Music is less of a calling and “more like an impulse, an unshakeable desire, an obsession—something ruddier like that,” says Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout, who is director of worship and music at First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he has served since 2007.
A musician, writer, teacher, and theologian, Rideout was choir director for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2016 General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, where he partnered with the Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd to write the Sunday worship.
“Dr. Rideout’s ministry is a revolutionary gift for Unitarian Universalism,” says DeReau K. Farrar, director of music at First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, and president of the Association of UU Music Ministries, of which Rideout is a member. “Not only does he bring the wholeness of his fully Black and fully queer self into every space, he is an impeccable musician, and an uncompromising pastor. Dr. Rideout defines for us what worship might look, sound, and feel like when we invest trust in our music leaders—trust that freeing them to bring their holistic knowledge and experience indeed sanctifies us all.”
Born into a “huge, huge family” in Baltimore, Maryland, Rideout was about 8 years old when he taught himself piano by “fooling around” on a little keyboard at his aunt’s house. His grandmother later urged him to play music at the small Pentecostal church she attended and to start preaching. By high school he had fully embraced both music ministry and preaching.
“It was the introvert showman’s dream!” recalls Rideout. “I was smart, I was insightful, I had some wisdom, and I could make interesting connections between things that people were interested in.” At the time a “very, very deeply to my core” Christian practitioner in the tradition of Black Christianity, he regarded his service as a way to give back not just to God but to the people who loved him and supported his aspirations.
“I still do ministry work through an appreciation for the goodness of God—it’s just that God has expanded, and the people of God are less a select crew of the ‘right believers,’” he says. God now also means “an appreciation of waking up even one day, let alone for thirty-four years, waking up and seeing a world I don’t deserve, that I haven’t earned for any particular reason yet is incredibly beautiful and presents itself to me to inhabit air and breathe like it presents to every other thing breathing.”
Rideout’s gifts have been recognized and supported by teachers throughout his life. His high school music teacher spotted Rideout’s gift for conducting—“breath in your hands,” is the way he described Rideout. At Vanderbilt University, Rideout majored in voice with a focus on recitals, excellent preparation for his current focus on worship planning. Recitals are “putting together small pieces of music not necessarily related to each other . . . to achieve a larger thematic goal and to use art to inspire, to enlighten and awaken people, and cause goodness to their day,” he explains.
At Vanderbilt he created and conducted a student choir and won the 2013 National Student Conducting Competition. Before the age of 30, he earned a master’s and PhD at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which had the nation’s top program in conducting.
Looking for a church gig to earn money, he stumbled upon the UU congregation in Ann Arbor. “I’d never heard of these people. I looked up the Wikipedia definition and it was horrifying to me!” he says with a laugh. But by then he’d come out as gay and “was pretty bitter with the church of my childhood anyway.” Unitarian Universalism’s support of gay and genderqueer people “was like nothing I had seen defined as church,” he says. “I became essentially not just a guy taking a job but a person who wanted to help these people do what they did.”
After a year as interim music minister, Rideout became worship and music director. He directs the music program and helps lead the congregation in “building its voice, as we call it,” and manages the worship program in partnership with the Rev. Manish Mishra-Marzetti. “We create liturgy from scratch every week and tailor those things to the theme of the day,” says Rideout, and since the pandemic, he finds himself “directing a TV show every week.” (See: Music programs find challenges, creativity in move online)
Music, an expression of the ineffable, is essential to spirituality and worship, Rideout says. Yet Unitarian Universalism, “founded by people who use written word as power tools,” is overly reliant on intellectualism and a sermon-centric model of worship, he says, which discourages meaningful cultural interchange and the contributions of people with different life experiences. Overcoming the faith’s toughest challenges, including dismantling white supremacy within its own ranks, will require something beyond an intellectual approach.
“We’re not going to win any ‘debate’ about Black and Brown people feeling oppressed, even in their spiritual homes, because it’s not a conversation that can be expressed fully in English,” Rideout says. “It has to be dealt with through things like tears and emotional intelligence and processing and maturity—and it has to look like UU worship having a standard practice of lamentation or contrition or asking each other for forgiveness.”
Increasingly, UU congregations are recognizing the essential role of music in worship, he believes, so “it is no surprise that now the musicians are being called upon to lead in ways they never have before, because we are starting to understand we cannot articulate this through speaking to each other.” The spoken word and logic “don’t get us all the way to understanding just about anything. Can we begin to take the journey toward full understanding? That’s a more humble course than America and Unitarian Universalism have ever wanted to dig into, because it starts with admitting that your brain cannot figure out everything.” As musicians and music directors become, necessarily, a more integral part of UU worship, they are seeking more recognition and appropriate compensation, he adds.
“UUism is both starting to relinquish the centrality of intellectualism as the soul center and trying to welcome emotionality and spiritual intuition into the center of the way we understand things,” Rideout says. “Right on top of that, there’s a conversation about white supremacy, which places so much value on things like academics and science and the intellect figuring out things—whereas Black and Brown American cultures, especially, tend to be so much more rooted in things like intuition and the value of feelings and the necessity of singing as an expression.”
“And it’s no wonder that musicians have responded with, ‘Hey, we can help with that, we’re actually the ministers who do that, bring us in!’” he says. “That’s why musicians need to be in these positions of ministerial authority culturally, because this world needs to be given a shot at impressing upon the people how important it is to live and feel our way into these sorts of solutions.”