Betty Jeanne Rueters-Ward is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist and most recently served as full-time Youth and Young Adult Program Coordinator at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Shelter Rock. She is a graduate of the Master of Arts in Social Change at Starr King. As a Youth Programs Specialist for the Unitarian Universalist Association, Betty Jeanne coordinated international conferences, trainings and social justice initiatives. She has also served as a youth advisor at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, as a youth mentor for OutLoud Radio, and with youth clients at Carroll Center for the Blind.
I made the decision to apply to Starr King School for the Ministry on a wintery January night in Boston, Mass. With the encouragement and passion of a friend and colleague, I first learned about the Masters of Arts in Religious Leadership for Social Change (MASC) program, which would begin at the school in fall 2005. I was shocked, amazed and thrilled to discover an opportunity that so matched my own visions and answered such deep needs I hadn’t even realized.
Though a lifelong active Unitarian Universalist, throughout my life I imagined that seminary was only for people significantly older than I; for those with well-established and defined career paths; for those with more quantitative life experience. I imagined “ministry,” whether parish, community or public, to be limited to clergy. It was inspiring to read about a graduate program that provided both professional development and theological education for lay religious and secular leaders for social change.
I had long been a community leader, whether on a campus, in an religious organization, or for a political campaign. My passion and talents were informed, in part, by my Unitarian Universalist upbringing, the intergenerational community I belonged to, the leadership development opportunities I had access to, the commitments to anti-oppression and social justice. As a college student, I became active in Catholic and interfaith campus communities, which helped crystallize my understanding of putting faith into action. My experiences traveling and studying abroad heavily informed my commitment to active citizenship. Yet, by my early 20s, I felt burned out, discouraged, heartbroken–in short, unsustainable–as an activist, organizer and educator. I lacked adequate theological grounding for my political values. I deprioritized spiritual practice and self-care. My life was out of balance, and I risked it staying that way.
Upon visiting Starr King for the first time, I became aware of the holistic commitment Starr King has made to Educate to Counter Oppressions and Create Just and Sustainable Communities (ECO). I almost wept with gratitude. Starr Kings structure and educational philosophy truly embodied my faith. I was lucky that my life circumstances at the time allowed me to move across the country and answer a call to Starr King; neither of which I had felt capable of doing until hearing of the MASC program.
Now having completed my first year of study, I can say that what drew me to Starr King is also what hassustained and nurtured my faith in Unitarian Universalism and myself. As a student representative and teaching assistant, I engage intimately with the schools living commitment to counter oppressions. As a member of the Starr King community, I am spiritually, emotionally and professionally challenged and supported. The independence and flexibility of my degree program allows me to draw on the resources of the Graduate Theological Union and UC Berkeley to help shape and enrich my academic experience. While my post-seminary plans are still in discernment, I know Starr King will help prepare me to be more sustainable and effective in many vocational capacities: counselor, educator, community organizer, non-profit manager, religious professional, etc.
The way that I embody my degree through coursework, extracurricular activities and volunteer commitments continues to evolve. My courses thus far have included Queer Thea/ologies and Beyond, Policy Implementation and Organizational Change, Race and Religion in U.S. History, and Introduction to Liberal Religious Education. I serve as a teaching assistant for a seminar for first-year students, a student representative on the ECO Steering Committee, and in the spring will be co-teaching a course on comprehensive sexuality education. I remain actively involved in the Unitarian Universalist denomination as a trainer, consultant, and committee member in the young adult movement.
Having entered as a student in the newly-established MASC program, and currently not pursuing religious ordination, I both worry and wonder about how to explain the academic path I’ve chosen. There are none walking this path ahead of me; this reality comes with everything from excitement to trepidation. At the same time, I am supported by the mentorship of many staff and faculty, as well as the companionship of fellow students. I am particularly in awe of the diverse group of secular and religious leaders who, for reasons that vary widely, are my peers in the MASC program.
As a young adult, I both struggle with–and am inspired by–the weight and intensity given to the personal development and self-reflection that is both called of me so early in my life, as well as deeply nurtured, at Starr King. Among peers who are also transitioning post-adolescence, I find it challenging to explain why I’ve chosen to study at a seminary. At the same time, I am moved and held by an intergenerational group of emerging and longtime religious leaders with whom I share the seminary experience.