Opening Words from Sun. May 19 by Lance Finney

Good morning.

Most of you know me, but for new members and visitors, I use he/him pronouns, and my name is Lance Finney, as you would be able to see on my name tag if I weren’t up here on stage. This is the first Sunday in years that I’ve worn just one name tag. I turned in my “Board Member” name tag on Thursday, when my three-year term on the Board ended at the Annual Meeting.

It was an eventful three years. When I started on the Board, we had partially emerged from the pandemic, still requiring masks and blocking off every other row in this auditorium for social distancing. James Croft was our Leader, and we were considering hiring a Second Leader to work with him.

Since then, we’ve fully emerged from the pandemic (although a few members still wear masks every Sunday, and I still do when I have a cough), but James left, and our Second Leader search transitioned into an Interim Leader search. We hired Amy Miller in that role, and now we’re actively looking for a settled Leader to follow Amy. We’re also reconsidering our relationship with the AEU (the American Ethical Union) more seriously than I’ve seen in my 15 years here.

But I don’t want just to recount the events of the past three years. Instead, I want to call back to an experiment James created before he left, having us talk about how we “Elicit the Best”. How have I seen us elicit the best in each other over the past three years?

  • Bringing in Amy was a big risk. She was new to Ethical Culture, and she isn’t clergy. However, we hoped that her experience with relationship coaching would help us grow into a healthier community to hand off to our next Leader. I believe that risk has paid off. Amy has brought a lot of “heart” to a community that usually focuses more on the “head,” and she has been teaching us how to communicate more effectively as a congregation.
  • From the Board, I’ve watched Amy build a staff that works well together, supporting the membership as they always have, but with deeper collaboration than usual.
  • Among the accomplishments of the staff, Youth Education Director Megan McCarthy (joined recently by Courtnie Scott-Cammarata) has rebuilt a SEEK program that COVID nearly demolished. It’s not as active yet as it was at the pre-pandemic peak, but as the parent of two kids in the Youth Group, I see a positive trend.
  • Under the leadership of our new Music Director Claire Minnis, we have a revived choir, added a new justice choir, and have the best Ethical Band anywhere.
  • The Board itself is a community within the community, being seven elected members plus Amy who start each fiscal year with defined goals and end up dealing with surprises every month. Many of those surprises are outside our collective expertise.

    For example, none of us are electricians, but we had to decide how to upgrade our building’s electrical panels. We worked together to elicit the best answers we could, but we also relied on members who volunteered their time and relevant expertise to help us fill our gaps. Those members have my thanks, on this and other issues.

    Similarly, we started a practice of having at least two Board Forums a year to build transparency and accountability through discussion and Q&A, which can only help us find better answers to the Society’s challenges.

    We worked together to help each other elicit the best we could for the congregation.

    And through it all, we have been, as Amy said to me, a “healthy micro-community”. We don’t agree on everything, but we disagree respectfully, we grant each other charitable interpretations, and we apologize to each other when necessary.

As we start the next fiscal year, our congregation faces big questions: Who will our next Leader be? How will our relationship with the AEU evolve? Will our SEEK program continue its revival? How will we ever find a successor to Nancy Jelinek, our Operations Manager, when she reaches her well-earned retirement?

While I will no longer have a front-row seat for many of the decisions that will shape our future (which, frankly, is such a relief), I know our congregation has been working (and will continue to work) to elicit the best in each other, and thereby in all of us.

Thank you

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.