Tag Archives: ministry

Our bodies, our lives


So much sorrow, anger, trauma, and pain has been filling a closed Facebook group of over 500 women ministers. Earlier this week a ministerial colleague posted about her rage after the rapist at Stanford was convicted of three felonies and was sentenced to merely 6 months–so as not to disrupt his life further.

The floodgates were opened by survivors of sexual assault. Within 24 hours, well over 130 women shared personal stories of rape and violation from as early as 3 years of age well into mature adulthood.

When I was told about this online conversation I read it all at once and finally commented about my own experiences. I was numb, but my eyes kept “leaking.” I didn’t feel like going to yoga but did anyway, and I wept silently through most of it (with one break just to blow my nose). For the closing Shavasan meditation I had trouble lying still and felt more tears leak out.

I needed time to process. Solitude, a walk, prayers, a comfortable bath, music. My personal story of abuse took place decades ago, when I was just a little girl, but I can remember the horror. I am one of hundreds of colleagues and millions of women all over the world who have been used for someone else’s heinous agenda. Every day, every night, every second.

Sexual violence is only one expression of trauma. Is there anyone in the world who has not been traumatized by something? Abuse, alcohol, neglect, misuse of power, and economic brutality join a long list of ways humans can hurt each other. On top of that are the ways survivors are ignored, disbelieved, and even blamed for the crimes of others.

Sharing stories of violence is not easy. Many of us spend countless hours in therapy to do just that. Could we create safe places to share deep emotions? Could we offer rituals of healing and wholeness? Our bodies, our lives, our hearts.

A Move in Progress


Boxes and lists surround me couple of weeks before I move

from my Houston apartment back to my house in Austin.


Obviously the days of this month are diminishing, but new items on the lists continue to appear. Not everything will be accomplished in the end; something will be left undone or left behind in one form or another.

Mainly I want to clear my schedule as much as possible for goodbyes. First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston (firstuu.org) is full of wonderful people. They are smart, funny, kind, friendly, wise, creative and many other positive attributes.

Yesterday I wrote about 2/3 of my final sermon here, to deliver on July 27. So soon!

Then there will be a farewell party hosted by the members and staff. I anticipate tears and laughter as we share what’s on our hearts. In just under 2 years we have changed each other. We have made indelible memories that have filled me with gratitude.

The weekly commute became too much to continue for another year. Husband, friends, and family await my permanent return. To rest, to plan our trip to Barcelona and the Canal du Midi in southern France, and to contemplate the next chapter in my life–those are my 3 primary goals. Perhaps more blogging, too!


Time Management–Ugh!


I signed a contract for another year beginning August 1, but this year at 3/4 time (my choice). However, I’m trying to figure out how to work 3/4 time when I’ve already developed full-time habits.

There is always ministry to be done. In fact, it didn’t always get done to my satisfaction even at full-time. So, what to do?

Easy to set a schedule; hard to stick to it. Fewer hours per day? One less day per week? One less week per month? Pros and cons to each of them. Conjure up another 1/4 time job, even if it’s voluntary?

Conscious of this, I think I’ll start with an online timer to see how much time is really spent. It reminds me of budgeting for a low income–keeping track of every penny helped me figure out where the money was going and also made me more conscious of every dollar I spent.

If you have good tips, let me know. Meanwhile, there’s a movie to see this afternoon!

20 years and counting!


Today marks the 20th anniversary of my Ordination!

Way last century, back in 1993, I was ordained by the members of Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church. After the laying on of hands I think I was floating for weeks. Both sons Rob and Fred Nugen participated in the service and surprised me with a simultaneous kiss on each cheek in front of the congregation.

The Rev. Dr. Leonora Montgomery preached the sermon–and now I’m back in Houston, where she is Minister Emerita of Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church, retired (though still extremely active), and a member of the church I now serve, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston.

In that summer of 1993, freshly ordained and graduated from Perkins School of Theology at SMU in Dallas, I was in search of a congregation but without an income. Leonora graciously offered her garage apartment and many late night conversations in her kitchen. It was a bonus to have a swimming pool just 2-3 feet from my door. I continue to feel grateful for her kindness, generosity, and wisdom shared with so many colleagues and congregations.

I plan to celebrate today by working on my sermon. What a privilege it has been to delve into a topic, reflect on its spiritual aspects and why they matter, and craft a coherent message for people who have a variety of experiences and spiritual understandings. My sermon this week is actually on a universal theme: “A Good Birth, a Good Life, a Good Death.”

Life is sacred all the way from birth through death and into whatever beyond one might imagine. We fear aging and debilitating illness more than death. We can’t quite imagine death–what that means for us and how life as we know it will change after we’re gone. We’d be glad to live forever if we could stay healthy, vibrant, and wise. (Few of us wish to return to our youth and go through all the tough times again.)

Tomorrow my loving husband Jon Montgomery will take me to dinner for a different kind of celebration. Meanwhile I will dive back into this vocation that has taken me on an adventure of a lifetime.

Notes from a Successful Failure


It’s so nice out today. Recent rain and a cooling off period! A cardinal brightens my view and a light breeze carresses this early fall in Austin.

This is a lucky time, a liminal time.  Between jobs I can simply fantasize about my next ministry; anticipate without the burden of specifics; reflect on generalized anxieties that stem from a lifetime of experience.

I would love to know if any of this applies to you, my faithful readers, so do let me know!

Self-deprecation, self-doubt: I am my own worst critic. I’m smart enough and experienced enough to know how inadequate I am to life, to vocation (in my case, ministry). Praise feeds my ego and every criticism goes straight to my stash of inferiority. Compliments from unexpected quarters leave me both grateful and amazed. Loved ones may say I’m great, but how can they be objective? On the other hand, doesn’t self-criticism place me smack in the middle of humanity? Believe in it or not, I know I can do  a good  job.

[Here’s where you can substitute your own fine qualities]: Speaking for myself, I have plenty of experience and ability; a gift for collaboration and synthesis, and a calming presence in groups and with individuals.  Whether or not I am called to a specific place, I can remain confident in my ministerial excellence

Perfectionism: Perfection is perhaps a worthy goal but it is neither attainable NOR necessary! My seminary friend Nan posted a quotation on her computer–“Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” She was even more of a perfectionist than I and she was brilliant! The quote was not an invitation to do poor work nor to slack off but simply to say, Do Something and let go of the expectation that it will transform the world. The perfect sermon/essay/column/report is probably still a blank document. Plain paper, blank screen. Just do the writing then edit later if there’s time.

Until something is written there is nothing to edit. Until the text is read or the sermon is delivered there is nothing for reflection. Okay, then, I am a perfectionist by nature and always seek to do my best. However, I meet deadlines and come prepared. My sermons are rich, thoughtful, and full of content and story. My delivery is not flashy even after an acting class and an improv class but I am comfortable in the pulpit with notes or outline and there are plenty of people who like them!

Wounded Healer: I am aware of my family dynamics and from whence come the wounds and scars. I have had ample family systems training and use systems theory in my work.

But here’s the good news. My failings as a professional are simply failings as a person. They are part and parcel of my character. They mark me as human (imagine)!  That very simple statement brings me comfort today. Our work in no way expects perfection no matter how many complaints or snide remarks may be thrown our way. Indeed, ministry expects humanity.

We are expected to do our best with our gifts and challenges and within ethical boundaries. We love praise but we learn to live with the complaints that yea, verily, we disappointed or royally screwed up. Sure, we may not be right for a particular ministry, but we are inherently worthy. At the very least we have significant education, multiple supervisors, mentors, and evaluations along the way, and ever-increasing quantities of life experience. We can model what a compassionate and competent person can do when we fail.

Moving to a new home or city or employment is one way to make a new start, but still we bring our best and worst selves along for the ride.

One more thought. I can let God be God–hold all that perfection and ideal and power that eludes every single one of us–and I am human, just doing my best with the choices and challenges life brings. End of sermon!

P.S. About an hour after I wrote the earlier reflection, I accepted the offer of a nine-month ministry as assistant to the Rev. Daniel O’Connell at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston! The previous assistant had resigned abruptly and this is to finish out the church year. Back to weekly commuting to/from Austin as I have done before. I think I will learn a lot at First UU, a church that is anchoring a transition to satellite churches–4 clergy for 3 campuses. Hmm, a 3-ring circus!




“Was it something I posted? Doesn’t she like me any more? Why would she cut me off?” Maybe it’s just my imagination, but these thoughts might have crossed the minds of some of my Facebook friends.

It was not easy to do and required a lot of reflection. Several days ago a ministerial colleague of mine posted that she had de-friended all her former congregants. “It feels crappy,” she said. But she woke me up to what I must do. Every now and then I had heard that this was the “best practice” but had resisted. After all, if it’s posted on Facebook it can’t be harmful to read without comment, can it?

With every posting, though, I remembered that relationship and it was keeping me a little bit stuck. I had known many of them for nine years, some longer than that. Weddings, child blessings, coming of age ceremonies, memorial services, yes but mostly the week by week and daily connections as we did the work of ministry. I still want to know about the big events. Births and deaths are the biggest events upon which I would love to heap blessings. I just have to do it from a distance.

As I went through the list of friends I reviewed their latest postings and sent love and prayers to each of them. After all, we were in relationship for a long time. Maybe someday in some other way we will be again and we can be Facebook friends again. But it’s time for me to move out of that world for my sake and for theirs.

I do hope and pray for blessings to grace those lives as beloved individuals and as a congregation. May life smile upon you and bless you. May you know that you are loved.



What a great occasion March 30, 2012! Brian Ferguson was ordained to Unitarian Universalist ministry by the members of the San Marcos Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. The sanctuary was packed with well wishers from Kerrville, San Antonio, Austin, Waco, and Dallas as well as San Marcos. I was pleased to see several members of Live Oak who made the trip south through rush hour traffic. Clergy robed up and wore their beautiful stoles full of symbolism and color. Delicious appetizers greeted us before the service and even more delights greeted us in the buffet line after the service. Thanks, San Marcos volunteers and caterers!

We send our best healing wishes to Will Bryant, who was to play the piano, and to Ann Allen, who was to present the new stole to Brian. Will was in a car accident and Ann had a fall so neither of them could attend.

The Rev. Aaron While, Associate Minister at First UU Church in Dallas, delivered a fine sermon. He is the proud (and exhausted) father of his first baby Henry, born March 7. Aaron admitted that he might be the first preacher to fall asleep at the pulpit. But he did not. It was wise, witty, and wonderful–filled with the wonder and beauty of ministry.

Other colleagues read or sang or prayed. The Rev. Meg Barnhouse delivered a “charge” to the congregation. Among other things she advised them not to needle their minister with piddly little things. He is called to lead and to pursue the vision, not to worry about whether his tie is the right color. The congregation can support the minister by “keeping him in mind” as their spiritual leader, though merely a man.

I delivered the charge to Brian himself. Someone mentioned later that its emphasis on self-care and balance could apply to nearly everyone, so here is the text as written, if not exactly as spoken:

Charge to the Minister: Rev. Brian Ferguson

Rev. Kathleen Ellis

30 March 2012

Brian, this ordination, this laying on of hands, and your new stole have set you apart. You and your congregation will shape each other over time. They have asked you to speak your truth; to teach wonder and mystery as well as facts; to witness and act on your moral convictions; to officiate for many life transitions; and to serve with love and kindness. That’s all they want! Walking on water is not a requirement.

We already know you’re flexible. Not content with a standard internship you ended up with 3 completely different intern supervisors—Davidson Loehr, Chuck Freeman, and me—in 2 very different congregations—1st UU and Live Oak in Austin. What an experience of observation while remaining out of the crosshairs of conflict! Yes, flexibility is an asset.

You in turn have offered to share curiosity, encouragement, and courage in this wonderful world of parish ministry. Your new stole represents this life to which you are called. When you wear it you are yoked in service of something greater than yourself.

Both you and the congregation spoke of love. That’s hardly a term to be taken lightly because it carries with it one of the most fundamental desires from the moment of birth until the dying of the light.

My charge to you this evening is for you to take care of your spirit, mind, and body.  Infuse these three with love and the knowledge that time waits for no one. The dates in your calendar are closer than they appear!

So take care of yourself for the long haul. You already have a split residency between here and Austin. Make the most of your time in each place, but don’t wear yourself to a frazzle at either end of that stretch of road. You are the one to set boundaries on your work. No one but you will know how much has been asked of you. Ministry never ends so you have to draw the line somewhere every single day. It will wait! And you will work much more efficiently and quickly on the things that matter if you are well rested and in a good frame of mind.

Pray. Center yourself to the point that you know how your spirit is today. Then you can pray for guidance, pray for the people, pray for the earth and everything riding on it. Seek out spiritual direction from someone who will encourage you to grow your spirit. Or find a text or poem that leads you on a path of growth and challenge. Do whatever it takes to feed and nurture your spirit.

As for your mind, read and discuss as widely as possible. Join a book club that chooses books and subjects you never knew existed. Read to learn and read for fun. Get involved in activities outside the church. All of these encounters help keep your mind open and agile.

As for your body, celebrate your health and pay attention to keeping it. Good nutrition and exercise of heart, lungs, and muscles will go a long way toward satisfaction with life and in ministry.

Take time for your family, beginning with Natalie and Isla, who teach you so much about the world through their eyes. Living as an independent family unit is not always easy, especially when you combine different cultures and personalities. It takes time and patience when you are together and it helps that Natalie understands quite a lot about church life behind the scenes. Isla brings youth as well as wisdom and a special bond with her dad as girls so often develop.

Remember your family of origin. Although they may be far away in miles, you carry them in your heart: your mum Margaret Ferguson, so far away and so frail in Scotland and her older sister Aunt Marion; your brother Alistair who lives in Moscow; your cousin Anne Reid with whom you are still so close she might well have been a sister; your father Ian, who died four years ago but remains a part of you. They are your roots and branches and will remain so forever even though you are scattered around the world.

Love your family; love your neighbor; love God; love life itself. Do you know yet what you love at the center of your being? Let love of something be your foundation, your faith, your north star.

Love the congregation, who range from those who feel self-assured to those who find it difficult even to love themselves.  Each of them needs you. But before you can love anyone or anything else you have to love yourself first.

Ministry will call upon you to serve as a leader, a pastor, a priest, a prophet, a role model and a rabbi. Have you already learned to juggle? There will be lonely times when you have to stand alone for something you believe is right and honorable. There will be crowded times when you can scarcely hear yourself think.

Whenever you feel alone and isolated and whenever you feel crowded and overwhelmed that’s where your colleagues come in handy. A number of us have driven many miles for this great occasion because we want to show our support today and in future years. None of us can stand in your shoes, but you can be sure that we will support you when you call upon us, just as we will turn to you when we need advice or a listening ear. Take care of yourself: spirit, mind, and body. Infuse yourself with love and nurture yourself over time. That will be the basis of your great ministry.

One more thing, Brian. Take everything I’ve said with a grain of salt . . . so long as you remember this: have fun! Celebrate! Leap for joy! Believe in miracles! Be yourself!

. . . and let your inner Scot shine!


What a great occasion!

An official departing milestone


Since today is March 30 it seems appropriate to mark one month remaining at Live Oak. My focus over the next weeks will be on three primary tasks: sermons, a class I’m teaching on listening ministry, and on transitions–passing on information and saying goodbye. Writing this letter two months ago was poignant for me, a little like ripping off a bandaid:

January 30, 2012

Dear Members of the Policy Committee,

As a formality pursuant to the congregational vote on November 13, 2011, I hereby resign my position as Minister of Congregational Life, effective April 30, 2012.

I very much appreciate your work this year in deciding on the best course of action for Live Oak. It has truly been a learning experience for all of us–an experience we might not have undertaken by choice but by circumstance.

Thank you for your support in multiple ways over the years–as well as the challenges that continue to shape me and my ministry. May you thrive in ways we we cannot yet imagine. I will brag on you at every opportunity!



First Days Record


Shifting gears, big time! Phone calls, emails, and meetings with key leaders have started to fill me in on the weeks I was away. At the same time I have been picking up many balls all at once, as though I had never been away. Some things have waited for my return; some balls were dropped altogether; many positive things have moved us forward in our mission. Already I have had to say goodbye to a member who is moving away.

Even as I ramp up it is important for me to maintain a wide perspective, a metaphorical view from the balcony. Life IS short. Healthy balance requires considerable effort because there is always something personal or professional that can throw that balance right out the window.

So I go back again and again to the spiritual heart of my being. Meditation, poetry, music, writing, and prayer–early and often during each day. Such a joy it is to fall back on the spiritual wisdom of the ages!

Today has been a reading and writing day. I’m outside under the shade of a patio umbrella and there is almost enough breeze to offset the heat and humidity. The weather will only get worse as summer takes hold, so I might as well avail myself of this beautiful spring day. Too bad we haven’t had enough rain lately. I’m trying to be super conscious of water consumption already and to appreciate every drop.

Here’s a closing reading from Anthony de Mello’s Song of the Bird

A Parable on Modern Life

The animals met in assembly and began to complain that humans were always taking things away from them.
“They take my milk,” said the cow.
“They take my eggs,” said the hen.
“They take my flesh for bacon,” said the hog.
“They hunt me for my oil,” said the whale.

Finally the snail spoke. “I have something they would certainly take away from me if they could. Something they want more than anything else. I have TIME.”
You have all the time in the world, if you would give it to yourself. What’s stopping you?

I don’t need ALL the time. Just enough. And you?

Sweet Honey Harmonies


CENTER Institute, the first large scale continuing education conference for Unitarian Universalist clergy, took place last week in Pacific Grove, CA. Nearly 400 of us gathered at the Asilomar Conference Center for five days of learning, worshiping, and walking on the beach. Food was great; collegiality was even greater!

Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, founding member and lead songwriter of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, offered her seminar on Building the Vocal Community. She writes and sings songs with a purpose: inspiring us to listen to the sounds of nature; assuring us that freedom will unfold in time; filling us with the holy spirit! (Go to http://www.sweethoney.com/ for more info.)

As a long-time fan of Sweet Honey in the Rock, I was eager to attend Ysaye’s seminar, work she has done for 27 years, about 8-10 times per year. She knows a LOT of African-American music history along with the songs. About 40 ministerial colleagues formed a double circle as we sang chants, spirituals, gospel, and justice songs. The circle was for community. Ysaye taught the songs, yes, but we looked into each others’ faces and sang our harmonies with a lot of heart.

The first chant became an intricate blend of several phrases. We chose one line, learned its rhythm and repeated it until all of the text worked together rhythmically: 1) Go down into the market. 2) Mama! 3) I won’t go down to the market, Mama! 4) I just came from the market, Mama, go down! When we added movement and walked around to greet one another, the sound and rhythm grew in intensity. Fantastic!

One side benefit is that the “Barnwellians” were asked to sing at several worship services during the Institute. One song evoked the sound of God, from a tribe that understands that the Rain Forest is God. Another repeated lines that mean, “The works of God can never be destroyed.”

We also sang, in English,
“Tell all my friends that my ship just came sailing in.
It was filled with the Holy Spirit, it was filled with joy divine,
Wouldn’t you like to sail on a ship like mine?”

We learned about quadlibets, in which several related songs are sung in succession or simultaneously—like a modern-day musical mashup. One pure joy was singing along with Ysaye for about 30 minutes as she sang one Civil Rights song after another. We joined in as we learned the tunes.

I plan to bring several of these songs back to Live Oak Church, possibly with the help of Ysaye Barnwell’s instructional CDs, Singing in the African-American Tradition and/or Building the Vocal Community.