‘The problem in Unitarian Universalism is sometimes an idealism that is too abstract and too good to be true.’
The Rev. John Buehrens, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations from 1993 to 2001. (© UUA)
Peering into the future of Unitarian Universalism, John Buehrens sees UUs playing a greater role in the fight to protect the environment.
“There’s tremendous passion, attention, and intelligence in our movement about right relations with the natural world,” Buehrens said. “Because we have scars on our soul having to do with race and social relations—and because our resources and even our attention is finite—the attention to racial justice has not left us with enough energy to let our light shine in interfaith witness on environmental concerns. If I had to look ahead another decade or two, I would say that may be the area where we need to take the very real gifts we have and get them out there.”
Here are other questions and answers from the wide-ranging interview:
UU World: How has your time in office changed you?
Buehrens: You can’t take on a responsibility that provides unrelenting pressure without developing a deeper spiritual life. And so one of the most remarkable things about my service as president is that I pray more. I have a deeper devotional life than I did as a parish minister. I reflect at a deeper level, and I feel closer to my personal sense of the holy than I ever have as a minister. I wouldn’t have expected that.
My dad just turned 80, and in these last eight years I’ve become intensely grateful for something I seem to have learned from him without quite knowing it. Dad became general manager of a shipyard employing 4,500 people when he was 32 years old. He never went beyond high school. His basic guts about going ahead and trying to provide leadership in an organizational way has been, I think, one of the things that I’ve been able to bring to the office. I’ve grown more grateful to dad. Somehow he put that into the gene pool or the family system.
UU World: When you’re done with this job, you want to be a parish minister again. I’m sure lots of other doors would be open to you. What is the source of this choice?
Buehrens: It’s a combination of things that have to with being true to my inner life and more pragmatic considerations. For example, I do not want to disrupt my wife’s very happy parish ministry [Gwen Buehrens is an Episcopal priest]. She has followed me more than once as I’ve moved from place to place. She’s now a real leader in her own church. The kind of nonprofits where I might work at next are mostly in Washington and New York. I’m not going to ask her to move again.
The growing edge for me is in spiritual life. I want to return to working with people on that intimate, week-to-week, day-to-day process of spiritual growth. And if I never see quite so many airports again, that will be fine with me.
As president, I have not said much of what I think theologically. But, by golly, I’ve got about 15 more good years in me as an active minister and I intend to be robustly involved in theological reflection with and for this movement as long as I possibly can.
It’s a new century and a new millennium and, in many ways, a new cultural era. The theological problematic that we face today is not the same as was in the ’60s, much less the ’50s. It is a theological problematic of global pluralism and of what globalization means, not just in spiritual terms and not just in economic or practical terms, but in the ability for these things to come together.
UU World: So it sounds like after you hand over the presidency you’ll be not only a parish minister but also a theological voice?
Buehrens: I certainly hope so.
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Tom Stites was the editor of UU World from 1997 to 2006 and retired as its publisher in 2007. He is a member of the First Religious Society of Newburyport, Massachusetts.
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An enviable partnership
From the General Assembly to interfaith justice campaigns, UUA Moderator Denny Davidoff and UUA President John Buehrens have led as a team.