Growing up Irish Catholic in Boston, the Rev. Catherine Cullen had a clear ambition: She wanted to be a priest.
When she learned that priesthood wasn’t an option for girls, she became what was in her mind the next best thing: a trial lawyer.
After almost 20 years with a successful trial practice, however, she felt a pull to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. Now celebrating her tenth year in ministry, Cullen has joined the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association, drawing on her twin vocations of ministry and the law, along with a lifetime of activism and community service.
Cullen joined the board as the trustee from the Ballou Channing District in June 2011. "This is an amazing time of transition in the UUA," said Cullen. She worked on the campaign of the Rev. Peter Morales to become UUA president, and she endorses his vision that Unitarian Universalism can be "the religion for our time." "It's critical that we keep the flame of religion alive," she said. "We are a model for people of different theological beliefs coming together in community."
"I love how we do religion," Cullen added. "We do religion in a way no religion has ever done. We come together to learn from each other, to encourage each other, to respect each other. What a tremendous model for the world."
Cullen has been the minister of First Parish Church in Duxbury, Mass., since 2004.
She discovered Unitarian Universalism when she was working as a trial lawyer and living a few towns north of Duxbury in Norwell, Mass. She also held elected office there, on the town’s board of health. She found going to church in the same town awkward, so she attended Hingham’s Old Ship Church—formally, First Parish in Hingham—where she appreciated that no one in town knew what she did. It gave her the space to discover her UU identity, Cullen said.
She was up for reelection on the board of health, and—for someone who usually met all her deadlines early—she was uncharacteristically close to the deadline with her nomination papers. Cullen was driving to work one day with the papers on the passenger seat of her car when she heard a story on National Public Radio about a woman who had left her career in law to enter the ministry. "I said, 'That's what I’m going to do,'" Cullen recalled. "My call came from NPR."
She entered divinity school secretly. "I was a closet seminarian," said Cullen of her early years at Andover Newton Theological School. "My clients didn't want to know that this big, tough trial attorney was getting religion."
Her family situation also made her cautious. She and her husband, David Cutler, had a blended family of six children, ranging in age from two to their mid-20s. Cutler, who died of cancer in 2010, ran a successful chain of newspapers on Boston’s South Shore. However, her family still depended on her comfortable lawyer’s income.
In her first year of seminary, Cullen heard a female minister talk about changing careers in midlife. Cullen asked her how she did it, and her words continue to guide her. "'My path is created under my feet.' That was her mantra, and that carried me,” Cullen said.
As Cullen finished seminary and looked for permanent positions, she knew she couldn’t travel far from her home base in Duxbury, a coastal town on Cape Cod Bay. Then the minister of the Duxbury UU church announced his retirement. "All of a sudden, the church around the corner from my home was looking for a minister," Cullen said. "I fell in love with them, and I’m starting my eighth year there."
Cullen said work with the board is a natural for her, because she is “the type of person who always tended to do committee work.” In seminary, she started working with her district and with the UU Ministers Association. When her friend Eva Marx was nearing the end of her tenure as trustee from the Ballou Channing District, she talked to Cullen about replacing her. “It was pretty clear that this was what I wanted to do,” said Cullen. “I really believe in the vision of shared ministry.”
She finds that board work draws on a mix of her legal, practical, and religious skills. She has been assigned to work on the board's Finance Committee. But she said she is most excited to work on the Linkage Working Group. That committee seeks to link the board to "member congregations; current and future generations of Unitarian Universalists; the heritage, traditions, and ideals of Unitarian Universalism; the vision of Beloved Community; and the Spirit of life, love, and the holy," in the language of the working group's charge. "I'm thrilled to be doing that," Cullen said.
She has also volunteered to help the board create a covenant to guide their work together—a task she has done each year with the board of the Duxbury church. "People come to serve on boards because they want to do the work of the church and because they want to grow spiritually. I'd love for that to be my mini-mission on this board for the next two years: to grow spiritually as individuals and as a group."
Cullen stresses the importance of board members keeping their religious perspective while doing the work of the association. “Otherwise, we’re just an NGO, and we’re missing out on the gift we have to give the world, which is keeping the flame of Unitarian Universalism alive.”
Her main spiritual practice is Buddhism. She was ordained in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition, which has taught her to be “agenda-less,” she said. She brings that to her work with the board, carrying not concrete goals, but hopes for the board’s spirit and ability to work together with a sense of joy.
"I'm very excited by this task of linking to the Spirit of life, love, and the holy," Cullen said. "It could really be the basis for the reason that got me there in the first place, which is to keep our faith thriving and alive. If the leaders are joyful and connected and filled with life, then how can our denomination not be the same way?"