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 …
- played key roles in advancing abolition (John Quincy Adams, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, Horace Greeley, and more), women’s rights (Margaret Fuller), mental health reform (Dorothea Dix, Benjamin Rush), the right to freedom of speech (Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.), international peace (Linus Pauling, Emily Greene Balch, John Haynes Holmes, and more), and civil rights (James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo);
- discovered oxygen (Joseph Priestley) and pioneered quantum chemistry and molecular biology (Linus Pauling);
- wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic (Julia Ward Howe), designed Fallingwater (Frank Lloyd Wright), authored A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens), Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut), and Little Women (Louisa May Alcott);
- advanced poetry through Romantic (Samuel Taylor Coleridge), confessional (Sylvia Plath), and experimental (e e cummings) styles;
- served as United States Presidents (John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, William Howard Taft) and Supreme Court Justices (Nathan Clifford, Benjamin R. Curtis, Harold H. Burton, Horace Gray, Joseph Story, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Samuel F. Miller, Wiley B. Rutledge, William Cushing, William H. Taft);
- originated American transcendentalism (Ralph Waldo Emerson) and religious humanism (signers of the original Humanist Manifesto);
- and helped pave the way for such American civic institutions as the American Red Cross (Clara Barton, Thomas Starr King), the ACLU (John Haynes Holmes), the NAACP (John Haynes Holmes, Mary White Ovington), universal public education (Horace Mann) the social work profession (Joseph Tuckerman, Richard Clarke Cabot), and nonsectarian higher learning (Reed, Tufts, Washington University in St. Louis, Harvard Divinity School).
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 where I completed my internship was 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 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 🙂