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Pastor retires after fullfilling 20 years of ministry

Andy CastroLang and the church adapted readily to Zoom.


In a recent sermon, Andrea (Andy) CastroLang, pastor of Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ (UCC), likened the congregation she has served for 20 years to "a tree that shares life and hope, spreads its branches in welcome, and is a safe resting place for sharing stories that ground people in love and lead them to challenge injustice."

As she prepares to retire in August, she is reflecting on her time with the church through grief and struggles, renewal and laughter.

"I'm retiring because I'll be 65, not as part of the wave of folks retiring or resigning from COVID burnout," she said. "I'm retiring on a high note with the church. We will have a good good-bye, and Westminster is ready to be challenged by a new leader."

When Andy came to Westminster in 2002, the interim minister handed her two folders. She was on her own to learn about the people and the ministry.

The church has already chosen her successor, who will overlap two months with her. The goal is to help Westminster maintain its momentum. Usually, UCC churches search for an interim and then for a permanent pastor.

"Westminster has committed, energized lay leaders, who know who they are and what their ministry is, so they do not need an interim for that," she said.

"We encourage members to go into the community, represent us, speak up and 'make good trouble.' We participate in marches and rallies for Martin Luther King Day, Black Lives Matter, climate change, gun violence, and women's, indigenous, LGBTQ and Asian American rights," Andy said.

Members join in the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference, Catholic Charities, Faith Action Network, Family Promise, Faith Leaders and Leaders of Conscience, The Fig Tree, the Inland Northwest Development Council, OutSpokane, Shalom Ministries, Skils'kin, Spokane Alliance, Spokane FaVS, Spokane Preservation Advocates, Transitions, Visiting Angels, Volunteers of America/Crosswalk, Washington Nonprofits and more.

"We join others to make the planet a better place," she said. "There is plenty to do to stand for what we believe is Gospel truth, especially acting to end homelessness and racism.We see and hear marginalized people and stand with them."

Inside the church, the momentum includes many efforts.

• Lay groups are looking at ways to sustainably use its space at 411 S. Washington and at options for ministry beyond there.

• Tuesday Night Talks, which replaced Sunday forums during COVID, looked at activism after studying racism in 2021. Previously, the forum discussed mental illness and justice issues.

• The youth group studies issues, like racism and the Holocaust, and reaches out to the community, collecting items for Afghan refugees and joining the effort to remove Spokane's statue of John Monaghan.

• Its 22-year involvement with the Spokane Alliance offers members relationship building and community organizing—sharing stories to discern issues and actions on health care, apprentice workers, the university district, the medical school, affordable housing and more.

Financially, giving is strong, and there are opportunities for growth with plans for a six-story apartment building on property the church sold in 2005 for affordable housing. They put some proceeds in a Second Century Fund and use the rest to sustain the church.

Community organizing with the Spokane Alliance taught Andy what she felt intuitively—relationships endure beyond differences of opinion. Building meaningful relationships is more than coffee hour after worship.

"In 2021 we asked the city how we could help," she continued. "They needed a warming shelter. We were ready to do that.

"We open our doors to artists and musicians. During a Spokane Symphony strike, workers held a strike concert. When the symphony sought a venue for chamber music concerts, we offered our sanctuary," Andy said.

Westminster joined with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane (UUCS) to visit and partner with Felsorakos, a Romanian village with a toxic water supply. The churches raised funds for a well. The Felsorakos pastor has visited Spokane, and Westminster and UUCS members have visited Felsorakos.

In 2007, Westminster voted to be open and affirming of LBGTQ members. That November, the church ordained Marj Johnston, a lesbian. In 2012, members advocated for marriage equality when a bill was before the state legislature.

A book she read early in her ministry challenged pastors to commit to a place through good times and bad. That in part inspired Andy to stay at the church.

It also resonated because she was influenced by Benedictine spirituality from regularly visiting a monastery with her parents.

"Benedictine vows are not just poverty, chastity and obedience, but also a vow of stability—to not leave when things get tough, but to work through issues," she said. "There can be dismay, distrust and toxic relationships in churches and society. We are not to give up on people."

Andy started as a Catholic and was a campus minister at Fort Collins, Colo., in 1981, when she met Jim, a priest. They fell in love. In 1983, Jim came to Washington, and she followed. In 1985, they married.

In 1990, they joined the United Churches of Olympia, and in 1995, Andy went to San Francisco Theological School. After her ordination in 1998, she served two churches in small towns in Nebraska before coming to Westminster.

Andy was drawn to the UCC because she found it "liberating Christianity, non-doctrinal, non-hierarchical, reformed and always reforming, growing and always changing," she said. "The UCC covenant holds us together based on love and commitment. We continually challenge ourselves to be better in following Jesus.

"In my 20 years, there have been ups and downs," she said.

Her philosophy is to "have a long memory for love and a short memory for things that divide." 

Because of denominational rules, she will avoid contact with church members for 18 months after retiring. Andy plans to attend worship at First Congregational UCC in Colville, where Jim is pastor. She also will attend online worship with churches in the Pacific Northwest UCC Conference, where she has been involved and will continue in leadership roles.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June, 2022