Glad to be Back

I am glad to be back in Portland and glad to be turning my attention to the coming church year at First Unitarian. My brief return to the UUA as one of the three Interim Co-Presidents was very challenging and much appreciated. That service ended in New Orleans on June 25 with the election of Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray as the UUA’s next President.

My co-President colleagues and I managed, in 11 weeks, to settle the denominational system, set some new expectations and point to some new directions. I look forward to sharing reflections about my service and about our denomination throughout the fall. Since my return, a few denominational matters have continued to require my attention, but not many; and I can now return fully to being Sr. Minister here.

First, I want to thank all of our fine staff but especially Tom Disrud, T. J. FitzGerald and Kathryn Estey for filling in and keeping our good ministry moving in my absence. My service was a significant contribution by our congregation to the UUA, and it was made possible by their good work.

During my time “in Boston” I returned to preach several times and kept abreast of developments at the church. There are many of these for us to discuss and a series of decisions before us. But as we look toward September, I want first to share with you our approach to several staff changes that you will see as we begin the church year.

First, those of you who were in the sanctuary two weeks ago heard that Dana Buhl has agreed to serve as Acting Director of Social Justice during the coming year. Dana and I shared the pulpit last spring for our Teach-In on White Supremacy Culture. She is well respected for the trainings she has offered a variety of groups at church. She is a passionate and skilled justice advocate. Dana began work this week.

This “Acting” position follows the model we used successfully in the Music Director Search. We expect to search for the permanent position beginning later this year and Dana will be welcome to apply. The Acting Director position is a .6 FTE – in other words, more than half time, but not full-time. This recognizes our financial reality after the pledge shortfall of last year, but also points toward a staff structure in which I will be more involved in our justice work and in which our lay leaders are beginning to claim more authority as they proclaim our witness in the world. We plan to wait to initiate the search for the permanent position until initial results of this year’s Fund Drive are available.

Second, we celebrated Katie Radditz and her long and successful leadership of our Adult Programs as she retired at the end of June. We are going to follow a similar “Acting” model here, but probably for two years. We have begun conversations with our Adult Programs and Board leaders to open discernment about how we support not only learning but faith development throughout the lifespan. It is an exciting conversation and it will take some time to do it well. There are other staff changes anticipated in the relatively near future as well, and it makes sense to step back and look at our entire staffing structure in this area before we make a hiring decision.

The task for the Acting Director will be, with Cassandra Scheffman’s able and expert assistance, to manage the Adult Programs for the coming year that Katie left well planned. That person will also take part in the broader conversation about learning, faith development and the mission of First Unitarian.

Tom Disrud and I interviewed two candidates for the Acting position and we are delighted to let you know that Mary Gear has agreed to serve in this Acting Director role. Mary was our Intern Minister two years ago and already has many friends here at our church. Some of you heard her preach from our pulpit this summer.

Mary will see the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in September and hopes to be accepted as a minister. Neither of us wants to get ahead of that process, so we will wait to finalize job title and responsibilities, but Mary will begin her work later this month.

Mary is being hired, and First Unitarian only has experience with “called” ministers. Before you begin wondering whether I am usurping your job as the congregation, let me explain. Senior and solo ministers in UU churches are almost always “called” by the congregation. One of the highlights of my own career as a minister is the morning that this congregation voted to call me. Tom Disrud, our Associate Minister, was also called by the congregation. That was typical for second ministers when Tom came to First Unitarian.

Today, most second (and third and fourth…) ministers in our larger congregations are hired, rather than called, and most have the title Assistant Minister. This allows for ministers to be employed with particular portfolios and with greater clarity about accountability. It does not diminish the hired ministers in any way or lessen the ministry the congregation can expect.

Last, but certainly not least, Ellie Hodder, the Director of our Handbell program, has accepted a new position as church music director this fall and is leaving the program that she built with her skill, her dedication and her love. We will miss her greatly. DeReau Farrar is in search for a new director, but that person has not yet been identified. There will almost certainly be interim leadership of the bell choirs for a time this fall, but the program will continue as we have known it in recent years while we conduct the search for a new Director.

Well, I said that there were many developments to discuss. I am almost inclined to apologize for the length of this first blog. But I will refrain. One of our commitments is to keep information flowing.

You may well have questions about these changes, or about the process moving forward. Consider bringing them to the service on September 3, when I will respond to questions from the pulpit. Or plan to attend the open question and answer session on October 1 after the second worship service. I will be hosting these sessions three times this year.

It is good to be back and to anticipate another important year at First Unitarian. See you in church.