After 34 years with outspoken social and political activist Tom Goldsmith at its helm, Salt Lake City’s First Unitarian Church is turning to a contemplative Harvard Divinity School-educated minister and educator to help chart its future.
But as interim pastor, the Rev. Ian White Maher will not be replacing the Rev. Goldsmith, who retired from the pulpit in May. Instead, the Portsmouth, N.H., native has a two-year contract to help the nearly century-old, 300-member church at 569 S. 1300 East contemplate both its congregational and civic missions before selecting a permanent senior pastor.
“I’m not just here as some sort of consultant to make sure the church is healthy, though that is part of my job,” Maher explains. “But truly why I am here is to help people believe that they can fall in love with this life. . . to truly fall in love again despite all the grief and heartache we see.”
Indeed, Maher — whose own activist credentials are hardly lacking, including advocacy for immigrant, LGBTQ and racial rights as well as what he characterizes as “multiple civil disobedience arrests” — sees the inward, contemplative journey as going hand in hand with First Unitarian’s long history of pushing for social justice, income equality and environmental protections.
“There are so many people today who feel completely disconnected from their spiritual lives, and from organized religion,” Maher says, citing a 2014 Pew Research study showing 23% of Americans identify as “nones” when asked their religion — up from 16% in 2007. (During the same time period, self-identified Christians dipped to 71% from 78%).
“That’s [more than] a fifth of the American population. You have all these people that are ‘unchurched.’ And that doesn’t mean they are [all] atheists; it just means that what had been working is no longer working,” Maher contends. “I honestly, truly believe that the problems that we are facing — war, refugee problems, income inequality problems — are not actually our [real] problems. Our problems are greed, alienation and loneliness, and these are actually spiritual problems.”
Maher will work closely with the church’s assistant minister, Monica Dobbins, staffers and the board in “guiding our congregation in defining who we are, what we value, and who we want to become next as a progressive religious community,” says Sue Geary, who, along with Deborah Bieber, co-chairs the church’s transition team.
Maher’s previous experience — most recently as pastor of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist church in Ashby, Mass., as well as a devotional podcaster — will be key, Geary adds, to helping the Salt Lake City church take “a critical look at our mission and our practices and encourage our redesign of our mission for the future.”
Appointment of a two-year interim minister is not an indecisive aberration, Bieber explains, but “is perfectly in keeping with best practice as defined by the Unitarian Universalist Association, particularly for a congregation that has had a long-tenured minister.”
“For most of our congregation, our only experience as Unitarian Universalists has been [under Goldsmith’s tenure].” she says. “Reverend Maher brings a different style of ministry … so we will see a contrast that will help us to define what qualities and style we might seek in our next called minister.”
The new interim minister is more than a deep thinker on matters spiritual and civic. Maher, while reticent when it comes to matters of family and private relationships, nonetheless characterizes himself as a resolutely “relational” person.
An avid outdoorsman, he has hiked in disparate locales, including Spain and Wyoming, and kayaked down the Ganges River in India. He is no stranger to the Wasatch Front’s powder snow, having snowboarded at area ski resorts repeatedly through the years.
“Why Utah? Actually, it was my first choice” as an interim ministerial applicant, Maher says. “I love it here; I love the landscape.”
The self-described “12th-generation Yankee” acknowledges the Beehive State, with its predominantly Latter-day Saint heritage, does require some cultural adjustment — but far less than a son of the Granite State might expect.
“It was so hilarious when I came out to look at this [orthodox Colonial Revival style] chapel. It looks like it was just ripped out of the Northeast,” Maher laughs. Utahns, like the stereotypical Yankees of his home state, also “are hardworking, humble people without, you know, a lot of [pretentious] flash.”
So, what more could a Unitarian Universalist cleric offer to his Utah co-religionists as they ponder their destiny?
In addition to his love for the Adidas athletic footwear he prefers for both leisure and ministerial duties, how about some really good vegan food, served in small get-togethers around his dining table?
“I am a vegan, and I love vegan cooking,” Maher says. “I love having parties and love introducing people to really good vegan food.”
But even when whipping up his specialty — a dish of braised white beans and fennel with grape tomatoes and fresh oregano – what he is serving up to his guests is also a sort of ministry.
Whether it’s tossing ingredients in a hot, well-oiled saucepan for friends, or musing about nature of the divine, what is sacred, and how spirituality plays out across myriad faith traditions, Maher believes it’s all relational — and thus can be delicious, edifying and transcendent, all at the same time.
“To me,” he says, “it’s all about how I can be introducing people to a really good way of living.”