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 “The mess at Starr King”

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:


Or read on for a few more facts and figures about Unitarian Universalism that I got from the ASRAB Web site: Continue reading “Where we are, where we’re not”

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.


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 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 “Travel and me”

UUA logo: our version

Carol and I have been playing around with the new UUA logo. Carol doesn’t like the way the flame in the new logo is disattached from the candle-chalice thingie. I don’t like the way the sides of the chalice-thingie act as walls which keep the flame from being seen from the sides.

Mind you, it’s way too easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. No logo can ever be perfect, and certainly the UUA logo is a pretty good design, and more than adequate. But it’s way too easy to play around with graphics on our laptops, and Carol and I had nothing better to do on a sleepy Saturday morning, so we spent half an hour revising the UUA’s logo. Here’s what I came up with:

UUA Logo Mash

Update: June 24, 2018: The above logo is now released under a Creative Commons license; please attribute to “A UU”.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Compare it to the official UUA logo below. See what I mean about the sides coming up around the flame in the official logo?

UUA Logo Official

(Now that I look at this again, I wish I had made the sides of my version even lower, but I’ve already wasted too much time playing with this.)

Jesus said something like (and I’m paraphrasing here): “Neither do people light a candle and put it inside a red and orange bushel basket, the walls of which extend halfway up the flame, so the people below us cannot see the flame.” Buddha supposedly said (another rough paraphrase): “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened; but if your candle is inside a red and orange chalice thinige, others will burn their fingers trying to light their candle from your candle.” The new UUA logo is a pretty accurate graphic representation of what our denomination is actually like; my revision of the logo represents the way I wish our denomination were.

Update, 3 hours later: Continue reading “UUA logo: our version”

An open letter to the UUMA Board

Dear friends,

When I received my renewal notice from the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) this year, I faced a tough choice.

This fiscal year, I had decided to attend both the annual conference of the Religious Education Association (REA), an international, interfaith organization of scholars and practitioners, as well as Religious Education Week at Ferry Beach Unitarian Universalist conference center in Maine. These two conferences each provided me with professional development that specifically addressed my needs as a minister of religious education. The REA conference was especially fruitful for me this year — I had an opportunity to attend workshops and have informal interaction with people like Thomas Groome and Siebren Miedema, scholars with an international reputation in my field, and to spend time with colleagues and former mentors, people who are facing many of the same issues and concerns that I face in religious education. Religious Education Week at Ferry Beach was also very fruitful, as I was able to take a graduate-level class with Mark Hicks of Meadville/Lombard Theological School in an intergenerational setting where we could both learn about religious education for young people, and watch it happening around us.

The basic issue for me is a cost-benefit analysis: as a minister of religious education, the UUMA provides me with very little benefit for the cost. And the cost is very high. My salary is $80K a year. The UUMA sliding scale means I pay $825 (10% of gross salary + housing), minus $100 for my membership in the Liberal Religious Educators Association, yielding a total cost of $725. It’s interesting to compare this to my REA membership: the REA also has a sliding scale, but for the same salary I pay only $105 per year.

You may be thinking that with a salary of $80K a year, I shouldn’t be whining. But I live in Silicon Valley, which has one of the highest costs of living in the United States. According to relocation Web sites that calculate cost of living across the country, $80K in Silicon Valley provides about the same standard of living as $40K in Rochester, New York. So it’s not like I’m getting rich (indeed, according to a recent newspaper article, my salary is below average in Santa Clara County). If I lived and worked in Rochester, New York, and made an equivalent salary providing about the same standard of living, I would pay about $325 for UUMA dues. Continue reading “An open letter to the UUMA Board”

Online petition regarding clergy sexual misconduct

The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville’s “Safety Net” has started an online petition at, asking that all candidates for the UUA Board and for Moderator to open up a conversation about clergy sexual misconduct in U.S. Unitarian Universalist congregations:

We, the undersigned, are asking the candidates for UUA Moderator and Board of Trustees to publicly indicate their willingness to start a new national conversation on clergy misconduct in the UUA, and to ensure that survivors of misconduct have a real voice in that conversation. We ask them to commit to using the powers of the Board to take ownership of the recommendations of the Safe Congregation Panel, to update them as needed, and to hold the staff accountable for implementing them fully. And we ask them to investigate the accountability relationship between the Board and Ministerial Fellowship Committee, with an eye toward balancing the need to protect institutional interests with a pastoral responsibility to care for victims of misconduct.

I signed it. You bet I did. They provide a space for comments when you “sign,” and here’s what I wrote: “As someone who has served as both parish minister and religious educator in congregations suffering from past clergy sexual misconduct, I have seen the effects such misconduct has on both adults and legal minors. I have also seen first hand a high level of denial about the seriousness of clergy sexual misconduct on the part of UUA leaders. It’s way past time the UUA addressed this more fully.”

Mind you, I have my doubts whether such petitions effect much change. I also have grave doubts about whether the culture at the UUA, or in many local congregations, is going to change; Unitarian Universalists have a tendency to want to solve other people’s problems before trying to address their own problems; we’re great at sending money overseas or working on immigration problems here in the U.S., but we’ve been very unwilling to tackle problems that occur in our own homes and hearts, problems like domestic violence, racism, classism, the overconsumption that goes with upper middle class lifestyles, and so on.

But in spite of my doubts, I signed the petition. It’s easy for me to sign this petition; I’m a minister, I have a vested interest in cleaning up my profession. Now it would be nice if lots of respectable laypeople, good solid institutionalists — people who are pillars of our local congregations, people of impeccable morals — it would be good if many such people also signed the petition.

New District Executive in PCD

Today, Susan Lankford, Acting President of the Board of Pacific Central District (PCD), sent an email message officially announcing the new District Executive of PCD:

“With great pleasure the Pacific Central District Board of Directors announces that Joshua Searle-White has accepted the position of Pacific Central District Executive. Josh will be attending the Pacific Western Regional Assembly later this month, General Assembly in Louisville, KY, and will assume his position in the PCD on July 1. Continue reading “New District Executive in PCD”