Category Archives: Ministry

One Year Later

Almost exactly one year ago today, I began my ministry at the First Parish Church in Taunton.  It is finally not snowing in New England (hooray!) and with Easter just around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about new beginnings and renewal.

A year ago, we started on the adventure of revitalizing a congregation that was ready to move.  It has been a tremendous year – from outgrowing our chapel and moving into the larger sanctuary to hosting six different events during Taunton’s annual “Lights On!” festival (including a bouncy house and a reptile show in the sanctuary) we’ve had an amazing year of growth  and renewal.  One of the things I’ve been honored to see this year, and to be part of, is the birth of new relationships, connections, friendships and community.

Communities and relationships are amazing, unpredictable things.  I had a plan when I came to First Parish a year ago.  Who is it that says “Humans plan, God laughs”? We have achieved more of our goals than I dreamed of a year ago, but it has not been through my “plans.”  It has been through the initiative and dreams of the people and the community, and though all the ideas that people have come up with in community and built on with each other.  It has been through new beginnings, and renewal, and faith.

I thought that after a year of ministry here I would feel like our church was “settled” and that renewal would be a thing of the past.   What I’m finding instead, though, is that as our vision continues to expand, relationships deepen and our ministry grows, there is always a new time of renewal and rebirth.

The past year has been amazing.  If you want to see for yourself, watch the two minute video below that one of our members put together to see some of the changes.  I can’t wait to see what next year brings!

Twenty Eight Candles

I don’t normally publish my sermons in written form.  I partially don’t publish them because to me, a sermon is not a written document – it is something that happens in a time and a space, and is fundamentally both verbal and relational.  I also don’t publish them in a written form because I rarely stick to whatever I wrote down in my manuscript – I tend to view my manuscript as more of an “outline” than a “sermon.”  That said, we are not yet to the place where we are recording all of our services at (thought we will be there soon!) and several people have asked me for a copy of this morning’s message.  So with all those caveats, my message is below.    May we all shine our light into the dark corners.

This is from our altar this morning; twenty small candles in memory the children who were killed and eight large ones in memory of the adults.

Candles of Light

I chose our reading this morning – the twenty-third psalm – because it is one that endures. When so many things float from our minds and our hearts, there is something about that verse that stays with us, – to walk through the valley of shadow of death and fear no evil – that stays with us in good times and in bad. There is a constancy in those lines that is there in birth, in commitment, in love and in death. So we speak them here today.

The bulletin that many of you hold in your hands was printed before this Friday. The original topic of this message was chosen and written before this Friday, and where we are today is after this Friday. After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut, after the deaths of twenty-eight people and twenty children under the age of ten. After terrible things that happened so painfully close to our hearts. Twenty children, six and seven years old. The pain is almost unbearable.

For those of you who are with us for the first or second time today, I want to especially welcome you. This is such a sad day, and a hard day. It is a day that I am especially glad to be here, and glad that you are all here with me, with us, with this community. In the face of tragedy, senseless insanity, having this community seems to matter more to me and I think to all of us – to know that we are not alone and that there is still goodness in the world. Thank you all for being here – giving us the chance to be together, to grieve, and to find support in each other, even if today is our first time to First Parish.

I had a hard time on Friday, not rushing to my kids’ schools to pick them up early. My daughter is three – she’s in preschool – and my son is five, in kindergarten. When I heard the news from Connecticut, my initial thought was shock. My thoughts went to – It can’t be true. Someone surely could not have gone into a school and murdered little children. No, please God no. And then as the news started to come out, the horror of the situation started to fall upon me. The thoughts of the teachers, working with children on how to read or learn five times six, to hear gunshots in the hallways. The thoughts of the parents, hearing about something happening at their child’s school and the horrible, terrible terror and agony they must be in. And then the children – the six and seven year old children, scared and crying and away from their parents and being killed. And then, of course, the horror of all of it came on in a whole new way as the only children that came to my mind were my own – my own sweet son and my darling daughter. And the thought of such a thing happening to them, and to me, and to our family and it was all I could do to stop shaking as I sat in the coffee shop, reading my morning mail.

I’ve read a lot of articles in the past forty-eight hours, and they talk about a lot of different things – about gun control and mental illness, about tragedy and family relationships. Some articles talk about how tragedy is part of life, and about how we are lucky in the United States that many things do not happen here like they do in Syria or Pakistan. I have read enough to make me thankful that I am not a politician and terrified that I am a mother.

I don’t know what the right steps are for us to take as a nation going forward. But I do know that what happened on Friday changed my life in a way, as it did all of our lives. For tragedy and pain does that. The reminder that there is so much out of our control, that there are no guarantees, that bad things happen to good people and in good places and in places that could be here, that could be us – those revelations are terrifying beyond belief. When my kids came home from school, I hugged them a lot. I picked up my son and I smelled his hair. I held my daughter so tightly that she wrapped her little arms and legs around me and buried her face in my neck, saying “Now I’ve got you as tight as you got me!” All evening long I held them, and cuddled them and kissed them. And I was happy and grateful and scared.

I was angry on Friday, and I’m still angry today. My education was marred by the shootings in Columbine, Colorado – those which many remember as the “first” of the school shootings. I was in college with people who were from Columbine, and whose lives were changed forever that day. I feel like ever since Columbine, there has been one gun tragedy after another and they keep getting worse and worse and worse until I can’t bear to think about it. Kindergarteners. Second graders. Six year olds. I fold my kids clothing and I cry, thinking about the mothers who would be doing that for the last time. I hold my kids and I brush their hair and feel their warm weight on my lap. I look at their smiles and the light in their eyes, and I listen to them as they talk about Christmas. I am so grateful that I have my babies and so angry that others children have been so senselessly taken.

I have a friend who has a good sense of humor. She wrote to me on Friday and she said “Thinking of you when I saw about the shootings. I have a good idea. Keep your kids home from school from now on and never let them out. This is a good plan because I love you and I love them and clearly this is the only way forward.” She ended her message with a little smiley face.

I did not pick my kids up early on Friday. I let them finish their day and I held them when they came home. But it was hard. There is a piece of me that wants to hold them and protect them and never let them out of the house again. There is a piece of me that wants to extend that protection beyond my children to my cousins and nieces and nephews and the children of my friends and all of the children here. I want to protect all of them and find a way to keep everyone safe. There is a piece of me that wants us all to lock ourselves away and never let anyone hurt us again.

But we all know, here today, as we have come together in community, that locking ourselves away will never be the answer. The answer can only come through living together, living out our faith and making the world brighter with it. I have a friend and colleague, Tony Lorenzen, who wrote about his experience of Friday in an article on his blog, and I’d like to share his words with you now.

“No one cries like a mother cries.  Twenty mothers in CT cried that way today.  I cried with them.  How, how do we go on preaching peace on earth and preaching the triumphant return of the light in the face of such darkness? Perhaps it is only by faith.  Only by an abiding trust that light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot over come it. The Christmas and Advent seasons adopted and adapted the Pagan observances of the winter solstice. The imagery is the same – light after darkness, evergreens, fire, and the sun coming into the world.  Maybe it’s those roots of the season that need to rescue it this year.  The faith we need is the faith born of experience and observation that no matter how long and dark the night, the light always returns and the days always  get longer again.  It is the way of things. It is built into the fabric of nature in this existence.

Perhaps we have to return to faith in ourselves. Trust that the light within us is strong enough to pierce through the night, however dark, and that whatever we light we have to shine, as little a light as  it may be, is of great help and great worth.  It is too late for anything but to mourn and to grieve those who died today.  But now is the time to shine what light we have in order to dispel the darknesses of tomorrow. Should we not let our light shine, we may just be giving the darkness what it needs to assault us again.  The light we shine may not prevent every horror and injustice and pain of tomorrow, but without the light we do shine there will most certainly be more pain and sorrow than if we had kept our light hidden or to ourselves.” End quote.

Many of you will have heard today about the heroic actions of Victoria Soto, the twenty-seven year old first grade teacher who lost her life in Newtown on Friday. From what authorities can piece together, Victoria was ushering her six-year-old students into cupboards and closets when the gunman entered her classroom. She told the gunman that most of the children were in the school gym, and used her own body as a shield to protect the students not yet in the closet. She died protecting them, but students survived. You may have heard the story of Dawn Hotchsprung, the school principal at Sandy Hook elementary school, who was killed as she lunged at the gunman, attempting to disarm him and protect her school. There can be such goodness in humans, in people. Such goodness.

Terrible things have happened to our country and to our children, and it is a time for mourning. But we here today must do more than just despair and cry and hide away for the rest of time. We must do more than distance ourselves from pain and agony. We are still here. We can still lift up our children and love them, we can still kiss them good-bye in the morning and pray for their safety. We can thank our teachers and love them and bless them every day for the amazing work they do for our children and our country. And we can make a difference. Not only in the lives of our kids, but in this world. As I said, I don’t know what the right answer is. But I know that we must find a way to keep making the world a better place – a safer place, a place of joy and gladness and wonder.

For I believe that Tony is right. Without our light, individually and together, there will most certainly be more pain and sorrow than if we shine on brightly. So let us take courage, friends, and know that we are not alone. Let us take courage and make a difference in making the world a place safe for our children, safe for our teachers, and as full of joy as we can bring. Let us come together in the light and with hope, and know that this is not the end; that it does not have to get worse, and that with faith, all things are possible. Let us shine our lights, individually and together, with as much brightness and warmth and love as we can. Let us help make the world better, and bring love to the dark corners. May it be so.

Room to Grow

The First Parish Church in Taunton has grown a lot in recent months.  It’s been exciting to be part of such a vibrant community, and I feel like we are doing something both amazing and transformative.

But let’s be honest.  Growth does not happen magically.  There was thought put into our growth, and a decision made on the part of the church that we had both a theological and moral responsibility to grow.  Our spiritual community has changed a lot in the past few months, and will continue to change as we develop, becoming an ever-more vibrant and relevant home for more and more people.  It’s a tremendous thing to be part of – so tremendous that I’m even having a hard time putting the joy and excitement into words! – but it is something that we know we cannot do alone.

So a few months ago, we decided to ask for help.  We went to Paul Nickerson, a veteran church coach, and person who I worked with when I was re-starting the First Unitarian Church of Norton.  And through some conversations, we came up with idea of hosting a .

To say that I’m excited about this conference would be putting it REALLY mildly. I’m excited about what we will learn from Paul, and about how the Vitality Team that will come out of the conference will support us in the year to come.  I’m excited about how this can help our church grow and develop in sustainable, healthy ways.  And I’m THRILLED at the idea of  sharing this learning opportunity with my friends and colleagues!

As of today, the registration for the Growth Conference is officially open.  Registration is through Eventbrite, and all you have to do is , and you’ll be brought right to the site.  Feel free to contact me with questions, and I look forward to seeing all of you in October!

On being a member

A few weeks ago, I attempted to cancel (for the second time) the newsletter which continues to come to my house, addressed to “Rhode Island Baptist Women.”  I called the number that seemed logical for this newsletter, and explained as gently as I could to the woman who answered the phone that I was not part of the “Rhode Island Baptist Women’s Group” and that continuing to send a newsletter to my house was not helpful for either one of us.  The woman on the other end of the phone sighed and said “It’s such a shame….we’re losing so many members.”  I hastened to tell her that they weren’t really “losing” me – the only reason I was ever on their list was because once, years ago, I served as the chaplain at a historically Baptist nursing home and did an event with the Baptist Women’s Group.  ”I’m Unitarian Universalist!” I cheerfully told her, “you don’t want me on your list anyways!”

The woman on the other end of the phone did not share my excitement.  ”But you’ve been on our LIST” she said flatly.  ”I’m sorry you don’t want to be any more.  Even if you are Unitarian Universalist now, you might change your mind.”

I felt there was some kind of miscommunication going on between us.  I explained as clearly as I could that I was highly unlikely to convert to being a Baptist any time soon, since I was a minister in another faith, and that though I had a great deal of respect for the Rhode Island Baptist Women’s Group, I was emphatically not one of them and never would “come back.”  Particularly since I was never there in the first place.

This all got me thinking about what it means to be a member of something.  Some of my memberships I take very seriously – the membership to my college alum association (I love my college), for example, and my membership to the UU Minister’s Association.  Others mean less to me….like apparently my membership to the Rhode Island Baptist Women’s Group.

I think for membership to be relevant, three things have to be present in the relationship:

1). You have to care about the organization you are member of and contribute to it through time, money, skills etc.

2). The organization has to care about you and value you as a stakeholder, even if they do things you don’t always agree with.  You have to be valued.

3). The organization has to be relevant to your life and meaningful to you.  Otherwise, the membership is pointless.

How do we keep our memberships reflecting who we are in living into our best selves?  And what do we as churches do with our “members?”  What does that word mean in the context of a church whose goal it is to help people become their best selves and live their spiritual lives to the fullest?

Our beautiful church. We don't fill the sanctuary yet, but we will!

Today I led my second service at First Parish Church in Taunton as their minister.    It’s almost shocking to me how comfortable and at home I feel at First Parish, and how the pieces of our ministry are coming together in ways that I could never have imagined.

Easter can be  tricky holiday for Unitarian Universalists.  Since we don’t generally believe that Jesus died for our sins, and was resurrected for us to be saved, there sometimes is a bit of “what’s this all about?” the comes together on Easter morning for me.  But this year, the message of re-birth that is a part of all of us feels so true to me – so tangibly real – that I believe I have come to a new understanding on what Easter really is all about.  It is truly about the re-birth of all of us, about the chance for all of us to acknowledge that we have made mistakes in our lives, and that we can start over, just as we do every year in the springtime. We all have the chance to be reborn – as friends, as parents, as brothers and sisters, and as spiritual beings.   This Easter Sunday was a day of re-birth, and it was glorious.

And for those of you who could not join us this morning, a little taste of our music this week……….!  Nothing like five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes to help keep things in perspective.

It is a wondrous time.

It’s been quite a month.  To all appearances, our church re-start in Norton has been moving along beautifully.  We’ve had between forty and fifty people at our January and February services, and vibrant small group communities in our Roots groups, Buddhist groups, and Young Adult group.  People are inviting their friends to our events, (hooray!)  and we’ve been growing by about 2 or 3 people per week.

Then……

I received a letter at my home a few weeks ago.  It was from an attorney who the Parish Committee of Norton had hired, and it notified me that when my contract with the church expired on May 1, they would not be renewing it.  Further, it appears as though the Parish Committee has decided not to formally meet and therefore allow any of the new people to become actual members of the church.

When I first received the letter, all I could think of was “this must not be over.  We are onto something here, and something beautiful is happening in this community. It simply can’t be over!”  For a short period of time, my vocational path was clouded, and with it, the future of the spiritual community we have been building.  I had felt so sure, you see, that this church, at this location in Norton, was the way to bring about a version of vibrant, transformative, Unitarian Universalist faith.  But as I started to talk to people – people who have been part of the Norton community and the Unitarian Universalist community, and the people who are interested in what we have been doing in Norton – a path opened that I never would have expected a few weeks ago.

Yesterday, I signed a contract to become the full time minister at the First Parish Unitarian Church in Taunton.  First Parish Taunton is a small congregation just seven miles away from Norton Unitarian.  The Taunton church has been following the Norton re-start with interest, and even spoke to one of our denominational officials last fall about possibly doing a similar program in Taunton.  They were in search for a minister who could help them grow their congregation, and who was tuned into how to reach those who are “spiritual but not religious.”  They are delighted to welcome in our members from Norton, and to continue to grow the church into a welcoming, spiritually based community for the twenty first century!

When I first began the conversations with First Parish Church in Taunton, I was excited about the idea that our church re-start would not die. As I have continued to speak to their governing board and learn about their community, I have become truly convinced that moving our congregation to Taunton is the calling of our church community. Not only are the people in Taunton excited and welcoming, they have a large, up-to-date building, including all kinds of fancy assets that we don’t have in Norton, such as a telephone, and more than one toilet. They have several rooms for their children that have doors on them, rather than an outside door leading straight into a parking lot, and they even have computers!

They also have some staff, which means that I would be able to do two things – stop taking out the garbage myself, and allow me more time to take the next step in our ministry. You see, the goal for us before starting weekly worship in Norton was to reach a critical mass. I’m delighted to say that with addition of the people from the Taunton congregation, we have met that goal, will be able to begin having weekly worship when I start my ministry there on April 1.

It is the sort of story that you can’t possibly imagine, and yet when it does, it seems like it was all meant to be.  I’m so excited for this move – for the new opportunities for growth and creation, and for all that this congregation can become!

On December 24, 2011, I did something I don’t always do on Christmas Eve.

I went to church.

More than that, I led worship at the First Unitarian Church of Norton – the first public worship we have had since the re-start began.  It was an amazing experience – not just to be leading worship again, but to see this community literally grow and begin to take shape on a beautiful Christmas Eve.

Several people have asked “How many were there?  Were there more than ten? ”  There were in fact, more than ten…..our final head count came in at seventy-eight.  It was a fun group of people – a warm and welcoming group, which I believe will continue to grow because of our warmth and welcoming.  People were so happy to be there!

It was an amazing thing, to be leading worship for a congregation that has such a history and yet is so entirely new.  We learned some important things about our historic building – for example, that the current electrical circuits cannot carry both lights and a coffee pot simultaneously on the same breaker – and that the church decorates beautifully for Christmas.  We also learned that the creation of community is magical.

Our next worship will be January 29.  We will be having monthly services for January and February, and see where we are in March in terms of our goals and needs for our growing community.

Someone said to me several months ago “This re-start is just a giant experiment, you know.  But so are all churches, and communities, and societies of people.  So just enjoy the science of it all.”

I have to tell you, this is the most fun experiment I have ever been part of!

When I was born, my home congregation had just over 400 members.  Today, they have nearly 900.  There are three other Unitarian Universalist churches less than twenty miles away from my home congregation who also have several hundred members each.

We have the capacity to grow big.

As of today, Norton Unitarian Church has forty-four people who are interested in being part of our congregation in one way or another.  Fall is an exciting time for the church, as we kick off new Small Groups, our monthly TED Talks Dinners, Family Night and our Mindfulness Workshops.  People are excited and energized about our community, and some are asking me: “When do we start Sunday worship?  Isn’t this enough people?  What is that Magic Number?”

I’m very lucky in that I have a who is able to advise me on such matters.  I was able to be clear with my coach that I want this church to grow big.  Not 50 people big, but 200, 300, 500 people big.  Big to be sustainable. Big to grow the faith.  Big to grow peoples’ faith, and big to create a vibrant, living community.

That Magic Number?  We talked about it.  We also talked about the dangers of beginning services too early (“premature launch”) and what a solid, lively foundation for this church will look like.  Every church has a different Magic Number, but at Norton Unitarian Church, ours is eighty to one hundred people.

I can hear the scoffs now.  ”Crazy!”  Eighty to one hundred people to START?  Yes my friends, to START!  There are many reasons for this particular Magic Number in this context, but the most primary one is this: when you start with a smaller community, it’s easier for that community to stay small.  When you start with a bigger community, it’s easier for that community to grow big!

This isn't quite the layout of our church....but you get the idea!

 

Boot Camp

A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference called New Church Start Boot Camp.  I’m normally not a huge fan of conferences – it’s hard to guarantee quality, and scheduling long (and sometimes overnight) days away from my family is never a fun thing to do.  But I decided to attend this one with the encouragement of my friend Royce, and with the vague hope that I might leave with a nugget or two of useful information.

Oh.  My.  Goodness.

This conference was AMAZING.  It was sponsored by the office (where it was held) and .   and presented, and let me tell you, if you want to know anything about new church starts or re-starts, they know it!  I’m not going to try to explain the information here, but if you’re interested you should totally buy Jim’s .

One of the things that was most rewarding for me personally in attending this conference was that these people have DONE IT.  They’ve done it personally and they have coached other people to success.  And not just two or three churches – Jim has started 5 churches, and has coached over 1500.  There are people who have started with the dream of a new church and made it a life-giving reality!

To a lot of people I talk to, the work we’re doing in Norton is so unusual they can’t even find the words to express it.  ”A church re-start?  A new kind of church?  A church that is relevant to people where they are today and is doing a series on the Spirituality in Star Wars?  What do you MEAN???”  To Paul and Jim and the other people at this conference, this work is normal and understandable and even has methodology.  A methodology that has been documented!

I have a whole new outlook on conferences.

Norton Unitarian Website is UP!

Norton Unitarian

And let me tell you, it’s been quite the adventure.

When you are working with a church re-start, there’s a lot of “typical information” that simply doesn’t exist yet.  Who attends this church?  What is it all about?  When are services?  What is your role in the community?

Boy, those are some good questions.  And this month, the one-year anniversary of my hiring to the First Unitarian Church of Norton, many of these questions are being answered.

Over the past year, I’ve spoken with hundreds of people.  I’ve talked with people who live in Norton and the surrounding towns, students and faculty at Wheaton College, business owners, mothers and fathers, long-time church attenders and people who are spiritual but not religious.  The oldest person I’ve met with who is interested in the church is 81 – the youngest is 13.  Through these conversations I’ve gotten a sense of what people are looking for and what Unitarian Universalism might look like in this place, at this time.

Our website does not answer all of those questions; the vision for this church is still emerging.  And, to be honest, will probably continue to emerge and change as long as this church exists.  Churches have to move and to breathe with the world around them, otherwise we will cease to be meaningful and relevant.

But our website shows a beginning of the vision for this church, at this time, in this place.  And it’s a great vision.  I’m so inspired by the people I’m working with, and by all those who are involved and interested in the First Unitarian Church of Norton re-start.

So , and share with all your friends!