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After 34 years, retiring Utah faith leader remembered for love of ministry, jazz music

SHARE After 34 years, retiring Utah faith leader remembered for love of ministry, jazz music
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The Rev. Tom Goldsmith, of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, is photographed at the church on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. The Rev. Goldsmith is retiring after 34 years of service.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The Rev. Tom Goldsmith can still remember the envy he felt for a friend at Harvard Divinity School in the 1970s.

The friend was on his way to law school when he said God tapped him on the shoulder and redirected him to become a Presbyterian minister.

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The Rev. Tom Goldsmith sits in the pews of the First Unitarian Church in 2016. Rev. Goldsmith is retiring after 34 years of service in the ministry.

Mary Tull

“I was in awe,” the Rev. Goldsmith said. “I wish something like that would have happened to me. I never got as clear a signal as my Presbyterian friend.”

His call to the ministry was far less dramatic.

Instead of going to graduate school in North Carolina in 1972, the Rev. Goldsmith decided to try Divinity School for a year and see if it was a good fit. He ended up loving it, and guided by a series of “continual affirmations that he was doing the work he was meant to do,” he went on to become the senior minister of the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City.

After 34 years of service — a record in the church’s 130-year history — the 71-year-old the Rev. Goldsmith has decided to retire. His final sermon and official date of retirement will be May 16.

“It’s been a wonderful 34 years,” he said. “It really has.”

Mary Tull, the minister’s wife, said the experience has been a “joy.” Both know they will miss their friends and the fellowship, but the timing feels right.

“He’s been there quite a few years, and we have some other things that we want to do. We have five granddaughters now that, with COVID-19, we haven’t seen for a year. Family is important at this stage of our life,” she said. “I know good things will continue to happen for First Unitarian Church. We will, from afar, enjoy seeing what happens. We love our church and the people in it.”

Gaylan Nielson, a member of First Unitarian who has served as an adviser to the Rev. Goldsmith, has known the senior minister for about 25 years. Under the Rev. Goldsmith’s leadership, the church has witnessed a significant transformation, including membership growth, expansion of church ministries, community outreach and activism, increased interest in the church’s music program and more, Nielson said.

The Rev. Goldsmith also has a talent for delivering memorable sermons.

“He is a highly beloved minister,” Nielson said. “If you ever heard his sermons, you would understand why he’s an extraordinarily good writer and gifted speaker, a very humorous, impactful and motivating speaker.”

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The Rev. Tom Goldsmith, of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, is photographed at the church on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. The Rev. Goldsmith is retiring after 34 years of service.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The son of German Jewish refugees, the Rev. Goldsmith was born in New York. After graduating from Harvard Divinity School in 1975, the Rev. Goldsmith began his ministry in Unitarian Universalist churches in the Boston area. He came to Utah and First Unitarian of Salt Lake City in 1987. His full ministry spans 46 years.

What the Rev. Goldsmith has learned over his nearly five decades of ministry is that it’s a “privilege to be invited into people’s lives during their struggles,” he said.

While at times the ministry can be rigorous and emotionally draining, the Rev. Goldsmith feels fortunate and grateful for how things have turned out.

“All told, I’ve had 46 years now, working in a privileged position of being with people,” he said. “Initially you think about ministry as a public thing. There you are up at the pulpit, you wax eloquently and blow people away with all your insights. That’s a small fraction of ministry. You are really in the trenches. That is what defines ministry. That will either break you or make you in terms of making a whole career of it, although it’s not a career in the typical sense, it’s a lifestyle.”

A large part of the Rev. Goldsmith’s ministry lifestyle has revolved around music.

“Music, at least for me, taps my spiritual sources,” he said.

When he was in his 20s, the Rev. Goldsmith started playing the banjo at children’s hospitals in Boston and continued for a time after arriving in Utah, his wife said.

“He was the banjo man,” Tull said. “He loved that work.”

His musical talents influenced the church choir, which has grown over the years from what Nielson described as an “small, unsophisticated choir” to two choirs of more than 60 combined members with performances at Carnegie Hall and other prominent events.

For 30 years the Rev. Goldsmith was heavily involved in Folk Vespers and Jazz Vespers, a quartet that played modern jazz and held concerts on Sunday. He loves jazz because for him, it profoundly complements the “word” of God.

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The Rev. Tom Goldsmith, of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, lights a chalice while being videotaped on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. The Rev. Goldsmith’s church services have been available online during the pandemic. A flame within a chalice is a primary symbol of the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“My words may not help the spiritual imagination to dance, but I know the music will,” he said.

The Jazz Vespers always attracted a crowd, Neilson said.

“It was the best jazz people in state of Utah and an amazing array of jazz programs,” Neilson said. “They brought in pack-the-house crowds every week. If church members had one gripe, it’s that we could come to our own church and not get a seat because there were people from everywhere in the community.”

Jazz Vespers served to unify the community, Tull said.

“It was some of the people in our regular congregation but many people from outside the congregation, a very diverse audience, with standing room only for 30 years,” the minister’s wife said. “That was a huge achievement. It was definitely ministry through music.”

The Rev. Goldsmith has no plans to leave Utah — “Utah is home” — although there will be trips to visit the grandchildren and long hikes in nature with his wife. He plans to give his successor “a lot of space” so the new ministry can be established.

How would he like to be remembered by those in his ministry and congregation?

“I’d like to be remembered as a person who loved the ministry, was grateful to be serving such a progressive congregation and I enjoy the fact that they would often laugh at my jokes,” he said.

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The Rev. Tom Goldsmith, of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, prepares to tape a sermon at the church on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. The Rev. Goldsmith is retiring after 34 years of service.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News