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Here We Go

By Mary Domb Mikkelson, Connecting Voices Editorial Team

     UCCLM met Bill Peterson at the table.  Two tables, actually – one at the All-Church Dinner for 8 on Saturday, November 6; the other for communion on Sunday morning.  An appropriate coming together, engagement in the manner of Sara Miles who wrote in Take This Bread:  A Radical Conversion that the sharing of food is redemptive, “…that because God was about feeding and being fed, religion could be a way not to separate people but to unite them.”

     Shared food.  Shared laughter, too – enjoyment of both the Drama Group’s after-dinner comedic antics and the bolt-from-the-blue opening to Bill’s first sermon when, demonstrating as he spoke, he called on everyone to raise their arms high and wide, look upward and shout as one, “Here we go!”  Great icebreaker, great start, great introduction to the tour guide who will walk with us as we embark on a journey of discovery, discerning who we are and who we want to be.  And, while we’re at it, getting to know Bill better.

     Basics first.  Born in Chicago, Bill, the third of four kids, grew up in Moline, Illinois, the “farm implement capital of the world.”   As a young man, after earning degrees in physics and statistics from the University of Illinois, Champaign, he was recruited by Boeing and moved to Seattle to investigate military aircraft accidents and near-misses, his team’s goal to help designers create safer planes.  Not exactly church work…and, yet…it was here, he reports, his preparation for interim ministry began as he acquired the arts of giving feedback and helping people overcome “the power of familiarity” and recognize the importance of change.

     Also a church youth leader, he experienced growing emotional conflict, a tension reflecting the contradiction of working at a military-related job while counseling young people about the draft.  He returned to school.  Four years at Chicago Theological Seminary resulted in two Masters, one in divinity, the other in social work.  “Particularly valuable,” he recalls, was being part of an innovative seminary project in which he was required to submit papers that could be read and understood by laypeople.”
 
     At Union UCC in Hinsdale, Illinois he met Granger Westberg, author of Good Grief, and worked with him and the University of Illinois Medical Center for ten years, developing church-housed “Wholistic” medical facilities where treatment and counseling have a strong spiritual dimension.  At Hinsdale, too, he worked with the Diaconate to develop contemporary services and monthly services of healing and reconciliation. 

     Another 5 1/2 years, two churches and a sabbatical later, he joined Kaiser Permanente as a medical educator, teaching communication and the human side of medicine to doctors; working in AIDS education and with members seeking help with stress management, grief, and sleep problems.  This period was his introduction to the world of LBGT people, yet another important step in his journey. As part of an AIDS Ministry Ecumenical Network he provided pastoral services, primarily to those rejected by their churches.  A very powerful experience, it strengthened his interest in the integration of all people into the fabric of society and the church. 

     During this period he also served part-time at Fullerton Congregational Church, a small, very activist congregation.  Another step – “my re-introduction into ministry.”  The moment of decision had arrived.  Where did his heart lie?  Where would he spend the rest of his professional life?   Recognizing the church was his true passion and drawn to interim ministry (also wife Gail’s chosen field), he talked with Conference Minister Jane Heckles about his journey.  His first call was to Santa Barbara 1st Congregational, where he spent three years while receiving professional training from the Interim Ministry Network (he is now on their faculty). 

     Next came Neighborhood Community Church of Laguna Beach.  He describes his tenure there as successful, a success measured by “the members taking long enough to decide who they were, what they wanted to be and what they wanted in a settled pastor.”

     The next year and a half, at a Quaker church in Whittier, taught him the values of silence and being centered and the process of consensus.

     The path to UCCLM opened a year later with a call from Colleen Link.  “I was impressed by the search committee’s level of commitment to the interim process, to carrying that process through to a successful completion.  I learned all I could about the church, met Associate Pastor Mary Sue Brookshire  and soon had a sense of call to UCCLM.

     His goal for UCCLM?  “When your new pastor comes, he or she will grab onto a moving train rather than one waiting in the station for someone to come.  I work to strengthen churches, not fixing things but helping them learn to fix themselves; not resolving conflicts but helping people develop the confidence to resolve them.  I help the congregation recognize a pastor should not be chosen simply because he or she is like a respected former pastor or unlike one who was not loved.  I partner with the congregation, developing a church transition team of those with the interest of the church at heart and encourage them to become transition leaders.  When I leave, my work leaves.  Theirs stays.”

     Asked what he sees as the most important things happening in Christianity, Bill, the father of four and grandfather of two, spoke of the progressive return to seeing Jesus as the center of faith, as teacher, leader and prophet rather than object of worship and of the church’s struggle with inclusivity, saying, “our survival depends on the latter.”  Within the UCC, he suggests, most important is the huge transition it is undergoing, the search to discover what the UCC will be, especially in light of technology and diversity – and, for that matter, whether the UCC will “be” at all.  Most important in the world, he concluded, is globalization, the realization that everything (war, politics, religion, the economy) involves everybody.

     Bill’s responses to three final questions (favorite and least favorite words, how others see him and, finally, “what did I forget to ask that should have been asked?) were revealing.  His favorite word is “peace” (“I seek it and hope I leave it behind when I go”); his least favorite, “bigotry” (“dehumanizes both the object and the bigot”).  As for how others see him – “as calm and a listener and, in those ways, as a leader.”  About those unasked questions –  “The story of my call to ministry.    A good thing, as I have no idea how it happened.  It just seemed like a good idea at the time!”

     It was – and still is.

     His initial staff-congregation “get-together” at UCCLM was a hit-the-ground-running “creative conversation about themes and messages for Advent-Christmas-Epiphany.”  Calling it “our first holiday party” (organic apple crisps seasoned with organic cinnamon were served), he encouraged the sharing of memories.  Nostalgia – for lighted candles, aromatic greenery, lights, silence, peace, family (genetic and church), children, live manger scenes, visits to the orphanage, Moravian love feasts and much, much more bubbled forth – things which in memory say “this is church.”  Balancing the nostalgia was recognition that the season is a time of loss and challenge for many and of the importance of sharing the family holiday with visitors.  Epiphany, an often neglected part of the season was also discussed, a wish for meaningful observance of it expressed.   A few first steps were taken – plans to develop both an Advent calendar and an annual calendar and to “get the word out,” to celebrate and share our church.

     Here we go, folks!

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