Irrelevant

I admit it, I’m feeling irrelevant.

As I watch a social media debate about accusations of “white supremacy” engulf my denomination, I’m all too aware that I’m on the far periphery of that debate.

Part of my problem, as I learned in a May 27 article on the UU World Web site, is that I’m a religious educator. According Peter Morales, who just resigned as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), this means I am not competent for leadership:

“Some have noted that a preference for ministers for certain staff positions also means the candidates will skew white, since there aren’t many UU clergy of color. Morales said the Association would be open to a religious educator in leadership positions but said they seldom have as much management experience as ministers. ‘So the question is, are you willing to overlook that and train them?’ he asked, adding, ‘you don’t want to set people up for failure’ by putting them in positions they aren’t ready for.”

Because I’m on the far periphery of my denomination, because I’m not privy to all the inside information that people on Facebook seem to have, I’m trying hard not to judge anyone who is centrally involved in this debate. But I’ve finally decided that I’m really angry about this comment by Peter Morales. In my first position as a part time Director of Religious Education, I had to hire, supervise, and in one case fire an employee; supervise a couple dozen volunteer staff; coordinate with committees and other staff; and manage events and projects. Yes, I made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of stupid things, but I gained a hell of a lot of management skills, and I was mentored by more experienced DREs who were very adept managers. I got more on-the-job leadership and management training in three years of part-time work than many parish ministers get in five years of full-time work.

But Peter Morales’ attitude is what I’ve come to expect from the cosy little in-group at the head of the UUA: — Religious educators must make poor leaders because, you know, it’s women’s work, and we all know that women don’t make good leaders. As for the male religious educators, if they had real skills they’d have become real ministers (I’m looking at you, Dan Harper).

Yes, I’m generalizing here. There are plenty of people at the UUA who value religious educators. But I have felt dismissed by UUA leaders; the only word for it is “patronized.” And it’s not just the UUA that is pervaded by that patronizing attitude of dismissal towards religious educators; many members and leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) do a marvelous job of being politely condescending towards religious education and religious educators; and the UUMA never seems to offer continuing education to its members about religious education, I guess because real ministers shouldn’t lower themselves to that level. I may be generalizing here, what I’m saying may not be true of specific individuals, but what I’m saying is generally true.

Not surprisingly, this kind of thing makes me angry. And I’m a middle-aged white guy. Imagine how I’d feel if I were not white, or if I were a woman.

Maybe part of the UUA’s problem is that we have too many ministers in senior leadership positions. More precisely, we have too many of a certain kind of UU minister with an inflated sense of self-importance, with blind spots about their own prejudices, and with strong connections to a loose network of powerful people within the denomination. Many of these are good people. But this loose network of powerful people in the upper echelons of the UUA (and of the UUMA) takes care of its members in ways that are not good. I have watched this network close ranks around their friends who committed sexual misconduct (I still remember the time I wound up yelling at a senior UUA staffer over the phone regarding a minister who had committed egregious sexual misconductor). I have watched this network provide soft landings for its members when they needed a new job. I also believe this network shunts competent women and competent people of color into the less prestigious jobs at the UUA (“she’ll be a good fit for the Religious Education Department”; “he’ll fit right in to the Diversity Office”; etc.).

At this point, I can see that I’ve let my anger get the better of me, and I’ve gone on too long. “Bring it home, preacher” is what they’d say in some congregations. So I’ll ask: How do we get out of this?

Well, I hold out little hope that any of the three candidates running for UUA president will show increased respect for religious educators (and no, being condescending and not listening are not signs of respect). If you can’t show respect for the people who are training up the next generation of Unitarian Universalists, that’s not a hopeful sign. And if you can’t show respect for religious educators, why would I believe that you could show respect for people of color?

Nor do I see any imminent signs of culture change at the UUA. I know there are good people on the UUA Board of Trustees, and good people working at the UUA in Boston, and as field staff. But UUA policy is set by General Assembly, and General Assembly is dominated by well-to-do white people who can afford a vacation in late June, and well-to-do ministers who have a big enough professional expenses budget to attend. In other words, it’s the same old people who can afford to meet face-to-face who are going to continue to set policy.

Maybe something will come out of the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism movement. I hope so, but I’m not counting on it.

If we’re going to make real change happen, I strongly believe it has to start from the grassroots: from our local congregations. That’s where I believe we can do the real work: face-to-face in local congregations, where we can respond creatively and specifically to immediate problems. Don’t wait for the UUA to lead the change: make your congregation lead the UUA. Make religious education central to your congregation. Make racial justice central to your congregation. Make your congregation fight against the resurgence of sexism.

As I write this, I realize that it might not be me who is irrelevant. Nor are we religious educators irrelevant, despite Peter Morales’ dismissal of us as incompetent. It might be that the UUA, the senior leaders at the UUA, their cronies in the UUMA and elsewhere: all of that is increasingly irrelevant.

6 thoughts on “Irrelevant”

  1. I know noting about current UU politics, so all I can say is I hear you, and what you say echoes what I hear from other privileged people who put identity justice over economic justice. Does anyone talk about getting more poor people into leadership positions in the UU?

  2. Will, very good point about getting poor people into leadership in the UUA. In order to get noticed by the UUA political machine, you either have to write a big check, or make regular appearances at national and regional events. But guess what? the national and regional events are only accessible to people who have money to travel, and who can take lots of time off from work.

  3. They’re exactly like science fiction conventions! (Okay, not exactly, but the basic principle holds.)

  4. (But, Dan, you’re also an ordained minister who was sole minister at a church for four years.)
    Unskilled hiring is an epidemic these days, and, as you note, Morales’s comment was pat and underinformed. For one thing, I would never assume a minister has any managerial savvy, while a DRE obviously has to at least manage a bunch of Sunday school teachers.
    And it’s important to note that at least two district executives in the West were not ordained ministers or anything close. They were civilians. (OK, so one ultimately got a vote of no confidence from a bunch of ministers.)
    Managerial skills are deficient across the board. It’s an invisible skill that is so critical to making good stuff happen. Perhaps managerial training intensives could be a UU offering—since it’s likely needed from the top down and far and wide in the UU kingdom.
    In the end, we might never know what happened with the Southern region director job. Sadly, many hiring decisions come down to whether the hiring body liked the candidate. And a comment about “the fit” is code for “no.”

  5. Will, I agree, although I see two small differences. If I want to vote for the Hugos, I can buy a non-attending membership in the next Worldcon, but until recently they did not allow non-attenders to vote at General Assembly. The other difference is that I can attend one of the regional science fiction conventions where I don’t have to travel, and get to hang out in the same room as the Big Name Authors and Big Name Fans, whereas if I want to hang out in the same room as the Big Name Ministers and Big Name Denominational Officials, I have to do some expensive travel.

    Oh, and one personal difference. I kinda miss being able to attend Boskone, and even though I no longer produce a fanzine I’d like to attend Corflu some day. But I’m fine with not attending General Assembly.

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