I’ll be honest. When I first signed on to be the Lead Teacher for Religious Literacy last summer, I had an agenda. I needed to fulfill a “religious education competency” for my eventual meeting with the Ministerial Formation Committee, and the opportunity was too good to pass up. A familiar congregational environment, children whose brilliance I had already witnessed during intergenerational services, and the chance to build my own interfaith curriculum? How could I say no? Plus, I would be getting course credit for playing with crayons and construction paper as I talked theology and justice – it was this seminarian’s inner-child’s dream come true!
And then, September came along. I started to experience significant anxiety. What the hell was I thinking? I hated my religious education classes as a child, and now I was going to be teaching Sunday school? True, it was a significant honor to be trusted with the faith formation of our youngest members, but it was also an even greater responsibility. I knew that I wanted to create an affirming space, one that nurtured creativity and connections, critical thinking and moral development, self-love and mutual trust. I wanted to create a learning environment in which students knew that their experiences and voices were valued, and that the people around them also had valuable stories from which they could learn important lessons about how to relate to each other and the world. I wanted to lay the foundation for understanding how our stories and lives were all interconnected, how they created a rich tapestry…a communal patchwork quilt. Looking back on those teaching goals several months later, it is clear that they point to an undeniable truth.
I wanted to be a minister.
It has now been seven months since my first class at what I call “The First Unitarian Theological Seminary.” Over the course of our lessons, the students had amazing insights, contemplating ideas like who god’s father might be, forgiveness, whether violence can ever be justified, why people “made in god’s image” came up with the idea of slaves, ways in which we practice everyday charity, and the list goes on. In this short time, there has been incredible learning, spiritual development, theological reflection, and community building. And I’m not just talking about the children. After spending several months with this remarkable group of students, volunteers, and staff, I am sad to say that my experience with the CRE program is at an end. Being in community with such a beautiful group of people, witnessing their innate sense of compassion, their unfettered curiosity, their joy in sharing their own stories, their objections to oppressive or violent texts, and their freedom to simply be themselves – it has been a worshipful experience that fed me every Sunday morning without my ever needing to sit down in a pew. But this time has done more than provide me with spiritual nourishment – it has forever altered my understanding of ministry.
Ministry is education.
At some point in my process, I am going to need to articulate my theology of ministry. Well, thanks to my time with CRE, I’m just about ready to do so. As human beings, we are constantly learning, taking in new information and processing it according to the frameworks that we have developed over the course of our lives. We assess our experiences based on what we already know, and ask questions based on old memories that we connect to new concepts. Our learning takes place in every environment- the classroom, our relationships, mass media, the streets- and our learning takes many forms- emotional, spiritual, physical, and intellectual. Ministry recognizes the constant educative process that is our lives, and provides lessons that help us to reach our fullest potential as loving beings. It challenges our assumptions, inspires us to act, and heals our divisions. In Islamic theology, it is believed that we are all born with fitra, a natural disposition for compassion, love, and knowledge of the divine. But things get in the way of us living out our natural inclinations, and so prophets were sent to remind us of our fitra. What they taught and how they led were meant to help people return to their natural state, to remember what they already knew.
Now, I’m not saying that I’m a prophet, but I do believe ministry serves the exact same purpose. And after this year with CRE, I am even more confident in that belief. Witnessing the sense of morality and compassion within the students, and seeing a light in their interactions that does not glow nearly as bright in most adults, there is an inherent good with which we are all clearly born. Ministry, as education, is that reminder. We’re already born with the framework to create good and to be love – ministry just provides us with lessons to navigate the things that can sometimes get in the way. Sometimes those lessons are ones that we do not want to hear, and many times they are ones that need repeating. But after this year, I think there can be a way to make the lives of ministers (and prophets) that much easier. After being reminded of our inherent sense of good, our fitra, I believe that the best ministry begins when we are born. And if our ministry includes a strong children’s religious education program, well, who knows…maybe we won’t need as many sanctuary pulpits in the future. We’ll have the classroom.