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Academia, ministry intersect in UU history post

Meadville Lombard appoints the Rev. Dr. Nicole Kirk to endowed chair of UU history.
By Elaine McArdle
4.23.12

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The Rev. Dr. Nicole Kirk

The Rev. Dr. Nicole Kirk has been named the first Rev. Dr. Frank J. and Alice Schulman Professor in Unitarian Universalist History at Meadville Lombard Theological School. (Meadville Lombard)

As a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School in the mid-1990s, the Rev. Dr. Nicole Kirk was so convinced she never wanted to be a minister that she talked her way out of the field education requirements. Deeply excited by the world of ideas, Kirk, a religious studies major in college, planned to use her master’s degree as a springboard to a Ph.D., where she could immerse herself in research and teaching and exploring new theories.

But a funny thing happened as her second year started. “I began to feel stirrings,” recalled Kirk, a native of Tulsa, Okla., who grew up as a UU. “I really enjoyed helping other people, being with them in difficult times and times of celebration.” While she remained certain she didn’t want to minister, at the same time, she said, “I started to feel a call to ministry.”

To sort through her conflict, Kirk decided to devote a summer to clinical pastoral education at a hospital chaplaincy internship in Chicago. “I hoped it would scare the ministry out of me,” she said. Instead, as she worked with dying patients and their families, and baptized infants who would not survive, “in those relational moments of intensity, I felt I was called to God. I was completely blown away. It was the complete opposite of what I intended, wanted, hoped.” And so, to her surprise, she discovered her other calling, one as important to her as her academic interests.

Over the past 20 years, Kirk has shifted between her twin passions for the academy and the ministry, often melding the two at once. After Vanderbilt, she was ordained at and spent eight years as the parish minister at the East Shore UU Church in Kirtland, Ohio, a 225-member congregation. She loved the daily work of ministering, and experienced major life events there, including her ordination and the birth of her son. And yet, over time, Kirk felt drawn back to the academy.

While still at East Shore, she enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) in New Jersey, where she got her doctor of ministry in 2007. Eager to continue her studies, she reluctantly left her parish position to continue at PTS, where for the past six years she has taught religious history to seminarians and to undergraduates at nearby Princeton University, and where she soon will finish her Ph.D. in American religious history, with a focus on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

And now, Kirk has been named the first professor for the only endowed chair for the study of the history of Unitarian Universalism, the Rev. Dr. Frank J. and Alice Schulman Professor in Unitarian Universalist History at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago.

The Rev. Daniel Budd, the minister at the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland in Shaker Heights, Ohio, who has known Kirk for about 15 years, said she exudes “an incredible passion for Unitarian Universalism,” which will be invaluable in her teaching position. “What Nicole has is an almost—dare I use the word—evangelical spirit, in the sense she sees Unitarian Universalism as good news that can help and guide people in their lives, and that we are a little more comfortable doing, getting out and trying to change the world through social justice.”

In her first year, Kirk will teach a course on basic church history, from Jesus to the Reformation, as early church history is one of her areas of expertise. But she is particularly excited about a class on American religious studies, in which her students will examine material culture, including buildings, artifacts, movies, and books, not just to understand religion but to become better ministers. “I’m always a minister in the back of my mind, so if we read great novels, I hope [the students] will also find some great fodder for preaching,” she said.

Lee Barker, president and professor of ministry at Meadville Lombard, called Kirk’s appointment to the new chair “a seminal event in Unitarian Universalism, especially in a time when fewer and fewer ministers are drawn to academia following some parish or other ministerial experience.” He added, “Her parish experience allows her to work with students in a way that keeps history out of the silo of the academic and places it into the realm of practical experience.”

Others are equally excited about Kirk’s new position. “Nicole is an incredibly gifted academic, and she has a huge heart for the ministry, too, so different pieces of her are deeply fed in both of those places,” said the Rev. Vanessa Southern, minister of the Unitarian Church in Summit, N.J., where Kirk was summer minister a few years ago. “The Meadville Lombard position is perfect because she gets to be a scholar in a denomination that values scholarship, but also gets to work with ministers in the larger work of the seminary … in some ways, she’ll probably end up being the minister to ministers.”

While at Vanderbilt, Kirk completed an internship with the Rev. Dr. Ruppert Lovely at the Countryside UU Church in Palatine, Ill. “I learned probably more about ministry from Ruppert than I ever did at divinity school,” said Kirk, adding that he included her in everything from his pastoral care ministry to developing the church’s budget. “This is one of the reasons I’m really excited about Meadville compared to a lot of education out there. So much theological education has gone to the academic side at the expense of the practical, and once you leave divinity school, if you haven’t had internships to help you prepare for the demands of ministry, you’ll be in shock.”

The huge attrition rate among young ministers across all denominations is due, Kirk believes, to lack of practical training in seminary. “One of the things that impressed me about Meadville was that they’ve reoriented their program to close that gap, so instead of having field education as something on the side or in between or divorced from the rest of the program, the practical side is integrated fully throughout the program. That’s what we need because ministry is hard, and your training needs to be more than a piece of paper.

“I find it amazing to be able to find a place where I can bring everything I am and have done to the table,” Kirk said.

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