ESUC History: Part 3, A Tribute to Joan Montagnes

The mid-sixties through the mid-two-thousand-teens, with particular attention to the nine-year ministry of the Reverend Joan Montagnes.

“The ESUC Story: Part III, A Tribute to Joan Montagnes”

Chadbourne Spring served East Shore through the first growing years, helping the church establish itself in the community with a church structure and a Religious Education Center. He was kindly and supportive—pastoral to anyone in need. He encouraged a good music program, too. He departed in 1966, leaving a self-sustaining East Shore with a cadre of excellent lay leaders.

He was followed by Chuck Reinhardt. The mid-‘60s were a marked by change and civil unrest. Conflict over racial justice, the Viet Nam War, and cultural influences epitomized by “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” roiled the country and many congregations, UU and otherwise. Here things continued apace, with contemporary worship and a strengthening of community through the establishment of extended families. But some things came apart. There was a spate of divorces among many of the founders, and Reverend Reinhardt’s marriage came unglued, too. As a single father he started dating again…sometimes including congregants. (This was not a violation of professional practice. After all, it was the ‘60s. But dating congregants—then, and now we understanding these dynamics so much better—is never good for their spiritual practice.) In any case, Charles Reinhardt returned to the East Coast and had a fine career.

East Shore hired their first of three Clevelanders to be their Fourth Minister: Stan Stafancic. A bricklayers’ kid from blue colar beginnings, Stan was unvarnished, wild and woolly—with a Harvard pedigree, a penchant for the intellectual, and wide-ranging curiosity, Stan and ESUC became deeply involved in many progressive political causes.

Leon Hopper was seasoned when he arrived in 1981. His eleven years at the helm ushered in a period of organizational stability, good programming, and campus development. He was followed by Peter Luton who continued these trends, at least through 2008.

There had been Associate Ministers, too. Two were effective and healthy all around, another short lived and unsetting. But overall, through the 1980s, ‘90s and the first six or seven years of the current century things were looking up and the church was thriving. It was in this context that the Board and then the membership as a whole, decided to call Joan Montagnes as Associate Minister in 2005.

Joan had known the Senior Minister, Peter Luton, through the Pacific Northwest District Ministers gatherings. They liked and complemented each other. By then in his tenth year, Peter knew full well what became obvious to me after only one: that the pastoral needs of a mid-sized Program Church are more than one pastor can shoulder. Calling Joan also brought gender balance to the worship and pastoral care. 

Her style was different. As in Joan’s Meditation that I read that we just followed, Joan’s imagery, indeed her whole ministerial effort focused on drawing energy from the earth, being grounded upon the earth, and connected relationally to the earth and all her beings. One member recalled Joan offering her home for a gathering with delicious refreshments and conversation before the delightful hike, reminding her of how Joan understood bringing nature, humanity, and human nature together to wonderfully beneficial effect. When Joan arrived from Moscow-Pullman where she’d been very loved, her job was to organize and focus the social justice efforts of the church. She had some successes, especially with the Partner Church Council and Congregations for the Homeless: but she was unable to be the catalyst for social justice she felt the church was longing for and needed. As time went on, Reverend Montagnes’s job morphed into that of Program Minister whose job responsibilities included Adult Education and Pastoral. Many have spoken to me about Joan’s sensitivity as a counselor. And as a teacher to the congregation.

It was Joan, with strong support from ESUC member Lee Vierling, who established the church’s Lay Pastoral Ministry—a very good ministry of this church to this day. It was during these years that the congregation adopted—or began tying to adopt at any rate—Policy Governance. Clarifying the church’s communication pathways, and matters of responsibility and authority became a church-wide concern.

Meanwhile, the world-wide economic downturn in 2008 had real-world effects here at ESUC when—as often happens when times suddenly become lean—pledges and membership numbers went down along with incomes and prospects. Including Joan’s, unfortunately.

Endings are often bumpier than anyone would wish. It is just their way. When I spoke with Joan at General Assembly she spoke very warmly about her years here in Bellevue, about working with Peter and others, and about her love of the PNWD colleagues and especially the mentoring relation ships she enjoyed with Leon Hopper and Alice Blair Wesley. All was good and meaningful and of value to her. She was, she admitted, disappointed that she hadn’t seen the writing on the wall a year earlier and left a year earlier. Like so many ministers, I kept thinking, “if I only tried harder; if I only loved more,” all would come out right, but the problems were, I think, more intractable. And then suddenly, without a lot of fanfare or much explanation, Joan Montagnes announced her resignation and, more or less quietly, reentered the job market. She did fine and landed on her feet nicely, Senior Minister of the UU Church of Buffalo, N.Y., where she and her husband, Martin, are very happy, close to her family and their family cabin in nearby Ontario.

But Joan’s ending was the first of three abrupt ministerial departures, all—in my estimation—without appropriate closure or celebration. Leading to unexpressed grief, which has led to a generalized lack of trust among the membership, and until recently, among the staff.

Churches are very fragile. They can be resilient, too. But human relationships are “touchy,” and can all-too-easily get thrown off kilter, out of joint. Sometimes, given enough distance and time they can repair themselves. “Healing,” wrote Hippocrates, “is largely a matter of time. And sometimes,” Hippocrates went on,” of opportunity.” That is, healing takes time, but sometimes other things come into play. Joan Montagnes didn’t even realize how isolated she and Martin felt out here or how great it would be for them to return to the area near her birth until an opportunity presented itself that she wouldn’t have even noticed had not all she was doing come to an abrupt end. And this was good for Joan, and for Martin, in every way. But what about East Shore? Peter’s equally abrupt departure a year later, and Elaine Peresluha’s quick good-bye not long after that, only added to general feelings of congregational disruption. Until last summer. How to put this period completely behind us?

We need to do two things, it seems to me.

  1. We need to properly hold up all three of these fine ministers and pay them tribute. So we can properly celebrate their contributions and properly mourn their departures.  And
  2. Stop “keeping score.” That is, stop ranking your former ministers and stop counting up who did what to whom.

Ministers are an odd lot. There are a wide variety of motivations that lead people into this work, some wholesome and others more egocentric. It is very demanding time and attention-wise. There is little job security. Some people may not like you, and when that’s true it sometimes happens that they make an effort to expedite your departure. There’s constant interruption. Everything one does is subject to constant appraisal and reappraisal. People are hip, and then times change and rather suddenly, they’re old hat. To remain vital and popular one has to regularly reinvent oneself. But you can’t reinvent yourself too radically or folks will think you’re flakey and unstable. No, you have to be ahead of the curve… but not too far ahead or you’ll end up all alone.

And being all alone is the biggest danger of all: becoming too isolated. You would think that the ministry, being such a public role, would obviate isolation, but it’s just the opposite: it invites it. The minister has a unique role and function and, by and large, the only people who quite understand its demands and stresses are other clergypersons. This is why making sure your ministers are attending district and collegial meetings is important. And with its endless evening and weekend committee meetings, ministry can be very destructive of family life, which is why vacation and time off is important, too.

But more on that in my next sermon in this series, on the ministry of Peter Luton. For today, let me begin to finish up by sharing my impressions of Joan Montagnes and all that she contributed to the East Shore Story. It had been a long time—since 1991, almost fifteen years earlier—since East Shore had had a woman minister on its staff. That was Barbara Wells. And meanwhile, between 1991 and 2005 the number of women going into the Unitarian Universalist ministry essentially tripled. Adult Education classes (Cakes for the Queen of Heaven and Rise Up and Call Her Name) celebrated the feminine aspects of divinity and elevated the pastoral aspects of ministry over the prophetic (i.e., preaching) dimensions. Congregations were looking for and seminaries were producing ministers with more relational acuity. It was less and less how clever one was, and more about how kindly and connected and available one was, how comfortable one seemed to be in their skin not how spellbinding they were from the pulpit. Of course, good ministers still have to preach and they still have to attend too many meetings and teach Adult Religious Education. But it’s more balanced. Women have brought much more balance to our ministry. And that’s a very good thing. And, as I said moments ago, they have brought more relational acuity. Joan Montagnes is an excellent example of these changes.

Her sermons were risky. The first one she ever gave here was on abortion. Following a sermon on the Tarot’s Fool as archetype of healthy trust in oneself a member mentioned that Joan’s remarks had brought her to tears. “I always live close to tears” said Joan. Kind of like, “I always have my heart open.” A risky, but very wholesome strategy for life, don’t you think? I do.  

Joan Montagnes was far from a perfect human being. And she was a very good minister. It’s crucial for us to remember that ministers lead with both their strengths and their weaknesses. Joan’s strengths included, stability, kindness, dependability, relational groundedness, and commitment to our faith and those with whom she lived and worked. Her weaknesses—always living close to tears, a little naïve perhaps about interoffice politics and intrigue, a default position of “if I only try harder”—while bringing Joan grief from time to time, are hardly besmirchments of any kind on her profession. They’re longtime liabilities but mostly because of the way they sap one’s strength. Her struggles here helped teach her that. As she told me last month: I am very happy, with closer connections to my neighborhood and family and more into the spiritual aspects of ministry—poetry and music—and integrating them into my ministry. I have learned what I need to make me happy and I have gone out and found it.

May we here at East Shore, beneficiaries of Joan’s many gifts to us while she was here, find the strength and clarity to do likewise.

So may it be. Amen.