By Marjorie Nesin
---- — Gloucester’s historic Unitarian Universalist Church waved goodbye to long-term pastor Wendy Fitting in June.
But before the nation’s longest-running Universalist congregation connects with another long-term minister, members will spend two years with Rev. Jenny Rankin coaching them toward community goals.
Rankin, who has served both interim and long-term ministries, including 15 years at First Parish in Concord, said she embraces interim work because it allows her to listen to a community and let them hear themselves voice their desires.
“It’s a specialized form of ministry where you go in and help the congregation kind of look at itself, figure out its identity and where it wants to go, and figure out what kind of minister will help them get there,” Rankin said in a Friday interview.
Raised a Unitarian Universalist in Boston, Rankin graduated Princeton University in 1979. She spent some confusing years searching for her calling before finding mentors back in Boston at the UU church — which led to entering Harvard Divinity School, which in turn led her to the ministry.
She has traveled to Europe on three separate trips to lead tourists in tracing the footsteps of 19th century transcendentalists including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. And, though she has lived in Concord with her husband for 16 years, raising three children, Rev. Rankin says she still experiences the joy of travel each time she delves into work at a new church.
“Maybe it’s the part of me that’s kind of a traveler that enjoys the new challenge and that part of interim ministry,” Rankin said. “I get to come in and meet this whole new group of people and learn their joys and sorrows.”
Preparing to take the pulpit at Gloucester UU church for the first time at this Sunday’s 10 a.m. service, Rev. Rankin says she wrote her sermon “The Welcoming Stranger.” about the church’s 200 plus years of history in the community — a history, she says, which has not only strengthened the church’s central goal of inclusion, but can act as a platform for the congregation’s future goals.
It was the combination of the church’s unique history and its “dynamic” and “engaged” 21st century community, says Rankin — the latter of which she considers a testimony to former pastor Fitting’s leadership— that attracted her to the position. The church’s congregants this past winter completed a project aimed at making the church more accessible by implementing two lifts for handicapped people.
Rankin sees this and the congregation’s thorough plans for future growth as great indicators of its core values. Her job, as self-defined, is to provide guidance as they step towards those goals, both to the community as a whole and to individuals.
“My role is to help them hear the voice that is deepest inside them and help them listen to themselves,” Rankin said.
Though her position at the church is interim, she intends to bond with the church’s members through her pastoral duties. She defines this aspect of the job as her joy. In her work, Rankin often thinks of early 20th century theologian Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation: “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
In a society where people focus on jobs, money, vanity and possessions, Rankin said, “My job is to ask: what about wonder, what about beauty, what about mystery, what about courage?”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.