Twenty Five Years and Counting

Reflections on the occasion of our 25th Anniversary”: Hard to believe, but we began our shared ministry on the first Sunday of January 1993. Good time to look back and ahead.

Centering Thought: Stick to your post and let your effect be cumulative. – Unitarian Minister William Greenleaf Eliot to his son, also a Unitarian Minister – Thomas Lamb Eliot, Minister of First Unitarian Portland, OR.

Share the plate: Salem Interfaith Hospitality Network (SIHN)
Celebrant: Janet Stevens, Anchor: Lennie Martin
Music both services: David Gortner and Laura Christian




July of 1992, after a week of getting to know me, The First Unitarian Society of Salem Oregon (our former name) held a special congregational meeting to vote on whether to call me as your minister and you did.

A few months later I bid a fond farewell to the good folks at Emerson Unitarian Church in the San Fernando Valley where I served during the first six years of my ministry. I drove up here with two cats (my family flew up ahead of me) who loudly meowed in protest every mile of the way, and I barely made it over the Siskiyou pass which had been closed due to very heavy snow.

My first official Sunday as your minister was January 3, 1993 – twenty five years ago. Which is to say, we’ve got some history – quite a bit of it as far as UU ministers and congregations go. The average tenure of a UU congregational ministry is between six and eight years. There’s not another UU congregation in the western US that has been stuck with the same minister for so long – maybe not even any UU congregation west of the Mississippi.

And you may ask “why us?” “What did we do to deserve this?”

You can’t say you weren’t warned. When I first arrived I said that my vision was to settle down for the long haul, build relationships, help you build a new home for UU’s here (we were in our small old home on 19th St.), put down roots, raise my one year old son in the same community, and stay for a long time if possible. (I’d moved around a whole lot in my life and wasn’t looking to continue that pattern.) Since Salem UU’s had never had a minister serve more than a few years (the longest before me was the Rev. William Ellery Copeland at the beginning of the 20th century) you may have thought I was just saying what I thought you wanted to hear or that I was being naïve and optimistic about how things actually work in this world. The latter part is true – I tend to be naïve and idealistic. And yet, isn’t that better than being jaded and cynical?

When I got here my initial impressions were reconfirmed – great congregation, not so great building. For those of you who loved our old building on 19th and Breyman, forgive me, but for me (and many others) it didn’t work so well. For example, there was some malfunction in the fire alarm system that caused there to be a loud and unexpected “BEEP” inside the minister’s office about every fifteen minutes. I was told there was no easy way to fix this. No naps in there! Steep stairs to the sanctuary made it inaccessible for many. The basement RE classrooms flooded in the winter. The building was too small. We needed to buy or build a new home.

I had no idea how hard this was supposed to be. No one had told me that the conventional wisdom is that if a minister comes to a new congregation to help build a new facility that minister will probably have to move on soon after because of all the stress and strain the fundraising and building entails. I naively assumed that we’d be able to raise the necessary funds, that the right people would step forward to make things happen, that all the planets would line up just right for this to happen and all would be well. Well, score one for naiveté and optimism because the planets did line up and we (mostly you) built this beautiful home for Unitarian Universalism in our community – including the wonderful Barbara Hanneman Fellowship Hall.

Since we are the sole stewards of our free faith here, it behooves us to do all we can to help it thrive in our small corner of the world because Unitarian Universalism is a vital force for good. Witnessing the creation of this special home was a great joy, and it’s wonderful to see how this has created so many new opportunities for us to build community and serve our surrounding community.

Not to paint too rosy a picture. There came a challenging time after our building was complete when there was tension and conflict concerning our building use – was this primarily OUR home or were we called to share it with others who shared our values? There is no simple answer to this – suffice it to say that we have grown and had to learn how to balance competing legitimate needs and how to manage conflict in spiritually healthy ways.

Conflict, is, in fact, a sign of health in congregational life. Our ideas, opinions, perspectives need to be refined through the communal give and take wherein we discuss, debate and decide important matters. Heaven help us if we cease to have conflict. Yet conflict too often takes some wrong turns and becomes toxic. From my perspective (and I’ve consulted in a number of UU congregations over the years) the possibility of toxic inter-congregational conflict poses a greater threat to the well being of a congregation than anything else I can name. Most toxic conflict arises because good covenantal ground rules and processes are not in place, or, if they are on place, they are ignored or forgotten in the heat of the moment.

I have, sorry to say, witnessed conflict destroying ministries and wounding congregations. I have seen ministers have their confidence undermined by hypercritical congregations and I have seen ministers who were not well suited for their congregations do lasting damage. A lot can go wrong in relationships between ministers and congregations and too often does.

So I am profoundly grateful to have served in a congregation which has understood how to be in loving, life affirming relationship with ministers. It’s not for me to say whether or not I have served you well, but I can state that because of the unfailing love, respect and support and appropriate challenges you have offered me through the many years I am a better person and a minister. It speaks so well of this congregation that you have supported and sustained a long term ministry. I should note here, too, the support the congregation has given to ministers in the making, including those members and staff who have entered the ministry and those who have served here at intern ministers – it’s an impressive list: The Reverends Millie Rochester, Angela Hererra, Lisa Adams Sherry, Mary Gear, Kate Lore, Judy Zimmerman, Katie Larsell, Jamilla Tharpe, Theresa Soto and Monica Jacobson Tennessen. Along the way this congregation has become known as a “teaching congregation” that supports ministry.

What is truly amazing, however, and draws too little attention and appreciation, are the members who, year after year, step up to assume key leadership positions. Our reliance upon you who voluntarily and conscientiously serve, year after year, is tremendous. Without your dedication and commitment we’d flounder.

And we haven’t floundered – we’ve steadily flourished as we continually evolve and adapt to better fulfill our promise in this, our shared ministry. In my mind, shared ministry is all about sharing the work of the ministry to such an extent that the ordained minister is left with nothing to do. If this sounds shady, consider the alternative wherein the work and the power of ministry is not shared but hoarded.

Seriously, the more I share the ministry the more I find I still have to do. There’re plenty of challenges and opportunities for all of us. As a “professional” minister I am mindful of George Bernard Shaw’s zinger of an observation: “All professions are conspiracies against the laity.” That is to say, professions often acquire prestige and power (not to mention wealth) by arrogating certain practices and prerogatives exclusively for themselves. For example, in some religious traditions only ordained clergy are allowed to perform certain roles and rituals. While it is true that ordained clergy have education and training and gain experience doing certain things I reject the notion that there is any spiritual distinction between the laity and ordained ministry. There’s nothing I do that couldn’t be done by a member here. (Yes, it’s true that none of you can ring the singing bowl as well as me.) Ministry should be shared as widely as possible – this touches upon one of the foundational principles our Unitarian Universalism – that we are called to create conditions whereby people become more empowered, not disempowered – empowered to trust in our own wisdom, talents, gifts, instincts, intuitions, endeavors.

Collaborative, shared ministry rests upon a foundation of mutual trust. We create such trust by being trustworthy. Trust is one of the key words in my personal theology and in my understanding of ministry. Even as I have sought to earn your trust by fulfilling my responsibilities, I have learned how important it is for me to trust in the congregation – to honor and benefit from your wisdom and expertise, to partner with you as we work to help our beloved congregation thrive. Which is to say, in our tradition we really have no need for control freaks.

Now, more than ever, during this disturbing time when our nation and world are placed in peril by a morally rudderless, authoritarian president, it is important for us to thrive. Now, when social isolation is growing and people are deserting conventional religion in droves and the ranks of those who are spiritually homeless continues to swell it is important that we make our presence known. Now when the forces of intolerance and bigotry are finding encouragement at the highest levels we are called to rise and meet this challenge and affirm our humane, compassionate, inclusive values.

Today we have paused to note a milestone in our journey together, even as time flows on. Yet this is our time to be the stewards of our free faith tradition in this community. What a journey it has been – and continues to be. How many there are who were here at the beginning of my ministry years ago who have passed on. There is a continual thread of grief and gratitude running through my ministry as we are so often saying goodbye to yet another beloved member, even as we welcome wonderful new members. How often have I stood before this gathered community and officiated at memorial services. How often have I choked down my tears of grief and gratitude as we say goodbye to those we have known and loved, who set before us shining examples of lives well lived. Death is a not a stranger for us. Indeed, it is one of the most spiritually compelling matters to consider – one’s death. How meaningful it is that we can provide a spiritual space for people to say loving goodbyes to those who have passed on and reflect upon the deeper meanings and purposes of our own lives.

Even now the question may be arising in your mind as to how long I will remain your minster. Not forever. There will come a day when someone else will be your minister, and I truly hope this person breaks my record for longevity because there is much to be said for long term ministry (at least in my opinion). Yet I am not here today to announce the sunset of my ministry, in case you thought I was. Of course none of us can ever be absolutely certain that we will witness the rising of the next day’s sun, but I do not think of feel that I have yet reached the sunset of my ministry. I hope and believe there are fruitful and fulfilling years ahead of us before that day when I will announce my retirement. I’m just starting to get the hang of ministry – it would be sad if I stopped now. There are important things we can do together to help this congregation be more vital than it has ever been. That said, in our democratic tradition the minister is called and serves at the pleasure of the congregation, so I can only speak of my personal intentions. Let me end by simply, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for the privilege of serving. I’m profoundly grateful.

There is an old African American spiritual that goes: “We have come this far by faith, living day by day, trusting in the love that’s shared. It’s never failed us yet.” Amen.