Kendyl Gibbons ~ 2015 Religious Humanist of the Year

It was my pleasure to award Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons the 2015 Religious Humanist of the Year Award at our Annual Meeting at General Assembly on June 25. Here is the introduction I gave to Kendyl, followed by her remarks. Congratulations again, Kendyl!


The Reverend Dr. Kendyl Gibbons is the 15th senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church. She is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, a recognized leader in our continental Association, and past president of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. Kendyl is a 1976 graduate of the College of William and Mary, with BAs in Religion and Sociology. She holds a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and a Doctorate of Ministry from our UU seminary, Meadville/Lombard Theological School.

Kendyl served as the minister of the DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church in Naperville, Illinois for fifteen years before being called to the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis in 1998. In 2012 she was called as the senior minister at All Souls here in Kansas City.

Kendyl has a long-standing commitment to theological education and the future of ministry. She has formally supervised more than twenty student ministry internships, and been an informal teacher and mentor to dozens of seminarians. She has been an adjunct faculty member of the United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities, and former Co-Dean and Mentor for the Humanist Institute. She currently teaches in the areas of worship and liturgy, and the dynamics of professional leadership, and serves as adjunct faculty at her alma mater, Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago.

As an active member of the Minneapolis Downtown Interfaith Clergy group, Kendyl traveled to Jerusalem and Bethlehem with twelve Christian, Muslim, and Jewish colleagues in January of 2007. Among her Unitarian Universalist colleagues, she recently chaired the committee that revised the Ministers Association code of conduct and professional guidelines.

Kendyl has been widely published in UU journals and publications,  including Quest,Religious Humanism, and the UU World, and she has made numerous presentations at the annual UUA General Assemblies. She is a contributing author to Parenting Beyond Belief; On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion. Kendyl has received the John Burton Wolf Prize for Excellence in Preaching, and the Meadville Lombard Alumni/ae Association Excellence in Ministry Award. She is also the author of two hymns included in the 1991 UU hymnbook, Singing  The Living Tradition, as well as “Sources; a Unitarian Universalist Cantata.”

She lives in Kansas City, east of Troost, with her husband of 40 years, Mark, and two cats.

Humanist of the Year Presentation

by Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons

June 25, 2015


This recognition is a humbling honor, for which I am deeply grateful.

It occasions the following reflections on the purpose of ministry and religious community

in a context of theological pluralism.


For if what we are about is building connections --

among the various constituencies of the liberal tradition,

and in interfaith work more generally --

is not, and ought not to be,

the achievement any kind of theological uniformity,

then it is reasonable to ask, what is it that we are attempting to help each other do?


St. Paul offers one clue to this riddle, I find, with his list of the fruits of the spirit –

love, joy, peace, gentleness, forbearance, self-control.

If Christianity is doing its intended work in you, he suggests,

you will bear this kind of fruit, become this kind of person.

The Buddhist teaching tale of the Sanyassin who gives away a precious jewel

points to the same principle;

if the eight-fold path is working in your life, then you are growing into this kind of person.  

In fact, I would suggest that, despite their obvious differences

in vocabulary, mythology, and ritual practice,

the most profound mystics and teachers of all the world’s great religious traditions

have long recognized each other across their diverse heritages.

A spiritually mature Christian, a spiritually mature Buddhist,

a spiritually mature Muslim, or Hindu, or Confucian, or Humanist,

all have something in common -- a certain quality of personhood,

a way of being in the world, that manifests these fruits of the spirit.

This is more than a studied set of ethical exertions, or prescribed compassion;

rather it is natural, spontaneous, joyful;

a sense of presence that mediates profound reality unselfconsciously and without argument to others.

At our best, it is the foundation of mine and my colleagues’ credibility as religious leaders,

that we are spiritual grown ups,

whose example of maturity other people can rely on for guidance and help.


I believe that our congregations, and our culture, and our world,

all hunger for leaders who are spiritual grown ups –

who are more invested in becoming their own best selves

than enforcing their convictions or their authority on others.


One primary characteristic of spiritual maturity

is what the moral philosophers of ancient Greece called sophrosyne;

the self-awareness that enables us to maintain our ideals and intentions

even when passion or impulse or inertia or neediness --

or popular hysteria -- pulls hard in another direction.

The call to ‘know thyself’ constantly summons us out of naive embeddedness

in our perceptions and our environment,

to learn to take our impulses, our experience, and even our existence,

as objects of reflection, rather than inevitable facts.


Another evidence of spiritual maturity is the capacity to be in the presence of pain,

whether our own or others’, without panic.

Too often, the instinctive reaction of remedy

arises out of resistance to the reality of suffering;

we want to fix whatever is wrong immediately,for the sake of our own discomfort,

and if that is not possible, then there is a desire to flee from the situation.

To be a spiritual adult is to have the wisdom and fortitude

to remain in the presence of pain, while controlling our own anxiety and resistance,

so as to be of genuine help to those who are hurting.

Then we may be able to be skillful, rather than premature,

in alleviating the cause of the discomfort, or, if that is not possible,

at least bear witness to its truth through the eyes of compassion.

When an individual must move through the grief that comes with losing a loved one,

or when a community must undergo a difficult change,

immediate relief from heart ache is not always a helpful gift,

even if it were possible.

The spiritually grown up leader offers encouragement and validation,

rather than anodynes,

so that whatever learning or gift might lie on the other side of suffering may not be wasted.

Our task then is to help one another learn to face into

the truth of our own and others’ hurt,

and not to prefer frozen numbness, or self righteous judgement,

to the ache and effort of genuine healing.


I believe that the spiritually mature person also recognizes that all language,

even the most precise of mathematical formulas, consists of metaphor;

all speech and all writing relies on our ability to translate

from symbols to experience and back again,

and this is nowhere more true than in religious language.

We each give our primary loyalty to a particular vocabulary and symbol set,

to a tradition of inheritance or of choice;

this is as necessary for our fulfillment as human beings,

and indeed for our emergent spiritual maturity,

as the specificity of parental relationships and marriage commitments,

or the uniqueness of friendships.


Yet the person who is wise, who is a spiritual adult,

has the capacity to engage and appreciate the metaphors

by which other souls

also express the human religious impulse,

and narrate the breaking of a qualitatively different awareness into mundane consciousness.

Gratitude, generosity, the sense of being blessed beyond anything we have earned

amidst a grandeur that we did not create

and a potential for moral order to which we are inherently accountable –

this is not proprietary software specific to any one tradition,

but the open source code of human religious experience.

To be a spiritual grown up is to know reverence when we see it,

in any system, whether we ourselves prefer PCs or Macs.


As fluently as we hope to master the deep meanings of our own faith traditions and symbols,

may we also aspire to hear with understanding and appreciation

the poetry of the human spirit wherever it rises to aspiration and praise.

May we come to understand

that the striving to stay true to our values and alert to the sacred dimensions of life and reality

is not unique to any of us;

that to be present to suffering without panic,

and to move with confidence among the metaphors by which human experience is shared,

are skills we each continue to build as long as we live.


In the end, neither the demands of scholarship nor the disciplines of personal practice

will entirely satisfy this world’s need for spiritual adults;

certainly the squabbles of theological identity politics will never do so.


In an era when grandmothers at prayer are shot down by hate-crazed adolescents with guns,

we have something more important to do than trash each others’ metaphors;

we need to grow up, all of us, and get over the fantasy that the world would be a better place

if only everybody conformed to our opinions.


I suspect that in the end such maturity can only be nurtured in communities of faith --

by which I mean groups in which we are faithful;

to our commitments, and our values, and our aspirations.

And faithful as well to each other; not only in the present acceptance of who we are,

but also in the vulnerability of growth,

and in accountability to the promise of greater maturity that we might yet achieve.


While I confess that I have no other experience for comparison,

it has always seemed to me that Humanism is a demanding spiritual path,

precisely because it offers no alternative to the work of becoming grown ups;

to cultivating the self-awareness and skill that ought to make us particularly good

at weaving the strands of diversity

into the fabric of welcome and mutuality,

inviting everyone into a more profound community

that nurtures maturity in all of us,

and calls forth that more abundant life that we can only bring into being together.


About John Hooper

John Hooper's picture

Dr. John B. Hooper, liaison to the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association (UUHA), is a retired research and development director who lives in Connecticut. John, a long-term UU, is a Board Member of The Humanist Institute, The Institute for Humanist Studies, The Secular Coalition for America Education Fund, The American Humanist Association (ex officio), the Yale Humanist Community, and the Connecticut Coalition of Reason. John is also a cofounder of and advisor to Humanists and Freethinkers of Fairfield County, CT (HFFC).