Friday, May 26, 2006

Indefinite Tenure

I heard somewhere recently that the median tenure of all Unitarian Universalist ministers these days is now somewhere in the neighborhood of three years. That seemed a little short to me, until I realized that we were talking about the MEDIAN and not the "average" (or arithmetic mean); and that when I looked back at the 13 different congregations (not including random preaching gigs) I have served full or part time over the past quarter of a century, the median tenure of MY ministries is only 22 months. By way of comparison, my predecessor here at FRS has only served two churches in that same period of time: this one (from 1977 to 2001) and now (in retirement) an informal interim ministry at a nearby congregation. Combine his career with mine and the median becomes...22 months. But the average would be closer to 40....

This certainly wasn't at all what I expected when I first signed up for this kind of work. My two earliest mentors in ministry were the two longest tenured ministers in the denomination at the time of their respective retirements: Peter Raible served University Unitarian Church in Seattle for 36 years, while Rhys Williams was the minister of the First and Second Church in Boston for 40. Years, not months. And I know for a fact (because they both confided it to me) that one of the reasons Peter worked as long as he did was that he was hoping Rhys would retire first (so that Peter could pass him), and one of the reasons Rhys worked as long as HE did was that he was waiting for Peter to retire and give up!

Still, the appeal of long-tenured ministry remains alluring. There is something (I'm told) about officiating at the wedding of a child you christened, and then christening THEIR children (and, yes, eventually even burying the grandparents) which gives meaning to our work that simply cannot be found in any other way. It adds a whole new dimension of understanding to Leon Hopper's classic dichotomy about "being" a minister and "doing" ministry. At the end of the day, ministry is not about credentials, or education, or even a closet full of the appropriate clothing and a calendar crowded with "sacerdotal functions." Ministry is really about a relationship -- and we earn the privilege of calling ourselves "ministers" one person as a time, as they honor us with the distinction of calling us THEIR minister.

As someone with a fairly significant exposure to the world of academia, the difference between that understanding of "tenure" (as lifetime job security) and what I see in the ministry is striking. Settled clergy in our movement are supposed to enjoy "indefinite tenure" (in that we serve for no fixed term), but the truth of the matter is that we always serve solely at the pleasure of our people, who (over the short term at least) can often seem like a pretty fickle bunch. Yet they also hunger for the kind of community and authentic relationships that are increasingly rare in this ever more mobile, transient, "throw-away" consumer society we have managed to create for ourselves. And this is a job which can simply never be "outsourced."

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Why I am NOT a Unitarian-Universalist TM

I'm told that UU identity is a current thread in this corner of the Blogosphere, so I thought perhaps I'd share a few of my own ideas on the subject. Ideas, not answers. I don't really believe in "elevator speeches" although I can certainly see their utility. My own tends to focus on the historical -- that we are the direct institutional descendants of the Pilgrims who crossed the ocean in 1620 in search of religious liberty in a New World, and who during the Enlightenment rejected the doctrines of total depravity and predestined eternal damnation in favor of a belief in free will and basic human goodness, and the faith that ultimately All Souls will be reconciled with their Creator. So basically I like to think of myself as an Enlightened Pilgrim....

And then I generally say something like "Oh, but that really doesn't do us justice, since we're actually a lot different than most other churches you're probably familiar with, and you really need to experience it for yourself to appreciate it."

Of course, one can also always look to the Seven Principles (and the five, no wait, six sources), along with their predecessors: all that business about the Fatherhood of God, the neighborhood of Boston, and "the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever." Or the tried-and-true characterizations regarding Universal Salvation and the humanity of Jesus. But does any of this really capture the spirit of who we are and what we truly stand for? And what does it say about us UUs that we have to ask ourselves this question in the first place?

Some of us still do think of ourselves as "unitarian" Universalists: liberal Christians who believe that God is a Spirit with whom we have a personal relationship, that Jesus is not just a great teacher, but OUR great teacher...that theology is an act of imaginative meaning-making which, despite it's limitations, can still cast light on an experience that is essentially beyond our understanding, and that the Gospel message that we are all God's children and heirs to God's kingdom is a good one.

Others of us are more comfortable with the notion of "universalist" Unitarianism: a form of radical, post-Christian neo-Transcendentalist Protestant panentheism which understands Religion (or "spirituality") as a basic element of the human experience, which each historical culture (and ultimately every individual) shapes in their own way based on their own particular context and circumstances. Thus the sacred can be seen in EVERY faith tradition, provided one just knows where to look.

And then there is "Unitarian-Universalism TM" -- a brand-new "brand" of religion/spirituality competing for greater shelf space in the marketplace of religions, constantly "re-inventing" itself In Search of Excellence or to become more "user-friendly" in the attempt to gain market share. This "new and improved" style of faith seeks to be agile and customer-focused, and is driven by the eternal (and insatiable) demand for higher Value, greater Quality, and ever more efficient Service.

I have to confess (if it isn't obvious already) that when I first learned that "Unitarian-Universalism" had become a registered trademark, it made me a little sick to my stomach. It's not that I don't appreciate the need for the denomination to protect its "brand" by legal means; it's just that I lament that need and pretty much everything it stands for.

But the more interesting question for me remains this: What IS it about "our liberal movement in theology" that allows us to believe all three of these things at once in the first place?

Friday, May 19, 2006

All Ministry is Local

I suppose it almost goes without saying that one of the more thought provoking things about writing a BLOG (at least when I compare it to the kind of journaling I have done routinely my entire adult life) is the realization that someone may actually be reading this. I imagine many bloggers like to dream that they will eventually gather HUGE audiences of highly-appreciative anonymous readers, but I'm a lot more intimidated by the realization that my most likely readers are my friends and family, colleagues and parishioners -- people who know me, and who have already formed some sort of impression of me, which may or may not be entirely favorable, and over which I probably have very little meaningful influence, much less control. So long as my writing is for my eyes only I have COMPLETE control -- I can revise, I can edit...change this word for that one on a's all mine. But once I "publish" by making my writing public, it no longer belongs to me but instead takes on a life of its own. I'm not really sure how I feel about that. Not really sure how much of myself I honestly want to "share."

Went to a Ministers Meeting this past week, the last of the season before we all go our separate ways for the summer. It was supposed to be a picnic, but a foot of rain here in Massachusetts over the past few days pretty much washed those plans out. Never mind the Noah's Ark allusions -- just goes to show that for clergy even a picnic is no picnic. Or in the words of the Sun King, "Apres nous, le deluge." (sorry this browser doesn't support the accent). In any event, there were nineteen of us in attendance, not counting my dog Parker (who is also female): seventeen women and two men. A pretty dramatic change in demographics from my first ministers meetings 25 years ago, when the gender ratios would have typically been exactly the opposite. But that's only the most obvious difference. Lots more "second career" clergy in the room as well, which means older individuals with less time in the pulpit yet lots of different secular life experience. And the tenor of the meetings is different as well. That old bunch tended to be a pretty hard-drinking crowd, who came to these retreats to let their hair down among trusted colleagues in a very lonely and isolated profession. In this regard the model of collegiality seems to have changed dramatically - the "covenant" between us is more explicit, yet the intensity of the personal loyalties I recall from my youth seems somewhat diminished. This may simply reflect changes in me as much as it does changes in the profession. Or it may merely reflect changes in the larger culture as well. Of course, the hardest adjustment is realizing that, after a quarter-century in the pulpit, I too have become (at least in the eyes of many) an "Old Boy" myself.

I don't really mourn the passing of "the Old Boy's Network" although I do miss many of the Old Boys themselves -- my early mentors in ministry who devoted their entire lives to this strange and ancient profession/vocation/calling we share. Not a one of them was perfect, yet they had learned the hard way how to do this work despite their imperfections, and were very generous to a youngster like myself facing those struggles for the first time. When I arrived at my first settled pulpit in Midland, Texas -- the only settled Unitarian minister between Fort Worth and El Paso, Austin and Albuquerque -- my colleagues in the district informed me that there were only two rules I needed to remember: if another minister asks you to do something, the answer is "Yes" and the only excuse for missing a minister's meeting is a funeral: your own. That may still be the way they do ministry in Texas, but it would sure be a hard sell here in Massachusetts.

I actually participate in a handful of different clergy groups at the moment, at various levels of "involvement." My most faithful participation is in my informal local "cluster" -- a small group of UU clergy who get together once a month for lunch in Chelmsford mostly just to shoot the breeze and share one another's company. Although my church is technically a member of the Clara Barton district (which covers Western Massachusetts and Northern Connecticut), I prefer to attend the Mass Bay district ministers meetings -- both because I have many more friends in that district, and the meetings are a lot more convenient. But I also try to attend the Clara Barton meetings when I can -- generally about half the time, and never (at least not since I've been here) overnight. That's a boundary I've set for myself because of the dog: she's not often invited to the overnight retreats, and I can't really leave her alone in the parsonage overnight. Finally there is the ecumenical Concord Clergy Alliance, which I rarely attend because it tends to conflict with the Mass Bay meetings.

I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for my colleagues in ministry: as a group they possess so many amazing and diverse talents, which they use in such creative ways in the performance of this challenging vocation. There's no such thing as an "ideal" minister, yet ultimately this doesn't really matter; it is simply in the nature of the work of ministry that it will take from you everything you have to give it, and still it won't seem like enough. And yet somehow, it always manages to BE enough... (well, not ALWAYS, but that's a topic for another day). Yet as much as I admire and respect and even love my colleagues, I've also learned an even more important lesson from them over the years -- the lesson that "All Ministry is Local." Ultimately, our loyalty must be not to those who share our profession, but to our congregations: to the people who have invited us to become THEIR minister, and to the Deity we congregate together weekly to serve and worship. Rather than any academic degree or professional credential, it is "our People" who make us ministers by offering to us their trust and respect, and the privilege of serving as *their* minister. It's a privilege we earn one person at a time, and nothing in the world is more precious.

The Adorable Parker, my beloved Boston Terrorist

Monday, May 15, 2006

Doctor Jensen and Reverend Tim

Often when I look back at the things I've done in my life, it seems like I'm looking at the accomplishments of a different person. I'm so much more impressive on paper than I feel in real life. I think it was John Lennon who said that "life is what happens while we're making other plans," but in my life I've successfully achieved many of my lifetime goals, but I still don't feel any different than I did when I was 17. OK, maybe that's not entirely true. Hell, it's not even a little true....

In any event, apparently I'm a pretty amazing guy, but no one is more amazed by this than me. So before I try to introduce you to the "real" me, here I am on paper (along with a few explanatory comments which I hope will help put it all in context).



Rev. Dr. Timothy Ward Jensen
109 Church Street, Carlisle MA 01741
(978) 369-0284; (503) 816-2859 (cellular)


Doctor of Philosophy in American History (June 16, 2001)
University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
Dissertation title: "The Wares: Three Generations of American Unitarians"

Earning a doctoral degree had been a goal of mine since I was a sophomore in High School. That year I was fortunate enough to have two excellent teachers, Fred Metzer for Beginning Speech and Donald Cummings for English, both of whom had PhDs, and who together profoundly influenced the subsequent direction of my life. My own doctoral studies basically revolved around two related questions: one personal, the other academic and professional. “Am I capable of writing a substantial book, and still having a life?” And the second is like unto it: “How did the Unitarian Universalist ministry come to be the way that it is today?” My answer to the first question turned out to be a qualified “yes” — provided I am willing to make the discipline of writing a significant part of that life. The second question remains a subject of considerable curiosity to me: the more I learn, the more questions I discover as well.

I usually describe my academic field as “19th-century American Religious History,” but my interests are far more eclectic, and include the history of the professions in general and their role in American society, the sociology of religion, the relationship between religion and literature, as well as more traditional themes of social history such as race, class, and gender/sexuality. My elective coursework and teaching assignments (described below) likewise acquainted me with topics such as environmental history, the history of the American West, radical labor history, even military history. Finally, much to my surprise and for the first time in my life, I was a “straight A student” at the University of Oregon — ironic, since by that point in my education the grades had stopped meaning anything to me anymore anyway, and I was at long last learning solely for the love of knowledge itself.

Master of Arts Interdisciplinary Studies [MAIS] - American Studies (March 22, 1996) (US Intellectual History, American Literature, Philosophy of Religion)
Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR

I enrolled at Oregon State primarily for the opportunity to study with two professors whose work I admire very much: Unitarian historian and Emerson scholar David Robinson, and New Testament scholar and “Jesus Seminar” member Marcus Borg (for whom I also worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant). Having been out of college for nearly a decade, I wasn’t certain how I was going to react to being back in school again. The answer is that I took to it like a Duck to water: in this instance, the still, deep water of a secluded pond created by a small but active colony of busy Beavers.

Master of Arts in English/Creative Writing (June 8, 1984)
Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA

I enrolled in this program after first being hired by WWU to work as a Residence Hall Director (see below), because I wanted to study creative writing with Annie Dillard, and needed to be a degree candidate in order to be allowed to register for her workshop. I left the job after only a year, but continued on to complete the requirements for the degree, eventually defending my thesis the following year while working as an intern minister at University Unitarian Church in Seattle.

Master of Divinity [MDiv] (June 4, 1981)
Harvard University Divinity School, Cambridge, MA

I took all the “standard” courses every Divinity Student SHOULD take: Old and New Testament, Church History, Theology, Ethics, World Religions. I also studied (and eventually failed, although I did learn enough to pass the required language exam) two years of Koine Greek, which in retrospect has turned out to have had a tremendous impact on my subsequent ministry and theological orientation. The two professors who had the greatest influence on me at the time were Unitarian historian C. Conrad Wright, and my advisor Sharon Parks, a student of James Fowler’s who works in Adolescent Faith Development. I also took a large number of “practical” courses, in part to try to compensate for my relative youth (I was only 21 when I enrolled at Harvard; 24 when I graduated), and completed twice the required amount of Field Education. Rhys Williams, my field education supervisor at the First and Second Church in Boston, was my first and one of my most important mentors in ministry.

Bachelor of Arts in English (June 10, 1978 )
(with Distinction and Departmental Honors)
University of Washington, Seattle, WA

Growing up in Seattle as the eldest son of a Dawg, I never seriously considered attending college anywhere other than the University of Washington, and the fact that I was initially “wait-listed” there proved a powerful incentive to apply myself diligently to my studies once I was eventually accepted. Since that time I have been a Duck, a Beaver, a Viking and a Crimson, but in my heart-of-hearts I will always bleed Purple and Gold. In addition to my normal undergraduate coursework, I also worked two years as a Residence Hall Advisor, wrote briefly for the UW Daily, and participated in a variety of intramural sports: touch football, basketball, softball, and volleyball. My volleyball team actually won the University “co-recreational” (mixed men’s and women’s) championship my Junior year, and I think I may still even have the T-shirt to prove it! I became an English major by accident; after completing my first two years of elective coursework, I discovered that I had already fulfilled two-thirds of the requirements for an English degree, and was invited by the Department to participate in their Honors program, which meant maintaining a certain grade point average, enrolling in two additional Honors seminars (one of which I had already taken), and writing a Senior thesis, in my case a highly forgettable, post-moderenesque commentary on Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God. The designation “with Distinction” was the UW’s plain English equivalent of Cum Laude, although now that my alma mater is widely recognized as a “public ivy,” I think they may have gone back to Latin. In any event, it was an honor that I was not even aware that I had earned until my diploma arrived in the mail 8-12 weeks following Commencement.


Parish Ministry:

Settled Parish Minister
The First Religious Society in Carlisle
Carlisle, MA (since 2003)

Carlisle is an affluent exurban bedroom community located “over the river and through the woods” just beyond the famous Old North Bridge in historic Concord, approximately a 45 minute drive from downtown Boston. Yet it retains much of the look and feel of the rural agricultural village it was just a few generations ago. Outstanding schools and ample conservation land contribute to its attractiveness as a community. The First Religious Society occupies a traditional white-steepled New England meeting house overlooking the town common high on a hill in the center of town. I immediately fell in love with this church and its people the moment I met them, and actually turned down a more lucrative (six-figure) offer from another, larger congregation in order to settle here. I live in a parsonage next door to the meeting house, approximately seven miles (as the crow flies) from the site of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond. A brief walk through the woods behind my house takes me to the town library, the post office, and a small country store where one may purchase coffee, muffins, hot soup and sandwiches, along with all the other easily overlooked conveniences of daily living. The school is immediately across the street; the Town Hall, Police Station and Firehouse all a brief walk across the common in the opposite direction.

The formal organization of the First Religious Society actually preceeded the legal incorporation of the Town of Carlisle by about half a century, and the congregation continues to see itself as the “heart and soul” of the Carlisle community. We engage in an active public ministry to the residents of the town, hosting an annual Harvest Fair, a Christmas Greens Sale, and a summer Strawberry Festival as well as providing meeting space for numerous community groups ranging from the Council on Aging to the Girl Scouts. We also share space with the Red Balloon Preschool (founded by church members some 35 years ago), and sponsor numerous lectures, concerts, and other programs of community interest throughout the year. We are an enthusiastic Habitat for Humanity Covenant Congregation, and support a long-established volunteer outreach ministry in Lowell.

I've been at FRS long enough now that my parishioners are starting to figure out that I don’t walk on water, or change water into wine; that I can’t be everywhere at once (or even two places at the same time); that I don’t read minds or know everything there is to know without first being told (and often reminded as well, sometimes more than once); and that no matter how hard they may pray otherwise, I personally am powerless to solve every difficult problem little or large that comes into our lives, or to create Something out of Nothing by Word alone. A few may have been a little disappointed at first (especially about the water into wine part), but I think they're starting to get used to the idea. For my own part, despite having "settled" in the congregation of my dreams, I often struggle with how spiritually and emotionally demanding this work of ministry can be, and am often pleasantly surprised by how regularly and routinely "my people" pick me up again.

Interim Minister,
Second Congregational Meeting House Society (Unitarian),
Nantucket, MA (2001-2003)

Nantucket is truly a unique (and special) place. There are approximately 8,000 permanent “year-round” residents living on the island, but that number can swell to 50,000+ on a sunny, summer weekend. The “Faraway Island” is a quaint, historical community, a playground for the wealthy, idolized for its lovely beaches and preserved open spaces, now facing the burgeoning problems of too much traffic, a serious lack of affordable housing, and sprawl. “South Church” itself is both an historic landmark and a Nantucket icon; its golden dome and clock tower loom prominently over the town, and are clearly visible from the harbor and many other places on the island.

My principle challenge and most important accomplishment as an interim minister was to help cultivate a collaborative and mutually supportive collegial relationship with the legendary and much-beloved minister emeritus, who had served the Nantucket congregation for 29 years, and continues to live on the island (where he is deservedly revered by the larger community and enjoys a very active retirement). The congregation had already experienced one “failed” interim ministry prior to my arrival, which left them feeling badly divided and fearful that they would never be able to attract a permanent candidate to settle there. My experience, however, was overwhelmingly positive. I developed both an excellent working and a close personal relationship with the minister emeritus, which both protected the integrity of his retirement and allowed him to create a new role for himself as a regular member of the congregation (and one of my strongest and most important supporters). Attendance increased, and the congregation began to feel revitalized and eager to explore fresh new directions in ministry. I was also able to establish my own presence and identity in the larger community, and to work effectively in partnership with the lay leadership of the society to strengthen their ties to the denomination and put into place a program and administrative infrastructure appropriate to the needs of a dynamic, “pastoral”-sized congregation. What was the old-fashioned secret of my success? Good preaching, plenty of pastoral visitation, respect for local customs and traditions, and a profound understanding of our historical polity and its practical applications within a contemporary church community. Oh yes, and hard work, a healthy sense of humor, personal spiritual and religious authenticity, and regular prayer....

Consulting Minister,
Umpqua UU Church,
Roseburg, OR (1/2 time, 2000-01)

I won’t claim to have “invented” Consulting Ministry, but I certainly put my stamp on the way it is practiced in the PNWD. The basic arrangement is generally one or two long weekends a month, together with a newsletter column and regular phone and e-mail contact as needed. The idea is to provide small congregations without a regularly settled minister with a consistent ministerial presence, as well as an opportunity to draw upon the minister’s professional expertise while working toward a set of pre-determined goals: typically more inspirational worship, better visitor hospitality and membership growth, and an improved every member canvass. It’s an imperfect arrangement for everyone involved, but it does frequently provide a stepping-stone to something more satisfactory somewhere down the line.

Each of my consulting ministries has been a little different, but the one factor they all share is that they required a considerable amount of travel on my part: over 237,000 miles (as registered on the odometer of my green ‘93 Ford Escort wagon) in the eight years I served as an itinerant “circuit rider.” Yet I learned things from this style of ministry that I could never have learned anywhere else, and the experience also proved a very nice compliment to my doctoral studies and my work as a Graduate Teaching Fellow.

Consulting Minister,
UU Congregation of Whidbey Island,
Freeland, WA (1/4 time, 2000-01)

Perhaps my favorite of all the congregations I consulted with (if clergy are allowed to have "favorites"), as well as the experience which inspired me to accept the interim position on Nantucket. During my tenure UUCWI purchased land, and began raising money toward the construction of their own building.

Consulting Minister,
Wy'east UU Congregation,
Portland, OR (1/2 time, 1998-99)

Because of its relative proximity to my home, this was more like a regular half-time settlement than a true consulting ministry. I helped organize a campus ministry program at nearby Reed College (a simple task, since all of the real work was done by the students themselves, including two who are now colleagues: Thom Belote and Marc Lousteau), facilitated a coming-of-age program in cooperation with the Atkinson Memorial Church in Oregon City, and also was available to attend some evening meetings during the week. During my tenure there, Wy’east applied for and was accepted into the UUA Extension Ministry program, and in the fall of 1999 they received a full-time Extension Minister.

Consulting Minister,
Olympic UU Fellowship,
Port Angeles, WA (1/4 time, 1997-99)

At the conclusion of my two-year relationship with this congregation, they entered into a half-time contract with another consulting minister, and were moving toward construction of a new building on land they already owned. The building was dedicated in the spring of 2001.

Consulting Minister,
UU Fellowship of Central Oregon,
Bend, OR (1/4 time, 1996-97)

Bend was probably the most frustrating and disappointing of my consulting ministries; it was a long, scary drive over the mountains in winter, with not much to show for my efforts once I arrived. They were all good people, but unfortunately there was very little consensus or clairty about what they expected out of the church or my ministry there, and my ability to help them suffered as a result.

Summer Minister,
First Unitarian Church,
Portland, OR (Summer, 1996)

This was a brief taste for me of what it might be like to be the Senior Minister of a large, multi-staff downtown Church. I decided that I liked it. Obviously, summer is a little different from the regular program year; my basic responsibilities were to preach, to work with the excellent lay pastoral care team, to lead a weekly staff meeting for whoever was not on vacation, to officiate at weddings, and to deal with whatever other routine emergencies happened to spring up. The excellent office administrator kept me pointed in the right direction, my sermons were very well received, and on Labor Day I returned Marilyn’s pulpit back to her none the worse for wear.

Consulting Minister,
Skagit UU Fellowship,
Mount Vernon, WA (1/4 time, 1993-95)

The first of my six consulting ministries had its genesis when I was asked at the eleventh hour to substitute for a colleague who was compelled to cancel a preaching engagement. The congregation apparently liked what they heard, so the Church President, knowing that my mother lived only twenty minutes away, suggested that I might want to visit her more often. Two years later, having already moved twice to accommodate growth, Skagit was ready to buy a building of their own, and at the same time entered into a half-time relationship with another UU minister whose actual residence was much closer than mine.

Extension/New Congregation Minister,
Unitarian Universalist Community Church,
Hillsboro, OR (1988 -90)

Despite its difficulties, the challenge of working with a “start-up” church was also exhilarating on many levels, and I remain especially proud of the fact that this congregation essentially doubled in size (from 64 to 125 members) during the first eighteen months of my ministry there. The outreach techniques I learned through my Extension training and practiced in Hillsboro I later adapted for use as a consulting minister, with equally excellent results. I also learned quite a bit about the nature of church conflict, as the "pioneers" who had first started this congregation began to resent the "newcomers" who were rapidly beginning to outnumber them, and blamed me for trying to "take over" their congregation and change everything. It was in the aftermath of this experience that I began to ask myself for the first time some of the subtle questions about the nature of clerical authority and the “professionalization” of ministry which subsequently informed my doctoral research. If it never breaks down, you never learn how to fix it.

Settled Parish Minister,
Unitarian Universalist Church,
Midland, TX (1985 -88)

Despite occasionally joking that Midland is located “in the center of Texas and the middle of nowhere,” from a professional standpoint this church was a very good first settlement for me, and in retrospect I wish that I could have convinced my wife to stay there longer than we did. At the time I compared living in Texas to living in a foreign country, yet I also tried to resist the temptation to think and act like an “ugly Ecotopian,” judging everything I saw around me by my own pre-existing liberal values rather than attempting to experience and understand the culture according to its own lights. Likewise, as the only settled UU minister between Fort Worth and El Paso, Austin and Albuquerque, my presence was certainly much appreciated by my “flock,” even if they were relatively few in number. I was welcomed as a member of the mainline, ecumenical religious community, enjoyed my work as a volunteer hospital emergency room chaplain and with other community organizations like Planned Parenthood, and felt especially grateful for the opportunity to participate in Prairie Group, and the various activities of the Southwest District.

Intern Minister,
University Unitarian Church,
Seattle, WA (1983 -84)

My internship at University Church was somewhat unorthodox, in that I had already been ordained for two years at the time I started there. But because of my relative youth, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee had stipulated that I must either complete a year-long resident internship, or else restrict myself to settlement as an assistant or associate minister before becoming eligible to be called to a pulpit of my own. Peter Raible generously offered me the opportunity to fulfill that requirement by working with him. In actual substance, my “internship” probably differed little from that of any other intern, except that I assumed some additional pastoral and administrative responsibilities for the nearby Shoreline Unitarian Church under the terms of a year-long joint operating agreement with UUC.

Field Education Student Intern,
The First and Second Church in Boston,
Boston, MA (1978-81)

I worked at First and Second Church all three years I spent at Harvard, was ordained there the Sunday following my graduation, and continue to feel a very special affinity for that congregation twenty-five years later (notwithstanding my disappointment that they have recently voted to drop "Second Church" from the letterhead). This was my first real experience in the role of “minister,” and I could not have asked for a better role model than Rhys Williams.

Intern Chaplain (Clinical Pastoral Education),
Virginia Mason Hospital,
Seattle, WA (Summer 1979)

My unit of Basic CPE was an intensive, eleven week summer internship at a highly respected acute care hospital in my home town of Seattle. In addition to this important exposure to the practice of hospital minsitry, I also learned a significant lesson about the concept of "opportunity cost." In order to complete this required internship and be certain of graduating from Divinity School in the prescribed three year sequence, I turned down an opportunity to travel through Europe that summer instead, free of charge, in the company of a truly extraordinary woman I’d been dating at Harvard, who worked for Harvard Student Agencies, publisher of the famous "Let’s Go" guidebooks. She found a more amiable traveling companion, and I earned my degree right on schedule; yet I’ve often wondered how different my life might have been, had I been willing to take the chance of making the “irresponsible” choice.

College and University Teaching:

Graduate Teaching Fellow in History, University of Oregon,
Eugene, OR (1997-01)

A large measure of the actual classroom instruction at institutions like the University of Oregon is done by Graduate Teaching Assistants, who serve as discussion section leaders for large undergraduate lecture classes. Because of my previous academic preparation, I was often pressed into service as the “utility historian;” my teaching assignments included not only HIST 201, 202, 203 United States History, but also HIST 101 Western Civilization, HIST 301, 303 Modern Europe, HIST 351 American Radicalism, HIST 240 War in the Modern World, and HIST 399 Special Studies: WWII on Film.

Visiting Scholar in American History, Aalborg University,
Aalborg, Denmark (Spring, 2000)

This was a unique opportunity which I simply couldn’t pass up. I spent the better part of a semester as a visiting doctoral student in Denmark, then traveled for a month in France, Italy and Germany before returning to the U.S.

Visiting Instructor in Religious Studies, University of Oregon,
Eugene, OR (Spring, 1998).

Shortly after advancing to candidacy, I went on leave from the Graduate School for a term in order to work as an adjunct Professor of Religious Studies, covering part of the teaching load of the program chair during his sabbatical. I taught two courses: REL 111 Introduction to the Study of the Bible, and REL 323 Modern Western Christianity.

Graduate Teaching Fellow in Religious Studies, University of Oregon,
Eugene, OR (1996-97).

My first GTF appointment at the UO was in the Religious Studies department. My assignments were REL 111 Introduction to the Study of the Bible, and REL 202 Great Religions of the World.

Graduate Teaching Assistant, Oregon State University,
Corvallis, OR (1994-96)

This was a combined appointment in English and Philosophy. I was Marcus Borg’s personal teaching assistant for PHIL 101 Intro to Philosophy, PHIL 436 Philosophy of Religion, PHIL 443 Environmental Values and Religious World-Views, and PHIL 411/511 Historical Jesus. I also taught five different sections of WR 121 Freshman English, and one of WR 214 Business Writing.

Adjunct Instructor in English, Midland College,
Midland, TX (Spring, 1986)

I took on this job as a favor to a parishioner, who needed someone to cover a class during his sabbatical. I taught one section of ENG 112 Second Semester Freshman English.

General Employment:

Store Manager, B. Dalton Bookseller,
Beaverton, OR (1990-93)

During the time my former wife attended Law School in Portland, I worked as a retail bookseller, beginning as a temporary holiday employee and eventually being promoted up through the ranks to managing an entire store. This is the only job I have ever held as an adult that was not in some way related to the church or academia. I learned a little bit about retail and what it is like to work for a big corporation like Barnes & Noble, and also quite a bit more about managing a business: how to hire, train, and supervise employees, control inventory and expenses, provide good customer service, and at the end of the day still show a profit on the bottom line. I am still quietly proud of that fact that, in my final twelve-months as a bookseller, I turned around a store with a prolonged history of steadily declining sales, and set an annual record for both gross sales and profitability.

Residence Hall Director, Western Washington University,
Bellingham, WA (1981-82)

I found this job through a classified ad in the local Sunday newspaper, and applied for it because I was annoyed by the MFC’s settlement restrictions (previously described), and wanted a little time to get to know my own mind. I was the live-in manager of a 225 student on-campus dormitory, and supervised four undergraduate Resident Assistants.

Odd Jobs and Youthful Avocations (1971-1978)

Ordinarily I wouldn’t include an entry like this in my curriculum vita, but in this context it somehow seems appropriate. In addition to the usual kind of babysitting and lawn mowing jobs, as a kid I also worked in a variety of restaurant positions (waiter, dishwasher, busboy, cashier — but never a cook or bartender), parked cars for tips at the local yacht club, was an umpire/referee for various youth sporting events, the official scorer for a Little League organization, and a member of a surveying crew. My High School activities included Debate, Student Government, various Junior Varsity sports (football, basketball, baseball, track...none of which I particularly excelled at), occasional articles in the student newspaper, and a small part in a student-produced play.


"The Wares: Three Generations of American Unitarians." Unitarian Universalist Scholars Program Dissertation Fellowship Presentation, UUA General Assembly, Salt Lake City, UT, June 1999. This is also the title of my doctoral dissertation, which I successfully defended on May 21, 2001.

Mellon Research Fellowship, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston MA Summer 2000.

"From Mythos to Merger: a Brief Review of Unitarian and Universalist History" in Redeeming Time: Endowing Your Church with the Power of Covenant. Walter P. Herz, ed. Boston: Skinner House, 1999.

"‘Their own thought in motley…’: Emerson's Divinity School Address and Henry Ware, Jr.'s Hints on Extemporaneous Preaching." Journal of Unitarian Universalist History 24 (1997).

"Experiencing Theodore Parker as a Minister." Collegium of Liberal Religious Scholars, October 1996.

"My nonsense is only their own thought in motley;" Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ware, Jr., and the "Nature" of "Christian Character." Masters Thesis, Oregon State University, 1995.

Unitarian Universalist Scholar Fellowship Recipient, 1995-98.

"Associational Covenant: Implicit Models of Relationship Between and Among our Congregations." Prairie Group, November 1988.

"Black Cross" and other Stories. Masters Thesis, Western Washington University, 1983.

Phi Eta Sigma academic honor society.


Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (since 1979)
Collegium of Liberal Religious Scholars (on and off since 1980)
Prairie Group (1985-88)
Pacific Northwest District Extension Steering Committee (1998 - 2001)
Board of Directors, Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (1998-2005)
Editorial Board, Unitarian Universalist Christian (since 2001)
Board of Directors, Unitarian Universalist Historical Society (since 2005)
Treasurer, Unitarian Universalist Historical Society (since 2006)
Publications Committee, Unitarian Universalist Historical Society (since 2005)


UUA Interim Ministry Training, Cleveland OH, June 2001.
Samaritan Family Systems/Parish Leadership Consulting Group, 1989-90.
Alban Institute Conflict Management Workshop, Portland, OR, Mar. 1990.
Alban Institute Church Growth Seminar, Portland OR, Oct. 1989.
UUA Extension Ministry/New Congregation Training, Boston MA, Aug. 1988.
UUA Preaching Seminar, Chicago IL, Aug. 1986.
UUA Start-up Seminar, Palo Alto CA, Feb. 1986.
Pacific Northwest District Basic Leadership School, Summer, 1984

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Old Dawg, New Tricks

Nor was the pulpit itself without a trace of the same sea-taste.... Its panelled front was in the likeness of a ship's bluff bows, and the Holy Bible rested on a projecting piece of scroll work, fashioned after a ship's fiddle-headed beak.

What could be more full of meaning? -- for the pulpit is ever this earth's foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God's quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world's a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow. -- Herman Melville, *Moby Dick*


Once upon a time, more years ago now than I care to recount, my sweetheart and soulmate of the moment said to me: "Jensen, sometimes I wish you were a book, so that I could enjoy your companionship whenever I liked, and then put you back on the shelf when I'd had enough." I'm not sure it was really meant as a compliment, but for some reason her words have stuck with me all these years. Decades later, she also told me that she has saved every letter I had ever written her in the too-brief time we were an "item," in the expectation that someday I would become a famous writer and those letters would be valuable. That hasn't happened either, of course; but the real irony is that I have saved all of her letters as well, and have carried them with me from Seattle to New England and back, and then down to Texas, back to Portland Oregon and now here to New England again. I'm not really certain why, except that perhaps they are a talisman and a touchstone of a more innocent time in my life, when I truly believed in love at first sight, and that love can conquer all.

But you won't be reading any of those letters in this BLOG. At least not any time soon....

Rather, I'm starting this BLOG because in less than a month I will observe the twenty-fifth anniversary of my graduation from the Harvard Divinity School, and my subsequent ordination to the Unitarian Universalist ministry at the First and Second Church in Boston. And then on October 22nd (God willing) I plan to celebrate my 50th birthday: a nice "round" birthday (as they say in Denmark), marking the conclusion of my first half-century on the planet, and an important milestone in my lifelong pilgrimage to a wise and sagacious maturity. Of course, the fact that I still haven't really figured out what I want to do (or is it be?) when I grow up remains a bit of a problem, especially since I have already done (and been) so much in the process of trying to figure it out. But what the hell -- we're all just "acting our age" anyway. Young at heart yet wise beyond my years...that's always been pretty much all that I've aspired to. To be "intimate with the moment." To stay hungry and foolish. To count my riches in proportion to the number of things I can afford to let alone.

And then there's the Book: the diary (I hesitate to glorify it with the name "Journal") I've kept semi-religiously since I was a sophomore in High School, and Dr. Donald Cummings assigned it as a requirement for my English class. (Oh Dr Cummings, if only you knew the demon you'd unleashed!) It's a manuscript I've scribbled on almost every day of my life since I was 14 years old, but have never had the nerve to share with another soul, and only rarely found the courage to read again myself. "My life has been the poem I would have writ, But I could not both live and utter it" a former resident of this neighborhood once wrote (probably first in his own journal). But in many ways my life has been just the opposite -- so much of it devoted to putting it down on paper that perhaps I haven't lived quite as much of it as I might have otherwise. I know there's no going back. But because I have taken so many notes, at least I'm in a position to give it a good going over. Edit. Revise. Rewrite. It's no way to live. But the reason Truth is stranger than fiction is that someone is responsible for fiction.

And finally, a Word about God. I don't really think of myself as much of a theologian. I share the opinion of the American philosopher Charles Saunders Pierce, who once observed that "metaphysics is a subject more curious than useful, the knowledge of which, like that of a sunken reef, serves chiefly to enable us to avoid it." And yet, in my current line of work, I often have occasion to speculate about the Ground of Being and matters of "ultimate concern." It is sometimes said that Unitarians pray "to whom it may concern." Personally, I still aspire to "pray without ceasing" -- to transform my life into something worthy of God's faith in me, as a humble act of gratitude for the undeserved and arbitrary gift of life itself. It's true: none of us asked to be born. But thank God that we were, and now enjoy the privilege and the opportunity of wondering what in the world it all may mean, and how we best fit in: a (small) part of the whole, and yet whole within ourselves, connected to everything that was and is and is to be, yet alone in the solitude of our own self-consciousness until we take the profound step of reaching out to others in a relationship of intimacy and trust. And there you have it: the Gospel According to Me. Or at least a first draft....

Here is the place where I now work.
The First Religious Society in Carlisle, Massachusetts
Founded in 1758. Universalist & Unitarian since 1829.