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A Fruitful Intersection

At the beginning of February, we came together as a community in a special congregational meeting to discuss a proposal from our neighbors, the First Universalist Society of Salem. The members of FUSS have determined, after much deliberation on their part, that they will detach from their historic building and allow it to serve a new mission as a center for the arts and social justice in the city of Salem. Consequently, they wish to find another congregation to merge their people and their history with – and they reached out to us as their prospective partners.

We, First Parish, had a comprehensive and engaged discussion. Well-considered questions were raised; some had immediate answers, and some will be resolved in the coming months. As your minister, I try not to speak too much at such meetings. It is the congregation as a whole which has the decisive say in critical decisions such as this. The authority, and all the responsibility that comes with it, rightly belongs to you. So, I got to listen, and my heart was gladdened by what I heard. I was particularly moved by one of you at that meeting who described the prospect of welcoming in a new group of folks, forging two communities into one, as a natural extension of the spirit of hospitality and inclusion that you believe defines First Parish. Sometimes I may flatter myself to think that it is my job to inspire you, but my small efforts could not possibly compare to the frequency with which you inspire me.

Ultimately, we did vote, and decide unanimously to begin negotiating a merger. A team from First Parish and a team from FUSS have just now held our first meeting to discuss the details and concerns that such a coming together will entail. There will be more opportunities to meet, to get to know, and to welcome the folks from FUSS in the months ahead, and ultimately a plan for merger – based on the questions, concerns, and feedback we have received from you – will be presented for a conclusive vote at our regular annual meeting in May.

If this process does result in a coming together of our two congregations – and at this point I hope that it will – it will be a major change for our congregation. New faces, new traditions, an entire new history will be added to what is already familiar and established. And, at the same time, church life does not hold still. Even as your leadership is working on this prospective merger, there are still other challenges to tackle and problems to solve. The weekly work of worship and service, of learning with and from each other, and of building compassionate community, continues uninterrupted. (The occasional freak winter storm notwithstanding.)

Among the many projects continuing on in parallel with the work of merger are the plans for my sabbatical, which will take place during the winter and spring of the next church year (2015-2016). This time set aside for study, reflection, and spiritual renewal is set out in the letter of agreement made between us when I accepted your call to be your minister. It will mean that I will be absent from the pulpit for longer than I have been in the five years since I took up this ministry. I and your leadership have already begun to plan out the financial requirements to ensure coverage for worship and pastoral care. I’ve begun to discuss with your staff what they will need in order to work effectively and comfortably in my absence. There’s a lot more to do in the nearly a year between now and when the sabbatical will begin, and there will be much more information forthcoming, and please feel free to bring your questions and concerns to me.

I know that either (and both) of these major events in the life of the church can be anxious-making, and their collision may seem odd, at first. But I believe this can be a fruitful intersection for our community. Learning to be one new congregation out of two similar, but still different communities is going to take a lot of working together – finding ways to get past the pleasantries and really reach a deep place with new folks. And a minister’s sabbatical is a time when the congregation gets to step up to a new level of authority and responsibility. It will provide ample opportunities, I am sure, for all of us – the new, expansive us – to better know and appreciate ourselves and each other. I won’t be present in the same way during this time: travelling a bit, reading and studying, and hopefully starting a new blog. But I don’t intend to disappear. I’ll be playing that same role that I try to play in our congregational meetings, just on a longer timeframe: watching with hope, and frequently pride.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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