Rev. Dr. Michael Tino, MDiv '07, serves in the Lead Ministry Team of the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF). They shared their career path, CLF's history and ministry (especially the prison ministry), and their hope for the future of Unitarian Universalism and Meadville Lombard's role in it.
I started out as a scientist. My first path through graduate school was in cell biology. I was introduced to Unitarian Universalism during that time. I could tell you the whole long story, but the shorter version is that I found a religious home in Unitarian Universalism that I didn't think existed before — one that embraced all of who I was as a young queer person with not particularly orthodox religious beliefs and wonderings. It was wonderful to find that sort of religious community.
What I wasn't prepared for was that I would end up working with youths who would help me find a call to ministry. I was working with teenagers at the Southeast Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (SUUSI), creating a community there that held them in love, kept them safe, and let them be exactly who they were for a week, with no expectations that they would be something other than exactly who they were. I watched these young folks transform in a week. Every year, it was a different group of young people and a different transformation. That radical love, that understanding that there were boundaries to our community, that it wasn't “you could be and do anything” because we definitely needed to keep them safe together, but that those boundaries were there to allow them to express themselves and to be themselves in a way that they were not allowed to do in school through the year — it was powerful. Most of them were high school students and were from different parts of the South. I lived in Durham, North Carolina at the time.
After a couple of years working with these teenagers, it dawned on me that ministers, if they wanted to, got to create that sort of community for people of all ages all year long. They got to create an institution that functioned in that way, that had boundaries that kept people safe in community but allowed them to be exactly who they were and to grow and to change and be loved. That was profoundly countercultural to the messages of our entire society, and it occurred to me that's what I was meant to be doing. Along the way, I finished a Ph.D. in cell biology and began working at the local congregation in Durham, North Carolina, where I was a member. I was really pleased to have mentors there who affirmed my call to ministry and gave me ways that I could grow into it.
I went to Meadville Lombard. Actually, I got a job at UUA headquarters while I was studying at Meadville, so my seminary education was parallel with my development as a religious professional. I was the Director of Young Adult and Campus Ministry at UUA headquarters. I finished seminary and was welcomed into Ministerial Fellowship and pursued my call to serve a congregation. I have served the congregation I was called to in 2007 for the last 15 years. This is actually my last spring with them, so I'm leaving after 15 years. It's been a wonderful transformative ministry. All ministries have a lifespan. All ministries get to a point where either the congregation or the minister is not growing and developing and transforming the way they should. At that point, I think the minister's job is to leave well. I reached a stuck place and realized that it was time for me to move on, and we're doing our best to end well and enjoy one another and celebrate the things we've done for 15 years.
Along the way, I started volunteering with the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF), which is our largest UU congregation. It is a congregation without borders or walls or a physical location. It reaches all around the world and includes over 1500 incarcerated Unitarian Universalist members in our membership. I started volunteering as a co-host of their weekly talk show we call Voices of Unitarian Universalism, which shortens to VUU.
When Rev. Meg Riley announced her departure from her role as Minister of the CLF, CLF decided to open up their search to proposals for teams doing ministry together. I approached Aisha Hauser and Christina Rivera, with whom I worked on The VUU as a volunteer. They were the people I was most excited to be a team with, and I thought our theologies and our vision of Unitarian Universalism as a liberatory force in the world would match well with one another, and so we applied as a team and were called as co-ministers of the CLF. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to be on a collaborative ministry team with people with very different skills and gifts that I have. For 15 years, I've served a small congregation, and the only other staff person that I interact with on a regular basis is our half-time religious educator. We have no administrator, no music director, so I've gone from one-and-a-half staff people essentially to the largest congregation in our association, and it's just a wonderful, joy-filled, care-filled collaboration.
Rev. Tino, Christina Rivera, and Aisha Hauser: the Lead Ministry Team of the CLF.
This was 1999 and I was working at a local congregation in Durham, and I had visited Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley when I was out that way for a cell biology conference and liked them a lot. What I needed at that point in my life was a Unitarian Universalist seminary, so that narrowed it down to two. I wanted a seminary where I had the flexibility to grow into my religious leadership in the ways that I needed to.
I was attracted to the idea that I did not have to move. At that point, Meadville Lombard had what was then called the Modified Residency Program. It was a program originally designed for religious educators. That year was the year that ML expanded the Modified Residency Program to all tracks of ministry, all kinds of ministers, but the premise behind it was that people were working in jobs as religious professionals where they could do the practice of ministry and reflection as we were learning. We could put the things we were learning in seminary to practice in our religious-professional lives. That's the way it worked with religious educators. Since I had a job as a religious professional, it was a natural fit. At the time, ML's Modified Residency Program was the only program that worked like that. Today, there are lots of options, and that low-residency program is ML's curriculum now. It was kind of an add-on to the school curriculum in 1999. Also, the senior minister I worked for and with was the Rev. Dr. Arvid Straube, who was an ML alum, and who thought that it would be a good match for me intellectually and spiritually as well and recommended the school, regardless of the program.
What I loved about my experience at Meadville Lombard is that I never had to wonder, "How does this thing that I'm learning live in ministry? How does this thing that I'm learning get put into practice? Is this just an intellectual exercise, or is it actually related to the work of ministry?" Because I learned it and practiced it at the same time. I got to integrate that learning into my jobs, first as the Coordinator of Shared Ministry (basically the membership director) at the Eno River UU Fellowship, and then as the Director of Young Adult and Campus Ministry at UUA Headquarters. I was constantly engaged in this reflection process of, “I just took liberal religious ethics. Where do I see this at work in the job that I'm doing? I just took the religious education curriculum. Where do I see this at work in the ministry that I'm doing right now?” It was this integrated learning that I really loved. As you mentioned, I had been in classrooms a lot, and we didn't have that. Even in cell biology, we didn't have that level of integration all the time. We would learn about this and such about nucleic acids, and if you didn't do that work in your research, it was intellectual and theoretical. It wasn't a live practice of, "Oh, this is how things work with the nucleic acid."
Church of the Larger Fellowship began about 80 years ago. At the time, it was an office of the UUA that was tasked with mostly serving families of American GIs stationed overseas, so it became a church by mail for Americans living around the world — ex-pats and military families, mostly. It grew by being able to serve isolated UUs everywhere; people who lived far away, people who lived in rural areas, and people who were in tiny congregations very far from other congregations. They would use CLF's resources to help make their congregations happen, to lead worship with, and so the staff in Boston primarily would create materials and send them out by mail to people. There would be a packet once a month. That's the way CLF started out. Then they began doing courses by mail and other ministries, all done by snail mail because that was the technology that existed in the '40s and '50s.
That's the way it went for several decades, as you might imagine, because it wasn't until really the advent of email that other possibilities emerged. Of course, at first, not everyone had access to email, but we had lists and were able to have real-time conversations and connections with one another and that became a beautiful thing. With the internet came a possibility of streaming videos and other more visual and auditory ways of interacting with the congregation. But for the most part, it was still the staff creating materials and sending them out to the congregation, either electronically or by mail.
It really wasn't until the age of social media that CLF started engaging in online community building. Our efforts in that area have had sort of fits and starts over the years. One of our visions as the Lead Ministry Team is really to invest heavily in the community-building that happens online. We're actually moving to new technology as we speak called Mighty Networks, which is a private social media channel that will allow us to have more circles of support and covenant groups and classes and interest groups and will allow our members to take more leadership in those things rather than having everything be done by the staff. We're super excited about this.
CLF has done online worship for, I think it's now 12 years. That online worship has taken various, different forms. There was live-streaming for a while, it was on YouTube. YouTube provides some opportunities for live interaction, but it still was the people leading worship, creating a worship video and then showing it on YouTube, and then we could interact live in the chat. With the advent of the pandemic and the rise of Zoom, we've moved into a place where I can preach live to my congregation online and they can respond live in real-time as a congregation. With Mighty Networks, we'll be able to then offer that worship for people who can't make it to the particular time that we show worship, so it’s super exciting.
I'm pretty sure that the first incarcerated members of CLF joined in the late '60s, but for many, many years, that was just part of the church-by-mail model. It wasn't until that population within CLF started to grow, mostly by word of mouth, largely through organizations like Black and Pink, which is an LGBTQ organization for incarcerated people. When someone in Black and Pink says, "I'm a trans woman being held in a men's prison and this church is saving my life right now," we get 100 applications for membership. It's absolutely astounding. Just the constant feedback that what we are doing in creating this congregation that tells people that they are loved, and they are human, and they are worthy, and they are beautiful for exactly who they are, which is every message counter to what the prison industrial system tells people. It's astounding.
I was not prepared for how transformed I would be as a minister serving our incarcerated members. Even just in the last two years, we've gone from about 1100 to 1550 incarcerated members because the word of mouth is happening. People are saying, "Hey, you have this theology that marginalizes you in the prison population. Here's a congregation, an actual church that accepts your theology for what it is." We have Earth-centered pagan members joining the congregation because being a pagan in prison singles you out for attack. But to be able to say, "I'm a member of this church” allows people to leave you alone. Again, it's pretty astounding.
We're moving CLF into this collaborative, community-building future. The prison ministry that we do is changing as well. More slowly. It's still very largely based on sending letters, courses, magazines, and articles by snail mail and getting written responses from our incarcerated members. Slowly, the prison populations are moving onto email. Sadly, that is largely because email is easier for the people who run the prisons to control and filter, so it's becoming one more way that they dehumanize incarcerated people every day by controlling their access to their loved ones and their communities of support. Really, it's quite infuriating sometimes. There are corporations that have figured out how to make vast amounts of money by dehumanizing and controlling incarcerated people. As we know from being citizens of our society, when that happens, it becomes dangerous. It's almost irresistible for prisons, for bureaucrats; "Oh, we can dehumanize them and make money at the same time. How could we say no to that?" I'm trying to have compassion for the bureaucrats making decisions in prison systems and it's hard. It's hard just knowing what our members deal with.
But we're developing new classes to teach our incarcerated members because they've taken all the ones that we offer now and they're asking for new things about theology and about different world religions and all sorts of things. It's wonderful. For the first time in CLF's history, we found a way for our incarcerated members to vote in our congregational annual meeting last year.
We made that way available also to our Free World members. Vote by mail is available to everyone. We're about a 3000-member congregation. We had about 100 Free World members vote in our annual meeting and almost 500 incarcerated members voted and sent back feedback about the congregation. One of the things that we were asking the congregation to do last year was to affirm the Eighth Principle of Unitarian Universalism. It was not an easy ask. They had to actually think about what that principle meant for them, what it would mean for our congregation, and what it means to ask people to affirm that we need to be accountable in our anti-oppression work to the people who were targeted by that. There are people who resist that notion and who push back against it. It passed overwhelmingly and CLF endorsed the Eighth Principle last spring, but not without the overwhelming support of incarcerated members who were thrilled that their church was a voice for anti-oppression work in the world, and that they would be given opportunities to study that.
My vision for Unitarian Universalism is as a force in our world for collective liberation. I believe that the foundation of Unitarian Universalism is an understanding that each of us is beautiful and worthy and each of us also is required to participate in change, in transformation, as part of what it means to be human. Unitarian Universalism challenges people to listen, to witness the experiences of people who are radically different from us, who believe different things, who come from different experiences, who share very little on the surface with us, and to integrate what we're witnessing into our being to make us better people. I think we have a great possibility to be a force in our world for everyone's freedom, for everyone's liberation.
I think that's where I'd like our institutions to push us toward. This notion that we all are worthy as we are, and also required to change and transform, is powerful. It's something our world needs to hear, right? It's something people who resist change need to hear. It's something people, who would marginalize others because of who they are, need to hear. I hope that Meadville Lombard is investing in equipping religious leaders for that sort of transformation, people who broaden our circle, people who don't keep those folks used to being at the center, at the center all the time.
I have followed the ways in which ML's curriculum has changed and transformed over the years and I love that the School is asking students to engage in the work of crossing borders, of transformation, of being accountable in communities, and to do that reflection. Go do it and then come back into this community and we're going to reflect on it together and we're all going to learn from that experience and we're all going to be better because of it. I think it makes good ministers to do that. Do I know if Meadville Lombard is unique in that? I don't, it’s just that it's my alma mater, so it's the one I've been following.
For me, it was important to go to a seminary that was a Unitarian Universalist school that forced me to think about my faith, and that all of its students were thinking about our shared faith in a way that was synergistic. It wasn't just me isolated, the only UU student there engaged in this reflection, but we could build on one another. I'm a big supporter of Unitarian Universalist identity seminaries for Unitarian Universalist candidates for ministry. Again, that narrows it down to two. Great. I don't think you can go wrong choosing from those two. I went to Meadville Lombard and did well as a result.
Rev. Tino (they/them) serves in the Lead Ministry Team of the Church of the Larger Fellowship. They were the minister at the UU Fellowship of Northern Westchester for 15 years until the spring of 2022, and before that served six years as the UUA Director of Young Adult and Campus Ministry. Michael was a cell biologist before becoming a UU religious professional; they hold a Ph.D. from Duke University in that field. Michael's service to the UU faith includes a term on the UUA Board of Trustees, where they led the Board’s work to have UUA repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and leadership roles in Allies for Racial Equity. They currently serve on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee.