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.

The Universalist church the mortgage killed

For my last post, I was going to link to some research I assumed I had made into a blog post: a substantial Universalist church that was killed by bad planning, bad luck and a big mortgage. But I guess I didn’t write it.

I’ll see to that as soon as I find my notes.

Independent Sacramental Movement: small and poor churches?

One thing that I’ve noticed about the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM), as a practical matter, is how small the particular ministries — for want of a better term; the parishes, communities, missions, mass houses, monasteries and the organizing jurisdictions, and not to mention solitary clergy — often are. And how often they describe themselves as poor, in the sense of the ministry having little wealth or few material resources, and little focus on gathering more. (I suspect the members come from across the economic spectrum.)

Whether this is intentional, or a recognition of circumstance, can be debated though I suspect it’s more of the later and having the wisdom to make the best of it. In the ISM, your priest probably has a day job, and your bishop probably does too. You might be recruited to set up the altar or move chairs because you’re in rented space. There’s a good bit of make-do.

I do not consider these bad, or failures — nor even exceptional. (I have a day job now and supply preach in my home church, and have moved a few folding chairs in my day.) In fact, they might be key to the ISM’s long-term success, and essential for anyone who wishes to learn from them.

First, I concede that the terms small and poor are relative. I once guest-preached to two worshippers in a building so large that I could not make out their faces from the pulpit. This church had wealth and had immense capacity, but I later suspected the worshippers lived on what we genteelly call “a fixed income.” (They would have been joined by a couple of dozen of their peers had it not been a holiday weekend with an unknown minister.) Was this church large or small; was it wealthy or poor?

This example is an outlier, but Protestant churches run small, and that’s my background. I’ve often heard Protestant churches average 75 members, though it has been decades since I was in a church that large. So small, that were they Roman Catholic parishes, most would be closed by their bishops for being a poor allocation of their meager supply of priests. Protestants have a good supply of ministers, if not always in the right places! The ISM has a high proportion of its members in holy orders. So, I’ll ask: what then do poor and small really mean?

The question I’d rather ask is are they (or we) sustainable? ISM churches rarely have clergy who are paid for their labor, and so far the only ISM clergy that I’ve heard of drawing a salary for their ministry are in chaplaincy. If they are “poor” in not having their own buildings, as is often but not universally the case, then they are rich when the termites move in. I am reminded of churches that fail under mortgages; contrary to the saying, if you build it they still might not come. I am also reminded of churches who identify ministry with having a full-time pastor. Or failing that a part-time pastor. But if the money runs out (or are unable to attract a minister; seminary debt is no small thing) then under this model, the ministry itself fails. A church that can make-do has the skills to survive.

At least, I think the ISM resets usual church expectations, by addressing sideways the perennial suspicion that all churches really care about is the members’ money. Take that away and you can focus on the people and the church’s mission.

They are like the small mammal that will crawl out of the ashes when we mainline dinosaurs get vaporized by the meteor. Not that it’s easy, but there are worse things than being small or poor.

I ♥ the Laity

A couple of weeks ago, when I was writing about Todd Eklof’s The Gadfly Papers I would see commenters here and on Facebook preface their comments: “I’m not a minister” or “I just a UU member” or the like, as if their opinions about the general condition of the Unitarian Universalist Association would be less valued because they’re not ministers.

So this is a little love note to the laity.

In our polity, a church is a group called out of the world, bound by covenant. It is this covenant-bound reality that identifies and makes its spiritual officers: the ministers and (where they continue) the deacons. Indeed, these officers are raised out of the congregation, though that’s more of a legal fiction than not today. Still, at every ordination and installation, the heart truth of this relationship is announced. The election of ministers, new or newly-welcomed, is far from pro forma.

The thought continues: you can have a church without a minister — many do, whether they like it or not — but you can’t have a church without the laity. (I suppose you could have a church with nothing but ministers, but I’d rather not, and in any case most would have to act like laypersons.)

And in practical terms, the laity staff the committees, raise the funds, offer counsel, and very often put out the chairs or make the coffee when needed. That great ministry of feeding a household in mourning is the province of the laity. There are hundreds of other works great and small, and hundreds of other joys and consolations, too. Without that, too, there would be no church. The work of the church is in the hands of the laity, often literally.

And heaven help the minister who tries to go it alone, or fails to take seriously the spoken or unspoken needs and aspirations of the (lay) members. So, naturally, some lay persons will have opinions (often strong ones) about what goes on in UUA and region business, and it has always been thus.

So if tempted, don’t ever apologize for being a member of the laity.

I speak with a certain perspective as a minister but never forget I was once a layman myself.

Reviewing “The Gadfly Papers”: part 2

I don’t want to make this controversy my full-time job, so this post and done (if I can help it.) Here are my earlier articles the subject: introduction and part one.

My first instinct was correct; this is a work of controversy and while there are parts I do agree with, its style and form wouldn’t have convinced me.  That and it’s so blisteringly Unitarian, which is a pet complaint. The biggest plus is directing me to the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, whom I’ll add to my reading list.

I’m imagining where the harm claims are coming from. I see forms of argument that could remind people of other arguments that were abusive. Some terms Eklof uses, such as political correctness  and safetyism, are used by other authors to dismiss or belittle critics, and the fact they show up in the title of the first essay (“The Coddling of the Unitarian Universalist Mind: How the Emerging Culture of Safetyism, Identitarianism, and Political Correctness is Reshaping America’s Most Liberal Religion”) surely put examiners into high alert. I also see discussions of controversy — in particular, the district executive hiring crisis of 2017 ― that could be embarrassing to those who had thought the narrative was conclusively set. The tension around the publication itself (General Assembly is a strange time) could inflame old trauma. I still don’t see the viciousness (“vitriolic rhetoric” introduction to reposted white ministers letter;”aligned with alt-right ideology” Allies for Racial Equity letter; “dissemination of racism, ableism, and the affirmation of other forms of oppression, including classism and homo- and transphobia” UUMA POCI chapter letter; “toxic history and theologies” DRUUMM letter) its denouncers claim.  And fiat isn’t good enough; you have to show your work, if not to me, then to the laity commenting online, who seem to be at a different place.

Some writers, mainly on Facebook, speak of portions floating around, or selections that confirm their decision to condemn. I think this is a mistake, not only because that’s the oldest rhetorical trick in the book, but because Eklof has a theme that’s woven through his book that gets lost with excerpting: an ecclesiology of the free church based on universal human experience. That’s important because he doesn’t condemn those who would condemn him, but tries to re-direct the discussion to what we might have together.  It’s a basis for unity because we need one, and this necessity is what the rest of the book relies on. (His ecclesiology leave me cold, but that’s besides the point.)

The less said about the second essay the better. The “divorce” in the title is a call to redivide the Unitarians and Universalists so they could be their true selves. I’m not sure if that’s Swiftian fancy, or simply romantic misreading. But his examples ignored the economic reasons, not to mention the social realities, that lead to consolidation.  I think you can make a good case for breaking up or restructuring the UUA. For one, it’s too small to be efficient but too big to be nimble. Also, without another similar peer organization, when people leave, they’re gone. UUA1 and UUA2 could specialize, develop their own styles and volley ministers and churches back and forth, and I bet it would be bigger in aggregate than the UUA today. A little competition is good, too. But that’s not what Eklof suggests.

Yet I think both Eklof and his accusers suffer that common affliction of wanting to be right more than being successful. It might surprise non-readers that he has ideas for dismantling racism, and to continue to work on not being racist, and talks about his bona-fides at in the epilogue.  You might think them hogwash (or wonderful) but they’re there. That is, if you can make it through his argumentation, especially the extended section on logic. God help me, but he might have been a graduate of the Vulcan School for Exquisite Logic and that still would have been the wrong approach. An appeal to rhetoric (a personal favorite) wouldn’t have been any better. Where he’s sermonic, he’s stronger. So third and largest essay was a convoluted slog, and if I had been anxious or angry or good ol’ loaded-for-bear going into the book, it would have amplified my feelings greatly.

I finally finished the book, but half-way through started taking notes in earnest, and so details from the front third aren’t as fresh in mind. Plus my blasted Kindle copy resists cutting-and-pasting. But I have to put this down. I’ll keep the comments open for a while; so far everyone has been civil, which makes me happy.

If you are interested in reading the book to understand Eklof’s points, read the epilogue first, the beginning and end of the third essay and then the first. You can skim the second essay for the ecclesiological themes.

Reviewing “The Gadfly Papers”: part 1

I am a slow reader with a day job. So I am less than a third of the way done reading The Gadfly Papers, but do have some general observations both of the book and the three letters denouncing it.

First, I never intended to read it. My very first instinct was “not again.” Itchy political analysis of the UUA was common fifteen to twenty years ago, created “more heat than light” and inspired me to be more strategic and analytic whenever I met something in the UUA that seemed like a bad idea. I spiked a lot of my own stories. The table of contents reminded me of the old days. It was the denouncing letters that prompted me to buy and read the book.

Why? The letters were sure of their reasons, were very confident but gave no examples. (The UUMA POCI letter cited an Christina Rivera as an injured party, but not what in the book caused the injury.)  And the lists grew so fast, that I thought “surely they didn’t read it yet,” which raised a red flag. So whatever the motives of the signatories — which I trust as a matter of principle was based on conscience, duty or both — the letters read to me as a pile-on. For example, does being “intentionally provocative” (white ministers letter) merit hundreds of signatures against a single colleague?

I took it both as a matter of conscience and duty to not be swayed by numbers and see for myself. And for this I was criticized and chided for buying the book. By ministers. It is currently the #1 and #2 books (Kindle and paperback respectively) about Unitarian Universalism on Amazon, despite an attempt to displace it by strategic purchasing of another book. Clearly, others want to read it, too.

You can quietly ask someone to stop writing. You can make a reasoned, convincing argument why someone is wrong. You cannot make forceful, public demands, and then expect people to not start Google-ing.

As for the book, so far it’s not great literature. It could use a copy editor and is a bit self-conscious of its place in history and the weight of criticism that did, in fact, come. Even the “white ministers letter” calls it a treatise, and I think that’s the right genre. The interpretation of Unitarian history, in my opinion, is not good. But it is exactly the kind of folk-history, transmitted through sermons and pamphlets, that built the long dominant idea that Unitarianism is the “faith of the free.”

I will provide examples of some recent embarrassing Unitarian Universalist episodes  later, but again I’m a slow reader trying to read for comprehension and the meaning of the controversy. So far, I do not see in Eklof’s book a narrative equal to the outrage.

“The Gadfly Papers”

The controversy around the Rev. Todd Eklof, the minister of the host church for the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly (UUA GA; #uuaga), is one I never thought I would see.

It hinges on his book The Gadfly Papers, which he was distributing for free at the GA. He and his books were removed following a Right Relations process. I’m still waiting for a formal report-out from the General Assembly.

Generally, the claims (I’ve seen no specific examples) are that his ideas and even the titles of his essays are so hurtful as to be intolerable. That’s something I never expected to see among Unitarian Universalists, but here we are. One such denunciation is from DRUUMM (Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries) and another is from an ad-hoc group of white ministers, which I have seen but do not have a public link. (I’ll add it if and when it becomes available.) I have also seen individual statements from ministers on Facebook.

These claims map to the claims of harm attributed to the UUMA proposal response I co-wrote and signed. I am, so I hear, “being watched.” Again, is this Unitarian Universalism?

So I’m doing the most UU thing — or at least the most sensible — I can think of: read the book. You can order a copy here. I don’t promise to like it and will give my unvarnished review when I’m done, or perhaps after finishing each of the three essays depending on how it reads. I will look for what might be causing grief among its denouncers.

Update: I have found another denunciation, from the People of Color and Indigenous UUMA Chapter. It cites references to Christina Rivera in particular, and calls on the UUMA to enforce its guidelines, presumably disciplinary action against Todd Eklof.

Update: Some links to the third letter and outside commentary, plus two versions of the Right Relations interchange (one by Todd Eklof) in the comments.