Goodbye – Rev. Jane Thickstun
I first stood here at this pulpit two years ago for Ingathering Sunday in August of 2013. I looked around and saw a sea of faces, none of which I knew. After the service, as I stood in the doorway and shook hands as you exited, many of you took my hand warmly, looked me in the eyes and said, “We’re so glad you’re here.” What a wonderful welcome that was!
I’ve since learned that you give a warm welcome to all who come through your doors.
Now, standing here, I look around and I feel like I know you. Not all of you, of course, as it’s a large congregation and new people keep coming, thank goodness! But so many of you I’ve had the opportunity to get to know a little. And it feels sad to finally know you, and to have to say goodbye.
Yet this was the arrangement from the beginning; this goodbye was there from the start. It helps give an interim ministry its effectiveness. So let’s allow the sadness while not wishing it was otherwise. Let’s celebrate the relationship that we have still today.
At my last meeting with the Adult Religious Exploration team Monday night, Bill Kramer (today’s liturgist) gave me a goodbye gift. As he handed me this bag across the table, I thought: “How thoughtful; he’s giving me a bottle of wine!” Then I pulled out the bottle, and this is what I found!” (Produce Pepsi bottle) Bill had noticed, as others of you have, that I’m a Pepsi drinker. What I have learned in my time here, is that this is a Coke-a-Cola town. I have felt like an outlaw! Not only have I had a hard time finding Pepsi, but I have gotten the message that it is unethical, if not illegal, to drink and to serve Pepsi in Atlanta.
I’m a Pepsi gal in a Coke-a-Cola town. If I were to stay, I would probably have to start drinking Coke, and I don’t know that I could do that! So I’m going to the state that produces Pepsi.
Now, I’m sure you all know where I’m going, because you all read my column in the most recent newsletter, right? Well, for those who missed it, I’m going to be the Interim Minister at the First Unitarian Society in Ithaca, NY. It’s a congregation of about 330, and I’ll be the sole minister. There is an extremely competent administrator with a delightful sense of humor, who has been in the position for 20 years. I had the pleasure to spend some time with him at General Assembly in Portland a few weeks ago. There are other people on the staff, who I’m looking forward to meeting.
And yes, as many have pointed out, it will be cold in Ithaca, with plenty of snow. But I still have all my wool sweaters and my cross-country skis and winter boots, and though I prefer your warmer climate, I can deal with the cold and snow. Ithaca is a super cool college town, home to Cornell University and Ithaca College. The church is an old stone building in the heart of downtown, a block from the Moosewood Restaurant, whose vegetarian cookbook made such a splash some 20 or 30 years ago. I’ll be living six miles out, in a converted old barn with an amazing view, and the owners—members of the congregation—live a half mile down the road, where they farm with draft horses.
Many of you have asked how I can do interim work—always being temporary, moving on every two years. I admit, I feel like a nomad, with no real home. I’ve said before that “home is where the stuff is.” There is nothing really to tie me down, except a heck-of-a-lot of stuff, that I’m getting ready to move once again.
But there is a gift to this nomadic lifestyle as well.
Joy is intensified by an awareness that it won’t last.
And of course, nothing lasts. We’re mortal beings in a universe whose nature is change. We yearn for stability, for predictability; the loss that accompanies change can be painful. It pains me to leave you, whom I have come to love.
And yet neither the pain nor the leaving diminish the love, or the joy we can have in being together, today. On the contrary, if we can get past wishing it were otherwise, and simply accept what is and what must be, the sadness and the joy intermingle in a poignancy that helps us be more alive. Awareness that the dance must end allows us to dance with more abandon.
I officiated a memorial service yesterday for a long-time member of this congregation, and I shared an affirmation I use often in memorials. It goes like this:
We didn’t ask to be born.
We do not ask to die.
Whatever comes before or after,
This interval between is what we have. It is our time.
May we here and now resolve
To live a little more closely to our values,
To care a little more deeply for others,
To risk a little more often,
And, on this day, may we tell someone very clearly
That they are valued, and they are loved.
When Don asked me some time ago what my favorite song is, so he could use it in this service, it was hard to think of just one song when I love so many. So I pulled out my “Rise Up Singing” book, which has hundreds of folk songs, and came up with the song, “Today” because not only do I really like it, but I feel it speaks to the impermanence of interim work and of life. You’ll hear him sing it later, but here’s how the refrain goes:
Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
‘Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today.
It will be a long time, indeed, before I forget my time here. It has been a valuable and enjoyable experience for me. You have given me many gifts, and I am grateful.
First and foremost, you have shown me a model of a healthy, vibrant, large congregation. You have so many things going on here that there is surely something for everyone. You have so many people pitching in to make these good things happen. Here are just a few of the things you, as a congregation, do especially well.
You have really high-quality worship. You have excellent music. Your fine art gallery and theater have recently been rebooted after the retirements of the individuals who had been leading them for decades.
You have an outstanding Lay Ministry program, and I have had the pleasure and honor to be able to work with this program and these fine volunteers for both of my two years.
You have a commitment to being an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multi-cultural community. This plays out in the formation, since I arrived, of the Enterculture team, which is helping all of us become more aware of all the ways we might participate in an often-oppressive status quo, and how we might change. It plays out in the board and the staff considering each time they meet how they have addressed these concerns. This commitment plays out in many other ways as well.
You do governance well. With all that is going on here, there has to be some infrastructure to coordinate it all and to make sure that the congregation continues to live its mission and work toward ends that support that mission. Just as in our nation, this congregation separates the executive function from the legislative.
The legislative function is performed by a board that sets policy, and makes sure the congregation is making progress toward its ends. You have some some amazing people serving on your Board. They are super-competent, they are devoted to this work, and they’re really interesting people.
The executive function is the ministry of the congregation, and centers around your senior minister, Rev. Anthony Makar. Rev. Makar is ultimately responsible for everything that goes on around here in this model, though he has staff and many, many volunteers to help do the work. That’s a lot on his shoulders. You might massage those shoulders now and then.
It is a sign of health and forward-thinking that we had two consultants visit this year to observe and offer feedback as to how we can do governance and stewardship even better. The board and Rev. Makar already have a model to adjust the way they relate moving forward that takes the recommendations into account.
You have a long-range plan that was developed before I came. It was developed with lots of congregational input and good process. And you know what’s the amazing thing about it? IT’S BEING USED! My first year, we were working on Year 2 of the Implementation of a 5-year plan. Now we’re headed into Year 4, and there’s already talk of what’s next. This is downright admirable.
I mentioned stewardship, but I want to say a little more about it. This is one area where I have seen great people working with great ideas and large teams of helpers for extended periods of time, and still the congregation has been unable to meet its goals. I’m talking money here, just to be clear. This is something every congregation struggles with, but I think this large congregation has special difficulties because there are so many people on the periphery of congregational life who may not realize the level of financial contribution it takes from EVEN THEM to sustain this life-changing institution. I implore you to contribute to the best of your ability when it is your month in the new year-round stewardship model.
Another thing you do well is social justice. I had the opportunity to work with this area my first year, and I formed a Social Justice Coordinating Team to help us get a handle on all the many, many groups and activities within the congregation that are working to make the world a better place. There are too many to mention them by name, but they are a beautiful way this congregation is living out its faith. I haven’t experienced another congregation with such active and diverse social justice programming, even taking size into account.
There are many great things about your Religious Exploration program. You have good staff and volunteer teams overseeing it; there are many wonderful experiences in the classrooms for children, youth and adults. The concern I have is that it isn’t being made a priority in terms of attendance by participants or in terms of volunteering to guide the classes for the little ones, in particular. Regular attendance is key to getting kids connected so that they want to keep coming.
As for volunteers, I made a desperate plea at the end of last week’s service, and we got a number of names on the signup posters I so lovingly created, with the help of Tiffany, our Communications and Marketing Specialist. Thank you! To all of you who signed up! And for those of you who weren’t here last week—you know those rainbow-colored large posters in the front lobby? They have spaces for all the volunteers we need for the coming church year, and my goal was to have every space filled in with a name before I leave. Well, today is my last Sunday, so you’ve got to get out there TODAY and sign up! You don’t want me to feel like a failure, do you?
Finally, I need to compliment you on your paid staff. We’ve had a bit of turnover on the administrative side while I’ve been here, but the current bunch of people that work here are about as good as they get. It has been a joy working with them all, and I hope if you can’t all get to know each of them personally, you can at least know that this congregation is being well served by them. They are worth every penny you pay them, and then some!
This interim position has been my opportunity to try out associate ministry. It has been everything I hoped it would be. It has been wonderful not only having a large staff to work with, but a colleague. The opportunity to work with Rev. Makar is one of the greatest gifts you have given me. I have been constantly impressed with the ideas he keeps churning out, and with his ability to be understanding of many points of view and yet have a clear vision of what the best way forward is. I have learned so much by observing him, and by being in a close working relationship with him. You don’t find many ministers who are equally good at the preaching, the pastoral, and the administrative aspects of ministry, but you’ve got one here. Consider yourselves blessed.
In closing, I wish you blessings for the journey, as we go our separate ways.
May you continue to grow in warmth and friendliness. May you continue to expand your understanding of multiculturalism, and ways you can effect change. May you continue to do good works in the Atlanta metropolitan area, in the state of Georgia, in this nation, and in the world. May you deepen your understanding of Unitarian Universalism and your own faith, taking advantage of the new emphasis on that in the Adult RE program. May you tell your friends and co-workers about this great congregation, and may it grow to serve ever more people who need our saving message of inclusion and unconditional love.
And so ends the dance we’ve been doing together. Usually at the end of a contra dance, I curtsy to my partner. But today I feel the appropriate gesture is Namaste, which says, in essence, “the divine in me bows to the divine in you”.
(Come out from the pulpit and perform the gesture around the sanctuary.)