Leader of Greater Morristown Unitarian congregation running for president

The Rev. Sue Phillips (left) and the Rev. Alison Miller are nominees to lead the national Unitarian Universalist Association. Photos courtesy of UUA.
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By Kevin Coughlin

The Rev. Alison Miller, senior minister of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, is running for president.

No, not that president —  although she certainly sounds qualified for the White House, based on the traits that got her nominated to lead the Unitarian Universalist Association, which comprises more than 1,000 congregations nationwide.

The Rev. Alison Miller at 2016 Morris Interfaith Breakfast. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
The Rev. Alison Miller at the 2016 Morris Interfaith Breakfast. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The search committee was looking for spiritual leaders with integrity, who know how things work, and know how to inspire people, build coalitions and raise funds, said the Rev. Matthew Johnson, committee co-chair.

“Alison met all of the criteria. Very few others did,” said Johnson.

If church delegates elect her at the June 2017 national assembly in New Orleans, Miller, 41, will be the first woman to head the association, formed in 1961 by the merger of the Universalist Church of America (established in 1793) and the American Unitarian Association (1825).

She would shepherd a flock of about 158,000 adults and 50,000 children, administer a $25 million budget, and extend a faith tradition that includes at least four presidents and such luminaries as Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Ralph Waldo Emerson and former Urban League President Whitney Young.

“It’s an incredible honor,” Miller said of the nomination.

A seven-member committee spent two-and-a-half years sifting through 60 names submitted by congregants, finally narrowing the race to Miller and the Rev. Sue Phillips,  a New England regional staff member of the association. Others still may toss their hats in the ring, via petitions.

The Rev. Sue Phillips (left) and the Rev. Alison Miller are nominees to lead the national Unitarian Universalist Association. Photos courtesy of UUA.
The Rev. Sue Phillips (left) and the Rev. Alison Miller are nominees to lead the national Unitarian Universalist Association. Photos courtesy of UUA.

The winner will succeed the Rev. Peter Morales. Presidents are limited to a six-year term.

Miller said her priorities as president would include ensuring the financial health of the association, and keeping the spiritual side relevant. She believes the nondenominational, inclusive approach that welcomed her Protestant father and Jewish mother in the 1970s continues to hold great appeal in these turbulent times.

“Unitarian Universalism is a faith that so many people are longing for,” said Miller, a New York native who was a church youth leader at age 15.

“When they show up on our doorstep, they are so excited to find a place where the whole family can come together. One in the family may be deeply impressed by the teaching of Jesus, another by the teaching of Buddha. Now they can come together and create a community that is more whole, and just, and loving. No source of truth is ignored.”

BUILDING BRIDGES

Since Miller came to the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship in Morris Township in 2005, the congregation has grown to 350 adults and 120 youths, from 240/75.

“Alison has a young family, and that has made a definite impact on religious education programs for young families,” said Tim Atkins, the Fellowship’s director of religious education. Miller and her husband, David Snedden, have a 4-year-old son, Asher.

Atkins, 32, was recruited and mentored by Miller. He admires the minister’s broad knowledge of world religions, which has made her adult education talks popular. And he’s especially grateful for her practical advice about maintaining a social life beyond the Fellowship.

“At a church, you pour your soul into your work. You need time to recharge,” Atkins said. “She helped call me… to seek balance between being a religious professional and a real person. It helps prevent burnout.”

Miller also is leading a major capital campaign to improve the mansion and grounds that have been the Fellowship’s home on Normandy Heights Road since the late civic leader Stephen B. Wiley helped start the congregation in the 1950s.

Unitarian Universalists pride themselves on their commitment to social justice, and the belief that every person is sacred and valuable.

The Rev. Alison Miller speaks at 2013 Morristown rally against gun violence. Photo by Bill Lescohier
The Rev. Alison Miller speaks at 2013 Morristown rally against gun violence. Photo by Bill Lescohier

Along those lines, Miller, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and Harvard Divinity School, has been visible in local campaigns for gun law– and criminal justice reforms, immigrant rights and marriage equality. She also serves on the board of the United Way of Northern New Jersey.

“She definitely strives to be a bridge-builder and to find common ground,” said the Rev. Sidney Williams Jr., pastor of Morristown’s Bethel AME Church.

Williams said Miller helped unite the Morris Area Clergy Council’s response to the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012. She also has shown strong support for the local Black Lives Matter movement, he said.

Video: Black Lives Still Matter, Miller tells 2016 MLK Day gathering

“I believe Alison Miller has what it takes at this time in history to make a real difference in our community as well as her national organization,” Williams said.

Pastor David Smazik of the Presbyterian Church in Morristown praised Miller’s energy and capacity to address multiple issues confronting society.

“She holds strongly to her core beliefs and can articulate those beliefs with conviction and clarity but she also possesses empathy and the willingness to discuss different points of view,” Smazik said.

The only downside of a Miller victory, from the Fellowship’s perspective, would be her departure. If elected, she would move to Boston, where the association is headquartered.

“The mood here is very upbeat and positive. She brings a lot of energy, which will be missed,” said George Aronson, who joined the congregation more than three decades ago.

Yet her election also would be a source of great pride for members, who rose to cheer news of her nomination at Sunday’s service.  This path has seemed — pardon the expression– preordained since she arrived in Morris Township as a 30-year-old minister, Aronson said.

“When she came to the Fellowship more than 10 years ago, the buzz was how someday she would be the president of the UUA,” he said. “This is such a wonderful tribute to our congregation, that we nurtured this talented, wonderful woman. It would be a great feather in our cap.”

Video: Miller recounts a childhood brush with an armed burglar, at 2013 gun reform rally

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