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Part of the job of a pastor or religious leader is to continually try to see as much as possible, and then step back to try to see more. This is incredibly challenging — to try not to get caught up in life details immediately as they emerge, but to notice them and then step back to consider them in a broader context. Ministry means doing this with and for others, which increases the challenge.

So, to try to help others, in the best ways I can, I spend much of my time watching, listening, and trying to understand what’s happening so that I have a chance of understanding what might be needed. This is the pivotal question — what do we truly need?

When I take a look at this week, this month, this new year ahead, there is so much to consider! Environmental concerns are paramount, there is chaos in our government, racial and multicultural tensions persist, we wonder about jobs and our futures, we face physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges, we strive to be happy and to be whole. Needs change as we age and experience life. Needs change as life changes. In the midst of all this, almost all of the time, we struggle to understand the difference between needs and wants.

I’ve learned to be very careful not to make assumptions about the needs and wants of any other person. I’ve observed in myself and in others, over many years, that what we think we need is usually not the whole story, and is often way off the mark of what we truly need. I’ve seen over and over again that what we think we want, and what we say we want, often hides what we truly need, even from ourselves.

I’ve learned to use some guideposts to think about what is truly needed most of the time. Those guideposts include the deep and universal human needs to be safe, to be heard, and to be loved.

For me, this is where ministry starts. My work is to help create more safety, more respect, and more love, or in other words, to help make right relations possible. That is the essence of my religious tradition, of my faith and of my ministry.

Sometimes people assume that going to a church or being part of a religious community is primarily motivated by what a person does or does not believe. Some assume that ministers are those who tell others how to believe and what to believe. Many people get stuck there. I think the call of religion is so much more than believing one thing or another.

For me, religion is the human process of coming to understand how we are related to everyone and everything, and how to live in right relations. Being part of a religious community is therefore an act of commitment to right relations — to being with, listening to, hearing, helping, and learning with others. It is an act of courage and compassion, to work for safety, freedom, respect and love for all people and all creation.

There isn’t a more important religious and spiritual question in the world today than “What is truly needed, to help create right relations, and how can I help?”

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The Rev. Jill McAllister is senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis. She is also an adjunct faculty member in the School of History, Philosophy and Religion at Oregon State University, teaching comparative religion.