Friday, November 7, 2008
The Reverend Diane Miller settles in to the FRS
One of the first things you notice about Diane Miller, the new settled minister at the First Religious Society (FRS), is her voice. It is low, clear and lovely. It is a musical voice, one that
is both easy and stimulating to listen to. A voice, in short, that is perfectly suited to what the Reverend Miller does: both public and private speaking. She speaks frankly and deliberately, listening carefully to questions and considering her answers before she speaks, and gradually, in that calm and appealing voice, the story of her journey to Carlisle unfolds.
“It felt like a classic call,” she says. “I was a junior in college, wondering what I would do when I graduated, when I had a series of dreams. In these dreams, a minister appeared, and the minister was female. This shocked me. In 1970, there were very few female ministers. Even in the theologically liberal UU [Unitarian Universalist] Church, only 2% of ministers were women at that time. I knew the minister in those dreams; somehow I knew that minister was me. I looked into it, and, well, here I am. Ministry became a lifelong career.”
The path to the ministry
After graduating from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, Miller went on to Harvard Divinity School and later received an honorary doctorate from Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California. At Harvard, she says, she began as a sort of “student minister,” serving as a half-time student and also a minister in Lexington before her ordination. Upon ordination, she “went urban” for five years, serving a parish in San Francisco, California, before returning to Belmont, Massachusetts, where she remained for the next 12 years.
While living and working in Belmont, Miller became the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA) Director of Ministry, overseeing ministerial candidates from what “we refer to in the UUA as ‘the call to the grave.’” For the next eight years, she advised new ministers through their theological training and oversaw placements in churches, retirements of older clergy and so on through all stages of theological careers up to “arranging for services and flowers to be sent upon their deaths.” During that time, she was also raising two sons.
Interim ministry through church and personal transitions
When Miller returned to parish ministry, she entered as an interim minister. Interim ministry brings with it a particular set of challenges and demands a specific set of skills. Interim ministers are “on the clock,” so to speak, with a short-term commitment. They come into parishes that have lost their settled ministers for any number of reasons, and they help those parishes over the transition between the minister who has departed and the new one who is called.
Sometimes the churches are in the middle of an undertaking: one such parish, Miller says, was in the midst of a building project. More often, the congregations are in a state of internal upheaval, often divided over their previous minister or over the process of calling a new one. It is the interim’s job, Miller says, “to heal and guide the congregation” back to unity. “A congregation is a mini-culture, like a family,” she says. “What is that Tolstoy phrase? ‘Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’” The interim minister has to engage in congregation-specific social and religious triage, and then work intensively on healing breaches in the church. Miller says that the way into this process is preaching, followed by conversations, breaking people into small groups, resetting norms for behavior and gradually effecting changes in culture and practices. “You have to help people realize that even though there are troubles, the church goes on. You often have to help people re-envision their central values. The outsider’s perspective of the interim minister is often an advantage in getting a church back on track.”
Family and community lessons
While she was gaining experience as an interim minister in parishes from Rhode Island to Colorado and California, Miller was going through a transition of her own, as she became a divorced mother of two. Her sons were growing up fast, and both chose to go into military service. Her older son has been in the Air Force for six years and, now leaving the service, is interested in construction management. Her younger son, still in the Navy, has recently completed intensive training as a rescue swimmer.
Miller says that at first, she “didn’t understand the demands made by the military on its people. The military does not lead us into conflict; they are those who have to execute the conflict [dictated by civilians]. Those in the service (and my sons and I learned to joke about us all being ‘in the service’ in our own ways), are highly trained and carry a great deal of responsibility for each other. A great deal of emphasis is placed on the details of training, so that the maximum number of people can be safe. There are a lot of commonalities between what I do and what my sons do. My sons are idealistic; they want to make a better world. They want to protect people.” As she said in a sermon delivered in Carlisle in May, she learned to “know that it is possible to serve in the military and to love peace. I know it is possible to love your children and support their choices.”
Miller went on to other parishes and other tests, including a run for president of the UUA. The FRS search committee, she says, “was brave and imaginative,” declaring that it would call whichever candidate was unsuccessful in the election for the presidency of the UUA. Miller lost the election, and won the post of interim minister at the FRS.
Losing the election, was, of course, a difficult hurdle for her. She coped with the loss by acknowledging and paying attention to her disappointment, and then working toward “taking a long view. It is important in every election,” she expands, “not to gloat in victory or despair in loss,” advice that seems especially pertinent in the week of our national election. “Our political system does allow for good ideas to continue.”
Thus, in 2001, Miller became an interim minister in Carlisle, serving here at the FRS for two years. Early in her term, she had the dubious honor and enormous challenge of delivering the Sunday sermon that followed the disastrous events of September 11 of that year. In that sermon, she described the national grief as “personal and public.” Invoking past responders to world crises like “Clara Barton, a 19th-century Universalist,” she urged the people of Carlisle to “Look to the helpers, those who will reconstitute the world.” She called for a “new era of connectedness,” and exhorted the congregation not to “confuse love of country with hatred of others.”
Finally settling in Carlisle
After Miller completed her interim term, the FRS would continue its quest for a settled minister for several more years, through a settled minister as well as another interim minister. In the meantime, she threw her hat into the ring as a candidate for the settled ministry here. In late spring of this year, the FRS called her to the church.
FRS – small but active
“Although Carlisle,” she continues, “is the smallest church I have worked in, it is one of the most active. This congregation is [marked by its lack of] self-involvement, and by its consciousness of its role in the community as a whole. Despite being a native Midwesterner [born and brought up in Minnesota], I have spent most of my adult life in New England. Carlisle feels like home to me, and it gives my sons a feeling of home to come back to. I love the seasons here.”
“And,” she says, “people in Carlisle are very smart. The base of knowledge here is impressive. So many people have practical, useful, hands-on knowledge. They know about the natural world, they make and create things, they grow food, they run businesses. Times now are challenging and different than those I have experienced before, with this fiscal crisis. I get the sense that this congregation has lived through that sort of serious challenge and has concentrated on being a source of renewal, connection, support and community in tough times.”
A woman of rich experience and serious commitment, Miller seems to have her finger on the pulse of the FRS and the wider Carlisle community. With a wide smile, she adds, “The other thing is that this community has so much fun together right here. You go into Union Hall, that old room with the uneven floorboards, and people are dancing, rehearsing musicals, having meals, making crafts, doing yoga. You know, without speaking for them or for how they see themselves, I think the FRS has the chance to be the heart and vital center of this community.”
Certainly Reverend Miller can be the clear and captivating voice of that vision for her congregation. This past Sunday, Diane Miller was formally installed as the settled minister for the FRS. Welcome home to Carlisle, Diane. ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito