ESUC History: Part IV, A Tribute to Peter Luton

Rev Stephen Furrer on The ESUC Story, Part IV, with a special tribute to Peter Luton, Minister here from 1994 to 2015. During worship, we will also recognize all those members who turned 90+ this year. After worship we will gather for cake to celebrate.

“The ESUC Story: Part Four, With a Special Tribute to Peter Luton” 

This continues my Sermon Series on ESUC History —

Lon Ray Call, Chad Spring, Stan Stefancic, C. Leon Hopper, and then 

  1. Peter Luton was called as your 4th settled Minister in 1992.
  2. Meanwhile a dearly loved Associate, Joan Montagnes, had been called, too. 
  3. Reverends Joan, Peter, and then two years later, Elaine Peresluha—all left ESUC abruptly, leading in my estimation to widespread feelings of unexpressed grief.  

But there’s always some inner turmoil happening in any community. Indeed, Peter pointed out to me that there’s a history within this church (a long one, actually) of both respect for ministry and of distrust of ministry. If healthy systems are resilient enough within organizations, then ultimately they’ll prevail and the organization will thrive. All ministers work hard to encourage just that, and Peter Luton was no exception, working to outlive some of those mistrusts of leadership. There were lingering issues from years before. He told me of the occasion when Dorothy Hopper had to ask the church secretary Pat Davenport to take from her desk the photograph of another former Minister, Chuck Reinhardt. In retrospect many people realized that there was controversy and mistrust and that overall, it wasn’t all that wholesome. The Wednesday evening potluck came about because some members, experiencing distrust, started meeting on Wednesday evenings. Peter just kept plugging away, working to build back up trust. Then at one point and after he’d been here a few years, Peter did a memorial service and afterwards Walter Andrews and Ron Hammond pointed out that the distrust was ebbing. And the church began to grow. 

By the late 1990s, the congregation sought to sustain and build what Peter referred to as “a vertical dimension” into ESUC. When he arrived in 1992, the congregation was much more of an Athenian Democracy: that is, they were consulted on every decision. Verticality was increased by adding an Administrator who did a lot of supervision, allowing the minister to focus on other things. In a lot of ways, the old governance structure had the Minister and the Board acting as equal co-leaders. Once the church went to Policy Governance structure, the Minister no longer had to consult with the lay leaders anywhere near so much—though it’s always prudent to confer with and include the Board of Trustees for its wisdom and historical memory. 

As Laurie read in Wenda Collins’s poem, Peter Luton was a very good preacher. And clearly he enjoyed leading Sunday worship, the gathering of community. He shared with me, in particular, his joy in baby and child dedications, and the annual Salmon Bake and Christmas Eve services. And leading Adult Education programs, which he did less of after Joan arrived. About half way through his tenure (i.e., around the year 2000) Walter Andrews, Milly Mullarky, and Janet Garrow were on the Committee on Ministry when Janet brought to the committee’s attention the changing demographics of Bellevue. The Committee on Ministry tried to focus not on what the Minister’s doing, but what’s happening globally that the Minister and the rest of us should be attending to. Peter loved working with Bob Kechley and appreciated how he was responsibly Bob guided the changing role of music in our worship. He went to G.A. and responded to all he learned—something that our current Music Director, Eric Land Barnes, has picked up on and followed suite.  

Peter and his wife, Linda, loved living in Bellevue and raising a family here. It was a diverse culture and adopting a Korean child was easy among many other Asian kids. They both made good friends and did well.  

As I’ve noted repeatedly throughout this sermon series, ministers lead with both their strengths and their weaknesses. For Peter, it became clear to him and others that he was not a good administrator. He had many wonderful attributes, but administrative facility was not one of them. For about ten years we had Tom Taggart here: a true blessing—Tom had worked at an administrative role at the University of Washington for 25 years. He was great, but things began to unravel once he left. And when things start to slip, the Minister can easily find her or himself in trouble. How isolating ministry can be! As all of us eventually learn, we can love the people we serve, but they’re not really “friends”. That’s part of ministerial discipline. That was one reason, Peter told me, that he felt the need to support Joan as much as he did. “We could actually talk to one another about ministry and what was going in in our lives. 

Actually, the church did quite well by Peter when it came to supporting his family. The church was very respectful of Linda’s privacy and exerted no pressure on her to take on a symbolic role—which was very different from how things had been with Peter’s predecessor, Reverend Leon Hopper and his wife Dorothy Hopper. Peter told me that he had some guilt about how available he was, but none about bringing church home. The Lutons lived nearby and Peter worked a lot at his desk in the Administration Building: three or four nights a week and most Saturdays. This created a huge motivation for getting a 2nd minister. Laypeople with ideas were empowered to implement them—and as a result the laity set much of the agenda. The downside was some programs were not all that strong. Just keeping track of them was demanding. Plus, each program has its own constituency and shutting any one of them down can, sometimes, create ill will. 

What was Peter’s guiding principle? “The theme of my ministry: spiritual growth and transformation occur within a community of value, faith and hope. My call was to nurture and invoke the spirit of the divine within each so we can heal, transform, and unite. I tried to do this within the church by creating safe, loving, welcoming space where people were invited to get comfortable and then given the tools and cracked open enough so that they can change—none of which is easy. That kind of change involves a tremendous amount of compassion for others, extending broadly outward and leading to justice, peace, and more. The challenge, particularly toward the end of my ministry, was the need to minister more and more to the institution than to the members. Even as the congregation added the administrator, my primary relationships more and more with the staff… leading to more isolation. (I know for myself—but this took years to learn—that whenever I’m in a quandary and baffled about what the church needs to do, I arrange for some parish calls and talk to the members. They’ll tell me.)  

According to Peter Luton (and here I completely agree, the church’s goal, its purpose, is transformation both personal and social. Sustaining a compelling and transformational vision is never easy and often very difficult. Especially for Unitarian Universalists, who need to keep finding new metaphors to effectively capture what we’re about. This makes continuity hard. All UU ministers search for narratives that hold the community and its commitment to our shared, deepest values, as sacred.  “If things are moving along well and people feel connected, the mission is so implicit that folks don’t get sidetracked. We did do a lot of good work. I was disappointed in the way it unwound. It was kind of a slow unwinding.”  

Theologically, Peter’s work was informed out of the Universalist side of our tradition. God is Love. God becomes manifest as the power that heals, unites, and transforms. That’s the holy energy, the sacred action. Like me, too, Peter was influenced by the Process theologians and the Existentialists (Don’t wait on God. We’re the hands. We gotta do it.)  

Without staying connected to our core values we avoid the faddism that Unitarian Universalists are prone to. Learning that one has to lose one’s soul to find it: that’s transformation. Letting go of the shopworn so we can experience the new. These are universal dynamics. These are what churches are privileged to deal with.  

All ministers testify to the highpoints of hope and possibility that sustain us. An opportunity to “meet” others in a Quaker Way. Times around death when people respond in kindness to one another and step up to comfort and support the survivors. All the moments that make us able to be thankful for the Life: the major holidays, the Coming-of-Age and the Youth Sunday services. Seeing the youth shine and reveal their grounding in good moral strength and capacity.   

Of course there was the building expansion, the new lobby, and the RE Building: these were exciting because of the ways they enabled us to expand our service to the community and the wider community. That was the important part.  It was curious that during one of the campus building projects the special “Reserved for the Minister” parking space nearest the Administration Building was eliminated. Peter, modest fellow that he pretty much always was, told me that although he didn’t want really the parking space, and that he often walked to work and couldn’t use it, he found it telling that no one asked him about it or seemed to even notice….  

Right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks this place was packed. Most of those people did not ultimately choose not to affiliate with us, but the church did meet their temporary needs, and this was a very good thing. Plus you did really good work interacting with the nearby Islamic community when Gulf War II broke out. 

One of Peter’s most significant accomplishments was instituting the Covenant Circles, which have provided “intimacy and ultimacy” to scores of our members ever since. Peter was proud about his part in starting the Covenant Circles at ESUC.  

Ordination and ministry are a tremendous privilege. But it’s also pretty damn hard. Peter did not realize how exhausted he was until he retired. “I left my prior congregation in Yarmouth, Maine, on the cusp of change before there was a crisis. I left ESUC in much the same way, admittedly on too short a notice. But it was the best I could do.” 

“I always appreciated and wanted a long ministry,” Peter confided to me. “I know when a long ministry ends, there are usually a series of challenges for the successor. ESUC is a good community with good people and will figure itself out. Transition times are sometimes awkward. I have remained distant out of professional propriety, as would be expected, but also because I’m done. People need to know: I’m retired.” 

*     *     *     *     * 

Here’s what I think: Peter Luton was a truly fine Minister who served this institution and its members for 21 years and by all rights he should be your Emeritus Minister. He left in a huff, which was admittedly bad form, but after many years of toiling in this vineyard as your preacher, confessor, confidant, counselor, and spiritual leader he was simply worn out and exhausted.  

He was a great preacher, a very good pastor, and a sweet, dependable man. As a storyteller, he was unsurpassed. Still is. As Tom Doe put it, “During a time when story telling was very big on public radio, Rev. Luton seemed to channel an inner Garrison Keilor.” 

I would feel good if a concluding story told about Peter’s ministry here becomes that he was eventually honored as your Minister Emeritus, not only for the twenty-one years he put in, but for his twenty-one years of good, wholesome work on your behalf.  So may it be.  And so may it fittingly be one day soon. Amen.