In 1969, we were just a young band of determined dreamers, almost fifty-strong, setting out to build something good and lasting. We envisioned a place where every voice would be heard, every story told, and where strangers would feel welcome. Out of nascent dream we formed the Unitarian Universalist Society: East (USS:E), in Manchester, CT. Our congregation changed and moved nomadically in search of a permanent home—from a karate studio, to a Singer Learning Center, to a couple of austere rooms over a basketball court—but the caring and welcoming spirit remained a clear constant in the life of the church.
Our equally visionary young minister, Arnold Westwood, told us, “Build it and they will come.” Just ten years after that initial commitment, we moved into the meeting house that is our home.
… And they came, and continue to come in ever-growing numbers. Why?
In part, the answer lies in our strong tradition of shared ministry, born out of both mission and need. In the early years, we could not afford a full-time minister, and we worried that our minister’s absence every other Sunday would make it impossible to continue with services. Instead, Arnold gave us one of our greatest gifts. He enthusiastically shared his pulpit, gathering members together in a Sunday Services committee to guide us in creating lay-led Sunday morning services—services that nurtured our identity as a liberal religious community.
We shared our stories. We listened to speakers who lived meaningful and purposeful lives. We shared our talents and supported each other as we created uplifting Sunday services. The shared pulpit epitomizes what many of us consider to be a unique strength as a community.
At UUS:E shared ministry, however, reaches beyond Sunday service, touching every part of our UU community life. While the framework of programs is shared with many UU Societies, we feel UUS:E shows an unusual commitment to a broader concept of shared ministry.
Individual Voices, Shared Journeys
As we grow as a congregation, we continue to develop opportunities for individuals to be heard and, perhaps even more importantly, to be valued. This is another crucial facet of shared ministry at UUS:E.
Monthly Coffee Houses—While this might not seem like “ministry” to some, it is a powerful tool to connect spiritually for others. Here, budding poets, songwriters, and musicians have tested their voices for the first time, sometimes after years of remaining silent. While we have a strong music program and encourage all to participate, this less structured, informal event lets people share their art, their music, and their spirit in more intimate ways.
Small Group Ministry—Nowhere is shared ministry more important at the individual level. Groups of ten or fewer lay people commit to meeting once a month to center themselves, to share their thoughts about life’s ultimate questions, the feelings close to their hearts, and the spiritual issues with which they wrestle. Small group ministry is an opportunity for both spiritual intimacy and ultimacy. We continue to add two or three groups every year, to foster the individual connections and intimacy that can be lost as a congregation grows.
Social Justice—The Social Justice Committee fosters and focuses the passion for social justice by undertaking hands on projects itself, and by providing an umbrella forum for the initiation, coordination and lifting up of social justice activities in other groups at UUS:E. Reverend Jeanne Lloyd, our community minister says, “Too many people think that spirituality and social justice are at opposite ends of the continuum, even polarized from one another. In truth, neither can be fulfilled without the other.” Social justice programs simply move shared ministry into our greater community.
We are now a band of almost three hundred adult members, with dozens of active friends who attend services and take active roles in our programs. No matter how much we grow, or what new programs we develop, we never lose track of our roots; this may be why we grow. The importance of sharing the pulpit remains our cornerstone of shared ministry.
Today we are beginning a new adventure in partnership with another young visionary minister. The words of the Reverend Joshua Pawelek, echo the original vision of our band of forty:
Perhaps the best illustration of shared ministry here is the balance between professional
and lay worship services. I believe it is essential to our spiritual wholeness that we
experience a multitude of voices from this pulpit, that we each have the opportunity
to speak from this pulpit if we so desire. It is truly the prophethood and priesthood of all.
Moving Forward While Looking Back
In 2006, we became an officially designated green sanctuary, realizing a long-standing goal of the society. Our commitment to “go green” represents a global shared ministry, and is crucial to our vision for the future. From the pulpit or through our actions, shared ministry at every level has never been a more powerful a force than it is today at UUS:E.
Thirty years after our first meeting house was built, and with the same pioneering zeal, we are undertaking a capital campaign to double the size of our meeting house and become the first entirely green religious building in CT, equipped with geothermal and solar heating. Our roots—shared ministry, a commitment to the environment, and the need to act on our vision—have led us full circle.
Yet, as we begin this latest campaign, we must and we will retain our commitment to the “still, small voice” in each of us that inspires and directs us to share our own ministries. That is the commitment that inspires us to grow.
… And they will come.
May their voices be heard. May their energies, their talents, and their spirits flourish in our midst.