A sermon delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on January 31, 2016.
Though it normally takes about 3-4 year to complete seminary, it took me seven. I was on the turtle track – I worked full time through most of it, which, though it gave me the advantage of not graduating with any debt, meant I only took a few classes at a time. We also moved halfway across the country (from Virginia to Minnesota), and had two kids. Seven years.
John and my family of origin were stunned. They knew this call to ministry must be the real deal because I had never stuck with anything for seven years. Heck, I hadn’t stuck with much of anything for even 5 years. Most of my previous professional employment had been during the 90s tech boom, when it wasn’t uncommon for people to change jobs every year or two. But really, my history of being someone who samples but doesn’t dig deep goes back to my childhood. While my brother grew up playing soccer and swimming on the swim team, through childhood and college I tried t-ball, swim team, soccer, horseback riding, softball, field hockey, rugby, karate, archery, racquetball, modern dance and I think I am forgetting a few.
So when I stuck with seminary for 7 years, my family knew I must have found my calling. And so it is with a sense of awe and wonder that I realize that I am over halfway through my seventh year of ministry with you. Whoa! That was fast!
“The Seven Year Itch” is a saying that suggests that happiness in a any type of relationship declines around the seventh year. So it is perhaps not surprising that the average settled ministry is 7 years. Between that, and having been back from my sabbatical for a year now, if I were going to be in search for another settled ministry, I would be doing so. I’m not. In fact, far from it. I’ve found myself recommitting to my ministry with you over the past few months in particular. So I thought it was the perfect time to assess how this ministry together is going, and what I see for our future. *Ahem*
Dear First Unitarian Church,
It is hard to believe we are close to completing seven years together. I keep counting it in my head, and on my fingers, just to be sure. But math doesn’t lie: It is indeed seven years.
I remember January of 2009, both as if it were yesterday and as if it were a lifetime ago. After exchanging packets of information with the search committee here, and after a couple of telephone calls, I had my first real-life experience with First Unitarian Church in what is called a pre-candidating weekend. I met the search committee, answered a lot of their questions, and they answered a lot of mine. We ate together and laughed together. And you’ll not be surprised to hear there were even a few tears. I preached that weekend at the church in Bloomington, Indiana. We had a great conversation after the church service at a Turkish restaurant where the search committee learned that one of the biggest controversies at the church was something I had written my seminary thesis on! It was quite a kismet moment.
I remember the first time I walked into this building. Though I thought the main door was in an odd place, I immediately was in love. This sanctuary is truly a sacred, spiritual place. And the rest of the building is a wonderful blend of old and new. I loved that the Religious Exploration space wasn’t hidden away in the basement!
Before the end of the weekend, I had a strong feeling that you all were “the one.” I saw you as an amazingly resilient congregation that was feeling really down on itself after years of controversy. You were so earnest in claiming your faults that it was hard for you to see the many, many gifts the congregation offers. So it was that over the course of that weekend, seven years ago, I began to fall in love with this congregation.
In our tradition, it is the gathered congregation, the covenanted community, that decides whom a congregation calls as your minister. There is no higher authority that dictates it. As a congregation, your job is to find a minister whose gifts match your needs. The minister, likewise, looks for a congregation whose needs match their gifts and whose challenges they find engaging. Though you didn’t necessarily say it outright, early on I got the sense that you were looking for a minister to love you enough to remind you that you are, indeed, lovable. Someone who would see the beauty in the cracks that came from use and endurance, and would celebrate them. This, I knew, was something I could do. And your challenges were ones I felt I could sink my teeth into, that would engage me for many years.
When you asked me to be your candidate, I was thrilled. And after 10 days of immersion with the congregation in April 2009, when you voted to call me as your minister, I could not have been happier to accept.
But no successful, transformative, healthy ministry is a one-person show. For congregation and minister to form a partnership that is strong and enduring, we must all put in the effort it takes to build up the relationship. The Rev. Jack Mendelsohn once wrote: “The future of the liberal church is almost totally dependent on these two factors: great congregations (whether large or small) and effective, dedicated ministers. The strangest feature of their relationship is that they create one another.” They create one another in the relationship that exists between them, a relationship built on trust, love, challenge, growth and celebration.
This is a great congregation. And I am an effective, dedicated minister. And we are creating one another in beautiful and magnificent ways. And in the process, our relationship has grown and deepened over time.
We’ve had our challenges. The first year I was here we had to cut the budget by over $100,000. This meant the elimination of several staff positions and the entire ministry council budget. In fact, those of you who were there may recall that we came into the annual meeting $20k short of funding my position full-time – I would have to go to 3/4 time if you couldn’t come up with the difference. My first year. But you did. We’ve struggled financially ever since then, but we are more fiscally responsible, and we’ve grown back some of those staff positions, at Fair Compensation level. We have funded our Ministry Council again, not just through the collection plate like we had to for several years, but as a part of the annual budget. Last year’s pledges were the highest yet – over 22% higher than they were when I arrived! Though I have yet to receive either a raise or even a cost of living adjustment, my position is no longer in jeopardy of being reduced due to financial concerns and the staff are all paid equitably.
Beyond the financial, we’ve struggled to figure out what it means to do church in the 21st century. We’ve struggled as we have learned how to enforce healthy boundaries and be a safe congregation. We’ve argued, respectfully and lovingly, about both the sacred and the prophetic. And, I think, we come out of these conversations with a newer appreciation for one another. I know I feel appreciated by you. I hope you feel appreciated by me.
But the challenges are far outweighed by the privilege I have experienced being your minister. You have inspired me to grow into my best self – allowing me to be authentic and vulnerable at the same time. Where else would I have been able to bring my roller derby team in to skate, during worship! You encourage me to be a whole person, to balance my work and family life, to take a prophetic voice in the community, and so much more.
In these 7 years, we have gotten to know each other. We’ve celebrated when children are born or graduate from high school. We’ve mourned together when someone beloved dies. I’ve been called out in the middle of the night to be there for you in emergencies, and when my family has had struggles, you’ve given me time to focus on being there for them. We know each other well enough to know that none of us are perfect – I have made mistakes, as have you. But through it all, we continue in relationship.
There are not many congregations like this one. Speaking with a colleague the other day, I was griping about something probably inconsequencial, and he asked what I celebrated about the congregation. When I began listing all the amazing stuff we have done and are doing, I saw his jaw drop deeper and deeper. “Wow!” he said “That sounds like an AMAZING congregation!” You got that right, I told him.
I wish there were more congregations that support their minister like this one does. I wish there were more congregations that were willing to try new things, like this one is. I wish there were more congregations that rise above conflict to do the right thing, even when it is HARD, the way this one does. I wish there were more congregations who put both their money, and their bodies, where their mouth is, like this one does. And I truly wish there were more congregations that have a culture of mutual respect, support and collaboration like this one does between lay volunteers, professional staff, and the ministry team.
All these things we have done together – the successes and the failures – have grown me as a minister. You’ve supported me when I have participate in professional development, and when I have taken leadership roles among both my colleagues and now as a Board member for our MidAmerica Region. I am a mentor for other ministers, and leading a new Right Relations team at our MidAmerica Regional Conference in April. I am preaching at a colleagues ordination at the beginning of June and am leading Opening Worship at our General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio later that month. And more.
And all the accolades that I get come straight back to you because remember, great congregations and effective, dedicated ministers create one another. I am who I am as a minister and as a leader because of how you have nurtured me and allowed me to minister to you, and encouraged me to minister to the larger community, both UU and local. And now you are starting to get the national recognition that I believe you deserve, as well.
So seven years in, I am still totally in love with you. Not a honeymoon kind of love – I know way too much about how the sausage is made for it to be that. No, this is a love that is well aware of and accepts imperfections, while at the same time urging constant growth. The search committee did a wonderful job: we are a great match, and we love and respect, and even admire, one another. These seven years have been incredible.
So now what? Where do we go from here?
In learning about successful long-tenure ministries, I discovered that every 7 years or so, the minister and congregation must re-invent themselves. So a minister who has stayed at one congregation for 20 years has not been the same minister all those years, and neither has the congregation. In fact, they have each had 2 or 3 different incarnations or phases. I know that I am entering the next stage of my ministry with you, and I want to share what I think it will look like.
The first 7-year phase I suspect we will look back on as the trust and confidence-building stage. We got to know each other, built our relationship, and we loved each other until we began to appreciate our gifts and share them more freely.
This next phase, I suspect, will be the going-deeper phase. Our trust and faith in one another will be put to the test. We will be trying a lot of new things together. We have to. You have heard me preach about how church is changing – how the structures and mechanisms that were useful in the 1950s are no longer working today. We have to figure out what church looks like in the 21st century. Truly, we must either thrive, or consign ourselves to dying. There are dying churches all around us as evidence. But to thrive, we must try new things. Things that might make us uncomfortable. Things that will, some of them, fail. So we’ll have to pick ourselves up and dust each other off and then try the next thing. Sometimes, I might hurt you. And sometimes, you might hurt me. And then we will come back together again in love and respect and admiration, and we will try again because we trust each other – a trust that took all these years, and all these ups and downs to build.
Some of you may observe that we’ve already started taking risks, and that is definitely true. And, I would assert that this risk taking capability is one of the best, most life-giving talents of this congregation. It is the main reason we thrive today.
Some of the risks we are going to be called to take in the near future are going to be structural. We need to try different staffing configurations, both for volunteers and for professional staff. Like other congregations, we struggle to find people to fill the church leadership roles, though we have plenty of people who will show up for one-time volunteer opportunities. How do we adjust to this new reality? How do we adjust to the reality that we are a 200 member congregation that wants the level of programming of a 500 member congregation? Are we able to continue offering all that we do? Do we have to cut back on some things in order for other areas to thrive? And what about funding? We are not, in any way, a poor congregation. Not only do we have an endowment, we have zero debt and no mortgage to pay. But still we are struggling. How do we look for outside streams of revenue? This is something congregations are not used to doing – they have always depended on being supported by the membership. But in these changing times, we need to look beyond the congregation, too. So some of the risks will be structural in nature.
Other risks we are called to take together are going to be spiritual. How do we care for one another? What does it mean to be radically inclusive? What does it mean to be a force for good in Kentuckiana? How can we grow Unitarian Universalism beyond our walls? How do we adapt to a changing religious landscape that is around us? Indeed, these are the very questions our long range planning team is having us begin to address.
This is last question, about the changing religious landscape, is where my passion lies these days. It centers around the sustainability of liberal religious institutions. And I have some plans I am excited about. To help learn more in this area, I have decided to continue my education. This fall, I will begin studying online at Indiana University for a masters degree in public administration – sort of like a business degree for nonprofits. I believe that congregations have much to learn from the nonprofit world as we move into this changing religious landscape.
This means I will soon be coming to you with even more ideas. Lots of probably wild and crazy ideas. I hope that this congregation can be my laboratory, where we take traditional church structure and blend it with nonprofit best practices and try new things. In this way, we’ll not only be ensuring our own survival and sustainability but what we learn will be of benefit to other congregations.
And in the meantime, of course, we will continue with all the OTHER good stuff that is going on. The stuff that is life-giving and life-saving. The stuff that makes this a church and not just a justice-minded social club. Since I’ll be in school, I am hoping that you will be able to utilize some of the skills you learned to care for one another during my sabbatical. We will be able to support each other, as we continue to grow together, and create one another as great congregation and effective, dedicated minister.
Growing up, I remember reading Dear Abby. Whenever forlorn partners would write to her, she would inevitably ask them if they are better off with, or without, their partner. Though we have had our ups and downs, without a doubt, I am better serving you than I would be elsewhere. And, truly, I think you are better off with me than you would be with another minister. We have created one another, great congregation and effective, dedicated minister, and what we have created is a wonder to behold. It has been quite an amazing seven years of knowing you and of ministering to you. I look forward to what the next years will bring together.
With much love and admiration,
Your minister, Rev. Dawn