My Ordination as a Unitarian Universalist Minister

At First Parish in Cambridge, during my ministerial internship

In about a month’s time, I will be ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister. In whatever way you know me, I’d love to see you at the service at the First Parish in Cambridge at noon on August 11, 2018. I realize that Unitarian Universalist ministry is not familiar for most of you — so hopefully, these questions and answers can shed some light on what this event means!

First off, what is Unitarian Universalism?

Unitarian Universalism is a tradition rooted in the liberal religious communities of colonial New England. Over the centuries, the tradition evolved beyond its Christian beginnings to become the uniquely pluralistic, non-creedal religious community it is today.

The tradition’s Unitarian and Universalist forebears have often been at the forefront of American thought and social reform. Unitarians and Universalists …

The Unitarian Universalist Association now comprises 1,043 congregations encompassing 156,620 adult members, united by a shared acknowledgement of Seven Principles.

What do the words “Unitarian” and “Universalist” mean?

Today’s Unitarian Universalism (UU) comes from the 1961 consolidation of American Unitarians and American Universalists.

The early Unitarians were descendants of New England Puritans who liberalized theologically over time. In the early 19th century, they abandoned the Trinitarian Christian doctrine of “One God in Three Persons” (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), favoring instead the belief that God is one unitary entity — hence the label “Unitarian.”

The early Universalists emerged from rural communities and rejected the notion that any person could be destined for eternal damnation, claiming instead that a loving God grants universal salvation for all people — hence the label “Universalist.”

Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, both Unitarianism and Universalism liberalized and evolved beyond Christian dogma altogether, finally consolidating in 1961 out of practical advantage and theological kinship.

Though contemporary Unitarian Universalists do not necessarily share their predecessors’ belief in a Christian God, the moral core of Unitarianism and Universalism nevertheless lives on in firm commitments to thinking for oneself, to the importance of human agency in creating a better world, and to the inherent worth and dignity of every person. For many Unitarian Universalists, these moral commitments coexist with, and often complement, additional spiritual identities. As a result, many Unitarian Universalist communities include UU Muslims, UU Jews, UU Pagans, UU Humanists, UU Christians, and other pluralistic identities alongside those who identify religiously solely as UU.

What goes into getting ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister?

As the vocational tradition of such notable ministers as Theodore Parker (the abolitionist who originated the phrase “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”), Ralph Waldo Emerson (author of classic American essays “Self-Reliance” and “The American Scholar”), and Olympia Brown (suffragist and America’s first woman minister), Unitarian Universalist ordained ministry is preceded by a process of discernment and formation known to be one of the most demanding among Protestant-descended traditions. That process — which in my case has occupied the past six years — includes three parts:

First, the process requires multiple years of academic and practical requirements, including an M.Div. degree (in my case from Harvard Divinity School), a one-term hospital chaplaincy internship (in my case at Stanford Hospital), and a two-year parish internship (in my case at the First Parish in Cambridge).

Second, the process requires the approval of the national Unitarian Universalist Association to be “credentialed” as a minister (akin to “passing the bar”). This committee evaluates the entire course of the candidate’s ministerial preparation for demonstrated competency in seven areas (Ritual Leadership, Pastoral Care and Counseling, Spiritual Development, Social Justice, Administration, Unitarian Universalist History, Theology, and Polity, and Ability to Lead into the Future.) This committee also evaluates the candidate’s articulation of the candidate’s theology, anti-oppression work, and approach to children and youth ministry.

Third and finally, the process culminates in an Act of Ordination by a Unitarian Universalist congregation — this is the event on August 11 that you are all welcome to join. The decision to ordain is determined by a vote of the congregation, on the basis of its faith in the ministry of the candidate and the recognition of the candidate as a religious leader in the Unitarian Universalist community. In my case, the congregation that will ordain me is the one where I completed my internship, the First Parish in Cambridge.

Of course, all of the steps above are visible milestones of an inward and interconnected journey of growth as a human being and a minister. That journey started long before I ever even considered ordination, and will continue long after it.

How did you get into becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister?

I was first introduced to Unitarian Universalism in college at Stanford, where I took a course called the “Meaning of Life” with the first minister I had ever met: Stanford’s Dean for Religious Life, the Rev. Scotty McLennan. Later, I participated in a fellowship for interfaith encounter with Scotty, and it was partly on his advice that I decided to attend Harvard Divinity School.

As I describe in my blog post about my decision to pursue my Humanist M.Div, I had grown up as a nonreligious Chinese American and was desperate to learn how best to serve the spiritual needs of people like me. I was excited to learn at Harvard from religious traditions and communities like Unitarian Universalism.

It was at Harvard that I really got engaged with the Unitarian Universalist community through the student group Harvard Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Students (HUUMS). There, I met an inspiring group of Unitarian Universalist ministerial aspirants — through my deepening relationship with them, I affirmed my intuition that Unitarian Universalism was a place I could call a spiritual home. The next couple years as an intern at First Parish in Cambridge deepened and enriched my relationship with Unitarian Universalism as the grounding for my ministry, which was affirmed through the credentialing process I described above.

So what next?

I expect to write more on that when the time presents itself. For now, I am in the San Francisco Bay Area working as a UX designer, and I am trying to live the kind of life that I as a minister would love to see lived. The Unitarian minister Theodore Parker once resolved to “preach nothing as religion that I have not experienced inwardly and made my own.” Stay tuned to learn what I have made my own 🙂

My Humanist M.Div.

In a month’s time, I will be heading off to Harvard Divinity School to pursue a Masters of Divinity (M.Div.). It will be an exciting journey, though what exactly I’ll be doing might not be entirely clear to you. So I feel like I owe it to you to answer some questions you might have.

What is the M.Div.?

Traditionally, the M.Div. is a prerequisite for ordination into professional ministry for many American Christian denominations. Harvard, however, is quite unique in that it offers M.Div.’s to people of many faiths and non-faiths. I am not a Christian — like many Asian Americans, I was raised outside of God-centered ideology. So at Harvard, I will be pursuing the track in secular humanism, with a focus on East Asian thought. My studies will allow me to understand and ultimately help non-religious Hua (華) people like me lead meaningful, ethical lives.

The M.Div. curriculum consists of two components. The first is academic, consisting of regular old coursework. For this component, I will take courses in Chinese thought, on religious life in America, and in philosophy and theology. The second component is professional — supervised field education combined with coursework on the “arts of ministry,” such as preaching, pastoral care and counseling, church administration. The Boston area has promising opportunities to work with Unitarian Universalist and Humanist organizations, as well as clinical pastoral care in healthcare settings, all of which I am likely to get involved with in the course of my field education.

What do you want to do with the M.Div.?

I want to address an overlooked need. The following is adapted from the first part of my application essay to the M.Div. programs:

Some of the deepest spiritual hurt can be found among secular Asian Americans. It’s not always recognized as such: I’ve heard it called “intergenerational conflict” or “Asian American mental health problems.” But for all parties involved, these are crises of faith that must often be endured alone.

Indeed, nonreligious Asian American families face expectations regarding career and family that stem from a tradition very different from that of those around them. Yet the only characterization of that tradition that is available to them are negative caricatures: “Asian values” result in the “Asian parenting” of “Tiger Moms.” The problem is compounded by the fact that many Asian American families (like mine) live in isolation from each other. No outside party—for example, a religious leader—is available for those who so badly need help coming to terms with their values in a world of difference.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. I have come to recognize that a lot of that spiritual hurt stems from a misunderstanding of our ethical inheritance. As long as we believe that our “Asian values” are some rigid set of codes, we fall into the false trap of choosing between the values we see as our parents’ and the values of the society around us. But if we look back to understand the framework that our modern inheritance stems from, we realize the East Asian humanist tradition is far from such a thing—in fact, it is one of the most dynamic, insightful sources of wisdom for living meaningfully.

We should come to understand our ethical heritage—particularly the Confucian tradition—as an asset, not a burden, to our quest to live meaningful lives. And nobody should have to suffer alone, when so many are facing the same problems. That is why I find it so important to build a community around creatively transforming our ethical inheritances to respond to the challenges we face—to draw strength from what we as a matter of fact take as our moral foundations. Over time, I have begun to find ways to do it in my own life, and I’ve seen how powerful it can be. I’d now like to join in respectful communion with others in similar situations, so that together we can build and affirm our own way of living truly.

It’s not yet clear what path I’ll be taking to address that need — the project may see me working through the Unitarian Universalist church, with the budding Humanist movement at Harvard, in Asian American community organizations, across to China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, or to further academic degrees. Regardless of where I go, I hope the M.Div. gives me the tools, the inspiration, and the insight to make a difference.

What happened to medicine?

Choosing a “career” is tough. During my time in college, it became clear to me that my future profession should satisfy two simple requirements: First, it should be intellectually exciting — it should rouse my curiosity and challenge my intellect. Second, it should help people in a visceral, tangible way. I am the sort of person who needs to see the impact I have on people, so I never want to abstract myself from the community I work for. Therefore, any work, no matter how intellectually exciting, should still tie me back to the people I serve.

For four years of undergrad, I knew of one profession that clearly satisfied both requirements: medicine, that supreme puzzle-cracking, people-saving craft. So I relished and excelled in the Human Biology series, struggled through organic chemistry, and pushed through the physics and upper-division biology requirements. For two years I led the referrals department of Stanford’s free clinic, gaining an intimate understanding of healthcare at the grassroots. After I took a quarter off my junior year to write about children with congenital heart disease in rural Gansu, my resolve to become a doctor was firmer than ever.

At the same time, I was deeply engrossed in the subject of my major, philosophy. (I took the track in the philosophy of science.) I came alive in grappling with foundational questions about how we come to know the world. And in my spare time, I fell in love with East Asian philosophy and literature. I knew that throughout my life, even if it was not my trade, philosophy would always be my intellectual passion.

So in the fall of senior year, when I first found out about the humanist M.Div. — I was intrigued. This was the first time I’d heard “ministry” being spoken of seriously as a career, and as something that I as a nonreligious person could do. And in the same way that being a doctor attended to physical health, so ministry attended to spiritual health — a noble enterprise which equally fulfilled my requirements for a rewarding career. Finally, and most importantly, ministry eliminated the gap between my intellectual passion for philosophy and real service to the community — humanist ministry was a way to employ philosophy in the service of alleviating suffering. After consulting with my family, I decided I had nothing to lose by applying.

When I got in, a real choice presented myself. Do I continue the premed track, or do I seize this new and novel opportunity? I knew both paths were something I could be happy with — they both united intellectual challenge with helping people directly. So instead, a different question now had to be answered: where did the world need me?

I made a rough calculation. On the one hand, the world always needs more doctors, no doubt. But a Dr. Seanan Fong would be one of very many doctors rendering the same sort of standardized services — professionally, I’d be more or less interchangeable with the next doctor, who given the stringency of medical school admissions would no doubt be fairly good at his or her job. I thought of all my fantastic premed friends, and I knew that the field was not without tremendous promise. On the other hand, humanist ministry is a completely new concept, filling a need that is just being understood. And I was coming in with an understanding of how I could fit into that growing movement, focusing on the needs of Asian Americans specifically. I had a vision, and I had a passion. If I didn’t step up to the plate, when would the next person?

Ultimately, it was tough to relinquish the idea of being a doctor. But I’m excited to embark on a fantastic new journey, one that I know will take all of what I’ve got.

Are you falling into the wrong crowd?

For lots of people, religion is scary. Some religious people may find those of other faiths, or those with no “faith” at all, to be strange, misguided, or even dangerous. Conversely, many non-religious people find the idea of religion distasteful. That puts me in a weird position for both groups — here I am, a young, impressionable, non-religious student going off to get a professional degree in religion after college. Let me address some concerns by making a few points clear.

1. I want to focus on the here and now, not on the hereafter. Confucius refused to talk about the spirits: “While you are not able to serve men, how can you serve their spirits?” When asked about death, Confucius responded, “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?” (Analects 11.12) I share his sentiment. Then why am I going to divinity school? Well, like some humanists at Harvard, I think there’s a lot of good in the human institutions that make up traditional religion — and I’d like to learn from them. Humanist ministry is new, and there’s no better place to learn how to tend to people’s deepest spiritual needs than from clergy who have been doing it for a long time. We may disagree theologically, but the practical skills — preaching, administration, pastoral counseling — should be applicable across faiths and non-faiths.

2. While I am not going to convert to a sect of Christianity (or Islam, or Buddhism, etc.) I look forward to learning, respectfully and earnestly, more about those systems of belief or practice. I say this to address two concerns: The first comes from my family and friends who are afraid I’ll fall into the hands of dogmatic religion. I can’t guarantee against a bout of personal revelation, but I’m equipped with enough philosophical skepticism that I promise I’ll be fine. The second comes from family and friends who think I really should convert to a particular faith (namely, their own). Here’s my policy on this: I actually do respect your religion, and if your faith inspires you to do good in the world, I respect it even more. I am open to conversations about God, but at the end of the day, it’s His/Her/Its job to show me the way. I’ll keep my heart open to God’s possibility, but in the meanwhile, I’m going to work in this world.

3. I’m planning to be a voice at the interfaith table. I’m not going to divinity school to convert anyone to anything — religious or non-religious. But I will be going to a place where the object of study is religion. I’ll do my best to represent where I come from, what I believe in, and what I think is best for individuals and society, while respecting others’ beliefs and practices. As a secular Asian American, I feel like we are a voice that has long been missing at the interfaith table — consider me your delegate to the conversation! I’ll gladly take on the sticky job of articulating our values in a pluralistic society.

Thanks everyone for reading — if you have any more questions or other reactions, feel free to contact me! With all your support, it’s going to be an awesome next three years.