Sermon from April 8, 2021
My favorite week of spring is when the magnolia trees begin to flower, the daffodils explode into bursts of yellow, and other spring flowers and blossoms dot the landscape. For these are signs of rebirth and new beginnings. As we move deeper into this season of renewal, I invite you to reflect on how life is a constant process of renewal, a necessary cycle. For the same is true with ministry. There are seasons of ministry, and the season of my ministry here at Unity Temple is nearing its end. As most of you have learned through my letter, at the end of June, I will step down from my position as senior minister. It has been 18 glorious and intense years serving you. In fact my ministry began three months before I was on the payroll. Your interim minister Rev. Fern Stanley, unexpectedly died 9 days after you voted to have me join you. And I flew out to be with you and Fern’s family. And that intensity hasn’t let up.
The congregation was ripe to grow and grow quickly. As I shared two weeks ago, the merger of Beacon Unitarian Church and the UU Church of Oak Park created an energetic community of lay leadership. You all moved from one to two services, created the Pastoral Associates, began a vital small group ministry, invested in religious education, and started taking steps to be intentionally more welcoming.
And so when I arrived, the congregation was ripe for an era of dynamic growth. During my first five years, the congregation grew from 300 to 500 members. The budget doubled. The Membership director position went from quarter time to full time, we created a youth coordinator position, and our new music director Marty Swisher doubled the size of the choir in her first year. You all agreed to give away the collection plate every week, and there was a palpable change already in the congregation. The UUA celebrated our growth in numbers, in depth, in spirit and recognized you as a breakthrough congregation. And a video was made entitled taking the path of risk.
Then concrete fell from the sanctuary ceiling and ushered in a second chapter under my leadership, an era of uncertainty and relationship building. In 2008, Rev. Emily Gage joined us and developed a compelling vision and strong leadership for our religious education program. While it was an exciting time for our families, it was a time of anxiety how on earth this crumbling building would be restored. We had no idea, couldn’t imagine it. The Restoration Foundation said it would have a $25 million price tag. The behind the scenes politics was nuts. I began losing my hair. After three years of feeling like we were in an impossible situation, I went on a personal retreat. I reflected on the question “Where is Love Beckoning Me?” It was so clear, love was not beckoning me to take care of a building, I had entered the ministry to support the wider community and not just a congregation, to provide leadership in social justice, but for my first eight years I had no clue how to do this. When Rev. Scott Aaseng came as an intern minister among us, we experimented with what it would like to bring faith based organizing into a large church. I and others were trained in faith based organizing. We began creating a relational network here, and I began creating a relational network in the wider community, especially among west side pastors and those who wanted to cultivate intercultural relationships.
I’ll never forget when the associate director of Alphawood came to meet with me and Ian Morrison, the then board president, and said we want to give you a game-changing gift, but we need you the congregation to put in 2 mil, to leave for the duration of the project, and to put the building in trust and support our efforts to retool UTRF. And we will raise the rest.
And then began a third chapter of this congregations history under my leadership, an era of restoration and visioning. We thought we would have a fifteen month out of building experience. We ended up meeting at United Lutheran for two years. During that time, the board launched the Daring to Dream strategic planning process that resulted in articulating our core values, mission, and goals. And during this time the old pool hall came on the market, and we made an offer in 24 hours. So much work went into cleaning and building out this fabulous space that enables us to do so much more.
The Mindful Reflection Community began while we were at United Lutheran, and talk about flowering! Beloved Conversations was launched back then too. BIPOC Black and Indigenous people of color, the Rainbow Connection for our LGBTQIA members, and the Welcoming All Team all were formed. All was going gangbusters and boom, the pandemic hit in 2020, and everything was sent up into the air. We had to pivot our worship services to online, our Coffee Hour on to Zoom, our committee meetings and various activities at a distance. Everything changed, and so much is in flux.
And it is clear to me that the congregation is about to begin a new chapter of innovation and creativity, not unlike where you were in 1994. It is an ideal time for me to step away and for you to bring in someone with fresh eyes and new energy.
I have shouldered the wellbeing of this congregation, challenged you to grow in faith, and pastored you for 18 years. It has taken an enormous amount of energy and attention. It has taken an enormous amount of love which has been inspired by the commitment, the passion and the love of so many of you. I have given so much of myself that I am in need of a time to regroup and discern what’s next for my ministry.
I love this congregation. I love serving you. I love worshipping with you, being invited into your lives during your most joyful and most painful moments, reflecting with you on life’s challenges, praying with you amidst uncertainty and pain, and advocating for justice with you. The connections among us are deep. And so there is great tenderness and sadness in my decision to leave. My children, Marco and Erica, were blessed and dedicated here at Unity Temple. They’ve been shaped by their time here. The first three weddings they attended were same sex weddings including our big fat gay wedding when ten of our same sex couples with an average of 24 years of commitment among them legally became married.
I have prayed long and hard over this decision to leave. I know it is a surprise for many of you. But it’s time for me to step away. You are beginning a new chapter of your shared life. Some of you have expressed concern that I am not leaving for another church. No, I will take time to discern what is next. My black Baptist colleagues tell me that in their tradition they would say that I am in the process of stepping away in faith. I know sometimes the word faith is a little challenging for some among us, but I really resonate with what Sharon Salzberg says: Faith isn’t a singular state that we have or don’t have but it’s something we do and we cultivate the capacity to do regularly. Faith is a verb, a leap, a gesture, something we do over and over again. It’s a practice and a loyalty that grows over time. It is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experiences and truths.
Besides, I have always understood my central role here as gathering the prayers among all of you and responding with my own unfolding faith thereby inviting you to develop your own.
I’m so glad we have three months to say goodbye. Now is the time for tears and laughter, to share stories, memories, gratitude. A time to honor not only the accomplishments of this congregation but all the small but significant moments of insight, of learning, of internal shifts that make up the spiritual journey. You have blessed me with sharing so much of your lives, your joys, your sorrows, your struggles, your burdens. And soon it will be time to say farewell. This is a big transition. Doing these things and having this time is all a part of having a good goodbye.
You are a different faith community now than you were when I arrived. So much has flowered. So much has blossomed. And you will be a different faith community 18 years from now. Because now so much is in bud. You have so much richness, latent wisdom. In this season of renewal, as you see trees and flowers and bushes explode into blooms, think about what has flowered in your life since you have been a part of Unity Temple, or if you’ve been here longer than me, what has flowered in your life these last 18 years among this community. We have all accumulated losses along the way. We have known grief, and we have known rebirth. We have known new hope. We have experienced new beginnings. And this transition is no different. Without an ending, a new beginning is not possible.
As the season of my ministry here at Unity Temple approaches its end, be in touch, don’t be a stranger. And know that I love you. I love you deeply.
Blessed be. Amen.
As the season of my ministry among you nears its end, may we make way for a warm and engaging goodbye. I’m so grateful to have served you these past 18 years. So much has flowered among you, and so much is in bud. Bless you all.