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Interim minister at First Parish in Portland

From First Parish

PORTLAND – On Sept. 1, First Parish Church at 425 Congress Street will welcome Rev. Elaine Beth Peresluha, Ph.D., an Accredited Interim Minister and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.

Rev. Christina Sillari is stepping down after serving as pastor for the past 11 years. She was the first woman minister to be called and settled at the 300-year-old church. She has enlightened the First Parish congregation, enriched church ritual, and impacted the wider community in her 11-year tenure.

First Parish is the oldest place of worship in Portland.  One of Portland’s large, urban churches, it has endured for over 300 years.  Today, First Parish attracts a community of 300 active individuals of all ages.  Adjacent to City Hall, the Meeting House also has long hosted civic events, concerts, lectures, and continues to be a meeting place for social service organizations.

Bringing her experience as therapist, yoga teacher, and shamanic practitioner, Rev. Sillari expanded the healing practices and education at First Parish.  “She recognized that everyone has the potential to be both student and teacher,” Director of Faith Formation, Toben Cooney-Callnen explains. “Her commitment to spiritual education encouraged First Parish to shift away from the silo model of Religious Exploration and towards the Faith Formation model. Spiritual education is now recognized as an imperative across generations.“

Rev. Elaine Beth Peresluha, Ph.D., an Accredited Interim Minister and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, will step in as an interim pastor at the First Parish church in Portland on Sept. 1. (Photo courtesy of First Church)

Rev. Sillari initiated and nurtured the important transition of First Parish organizational structure to a policy governance model, which greatly empowered congregant-lead committees and reflected her collaborative and participatory approach to leadership. Rev. Sillari’s commitment to anti-racism was proclaimed from the pulpit but extended far beyond it. She called out white supremacy behavior and supported ministries for racial justice.  First Parish has a long social and racial justice history.  But it was Rev. Sillari’s modeled behavior that helped the congregation to support the goals of the poor and homeless, Black people, Native Americans, and immigrants.

Convinced that the building needed to be accessible to all, Rev. Sillari was an integral part of the recent Church for EveryBody campaign. The campaign funded a comprehensive renovation of the Parish Hall, including an accessible second entrance to the church, an elevator, a remodeled kitchen and Community Room, a new fully accessible restroom, audio and media upgrades for the Meeting House, and improvements to the Memorial Garden. “$1,440,000 has been pledged toward our $1,500,000 campaign goal,” explained Austin Farrar, President of the Board of Trustees and Co-Chair with Ted Oldham of the Church for EveryBody campaign.

Jason Shedlock, immediate past President of the Governing Board, said, “Rev. Sillari’s heart, leadership, and legacy has brought us to an inflection point. As we pivot to the future, we do so carrying her indelible mark of love, and with the deep promise of care, growth and professionalism that our Interim Minister offers to our congregation.”

Rev. Christina Sillari is stepping down after serving as pastor for the past 11 years at First Church in Portland, the oldest place of worship in the city. (Photo courtesy of First Church)

Rev. Perelusha’s Ph.D. in Social Science was earned through the Taos Institute and the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, expanding and integrating her lifelong interest in right relationship, collaborative leadership styles, and social change. Rev. Peresluha focuses on inspiring social change through anti-oppression and anti-racism. By bringing diverse groups of people together for personal growth, discovery, and creative engagement, she aims to work towards personal and communal transformation.

The incoming President of the Governing Board, Taryn Friedman, said, “This is a unique and exciting time for our First Parish community to step forward together to affirm our Unitarian Universalist principles.” Friedman believes that the congregation will profit from Rev. Peresluha’s deep experience in collaborative leadership and advocacy for moral social change.

Two years from now, the First Parish congregation will be well prepared to call the next minister of the venerable institution so embedded in the life of Portland and Maine.

The original First Parish church built in Falmouth, Massachusetts Colony, now Portland, Maine, dates from 1674. In 1740 the second wooden Meeting House, known as Old Jerusalem, was erected at the present location, 425 Congress Street. The present granite structure opened its doors in 1826. As Unitarian Universalists, the congregation practices a liberal religion. In affirming the worth of all humans, the church advocates freedom of belief and the search for advancing truth.

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