2010 Annual Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism: Jane Rzepka

Presented by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations to Rev. Dr. Jane R. Rzepka

Jane Ranney Rzepka exemplifies the best of Unitarian Universalism. Raised in a Unitarian Universalist (UU) family in Mentor, Ohio, she is the oldest of five in a theologically diverse family. Jane thrived in our religious education programs, taking to heart the excellent wisdom offered: deep respect for different choices and ways of seeing things, gratefulness for her religious identity, and a patient, reasoned approach.

A graduate of the University of Michigan, Jane earned her M. Div. from the Starr King School for the Ministry and was admitted to fellowship in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in 1976. She was ordained the following year and in 1983 she received her Ph.D. in Religion and Psychology from the Graduate Theological Union. Jane has served three of our congregations: as associate minister in Winchester, Massachusetts, for five years; as the senior minister in Reading, Massachusetts for fifteen years; and for the last ten years as senior minister to the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF), our Association’s largest congregation.

CLF added more than one thousand members during Jane’s ministry, and CLF’s outreach through the Church of the Younger Fellowship, its prison ministry, and its military ministry has made Unitarian Universalism available to thousands outside of congregational walls.

In addition to these ministries, Jane is a minister’s minister. She has served twice on the Executive Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association, twice on the Board of Starr King School for the Ministry, and a full term on our Ministerial Fellowship Committee, credentialing new ministers. At the 1990 General Assembly in Milwaukee, she preached the Sermon of the Living Tradition to universal acclaim, and she delivered one of the principal sermons for her colleagues on the 25th anniversary of her ministry in 2002.

A minister’s minister, and a preacher’s preacher. For thirteen years, Jane co-taught a class on preaching with Rev. Ken Sawyer at the Harvard Divinity School. In 2002 she and Ken coauthored Thematic Preaching, essential reading for ministers new and experienced. And her Skinner House meditation manual, A Small Heaven, remains a classic expression of Jane’s capacity to use wry observation and everyday experiences to reveal the depths of life. Indeed, it is impossible for Jane to preach or write without, at the very least, a twinkle in her eye, although outright laughter is more common. Richly humanist in her theology, Jane is broad in her welcome, inclusive in spirit and substance, and always quotable.

Jane’s ministry is informed and nurtured by her loving family. In 1970 she married Charles Rzepka, and together Jane and Chuck have raised two extraordinary sons, Adam and Toby. With her family, camping under the stars in the Sahara desert, traversing the Tibetan plateau, boating down the Amazon, walking the streets and alleys of Prague...these are Jane’s unalloyed joys. Throwing her head back in laughter with her friends, eating a slice of chocolate cake with notable pleasure, refusing to complain about ailments, a consistently non-anxious presence…these dimensions of Jane’s heart are less known to those who only know her from books, pulpit or emails. Jane is one of the clearest articulators of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist: in word, in life, in loyalty, identity and honesty.

It is, therefore, with deep gratitude, admiration, and pride that we now confer on you, Jane Ranney Rzepka, the highest honor our Association can bestow: the Annual Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism.

Joan Lund, Chair
John Blevins
Rev. Peter Morales, UUA President

Jane Rzepka's Response

Thank you, Mark for those generous words. I can’t tell you how flabbergasted I feel—flabbergasted and honored, and I thank the committee and the board for knowing how much this would mean to me, even though I didn’t know til now myself.

As you pointed out, I have been a minister for quite awhile, and so I have words for every occasion—I have whole sermons. But I don’t have words for this, I don’t have a sermon for an occasion like this.

But I can tell you what it feels like.

When I was a baby, I was dedicated in our Unitarian church. I won’t be remembering the exact words, but I’m pretty sure the minister said something like, “Little Baby, in our religion, everybody gets celebrated. Everybody gets loved. Today it’s your turn, you get the rosebud to hold in your hands and chew on if you like, but, little baby, each of us is worthy of celebration.”

And then, all those decades ago, he probably went on to say something like, “I am holding you in a roomful of people who feel passionate about our religion. You are surrounded this morning by all kinds of people who are grounded, centered in our values and commitments and love of the world. And these people hereby dedicate themselves to you and to one another on this day and every day. Little baby, they will be your springboard as you make your name your own. They will be your comfort and your inspiration and your joy. And that’s a promise.”

Let me tell you who these people in that sanctuary were. We were a small congregation, a fellowship so small that each Wednesday in the summertime most everybody came over to our house to swim in our pond—Unitarian Wednesdays we called them. The pond was muddy, mucky, mosquito-y, full of cattails and clouds of algae and frogs and wily nipping fish—and, as it turned out, the pond was full of Unitarian Universalists, too. Every Wednesday.

So in my mind’s eye, when I think back to my spiritual development and those local UU heroes who helped form me, I see a collection—pretty vividly—of Unitarian Universalists, all ages and shapes and sizes, there in the pond, dripping with muck and slime, algae in their hair, mud between their toes. Those wonderful people, with their dedication to Unitarian Universalism and its community, are no different from the gathering here in this room. Minus the mud, minus the dangling algae, but otherwise no different, my friends, from you, local heros all.

I should probably use my time here at this mic for one last stab at prophecy, at wisdom, or even pithy critique, certainly at something distinguished. But it is gratitude that I feel, gratitude for you. You are the people who have fulfilled the promise of the words of dedication back when I was a baby. You have been my springboard, my comfort, my inspiration and my joy. You have kept the dedication promise, and I ask only that you keep on keeping the promises you make when you dedicate yourselves to your congregation’s babies.

I have sermons about equal marriage, and Transylvania, and forgiveness and the 4th of July, but I don’t really have a sermon for an occasion like this. I can only tell you how I feel, and what I feel is gratitude. Thank you.