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Thomas Lee Mikelson

1988 - 1989

Biography

Thomas Lee Mikelson was born on January 31, 1936 in Dayton, Iowa to father Clarence H. Mikelson and Helen Jeanette Henry.  He attended public schools in Clarion, Iowa where his parents lived for a time with Helen’s parents.  Mikelson graduated from Cornell College in nearby Mount Vernon, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy shortly after which he married schoolmate Gay Schuldt, the daughter of a Methodist minister. The Mikelson’s moved to nearby Mechanicsville where Thomas found employment as an assistant minister of the United Methodist Church. After winning a scholarship Mikelson continued his studies at the University of Chicago where he was awarded a Bachelor of Divinity in 1963 and a Master of Arts in Hebrew Scriptures with concentration in Wisdom Literature in 1968. These credentials qualified him for employment from 1967 to 1971, as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion back at Cornell College and from 1974 to 1976, as a guest professor and lecturer at the University of Iowa in Ames. In the meantime, Thomas became ordained as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City where he served from 1971 to 1983. During his years in Iowa City, Mikelson was elected president of the city’s NAACP branch in which capacity he fought for affirmative action in government hiring and against racial discrimination by local business and public schools.  During this decade Mikelson also coordinated Iowa City’s terminal-illness support network, acted as President of the United Action for Youth, was board member of the Hawkeye Area Civil Liberties Union, and was elected to the Hartsburg Village Council. In the mid 1980’s Mikelson and his second wife Patricia Sheppard, moved to Massachusetts to enroll at Harvard Divinity School where he was a visiting lecturer on theology and social ethics and in 1986 acquired a Doctorate of Theology with a thesis on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

After a year-long stint as interim minister at First Parish Brookline, Mikelson signed on to replace David Hubner at First Church Dedham, again in a short-term interim position, in September 1988.  Mikelson’s tenure there was consumed with three compelling tasks. First of all, since Hubner had resigned somewhat unexpectedly, Mikelson now found himself responsible for final preparations of the celebration of First Church’s 350th anniversary.  Fortunately, the 350th Anniversary Committee (Helen Bancroft, Vicky Berg, Hana Heald, Libby Allison, and Jane Kelly) had already created a series of ten major commemorative activities (fair on the green, lectures, trip to Plimoth Plantation, etc.), beginning with an anniversary kickoff Union Service with Allin Church on May 15 and culminating with a 350th Anniversary service conducted by Dr. William Schulz, President of the UUA on November 13.  Other events included a display of First Church silver at the MFA, burial of a time capsule by the church school, creation of the 350th Anniversary quilt, memorial cemetery walks, and the publication both a First Church cookbook and a 60-page church history. As for the latter history 350th Anniversary First Church and Parish in Dedham, church historian Helen Bancroft had taken the lead in soliciting, collecting, writing, compiling, and editing the 42 essays that comprised this book. Thus though come September 1, 1988 Mikelson essentially found himself cast into the midst of three busy months of multiple commemorative events, the energetic and planful 350th Anniversary Committee gave him the support he needed to successfully preside over each of the serial festivities.

The next compelling task facing Mikelson that autumn was financial.  In October the Parish, Canvass, and Financial Committees met with Mikelson to discuss a looming budget shortfall: in order to maintain First Church’s current programs, such as the new child and adult RE curricula, youth choir, youth leader, Dignity Dinners, committee chairs told Mikelson that First Church would need to increase its revenues by 44%.  Mikelson forthwith helped craft a strategy to address this coming deficit. First of all, Mikelson published an essay in the October 20th Parish Record entitled “What’s a Church Worth?” in which he detailed the many ways (community, education, spiritual direction, capable professional staff, attractive physical plant, venerable traditions, long-term friendships, Crisis Center, and resources for important ceremonial occasions) that First Church enhances the lives of congregants.  Next, church leaders held parties for congregants at which Mikelson and church spokespersons discussed the economic challenges that First Church faced. After these gatherings, an all-church budget hearing formally initiated the Canvass at the beginning of November.  Planners followed up with Canvass training on Sunday 11/20 after which Canvasser visits to congregant homes commenced and continued till mid-December. During these visits Canvassers would suggest that congregants contribute specific pledge amounts based on Parish demographics and their prior giving levels.  However, Mikelson was quick to reassure pledgers that Canvass leaders were ignorant of individuals’ finances. Rather, he pointed out that the amounts solicited from pledgers were based on anticipated church operational costs. Nevertheless, he urged donors to factor the spiritual and social benefits they receive from First Church into their pledge amount decision.  Thanks to this Canvass strategy that mixed specifically tailored pledge suggestions with respect of individuals’ privacy, judgment and autonomy, Mikelson could report in the spring of 1989 that First Church had achieved its budget targets.

Mikelson’s third task as First Church interim, not surprisingly, was to prepare the way for Dedham’s next settled minister. Mikelson initiated this process on September 20th by delivering a sermon outlining the qualities of a liberal ministry in preparation for the congregation’s selection of a search committee. The next step began in mid-November,  a survey of all congregants which Mikelson hoped would give them a voice in selecting the next Parish Minister. All in all, 89 congregants filled out survey forms with 41 identified as Christians and the rest either claiming to be humanists or agnostics. As to what they most valued in a minister, a minority opted for an authoritative church leader; more said that the new minister should be very knowledgeable about religious education; and a majority prioritized calling a minister who crafted powerful religious services with meaningful sermons. After sharing survey results, Mikelson followed up with a Parish Record essay “Reflections on Ministry” in which he laid out his understanding of the multiple dimensions of a settled minister’s role as, for example, spiritual leader, worship organizer, church administrator, community and denominational representative, religious teacher, and pastor.  With Mikelson’s careful guidance First Church was able to call Bruce E. Kennedy to be its next settled minister in March 1989.  

Thomas Mikelson accepted the call to become the minister of First Parish Cambridge in the spring of 1989. He would serve as First Parish’s pastor for another 16 years after which he was honored by appointment as the church’s Minister Emeritus. While minister at First Parish, Mikelson continued his civil rights activism by, for instance, sanctioning use of the Meeting House for a production of Larry Kramer’s gay love story The Normal Heart and presiding over interfaith services for victims of AIDS. Mikelson also served as president of Harvard’s Board of Ministry and in that capacity delivered the opening prayer at Harvard’s 1993 commencement In Cambridge when Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was Commencement speaker. Mikelson’s prayer critiqued the military’s, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy by calling for the removal of all barriers to race, religion “or ways of discerning or expressing love.” Later in 1997 Mikelson’s Board permitted Memorial Church to be the site of Harvard’s first same-sex blessing ceremonies.  Indeed, in 1996 the Progressive National Baptist Convention recognized Mikelson’s lifetime of civil rights advocacy by making him the first non-black recipient of the Martin Luther King Freedom Award.  Upon retiring from First Parish in 2006, Mikelson served one more term as an interim minister from 2012-14 in Saratoga Springs, New York.  After his April 17, 2020 death at age 84, in Belmont, Massachusetts, Mikelson’s obituaries not only celebrated his ministerial and humanitarian achievements; he was also lauded as a scholarly writer about noteworthy theologians like Paul Tillich, the composer of such UU hymn standards, as “Wake Now My Senses”, and a widely exhibited photographer of images that one critic called “Sermons in Light and Shadow”.  As one admirer observed, “Thomas’s open heart opened the hearts of so many others to a fuller, deeper, more compassionate way of living."

Bibliography

memorial_book_slt_ga_2021.pdf (uua.org)
Parish Record, September 1988-March 1989
https://www.firstparishcambridge.org/rev-dr-thomas-j-s-mikelson-obituary/
https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/bostonglobe/name/thomas-mikelson-obituary?id=2248719
"Thomas Mikelson" - Newspapers.com search
https://www.uua.org/offices/people/thomas-mikelson
https://www.uuma.org/blogpost/569858/350176/In-Loving-Memory-of-Thomas-Mikelson-1936-2020
https://uusaratoga.org/remembering-rev-thomas-j-s-mikelson/

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