Greetings to all of you on the occasion of our 142nd Annual Meeting! At our gathering of ministers prior to the recent District Assembly in Bloomington, a colleague asked me how the past year had been for me. Typically I offer a standard response: “Just fine,” or “Not bad, with a few ups and downs.” Not so this year: I indicated that few years, either as a lay leader or minister, had been as challenging. My suspicion is that many, if not all of our Board members might say the same. Concerns about the status of a former member, the struggles in transition to a new form of board governance and budgetary constraints all informed the work of the Board this past year. I was no less affected by the same as I balanced these along with the typical responsibilities of ministry.
And so 2010-’11 was a year of some congregational tension and conflict. Some, perhaps most of it was painful, and I believe it’s at least part of the reason we witnessed the resignation of a new Board member just this month. Yet as difficult as it was, I’ve rarely learned as much about myself, my ministry, and about congregations in transition as I have over the last year. I tend to see these learnings as a positive result. When placed alongside other successes I’ll outline below it gives me a richer, more complete picture of our congregational life, and it leads me to see me to see the past year as something other than mired in conflict and loss. I’ll cover these in three areas: Sunday Services, Administration and Board Relationships, and Pastoral Concerns:
1. Sunday Services: As I have for the past few years, I’ve either led offered preaching, or both, at an average of 3.5 “Celebrations of Life” since late August, 2011. We’ve adjusted the format of these services slightly over the past few years, adding another hymn, a chalice lighting and extinguishing ceremony, and an expanded “Time For All Ages” section. We’ve taken these steps in part to answer expressed desires for more ritual, better-defined “beginnings and endings,” and a greater focus on our young people in the services. In general, these changes seem to have been accepted. I’ve heard particular appreciation expressed for the increasing number of young people seen in the Sanctuary most Sunday mornings, and for the ways in which our Interim Director of Music, Scott Aaseng, has worked with us–notably with the assistance of our choir–to improve the level of congregational participation in singing. Similarly, our guest speakers have been well-received this year, from Dr. Jennifer Thomson and the Reverends Emmy Lou Belcher and Qiyamah Rahman in the fall to Dr. Christopher Reed, Ron and Serethea Reid, Sharon Cyr, the Reverend Myriam Renaud and Aaron Freeman in the late winter and spring. And for the second time in three years, a moderator of our entire denomination (Ginni Courter) will be with us this coming Sunday to preach before our Annual Meeting.
The inclusion of “family-focused” services on Saturday evening have been another salutary development this past year. Including the increasingly-popular Seder ceremony and meal, we’ve had four such programs since January, with one more to go on May 21st. These services tend to be intimate and interactive, with a focus on music and storytelling, and Kate, Scott and Jamie Boyce have been wonderfully collegial as we’ve planned and implemented these programs.
2. Administration and Board Relationships: I’m pleased to report that strong staff coordination and collaboration helped us in achieving the goals we established in August 2010. Connie Toebe, our Office Administrator, has been a courteous, consistent presence in the office since she joined us in April, 2009. Her capacity for managing detail led me and the Finance Committee this past winter to move some of the day-to-day bill-paying responsibilities to her. She’s responded well, and with an addition of three hours to her work week for the bulk of the year, Connie will likely assume more responsibilities as she becomes familiar with our on-line accounting processes. New DRE Kate Wilford has been instrumental in adding a third classroom for our young people, and has admirably re-shaped the RE curricula to accommodate growth and change in that key area of our congregational life. Our Director of Membership Jamie Boyce has continued her good work in the Sunday greeting and Membership Committee liaison areas and, when it seemed likely that we’d lose her due to budget constraints, the congregation showed how much they valued her contributions by supporting a drive to fund the position through FY 2012. And yet this area still presents us with a challenge for next year. We’re losing Scott Aaseng in June as he moves to continue his training for the UU ministry as a student minister at Unity Temple in Oak Park next fall. The pianist, composer and vocalist Christopher Dunn-Rankin, a life-long UU from California, will move into this position in August. Christopher is no stranger to the choir, or to us, and thus I hope the transition from staffer to another will be reasonably smooth.
As I noted above, our Board had no shortage of challenges this past year. At times the strains of addressing our issues were very apparent, and it led to moments of strong disagreement. Indeed, the resignation of a member at the end of the first year of service is but one result of this course of events. That said, I appreciate the resilience and continued professionalism of Gary Zacny, our Board chair. Much to his credit, Gary confronted difficult and potentially contentious issues directly, and then tried, as magnanimously as he could, to manage subsequent conversations toward a constructive result. That was no mean feat, particularly for a relative newcomer to Third Church. And the movement toward, and understanding of, Policy Governance is somewhat halting for our Board and congregation. I remain supportive of a board focused on achieving of our mission by the creation of policies in line with “best practices.” But the path to this goal has been long, and not linear. For this next year in particular, I’ll be open to insights from our congregation as we work on deciding the form of sustainable, future-oriented governance best suited to Third Church.
I continue to enjoy the work involved in affairs of our Central Midwest District. I’ll move into the second year of my presidency in July. Meanwhile, the movement toward “regionalism,” or the combining of three Midwestern districts into one governance or service-delivery unit, continues in full force. There’s a strong possibility that the boards of these districts–Heartland, Central Midwest, and Prairie Star–will meet in Chicago in October, and I’ll forward more information on this as the date nears.
3. Pastoral Concerns: With a slight increase in pastoral meeting requests and hospital visitations over the previous three years, I’ve appreciated the consistent flow of information coming from our Caring Committee. Dorothy Wilz, Sandi Wiatr and Karla Chew have been particularly helpful in letting me know of illnesses or major life transitions. Indeed, there have been several of the above, with many multiple hospital or nursing home visits in the months of September and November, 2011, and January and March, 2011. I’ve also participated in or conducted memorial services and weddings for non-members, typically held offsite in the Chicagoland area. Lastly, and sadly, I’ll officiate at the memorial service of Norm Roth, our one of our long-time, totemic former members, here at Third on Sunday, June 5th–a date which will be another mark of the passing of an era in our congregational history.
Let me once more offer my deepest appreciation for the privilege of serving the congregation, and alongside you, in shared ministry here at Third. I am no less committed to its flourishing than when I was called here almost eight years ago. Much has been done together, while much remains to be done. The task of building a congregation adept at multi-culturalism, ready to extend the prophetic heritage of which we can be justly proud, is always at hand. Let’s continue to take this course together, in hope, forgiveness and in courage, today and tomorrow.
-Warmly, in the Spirit,