Rev. Dawn Skjei Cooley
Answering the Call to Interim Ministry
Accredited Interim Minister in Training (AIMIT)
The oldest of three children, I was born into a military family and grew up in Fairfax County, VA, in the DC metro area.
From the time I was a young girl, I believed that various factors such as my red hair, my position as an oldest child, and even my zodiac sign of Aries predisposed me to being a strong-willed person. I tried to live up to that image and did a pretty good job, with both positive and negative side effects.
The positive side effects were that I survived a difficult adolescence, during which time my family of origin was struggling with addiction and mental health issues. In the process, I developed leadership capabilities and an aptitude for organization. Particularly during high school, I learned to reach out for help when I needed it.
Some of the characteristics I developed to get through, however, were ones that would inhibit my later maturation. I had trust and control issues, as well as difficulty allowing myself to be vulnerable. I have spent much of my adulthood developing and practicing new, healthy behaviors. I have a deep well of compassion for individuals and families who struggle with similar problems.
I managed to make it through high school and enrolled at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. I majored in Computer Science because I was good at it and that was what I was expected to do. While in college, I met and fell in love with this quirky, smart guy who hung around in similar crowds. We were married soon after college – our nearly 30 years of being together have been a wonderful adventure.
After graduating from college, John and I moved back up to Northern Virginia. Our participation in CUUPS (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) brought us to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, VA. Being part of a liberal religious community where the journey matters more than the destination kept us at church much longer than we were involved in CUUPS!
When I finally answered “Yes!” to the call to ministry, I went to seminary part-time so that I could continue to work as a web developer/database administrator. But John and I were starting to get antsy. In late 1999, we decided we needed a change of scenery from Northern Virginia, and so we moved to Minneapolis, MN. I transferred to United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and we settled in to have a family. Our first child was born in 2001 and our second in 2003.
After 7 years part-time, I finally graduated from seminary in 2004 – I was on what is affectionately known as “the turtle track” but it worked great for me as I was able to continue along my path to ministry while also spending a lot of quality time with my young children and not take on any debt. In 2006, we moved to Iowa for my internship at the UU Fellowship of Ames, IA. At the end of an amazing year, we moved back up to the Twin Cities area, where I did a CPE Residency and was consulting minister for the UU Fellowship in Northfield, MN.
In 2009, I was called to the First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY. An urban congregation embracing their location and their mission, I loved my 7 years with First Unitarian and the congregation will always hold a special place in my heart. There have been two times in my life when I have felt myself to be “in the groove” in regards to my career/vocation. The first was when I was a consultant back in NoVA working with different organizations to help them accomplish a goal (I was the lead for the team that wrote the code for the very first Social Security Administration website). The second time was when I was in parish ministry, working with First Unitarian Church to help them live into their ministry.
But my sense of call began to shift in late 2015 – I kept looking at congregations as systems, not just at the congregation I was serving. And I kept running into areas where congregations were struggling – areas that nonprofits had been dealing with for years. I wanted to learn more, so enrolled in a Masters program and in 2016 left First Unitarian to serve the Southern Region of the UUA. As congregational life staff, I was able to utilize my education, my experience in ministry, my analytical mind, and my systems thinking approach in new and exciting ways to benefit our UU institutions. I am particularly proud of my work starting a national Disaster Relief fund, recruiting/training/supervising an amazing group of lay & professional adjunct staff, and reviving and expanding the breakthrough congregation program to include many types of breakthroughs congregations can experience.
After three years of extensive travel, though, I was ready to work closer to home. I got a job as the part-time Executive Director of a local nonprofit, looking forward to learning even more about the nonprofit world. But I missed church life, so when another local church was looking for a part-time Justice Coordinator to help them start a State Action Network here in Kentucky, I knew I had to apply. And so, during the pandemic, I juggled these two “part-time” positions, adapting to the ample challenges this time has provided.
But I missed ministry. There is just nothing like being with an intergenerational group of people who come together to muddle our way through life, searching for what has worth and meaning, endeavoring to live into our values. I missed being with people at the peaks and valleys of their lives, creating something together that is bigger than any one of us, making a positive difference in this world. I had long felt an affinity towards interim ministry, but John and I did not feel it was possible with young children. But our children grew into young adults, and so in 2021 it was time to answer "Yes!" to the call to interim ministry. I haven't regretted it for a moment!