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Unitarian Universalist Congregation welcomes interim pastor

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation, on Charleston's West Side, has a new voice of guidance and encouragement for those who attend its weekly services and other activities.

The Rev. Tricia Hart became the UUC's interim minister on Feb. 1. She and her husband, the Rev. Peter Newport, relocated from Lancaster, Pa., after serving a congregation there for nine years. Her husband, she said, had reached a point where he was ready to transition into retirement, and she agreed to become the UUC's full-time minister -- for a while, at least.

As an interim pastor, Hart explained, her assignment will last through August 2015. During that time, she said, the congregation will work to hire a permanent minister through a diligent searching process. (Hart has replaced the UUC's longtime co-pastors, Mel Hoover and Rose Eddington.)

The UUC in Charleston marks Hart's seventh congregation in 18 years of ministry. Along with Charleston and Lancaster, she has pastored Unitarian Universalist congregations in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Hart said she was raised in a Catholic household in Rochester, N.Y.

“I grew up a good Catholic in an observant Catholic family,” she said. “Like a lot of teenagers, I quit Catholicism when I was in high school. I was pretty sure I was done with religion at that point, at age 16.

“But a decade and a half later after that, my three kids and my husband then and I moved to a little town in Maine. We started looking for a church community for the children to learn something about religion and for us to meet friendly people. I found one, and, to my surprise, as I got more involved with that congregation, it had become the center of all of my focus. I felt called to change my career plans and go to seminary. I went to seminary when I was 40,” said Hart.

Being a “short-timer,” Hart said, she hopes to add her input to the challenges and changes the UUC, like many other denominations, are facing and making.

“An outsider sometimes is a better person to deal with the challenges and transitions,” she said. “A good thing about interim ministers is that, as we like to say, we're already 'pre-fired.' ... It's a way of having some objectivity in times of transition.”

Hart embraces the mission, message and people of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

“The work of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation is different and has become theologically significant in a way I've really appreciated.”

She said she was approached to become the Charleston pastor by more than one person last year. “They said this is a good congregation ... a community of interesting people from a variety of backgrounds who are interested in and enjoy each other's company, but whose work in the community is also important to them.”

Hart said the diversity of not only the UUC members, but Kanawha Valley residents overall, impressed her from her first days in the Kanawha Valley. (She and her husband are putting the finishing touches on a house they found in the Edgewood section of the West Side.)

Hart has pastored congregations as small as 50 people and as large as 550, she said.

“This congregation has just over 100 adult members, along with quite a few nonmember friends,” she said. “That's a small congregation but not a tiny one. In our traditional churches, as in most Protestant congregations around the country, there are usually 150 or fewer members.

“It's not that it's easier, but it is, in some ways, delightful; I appreciate the opportunity to meet everyone in the church. For shorter assignments like this, I appreciate that opportunity.

“It's a healthy congregation. That's a good thing.

“I have a wish and a hope for this congregation to grow -- in programs, not just in the number of people. We're hoping for younger families with children to join the congregation. That is one of the challenges in every congregation I'm aware of. It used to be that you could expect to put in a good Sunday school and youth group and people would find you and come every Sunday. That feels less and less possible these days. With their busy schedules, Sunday has become really precious family time. One of our challenges is to find how we can make the church more accessible to people in their busy lives.”

One pursuit Hart favors has a distinctly 21st century flair: giving the UUC a more vibrant online presence on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and the church's own website. She said this means more than using the sites merely as “bulletin boards.” Instead, social media could be used to post articles, photographs and links about both church and local issues and projects (“things that are representative of our religious and moral values”), attracting a potentially worldwide audience.

At another UUC assignment, she said, she observed as its Facebook page was used thusly and reaped an encouraging -- and somewhat unexpected -- response with its outreach.

“Half of the followers and those who visited the Facebook page were not members of the congregation,” said Hart. “They were finding our community on their own.

“That's a very different way of doing church. It's exciting, but it can be a little daunting to laypeople who do the lion's share of the work for the church.”

Hart said she is always glad to share the UUC message with those who want to know more about it.

“We don't post a list of our beliefs on the door,” she said. “We have a list of principles we try very hard to live by. The first principle is a respect for the inherent dignity and worth of every person. The last of these is respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Those are just the bookends; justice, mercy, the search for truth -- that all comes in the middle.”

She said, as an example, the UUC provides scriptural instruction from sources beyond those of Christian tradition.

“It's a wonderful treasure trove of diverse people that makes life in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation rich and full and surprising,” said Hart. “The range of religious beliefs people hold is pretty wide. Unitarian Universalism is much more religiously diverse than it was when it started 50 or 60 years ago.”

She said congregation members can range from atheists to “those who are deeply spiritual or who may not have rejected the religion of their youth but may have grown beyond it and want more breadth and depth in their religious experiences.

“I try to be aware of that. Pick a word like 'prayer.' Some people in the congregation would prefer I don't use that word. Others in the congregation are deeply comforted by it. ... We embrace that diversity.

“In my opinion,” Hart said, “Unitarian Universalism is coming closer to mirroring what is going on within our culture at large. We're kind of used to it; we've been doing it for a while. “

Founded locally in 1953, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation is located at 520 Kanawha Boulevard, W., in Charleston. For information about its programs and services, call 304-345-5042 or browse the UUC website, www.uuccharlestonwv.org.


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