Terry Burke, minister of First Church in Jamaica Plain, Unitarian Universalist (UU) for the last 31 years, will retire this month.
Burke told the Gazette that he is retiring to focus on his health. He was diagnosed with serious lung cancer in September. He said he’ll also work on writing a novel—and maybe get back to stand-up comedy, which he once performed.
“It’s been great to be in JP all these years. It’s been a wonderful group of people to work with,” he told the Gazette last week. Burke’s last regular sermon will be June 8 and his retirement party will be June 20.
New minister Stacy Robinson Harris will take over, on a two-year appointment, after Burke leaves.
“It’s very sad,” church member and Monroe Hyman told the Gazette. “When I think of First Church, I think of Terry. He’s been the minister since I joined [in 1988]. He’s played a central part in our lives.”
An unexpected challenge will be the UU regulation that retired ministers should mostly cut off contact with their former congregations, Burke said.
“The idea is that a new minister will come in should have a chance to develop their own relationships with people,” he said. “It gives me time to focus on my healing, but it is strange.”
“Terry has taught me how to live. He’s been very open in terms of his diagnosis. Now he’s teaching us how to die,” Hyman said.
In his 31 years at 6 Eliot St., Burke built up the congregation from the 35 grey-haired members he met in 1983 over a hundred today.
“When Terry came to the church, it was dying off. He really helped revitalize it,” Hyman said. “He’s had such a wonderful personal ministry with people. He’s always been there to listen and help and make suggestions.”
His first sermons were delivered in the church’s parish hall, Burke said, because the main sanctuary was too expensive to heat for such a small congregation.
Burke has strongly focused his ministering on social justice, which has reflected on the congregation and the church. Jamaica Plain Forum, a series of discussions, lectures, workshops, films and events, is hosted at First Church UU.
“Terry is an activist and his concerns for social justice have guided the church members. At the same time, he is a deeply spiritual man. That’s a powerful combination and we will miss his leadership both in the community and in our private religious lives,” church Standing Committee Chair Andrea Fleck Clardy told the Gazette.
Catherine MacAlpine, a member of the church, told the Gazette that when she joined the church in April 2013, she was looking for a spiritual home.
“And I found it in Terry Burke and First Church UU,” she said. “Terry is a minister who will go above and beyond to minister to his flock.”
“I’m very sad that he’s leaving, but if I flip the coin, how lucky am I to have met him and have had him guide me at a time when I needed it,” she added.
Over the last 31 years and 1,200 sermons, Burke said he has had many “little gifts” from his congregation.
“You have these wonderful little gifts. I officiated at a wedding last summer for a woman who started coming to the church when she was seven,” he said. “It’s a real gift to see people across these moments in their lives.”
MacAlpine told the Gazette that shortly after joining the church, her mother died. Burke and his wife, church organist Ellen McGuire, went to the wake to comfort her.
“He came all that way for me. He made the time to come and make sure I was getting through my mother’s death,” she said. “I know my life has been permanently enriched by having him as my minister.”