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Moving on: River Falls Unitarian minister transitions to next stage

The Rev. Ted Tollefson participates in a May pole celebration on May Day 2015. The May pole is one of Tollefson's favorite traditions at the Unitarian Universalist Society of River Falls. (Submitted photos)

Every book is full of chapters, and each chapter has to end before a new one can begin.

For The Rev. Ted Tollefson, one chapter in his life has been his time as minister for the Unitarian Universalist Society of River Falls (UUSRF). Now, he says, it’s time to move on and begin anew.

“I'm just finishing up a 10 years chapter in River Falls, so of course,it's sad to see a good story end,” Tollefson said, “but my sense is that accepting my limitations and the fact that a chapter -- one chapter-- has to end, so a new chapter can begin, that's a part of life.

“So I'm doing one of the things that's often very difficult for ministers, and that's taking my own advice."

Tollefson said he hopes that advice will be helpful for both himself, and the UUSRF.

"My hope is that by departing when it feels like it's time, and not hanging on too long, there'll be mutual invigoration, rather than trying to maintain something just because it's convenient."

Tollefson has been minister at the UUSRF, located in the town of River Falls at N8010 Hwy. 65, for about 10 years. He lived in River Falls from 1974-76.

It was during that time, while he was working at the River Falls Care Center (now The Lutheran Home) that he said his calling to ministry came.

So, when he had an opportunity to River Falls, he said he felt he was coming full circle.

"It's a wonderful community,” Tollefson said. “And I've just been delighted to serve in the Unitarian Universalist Society of River Falls."

Unitarian Universalism is more concerned with living in this world. Tollefson said individual members are given the responsibility of finding their own theology. UUSRF provides workshops and retrets so members can find their own theology.

"In our community there are Christian Unitarians and Buddhist Unitarians, and Agnostic Unitarians, and 'I'm not sure, ask-me-next-week Unitarians,” Tollefson said.

Tollefson was raised Presbyterian, but said he found at about 12 or 13, that he didn’t agree with all of the beliefs of the Presbyterian church.

"I just didn't believe the theologies that I had been presented with as a child," he said.

He joined a Unitarian Universalists Fellowship during his first time at Lawrence University in Appleton, and found that was the place for him.

"I don't assume that we have an exclusive hold on truth or beauty or goodness, but for some people who are inclined to ask difficult questions and not settle for easy answers,” Tollefson said, “I think Unitarian Universalism provides a place where people can ask difficult questions and work on their ethics and also develop their spiritual life."

Tollefson has been a Unitarian Universalist minister since 1980.

"I was very fond of the ministers that I had, especially a Presbyterian minister in Duluth, but he couldn't preach his way out of a paper bag, and so I decided it had to be possible to preach something that made sense in a way that was more effective,” Tollefson said of his decision to go into ministry. “I also did a lot of theater work, and have enjoyed reading and reciting poetry since I was very young, and so my vision of ministry is informed by the arts."

Tollefson has often blended poetry and music into his messages. According to Unitarian Universalist tradition, ministers, like Tollefson, only leads service half the time. About half the services do not include ministerial sermons.

UUSRF member Sue Beckham described Tollefson very knowledgeable and intellectual.

“I'm an intellectual and they are always reasonably demanding intellectually but they're not going to leave non-profs out in the cold,” Beckham said.

Don Leake, another UUSRF member, said Tollefson’s chapter at UUSRF has been a good one.

“He’s done a wonderful job for the society,” he said. “Surely he’ll be missed, and we won’t know exactly how much he’ll be missed until he’s gone.”

Tollefson said he’s unsure what the next chapter of life will hold for him and his wife Kristen, but he has an inkling.

The couple plan to restart a nonprofit they called Mythos Institute, which they originally ran from 1990-2000. They also plan to start a Thoreau society in the Red Wing, Minn., area.

"The writings of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in our time, Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver, are important to my theology,” Tollefson said, “that sees nature as a place of revelation and discovery."

For the complete story and more photos, see the June 16 print issue of the River Falls Journal.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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