April 30, 2015

I Am Starr King: Interview with The Rev. Jay Leach

Rev. Jay Leach

Member of the Board of Trustees

Graduate of SKSM, Class of 2003

Senior Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, NC

Staff heads shots (as file named)Why did you decide to become a religious leader?

I grew up in a family that was deeply committed to participation in the church. From a lay perspective, my parents were both very involved in religious community. It was a nurturing place for me; it shaped me dramatically in my childhood and adolescence. It gave opportunities to be involved and invested in things that mattered.

Being able to intern in a very large, powerful congregation that had a very strong progressive voice in its community—I think that is when religious leadership solidified for me, that I made a life commitment to it. Because I saw what religious community could do in two ways that were compelling. One, that it could change people’s lives. I saw that time and time again in the life of the congregation. And two, that it could change the world. It could change the larger context. And that was very compelling for me. And at the intersection of my childhood experiences and my early professional experiences, there was an abiding sense of call to religious leadership.

Why did you decide to study at Starr King?

Well, as you know, it is pretty hard to say in this movement that one has had a unique experience. But mine may be, because I was, for 16 or 17 years, an American Baptist minister in very progressive congregations—three different congregations. And toward the end of that time it was really clear to me that the Christian story was no longer the central religious story for me. It continues to be an important part of my religious landscape, but it could no longer be the central religious story.

So I started looking around for what I was going to do. I had met two Unitarian Universalists ministers. I didn’t really respect Unitarian Universalism very much. I did a lot of interfaith work. My interaction with Unitarian Universalists was not particular impressive. But I had met Bob Schailbly, a minister in Houston, who was a close colleague, and I had met Mark Belletini out in the Bay Area. And I started talking to Bob and Mark, and they helped me rethink what I knew about Unitarian Universalism from my experience. So it was then that I decided to transfer my ordination to Unitarian Universalism.

I was a minister of a congregation. I was deeply connected and committed both to that congregation and to the larger community. And I knew that I couldn’t with integrity go through the process of the transfer while continuing to be in that role.

I had for several years come out to the Graduate Theological Union summer session. And one of those years, I took a course at Starr King with Khoren Arisian on Humanism. And it was after that that I talked to Rebecca about coming to the school in a context in which I would spend a year doing the work of transferring my ordination. But I wanted to do that from within the school, rather than being kind of adjunct to the school. I wanted to do that from the center of the school as a student. And also, quite frankly, to have access to the University of California, Berkeley, because there was work that I wanted to do there. So I talked to her about actually applying to be a student, but only being a student for a year. She said, ‘You can apply, and if you get in we cannot make you stay.’

I came out thinking I was really only going to stay for a year. And the proverbial one thing led to another. I already had a Master of Divinity. I ended up staying, working in student recruitment my second year, teaching preaching, meeting my wife, and being a minister up in Napa. So a whole lot of things intervened, and in the process I found myself, surprisingly, earning a second M.Div., which was not the plan. But I was delighted I did that. It was a wonderful experience for me.

Why did you decide to serve Starr King on its Board of Trustees?

I was a part of the Presidential Search Committee, which was really a reconnection to the school. I agreed to do that because I thought, at the time I was invited, that Starr King had the opportunity to lead a conversation— not only in the Association, but, as importantly, in the multi-religious world. And I found that very compelling. And the stakes of who becomes president have a whole lot to do with the capacity to do that. So I was honored to be part of this. And I was delighted with the president that we found.

And then after that I was asked to come onto the Board. And I continue to feel both of those things. I continue to feel that Starr King can be, should be, needs to be a leader in the UUA, but, as importantly, in the multi-religious community beyond Unitarian Universalism. And if there are gifts that I have that I can contribute to help make that happen I want to offer them now. Because the stakes are so high on that right now in terms of the conversation, particularly about multi-religiosity, about the capacity to create spiritually deep people in the world. That is the conversation I am interested in. And it is happening here—it has been happening here for a long time—and I am pleased to get to be part of that conversation.

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

Well, there is no question that meeting my beloved partner is the most spiritually transforming thing that happened to me here. And we come from very different places, and we are very different people.

I think it says something about the school that it could be a container for a woman who was very involved in working with street kids in Los Angeles, who had not the first clue about Unitarian Universalism, and who had not much of an inclination to become a religious leader, but who saw in Starr King something that could help shape her desire to be an agent of change in the world. And at the same time, it could attract a guy who is deeply committed to religious leadership and deeply committed to a transfer of his ordination to Unitarian Universalism. And I think it says a lot about the school—that it could be the meeting place for two people like that.

So I will be forever grateful to Starr King because it brought us together. But I also want to lift up the fact that the school is a place that would attract both of us here and be important in both our developments as people and as religious leaders.


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