Sonoma United Methodist Church bids farewell to retiring Pastor

UnknownRetiring minister Thomas (Ted) Virts will be honored this Sunday, June 8, with a luncheon at 11 a.m. The public is welcome to attend worship service at 10 a.m. The Sonoma United Methodist Church is located at 109 Patten Street.

Rev. Virts preached a theology of grace that can be summarized this way, “There is nothing you can do to make God love you more. There is nothing you can do to make God love you less.”
Virts was a preschool teacher and as an educator for Planned Parenthood before he attended the Pacific School of Religion and subsequently earned his doctorate at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “Christology from the Margins and Generation X,” explored models for ministry, worship, education, and administration within the local church.

He likes the give and take of dialogue; at times his sermons were conversations where he would ask a question and people would offer their perspectives. In turn, Virts responded to questions about theology and the church posed by the congregation during a worship service.

Virts often examined the mysteries of “the faith struggle” in Sunday school and at well-attended Sunday night potluck meals that included videos and discussion. In a recent sermon he said, “It is the paradox of living…We see it in the headlines and in our hearts: striving, fighting, rage versus kindness, cooperation, compassion, and forgiveness.”

Despite the formal position of the United Methodist Church against Methodist ministers officiating at weddings for gay and lesbian couples, Virts insisted on full inclusion of persons in the life of the church without regard for sexual orientation. He also introduced the congregation to provocative Christian thinkers.

In the United Methodist Church, the Conference Bishop determines where ministers serve, and for how long. In an unusual chain of events, Virts was appointed to the Sonoma United Methodist Church from 1994 to 2000, then he was sent here again in 2011, after assignments in Bakersfield and on the Bishop’s staff. The many parishioners who remembered him were delighted to have him back.

The congregation also loved having Charlene Virts back and enjoyed her frequent Children’s sermons on Sundays as well as her singing in the choir and creative and thoughtful altar pieces. Charlene was a member of the Valley of the Moon Chamber Ensemble.

The Sonoma United Methodist Church has seen an increase in the Sunday worshipers, including young families. Among the innovations that Virts fostered was having an early service where casual wear was welcome, and a band provided music and children made a “joyful noise” with singing and musical instruments accompaniment.

As members saw how different groups enjoyed the single shared service in summer, they decided to return to a single service. Due to a generous anonymous gift, the church replaced pews with comfortable padded bentwood chairs, some with arm rests, and now can reconfigure seating and have worship service “in the round” or traditional rows of seats.

Virts’ most recent innovation, building upon the church’s reputation for excellent music that included a bell choir, choir, and guest musicians, was to expand the job of music director. Daniella Caveney was hired to carry on for the exceptional Beth Carter. Ms. Caveney is now working with the church band and the children’s choir, “Awesome Joy”, as well as leading the choir.

Another goal was to connect with other ministers and social activists in the area. In the process, the church brought in Davin Cardenas to train volunteers in the congregation for one-on-one conversations with a majority of the parishioners about their spiritual life and what the church means to them. Virts served as Board President of La Luz in the mid 1990’s.

In keeping with the results of the interviews, Virts has long encouraged lay members to lead adult Sunday School classes and helped start a group called Spiritual Action with this mission: “To support church members and others in witnessing God’s presence among us.” One concern is that California is among the states with the lowest rate for qualified low income families receiving SNAP (food stamps), and Sonoma ranks near the bottom.

Rev. Matt Pearson begins as pastor on July 1. As Virts leaves and Pearson arrives, the Sonoma United Methodist Church continues to live their creed: “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Door.” Ted and Charlie Virts, and Charlie’s mother Peggy Finkel, will settle in Bend Oregon.

Rev. Virts reflected on his time in Sonoma with gratitude. “My appointment here has been a great gift in my life. Good friends, serious thought, a playful, generous and compassionate congregation and a delightful place to live— I couldn’t have asked for more. I am hopeful for the future of the church and the community.”

– Charlene Thomason


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