Preparation for the Ministry

Sitting in our service yesterday, my minister related the story of Hosea Ballou’s ordination. At the convention held at Oxford, Massachusetts in 1794, Ballou was in the pulpit with Elhanan Winchester and Joab Young. At the conclusion of his sermon, without warning, Winchester held the Bible against Ballou’s chest, crying out, “Brother Ballou, I press to your heart the written Jehovah!” Winchester then ordered Young to charge him. My minister quipped that he imagined that I wished it would happen that quickly.

Frankly, yes I do wish it would happen that quickly. Well, at least I wish that it could happen that spontaneously. I do fantasize that I will give a sermon so moving, that the congregation would immediately demand that I be ordained on the spot. Because I am, at heart, a preacher and I believe in the power of the sermon to move people and to change lives.

One conundrum that has perplexed me throughout my long journey toward ministry involves my Uncle Bob, who died about 10 years ago. You had to meet Uncle Bob to really appreciate him. He lived in Memphis and had that mild, slow Southern drawl that just lulled you to sleep. He loved telling whoppers. I mean, he never told little lies…he told massive lies. Uncle Bob’s lies were never malicious. In ancient times, he would have been an historian — never letting the truth get in the way of a good story. And, he did it so convincingly, so gently and sincerely, that you gladly swallowed everything he fed you.

The man also loved to horse-trade. He would be driving down the street and see a car he liked in a showroom window. Into the dealership he would drive and trade in his car. I don’t think the man ever owned any car for more than a year.

Oh yes, and he was a Baptist minister. Now, my Uncle Bob never went to seminary or had any formal training. He didn’t take college courses on the Bible, do a module of clinical pastoral education, serve an internship, or earn a degree. But, his small congregation loved him dearly all the same. He worked a full-time job selling linens during the week, but the man was a minister.

Do I wish a path like his was open to me? I don’t know. I understand the purpose of all the rigorous training and assessment. But, sometimes, I wonder whether all of this structure around the preparation of ministers somehow shapes us a little too much into standard molds. Sometimes, I wonder if all this “discernment” is really more about conforming and less about finding a true self-identity. Sometimes, I wonder if we wouldn’t be a little better off having a few Uncle Bob’s in our ministry.

S0, that is my challenge. I will jump through all of the hoops and complete every requirement necessary to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. But, there will always be a little Uncle Bob inside, yearning to tell the occasional whopper and able to adapt and change at a moment’s notice if the spirit calls or the situation demands.