Dear First Parishers,
We are entering into our second round of this holiday season under the pandemic. In some ways, things are better. Last year at this time, we had no vaccine and people had to stay away from the family and friends with whom they would usually gather. Now we are not only vaccinated but receiving boosters. We were able to join family and friends. Treatments for COVID are on the horizon. But we are still dealing with surging case numbers while another variant, Omicron, has everyone watching to see how it will manifest.
Each week, I check in with the staff, and with Joan Coyne, our Standing Committee Chair and Tom Coffey, chair of the COVID Task Force about worship. The COVID Task Force continues to meet the first Wednesday of the month. At this time, we are staying with our current procedures for attending worship in the building: pre-registration for services and limiting the number of attendees in sanctuary to about 1/3 capacity to accommodate social distancing; requiring masks; expecting people to be vaccinated and to stay home if they do not feel well. These are all in keeping with the CDC’s current guidelines. We are also continuing to livestream our services for those attending from home. Livestreaming is now a permanent part of our worship. We have learned that it serves people who cannot make it for a whole host of reasons beyond COVID or who simply find it more convenient.
We have reached the point where one size fits all no longer serves our different emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeings. Some of us need the online option because of the health risk to us or our loved ones or because we work in situations that put us at risk and do not want worship to become one more. Others of us like or need in person connection and this is one of the more trustworthy opportunities—a community of people who take vaccinations and masking seriously and who often see one another outside of worship. We are also trying to offer other options for gathering in smaller groups—in person, online, and multiplatform. See the latest update from the Standing Committee and keep an eye on the announcements for these events. Meanwhile, we can support each other by making the best choices for ourselves while understanding that others are choosing what is best for themselves.
The COVID Task Force will take this month to review the responses to the congregational survey on worship and share the learnings with the leadership and the congregation. Thank you to everyone who responded as this will give us a sense of where people are, what next steps to take and how we might need to organize our resources of time, talent and treasure.
As I write this column, a parade of about 15 cars are driving by my house with giant plastic menorahs lit up on their rooftops. It’s funny and delightful and creative: “we found a way to celebrate and invite you to be part of it!”: a wonderful embodiment of our December Soul Matters Theme of “Opening to Joy.” Joy is a way to practice hope—recognizing that while circumstances may not allow us to celebrate the way we are used to, we can still find ways to make light in the darkness.
Dear First Parishers,
As I have been saying, probably every Sunday since September started, we are entering our next phase in this pandemic time —between being virtually and physically in the building. And we are each going to have to figure out our levels of comfort and risk - not just for church, but for everything. I know this can be exhausting or disheartening at times. It can take a little while to find our balance again, but we will.
I wanted to share an excerpt from my sermon on September 19th. In addition to addressing how we might meet the changes of the coming year, I also talked about Carlene Merrill, who we miss tremendously. Carlene would often say to me, “Ellen, you and I are institutionalists.” In other words, we shared a commitment not only to caring for the hearts and souls of the individual people here but the heart and soul of First Parish itself, asking the questions, facilitating the conversations, and engaging the processes by which this congregation could live and serve better our UU faith and our world. She taught me about systems and change management, the importance of communication, process and evaluation, all which helped me help this congregation stay aligned with our covenant and purpose, our mission if you will. This was just one of her many ministries to us. And one we need to see us through the next year as we figure out how to meet the changes and challenges ahead.
Some of our committees, groups, and traditions have been deeply impacted by the pandemic, having not quite yet found their purpose or way of functioning in this new landscape. Some may disappear while others will or have already adapted themselves. And then, whole new committees, groups and traditions have emerged. Tending to the soul of First Parish means in part discerning how to use our time, talent, and treasure in service to what our congregation needs now to stay healthy, functional and faithful—as some of old ways of doing and being no longer serve and as we have to adopt and adapt to the new ones. We will be learning as we go and sometimes the things we try won’t work. We won’t make everyone happy. But that is not and has never been our purpose. We are gathered for worship, mutual care and in service to the common good. We are here to do what we can to make this world more equitable, more just, more compassionate - to bring more joy, more hope, more peace, and more love.
One of the gifts of being in a congregation that goes back to 1655 is that we know we can do this because our ancestors did so before us. First Parish has survived wars, pandemics, political and social unrest. It has survived loss and deep grief for generations of beloved members as well as times of conflict, scarcity and disruption within our walls. The soul of First Parish has witnessed and weathered more than any one of us can remember. If we are good stewards, our congregation’s soul will continue to do so, flourishing in the possibilities we embrace and nurture.
At the Standing Committee’s retreat, SC member Jeanette Moreau said something so very wise that I think we should put it on a t-shirt and wear it to remind ourselves: “Change is not good or bad, it is just different.” Part of tending the soul of First Parish in this liminal season is choosing wisely and faithfully the spirit with which we meet change. First, we can choose to be flexible. By this, I mean, to hold the changes before us lightly along with our expectations, to start simply and build back step by step, to allow our failures to be experiences of learning and growth rather than judgment of, well, failure and shame. To be open to trying new ways of engaging in our congregational life and of living into our covenant.
Second, we can choose to be generous. By this I mean, we can remember that our experience is not the same as everyone else’s in this pandemic and we can share the space for that truth. Those of us who bear less risk can be generous in making First Parish as accessible and safe as possible for those of who bear more. And we can all be generous in recognizing that risk is now part of life in our community. We will have to help each other through it.
Third, we can choose to be compassionate, within and beyond our walls. We are living in traumatic times—not just the pandemic, but political divisions, social injustices and climate disruption are all upon us. Trauma can make people reactive, defensive, angry, fearful, anxious or fragile, seemingly out of nowhere. That does not mean we accept bad behavior or acting out. But we can ask, “what has happened to you?” rather than demanding, “What’s wrong with you?”. And we can hold the soul of First Parish with compassion, knowing that a great deal is being asked, when resources of time, talent and treasure for all of us are stretched: “how can I help tend the soul of this place?”