East Shore History: Part V, 2015-2019

The four years following Rev. Peter Luton’s June 2015 resignation have been tumultuous… and bold. Notes on a year without a minister and the interim ministry of Rev. Dr. Elaine Beth Peresluha and ever since.

“The ESUC Story; Part Five: 2015-2019”

From 1994 through 2008 things went along pretty well here at East Shore. After a few years learning everyone’s name and establishing his credibility as a pastor and as a preacher, Reverend Peter Luton settled in to the long pastorate he had always envisioned for himself. Membership and coffers both grew. Not exponentially, but incrementally, year-by-year, the church was growing and—generally—things were thriving. Covenant Circles were introduced, successfully replicating some of the intimacy shared among longer-term members through the Extended Family Program, introduced years earlier. An Associate Minister, Joan Montagnes, was called. All continued on a generally upward swing for several years. But—all was not as rosy as it seemed.

What started in 2007 and ’08 as instability in the American subprime market and developed, with the collapse of the New York investment bank Lehman Brothers, into a full-scale international banking crisis by September of 2008. This was a third of the way through Joan Montagnes’ associate ministry. She had six more years among you, but with the economic downturn, she and Peter—and all of you—were paddling upstream. You kept it up for a long time, which was admirable, but it was a hard slog, and continually more demanding.

Meanwhile, other changes—changes other than economic—were roiling ESUC, the UUA, indeed, the whole country. Feminism and LGBT issues moved, throughout the ‘90s and early 21st century, more and more into the center of UU congregational and denominational life. Theologies informed by non-Western sources were cited by more and more UU seminarians as central to their faith. And this is not surprising at all, when one considers that beginning in 1993, competence in anti-racist and multicultural awareness became a requirement for fellowship as a UU minister—a requirement has only become more stringent in the ensuing years.

Another change in those years was the overall complexion of our UU ministry. By this I mean our UU ministry was becoming s-l-o-w-l-y more welcoming and supportive of ministers of color, yes, but also of ministers–of-all-types-not-male-and-older-and-white-and-tweedy. When Peter Luton arrived here in 1994 only about 25% of our ministers were women, and only a few had positions as senior ministers in any of our larger churches. By 2015 women made up half of UU clerics and many had prestigious postings. Meantime, new models of church governance became popular—like the Policy Governance model adopted here—models that empower the church staff to be as creative as possible in holding the church’s mission up before the membership and helping each other bring it to LIFE.

Peter’s lack of enthusiasm for administration is not uncommon—few if any of us go to seminary because we want to be church managers. We want to me ministers. But the root of administration is ministry and always has been: making thing smoothly work, helping everyone feel included, lining up things so that everything falls together in the appropriate manner and at the right time. Peter’s habit maintaining a close-to-the-vest administrative style—unconscious though I suspect it was—kept the rest of the staff perpetually uncertain where things lay. And where they lay? Especially as the economy continued to but limp along and staff turnovers grew, a sense of “who’s on first?” uncertainty prevailed. During her years in Bellevue, Joan had provided excellent gender balance among the senior leadership. Once she left, however, Peter’s leadership style suddenly appeared even more “CEO/Lone Ranger”-like than before…and maybe it was for, as he himself admitted to me, he became more and more isolated at the end of his East Shore years.

But my point is: by this time there were lots of collaborative, non-hierarchical leadership models out there. Peter could have adopted some. The church did adopt Policy Governance, but idiosyncratically nuanced to reflect Peter Luton, rather than the other way around. And so things stayed essentially the same—and that meant everything went through Peter. Such a model works well when the major domo is a crack administrator, less well when they’re not. Staff distress led to a rash of turnovers; those staff members who longed for more collaboration and transparency made their wishes known. And some Board of Trustees members gently supported them.

The added job responsibilities following Joan’s departure were mostly what led Peter, a year later, to himself throw in the towel. But working with an insistently more interactive staff had something to do with it, too.

The abruptness of that decision and its late May 2015 timing, threw things into confusion.  There are protocols whenever a minister resigns, especially one who has been around for a long time. Following custom, Peter asked nearby colleague James Kabul-Komoto, to negotiate the terms of his negotiation with the Board. James negotiated a good severance package for Reverend Luton, but no one informed the Board that they were entitled to an advocate, too, such that a generous but less financially extracting settlement might have been reached after all. It all happened so fast….

As noted there was a great deal of staff turnover. DLL Aisha Hauser and Board President Beth Wilson were forced to step up, which they did. Worship Committee Chair, Doug Strombom, suddenly had months (not weeks) of worship services to plan; to simplify his and his committee’s work, Sunday services went from two to one. Jason Puracal was hired as Director of Finance & Operations. One by one, new caretakers, and a new bookkeeper and a Membership Manager came on board; order—a somewhat new order—returned. And as the church’s financial outlook improved (ever so s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y) a decision was made: in April 2016 Reverend Elaine Peresluha was hired as Interim Minister.

Her credentials were very good, she was available, and a contract was signed. It was for just over one year—fifteen months.

Now I am very familiar with the Interim Ministry program. There’s a precise and demanding two-year time frame, and works kind of like this:

  • if you get all the church pretty much all on board and working collaboratively, and
  • if together you all follow through on all the five focus points with conscientious deliberation, and
  • everybody works very hard,

it is still a two-year time frame. I served a UU congregation in Redwood City, California (1/3 this size) and did what I could to accomplish the Interim Ministry program in just a year. It kind of worked…except that the great minister they settled that spring lasted only three very tumultuous years. And left vanquished both emotionally and physically. Now the Redwood City congregation is involved in a developmental ministry as we are here—to give everyone enough time to make the structural and cultural changes that will bring the church back to a truly spirited vitality.

In any case, Elaine had a lot to do and—daunting as the prospect of trying to accomplish in five quarters what’s designed to be an eight-quarter job—she jumped right in and tried her level best. The metaphor I like to use is of her climbing on this quarter horse—you guys—and ridding her as fast as you would go around the track. “We’ve got a lot to accomplish, team: ‘Let’s go!’”

Having hired Elaine, there was some confusion—at first—over her authority to help with goal setting, supervise staff, and implement changes. In short order, however, Elaine and the Board worked all this out.

East Shore had embraced a Policy Governance or Carver Model organizational structure almost a decade earlier, under the guidance of Paul Fussell. It was imposed more than adopted and, in many respects, was an idiosyncratic reflection of Peter Luton’s leadership style. With him gone, everybody was left more or less scratching their heads.

Now ministers are asked to be able to do many things. This picture of Reverend Peresluha on the cover of the bulletin was taken during her introductory sermon as your interim minister, in which she invited ESUC members to contemplate all the many areas of pastoral and community and managerial and spiritual life (and the list goes on and on): all the areas of church life in which we are called upon to be competent. And no matter how good we at some aspects of this ancient craft, none of us are good at all of the many things we are called upon to do. And clearly one of Elaine’s strongest gifts was in administration. She was organized. And she understood organizational structure. And—for the first time and in fairly short order—she made sense of ESUC’s policy governance and helped the Board get happily and effectively on with it. “Oh! That’s how this is supposed to work!” So Elaine worked well with the Board, who appreciated her skill as a church systems analyst.

She also worked well with the staff, which had been disjointed themselves and, in some cases, distrusting of one another. Moreover, with so many departures there was anxiety: who would be the next to go? Reverend Elaine took immediate steps to turn that around. First, she got ESUC’s pay structure to conform with midpoint UUA guidelines for similar church positions and, second, Elaine arranged to take a compensatory pay cut in her own salary to make it all work out on the church’s balance sheet. Not surprisingly, the staff loved Elaine, even more than the Board.

When it came to the church as a whole, Elaine jumped right in with the Five Developmental Tasks, starting with #1: Help the church get in touch with its history, both its triumphs and its periods of controversy. She made a beautiful timeline and invited members to add to it and make it their own. She also addressed some of the issues that had been roiling beneath the surface for some time.

In my remarks two weeks ago I quoted Peter Luton that all UU ministers search for narratives that hold the community and its deepest, shared values together as sacred. There is a divine energy available to us as individuals and as a community: an energy that heals, unites, and transforms.  “If things are moving along well and people feel connected,” Peter went on, “the mission is so implicit that folks don’t get sidetracked.” But eventually they did… and things slowly unwound. 

Peter Luton is: all UU ministers are regularly looking for integrative narratives that hold the community and its deepest values together. And here’s the thing: Since the years when Peter and I attended seminary much has expanded regarding popular UU integrative narratives. This began in 1993 with the election of ESUC member Paul Buehrens’ brother, John, as UUA President in 1993. Since that time our seminary and denominational leaders, as well as UU lay delegates at a series of General Assemblies, have made anti-racism and multicultural awareness increasingly central to ministerial formation and certification.

In a beautiful essay entitled “A Struggle to Inhabit My Country” Rebecca Parker, recently retired President of the Unitarian Starr King seminary in Berkeley, describes her own coming of age as a white person. “To come of age in America as a white person,” she writes, “is to be educated into ignorance. It is to be culturally shaped to not know and not want to know the actual context in which you live.” In her case, to not know anything about the many local Indian tribes living nearby her youthful home here in Washington state, or what went on in their communities, or among the Chinese or Japanese or Spanish-speaking or African-American communities also in her midst. Her reeducation began with a near death experience that helped Dr. Parker realize what a small country she was living in—and began her quest to expand it by expanding her of sense self: to include people of all races, their stories becoming hers as well.

Keep in mind Peter’s maxim: “If things are moving along well and people feel connected, the mission is so implicit that folks don’t get sidetracked.” However… when things do get sidetracked, we need new narratives to draw us back in. We need to draw a bigger circle that includes more of the country in our midst, a circle not “centered in whiteness,” as it were, but centered more broadly across the whole cultural spectrum from East to West… and beyond.

As noted, the ESUC Board and the staff all liked and respected Elaine. She was able and hard working. She was a straight shooter. She could get overly excited from time to time, it’s true, but she’d make amends quickly if she saw that she had upset you. Her focus on governance, staff development, and stewardship made practical sense, was thoughtfully shared, and effectively implemented.

As I’ve tried to make clear throughout this sermon series, ministers lead with both their strengths and their weaknesses. Elaine’s strengths included her exuberance, keen analytical mind, sense of moral clarity, and her capacity to see people—especially those along the margins—and reach out to them. Church member Rhonda Brown shared the following with me, “Elaine tried hard to serve historically marginalized groups. She was willing to learn and challenge her own views, which inspired me and enlisted my allegiance. I appreciated her honesty, and her willingness to engage in difficult conversations around “touchy” issues. Elaine addressed things rather than dancing around them—which was altogether new at ESUC.” By way of example, Rhonda shared with me of a church gathering she attended where participants listed 15 top priorities they wanted ESUC to get involved with—and there wasn’t a single one for racial justice work. As this was going on, Elaine took it all in and just watched. But moments later, she looked at Rhonda and silently mouthed, “I see you.” This really touched Rhonda. As anyone is touched when they are, for a change, truly seen. “Elaine’s ability to meet people where they actually are was, in my case, healing.”

Her honesty when speaking prophetically from the pulpit, while refreshing to many, was not… always… so healing. It’s worth noting in this regard that in East Shore’s 66-year history to that time, Reverend Peresluha was your first female senior minister. Meanwhile, cultural and political issues roiling the country have been playing out within the UUA, too. UU leaders both lay and professional, and delegates to the last twenty-five+ General Assemblies have been inviting all Unitarian Universalists to use (or at least consider using) an anti-racist multicultural lens in their faith development. Some people, it’s true, are gentler when issuing this invitation than others. And some were particularly upset with the Elaine’s vocabulary—taken directly from denominational teaching materials—when she called upon our membership to recognize the white supremacy culture in which we all dwell. “Is she equating me with Bull Connor and David Duke?” No. She was not. But she was asking you—us, actually, all of us—to recognize the countless ways we don’t see people. People in our midst who have an incredible amount to contribute to our UU movement, but who will never get a chance when we don’t see them, when we don’t expand our sense of identity and invite them in. This means  (among other things) expanding the ways we do worship. And the priority we give to racial and social and economic justice issues affecting our community, including many folks sitting (or wanting to sit) in this room every Sunday.

Meanwhile, a Search Committee had been hastily put together to begin the search for a settled minister. They no sooner got started than they reported back to the Board that the church was not ready and that would-be applicants were apparently happy to let them know this. No church Mission Statement. No Vision Statement. Potential candidates were all saying, “Call me when you get your act together.” So the Search Committee folded. At this point the Board made a fairly quick decision to extend Elaine’s contract for an extra two years—but this set off a backlash. She’s been whacking this old horse pretty hard, remember, and by the time she was belatedly offered enough time to actually get the job done without a riding crop, it was too late: her prophetic voice—not her other activities, but her prophetic preaching on anti-racism—had come off as too confrontational to some of our long term members. (Incidentally, she learned her lesson and now strives to be gentler in her soon-to-commence developmental ministry at the First Universalist Church of Denver).

In the end—and following an emotionally charged consultation—she stayed through mid-June 2018. Some felt wounded at her departure, feeling that ESUC had for years been sweeping stuff under the rug—white supremacy, patriarchy, financial anomalies, tax, organizational, and staffing issues… and more. Simultaneous with Joan’s departure some of these things started to “leak out.” Following the departure of the Director of Financial Operations and three other staff members, debris bulged out along every carpet edge. Then Elaine showed up, took one look, picked up the rug, and threw it away.

So this was the situation when I arrived thirteen months ago today. After a long period of relative stability: suddenly many changes, including the sudden departures of three fine ministers. Ministers who led with their many strengths… and with their weaknesses, too. I have put together this sermon series that I might commend these three good people and the holy work they did among you. Let us bless them. And let us bless, also, the noble work we seek to do at their side. Amen.