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Staff Board Report, December 2023

Staff Board Report 

December 12th, 2023

Hello Dear Board, 

And welcome to another report. 

One of my mentors said once, “It is said, when one door closes, another door opens. But it is hell in the hallway.”

Liminal times are complex. Transition can be anxious making. Change can be disorienting and uncomfortable. 

And so much is possible in these times of transition and change. 

I am so deeply grateful for Janice and her many years of service. 

And I am very excited to welcome Tracey and start this next chapter which she will be part of shaping and forming. 

First Church is larger than all of us. Someone was in each of our positions before us and someone will be in our positions after we have gone. Other Boards have come together in collaboration with other ministers for many decades. Over the years the staff forms and reforms, morphs and shifts to welcome the gifts of all the new members. 

And there is something new and different that each staff team, that each volunteer team, and that the special mix of alchemy that we all create together is capable of creating. 

And so, dear Board, as we lead the congregation through this time of transition, let us be gentle with ourselves and one another. Let us orient ourselves over and over to possibility and creativity. 

I am so grateful for this team, for all we have been through, and for all we have created and are creating. 

And I am very excited for all that comes next. We are poised for great things. I look forward to the newly forming staff team and the many ways we will meet this moment and the next. 

Here in the next part of this report, I will appreciate our Staffing Structure Task Force, I will reflect on our first simulcast worship, share a fun idea which has come up for a rotating art show and finally share an update around the work of the Cuba Atkins Legacy Task Force. 

And then there will be reports from our wonderful staff. 

Staffing Structure Task Force 

I am so grateful for the work of the Staffing Structure Task Force. When you see them, please thank Joel Mooney, Brian Caputo, Martha Courant and Martha Read. They have been invaluable in helping to explore the staffing plan for this current year and beyond. 

They have helped to generate the job description and interview potential Administrators and finally hire Tracey, our next Congregational Administrator. 

And then, for this coming meeting, they created a plan to propose to you all and to the Finance Committee. 

I am so grateful for their partnership, for their vision and discernment, and I look forward to our conversation with both the Board and the Finance Committee. 

Simulcast Worship  

Our first simulcast worship was a success. Huge gratitude for Ian, who again went above and beyond to make it happen, and to my son Benjamin who was also crucially helpful in the set up and on the day management of the process. 

We will be reflecting on what it will take to do this again, both some technical needs as far as cameras and cords as well as staff support. As we have mentioned, this is an exploration, and part of the discernment is looking at the staff time needed and the technical upgrades whether it is worth the expense in the coming years. My hunch is that it is, and it is a lot of effort and energy to make it happen, which will mean a trade off in other program areas. More on this in upcoming reports. 

But for now, we are grateful for a successful inaugural run, and look forward to continued conversation.

The Glories and the Mysteries  

I have huge gratitude in my heart to Janet Amphlett and Parrish Dobson for coming up with this wonderful idea. 

We are proposing that we have a rotating art show on the wall outside my office and the two pillars on either side of the large window in the Parlor. 

We propose to call the gallery “The Glories and the Mysteries” and to have artists pick pieces to show there for six weeks or so. 

We would have the artists share a reflection in worship when the pieces go up and then have a short talk after the services to introduce the pieces. 

In addition, we were thinking once, perhaps in the spring, having a show open to the whole community in which artists of all ages can bring one piece to share. This wide open show could use those same spaces as well as the pillars in the upper gathering hall, the parish hall and more. 

But for now, we are asking for the Board’s approval for “The Glories and Mysteries” idea with details to follow. 

Cuba Atkins Legacy Task Force

The work of the Cuba Atkins Legacy Task Force is well underway. A strong and growing team including Gina Carloni, Abby Donner, Devon Beckett, Pegeen Wright, Teresa Howe, Doug Massida, Fran Yuan, Kathryn Bonfiglio, Ariane Frank, Lanier Smythe, our intern minister Sophia and me. 

We have been researching and exploring, digging deep into our history, and brainstorming programs and possibilities for the future. 

We had a wonderful worship service on November 19th featuring some incredible Cuban musicians who are all enthusiastic to return. We are also hosting a panel discussion with the Cambridge UU church as part of the ComUUnity Collaborative programs in February. And we are exploring the idea of the book we have mentioned a bunch in conversation with this set of questions, “On Repentance and Repair” by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. We encourage everyone to read it. It’s a wonderful book which sets out a number of ideas which are possible ways forward for us. 

So more soon as the conversation evolves, but a good process is unfolding.  

And now the reports from the rest of the Staff…

From Janice Zazinski

Church Administrator 

Thank you all for giving me a very warm send-off during the December 3 service. It was wonderful to see so many people and catch up with as many as I could.

In my remaining weeks at the church I’ll be doing intensive online training on church systems and procedures with the new administrator, Tracey Summerhayes, and continuing with my December work such as sending out pledge reminders (with Martha Read and Mark Thurber, and help from the Membership Database Committee of course). I’ll be connecting (via email) Tracey with as many vendors and committee folks as I can. I’m sure she’ll have many questions, as I did when I began, and I know she can rely on the very kind help and support that I received. 

I have so many great memories of my time and the people at The First Church in Belmont, and am proud of my work supporting the congregation. I know this beloved community will continue to be a much needed light in the world.

From Ian Garvie

Director of Music 

The month of November was a very full one for the music program, as it is every year. The musical was our main focus, and it was a tremendous success. All four shows had more than 170 people in the audience, and Sunday's performance was completely sold out. 68 children were in the show, from Pre-K through 8th grade. I could not have done the musical without the help of a few key people: Margot Law, who costumed the whole production, and managed the backstage work. Camila Parias, who took on a tremendous amount of organizing and communication. Kara Sassone, who took on the role of project manager, keeping everything on time and making sure everything was done. Trey Sasser, who organized all the ticket sales and house setup. And June Lattimore, who ordered and organized all of the food and catering that we provided this year. There are of course dozens of other folks who helped - too many to name. It's truly a community effort! The system that we have to organize all of the parent involvement and work will only get better next year, and I'm looking forward to it already!

The Major Music service is coming up this weekend, and we are wrapping up the last few rehearsals. The piece we'll be performing is Joseph Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass, which was composed as the "Mass In Time of War," appropriately. We'll have one service at 10:30 on December 10th. And for the first time we are going to try having the holiday handcraft fair on the same day as the Major Music service. 

On December 3rd, we had our first simulcast service, streaming the worship service from the Parish Hall to YouTube. I took on setting up all of the tech for the stream, and as with anything new, there was a learning curve. The original streaming link we set up did not work, and I had to create a new stream for the service. This unfortunately lost us about 10 viewers who were waiting at the original link. Looking ahead to next month, we will need to invest in a handful of additional tech items to make the process more streamlined. In addition to some cables and adaptors, we need at least one or two more good cameras, and a better lens for the camera we do have. 

Looking ahead, the Christmas Eve services are right around the corner. The children's choirs are working on some lovely holiday music, and I've started recruiting readers and pageant participants. This year the Senior Choir will also be singing on Christmas Eve, at the 7:00 service. 

From Nate Sellers 

Director of Children’s Religious Education 

November came and went quickly, but we’re pleased to report that new families have been visiting our programs downstairs, including this past Sunday, December 3rd. Out of the four new recorded families, three of them returned for a second visit. According to a family from Watertown, “Our kids had so much fun we had to return.” We’re continuing to cycle through the major world religions in our classes each Sunday and highlight aspects of these religions within our current greater culture - from books to TV shows to cuisine (the kids are eating a lot of new types of bread!).

The junior high youth group spent the month learning about Christianity within their Building Bridges curriculum/lessons (Gospels to Reformation) and ended the section by visiting St. Joseph’s Parish, where they attended a catholic mass and met with clergy. I promise, they’ve been having a lot of fun, too! In fact, we’ve spent a good amount of our social/community time playing TACO, CAT, GOAT, CHEESE, PIZZA (as seen below) as well as other insane games. So, in addition to spiritual/reflective journaling, field trips, and engaging discussions - these kids are becoming insanely good at goofy card games.

As stated in the last report, we’re continuing to discuss the possibility of a 1st and 2nd grade OWL on Sunday mornings between the 9:00 and 11:00 service. After discussing this potential Sunday addition with a handful of parents, and hearing their thoughts, we feel it may be beneficial to schedule a sample lesson this winter/spring. Before setting a date, we plan on sharing the updated OWL guide (for Kindergarten to 2nd grade) with our CRE families, in addition to having at least two discussion groups around the curriculum.

As for this month, we’ll be busy preparing for our first winter Families Tuugether of the year (THE WINTER BAZAAR), which will be on January 6th.

From Lillian Anderson 

Director of Adult Programs 

This past month has been spent in finalizing our winter programs, both for First Church offerings and for the CommUUnity Collaborative (CC) programs.  There are three CC programs being offered by our minister and ministerial intern, Sophia Doescher.  

January includes a CC program titled “Dinner with Pema” - an exploration of When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön.  These discussions on January 15 and February 19 will be facilitated by Revs. Chris and Kim Crawford Harvie from the Arlington St. Church.  Also in January, our Ministerial Intern, Sophia Doescher will offer a program about “Chanting through History, In Theory, as Spiritual Practice”.  January 17 will be online and January 24 will be in person at FC, for a deeper dive into the theory and practice.  You do not have to attend both classes, each stands alone.

Then on February 8 there will be a very special program - “On Repentance and Repair…Exploring the Legacy of Slavery in our Churches” with Revs. Chris and Rob Hardies, as well as lay leaders from First Church and First Parish in Cambridge.  This program will be in person at First Church in the Parish Hall and live-streamed as well.  

The CC website (produced by Nate) will be live by December 7.  Hope you will check it out and sign up for one of our many interesting programs.

Our own First Church Adult Programs brochure will be ready for distribution early in January.  In addition to our ongoing programs, John Howe will be offering “The Boston Religion” on January 7; and Jackie James will offer “Exploring Grief: Loving and Losing, Living and Learning” on January 31.  In February we’ll have our much loved annual “Moth” hour, in person in the Parish Hall.  

But before we get to the new year, our December programs include Michael Griffin’s “Wigilia” - a Polish tradition feast on December 6, which is fully subscribed; and Nate Seller’s in person viewing of “The Red Balloon” followed by discussion and reception on Saturday, December 9 at 7:30pm in the Parish Hall.  Just RSVP to Lillian at to attend.

From Raeann Mason 

Director of Youth Ministry 

This past month flew by with lots to report. Several helpful youths signed up to sell candy during the intermission of all four musicals. Thanks to their efforts, we raised over $700 to put towards the youth group’s service-learning endeavors. This has been a long-standing fundraiser, and we’re excited to see it continue in the years to come. 

Huge thanks to the generous congregants who donated food and clothing for the youth’s big overnight with Commons Cathedral’s CityReach. In case you missed it, CityReach is an overnight urban outreach program for youth, young adults, and college students from churches of any denomination to learn firsthand about homelessness from people who have experienced it. During the 20-hour session, our youth and many others from surrounding congregations and communities joined CityReach staff to offer hospitality, food and clothing for unhoused folks living in Boston. They had an amazingly impactful experience serving folks suffering from homelessness in Boston, and it was an effective team bonding experience as well. Big shout out to two of our youth advisors, Sarah Axelrod and Brian Iler, who were such tremendous help throughout the entire process, and to our Intern Minister, Sophia Doescher, for stepping in and taking my spot due to an untimely case of strep throat. They took amazing care of our youth and went above and beyond to make this experience as meaningful as possible. 

Tons of donations!

Waking up at 6:30 am to get the donation center up and running!

Sorting, sorting and more sorting.

First Church Team! We have some AMAZING youth in our midst!

We hope CityReach will be an annual First Church YG service project for years. 

Looking ahead, we have David Deese joining us to share about the Farm Bill. Youth will learn a little about agricultural processes and rights and how they can use their voice to support sustainability projects that matter to them. 

And around the corner, we’ve got our 3rd Annual Ugly Sweater & Yankee Swap Winter Holiday Party! This evening has historically been a blast, and we’re all looking forward to exchanging gifts. We hope to build a new tradition this year by inviting youth group alums and current youth members to the 11 pm Christmas Eve Service. If you see us, come and say hello!

We’ll be ringing in the new year with vision boards/jars, some more work with the UU Mass Action Youth Corps, snow tubing, and more!

Another project in the works is a Youth Group CRE collaboration. We’re inviting the parents and caregivers of middle schoolers for a casual evening of wine and cheese. We hope to hear parents’ hopes and concerns for their youth as they gear up for high school, build and deepen community, and invite high school parents and youth group alums to share about the impact our youth programming has had. 

February Service-Learning Trip Update: 

None of the partnering congregations with the Belmont Religious Council have secured any sign-ups for the trip to the Navajo Nation in February, except for our congregation.


Given this situation, I hope to reorganize the trip for the youth from First Church only. We need a few more sign-ups to meet the minimum requirements set by our host, but so far, we have yet to meet that criteria. I will make a final decision in the coming week about whether or not to cancel. Should cancelations be the case, my goal is to provide local service opportunities for interested youth over the February vacation. 

On the other hand, we have lots of potential interest from the BRC for an Adult Trip. Should we get enough interest, Joe Zarro at Plymouth Congregational Church, has agreed to co-lead a trip to Ecuador in May 2024. We hope that an adult trip will help generate adult and, by proxy, parent buy-in for these essential and profound inter-faith initiatives. These trips played a vital role in our community, but the historical weight of this was lost during the pandemic. There was no one to pass the torch to, so it went out. We hope an adult trip, with an excellent report back afterward, will reignite the flame. 


I’ve mailed the next Universalist wintery, pewcards created and printed, and lots of info heading your way for things coming up in the New Year. The goal of sharing events three months in advance has been challenging to maintain. Unfortunately, plans change and are difficult to finalize several months in advance so I will take another look at the Univeralist formatting. The goal, of course, is to share what needs to be shared, with enough time for planning that’s easy to find and remember, all while staying within budget. 

The weekly Unitarian, on the other hand, is going great. Folks seem to appreciate the format and the timing. There is room for improvement, but overall, we’ve increased our open rate from 10% using the old newsletters (industry standard and, by all accounts, a great goal) to a whopping 45% open rate. 

I had a great meeting with Priscilla Cobb and Ran Courant-Morgan about what we can do to boost the presence of the church’s social action efforts on our website. We already offer so much, but the key is packaging it so folks know where to look and who to contact to get involved. I hope other programs and committees similarly take advantage of our digital footprint over the next few years. 

Likewise, as communications flow more smoothly and we define our best practices, I’m also beginning to look more at our “external” communication to the wider Belmont and surrounding communities. I will have more to report on these efforts in the coming months. 

From Sophia Doescher 

Intern Minister 

I began this month by reflecting with Rev. Chris and the internship committee on my goals for this internship. I created a Learning Service Agreement which I sent to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) as part of my internship profile with the UUA. This process helped me to identify strengths and growing edges in my ministry and prioritize goals that support both. 

I have continued deepening my pastoral work through one-on-one visits, house visits, and co-facilitating the Living with Health Challenges. All these opportunities have offered learnings in collaboration, effective communication, and planning. I’ve also continued my involvement with weekly staff meetings and monthly committee meetings. My work with the Cuba-Atkins Task Force, engaging with research and reading Repentance and Repair, was reflected in the sermon I preached on November 26th. This sermon, “Imperfect Forgiveness” gave me the chance to engage with a different approach to sermon writing and led to many fruitful discussions with members since then. 

I had the chance to attend another Youth Group meeting earlier in the month, and then attended the youth trip to City Reach at Common Cathedral. Working with the adult mentors and the awesome group of youths who came to City Reach was exciting and inspiring. It was such a joy to hear all of the powerful take-aways from the youth, and I look forward to you all having the chance to hear some of their reflections at the multi-generation service on Dec. 17th! 

Last but obviously not least, attending two performances of the musical was an incredible pleasure. I was blown away by the talent on the stage, and the time and care from Ian, Simon, Camila, and the amazing volunteers that made it all come together so beautifully.


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