Rev. Nancy S. Taylor will deliver her final sermon on Sunday, May 22, at Old South Church, bringing an end to her 17-year tenure as the church’s 20th Senior Minister, as well as her 40 years in the ministry.
Rev. Taylor earned degrees from Macalester College (B.A.), Yale Divinity School (M.Div.), and Chicago Theological Seminary (D. Min.) and previously served at churches in Idaho, Connecticut, and Maine. She also served as Minister and President of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC) from 2001 to 2005 and was Moderator of the General Synod of the UCC (1999-2001) – the highest elected volunteer position in the denomination.
On Oct. 3, 2004, Rev. Taylor was called by a vote of the congregation as the 20th Senior Minister of Old South Church, becoming the first female Senior Minister in the history of the church, which dates back to 1669. Her first day on the job was Jan. 24, 2005, and her first act in her dual-role as Senior Minister and Chief Executive Officer was to close the church due to the crippling snowstorm that had struck Boston.
That April, Old South Church held its first Blessing of the Athletes service to honor runners participating in the Boston Marathon one day ahead of the footrace.
Some members informed Rev. Taylor before that year’s Marathon they wouldn’t be seeing her at the Sunday services one day before the footrace due to the challenges of getting to the church as the city was making preparations for the event.
But in their place, Rev. Taylor quickly realized that 30,000 Marathon runners would be descending on the neighborhood who could instead fill the pews.
Since its inception, Old South Church has held “Blessing of the Athletes” every year except for 2020, when like the Marathon itself, the services were sidelined by the pandemic.
“The Marathon is so special to Boston because it’s the oldest, peaceful international athletic competition and something we’re happy to be a part of,” said Rev. Taylor. “A lot of runners aren’t running to win – they’re running to beat cancer or running for some other cause, or because they’ve overcome addiction.”
The inaugural “Blessing of the Athletes” in 2005 attracted less than a dozen runners, said Rev. Taylor, while in subsequent years, three services were typically held for the athletes on the day before the race, with each one filling the church’s sanctuary to its 850-person capacity.
“Since we started in 2005, the Blessing of the Athletes just grew year by year with more and more athletes finding their way here by word of mouth,” said Rev. Taylor.
The Blessing of the Athletes took on an even deeper resonance in the aftermath of the 2013 Marathon bombings.
“In 2014, we stepped outside, and there was a line down the block and the next block,” said Rev. Taylor. “We were just overwhelmed by the runners needing a place to be blessed, to be held, to be honored. Running that year took a lot of courage.”
That same year, Old South Church also honored runners with its Marathon Scarf Project.
“After 2013, two members of the church were anticipating that the next year would be hard, different, and scary for runners,” said Rev. Taylor. “So they conceived of a project to recruit people to knit scarves in blue and yellow – the colors of the Boston Athletic Association.”
Rev. Taylor added, “We were hoping to get a couple of hundred scarves to wrap around the runners, but we ending up getting over 7,000 from every state and from several other countries.”
In fact, the scarves knitted and donated for the runners were so abundant that the postal carrier arrived day after day in a truck to deliver them.
“It was a bonding experience because there was a shared trauma,” said Rev. Taylor. “The Scarf Project was part of helping people to move through and beyond the trauma.”
And the legacy of the Scarf Project lives on today when runners in attendance for the Blessing of the Athletes services are seen donning the scarves.
“Every year since then, I have seen many parishioners in town wearing the scarves,” said Rev. Taylor. “Everyone did them differently, but you know what they are by the colors.”
Rev. Taylor’s tenure also saw the formation of G(RACE) Speaks, a standing committee that, according to the church, promotes “sacred conversations about matters of race within the life of Old South Church.” G(RACE) Speaks was formally established in 2018, she said, although it had been meeting as an ad hoc committee since around 2015.
“When you’re 350 years old, you might have a lot to atone for,” said Rev. Taylor, pointing to the church’s “history of enslavers.”
Seven of the Old South’s 28 founding members owned slaves, she said, as did four of its first eight senior ministers.
“A great many members who joined the church were also enslaved,” added Rev. Taylor.
Among them was Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American author and a member of Old South during the American Revolution.
Old South was the church she chose for herself as a free woman and where she would be baptized into on Aug. 18, 1771. (As was often the case, freed slaves, like Phillis Wheatley, didn’t often choose to become a part of the churches of their former enslavers, said Rev. Taylor.)
Moreover, Rev. Taylor said, “In the 1600s and 1700s, Old South welcomed more people of African descent than other Boston churches.”
With this in mind, Old South Church has held an annual Sunday of Remembrance since 2015, at which time the names of African members from the 1600s, 1700s, and early 1800s are read aloud. The names of these members (few of whom were buried in marked graves) are also etched onto brass leaves on the Memorial Tree in the church’s columbarium.
“Old South Church leaders remain committed to having sacred conversations around race,” said Rev. Taylor. “That is the purpose of G(RACE) Speaks – to create opportunities for sacred conversations on race, and to face the past and present, and to work towards becoming an anti-racist church.”
In the aftermath of the Marathon Bombings, Old South Church also went to great lengths to help combat Islamophobia.
“When the Marathon Bombings happened right outside the front door to the church, there was a rush to condemn it as a Muslim-inspired event,” said Rev. Taylor. “And working with a variety of interreligious leaders – Christian, Jewish, and Islamic – we supported each other, and I think we helped calm people down.”
On April 18, 2013 – just days after the bombings – Rev. Taylor spoke during “Healing Our City: An Interfaith Service” at Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End. President Barack Obama was in attendance, along with federal, state and local officials. First responders, civic leaders from communities along the Marathon route, medical personnel, and victims and their families, as well as volunteers from the Boston Athletic Association were also present.
“Having Christian and Jewish leaders show solidarity with their Muslim colleagues was an important symbol of our commitment to overcoming hate in all of its guises,” said Rev. Taylor.
Other milestones for Old South under Rev, Taylor’s leadership include the church’s recognition in 2011 as a UCC “Center for Excellence,” and she also helped oversee the church’s 350th anniversary in 2019. She tripled Old South’s weekly worship offerings by launching two additional services shortly after her arrival, and as CEO, she initiated the sale of one of the church’s Bay Psalm Books (which sold for $14.2 million in 2013) and launched Old South’s first Capital Campaign to ensure the church will continue its ministry well into the future.
During her tenure with Old South, Rev. Taylor’s ministry received countless awards, including City Mission’s Light to the City Award (2019), The Emma Willard School Distinguished Alumni Award (2019), The National Center for Race Amity’s Medal of Honor (2018), The Andy Gustafson Generosity Award (2017), The Rabbi Murray I. Rothman Award for outstanding inter-religious leadership (2011); Yale Divinity School’s award for Distinction in Congregational Ministry (2009); and the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry Building Bridges Award (2006).
She has also been awarded honorary degrees by Piedmont College (2015), New England School of Law (2010), and Albertson College of Idaho (1998).
In recognition of all that Rev. Taylor achieved with Old South, its Church Council has approved the creation of the Nancy S. Taylor Leadership Fellowship, which will be funded through an endowment and offered annually to a seminary student.
“The ‘Taylor Fellow’ is in addition to the seminarian Old South already supports, and will target seminary students in their third or final year,” according to the church’s website. “The Taylor Fellow will serve the church from 12-15 hours per week and have a selected area of focus to further advance and expand Old South’s diverse ministries and the Fellow’s gifts and skills.”
Rev. Taylor said, “Part of the ministry has been confirming Old South Church’s role as a teaching church. We identify the brightest and best of young ministers and seminarians, try to recruit them, mentor them, and send them out. There are extra-gifted ministers across the country that have been mentored at Old South Church in Boston.”
As for the significance of the Fellowship established in her name, Rev. Taylor said, “It means perpetuating the work of being a teaching church and endowing it. I’m so honored by this I can hardly believe they did it.”
To learn more about the Nancy S. Taylor Leadership Fellowship, visit https://www.oldsouth.org/nancy-s-taylor-leadership-fellowship, or https://secure.givelively.org/donate/old-south-church-in-boston/taylor-leadership-fellowship to donate.
Asked about Rev. Taylor and her most meaningful contributions to the church, Kate Silfen, a longtime member of Old South and its Church Historian, as well as the author of the recently published “The Really Useful Guide to the Senior Ministers of Old South Church in Boston,” wrote: “Nancy has continued Old South’s long tradition of having prophetic preachers who use the pulpit to promote human rights and racial justice.
“Nancy has taught us to revere the Old South Church’s long history of being at the forefront of promoting equality and social justice, and in doing so, she has helped us move boldly into the future. Under Nancy’s watch, Old South has joined the Sanctuary Movement for immigrants in danger of being deported. In 2015, Old South hosted the Boston Warm Day Center for the homeless after the abrupt closing of services on Long Island bridge. We now have a Climate Crisis Task Force that is seeking to address the existential threat of climate change.
“It is hard for us to envision Old South, Copley Square, and the City of Boston without Nancy’s prophetic voice at the helm,’” added Silfen.
Rabbi Or Rose, who is a professor at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, where she’s based, as well as the Director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Leadership and Learning, wrote: “Nancy Taylor is a pioneering religious leader, who has worked tirelessly over the last 17 years to cultivate a vibrant, inclusive, and caring church community in the heart of Boston. Her ministry has also led her to become a leader in the interreligious community of Greater Boston, playing a key role in bringing together people from different walks of life to work for the common good.”
Rabbi Rose added, “As a mid-career rabbi and educator, I have benefitted greatly from Nancy’s mentorship over the last decade or so. She possesses an unusual combination of pastoral and strategic skills grounded in an unwavering commitment to helping people discern their unique callings as beings created in the Divine image.”
Although Rev. Taylor is leaving Old South, she will continue to co-chair the Dean’s Advisory Council at Yale Divinity School and serve as an independent trustee of Pax World Funds, as well as chair of the Funds’ Governance and Nomination Committee. She will also remain on the Advisory Boards of both the Miller Center for Interreligious Leadership (Hebrew College) and the Center for Religion an American Public Life (Boston College) and continue to serve as a trustee of Revolutionary Spaces, and trustee emeritus of the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology.
After she delivers final sermon at Old South on Sunday, Rev. Taylor will hold the title of Senior Minister Emeritus, and she will continue to live locally, but don’t expect to see her around the church very often going forward.
“I will make myself scarce with respect for the church, and to encourage and allow new leadership to take root there,” she said.
Knowing that this Sunday’s sermon will close out her 40 years in the ministry has admittedly been somewhat overwhelming for Rev. Taylor.
“The past few months have been full of emotion, exhilaration, pride, and some sadness and trepidation about the future,” she said. “The most dominant emotion is gratitude – gratitude for the churches where I’ve served, especially Old South Church, for the lay leaders who have expended so much thoughtful time, energy, and personal financial resources to fuel the ministry of churches like Old South Church.”
But in the end, Rev. Taylor said, “It’s the people that make all of these ministries happen, and they make it happen because they care about God’s Will. They feel inspired to make the world a kinder, fairer, more beautiful, and safe place.”
To view Old South’s tribute to Rev. Taylor, including a timeline of her tenure with the church, visit https://www.oldsouth.org/nancy.