Clark Olsen receives Distinguished Service Award

Clark Olsen receives Distinguished Service Award

Longtime minister and activist earns Association's highest honor.

Sonja L. Cohen
The Rev. Clark Olsen

The Rev. Clark Olsen. © 2015 Nancy Peirce/UUA

© 2015 Nancy Peirce/UUA


The Rev. Susan Ritchie presented the Rev. Clark Olsen, a UU minister and activist, with the UUA’s 2015 Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism.

Olsen has had a long and varied career but is perhaps best known to UUs for having survived the 1965 attack in Selma, Alabama, that killed the Rev. James Reeb.

Reading from the award citation, the Rev. Mark Ward said, “In this 50th anniversary year of the events in Selma, we have been proud to see you lifted up as an exemplar of our faith, one who followed the call to justice, who showed up, and despite injury and intimidation remained a generous and compassionate leader in the cause of freedom and justice.”

The annual Award for Distinguished Service is one of the UUA’s most prestigious awards. It honors a lay or professional leader who “over a considerable period of time, strengthened the institutions of our Unitarian Universalist denomination and/or clarified our message in an extraordinary way, while exemplifying what Unitarian Universalism stands for.”

Olsen graduated from Oberlin College and Harvard Divinity School and was ordained in 1959. He traveled extensively, visiting Eastern Bloc nations and the Soviet Union, and organized student trips to those countries in the 1960s and to Unitarian sites in Transylvania and Hungary.

He served congregations in Westborough, Massachusetts; Berkeley, California; and Morristown, New Jersey. Later, he moved into the field of organizational culture change and coached people in more than 30 organizations, including Fortune 500 companies. The UUA appointed him vice president for Planning and Programs from 1986 to 1988. He remains active in civil rights and civic groups.

Ward praised Olsen’s 56 years of UU ministry, saying that, “In a career of many phases from parish minister to organization consultant, from the board room to the classroom to the streets of Selma, Alabama, you demonstrated the transforming power of showing up and bringing your full self to the work that awaits us and so showing the way to a higher calling that awaits us all.”

Accepting the award, the visibly moved Olsen said, “We all live our lives at the intersection of mystery and values, and to explore that intersection, reaching into the riches of human experiences, offers deeply satisfying opportunity for insight and growth … I feel awed and grateful that, made as we are from the stardust of Creation, inherent in all of us is the desire to love others and to embrace efforts to bring more justice into this world.”