In 2016, Reverend Howard Caesar will be celebrating 40 years in Unity ministry—quite a milestone! Howard’s ministry longevity far exceeds the average minister’s tenure, and his history involves both growing a small ministry and then going on to lead one of the larger ministries in the Unity movement.
As a newly ordained minister in 2014, I had envisioned the opportunity to serve as an associate minister at a well-established Unity ministry where I could learn from a successful senior minister. While I had never previously considered moving to the Houston area, when Howard offered me the opportunity to serve at Unity of Houston, Texas, I knew it was answered prayer. I discovered that this is the perfect environment for me to grow the skills I acquired in my ministerial training in an environment where I was well-supported by experienced leadership and a strong organizational structure.
In a bustling ministry like Unity of Houston, there often is not much spare time to discuss the history behind what has built this ministry. After over a year of serving at Unity of Houston, this interview offered me the rare opportunity to ask Howard insider questions regarding his approach to ministry and his insights into the changes he has seen in his four-decade long career.
I asked Howard to journey back to the early ‘70s, when he first found Unity.
Howard: I found Unity in 1970 in the Milwaukee, Wisc., area. The church was meeting at a Masonic Lodge and I had a lot of thoughts about spirituality and also questions, and Unity was the answer. Also, it felt very positive and inspiring. I think somewhere in my core I was marked for ministry, and I had never found a place. Unity struck me as a path that really was inspiring and uplifting for people—to bring out the best in them, that they are all children of God.
I got really involved and was a head usher. We had to get there very early. Everything had to be set up and torn down, so there were a lot of people involved. I was very loyal and decided to enter the ministry after I got over the thought that you had to be 40 years old and have lived more life for them to listen to you. I pushed through that limitation and entered ministerial school late in the summer of 1974. I had just turned 26.
Howard discovered his deeper calling through volunteering. He got to experience what “church in a box” was like, and how it took the dedication of the team to create what seems so effortless once the congregation arrives.
I was interested in knowing more about how Unity Village was in its heyday. Howard shared about his ministerial school experience:
Howard: The Village, at that time, was a very thriving place. There were lots of retreats that went on and retreatants that would come, so during the course of the year at ministerial school, there were a lot of people coming and going. Retreats, UICE (Unity Institute for Continuing Education) sessions—they call it SEE (Spiritual Education & Enrichment) now—so there were sometimes 3 consecutive 2-week sessions when people would come in for classes, and a lot happening because it was world headquarters. The Inn was part of the lower level of the administration building. Rev Sig Paulson was there holding services in the administration building. It could handle maybe 600 people. So there was just a lot of buzz going on.
We also had lots of tours with people from around Kansas City. I was a tour guide in the PR (public relations) department, and had a lot of work with people coming in weekdays, late in the afternoon and Saturdays and Sundays. The tower was open, so I’d take people to the top of the tower until that got shut down.
It sounded like Unity was really thriving in the 1970s. I asked Howard if he thought it could be attributed to what was going on culturally.
Howard: I think it was that generation. It’s a generation that is somewhat dying off now that was really focused into New Thought for various reasons. A lot of New Thought movements had been in a growth pattern—Religious Science, Divine Science, and different founders and so forth…. There was the ongoingness of their movements. Some of their leaders were dying off but there were still a lot of them that were carrying on the work and what was needed in the world. It had its impact. Also, back then, the ministerial school was run by the Association of Unity Churches, and we had a first-year and a second-year class. There was a lot more activity with the student body in total; it was about 80 people studying to be ministers. There was some pioneering, but also cell groups and prayer groups that were burgeoning into ministries. There seemed to be more growth then, and it had to do with the times.
I asked Howard tell me about how he grew his first ministry.
Howard: My first ministry was in Olympia, Wash. We had 75 people when I got there, so they had just built a little church in the woods. We had to grow because when I got there, they didn’t have the income to handle the mortgage and the expenses. So we did grow, very rapidly. It was a great experience. My first ministry had many factors that were in favor of Unity at that time that made it easier to grow a church then than it is now. People from other denominations were looking for a more positive message.
And then the other big thing was that people in 12-step and recovery were drawn to a Unity church because before they had the Blue Book, they used Emmet Fox’s metaphysical book The Sermon on the Mount, and so there was that kind of tie to metaphysics and New Thought. That has dissipated over time as other churches developed recovery ministries.
I was in the Northwest Region and there was a great camaraderie between the ministers. We would meet monthly and just get together to socialize with a bit of business mixed in. Our regional conference and the monthly meetings offered a real commitment to being together and supporting one another. Everyone got along well and there was immediate friendship and good times.
Howard’s second ministry, Unity of Houston, is certainly unique among most Unity spiritual communities in its campus size and the size of its congregation. I asked Howard what factors he believes have contributed to the success of Unity of Houston as compared to leading a smaller community.
Howard: Well, I think everything is relative. There are things that, as you grow larger, you can probably venture into more than you can when you are small and you don’t have the revenue. When I was small and starting out in Olympia, I got into radio with one-minute spots because anything you can use to get yourself out there with a positive message is effective. I continued that when I got here in Houston, and it served us well.
We also were able to bring in well-known speakers. One of my reasons I gave the congregation for building a new sanctuary was, if we want to continue to have big name speakers, we have to have a larger seating area, so that they’ll want to come here, and we can meet the financial requirements of speaker fees, etc., because they demand higher audiences. So there are some features like that that make it harder for a small ministry to really grow, but a lot of the things are the same.
You have to start with Sunday morning being really good, have a youth program that’s really good because young families want a good place for their kids. Parents want children to be stimulated and helped in an effective way with what happens Sunday. If Sunday is good, then they begin to gravitate into classes during the week and other activities and also begin to bring friends.
I wanted to be sure to ask Howard about his vision of ministry and how it was in the beginning compared to how it has evolved to now.
Howard: My vision of ministry has always been like what our mission is at Unity of Houston. We say we’re here to teach, to love and to inspire people into being all they’re created to be. I believe, at the core, there is a divine blueprint of who we are but many have gotten in the way of that. So we have to awaken to the perfect idea that we’re held to be in the Mind of God. We help people get there by the teachings—spiritual principles, universal in nature—and we create a feeling of unconditional love, acceptance and safety that people come into—regardless of what they are facing and whatever they currently believe.
I’ve always felt the thing that drew me to Unity was: it was inspiring, uplifting and positive. It wasn’t beating you down. It was taking you beyond fear and guilt. That’s always been my vision. Then, when we would bring speakers in, I’d always evaluate them to ensure that they were known as people that had a transformative, helpful, uplifting message that would help people succeed in life. So, that vision trickles down all the way through to your classes, seminars, workshops, guest speakers, counseling and everything. You try to have it be as loving and inspiring and principled in its teachings all the way through.
I asked Howard what advice he would give to the next generation of Unity ministers.
Howard: I think they have their work cut out for them, and the next generation of ministers probably have a whole lot more insight than I do because they’re coming out of that generation, so they have a greater sense of what young people want and need, and how to bring it to them. I would say, you need to trust your instincts. Trust your intuition as I did when I was a young buck coming out. The ideas came to me as to what to do and how, and what was important.
I believe it is not us doing it, but the Spirit that’s doing it through us. You have to maintain that connection with the Divine at all times to be guided and to be effective. You can’t do it on your own. The deeper your consciousness goes with Spirit, the more likely you’re going to have an impact. You, as a minister, can’t stop growing spiritually. People love to see that their minister is growing and expanding in consciousness, too.
Finally, I asked Howard of his desires for the Unity movement as we go forward.
Howard: My desire is for it to continue to grow and unfold toward greater unity in Unity. I came in to Unity ministerial school in 1974, so I attended virtually every conference all my years of ministry. Way back in the ’70s, there were always battles going on and polarities and opposing views and issues that were being brought to the body. It seems like all through the years we’ve done that and I think it has hurt us as a movement. If we would have grown up and matured sooner, we would be, at this time, maybe having a greater impact. My desire is for Unity to not become too conservative like the fundamentalists that we are trying to be an alternative to—that we continue to evolve, grow, expand and be progressive enough to draw in the leading edge things of this day. That’s what Charles Fillmore would do. I think that’s a part of maturity, and fear is when we pull back and clutch what we know and how it has always been. Tradition can be a good thing, and it also can be your poison.
In this time with Howard, I discovered that, ultimately, it is important to be flexible in ministry and to continually be open to new ways to express our foundational Unity Principles, to serve people in the greatest ways, while also maintaining a standard of excellence in all areas. This is possible in both smaller and larger ministries, as we allow ourselves to be guided by Spirit in all things.