Bill Clark brings new leadership to Unitarian Church

The Reverend Bill Clark is the new minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha's Vineyard. — Photo by Janet Hefler

When the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard (UUMV) first invited the Reverend Bill Clark to be a guest speaker, he had no idea he would end up as the church’s next minister.

“They were in transition, looking for a minister, and I was invited here last year to preach a couple of times,” he told The Times last week, in an interview at the church on upper Main Street in Vineyard Haven. “I came out here and stayed with members of the congregation. They showed me around the Island, and very slowly I just started to fall in love with this beautiful Island, and the congregation. It felt really positive.”

Rev. Clark said his selection as the new minister evolved “organically.” Since he was already familiar to the congregation, he did not have to go through any kind of formal hiring process.

“I remember telling the congregation I had a fantasy that when I turned 65, I would retire and become their minister,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I don’t think they heard the ‘retired’ part, and they jumped on that rather quickly.”

The congregation, which numbers about 90, welcomed Reverend Clark into his new role at the 11 am service on Sunday, August 25.

“This is my first attempt back into parish ministry in five years, and it’s part-time, which is perfect for me, because I’m not quite ready for full-time work yet,” he said.

In 2007, at age 55, Rev. Clark developed some heart issues that led to quintuple bypass surgery. Three weeks after the surgery, he had a heart attack when four of the five bypass grafts failed and collapsed.

Instead of undergoing more bypass surgery, Rev. Clark said his doctor put a stent in one of the arteries. As a result of the damage, part of his heart does not get enough blood. He said he has to guard against fatigue and pace himself accordingly.

“Every time I tried to go back to work I ended up in the hospital again, so I decided I should take a leave from parish ministry for a while,” Rev. Clark said. He moved back to Provincetown, where he had lived from 1989 to 1999, and found it to be “a good place to get better and start healing myself.”

While on leave from his ministry, Rev. Clark turned his experience with heart disease into a positive by creating and teaching an adult enrichment class called “Blessings of the Heart.” Its focus is on the emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects of the heart, including heart health and heart disease. He said he hopes to teach it on Martha’s Vineyard sometime.

Since UUMV has a long history of part-tme ministers, Rev. Clark said his new job is a good fit for both him and the church. He continues to maintain his home in Provincetown and lives in a cottage on Uncle Seth’s Pond in West Tisbury for the 10 days a month he spends on the Island. During that time he preaches sermons on two consecutive Sundays, and in the week in between, tends to the congregation’s needs. When home in Provincetown, he answers emails on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and helps find other ministers to fill in at UUMV once a month.

Rev. Clark recognizes that having a part-time minister does present some challenges for the congregation. “It’s tough to have consistency when I’m only here two Sundays a month,” he said. “Consistency is pretty important for getting people to join a church and to get attached to it.”

To help achieve that, he said, “The way you grow a church is through the children’s programming, so we’re going to upgrade that and look for a director of religious education. We applied for a grant to help with that.”

In the meantime, Rev. Clark said, “The best thing is we’re having fun together. I think church should be fun.”

That sense of fun was reflected in the title of the sermon he gave the previous Sunday, “The Peter Pan Principle.” Instead of just him speaking, however, Rev. Clark said he

invited the congregation to join in a multi-generational discussion, prompted by the question, “What’s the best thing about being your age?”

“It was quite interesting; a lot of the youngsters said getting older was about responsibility, and lot of the older people said that responsibility was the hardest part about getting older,” Rev. Clark said. “They were on the same page.”

Afterwards, he added, “I had an 11-year-old boy come up to me and say, ‘That was the best service I’ve ever been to.’ I thought, wow, I’ve done my job if I can keep an 11-year-old entertained and keep him engaged in a conversation in church.”

Rev. Clark said he has always enjoyed working with children, and had a first career as a teacher for deaf children for 25 years. He also worked as an educational interpreter on the Cape and taught sign language at Cape Cod Community College.

Rev. Clark attended Harvard Divinity School and was ordained at the Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church in 1999. He served his first church in Sugarland, Texas, outside of Houston.

“It was a new congregation starting out, and I was sent there by our association to help them grow,” he said. “And we grew from 68 to 150 members.”

After spending five years in Texas, Rev. Clark was anxious to return to New England. He was called to First Parish Unitarian Universalist church in Lexington, Mass. His cardiac problems developed during his fourth year there.

In retrospect, Rev. Clark said, he thinks he does better working in small churches. “My style is more relaxed, and I think I have a skill in helping churches grow, which is something this congregation certainly is interested in doing,” he said. “We’re the only Unitarian church on the Island; we have to survive.”

Rev. Clark said that although growth is one of the UUMV’s biggest challenges, the congregation is very dedicated to their church home and love the chapel, which was built in 1901.

“So they are committed to seeing this survive, and I have no doubt it will,” he said. “We’ll do that work together.”