Transparency

The Rabbinical Assembly, which credentials rabbis in the Conservative movement, has begun posting a publicly available list of “Rabbis Expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly.” Included on the list are all eight rabbis expelled since 2004, along with an apologetic note reading, “Please note the RA began posting this information in 2021 and this list does not reflect decisions prior to 2004.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was equally transparent about ministers who have been expelled from fellowship? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could go to the web page of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, and click on a link that would lead to a list of all the Unitarian Universalist ministers from 2004 on who have been expelled or suspended from fellowship with the UUA?

Religion News Service, where I learned about this story, interviewed the head of the Rabbinical Assembly, and he told why they adopted this new policy:

“‘An important part of preserving the safety of anyone who comes into a religious institution is trust in the integrity of their clergy,’ said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, chief executive of the Rabbinical Assembly and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm. ‘When we have rabbis who fail to meet our ethical standards and have been expelled or suspended, it’s important to be transparent about that.'”

If we Unitarian Universalists want to preserve safety and maintain trust in our institutions, we should follow the Rabbinical Assembly’s lead. But our denominational leadership — including the UUA Board, UUA staff, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA), and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee — haven’t been willing to provide this level of transparency.

(Footnote for goyim: “Conservative” in this context doesn’t mean what most Unitarian Universalists mean when they say “conservative.” The Conservatives ordain both women and LGBT people as rabbis, use critical-scientific methods, and are open to a variety of opinions on religious matters. And when it comes to this new policy of transparency around clergy misconduct, Conservative Jews may be said to be far more progressive than Unitarian Universalists.)

Another kind of misconduct

I recently received one of those emails from Sarah Lammert, the Executive Director of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC), saying that a minister has been removed from fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). This email, sent to “Congregational Board Leaders and UU Religious Professionals,” informed us that Scott McNeill “was removed from UUA Fellowship by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee on April 11, 2021 for misconduct involving bullying/abusive behavior in the workplace.”

I can’t remember hearing about any other minister removed from fellowship for bullying and abusive behavior in the workplace. I’m not able to confirm that, because apparently the MFC doesn’t maintain a comprehensive, publicly available list of who’s been removed from fellowship. But in combing through old email, here’s what I came up with:

In 2020, the MFC removed Todd Eklof from fellowship “based on the Rev. Dr. Eklof’s refusal to engage with the fellowship review process.” In 2019, Jason Shelton resigned from fellowship “due to self-reported [sexual] misconduct” (and the MFC infamously sent out Shelton’s self-excusing explanation of his resignation). In 2018, David Morris was put “on a three-year probation” due to “a complaint of child abuse.” In 2017, Ron Robinson was suspended from fellowship following his arrest on child pornography charges, with the proviso that if he were found guilty, he would be removed from fellowship (I have no email stating he was removed from fellowship, though I found news stories stating that he pleaded guilty).

Prior to 2017, the MFC sent out these notifications via U.S. Postal Service. Thinking back, I don’t remember any other removal from fellowship due to bullying and abusive behavior in the workplace. Based on my research into UU history, I’m pretty sure workplace bullying by ministers is nothing new, but in the absence of a comprehensive listing of ministers removed from fellowship I can’t be sure how many ministers were actually removed from fellowship by the MFC for bullying and abusive behavior.

So the question for me remains: Is it a new development for the MFC to discipline a minister for bullying and abusive behavior?

In a subsequent post, I’ll write about what bullying and abusive behavior by ministers looks like.

Making organized religion look bad

Warren Throckmorton has been watching prominent evangelical Christian pastors and leaders during this election cycle, documenting how these “court evangelicals” support Donald Trump. Two days ago, Throckmorton wrote a blog post asking, “Trump’s Denial of Election Reality: Will Court Evangelicals Play Along?”

The answer, of course, is “yes.” Many prominent white evangelical pastors continue to support Trump, and are now issuing statements accusing Joe Biden of stealing the election.

While these pastors doubtless think they are doing the Lord’s work, sadly what they are really doing is undermining organized religion. The many American citizens who are not white evangelicals are going to watch this kind of behavior — tweets that undermine democratic process, statements that deny reality — and begin to wonder about Christian churches. And by extension, wonder about the purpose of all organized religion — read the comments, and you’ll find someone calling for an end to tax-exempt status for religious organizations.

I’m a bit resentful because even though I’m about as far from these white evangelical pastors as you can possibly be (OK, I am white, too, but there aren’t many other similarities), as a minister I’m going to experience an erosion of trust because of the way they come across as hypocritical (Christians implicitly inciting violence), violating the separation of church and state, and out of touch with reality.

Sadly, these “court evangelicals” will not drive away the white evangelicals who fill their churches — but they will reduce the overall number of people who are willing to have anything to do with organized religion. So I predict an upwards tick in the “nones,” those with no religious affiliation, following this election.

Equally sadly, I’m increasingly convinced that what these “court evangelicals” do is really politics, not religion. So they’re destroying organized religion, but not actually doing religion themselves.

“Religious people tend to look like pretty good neighbors”

Several sociologists have found a characteristic that seems to predict with some accuracy who will flout social distancing restrictions designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19: Christian nationalists.

“Samuel Perry (associate professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma) and his colleagues, such as Andrew Whitehead of Indiana University and Joshua Grubbs of Bowling Green State University, argue in a series of new papers that Christian nationalism is either the single best predictor or a top predictor of whether a person will flout social distancing recommendations, be skeptical of science, find nothing racist about calling COVID-19 the ‘China virus’ or argue that lockdown orders threaten the economy and liberty — all while de-prioritizing the threat to the vulnerable.” — as reported by Religion News Service.

At the same time, the ideology of Christian nationalism apparently has only a weak connection to the Christian religion:

“In fact, religious devotion of any kind often had the opposite effect to Christian nationalism, and was the leading predictor of whether someone would take precautionary measures. ‘We found religious people were more likely to wash their hands, to use hand sanitizer and to avoid touching their face — all the things that were recommended,’ [Perry] said. ‘We find religious people are more likely to say, “If we have the decision between individual liberty and protecting the vulnerable, we’re going to protect the vulnerable”.’…He added: ‘In other words, (religious people) tend to look like pretty good neighbors.'”

Perry explains the trend as an “emerging crisis of authority.” Not surprisingly, Christian nationalists believe in conspiracy theories and distrust both scientists and the media. Christian nationalists feel that their country is being taken away from them; not surprising, then, that they are more likely to trust people like Donald Trump, who they think is going to save their country for them.

I wonder if the rise of Christian nationalism correlates in any way to the rise of the “Nones,” people who have no affiliation to organized religion. I’ve often thought that what really underlies the rise of the “Nones” is a rise of hyper-individualism and a distrust of authority; the Christian nationalists would certainly match that description. And we know from surveys that most of the “Nones” believe in God; might some of the “Nones” in fact be Christian nationalists? But this is entirely speculation on my part.

Remember that neither Trump nor most Christian nationalists actually belong to a church: they are too individualistic to want to submit to the demands that organized religion makes.

Whereas those of us who do participate in organized religion tend to make “pretty good neighbors.”

Elizabeth Fisher has died

Elizabeth Fisher, a stalwart of the UU Women and Religion movement, and author of the influential Rise Up and Call Her Name curriculum, has died. I learned about her death from David Pollard, who saw it announced on the UU Women and Religion Web site.

Rise Up and Call Her Name expanded the exploration of the feminine divine that had been begun in an earlier curriculum, Cakes for the Queen of Heaven. Rise Up expanded on Cakes by going well beyond the geographical regions that Cakes focused on, Europe and the Middle East; Rise Up included images of feminine divinity from a broad range of cultures, including many non-white cultures. Fisher also published The Circle Model of Shared Leadership, a book which offers group facilitation tools for shared leadership.

I mostly know about Fisher because of Rise Up and Call Her Name, which has had a significant impact on Unitarian Univeralism. I hope someone, somewhere, posts a broader appreciation of her life and work.

Religious attendance may be down, but income is up

Over the past decade, our congregation has seen flat attendance, slowly declining membership — but a modest increase in income when corrected for inflation. Turns out we’re not alone:

“A new nationally representative study from the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy finds that revenue is not necessarily declining along with attendance….

“‘We’re not hiding the fact that there are many congregations experiencing decline, or that it’s a major success to be simply maintaining,’ said David P. King, director of the Lake Institute and a co-director of the study. ‘But despite a narrative of decline for religiosity in America, there’s a wide diversity of what’s happening. A decline in participation does not necessarily equate with (a decline) in finances.’ Or as the study succinctly states: ‘Among congregations that are declining in attendance, there is not necessarily an automatic corresponding decline in revenue.’ “

Article.
National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices study.

Generation gap in organized religion

A Pew Research report released today aggregates yearly political surveys in which people reported religious affiliation, and finds that self-declared Christians are declining in the U.S. at a “striking” rate. According to an article on Religion News Service, attendance at weekly religious services is also way down, as Americans who attend services once a month are now in the minority:

“‘It’s quite shocking,’ said Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary. ‘This rapid shift is about generational replacement. The most religious folks are the ones who are dying and the least religious folks are the ones coming in.'”

I guess I’m not shocked, nor even mildly astonished: those of us who are involved in organized religion have been watching this trend for some time.

But I am interested in why self-reported religious participation is in decline in the U.S. The article offers several reasons:

“Thumma pointed to a number of cultural reasons that may be speeding up the generational shift, including [1] less social pressure to go to church; [2] the clergy sexual abuse scandal, especially in the Catholic Church; and [3] shifting attitudes toward sexuality and gender that clash with traditional Christian teachings. Greg Smith [associate director of research at Pew] said [4] a dissatisfaction with conservative political ties to evangelical Christianity may also be fueling the growth of the nones. [numbers are editorial]

To these reasons, I would add: [5] the decline in face-to-face community (the “bowling alone” phenomenon documented by Robert Putman and others); [6] stiffening competition for people’s leisure time including the increased availability of customized leisure-time activities; [7] the “post-church” movement within Christianity; [8] an increase in multicultural encounters that leave people doubting their own religious traditions; and [9] changing conceptions of what constitutes spirituality (sometimes reduced to secularization, though there’s more going on than absence of Christianity).

AAR religious literacy guidelines

The American Academy of Religion (AAR) has released a set of “Religious Literacy Guidelines” setting minimum standards for all graduates of two- and four-year colleges in the United States. An excerpt from these guidelines summarizes the minimum knowledge about religion that all college graduates should have:

“‘Religious literacy’ helps us understand ourselves, one another, and the world in which we live. It includes the abilities to:
— Discern accurate and credible knowledge about diverse religious traditions and expressions;
— Recognize the internal diversity within religious traditions;
— Understand how religions have shaped — and are shaped by — the experiences and histories of individuals, communities, nations, and regions;
— Interpret how religious expressions make use of cultural symbols and artistic representations of their times and contexts;
— Distinguish confessional or prescriptive statements made by religions from descriptive or analytical statements…”

It turns out that in 2010, AAR released a set of religious literacy guidelines for K-12 students. The K-12 guidelines are also well worth reading. They include some basic premises from the scholarly discipline of religious studies, premises which AAR considers essential for teaching religious literacy:
— religions are internally diverse;
— religions are dynamic and changing; and
— religions are embedded in culture.

Anyone who has gained basic familiarity with religious studies at any time in the past 20 years will find no surprises in either set of guidelines. For example, even though these guidelines are new to me, I’ve been using the underlying premises for at least a decade, as I develop curriculum on religions. But though there’s nothing new here, by formulating these guidelines, AAR has done us all a favor: now we have checklists that we can use to assess how well curriculums promote religious literacy.

We can also use these guidelines for some rough-and-ready assessment. When I look at these guidelines, I see that for the most part Unitarian Universalist adults do not have solid religious literacy, e.g., many UU adults are unaware of the immense religious diversity within Christianity, many UU adults are not able to discern accurate and credible knowledge about religious traditions, etc. This becomes problematic when adults with a low degree of religious literacy teach religion to children; and this suggests that curriculum development needs to include basic religious literacy knowledge for adults teachers, as well as content for children.

A must-read interview

Religion News Service (RNS) published an interview today with Rev. Lenny Duncan, a black minister in the 94% white Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA). Duncan has written a new book, “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.” According to RNS, Duncan’s book counters the notion that churches are dying, and challenges the ECLA to overcome white supremacy within the denomination.

The interview goes on to talk about other topics. And since the Unitarian Universalist Association is something like 95% white, I was very interested to hear what Duncan had to say about his own overwhelmingly white denomination. Here are a few key quotes from the interview:

In speaking of the necessity of reparations to person of African descent, Duncan says such reparations must go beyond money: “It is time for all straight white males in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to remove their names from ballots for bishop. It’s the same thing when we come to some of the positions that we see in our churchwide organization — to just self-select their way out.” The equivalent for the UUA, of course, is that all us straight white men should stop applying for senior staff positions in the UUA, e.g., Regional Leads — and of course we should not run for elected positions like UUA Moderator and President.

Duncan also believes in the value of shutting up: “As someone who shows up as a cis male, if I’m quiet long enough typically a female or femme in the room will say the same thing I was gonna say much more succinctly and probably more intelligently than I would.”

How can you motivate white people to actually do things like leave their names off ballots? Duncan suggests that “…the American white Protestant church is obsessed with legacy. If you want your church to survive, if you want your denomination to be relevant in the 21st century, if you actually want a viable Lutheran legacy in the American context, then you’ll take these suggestions….” Same goes for white folks in the UUA: if we want the UUA to survive even another couple of decades, then we had better start dismantling white supremacy now.

Duncan also believes that, just because your pews aren’t filled up on Sunday morning doesn’t mean that your local church is dying: “I think we need to rethink church and we need to rethink the way that we count membership. I might have, like, 40, 50 people in my church on a Sunday. But there’s 200 people who are engaged in our community in various ways.” This point ties in with what we know of Millennials (who are a white-minority generation): they want to do church the way they want to do church, and if you tell them that the only way to do church is to show up on Sunday morning they’re going to ignore you.

The interview is short and worth reading in its entirety. Read it here.

Conference on religion and the environment

I just received a call for papers for the third annual conference “Sacred Texts and Human Contexts: Nature and Environment in the Sacred Texts of World Religions,” sponsored by Nazareth College in collaboration with Hobart William-Smith College. The conference poster asks the following “foundational questions”:

“How do religions integrate the discoveries of science with the teachings of tradition with respect to environmental
issues?
“How do environmental scientists look into contemporary environmental issues?
“What roles have been and can be played by faith communities in enhancing protection of nature and environment?
“How do women in faith communities respond to the contemporary environmental catastrophe?
“Do our sacred texts declare any actions to be immoral regarding dealing with nature and environment?”

Sounds like a pretty interesting conference, and I’m going to think seriously about attending. More information on submitting proposals, and on conference registration, online here.

Sacred Texts and Human Contexts conference poster