pew sitting distance, as I said at the time, to a more responsive and more accountable participation, a full and rich participation in the collective life of this liberal movement which has given me so much over my life and most often has asked too little. To more publicly attend to a shared ministry in this and other beloved communities of seekers: to be pastor, to be prophet, to be priest. To give back through my teaching and worship planning and justice leadership, and to stretch myself in areas I had not so intentionally explored, pastoral care and individual spiritual counseling in particular.

What started as a volunteer add-on to a very demanding and increasingly frustrating career in legislative advocacy and policy analysis on behalf of women and children, filled with frantic Doing and very little time or success in grounding it in a values vision, became for me an opportunity, as described by the late Unitarian Universalist minister E. Forrester Church to cast off the old self and try on the new, reawakened to the fact that life is not a given but a gift undeserved and unexpected, holy, awesome and mysterious.

So I quit (or mostly quit) the Doing I had been doing for at least 20 years, becoming abstinent temporarily from any direct prophetic work, “no trips to the Capitol, no white papers, no speeches” letting go of an old way for a while and trying to trust in a new way.

I call it my Gold Dome calling experience. I could no longer continue to go through the motions, and more significantly watch others go through the motions of working on causes, however noble, without deeper connections to meaning and purpose and spirit within. I wanted to do more work, I wanted my colleagues and my fellow congregants to do more work on where we were coming from. Not logistically or intellectually. I meant what did I, what did we believe about human nature, good and evil, reward and punishment, will and destiny, and what did I have faith in? What was I ultimately committed to in the midst of all my social activism, with all the time and energy demands it made?

I wanted to help guide and teach other seekers with whatever gifts, abilities and energy I had to work toward what theologian Rosemary Reuther calls the necessity for “inner liberation” as prerequisite for any sort of outer transformation.

Thus began a more than four-year process of rigorous study, discernment, and practice that I have frequently been asked to describe to our new member classes. I joke (or maybe half joke) that just as it is absolutely untrue that one can believe in anything and be a Unitarian Universalist (we really do have both theological and moral bottom lines), it is totally untrue that our professional ministers purchase their ordination certificates online at a very small price.

I tell them that my studies at Candler School of Theology allowed me to steep myself in Jewish and Christian scripture and other teachings, to learn and discuss the wisdom of other world religions and to enrich my ministry with related ethical, sociological thought and literature. I studied preaching. I did outside tutorial work in UU history and governance. I studied the rudiments of pastoral care and then practiced these skills, first in an interfaith ministry for homeless families, and then as a chaplain in a downtown program for mostly street living homeless people. I served a six-month congregational internship, plunging in to the reality of full-time work in this.

I did all those things that Tony talked about, filled out all the paperwork, wrote all the essays, gathered all the references, was interviewed numerous times, once at The Mountain as the first experiment in regional candidates screening. I did OK I guess, the only concrete feedback being that my handshake could have been better. I tried to discern what improvements might be made, as I learned the necessity for what we call acknowledging our “growing edges.” Which there were many: impatience for one, distraction sometimes, and a sense often of being an outsider, a great place to be sometimes as an activist, not so helpful in long-term parish ministry, or really institutions of any kind.

All this in preparation for MY trip to the MFC, 12-year-old (at the time) son and husband in tow. I have come to see MFC “visits” as we call them, as birth experiences, first births to be metaphorically precise. When ministers get together, more often with newbies- -those who have not had their interview- present, we tell our own stories, with that mixture of sometimes painfulness and mostly joyfulness for having made it through and cleared to go on to search and settlement, whatever the setting.

I remember this: it was late September and already very cold in Boston; my husband tried to order breakfast in a cafeteria-style restaurant, and could not understand the thick New England accents of the abrupt servers. I remember this: my appointment was at 1 p.m., not the best slot, right after lunch; it took place in the elegant and intimidating board room at 25 Beacon Street, our associational headquarters, with pictures of famous dead white men lining the walls. I remember this: I preached about atonement, and our lack of UU rituals or language for dealing with sin, as I had just been in an auto accident where I was to blame. I remember this: I answered a slew of questions, ranging from my self-awareness of impatience to my views on anti-racism. I missed one didactic question on Islam. I made them laugh a few times and my sermon made a couple of them tear up.

When they were finished with me, I went downstairs and spent the longest ten minutes of my life, sure I had received a failing score.

I remember being led upstairs again into a room of beaming members of the MFC, who congratulated me and welcomed me into the UU professional ministry.

I remember crossing the street to Boston Commons and telling my family. My husband seemed very proud, as he always is, and my son wanted to go somewhere warm and have something more to eat.

Welcome to the world of ministry in context and the next stage of my life.

Dr. Stringer: In talking about stages, we have to acknowledge that sometimes ministry ain’t pretty.  It can be the most rewarding endeavor that you could imagine.  But it is truly a vocation of extremes.  Ministers are there to mourn the passing of life, and to celebrate its beginning.  They are there to affirm love and commitment, and they are there when those commitments dissolve in acrimony.  They are there in times of conflict and in times of harmony.  They are there to keep our secrets and they are there to confront us with unpleasant truths.  They are prophets, seers, teachers, activists, disrupters, nourishers, comforters, and always our companions.  There is never enough time and never enough of them to share, but share them we must, with multitudes.  They are there for us, but must equally be there for others.  And so, they are fated to disappoint us, and sometimes even to disappoint themselves.  Sometimes ministry is glorious.  But sometimes ministry ain’t pretty.

Rev. Keller: No matter how glorious, how rewarding, sooner or later, we all get worn down. We need time away, or we burn out at astonishingly high rates.

Dr. Stringer: A sabbatical has been defined as Aa self-actualizing, regenerative, and employer-supported journey of adventure and reflection that gives one a respite from work.@[1] Sounds nice, doesn’t it.  But let’s be honest, it also sounds kind of frivolous.  In this era of high unemployment, income disparity, and general financial insecurity, a sabbatical smacks of privilege.

Now, it’s an old concept.  The root word for sabbatical is Sabbath, in the Jewish tradition, a time of rest.  The Torah commands that Jewish farmers work for six years and then take the seventh year off to rest their fields, their animals, and themselves.  The Sabbath year is a time to appreciate the accomplishments of the previous six years, while recuperating and rejuvenating.  This Jewish agrarian tradition is, of course, the inspiration for the Sabbath Day, a day of rest and recuperation for both Jews and Christians, after six days of labor.

But we’re Unitarian Universalists.  Some of us are Christian or Jewish by heritage, but in our contemporary lives we identify as UUs.  We’re not particularly bound by Bible or Torah, unless we choose to be.  So just because the concept of sabbatical is old, doesn’t mean we have to honor it.  Indeed, sabbaticals are a rarity in contemporary American life.  Just 27% of companies offer sabbaticals and only 6 percent pay for them.[2] The reality is that most of us will never have the privilege or the opportunity to take a sabbatical.  So why should our ministers get to have one?

Well, in answer to this question, consider these statistics on ministry.  Across religious denominations, an average of 1500 pastors leave the ministry, not every year, but every month.  It is easy to understand why, when you consider that 80% of active ministers feel unqualified and discouraged in their chosen vocation.  Fifty percent want to leave ministry, but stay because they have no options for doing anything else.  Seventy percent admit to fighting a constant battle against depression. And fifty percent of these ministers are fighting depression alone, because their marriages have ended.  Eighty percent of the spouses of ministers who are still hanging in there, feel that their loved one is overworked, and wish that he or she had chosen another career.  Of those who can’t hang in there, of those who leave their minister husband or wife, the majority say that the most destructive event in their marriage was the day their spouse entered seminary.[3]

And so, Unitarian Universalist congregations grant their ministers a sabbatical, and whenever possible, they grant that sabbatical at full pay.  We recognize the difficult and consuming work and we joyfully embrace this opportunity to minister to those who minister to us.  This sabbatical is a time to for renewal, for growth, for re-envisioning, rediscovering, and redefining that initial calling to the service of a community’s soul.

Rev. Keller: I am going on sabbatical.  I understand the need at this point in my ministry in general (2012 will mark my 15th year) and my service to UUCA specifically, and my age/stage as an “emerging senior”, to revisit where I was when I began this vocational journey: developmentally, theologically, culturally, and to reassess and reground myself for what will be in any case, in the next few years, as consultant Rev. Larry Peers (Alban Institute) has termed it, the culminating chapter in my ministry. With planning, these immediate years before retirement can be the most productive and creative years of my vocational life. This will take the shape of a series of individual coaching sessions and assignments given by Rev. Peers in a course entitled “Finishing Strong, Ending Well,” over the course of my months away.

It will also involve re-readings and new readings in adult development, particularly around creative aging I expect to do more of my own writing, returning to the essay and poetry writing that has been core to my sense of purpose, with the expectation that I will emerge with insights into how to do more spiritual writing myself and strategies for encouraging this practice in our own congregation. There is at least one almost confirmed UU book project and hopes to organize and put out for publication a collection of my sermons to date and the second poetry chapbook in a series.

In May 2012, I will be traveling to Israel with a group of Humanistic Jewish rabbis and lay people, and in preparation will be studying (and restudying) religious humanism, contemporary liberal Jewish theology, and the history of and present day situation in Israel/Palestine. This will not only give me a chance to deepen and gain new perspective on my own theological and cultural sources and roots, but hopefully to return ready to engage others in these more thoughtfully as well.

I will be continuing my larger movement denominational responsibilities, including the presidency of the UU Women’s Federation, member of the planning committee for the next UUs for Jewish Awareness gathering in 2013, and preparation for several workshop programs and a plenary speech at this year’s Justice General Assembly in Phoenix in June 2012.

Dr. Stringer: Rev. Keller, before you became my minister, you were my friend.  So Marti, as a friend, I charge you to go and to rest.  Yes.  A resounding yes, to all the things you plan to do.  But remember, sabbaticals are not just about doing, they are also about undoing.  Untying, un-committing, un-encumbering, and resting.  I charge you, Rev. Keller, to go and to rest.  And I ask the many people assembled here, who know you not just as minister, but also as friend, to join me in this charge by saying AAmen.@

I charge you also, Rev. Keller, to plunge deep into your heritage as a Jew.  Too often, we Unitarian Universalists diminish that heritage.  Trivially, we diminish it when we slip into Christian vernacular, calling ourselves a church, rather than a congregation.  More seriously, we diminish this heritage when we invoke something we like to call the Judeo-Christian tradition, as if Judaism was a hyphenated appendage to Christianity, instead of a separate and equal source for our faith.  And dangerously, we diminish this heritage when, fully possessed of our liberal righteousness, we ignore the complexity of Jewish and Palestinian life, choosing sides as if a conflict of biblical proportions can be reduced to simply good guys vs. bad guys.  So I charge you, Rev. Keller, to plunge deep into your Jewish heritage, bringing us anew its ancient insights, accented for contemporary times.  I charge you to plunge deep into your Jewish heritage, and ask the members of this congregation who share or value that heritage to join me in saying AAmen.@

I charge you, Rev. Keller, to grow in your leadership.  Our faith movement, like the world at large, needs feminist leaders.  By that, I mean leaders who give a voice to those silenced by gender, leaders that value compassion over conflict, leaders that remind us of our essential relatedness to one another, leaders who serve as an antidote to the testosterone-fueled craziness that pervades our society.  I charge you, Rev. Keller to grow in your feminist leadership and ask the women of this congregation to join me in saying “Amen.”

I charge you Rev. Keller to go and to create.  Creation is the invention of life.  You literally invent life in your poetry and in your prose, and we literally hang on your every word.  We literally live by your every word, for in sermon and poem you make us see our lives differently.  You call us to the better angels of our nature, even when those angels seem to have flown.  I charge you to go and create, for we are waiting on your every word.  Will the congregation say “Amen.”

Will the minister say “Amen.”

Will we all say together, “Hallelujah!”

Then, it shall, be so.  Amen.

[1]Definition is from Denise Gershbein.  Why should you take time off?  Design Mind, Issue 12.  Article posted at:

[2] Study cited by  Denise Gershbein.  Why should you take time off?  Design Mind, Issue 12.  Article posted at:

[3]Statistics are from