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Staff Board Report, March 2023

Staff Board Report 

March 14th, 2023


Hello Dear Board, 

I am sending you all love in these waning days of what has been an odd winter. 

With one sixth of 2023 already gone, and the summer coming fast, I am so grateful for where we are and all we have done this year, so grateful for our staff team and all they continue to achieve, so grateful for you all and all our leadership. 

It has been and continues to be a wonderful year. 

I just had a bit of a break and travelled to Austin TX for a little fishing trip, a little time alone. Every once in a while both Lauren and I like to have little solo jaunts to refresh and rejuvenate, and this one was very needed. 

I warmed up with 80 degree days and 60 degree nights, caught a lot of very beautiful fish, and ate lots of delicious tacos and barbecue. 

And I return refreshed and ready for this next chapter of the year. 

So much is underway, and so much is to come. 

Here in the next part of this report, I will share about a new program in town called Belmont Welcomes, I will also share an update on the Trans and nonbinary welcome task force, I will discuss the possibility of renting space to the Belmont Library, I will also touch on some vital recruiting efforts underway, I will also touch on the Installation coming on May 7th, and then finally I will discuss the Committee on Ministry and the work of feedback and communication within the congregation,

And then there will be reports from our wonderful staff. 

Belmont Welcomes 

The Belmont LGBTQ+ Alliance (which is full of First Church folks including me, Fran Yuan, Leslie Talmadge, Jess Hicks, Gladys Unger and more) has launched a program called Belmont Welcomes. This is an initiative to help deepen and make more visible the welcome of LGBTQ+ people in Belmont by inviting businesses and community groups in Belmont to join Belmont Welcomes, and post stickers in their doors proclaiming that their institutions welcome and support LGBTQ+ people, their families and their allies. 

You can read more about the program here

We would love a motion and vote to officially endorse our support and participation in this program. 

We have already made a donation, so all that’s left is a bit of a discussion and putting up the stickers, should we vote yes to participate. 

Trans and Non-Binary Welcome Task Force 

The task force met again and had some fruitful and fascinating conversations. One of the results of those conversations was that we will host a similar training as the one we did as a task force for the staff and another for leadership, opening it up to you all on the Board and all our committees. 

We will be in touch about the dates and details, but this seemed like the helpful next step, especially as the training was fruitful and fascinating. 

We plan on having similar trainings and explorations regularly. More on this all soon.  

Library Rental  

Janice and I have had some fruitful and fascinating conversations with the Belmont Library about the possibility of their renting some space form us temporarily as they construct our new library. 

They will be renting space from a number of places, and we will most likely house some office space (room seven in the RE wing) and some windows of reservation in which they can host programs in the library, parish hall and classrooms. 

I am confident we will find an agreement which will not impinge our programmatic needs, will help out the library which we love, will bring lots of people into the church, and will make us some extra rental income. More on all this as it develops over the next month.  

Volunteer Recruitment  

We continue to face challenges around recruitment, in particular now with three of five people stepping down from the Stewardship Team for next year. We need to recruit both an ongoing team and also a vice chair willing to step into the chair role the following year. 

In addition to the Stewardship Team, we need to bring on members to the RE Committee, the Lay Pastoral Care team, the worship Committee, the Social Action Committee and more. 

As we have mentioned in the past I continue to believe that a Shared Ministry team, a group which helps support our committees and recruit new folks onto them is a good idea. This will help to make onramps for new people coming into leadership as well as help transitioning leaders consider their next modes of service. 

As that group is forming, I do think the Stewardship Committee is worth considering adding to the purview of the Nominating Committee. As it is it is up to me and the existing committee to recruit itself. And while the work of getting a strong team in place for the Board, the Finance Committee and Committee on Ministry is important, I would say the stewardship committee is as important and equally as hard, and maybe even a bit harder to recruit for. As is, Bruce is returning for a second year as chair, and Gina will return as a support committee person and the others are stepping down. 

The move of the Stewardship Committee recruiting to the Nominating Committee would be for next year as they have largely completed their process this year. This year it will be me along with the committee trying to recruit for next year’s campaign. 

Ending on a positive note, there are also lots of exciting ideas around development and fundraising strategies. A team fo folks will meet to discuss some ideas and report back to you. This won’t alter the need for a robust and fully staffed stewardship committee, but will help in other ways. More on that as it develops.

The Installation 

It is official, we will have an installation on May 7th at 4:00. 

This is the official, ceremonial moment in which you all get to choose me as your minister and install me into the role. 

It is a big worship service, outdoors, lots of music, lots of visiting clergy and other folks. It should be real fun. 

So please mark your calendars. It will be the afternoon following the auction the night before, so everyone gets the morning off from church and comes at 4:00 in the afternoon.  

We hope to see you there. 

The Committee on Ministry and Listening  

As another year of listening circles approaches, I am aware, all over again, of the helpfulness and importance of the listening circles, and of the Committee on Ministry in general. 

I want to get to be your minister for a long time. We are off to a strong start. To be sure I can do better, the whole staff team can do better and we will continue to do better and improve. 

And to help us serve you and all the rest of First Church more efficiently and more skillfully, we rely on the attributed, actionable, and meaningful feedback from people. 

And we get this in lots of ways. One of the best ways is for folks to just share feedback with us directly. This happens and this is great. It has been fascinating to have John on board, because folks are real quick to share feedback with him. Perhaps its because we know we are a teaching congregation for him and that he is in the process of formation, but the same thing is true for me and for all if us. 

We are all growing in our roles, you all on the Board, me as your minister, all the staff in all our roles. We are all serving the best we can and we can all do better. 

And so this is the role of the Committee on Ministry, this feedback loop between the congregation and me and you all, for us to hear how we are doing, how our programs are being received, how we are serving the need in the congregation and our world. 

We will do this in different ways. This year’s listening circles will be a bit different. We hope you participate. If you haven’t signed up, you can here.

Some people have asked why we need to do the listening circles with everything going so well, and the answer is simple. It matters what people think, and it matters that people know there is a place for them to bring ideas and feedback. It is better to cultivate this conversation and feedback ongoingly rather than waiting for a complex situation that we then need to untangle. 

And here are the reports from the wonderful staff…

From Janice Zazinski

Church Administrator 

Lots of snow here in Vermont as I write this on February 28! Hope you are all well.

I’m very happy to have BASEC’s lease signed for 9 weeks of a summer rental program for $18,432. Thanks to Brian Caputo for collaborating on the lease agreement with me. While we have not given them a multiyear lease, they are relying on being able to rent from us summer after summer; they have until December of each year to notify us of their intention to rent during the coming summer. They are wonderful tenants to have in the building!

We continue to talk to the Belmont Public Library about their upcoming space needs; more to come as that develops.

Martha and I have been talking about updating the church’s official fundraising policy for board approval: first, to bring it up to date with the realities of the fundraising requests we get and second, to clarify for church committees and members the types of fundraising they can undertake, which will avoid conflicting with other church fundraising efforts. I have drafted revised fundraising guidelines for Martha and the Finance Committee to consider that include what I’ve experienced and been asked about over the past 8 years.

Part of the issue not addressed by the current fundraising policy is that I get many requests for free use of the Parish Hall from outside groups, as well as requests to publicize in church communication outlets some fundraising endeavors that are not, or are very tangentially, church projects. Having clear guidelines will help staff be able to reply in a kindly, timely, and supportive manner to these requests.

I am not suggesting we never donate church space to suitable outside groups (we have in the past let the Belmont Muslim group hold their Iftar in the Parish Hall for free and prayer meetings in the church library), but any space use in the church is extremely time-consuming for me and other members of staff to manage, as there are always many logistics surrounding use of the Parish Hall (lights, sound, heating/cooling, audio-visual needs, table and chairs set up and clean up, and so on).

The current fundraising policy is from 2010 and times and technologies have greatly changed. In case you are not familiar with the current fundraising policy, it’s at this link.

In March I’ll be spending considerable time getting staff info uploaded to, and learning to use, “Empower,” the new administrator of the UUA’s pension plan. Unlike with the former administrator, TIAA-CREF, all staff have to be entered in the system, whether they participate in the plan or not. Because the rules around church pension contribution eligibility are complex, this will ensure that the church will not inadvertently “forget” to start paying pension contributions for eligible staff members. This happened several years ago with Charlotte Lehmann’s pension, and playing catch-up with pension payments is incredibly complicated.

Also, the March edition of The Universalist should be going to press by March 1. Look for yours in the mail soon!

Happy March and I hope there is only good March Madness in your lives!

From Ian Garvie

Director of Music 

The month of February has been a surprisingly full one for the music program! Though we are in a bit of a lull between big events, lots of work has gone into planning for the future. We also had several wonderful Sunday worship services, and some amazing and peaceful Vespers services. 

On February 5th, the Senior Choir surprised the congregation with a flash mob version of Do You Hear The People Sing, from the show Les Miserables. And just this past weekend, we celebrated Celebration Sunday with all of our children’s choirs, singing with the Nova and the Senior Choirs. In all, more than 80 choir members sang on Sunday!

Recent Vespers services have included a music meditation with Ken Stalberg on viola and violin, a Swahili chant service featuring words from Black folks from around the world, and a candlelit walking meditation. The congregation for these services is usually small, but it’s a wonderful, quiet, reflective service. I would love to see more people attending! 

The Children’s Choir program also continues to grow slowly - I received an email just this morning from a parent who has a first grader who wants to join. Children are having fun, and sharing it with their friends! 

Future events that we are planning for of course include the musical. A group of parents and volunteers met several weeks ago to start working on next year’s show, mapping out all the tasks that need doing. The goal is to create some organizational structures whereby the parent body can take on much of the work, leaving me free to direct and produce. 

The upcoming Children’s Choir Festival is also falling into place. We have invitations out to five guest choirs, and we have several teachers signed up to lead masterclasses and activities. I am working on several grant applications to gather funding for the event, in the hopes we can cover the cost of producing the event from outside sources. This would mean that the participation fees and ticket sales would make it a fundraiser for the children’s program and for the church. I would also like to offer financial assistance for one or two of the choirs we have invited, which are coming from lower income areas of the city. 

Finally, the Major Music service is right around the corner! On March 19th, the Senior Choir, along with a full orchestra, will perform John Rutter’s Requiem. We will present it as a community-wide memorial service, inviting all of the congregants to write something they want to remember about someone they have lost. We will post these in the Upper Hall for all to share. 

From Nate Sellers 

Director of Children’s Religious Education 

This February, Wendy and I focused on expanding the use of our CRE hallway by creating a “Calming Room” for the children on Sunday mornings. The room serves as a space for children to relax in an alternative environment, as well as find tools and strategies for managing emotions and feelings. Our Calming Room was created to reduce negative sensory input and provide tactile experiences/items for kids to play with, whether they are working out their big feelings or simply hanging out with friends.

It’s fun to see the kids using the space on a regular basis, despite it being a work in progress. We’re planning to add a sensory wall and weighted blankets to our current set-up that includes bean bag chairs and soft lighting. The room will hopefully be done by the end of the month!

In other news, The Children's Religious Education Program and the Youth Program are planning to combine forces and create a single committee that works together to ensure the compatibility of content and activities across the different age spans: Pk/K, Elementary, Middle School, & High School.  Additionally, we will be exploring new ways to engage children/youth, developing themes for curriculum, and looking at ideas to connect children/youth with older members of the church community. We're currently thinking of inviting parents to join the discussion and to guide us in those goals every four months (quarterly) in the form of a forum. 

Lastly, Families Tuugether has been moved to early April, so we’ll be making it an Easter theme event. The kids will be dying eggs, having egg races, and going on an Easter egg hunt! Our holiday themed Families Tuugether events have been reeling in both old and new families since 2021, so we’re excited to see who hops on by. The date of the event will be confirmed on March 15th.

From Lillian Anderson 

Director of Adult Programs 

Reaching out and moving forward.  Generating ideas for the next church year is the focus of the next several months.  We have had a really productive year of programming, both online and in person.  Our challenge now is to develop the framework for various series of programs e.g. end of life issues using the Date with Death Club curriculum, FCB History programs including RE, Youth, the Cuba connection and the Tiffany window, the Arts including theatre, film, books and visuals,  Unitarian Universalism and our spiritual growth, SGM groups as well as the CommUUnity Collaborative.

Our challenges will include more in person programming and the use of shared space as we work with the Belmont Library during its renovations.  This is an opportunity to also co-sponsor some of their speaker events, and we will also be seeking our own featured speakers in conjunction with the aforementioned topics.

During March and April we will be offering two important programs with Jackie James.  On March 29 we’ll be exploring “A Good Death” and on April 11 Jackie will be working with Will Brownsberger to present “Medical Aid in Dying”.  We have had a very good response and I am so pleased that we will be continuing this important work next year.

I’ve been actively working with the Women’s Retreat Planning Committee (Niti Seth, Martha Spaulding, Anne Stuart, and Hayat Weiss) for this year’s retreat on April 28-30 at Rolling Ridge Conference Center. The theme is Turning Points.  Thirty women are registered and there is real excitement about finally being together again.  

The FCB History Group with John Howe has been very important this year.  The February programs on Confronting Our History: the Stories behind the Tiffany Window and Part Two: How Should We Respond? have engaged many of the congregation in discussion.  John, Lanier Smythe, Bill Blumberg and Sam Foster told compelling stories about the window and the connection to slavery in Cuba.  The second discussion suggested many possibilities of how to respond and will require much careful consideration.  We see a several year exploration with a dedicated task group to bring these issues to the congregation.

From Sam Foster 

Membership Coordinator 

In February I hosted a useful brainstorming session for social and community events at the church. Judi Berman and I are piloting a new bingo and pizza night in April, possibly with music, which may become a regular thing if it proves popular. But one repeated suggestion I want to explore is holding a monthly Sunday brunch, perhaps between the services, with folks cooking together in the kitchen. While the midweek SoUUper lunch is meeting a need, a more hands-on, collaborative type of hospitality might also be something to try, especially one that parents and kids can participate in.The two History Group events in February, which explored the church's financial ties to Cuban slavery in the nineteenth century, have sparked a fruitful discussion of the many questions raised by these disquieting ties and their legacy down to the present. The History Group has proposed that a new task force be created to grapple more fully with these questions, and to explore ways the church might begin to repair this historic wrong. Gina Carloni has provisionally agreed to head such a task force, and I have reached out to the newly formed Legacy of Slavery Memorial Project at Harvard, since Harvard's history intersects with our own in this regard. Indeed, one of Gina's suggestions is that we commission a memorial to the enslaved people whose unfree labor helped to fund the construction of our church building. Gina, John Howe, and the History Group anticipate making a formal communication to the Board on the matter in April.Our worship services have attracted a number of visitors over the past month and it is good to be introducing new folks to our spiritual home. I'll follow up with more information next month. 

From Raeann Mason 

Director of Youth Ministry 

Youth GroupThis past month, the Youth Group was relatively low-key due to the February vacation. On our “on” weeks, some youth made Valentines for their parents, and many took Sunday off to enjoy the Super Bowl. Throughout the month, we learned a lot about the importance of self-love and how it’s from our own self-love we find our ability to give love to others. This month, we will explore vulnerability; vulnerability in our friendships, when we need help, have high hopes and are authentically ourselves. 

Panama Service Learning Trip

Over February vacation, a small group of FCB Youth went on a 1-week service-learning trip to Panama in partnership with Sustainable Harvest International. Working alongside smallholder farmers, who are effectively reversing climate change through their regenerative agricultural practices, was an absolute privilege. We had the honor of traveling with the founder, who had an excellent Ted Talk about SHI’s work here. 

SHI provides tactical and educational assistance to smallholder farmers in and around Central America (with BIG plans to scale!). Farmers can choose to work with SHI by enrolling in a 4-5 year program where they learn everything they need to know to restore the soil degraded from slash-and-burn agriculture and enter into a sustainable practice where growing food continues to heal the land. As a result, farmers can provide for themselves and their families, and many can sell their high-quality organic produce at markets, including many foods that are difficult to grow in the area. One farmer we worked with was able to grow strawberries on his organic farm, something unheard of in Panama. The big-picture effect of their work can’t be understated. Every farm working with SHI becomes a healthy, biodiverse carbon sink. If the world’s 600k smallholder farmers had access to the knowledge and skills provided by SHI, not only would it end poverty for these farmers globally, and ⅓ of our food would be organic and sustainable grown, but it would bring us 53% of the way to achieving the UN’s net zero goal. And it only costs 5k to send a farm through the program. 

As a Youth Group, we aim to support these efforts through service learning, spreading awareness, and helping raise these funds. Over the next few years, it’s our goal to raise 5k so we can send another family through this incredible program. And we want to encourage you to do the same! The Panama Team will be sharing their stories during the Sunday services on March 12th, and we will have a slide show and be available for questions in the upper hall between the services. We hope to see you there!

From John O’Connor 

Intern Minister 

February was an especially productive month for me at FCB and I am very grateful for the opportunities I had to work with and be of service to the community.  I participated in two programs through the Community Collaborative. The first was an author talk and panel discussion on the book Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering in which we explored William James’s original concept of higher and friendly powers that he developed in his seminal work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. The second was a two-part presentation on my thesis, The Revelation of John: Notes from the Edge of the Abyss in which we explored the definition of scripture, and then discussed a postmodern deconstruction of the text which can offer Unitarian Universalists a way into it as an alternative to premillennial dispensationalism. Both programs were well-attended and generated spirited discussion. Hat’s off to Lillian who has been doing an amazing job with the Community Collaborative this year!

I also had the opportunity to participate in the two meetings that the FCB History Group put on to explore our connection to slavery and the Atkins family. On MLK weekend I had previously preached on how we might hold the tension between what we are called to resist, and what we are called to accept, using our troubled connection to slave plantations in Cuba as an example. Both of the FCB History Group  discussion/presentation sessions were well-attended and fruitful. I believe there is a desire to more fully explore the issue as part of a wider congregational conversation. 

On a lighter note, the congregation really seemed to enjoy the Valentine’s service we titled “The Shadow of Your Dog” in which we explored love gone wrong as portrayed in popular culture. From Jacques Brel to Sting we looked at some absurd notions of love we have inherited through song. Then, I also preached on 2/26. The title of the sermon was “Savor Life.” Utilizing personal stories and humor I explored the benefits of resisting consumerism. The service also served as a lead-in to our 40 for the Earth initiative. And this past week I lead the Vespers service in which we explored the 23rd Psalm. My Reflection offered those who do not believe in a providential god a way to nevertheless share in the beauty, comfort and solace that the 23rd Psalm describes.

I also had a chance to work with youth and parents this month. I attended a section of CRE on Eastern Religions and an introduction to OWL. I will also attend some meetings on proposed curricula changes to the CRE later this month. And finally on 3/26, as part of my more broader experience, I will attend services in Marblehead and meet with Rev. Jenna Crawford to see how other UU congregations conduct worship services. 

Wishing you all the best, and with deep gratitude.


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