Becky Edmiston-Lange began serving Emerson in August of 1999. She and her husband, Mark, who was also a Unitarian Universalist minister, moved to Houston from the Northern Virginia area where each had been serving separate Unitarian Universalist congregations to become Co-Ministers at Emerson. Becky and Mark served together as Co-Ministers for 17 years. Their co-ministry energized and deepened our religious community in many different ways. When Mark died suddenly in the fall of 2016, Becky continued on at Emerson as Senior Minister. She has a breadth of experience and talent that enables her to excel in the many tasks of ministry. Her commitment to our faith and love for this congregation are palpable and we are blessed to have her as our Minister.
Becky grew up near Richmond, Virginia and received her Bachelor’s from the University of Virginia in 1975, where she studied psychology, history and religion. “Unchurched” as a child, the natural world was her spiritual refuge and inspiration. Though too young to participate, the Civil Rights Movement also affected her deeply. Her quest for meaning and a desire to make a difference in the world led her to Union Theological Seminary in New York City where she received her Master of Divinity in 1978. Upon graduation she trained as a Pastoral Psychotherapist and later received a PhD in Counseling from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. When she discovered Unitarian Universalism after seminary, she felt she had “come home” religiously and spiritually. She interned at the UU Church in Fairfax, VA, was ordained in 1986, and then began a thirteen-year ministry at Accotink UU Church in Burke, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. before coming to Emerson. Becky’s animating vision is that of the Beloved Community which calls all human beings to live in peace and love with one another, with justice and equity for all.
The Invisible Threads
Sermon Announcing Retirement
Becky Edmiston-Lange, January 12, 2020
Reading: The Importance of Ministry, Webster Kitchell, adapted
The (parish) ministry is a good one – focused, traditionally educated, open to newness, wrestling with great issues of a rapidly changing culture, trying to hold fast to what is good. . . . .
I have never fully understood why I am a minister. It is some combination of accident and intention. I am content not to understand it fully. When I was a young minister, I spoke from certainty. Now I speak from mystery. It is not that I feel I know less. It is that reality has expanded for me in a life of celebrating with people, a life of keeping the Sabbath, a life of trying to maintain and deepen the institutions of freedom, a life of trying to speak honestly. I have been an imperfect agent of that which I believe is glorious.
It takes many trades and professions to get the world up in the morning, feed it, care for it, enjoy it, and put it to bed. Then do it all over again the next day and the next. One of these professions is that of a minister. It has its importance along with the rest. It is the profession that helps people celebrate holy moments. It still honors the Sabbath. It believes in the possibilities of the unfettered human soul in a community of searchers for the good. I feel the honor and privilege and the mystery of being a minister. I am grateful for the accident and intention that called me to such an investment of my life.
When I had just finished my second year of ministry in 1987, I attended a training seminar for leaders of district chapters of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. I don’t remember what position I held at the time – over the years I rotated through them all, the requirements being more a willingness to be drafted than any specific credentials. At this training, there were a few newbies like me, but mostly veteran ministers like my mentor, Ken MacLean, who at the time was Senior Minister of one of our larger churches – Cedar Lane in Bethesda Maryland – and who’d probably been in the ministry more than 25 years.
I remember an ice breaker from the seminar. We were asked to think of what movie title we would use to describe UU ministry. Ken Maclean’s answer was The Magnificent Obsession. (from the 1950’s). Someone else said Aliens (a popular movie about that time); and another veteran offered, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. We kept going around the room and there was lots of laughter. When it got to me, I said: Love Story – and everyone groaned!
But it is true. For the most part, it has been a love story. To me, there is no higher calling than to serve this faith with its all-inclusive vision of freedom and justice. I have loved UU ministry. I have been so proud – and humbled – to be counted among that stream of ministers who have served our Living Tradition back through the generations, back to the likes of Theodore Parker and Olympia Brown but also through scores of ministers whose names are not remembered but who nonetheless cared for their people
with compassion and wisdom and tried as faithfully as they might to embody the values of our free faith with intellectual honesty and moral courage in good times and bad. I have strived to be worthy of that latter company.
And I have loved the work of ministry; loved crafting worship; celebrating rites of passage; teaching; doing pastoral care. I have felt deeply what a privilege it is to accompany people through tough times and tender and to work with Boards and committees to move forward the mission of the church. And I have felt the import of being a public witness to our faith and its allegiance to social justice. And for the most part I have enjoyed the administrative aspects of ministry too. After all, I am a strong J on the Myers Briggs scale.
Of course, there have been things and times I have not enjoyed as much; times when I have felt overburdened, disappointed in myself or others, and, discouraged by the gap between the principles we profess and the way the world seems to be proceeding. Ministry is a demanding profession. And I have not always been as successful as I – or you – would have liked. There are things I should have done that I didn’t do; and there are things I did that, even in that moment, I was not happy with myself for doing; and there are things that, in retrospect, I wish I could go back and change. But nonetheless I have truthfully loved the work – loved the day to day doing of ministry.
But most of all I have loved the people it has been my abiding privilege to know, to work with and to serve. It is so true, as Webster Kitchell said in the essay I read earlier, that reality has expanded for me by knowing well so many fine people; by being allowed to be privy to the inner workings of people’s souls and psyches; to be entrusted with the memories of those grieving their loved ones, to carry for a time the hopes and dreams parents hold for their children, to preside over the solemn and joyful exchange of wedding vows – and all of us, companioning one another as we try to hold fast to what is good and true through the vicissitudes of life and the assaults of the world. My life has been so enriched because of all of you, all the people I have served.
So, you might ask, if I love ministry so darn much, why the hell am I retiring?
Well, as I said in my letter to the congregation, it is time. It is time for me in my personal life. And it is time in the life of this congregation.
I don’t mind saying that the last three and half years since Mark died have been pretty tough on occasions. That first year of grief just putting one foot in front of the other was hard. When I look back on it now, I’m somewhat amazed at what I was able to do that first year with it being just me as minister. Of course, I had lots of help. I am so grateful for your support and understanding during that time; and grateful for the support of my colleagues who helped fill the pulpit; and, grateful for our wonderfully caring and competent staff.
When Sam, our transitional assistant minister, came the second year that was a relief in some ways, but then Harvey hit, displacing over a quarter of our congregation; and, then we were into an intense discernment process while still doing all the usual work of church . . . Well I don’t need to go on. Most of you lived through that period, too.
And now we are back to just one minister. Ministry has always been an intensive job but these days my list of ministry tasks I feel I should or want to be doing but somehow just can’t seem to get to, keeps getting longer and longer. And the number of things in my personal life I keep putting off saying, “maybe I’ll be able to do that when I retire” also seems to grow.
Part of it is my age. I’ll be 67 on the 30th of this month. And as young as I may still feel, it just takes me longer to do some things than it did before – and, I’ll admit – I have less tolerance for the tedious.
Because the greater part of it is feeling the preciousness of time – and of love. There is nothing like the premature death of a spouse to impress upon you that none of us ever know how much time we have left. There are so many things I want to experience and do before I die and it is time to stop deferring them. And there is also nothing like losing a beloved spouse to impress upon you what a great gift it is to share such a love. And, miraculously, wondrously, I find myself so blessed again. I am in love, good people. And I am jealous of the time that Philip and I may be able to have together.
But an equally important factor in my decision to retire this year is my feeling that it is time for the congregation as well. Emerson needs new ministerial eyes and a new ministerial voice and ways of thinking about church, and an adaptability and enthusiasm for the challenges facing this church – and indeed congregations across the religious spectrum – in this new era. And I think Emerson is poised now to respond to new leadership. The discernment process the congregation has gone through has laid a good foundation for casting a new vision with a new ministry. The congregation has gained insight into Emerson’s history and how things around here came to be the way they are; and the congregation has also had the opportunity to think collectively about what it would like Emerson to be in the future. It’s a propitious time for Emerson. AND you have excellent staff and an excellent Board to guide you through the next few years.
I know there must be a lot of different questions among you – and some have already been posed. I suspect the one that seems most pressing is – what does this mean for the immediate future of Emerson – what do we, the congregation, have to do next? To expand on what I said in my letter, there are time-tested recommendations as to how to proceed when a long-term minister retires. UUA best practice would be to have an interim minister before engaging in a Ministerial Search process for a settled minister or ministers. Normally, the Board would choose an interim from a limited number of candidates supplied by the Ministerial Transitions Department at the UUA. However, when it comes to choosing the settled minister (or ministers) that follows the interim, the entire congregation would have lots of input and a vote on the final choice. But how you proceed at this point is up to you as the congregation. I can give you my advice, but I really need to step back from decisions that affect the time after my retirement. There will be lots of assistance coming your way, however, from the denominational staff in the ministry department and the Southern District regional staff. And, you should have every confidence and trust in your own elected leaders to guide you with dedication and skill and with commitment to the wellbeing of the congregation as a whole.
Many people have also asked in various ways what I’m going to be doing next and whether or not I am moving. To answer the last one first: Houston is my home and my plans are to stay here. What am I going to do? That largely remains to be seen. I’m not sure, but one thing I am sure of is that for the first year or so I am not going to impose any shoulds on myself; that I’m going to give myself time to figure out what I want this next chapter of my life to be like. I need time to just be, to putter, to garden, to cook – or not, to go to a movie, to read magazines, to go out dancing on Saturday nights and sleep in on Sunday mornings! For awhile anyway. Philip plans to move here within a year or so and, although, he is six years younger than I am it looks like he will be able to retire as well within a couple of years. We are going to have fun together!
I’ve also been asked what my relationship to Emerson and Emersonians will be after I retire. I need to be very clear that once I retire, I will no longer be your minister. Our UU Ministerial Covenant and Code of Professional Practice requires that I suspend involvement in the affairs of the church during the interim period and while a newly called minister gets established. I won’t be attending church or coming to church programs except at the express invitation of my colleague; I won’t be performing or participating in rites of passage for Emerson members unless invited by my colleague, and so forth. I know this will be difficult for me – and for some of you – in some regards. But that is the nature of change and of moving from one stage of life to another. And I have great respect for our ministerial covenant and I understand the need for professional boundaries. I will be supportive of the ministry of my colleagues in words and deeds. I want Emerson to thrive and I want whomever succeeds me to shine. And that requires that I separate for a time from the ongoing life and politics of this church and from those aspects of relationships that have to do with the ongoing life and politics of this church. Change is necessary
That being said, I am not dying and as I said I’m not moving and, to quote a colleague, I don’t expect to be a hermit in a city where I’ve been an active minister for (21) years (from Burton Carley/32 years). And it is unrealistic to think that we would abandon long standing relationships of deep affection. I don’t expect to stop caring about you – or you, me. Further, at some point a few years in the future, I would hope that I could be involved in the life of Emerson in some fashion with my successor’s blessing.
But that’s down the road and now is now. And I am still your minister and will be for the next six months. And there is time to sort all this out. There’s time for you as a congregation to secure ministerial leadership for the next phase of your journey. One of the reasons for announcing my retirement in January is to put Emerson squarely in the normal cycle for an interim search. And six months also gives us time to say our goodbyes and for me to step back.
Throughout my years of ministry, authenticity has been one of my watchwords. I have always tried to be as honest and real as I can be about who I am, and what I think and what I feel, what I’m struggling with. I’m not good at faking it. And so, I have to tell you that even as I am excited about the possibilities for my future, what I am feeling uppermost right now is sadness at the thought of leaving the ministry and leaving Emerson and all of you. It is a natural grief – and a necessary one. Honest grieving is what allows us to move forward. Sometimes you just have to sit with grief. And, too, I want to acknowledge that part of the grief I’m feeling is a reawakening of grief about losing Mark. (You know, you can be in love with a new love and grieve the death of a beloved all at the same time. And, indeed, one of the things that I love about Philip is that he is not threatened at all by my grief at losing Mark.)
I imagine that some of you will also be grieving Mark at this time. That makes all the sense in the world. In a way, it is not just that I am retiring, but that the page is closing on the Edmiston-Lange chapter of Emerson as well.
For today, I want to leave you with this. Even through my tears I know I am going to be just fine. And Emerson is going to be just fine. And we have time to talk, time to puzzle it out, time to be real with one another. I invite you to come talk to me, call, send me an email. Let me know what you are thinking and feeling about my leaving and the questions you have about the way forward. And I will try to be as present, honest and as helpful as I can in my response – and, if there is a question I can’t answer, I will try to help direct you to someone who can.
And I want to leave you with this, too. That it really is true that the love we share and Emerson’s mission to increase the measure of love in this world – none of that changes.
I have loved this magnificent obsession, this journey of ministry; and, I am so grateful to have been afforded the responsibility of being your minister. But, as I said in my prayer, in reality we are all ministers to each other, all of us witnessing in our own way to the enduring values and vision of our faith.
It has been such an abiding honor and privilege to keep sabbath moments with you to rest in the glory of the creation; to be called to remember, and help others remember, that this life we share is holy – that this earth we share is sacred; that the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat – all of it is divine manna. It has been such an honor and privilege to walk with you through the good – and the bad and the ugly, too – and to share
moments when we’ve touched the transcendent and understood more fully the meaning and the mystery of being alive and human in what sometimes seems an alien and uninviting, but always glorious, world. It has been such an honor and a privilege to be called – with you – to maintain and deepen the institutions of freedom and justice, to hold fast to what is good and “to the belief in the possibilities of the unfettered human soul” – and to work with you as a community, bound together as searchers after the good, to unloose the fetters, remove the bonds, and expand the horizons of abundance for all people.
The love we share does not end here. The mission of this congregation does not change. “Forward through the ages move the faithful spirits to the call divine.”