July 18, 2017

I Am Starr King: Interview with the Rev. Mary Foran

The Rev. Mary Foran

Graduate of Starr King (2010)


Why did you decide to become a religious leader?

It’s a great question and of course there’s a long answer and a short answer, so I’ll try to stick on the shorter side. I became a Unitarian Universalist in the late ‘80s and loved being a very active lay leader with the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. At one point, one of the ministers said to me, “Are you going to go to Starr King like everyone else?” and I said “Absolutely not!” I had not the least desire to go into professional ministry. And then gradually that changed.

I think the change was connected to being a public servant. I have always worked in nonprofits and government settings. Before ministry I was in public health – which is a very mission-driven profession about helping to improve living conditions, life chances, and better health for people. Gradually, I felt that being a bureaucrat in a public health system was too limiting for the kinds of relationships I wanted to have with people. I was shifting from wanting to be a manager to wanting to have more pastoral relationships. And that is why I went into ministry.

Very particularly, the change came as the result of awakening to what I now can easily call white supremacy in myself and in my culture. I didn’t use to feel so ready to use those words because they felt alien to who I thought I was, but as I became more and more invested in the anti-racism work of Unitarian Universalism, I realized that I wanted to do that work on a very personal level and that doing it as a minister was more conducive to that goal than continuing as a public agency leader.

Why did you decide to study at Starr King?

It was two things. There was practical reason and a more philosophical one. The philosophical one was the learning/teaching methodology of being student-directed and the deep commitment to educating to counter oppression. When I started in 2004, it was the first year that there was a required ECO class and I was thrilled to discover that Educating to Counter Oppression was an essential focus for the school – the whole school.

And the other thing was really practical. I am completely tied to the Bay Area due to my family connections and commitments. So, it would have been very difficult to go anywhere else. I was very happy when I was accepted to Starr King.

Can you tell us a little bit about your work outside of Starr King, and how your Master of Divinity degree prepared you for that?

I mentioned that I’m completely tied to the Bay Area, so after I graduated I needed to find some ministerial work that could keep me here. I was privileged to provide about five months of sabbatical coverage for Rev. Lindi Ramsden who was then the Executive Director of what was then called the UU Legislative Ministry of California. Being at UULMCA allowed me to keep doing what I knew how to do from my public-sector work of administration, organizing, supervising staff, committees, programs, and fundraising, with the added blessing of bringing a ministerial perspective to it all. Soon months after I concluded my time with UULMCA, I was hired to work quarter-time by the Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma. After the first year, they increased me to half-time. I served in Petaluma for five years.

I learned a tremendous amount as a parish minister. One of my standard sentences these days is that the school gives us the “book learning,” and the relationships we form as ministers help us to deepen that learning. I don’t think that there were any huge surprises entering into the world of parish ministry. I felt well prepared around polity, clarity about my own theology, how to be in relationship with others with different theologies, and the importance of integrating worship and social justice, religious education and community building, bringing all of the pieces together. My biggest areas for deepening included the process of collaborating with lay leaders in creating worship, finding my preaching voice, and always challenging myself and the congregation to bring the anti-racism countering oppression lens to everything we did.

And yet, school can never fully prepare you for the reality of being in relationship with a congregation.  For me, as a new minister and for the congregation contemplating the advantages and disadvantages of having a minister, we were striving to create something that had never been before. It was a time of creative tension, challenge and great love.  Through working with the people of UU Petaluma I found the next step in my ministry journey: offering Spiritual Direction to anyone seeking greater wisdom for the life they are living right now. I think Spiritual Direction can be especially useful in this time of upheaval and deepening divisions in the United States. I see it as an essential support for everyone who wants to sustain their social justice activism.

What is your most meaningful or memorable experience at Starr King?

There are two. The first one was the first day ritual of meeting outside, walking over the threshold, being welcomed into the community, and being given the key. That was such a big thing, to be given a key and to be given the sand dollar- which I have still on my altar. I started in 2004, which was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the school – that made gathering for our class picture especially delightful. I have that picture etched in my mind – it was a watershed day for me.

As we were walking in, I was the second to last person in line. The person behind me was crying just like I was. We connected over our tears and have become wonderful friends and colleagues. It was like that experience of meeting your best friend in kindergarten. It seems like you are bonding for life. That’s what happened to us.

The importance of the ritual – the loving way that we were embraced and invited into the community – is one of my most meaningful experiences. The second is the importance of the friends I made at Starr King. My landscape of friends and colleagues would be much diminished if I hadn’t been at Starr King.

As a financial supporter of the school, what inspires you to give to Starr King?

I learned many many years ago in my first work, advocating for women’s health, the importance of contributing my own money to that effort. I learned that those of us who are involved as workers or volunteers also need to be involved financially. I learned that Kim Klein, whom I know at times has been adjunct faculty at Starr King. She’s a PSR grad who went into grassroots fundraising for social change. We can be shaped by people in ways that last throughout our lives. Kim taught me from a religious and moral perspective that we must give our money to the things we care about. After learning that lesson I took on the inclination to be a donor. Being a donor can mean giving $25 a year, $125 a year, or $1,025 a year- depending on what our resources are.

As soon as graduation happened or maybe even before that, I became a contributor to Starr King. Then, a year or two ago, at the annual Graduate Association gathering, Rev. Dan King spoke about the importance of increasing graduate giving. He followed up with a letter to alums. In the past, I would contribute to Starr King in response to a particular call to make a gift, but his letter and his speaking moved me from writing an occasional check to becoming a monthly donor. I had the resources to be able to make that shift. And so I did! That’s an example of how we teach each other and encourage each other to go beyond what we might think we can do or even want to do. And you know, that’s ministry. Thank you Starr King.


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