Facing the challenges of moving from their old church in Woodstock to new digs in McHenry, parishioners at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation unanimously voted to hire Rev. Sean Parker Dennison as the pastor to lead them through the transition.
An ordained minister since 2000, Dennison is uniquely equipped to handle whatever transitions come his way. He not only understands the middle-age man and the teenage girl, Dennison has been both.
"I feel as if I've been male for as long as I was female," says the smiling transgender preacher in his 15th year as a man after living his first 31 years as a less-than-happy female. "They figure out the gifts my transgenderness means. I can relate to the single mom or the old 46-year-old white guy. Been both. Seen both sides. I have this whole vast world of experience."
Aware of the ignorance, prejudice and even violence faced by those in the transgender community, Dennison says he doesn't advertise the gender change that saw him go from a mom to a dad, but he doesn't hide it either.
"Being one's minister is a relationship of trust," Dennison says. "It's just who I am."
Having led congregations in Utah and California, Dennison drew fans to his personal blog called "Ministrare," and was described as a "rock star" in the small world of Unitarian Universalism, says Kathleen Lacey-Anderson of Crystal Lake, president of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation that selected him from among a host of candidates. His work at other congregations was impressive, and his transgender status had no effect, good or bad, on the unanimous vote to hire him, she adds.
The sermon Dennison uses to introduce himself can be found online at revsean.wordpress.com/my-story.
Some churches are hesitant to hire a transgender minister, he concedes. Another church "wanted me really badly because I was transgender," says Dennison, who didn't want that situation either.
"The reason I came here is because they are absolutely committed to being good," Dennison says of his new congregation. He tells how the church took on a mission of compassion for the homeless this summer, providing not only meals, but bug repellent and tarps for people forced to sleep outside until the shelters open again for the winter. Unitarian Universalists traditionally show strong support for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, but they also work for social justice when it comes to issues of immigration, poverty and other problems facing today's world, Dennison says.
"I don't want to be a church that's all about us," Dennison says. "Let's work at making the world a better place."
The world where Dennison spent his first 12 years was the Iowa hamlet of Mount Pleasant, where his father owned the radio station and the family was "raised on high school sports," the pastor remembers. By age 6, the self-described tomboy's hair was so short, "people thought I was a boy," Dennison says.
It was during a service at a Methodist church that Dennison saw his first female preacher and considered her a role model for little girls.
"My dad said, 'You can't do that. Women can't be ministers,' which is kind of funny now," Dennison says, grinning at the irony of it all. "The world has changed and so have I."
When his parents divorced, he lived with his mom in Ames, Iowa, where they "went to whatever Protestant church was friendliest," says Dennison.
"I was unhappy enough by high school that I was disappearing," he says. "I wasn't going to be a cheerleader."
A flutist, Dennison played bells or some other percussion instrument in the marching band, but never felt comfortable with teenage peers.
"High school felt really shallow to me. I wanted to talk about deep things," says Dennison, who went on to major in sociology at Iowa State University and made another important transition.
"I hated my birth name," he says. Just as he doesn't want this story to include old photos of his former self, he declines to reveal anything other than that the name was one either gender could dislike. At 19, that name was legally changed to Shani.
"It's a Swahili word that means marvelous. I was trying to get some self-esteem," says Dennison, who later changed it to Sean.
A brief romantic relationship in his 20s left Dennison with a baby, but no partner. After celebrating five Mother's Days with his son, Dennison says honesty compelled him to make the transition from mom to dad.
"I didn't feel like I had integrity, because people were always mistaking me for someone I wasn't," he says. Dennison used the iconic children's character of Barney the dinosaur to explain his decision to his 6-year-old son. The boy, who loved Barney when he was 4, had grown to hate Barney.
"Imagine how you'd feel if everyone thinks you still love Barney," Dennison told the boy. "And he got it."
His son, now 21 and about to become a dad himself, recognized the most recent Mother's Day by performing a rap song in Dennison's honor. A mug in the pastor's church office reads, "We Love You Dad," and features a smiling photo of his son and the daughter added to his family through a later relationship. Dennison says he is looking forward to becoming a grandfather, and has a good relationship with his daughter, who is a 20-year-old college student.
When people talk about the choice he made to change genders, Dennison says, "The choice was, 'Will I live honestly, or will I play by the rules and be unhappy?'"
Happiness came when he was accepted into the Starr King School for the Ministry, the Unitarian Universalist school of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.
"It wasn't until I got to seminary that I realized this is what I love," says Dennison. "I got to learn preaching from the Baptists, theology from the Jesuits, and the Hebrew Bible."
His sermon today will include lessons to be learned from the Jewish High Holidays and the celebration of a new year, he says.
When he began his transition in 1997, the male hormones lowered his voice and gave him a beard. Dennison, whose pitch is still high enough to surprise drive-through window clerks who discover that the voice coming through the speaker belongs to a guy with a scruffy beard, passed on expensive genital reconstructive surgeries.
"It's not so much about plumbing," Dennison says. "I'd rather put my kids through college than have surgery."
He has a transgender partner now whose story is similar to his own. "I identify with the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) community, but if I have to chose, I usually say G," says Dennison, who figures that's the easiest label for people who see his partner and him together. "I don't worry about the labels very much."
One of the reasons Dennison says he shares his story is because, unlike the gay, lesbian and bisexual world, the transgender community has fewer high-profile members and advocates.
But the transgender population is growing, Dennison says. He notes that the local PFLAG (Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter that meets at his church recently added a meeting just for the transgender community.
Constantly turning the conversation back to the work of his congregation, Dennison says he wants to make the new building (the old Haystack's Manor restaurant, purchased and donated to the church by a member) a joyful, fun place dedicated to social justice. His first congregation, in the conservative community of Salt Lake City, Utah, grew as people appreciated the work they were doing.
"The great thing about being a Unitarian Universalist minister there is that your congregation knows how important they are," says Dennison, whose new office features a drawing the kids in Utah made for him. "We don't dictate what you have to believe to walk with us to make the world a better place."
Unitarian Universalists can come from any faith or no faith at all. Members don't have to believe in God.
"I'm pretty comfortable with it being a mystery, but I am absolutely certain something bigger exists that makes us want to be better," Dennison says. His transgenderness takes a back seat to his job.
"It comes up. People ask a few questions and they get it very quickly that what I'm about is being a minister," says Dennison, as he contemplates his calling, his life, society and change.
"And, I chose a career where I have to wear a dress," Dennison says, chuckling as his hands tug at his pastoral robes. "What is with that?"