Belonging (Part 1) – by Gretchen Haley

September 28, 2011

The Chance to Love Everything: Belonging (Part 1)   —

I was in the Cheers bar last week, which seems only fitting as we begin this month exploring that feeling of being known, cared about, held – finding that place where everyone knows your name.  I have to believe, the show was a hit at least in part because it affirmed and explored a universal human longing – to belong.

It was last Saturday afternoon, on Beacon Hill in Boston, and I was making what I was sure was a joke made at least once an hour – “Cheers in Cheers” I said, as I clinked mugs with my friend and study partner of the past 4 months. He had to run to the airport, get back to his own place of ministry and his 8 month old twins, but not before we each toasted to our newly granted ministerial fellowship.

Unitarian Universalists are congregational – it’s maybe the one thing we have always agreed on, the one thing we can trace back through our history as consistent and clear.  It means each congregation is autonomous.  It owns its own property.  Elects its own officers.  Finances and governs its own business.  And most importantly for this conversation, it chooses and ordains its own ministers.  And yet, there are some things early on that our congregational churches realized we just couldn’t do well if we did them on our own.  Ensuring a standard consistency for our ministry – in training and education, in a sense of faith and call to the liberal ministry – this was one that just couldn’t be done by a single or even a few congregations. And so today, although congregations maintain the right to ordain and call whomever they wish, we agree to – in most cases – limit these calls and ordinations to those ministers who have been certified – or granted ministerial fellowship – by the Association’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee.

The fellowshipping process is long, and difficult.  My sister became a doctor in the same amount of time it’s taken me to become a minister.  Three years of full time classes, one year of full time internship in a congregation, 4 months of full time chaplaincy in a hospital or other clinical setting.  About 60 items on a required reading list, half of which are beyond texts required in seminary. A complete psychological profile and assessment.  A regional interview and certification. And then finally, this interview with the Committee itself.

I preached a 10-minute version of the sermon I gave our first Sunday this year – I told the story of my prison chaplaincy – and yes I did find a way to sing through my nerves! For the next 40 minutes or so, they asked about 20 questions – covering everything from factual information on our history, to reflective questions about who I am as a minister.  The conversation was lively, and even loving. At the end, they sent me out of the room while they deliberated.  A few minutes later, they brought me back in and welcomed me to the ministry.  I cried a little then, danced a little later.

The process of belonging requires both internal and external affirmation.  We must feel at home in our deepest sense of self.  And we must be affirmed by those with whom we seek fellowship.  If either of these are left incomplete, we do not experience the deep sense of security and safety we yearn for.  My experience in Boston was an outward sign of an inner reality I had felt for most of my life in one way or another.  And yet, these outward signs are important ways we tell each other that we can trust we are where we are supposed to be, that we are cared for and supported, that we are where everyone knows our name.

Thank you for walking with me in these final stages of the fellowshipping process – I felt you with me there on Saturday morning.  And when we toasted in Cheers, I toasted also to you and the support and care you’ve offered me in our time together.  As we continue our walk together, I look forward to creating with you a space where all can feel within themselves and through the grace of outward signs, a deep sense of belonging.

Looking forward to seeing you Sunday – where our service will explore and embody this desire for belonging.   And as always, I look forward to continuing this journey of transcendence, significance and belonging, with laughter, light, patience, and courage.

With love, and in faith,

Gretchen Haley, TRUU Minister

PS: If you are ever in need of a personal conversation, for whatever reason, please feel free to get in touch so that we can schedule a time.