Following a Calling: The unexpected road to semi-professional Unitarian Universalism

Photo of Thomas in a marron shirt and tie.Hi there. My name is Thomas Earthman and I run the I Am UU Facebook page, Twitter account, and this website. I make a small amount of money doing so, though a lot of what is raised goes into software fees, hosting costs, and other business expenses for the project.

I never wanted to be “self employed”. That wasn’t the goal, honestly. And I don’t really like it. Not a fan.

Ever since I was a young adult, maybe even a teen, what I wanted was to serve a community. I wanted to be a leader, sure, someone people counted on, but my goal was to be a servant, not a master. I thought maybe I would make a good pastor, if only I could still believe in the Bible the way I had been told to…

I had driven past the local UU church almost weekly as a kid and I swear that I cannot ever remember noticing it. It wasn’t until college that someone I met at the pagan student group invited me to church and I learned anything about Unitarian Universalism.

I loved their values and the sense that we were all better together, supporting each other *and* pooling resources to do bigger things than any of us could do alone. But, I only saw one job in the fellowship, that of the minister, and the person holding it told me (and the rest of the young adults) that it was foolish to become a UU minister.

The fellowship was too humanist and, as the young adult group broke up, my Sundays in church became less and less frequent until my life was turned upside down and I moved back to the town where I grew up to take care of my mother.

So, 10 years after I first stepped into a UU church, I finally met a DRE. I finally saw denominational interaction. I saw a bigger picture of Unitarian Universalism. I saw what I had been looking for. I saw a community, a whole movement, I could serve. I just had to figure out what I could do that they needed.

So it was that 10 years ago, I started trying to figure out how I could serve Unitarian Universalism and fulfill that longing that I had been carrying for 15 years. What I figured out was that, like me, lots of people have gone past a UU church hundreds of times and have no idea what goes on inside or how it’s different from the church across the street. What Unitarian Universalism seemed most in need of was visibility and advertisingwhat other churches (and advertising agencies) would call “Evangelism”.

See, I was having an easy time searching for Unitarian Universalist sermons and texts, but I was having a hard time finding things that were easy to share with newcomers and seekers. There wasn’t an abundance of UU material, which made it easy to find the good stuff-the academic sounding papers and full length homiliesbut hard to share with others. It was great for someone who was already convinced, but not so much for those looking for an entry point to liberal religion. I knew I could help change that.

Thus was the I Am UU project born. Originally, it was a Facebook page to post links to UUs in the news and good quotes I found while reading. I was trying to inspire proud UUs to talk more openly about their faith. The goal, though, was to learn the skills to get a job with a UU organization and become part of fulfilling a mission. Instead, what happened was that I learned that even many people who have been attending UU Sunday services for years didn’t know some of the things I was sharing; they hadn’t read up on polity or about our theology. I saw that there was a bigger need for even more sharable content in the form of graphics and catchy phrases. The I Am UU project grew, even as I applied for jobs from the congregational level all the way up to the UUA itself.

Now, my work here has led me to volunteering with the UUA on the national level. It has gotten me into a few pulpits and adult RE classrooms. I’ve been able to do some fairly cool things, but they are almost always one-off, or they are at my expense. I love my position on the General Assembly planning committee, for instance, but it is an added strain on my family for me to be out of town more often, both in terms of budget and time invested. I honestly love being on the team in an important role, though. I love that it is in front of all of Unitarian Universalism, but not about me.

And I want to restate that the I Am UU project was never meant to be about me. I felt better about it when thinking if it as a thing I worked for. Look at this website and you’ll see that my face rarely appears. It’s a little more visible on Facebook in that I feel like, at a certain point, the people in the community ought to be able to hold me accountable and, thus, needed to know who was behind the screen. I can assure that my goal was never about me becoming famous. I longed to be respected, supported, appreciated, but never famous.

And, 10 years later, rather than my work having become a launching point to congregational employment, I am still “self employed” as a content creator, a writer, and an artist who occasionally stands in a pulpit. I do work on a rather part-time basis for a congregation, though my work is almost entirely clerical and, if I am being honest, not very satisfying to that part of me that has always wanted to be more of a builder of and teacher to a community. Maybe that will change, though obviously not this spring.

If I am honest about it, most days I am dissatisfied with the I Am UU project because, while I am a UU, this ministry technically is not; to be UU means to be in covenant, and my ministry is not included in any covenant I am currently party to. I would rather be working for an organization than to be out here in the wilds. While I love the impact I am having, I would also gladly given up my independence as a freelance community minister to know that I was truly a part of the movement I serve and that it supported me and my family in continuing my work.

So, here we are, roughly 10 years after the founding of the Facebook page and about 7 since I started doing graphic design, when things started to snowball, and 4 and a half since I gave in and just started to ask the community that had grown up around my work to support me directly. Friends, it isn’t enough. It isn’t enough money, to be sure, but it also isn’t enough responsibilityaccountabilityto and for the people I am trying to serve. This isn’t where I wanted to be, and if I am being completely honest, the last few years have felt like settling. My heart is still all about sharing Unitarian Universalism with the world, but I don’t feel like I am enough a part of that movement many days. I feel like someone on the outside, cheering and ushering others in, but not really a part of it myself. I’ve clearly move on from being a member, but I’m not yet welcome as a professional. I’ve been laughed at for suggesting that the I Am UU project is professional, in fact, in spite of the fact that it makes money using exactly the same model as a lay-led congregation.

I don’t want to be rich, but I need my kids to have security. I don’t want to be adored, but I need to be respected. I don’t want to be the President, but I need to feel like I’m on the inside, at least.

And so it is that, ten years in, I have to really consider if it isn’t time to do something else. The road I am on does not seem to lead where I need to go. And I don’t know what comes next.

(Apologies for any typos or poorly worded sentences. I don’t want to over-edit this particular post and I am afraid that, if I read it again, I might not be able to hit publish)

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