Introducing our New Settled Minister Rev. J Sylvan

Introducing our New Settled Senior Minister

Rev. J Sylvan
Rev. J Sylvan was born in the Midwest and grew up in Indiana in the 80s and 90s. After college at Indiana University in Bloomington (B.A. 2006, in Religious Studies and East Asian Studies), they followed friends and art to Boston, where they began publishing and performing poetry, as well as teaching poetry to young people. They have had two books published (The Spark Singer, 2009 & Kissing Oscar Wilde, 2013), as well as articles, poetry, and stories including pieces in The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and The Toast.
In 2012 J earned their yoga teacher certification at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, and for several years they managed a yoga studio in Somerville, Massachusetts, where they also taught Vinyasa and Restorative Yoga. At the same time, they became involved in the Boston theater and performing arts community. From 2012-2020, J wrote and produced numerous stage shows in the area and was a part of dozens more. In 2016 they accepted a Ministry Fellowship from Harvard Divinity School and spent the next three years studying with some brilliant and creative people, winning the Billings Preaching Prize, and creating their thesis project, Beloved King: A Queer Bible Musical, which Broadway World called “a very smart concept show with a bright future.”
J and their wife Sue were married in 2018 (by J’s yoga teacher under a disco ball in a service hosted by a drag performer dressed as Galadriel). J graduated from Harvard Divinity School in the spring of 2020 and interned at First Parish in Concord from 2020-2021—a formational experience that solidified their hunch that they were called to Parish Ministry. That summer, Sue and J’s son, Lucien Elijah was born, and that fall they went south so J could begin a two-year Interim Ministry position at Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, TX. Reverend J was ordained this February.

Rev. J is thrilled to be called as Senior Minister at First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. They are excited to meet everyone, and they and their family look forward to settling into a community where they can put down roots and work to build a vibrant, radically welcoming spiritual home.. 


Here are some excerpts from Rev. J Sylvan's Ministerial Record

What ministry do you hope is ahead for you?

I see great potential for church communities to make space for and work in collaboration with art and artists, both in traditional worship services and beyond. Art, music, and performance can be expressions of divinity and connection, and I seek to explore opportunities to bring these experiences to faith communities in creative ways, such as supporting and hosting concerts, singalongs, plays, open mics, and music- based services outside of traditional Sunday morning worship times. My dream is a church that is known not only for progressive spirituality, deep connection, and social action, but also as a hub for community events, art, and culture.

In a more abstract sense, I hope to use my skills in ministry and the arts to combine the traditional and the radical, to find what works of our religion and fortify it, while burning away what no longer serves. I hope to lead a congregation into a future where Unitarian Universalism is re-imagined to welcome those who are currently on the margins. I want to help revitalize our faith's theological discussion, so that we are in conversation with the leading theologians of our time. I want to uplift the voices of young people and create a worship experience that is fulfilling to them. And through it all I want to help guide us all (myself included) in leading mindful, compassionate, and meaningful lives.

Describe your call to ministry. What life events have led you to this moment?

I was raised Christmas/Easter Catholic without much emphasis on religion, but from a young age, I connected to the Divine through art. The connection to the Mystery that I felt when listening to or making music and reading or writing poetry was undeniable, and I felt drawn to a life as a religious professional. However, I knew the Catholic church would never frock someone like me, so I threw myself into theater, art, and writing without much more thought about organized religion.

Then in college, I discovered and majored in Religious Studies, and found the study of religion deeply satisfying in a way that enriched the intuitive connection of my artistic practice. Specifically, my undergraduate studies focused primarily on Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, Daoism, earth-centered spirituality (the Deep Ecology movement and Permaculture farming), and Catholic mysticism. College was also when I attended my first UU services in Bloomington, IN. I remember the first service I attended included both a sermon about a scientific theory and a song about Jesus. My mind was blown and I knew I had found a spiritual home. The idea entered my heart that one day I would become a UU minister.

But I had many more years of romantic young adulthood to explore first. I pursued a life as a poet, theater artist, and yoga teacher in my twenties and early thirties, but I always had in the back of my mind that one day, I would be a minister serving a Unitarian Universalist church, helping to lead a community through the unanswerable questions and imperfect choices that make up this terrifying, beautiful life. When I saw the country's shift toward racist nationalism in 2016 on the heels of the Pulse nightclub shooting, I felt the suffering of the world rip through me. Something clicked and I knew it was time to begin my ministry journey. I may not be able to change the world, but I can be in it with good people as we struggle together to love one another and bend the arc.

Ministerial Roles & Functions

Describe how you handle being in a conflicted situation:

At Bay Area UU Church, I have navigated inter-staff conflicts and inter-congregant conflicts. In both situations, I strove to look foremost at the humanity of the individuals and act from there. I spoke with each party and asked questions to make sure I understood where they were coming from, while also drawing boundaries to avoid triangulation. From there, we established common ground, shared goals, and next steps to come back into covenant that frequently involved compromise.

Often times, the deep emotions that lead to heated conflict come from a place of pain, so I try to bring my pastoral heart to difficult conversations. Once again, I prefer clear and direct communication in situations of conflict. An uncomfortable 40 minute conversation is vastly preferable to the damage that can be caused by keeping disagreements under the surface.

In my many years as a theater producer, I have had ample opportunity to hone my conflict management skills. On several occasions performers clashed over creative differences or personality conflicts. In these situations, I make certain to listen to all parties' concerns and help to establish a compromise. If one party is acting abusively, I intervene and let them know that the behavior is not tolerated. But generally in the cases of difference of opinion or misunderstanding, I find compromise can be reached through mutual communication and respect.

Describe briefly your ministerial approach to the following:

Worship and preaching:

I was honored to win the Harvard Billings Preaching Prize in 2019 for a sermon that interwove academic interpretation of a sacred text, my own LGBTQ experience, and a call to action for us to notice when we are in the in-group and use our privilege to protect our marginalized siblings. Now, I spend the majority of an average week planning services and writing the sermon. I believe a strong service provides a gravitational center for a congregation. I truly love crafting and sharing the experience of worship with a community. I sometimes joke that even when I mostly wrote poetry, what I was really writing were little sermons. I like to draw on my background as a theater artist, poet, and songwriter to create full worship experiences that the community can help shape and participate in. I craft entire services with an intention in mind, interweaving readings, music, sermons, and other aspects. In my sermons I try to balance deep reflection and inspiring calls to action. I do not sugar coat hard truths, but I present them levelly and kindly.

My background as a yoga teacher and student of meditation often surfaces in my worship services. On a given week, you are probably equally likely to hear a prayer follow the sermon, or a vipassana- or metta-style meditation. (I'll also often throw a few shoulder-stretches in there as well, because we're all kinder when our shoulders are more relaxed.)

Ideally, as with most things, worship services will be collaborative efforts. I strive to work with the RE Director, the Music Director, and any other worship leaders to create a diverse service with a common vision. While I will guide the vision and sometimes have specific requests, I appreciate ideas that come from others. We begin to plan a service together and run our thoughts by one another as we go. Unless something MAJOR happens in the world or the congregation, I am not a last-minute worship-planner. Ideally we will have a general idea of the theme more than a month in advance, with music and other elements beginning to come together at least several weeks in advance. Usually I find events at the top of the news cycle can be incorporated into the prayer or sermon without changing the planned topic. Only very rarely have I torn up a sermon on Saturday and started over because of a headline, but it has happened (like when Russia invaded Ukraine). I follow my heart and my gut to discern when this type of last-minute shift is appropriate.

Pastoral Care / spiritual guidance / counseling / home and hospital visitation:

At Bay Area UU Church, I work with the Pastoral Care Team to manage the pastoral needs of the congregation, and make sure everyone's situation is addressed in a manner that is supportive and meaningful. I commit weekly dedicated time to managing pastoral concerns myself, as well as working with and supervising the Care Team. I find home and hospital visits deeply rewarding, and allow time in my schedule to prioritize such visits. Sometimes it may make more sense for a lay leader who is close to the person in question to take the lead on addressing a pastoral need. I am always available for guidance and reflection, both for individuals seeking pastoral care, and those lay leaders who provide it. Additionally, I meet regularly for spiritual care and counseling with individuals both at BAUUC and in the wider community, many of whom are LGBTQ+. I consider witnessing the pastoral milestones of congregants and helping them to make meaning from them a cherished responsibility.

Children's religious education:

Teaching middle school RE at First Parish in Cambridge was one of my first volunteer gigs in Unitarian Universalism! At Bay Area UU Church, I work closely with our Acting DLRE to find ways to make the children feel like they are part of the church community. We have done this by inviting them to act out skits in our worship services, by creating special events centered around them (Splash Day, Piñata Party, etc), and inviting them to participate in inter-generational events (a Talent Show, A Holiday Soiree, etc). As with the rest of my ministry, I find incorporating creativity such a theater, music, writing, or art into Children's RE can enrich the experience for everyone.

RE is vital not only for children, but for the health of our faith. If there are children in a congregation, a well-resourced Children's RE program should be a top priority. Additionally, I would like to move away from completely segregating adults' and children's worship experience, as I feel that is to the detriment of our denomination, as well as the wisdom different generations can offer one another. I feel it is important to have a children's message or time for all ages in the Sunday service, as well as more opportunities for multi-generational worship and activities.

Youth work:

I draw on years as a poetry teacher and creative writing mentor for teens, and I even have a spiritual poetry writing and performing curriculum for youth prepared. I've seen so many young people come out of their shells when given a safe space to explore their developing voice. With this age group, it's important that they feel empowered, so I like to uplift natural leaders within the group and offer lots of opportunities for feedback and suggestions of where to go next.

Oftentimes, youth have their own needs and ideas about how they want to channel their faith. Clergy, staff, and lay leaders have a unique opportunity in these cases to take the lead of the youth, while using our experience and wisdom to help them be successful in their endeavors, be they rallies, fundraisers, chalice circles, or action groups.

Adult religious education:

At Bay Area UU Church, I've implemented regular Pub Theology nights, a Hebrew Bible learning circle, and an LGBTQ+ Spirituality group. All have in drawn adults from the congregation as well as the wider area, and have invited deep conversation and connection, as well as learning opportunities.

Adult RE provides great opportunities not only for enrichment and education, but also for community building and deepening. I find that RE classes can provide adults with shared knowledge and experience that can strengthen bonds. I also like to use Adult RE as a place to challenge previously held beliefs, and educate about social issues with segues into social action.

Incorporating music, the arts, and creativity into congregational life:

I like to empower the community to bring their creativity into their spiritual life and vice versa. At BAUUC, we've held two events that centered live music and/or literature, both of which raised money for social justice issues and the church and built community. At First Parish in Concord I led a Spiritual Memoir writing workshop, and have a curriculum ready for a youth poetry program, drawing on my years as a youth poetry instructor. I intend to explore many more possibilities of incorporating the arts into congregational life in a settled ministry, such as more music-centered worship. Indeed, my vision is a church that is deeply intertwined with arts and culture.

Experiencing the Divine through art, music, etc is one of the surest ways to cross barriers. I feel music should be interwoven into services in an intentional way that deepens and helps carry the experience, not simply as entertainment or pretty songs (though sometimes that's nice too!) In worship, I like to draw from a variety of musical and artistic sources. In addition to our hymns, I've used showtunes, pop songs, and folk music in services, and I have created worship services based on musical theater, Afro-futurist novels, poetry, and comedy sketches. I've invited guest musicians, touring acts, and performance artists, and a Henry David Thoreau impersonator to perform both during services and at special events. Sometimes, in lieu of a reading, I'll insert a skit or a theatrical monologue into a service. The interweaving of art and congregational life is central to my ministry.

Describe your theology and the role of the ministry in a congregation that has multiple theologies:

I am both someone who has always felt a mystical connection with the Divine and an inherently skeptical person. At this point in my life, I call myself a faithful agnostic-- meaning one who thinks knowing the Divine--even if there is a Divine--is impossible for human beings. The first theological writings that I connected to deeply were apophatic mystics such as Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Meister Eckhart. These writers stressed the ineffable nature of the Divine, and to this day, I believe that we can only talk around whatever God or Divinity is. This is why I frequently call it "the Mystery." This is also why I find mythologies and art to be vital to a spiritual life, as they are some of our best attempts at "talking around" the Mystery. Indeed, they may be the nearest we can come to speaking its name.

While I come from and claim my Catholic background, my theology is also informed by my study of Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, earth-based spirituality, and Shintoism. My many years as a yoga teacher and meditation student lends my intellectual mysticism a grounding in mindfulness and embodiment.

Queer biblical interpretation has been a relatively recently discovered passion, but I incorporate wisdom, mythology, and writings from many sources into my theology and ministerial practice. I have a wide command of literature owing to my younger years as a performing and published poet.

While I minister from my theology, I like to hold a large theological container in worship. In pastoral situations, I will follow the lead of the person being ministered to regarding theology. My role in this context is to empower congregants to discover and affirm their own theologies using my knowledge and experience background.