Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On Doing Time

This year the UUA's Common Read book is Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. In it, she chronicles how the prison system has replaced Jim Crow laws as a system of racism and segregation.  It goes far beyond the more widely understood fact that there are differences in sentencing laws to the question of why we have a "war on drugs" to begin with.

For those interested in reading more about the prison system and the problems with it, there are several additional books I could recommend, but I also wanted to recommend a blog of a fellow I know, On Doing Time.  This isn't a slick or professional blog on the subject.  What it is is a first-hand account by a former member of my congregation about his experiences in prison and his thoughts and musings about it after the fact.  In 1999, as a young adult, R.W. VanSumeren, in a period of desperation, robbed a gas station at gunpoint and then a bank.  And he was convicted and served time for armed robbery.  That's what the record shows. But then VanSumeren takes you beyond the surface story to understand how someone comes into that moment of desperation, what it's like to be incarcerated, and what the struggles are after release for a convicted felon.  It's not always PC, and it's sometimes raw, but it's very real, and worth reading.

Let me share a couple of examples to show you what I'm talking about.  In a blog post titled, "J.D. & The Mandatory Minimum" he tells the story of his cellmate, J.D., doing 12-88 years for possession of two ounces of cocaine:
The years are blurred, but I think it must have been around 2003 when the Michigan mandatory minimum laws were changed. One day JD got a letter from the state. The letter informed him that he would be released in a few weeks. JD showed me the letter. I congratulated him but he didn't seem that happy. I asked why he didn't seem happy. He said, "Goddamn, I've just done over a decade for what kids are getting two years for now. I missed my father's funeral.”
And then, in "Statutes and Limitations," VanSumeren turns from personal narrative to thinking about how he would personally reform the system.  He writes, simply:
I think that one's convictions should remain on one's record for no longer than the duration of the statute of limitations for that particular offense beginning from time of discharge after the successful completion of sentence. Thus, in the case of armed robbery, a twenty year felony with a twenty year statute of limitations, one's record should be cleared twenty years after the positive completion of incarceration and supervision, provided the offender commits no more felonies. And that's that.
His writing isn't for everyone, but it is something which deserves a larger audience.  It's real, and it's informative.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Work of Ministry

"What do you do the rest of the week?" I was recently asked.  I don't mind the question.  Indeed, I welcome it.  It's a frequent frustration among ministers that, regardless of how hard we work, the perception exists that we really only work on Sunday morning.  I've heard this perception myself from members, visitors, and even staff during my years of ministry.  This perception can exist when we've really had an easy time of it, or on the week when we spent all of Friday and Saturday by a bedside and then got up to give the sermon on Sunday morning.  In fact, often the weeks people think are the hardest for me are actually the easiest, and vice-versa.  For example, I find as it approaches Christmas, my job gets easier.  Nobody wants to schedule extra meetings during this time, and some meetings get cancelled.  While Christmas programs are big productions, a lot of it can be the same from year to year, which requires less research and creativity out of me.  The problem is, when I was asked on the fly what ministers do, even having done this work for over a decade, I don't think I really gave a very good answer.  So, for the record, here is an arbitrarily numbered and completely incomplete list of things a minister might be doing on other days of the week, besides the obvious (blogging!):
  • Preparing for Sunday -- indeed, this may be the bulk of what we do.  In seminary, I often heard that 20 hours per week was the average amount of time a minister spends preparing for the Sunday service, mostly spent researching material and writing the sermon.  Why does it take so long after years of seminary study?  Actually, it takes longer the farther one is from seminary, I think, because you've used up the sermons on all those seminary book topics, and you have to dig further and research more to keep fresh.  If I relied only on what I learned a decade ago for my sermons, my sermons would be pretty stale.  No matter how much reading I get done in study leave, I still find myself needing to find good articles for readings and more data for sermons throughout the year.
  • Board and Committee Work -- How many committees does your church have?  Your minister probably goes to about n+3 committee meetings, then.  (Okay, n+3 was pretty arbitrary, and would totally vary by church size.  In a big church, there are more committees, but a smaller percentage are attended by the minister.)  In my church, I attend most of the committee meetings on most of the months in which they meet, with the exception of building and finance, which I'm happy to attend also, but often these particular committees meet at irregular times and I don't always hear about the meeting times until afterwards.  Some of the meetings may include advance meetings with the chair.  The board meeting I will write a report for, and that will take a certain amount of time.  Other committees may also have reports or preparation work to be done.  Some ministers may engage in the work of the committee, others see themselves as being there to represent the faith or provide a spiritual presence, others see themselves like a paid consultant or expert there to give advice and ideas.
  • Pastoral Care -- Perhaps the most important non-Sunday work of a minister in the eyes of a congregation, this kind of work arrives suddenly and can be very intense.  It requires of us that we drop everything sometimes and attend to what is happening with our members.  Occasionally pastoral care will also involve administrative work of rounding up resources for a member in need.
  • Rites of Passage -- Funerals and weddings, for member and sometimes non-members of the church are an irregular part of the work.  In the beautiful times of the year in our region, we may find ourselves working every Saturday on weddings.  In between weddings and funerals, there's also working with the people involved to plan the events, and then writing the service.
  • Religious Education -- A minister may write, plan, and lead religious education classes or programs for children, youth, and adults.
  • Administration -- A minister is expected to do a lot of administration work.  There's a reason why clerical and clergy are related work.  We answer e-mails, phone messages, compile reports, do filing, etc.  Sometimes we write pamphlets or webpages or blog.  Strangely, although I did secretarial work part-time through college, grad school, and seminary, and worked full-time as an administrator and in other paper-pushing time jobs for two years between degrees, this is the area I feel poorest in during my ministry years.  Of course, for most of that time I have not had a church secretary (a different thing from the secretary of the board), and I remind myself that it's actually in the UUMA guidelines that a minister should have access to a secretary...  Depending on whether there is a church secretary or not, the minister's skill in this area, and what committees a church has and how strong they are, a minister might be asked to create any number of different documents from the order of service to the newsletter to the pledge drive brochure to the entire webpage.
  • Staff Supervision -- The minister is often head of staff, which means meeting regularly with staff, supervising, handling problems or conflicts, and doing reports.
  • Fundraising -- Some ministers do some direct solicitation of funds, some do grant-writing, some organize and run fundraisers.  We're expected to know, understand, and be mindful of the church finances.
  • Community Service -- Some ministers see an important part of their work as being involved in the greater community and representing their faith in that role.  This might be through volunteering at agencies or serving on boards and committees, or running programs in the community, or through a number of other ways.  Some ministers volunteer to be on-call at the hospital, or for the police or fire department, certain nights per month.  Some ministers do programs in a local prison.  Getting out there into the world and representing our faith and our individual church while we do so is an important piece of ministry for some, but not all, clergy.
  • Social Justice -- Some clergy, but not all clergy, see social justice as an important part of a minister's role.  This may mean going to protests, lobbying at the state or national capital, writing our elected leaders, writing for the local paper, attending conferences, doing on-line work for social justice, and attending more committees and programs in the community or at a state or national level.  Clergy have a lot of different ideas about how to most effectively or most appropriately do this work, or whether to do it at all.
  • Denominational Work -- Often our work is to be the conduit, or one of the conduits, for connection to our denomination or district.  Sometimes this is work that is essentially required of us by the larger body, and sometimes it is something to which we feel a responsibility for and sign up for.  We might serve on yet more committees or task forces, or work to help in a particular area, or just maintain contact with various officials.  We might spend a fair amount of time reading e-mails, newsletters, blog posts, and websites to stay up-to-date. 
  • Work with Other Ministers -- Sometimes in our region we'll have a local interfaith or ecumenical clergy group.  We also probably have groups of colleagues we meet with periodically at a regional and national level within our denomination.  Sometimes this is something required of us, sometimes it is just something which we feel obligated to participate in as part of our role.  All of these bodies also have tasks, some of which we'll occasionally be doing, and boards and committees, some of which we'll occasionally be on.  We may also get called upon to do work with other ministers one-on-one, from teaching a particular skill to being a listening ear.  This is part of the work we commit ourselves to as ministers, to help one another. 
  • Study -- Not just for worship services, ministry, like all fields, requires that we keep up-to-date with information and knowledge, and this requires study and continuing education programs.  Sometimes "study" can also mean staying up with popular culture or the news--it's important for us to know what's going on out there in the world.
  • Spiritual Practice -- Ministry is a high burn-out profession because of the high demands.  It is necessary that we stay spiritually grounded in order to do this work.  But more than that, because we are spiritual leaders in our community, this is something we have to do in order to practice what we preach.  
I'm sure I've skipped dozens of things, including some big ones, among what we do.  But I hope I've convinced someone somewhere that ministry is about much, much more than just being in the pulpit on Sunday.