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"A liberal church in a conservative world" -- that is what the Rev. Nan White titled one of her sermons to her congregation at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort. White has faced controversy throughout her clerical career. As a woman, she was a minority in Presbyterian seminary. And after transferring her ordination to Unitarian Universalism, she assumed the reigns of an often misunderstood religion.'
Universalists first ordained women in 1863, so it is not a new phenomenon for members of the faith. White said that within Unitarian Universalism she feels mostly well received as a female minister. '
It is people of other religions and more conservative backgrounds who have a difficult time accepting her. The crux of misunderstanding is less her gender than her faith, however. She feels Unitarian Universalism is not widely accepted because most people do not understand it. She has heard some people call the religion a cult. '
Acceptance of Unitarian Universalism in the South has been more of a challenge than in the North, she said, but with the growing numbers of Northerners moving south, the religion is bound to take hold.'
A traditional beginning'
White grew up Presbyterian and considered the church a place of refuge -- she was in the right place when she was at church. In her early 20s, when there were few women ministers, White entered seminary to become a minister of music. During her studies, she learned that she was not musically talented, so she decided to take a different path and earned a Master of Religious Education. She served as chaplain and pastoral counselor at several hospitals in Birmingham, Ala., and held director of Christian education positions in two Presbyterian churches in Alabama. '
Stereotyping and insinuations punctuated White's journey to become a female minister. She struggled most in the early 1980s when she completed her Clinical Pastoral Education program in the hospitals in Birmingham. '
"All of my peers and all of my supervisors were men," she said, "I was the only female in the program. I really struggled with my sense of ability as a woman and as a minister at that time.'
"I learned that a woman's story is different than a man's. How we live them out is different than how a man does. How we react is different than how a man does. How I minister in some cases may be different than how a man would," said White.'
While working as a hospital chaplain, White said she was frustrated by the sexist insinuations that because she was a woman she couldn't do her job as well as the men. Women are often viewed as the more emotional and vulnerable sex, but she did not want those beliefs to affect her work or how others perceived her. She had the same education, training and opportunities as the men, but she sometimes felt held back.'
In the late 1980s White said she began to grow restless. She wondered where her life was going, and she searched for direction. Around that time, her church allowed her to perform some ministerial leadership, and that is when she said she made the decision to return to seminary for her Master of Divinity. '
After she was ordained in 1991, White served as pastor of Mount Horeb Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Ky., from 1993 to 1995. Being the first full-time female minister at that church was a very positive experience for her and the congregation, she said. '
At that time, her fears weren't so much about being received as a woman. She was more concerned about being a good minister. '
"It was my first pastoral position, and I knew I had all the education and training, but there was still that sense of doubt and not knowing what to expect and the need to prove myself," she said. "It ended up being a great opportunity to get my pastoral footing on solid ground."'
White knew before accepting the position as pastor at the church in Kentucky that she was taking a risk financially because the small congregation might not be able to pay her salary. After three years of service, her fear came true: The congregation could no longer compensate her. '
She was faced with the decision to become an associate minister or be a minister at a small rural church, where it was likely they would not be able to meet her financial needs. '
Finding new faith'
White decided that neither of these was the best option for her at the time, so she went to massage therapy school to become a licensed and nationally certified massage therapist. In 1996 White moved to Beaufort and opened her massage therapy business, Body-Spirit Connection, which she co-owns with her life partner, Sam Ballenger. '
While teaching yoga classes at the YMCA in Port Royal, White met Marge Jarvis, who was working to establish a Unitarian Universalist Church in Beaufort. White's interest was piqued because it is considered a liberal religion. '
"The more I studied Unitarian Universalism, the more it resonated with who I was and the type of ministry I wanted to have," she said, "And my own background and faith as a Presbyterian had less and less meaning to me." '
Another reason she felt drawn to Unitarian Universalism was that Presbyterians were taking a stand against homosexuals, and she wanted to be part of a religion that was more accepting and open to all people.'
The process to transfer her ordination from the Presbyterian church to the Unitarian Universalist church took two years. In May of 2002 the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort unanimously approved the board of directors' recommendation to call the Rev. Nan White to part-time ministry. She answered the call and assumed responsibilities June 1, 2002. '
White is also a part-time minister to the Unitarian Fellowship of Hilton Head Island. She serves as chaplain for HospiceCare of the Lowcountry.'
Jim Key, president of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort, joined the faith in the late 1990s when he and his wife moved to Beaufort. He said he quickly became a lay leader at the local and district levels. '
Key grew up in mainstream Protestant denominations that had no women ministers, only women in religious education. He said that it was only recently that churches he was a member of had women in ministry, but even then, they were always an associate, never the senior minister.'
"It was stunning to see and hear the number of women clergy within the denomination (Unitarian Universalism), 50 percent of total senior clergy, at last count," Key said. '
"It was natural to call Rev. White as the fellowship grew, and we never talked about the fact that she was a woman and what impact that would have on the fellowship," he said. "She has been very effective at pastoral care and community work, as well as being an effective preacher.'
In one of her sermons, White said, "Unitarian Universalism is profoundly liberal because we are open minded. We are not strict in the observance of orthodox ways. For many of us it's the very reason of how we got here. We like the freedom to express our beliefs in ways that are not conforming."'
The church affirms and promotes seven principles -- the main one being "the inherent worth and dignity of every person." White believes strongly in this principle and feels it is part of the reason so many people become members. '
Perhaps this is also why White feels at home as a woman minister of the Unitarian Universalists. She is accepted for who she is.