To innovate or not to innovate

There have been times when wearing my minister hat, I’ve tried to be innovative. Sometimes that has worked better than at others. Here’s a couple of those other times.

In a sermon many years ago, I was trying to share how the spiritual dimension of art could help one be more aware of the spiritual side of existence. I read two poems that, I thought, exemplified this. They were not “religious” poems — no “God language” or anything like that. They worked because they suggested that life is more than physical, and their lyrical beauty was ethereal.

Afterward — maybe a couple of days later — one person told me she and another congregant thought I could’ve just read poetry for the whole sermon “and gotten away with it.”

Gotten away with it? Maybe, in a backhanded way, she was saying she got the point about poetry, but I wasn’t trying to “get away with” anything. I was trying to share an experience, using the poems to illustrate part of what I was trying to communicate didactically.

On another occasion, I was called on to offer the blessing before a luncheon in a non-church setting where I was working at the time. I had heard Garrison Keillor say that the purpose of a meal-time blessing is to remind us that we already are blessed. This resonated well with me. I decided to give that point a go.

When called upon, I quoted Keillor, then asked each person to think seriously about something for which they were especially thankful. After a moment of silence, I said, “Amen.”

Almost immediately, someone came up to me and with a sly grin said, “Sneaky!” Sneaky? I wasn’t interested in playing some kind of trick on people. My intention was to help them feel more blessed than they might’ve if they’d heard some potentially trite words and phrases.

Well, you try, and maybe give yourself at least a B+ for effort.

Adventures in job-hunting

Have you ever had a job interview that didn’t go well? (I’m guessing your answer is “yes.”) Who’s had one that seemed doomed from the start? (Yeah, I see those hands rising.) You may not relate to the profession, but the situation I’m about to describe is likely familiar. You may not have had the very same experiences, but I’ll bet you’ve had some that were similar.

Back when I was in campus ministry, or at least trying to be, I set up a job-search file with an ecumenical organization that had a presence on many college campuses across the country. I was working as director of a local, non-profit service agency, when I got a notice that the campus ministry program at one small university in the mid-west had expressed interest in me.

They arranged to fly me out for an interview. For reasons I don’t recall, it had to be wedged in between commitments I had at home through a Saturday evening and a seminar nearby at which I was to speak on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. It seems possible that my schedule would’ve been more flexible from that Wednesday afternoon through the upcoming weekend.

They booked me on an odyssey that began early Sunday morning. I landed twice along the way, changing planes at the second stop, before reaching a large airport across the state from the school. There I was met by someone from the organization’s national office.

First we had to connect. He had me paged, but had my first name wrong. Hearing someone else’s first name, I didn’t focus on the rest of the announcement. But I asked myself, Didn’t the last name sound like mine? Could it have been meant for me? But why would he not have the correct name? As I pondered, the page was repeated. I went to the designated meeting spot. Yes, the guy didn’t really know my name.

Then we set out in his car, swinging by another big airport to pick up one of his colleagues. Apparently the plan was for them to get to know me along the way. One might think that a preferred alternative would’ve been for the two of us flying in to have landed closer to the school, and the three of us to have gotten acquainted there rather than in a car. But one who might think that didn’t make the plans. We stopped for a quick evening meal. At some point it started to snow. The campus was covered by the time we got there.

I went directly from the car into a building with a large meeting room for the official interview. Tables were arranged in a large circle and filled with people. My job interview would be conducted by 27 individuals. That is about two dozen more than ideal.

I had not heard of this school before the initial inquiry came. As I began the interview, I had taken less than a dozen steps on the campus, and my feet had not made direct contact, thanks to the blanket of snow upon which I had walked. I hadn’t even ever been in that state before. I knew nothing of the resources for and past programming of the campus ministry there. I had some experience and ideas on which to draw in a general way, of course, but I couldn’t lay out for them at that moment a program tailored to that community.

I had an assigned host for the brief visit. First he took me to my lodging for the night. I was put up in a private room with bath in a women’s dorm. It was on the ground floor and had its own entrance from the outside, apparently designated for guests. All the typical dorm-room furniture had been pulled away from the walls (for painting? cleaning?) — and not put back. The single bed was near the middle of the room; the other pieces were scattered about. It felt sort of like sleeping in a small warehouse. But I did sleep, after a welcomed shower.

My host picked me up the next morning, Monday, for breakfast and a day of gathering information that would’ve been useful in the previous night’s Q & A. There was a tour of the campus, including a visit to the campus ministry offices. The tour of the small town included stops at 2-3 key supporting churches. I met more people. Conversations revealed more about how this program looked, past successes and failures, hopes and expectations. A couple of hours of this activity on the day before might have been more helpful to me than riding across the state.

One person I met was the token Jewish faculty member, also known for his left-leaning politics (maybe a token there as well). My host seemed to regard him as a friend, but didn’t pronounce his name correctly.

A few people were selected to have lunch and dinner with me. So there was informal, but mostly pertinent conversation at both that day. After dinner, I was taken to the small airport in a neighboring town. I boarded a small plane that took me to a larger airport for the first of two plane changes. The overall route meandered eastward.

I was scheduled to get back in time for my Tuesday morning conference, fortified by whatever in-flight naps I could catch and, of course, plenty of coffee. Fog at the second connection, however, intervened. I missed the first day of my commitment, though those in charge were understanding.

The potential employer and I didn’t make good enough impressions on each other to proceed. File it under learning experience. At least I learned some things, and I have to think they did, too. The flight delay taught me that is is unwise to rely on an air-travel schedule with no wiggle room. I hope we both learned not to shoehorn such an occasion into such a tight time frame and to find a way for the candidate’s job interview not to be conducted before any orientation.

Another lesson would be to have 3-4 people conduct the direct interview and report to the larger body. (O.K., I had already known that.) The value of using a professional travel agent to book the flight is yet another potential lesson.

I thought about beginning this entry with something about having spent a week there one day. But that wouldn’t have been accurate. It was more like “2-3 days in 30 hours.” And the days were in reverse order.

I’m glad I went

It was a milestone celebration at a church a plane ride away from my home. It’s an outstanding church, and I was part of it a long time ago. The church has long been known for its active involvement in social justice. Sunday morning is big, but it’s a seven-days-a-week church. It contributed to my theological education for two years.

Part of my role was on-the-job training in campus ministry at an adjacent prestigious university. More visible to the congregation was my guitar playing regularly in “folk worship” and occasional other times. One Sunday a month, the Sunday worship service was one I helped plan. Two other musicians — a pianist and an upright bass player — and I led it. I also participated in myriad meetings, retreats and anti-war protests. I think I was a brash enough young adult to speak my mind in most gatherings. Shortly before I completed my degree and moved away from the area, I preached there one Sunday morning. My “License to Preach and Administer the Sacraments” was granted by that congregation.

I enjoyed the recent celebration. It was good to be back in the building. The liturgy and other activities were appropriate and meaningful. As the history of the church was recounted, a good chunk of it was presented by some of the very people with whom I have a history. They covered a lot of that shared history.

At this point, the cynical reader might expect the insertion of a “But.” Not here, though. It’s more of a “That said. . . .”

I went with hope but not delusion. There were several people still in the church that I remembered from my time there. It would’ve been great if many/most (all??) had greeted me like a long-lost friend. Yet I had visited a couple of years ago, and only two of those remembered me. One was someone with whom I had been close. The other was someone I knew, though not as well as a couple of people who seemed to have no recollection of me. I expected it would be the same this time, while holding out hope that the occasion and my being there for much of the day would jog some more memories.

It was as expected. Everyone was friendly and welcoming. The same two seemed to be the only ones who remembered me, though when I spoke to others, I made a point of saying when I had been there.

Countless times, I’ve heard someone say about some service opportunity in which they’ve participated, “I got more from them than they got from me.” I guess I always realized this to be true about my time at this church. I just wish the score hadn’t been so lopsided.

I knew going in that I was at most a blip on the screen in the long history of a church filled with dynamic individuals. I had just thought — wished rather — that the blip were less imperceptible. It wouldn’t be honest not to admit to feeling some disappointment, yet I wasn’t blindsided.

Still, it was good to be in a place with a lot of great memories. To see faces still recognizable despite the years, even if mine wasn’t recognizable to them. To recount the illustrious history of the congregation and to see that the characteristics that drew me to them are still at work today.

I enjoyed the personal memories that flashed through my mind. I was able to share a couple of these verbally with one person or another. Yet feeling more like a welcomed guest than a returning family member, I found I was taking in the festivities primarily from a third-person point of view. I know and appreciate that for many there it was first-person.

To resort to an overused cliche, it was the hand I was dealt. So I played it. I was just glad to be in the game. It was a learning and a growing experience.

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Note of possible interest: This is the church to which I referred in “Wearing Your ‘Sunday Best’” when I said, “I was a young adult, in a church where people wore anything from jeans to suits or dressy dresses, when I realized that one of the negative things about Sunday morning in the past had been the hassle of getting dressed up.” For this recent occasion, I was the most dressed up I have ever been in that church building — dress pants, button down shirt and sports jacket, along with my black sneakers and, of course, no tie.