WEST BRATTLEBORO -- As a young girl growing up in a suburb outside Stockholm, Sweden, Rev. Barbro Hansson would take part in orientation exercises that tested her ability to navigate her way out of the forest.
She was pretty good at it, she said, though there were times when she would be challenged, consulting her map and compass, and relying on a small bit of faith to find her way toward the finish line of the race.
Following an inner compass, Hansson said, helped her find Brattleboro and All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church.
And she is relying on that same inner compass to now guide her beyond as she leaves the congregation she has lead for almost 12 years.
Hansson, 61, said good-bye to the All Souls community Sunday, giving her last sermon as she prepares for retirement and the next step in her life.
When she arrived in Brattleboro she thought she would be there five years, and after she eclipsed the eight years that ministers, on average, spend with a congregation she wondered when the day would come.
With her husband newly retired, and after deep reflection this past winter, she said the inner compass pointed her toward life beyond the West Brattleboro All Souls community.
"I am ready. I am ready because I feel as though I have completed my ministry," she said. "It was a hard decision, and I have mixed feelings, but how lucky I am to have something that makes saying good-bye so hard.
Hansson arrived at All Souls while the congregation was still reeling from the events of Dec. 2, 2001.
Robert Woodward, 37, was shot dead that day in the church after three members of the Brattleboro Police Department entered the sanctuary. The police were responding to a call from a member of the congregation who reported that a man had entered the building with a knife and was threatening to take his own life.
Hansson spent about a year searching for the right congregation after working in Plattsburgh, N.Y., for two years.
She spent almost a year meeting with search committees from various congregations and trying to locate the church that seemed like the right fit for her.
She first made contact with members of Brattleboro's All Souls Church in the fall of 2001, and felt almost immediately that the people there, and the town, would be the right community for her.
Before she was offered the job she was traveling in December when she heard on the radio that a man had been shot dead inside a Unitarian Universalist church in West Brattleboro.
A few months later she was invited to give a sermon from a neutral pulpit in New Hampshire, which a few Brattleboro members attended, and then she gave two sermons in Brattleboro.
Hansson was offered the job in September 2002.
Woodward's shooting was less than three months after the attacks of September 11, and Hansson knew that if she ended up in Brattleboro she would be taking on the job under unusual circumstances.
"I knew I would be providing ministry to a traumatized congregation," she said. "People experienced what happened in widely different ways and I had to provide an atmosphere of healing and regaining strength."
Hansson said that during the first few years she was in Brattleboro Woodward's shooting affected her work and the life of the congregation.
Woodward's life had to be honored, but at the same time, she said, everyone was seeking healing and trying to somehow move beyond the tragic shooting.
"It took years to do that work," she said. "But that experience will always be a part of All Souls Church."
Hansson found the ministry late in life.
She joined the Unitarian Universalists in 1978 after moving to the Untied States from Sweden, saying the church, for the first time in her life, allowed her to realize her passions in a religious community.
She was active in her church in Virginia, where she lived at the time, but it was not until about 20 years later that she was inspired to become a minister.
In 1993 Hansson attended Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, which is held each year in a different location around the country.
That year the General Assembly was held in Charlotte, N.C., and the region was celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson. The event organizers scheduled a southern ball in honor of Jefferson, including people dressed in costumes from the era.
Many church members were offended that the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly would be celebrating a time when slavery was legal and there was a strong and deep split among the members.
Hansson was president of the regional district and had to represent the people of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, while addressing other members from across the country.
The meetings held in response to the southern ball were emotional and intense, Hansson remembered.
Hansson, as someone born outside of the United States, said she had a unique perspective on racism and on the country's history with slavery.
But beyond that outsider's perspective, Hansson said she grew more confident throughout the discussion.
The ball was held, though she said most of the people felt better about the debate and discussions that grew out of the controversy.
With each conversation she lead Hansson said she felt a force growing inside her leading her toward the ministry.
"I don't know from where it came. I was the one speaking but I felt like I was drawing inspiration that was coming from somewhere beyond me. The experience convinced me that I had to do something bigger," she said. "It was so clear to me that I needed to follow this passion and calling. It was a journey I knew would lead to me to be the person I truly wanted to be."
At All Souls, and across America, she said, congregations are trying to develop new programs for a changing demographic which includes people who are working more, who are more transient, and for whom church is less a part of everyday life than in the past. So she said it makes sense to step aside and bring in someone younger who might be able to introduce new initiatives.
Hansson said she is not sure what it is going to be like to sleep late Sunday and not deliver a sermon that she had worked on all week.
She wants to write and spend more time with her grandchildren and family.
And she said she has faith that her inner compass will lead her exactly where she needs to go.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.