Denise M. Cawley

Unitarian Universalist Minister, Artist, Chaplain

Intern Minister at Bradford Community Church U U

Volunteer Chaplain at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin

I Am

  • A MINISTER putting religion in action, forming our faith, and healing hearts
  • A CHAPLAIN and pastoral care companion through life’s passageways.
  • A UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST supporting our progressive movement and the religious left.
  • A BUILDER of relationships, empowering the individual to find their voice and place in the greater community.
  • AN IGNITER who invokes a range of emotion as a catalyst for action.
  • A SOCIAL RIGHTS ACTIVIST dedicated to anti-racism, anti-oppression, women’s health and LGBTQ causes.
  • A RELIGIOUS NATURALISTqueering our faith while both honoring our transcendentalist, humanist, Christian, pagan, theist and atheist roots and addressing their limitations
  • A SKILLED FUNDRAISER who helps build giving practice into a spiritual practice stewarding our communities.
  • A MEDIA EXPERT who is experienced and comfortable in all aspects of media dynamics, public relations, promotion and marketing.
  • A NON-PROFIT LEADER with proven track 20+ year management record.
  • AN AWARD-WINNING VISUAL ARTIST with a 25+ year career spanning multiple media who uses her theology of beauty in worship and pastoral care.
  • A MOTHER of an amazing creative son and an advocate for families.
  • A COMMUNICATOR who speaks to the fears and aspirations of those I am privileged to minister to.
  • AN EMPATHIC LISTENER who is pastorally ready to accompany people on their respective journeys.
  • A CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVER who is inclusive, open-minded and collaborative.
  • A HISTORICAL RESEARCHER of yet to be known heroes of our faith.

I am a minister in everything I do.

I was queering my faith – turning everything I was taught over and over in my mind, questioning it and examining new ways to look spiritual seeking, from an early age.

Denise preaching, wearing one of her hand-dyed scarves
Denise at United States Department of Justice Pride Celebration

I started my journey into Unitarian Universalism long before I knew what it was called. I was raised in a Catholic family. I loved looking at glossy picture book stories of the saint’s prayer books before I could read. I loved angels and stories of the Divine Feminine. I would flip through them on the pews in Detroit churches. I was sent to Catholic elementary schools and while the stories of the women saints intrigued me, I immediately began questioning where God came from and where that originated and how or who made God. That was first grade.

From Catholic school girl to feminist advocate, from LGBT rights crusader to someone who has taught diversity, inclusion and equity issues to evangelical Christian leaders, ministers, business owners, government officials and non-profit teams, I have positioned myself at the intersection of social justice and religion most of my life.

Denise in first grade wearing angel pin, St. Genevieve Catholic School uniform
Denise and her son Aidan at fundraiser for queer youth

For over 20 years, I have volunteered on LGBTQ rights campaigns, helped found the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, and later returning to the Board of Directors to fund and friend raise them out of almost a million dollars in debt. In the tenuous time that followed I worked for them to help get them stable and serving at risk youth and elders -often abandoned by their families due to faiths that oppressed and rejected them.

I have piloted voting campaigns to increase turnout for marginalized communities (poor, people of color, black, LGBTQ) and harnessed the power of social media and the web long before it was standard practice. Whether I was putting LGBTQ families on billboards (a first in Wisconsin for Gay Neighbor Campaign, harnessing INTERNATIONAL press coverage) or doing national interviews on NPR and Fox News, I have always advocated on behalf of my siblings living in the margins of our society.

The legal path for marriage equality was a huge part of the family rights I worked on personally and professionally.

Denise with LGBTQ and Family Rights Leaders as well as FBI Special Agent in Charge and U.S. Attorney James Santelle
Denise speaking to non-profit leaders for justice

My own family are press trained, and have all had moments as media stars as public spokespeople. My ministry often took the role of speaking on behalf of others, sharing stories and paving the way for family rights, racial justice, LGBT equality and women’s health.

Denise being interviewed by NPR as a guest for WBUR On Point with Tom Ashbrook

I worked on numerous campaigns, and legal cases ultimately filling the plaintiff class for the ACLU’s case that went to the 7th U.S. Federal District and was later used in the U.S. Supreme Court Case. I had a significant role in why all people can marry both in Wisconsin and nationwide.

The Cawley-Hefter family at Marriage Equality Celebration

During the last five years, I began consciously seeking the next step: a path that would allow me to go deeper with the advocacy work I had already been doing. My home church, First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, where I have been a member over 20 years showed me how all aspects of my justice work, my non-profit management, my art and my faith could all be combined in ministry.

This deepening and seeking led me to seminary at Meadville Lombard Theological School – the largest Unitarian Universalist identified seminary.

I’ve been deepening my spiritual practice, developing ministry for all ages, including children in all aspects of worship, adults in all aspects of religious education and faith formation, forming a ministry welcoming transgender/gender non-binary people and their loved ones deeper into our faith, all while building my theology of beauty and helping others access their greatest potential.

I have often quipped that my mission in life is “scheming for good.” Ministering within Unitarian Universalism is a natural progression of my social justice mission of inclusion and equity.

Chaplaining at Planned Parenthood was pivotal in my growth as a minster. I extended my studies there and completed two units of Clinical Pastoral Education through Community Care Chaplains while chaplaining patients, families and staff at the largest abortion clinic in Wisconsin.

I bring evangelical passion to all I do, illustrating for me what it means to be wildly passionate about spreading justice. (Yes, you can be an evangelical Unitarian Universalist by spreading our lifesaving faith to others.)

I have gone through my share of tragedies. I have tried to learn from my heartbreaks and to use them to make me a better minister. I lean into my spiritual practices more when health or life calamities arise. My walking, photography, drawing #PrayingTheLake, reading, and my art all nurture me. I also care for myself by forming deep bonds with my family, friends and colleagues. I also nurture myself with a team of health and wellness professionals including an art therapist supporting me as a minister.

denise headshot