Closing Words by Rev. Tom Goldsmith Volume 10

27 April 2021


Closing Words Volume 10
A blog of lessons and sentiments on the road to closure

Bertha, a true New England Universalist woman, and proud of her blue-collar heritage going back many generations, stepped into my office during my first year as minister in Waltham, MA.  She never smiled, but then again, I never knew a Bertha who did.

She felt pretty chipper that day, a little out of character for her, but she prattled on about how much she liked me. As I listened to her litany of my successes at the church, I waited for the other shoe to drop. It did. The stream of praise was brought to a halt with the word, “but.” Then came her explanation for the visit when she said: “You could never be my minister.” 

Bertha claimed that a person only had “one real minister” in a lifetime, and for her it was Ed. He was my predecessor, very popular with most of the congregation, and obviously a real darling in Bertha’s life. I had great sympathy for the situation because obviously Bertha was grieving the loss of her minister even after a year had passed. I was no substitute for whatever defined “minister” in her mind.

A few years later I received a call in my office. “Will you be my minister?” Bertha asked with sobs still caught in her throat. Her 34-year son, a fireman, received word of his melanoma diagnosis. I responded: “Of course. We will struggle through this together.” I didn’t tell her that I never stopped being her minister.

This may or may not be somewhat of a cautionary tale. But it begs the question: What is a minister?

The answer is not readily available. After my very first year in ministry, 1975-1976, the Board at the First Parish in Scituate, MA asked me: What does a minister do besides deliver a sermon? I was stunned into silence. It quickly became clear that only the very public side of ministry could be discerned by a congregation. It seemed outside of Sunday morning worship, ministry was a mystery. 

The Board asked me to keep a log for two weeks. After demystifying the work of ministry, they voted to give me a day off. Do you think that will help? I asked. No, not really they replied. We all laughed.

The same query was posed to me in Waltham with the same prescription that I needed to keep a log. After the review, the Board recommended I take two days off. And we all ended up laughing about the absurdity. 

In Salt Lake, some of you may still remember the kiosk in the middle of Eliot Hall. For several months the kiosk displayed photos of me meeting with parishioners, attending various boards, and speaking at public gatherings. Our Board asked several members to shadow me for two weeks, taking pictures to be displayed on the kiosk in order to answer the unsolved riddle: What is a minister and what does a minister do. Since then, my minister’s report to the board had to include all the things I did throughout the month. Apparently, the photos alone did not suffice.

As I head for the exit marked retirement, I confess my own puzzlement over the meaning of ministry. I have done much outside the confines of a church, and only God knows whether or not that qualifies as ministry. I was hired by the Boston Herald as an opinion writer, had my own radio show, became the Banjo Man in hospital playrooms, taught Environmental Humanities at the U, and traveled a great deal for the UUA to determine if seminarians were spiritually and intellectually equipped to serve as ministers.   

There’s that word again – ministry. In the words of Pope Benedict: “Who am I to judge?”

But I was elected to the position for eight years and had an obligation to discern the quality of a minister lurking somewhere in the souls of these students. During interviews I thought of Bertha; what would she say? And ultimately it came down to a nuanced perception of whether or not I would turn to this student if I or a child of mine received a grim diagnosis. I realized that I was every bit as subjective as Bertha, but even the UUA had no standardized checklist for how a prospective minister must act, look, or speak.

For example, when I asked a student: “Do you have a spiritual practice?” I resonated more with the woman who told me she walked her dog for an hour each morning at the same time, than with the guy who went regularly to climb mountains in Tibet wearing nothing but a loin cloth. 

Ministry is as hard to define as pornography, relying on the same quip: You’ll know it when you see it. As a student minister, my supervisor insisted I had to wear black shoes if I wanted to impress others that I was really a minister. He was absolutely serious. Wearing black was part of the uniform. As silly as that may strike us today, I have yet to wear anything but black shoes when in the pulpit for the past 46 years. Why take chances?

A far more complicated question than what does a minister do, is what does a minister’s spouse do? I once owned a 1948 publication called, “The Parson’s Wife.” It waxed eloquently on how the cleanliness of the parsonage mirrored the success of a minister’s career. The wife was instructed to clean the toilet so thoroughly that parishioners could see their own reflection. I haven’t seen that book since Mary tossed it after I foolishly showed it to her one day. I thought it was funny, but her sense of humor wasn’t tickled.

If truth be told, my career for more than the last twenty years would have been stalled without Mary. She is my indispensable partner in serving the congregation. In fact, more people share their personal issues with Mary, usually at coffee hour, than with me. During the course of a Sunday afternoon, Mary tells me who’s hurting, who’s in trouble, and who needs a visit. Her diplomacy ranges from impeccable to sublime. 

Mary serves as the antidote to writer’s block, pushes me into deeper social justice work such as the partnership with Edison School, stretches me to produce Folk Vespers in addition to Jazz Vespers, and feeds me fundraising ideas she acquired while working for nonprofits for decades. Most importantly, Mary is my minister. She picks my chin up off the floor and makes sure my hat size doesn’t change. She makes me proud singing in the choir, and socializes with far greater ease than I.

And for all these years when our dinners were interrupted, date nights interrupted, and vacations interrupted by church needs and crises, she never complained. How come you never complain I recently asked her when we had to shift a celebration to another time. 

“Because I knew what I was getting into marrying a minister,” she said. “And I know what ministry means.” 

“You do?” I asked. “I’m glad somebody does. You need to write it up.”

These Closing Words are my final installment. Of course, this was all Mary’s idea. Thank you for the chance to reminisce with you. And regardless of how any of us define ministry, we shared an exquisite dance for 34 years. Together we rejoiced and mourned, worked and played, and laughter always touched our lives. I support you all, and the church institution itself, as you prepare to call a new minister to lead the progressive’s journey. Bless your new minister with your love. You have an awful lot to give.

Tom Goldsmith