Trough, by Judy Brown
There is a trough in waves, a low spot where horizon disappears and only sky and water are our company. And there we lose our way unless we rest, knowing the wave will bring us to its crest again. There we may drown if we let fear hold us in its grip and shake us side to side, and leave us flailing, torn, disoriented. But if we rest there in the trough, in silence, being in the low part of the wave, keeping our energy and noticing the shape of things, the flow, then time alone will bring us to another place where we can see horizon, see land again, regain our sense of where we are, and where we need to swim.
The poet Judy Brown explains that she wrote that poem based on very practical wisdom having grown up on the Great Lakes in the Upper Midwest. Brown learned that surviving very uncertain and precarious times—like when a boat goes down in choppy water—requires slowing down, trusting in forces larger than ourselves, and noticing the particularities of our surroundings, even if we can’t see any familiar landmarks. In such times, survival depends on our ability to release fear, to conserve our energy and to simply “notic[e] the shape of things,” as Brown writes, notice “the flow,” until we can “regain our sense of where we are, and where we need to swim.” This is sage advice for all kinds of transitions—in our personal lives, in this congregation, or in the larger world.
The first time I came back to UUSM after my ministerial internship ended in 2019 was in October of last year. I had agreed to come back as a guest preacher for two services, one in October and one in November. The themes for those months were courage and change.
I remember thinking there could not be more appropriate themes for where you were as a religious community, for where we all are, even still, as a people, a society, the world. Courage and change. Appropriate themes for an era of global pandemic; climate chaos; rising fascism; intense and existential battles over the rights of women, LGBTQ people, and people of color; growing wealth inequality; and changes to the religious landscape that impact congregations at the local level. Appropriate themes for an era of chronic disruption and the anxiety that spreads through our human systems, causing, in many cases, even more trauma.
It takes courage, I told you in the Fall, to live in a universe of constant and accelerating change. And the more intense it gets, the more courage it takes to stay. To stay with our experience, to stay with the present moment, to stay with uncertainty, fear, and loss. It takes courage to stay civically engaged in the face of rising fascism and violent extremism. It takes courage to stay in this religious movement of Unitarian Universalism, as it too is experiencing tension and conflict as it moves toward greater diversity, inclusion and accountability. It even takes courage to stay in this congregation.
I had virtually no contact with UUSM between 2019-2022, but I knew things were messy here when I agreed to return as a guest preacher in the Fall. I knew there had been conflict and loss, including a negotiated resignation with your settled minister that fractured the congregation and sowed mistrust among you. Your Director of Religious Education abruptly resigned just as this program year was beginning. And your building was in shambles. Beloveds, you really were a bit of a mess this Fall. I knew that. AND I also knew that you were not alone in experiencing such turmoil. Over the past few years many congregations have been experiencing similarly high rates of ministerial and staff turnover, conflict, and deep uncertainty about their futures.
Training for ministry in times such as this, I believe that our most important work in congregations right now is to build resilience, to grow our capacity to withstand uncertainty, tension, and most importantly, change itself. Learning to live well inside change, I said to you this Fall, requires us to move from an orientation of fixity and control, to an orientation of curiosity, flexibility and flow.
And here I am, some 8 months later, feeling compelled to say the same things. And that’s okay. Because there are no quick fixes to the changes we are living through—the uncertainty, conflict and loss. So we might as get used to talking about them and living with them as wisely and adaptively as we can. We might as well settle into the low point in the wave, together, assessing where we are, how we got here, and slowly and intentionally discerning where we’re headed next on our journey toward more love and justice. This is the work of transition, my friends. Transitional ministry.
In February, when I signed a 5-month contract as your “Gap Minister” for worship, we all thought I’d be saying goodbye (again) today. I was very clear that you would be better served by an accredited UU interim minister who was completely new to you, someone who could bring a fresh perspective, help you assess yourselves and begin to rebuild for the future. But guess what happened? More change! More uncertainty! Just over one month ago, you learned you didn’t match with an interim through the UUA process. With that unsettling news, we got a little glimpse of the surrounding waters. 16 other UU congregations looking for interims also didn’t find a match. The Transitions Office said they had never experienced anything like this before: so many congregations in search of ministers, so few ministers in search of congregations.
And so. The hale and hardy Ministerial Transitions Team went back to the drawing board (although they were well prepared, as they knew from the start they wanted to keep their options open). Nonetheless, when the announcement came out that you hadn’t matched with an interim minister through the UUA process, we all had to adjust our expectations. I had to rethink my fixed idea that you would be better served by someone else besides me. Which may well be true, but when that ideal minister didn’t show up when they were supposed to according to my well-reasoned plan, the one I was told in seminary was “the best” plan… well, I had to ask, might I be enough for now, at least in part?
There’s an anonymous quote I read recently: “What will mess you up most in life is the picture in your head of how it’s supposed to be.” Well, there are lots of things that can and do mess us up in life--I’m not going to claim primacy for just one of them—but that fixed idea in our heads of how it’s supposed to be certainly makes it harder to engage with life as it is!
Last month, I asked myself: do I have the courage to stay, despite the uncharted waters we’re in and the fact that I have other plans for the Fall? What might I continue to offer this beloved and imperfect community at this time of transition that would be sustainable for me, given my family and other professional commitments? And who else might help?
We are incredibly fortunate to have talented and experienced ministers in our area willing to be flexible and creative in meeting the needs of congregations right now. Rev. Stefanie has been an unwavering source of support, guidance and care during this gap period. And how fortunate that Rev. Terri, with her decades of ministerial and executive experience, is available and willing to serve in a transitional capacity here in the coming year. And, even more important, the intrepid lay leaders who have been ministering here with deep commitment, resourcefulness, and love over the past 14 months or so.
Let’s pause a minute, here in the trough between waves. And look around.
Look around at each other. How fortunate are we? All of us together—some of us in this cozy make-shift sanctuary, some of us on Zoom—all of us willing to try new things. Willing to experiment with new shared ministries. To welcome in new perspectives! To learn anew how to be a liberal and liberating religious community in these tumultuous times.
This isn’t the only time we’ll be in the trough, of course. In fact, life is full of choppy water. Sometimes we are in the trough of one wave while on the crest of another at the very same time! We’ve all got complicated lives, full of ups and downs, full of change. Religious communities are no different. But hopefully, religious community helps us weather the changes well in our individual and collective lives. Helps us be intentional in response to the big changes that happen. This is what transition is all about.
Change happens. But transition is what we do when we take time and space to consider how we want to move with the changes that have happened, how we want to shape ourselves in relation to that change. Transition is about allowing ourselves to hang out for a while in the trough of the wave. To acknowledge the loss, the ending of what came before. To be curious about the present—who and what are we now? How are we functioning? What is sucking us downward, and what seems to be flowing toward the light?
Transition is about taking time to re-envision our hopes for the future—who do we want to become? To reassess our mission and goals in light of the current context and the needs of the larger community. And only then, as we catch glimpses of a new horizon, can we implement plans for how we’re going to get there, together. Only then, when we’ve taken time to rest, assess, and re-imagine together in the trough will we know where we need to swim.
Now I’ve been using the words “we” and “us,” but really, this is about you. The UUSM community. Rev. Stefanie, Rev. Terri and I are all with you for parts of this transition, but really, it belongs to you. This is work that you’re going to do together, as a congregation. But you’re not going to do it alone.
So friends, here we are together! We’re leaving the “Gap Year” behind, but we’re not on solid ground. In the Fall we’ll be entering a period of intentional, active transition. You’re moving—I hope—out of the reactive mode of emergency stop-gap measures into a more generative mode of deep and intentional change that will prepare you well for your next ministry.
Now, some of you like to look on the bright side of things, which is great! And it isn’t hard to do, actually! A lot of positive changes have been happening around here! Growth! New and returning members. Strong lay leadership and a renewed sense of agency and ownership among you. Revitalized Pastoral Care and Worship Associate teams. Your first pledge drive in several years, and it was a successful one! An effective new office team with Kate and Stef, and a passionate new Director of Religious Exploration. Boundaried professional ministries! Progress on the sanctuary. All this progress is wonderful, and it’s real! And you should celebrate it.
And it’s important not to let the progress that’s happening distract you from the transitional work that still needs to be done. Transition takes time. It cannot be rushed. If you move too fast from the old to the new, you will miss the opportunity to shape your course with intention. If you move too fast to regain a sense of certainty and stability, or try to sweep the dirt under the rug and move on, you will miss the myriad possibilities that are present in the mess, in the breakdown of what came before, in the chaos and uncertainty of disruption and change.
Remember a seed must crack open for a plant to emerge. A caterpillar must allow itself to dissolve into goo inside its chrysalis to transform into a butterfly. Zen masters say: no mud, no lotus. And let me remind you that your mission here is to transform yourselves and the world.
So: let’s welcome the cracks, my friends! Let’s revel in the muck and the goo of change! The theme for the month of July is Play. While I’m gone this summer, the Worship Associates and Rev. Stefanie have some great, fun services planned. And the first two Sundays in August you’ll be guests at our neighboring UU congregations in Redwood City and Half Moon Bay. Don’t skip those services! They are opportunities to connect with your UU neighbors!
If the pandemic taught us anything, I hope it has taught us to value our connections, to grow them and strengthen them. Let’s not forget that lesson now. If anything is going to lend us stability in this time of change, it’s our relationships, our critical connections in larger networks of love and justice.
So, my friends, play well this summer! Rest, if you can. Replenish yourselves. Connect with the sources that nourish you, spiritually, emotionally and physically. That is what I hope to be doing before my next contract starts. So that I can return in mid-August refreshed, ready to rejoin you in the healing, creative work of transition! I am grateful to each and every one of you for your attention and your care. And I am excited to discover together, along with Rev. Terri, where you decide you need to swim, what you need to do to get there, and who you need to become.
May it be so, Amen, and Blessed be!