Ministry & Metanoia, part 2

"May I never again take for granted a friend, objectify a stranger, be indifferent to falling rain, falling leaves, falling snow, eat bread without thought, hear music without care, laugh without praise. Thus shall I ever give thanks." (Rev. Shannon Bernard)
It was twenty years ago this month: in mid-June 1998, Rev. Shannon Bernard's resignation as CUC's minister became effective. It had been known for a couple years that Rev. Shannon was dying of breast cancer, and by spring 1998 it was clear she didn't have much time left. The announcement that appeared in the Order of Service in April that year that she would be resigning in two months would not have been a surprise.

She thought she would have a year of life left after the resignation. Eleven weeks later, August 29, 1998, she was dead.

I never knew her, and yet there I was that night a few years ago addressing her ghost because her presence is here. I told her about what was on my mind, thanked her for serving these people that I now serve, for all she did that fashioned you as a people, for loving you into being – as that is the ongoing continual function and need of congregations, to love and be loved into being. I asked some rhetorical questions, which she didn't answer.

If you’re a part of CUUC now, then CUUC is a part of you -- which means the Rev. Shannon Bernard is a part of you whether you knew her not. So is Peter Samson. So is Warren Ross, and Charlie Selinske, and Sam Usher; Joe Hertog, and Betty Baker; Henry Mertens, Robert Clapp, John Sacardi, and Whitney Young, and Meg Hellman. So many others. In adding ourselves to this place, we have come under the influence of all these people whether we ever met them or not. And none was a more powerful force than Rev. Shannon Bernard.

For the sake of those who did not know her, let her memory today be shared. For the sake of those who did, let her memory today be honored. As we are a community of memory and hope, let her be remembered. As important to this congregation as she was -- and still is -- let her be remembered. You may find, as I did, that in learning something about Shannon, certain aspects of this place suddenly make a little more sense.

Her ministry to our congregation began in 1985. She had previously served six years at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex in Orange, NJ, about 15 mins west of Newark: 1979-1985. During her first years at CUC, she said often that she'd be leaving after five years. She stayed for 13. In the chapter in our church history on the Shannon years, Paul McNeill wrote:
“The Rev. Shannon Bernard stirred a sea of change at Community Unitarian Church in the 1980s. She was the church’s first female minister and a force to be reckoned with. She forged a new more vigorous role for the church in the lives of many of its members and in the life of the White Plains community. She was able to take advantage of pressures already at work in the congregation through force of her personality, will and impressive energy. She also summoned a compassionate zeal that enabled leaders to make great change. And, she was thoroughly controversial.”
Just before the vote to call her, the board chair, Eileen Kellner, invited Shannon and all board and search committee members to her house for a dinner. Shannon proclaimed to all those gathered, “I want you to know that you need me more than I need you.” “Classic Shannon” people came to say of such anecdotes.

She was well-loved, but also repelled more than a few. Some called her dynamic, others called her over-confident or arrogant. Some called her straight shooting; others called her brusque.

She reinvented our music program.

She got CUC active in the White Plains community, in particular as a founding member of SHORE, the consortium of congregations that worked to shelter Westchester’s homeless and advocate for fair housing.

She brought energy to pastoral care, including originating the Caring and Sharing team, which is still our mainstay for pastoral care.

She energetically facilitated the capital campaign in the 1980s that got the Parsonage built.

For these five years I have been preaching from Shannon's pulpit -- the pulpit she enlivened with her insightful and captivating preaching – and I have been living in Shannon's house -- the Parsonage that she led this congregation to build and that she inhabited for its first dozen years.

As her illness progressed in the final year, I understand she had a designated hugger. Greeting congregants before or after the service or at other occasions, people would want to give her a hug, but her immune system was compromised, so to protect it as much as she could, a person was selected to stand next to her and receive all hugs on her behalf.

She stood in this pulpit, behind this Spirit of Truth figure, on May 24, 1998, and preached her final sermon. She began it with the words, “Leap and the net will appear.” She said it was a quote for the church sign, and she related that congregant Jason Brill had told her the quote was unfinished. The full saying was:
“Leap and the net will appear – and the name of the net is love.”
In that sermon she told the story of how she had complained to one of her seminary instructors about the behavior of some of the members of the church where she was interning.

The professor told her, “Shannon, you are not called to LIKE them. Some of them behave in unlikeable ways. You are only called to love them.”

When she heard this, she said, she “relaxed for a moment until the implications unfolded and exploded in me.” But the advice sunk in.

“I don’t have to like everything each of you do;” she preached to those gathered in this sanctuary that day – most of whom were thinking, “and you’ve made clear that you don’t.” She continued:
“You have the same freedom with each other and toward me. When confronted with a fellow member here whose behavior is driving you around the bend, you have more options than to avoid the person forever. You and I could actually take the wild leap toward honesty and love by saying aloud: ‘I care about you and the way you do “x” is offensive to me.’ We will all survive candor, for we are engaged in the process of learning to love.”
Later on, she muses,
“How do we love within a church community, particularly this religious home which holds a central and tender place in my heart?

"When I was called to your pulpit in 1985, this was not known as a loving church. The reputation of that long-ago congregation was, fairly or not, that of a cold and unfriendly place. I had cold feet and nearly backed out of our contract in the days before we made a covenant with my installation. For $6,000 (the cost of repaying this church for my move and moving back to New Jersey), I could have returned to my former church – a group of people who knew how to love and be loved. George and I talked for long late hours in those couple of days, he leaving the decision to me with a reminder that I had a model of a loving congregation and could work to help create that here.

"How well he knew me. There’s nothing like a challenge to get this Irish woman going.

"It was hard on all of us. I was defensive and scared of the leap that my choice had committed me and my family to living out. Members here were able to be extremely caring of each other in small groups, but seemed stunned by my insistence on the little ways of congregational love:
  • Using gender neutral language even in the holy of holies, 'The Spirit of Truth';
  • Referring to children as “children of the church” and asking that child care be provided for every church meeting, class, event;
  • Giving plants to children at Easter to teach the preciousness of growing life rather than passing out cut flowers;
  • Including family worship in previously adult-only services at least once a month
  • Suggesting, none too delicately, that a finance, membership, and caring and sharing committee were ways of responsibility as well as connection;
  • Reminding visitors and newcomers that this was a warm and caring community that welcomed their participation.”
Shannon goes on to say that after a while
“We began to trust one another, to respect one another’s gifts and talents and efforts. In short, we laid the foundation for love in a religious community. It could not have happened without each of us. . . .

“The work in this community over the next three years will need the efforts of all of you. For in that time, you will welcome an interim minister, trust his advice and caring for the institution, grieve with him for my death – even as you are planning for the next settled minister to begin his/her love affair with you in September 2000.

"The work you must do is . . . to call one another into deeper being. You cannot afford to allow each other to become or remain consumers of religion. This faith and the work of Community Unitarian Church is not a spectator sport. If you are to call one another into being, you will have to, in the words of a marriage vow, 'speak the truth to each other in love.' That means a care for how you speak, how you listen, how to handle consequences. It means hanging in and working out your differences when it would be easier to walk away. It means giving of your talents when it would be easier to stay home and relax. It means setting firm boundaries; it means abiding by the boundaries fairly and lovingly set.

"You have given me so much. Surely each of you deserves the same caring trust. You have kidded and chided me about my shortcomings, encouraging me, calling me [into being]. Can you do any less for one another – for the ministers who follow me?

"Leap and the net will appear. And the name of the net is love.”
Those were the last words the Rev. Shannon Bernard preached from this pulpit to which she had been called 13 years before. "And still her silent ministry within our hearts has place."

* * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "Ministry and Metanoia"
See also
Part 1: Marking Ministry Milestones
Part 3: Cindy
Part 4: Metanoia
Part 5: Transformed Into Ourselves, Not by Ourselves


  1. Thank You for that beautiful description of a beautiful woman. Through you, I learned about another courageous and wise UU person.

  2. You do indeed have your moments of brilliance Meredith. Inspired.

  3. My name is Toby, and Shannon was my mother. I was feeling a little lost today so I googled "Shannon Bernard" and found this page. It was exactly what I needed, and I thank you. Shannon stories still crack me up! Love, T

  4. My name is Kate and Shannon is my mom. My brother shared this page with me and it brought me to tears. Thank you, thank you, thank you for making my mom come to life again.