The Black Sheep

Unitarian minister Joel Miller finds out it's hard to lead the wrong kind of church in southwest Jefferson County

The Reverend Joel Miller stood solemnly before his congregation. The normally jubilant Miller had moved to Colorado only a few months earlier and was already known for injecting his sermons with lively anecdotes--but this Sunday, the usual spark was missing. The congregation could tell something was wrong, and later, Miller wouldn't even remember what he had preached about.

On the previous Thursday, Miller and his pregnant wife, Wendy, had gone to her doctor for an ultrasound. The obstetrician had discovered something that came as a shock to the Millers: three heartbeats. The triplets were a result of in vitro fertilization--Miller and his wife were having trouble conceiving their second child, so they had turned to science for help, and what had seemed like a blessing became a curse. A fertility specialist at Presbyterian/Saint Luke's Hospital found that two of the embryos shared an amniotic sac and that the odds of Wendy giving birth to all three babies were fifty-fifty: If she lost one, she'd lose them all.

By this time, Wendy was in the eleventh week of her pregnancy. If she wanted to increase the odds of giving birth to at least one baby, she would have to abort the two in the same amniotic sac, and she would have to do it the next day--week eleven is the cut-off date for safely performing what doctors call "selective reduction."

The Millers had chosen to have the abortion.
After the service, Miller talked to the nine members of the church's board of trustees, who later called other churchgoers to tell them what had happened.

The congregation of the Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church meets in a small building on Coal Mine Avenue and Webster Street, in an unincorporated pocket of Jefferson County that some people call Columbine and others call Ken Caryl. "I just call it 'nameless suburban sprawl,'" Miller says of the region, home to approximately 200,000 people and bounded on the east by the Platte River, on the west by the foothills, on the south by Chatfield Reservoir and on the north by Marston Lake.

It's a part of the metro area that's recently been identified as Denver's Bible Belt, where it would seem that the news of a minister's wife's abortion could destroy his career.

But members of Miller's congregation arranged a memorial service for the family's lost babies the following Sunday. Miller was in such shock that he doesn't recall a thing about the service, but he's still moved by the fact that his congregation pulled together for him. "I was in too much pain at the time to minister to them, so they ministered to me," Miller says. Six months later, the couple's second child, a healthy baby girl, was born.

"Hearing about what happened allowed a lot of people to connect to him in a pretty strong way," says church member Sue Dressel. "The fact that he and his wife let us into their lives was a gift. We're a small church community and a very child-oriented church."

In the months following Miller's ordeal, he found that because he had been candid about the abortions, his congregation grew closer. Others began to share their own stories of failed pregnancies and abortions.

"One thing [Miller's admission] did was emphasize how valuable and meaningful our kids are. Also, when you finally open up a subject that's taboo like that, people feel free to talk about it," Dressel says.

"By opening up to them about what I went through, it gave them permission to come forward with their own stories," Miller says. "Hearing what people in my congregation had gone through really provided a lot of solace. It's nice to know you're not the only one going through something horrible."

Miller grew up in a close-knit community in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended First Unitarian Universalist Church. His hometown was much like the family-oriented Columbine community, with its manicured lawns and two-car garages. "If I ever misbehaved, it would get back to my parents," Miller says with a chuckle.

Miller was the only one of the three Miller boys to work for the company his grandfather and father had started. Business was steady at Homer Miller and Son Jewelers and the clientele was loyal, but Miller's father's wish that he carry on the business wasn't to be. He worked for the business for a while but felt that something was missing, so he went back to church. "I found myself thinking about church while I was at work, but I wasn't thinking about work while I was at church. Then someone at church told me I should become a minister."

Miller says the jewelry business is a lot like a church. "You're with people at very important times of their lives--engagements, marriages, anniversaries. In many ways, it was very hard to leave the business, but eventually the call, as we say, was compelling enough."

Miller was already married when he decided to become a minister; he had met Wendy, the woman who would become his wife, at his church in Columbus. His new vocation took them to Berkeley, California, in 1988, where Miller enrolled in a three-year program at the Thomas Starr King School for the Ministry. Wendy Miller got a job as a medical writer and supported her husband after he graduated in 1991. At the time, he was a member of a committee that was responsible for establishing churches in areas where none existed, but he was having a hard time forming one in the San Francisco Bay area. Starting churches isn't easy for Unitarian Universalists, because one thing they believe is that it isn't right to tell potential converts that there is something wrong with their faith and that they should join a Unitarian Universalist church instead.

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