After 34 years with outspoken social and political activist Tom Goldsmith at its helm, the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City turns to a pastor and a contemplative educator trained at Harvard Divinity School to help them chart their course. to come up.
But as interim pastor, Reverend Ian White Maher will not replace Reverend Goldsmith, who retired from the pulpit in May. Instead, the Portsmouth, New Hampshire native has a two-year contract to help the nearly 100-year-old church of 300 members at 569 S. 1300 East contemplate both its congregational and civic missions before moving on. select a permanent senior pastor.
âI’m not just here as a consultant to make sure the church is healthy, even though that’s part of my job,â says Maher. âBut really, the reason I’m here is to help people believe they can fall in love with this life. . . to truly fall in love again despite all the heartache and grief we see.
Indeed, Maher – whose own activist credentials are hardly lacking, including advocacy for immigrant, LGBTQ, and racial rights as well as what he calls “multiple arrests for civil disobedience” – sees the inner and contemplative journey as along with the long history of lobbying for social justice, income equality and environmental protection.
“There are so many people today who feel completely disconnected from their spiritual life and organized religion,” Maher says, citing a 2014 Pew Research study showing that 23% of Americans identify as “no.” when asked about their religion – up from 16% in 2007. (Over the same period, the number of self-identified Christians has increased from 78% to 71%.
“It is [more than] one-fifth of the American population. You got all these people that’s not faithful to the church. And that doesn’t mean that they are [all] atheists; it just means that what used to work no longer works, âsays Maher. âI sincerely believe that the problems we face – the war, the refugee problems, the income inequality problems – are not really our problem. [real] problems. Our problems are greed, alienation and loneliness, and they are in fact spiritual problems.”
Maher will work closely with Assistant Church Minister Monica Dobbins, staff members and the Board of Trustees to “guide our congregation in defining who we are, what we value and who we want to become. next progressive religious community, âsays Sue Geary, who, along with Deborah Bieber, co-chairs the church’s transition team.
Maher’s previous experience – most recently as a pastor of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Ashby, Mass., As well as a devotional podcaster – will be key, Geary adds, in helping the Salt Lake City church ” take a critical look at our mission. and our practices and encourage our reshaping of our mission for the future.
Appointing an acting minister for two years is not an indecisive aberration, Bieber explains, but “is fully in line with best practice as defined by the Unitarian Universalist Association, especially for a congregation that has had a minister long-standing “.
âFor most of our congregation our only experience as Unitarian Universalists has been [under Goldsmithâs tenure]. she said, “Reverend Maher brings a different style of ministryâ¦ so we will see a contrast that will help us define the qualities and style we might look for in our next called minister.”
The new acting minister is more than a deep thinker on spiritual and civic issues. Maher, although reluctant in matters of family and private relationships, is nonetheless characterized as a decidedly “relational” person.
Passionate about the outdoors, he has hiked disparate places including Spain and Wyoming, and kayaked down the Ganges in India. He’s no stranger to the powder snow of the Wasatch Front, having snowboarded the area ski resorts on several occasions over the years.
“Why Utah? In fact, it was my first choice âas an interim cabinet candidate, says Maher. “I like it a lot here; I love the scenery.
The self-proclaimed “12th Generation Yankee” recognizes that the Hive State, with its predominantly Latter-day Saint heritage, requires some cultural adjustment – but far less than a son of the Granite State could. ‘wait there.
“It was so hilarious when I went out to watch this [orthodox Colonial Revival style] Chapel. Looks like it has just been ripped from the northeast, âlaughs Maher. The Utahns, like the stereotypical Yankees of their home state, are also “humble, hard-working people without, you know, a lot of [pretentious] shine. “
So what more could a Unitarian Universalist cleric offer his fellow Utah believers as they reflect on their fate?
Besides his love for the Adidas sneakers which he prefers for both leisure and ministerial tasks, how about some really good vegan food, served at small gatherings around his dining table?
âI’m a vegan and love vegan food,â Maher says. “I love to throw parties and I love to introduce people to some really good vegan food.”
But even as he concocts his specialty – a dish of braised white beans and fennel with grape tomatoes and fresh oregano – what he serves to his guests is also a kind of ministry.
Whether it’s throwing ingredients into a hot, well-oiled pot for friends, or reflecting on the nature of the divine, what is sacred, and how spirituality plays out in a myriad of religious traditions. , Maher believes that everything is relationship – and therefore can be delicious, uplifting and transcendent, all at the same time.
âFor me,â he says, âit all depends on how I can present people with a great way of life.