Beth Monhollen is a current MDiv student, finishing up her studies to graduate in May 2023. We asked about her career before seminary, how her call to ministry unfolded, why she chose Meadville Lombard, and how she envisions the future of Unitarian Universalism and her ministry in it.
Before Meadville Lombard, I had two parallel careers that were happening simultaneously. My undergraduate degree is in English and theater and Spanish. I majored and minored in those things. I graduated from my undergrad 25 years ago, and in my first years out of college, I pursued an acting career in Milwaukee. I was a founding member of an improv-based feminist theater company, and we created all of our own material and did tours. We were really busy during women's history month and sexual assault awareness month. We did workshops at colleges and universities, as well as public shows.
I auditioned for theater companies but also needed to pay my bills and pay back my student loans. I eventually did a number of jobs like you do in your mid-twenties, and stumbled into a career in higher education. I found a job at a women's college here in Milwaukee as an admission counselor with non-traditional students. My thought was, "I just need a new job. I want one that lets me work with people," because I'm a super relational person. I fell in love with it! I liked the academic environment. I loved getting to talk with students and helping them through their process and deciding on a change. In that work at that college, I learned more about higher ed as a career.
I was a first-generation college student, and actually a first-generation high school student as well. So even though I'd gone to college, working at a college just had never occurred to me. It just hadn't. I thought, “I don't know, I'm not going to be a teacher, so I'm not going to work at a college.” Of course, there are dozens of jobs at colleges and universities! So, learning more about higher education and the student affairs realm, I really liked that. I was continuing to act, but I thought this was a career I could do while I was also pursuing acting.
I had great colleagues at that college who were very supportive. I've been so lucky in my life to have supportive supervisors, who encouraged me to think about things like where I might want to get a graduate degree and where I saw my career going. I liked admissions a lot but really fell in love with undergraduate advising and forming deepened relationships with students.
I had been a waitress for a long time, the way many college students and many actors are, and I used to say as a metaphor that the admissions role was like the hostess in a restaurant. They greet you, they help you figure out where you want to sit, and then your actual server is the one who sees you through the whole meal. I had done both roles, and I thought, "Ooh, I want to be the person getting you through the meal." I enjoyed this hosting part. I wanted to do more serving.
So I came up with a three- to five-year plan. I'd been working at that college for about two years, and had a plan where I was going to get a graduate degree and move into an advising role somewhere. An advising job opened up at my alma mater, which was the second women's college in Milwaukee. I remember going to my boss and saying, "Oh my God, there's an advising job open. Wouldn't that be cool? I hope there's one in three to five years when I'm ready to leave."
She said, "Just apply now." I said, "What? I'm not looking to leave here." She said, "Beth, it's your alma mater. You love it. You already volunteer and do things for them." I had directed a student play for them and that kind of thing. My husband and I had bought a house in the neighborhood, just coincidentally. It was where we could find something we could afford. She said, "You live in the neighborhood, you already volunteer. It's your alma mater. You love it. And it's the job you want. Why wait three to five years? Just apply now." Then my husband said, "Yeah, your boss is right!"
I applied, interviewed, and got a job as an advisor at my alma mater. People asked, "Oh, did you always want to work here?" I say, "No, it just sort of worked out!” I worked there for 17 years and did a little bit of everything.
That’s how I became an advisor for undergraduate students. I also taught theater and career classes and did career counseling. I was one of the co-leaders of our orientation program and served on lots of committees. Because it's a small college, I got to do lots and lots of things. While I was doing that, I ended up getting a graduate degree in higher education and I also continued to act. I did acting up until 2014. My perspective was, I’m going to do things as long as I love doing them, and if I stop loving them, then that’s the sign that it’s time to be done.
During this time, I also joined the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, which I discovered way back in the year I graduated from college. That’s an interesting story. I had trained to be a patient escort for a reproductive rights protection league that was founded here in the city in the early ’90s and was volunteering there. It's the Midwest, and on rainy days or cold snowy days, the volunteers would say, "We can go in shifts. When it's really cold, down to the church that's just a block away and warm up and get coffee." I said, "The church? Do they know what we're doing?" They said, "It's a Unitarian Universalist church. They're progressive!" The minister of it had founded this reproductive rights league.
I had no idea that progressive religions existed. I had attended this very progressive Catholic women's college. My experience, even with the progressive Catholics, is that they were still Catholic. They were not like, "Yay, go abortion and Planned Parenthood!" Secretly, they might have been in support. Not in public.
I attended a few services at the UU church because I was so intrigued by this. I loved it. I heard the minister there say, "With Unitarian Universalists, it's not that we don't believe in God. It's that we don't have to believe in God." That has stuck with me for 25 years. He gave this amazing sermon about principles and values and that Unitarian Universalism isn't about having a creed you have to follow, but values and principles that you live by. I remember saying out loud to my friends back then, "When I'm ready to go back to church, this is it. I know this is where I belong." In my twenties, I wasn't ready to go back to church. I was working two or three jobs and acting. Sunday mornings were not my prime time to get up and go somewhere. But I knew the UU church was there, and I thought, "I know when I'm ready, that's where I'm going to."
Then in 2012 or 2013, I had a niece who was really looking for a place that would be LGBTQ-friendly to help her explore spirituality. My sister said, "We're going to have to talk to your Aunt Beth about this. It's her wheelhouse. I don't know." And I said, "Oh, I know the perfect place. We'll go to the Unitarian Universalist church." I started attending church with my niece, who was 16 at the time. She really liked it, but again, she was at a place where she wasn’t quite ready to commit to things on Sunday mornings! For myself, I was ready.
Right around the time I stopped acting in 2014, I had the time to get super involved in my church. At my home congregation, I was a coffee host and worked on our book sale. I joined the membership team and the pledge team and the worship team. I was doing a lot. I was volunteering, super engaged, because I loved it and I loved the community and its focus on social justice and spiritual growth. I did small groups with them and thought, "This is what I'm going to do. I have this crew over here I'm committed to, I've earned this master's degree. I've made career advancements. This is how I will be engaged in my private life and in my volunteerism, it is through this faith movement."
Then people started saying to me, "Wow. You really come alive when you talk about your work at your church. You glow when you talk about that. I haven't seen you this excited in a long time. I haven't seen this much of a spark in you in a really long time." Somebody said, "The way you get fired up about the work you're doing with your church is what theater used to do for you 10 years ago." I started paying attention to that. I could tell there was something going on in my body and in my spirit when I was engaged in that kind of work.
At the same time, I was starting to be a little dissatisfied with my career in higher ed. I realized the conversations I wanted to be having and the questions I wanted to be asking were more like, “What's giving your life meaning? What do you care about?” than “what do you want to do for a living?” I used to have a quote hanging in my office for literally 15 years from Maya Angelou that said, "Making a living is not the same as making a life." I realized that what I wanted to be doing with people is thinking about how they are making their lives. I didn't see the space in my job anymore where I could do that. At the same time, I thought, "I've put so much time and energy into this job. I'm not changing careers."
At my home church, we were in an interim. I loved watching that interim minister, the ways in which she engaged with the congregation, how she really guided people through developmental conversations and questions. These were the things I wanted to be asking for myself and asking of the people around me. Who are we together as a people? What do we want to be? How do we engage with the world?
Watching her interact with people, I heard a voice inside and outside of me saying, "I want to do what she's doing." Again, I thought, "No, I have a career I'm committed to." So, it took another three full years of sitting with that, before I started saying out loud to people, "I have a call to ministry. I have a call to Unitarian Universalist ministry, and I want to at least explore what that's going to mean for me practically."
When I really started exploring and thinking about answering my call to ministry, I explored UUA’s website. I spent hours and hours looking at their resources and looking at where I could go for an MDiv. I understood that many, many schools offer it, and you'd get a great education in lots of places. Because I was relatively new to Unitarian Universalism, even though I'd been aware of it for many years, I knew I wanted a school that was grounded in Unitarian Universalist principles and values and that was connected to the UUA. So, it was really either Starr King or Meadville Lombard, or maybe Harvard.
I did not want Harvard for all kinds of reasons, so I really focused on Starr King and Meadville Lombard. I loved both of them, but what attracted me to Meadville Lombard was the contextual learning model. The college where I did my undergrad and then where I worked for 17 years had been doing contextual learning. They don't call it that, they call it something else, but that's what they've been doing for over 40 years. Really being steeped in theory that you are getting to apply while you're learning resonated with me. It makes sense to me as a learner and it makes sense to me as a teacher. I attended virtual open houses and real open houses, and the more I learned about it, the more I knew Meadville Lombard was the right place for me.
I came down in January 2019 for a prospective student conference and everything just clicked. I liked the way the curriculum was structured, the way the faculty and staff and students engaged with me, and how open people were to answering questions. They were really upfront about the structure of the curriculum and the way the school did residency, but also open about the fact that that was going to be changing. I did not start until the fall of 2020, but I knew in January 2019 that Meadville Lombard was the right place for me. It was the curriculum design and the engagement with faculty, staff, and students that helped me make that decision.
Yes and no. I entered this being open to the unfolding. I continue to be open to that. I also continue to be really drawn to interim work and to developmental ministry. I did my chaplaincy training between my first and second year. I did a summer intensive where I was at a hospice, which was pretty intentional. I was invited to either do hospital or hospice work, and I wanted the hospice because part of what I loved about working with college students and what I'm drawn to in ministry — my interest — is in how we make meaning out of our lives. How are we making meaning, but within the constant changes that are always, always happening? Accompanying people through change and change processes is really exciting. It's where I spark, and it's where I know my gifts come alive the most. I have to be really practical about that.
When it comes to interim ministry, I am very drawn to it, but also I have a husband, a mortgage, and a family. Interim ministry comes with the stressors of having to move a lot, but I still want to do it. I have to think about what that might look like. When I say open to the unfolding, that's what I also think about. Could I do a developmental ministry role somewhere that's a little more settled, and do three to four years somewhere? Absolutely.
I still do love hospice chaplain work. I think accompanying people at the end of life and the family members who are living through that transition, it's really holy. I love it. So that's where I'm headed towards. If you ask me what it looks like two years from now when I'm a year into ministry, it's going to look different, and five years after that it'll look different. That’s honestly what excites me, and I'm cool with that.
My classmates and I grapple with this regularly. We ask ourselves, “what are we doing in this faith movement?” “We” as individual seminarians, but also “we” as a faith movement. The UUA Commission on Institutional Change put out their amazing Widening the Circle of Concern report a few years ago, which is really powerful. I've read it a couple of times. I think some of the suggestions in there that people are trying to implement are a way of moving us forward into the 21st century as a faith movement that grapples with its own history of harm.
I love that metaphor of widening the circle. Whom have we left out? How do we make our circle bigger? That said, a couple of my classmates and I have talked about this, and we find the circle metaphor to be imperfect. A circle is still closed and there’s still somebody outside of it no matter how big you make it. We were grappling with other metaphors together this spring. I think of a horseshoe shape so that there's an opening into it. Somebody else, I saw, has shared that idea too.
When I think of us as a faith movement and where we can move, we don't just need to include more people. We need to break down what the barriers are that keep people on the outside, who actually might share our values as a faith that says we are going to affirm every living being's inherent worth and dignity. For me, that's where it starts. So if we're doing that, that doesn't mean we include you more in our circle. It means we say this circle doesn't work.
It doesn’t work because there are still structural harms embedded in it. We as a people have to do two things. We have to break apart that circle, and we have to be really clear about what we mean by "we." When we say "we," we should name specifically whom we mean. If by "we" right now I mean just white Unitarian Universalists, then let me name it that way. Sometimes, I do mean just white Unitarian Universalists, because we're the ones that need to do some fixing of stuff. But in other contexts, I might mean we as “middle-aged Unitarian Universalists”. I might mean we as “younger people”. Who is the "we?" We say that a lot without ever defining it, and so when I think about a metaphor that breaks apart a circle and that can help us think about who is the "we," I keep thinking of spirals. Or maybe Celtic knot work that never ends and you could just keep looping it forever.
I can say in this "we" right now, I'm talking to the white women here and how we weaponize our tears. In this "we" over here, I'm talking to my LGBTQ folks of all ethnicities in this circle over here, but also saying that we're intersecting. We are still working together as part of a whole, but sometimes we need to caucus together with our own “we”. This is why I love things like DRUUM (Diverse Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries). It's why I love ARE (Allies for Racial Equity). That is the white caucus that supports the work of white people dismantling oppression and the work that DRUUM and BLUU (Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism) do. Where are the spaces where our interlocking spirals or our interlocking circles or knotwork, help us define whom we mean and keep defining it in a bigger way? We want people who have values that resonate with us and want to deepen their spirituality to know there is a home for them to do that in this faith movement.
In terms of where I see Meadville Lombard fitting into that, I am a white, middle-aged, now middle-class, not always middle-class bisexual woman in the United States of America. In some ways, Meadville Lombard is made for somebody like me who is committed to dismantling oppressions and committed to finding ways to live the eight principles within Unitarian Universalism. Part of the work for an institution is to be clear who they are in that "we" as well and that you are supporting the work of formation in Unitarian Universalism. That means facilitating the kinds of conversations that I've been blessed to have with my faculty, with the staff at Meadville Lombard, and with the other students around the very things I just expressed. Meadville Lombard can’t be the only space where these conversations are happening, but it can be one of them. It can be a space where different people can come together and really do what Audre Lorde said. It’s not that we are all the same. I hate that people interpret Universalism as that, because it's not. Our differences make us richer, and we have to honor them.
I have found that Meadville Lombard is working toward a perspective that we are going to honor people’s differences and not flatten everybody into one monolith. Meadville Lombard can do that work, and push their students to do that work so they can continue it out in the world. I’d like to see Meadville Lombard be committed to that and do it in multiple ways, and to recognize that neither our seminaries nor our churches can just be spaces where you show up at this designated time on a Sunday morning or a Wednesday afternoon and that's when you're doing the work. You're doing the work all the time, and maybe that means you're meeting physically on Sunday or meeting physically for a class, but it's more often going to mean we're connecting virtually and in online spaces. That’s legitimate. That's legitimate faith work, too.
[Below is a podcast episode in which Beth talks with Rev. Julie Taylor, our Sr. Director of Contextual Ministry, and shares her insight about what to pay attention to when applying to seminary and as you go through the program.]
Beth Monhollen is a current MDiv student. She serves as Ministerial Intern at Wellsprings UU Congregation in Chester Springs, PA. Her religious background is Pentecostal and Baptist, and she was introduced to Unitarian Universalism in her early 20s. Beth is deeply committed to the promise of our progressive faith to enact justice in the world and in our relations with one another.