Sunday, 11 July 2010

ICUU Minister’s Conference Opens – Day One

Following a passionate opening ceremony led by Revs. Marlin Lavanhar and Jill McAllister of the USA and assisted by Rev. Tina Geels of the Netherlands, the first ever international gathering of Unitarian, Unitarian Universalist launched into its first full day on Saturday, July 8th at the Rolduc Center in the SE Netherlands.

55 ministers from 14 nations have gathered including a healthy contingent of Dutch Remonsatrant and NPB liberal Christian churches. They gathered to discuss such fundamental issues as the call to ministry, sources of authority, access to education and other issues of professional concern. But at the heart is a desire to listen and to learn about our colleagues around the world, to seek out what ties us together, and to explore the nature of our differences.

Like many things in life, ministry is contextual. Ministry happens in specific communities each with its own history, cultural values and social pressures from the world around it. Necessarily, the ministry in deeply impoverished regions like Nigeria, the Philippines and Uganda (all represented here) will be different from the experience of ministers in wealthier nations like the US, the UK or the Netherlands. For one thing, most ministers in developing nations are unpaid and have outside employment. The formal theological training expected – in fact required – in North America, Transylvania, the UK and the Netherlands is not accessible in these lands where there are no Unitarian schools and no resources to finance education. One goal of this conference is to help us understand the different experiences of our colleagues in the Unitarian world

To find common ground we began the first day with a worship service led by Revs. David Usher and Linda Hart of London, England who looked at the one thing all ministers share: the personal call to ministry. Few will forget David’s illustration which likened the imperative to answer the call to the need to vomit. “You can put it off for a little while, but sooner or later...” The laughter of recognition filled the room.

Next Marlin Lavanhar , Rev. Rebecca Siennes the first ordained woman in the Philippines and now the President of the UU Church of the Philippines, and Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana, founder of the Burundi UU Congregation, shared their personal stories of the journey into ministry. While each was a unique story, the commonalities were clear. Whether in ministry or some other line of work, people answer a deep inner calling to do what they do. When the call is genuine, they find success, no matter what the challenges.

As with many ICUU events, we then broke into our first daily small Chalice Circles of five or six people. These are intimate small group ministries where we get to know each other better, and share deeper reflections on daily topics. The first session had us exploring this idea of call.

In the afternoon Rev. Sara Lammert of the US introduced us to a new UU Minister’s Association program of deep examination of ministry that will be taking place across the North American continent in the next year. Rev. Brian Kiely of Canada expanded on the Beard lecture (webinar available on the ICUU website) and invited several people to discuss the formal paths to ministry in various nations. It showed the great diversity in education, resources and credentialing practices. But the joy of the session was that all were willing to recognize everyone else as colleagues and ministers in spite of any difference.

The day concluded with a fascinating evening program led by Rev. David Keyes of the USA. For the first time we had a real conversation about our theological views. He divided us into two groups on roughly Christian/non-Christian lines and asked each group to spend half an hour reflecting on the words “salvation, evil, Jesus and tradition”. He then asked us to report out on “What would you most like the other group to hear”.

Remarkably it was for many of us the first time we have ever had such a discussion at the international level. It was rich, illuminating and led to many further conversations in the bar later.

Brian Kiely

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