If so, it was probably because your minister attended the Institute for Excellence in Ministry held by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) in St. Pete Beach, Fla. The five-day gathering, January 28–February 1, drew 440 ministers together for a week of learning, socializing, and worship.
It’s the second “institute” the UUMA has held. The first was in 2011 in California, and the meeting is becoming an every-other-year tradition. “The institute is an opportunity for world-class continuing education for ministers,” said the Rev. Don Southworth, executive director of the UUMA. “We hope it’s a chance to learn, connect, and be transformed.”
Each morning’s worship service highlighted a different preaching style. The Rev. Cheryl Walker, minister of the UU Fellowship of Wilmington, N.C., and a co-chair of the UUMA committee that planned the institute, led an upbeat, joyful service about leadership. “Leaders have visions,” Walker preached. “Managers have plans.”
The Rev. Mark Belletini, senior minister of First UU Church of Columbus, Ohio, explored “La Famiglia,” about the families we are born into and the families we form ourselves. Ministers wiped away tears as he shared a lyrical sermon of stories, including his own of coming out as gay in a traditional Italian-American family.
Before she spoke a word of her sermon, the Rev. Vanessa Rush Southern, minister of the Unitarian Church in Summit, N.J., held up a series of paper signs. “Video?” one said. She shook her head no. “Interpretive dance?” No. “Old school?” She nodded and began to preach, asking her colleagues to remember their call to ministry. She shared her own, a whisper in her ear as she sat at a desk in college to map out her future. Southern urged ministers to keep the irresistible call that led them to ministry alive in their current work. “We are people of the call,” she said.
The Rev. Dr. James Forbes, senior minister emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York City, led the closing worship service. Forbes, who offered a three-day preaching seminar, showed why he is considered one of the best preachers in America. Ministers leaned in to hear his words, delivered sometimes in a low whisper, sometimes with booming conviction, and always with powerful spirit. “We need a fresh anointment for a new appointment,” he said, urging the UU ministers to lead the nation in a multicultural spiritual awakening.
Each service included a choir—and a rare chance for ministers to sing in it—and professional musicians. The UUMA had hired the Rev. Dr. Keith Arnold, minister of music at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colo., to be music director at the institute. He, in turn, hired professional string musicians and vocalists, directed the choir of ministers, and led the congregation of ministers in spirited singing. A featured vocalist was soprano Janette Lallier, an opera singer in New York City who is also the UUMA director of administration. During Belletini’s “La Famiglia” service, she sang “Nella Fantasia,” by Ennio Morricone and Chiara Ferraù, to a captivated audience.
Music varied with the tone of each service. Walker’s Tuesday service opened with the band playing “Beautiful Day,” by U2. Music for Belletini’s service was all by Italian composers. The music in Southern’s service included a spiritual, “Hush.” The worship closed Friday with the ministers, in full voice, singing “Blue Boat Home.”
Excellent worship is a main benefit of the institute, according to the Rev. Sue Phillips, district executive of the Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay Districts of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It’s “soul replenishment” for ministers, giving them the “overwhelming joy of great worship,” she said, which gives them ideas to take back to their own congregations. Phillips said the lack of excellent worship is a barrier to growth for congregations, but seeing innovative worship can fire ministers’ imaginations.
The Rev. Michelle Collins, who is in her first year of ministry, said she gained plenty of practical, useful information to take back to the congregation she serves as assistant minister, First Unitarian Church of Wilmington, Del. Collins attended a seminar called “Reaching (and Doing) More by Being Less,” taught by the Rev. Scott Tayler, senior co-minister of First Unitarian Church of Rochester, N.Y., and consulting minister of the UU Church of Canandaigua, N.Y.
While that seminar focused on the practical, others were academic, such as “Religion and the American Radical Tradition,” offered by Dan McKanan of Harvard Divinity School. A bhakti yoga workshop, led by Jai Uttal, focused on the practice of kirtan, or chanting.
Ministers found many ways to use their free time—walking on the white sand beach, doing yoga, contemplating the paintings of Salvador Dalí at a St. Petersburg museum, or dancing into the wee hours of Friday morning.
The first institute, in 2011, marked a deliberate shift in the UUMA to offer more opportunities for ministers to learn together.
Prior to becoming executive director of the UUMA in 2009, Southworth had served on its board while serving as minister of a large congregation, Eno River UU Fellowship in Durham, N.C. At that time, the UUMA’s only annual national gathering was during “Ministry Days,” prior to the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly. However, the end of the church year is not an ideal time for continuing education for ministers. “By the time we get to GA, ministers are not in their best shape,” Southworth said.
UUMA members began to imagine a mid-year meeting in a nice vacation spot. They wanted to create a meeting of UU ministers that reflected the UUMA’s mission: nurturing excellence in ministry through continuing education, collegiality, and collaboration.
To hire an executive director and to create the every-other-year institute, the UUMA members in 2009 agreed to a substantial increase in dues, phased in over a three-year period. Five years ago, annual dues were $250, according to Southworth. They have risen to 1 percent of a minister’s salary, up to $1,000. Community ministers—a group Southworth is hoping to provide greater services for—pay 0.5 percent.
Membership has risen by 100 members since 2009. The UUMA currently has 1,700 members, including about 500 retired ministers.
Southworth believes that ministers need to be connected to one another to thrive. The greatest success factor for ministers is having ongoing relationships with colleagues, he said, referring to a study by the Lilly Foundation. To that end, the UUMA has also developed coaching and mentoring programs, and sparked association-wide conversations about broad topics, such as “Whose are we?” and “Who are our neighbors?”
The UUMA awarded about $20,000 in scholarships to ministers to enable them to attend the conference. Association members hope to increase the amount of scholarship money available for the 2015 conference to $50,000 so that more ministers can take advantage of the opportunity to come together.
The Rev. Elizabeth H. Stevens, minister of the UU Church of the Palouse in Moscow, Idaho, said that coming together with her colleagues for the week reminded her how the “small work we do in our congregations feeds into our greater work that has more significance,” she said. “It’s mostly about transcendence. These are the deep reasons why I’m doing the work I do, and I’m not alone.”
In his benediction at the end of the closing worship service of the institute, the Rev. Roger Bertschausen, minister of the Fox Valley UU Fellowship in Appleton, Wisc., and a member of the team that planned the institute, sent the ministers back to their congregations with these words: “May we depart this holy gathering with a reinvigorated willingness to lead, with a renewed sense of famiglia with kindred within and beyond these walls, with a deeper understanding of our call, and with an anointment for our new appointment. Let us go in peace.”