How not to handle sexual abuse

This week, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) provided a demonstration of how not to handle sexual abuse claims.

The U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating sexual abuse in the SBC. Two days ago, on March 6, SBC officials told Religion News Service that the DOJ investigation is over:

“‘On February 29, 2024, counsel for the SBC Executive Committee was informed that the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York has concluded its investigation into the EC with no further action to be taken,’ Jonathan Howe, Executive Committee interim president and CEO, told Religion News Service in a text….”

The next day, on March 7, abuse survivor Tiffany Thigpen told Religion News Service that the DOJ investigation had not been closed:

“‘The lead investigator from the DOJ concerning this investigation was as surprised as we were by these reports. She answered both Megan [lively, another abuse survivor] and I immediately when we called (separately) and said the investigation is very much open and active,’ Thigpen told Religion News Service in a text….”

The DOJ is unable to comment publicly about ongoing investigations, so they refused to comment to Religion News Service. The fact that they can’t comment is in itself revealing. And on March 7, Baptist Press reported that SBC legal counsel has confirmed that the investigation is ongoing.

Obviously, this is a bone-headed move on the part of SBC leadership. But the rest of us can learn from this. The main takeaway — learn from Yogi Berra that it isn’t over till it’s over. So don’t do any victory laps until it’s actually, really and truly, finally over.

How to report clergy misconduct

According to a Religion News Service article, the Episcopal Church has beefed up its procedures for reporting clergy misconduct:

“A blue ‘Report Misconduct’ button now appears in the top right corner of the Episcopal Church’s homepage. The button leads to an informational page on Title IV with a step-by-step breakdown of Title IV processes involving bishops and a link to report bishops.”

Good for the Episcopal Church for making it easier to report misconduct. Here’s a screenshot showing the blue misconduct button:

Mind you, it’s not perfect. When you view the website on your phone (and half of all web use is now from phones), the blue misconduct button disappears into a menu.

But it’s a heck of a lot better than the UUA website, where it’s quite difficult to figure out how to report misconduct.

The ongoing Southern Baptist abuse crisis and us

Today brought another news story about the ongoing Southern Baptist abuse crisis: “A Southern Baptist leader hid decades of abuse. Will his fall doom SBC abuse reforms?” Why should Unitarian Universalists pay attention to this? Because we can learn a great deal from what’s going on in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Like the Southern Baptists, we Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have a history of sex abuse. (Nor are we alone: nearly every American institution, from schools to sports to health care to entertainment, has its own history of abuse.) I’ve mostly heard allegations about male UU ministers and lay leaders targeting women over the age of 18. But I’ve also heard allegations about powerful men targeting legal minors.

And like the Southern Baptists, we have a decentralized structure. Each local congregation is theoretically autonomous. If a local congregation wants to hire a minister who’s known to have a history of abuse, there’s no way to stop them.

From today’s news story, it appears that the Southern Baptists have used their decentralized structure to avoid taking responsibility for dealing with their sex abuse crisis:

“…Southern Baptist leaders boast of their power to spread the gospel but take little responsibility when things go wrong. And local congregations have little power to fix things that are broken on a national level. ‘The beauty of SBC is that we’re local and autonomous,’ said Adam Wyatt, a Mississippi pastor and member of the SBC Executive Committee, recently. ‘The challenge is, we’re local and autonomous.”

A lawsuit against Paul Pressler, one of the most powerful Southern Baptist leaders over the past fifty years, alleges that Southern Baptist leaders might talk about local autonomy, but they have also been evading responsibility.

This is what we Unitarian Universalists can learn from the Southern Baptists. We, too, like to talk about the autonomy of local congregations. To what extent do we (and I mean all of us) use local autonomy as an excuse to evade our responsibility to protect against sex abuse?

I think we Unitarian Universalists have made more progress at dealing with sex abuse than have the Southern Baptists. But we have lots more work to do before we really address the problem. At least we can learn from the Southern Baptist debacle that local autonomy is no excuse.

Parental rights, parental consent

An article in today’s Boston Globe by Dana Goldstein, “New school laws have unintended consequences in Fla.: bureaucracy,” reports on unintended consequences of Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education Act.” The Globe picked up this article from the New York Times, which ran it on Wed., Jan. 10 — here’s a free version of the article.

Under Florida’s new law, many school districts are now requiring permission slips for what used to be routine matters. For example, some school districts are now require permission forms for putting a band-aid on a child, because the new law requires that parents be able to opt out of health care services for their children.

The result, according to Goldstein, is increased paperwork: “Educators across the state say recent laws and regulations around parental consent have created an entirely new bureaucracy, filled with forms and nagging phone calls to parents.” Goldstein goes on to report: “While no state has gone as far as Florida with parental consent requirements, dozens of states are considering bills inspired by Florida’s laws.”

I don’t expect many new laws requiring parental consent for religious education programs. Nevertheless, one result of law like this is that parents are coming to expect to be allowed to exercise more granular control over their children’s experiences. Congregations are going to have to be increasingly sensitive to parent expectations — and congregations are going to face an increasing paperwork burden as they track parent consent on a widening range of matters.

Why clergy are quitting

A group of social scientists at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research have been investigating the impact of the COVID pandemic on organized religion. They have just issued a new report titled “‘I’m Exhausted All the Time’: Exploring the Factors Leading to Growing Clergy Discontentment.” A PDF of the full report is available here.

One key finding in this report is that in the aftermath of the panedmic, the number of congregational clergy who are both considering leaving their current position and who are thinking about changing careers keeps increasing. We’ve been seeing some of this in Unitarian Universalism — I personally know of several UU ministers who have not only left their congregations, but who are now transitioning to a new career.

I participated in this study — I have no idea how they found my email address, but they sent me the survey forms and I filled it out. Now that I see the results of the report, it turns out that I’m in the minority of clergy who still love their jobs and who have no intention of leaving ministry.

But the fact remains that many other clergy are leaving the profession. It remains to be seen what effect this has on organized religion. Will it have a positive effect, in that new clergy come along whose expectations for the profession are more aligned with the new realities of congregational life? Will it have a negative effect, by reducing the pool of qualified ministers such that too many congregations can’t find qualified leadership? Or something else entirely?

Year in review, pt. 2

In part 1, I reviewed the year in U.S. religion. In this second part, I’ll review they year in Unitarian Universalism.

How non-UUs viewed us

Let’s start with how others perceived us this past year. Unitarian Universalists are a tiny, tiny group, but we made the news with four stories this year. I’ll start with the lesser stories, and save the big one for the end.

1. Religion News Service (RNS) covered the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) back in June, and wrote about two main stories. One story, with the headline “Unitarian Universalism revisits identity, values at 2023 gathering,” talked about the proposed revision to ARticle II of the UUA bylaws. It was the kind of article where you felt the reporter was working pretty hard to make it sound newsworthy. Revising bylaws isn’t going to be of much interest to non-Unitarian Universalists.

2. RNS was much more interested in the fact that the “Unitarian Universalists elect first woman of color, openly queer president,” especially considering the fact that this new president was taking over from the first woman who served as president. They wrote (by my count) four separate articles on this basic story.

Continue reading “Year in review, pt. 2”

Year in review, pt. 1

It’s been an eventful year, both for U.S. organized religion generally, and for Unitarian Universalism in particular. In this post, I’ll start by reviewing some of the key developments in organized religion in the U.S. In a second post, I’ll review some of the explosive developments within Unitarian Universalism.

1. Culture wars and religion

Religion is right at the center of the ongoing escalation of the culture wars in the United States. And the role of religion in the culture wars has gotten more complex than ever. To try to make sense out of it all, I’ll consider some of the culture wars battlegrounds separately.

Continue reading “Year in review, pt. 1”

More alleged misconduct, and a glitch in the notification system

I received an email today signed by Sarah Lammert, the executive secretary of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The MFC was notifying congregational leaders that Rev. Stephen Furrer had resigned from fellowship with the UUA rather than face a “Full Fellowship Review…for sexual misconduct.”

Mostly when these emails are sent out, there is just the simple notification that the minister has either resigned from fellowship before charges could be brought, or was removed from fellowship. Unusually, this email added: “The Rev. Furrer served many congregations as a settled or interim minister over more than four decades as a minister. In reviewing his record, it became clear that the Rev. Furrer had a broader pattern of boundary violations which impacted at least four of these congregations in differing degrees.”

Presumably the UUA will contact those four congregations. And perhaps the UUA will contact all the congregations the Furrer served. But there are others of us who might have reasons for wanting to know if Furrer had served a particular congregation — for example, a minister or DRE thinking of accepting a job at a congregation may want to do a little research to see if a congregation has a history of past clergy misconduct (something congregations frequently neglect to tell job applicants). Or, for another example, congregational leaders wondering if Furrer once served a nearby congregation, with possible effects on their own congregation.

So, out of curiosity, I checked the online UUA Directory of professional leaders. Not surprisingly, Furrer’s entry in that directory had already been removed, which is entirely appropriate. However, this leaves us with no official record of his employment history. His own personal website still happens to provide a listing of his ministerial positions up to 2018. That list follows, with my annotations in square brackets []:

1981-1982 Asst. Minister, Berkeley, CA [not clear if this is the Berkeley fellowship or the Berkeley church Confirmed this was the Berkeley church]
1983-1987 Settled Minister, West Redding, CT
1987-1988 Interim Minister, Saco, ME
1988-1991 Settled Minister, Vineyard Haven, MA
1991-1993 Interim Minister, Berlin, MA
1993-1999 Settled Minister, East Suburban Pittsburgh, PA [presumably part-time, combined with the following two contract positions:]
1994-1996 Contract Minister, Morgantown, WV
1996-1999 Contract Minister, Indiana, PA
1999-2000 Interim Minister, Binghamton, NY
2000-2009 Settled Minister, Santa Fe, NM
2009-2010 Interim Minister, Santa Monica, CA
2010-2011 Interim Minister, Long Beach, CA
2011-2013 Interim Minister, San Francisco, CA
2013-2014 Interim Minister, Redwood City, CA
2014-2016 Interim Minister, Fullerton, CA
2016-2017 Interim Minister, Rancho Palo Verdes, CA
2017-2018 Interim Minister, Livermore, CA
2018-???? Developmental Minister, Bellevue, WA [a quick glance at their website shows this was through at least 2021]

All this raises an interesting point. The UUA maintains an online list of ministers who have been removed from fellowship, or who have resigned from fellowship pending misconduct investigations. Once they’re out of fellowship, they disappear from the UUA Directory, which is appropriate. But the UUA Directory is the only place where you can find a public list stating which congregations a given minister has served. The unfortunate result is that histories of clergy misconduct may be obscured.

There’s a simple fix. The online list of ministers who have been removed from fellowship, or who have resigned from fellowship pending misconduct investigations, should include a list of where each minister had served, and when.

Oh, and here’s a caveat so I don’t get sued by someone — I have no personal knowledge of this case, and as far as I know this case has not been adjudicated in a court of law. Thus I cannot comment on the truth of the allegations. I’m simply using this case as an example to point out what I consider to be a flaw in the way the UUA reports cases of alleged clergy misconduct.

Update, 12/8: A sentence that got dropped during revision was restored (last sentence, third paragraph); two minor typographical errors fixed.

Finding the sacred for Gen Z

Springtide Research Institute recently published a study of Gen Z titled “The State of Religion and Young People 2023: Exploring the Sacred.” They charge twenty-two bucks for the full report, so you might want to check out Religion News Service’s excellent summary.

A key finding, in my opinion: Gen Z are quite willing to find and define sacred moments outside of traditional religion. Tricia Bruce, executive director of Springtide Research, told Religion New Service:

“‘Certainly, we might expect young people to tell us, “Yes, I’ve experienced the sacred when I attended a religious service or in prayer,” and they do, but they also told us “I experienced the sacred in nature,” “I experienced the sacred when I got into college,” “I experienced the sacred in a virtual connection,”‘ Bruce told Religion News Service in an interview. ‘Creative spaces that we may not think of as sacred themselves, or as religious, or we may not materially construct as such, young people are telling us that, in fact, that’s where the sacred lives for them.'”

Actually, some of us do in fact view “creative spaces” as sacred. (1) I’m one of those people, and I’m not even in Gen Z. I’ve had some of my most intense sacred experiences through the arts — in my case, through things like the visual arts, making music with others, poetry, and so on. (2)

Apparently, the survey also found that 69% of people in Gen Z have experienced a sacred moment in nature. Here again, although I’m not in Gen Z, I’m one of those people who experiences the sacred in nature.

Honestly, I don’t often experience the sacred in a worship service. (When I do, it mostly comes through music or group singing.) For me, the point of a worship service is not to experience transcendent experiences, but to provide a community where I can make sense of the transcendent experiences I have in the rest of my life. And then, once I make sense of those experiences, I want to figure out a way to use them to make the world a better place.In my opinion, transcendent experiences can be justified only if they bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice (otherwise they’re just self-indulgent), and if you want to make justice happen you’re going want to be part of a community.


(1) I actually don’t like the term “sacred experiences.” It sounds too Christian-centric to me, and not in a good way. I prefer to talk about mystical experiences, or better yet transcendent experiences.

(2) I’ve always taken this for granted, but I guess it’s not obvious to others. Maybe I need to write more about how I have transcendent experiences through the arts.

UU congregation in Texas firebombed

The Community Unitarian Universalist Church of Plano, Texas, posted the following statement on its Facebook page on July 23 (a similar statement appears on its website):

“Firebomb Attack on July 23, 2023 at Community Unitarian Universalist Church of Plano

“On Sunday, July 23, 2023, between 12:00 am and 12:30 am, a firebomb attack took place at Community Unitarian Universalist Church of Plano. An incendiary device with a chemical accelerant was thrown or placed at the front doors of the main church building. The fire and smoke caused the monitored fire alarm system for the building to go off, which notified church personnel. The City of Plano 911 system received a call from a passerby who saw the fire at the same time. City of Plano Firefighters arrived on the scene and were able to extinguish the fire. Because of the quick action of Plano’s First Responders, the damage to the church property was limited to the front doors, the materials directly outside the front doors, and the entrance foyer. There were no injuries. Plano Police and Fire Department personnel did a thorough collection of evidence of the crime scene. They also interviewed multiple church personnel who arrived on-site to assess the incident. 

“Church officials have been reviewing building security and working with the Plano Police Department since the intrusion of a hate group in the church building during and after Worship Service on Sunday, June 25. That group has posted video of their activities inside the church on various social media sites.

“The church community asks for your support and prayers at this time as we deal with the impact of this incident. Thank you and blessings.”

The “hate group” mentioned in the press release consisted of Bo Alford and Cassady Campbell, both right-wing YouTubers, and and unidentified person. On July 27, NBC News reported that the men were engaged in making a video for Alford’s YouTube channel:

“Alford’s video, titled ‘We acted LGBT at LGBT Church,’ [was] uploaded to YouTube on July 12. In the video, Alford, fellow YouTuber Cassady Campbell and another man film themselves visiting the Plano church. They ask the congregation about their beliefs while in their words, ‘pretending to be LGBTQ’ with the goal of ‘testing’ the church’s theology and exposing ‘false teachers.’ At the end of the video, which has been viewed more than 200,000 times, the men stand by the church sign and ask viewers to ‘pray for these people,’ calling the church ‘pagan and satanic.'”

On July 28, USA Today reported that Alford had removed the video from YouTube. The original NBC story had a statement from Alford saying in part, “First and foremost, my prayers go out to anyone effected [sic] by the fire. As to the accusations, My [sic] channel spreads the message of Jesus and his love for us. If you watch the video you will see the members of the church having nothing but nice things to say about us. She enjoyed our conversation and even ended it with a hug. The fact we are being labeled as a hate group and being tied to this fire in any way is appalling.” Well, actually what’s appalling is that this silly young man somehow justifies his lies about his sexual orientation, and his lies about why he visited the church, just because a kind woman gave him a hug. And now his foolish thoughtlessness will be perceived by many people as being representative of all Christians; his actions are part of the reason why so many people are leaving Christianity these days. (Please do us all a favor and don’t go search for his YouTube account; if he gets lots of views from this little escapade, it’ll make him want to do it again.)

Back to the Community UU Church of Plano. It looks like their building did not experience much in the way of physical damage, fortunately. And according to their Facebook page, they continue to hold worship services. All best wishes to them, and may they thrive and continue to provide an oasis of love in Plano.