Pastor Munn takes pulpit at city church
I was really, really moved by the sermon and the way he led the service.
— Jane Spencer
VERGENNES — Two years after longtime pastor Gary Lewis retired from the Vergennes Congregational Church, the members of the South Water Street congregation believe they have picked the right person as their new permanent pastor.
His glowing reviews and recent 87-0 vote to confirm his hire after a long, complex search offer testimony to their belief.
The new pastor is Elliott Munn, 31, a Maine native and graduate of Bowdoin College and Yale Divinity School. He officially takes on his new role this coming Monday, May 18.
Many members of the Vergennes church met Munn the first weekend in May at what the parent United Congregational Church, or UCC, refers to as a “call weekend,” the last step in the hiring process.
The candidate, tentative contract in hand courtesy of the church’s executive committee and a recommendation of a search committee, meets and greets the congregation and conducts a service.
In this case, it was all done remotely with Zoom software due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Search committee chairwoman Jane Spencer said the weekend went well, as had every other step along the way since the committee first made contact with Munn in November.
About the Zoom gatherings, Spencer said, “People opened up to him even meeting him for the first time.”
On the Sunday service, she added, “I was really, really moved by the sermon and the way he led the service.”
Search committee member Jim Ouimette praised Munn’s easygoing nature, sense of humor, and caring for others.
“He seems to have a real connection with people, a real appreciation. There’s a real sense of empathy there,” Ouimette said.
That caring, he said, extends to an embrace of the city church’s stance as an “open and affirming” congregation within the UCC, one that embraces all regardless of wealth, status, race or sexual identity.
“We are an open church, so it was important that we find someone who is open and affirming. And Elliott is very much so,” Ouimette said.
Munn said that he could only serve a church that believed in affirming “who people are in their God-given identities.”
And Munn said those Zoom meetings confirmed his belief that he had found the right place, possibly even more effectively than typical, more formal call weekends, because they allowed for meaningful give-and-take.
“I did a lot of listening, and just getting to know folks, who were sharing stories about why they love this church and why they love their community. In some ways I think I got to know people more deeply and intimately,” Munn said.
And he said getting out to meet people and learn about them, and translating what he learns into action, will be a big part of his ministry to the church and the rest of the Vergennes area.
“I would really like to relay how excited I am to get to know folks and be a part of the community,” Munn said. “One of the great gifts in ministry for me is getting to know other people’s stories, and then working together and learning how to teach those stories to make the world a better place.”
Long before Munn considered the ministry he grew up in a churchgoing family in the small town of Norway, Maine. At least they all went to church when the snow wasn’t falling.
“My mom was very active,” he said. “I would go every Sunday and go to Sunday school with my brothers. Except during ski season when my dad would take us skiing. He definitely had more of an outdoor sanctuary.”
As well as his mother, Munn said he had another role model, his church’s pastor.
“I always thought the minister was the smartest, bighearted person in town. I wanted to be just like that,” he said.
At Bowdoin he attended the Congregational church in Brunswick, Maine, “And I kept being drawn to spiritual folks.”
Then came a conversation with the Brunswick UCC pastor.
“I found myself eager for more language, more learning to help describe the spiritual journey that I was on. That’s when the pastor of the church that I attended while I was in college said, ‘You know, I think you need to go to seminary,’” Munn said.
“There wasn’t a lot of surprise,” Munn said. “It was mostly an affirmation.”
At Yale Divinity School he met Elizabeth Gleich, now his wife. She has served as the associate pastor of the Congregational Church of Middlebury for the past year.
“It’s pretty unique for clergy couples to both find good fits that are so close together,” Munn said. “We’re feeling very grateful.”
Munn spent four years as the associate pastor of the First Congregational Church of West Hartford, a Connecticut church with 500 active members and multiple programs, services and community outreach efforts, including cooperation with a hands-on, “justice-oriented” interfaith collaboration.
“It was a great place to learn ministry, a lot of different settings, a lot of different experiences,” he said.
With Gleich already in Vermont and the couple determined to settle here, Munn left West Hartford in September to serve as a transitional pastor in Waitsfield, but by November was seeking the Vergennes post.
Vermont hit Munn and Gleich’s lifestyle checkmarks, he said, primarily family-friendly, small-town life and skiing. They made frequent visits during their years at Yale, including a stop at Button Bay State Park.
This past summer Gleich played in the Vergennes City Band, and Munn came up to listen and soak in the atmosphere.
“Just seeing their commitment to their kids, with the band, I was like, wow,” he said. “And then I heard that church (position) was potentially going to be opening, and I said I’m going to keep my eye open.”
By last summer Lewis had been gone for more than a year, but it is not unusual for a UCC church to go that long without a permanent pastor. Nor had the Vergennes church been wandering in the wilderness — Spencer and Ouimette gave interim pastors Joan O’Gorman and Barbara Purinton high marks.
Before a UCC church can start the hiring process, it must write a comprehensive profile. A committee began that work early in 2019, and after surveys and sit-downs produced a 32-page document describing the church and its aspirations.
UCC pastoral candidates prepare their own profiles, and both are distributed by the UCC. Munn read the Vergennes profile and was sold.
“I said this is a really healthy, vibrant church,” he recalled.
The church received about 15 potential candidates. But after a couple lengthy interviews and viewing video of his services and visiting one, the search committee was sold on Munn, too.
An agreement was struck late this winter, and Munn chose May 2 and 3 for the call weekend because both he and Gleich would be available, and it would allow proper notice in Waitsfield.
Then came the coronavirus stay-at-home order. But technology Zoomed to the rescue after consultation with UCC bylaws — the online meetings and email voting that produced the 87-0 result would be allowed.
Munn said he expects COVID-19 to provide more serious challenges ahead.
“There’s going to be a lot of need,” he said. “I’m glad that I can be a part of helping connect the gifts of the church with the needs of the community.”
Asked what attracted him to the UCC, Munn cited his upbringing — and the unique decision-making process it offers, such as the one that brought him to Vergennes.
“It’s what I know. It’s also the people I love, and all of the messiness of Congregation process, and trusting the spirit is in that, and often finding it,” he said.
“It’s one of the delights of Congregational ministry when a group of people can come together and decide that God is calling them to make a difference in their community and make a difference in their lives, and to share their joy.”
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