2015 Annual Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism: Clark Olsen

Presented by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations to Rev. Clark Olsen

Clark Olsen – Preacher, prophet, activist, innovator, team builder, strategic thinker, loving husband, dedicated father, excellent friend – your 56 years of Unitarian Universalist ministry have been a blessing to our faith. In a career of many phases from parish minister to organization consultant, from the board room to the classroom to the streets of Selma, Alabama, you demonstrated the transforming power of showing up and bringing your full self to the work before us and so showing the way to a higher calling that awaits us all.

As the second son of a dynamic Unitarian minister, Arthur Olsen, you were never quite sure that you were cut out for the “family business,” though you received early inspiration for justice work from parents who actively fought McCarthyism and sought to integrate department stores in Toledo, Ohio.

Graduating from Oberlin College and arriving at Harvard Divinity School on a grant for reluctant prospects for ministry, however, you found your way. Service at the congregation in Westborough, Massachusetts while still in seminary led to your ordination in 1959 and first settlement there.

But while accepting this calling, your sense of adventure and commitment to justice also led to extensive travel, including visits to Eastern Bloc nations and the Soviet Union, where later you met a Russian woman, Ludmilla, who would be your first wife. With her, you had your first child, Marika. You would even go on to organize student trips to those countries in the 1960s and to Unitarian sites in Transylvania and Hungary.

This sense of adventure also led you to your next settlement in 1962 at an emergent fellowship in Berkeley, California. There you grew the congregation and developed innovative ways of doing worship that you developed into a process for other fellowship-model congregations.

Then, like a thunderbolt out of the blue, came Selma. Shocked by the images of Bloody Sunday, you were gifted with plane tickets from members of the Berkeley fellowship that made it possible for you to follow your heart there. It was the chance meeting at Brown Chapel with two colleagues who you had known from your efforts to set up student visits abroad – Orloff Miller and James Reeb – that changed your life.

We have heard you tell the story of that night – the dinner at Walker’s Cafe, the attack by racist hoodlums on the street, the terrifying trip with Jim to a hospital in Birmingham, holding his hand as he drifted into unconsciousness – before vast assemblies, on New York Times and Al-Jazerra videos, in elementary school classrooms and on Living Legacy tours.

And each time, we’ve seen your eyes water and your throat catch, as ours do, too. We know the tears embarrass you, and yet we love you for them for they remind us that our hearts are often broken in this work, not once, but over and over again. And yet, we stay with it. And you did. When the time came that civil rights groups began offering tours of the South with veterans of the movement, you happily signed on to assure that the lessons learned in that struggle are remembered. And you have kept up with that, even into the current year.

Meanwhile, your own life moved on. In 1968, your ministry carried you to Morristown, New Jersey, where you divorced Ludmilla and met and married your second wife, Anna. Again, the congregation grew under your leadership for 10 good years, but when a congregation member suggested you had promise in the field of organizational culture change, you decided to try it out and found a new calling outside of congregational ministry.

In that role you have coached people in more than 30 organizations, including Fortune 500 companies. The UUA tapped this expertise by appointing you to the position of Vice President for Planning and Programs from 1986 to 1988, where you helped develop tools for congregational planning and visioning. In time, you returned to the corporate world of training and strategic planning, but remained generous about sharing your skills with your colleagues and our larger movement. The UUA Board of Trustees and the Board of the UU Minister’s Association are among those who have benefited from your expertise.

You and Anna transplanted to Asheville, North Carolina, her home town, where you adopted your son, Todd, but it would be inaccurate to say you retired there. You continued consultations, but also came to chair a county task force on “Common Values & a Sense of Community,” and served with other civic groups, as well as on the board and strategic planning with the church there.

In this 50th anniversary year of the events in Selma, we have been proud to see you lifted up as an exemplar of our faith, one who followed the call to justice, who showed up, and despite injury and intimidation remained a generous and compassionate leader in the cause of freedom and justice. It is, then, with great admiration, gratitude, and joy that we confer on you our highest honor, the Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism.