The most important part in “Am I Still…”

Yesterday, Unitarian Universalist minister and writer Kate Braestrup wrote an article called “Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?” Comments pro and con (so far as I’m algorithmically allowed to see on Facebook) seem to be splitting on the same terms and among the same people as Todd Eklof/The Gadfly Papers controversy. I won’t be rehashing that.

What’s new is the response, sometimes thinly coded, to Braestrup’s prior claim to be Unitarian Universalist minister at all. She is plainly states that she is neither a member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, and has not fellowship of the Unitarian Universalist Association through the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, but was ordained “by my beloved UU congregation in Rockland, Maine!” That’s allowed in our tradition, and since I have long regarded other locally ordained ministers as colleagues, I’m satisfied to count her as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Had all this been a century ago, and Universalist, my answer would be different. But the polity first merged, then changed and now is burning to the ground. I’d rather have what we had then, but we don’t and so I’ll say yes to her based on (what’s left of) what we do have.

Braestrup recounts her bonafides at length, and an ungenerous person might think she was simply bragging. I think it’s a sign of her being a decent writer. What I hear without her being explicit is “I can have this ministry, it can succeed reaching many people and it’s without the blessing or strictures of the UUA.” An equally ungenerous person might think her detractors have the taste of sour grapes in their mouths.

I think DIY ministries are going to have to become the norm; again recalling a secularizing culture, the cost of formal preparation and the thinning out of paying pastorates. We should be able to rely on the UUA and UUMA to help overcome these limitations, and in those terms Braestrup could not and should not rely on that help. Local ordination cuts both ways. (Local ordinands also the subject of whisper campaigns; I’ve heard those for decades, and don’t take them seriously.)

But neither the UUMA or UUA shows firm or sustained interest in functioning religiously to meet these challenges, and hasn’t for years. Where are the services? Where are the leaders? Not to mention that it’s clear that fellowship is no guarantee of ethics or capability. The UUA in particular seems to exist to fix its own problems. Who needs that? Add this fixation on white supremacy within the gates, and you get a system that’s completely unworkable and frantic. (It’ll be interesting if there’s another cultural shift if President Trump loses the 2020 election. If there’s anything left.)

The most important part in “Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?” is the underlying theme that you can make a ministry without the legacy systems, and that doesn’t make it illegitimate. And further I’ll add: a guild without benefits isn’t worth the time or loyalty.

The perfect ordination

I’ve been thinking about my own ordination lately, though from the excitement that day I don’t remember all that much about it. Specific episodes, such as the laying on of hands, but not a complete narrative of the day. (The same is true of my wedding.)

I do remember other people’s, and usually it’s because they were long, self-indulgent, or both. What might have made them better? (This, of course, applies to the free churches, where ordinations are held in the local church and usually one at a time.)

A better ordination is not primarily about taste, though I think there’s something to be said about a more conservative approach, which at least can be appreciated ironically. Being too novel or eccentric in such a ceremony is like putting salt in soup: you can add more (or not), but not take it out once added.

My rubric: the ordination is about the order of the ministry, not the particular ordinand. You, the ordinand, are entering a stream that has carried the pastoral ministry of the church for centuries. That should give you a chill. You will meet challenges, joys, temptations, horrors and accomplishments. Don’t try to go it alone; as a sign of this, don’t make the ordination about you.

A few practical thoughts. Seek first a good and experienced marshal (master of ceremonies) to keep the proceedings in order. Rely on more experienced ministers for your ordination; you will need them later as colleagues. That goes double for local ministers. Again, the ordination should not be long, because if it’s too long that’s all that people will talk about; I think 75 minutes is about right. If you are called to your first church, wait to be ordained there and not at your home or internship church; this is an old tradition too often lost these days (I’m talking to the Unitarian Universalists now) but it’s one of the few ways that small churches (who often call first-timers) celebrate their place in the communion of churches.

Twenty years ordained

If you will excuse a moment for me to reflect on my ordination, which took place twenty years ago today with the Canon Universalist Church, Canon, Georgia.

Receiving right hand of fellowship
Receiving right hand of fellowship from the Rev. Roy Reynolds

I’ve spent more of that time out of pastoral ministry than in it, but I have never forgotten the vow I made. I try to fulfill those vows through preaching, writing (here mostly) and prayer.

My heartfelt thanks to those who have supported me over the years; some are still living, others have gone before us.

“Gadfly Papers” discussion continues

I suppose it’s a bit obvious to say that “Gadfly Papers” discussion continues because it never ended. But I intend to write here about commentary that is both constructive and public. I have a particular point of view, but I don’t think that keeps me from giving opponents a fair hearing; neither does it oblige me to dignify manipulative rhetoric. Facebook is such shifting sand that there’s little point linking to something. When I find something that passes muster, I may link to it.

I put Dan Harper, Unitarian Universalist minister and writer, into that category. He wrote about The Gadfly Papers, and in reference to my analysis recently. (I’m just now seeing it.) I think he confuses my analysis of Todd Eklof’s work with disapproval, but the distinction isn’t fatal. Yes, I wish the book were better written, but Eklof wrote when others wouldn’t, and that makes it the best of its kind to date.

But we’re past the book itself. Institutionally, the issues have exposed deep fault lines, and whether Eklof’s intent or an incidental development, that’s the real story.

Documents I’ve already posted about the decline of Universalism: ecumenical options

Following up on the request I posted on September 13, I thought I’d collect up the documents from that era that I’ve already posted over the years. These are not all doom and gloom. If fact, Universalists were optimistic, earnest or a least put on a brave face. First, ecumenical actions.

Back in 2006, I posted several documents about the overtures towards a working relationship with either the Congregationalists, the Unitarians or perhaps both. I’ve posted these below.

Was there an interest in the Christian Connection (O’Kelleyites) prior to 1931, with the Congregational-Christian merger? That merger is how the 1920s merger dance seems to have ended. Might be a fun bit of research. For someone else.

And a loose (but now wholly incomplete thought) following up on those: UCC getting the Universalists anyway

Recalling “Economic Sustainability”

One request begets another; my comment yesterday about the situation about the UUA today being different than the Universalists in the first half of the twentieth century must have struck a note.

So, by request, I’m recalling the UUA’s report of The Economic Sustainability of Ministries Summit June 2015. You can download the PDF report and read the summary here: www.uua.org/careers/ministers/economic-sustainability

Sometimes I hear, seminarians should be warned about how bad things are. So it’s worth mentioning that there was another report in 2015 about the “economic realities of the ministry”. You can read that here. (Also a PDF.)

But unless you’re going to say “nobody should be a minister” then there need to be some solutions. A fund for service-dischargeable loans and alternate training models (more about those later) come to mind. Overtures (“CWG Approved Revision To M. Div. Equivalency Process”) in that direction were made in a Ministerial Fellowship Committee meeting at the end of 2018 and that is linked here. (Another PDF!)

Updating the joined-since-2003 UUA membership list

In my article about the Western Unitarians, I mentioned my doubts about the UUA effectively starting new churches. And yes, you can correctly read into any number of my articles the suggestion that new churches will be independent, small and boot-strapped. But what has been created? (And surely, this isn’t to suggest they were air-dropped from Boston.)

In 2010, I made up a chart of the 33 congregations that joined the UUA in the seven years since 2003; joined, not formed. (At least three have long histories.) I’ll bring that up to date.

So all those churches since 2003

As before, these are congregations that have been admitted to the UUA, whether or not they had a prior existence. The ones from before 2010 are in the first group. The membership then and now are in parentheses, separated by a slash.

The congregations admitted since are in the second group, with the current membership at the end. The “cite” is a link back to my article about their admission.

  1. Adirondack Unitarian Universalist Community: Saranac Lake, NY (40/38)
  2. Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church: Aiken, SC (68/80)
  3. All Souls Free Religious Fellowship (All Souls UU Society): Chicago: IL, (14/14)
  4. Florence UU Fellowship: Florence, OR (23/43)
  5. Foothills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Maryville, TN (72/80)
  6. Ginger Hill Unitarian Universalist Congregation: Slippery Rock, PA (32/15)
  7. Heartland Unitarian Universalist Church: Indianapolis, IN (25/55)
  8. Mosaic Unitarian Universalist Congregation: Orange City, FL (34/22)
  9. New Hope Congregation: New Hudson, MI (30/29)
  10. Northeast Iowa Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Decorah, IA (57/47)
  11. Northwoods/Chequamegon Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Ashland, WI (31/84)
  12. Open Circle Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Fond du Lac, WI (52/70)
  13. Open Circle UU: Boulder, CO (15/disbanded)
  14. Pathways Church: Southlake, TX (90/80)
  15. Prairie Circle Unitarian Universalist Congregation: Grayslake, IL (72/93)
  16. Seward Unitarian Universalist of Seward: Seward, AK (9/disbanded)
  17. The Unitarian Universalists of Central Delaware: Dover, DE (51/53)
  18. Unitarian Church of Hubbardstown: Hubbardstown, MA (13/13)
  19. Unitarian Universalist Church of Blanchard Valley: Findlay, OH (26/20)
  20. Unitarian Universalist Church of Hot Springs: Hot Springs, AR (43/102)
  21. Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Chesapeake: California/Barstow, MD (43/30)
  22. Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tupelo: Tupelo, MS (36/34)
  23. Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Rocky Mount: Rocky Mount, NC (40/28)
  24. Unitarian Universalist of Petaluma: Petaluma, CA (71/89)
  25. Unitarian Universalist of Santa Clarita: Santa Clarita, CA (59/57)
  26. Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship: Raleigh, NC (44/57)
  27. Unitarian Universalists of Fallston, MD: Bel Air, MD (41/25)
  28. Unitarian Universalists of Gettysburg: Gettysburg, PA (53/55)
  29. Unitarian Universalists of the Big Bend, TX: Big Bend, TX (31/39)
  30. Washington Ethical Society: Washington, DC (150/166)
  31. WellSprings Congregation: Chester Springs, PA (143/271)
  32. Wildflower Church: Austin, TX (181/123)

And joining in the nine years since. I think you can see the difference.

  1. All Faiths Unitarian Congregation: Fort Myers, FL cite (139)
  2. All Souls: Miami, FL cite (84)
  3. Iowa Lakes Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Okoboji, IA cite (39)
  4. Original Blessing: Brooklyn, NY cite (since disbanded)
  5. Tapestry UU: Houston, TX (withdrew from multi-site congregation) cite (32)
  6. Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Lake Norman/Davidson, NC cite (45)
  7. Unitarian Universalists of Blue Ridge: Rappahannock/Washington, VA cite (55)
  8. UU Congregation: Petoskey, Michigan cite (26)

As for the matching list of congregations that disbanded or merged: well, only if there’s time. Not nearly so pleasant.

UUMA on Facebook: reporting out

So, the news of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s censure of Todd Eklof went out on the UUMA’s Facebook page. Soon, there were several comments opposing the censure. Later, all vanished.

I commented, “I see the negative comments posted here yesterday have been deleted. Pathetic.” Within a couple of minutes, the UUMA’s Facebook manager replied to me, “they actually haven’t. They have been temporarily removed while we work on a response to them. Please be patient.” Me: “I hope you restore those comments promptly. Either way, I’ll be reporting out on my site, RevScottWells.com.”  So here we are.

The comments were restored this morning, with this response:

We want to acknowledge that over the weekend several responses to this post were hidden until such a time as they could be reviewed. This was not done to stifle discourse but to ensure that potentially divisive comments would not be left without response. All posts have been restored.

This page is not moderated for debate and we don’t have the means to create moderation at this time. All your responses will be collected and shared with the UUMA Board of Trustees. If you have additional comments to include, we encourage you to send via email to execteam (at) uuma (dot) org.

So instead of “we’re preparing a response; please stand by” we got another unforced error. Because the optics of taking down critical comments is awful. Their reply was not equal to the take-down action, but the UUMA’s a dead letter to me, so whatevs. (And no, I don’t think the study year will be allowed to seriously challenge the UUMA’s proposal presented in June, so why wait? I suppose you can make the case for seeing the process to the end, but I don’t have time for futility. More power to those who persist.)

If you feel you have something to say to the UUMA — whether you are lay or ordained — there’s that avenue they invited: emailing execteam@uuma.org. [Corrected]

And if you do write a comment and want a place to park it in public, you’re free to leave them in the comments here.

The UUMA is dead to me

Just when you think you’ve hit the bottom of the barrel, the bottom falls out. A public censure of Todd Eklof just issued leaves me stunned. No hint that adults can disagree, or that people put themselves out on principle. Or that some people think he’s correct.

The ideological basis, the high-handed tone and the cringing prayer. This is calculated to hurt and embarrass Eklof, so no irony there. “Honest and diligence” indeed. Lord, spare us. This letter is a betrayal of our heritage.

I’ve not been a member for years, but the UUMA is now good and dead to me. The signatories can (to put it nicely) get lost. I’m embarrassed for them; they should be ashamed of themselves.

Read for yourself. The original is at https://www.uuma.org/news/466020/UUMA-Board-and-Executive-Team-Issues-Public-Letter-of-Censure.htm. I’m reposting it here as, though it’s a public letter, documents tend to vanish.


UUMA Elected Board of Trustees and Executive Team Issues Public Letter of Censure

16 August, 2019

Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane

Dear Todd,
As the leadership of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, we are writing this letter of censure regarding the content and the manner of distribution (at the 2019 General Assembly) of your book, The Gadfly Papers. We hope this action will be received as an invitation into awareness, acknowledgment of the hurt that has been caused, and an opportunity for restoration, reconciliation, and engagement in the ongoing work of the UUMA, not as an attempted resolution of an “issue.” The content of your book has caused great psychological, spiritual, and emotional damage for many individuals and communities within our faith. Because of the widespread impact, we are making this censure public and distributing it to all members of the UUMA.

As the continental leadership of the UUMA, our responsibility is to uphold our values and our covenant. We believe you have broken covenant. We write this letter to ask you to seek understanding of the harm that has been done and to work toward restoration. We would welcome the opportunity to help guide and support a public process of restoration, which we expect would foster widespread learning about what it means to be a covenantal faith.

We understand from your book that you want to encourage robust and reasoned debate about the direction of our faith. However, we cannot ignore the fact that logic has often been employed in white supremacy culture to stifle dissent, minimize expressions of harm, and to require those who suffer to prove the harm by that culture’s standards. Further, we believe that dismissing testimonies of real people to the profound and pervasive pain of white supremacy culture and its many forms of oppression by simply categorizing them as safetyism or political correctness is both morally wrong and antithetical to our values as a faith tradition.

We believe that you have violated the spirit of the Ethical Standards in our Code of Conduct detailed in our Guidelines for the Conduct of Ministry, which call us to:

  • Honesty and diligence in our work
  • Respect and compassion for all people
  • The work of confronting attitudes and practices of unjust discrimination on the basis of race, color, class, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, physical or mental ability, or ethnicity in ourselves and our ministry settings

As we call you to be accountable to your colleagues, we also call ourselves, as UUMA leadership, to be accountable to our members and to our covenant and values. We recognize that our current ethical standards leave room for ambiguity about what kinds of speech and behavior are racist and oppressive. Our commitment to the ongoing work to revise our Guidelines, clarifying expectations of anti-racist, anti-oppressive conduct in the practice of ministry, seems more crucial each day. We are also working to revise the accountability processes to ground them in values of justice, integrity, and healing rather than in their current legalistic frame.

It is our deepest desire, not to exclude people, but to welcome everyone into this work, recognizing that our members represent a wide spectrum of perspectives, experience, readiness, and willingness to engage. While we wish to be sensitive to that spectrum, we also must balance that against the stark and painful fact that people of color, indigenous, trans, disabled and other marginalized communities have testified over and over again to the spiritual, psychological, emotional, physical, and moral damage that racism and oppression have caused. Those impacts are not up for debate.

Grounded in our mission, with profound sadness for hurt that has been caused, and with deep longing for the promise of what can be, we close with this prayer of lament:

Spirit of Reason and Passion,
We hear again the cries of pain from those of marginalized identities
Pain inflicted all too often in the name of UU values and principles.
Their hope is dying, crushed once again by dismissal and devaluation
Is there room for all of us in this faith?
Yes, this is a faith for us all.
This is a faith where love is stronger than hate
Where justice is our mission and beloved community is our vision.
Where relationships are key to our individual growth and understanding.
We are a faith that balances mind and heart, and embraces both in spirit.
May we live into that balance.
Recognizing the power of our words to manipulate and harm.
May we remember the power of relationship,
And work toward restoration when covenant is broken.
Embraced by Love,
Striving towards Justice,
We pray.

Blessed Be

In faith,

The UUMA Board of Trustees and Executive Team
Wendy Williams, President
Rod Richards, Vice President
Richard Speck, Treasurer
Elizabeth Stevens, Member At-Large
Walter LeFlore, Member At-Large
Christana Wille McKnight, Member At-Large
Darrick Jackson, Director of Education
Janette Lallier, Director of Operations
Melissa Carvill Ziemer, Director of Collegial Practices

Not worrying about the Unitarian Universalist Association

This is more of a process note than anything.

Ever since General Assembly this year, I’ve made it a point to reduce my interaction related to the Unitarian Universalist Association. I’ve gone off of mailing lists and have cut down (nearly to zero) my interactions on social media. I skim the magazine but discard the fundraising pieces. I will, for the time being, maintain my fellowship and any interest in things that have value to me, like my retirement plan. (So I’ll read the board minutes, say, to defend those interests if need be.)

But it’s clear that there’s not enough left in Unitarian Universalism on an institutional level to justify the downsides. OK, that’s not news. But the fact the messages have gone from “Scott, don’t leave” to “I understand” to “I’m getting out” is new. And those are people I trust and respect.

Since programmatic work has ground to nothing, there’s nothing to miss.  The work of the UUA has been replaced with taking care of its own sins, real or imagined. Why support that? Worse, some people who I would normally call colleagues are so embarrassing, caustic or bullying that I wouldn’t want to be seen in public with them much less the identify professionally with them.  And I’m a Universalist Christian, which should mean this is a natural home. But that’s not been regarded as a good thing in Unitarian Universalist circles in decades. Universalist Christianity is having a theological renaissance but Universalist Christians in the rest of the world make a point of distinguishing themselves from the kind of religion practiced in the UUA. So the UUA’s not only not helping, but it’s actually hurting my religious life.

And I know I’m not alone in believing this. Some of you have been kind enough to write and express your frustrations and reservations, and even ask my advice. The most I can suggest is double your effort in your own local church, if you can, and leave the national body to its own devices.

Once I decided that, my mood improved. I can figure out what’s coming next, and who I can work with instead. Save your money for something you love. Time to cut the ties that bind and chafe. Time to stop worrying.