Time To Think About What’s Next

What’s next in this work of liberal religion? It’s a question that I have to say is much on my mind these days. We live at a time when, on the one hand, many churches are closing and commentators of all stripes are predicting the demise of religion. At the same time, many people are responding to political and social turmoil by going to church – some renewing old faith connections, others exploring this whole area for the first time.

We see that struggle at UUCA, too. At the same time that we are seeing a huge new influx of people looking to make connections to a progressive community, other people are quietly leaving us, saying they’re not sure this religion thing, or at least the way we’re doing it, is for them. It’s a challenging environment to work in, and it requires some careful discernment. That’s a good part of why the Board of Trustees is inviting you into some deep digging these days. You’ve had a chance to sort out the values that center this community. Next the Board will invite you to revisit our Mission Statement and the Ends that guide our ministries to help decide whether they truly fit the work that you see for this congregation. It’s good work, and I hope you will weigh in.

I have to say that your staff, myself included, is really happy to see you doing this, because the clearer all of us are on what this congregation exists to do, the better we can focus our energies in helping you accomplish it.

As your lead minister, I have an important role in this. My Letter of Agreement with you describes my job as providing “spiritual leadership and initiative,” helping you set and articulate your vision, and providing “professional performance and oversight” of the congregation’s programs in collaboration with the board, the staff and other lay leadership.

It’s challenging and exciting work, a real privilege, to be honest. But an important aspect of that work is finding what we call “a balcony perspective,” moments to step above the crush of the day-to-day and get a sense of the whole. As you can imagine, those moments are often hard to find, which is why I’m planning a brief sabbatical this spring. I’ll be gone just two months – from April 17, the day after Easter, through June 19, the day before I join the Coming of Age class on its trip to General Assembly in New Orleans.

During that time, my duties will be covered by other staff or lay volunteers. Associate Minister Lisa Bovee-Kemper will oversee pastoral care and Sunday worship. She’ll be assisted in the pulpit by some special guests who I’ve invited and who I think you will enjoy. On May 5, we’ll welcome Rev. Guy Sayles, former senior minister of First Baptist Church in Asheville and now a professor of religion at Mars Hill College. On May 28 our guest will be the Rev. Duncan Teague, who is the founder of Abundant LUUv, a new Unitarian Universalist congregation gathered in the African-American community in Atlanta, Ga. And on June 18 we’ll welcome Rabbi Justin Goldstein of Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville.

Director of Administration Linda Topp will be the key contact on administrative matters and UUCA member John Bates will serve as sabbatical convener to gather senior staff and provide a staff liaison to and reports for the Board of Trustees.

And what will I be up to while I’m away? I’m looking forward to participating in an Academy for Leaders run by the Center for Courage and Renewal, a group organized around the work of Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer. I’m also planning to be in touch with and visit a few congregations, ministers and leaders who are wrestling with the questions I posed above. And, yes, I plan a little time to rest and recharge.

I am grateful to you for providing this sabbatical time. It is a great gift to the ministry of this congregation, and I value the opportunity to get a little more of that “balcony perspective” and to check in with others who are struggling with the same questions that we are. I’ll look forward to sharing what I learn.

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister

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