Reflections November 2015

I spent three days last week in Sewannee, Tennessee, at the first of five retreats in a series called, “The Courage to Lead: Living and Leading From Within.” It is offered through the Center for Courage and Renewal, which was founded by the Quaker teacher and author, Parker Palmer. This retreat series, scheduled over the next year, is one of the centerpieces for my upcoming sabbatical, which begins January 1st, and runs through March 31st. Over the last year, I have been working with the Sabbatical Committee, the Worship Committee, the Pastoral Care Team, and the staff to ensure that worship and pastoral care will be covered while I am away. This is my second sabbatical at First Parish, so we have done this together before. It went well last time and I imagine it will go well this time. I am very grateful to the congregation that you give me this time and space to rest and renew, to live into my call in a different way for a time, and then invite me back at the end of the time to resume my ministry with you, open to what we have all learned in the sabbatical time. I will be preaching this month about sabbatical, its purpose and what I will be doing this time and what I hope to bring back to you.

While at this retreat, I was reminded of some simple practices that nurture and sustain open and respectful communication and conversation. They are similar to ones I learned at the workshop series I attended at the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute last year. As we prepare to vote on whether to approve a capital campaign in order to upgrade our building’s handicap accessibility, I offer these practices as a way to ground our discussions and communications. 1) Assume good intentions. Remember that each of us cares about this community and is speaking from what matters to each of us about First Parish. That is our common ground. 2) Speak your truth in ways that respect other people’s truth. Speak for yourself. 3) It is okay to disagree. It is not okay to blame, attack or shame ourselves or others. 4) When the going gets rough, turn to curiosity. 5) Practice both/and thinking; avoid “but...” 6) Believe it is possible to emerge refreshed, surprised, and less burdened than we came in; and that the seeds planted here can keep growing in the days ahead.

Talking about change raises both anxiety and excitement: anxiety at what might be lost and excitement about what could be possible. We encountered this when we went through the Welcoming Congregation process. One question which arose over and over again then was “why are we focusing on one group of people? Shouldn’t we be welcoming to everyone?” The response was yes, our intent is to be welcoming to all souls. At the same time, we need to be aware of what that means to people who have been either underserved or made unwelcome by religious communities, who have been told that their spiritual lives do not matter. At that time, in the life of our community, it was important for us to focus on how to be truly welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals and families. This ministry is ongoing, as the Welcoming Congregation Committee can attest, as they prepare to sponsor “Transgender 101” workshop on November 14th. The Welcoming Congregation process provided us the framework for committing to this intentional welcome and to make it part of our everyday hospitality.

Talking about our building’s accessibility and welcome to people of different physical abilities and limitations is an example of how we are continuing our conversation of what it means to be a welcoming to everyone One of the responsibilities in congregational polity is to discuss and discern as a congregation where we need to put our resources of time, talent and treasure now. I am less concerned with the actual decision we make than that we have talked about it and come to an intentional, thoughtful decision as a Unitarian Universalist community, grounding it in our values and covenants. There are always competing commitments. We can’t do everything all at once for everyone all the time. Is now the time to improve our building’s accessibility by committing to a capital campaign? If the congregation decides yes, then we can talk together about the whats and hows of what is possible, given our resources of time, talent, and treasure, and the impact on other areas of our congregational life. If the congregation decides no, then we need to articulate what other competing commitments require our attention now and how else we can offer our welcome to all souls, including those with different physical abilities and limitations.

This decision presents different challenges than the Welcoming Congregation process. Questions of welcome and stewardship involving money carry concrete realities and consequences for both individuals and the congregation as a whole. For this reason, I am in conversation with the New England UUA Regional Staff about coming to help our lay leaders talk about money across committees and with the congregation as a whole. No matter our congregational decision about a capital campaign, learning to become more open and skilled at talking about our financial resources, limitations, and possibilities will serve us well in the future.

I would like to close with some appreciations: appreciation to the lay leaders who have stepped forward to educate, facilitate and guide us toward a decision; appreciation to all of you who participated, bringing your concerns and your commitments to the table; and finally to those who have already pledged to a possible capital campaign, at over $200,000, before we have even voted. Last night, as Justine and I were talking after the evening service, she quoted Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, all will be well, in all manner of things, all will be well.” And so it will.

In faith, Rev. Ellen 

Reflections October 2015

When I heard about yet another mass shooting--this time at the Umqua Community College in Oregon--after my initial sadness, horror, and anger, I thought of the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, #563 in our hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition: “A person will worship something—have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts—but it will out. That which dominates our imagination and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.” It seems that guns and violence dominate the imagination of our country. Our culture worships them, in the truest sense of the word—lifting them up as having a greater worth than the lives lost to them. We will see what this nation becomes. I fear that if we continue to worship a culture of violence, our nation will become more violent, the threat and fear of it becoming what governs us. I say this every time one of these mass shootings occurs, but it is not just these events. It is the day-to-day violence that happens that we never hear about because it is so ordinary. It is the vitriol of the public exchanges on social media that happens afterwards, a violence itself that prevents any dialogue that could move us toward a thoughtful and sane response.

In the wake of events such as these, I am grateful for this community and for our Unitarian Universalist faith. They remind me that I am not alone in imagining and practicing a different culture—one that values human life more than violence. Unitarian Universalism is not alone in this, but having a place and a people gathered around love and justice, freedom and hope, joy and gratitude gives me courage and reminds me that a worship of violence and guns is not the only kind in our culture. There are people worshipping other things, and building communities around them.
This brings me to another quote that I have been carrying around with me lately. Author and community organizer, Margaret Wheatley writes, “There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about. Ask ‘What’s possible?’ not ‘What’s wrong?’ Keep asking. Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams. Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters. Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you never talk to. Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised. Treasure curiosity more than certainty. Invite everybody who cares to work on what’s possible. Acknowledge that everyone is an expert in something. Know that creative solutions come from new connections. Remember you don’t fear people whose story you know. Real listening always brings people closer together. Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world. Rely on human goodness. Stay together.”

I think her words are very wise and imagine a culture grounded in the practices she lifts up: Discover as a community what we care about; Be brave enough to start conversations that matter; Be intrigued by differences; Treasure curiosity more than certainty; Listen to bring ourselves closer together; Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world. In fact, we are trying some of the right now as we engage in conversations and discernment about whether or not start a capital campaign in order to raise money toward making our building more accessible. It is not easy. We all have different stories, perspectives and priorities with regard to what we care about. We are not all created equal in what we can offer of time, talent and treasure. It takes courage to listen with curiosity instead of certainty, to ask “what’s possible?” instead of “what’s wrong?” However, in order for us to discover what we care about as a community and how to prioritize what we can do, we have to be in conversation with one another. While it can feel risky, it seems to me that this is how we truly build trust and deeper connection and community.

I appreciate the work of the Next Steps Task Force to guide us into this discovery of what matters to us and inviting us into meaningful conversation around our building and how it serves our covenant and how it presents obstacles to it. In particular, I appreciate Ruth Whalen Crockett creating and facilitating conversation and listening for the three congregational forums. I am grateful to the folks who have already indicated that they would be willing to make start-up pledges to a campaign. I continue to be humbled by the culture of generosity in this congregation, where so many give freely of the time, talent, and treasure you each have.

In faith,
Rev. Ellen

Contact Info

First Parish Church
2 Westford St
Chelmsford MA 01824