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?”