“A UUMA Guidelines Proposal Response”

June 19. Update. The vote is today, so this is the final update of signatories.

June 14. Update: I have updated the signatories list, and here’s a link to the associated resolution amendment proposal, original and today’s update.

I am a signatory to this letter, issued yesterday. You can read the document referenced here.


A UUMA GUIDELINES PROPOSAL RESPONSE

I. Executive Summary

Ministry occurs in a complex landscape of diverse perspectives. We applaud all who are engaged in the vital work of articulating professional ethical standards, including collegial relations; we understand that our polity makes holding each other accountable to those standards particularly challenging. That said, having read and studied the current proposed revisions to the UUMA guidelines, we are moved to respond.

There are several problems we see with the proposed changes to the UUMA guidelines. We are concerned with the subjectivity of what constitutes “harm,” and the entirety of the “accountability” section. Perhaps most significantly: we, the undersigned, believe there should be a clear boundary between the important work of the UUMA to serve as a resource for improving our skills in ministry, and the important work of the community of congregations (otherwise known as the UUA), which credentials ministers through fellowship.

We know that credentialing serves important purposes. It vets people for psychological wellbeing. It assesses quality of connection and commitment to tradition. It provides external confirmation of vocational call. It assesses potential for spiritual maturity. Credentialing requires people to articulate the call and why they want to pursue leadership. It requires instruction and training in a particular body of knowledge (ie. ethics, scripture, etc.) Credentialing carries accountability to an authorizing body and is the basis for consequences. It carries endorsement from the community of congregations through the UUA, and it allows for portability of professional standing from one community to another. The UUMA does not relate materially to any of these processes.

The UUA is in the process of trying to create a single path for ethical complaints against ministers (and possibly other religious professionals). We would like to see that work continue and develop without the UUMA’s intervention. We would also like congregations to get more training on their responsibilities as employers, including non-discrimination and non-harassment.

The UUMA is not charged with saving congregations from their own weaknesses, but rather with upholding and supporting the standards of excellence of our professional ministry so that we may effectively and responsibly serve congregations and communities.

II. Principles

Here are the principles we see as vital to uphold:

1. Congregational independence and authority are core values of Unitarian Universalist congregations and have been since our traditions’ founding.

2. Congregational interdependence is equally ancient and is now most clearly expressed through membership in the UUA.

3. Every UU, including every minister, has a responsibility to serve the sacred as they understand it.

4. Every minister has a responsibility to speak the truth, in covenant with the congregation or community they serve.

5. The congregation has the sole authority to affirm or reject the call of a particular minister in that location;

6. Ordination is the acknowledgment and solemnization of an individual’s sacred call to ministry, performed by a congregation. Fellowship is the affirmation by tasked and trusted representatives of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, including but not limited to ministers, that an individual is deemed ready and acceptable for ordination, and for serving a call to professional ministry.

In summary: The UUA is an association of congregations. The UUMA is an association of ministers. The UUA advocates for congregations and the UUMA for ministers.

III. Areas of Agreement (with Gratitude)

  • We believe that misconduct should be actionable.
  • We agree strongly that we need to consistently clarify and strengthen our professional standards against behaviors that perpetuate white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and other systems and structures of oppression.
  • We agree that bullying is a form of misconduct.
  • We agree that it is important to add language about emotional needs as one of the ways a misconducting minister could exploit others.
  • We agree that it is good to clarify the expectation to refrain from contact for two years if a minister wants to begin a sexual relationship with someone they have encountered as a minister.
  • We agree that even then, the burden would be on the minister to demonstrate that they weren’t exploiting the partner.

IV. Areas of Disagreement

CONFLICT AND ACCOUNTABILITY

While recognizing that ministers have engaged and will engage in acts of gross or criminal misconduct, the vast majority of ministers are doing good, ethical work. The accountability language in the proposed guidelines is so broad as to make ethical colleagues wary of ordinary behavior and communication.

In order to fulfill their call, ministers must be free to speak the truth as they understand it, in covenant with the congregation or community they serve. Sometimes this will involve unskillful communication. Sometimes folks will need to work through their own biases or failings and be called back into covenant.

Many of the missteps of ministry are easily resolved in healthy systems by simply engaging in good-faith conversation or seeking and offering apology or reconciliation as a matter of course. The breadth of the proposed language threatens to override this healthy form of accountability and replace it with a much more dramatic and anxiety-driven process than is necessary.

We believe that in most circumstances, colleagues are able to work out disagreements between themselves as they see fit. In the vast majority of cases, a minister should be required to speak directly with a colleague with whom they have a disagreement as a first step toward resolving the conflict.

We appreciate the caveat in Footnote 2 regarding egregious misconduct. However, much of the language in this section is confusing at best, and seems to indicate a breathtaking level of overreach. Lines 122-196 outline a process that includes deliberate triangulation with regional staff, congregational staff members and lay leaders, clusters, and “accountabila-buddies.” That such a right relations process can be forced on a colleague for conduct as broad as covenant that is “broken, violated or even bent” is punitive and unreasonable.

We are concerned that this section of the proposal is not only problematic, but possibly illegal:

185 14. “The restoration of our covenant is a collegial process, not a legal one. Using legal counsel, insurance

186 agents, or similar outside bodies to prevent repair or frustrate accountability is itself a violation of this code.12

187 If a member employs these tactics to avoid accountability and healing the RRG may refer the

188 matter to the Common Ethics Panel for review and appropriate action, which may include removal or

189 suspension from membership and/or fellowship.”

In many union contracts there is an agreement to work through legally binding arbitration, or to pursue mediation as a first course. But those are both within legal practices. What we find deeply problematic about this section is surrendering our legal rights, and signing ourselves over to volunteer-run processes that have no established codes.

STAFF SUPERVISION AND CONGREGATIONAL POLITY

Many ministers are called by the congregations they serve to be staff supervisors within their congregational structure. It is wholly possible for these organizational models to express healthy collaboration while not exactly reflecting the UUMA’s preferred culture. We are concerned that the proposed guidelines would put an undue burden on ministers to serve a UUMA culture that may be in direct opposition to congregational expectations and established employment practices.

If a minister is unable to function as a collaborative, respectful, good supervisor then the onus is on the congregation, not the UUMA, to address the minister’s professional deficiencies and to deal with any fall-out from their bad behaviors — just as it is the congregational leadership’s role to address any fall-out from other staff’s misconduct or professional failures.

RIGHT RELATIONS GUIDES

The Right Relations Guides, as conceived, are a large group (“we may need 25-50 of these RRGs”, Accountability Guidelines Team Report, page 16) and a significant change in the collegial ecosystem. At first glance, they appear to hold a parallel role to the long-existing Good Officer program, which already helps mediate conflicts between colleagues as well as between our colleagues and other religious professionals and congregations. Good Officers often help their colleagues discern whether a conflict with a colleague needs one-to-one conversation, a mediated conversation, or if the conflict rises to the level of a formal complaint.

However, unlike Good Officers, Right Relations Guides would hold considerable power to recommend the suspension of UUMA membership which, if required for fellowship, presents a credible and predictable risk of abuse. This has the potential to create within the ministerial college an atmosphere of suspicion, effectively chilling relationships between colleagues.

We have witnessed colleagues and non-colleagues in social media settings, often in mixed groups, attempt to insert themselves into what we see as simple differences of opinions between adults. With this proposal, if these interlocutors were RRGs, they would be empowered to initiate processes that are disproportionately strong, even coercive, and threatening to the professional standing and livelihoods of colleagues.

Compelling participation in a process under threat of loss of professional standing by definition takes away the possibility of it being voluntary. Instead, it will likely bring some participants to the table with resentment, under duress, and utterly lacking the kind of goodwill upon which an effective reconciliation process must depend.

COMMON ETHICS PANEL

We appreciate the reasons why the guidelines committee has proposed a common ethics panel. But we submit that the UUA already has a common ethics panel: the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. The MFC has members appointed by the UUA and UUMA. It has lay people, UUA staff, ministers, DREs, psychological professionals and student liaisons. The MFC is accountable to the UUA board, and staffed by the Department of Ministry and Professional Leadership.

The MFC should be supported with additional staffing and resources to do effective work, rather than creating a new group to do their work for them. The UUMA can offer volunteers, ideas, and encouragement to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, but we should not create a separate team that decides who is accountable to whom while being accountable to no one.

V. Proposal/Action Plan

Complaints against all religious professionals for egregious misconduct should continue to go through the appropriate UUA channels (which definitely can be improved). There should also be a way for religious professionals to report egregiously misconducting congregations to hold them accountable and let it be known to ministers and others that they have a record of abusive treatment of religious professionals.

We understand that these guidelines are partly proposed to mitigate situations in which a colleague offends against another colleague, and is therefore out of the bounds of the congregation’s reach and scope. A mature resolution would look like the offended and offender talking one-on-one to each other, and/or offer options for supporting engagement with one another with a skilled facilitator if needed, allowing for an outcome that acknowledged the complexity of the situation, and responsibility all around. If egregious misconduct has occurred, it should be referred to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee.

A professional association expects its members to nurture a growing awareness of complex interpersonal dynamics; the ability to listen and speak openly and mindfully; and the regulation of one’s anxiety. These practices promote the ability to make thoughtful, principled choices. These expectations are expressed through equally clear and principled guidelines that depend on its members’ robust support.

The history of Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist ministry is replete with stories of fierce disagreements between colleagues. With a modern eye, we look back at some of these disagreements with disdain for opinions that no longer would be considered acceptable. But we always are in a present position of seeing through a glass dimly. Those who were most reviled in their time by their colleagues are often the ones whom time has shown to be most prescient and wise. We dare not silence the prophetic voices of those in our time, it is through their uncomfortable (and even painful) conversations that we may grow. A humility is needed for us to listen to each other, and bear the difficulties of withstanding opinions which we may most vehemently disagree with, affirming that freedom of conscience is still a supreme value of our ministry association.

We appreciate the hard, painful work of our dear colleagues on the guidelines proposal team, but we cannot support the proposed UUMA guidelines as written.

Yours in faith,

Rev. Neal Anderson, Senior Minister Elect, UU Church of Greater Lansing, MI

Rev. Robin W. Bartlett, Senior Pastor, The First Church in Sterling, MA

Rev. Darcy Baxter, Minister, UU Fellowship of Stanislaus County

Rev. Chris Bell, Senior Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa

Rev. Wendy L. Bell, Interim Minister, Unitarian Church of Sharon, MA

Rev. Peter Boullata, Unitarian Fellowship of London, London, ON

Rev. Tricia Brennan, Interim Minister, First Parish Dorchester, MA

Rev. John A. Buehrens, retired, San Francisco, CA

Rev. Dr. Andy Burnette, Senior Minister, Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Chandler, AZ

Rev. Roger Butts, Staff Chaplain, Penrose St Francis Health Services, Colorado Springs, CO

Rev. Cynthia Cain, in transition, Mackville, KY

Rev. Brian Chenowith, UU Church of Lexington, KY

Rev. Frank Clarkson, Minister, Universalist Unitarian Church of Haverhill, MA

Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford, Minister, Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Church, Cedar Park, TX

Rev. John T. Crestwell, Jr., Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, MD

Rev. Rick Davis, Minister, UU Congregation of Salem, OR

Rev. Gregory DuBow, Captain, Chaplain Corps, United States Air Force

Rev. Dr. Leon Dunkley, Minister, North Chapel, Woodstock, VT

Rev. Dr. Todd F. Eklof, Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, WA

Rev. Claire Feingold Thoryn, Minister, Follen Church, Lexington, MA

Rev. Seth Fisher, Minister, First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County

Rev. Emily Gage, Minister of Faith Development, Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Oak Park, Illinois

Rev. Daniel Gregoire, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Society of Grafton & Upton, MA

Rev. Michael F. Hall, Minister, Keene Unitarian Universalist Church, Keene, NH

Rev. Dr. Lucas Hergert, North Shore Unitarian Church, Deerfield Illinois

Rev. Lara Hoke, Minister, First Church Unitarian, Littleton, MA

Rev. Dan Hotchkiss, Dan Hotchkiss Consulting

Rev. Richard Hoyt-McDaniels, Interim Minister, Long Beach, CA

Rev. Stefan M. Jonasson, Gimli Unitarian Church, Gimli, MB

Rev. Cynthia L. G. Kane, Commander, Chaplain Corps, United States Navy

Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Kanter, Senior Minister/CEO, First Unitarian Church of Dallas, TX

Rev. Elea Kemler, Minister, First Parish Church of Groton, MA

Rev. Brian Kiely, Minister, Unitarian Church of Edmonton

Rev. Dr. Maureen Killoran, Minister Emerita, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, NC

Rev. Tera Klein, Pastor, Throop Unitarian Universalist, Pasadena, CA

Rev. Sadie Lansdale, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro, NC

Rev. Michael Leuchtenberger, Senior Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church, Concord, NH

Rev. Gerald E. “Jay” Libby, Melrose, MA

Rev. Anthony F. Lorenzen, Hopedale Unitarian Parish, Hopedale, MA

Rev. Ian White Maher, Minister, First Parish in Ashby, MA

Rev. Brian Mason, Minister, First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau, WI

Rev. Dr. Kelly Murphy Mason, Senior Minister, Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, Wellesley, MA

Rev. Robert W. McKetchnie, Minister, First Parish in Cohasset, MA

Rev. Jim McKinley, Unitarian Universalist Church of Hendersonville, NC

Rev. Diane Miller, Minister Emerita, First Church in Belmont, MA. Retired, Salina KS

Rev. Joel Miller, Interim Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY

Rev. Craig Moro, Minister, Wy’east UU Congregation, Portland, OR

Rev. Jake Morrill, Lead Minister, Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church, Oak Ridge, TN

Rev. Peter Newport, Retired

Rev. Janet Newton, Minister, First Parish Church of Berlin, MA

Rev. Dr. John H. Nichols, Minister Emeritus, Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, MA

Rev. Parisa Parsa, Cortico Local Voices Network, Arlington, MA

Rev. Carolyn Patierno, Sr. Minister, All Souls UU Congregation, New London, CT

Rev. Hank Peirce, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading, MA

Rev. Sue Phillips, How We Gather/Harvard Divinity School, Tacoma, WA

Rev. Jessica Purple Rodela, Grand River Unitarian Congregation, Kitchener, ON

Rev. Jason Seymour, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Springfield, MA

Rev. Oscar Sinclair, Minister, Unitarian Church of Lincoln, Lincoln NE

Rev. Erin Splaine, Minister, First Unitarian Universalist Society in Newton, MA

Rev. Ellen Spero, Minister, First Parish of Chelmsford, MA

Rev. Sarah Stewart, Minister, First Unitarian Church in Worcester, MA

Reverend Terry Sweetser, Interim Senior Minister, First Church in Salem, MA

Rev. Dr. Adam Tierney-Eliot, Pastor, The Eliot Church (UUA/UCC), Natick, MA

Chaplain (Major) George Tyger, United States Army, Fort Bragg, NC

Rev. Rali M. Weaver, Minister, First Church and Parish, Dedham, MA

Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lynn, Swampscott, MA

Rev. Margaret L. Weis, Minister, First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, NY

Rev. Scott Wells, Washington, DC

Rev. Aaron White, Associate Minister, First Unitarian Church of Dallas, TX

Pondering the new House of Studies

So, an interesting bit of news: that a Unitarian Universalist House of Studies is opening at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio “early in 2016.” This was announced yesterday.

No, at first I thought this an audacious move. There are two Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)-related houses of study, respectively affiliated at Vanderbilt and the University of Chicago. These have buildings, including student housing, a developed program and formal denominational recognition. Likewise, the “General Convention” Swedenborgians transformed its freestanding seminary, taking from a small Cambridge, Massachusetts institution and embedded itself into Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. These are seminaries in miniature, and the UU program at MTSO isn’t that. And that’s worth noting in case it’s written off as a pale imitation.

But Duke Divinity School has two “houses of study” (for Baptists and Episcopalians/Anglicans respectively) that’s more of a student nexus with an academic track. Something more programmatic than institutional, and that may be the model Dean Lisa Withrow and Susan Ritchie, the house of studies director, who the announcement describes as the minister of her church and “immediate past trustee and secretary on the national board of the Unitarian Universalist Association.” Nothing about her role at the Starr King School for the Ministry, which is itself strange and noticeable. But as a program with in a school, rather than alongside a school is quite reasonable.

In this light, perhaps this house of studies will be seen as a rival of Starr King, or even the much closer Meadville Lombard. But aren’t all schools that aren’t one of these — I didn’t go to either for what it’s worth — and the house of studies still functionally in the experimental phase. I am concerned that MTSO is one of the smaller contributors to the Unitarian Universalist ministerial college. If I were to develop one strategically, perhaps Boston University or Wesley here in D.C., where there are a significant number of congregations for field education. (There are only five UU congregations within 50 miles of MTSO, and only one has more than a 150 members. Field education needs field supervision.)

Which brings me to my point: this looks less like an alternative to Starr King or Meadville Lombard than an alternative to the fading option of Andover Newton. And its role in forming Unitarian Universalist ministers will be hard to replace, so good luck to the UU house of studies. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops.

Change of leadership at the UUCF

I’m glad to share the news that went public yesterday: that Jake Morrill, the minister of the Oak Ridge (Tennessee) Unitarian Universalist Congregation has been named the new Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship. I couldn’t be more pleased.

He follows Ron Robinson in the role, who for many years to his retirement admirably held the position.

Thanks to Ron, and the UUCF Board, lead by Kim Hampton. And congratulations to Jake.

Unitarian Universalism is not heresy

I’ll not hide the lede: Unitarian Universalism is not heresy, even when it’s not right.

It’s hurtful and vexing that it’s a common assertion that Unitarian Universalism is a heresy, and that it is built on heresies. [Here’s a link to a Google search for “unitarian universalist heresy” to underscore my point.] At worst, this claim demonstrates an adolescent rebellion against ghosts of authority. At best, it’s an assertion of choice in religion, with faulty etymology that overlooks the possibility of bad and harmful choices. Somewhere in between, proud heretics radiate the message “doesn’t play well with others” and “is impressed with own self.” Little wonder we’re the butt of jokes: we don’t even know when we’re insulted, or insult ourselves.

And you can see, off to one side, the more shark-like of opponents nodding in agreement. Unitarian Universalism is a heresy, and surely a damnable one, and their own opinions are — of course — true and edifying. That’s some deflective cover for their own shortcomings.

I don’t think it’s too controversial — though I’ve been wrong before — to say that people do make choices, so far as they are capable, and intend to choose the right. Praising heresy isn’t about valuing good choices, but devaluing the possibility of making the right choice, sticking to it and building from it. And I think that’s why so many people who enter Unitarian Universalism by the front door leave by the back. If one choice is as good as another, there’s a better chance the right answer is out there. Because if one choice is as good as another, then Unitarian Universalists — collectively — won’t work to cultivate it among ourselves. And if a spirit of heresy is true, why is there such little high-level discussion about theology, or indeed any serious disagreements?

Harsh words, perhaps, but look around our general fellowship. What do we have to show for ourselves? Are you satisfied with that?

Should Christian worship have non-biblical readings?

Having non-biblical readings has become such a canon among mainline Unitarian Universalists that Unitarian Universalist Christians face a crisis on the subject of readings. Is it proper to have non-biblical readings in worship?

The question of authority isn’t clear-cut. My home library has several works of daily readings: selected sections meant to be read regularly to enrich one’s faith, and not just in private reflection. Robert Atwell, the compiler of one such work (Celebrating the Seasons) notes in the introduction (page iii.) that

In monastic custom… the Scriptural reading at Vigils was supplemented by a non-Biblical lection. In the words of St. Benedict’s Rule: ‘In addition to the inspired words of the Old and New Testaments, the works read at Vigils should include explanations of Scripture by reputable and orthodox writers.’ The reading of commentaries (presumably on what had just been read) enabled the monk not only to engage with Scripture more intelligently, but also to place his personal meditation within the context of those of other Christians from different ages and traditions.

We’re not monks praying Vigils, but in our liberal-Reformed tradition we insist on the considered and thoughtful expounding on the lessons in the sermon. The lesson does not disclose itself, and we rely on the preacher to unfold its meaning.

In this sense, the non-biblical reading acts — or could act — as a replacement for the sermon, not the revealed word. But current Unitarian Universalist practice is far removed from this. When — about a century ago — Unitarian and (to a lesser degree) Universalist ministers cast abroad for non-biblical preaching texts, they drew from weighty stuff: often the classics, or a work of philosophy, or — as a standby — a bit of Shakespeare.

But today, it’s not uncommon for a liturgical element from the back of the gray hymnal, or a segment from a ministerial contemporary to be pressed into the role of scripture. It an odd thought that a minister might visit a church and hear her or his words — not unjustly quoted within the sermon — elevated to the role scripture once held. It’s hard to shake off our flippant and shallow reputation if that’s the norm.

So, there may be a place for non-biblical readings in Christian worship, but to help us hear and understand the word of God: not to become it.

Tool to search news broadcasts

Internet Archive has a tool that searches news broadcasts back to 2009, but since it’s fairly new, you may not have heard about it. Lots of uses, but I’m thinking particularly of those preachers who heard of, or were told of, a news segment but then don’t have access to it.

I thought a demonstration was in order, but so many of the searches were old or sad (funerals, vigils) that when I came across this 2014 Fox News segment with a Unitarian Universalist named John “Mac” McNichol, who is a living kidney donor, I knew I had to share it.

Congratulations…

Congratulations to Crystal St. Marie Lewis, who received her Master of Theological Studies from Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C. today. She blogs here (Window on Religion) and tweets here and is well worth reading.

Do we have a gospel?

So, dear Unitarian Universalists: today is Palm Sunday and Passover starts tomorrow. You’re probably busy, so I’ll keep this brief.

Do we have a gospel? Not a bunch of gospels, or pieces that can be grouped into a gospel, but a story that makes it possible for a group of disparate persons into a particular people? I don’t think we do. I think we have a context for ministry, where we bring gospels, but I don’t think that’ll be sufficient for long-term survival. And so the people will perish.

We may be too big to share a gospel (from this point) and too small to re-organize around multiple centers.

An unhappy thought, but not having the though won’t save us. The comments are open.

If you don't have millions to buy a Bay Psalm Book

This week one of the eleven surviving copies of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in English North America, sold at auction.

The owner was Old South Church, Boston, and the sale reminded me of all the old Unitarian communion plate that was sold to keep the staff paid, the furnace stoked or the roof on.

Though I respect our history, I respect the institutions more. And there’s something sad when a communion cup or psalter becomes so valuable as an artifact that it loses its intended use; it’s like the Velveteen Rabbit in reverse. As treasure, the silver and the printed pages become less real. They were real because they were instruments of praise and thanksgiving. Better then, I think that they can be sold, conserved and placed on display, as indeed the new Psalm Book’s owner, David Rubenstein, intends to do. (He owns two of the eleven.)

Better still to keep the Great Thanksgiving at table, and our praises in song. And if you want to pray from the Bay Psalm Book… well, then thank God: you can read it online, in this 1903 facsimile reprint.