The Rev. David Weissbard '62
“‘Weissbard’ was the final name to be called,” remembers the Rev. David Weissbard ’62, M’65, about his walk across the Commencement stage as the last of the last graduates of 109 years of St. Lawrence’s Theological School in 1965.
“We had fought the closing of the school, but knew that it was stacked against us,” he continues, knowing the economics of the situation were not sustainable. At that time, St. Lawrence had 10 students in the entire Theological School and five faculty members.”
Like many others in the clergy, Weissbard is foggy on how exactly he zigzagged into ministry. A classmate alerted him to the 4D draft deferment available to those who “pre-enrolled in a seminary if they were considering ministry,” but an article in the high school newspaper from his senior year quotes him as saying he was already planning on entering the ministry—an indication of premeditation.
“And, even when I started in ministry,” says Weissbard, “I wasn’t convinced that it was going to work out. There was this test guidance counselors gave to suggest what career you ought to pursue, and ministry was very low on my list. I believe the reason for that is I’m a Unitarian Universalist. We, for the most part,” explains Weissbard, “did not always match up well with the values of traditional ministers upon which the test was based....”
Now retired from the ministry after 41 years, Weissbard sums up his longevity to being a “Jack of all trades,” having begun his ministry in Bedford, Massachusetts, with a congregation that needed some convincing to take on a young, inexperienced Weissbard fresh out of the Theological School.
“The thing about ministry is that you do a whole lot of different things,” says Weissbard. “Ministers are, in a sense, professional generalists: I was interested in counseling, but I could never survive 40 hours a week of counseling. I was interested in broadcasting and PR stuff; I liked doing research; I was committed to building community; and I was able to parlay all those interests into ministry.
“In my final church, I had a TV show for 25 years,” says Weissbard, who had enjoyed his broadcasting experience as the general manager of St. Lawrence’s radio station KSLU as an undergraduate as well as the work he did with Potsdam radio station WPDM part time while in graduate school.
“I couldn’t think of anything to do that would involve more of my interests or my strengths than ministry would,” he says. “It was that, and I did grow up in a Unitarian Universalist church which was central to my family’s life. I believed that we had something that was important that made us different.” Weissbard points to the emphasis on reason, respect for the individual, a deep commitment to social justice, and the diversity of religious beliefs within a Unitarian Universalist congregation.
He admits that from the outside Unitarian Universalists may not look very diverse, but from the inside, he says, “People come to different understandings about what we believe is true, less on the basis of faith than on experience and knowledge, and we believe it is important to act on those understandings.”
Within six weeks of taking the helm of the Bedford congregation, he traveled to Boston to see the Rev. Philip Berrigan debate a State Department official about the Vietnam war. “I came back all fired up and did a sermon about Vietnam, which really pissed off some members of the congregation,” says Weissbard, who later organized a bus to travel to the March on Washington protesting the war.
Weissbard’s congregants would have plenty of hot topics to think about over the nine years he served that community. Opening people up to dialogue about teen drug use, sex education, poverty, Vietnam, and other controversial contemporary issues was at the forefront of Weissbard’s ministry, along with community building.
“When we had a second bus to Washington to protest the war, one of the people who had written a letter to the editor of the newspaper disassociating himself from my first sermon about Vietnam, was the first person to sign up for it,” says Weissbard. “So, seeing people change—the feeling that the conversations that I provoked had an impact—was really important to me.”
Those conversations continued throughout Weissbard’s career as sermon discussions following services. “I judged the effectiveness of my sermons on the quality of the discussions,” says Weissbard. “Most of the ministers I know would never have subjected themselves to a discussion. There were people who thought I was crazy to do so.”
That kind of crazy has worked for Weissbard: “What I’m delighted about is when I’m invited back to preach at Bedford. It’s like we’re picking up, 45 years later, the conversation where we left off.”
During his 27 years as Senior Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rockford, Illinois, 90 miles northwest of Chicago, the sermon discussions didn’t fly. The congregation was just too large to facilitate good conversation, so Weissbard had to innovate and apply some of his other talents.
“On the second Sunday of my second year, I did a sermon on ‘Beleaguered Liberalism,’ in which I talked about the fact that the only thing you see on television is a conservative religious perspective,” says Weissbard. The sermon caught the attention of the manager of the lcoal CBS affiliate, who offered him a half hour every Sunday.
The program “Fusion” was launched and would run for the next 25 years, with sermons, music, and mini-discussions with a few members of his Rockford congregation.
“I loved it because I’d always had an interest in broadcasting,” says Weissbard. “Broadcasting was a fallback career for me. I had the opportunity to express the ideas, the things that I thought people ought to be thinking about, to 5,000 households, instead of to 180 people on a Sunday morning.”
Weissbard, who retired from full-time ministry in 2006 and returned to Canton, New York, is still active as a guest preacher at several churches around the North Country and still working to provoke meaningful conversations around social justice. However, he cautions that anyone considering ministry should know what they are getting into. “It’s an incredible privilege to be able to minister to a congregation. You have a built-in extended family, if the connection works. But it is also a lot of hard work.”