Our Faith, History & Governance
First Parish in Needham is both the oldest religious congregation in the community and one of the most inclusive and progressive. Below is information about the Unitarian Universalist faith, our rich history, and our governance practices.
What is UU?
A Faith for Our Times
Unitarian Universalism is a rich, historic, unfolding and inclusive approach to thoughtful religious living. It affirms the spiritual truth of all humanity’s varied sacred paths, and its adherents come from a wide variety of religious backgrounds.
Rather than demand a common answer to the creedal question, “What do we all believe?”, Unitarian Universalists are brought together by covenantal questions such as “What hopes do we share? What spiritual resources shall we draw upon as we walk together toward the fulfillment of those shared hopes? And how shall we treat one another along the way?” The spirit of Unitarian Universalism is embodied in our Seven Principles and Six Sources.
Today Unitarian Universalism includes people who consider themselves agnostics, atheists, Jews, Catholics and protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, pagans, humanists, skeptics, seekers, and, ultimately, “just friends.” Together we form a diverse religious community that seeks to inspire everyone to transcend personal differences and to find common ground in the common good.
We are liberals in both that sense and in keeping an open mind to the religious questions people have struggled with in all times and places. We believe that personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion, and that in the end religious authority lies not in a book or person or institution, but in ourselves.
A long history of social justice-seeking that spans abolition and civil rights continues to this day with causes like the freedom to marry movement, environmental justice, and immigration reform.
We Are Unitarian Universalists: A Video Intro to UU
Unitarianism, Universalism and the UUA
Although Unitarian Universalism draws on many religious traditions, it originated in the union of two faith traditions:
- Unitarianism’s roots go back to the mid-sixteenth century in areas of Poland, Hungary and Transylvania where religious thinkers independently developed the understanding of God as one entity rather than a trinity. Unitarians thus came to regard Jesus as a key spiritual model, but not as divine.
- Unitarianism gained popularity in England and Wales in the wake of the Enlightenment, and gained a strong foothold in New England in the 18th century as liberal religionists called for a reform of the religion that had prevailed in Puritan times. Over the next two centuries, Unitarianism expanded throughout the US.
- The Universalists, on the other hand, believed in universal salvation. Like Unitarianism, Universalist ideas first came to America from England, leading to the founding of the Universalist Church of America in 1793.
- Universalism was more geographically diverse in its early years than was Unitarianism with early congregations in the South and mid-Atlantic, as well as New England. It was also the more evangelical of the two denominations, and over the years much of its growth came in rural areas of the growing nation’s heartland.
From early on Universalism and Unitarianism shared the basic values of liberal religion. By the 1830s both denominations were drawing on world religions in addition to Christianity. Both groups grew to include humanist voices that held that belief comes from within the person, rather than from some outside authority. And both Unitarians and Universalists were deeply involved in many of the most important social justice movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.
In 1961, the two denominations finally merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, of which First Parish is a member. Like all Unitarian Universalist congregations, First Parish is self-governed, with authority and responsibility — including the power to call and dismiss our ministers — invested in the membership of the congregation.
The Seven Principles and Six Sources
The spirit of Unitarian Universalism is embodied in seven principles, which we affirm and promote:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
As noted above, the living tradition of Unitarian Universalism draws from many sources. These include:
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
- Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
- Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
These principles and sources of faith are the backbone of our religious community.
Eighth Principle Congregation
Through our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee and other justice and educational programs at our congregation, we strive to live into this commitment.
The Eighth Principle reads that we:
covenant to affirm and promote journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.
First Parish in Needham is both the oldest religious congregation in the community and one of the most inclusive and progressive. The founding of the church on November 5, 1711, made possible the incorporation of the town.
Even at its inception as a Puritan church, the congregation at First Parish gathered on the basis of a covenant — a statement of shared hopes and an agreement about how to walk together — rather than on the basis of a creed, or required statement of belief. Ministers were, and still are, called by vote of the membership, and our governance has always been democratic.
As the parish church, First Parish served not only the members of the congregation, but everyone in the town (the parish). Its Meetinghouse was the site of town meetings for many years. The first Meetinghouse was raised in 1712 on Nehoiden Street, near Central Avenue. In 1720 Jonathan Townsend became the first of many ministers to be called to First Parish over the years; he served until 1762 and is buried, along with several other early First Parish ministers, in the Needham Cemetery also on Nehoiden Street.
The second Meetinghouse, built in 1774, stood at the same location. In 1811, First Parish acquired a bell made by Paul Revere, a bell that we still ring today at the beginning of Sunday worship and on other special occasions. Our present Meetinghouse was built on Nehoiden St. in 1836 using timbers from the pre-Revolutionary building. It is the oldest public building in Needham. In 1879, when Wellesley became a separate town and the center of Needham shifted to the site of the town square, the Meetinghouse was moved to its present location on Dedham Avenue.
Over the course of the 18th century, congregations like First Parish came to feel strongly about democratic governance in secular affairs, and many played a leading role in the American Revolution. By the war’s end, many of these parishes no longer preached the Calvinist idea of predestination, nor did they require even ministers to believe that God is a trinity of persons. Opponents began calling them “Unitarians.”
During the early and mid-19th century the congregation also came to include, and to call as ministers, “Universalists” who denied eternal punishment and affirmed God’s loving intention to save all people. (See What is Unitarian Universalism?)
The Parish maintained the traditional distinction between covenanted members (the church) and a wider constituency being served (the parish) for many years. But with the adoption of an “open covenant” in 1905, we made it explicit that no affirmation of belief shall be required for membership.
In 1944 the church formally merged into the more inclusive Parish. The congregational bylaws simply say that its purpose is “to provide a community where religious living is fostered through worship, study, service, and fellowship.”
- Attaining Welcoming Congregation status in 1999
- The renovation undertaken in 2007-8 to rebuild Parish Hall and renovate our office wing
- Obtaining Green Sanctuary status in 2010
The congregation is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (uua.org), which was formed by the union of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations in 1961.
For more information:
Record of Ministers
Charles H. A. Dall
James F. Hicks
George G. Channing
Andrew N. Adams
John S. Barry
George B. Emerson
Albert B. Vorse
Solon W. Bush
Charles A. Allen
Philip S. Thacher
William W. Peck
J. Adams Puffer
Arthur W. Littlefield
Ben F. Allen
Robert H. Schacht, Jr.
James W. Macdonald
H. Mortimer Gesner
Fred I. Cairns
Russell R. Bletzer
Jack D. Zoerheide
Charles C. Lemert, III
Peter T. Richardson
Robert E. Wolf
Judith G. Mannheim
John A. Buehrens
Catherine M. Scudera
Governance & Bylaws
First Parish Leadership
President: Eliot Jekowsky
Vice President: Jen Packard
Clerk: Leslie Nelken
Treasurer: Joan Mecsas
Auditor: Katie Barnett
Parish Committee Members (effective July 1, 2021):
- Susan McGarvey
- Dennis Ross-Degnan
- Vicky Makrides
- Peter Parnov
- Eva Jansiewicz
- Ann Barrett
The Parish Committee includes the four elected Officers, six other elected members of the congregation, and the (non-voting) Minister. They are elected according to the bylaws at the annual congregational meeting, typically in May.
The bylaws charge the Parish Committee with overseeing the programs of the church. As such they represent the entire congregation who are the people who carry out many of those programs.
The President signs all church contracts, conducts the annual meeting, conducts all Parish Committee meetings, and in conjunction with the Minister develops the agenda for all Parish Committee meetings.
The Parish Committee can be viewed as the central glue that pulls the various parts of the church together.
First Parish Operations
The members of the congregation run this church. Our congregation:
- contributes approximately 70% of the funds which are needed to run this church
- contributes 100% of the volunteers that run this church
At a congregational meeting, called by a warrant, our members:
- approve the rules ( i.e. the by-laws ) by which we operate
- approve the annual budget of incomes and expenses of the church
- approve the calling of the minister
- elect the four officers of this church and all voting members of the Parish Committee
The congregation does all of this under the guiding Principles and Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) with which our congregation freely associates.
First Parish’s membership gathers at least once a year in May for its Annual Meeting to vote on elected officers, the church budget, and other matters of importance to the whole community.
The Bylaws define the First Parish as a non-profit religious institution, outline the congregational structure, determine responsibilities and confer authority for carrying out the church business.
Our congregation’s bylaws specifically define the congregation’s voting requirements to call a new minister, approve the annual budget, elect the church officers (President, Vice President, Clerk, and Treasurer), and the Parish Committee membership.
Additionally they define the levels of authorization required for spending of church funds and identify what church committees should be, at a minimum, staffed each year (called standing committees).
As a member organization of the UUA, our congregation subscribes to the goals of the Principles and Purposes of the UUA which provide the over-arching values by which our congregation functions and support the democratic process by which we operate (i.e. one member, one vote).
Staff Positions and Their Roles
Please visit the Minster & Staff page.
The Role of Congregational Volunteers
The volunteers are crucial to the life of the church. Without volunteers the church is unable to fully operate.
Volunteers typically develop the ideas for church programs and activities, they then staff those programs and activities and related committees.
All volunteers who are legal members of the congregation have the same weight of voting rights at congregational meetings and are able to initiate action on behalf of the church.
The bylaws state that people who desire membership in First Parish merely have to do the following three things:
- subscribe to the principles and purposes of the UUA
- sign our membership book in the presence of the Minister or an elected officer
- contribute to church financially via an annual pledge or a stated contribution
There is also an expectation of service to the church in the form of some kind of volunteering.
Note: Members must be 16 years of age or older. To vote on items concerning money, property or the calling of a minister members must be 18 years of age or older.
For more information, visit the Path to Membership page.
Our Relationship with the UUA
Examples of these benefits include the help of the UUA’s District staff, religious education curriculum development, recruitment processes for ministers and religious educators, and the accreditation of UUA ministers.
Though the UUA facilitates ministerial searches, the choice on Ministers and staff rests entirely with the church.
First Parish does not receive any money from the UUA nor do we receive any subsidization of our paid staff from the UUA.
However, as noted above we do receive valuable services, as needed, from the District and UUA organizations and we are asked to annually pledge dues to both of these organizations through a formula based on a percentage of our overall annual budget.