Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Veteran Pastor

Bob Ullman '71 has seen "it all. It's like living a novel instead of writing one." Here, he tells his story.

As a pastor, you really see it all. It’s like living a novel instead of writing one. We’re with people through all of life’s experiences—the good, the bad, the ugly. It’s births, it’s baptisms, it’s death and beyond. All of life’s crises and joys. And since I’ve been here 25 years, I’m in the unique position of seeing the big picture. A psychologist or a doctor sees individuals, but they might not know the whole story connected to the individual, or they only hear it little by little. I’ve lived with these people day in and day out and I know what they’ve been through and what they’ve done to each other.

That’s one of the joys of the ministry. Your heart is fuller because you know more, feel more, hurt more. But you can’t be all things to all people. There was a time when the church community expected the pastor to be everything to the community. But I work at encouraging the community to claim its own ministry. And I do have to work hard at it, because there is a certain amount of ego-satisfaction in thinking that I’ve made a difference in somebody’s life. But I can’t do it all. Every person has his own life experiences that will help other people. Each Sunday at our service people are encouraged to bring up whatever joys or concerns they might have.

For example, when somebody says, “I’ve just learned I have breast cancer,” invariably all the women who have had breast cancer are there right after the service, reaching out to them. That’s something I can’t do. I can’t know what that’s like, not in the way they do.

I probably spend about 25 percent of my time preparing for Sunday—meditating on the readings, planning the sermon, reading commentary and scholarship, preparing the bulletin. I don’t write my sermon out, but I do plan it carefully. To stand up in front of people and talk has never been a real problem for me. But to have to come up with the right words and have it mean something, that has been a long, slow road.

The one time I had acute performance anxiety was on the Sunday after 9/11, and that’s still vivid in my memory. I was viscerally feeling the anxiety as I walked into the sanctuary that Sunday. I tend to try and lighten things up and at the start of my sermon I asked, “Would any of you rather come up and do this?” Because how do you make sense of an event like that when it is still so fresh?

I’m always doing this dance between those who say, “I don’t care how long the service takes,” and those who say, “If it’s not done in an hour I’m out of here.” I generally preach somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes. I tend to stay behind the lectern. I probably should get out and roam more as I preach, because people enjoy it, but I feel like a standup comedian when I do. There’s a fair amount of learning and scholarship to do, apart from the more public ministry. I read practical ministry stuff, psychology and sociology, as well as the more theological side, biblical studies. I’ve been interested in family systems theory, which comes out of psychology and says that congregations are really family systems. What we’re seeing is that when there’s a lot of free-floating anxiety, as there is these days, a community like this really needs a non-anxious presence. And that’s a challenge, because there’s enough to make me fairly anxious as well. But the blessing of it is that it forces me to rely on something bigger than me. It’s not about me. It’s about a presence that’s with us continually that we can tap into. And in my better moments when I can open myself to that, I don’t have to be quite so anxious.

Our church burned to the ground in 2004. My wife and I had just started a sabbatical, and we were planning on spending five weeks in Hawaii. Ten days into the sabbatical, I got a call on Maui, telling me the church had burned down the night before. The hardest part wasn’t the physical property loss but the anxiety. We lost members because of the uncertainty and people started to go at each other, because whenever you’re anxious, you’re not at your best. But we started the long process of demolition and insurance settlements and work with architects and contractors on the new building. We started from scratch and asked people what they wanted from their new church building. Now that it’s finished, I’d say it’s fun to design a church from scratch. But on the whole, I wouldn’t recommend the experience.

Deep down I’m an introvert, which might sound odd, but a lot of us pastors are. When I fly, I never tell anyone I’m a pastor. When I get a chance to be quiet and read, I do it. So I tell people on planes that I’m a salesman because I know they don’t want anything sold to them.

Photograph by Tom Lindfors

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