First Parish in Needham Logo

23 Dedham Avenue
Needham, MA 02492

On Sunday, May 20, we gathered for our Annual Congregational Meeting. After covering much business, we came to Article VII, which asked us to consider naming Reverend John Buehrens Minister Emeritus of First Parish. The discussion of this Article revealed that, while John brought many gifts to First Parish — a strong presence in the pulpit, fundraising skills, leadership of an ambitious rebuilding project, and many important contacts within and across denominational bounds — there had been previously unrevealed conflicts with the Parish Committee and other parishioners, leaving them feeling belittled and dismissed. Many of us were surprised and shocked. The motion to name John Buehrens minister emeritus failed.

Concerned about the revelations at the Annual Meeting and after receiving more than 40 email responses and numerous phone calls and one-on-one conversations that revealed surprise, confusion, and some misinformation, Rev. Catie contacted the UUA to arrange for further conversation and assistance uncovering why this silence happened and continued for more than five years; and how we can work together to improve our relationships. Meck Groot, a Congregational Consultant for the UUA, and more than 20 parishioners plus Rev. Catie gathered on Thursday, May 31. About half had not been present at the Annual Meeting. Gail Hedges summarized what happened at the Annual Meeting. Meck presented a carefully crafted agenda that encouraged open conversation, careful listening, and reflection. She asked us to think about and share our individual experiences of John’s ministry, allowing us to recognize the variety and complexity of those experiences. There were surprising revelations and many comments such as: “I had no idea!” and “I’m so sorry that happened.”  One recommendation included in Meck’s agenda was that we “stay unattached to outcomes,” thus removing any sense that one opinion should prevail or be the “right” opinion. She encouraged openness and forgiveness, and helped us explore how “church culture” and possibly our “New England reticence” could both help and hinder communication.

What does this mean going forward? We (the minister, and both the outgoing president and the incoming president) worry about the strength and cohesiveness of our beloved community. Our committees and institutions are intended to support all and to allow us to live our faith. We need to be mindful, to hear, and to acknowledge the many (sometimes conflicting, sometimes troubling) opinions of all. We also need to discuss our concerns as openly as we can with our professional and lay leaders. We are scattering for the summer, but plan to have another opportunity to meet (perhaps with Meck Groot as facilitator) for more conversation — not about this May’s Annual Meeting — but about improving our compassionate and direct communication skills. One specific program, the Open Communications Initiative, developed by the Committee on Ministry, is a means of addressing criticisms as well as compliments. The members of the Committee on Ministry will respond to individuals or groups in person, via email, to written remarks placed in their comment box on the hallway table located outside the sanctuary door, or stop at the table the Committee is hosting during social hour on the last Sunday of every month. The current Committee on Ministry consists of Lynne Rachlis, Jim Leffingwell, and Liza Gerber (see their pictures and emails at the Committee on Ministry’s table mentioned above). Three new members will be announced in the fall.  We need not carry our troubles silently or alone.

  Rev. Catie      Gail Hedges        Darren Zinner   
  Minister      Outgoing President      Incoming President