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Jennifer Kelleher installed as minister at UU Congregation of Somerset Hills

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Before going on a job interview, most people are careful to make sure everything is buttoned down. They know exactly what they’re going to say, they anticipate challenges that may come their way — and they rarely deviate from the plan.

When Jennifer Kelleher auditioned for her job, she took a risk. She tossed aside her prepared speech and gave another from the heart.

“When she preached her first sermon during candidating week, she didn’t give the original sermon she had intended to give,” says Jen Kitchen, vice president of the Board of Trustees at Unitarian Universalist Church of Somerset Hills (UUCSH). In Unitarian Universalism, candidating week is when a congregation gets its first look at the person whom its search committee has recommended to be the new minister.

“It was just a few days after the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Jennifer is originally from Massachusetts and attended college in Boston not far from the marathon route, so she felt called to preach on that,” says Kitchen. “It was an amazing sermon. There were lots of tears in the audience. It was so well done.”

The story doesn’t end there. During candidating week, a potential minister gives sermons on consecutive Sundays and spends the days in between meeting with as many congregants as possible. During the week, the husband of a member of the congregation passed away suddenly and unexpectedly.

“Jennifer had such compassion. She mentioned it in her second Sunday service,” says Kitchen. “That had to be a tough thing to happen during your weeklong job interview, and she handled it so well.” After Kelleher gave her second sermon, in which she discussed her journey to ministry, the congregation immediately voted to call her as its new minister. “There was a sense that she was the right person for us, and that we weren’t in transition any more,” says Kitchen.

“The moment of the bond”

Rev. Kelleher was formally installed Sunday as the settled minster at UUCSH. In a service attended by about 175 congregants, clergy, family, and friends, Kelleher spoke of a “shared ministry” between her and the congregation.

“Installation is the moment where that covenant happens between the congregation and the minister,” says Kelleher. “After the search process and the call is accepted, installation is the moment of the bond. It’s when we hold up what we believe dear in our faith as Unitarian Universalists and our commitments to personal transformation and changing the world together. It’s a sacred moment.”

For Kelleher, who began her work at UUCSH last August, it’s her first time at the helm of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Ordained into the ministry in March 2013, she brought to her second career her own deep sense of spirituality — a dimension she says has been nurtured by what she’s learned from her congregation.

“Everything we do together is internal work to further the institution and outside work to help our communities,” says Kelleher. “We do this with all kinds of deep personal transitions that are constantly going on in our individual lives.

“In being with the congregation in ministry on a day-to-day basis, I’m always touched to know the goings on of other people’s lives and how much they are holding. They commit to their spiritual journeys and to being good people in the world, even as each one of us is going through so much.”

One of the things that drew Kelleher to UUCSH was the work it does in the community. “They helped to found an outreach organization, which is now its own 501(c)(3) called the Giving Network. It takes in donated household goods from donors across Somerset County, and then distributes them to people in need. Anything from a used sofa to cutlery for the kitchen. That’s one example that relates to the heart of this congregation — its service.”

Kitchen says the energy and vibrancy that Kelleher brought to UUCSH is palpable. Moreover, she says, the young minister connects with people on a lot of levels.

“She brings both an old soul and a modern outlook to her style. Strong spirituality and very moving sermons, but also tempered with a sense of the future,” says Kitchen. “And humor. There’s an element of pop culture sprinkled into her sermons. At a Halloween sermon, she was dressed as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She has a wonderful sense of humor.”

“This is our minister”

Until Kelleher’s arrival, UUCSH had been in transition “for some time,” says Kitchen. The church’s founding minister, Rev. Craig Hirshberg, retired from the pulpit several years ago, and under a process that is unique to Unitarian Universalism, an interim minister served UUCSH while the congregation searched for its next settled minister. Unfortunately, the congregation’s second minister and the congregation parted ways before either would have anticipated — she and the congregation weren’t the best fit, says Kitchen — so it was back to an interim minister while a search committee tried again.

This time, the call went to Kelleher. And if anyone wasn’t sure whether this was a match was made in Unitarian Universalist heaven, Sunday’s installation service left no doubt.

“There was a sense of love, joy, and pride that ‘This is our minister,’ says Kitchen. “We were all on Facebook later, and everybody was talking about the tangible sense of joy and pride in the room.”

To Kitchen, those sentiments were best captured at Sunday’s service during the “laying of the hands” — a traditional blessing of a new minster. Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon of the First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County led the blessing.

“He had us all stand around Jennifer in a circle, with the people closest to her putting their hands on her shoulders. Then the people behind them put their hands on the shoulders of the people in front of them. Each circle was like ripples in a pond, coming out from Jennifer, with their hands on each other. Just an amazing day.”

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