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.

Why we should follow the URJ’s lead

The Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) is in the middle of a restorative justice effort around various forms of misconduct. They released a message for Yom Kippur this year talking about how they will “make amends for the harms endured by victims/survivors” who have experienced “bullying, harassment, discrimination, sexual misconduct, abuse, and more” in URJ congregations and related programs.

This follows the release and online publication — in full, with no redactions — of a third party investigation into misconduct in the URJ. That report was followed by a restorative justice effort which focused on survivors’ needs. This restorative justice effort began with a written report summarizing a long series of interviews with victims/survivors of misconduct. Additional efforts aimed at meeting the needs of survivors is ongoing through 2023.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) should follow the URJ’s lead. Just like the URJ, we need a third party to compile as full a report as possible on the decades of misconduct, especially (but not limited to) sexual misconduct, much of it perpetrated by clergy or other persons in power. A UUA report, like the URJ report, needs to name names. And it needs to be published on the UUA website with no redactions.

Then the UUA should follow the URJ’s lead and carry out restorative justice aimed at meeting the needs of victims/survivors. In the past, the UUA’s efforts to address misconduct have, all too often, minimized the impact on the misconductors at the expense of victims/survivors. To give just one example: when Rev. Jason Shelton was disciplined by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, he was granted the privilege of writing an explanatory email that was sent by the UUA to all UU ministers and congregations; but the alleged victim was not given that privilege.

The UUA took a baby step towards restorative justice when they finally published a chronological list of ministers removed from fellowship. But soon — in a classic example of how the UUA considers the needs and feelings of alleged misconductors more than the needs and feelings of victims/survivors — the UUA changed the list. Now there are two lists on one webpage, one list for ministers removed from fellowship, and one list for the ministers who resigned from fellowship rather than face charges. The message to misconductors is clear — if you get caught, just resign from fellowship, and you get put on the less damning list. And if you resign from fellowship, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee will drop your case and never adjudicate it. Worse yet, from what I’ve seen, male sexual misconductors in particular are carefully protected from having their misdeeds brought to light, while their victims/survivors are tossed to the curb.

I sincerely doubt that anyone in the hierarchy of the UUA (and it is a hierarchy) has the gumption to propose a process like that the URJ has undertaken. For example, can you imagine the UUA publishing a report that names Saint Forrest Church as an alleged sexual misconductor? Neither can I. Patriarchy is still alive and well in the UUA.

As I read the URJ report of their interviews with survivors/victims, this passage stood out for me: “Again and again [the authors of the URJ report say], we heard that the most harmful institutional betrayal is the disjuncture between the direct and indirect harms that occurred despite the stated values the URJ seeks to uphold. One said, ‘You don’t practice what we [in the URJ] preach’…”

I wish we in the UUA would follow the URJ’s lead. Would that we, too, would attempt to practice what we preach.

Cover of the URJ report

The UUA really needs to do this

Within the past couple of hours, Religion News Service has posted an article titled “Reform movement publishes extensive report on sexual misconduct in its youth programs.” The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) commissioned an outside law firm to investigate sexual misconduct in their movement’s youth programs and summer camps over the past half century. Then URJ published the report in its entirety, with no redactions whatsoever, on their website.

I’m impressed that URJ has both commissioned this investigation, and that they’re being completely open and transparent about the results. Really impressed. Really, really impressed. Mind you, this investigation didn’t extend to individual congregations; that would have been a much more difficult task. Nevertheless, by commissioning this investigation, the URJ has set the standard for individual congregations.

It’s time for the Unitarian Universalist Association to commission a similar investigation into our denominational youth ministries. I was very active in denominational youth activities in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and I heard enough stories back then to make me think that an investigation would turn up more sexual misconduct than anyone would feel comfortable with.

If the UUA were to commission a law firm to carry out this kind of investigation, what should we look for? We should look for exactly what the URJ looked for: sexual misconduct by adults (anyone over age 18) against minors (anyone under age 18); sexual misconduct between minors; and sexual misconduct between adults at youth activities. As I look back 50 years to 1972, at a minimum the following programs should be investigated: “ConCon,” the former continental youth conference; district youth conferences; and any other programs or summer camps run by Liberal Religious Youth (LRY) or its successor Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU).

The UUA doesn’t have a great track record of investigating and publicly admitting the sexual misconduct that’s happened in our denomination. This is a grand opportunity for us to do the right thing. I hope our denominational leaders will follow the shining lead of the Reform Jews.

Transparency, part three

The Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is making a big step towards transparency. According to an email I just received, the MFC will publish a list of all ministers who have been removed from fellowship:

“In the past, the UUA relied on the UU World Magazine’s Milestones section as the most transparent way to list ministers removed from Fellowship. The UU World is only published twice a year at this time, and it is impractical to search the archives of the magazine for this information. Therefore, the UUA will soon publish a compiled list on its website.”

This email was signed by the two co-chairs of the MFC, Rev. Jackie Clement and Rev. Dr. Rebekah Savage. Given how understaffed the UUA is these days, no doubt it will take a little time for the list to actually make it up on the UUA website. Nevertheless, this decision is a big step towards transparency.

The email, by the way, goes on to give a primer in congregational polity: “only congregations have the right to ordain ministers, and thus the MFC does not have the power to remove ordination, or even to force a minister to resign from a position if a congregation does not vote removal or termination.” In other words, if someone’s congregation wants to keep a minister who has been removed from fellowship by the MFC, they have every right to do so — but now it’ll be harder to hide the fact that their minister has violated the ethical standards of the UUA.

Transparency, part two

A follow up on yesterday’s post on transparency:

If we want to maintain trust in clergy, we have to be able to name names when clergy have been proven to engage in misconduct. By naming names, we demonstrate that we are willing to hold ministers accountable for their actions. If we don’t name names, if we keep secrets, then we cannot maintain trust.

The Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association hosts the Berry Street lecture, an annual lecture given by a respected minister. In 2016, Gail Seavey gave the Berry Street lecture, and she named names. She named Forrest Church as a minister who engaged in sexual misconduct. She called out Bill Schulz, who told her she was a “new Puritan” for speaking out against Church’s sexual misconduct. And she named David Maynard, who engaged in sexual misconduct over many years at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville.

You won’t find Gail Seavey’s Berry Street Lecture on the UUMA website, though. Nor will you find Deborah Pope-Lance’s Berry Street lecture on clergy misconduct. As I heard the story, the UUMA wouldn’t post the texts of those two lectures unless there were revisions made, and those two women refused to make revisions. Fortunately, you can read Gail Seavey’s Berry Street lecture on Deborah’s website.

It’s hard to name names. Clergy who have engaged in misconduct have been known to threaten lawsuits if someone named their name. Sure, they probably wouldn’t prevail in court, because if what you say is true then it’s not slander or libel — but the mere threat of a law suit is enough to silence someone like me. I don’t have the money to hire a lawyer to defend me. In other words, someone like me can’t afford to name names of misconducting clergy, as long as they are still alive and able to sue me.

We need the kind of transparency that Gail Seavey’s Berry Street lecture provides. When a clergyperson has been proven to have committed misconduct, we need to be open about that fact. But when the UUMA refused to place Gail Seavey’s unrevised Berry Street Lecture on their website, that’s not promoting transparency, that’s keeping secrets. When the Unitarian Universalist Association refuses to post lists of clergy who have been disciplined for misconduct, that’s not promoting transparency, that’s keeping secrets.

Transparency equals trust. We need to build trust.

Update, Nov. 6, 2021: The Ministerial Fellowship Committee just announced they’ll post a list of misconducting clergy. Hooray!

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.)

Bullying and abusive conduct by ministers: what’s it look like?

Recent events have raised my interest in bullying and abusive conduct my ministers. What does it look like? How can we know the difference between ministerial grouchiness or a minister occasionally losing their temper, and outright bullying and abusive behavior?

First of all, we want to look for patterns of behavior. Every minister I’ve known has lost their temper at least once; ministers are human beings, and human beings lose their tempers. Of course it would be best if we ministers never lost our tempers, but losing your temper once in awhile is not the same as a pattern of abusive behavior. So we’re looking for a pattern of behavior that happens over time.

Second, we want to look at power differentials. If, for example, there were three ministers on the staff of a large congregation, the senior minister has power over the junior ministers, and it’s much easier for the senior minister to bully the junior ministers; similarly, most of the time (not all of the time) the minister has more power than a non-ordained congregant. Determining power differentials is not always easy, though, and we can’t just default to a position that says ministers always have more power than congregants. For example, other types of power differentials make it possible for a male congregant to bully a female minister, or for a white congregant to act abusively towards a non-white minister. Even white male cis-gender ministers can be bullied or treated abusively by congregants who are in an entrenched power position within their congregation; in fact, because the minister is an employee, the minister’s lay leader supervisors have the potential for bullying or abusive behavior towards the minister. So we want to look for power differentials, though in themselves they won’t be diagnostic.

Third, we want to look for certain kinds of behaviors. Warren Throckmorton, an evangelical Christian whistleblower, posted on his blog the charges against Mark Driscoll, an evangelical megachurch pastor who was forced out his position as senior pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle due to bullying and abusive behavior. These charges, which you can read here, catalogue a number of bullying and abusive behaviors Driscoll allegedly engaged in. I’ll quote from some of these formal charges to show you what bullying and abuse can look like:

“Pastor Mark exhibits anger and ungraceful ways of dealing with those with whom he disagrees and who disagree with him… by putting people down, caricaturing, and dismissing.
“Pastor Mark … has created a culture of fear instead of a culture of candor and safety….
“Pastor Mark is verbally abusive to people who challenge him, disagree with him, or question him.
“Pastor Mark uses words to demean, attack or disparage others.”

I’ll also quote from one piece of evidence used to support the charges, so you can get a sense of the specific sorts of alleged behavior that’s considered abusive or bullying:

“Mark’s response to that elder was bullying, with some elders present recalling language to the effect of: ‘I don’t give a shit what you think. I’m trying to be nice to you guys by asking your opinion. In reality, we don’t need your vote to make this decision. This is what we’re doing.'”

It’s fairly clear that this kind of behavior should be characterized as bullying and abusive. But it’s wise to remember that there will be a continuum of potentially bullying and abusive behavior, and there won’t necessarily be a bright shining line between acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior. In my historical researches of local congregations, I’ve uncovered a number of instances of behavior that aren’t easily categorized. In one example I researched, from the 1960s, a male minister was shouting at a female Director of Religious Education (DRE). There was a clear power differential here: male full-time supervisor and minister shouting at a part-time female DRE and employee. But while it may have a pattern of behavior, I couldn’t document that for sure. Obviously the minister should not have shouted at the DRE, but since I couldn’t document a pattern of behavior, I couldn’t be sure whether this was a momentary lapse on the part of the minister, or verbal abuse.

Which leads me to one final suggestion:

Fourth, we want to look at whether the congregation openly addresses momentary lapses of civility, or whether a lapse of civility remains hidden, secret, unaddressed. We are all human — ministers, too — and being human means we will make mistakes; we will do things like shout at people. Bullying and abuse in congregations — whether by ministers or by lay leaders, or by white people, or by whomever — is a pattern of behavior. If a congregation directly confronts lapses in behavior when they happen, I think it’s much less likely that the congregation is going to fall into a pattern of bullying or abusive behavior. But if people look away even once, I think that’s going to open up the possibility of establishing a pattern of behavior.

Update, 25 Feb. 2022: I’m closing comments on this post. Another post on the same topic started getting off-topic comments, which are not allowed, so I’m taking preventive measures. My sincere apologies to those of you who may have on-topic comments. But after two years of COVID, I don’t have the patience to deal with trolls any more.

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.

Update, 25 Feb. 2022: All of a sudden I’m getting comments on this post, from people who obviously did not read the post. It looks like I have to explain to careless readers what this post is about…. This was the first time I remembered hearing about the MFC removing someone from membership for bullying. That is all this post is about. This post is not about whether the MFC make the correct judgements in any of these cases, and if you want to argue about that you’re going to have to go somewhere else because I’m closing comments. Why am I closing comments? Simple. I don’t allow off-topic comments.