Forgive us for speaking from far away and long ago, but the tragedy occurring in our (speaking for both myself and husband Bob) beloved community at TJMC is breaking our hearts. TJMC brought us to the UU church more than 10 years ago; we served the church in a variety of formats until we left four years ago for a Quaker retirement community in Pennsylvania. Thus, our observations are from the six years of our activity at TJMC, from the perspective of our new congregation in Wilmington, DE, and from the impact upon us of our Quaker community.
Remember our despair as a community in 2009 when the Search Committee was forced to inform our congregation that their ministerial choice had turned us down? We had suffered together through the departure of David and Leslie (still united in those days), the lackluster 2-year interim ministry that followed, the hope and optimism that, with the right leadership, we could be great again…and then the rejection of that dream by the candidate our Search Committee had identified as best for us. I remember clearly that the congregation was desolate; we had been communally punched in the gut; we were speechless and adrift. Remember? For a brief moment, there was anger…what had the Search Committee done incorrectly? We could have readily turned on one another. Rather, we united. We chose to focus on healing ourselves, on moving forward, on remaining optimistic—without a minister to guide us. We did more than survive; we achieved the status of beloved community. That time is my favorite memory of TJMC.
Quaker meetings typically do not have ministers; they believe their work and extensive social justice activism are divinely inspired within each individual. Healing, social justice, a sense of community are NOT the purview of the minister’s leadership. Erik was very open with us when we interviewed him…he told us clearly that he would not create our Long Range Plan, but follow the one we created. And yet, I am reading that some at TJMC are angry at him for fulfilling his promise to minister, to guide but not lead.
In our brief time at TJMC, it was clear that the congregation was hard on its ministers. Although both Leslie and David were officially part-time, both worked full-time. Before departing, both indicated that they felt the congregation had been reticent to keep them. My impression as a congregant, though I cannot point to specific evidence, was that Leslie felt her gender and her ethnicity were barriers to acceptance at TJMC. Our second interim, like Erik, was clear that she would not be at most meetings nor would she lead us, but would rather guide us to a point where we might be ready to define our strengths and weaknesses more clearly in order to more effectively match with a minister in our search process. Under her leadership, we developed our Covenant. Most of TJMC was glad to see her go although she was considered a great interim elsewhere, and had been selected by our congregation’s committee. (My least favorite memory of TJMC was witnessing her being verbally attacked by TJMC members and arguing with members who threatened—and did—leave because she did not take their requested action against an employee.)
For those of you who are irritated with Erik, direct those issues to the Committee on Ministry or Board, and understand that this is a process which represents the community and may not always represent your concerns as an individual. If you are unable to accept the community’s processes and priorities, and the irritations become battle cries, then work to change the community’s priorities (ie run for Board). Most of all, please, please do not allow the many riches of TJMC to vaporize in the passion of a position that is temporal. As any congregation which has engaged in a divisive battle regarding its minister will tell you (which includes our current congregation), the bad feelings will last for many years. Please use the energy being spent on “taking sides” to be used to listen to one another and heal this beloved community.