Lessons and Legacy

In the beginning of June before I retired, I read through my Annual Reports, starting back in 2000, all 24 of them.  I enjoyed this delightful trip down memory lane.  So many memorable events.  So many emotions remembering the people who have died or who are no longer part of the congregation, many of them ones who have moved away.  In some ways, it is like being on the banks of a river watching the flow in and out of our congregational pool.  And then there are the children I’ve had the privilege of watching grow up in our congregation and find their way in the world.

I did that review of my ministry here to assess what I’ve learned serving this congregation that might be useful to remember and what I hope could be part of the legacy I leave behind.  May my words that follow contain useful guidance for Albany UU leaders, members and friends with my retirement at the end June 2023.

Here are some words from one of my first sermons in September of 1999 titled, “Why I’m Here:”

When all is said and done, this is the bottom-line question for every minister considering a call to a congregation.  The geographic and financial questions, the feeling of the sanctuary and the strength of the infrastructure, all pale before the fundamental question:

  • Can I put the well-being of this congregation first?
  • Can I give my energy without reservation as I will, at times, be called to do?
  • Can I love and serve this congregation?

On the day you voted on my candidacy, my answer was clearly and without reservation, YES!  The feeling has only grown stronger as I’ve gotten to know you better.

I’m glad you agreed.

My point this morning, if you haven’t heard it clearly, is you are a wonderful congregation.  There is so much that is good about the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany.  I feel like I’ve had an incredible stroke of good fortune to be called into your service.  The potential for what we can do and be together is just tremendous.

And, of course, neither of us is perfect.  I am still young in my years of ministry.  I hope you will assist me in growing my ability to minister to you.  Likewise, I will be helping your leaders grow in their ability to serve you as well.  Every democratic organization is always in a process of renewal as the old leaders hand-on the gavel to the new ones bursting with fresh ideas.

What will insure our success is the quality of love we bring to each other.  I have a deep faith in the guiding wisdom of the love which binds us together.  With skillful means, that love will guide us through the night and into the dawning of a new day.

Let us learn from the past while striving to move beyond it.
Let us work together to make our ministerial partnership the greatest this society has ever known.
Let us move forward together sustaining the light of liberal religion in the city of Albany.

One of the first lessons I learned at FUUSA (as it was called in 1999) happened quickly.  I couldn’t serve as the minister of the congregation all by myself.  My first year was a little overwhelming with all the committees, events, activities, and meetings I could attend.  I very quickly realized I’d have to focus my energy and efforts and rely on the lay leaders of the congregation to get all the work done.  This was so different from the little congregation I previously served in Port Charlotte, Florida.

That reliance on lay leadership has a name: shared ministry.  In Unitarian Universalism, we celebrate the “prophethood of all believers.”  Everyone has a valuable contribution to make for the good of the whole.  No one can create and sustain a congregation alone.  We need each other.  For our congregation to thrive, we need to invest in our lay leaders and the staff that collaborate with them.  Our staff work best in partnership with lay leaders.

Another dimension of realizing I can’t do it all is looking for systemic solutions to get what needs to be done, done.  Over the first ten years of my ministry, it became quite clear to me that the Caring Network and I didn’t have the time and resources to provide the pastoral care our members wanted and deserved.  In 2010, working with our intern Chris Antal, a man gifted with pastoral care skills and the Rev. Bobbi Place who worked as a chaplain at Ellis Hospital, we created our Pastoral Care Associates program.  This has been such a beneficial enhancement to our congregation multiplying the pastoral care that happens.  I’m deeply grateful for their partnership in the ministry of our congregation.

A second systemic solution is the Ministry and Operations Team.  Our Board doesn’t have the energy and time to both manage the day-to-day operations of our congregation, and develop the committees and teams as ministries so they can both serve the congregation and the growth and development of the members, and provide visionary leadership for the future of our congregation.  By creating the Ministry and Operations Team, they delegated some of their authority to help build the congregation’s capacity.

 Because we are such an active congregation, I strive to pick the places where my presence is most needed and can make the most positive difference.  And sometimes I don’t pick the right places.  I remember the controversy in 2009 as the Board considered creating a Safe Congregation Policy, to protect children and youth.  The hot button issue at the time was whether we should do background checks on the classroom guides or not.

I remember my involvement before a contentious congregational conversation about background checks.  What I didn’t do was participate in the committee created to find the language that would satisfy both sides.  We lost a couple of families partly because of the mother’s participation in that committee.  I wish I had been there to mediate the conversation and support them better.

I also remember a couple of Sunday Services that didn’t go so well.  In Florida, not many people showed up for the Christmas Eve service so I figured that might be the case here as well.  I prepared a low-key service and was surprised by how many people attended.  A couple of members came into my office later and made it quite clear that I hadn’t met their expectations.  I discovered that Christmas Eve in this congregation was one of our high holy days, one of the most anticipated services of the year.

I also read a book about climate change in the spring of 2005 that I hadn’t realized was written by a climate change denier.  I used some references from it in a sermon that were not well received at all on Sunday morning.  I responded by having a workshop about climate change and brought in my sister who is a geochemist studying climate change to help bail me out.

The critical lesson I continue to learn is listen twice as much as I talk and respond to what I hear.

The expectations of our congregation for Sunday Services are very high, as they should be.  I’ve focused a lot of energy on having satisfying, meaningful and moving services.  That effort led me to the work of a UU theologian named Thandeka after preaching on a theme she calls, “Love beyond belief.”  After some discussions with her and her encouragement to apply for a grant to fund her work with us, she came to work with our congregation starting in the fall of 2012.  She first encouraged us to integrate the music more intentionally with the message of the service.  She also got me to meet once a week with the music director and religious education director to better coordinate our Sunday morning efforts. 

The fruition of that work happened in my partnership with Elizabeth Baldes, Olga Martinez, and Jacob King on our Production Team.  It is my first legacy I’ll mention.  I think this year we’ve best realized the vision of what we learned from Thandeka ten years ago. I hope it will continue to grow into the future.

When I arrived in Albany,  there was a major effort already in progress in the Capital Region to build a church based community organizing project that grew to about 38 organizations.  It was called A Regional Initiative Supporting Empowerment or ARISE.  As part of that effort, I participated in a training in the spring of 2000 in Buffalo.  I learned about Saul Alinsky style community organizing in a multi-racial setting that I found profoundly inspirational.  After I returned from it all fired up, ARISE asked me to step in as President.  I served through the first four years striving to build and hold together this project that had over 1000 people at its first public meeting.  Unfortunately, we weren’t able to maintain this level of commitment and enthusiasm.  The project closed about nine years later.

The other big success came from an unexpected direction. I didn’t anticipate I would be involved in the Marriage Equality movement.  I leveraged my community organizing training and congregational support to officiate at a combined wedding of a gay and lesbian couple in the spring of 2004 in our Sanctuary.  It activated our congregation to advocate for Marriage Equality until it was later passed in New York State in June of 2011.

Another great area of advocacy I celebrate today is the work we did to pass a resolution against fracking in New York State. Our Green Sanctuary Team presented it to the Governor’s office shortly before Cuomo announced his position against fracking.  I’d like to think we may have tipped the scales.

Another community support effort that has come directly from our 2009 strategic plan was adopting Sheridan Academy as our elementary school to support.   We’ve offered support to teachers and students and even raising funds and working to build a better playground for these children.

The legacy of this work, I hope continues to move forward, is the focus on the three levels of social justice work.  Our congregation has a special calling, being here in Albany, to advocate for legislative change like the current medical aid in dying effort that our religious tradition has a unique role in supporting.  We also need to continue to work in partnership with other congregations in Albany and the Capital Region to work on local issues that matter here.  And finally, we need hands on, direct service opportunities for person-to-person direct service work that makes a real difference in individual people’s lives.

The problems of the world are not just outside our doors but also inside them.  The Unitarian Universalist Association has made and continues to make a major commitment to social and institutional change to make our congregations more welcoming and inclusive.  This is hard work because our congregation is part of a larger culture in which structural racism is still pervasive much like sexism and homo- and transphobia.  Even harder, the patterns of bias and oppression lurk in the sub-conscious of all of us.  It is a social disease deeply rooted in the foundation of our nation.  None of us chose to internalize these social toxins but we all can be part of cleansing ourselves and our institutions of them.

I challenge our congregation to continue this work that is vital to the future of humanity.  In an increasingly pluralistic and diverse world, we need to see each other’s humanity as primary.  Unitarian Universalism can support that work better than many other faith traditions – if we are willing to do the work of healing ourselves and each other and eliminating the social toxins that linger in our institutions.

I’ve got three other areas I hope our congregation will continue to move forward.

The Governance change effort to separate the Board work from the Ministry and Operations work continues to develop and solidify.  Our Board is moving in more visionary directions with the support of the MOT.  The MOT is helping the staff be more effective.  We’ve only been working this way for a short time in institutional lifecycles.   I expect this system to continue to develop in the years ahead to better serve the congregation.  Critical to that success is mutual communication and trust development, especially with your ministry.

We’ve made significant investments in lifelong learning during my years in Albany.  We’ve added more hours to our Religious Education Director and enhanced that program.  First with Small Group Ministry then with Meaning Matters and the Wellsprings program we’ve made a commitment to adult growth and development in the context of a small group setting.  This has been very beneficial to our congregation’s members and I encourage your support for this commitment to lifespan faith development.

The last area I’ll mention is perhaps the biggest area of unfulfilled work.  It is fulfilling the vision of Albany UU being a “Beacon of Unitarian Universalism for Capital Region.”

The Rev.  Linda Hoddy started that work when she served as minister in Saratoga Springs back in 2005.  She did research on our region that suggested we could support another Unitarian Universalist Congregation here.  By joining our Glens Falls, Saratoga Springs, Schenectady and Albany Capital Region UU congregations together as a cluster, we might be able to make that happen.  We had our first joint service in 2009 and tried to get a congregation started in Clifton Park around 2017 that unfortunately failed in 2018.

After Rev. Hoddy’s retirement, I’ve held the vision of what our cluster of congregations could do to increase the awareness and vision of Unitarian Universalism through the work of our cluster.   COVID undermined that collective effort but I still believe that our congregation has a special role in holding up the beacon of liberal religion in the Capital Region we have yet to realize.

The greatest learning and legacy for me of my time serving this congregation was this building expansion of which Community Hall is the centerpiece, a Beacon of Light.  The congregation had been thinking about and planning a building expansion before the previous minister’s departure.  It took a hiatus during the three interim years before I arrived.  At my startup weekend, it came back to life full of energy and excitement.  There were some challenging times as proposals came and went.  We decided to expand west and acquire properties rather than just renovate the space we had.

At one point there was a lot of discouragement on the Board with obstacles that were in our way of moving forward.  The Board was about to give up.  Then Al DeSalvo, who was President at the time, inspired us to believe we could do it.  I learned what visionary leadership can look like from him.  When we did the Capital Campaign, the consultants we used, Paul Mack and Associates, underestimated what we could do … but we raised 1.4 million dollars.  And after we came up short when the bids came back, Martha and Fred Schroeder challenged us to step up and we did.  And today we’ve paid off the mortgage and are paying back our endowment loan.  I’m so grateful to have been part of the project from the beginning till now.

The result of all this is our space ministry.  We are very fortunate to have room to grow our future.  We also have space to help other non-profit organizations grow and develop.

The most important legacy I’ve got for our congregation is to remember our congregation and this building are the home of our Unitarian Universalist tradition in Albany.  We are more than our social network.  We are more than our building.  We are the home for the inclusive, human centered and earth friendly vision of a way to be in the world that the world needs to live into its future.

May you continue to make it so as you bring our congregation to flower.