As I write this, we’re being ‘teased’ by the weather: it’s 75 degrees outside, the sun is shining, and our bodies are yearning for spring. Or at least, mine is. And today, I can believe that it is spring. Tomorrow will be a different story (rain and perhaps snow on the way) but I’ll take the illusion I have today: spring it is! Here’s a fact, however: in about four-and-a-half months, the interim religious education time at Follen Church will (at least officially) be concluding. By the end of June, with grace and talent and a bit of luck, you’ll be saying goodbye to me and thinking about welcoming a new, settled religious education professional to your congregation.
That time is likely to speed by, as frequently is the case in the spring of the year. But before the interim roller coaster of change officially ends, it is prudent and perhaps, instructive to take some time to reflect on what the work of an interim religious professional is, and what that has been like, for me, at Follen. So, for the next couple of months, I’ll use this blog as a place to discuss what the work of interim religious leaders is, and what that work has been like here at Follen for a person serving in the role of interim director of religious education.
The UUA Office of Ministry and Professional Leadership’s description of interim work has evolved over the years, but the focus of each task is still similar. The first task an interim leader is charged with is now called “Heritage,” which used to be known as “Coming to Terms with History.” The intent is to help the congregation understand its past and its behaviors so that it can re-vision its future . . . understanding what has been – both positive and less so – and then preparing to build a strong future on that foundation.
Follen, founded in the mid-1800s as something of an alternative to the more formal and entrenched Unitarian church on Lexington’s battle green, had a history of dedication to social causes and valuing those who were not of the aristocracy. This part of Lexington was devoted to farming and honest working folk lived in these parts . . . and the church that became known as Follen was a church of the people and good works more than of lofty ideals. From the mid-nineteenth century on, the church was known by its formal name, which included the word “community” in it, as a church that valued its people and wanted to welcome all. Membership has drawn – nearly equally, by my observation – from both East Lexington and West Arlington, and these two communities have merged and connected at the church.
By all reports the church teetered, during the 1970s and a bit later, on the verge of collapse, until a group of dedicated female leaders (most notably, Polly Laughland Guild, Barbara Marshman, and Louise Curtis) determined to regenerate the church. Through careful work and much love, the church was sustained. There were also leadership “bumps” along the way, a number of which related directly to religious education. There were professional transitions and other challenges, and times when devoted lay leaders did the best they could to sustain the RE program and “smooth things out.” Such is the stuff of most congregations – Follen was not immune from these twists and turns in the leadership road.
Over time the music program that the church offered for children (two choirs and a spring operetta) became a main focus of its programming for children. During this time, the youth group program grew almost exponentially and now the congregation is catching up to that growth by strengthening its staff support and safety policies.
When professional and lay leaders work together to achieve the congregation’s goals, growing strength and impact to achieve a richer spiritual life – and one that serves the many needs of the community – generally follow. Embracing “Heritage” and recognizing the challenge of “coming to terms with history” can present an opportunity for the congregation to live into its new realities and not continue to connect only to the past.
Follen is a congregation that has articulated a wish for having distinguished members of its professional and called ministry staff. At this liminal time, in the midst of change (not to mention, as the very physical premises are about to change as well) the question arises in my mind: How can you, as members and friends of Follen Church, embrace your past, and build a vision for your future that will encourage you to partner and build with Follen’s ministers and staff? That question offers both challenge and opportunity – one that beckons for your embrace.
Deborah Weiner, Interim Director of Religious Education