I didn't suspect a thing. June
2 was "Portfoliio Day' at school. My students work all year
on portfolios and during the first week of June every year we
have a day in which they display them in the conference room and
the rest of the school comes to admire them. I had just returned
form the conference room when my classrom telephone rang. It was
Judy, my principal. "Can you come up here for a minute?"
she said very matter-of-factly although now that I look back I
also heard a certain gentleness in her tone.
My teaching assistant, Amanda was instantly aphrehensive as
soon as I told her Judy wanted to see me. "This isn't good"
she said. The first week of June is always the week that the
budget is released and typically it's the week that lay-off
notices are given. But despite that, I had no thoughts at all
that this might be why Judy was calling. I assumed there was
some issue with a student or parent. That is typically why Judy
calls us to her office.
She was waiting in her dorrway when I arrived smiling sweetly.
Judy is always smiling though. She is gentle, kind hearted person
and the teachers love her. She ushered me into her office and
invited me to sit down as she closed the door. Uh-oh. She almost
never closes her door. But still I didn't even consider that
Amanda was right. I assumed I was in trouble. The next thing
she said "You know we have a $600,000 deficit". Then
I knew. My position had been eliminated. Judy had tears in her
eyes as she gave me the news and I ended up comforting her a
bit. "I'll be ok" I said. "I've lived lots of
different lives" I told her how I had lived in Chicago
and Toronto and that I have been a teacher, a minister, and
a vocational counselor. I told her that change was an old friend
to me. I told her how I was coming back here this summer and
that I would be fine. And while I was in her office, I believed
it. She also wanted me to tell my assistant Amanda that she
would be staying.
I walked back to the room and Amanda was waiting anxiously
at the door for me. The students had left by then. She got teary-eyed
and hugged me when I told her the news. I comforted her. I assured
her that she was staying. I gave her the same spiel I had given
Judy about the many lives I had lived, that change is a friend.
I was that afternoon what we call in the ministry the "non-anxious
presence", the one person who comforts everyone else.
It was not until I was driving home that I let myself feel
what i was really feeling. I was not fine. Yes, I had lived
many different lives and yes change was not a stranger. But
the truth was, I had grown weary of change. I was tired of up-rooting
myself every few years. I was sick of being the new person.
I had naively thought I was finally settled for good. I loved
that job and I loved the continuity. The sameness. In four years
I had started to internalize the cycles of the place. Open house
was always the first Thursday night in November. We had coffee
and donuts every Friday morning (I know some of you heard about
that). I knew where in the auditorium my class sat for graduation
each year. I knew that everyone teased George Kramer for being
a cheapskate. And I knew that in the morning kids from Bloomfield,
Honeoye, Seneca Falls, Waterloo, and Penn Yan were dismissed
five minutes before everyone else. I knew 12 differnt routes
to get to school as I had taken all of the back country roads.
I was settled. I was home. Suddenly, it all evaporated.
I was upset. I was sad. I was angry. The good news is that
i am not unemployed. I have enough seniority that I am being
transferred to another school this fall. It's a school that
is closer to my house. It's a school with an excellent reputation
and a marvelous principal. But at first, none of that mattered.
It was like losing a pet and everyone saying "You can get
another one". But you don't want another one. The only
thing you want is that familiar pet. I could have been offered
a hundred thousand dollars a year to work one day a month and
I wouldn't have been happy. I did not want a new job. Period.
I wanted my same job with my same assistant and my same classroom.
The new program I will be working in is a special program for
severely emotionally disturbed kids. At the end of June I was
required to attend a three-day course entitled "theraputic
crisis intervention". The theory was that crisis can be
a growth experience if we handle it right. The first thing they
told us was that the chinese use two symbols to represent the
concept of crisis - danger and opportunity. Inherent in all
crisis is opportunity. It occured to me that I had been experiencing
a crisis of sorts. Whenever change is thrust upon us, we go
into crisis mode.
And while the Chinese use the two symbols to reflect the danger
inherent in crisis along with the growth opportunity, it occured
to me that the danger we face when change is forced upon us
is that we will miss the opportunity. That we will be so traumatised
by the change, so stuck in grieving what we have lost, so hung-
up on what is not to be, that we will miss the opportunity that
is being presented to us.
To seize the opportunity is to embrace change. Embracing change
is hard. I am not talking about adapting to change, or accepting
change, or adjusting to change. We all have done that. And I
am not talking about the changes we choose to make either, but
rather those changes that are forced upon us.
But often even though we adjust, we accept, we adapt, we still
view change as an unwelcome intruder, an interloper, a false
reality that has been suddenly subsitituted for the real thing.
My mother's best friend has been widowed for ten years. She
has adjusted ,adapted, accepted, gone on with her life. Yet
still, I get the feeling that she views her life as a rather
ersatz existence. "If Neil were here I'd never be doing
this" she is fond of saying. Neil was a pretty oppressive
guy and sometimes abusive. Her life wasn't her own when he was
alive. Now she travels, spends lots of time with friends, and
buys whatever she wants. She recently bought a car. When I was
admiring it she said "Of course if Neil were here I'd never
have bought this car, no sir. He hated Fords. Found-on-the-road-dead
he used to say". She hasn't embraced the changes that have
been forced upon her and have also given her the first true
freedom she has ever known. She'll settle if she has to but
she'd rather have her "real life" back thank-you-very-much.
Many nice men have shown interest in her but she brushes them
aside. "Why Neil would never approve of such a thing"
It's hard to embrace change. It's hard to open our hearts truly
to the experience. I have difficulty doing it. But I think that
to embrace change is to fully live. The Buddhists teach us that
grasping is the cause of all suffering. Trying to hold on to
things, to people, to experiences, to time will only causes
pain because we can't hold on. And while we are holding on to
what was, we are missing out on what is.
I am trying to keep this in mind as I am about to begin my
new job in my new school. I have visited there and have met
a lot of very nice people. There is a full time therapy dog
on staff. It is a nice place. But if my heart is at the old
school on the first day of classes, I'll miss truly engaging
with these new people and this new place. I can easliy see myself
that first day, thinking "I bet Judy is addressing the
staff right now. I bet Dan Paddock is lecturing everyone on
school spirit like he always does. I bet Jill McLellan has baked
cookies like she always does". Thoughts like these are
seductive. They will help to insulate me from the discomfort
of being the new guy. If my body is sitting in a brand new place
but my mind is firmly rooted in a familiar place of comfort,
I will feel better. But I will also miss being present to the
new colleagues who will want to know me and I am likely to miss
their offers of friendship.
Before you know it, there will be a new ministry at The First
Unitarian Congregation of Toronto. What an opportunity. How
much danger is there that this opportunity will be wasted? There
are people at the First Universalist Church of Rochester that
still have a hard time getting through a meeting without saying
"Well this would never happen if Mark and Donna were here.
What we need is a someone like Donna and Mark". In the
meantime, there have been two gifted ministers since Mark and
Donna. It's been fifteen years. For some of these people it
has been fifteen years of a susbstitute reality. What a waste.
What opportunities have been missed.
This is why when ministers leave a community, they leave it
completely and totally, and permanently. And whether or not
you realize it now, you are very lucky to have ethical ministers
who will follow this guideline of our minister's association.
In seminary, I heard a few horror stories about ministers who
retired and then installed themselves as members of the congregation,
continuing to perform weddings and memorial services, constantly
over-ruling the new minister when changes were proposed, and
subtley perpetuating the myth that they were indispensible.
Talk about creating an ersatz congregation, a substitute for
the real thing.
When a long and successful ministry comes to an end, there
is, of course, sadness and grief. But there is also opportunity
for all involved. There is an opportunity for new relationships,
new ideas, new programs. There will be a new energy among you
and that's exciting.
When embracing change it helps to remind ourselves of our strengths.
I have been doing that this summer as I prepare for my new teaching
assignment. This congregation has many strengths as well and
as you prepare to embrace change I'd like to share with you
the strengths that I see. You are already embracing change.
This summer I have been impressed at how much more empowerment
I see on the part of the members than I saw four years ago during
my internship. When I was the summer minister in 2000, I did
the entire service myself. This summer, I have only had to do
the sermon. You now have a wonderful, competent team of service
During the summer of 2000, I was on my own. This summer I had
a functioning committee on ministry who helped me negotiate
Tuesday morning meetings used to be just staff. Now members
and convenors attend these meetings and make valuable contributions.
Several members are now giving good sermons.
Every Sunday afternoon I see people tending the flowers and
other aspects of the physical plant.
You are a community of dedicated and talented people.
Don't miss the opportunity that is at hand. Don't miss out
on the adventure. If you belonged to this congregation at the
time that the building was renovated, think about what an exciting
process that was. Money was raised, plans were implemented,
sacrifices were made and at the end was the excitement of moving
into a brand-new larger space. If my memory serves me right,
I have heard that a bag pipe procession led the way to the building
on the move in day. How exciting that must have been.
What big project will happen during the next ministry? What
long unfulfilled dream will finally be realized? What sleeping
leader is sitting here in Sunderland Hall right now, as yet
unaware of the fact that circumstances will make bring out the
best in him or her?
Michael Durall's report to the congregation gave voice to much
yearning in this congregation:
"More social action and more visibilty in the community"
"More excitement" "A stronger core of something"
"Willing hands to do the work that needs to be done"
"A congregation that more effectively lives its values
in the community".
Which of these yearnings are about to be realized? Which of
them would remain forever yearnings if change were not being
thrust upon us? Which of them will your new minister be uniquely
qualified to help with? And what totally unforseen and wonderful
things will happen as a result of the synergy between this particular
congregation and your particular new minister? The only danger
I can foresee is that you might miss the opportunity.
Embrace change. See it as a friend. Welcome it enthusiasically.
My neighbor Margaret lost her father last winter. He was 89
years old. Her mother is 87 and not really able to live alone.
It was decided that she would sell her home of 55 years and
relocate to California to be near her youngest daughter. Margaret
was dreading the transition. Fifty five years in the same house.
Fifty five years of memories. Fifty five Christmas trees in
the same bay window. Fifty five anniversaries celebrated in
that dining room. Twenty thousand seventy five nights in that
same master bedroom. Her mother had lived in that house so long
that it was impossible to imagine her anyplace else. Margaret
had never experienced her mother in any other home. "It
was as if she were a part of the house" Margaret told me.
Margarets' siblings came and claimed things - her brother took
her father's tools, her sister had the diningroom set shipped
to California, Margaret herself took the birdseye maple bedroom
set that her parents had received as a wedding gift.
Then there was the public sale with strangers lined up on the
sidewalk an hour before the house opened ready to swoop in and
strip the place bare. Someone sold Margaret's wedding dress
by mistake. Another customer broke several pieces of china.
Somebody stole a lamp. Margaret had taken her mother out for
the day to avoid the trauma.
The last night, there nothing left but a set of twin beds and
Margaret spent the last night in the house with her mother.
In the morning she would put her mother on a plane to San Diego.
Margaret told me "I had been dreading that last morning
knowing that Mom would be seeing her home for the last time.
I couldn't bear the thought of us pulling away from the house
and watching Mom look back at the house knowing that she'd never
see it again. I cried most of the night anticipating it."
Margaret was in for a surprise. That last morning they woke,
had coffee for the last time in the built-in breakfast nook
and then it was time to leave for the airport. But as they pulled
away her mother never even looked at the house. And instead
of crying, her mother chuckled. "Would you just look at
me heading off to California" her mother said. "Who
would ever think an old lady like me would get a chance to start
a whole new life?" Margaret was astonished. In her own
grief she had missed the fact rather than grieving, her mother
was actually excited ,looking forward to one more big adventure
before she died. She wasn't just accepting change. She was embracing
Wouldn't it be great to be like Margaret's mother? What an
opportunity she might have lost! The only danger is that we
might miss the opportunity.
Thank you for my opportunity to return here this summer. It
has been good to renew old acquaintances and make new friends.
This is a good place. You are good people. I know you won't
miss your opportunity.