New Hampshire minister says ‘congregational life is where the faith is happening.’
The heart of Unitarian Universalism beats in congregations, says the Rev. Sarah Stewart. She hopes to advance congregational life with her service to the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees, which she joined in June 2011, as trustee from the Northern New England District.
“There can be a tendency among ministers to think we are really doing Unitarian Universalism when we get together,” said Stewart. “But we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that congregational life is where the faith is happening.”
Stewart has been minister of the Starr King UU Fellowship in Plymouth, N.H., since 2003. The congregation is a rare breed in New England, which is dotted with congregations that are hundreds of years old: the Starr King Fellowship was founded in 1980.
Since the fellowship called her as its minister, it has grown to 155 members from 124. The building has also grown, doubling in size in 2009 after a $400,000 capital campaign that Stewart oversaw. During the same time, the congregation’s religious education program has nearly tripled, increasing to 45 children from 17. Stewart and her husband contributed to that growth, adding their two sons, ages 2 and 5. “We primed the pump,” Stewart said.
It’s a full plate for Stewart, the mother of two young children, parish minister, and UUA board member. To prepare for the large board workload, she pared down some of her other volunteer activities. She no longer sits on the executive committee of her local UU Ministers Association chapter, and she stepped down from the board of a Plymouth homeless shelter. She also took a hiatus from playing viola in her community orchestra.
Stewart is still an inveterate multitasker, however. She frequently knits her way through board meetings, pausing occasionally in her craft to ask a question or make a comment. Despite how busy she is, Stewart relishes her volunteer work. “I really think that good leadership helps create good institutions,” she said. “It’s the role of leaders to make involvement and participation as easy and transparent for people as possible.”
She finds that true on the congregational and denominational levels as well. “If someone comes in the door and wants to be part of the musical program, it ought to be really clear how they could join the choir,” she said. “And the same is true at the UUA.”
Stewart grew up attending the Northwest UU Church in Southfield, Mich. The state maintains a special place in her heart, she said, but she’s lived in New England for over a decade. She graduated from Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., in 2001. She served as an interim assistant minister at First Parish in Lexington, Mass., before she was called to lead the New Hampshire congregation, 100 miles north of Boston, in 2003. “I’ve really fallen in love with northern New Hampshire,” she said.
On the UUA board, Stewart serves on the Communications Working Group and the Committee on Committees, which recommends candidates for board-appointed committees. She said she was pleased to see how valued candidates are when they step up from regional or district work to become involved nationally. “That’s considered a positive attribute in an applicant,” she said.
Stewart’s term ends in 2013, when a restructured board will have half as many members. She says she will consider her service to the board a success “if we’ve been able to shape our policies ever more clearly to focus on the congregations.”
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).
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