Reverend Denise M. Cawley

Unitarian Universalist Minister, Artist, Chaplain

Interim Minister, Countryside Church,  Unitarian Universalist, Palatine, IL

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 who believes in the life-saving power of our theology. I bring my values home to my family and out into the world, co-creating our theology with other Unitarian Universalists. I share in putting my faith into action to change systems of oppression.
  • 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 CHIEF PEOPLE OFFICER, managing people and systems to align with mission, using strategy and processes aimed at building and retaining an exceptional teams.
  • FISCAL STEWARD, translating ends statements and mission into donor development, budget and finance, to align ethics and values of organization.
  • CAPACITY CONSCIENCE ADVISOR, able to identify opportunities for efficiencies, reprioritize processes and create innovative approaches, while acting as a collaborative partner on leadership teams.
  • 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 names the fears and aspirations of those I am privileged to minister to and gently inquires about the roots of those fears.
  • 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.
  • A CURIOUS INQUIRER who brings questions to systems to move them to their next place of growth. 
  • A RESOURCE for tools to fuel individual and community journeys, aiming to build a community of seekers who are all learning, growing and co-creating our growing covenant.

I am a minister in everything I do.

Whether I am preparing sermons, accompanying the bereaved, developing small group ministry or helping the stewardship team prepare a new campaign, I try to offer my congregants inspiration, resources and rituals to act out their faith. Offering a blend of pastoral presence and spiritual midwifery I love to help birth people to their next stage of personal and congregational development. While I come with lots of congregational management tools, and I have a gift in pastoral situations, I like to have fun too. Let’s create pageants, parades, rituals and joy in our togetherness.

Denise preaching, wearing one of her hand-dyed scarves

Emergent Leadership

I describe how I do ministry and my theology by talking about queering my faith. To queer something – as a verb means to not accept yes or no, either or, but to look at things from many angles, to examine path’s that are not typical or expected, but instead ones that offer new perspectives. I think of it as turning everything I was taught over and over in my mind, questioning it and examining new ways to see spiritual seeking. I have done this from an early age. This type of leadership is described in Adrienne Maree Brown’s book, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. I bring principles of Emergent Leadership to inspire and guide a congregation.

Fire Communion

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

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.

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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.

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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 art making, nature, health and wellness professionals, mentors, systems coaches, and professional development courses.

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Plus, cuddling my dogs and my son are essential for my health and joy.

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I identify as queer, Romani, and someone who sits on the margins of many worlds. My great grandmother escaped slavery. I am a teacher, healer and protector. My ancestors were resilient survivors of many traumatic histories. I learned their hardiness, frugality and loyalty. They were also a people of creative solutions, which I aim to embody.

I was married and partnered with my wife for over 23 years, and we created a lot of good in the world. I am divorced. I now live with my partner Rev. Matt Aspin, who is also a Unitarian Universalist. We love ministering together. We currently live in Milwaukee, WI where we enjoy raising our kids, laughing at our dogs, gardening, cooking, writing, being in nature, and scheming for good together every chance we get. I am famous for foraging in my kitchen to make amazing meals. You can find us swimming, canoeing, fishing (I mostly swim, paint and draw. They mostly fish), playing fierce games of Uno and making puzzles. We all love nature, and we like naps too.

denise headshot