Guest In Your Pulpit - Rev. Beth Marshall

Guest in Your Pulpit

As a life-long Unitarian Universalist, Rev. Beth Marshall's path to ministry dates back to growing up in a small, lay-led fellowship. At the time, she believed that ministers were the prerogative of other faith communities who had professional religious leaders, but UUs did not. While ministry, as a vocation, showed up on aptitude tests in high school and college, she dismissed it as an anomaly because her fellowship did not have a minister. Years later, as a member of a large UU church with multiple ministers, she accepted that ministry was meant to be a part of her life. She began to explore what ministry might mean by teaching religious education, working on various committees, fundraising and serving as a worship associate. OMD’s Summer Institute offered more opportunities and a broader perspective of the many ways Unitarian Universalism can take shape.

Seminary began at John Carroll University in Shaker Hts., with a detour through Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and finally was completed at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Because it took almost ten years to complete her MDiv, more than one person suggested that perhaps it was more of a “Gradual Degree” than a “Graduate Degree, but she has no regrets. Taking classes part-time in the evenings, allowed her to be home with her two children when they were little.

Since ordination in 2003, she has served First Universalist Church in Southold, New York; the UU Church of Blanchard Valley in Findlay, Ohio; First Unitarian Church in Toledo, Ohio; The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Erie, in Erie, PA; and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Canton, in Canton, Ohio. In the last year, she has served as a “targeted, temporary” minister for First Unitarian Church in Cleveland, and the UU Congregation of Grand Traverse in Traverse City, MI. Seventeen years of parish ministry has her reflecting on a series of questions: How can we better articulate and define our faith in positive terms? How might our efforts heal some small part of the world? How might we become more tolerant and understanding of those whose beliefs differ radically from our own – in large part by better understanding ourselves? Where is the common ground, and how can we build upon it? She is deeply committed to worship that speaks to both our minds and hearts.

Her theological roots are unabashedly secular humanist. Today she simply calls myself a Unitarian Universalist. In the course of any given liturgical year, she draws upon modern works of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and science, as well as ancient readings from all the faith traditions.

Her husband, Tony Wilgus, and she have made their home in Oberlin, Ohio. Having completed his work as a professor of Social Work at the University of Findlay, Tony is focusing his energy on writing, serving on the Human Relations Committee in Oberlin, and also training and consulting with clergy through Healthy Congregations while serving on their Board. Between the two of us, we are parents to five grown children and grandparents to seven grandchildren, who live across the country in five states and three different time zones. We are currently “pet free,” though my heart is open to re-homing an adult Labrador Retriever when the time is right.

Titles of programs/sermons and a brief statement of content on each:

Rev. Marshall has a full list of sermons that can be adapted to a congregation’s individual needs, celebrations and worship themes. Below is a sampling of what might be possible.

  • The Boldness Within: A Visit with Rev. Antoinette Brown Blackwell. Reverend Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Minister Emerita of the All Souls Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Oberlin Collegiate Institute graduate of 1850, was ordained 161 years ago, by a small congregation in South Butler, New York.

As a Unitarian minister, Rev. Blackwell devoted herself to spreading a message of hope and love, reducing the effects of poverty and addiction on families, and to securing women the right to vote. Her story is one of persistence in the face of overwhelming obstacles and challenges in a time when a woman’s presence was not always appreciated or accepted in the public realm.

Drawn from primary and secondary sources, this presentation is a lively, first-person historical experience. (This service requires the assistance of a strong male reader, what little rehearsal time is needed can be done prior to the service.)

  • Broken to Blessed. As adults, our lives are each marked by losses sometimes too painful to give voice, tragic and untimely deaths, people we’ve lost in other ways, and how each leaves its silent mark on us. Those places of brokenness change us. There are those among us who carry those losses with a quiet dignity, their places of brokenness shaping how they are in this world going forward.

I will not go as far as to say we are the better for those broken places. However, many thoughtful people believe that because of those places where we have been broken and tested, we are more likely to be kinder, more forgiving, more compassionate, thoughtful and perhaps stronger. It does not always work that way, for those broken places can also leave us bitter and cruel, our disillusionment driving all our interactions.

Perhaps there is wisdom in acknowledging how our lives can be understood as a series of broken places, broken relationships, shattered promises and dreams, and that our task as people of faith is to pick up those broken pieces and re-envision what might be possible by putting them back together and making something with a different kind of beauty. Life will never be as it was before, that is a given, but in time we might gain wisdom enough to see a different beauty.

  • The Courage to Rise. Easter is quite possible the most complicated Sunday on our liturgical calendar. This sermon celebrates our spirits come back to life with a triptych sermon that honors three very different communities:
    • those who celebrate Easter through the lens of the story of Jesus’ resurrection;
    • those who celebrate Easter as a more nature-based holiday inspired by stories of gods and beings reborn, and the earth cycling back into life;
    • and those who recognize the power of the human heart to overcome the most difficult times in our lives.

Three different lenses. Three different perspectives. One congregation on an Easter Sunday.

  • Embracing the Exile. Many believe that we are living in a time where marginalized individuals are at greater risk than ever before. This morning’s service is in part inspired by the haunting questions asked by Ysaye M. Barnwell in her song, “Would You Harbor Me?”. Her questions are particularly appropriate as we ask the same questions of ourselves this winter. Barnwell asks:

Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew

a heretic, convict or spy?

Would you harbor a run-away woman, or child,

a poet, a prophet, a king?

Would you harbor an exile, or a refugee,

a person living with AIDS?

Would you harbor a Tubman, a Garrett, a Truth

a fugitive or a slave?

Would you harbor a Haitian Korean or Czech,

a lesbian or a gay?

Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?

  • Life on the Margins. This sermon lifts up the work of my new spiritual hero, Father Gregory Boyle, who serves the Delores Mission Church in Los Angeles. The service highlights some of the social justice work his congregation is doing, anchoring it back to how it applies to Unitarian Universalists. Father Boyle embodies the compassionate work that many of us only dream of doing, while his storytelling skills weave together a narrative with profound implications for the rest of us.
  • Voices of Wisdom. Because we live in a complex, pluralistic, multicultural world, we are called to explore the world’s traditions, finding the threads of common ground, becoming aware of wisdom found nowhere else, and then pushing past the edges of how we understand the world, and eventually risking the possibility of learning more about ourselves and our world. For ours, is an active faith.

This service includes wisdom and inspiration of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. Richard Hooper compiled and grouped comparable quotations in his book titled: “Jesus, Buddha, Krishna and Lao Tzu: The Parallel Sayings.” He offers these thoughts: “Even though these teachers represent four different world religions, I believe their teachings have a great deal in common. Could it be that their teachings represent four slightly different paths to the same destination? … If the words of certain teachers move us, and if we are to examine our thoughts while reading them, what often strikes us most is not that these teachers are telling us something new, but that they were reminding us of something we already knew but, perhaps, had forgotten. These teachers reveal the truth that has always been within us.”

(This service requires the participation of four additional readers, one for each of the faith traditions.)

Availability: Spring, fall and winter and preferably within 200 miles of Oberlin, OH, overnight hospitality on Saturday might be required depending on distance.

Fee arrangements: According to UUMA guidelines.

Contact: Email Rev. Beth Marshall at