Category Archives: UUA politics

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. Continue reading

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.

Denominational politics

I haven’t had time to pay much attention to denominational politics for the past year, between my boss going on sabbatical and the death of my father. But the recent uproar at denominational headquarters has been so big, I’ve had to pay attention.

Peter Morales, the first Latino president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and the second person of color to hold that office, resigned yesterday amid charges from critics that he is perpetuating a “white supremacist” culture at the UUA. He had three months left in his second and final term as UUA president.

Some of the charges leveled at Morales say that he did not do enough to hire non-white people into senior leadership positions at the UUA. I was actually surprised to learn that the number of non-white employees (excluding service workers) was up to 11% — a pitifully low percentage, worse even than notoriously racist Silicon Valley tech firms, but much higher than I expected given how lily-white Unitarian Universalism is (I’d bet most of our Unitarian Universalist congregations are maybe 97% white).

Obviously, the first thing the UUA needs to do is hire those qualified non-white applicants who do apply for UUA jobs, and Morales resigned amid accusations that didn’t always happen. Mind you, I don’t want to second-guess UUA hiring decisions, but the UUA gives the impression of a cosy little in-group — not unlike Silicon Valley tech firms — and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn qualified non-white candidates are passed over in favor of white people who would “fit in.”

But even if the UUA starting hiring every qualified non-white candidate, there’s a bigger problem: there aren’t many Unitarian Universalists to begin with, and the overwhelming majority of them are white. When I served on a search committee for a district staffer a few years ago, I felt the pool of candidates was frighteningly small; there just aren’t a lot of Unitarian Universalists who want to work for an organization that demands long hours and offers modest compensation. In an interview on Monday, Morales said something that I agree with: the UUA could expand the pool of qualified applicants by considering persons of color who are not Unitarian Universalists, just as All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., did when they hired an associate minister a couple of years ago. Given how white Unitarian Universalism is, hiring non-Unitarian Universalists might be the only way the UUA will be able to increase the number of non-white staffers from 11% up to 36% (the percentage of non-white people in the general U.S. population).

[Update 4/1: In online discussions, people have pointed out that when the UUA does hire people of color, it often treats them badly enough that they leave the UUA (or even the denomination). Obviously, expanding the pool of candidates will be a waste of time if the UUA chases away its non-white staffers. So much for the one idea I had to address this problem.]

Above all, I don’t think we should give up on racial diversity. I have very little to do with the UUA any more (the last thing the UUA needs is another middle-aged white guy hanging around), but I’m still committed to moving my own congregation towards more racial diversity. On the other hand, I admit I’ve pretty much given up on trying to increase class diversity, and I hold out little hope for a non-Anglophone Unitarian Universalist congregation in the U.S. Sometimes I even feel as though we’re back-sliding on the meager progress we had made towards fighting sexism in religion.

Thank God I’m a Universalist, so I have this irrational hope that love will triumph in the end. Because at this moment in history, it does not feel as though love is triumphing, not within the UUA — nor in the wider U.S. society.

[4/1: several typos corrected]

Dare we do away with professionalism?

Carl Rogers, the great American psychologist, asked a revolutionary question of the American Psychological Association back in 1973: Dare we do away with professionalism? While sympathizing fully with the hard work, the integrity, and the high motives of those who were engaged in certification of psychologists, he pointed out that the drive towards certification and professionalization wasn’t really working. And I think much of what he says applies to the profession of ministry today, just as much as it applied to the profession of psychology in 1973.

Rogers identifies at least three drawbacks to professionalization and certification.

1. The first drawback is that certification is regressive rather than progressive. Rogers said: “As soon as we set up criteria for certification … the first and greatest effect is to freeze the profession in a past image.” This has the additional effect of discouraging innovation. Furthermore, this is an inevitable result of certification: “What can you use for examinations? Obviously, the questions and tests that have been used in the past decade or two. Who is wise enough to be an examiner? Obviously, the person who has ten or twenty years of experience and who therefore started his [sic] training fifteen to twenty-five years previously.” No matter how hard the certification bodies try to update their certification criteria, they will always be behind the times. So, said Rogers, “the certification procedure is always rooted in the rather distant past and defines the profession in those terms.”

This first drawback applies to the certification process of ministry today. To begin with, Unitarian Universalist ministers must complete a three-year master of divinity degree before receiving professional certification; yet theological education is increasing in cost faster than inflation, while full-time ministry jobs are in decline; theological school is preparing students for a ten-year old job market. Some theological schools and professional bodies try to address this problem by including courses and training in entrepreneurship, but from what I have seen these courses and training use concepts of social entrepreneurship from a decade ago; to say nothing of the fact that the main goal of social entrepreneurship as applied to ministry seems to be an attempt to increase revenues in order to pay higher salaries to highly-trained ministers who have lots of theological school debt.

Conversely, I do NOT see certification bodies (the MFC), professional groups (UUMA), or theological schools exploring how they might provide in-service training and support to volunteer or part-time lay leaders who are taking on leadership roles in smaller congregations that can no longer afford professional ministry. Not surprisingly, religious groups that are growing quickly these days include groups like the Mormons and many Pentecostal churches that do not require clergy with expensive training.

2. Which brings us back to Carl Rogers. If we don’t have elaborate certification processes, what will keep the qucks, kooks, and con artists out of religious leadership? Rogers said: “The second drawback [to professionalization] I state sorrowfully: there are as many certified charlatans and exploiters of people as there are uncertified. … Certification is not equivalent to competence.” To prove his point, Rogers asked a rhetorical question: If you had a friend who needed a psychotherapist, would you send that friend to anyone who happened to have a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology? Heck no, you wouldn’t make such a recommendation unless you knew what that person was like as a person and as a psychologist, “recognizing that there are many with diplomas on their walls who are not fit to do therapy, lead a group, or help a marriage.”

The same, obviously, may be said of ministers. It has happened that I have talked with someone who was moving to another state, and they said they would attend the Unitarian Universalist congregation there; but I was morally certain the minister of that congregation was a sexual predator or an exploiter, so I tried to convince them to try a different congregation (of course I could not have come right out and said that I strongly suspected the minister of being a creep). And we all know of ministers who are ineffective or incompetent. There are also ministers who are competent, with impeccable credentials, but they find themselves in a situation where their skills to not match what the congregation needs at that time. It is obvious, then, that Carl Rogers is correct: professional certification is simply not equivalent to competence.

3. Rogers identified one more problem with professional credentialing: “The third drawback is that the urge towards professionalism builds up a rigid bureaucracy.” My experiences with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) of the Unitarian Universalist Association confirm Rogers’s insight. When I went through professional credentialing with the MFC in the early 2000s, the process was a nightmare of complexity; and by all reports it has only gotten worse.

The increasing complexity or professional credentialing does not arise out of malice or from some dark conspiracy; it grows out of the best intentions of caring and committed people. However, despite the good intentions behind professional credentialing, the end result is a rigid bureaucracy that is at best burdensome. At worst, from what I have seen, this rigid bureaucracy of the MFC sets up barriers that keep out talented people, including non-white people and lower class people; this moves beyond being merely burdensome to a species of evil. It is worth noting that the Pentecostal denominations that have minimal professional credentialing seem to have lots of non-white ministers. It is also worth noting that the early Universalists didn’t worry about professional credentialing, and (not surprisingly) those were the peak years of their growth.

To reiterate Carl Rogers’s question: Dare we do away with professionalism? Dare we, for example, reinstate the category of licensed lay preachers that we inherited from the Universalists, which remained in our denominational bylaws until 2000 (I was one of the few dissenters in that General Assembly vote)? I doubt it; the powerful Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association has too much investment in supporting highly-paid ministers to tolerate legitimizing lay preachers. Do our theological schools dare to find new ways to provide training to religious leaders? I doubt it; their business model depends too much on providing expensive three year degree programs to persons seeking ordination. Does our upper-middle class white-majority denomination dare to let go of professionalism, when professionalism privileges white people with lots of assets and expensive college degrees? I doubt it; the white majority within Unitarian Universalism has shown no real interest in letting go of the cultural norms it holds dear — including the cultural norms of credentialing and professionalism.

Dare we do away with professionalism? Probably not, but it could be really exciting if we did….

[All quotations from Carl Rogers, “Some New Challenges to the Helping Professions,” address to the American Psychological Association, reprinted in Howard Kirschenbaum and Valerie Land Henderson, ed., The Carl Rogers Reader (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1989).]

Kurt Kuhwald’s thoughts on Starr King

Recently, I talked with Kurt Kuhwald, former professor at Starr King School for the Ministry, about the school’s search process for a new president. Kurt had some interesting things to say about the search, and the conflict that erupted during and after the search.

Before I get to Kurt’s thoughts, you may want to review what happened at Starr King. I have a short post about the situation here. Since I wrote that post, the New York Times covered the story in a balanced and well-written article here, and UU World did a carefully-written article in November which you can read here. Now back to Kurt.

Kurt is someone for whom I have great respect, particularly in his thoughtful and passionate approach to ethical issues, and to issues of prophetic importance. I was lucky enough to have lunch with Kurt a couple of weeks ago, and we talked about several prophetic issues: global climate change; the protests following Ferguson; and the mess at Starr King. We wound up spending most of our time talking about Starr King, not because it is of greater importance than Ferguson or global climate justice, but because it was so fresh in the minds of both of us. Actually, mostly I listened — Kurt has a unique and powerful interpretation of the Starr King situation, and I wanted to hear what he said.

Kurt has been kind enough to send me several documents that he is willing to make public, and with his permission, I am posting them here on my blog. You can click on one of the links below to go to a specific letter, or just scroll down to read these four documents in order:

Kurt’s letter of resignation from Starr King;
An addendum to that letter giving more detail on his reasons for resigning;
A letter to the Ad Hoc Committee set up by Starr King to investigate the situation;
A letter to the members of the UUA Board regarding Starr King.

As I talked with Kurt, it struck me that there was a deep current of theology running through everything Kurt said. He is talking about a theology of power; he is critiquing one way power is wielded in contemporary religious institutions. This is an incredibly important critque. I believe it would behoove anyone with an interest in the mess at Starr King to read or re-read Bernard Loomer’s important 1976 essay “Two Conceptions of Power.” Finally, out of respect for Kurt’s deep theological insights, I’m going to say that if you’d like to comment here you should exhibit some theological thinking. If you’re not sure how to think theologically about this issue, read Loomer’s essay.

As always, I reserve the right to delete or edit comments that I feel are discourteous, rude, or off-topic.

Scroll down to start reading Kurt’s letters….

Update, 14 January 2015: Kurt Kuhwald asked me if I’d be willing to post Dorsey Blake’s letter of resignation from Starr King; until January 9, he was Associate Professor of Spirituality and Prophetic Justice. Since Kurt Kuhwald and Dorsey Blake timed their resignations for the same day, and since they share a prophetic vision for liberal religion, I felt it was appropriate to add that letter to this blog post. Having received Dorsey Blake’s permission, I have added his letter below:
Dorsey Blake’s letter of resignation

Continue reading

The mess at Starr King

The mess at Starr King School for the Ministry (SKSM) continues to be an absorbing topic of conversation among Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministers in the Bay Area. The mess can be summarized as follows: Someone sent an anonymous email to a number of people inside and outside SKSM alleging that the then-ongoing search for a new SKSM president was marred by “ethical violations.” Attached to that anonymous email were documents that the SKSM board alleges were confidential. The SKSM board responded by hiring a law firm and private investigators to determine which student sent this anonymous email, and demanded that all students turn over all their email some students turn over their email files files to this law firm. Two students who were about to graduate did not turn over their email files, and their diplomas have been withheld. (UU World magazine offered good coverage of the story here. Deletion and correction thanks to Lindasusan’s comment below.)

If you’re a UU minister it is also a fascinating topic for conversation. The ethical implications alone would fascinate any minister. On top of that, any minister is going to be interested in how a theological school is training new ministers — your future colleagues. And finally, given the decline and financial struggles of theological schools, this matter makes you wonder about the future of SKSM.

Ethical implications of securing electronic communications

Let’s start with the ethical implications. I was talking to D., another UU minister, and she made the obvious point: if confidential documents were truly “leaked,” the most obvious source for such a leak would be the search committee. I doubt that any member of the search committee played Edward Snowden and deliberately released documents. But I’m willing to bet that the search committee was naive, and had poor electronic security protocols in place (I mean, I seriously doubt that someone hacked into search committee members’ computers). So from an ethical point of view, the SKSM search committee is at fault for having poor security.

If you’re a congregational leader, you should pay attention to this. Email is not secure — it’s way too easy to choose the wrong address when you send email, too many spouses and partners have access to each others’ email accounts, too many people are careless with their passwords. Storing sensitive material on something like Dropbox or Google Drive may be slightly more secure — as long as everyone remembers to keep their password secure. Storing sensitive documents on a computer in the church office is only mildly secure — more than once I have seen a church computer sitting unattended, with the main user logged in, and a sensitive document open on the screen. Most congregational leaders and staff are just like the SKSM leadership — way too careless about how they use electronic communications. Continue reading

UU political priorities

I long ago figured out I’m not one of the UU cool kids. Here’s one example of what I mean:

My local UU congregation is participating in a week-long nationwide peacemaking campaign from September 21-18, sponsored by Campaign Nonviolence, a “new movement to mainstream active nonviolence and to foster a world free from war, poverty and the climate crisis.” Beginning on Sunday, Campaign Nonviolence will have events in all fifty U.S. states; they are one of the sponsoring organizations of the People’s Climate March, a nonviolent action taking place in New York City.

In Silicon Valley alone, our local organization Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice is organizing a forum on poverty and structural violence, a youth workshop exploring conscientious objection, a film on climate refugees, a class on ecojustice and peacemaking (which I’m leading), participation in the Northern California People’s Climate Rally, a forum on gun safety with representatives from police and religion, a talk by the mayor of Sunnyvale on the city’s new gun control law, a nonviolent action against Lockheed Martin, and more.

But if you search the Web sites of the UUA or UU World, you will find no reference to Campaign Nonviolence. Because, you see, all the cool kids in the UU world are going to the People’s Climate March. I’m all about reversing global climate change, and environmental justice work more generally. I just wish Unitarian Universalism had a broader vision of social justice work.

Where we are, where we’re not

The Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB) has produced some interesting maps on the geographic distribution of various religious groups, as of 2010. You can search for specific religious groups, including the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). For the UUA, you can pull up the following types of maps: adherent change, adherent quintile, cartogram, locations, location change, penetration, etc.

I also found county-by-county data in CSV format, which I dumped into a spreadsheet, and played around with. Here’s some numbers for you to think about: Just 5 U.S. counties show a population penetration of between 1.0% and 4.99%: Nantucket County in Massachusetts (1.97%); Jefferson County in Washington (1.45%); Charlottesville County in Virginia (1.37%); Los Alamos County in New Mexico (1.19%); and Windsor County in Vermont (1.15%).

Click on the low-resolution map below (showing population penetration) to go to the ASRAB Web page where you can get high-resolution maps and other data:

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Or read on for a few more facts and figures about Unitarian Universalism that I got from the ASRAB Web site: Continue reading

How to keep UUism from dying out

Nice blog post by Andrew, a member of the Palo Alto UU congregation, on what Unitarian Universalism needs to do if it’s going to survive. Here’s one quote from his post:

“What sustains me and my religious community? Social justice and egalitarian mores, yes, but the Human Rights Campaign can say the same thing. A large chunk of congregants came from another faith, sometimes a very aggressive and zealous one. There’s a certain fear of religion built into UU communities, even if it’s not admitted….”

So we need to be more than a social justice organization, or a social club. Andrew has lots more to say, and it’s worth reading the whole post.

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Travel and me

Chris Walton, editor of UU World magazine, knew that sometimes I would take the train or drive rather than fly to General Assembly. He asked me to explain why in 500 words, and the result is published in the latest issue of UU World here.

Some trivia that didn’t make it into the published essay:

Yes, I have taken long-distance trains, but it’s only worth it if I’m traveling alone. If you drive a car that gets at least 30 mpg on the highway, and you travel with at least one other person, driving releases fewer greenhouse gases than taking the train. Don’t believe it? If you want to check this for yourself, read Pablo Paster’s 2008 salon.com column on this question. Paster’s column includes a link to the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, an online accounting tool that helps you perform your own calculations on transit efficiency.

Yes, I will be flying to GA in Providence, R.I., this year. I feel I can justify the trip (barely), mostly because I’m also going to visit my father and and other family members, and partly because I’ll be giving a workshop on teaching at the Star Island Religious Education Conference. Even then, I wish I didn’t have to fly, but this year I can’t schedule in the extra time it would take to drive or take the train across the country. Continue reading