The Rev. Jeanne Pupke is a former Roman Catholic nun and businesswoman who served a four-year term on the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees, where she chaired the finance committee. But Pupke, who is running to become the next president of the UUA in an election at the 2017 General Assembly in New Orleans, insists she is anything but a rules-bound corporate type.
“I want us on fire!” said Pupke, senior minister at First UU Church of Richmond, Virginia, since 2006. “I love being with entrepreneurs, and I have a desire for us to be more innovative in imagining what religion can be in the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.”
If elected president, she said, she’ll call on her success in growing organizations—from small companies to UU congregations—to grow the faith.
Pupke was certified as a candidate running by petition in June 2016. She is running against the Rev. Alison Miller, who was nominated by the UUA Presidential Nominating Committee in January 2016, and the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, who entered the race as a petition candidate in March 2016 after a second nominee withdrew. (UU World is profiling each candidate in the order they entered the race.)
All three candidates will appear at events together around the country, including five regional events in the spring of 2017 sponsored by the UUA.
Pupke, who grew up on Long Island as the oldest of seven children, has always been an iconoclast. She wanted to be a nun from a young age but was drawn to Catholicism’s progressive wing. She skipped class at parochial school only once, to hear her hero, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, speak out against the Vietnam War. In college, after a religion professor suggested she research Unitarian Universalism, Pupke says she found her true faith, although she didn’t become a UU until years later. “I thought it was an interesting concept to have a faith that has no particular theological tenet but is a living inquiry into human life and goodness,” said Pupke. “It did plant the seed.”
After college, Pupke became a nun but felt stifled by the vow of obedience and left after four years. The following year, she parted with Catholicism when the conservative John Paul II became pope. But liberation theology’s lessons continue to sustain her. “To be the best person you could be spiritually and morally, to serve the good, that was an ideal I felt was worth living for, and I still do,” said Pupke.
When she was in graduate school at the University of Missouri, a small tool die company, Diemakers, Inc., hired her as a consultant, then as vice president of administration, where she negotiated with major automakers. Her team saw revenues explode from $12 million to $50 million. A few years later, a small coffee company, Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters, offered her a job as general manager after she went on a tour of its Olympia, Washington facilities. She soon became chief operating officer, and saw revenues leap skyward.
“I like solving problems and I like getting people excited about solving problems,” said Pupke, who says her skills will be invaluable as UUA president.
In 1992, she met her partner, Regina Largent, a now-retired Army lieutenant colonel; they married in 2004 in Canada. Largent’s career took them to Tacoma, Washington, and then to Portland, Oregon, where they joined First Unitarian Church after Pupke read about its support of same-sex marriage. Pupke served on the stewardship committee and helped increase congregational giving each year.
Called to the ministry, Pupke enrolled at Meadville Lombard Theological School. Upon graduating in 2004, she became part-time minister at the UU Fellowship of Central Oregon, in Bend, which grew by 57 percent during her two years there. In Bend, she also was growth minister for the Pacific Northwest District, assisting small and emerging congregations from Idaho to Alaska.
Since Pupke was called to the Richmond church in 2006, it has grown from 400 to 625 members. She has focused on shifting its culture to recognize members’ religious diversity—including Christianity—and said she recommended that the board suspend its bylaws for a year to give the congregation freedom to innovate. That tactic was so successful that Pupke suggested it again as a UUA trustee for Justice GA 2012, in Phoenix, Arizona, where most General Assembly business was suspended to foster focus on social justice.
As a founding member and a director of the UU Legislative Ministry of Virginia, Pupke frequently testifies for women’s, LGBTQI, and youth rights.
In a city that has faced serious racial injustice, Pupke is proud of her congregation’s partnership with an African American gospel group, and of its sponsorship of a low-income grade school. The congregation launched Richmondpledge.org to fight racism and is working to get 10 percent of Richmond residents to sign it. jeannepupke.com