Unitarian Universalist Association's multifaceted ministry staff group broadens its mission.
The Rev. Beth Miller, who started in June 2006, says she is spending a lot of her first year on the job becoming acquainted with her many constituencies. “We serve Unitarian Universalism through the health and well-being of our religious professionals. To accomplish this, we’re in partnership with the UU Minister’s Association, the Liberal Religious Educator’s Association, the UU Musician’s Network, the Association of UU Administrators, the UUA board, theological schools, and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, to name but a few,” she said. “We work with many groups and individuals and all of them have a vested interest in what we do.”
She compares the staff group and its constituencies to a large three-dimensional puzzle: “I’m trying to find all the pieces and see how they fit together—where the sharp edges are and where things are smooth.”
Miller’s leadership experience includes 15 years as a congregational minister. She served most recently as minister of the UU Church of the Monterey Peninsula in Carmel, California, from 1997 to 2006. She has been active in religious education and youth ministry at both the district and continental levels, serving on both the Joseph Priestley District and continental UUA Youth/Adult Committees in the 1980s. She served on the UUA nominating committee in the 1990s; and the Pacific Central District’s conflict team and Sparks for Growth study group more recently. During her tenure as minister at a small UU congregation in Halifax, Nova Scotia, from 1991 to 1996, she was vice president of the Canadian Unitarian Council.
In addition to her leadership skills, Miller also has strong pastoral gifts. One of these gifts, she said, is her ability to draw boundaries around emotional or stressful issues, which allows her to tackle tough issues without being personally burdened. “I can be present and listen very carefully and I am genuinely compassionate, but at the same time when I walk away I’m not carrying it,” she said. “I have a firewall between my own soul and other people that empowers me to be present without being emotionally or spiritually depleted.”
The 57-year-old Miller didn’t start life with ministry in mind or even as a Unitarian Universalist. Born in Syracuse, N.Y., and raised in Leesburg, Fla., Miller started lobbying to attend Sunday school at an early age, even though her parents weren’t churchgoers. “In kindergarten every Monday morning the teacher would ask who went to Sunday school yesterday,” she said. “It was absolutely clear that if you didn’t raise your hand there was something wrong with you. So I began agitating to be taken to Sunday school.” Her parents went church shopping and Miller became a Methodist for many years, even though her parents seldom attended.
Miller became acquainted with Unitarian Universalism in 1974 when she and her second husband were looking for a church to be married in. “He had been raised a Unitarian Universalist and suggested that a Unitarian Universalist minister marry us,” she said. The couple met with the minister at the UU Church of Rockville, Md., and became immediately involved in church activities. “Before the wedding even took place, [my husband] was doing music and I was teaching Sunday school,” Miller said.
Miller’s involvement with the church steadily grew and she credits key mentors with her progress. “There were leaders in that church who saw things in me I didn’t know were there and called those forth,” she said. “Mary Hart, who was a member of the UUA board at one period and was very involved at the district and the continental level, would invite me to do things. I’d say, ‘Mary I don’t know how to do that,’ and she’d say, ‘There will be help and you’ll figure it out; you’ll know what you need to know and people will help you.’ And it was true.”
After serving as a religious educator and church leader for six years at the Rockville church, Miller was asked in 1980 to serve as the interim director of Religious Education there. After this experience she became active in religious education at both the district and national levels and played a major role in the re-visioning process that resulted in the creation of Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU), which emerged out of Liberal Religious Youth. It was at a youth conference in 1982—Common Ground II—that Miller experienced the call to ministry. “I was journaling,” she recalled, “and it came out in my journal that I wanted to be a Unitarian Universalist minister. It was shocking to me. I didn’t have a clue that I was capable of doing this.”
But the call persisted and Miller, who had married at 18 and didn’t have a bachelor’s degree, found herself enrolled as a full-time college student within two years. In 1986, at age 36, she received a B.A. from Hood College in Frederick, Md., and in 1990 she earned an M.Div. degree from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. The entire ministerial training process, including internship and Clinical Pastoral Education, took around eight years, she said, a process she completed while raising two children and continuing to be an active lay leader in her church.
Her first ministerial assignment was at a small church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, from 1991 to 1996. She then moved on to serve as an interim minister for East Shore UU Church in Mentor, Ohio, in 1996. In 1997 she accepted the call to become senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula in Carmel, California, a position she kept until June 2006 when she accepted her current job at the UUA.
Before accepting the position at the UUA, Miller had two criteria. “One was that I could love the work,” she said, “and the other was that my motivations were clean. I didn’t want it to be ego-driven. It’s OK to feel proud and I do. This is an amazing accomplishment for me. But if that’s all it was, I knew I wouldn’t do the job well for very long. And if I couldn’t actually love the work, it wouldn’t sustain me for very long.”
After much self-examination, and talking to a number of people who knew her and the kind of work she’d be doing, Miller accepted the job. She exults in the opportunity for growth and development at this stage of her life. “A new career at 57!” she said. “It’s still ministry, but it’s calling out new skills and different parts of me.”
Although much of Miller’s job concerns the smooth execution of her staff group’s many complex administrative responsibilities, she maintains a firm spiritual grounding. She describes herself as panentheist with Buddhist leanings. “I believe there is a spark of the divine in each of us,” she said. “Our spiritual task is to bring what we profess to be our values ever more closely into alignment with how we live in the world so we can live with greater integrity and live more fully.”
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Jane Greer is a former senior editor of UU World magazine.