I am Starr King: Interview with Betty Jeanne Rueters-Ward

Betty Jeanne Rueters-Ward

Graduate of SKSM, Class of 2008

Advising and Adjunct Faculty

Betty Jeanne Rueters-WardWhy did you decide to become a religious leader?

I’ve never known life without religious leadership as a core, family value. My parents and grandparents modeled active, faithful lay leadership for me. My multicultural upbringing spanned multiple religious traditions, but the commitment to religious community translated across political and linguistic “divides”.

As a child, I took to congregational life like a fish to water. My home congregation – First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington, Massachusetts – and other religious communities loved and empowered me into leadership.

As a youth, I had access to exceptional leadership development: for public speaking and preaching, group facilitation, teaching, governance, performing arts, and building diverse communities based on shared values. Many of the skills I draw on in my professional life, I was mentored into from an early age.

And yet, it was a great leap of faith to pursue my particular call to religious leadership as an adult. Ten years ago, I moved across the country to enroll in a pioneering new program, Starr King’s Master of Arts in Social Change. It was a risk, a dive into a great unknown, but ultimately a deep affirmation of who I am and always have been. To my German relatives, I’ve summarized seminary as such: “Dieser Weg ermöglichte mir, meine tiefste Menschlichkeit einzuleben.” Or in English: “This path enabled me to live into my deepest humanity.”

Why did you decide to study in the Master of Arts in Social Change program at Starr King?

I can’t imagine not having gone to seminary. Yet, before the MASC program I didn’t think theological school was relevant and accessible to me. I’d admired seminarians and clergy all my life, and had a call to progressive religious life and non-profit leadership, but I also felt strongly about being a multi-religious layperson, rather than ordained with a particular tradition. I’d imagined seminary was only for folks pursuing ordained parish ministry, which – thus far in my life, at least – I didn’t feel called to. The MASC program helped open the doors to seminary more widely, so that folks like me could find their way there.

My friend and fellow organizer, Elandria Williams, first told me of the MASC program. Elandria was mentoring me as an anti-racism trainer, and we were facilitating a challenging organizational dialogue. Thoroughly exhausted from our work, Elandria was suddenly energized as she described this new seminary program launching later that year. As I read the program description, I had a visceral reaction in my body – a powerful, physical sensation that told me this program might be what I was searching for.

I knew I wanted to devote my life to serving the common good, advancing justice, and developing liberatory leaders and communities. At the same time, I was devastated knowing that this calling – combined with some of my deep-rooted beliefs and behaviors – predisposed me to burnout and despair, which I’d already experienced several painful bouts of.

Someone once told me, “Seminary is where your needs meet the needs of the world.” By investing in my own wellbeing, building theological frameworks to root my justice efforts, and devoting academic and professional training to the challenges I struggled with most, I hoped to sustain my call for the long haul. My master’s project explored “Personal Sustainability and Mental Health in Social Movements”, and I sought to leverage my training not only for myself, but for other struggling social change leaders as well.

Where are you now in your spiritual and professional journey?

Professionally, I’ve served both religious and secular organizations, and apply my MASC training as an organizer, non-profit manager, writer, trainer, pastoral caregiver, fundraiser, and coach.

For example, I was the Interfaith Organizer for the historic No On Prop 8 (marriage equality) campaign. Since then, I’ve mobilized religious-secular coalitions for causes ranging from universal healthcare to racial and economic justice.

After my MASC internship with Catalyst Project, a national center for political education and movement building, I was invited to join the staff. Though Catalyst is a secular organization, they were eager to explore the spiritual facets of organizing, and I was encouraged to draw insights from my seminary training.

And as a lay minister, I’ve consulted with religious organizations in the U.S. and Europe, led worship and facilitated rites of passage, and for several years led the youth and young adult ministries at Shelter Rock, a large UU congregation known for social justice philanthropy.

Based in New York City, my work has an international scope. I also work as a consultant – currently, with the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, a national movement activating emerging leaders to advance the social sector. I’ve been inspired by YNPN since serving as a national fellow a few years ago. YNPN’s organizational culture embodies my theology of sustainable leadership for social change.

Spiritually, while I find my work aligned with my call, I struggle to step back from public/professional religious leadership and into a different role. Sometimes I’ve needed to just weep in the pews for the suffering of those I was organizing or ministering with. Other times, harmonizing to beautiful music has helped me hold all the beauty and brokenness I encounter in my work.

Recently, I’ve gotten to be a congregant at not just one, but two wonderful churches: I sing with the gospel choir at Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village, and my partner and I attend Grace Episcopal Church in Brooklyn. The clergy know I’m a religious professional, and support me in tending my own spiritual and pastoral needs, which is difficult when tending the needs of others. And both churches offer evening worship services – a gift for those who work Sunday mornings! I look forward to remaining a part-time congregant as I continue as a religious professional. Next year, I’ll take on a new role at All Souls Church in Manhattan, providing interim leadership for their advocacy, outreach, and young adult ministries.

Why did you decide to teach at Starr King?

Initially, my teaching was part of my graduate studies: with faculty mentorship, and alongside pedagogical study, I developed and co-led my first two courses. I wanted to build on my teaching background (I previously taught undergraduate sociology and leadership courses), and my experience in community organizing and multigenerational ministry fit well within the Starr King curriculum. In the years following graduation, I began teaching online courses and advising students.

What keeps me teaching at Starr King? More than anything, these three things:

  • The students: I learn from and am inspired by them each day, and can’t wait to see what shape their journeys as spiritual leaders take.
  • Starr King’s educational philosophy – student-centered, counter-oppressive, and multi-religious – and the dedicated folks who bring it to life.
  • The school’s commitment to theological education that is relevant and accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world.

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

There are many, but for some reason my 25th birthday stands out. It was my last year of seminary and my parents, from the other side of the country, ordered a cake from a Berkeley bakery. They wanted me to have folks to share it with, so they sent it to the school, which was in the middle of their fall board meeting.

Now, that year was a culmination of my student leadership beyond the classroom. I had a passion for educational administration, and sought out opportunities to work not only with fellow students, but faculty and staff. At Starr King, leadership opportunities abounded, and I found school leaders quite accessible to me as a student. And so when the school conducted a reaccreditation and strategic planning process, I was invited to contribute. It was one of many powerful, hands-on learning experiences I had while at Starr King – it’s truly a laboratory for leadership.

And so, I entered this board meeting with both presentation notes (I was delivering a reaccreditation update) and this birthday cake. Little did I know, my parents had gifted me a photo cake featuring a particularly ridiculous picture from my childhood. It was a silly, memorable moment: Folks had a good laugh and sugary treat within the busy meeting schedule, and I was reminded that I’d gotten to know so many wise, wonderful seminary stakeholders: students, faculty, staff and trustees whom I was honored to celebrate my birthday with.


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