There’s a new smiling face behind the pulpit at Baraboo’s First United Methodist Church.
The Rev. Marianne Cotter, who was appointed to the church after the Rev. Donna Miller announced that she would be retiring this summer, delivered her first sermon to her new congregation Sunday.
Cotter, a Wisconsin native, found her way into the ministry while attending Boston University in the early 1980s. Originally pursing graduate work in social ethics, she soon found herself drawn to the university’s School of Theology, a Methodist seminary and the alma mater of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Cotter remembered seeing the statue of the slain civil rights leader every day on campus and said the school’s strong commitment to teaching about social justice figured strongly into her decision to change focus.
“I began to sense that God could use my gifts and skills better in the ministry than in college teaching,” she said, sitting next to some unpacked boxes in her Baraboo office.
Cotter, who had grown up in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, graduated in 1984 and was ordained in the Unitarian Universalist Association.
After graduating from seminary, she became engaged to the Rev. Jim Cotter, one of her former classmates who had been ordained in the United Methodist Church. Jim Cotter, a Madison native, was serving as a pastor near Chippewa Falls. The two married in 1985 and moved to Jim Falls, near Eau Claire, where Marianne Cotter served a nearby Unitarian Universalist community part-time.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, the spouses alternated between serving as pastors in their respective denominations and staying home full-time to care for their two young sons.
While Jim Cotter was serving a church in Bonduel, near Shawano, Marianne Cotter began to feel a calling within.
“During that time, I became a United Methodist,” she said.
Cotter’s spiritual journey into the church she would eventually serve began with an experience while in seminary. Unitarian Universalists don’t typically celebrate communion, Cotter said. But one day she opted to receive communion at the chapel service.
“In that service, I felt that God was really working,” she said. “… Before that, I had always believed in God, that God was this impersonal force that was out there in nature, and it wasn’t anything that I had a personal relationship with, but when I took communion for the first time and when I was in that communion service, I understood for the first time really what communion is all about. And I really felt in taking that bread and that juice that God’s love was for the whole world but that it was also for me and that Christ had come … to save the whole world and that Christ had come for me.”
Cotter felt a new sense of peace, and the experience was one that worked to later transform her life’s work.
Cotter was ordained a deacon in the United Methodist Church in 1997 and served churches in Denmark, Brookfield, Marshall and Madison before coming to Baraboo. Her most recent appointment was at Trinity United Methodist Church in Madison.
Although her theological viewpoint has shifted from the non-creedal approach of the Unitarian tradition to the Methodist doctrine, Cotter’s uniqueness as a person and her identity as a pastor stem from a lifetime of experiences.
She feels her faith background offers her a strong focus on the intellectual pursuit of religious ideas and unique insight into the concerns and questions of those with no denominational or faith background.
“I feel like I can help people to think about their faith in a way that will help them make sense of it in their lives,” she said.
Cotter said ethics and social justice remain important objectives of her ministry. She has served on the Board of Church and Society and Commission on Religion and Race for the church’s annual conference and on the board of the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice.
Cotter said she is committed to the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the United Methodist Church.
“That’s been one of my passions as well, and I’d been very active in that in my previous appointment at Trinity United Methodist Church in Madison,” she said.
Cotter said she also feels strongly about stewardship of the Earth and helping people explore their relationship with and responsibility to the world around them.
“I hope to be able to live out some of that commitment,” Cotter said.
Cotter said that in the short time she’s been in Baraboo, she has seen many ways in which First United Methodist’s members are working to serve the community, and she’s excited to be a part of that work.
“I’m excited to be working with the staff here, too,” she said, adding that Miller and the Staff-Parish Relations Committee did a lot to make for a very smooth transition.
“It’s been a very positive experience,” said Cotter, who had become acquainted with Miller when the women served together in the Methodist Federation for Social Action.
Cotter’s son Carl, 23, who graduated from Iowa State University in 2013, lives in town and is working on a 10-month internship at the Aldo Leopold Foundation. His brother, Samuel, 27, lives in Oklahoma with his family. Many other family members live nearby in Madison.
“I’m certainly excited to be in this area where there’s so much natural beauty and so much history of Wisconsin,” said Marianne Cotter.
Jim Cotter is currently on a one-year sabbatical. He plans to continue work on his website, The Jesus Way, which contains information about “how to live as Jesus lived and taught.”
“I’m looking forward to this time to work on it now,” he said.
He said he, too, has been enjoying the couple’s new community and has found Baraboo to be a friendly, welcoming place.
“I think they’re very lucky to get Marianne, and I think Marianne is very blessed to be here,” he said.
As she brought out the hand-carved Ark of the Covenant replica she uses in her children’s sermons, Marianne Cotter recalled a dinner prayer once recited by her father-in-law, Dale Cotter, who crafted the piece.
“Dear God, make us useful people,” she remembered, thinking back to the meal.
Cotter said she’s often thought of that simple prayer and is driven by a desire to help people grow in their faith and serve the world joyfully, two things she worked to do at Trinity and goals she brings with her to Baraboo.
“That’s been a source of joy for me,” she said.