January 26, 2023

Dear UUSA,

When you called me as your minister in 2019, you included a sabbatical period in my letter of agreement “for study, education, writing, meditation, and other forms of professional, religious, spiritual, or personal growth.” Starting in about 2021, as ministers began to understand that the stress of the pandemic on congregations and their leaders would require a more complex recovery than we had originally understood, my colleagues came to realize the value of taking sabbatical leave as soon as possible, for the health of our ministries and congregations as well as our personal wellbeing. 

My hope is that in the course of my sabbatical I will recover the energy and clarity I spent on getting us through the pandemic. My sabbatical plan is to reconnect my mind with my body–for years I felt like a head in a Zoom square! I’ll tell you more about what that turns out to be when I return, but it feels important that this be a time of renewal and truly learning to rest again rather than one of accomplishment or achievement. 

In 2020, the ways we ran our congregation changed, accelerating the trend toward professionalism in congregations that has been taking place for decades. As member volunteers have less capacity to do the work of the congregation than in previous decades, the minister and staff take on more of those tasks. This was already taking place before the pandemic began, but the switch to all-Zoom services and social distancing changed everything. The staff and I, along with a small number of dedicated lay leaders, took on the bulk of the work of the congregation. During the sabbatical, the congregation has the opportunity to check in with one another and truly own the direction of the congregation.

You’re in good hands during the sabbatical because they’re your hands. UUSA has a long tradition of strong lay leadership. 

  • Sunday Services will be overseen by Alyson Bull and Robin Livingston of our Worship Collaborative. A cohort of members (Polly Peterson, Jennie Mack, Alyson Bull, Anne Louise White, Robin Livingston, and Kate Dahlstedt) are already hard at work at crafting services based on new and classic stories. Our Director of Religious Education Andrew Coate will lead several services, including a Beltane service and RE Milestones service. Our Music Director Brenda Miller and the UUSA choir will lead a musical service. Our Green Sanctuary Committee has invited Rev. Jo Murphy of UU Mass Action to speak. Special guest speaker Zr. Alex Kapitan of the Radical Copyeditor blog and Transforming Hearts Collective will join us for a Pride service in June. 
  • For pastoral care and needs, you can reach out to our Caring Team, led by Fran Plumer and Catharine Porter, as well as DRE Andrew Coate. Rev. Janet Bush of Northampton is also available for pastoral emergencies. 
  • The Board of Trustees will hold the practical details of the sabbatical, with Co-President Jeff Clark as coordinator. Congregational Administrator Lea Douville and member Mary Herman will support as needed. If you have a question about the sabbatical during the sabbatical, talk to Jeff!
  • The Committee on Shared Ministries (Mary Ann Gundersen, Bo Mack, and Jessica Murphy) are leading a reflection process on the congregation’s mission and purpose. I am excited to return from sabbatical to hear what the congregation has discerned with their guidance.
  • At the same time, the Board of Trustees will continue their thoughtful and collaborative governance and the committees, ministries, circles, and teams of the congregation will continue in their excellent work.

The sabbatical will begin on April 1 and last through the end of our program year in June. After my customary July vacation and study leave, I will be back in the office at the beginning of August and back in the pulpit for Blessing of the Backpacks on August 25. During the sabbatical, I hope you enjoy the beautiful sermons that our Story Sermon cohort is preparing, continue to welcome newcomers and connect them with the life of our congregation, and nurture the connections that make UUSA a wonderful community. Play, have fun, and be present to one another. Let this time of renewal be a time of renewed connections for you as well.

Between now and March, I invite you to reach out for a meeting with me if you would like to talk, for whatever reason! If you would like my input on something you are planning during my time away, or if we are planning something together for the fall, let’s check in now. You can make meetings on my calendar by selecting a time at https://calendly.com/revrachael . If none of the available time slots work for you, please email me and we’ll find a time together.

Of course, it is a justice issue that all work is valuable and all people deserve the support of sabbatical time. I am so grateful that you have offered this time to me.

In faith,

Rev. Rachael

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November 12, 2023

Dear UUSA,
December is a busy time in our congregation and, depending on life circumstances, in the other places of our lives. In these long nights, I invite you to come back to your quiet center, to take a moment to find a little bit of peace before rushing on to the next thing. Light a candle, sing a song, say a prayer, take a breath, have a hot drink, just sit still, or do whatever calls you back to yourself.
Our congregation had the opportunity to host the interfaith Thanksgiving service this year. If you did not have the opportunity to attend in real time, I invite you to watch the recording on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcDRnS1IHl0 Brenda and the choir created a wonderful space for us all, and my interfaith colleagues shared eloquently what is on their hearts.
We will honor Hanukkah and Winter Solstice during regular Sunday services, on the 10th and 17th. Christmas Eve is a Sunday this year; we will hold a children-and-carols service at 10:30am and a peace-and-candles service at 7pm. New Year’s Eve is also a Sunday, and Andrew will lead a NOON Year’s Eve service: arrive at 10:30 for coffee and snacks, and the service will begin at 11:15 with a New Year’s Eve countdown to noon for people of all bedtimes.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, our congregation was targeted by scammers. Unfortunately, congregations of all religions and geographic locations get these from time to time. Thank you for reporting these messages to me and to Lea. Please remember that I will never ask you over text or email to buy things to help me out.
I will ask you to make gifts to our Minister’s Discretionary Fund online here (https://uusa.breezechms.com/give/online) or to send your checks to our office with Discretionary Fund or MDF in the memo line. It has been a rough year for members of our community, and the MDF balance is running low. We use this fund to help one another out. Please donate to the MDF as part of your holiday giving.
I close this letter in gratitude for you, for all the people of our congregation, who remain committed to building a better world together, starting with ourselves, our relationships with one another, and our local community. You are a glimmer of hope in an uncertain world.
In faith,
Rev. Rachael
And just like that, it’s November! This year is going at a robust pace, and I am surprised how far along we are. Among other things, let this be your reminder to get your flu shot, fall covid booster, and any other vaccinations your doctor wants you to have. Our congregation’s ability to meet in person is dependent on our local community’s infection levels not getting too high, and it takes all of us to reduce risk.

While we’re at it, I am also beginning to hear of cold season ramping up. Even if it’s just a cold, we don’t want to share those germs either. Please stay home when you’re under the weather. DayQuil is great for helping you not feel terrible, but it doesn’t keep others from catching what you have! It is more generous of you to hand off your part to someone else than to power through. We are creating a culture of mutual care: we care enough to be flexible, to help one another, and to trust one another.

This culture of mutual care also extends to our congregation’s Minister’s Discretionary Fund. Through our congregation’s generosity, we have been able to support community members with medical needs, utilities, and legal fees. Due to great need, the well is running low. Please contribute whatever you can share to help our members, friends, and neighbors who are going through a hard time. Please send checks to the office with MDF in the memo line.

November is an exciting month in our congregation! From the Piano and Tapas event at Howard Apley’s house, to the Shingle Mingle on 11/12 after the service, to the Hungrytown concert on Saturday 11/18, to the Interfaith Thanksgiving service on Tuesday 11/21, opportunities for connection are abundant. As the evenings grow longer and the year grows colder, let us continue to find ways to be in community together.

In faith,
Rev. Rachael

April 9, 2023

Ramadan kareem, chag Pesach sameach, and happy Easter to you! This year the three holidays coincide. May you and the whole world be blessed with the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian shared prayer for peace. My heart is still singing last week’s anthem “Salaam / Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” which translates from Hebrew and Arabic as “Peace will come upon us, yet, and on everyone, peace upon us and upon the whole world.” May it be so.

This week I sent UUSA members a survey on the proposed covenant, as the Committee on Shared Ministries develops a final draft for a congregational vote at this year’s annual meeting. Thank you to those who have already submitted responses–they are very helpful!

Covenant Survey

The pledge drive has formally concluded, but we are still missing about 20% of pledge forms. You are very welcome to talk to me about your pledge, whether you find the process confusing, you are unsure how much is appropriate for you, or you have other questions that impact how you might pledge this year. Our pledge drive crew will also begin calling folks this week whose pledges we are expecting to answer any questions you might have. Your pledge matters, and we are grateful for your financial commitments and commitments of intention to our congregation.

Pledge Form

I am looking forward to our fundraiser event on Saturday, April 29. There will be a service auction, with in-person and online bidding. The committee requests your donations of experiences, talents, and maybe even better-than-tag-sale objects. Please talk to committee members (Anne Moore, Becky Sheridan, Deeya Pavelle, Eugene Herman, Fran Plumer, Jeanne Ballantine, Louise Grosslein) to offer your contributions, and please save the date for a wonderful celebration of our congregation.

As always, it is a blessing to be with you in the work of our congregation. May peace and joy come to you in this triply holy month.

In faith…

Rev. Rachael

March 18, 2023
Dear UUSA,

I’m amazed that we are already halfway through March. I don’t know how you are experiencing time these days, but for me it feels like I blink and a week or sometimes a month has gone by. A lot has changed in the last three years.

Three years ago, we committed to being an online-only congregation for at least a month that for most purposes stretched into years. We brought cameras into the sanctuary and learned new skills. We tried many new programs that met a need at the time–most of them have faded away along with the need.

What hasn’t faded away is the collective overwhelm and exhaustion of these last three years. For many of us, the world seems to have sped back up without a chance to recharge the profound energy we expended to make it to now. If you are overwhelmed or anxious or exhausted, please know that it’s not just you. You deserve the rest and connection that will restore you.

It’s not just you, and it’s not just our congregation. I recently learned that while 45% of adult congregation members volunteered in their faith community before the pandemic, last year it was only 15%. One third of the member-volunteers who used to do the work of congregations before the pandemic are doing it now. This is a national statistic across many faiths, not a UUSA count or even a UUA one, but I see it among us too.

More of us have had to turn down roles in the congregation to do other things, and I honor that discernment. Your considered no is as holy and life-giving as your yes. You know what you can do and what you can’t

What no longer makes sense for us to do in the congregation is to assume that “somebody will…” or “somebody should…” Somebody is not a member (or even a friend) of our congregation. Somebody’s work usually winds up getting added to the pile of things the board, staff, and I are already holding. Sometimes we make it happen, and sometimes it falls to the bottom of the stack. (I love how visible our Board of Trustees is these days, but I don’t love that this is one of the reasons they’re so visible.)

As a choir member, RE volunteer, or committee member, Somebody always disappoints–but real people frequently delight. The next time you have a brilliant idea, please do the work of staffing it with actual members and friends of our congregation. We’re all hungry for delight instead of disappointment and meaningful connection instead of isolation. Please reach out to one another and make those connections.

And please remember that I am here for those connections too! You can sign up for a meeting with me at calendly.com/revrachael –or email/call and we’ll find a time that works for both of us.

May spring bring you so much joy.

In faith,

Rev. Rachael

February 3, 2023

Dear UUSA,
So many wonderful things are happening in our congregation. Our congregational read of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States had a great first session. The Committee on Shared Ministries is hosting Covenant Chats to discuss our proposed covenant. Small Groups are having robust, meaningful meetings. Our new Reproductive Justice Action Group will meet on Thursday 2/9.
And have I mentioned that our Winter Appeal met its $20,000 goal? Wow! Thanks to all who contributed to this no-fundraiser fundraiser. Members are already beginning work on some community-building spring fundraisers and an action-packed pledge campaign too, so we have those to look forward to!
We are going to have a beautiful month together. In services we’ll hear about Indigenous culture alive and well in our neighborhood, the glory of gender, and Black UU ancestors, and we’ll sing some of the songs we’ve been longing to sing. Which hymns are you humming these days? Let’s sing them together! Use this survey to let us know what you would like to sing during the 2/19 service: https://forms.gle/2wcUUoEPTJQ6ALZm9
As always, it is a pleasure to journey with you. I love hearing your news, and I am here for pastoral care when things are bigger than one should bear alone. If you would like to meet with me, sign up at calendly.com/revrachael or call or email me.
With hope and gratitude,
Rev. Rachael Hayes

December 3, 2022

Dear UUSA,
Happy December! We enter this time of long nights and bright lights again. We have so much to celebrate–and so many holidays too.
We will have regular Sunday services on December 4, 11, and 18. We will also have a 6pm Solstice service on Friday, December 16. We will have Christmas Eve services at 4pm and 7pm.
December 25 and January 1 are on Sundays this year, and I polled the congregation to ask how you would participate in services if we held them those mornings. I also consulted with our staff and the tech volunteers who are so instrumental in making services happen. On Christmas Day, you are welcome to visit our Youtube channel for an on-demand service video. On New Year’s Day, we will have a service on zoom only, not in person. We plan to resume regular Zoom-and-sanctuary services on January 8.
I am deeply grateful to the many people, including tech, greeters, musicians, and staff, who are part of making these holidays bright. Your labor of love makes it all possible for us to gather and to rest in the beauty of these holidays. Our office will be closed during the week between Christmas and New Year’s for our staff to celebrate and connect with loved ones.
If you would like to give our congregation the gift of your time and talent by sharing a song, story, or reading to warm our winter days and nights, reach out to me! I am still planning services and making holiday plans. Likewise, if you have other ideas to share, I would love to hear them.
I wish you all a happy Hanukkah, good Yule, merry Christmas, and a wonderful month of December! And if it’s not happy, good, merry, or wonderful, please reach out. I and the pastoral care team are ready to listen. You matter, and we love you.
In faith and with so much love,
Rev. Rachael

November 11, 2022

Dear UUSA,
In November, my thoughts turn to how we tell the story of who we are. We begin the month in remembrance of our beloved dead. We hold elections for our representatives in government and vote on ballot questions about what kind of a society we want to be. We honor our veterans. We remember those who have died by anti-trans violence. We gather with loved ones to give thanks. We hold the Thanksgiving story critically and try to hear the true story of European colonization on this continent. We try to do better.
Who are we and who do we want to be together? A lot of my work as your minister has to do with this question. Who belongs in our congregation, and who’s left on the outside?
Those who attended our congregation before the pandemic began likely remember how we used to sing the closing song in a circle. I saw how happy it made you to look into each other’s faces as you sang. I also saw newcomers put on the spot to participate in a very vulnerable ritual. Some of them were happy to join, some went along to get along, and some did not or could not move into place. This moment served as a litmus test of belonging: approximately 55 minutes into knowing us, newcomers had to decide and perform whether they were in or out. Some people never came back based on this ritual. When we returned to singing the song, I encouraged you to hold hands with those next to you (or put your hands over your heart) where you were. This way we still sing as one but do not put pressure on newcomers to demonstrate that they belong.
I hear that some of you are missing this moment in the service, and I invite you to help me think of a way to meet that need to behold and be held in the love of our congregation without any sense of compulsion. If you would like to tell me your experiences of this moment or other times when you had a deep sense of who our congregation is, I would love to hear them. Send me an email, or call me up and leave me a voicemail.
We have the opportunity to build a community that truly welcomes the newcomer. Our rituals are one of the ways we create a culture together. What kind of culture do we want to create? Who do we want to be?
In faith,
Rev. Rachael

October 23, 2022

A Message from the Minister
Dear UUSA,

The leaves are falling, the colors are changing around us, and we’re trying new things in worship.

We’re launching a new program called the Worship Collaborative, a team of folks including myself, Alyson Bull and our DRE Andrew Coate. We will share the planning of all services throughout the year. We are starting small and gaining momentum organically, but it feels like a positive and thoughtful beginning.

Another new role you will begin to see on our chancel is Worship Associates, members who co-lead services by doing readings and reflections.

I will also teach an adult RE class called The Shared Pulpit in the new year to build and practice worship-leading skills together. We’ll talk about what’s in a service, why, and how to do it in a way that gives the congregation tools to help them get through the week.

I believe that planning and leading services is a spiritual practice, not just a job, and that it is our birthright as human beings to make meaning together. If this idea intrigues you, maybe you would like to join us. Please reach out to me if you are excited about joining us in planning and/or co-leading services. Let me know if you are thinking about participating in the class–I will try to schedule it in a way that works for everyone who is excited about it.

I would like to thank the Sunday Services Committee for planning and leading services for many years. You built the house where we now try these new things. Thank you.

I hope you can join Andrew, Alyson, Brenda, choir members, and many other people in our congregation who are taking the first steps into this new journey this weekend. I think it’s going to be lovely.

In faith,
Rev Rachael

October 7, 2022

Dear UUSA,
Our year is under way. Our building is getting a spruce-up (or a cedar-up, since the new shingles will be cedar). Our children are getting to know our new DRE, and he them. In our services we are talking about a mix of very old and ever-evolving things: the sources of Unitarian Universalism. Unitarian Universalism claims many sources, and so do our members. Our ingathering service represented all six sources, and since then we have focused on the power of wonder and direct experience, prophetic people who call us to do better, and the story of Sarah and Hagar from the book of Genesis during the Jewish High Holidays. We’ll also hear from Earth-based traditions, World Religions (but aren’t all religions world religions?), Christianity, and Humanism as we make our way through the year.
Each of us will encounter these sources differently, based on our own history and what inspires us now. Some services may be challenging, but religious community is not a retail experience. If something you experience during a service is not what you expect in our congregation, I invite you to look around (in the sanctuary or by clicking over to gallery view) to take in the congregation. If you feel like an outsider, there may be someone who is feeling at home for the first time.
We’re not all the same here. Though we have a lot in common, we have a lot more diversity of belief than we give ourselves credit for. We love one another enough to meet each other as we are instead of defaulting to a lowest common denominator of belief. So when something is not for you, please know that it’s just what someone else needed; when something fills your spirit, let others know!
My approach through these sources is to offer them by invitation. I won’t ask you to believe anything that contradicts your experience, but I will invite you to try on some stories and sing some songs to listen for what truth you can find in them. Maybe you find new wisdom, and maybe you find comfort in the fact that you made a place for someone else to find the wisdom they needed.
If you would like to be part of planning or leading services in our congregation, let’s talk about it! I’m working through the member interest forms, but you’re very welcome to reach out to me directly to get involved. As the year goes on, expect to see more member leadership in services, and in the spring there will even be an adult Religious Education class to give anyone who wants them the chops to lead services well.
Sundays after services during the fall will have lots of opportunity for members to discuss the business of the congregation as well as the covenant and topics introduced by the services. Watch your emails and listen to service announcements for more information.
It is a pleasure and an honor to begin another year with you.
In faith,
Rev. Rachael