The Rev. Ellen Rowse Spero
I am noticing small signs of spring: longer days; bird song; the hint of buds on the trees. And in our congregational life, the start of the annual stewardship drive. It’s time to talk about pledging and budgets and money—topics that some might meet with joy but most of us would just like to get through so we can return to the more appropriately “spiritual” aspects of our congregational life. No one, it seems, joins a religious community in order to talk about money.
The stewardship drive is interesting in that it is a very concrete embodiment of our free faith. We choose how we will run our congregation. We elect our lay leadership and call our ministers. We choose which programs we want to run and the staffing we need. The flipside of this, of course, is that we are also responsible for making it possible—for providing the time, talent and treasure to make the congregation run.
In January, I gave a sermon about the work of balancing economic accessibility—making sure that everyone from every class and economic background feels welcome and valued with financial sustainability—meeting the obligations we have as a congregation with a staff and a building. As individuals, we come from different economic backgrounds and we have a diversity of social class. This diversity exists both in our abilities to give and receive financial support AND in our assumptions, experiences and beliefs about money. At the same time, we, as a whole community, are responsible for the stewardship of this congregation. We are responsible as employers for compensating our staff fairly. We are responsible as property owners for maintaining our building, and ensuring that is safe, clean, and hospitable. We are responsible for putting into practice the embodiment of our Unitarian Universalist faith through worship, spiritual and religious programs for all ages, and social outreach and justice in our larger world. And while we can and do give lots time and talent in service of these responsibilities, treasure is required as well, particularly with regard to our commitment to be a just and fair employer. We can’t NOT talk about the money we need for the stewardship of community because in our larger culture, money is a primary currency through which we commit to what we value. Donating to First Parish is more than an act of charity. It is an act of mutual promise and care—not just between us gathered here, but in relationship with the generations before and after us; and with the other Unitarian Universalists congregations across the country and around the world.
We are living in anxious times. Many of us feel stretched to capacity—emotionally, financially, spiritually, energetically. Our circumstances can and do change quickly because personal events outside our control—the loss of a job; the loss of a loved one; an illness, an accident, or other unexpected crisis. But our capacity to survive, to endure, to experience a quality of life in the face of these things is nurtured and sustained in beloved community. The more we are able to practice authenticity, generosity and wholeheartedness with one another, the more resilient we become individually and the more transformative we become as a community. We learned this in the course of the building project. When we dove below the surface to explore the values, assumptions and beliefs about accessibility and our building, we realized that we had to make some transformative changes in order to make our building reflective of our faith. And transform it we did. But it required us coming together. No one donation on its own was enough. Every gift of every financial size mattered in reaching our goal. And the gifts of time and talent were just as necessary to make this transformation happen.
If we want to be good stewards of this community and this faith, then we may need to engage in more faithful risk taking. Maybe, we can try diving beneath the surface of fundraisers and canvass drives; past the patterns of giving, and the structures of budget planning and congregational meetings all the way down to the beliefs, assumptions, and values that bring us here, in search of beloved community. Perhaps this will help us learn how to practice economic accessibility—making everyone of every class and economic background feel welcome and valued while also committing as a community to the financial sustainability of our congregational life. Perhaps we will learn that these are not competing commitments, but in fact are transformative practices that will deepen our resilience and our capacity for beloved community and transform our hope for compassion, justice and equity into reality within and beyond our walls.
I am grateful for the generosity and commitment of the members and friends of this First Parish community. Thank you for living into this practical but important aspect of our religious tradition.
The Rev. Ellen Rowse Spero
“Embracing Change.” That has been the theme of our children and youth’s RE Faith Formation this year, as Dolores, Emma, and the RE Council have guided them through new and rearranged spaces within the building. Change, or impermanence as Hindu and Buddhist religions teach us, is a constant human experience. Sometimes we meet it with joy, sometimes with grief, sometimes with anxiety, sometimes with hope. And sometimes we don’t even notice and just take it in stride.
I meet regularly with two trusted colleagues: Rev. Elea Kemler who serves First Parish in Groton, and Rev. Carolyn Paternio, who serves All Souls in New London, CT. When we were in the middle of construction, Carolyn, who has walked her congregation through a significant building project, told me that it would take a year to eighteen months for us to adjust fully to our new space. I have shared this wisdom with everyone a couple of times but as we enter into the halfway point of the church year, I am seeing how true it is. And how it is not just the adjustment to the physical space, but managing change around time and energy and routine. I see this year as a “pause year”, as we take time to evaluate and celebrate what we have accomplished together. We are planning a celebration and open house for Saturday, May 4th. More to come as those plans take shape.
I wanted to update you about a couple of changes that are part of the ripple effect of the renovation project. The first you may have already noticed is the Parlor. Not only did the Parlor move upstairs to my old office, it has been furnished with new chairs, carpeting, and pictures. Carole Russell and I met with the members of the Women’s Alliance to discuss the realities facing both the Parlor and the Women’s Alliance. The Alliance has a long and cherished history in our congregation’s life, and it no longer has a large enough membership to function the way it once did. We had some heartfelt and emotional conversations about this truth and I am grateful to Rosemary, Caroline, Sandy, Deirdre, Junaynne and Nancy for their honesty and openness as we walked through the need to make some changes. We agreed that the Parlor would now become the responsibility of the congregation as a whole, rather than the Alliance; that we would make it a space flexible to accommodate small group meetings; small social gatherings, and families preparing for a funeral or wedding. We agreed that we needed new furnishings to replace furniture that was beloved but also fragile and uncomfortable for most. We agreed that the legacy of the Alliance would have a presence in the Parlor. The beautiful table with the new chairs around it and the dishes in the kitchenette are among the pieces we are keeping in honor of these women. The remaining members of the Alliance will need to discern for themselves the future of the group. Meanwhile, they are working on a plaque to hang in the Parlor in honor of the women of the Alliance, and we will celebrate the Alliance and their story in a worship service on March 31st. And I offer my thanks to Elizabeth Valentine, Dolores Heredia-wood, Caroline McMullin and Sandy Johnston, with support from Cornelia Kirkpatrick, who did a fantastic job furnishing the new Church Parlor.
Another change is more a result of the need to pause. For the last decade, a group of adults and youth have gone a service trip down to Louisiana, working first in New Orleans, and more recently, in Baton Rouge. This past August, we learned that the Annunciation Church, our home away from home, decided to close their volunteer hospitality program. While we were sad to hear this, it is also a good sign that the recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina have reached the point where the need for volunteers is much less and that the city is ready to move on. With Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Florence, we have plenty of opportunities to volunteer with SBP, the organization we have been working with to do rebuilding work. However, with all that was happening here and losing our home in New Orleans, Aggie, Joan and I decided to take a pause year on service trips until next year. Having to research new places to stay as well as new places to go takes time and energy. Taking this pause will allow us to see where the energy bubbles up for the next service project (or ten!).
Last Saturday, I got to spend lunch with participants in our “New UU” course. It was delightful to get to know some of the new folks finding a home at First Parish, and feel the energy and excitement they bring. As I said to them, our congregation is generous, caring, and fun. And it is a bunch of smaller congregations in the larger one, based on the years of belonging, the groups, committees and ministries they are involved in; the stages of life, and so on. It was a reminder to me that our congregation is always changing, as the comings and goings, the changes and losses in our individual lives weave in and out of the larger life of our community. I invited our newer parishioners to feel free to ask me about the people and stories that they may hear about in Joys and Sorrows or in my sermons or read in the newsletter. As I learned through the building project, accessibility is not just about entrances, elevators, and furniture. It is a way of being in community together, and in moments of change, finding ways to live more deeply into our covenant and our faith.
Finally, as most of you know, Carole Russell, our Standing Committee Chair and long-time member, has had to step down as she has been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive stage 4 cancer. As she undergoes treatment, we will do all we can to support her, Beth, Ethan and Bryce. Brenda Rogers, the Vice-Chair, is serving as acting chair until the Standing Committee can vote at their next meeting on February 12. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me. Meanwhile, we continue to hold Carole, Beth and their boys in our thoughts and prayers.