Alison and the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship celebrate 12 years from the day she was called as Senior Minister. In the following letter to them, she shares some of the highlights of their partnership in ministry:
“Twelve years ago today, I was standing in the Morristown Arboretum waiting for an important call. My phone rang and on the other end, I heard the voices of the Ministerial Search Committee of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship asking me to return to the sanctuary. The call was clear in my heart and in the room as well. It was a unanimous vote, except for one person who abstained and wrote “I sensed it would be a perfect vote. I hate perfect votes.”
It’s hard to capture in one post all the ways we’ve been shaped and reshaped through this covenantal relationship between a minister and the congregation she serves. We have grown in so many ways both tangible and intangible as a community of faith whose presence ripples out into the wider community. The following are but a few highlights from 2005 to now…
• The first time I used the word “God” in worship, the Sunday Services Committee had a topic at our next meeting: “Who gets to decide what the minister is allowed to say?” We have since learned together about freedom of the pulpit and freedom of the pew. We have moved from a specifically humanist identity to a more inclusive religious identity and creating experiences that connect with humanists, agnostics, and theists of many stripes.
• At candidating week, someone asked me, “How do you feel about strong lay leaders?” Well, I was raised by one of the strongest and was one long before I became ordained. There was a tension present in the congregation that felt like an either/or proposition – either a strong minister & staff or a strong laity. Today, we understand and live into a healthier position – the best ministries are shared partnerships between strong ministers, staff, and lay leaders.
• We used to close on some Sundays. Now, we are open every Sunday (unless it’s hazardous to be on the roads). In fact, our community is so vibrant that even during the week it’s near impossible to find a day where nothing is happening.
• When David and I arrived, we were the only people between the ages of 20 – 40. Today, I am thrilled to see young families, young adults and children of all ages belong to our spiritual home. At our monthly meeting, between Board members and staff present around the table we have a leadership team that represents the decades of life between the 20s and 80s.
• We used to get reports about how challenging it was to break into longtime cliques at coffee hour. Today, it would be hard for a newcomer to escape without having at least a couple of conversations before leaving.
• Not long after my arrival, we had a mayor who wanted to “sweep the streets clean of immigrants.” At the time, our social justice programs were primarily focused on important service work. We re-imagined how we do things and committed to developing in the areas agitation, activism, and advocacy. We fought back the terrible policy of 287(g) and deputizing police as ICE with Wind of the Spirit. We co-founded a Workers Center that helps with fair wages and wage theft. We are a co-founding congregation of the UU Legislative Ministry in NJ, which has been a vehicle for us to engage in advocacy for marriage equality, anti-gun violence, immigrant justice, environmental justice and ending mass incarceration. And, now our community is deeply engaged with and hosts Black Lives Matter Morristown.
• Oh, and communication has definitely changed… In 2005, we had a phone tree! Now, we have an updated website, three major Facebook Pages, two weekly e-blasts, and a Twitter account.
• We have also shifted our culture towards generosity. We have maintained or increased our annual pledge every year, and we’ve raised 2.3 million towards a capital campaign. We’ve also gone to bat at zoning hearings and in litigation for a building plan that meets the needs of our mission and the communities we serve.
Of course, we are still a work in progress, and I hope that will always be the case as a dynamic community. Perhaps the most significant change has been growing in the ability to face conflict and to view it as an opportunity to see what we need to learn together next.
I am the minister I am today in large part because of what you have taught me and all the ways you have so generously shared of your gifts with the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship. We have been by one another’s side through so many changes – both welcome and unwelcome – in our personal lives and in our communal life together. We have cheered and challenged each other. We have delighted and disappointed each other. We have laughed and cried together. We have built a partnership that has mattered and allowed our faith to grow in numbers, in spirit, in community, and in impact. It is why we were recognized with the O. Eugene Pickett Award for growth in 2015.
The depth of gratitude I have for you, for this community, will always take up a special space in my heart. Thank you also to the Ministerial Search Committee – Carol Todd (chair), Helene Ferm, Janet Kreha, Tony Rutigliano, Stu Sendell, Annette Tyler, and Joe Uhrhane – for seeing the creative and healing possibilities held in our partnership.
My sermon that Sunday morning of May 15th was titled, “Shall We Dance?” I’m so glad that our answer was “Yes!”