I Am Starr King: Interview with Abbey Tennis

Abbey Tennis

Interim Advancement Director

Graduate of Starr King, Class of 2014

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What inspired you to become a religious leader?

A few things … above anything else, I simply feel called to religious leadership. That inspiration is outside the realm of logic, outside of any “pro/con” list about what career to choose… but when the call wouldn’t go away, I had to answer it.

Religious leadership allows me to use every single part of me in my work—my heart, mind, body, and soul— as well as all of my skills. It allows me to approach the struggle for justice with a goal of paradigm shift rather than just advocacy for incremental societal change, while also allowing me the opportunity to tangibly make the world better here and now. My previous career was in state environmental policy, where change happens very slowly and each person’s ability to influence change is very limited. Justice work as a religious leader is more in alignment with my heart.

Religious leadership is also a place where I can be both creative and strategic, an artist and a leader. As a religious leader, my love for the world is the primary qualification for my job.

Why did you decide to study at Starr King?

I had been a lay leader in Unitarian Universalism at the national level for about fifteen years before I started seminary, including serving on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee – the committee that credentials new ministers. I had seen hundreds of new ministers come into Unitarian Universalism from all different theological education backgrounds, so I thought deeply about the environment that would help me become the best minister I could be. And there are a couple of things about Starr King that just don’t exist anywhere else.

One is that a Starr King education is heart-centered, spirit-centered, and student-centered. At Starr King, your education is created around who you are – what your strengths, gifts, and passions are, and also what your areas of needed growth are. It starts with you, rather than with a pre-created standard curriculum, and challenges you to create an educational program completely tailored to making you the best religious leader you can possibly be. Starr King offered the most holistic rigor of any theological school I looked at.

It was also really important to me that Starr King’s counter oppressive work is so mature, so integrated throughout the entire school and educational model. It is part of everything we do. I have been dedicated to, and leading, multi-racial anti-oppressive work for many years, and wanted to be in a place that challenged me and took me to the next level. I wanted to go to a school that fully embodied a counter-oppressive educational mission, rather than a school that only gave it lip service.

I felt clear that I could get a strong intellectual education at a number of different schools, but Starr King was the school that went further – I knew Starr King would best open my heart and soul, and push me furthest as a leader and justice-maker.

What has been your most memorable or meaningful experience at Starr King?

There are so many! Well, in my last year as a student (I now serve in an interim capacity on the staff here), which was also Rebecca Parker’s last year as President, Rebecca and I developed a series of worship services that continue to mean a great deal to me. For years, Starr King had been in the process of shifting its educational model from a classic “full-time, on campus, in person, fall/spring semester” format to the multi-modal educational model we have now. In addition to the students who continue in the classic format, we have students who live all over the country and the world, and many are only together in person in our intensive class periods in August and January. We knew that it was important to find better ways to build strong community and ritual life together when our widely dispersed student population was together in person.

So Rebecca and I sat down and created series of Wednesday night Vespers services for the month of January that would be contemplative, beautiful, musical, and meaningful for when the long-distance community was gathered. We followed those services with a simple community meal. Watching the way the students, staff, and faculty came together for deeply sacred community time on those Wednesday nights was incredibly meaningful for me. Wednesday nights became a time when their relationships with each other, with the Holy, and with their vocational formation deepened and became more grounded. Working with Rebecca to leave this legacy for the next generation of students, staff, and faculty at the school felt important in a time of great transition here. And seeing again the power of a simple meal and a beautiful worship service to build resilient and loving community renewed my faith that religious leadership can transform and heal our world.

How would you say Starr King has fostered religious leadership and how will the school continue to do so?

Within Unitarian Universalism, Starr King has fostered decades of incredible religious leadership. Many of our graduates are considered thought leaders or creative front-runners of the faith. A huge percentage of the leaders of our largest UU congregations are Starr King grads. A huge percentage of the leadership of the Unitarian Universalist Association and other UU organizations are Starr King grads. And that doesn’t even begin to touch the impact of the amazing work our multi-religious grads are doing. We are everywhere! The lives touched by Starr King grads, and the movements for justice fueled by Starr King grads, are incalculable. We share an experience of this small and unusual school that for some reason opened our hearts and offered us something very unique, something that we knew we could not get anywhere else. We as graduates, both UU and non-UU alike, are a creative group of people, deeply spiritual, and committed to justice and to pushing the boundaries of love and inclusion. I am so inspired by my fellow alums.

And how will we continue to make this kind of impact on the world? I am really enthusiastic about Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt’s presidency. She brings a fresh and innovative energy to the school – something both so new and also so aligned with our important long-term mission. The students who are beginning to work with her, as well as the staff and faculty, just feel so joyful and open. The halls of the school are filled with laughter, music, and passionate debate. I’ve seen a new level of student engagement this year – students speaking directly and compassionately with one another, and the whole community engaging in serious and honest discussion of the most important issues in our lives and ministries. I have great hopes for this next chapter at Starr King!

 

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