The UU Search And Call Process

Our ministerial search process is unwieldy and downright crazy. The UUA Director of Settlement, Rev. Keith Kron, and I have had conversations over the years about how much time and energy it takes our congregations to settle a parish minister. Anyone who is paying attention to this issue is well aware that the enormity of the undertaking is out of proportion to the size of our congregations, the level of experience and availability of their active members, and especially the typical length of tenure in our pulpits. I will check with Keith, who will hopefully comment here, but I believe the average tenure in UU congregations is about six years. If UCC folks can chime in about your statistics, I would love to know!

My comments and observations are those of a clergyperson who has served full time in the parish for twenty-five years and been in the search process twice. Along the way I also earned a Doctor of Ministry degree, focusing my dissertation on the origins of the church covenant as the organizing document of the original New England congregational Puritan churches, and the continued relevance of covenants today. I am what you might call a nerd of congregational polity, especially as is practiced by UCC and Unitarian Universalists, who share a common historical origin.

I am also a clergy consultant and have been a congregational consultant, although not very much in the past decade. I maintain an avid care and curiosity about the health of the liberal church and am deeply concerned that our search and call process is working against our congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association. The fact that there were more open pulpits than available interim ministers this past season alarmed me. I got back to thinking seriously about this issue.

An informal scan through the church openings for parish ministry on the UUA website reveals a heartening trend toward multiple categories of ministerial hiring options: contract ministers, interim ministers, developmental ministers. Although I haven’t studied the intricacies of all of these categories, they apparently allow for more flexibility in getting a clergyperson on board without assembling a large Search Committee who will be expected to earnestly labor over at least a full year to assemble a complicated congregational survey (that doesn’t reveal many of the most salient realities about the congregation), comb through interminable ministerial profiles (that don’t reveal many of the most salient realities about the applicant), and ultimately organize a series of (expensive!) weekends for the arcane ritual known as pre-candidating. After yet more hours sequestered in an undisclosed location and having sworn utter secrecy unto the death about those under consideration, the Search Committee chooses one Candidate, whom they are then bound by blood oath to present to the congregation with the enthusiasm of Yente the Matchmaker trying to earn her commission from Lazar Wolf the Butcher by arranging a betrothal between himself and Tevye’s eldest daughter Tzeitel.

This all culminates in an exhausting torture known as Candidating Week, where the congregation tap dances charmingly and the Candidate tap dances charmingly, the minister looks around to see if they can afford to live in the community, the board and miinster hammer out details of the Letter of Agreement, and everyone goes to way too many gatherings and meetings. At the second Sunday, the minister leads a second worship service after which they vamoose out of the building and the voting members of the congregation decide whether or not to elect them as their settled minister.

No one will ever remember or care about this unless I’m around, but if the vote goes well and the congregation extends a call that is accepted, the clergyperson becomes the MINISTER-ELECT of the church until such time as they are formally installed.

As I said, I am a nerd who spends a considerable amount of time thinking about the 17th century origins of congregationalism, and I hold as sacred the freedom of the local congregation to call (and to dismiss, if necessary) its own minister. I just don’t think that it needs to be such a sadistic exercise to get everyone to that vote.

PeaceBang’s Suggested Candidating Process

Saturday afternoon: The candidate arrives with family. Dinner with search committee.

Sunday morning: Candidate leads worship service. Coffee hour.

Lunch break.

Evening forum with the candidate. Congregation submits questions to the organizers who break them into categories and eliminates duplicates in advance. Suggested topics: theology, vision of church, adult faith formation, community engagement, social justice vision. Let the candidate demonstrate that they have done some homework perusing the congregation’s materials. This is not a time for the candidate to start getting to know the congregation, but a demonstration that they are reasonably acquainted with the major issues and initiatives.


Zoom (and perhaps a few phone calls) with groups of parishioners who were unable to attend in person. Getting-to-know-you.

Monday evening: Dinner with the Board or Parish Committee. Items for discussion: Letter of Agreement, special attention to compensation and benefits, clear understanding of vacation/time off/days off, staff structure, reporting and evaluation methods.

Tuesday: Day at church starting late morning. Meet with staff as group and one-on-one where recommended. Detailed building tour.

Done by 5PM. Candidate explore community.

Wednesday: Community meetings with partner organizations, local clergy, mutual aid societies, etc.

Evening: Children and youth drop-in or other activity. Meet with faith development lay leaders, teachers, OWL teachers, etc.

Thursday: Daytime, check in with board leaders, search committee, anyone who has unfinished business.

7PM Congregation convenes for vespers or meditation service, meeting and vote.

Here is some of the rationale for this abbreviated candidating process:

  1. When we treat candidating as an opportunity for various “constituencies” within the church to interview a minister, we are setting up the church and the minister for a fragmented experience and therefore, failure. There should not be silos of church groups meeting separately with the minister to assess their fitness for the position. The church is not a collection of special interest groups. Everyone meets and discerns the rightness of the fit together as the holistic entity they should be (or should aspire to be).
  2. Ministers in search very likely already have demanding jobs. Expecting anyone to take an entire week off of work, inclusive of two consecutive weekends, is incredibly presumptuous and creates a huge financial and logistical imposition on anyone who isn’t already serving in a parish setting.
  3. By eliminating a second worship service, you eliminate the need for the candidate to schedule almost an entire day for worship prep.
  4. You are not choosing a life partner, messiah or lifetime appointee. You are choosing a human being who is hopefully very qualified, sincere and dedicated to the possibility of working with your congregation in good faith for the next 5-7 years to help it live into its mission.
  5. An abbreviated candidating process helps alleviate some of the incredible and outsized stress assumed by the Search Committee and other church leaders, an especially important consideration in these times.

Clergy Burn-Out: The Current Crisis

Hello, folks. I’ve been meaning to get back to blogging but life intervened! But now I am on vacation and have time to dedicate to an important conversation about clergy resignations.

So many clergy have joined the Great Resignation and I think lay people need to know a lot more than they are being told about exactly why. Let’s start with this tweet series from @BelindaJoy79, from May 2022:

Literally every single fellow frontline pastor I speak to is pretty much at their end. The finger gets pointed at Covid for this one and I’d say that’s only a fraction of the issue. When I was called to ministry I didn’t expect to spend 80% of my time running a business.

“Shout out to the parish pastors – you are crushing it, while it is crushing you.” ~ @mytalkcolleen is making me feel very seen this morning. I’m not a business manager, but I’m required to be. I’m not a WHS expert, but I’m required to be. I’m not a HR manager, but I’m required to be. I’m not a fundraising guru, but I’m required to be. I’m not PR savvy, but I’m required to be.

I’m not an accountant, but I’m required to be. I’m not a handyman, but I’m required to be. You catch my drift right? We’re breaking under the weight of the administrative tasks that keep being placed upon us and we barely get to engage in the parts of ministry that we were called to and trained for. And when we do we’re so exhausted there’s little joy left in it. I spend most of my days operating outside of my area of expertise, skill and interest and it’s soul destroying. And most of my colleagues, if they didn’t fear recriminations of speaking freely would say the same thing.

We huddle around coffee tables and in prayer rooms and share our truths and try to bolster each other. But without systemic changes, nothing changes and the rate of pastors leaving is just going to increase.

PeaceBang here again. I can’t fix this problem.

But I can speak to it. I have an insider’s perspective and an interest not only in ministry right now, but in the history of ministry in the U.S., and in the evolution of clergy archetypes over time.

Of course there are myriad professional stresses on clergy right now, just as there are on workers in many sectors. The pandemic has required many of us to pick up advanced tech skills on the fly, fixing the sinking boat while it is out on the high seas in choppy waters. Many workers have been thrust into an entirely new way of doing their jobs.

I doubt, however, that many of them have taken sacred vows to love the community within which they do their job. I doubt that many of those other workers (educators perhaps excluded) are expected to be available 24-7 to accompany everyone in their workplace through medical, emotional and spiritual crisis.

This changes everything. This makes clergy fairly unique in the professional landscape. It’s that love thing. It’s that sacred vows thing. No one wants to think of clergy as being people in a job, but of course we are. Especially in the increasingly corporatized culture of churches, we are very much people with a job, and while the spiritual aspect of our calling is still central to our own sense of what we are doing and why, that aspect is increasingly being lost, glossed over or given very short shrift in our ministry settings. We are evaluated and reviewed according to job descriptions. We are subjected to satisfaction surveys (I’ll be writing a separate post on best and worst practices in clergy “performance” reviews — and surveys are among the worst and most damaging). We are treated as employees, or as I have heard again and again on calls with members of the clergy who have resigned from the parish or are considering doing so, “the help.” And as BelindaJoy tweeted, most clergy are operating completely outside their areas of expertise, skill and interest, and it’s soul-destroying. So what? you may ask. Why are ministers so precious that they can’t handle the kind of soul-destroying professional obligations the rest of us have to endure in our own jobs? Suck it up, buttercups!

Well, I get that. But ministers are only able to actually do our jobs when we are spiritually healthy and our souls are whole. I’m sorry. It’s just true. You cannot minister with a sick heart or have anything worthy to say when you have had insufficent time to reflect on what to say or how to say it. The fact is, behaviors, expectations and crushing pressures within the church these days are heart-breaking. Clergy are leaving because they cannot keep their hearts open.

We are all traumatized in this country. I need not enumerate the reasons but I’ll pop out a quick and very incomplete list: the earth is literally burning. Rising fascism in government, democracy under real threat. Gun violence, mass murders. Racism and the carceral state. Extrajudicial murders of Black people. Criminalization of immigrants. Women’s rights eroded and millions of lives imperiled as a result.

One of the trends I have observed among resigning clergy is that their leaders operated as though they were not in crisis or traumatized. This needs more analysis, but I find it really important to note that especially among majority-white, highly-educated congregations with management-class lay leaders, there has been particularly egregious scapegoating and bullying behaviors resulting in clergy resignations.

Church members who do not recognize that they are highly anxious, upset and frightened by the present and for the future often target clergy as the source of the feelings they cannot acknowledge. Going after the minister gives them a sense of purpose, and they often genuinely feel they are protecting or benefiting the church by their crusade.

If you belong to a congregation where your minister was suddenly and unexpectedly (to you) ousted, I hope you will thoughtfully raise the issue of scapegoating and bullying with your leaders (or better yet, become a leader if you can and make it a priority to engage in this community reckoning with a consultant). This dysfunctional dynamic is not rare but it is too rarely confronted.

What behaviors within our congregation, either institutional or individual, supported our minister in keeping their heart open for the work of ministry?

The role of the clergy is expected to be filled by someone who had a sense of calling, and whose calling was affirmed and confirmed by a community of faith. Clergy are those who are entrusted with the care of souls; only secondarily are they executive directors of institutions. They cannot care for souls or be present as spiritual companions and leaders if they are play-acting being okay, and many of them are doing exactly that. They quit their parish positions because they don’t want to keep acting like they’re okay — and they never felt safe enough to be honest.

Why couldn’t they be honest? Because although clergy archetypes vary somewhat from region to region and from tradition to tradition (the learned rabbi, the fiery evangelical, the warm rural pastor, etc.) they almost all have in common a Calm, Wise, Eternally Patient, Mature, Gentle, Loving (Most Always Straight, White) Man. This is the image actived in the deep recesses of the collective unconscious when one says the word “minister/priest/clergy.”

Surprise, surprise, very few actual ordained clergy serving churches naturally conform to this archetype. And because they do not, they face constant internal and external pressure by communities of faith that have often not examined their own fantasies and nostalgic notions of the clergy persona.

So, another key question for congregational reflection:

Was our minister able to be fully authentic with us during their term of service? Are we honest with each other in community? What are some of our unexamined assumptions about what a minister looks/sounds like socially, emotionally and personally? What are our unexamined assumptions about what kind of personality traits and emotional style people who belong to this church (and especially leaders) should have?

The mainline Protestant church (and in this I include UUs, who are theologically diverse but culturally extremely similar to mainline Protestants ) has often failed in its commission to be counter-cultural. The church is now a regarded by most people as a product that exists to meet their needs, or perhaps a fondly-regarded public utility. Church leaders and clergy are desperate to reconvene Covid-diminished congregations and/or to find new paths toward relevance and vitality. What no one wants to openly admit is that churches are spiritual communities, not service providers. Nor, unless this is an explicit aspect of their mission, are churches community program centers.

Is our church open and clear about the fact that the church exists to not to provide experiences or collect opinions but to make demands of love, service and care of the people who feel called into spiritual community?That each person beckoned by God/Conscience out of their aloneness to become part of this endeavor should be taking seriously their own spiritual growth? And that there is no “the church” that is not the current generation of active members and friends?

That is what it means to be counter-cultural in a consumer society.

Above all, ministers are responsible for helping the community identify, define, articulate and live out its mission in the community. With all of the other responsibilities now assigned to clergy, hundreds report that their time for the essential tasks of studying and preparing for programs, sermons, and time for pastoral conversations are being squeezed into days off or late nights. Their discernment of how to set priorities are being constantly questioned and undermined by chronic critics who have assigned themselves a position of great influence within the congregation and have often been allowed to rampage unchecked for decades.

Healthy congregations reward creativity, not negativity. What kind of person has the most influence in your congregation?

As churches experience more survival anxiety, the minister is often the one held responsible for attracting, nurturing, leading, maintaining what we still traditionally refer to as “members,” even as patterns of participation and engagement have changed so radically in the past few decades, the meaning of membership is vague and mostly unbinding for members of the community. The generation of elders who knew how to do traditional church have mostly moved away, are in nursing homes, or have died.

What tasks or jobs did our minister quietly take on as volunteer engagement diminished or changed entirely? Did we ask them? If they told us, whose responsibiity did we think it was to assume those tasks? Were our leaders willing to let things go, or was our former minister expected to keep the church “business as usual?”

Does our congregation have a robust, lay-led and designed program of mentorship? How can our new minister support the church in this, or do we expect them to initiate, create, recruit for and run these trainings on how to be and do church?

I hope this generates good and productive conversations in your congregation or your clergy group. A word to the ministers: please live more authentically with your people. I have so often attended collegial gatherings where sweet-faced ministers sneer and complain about their “people” when it is obvious that their veneer of holy affect interferes with their ability to share their genuine thoughts and feelings with their community. This is on us, too. If you are allergic to showing anger, frustration, disappointment, ignorance, fear, sadness, grief because you think you have an image to uphold, do not be surprised that your facade will crack under the extraordinary tensions of these days.

Whose side am I on here? I am on the side of the church. I believe in the Church. I ardently believe that identified spiritual communities that exist to carry on ancient rituals and traditions, to create new ones, to gather people together for the contemplation of the most urgent questions facing humanity, to pray, to educate children in wonder and reverence, to offer rites of passage that give greater meaning to birth and death and to worship God, are a good thing.

I care about your church.

Blessings on your way. Peace. Bang.

The Poetry Of Mary Oliver In Unitarian Universalist Liturgy

[This was originally a paper I wrote for my doctoral program in 2008. – Victoria Weinstein]

There’s Something About Mary: The Poetry Of Mary Oliver Among Unitarian Universalists

There are three poems by Mary Oliver in the most recent Unitarian Universalist hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition.  To put her prominence in context, there are six readings in the hymnal by Ralph Waldo Emerson, one by Henry David Thoreau, seven by Rabindranath Tagore, and eleven from the Book of Isaiah. She is therefore not overly-represented in the hymn book, but is unquestionably the poet of choice in Unitarian Universalist congregations all over the country and was chosen to give the prestigious Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 2007. If any secular literary source can be said to have achieved the status of “sacred scripture” within a religious movement, it is safe to say this of Mary Oliver’s poetry among the Unitarian Universalists.

As a woman named Marcia wrote recently on a blog posting asking Unitarian Universalists to comment about the prevalence of Mary Oliver poetry in their worship services, “All I know is that when people ask me if we read from the bible during worship services, i say ‘Yes, but not as often as we read mary oliver.’[1]  On the same post a woman named Terri comments, “The very first UU service I attended featured a Mary Oliver poem…and the very first UU small group session I attended on Prayer used her poem “Morning Poem”[2]

Unitarian Universlist minister Judy Welles writes,

I use Mary Oliver a LOT. . . I love the simplicity of her poetry; I respect the art of saying something very rich and nuanced with just a very few words. She is a MASTER at that. And she loves life so much. And she is so grateful. She takes great pleasure in simple things, notices things to be grateful for that most of us would miss. To put it simply: she knocks my socks off.[3]


So what is this about? What about Mary Oliver’s poetry speaks so powerfully to members of this small religious movement? I have two key theories, one positive and one more cynical, that I want to explore more fully in this paper:

  1. Oliver writes poetry that is imbued with theology that is particularly resonant with the Transcendentalist, neo-pagan and ambiguously Theistic strands of Unitarian Universalism (I use the term “ambiguously Theistic” to refer to those who do not identify as traditional Theists, but who may be agnostic with a strong mystical bent, or atheistic with a sense of immanent divinity that, for personal reasons, they refuse to name as God). Oliver’s talent for capturing theophany and immanence in a few verses or images is breathtaking. She is the Muse of choice for many who have trouble articulating the holiness in everyday things and events, but who strongly feel its presence.
  2. Oliver writes poetry that is almost entirely interior; preoccupied with private thoughts, feelings and reactions to her immediate natural surroundings. It is the rare poem that takes Oliver into an urban or even suburban setting or finds her among a group of other human beings. In her poetic persona, she prefers the company of her dog, irises, otters or grasshoppers to that of people (save her beloved partner Molly Malone Cook who appears unnamed in many of her poems).  “Oliver worship” within Unitarian Universalism in the current era may represent, therefore, a holding onto rampant individualism and self-absorption that is currently being challenged by 21st century proponents of a far stronger community ethos in the denomination.

Speaking as an individual, I am a sincere fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Speaking as a minister and liturgist, I believe that her prevalence in Unitarian Universalist worship is a mixed blessing, and that her poetry should be more intentionally balanced with other poetic voices; especially those that lift up the importance of seeking transcendence truths in community.


The first reading by Mary Oliver that appears in Singing the Living Tradition is her poem “Wild Geese,” (from Dream Work, 1986).  It is reprinted in its entirety but made into a responsive reading, as the italics will indicate:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


Imagine the reaction of the newcomer to Unitarian Universalist worship hearing a minister or liturgist intone that first line, “You do not have to be good.”

You do not have to be good!?? What kind of religion is this, anyway?  Read in a private context, I find this poem to be a beautiful statement of spiritual freedom, rejection of the efficacy of religious guilt to effect healing and wholeness (“you do not have to walk on your knees …repenting”) and a celebration of the interdependence of all life and each person’s special place in it.  Read in a corporate context, however, this poem makes me cringe.  Phrases like, “You do not have to be good” and “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves” – so hospitable to the individual reader’s soul, sound to my ear very weak and permissive theology when read responsively in a worship setting.  Do worshipers hear these words differently in the privacy of home versus the public space of the religious meetinghouse?  Are preachers being entirely responsible when they use them and then do not exegete them somewhere in the service? Or do worshipers have an instinctive understanding that poetry within the context of worship is not, in fact, literally sacred scripture but one possible illumination among many of the preacher’s message and the community’s values?

One Unitarian Universalist wrote, “[Oliver’s] poem ‘Wild Geese’ is sort of like a creed to me (and I share this in common with a minister friend of mine, who also committed the poem to heart).[4]  Given that Unitarian Universalists reject creeds, such a comment is surprisingly fervent. Another active Unitarian Universalist gave the poem even higher prominence in her spiritual life, writing,

I love Mary Oliver because her poems “West Wind #2,” “Wild Geese,” and “The Journey” saved my life–literally. They gave me the strength and courage to do some hard things–basically to get out of a life that was killing me, and into one that is full of love and joy. Oliver will always hold a special place in my heart for that.[5]

In a religious tradition that has largely abandoned language of salvation in the 21st century (emphasizing, if anything, that humanity has to save itself), it is perhaps inevitable that its adherents will seek salvific messages where they can find them in other, extra-congregational sources.

The second Mary Oliver poem which appears in the Unitarian Universalist hymnbook (also from Dream Work) is “Morning Poem.”  Again, italicized portions indicate the intention that this be used as an antiphonal or responsive reading:

Every morning the world is


Under the orange sticks of the

sun the heaped ashes of the

night turn into leaves again.

And fasten themselves to the high

branches – and the ponds appear

like black cloth on which are

painted islands of summer lilies.


If it is your nature to be happy

you will swim away along

the soft trails for hours, your

imagination alighting



And if you spirit carries within it

the thorn that is heavier than

lead – if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging –


There is still somewhere deep

within you a beast shouting

that the earth is exactly what

it wanted –


Each ponds with its blazing lilies is

a prayer heard and answered

lavishly, every morning,


Whether or not you have ever

dared to be happy,

whether or not you have ever

dared to pray.

Like “Wild Geese,” “Morning Poem” addresses the suffering individual (“the spirit that carries the thorn that is heavier than lead”), claims that the individual is in the right place (Nature or Earth) and affirms that that place is inherently sacred.  There are resonances with the Book of Genesis in the first line (“Each morning the world is created”), and again, the human is affectionately reduced to the most creaturely of beings (“soft animal” in “Wild Geese” and “a beast” in “Morning Poem”).  As in “Wild Geese,” “Morning Poem” claims that whether or not the human being is particularly religious (“whether or not you have ever dared to pray”), the natural world invites each person to actively participate in the immanent, divine order of things.  It is a reading which, when I ventured to try it with a congregation during worship, did not flow very well, but it contains some memorably beautiful images (the orange sticks of the sun/the pond with the blazing lilies) and a comforting theological message that traditional spiritual practices are not necessary to commune with the “answered prayer” that is Nature.

Emerson and Thoreau said much the same thing in far more prosaic language in the 19th century, of course, unintentionally striking a nearly-fatal blow to the nascent Unitarian movement and leaving a legacy of anti-institutionalism and sporadic church-going that has not abated since their time.  Oliver is a worthy heir to this strand of the Transcendentalist tradition, enthusiastically exhorting the reader to throw themselves down in the grass and worship in that manner, or to do so by floating in a pond, or by spending a summer’s day savoring blackberries on one’s “happy tongue.”

In the last of her contributions to the Unitarian Universalist hymn book, Oliver’s poem “In Blackwater Woods”[6] is excerpted as follows:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

This is a fitting final verse of a poem that juxtaposes satisfaction and goodness (trees turning their own bodies “into pillars of light”) with sadness and even nihilistic imagery (“every pond/no matter what its name is/is nameless now”), but it seems a startlingly inappropriate message for a church to perpetuate.

For one thing, Oliver makes a definitive pastoral statement that works beautifully for her poem but that has no place in a institution whose founder advised us not to love what is mortal as though our lives depended on it, but to love God in that manner, because our lives do depend on it. Similarly, this poem strikes me as a questionable inclusion in a hymn book because, taken out of context of the larger poem, the phrases read as a therapeutic sound bite for “getting over” losses one might have suffered.  Who is to say when the time is to “let it go?” Mary Oliver doesn’t say, but grieving worshipers hearing this on a Sunday morning might legitimately wonder if they are being in some way admonished for not being able to “live in this world” appropriately.  This might be an overly-sensitive concern, but if people are listening carefully for images of God that may offend them (as they often are in a Unitarian Universalist congregation where the vast majority are “come-outers” from more conservative faith traditions– or who come unchurched and critical of traditional religion), are they not listening especially carefully also for words that may spiritually guide and advise them?

Mary Oliver is at her best and most theologically inspiring when writing about theophanies in ordinary life. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection American Primitive contains what are for me her finest poems in that vein.  In one poem, “The Kitten,” Oliver describes taking a stillborn kitten with one eye from her house cat’s bed and burying it in a field behind her house.

I suppose I could have given it

to a museum,

I could have called the local newspaper.

But instead I took it out into the field

and opened the earth

and put it back

saying, it was real,

saying, life is infinitely inventive. . .

The poet is saying that even this tiny dead being that would have been regarded as grotesque by most people is part of what is natural, and is therefore to be marveled at as evidence of an infinitely creative Creator.  It is her constant refrain; to render the unremarkable remarkable, and the ugly or even treacherous aspects of creation worthy of attention and reverence.  Oliver invites us into solidarity and fellowship with all of life.  She is the anti-Annie Dillard, who so delights in dashing sentimental or anthropomorphized notions of the natural world against the rocks of gleefully clinical descriptions of the horrors of Nature, “red in tooth and claw.”

Oliver’s magnificent poem “Humpbacks,” around which I once designed an entire worship service, is a glorious revelation of the theophany of the humpback whale (see Appendix B) as it “smashes through the surface” of the ocean and hangs “for some unbelievable part of a moment against the sky/like nothing you’ve ever imagined/ like the myth of the fifth morning galloping out of darkness/pouring heavenward.”  As in many of Oliver’s poems, this one is also about the relationship between the human body and the other embodied aspects of creation.  It begins as a creation story, evoking a “country of original fire” in which we live and move and have our being, and later echoes Genesis as it connects the magnificent appearance of the whales to “the myth of the fifth morning galloping out of [the primordial] darkness.”


As she often does, Oliver ends her poem with an exhortation to the reader, saying,

Listen, whatever it is you try

to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you

like the dreams of your body –

It is these exhortations, these evangelical moments in Oliver’s poems that are most treasured by those who hear her within the context of worship.  “Don’t love your life too much,” she says in the voice of a butterfly at the end of her poem[7] “One Or Two Things.” And this treasured phrase that appears at the end of “The Summer Day,” a poem I have read at half a dozen memorial services, asks her ultimate question:  “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” [8] Her theology is broad and humanistic, “incantations drawing us forward to a more authentic life.”[9]

What, then, will Unitarian Universalists make of Oliver’s development as a poet of distinctly Earth-based, broadly humanistic spirituality (with a smattering of Christian images and references sprinkled throughout), to a grieving woman hungering and thirsting after the God of Christian faith in her recent collection, Thirst?

I attended the Installation of a new Unitarian Universalist minister in March of 2008 which used Thirst’s first poem, “Messenger” as an antiphonal benediction read by several of the new minister’s colleagues. The poem begins, “My work is loving the world,” and proceeds with the usual Oliver specificity of reverence — the inevitable lists of aspects of creation she wants to be sure we will not overlook in our hasty pace of life (“Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird/Here the quickening yeast/there the blue plums/Here is the clam deep in the speckled sand”).  But at the last line, a surprise. Rather than her customary reminder that life is brief and therefore must be savored, Oliver ends her poem with a reference to eternal life:

A mouth with which to give shouts of joy

to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,

telling them all, over and over, how it is,

that we live forever.[10]

For close readers of Oliver, this phrase is a shift, a hint that something is changing in the poet’s spiritual orientation.  Later in the collection (“Musical Notation: 1”) we find Oliver referring to all of creation as God’s works – more specifically, in traditionally gendered language as “His works.”  Another surprise.

“Have you noticed?” she asks.  Yes, in Thirst, we have noticed for the first time in this collection that Mary Oliver is a faithful Christian woman, weaving glorious poetry out of an all-too human struggle with meaning in the aftermath of a shattering loss.  “Dear Lord,” she begins one poem, and later in that same poem affirms, “Still I believe you will come, Lord: you will…”[11]

Will wounded ex-Christians, agnostics, humanistic, Jewish or Buddhist-oriented Unitarian Universalists who love Mary Oliver’s poetry so much that they take her words as personal creeds and commit them to memory feel betrayed by their Muse’s new direction? Will they accept it and follow where she leads with literary appreciation and healthy self-differentiation? Will they dismiss her devotion to the Christian Way as the disappointing, if understandable, reaction to losing her partner of forty years (a kind of regression, if you will)?  It will be interesting to see how frequently, if at all, poems from Thirst are included in Unitarian Universalist worship services, meditation circles and retreats.

I personally find Thirst to be Oliver’s most mature and powerful collection in a long time, as I had begun to find her work vapid and formulaic.  It is not only the details of her Christian life that I find beautiful and resonant (a description of trying to remember the lectionary lesson when one is depressed, disoriented and grieving; a simple report of attending church and then walking the dog; the plea for God to still our pounding, anxious hearts and bring us to the peace that passeth understanding; the mystery of Eucharistic transformation of bread, wine, self and community), it is the new sense of deep relationality which I find in these poems that inspires and moves me. Oliver’s shift from a poetic voice of such total interiority that it bordered, for me, on irritating self-absorption (no matter how literarily beautiful) to a voice that recognizes and even, in a bittersweet and poignant way, celebrates dependency, inter-dependency and community is, to this admirer, a great literary fulfillment.


[1] Commenter Marcia on “There’s Something About Mary,” PeaceBang blog, May 1, 2008. Spelling original.

[2] Commenter Terri, ibid.

[3] Commenter Judy Welles, ibid.

[4] Commenter Terri on “There’s Something About Mary,” PeaceBang blog, May 1, 2008.

[5] Commenter Doxy, ibid.

[6] Mary Oliver, American Primitive (Little, Brown & Company, New York: 1983), 82-83. See appendix A for complete poem.

[7] Mary Oliver, New And Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 120-122.

[8] Ibid, 94.

[9] Rev. Jen Crow, “This Wild And Precious Life,” Sermon given at First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY, July 16, 2006.

[10] Mary Oliver, Thirst (Beacon Press: Boston, 2006), 1.

[11] Mary Oliver, “Making The House Ready For the Lord,” Thirst (Boston, Beacon Press, 2006), 13.