Twenty years ago today I was in the midst of an intense process of meeting with members of this congregation who would vote yes or no on the Ministerial Search Committee’s recommendation to call me to serve as senior minister.
Candidating week was preceded by nearly two years of work by that committee, in consultation with congregants and the UUA’s Department of Ministry. The task was to find the right person to fill the pulpit-to lead Sunday worship, to officiate at rites of passage, and to work with the Board and committees of the church to serve the vision of its founders and more recent members.
I was anxious. How could I leave Attleboro, where I had been minister for twelve years? The Director of the Department of Ministry asked to see me. We talked. He urged me to come to Westport. He said, “You’ve done what you were called to do in Attleboro. Westport will challenge you, and you are up to it.” Good advice.
I interviewed my three predecessors, the ministers who had served Westport for a total of about 20 years. I heard positive things, affirmations, and some warnings and more words of advice.
Candidating week began on Sunday, March 25. My sermon was titled ‘Being Real, Together.’ I used the story of the Velveteen Rabbit who wanted to be real, so he asked the old skin horse, who had been in the nursery for a long time, “What is REAL? Does it mean having things that buzz in side you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.” He explained, “It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.” Those words are deeply true.
Candidating week ended on April 1 with a 98% vote in favor. Four people voted no. I accepted the call, glad the vote wasn’t an unrealistic 100%. Some anxiety, disagreement and uncertainty is healthy. At the end of my first year I said from the pulpit, “Four people voted against my being called, and so far I’ve discovered seventeen of them.” Humor smoothes those sharp edges.
The Committee asked if I’d be willing to continue the candle lighting, which had been introduced by my immediate predecessor. I said, “If it’s working well, I have no reason not to continue.” Sometimes people misused candle lighting, making political speeches, or talking about things that did not touch them in personal, heartfelt way. We grow from our imperfections. They help keep to us real. Humble. There’s a special blessing for our imperfections.
I introduced our weekly Statement of Affirmation. There was some resistance, at first, because it seemed liturgical. With the candles, it has helped to provide the glue that holds us together. I’m glad I came, and I smile when I remember that our anniversary is April Fool’s Day. Keep smiling.