Dear Congregation….an open letter to the Foothills Unitarian Church

PictureDear Foothills Unitarian Church,
I’ve tried for two weeks to write an annual report, without much luck.  Not because I am lacking in things I might lift up about our programs and ministries this year….

I could remind us of the full implementation of small group ministry, with over 15 groups focused on caregivers, youth, parents, newcomers, older women, men, and those that simply explored life’s big questions – and then groups exploring everything in between. Or, I could lift up our new monthly contemplative worship services.  Or, the increasingly robust justice practices of Faith Family Hospitality, ESL tutoring, companioning immigrant families, exploring Middle East peace, and most recently our enhanced environmental justice ministry.  I could reflect on the strengthened relationships with other UU congregations, and our increased involvement with social change coalitions both with UU and other faith communities across Colorado. I could remind you of the many, many meals you all have brought to one another, the new parish visitors program, or the ways so many of you have turned out to offer a warm welcome to newcomers in our Connections Dinners.  I could tell of the tender stories of joy and celebration we have held with and for one another, the life milestones we’ve marked, the laughter, the challenge, the love.  All of these, and so much more, I could lift up.  We have done such good ministry this year, and I am so grateful and humbled to be your partner in this work.

However, as we conclude this big and important year in the life of this congregation, what feels even more on my heart than tabulating all these many things, is the memory of a few particular moments we’ve shared.  And so let me offer just a few of these as a sign of what this year has meant – where we have been, and where we are yet going.

One Sunday in October, as if any other Sunday, Marc and Vicki offered the story of their journey in Unitarian Universalist ministry. Vicki told how hard it was to leave Watertown. Marc counted up sermons, and years, and meetings, and the heartbreaks and joys of 23 years at Foothills.

And then, he shared the news that he would be retiring in June. The community let out a collective sigh. It was not exactly a surprise; he had been hinting, and a few leaders who had needed to help with planning had known for a while. But on that Sunday, it was real. There were more than a few tears, and that wouldn’t be the last time.

And still, what I carry with me from that Sunday, is not simply the sharing of the news, but the way the community responded. The leaders had prepared for potential anxiety, confusion, negativity. But instead, what we found was: trust, curiosity, optimism. Sure, there was and remains grief. But in the midst of that grief, this congregation has overwhelmingly responded with hope, and positive energy. The conversation was one of gratitude for all Marc and Vicki have offered, a tangible hope for the future, and a willing enthusiasm to be a part of making that future possible.

Another moment. The Tuesday after that Sunday. The first Board meeting since the news was announced. The plan before all the Board members knew of Marc’s retirement was to discuss my call to associate. Instead, our Board President, Keith Hupperts, began by passing out the book, In the Interim. He said, our job in the next couple months is to read this. The Board took a big deep breath, and agreed.

We talked about many other things, but finally returned to my call. How should the retirement announcement impact the decision? The ground was shifting. How should the leaders respond? Again, fear, hesitation, anxiety – these would all be reasonable responses. And yet, while the Board proceeded to flesh out many potential scenarios, ultimately what happened in the room, was a profound affirmation of trust. What else can we do when we take a leap into the unknown? The Board voted unanimously to recommend the congregation begin the process to move to calling me.

A few months later, another Sunday. I waited in my office while a packed house deliberated, and then voted. Keith came to get me, led me to join you all there, and with my daughter beside me, he announced the results. An overwhelming yes. We sang “Lean on Me,” and you all stood up, and we cheered. There were more tears. I was overcome with gratitude.

Not too long after that, we celebrated that yes in the gorgeous and moving installation. The story performed by our youth of the “broken truth” made whole by realizing that all are worthy of love – resonates with me still, and calls to me as our positive vision for our shared ministry in the coming years.

One last moment. Friday morning, May 9th. 10:45 a.m. A call to my cell phone from the three members of the Interim Task Force. With pride and joy they said, we have our interim – he said yes! They had worked so hard the two weeks before, carrying not just the weight of a considerable workload, but also the emotional weight of such an important decision. Their time and care and preparation was enormous, and they had chosen an ideal candidate for our interim ministry.Wow.

In that moment, I remembered the story Doug Powell shared in the worship service in February before you voted on my call – remember, about jumping out of airplanes, and “door face”? What I realized in the call with the Interim Task Force, however, was that we were past the “door face” moment. We had already exited the airplane, and we were feeling the sky holding us. No problem. We did it. Beautiful.

The resilience and faith of this congregation inspires me, overwhelms me, and guides me. And I know this core truth about our community will guide us all in these next few years. We have met some incredible moments of change this year. We have been invited into a new reality. And while we do not deny the grief of letting go of the past, we hold it simultaneously with such trust and gratitude and joy, our future can unfold with ease, and abundance.

We have walked a path of both memory and hope. With your partnership and presence, we will continue to do this for many years to come, no matter what new surprises might come our way. And so I am left with those same words I uttered because no others would come, that Sunday afternoon in February: thank you. 

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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