The Year in Review: Unitarian Universalism

What a wild ride we Unitarian Universalists had in 2017.

The wildest part of the year happened last spring, when Peter Morales, the first Latino president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), resigned from office, with only a few months left in his term. The events that led up to his resignation were somewhat bizarre. Two of the finalists for a senior staff position at the UUA were both members of the UUA Board, which should make us wonder just how incestuous UUA hiring is (I mean, seriously, can’t you find viable candidates outside your volunteer board? — don’t you know how bad that looks?). Then when the white male gets hired in preference to the Latina woman, social media erupts in accusations of “Racism!”

Shouting “Racism!” was not a bad response, but hardly anyone mentioned the sexism involved. Now it’s not sexism every time the man gets hired over the woman. Nor is it always sexism when the man who gets hired is an ordained minister and the woman is a layperson (for while anyone who has done feminist power analysis knows that sexism often hides behind choosing the person with the most professional credentials, on the other hand sometimes the person with more professional credentials is in fact more qualified). And it’s not always sexism when the woman has a background in “women’s work” (which was true in this case; the woman in this case is a religious educator, and works with children, in a profession that is underpaid compared to parish ministry). But it most definitely was sexism when Peter Morales said in an interview that he could not hire religious educators for senior staff positions because they were not capable of that kind of high level work.

I was astonished at the rage I felt after reading that Peter Morales thought I was incapable of working for him in a high level staff position, simply because I am a religious educator, someone who does “women’s work,” in a profession where more than 90% of my colleagues are women, many of whom are poorly-paid part-time workers. Had I been British, I would have given Peter Morales the two-finger salute; but since I’m a New Englander, that would be cultural misappropriation, so instead I looked in his general direction with withering scorn.

Coupled with my feeling of rage was the uncomfortable realization that Unitarian Universalism is seeing a resurgence of sexism and anti-woman behavior. In other words, that rage didn’t all come from a few stupid remarks by Peter Morales.

For instance, when I talked to people who were at the annual conference of the Liberal Religious Eudcators Association which candidate, and asked them which of the UUA presidential candidates they were going to vote for, one religious educator said, “None of them.” When I asked why, she said, in effect, that all of them appeared to be clueless about religious education, and none of them showed any inclination to make it a priority as president of the UUA.

And then I felt that all of the UUA presidential candidates were fairly clueless about the seriousness of clergy sexual misconduct. While there are indeed a few female clergy who have engaged in sexual misconduct (I personally know two), in general clergy sexual misconduct comes from sexism; at its root, clergy sexual typically grows out of male dominance and power games; mostly male games at which some women play. I had a conversation with one of the candidates where I specifically asked about her position on clergy sexual misconduct, and her response was a classic example of denial.

And yes, I was glad that so many people were talking on social media about racism within Unitarian Universalism. We need more of those kinds of conversations. Heck, we need more than conversations, we need to figure out how to actually address issues of racism and white supremacy within our congregations and in the denomination as a whole. But I remain troubled at how quickly feminism was left behind in the public conversations I saw on social media — how quickly Unitarian Universalists seemed to forget how, to use an old catch-phrase, “all oppressions are linked.” (Or, to put it in theological terms, all persons are a part of the “interdependent web of existence,” a term used by theologian Bernard Loomer to link all beings in a struggle for justice for all.) If we’re going to fight racism, we can’t sweep sexism under the rug.

And then of course another part of the wild ride within Unitarian Universalism in 2017 was that we finally elected our first woman president. I wish I could celebrate this historic moment, but when none of the candidates for the UUA presidency gave high priority to supporting children and youth religious education, and when all they seemed uneducated about clergy sexual misconduct, I find myself unable to generate much enthusiasm for this historic moment.

This brings me to another part of the wild ride that was 2017: Jim Key, the moderator of the UUA — the top volunteer position within the UUA — had to resign from his position on May 13, a month before he was to preside at the UUA annual meeting; he then died of cancer on June 2. When it came to fighting clergy sexual misconduct, Jim Key was one of the few bright spots in the UUA; he made the issue a priority of his term as moderator. And as I understand it, when Peter Morales resigned, he was a strong advocate for having three people share the interim presidency to replace Peter Morales — one of whom was a woman, and another of whom was a layperson — all of which looks like feminism in action. When Jim Key died, we lost one of the bright shining lights in the fight against sexism within the UUA.

Continuing with the wild ride in Unitarian Universalism in 2017, after Jim Key’s death, two co-moderators were appointed to replace him. Having co-moderators feels to me like a good way to continue the feminist legacy that Jim Key left through his work fighting clergy sexual misconduct. The fact that power is being shared between a male co-moderator and a female co-moderator seems to me a fine way to model the way we could be living out our values as Unitarian Universalists. The fact that the male co-moderator is a religious educator also seems to me to be powerfully symbolic — here’s a man doing “women’s work,” who is tapped for the top volunteer position in the UUA.

So 2017 offered a wild ride to those of us Unitarian Universalists who still believe in gender fairness. The first woman president of the UUA! — power sharing at the highest levels of the UUA! — hooray! And then on the other hand, religious education continues to be devalued by UUA leadership, and by many congregational leaders; too many Unitarian Universalist leaders at the national and local levels continue to remain in denial about clergy sexual misconduct; women are still underrepresented in top UUA staff positions; women ministers continue to have a lower average salary than men, and continue to be under-represented in the “big” prestigious pulpits; the trend in Sunday school enrollment continues slightly downward in spite of the fact that we’re still in the midst of a mini-Baby Boom. As a radical feminist, I see a few things to cheer in Unitarian Universalism in 2017 — and many more things that make me feel sexism is alive and well.

We had a wild ride in 2017, didn’t we? And I didn’t even have space in this post to talk about racism within the UUA — to say nothing of the progress of “regionalization” (generally good news, in spite of a few teething pains), or the fact that Unitarian Universalists have about the highest average age of any religious group in the UUA (not good news), or the growing trend of political hegemony within Unitarian Universalism (bad news for both Republican Unitarian Universalists, and for leftists like me).

Let’s hope we do better in 2018….

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