Sunday, May 21, 2017

The election of the UUA President -- The Big Picture

Alison Miller, Jeanne Pupke, Susan Frederick Gray
I have been observing the UUA Presidential Election since it began.


Sue Phillips
In the beginning, I committed early to the candidacy of Sue Phillips, the New England Regional Lead. I had worked with Sue while I was on the Clara Barton District Board, and had come to appreciate her inspiring and enthusiastic presence, and her perspectives. 


But her candidacy ended before it could really get off the ground. It was too complicated to be both a Regional Lead on the UUA staff and a candidate at the same time, and she withdrew. 


I chose then to stay neutral in the race, to watch and observe, and to engage the remaining candidates in some interviews for this blog. To that end, I had two interviews each with the three candidates, interviewed each for the VUU, the Church of the Larger Fellowship sponsored video series. I also moderated a candidate forum for the New England Regional Ministers' Retreat, watched a live forum at the New England Regional Assembly and also watched, on video, the candidate forum at the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism convening in New Orleans. Plus I have had other hallway and informal conversations with the candidates along the way.  

Alison Miller
In my opinion, Unitarian Universalists place their faith these day in right relationships as the primary tool of leadership. They evaluate their potential leaders on their personal qualities, specifically on the interpersonal skills. Do they have the ability to listen well, to establish rapport, to maintain boundaries, to respect others, to stay at the proverbial table and their appropriate lane, to live with discomfort and difference? UU's seem to believe that  if our leaders have these qualities, then we will able to move forward as a faith. If they lack them, then everything else will fail anyway.

We have both a negative and positive experiences to support this point of view:




Jeanne Pupke
The negative was the Board/Administration conflict in the early years of the Peter Morales administration. There was a calamitous breakdown of mutually respectful relations that was trouble for the entire Association. When Jim Key was elected, progress was made to resolving that conflict. Whatever else was going on, the lesson learned by many was that skill in interpersonal relationships was key.

Susan Frederick Gray
The positive example is the 2012 Justice GA, which could have been “a hot mess in the desert.” Having decided not to boycott Arizona, but turn GA into an engagement with the immigration issues embroiling that state, success depended on forging a GA strategy with the GA planning Committe, the UUA Board, the staff, stakeholders like DRUUM and others, Arizona UU's and Arizona Immigration activists and community representatives. but skill at relationships and interpersonal interactions allowed it to be successful. It was our leaders' skills in right relationships and interpersonal interactions that were key to Justice GA's success.

Promo for the BLUU Convening Forum
The 2016 UUA Presidential campaign has also unfolded in the context of another major upheaval in Unitarian Universalism. Criticism of the hiring practices of the Association at the highest levels has spread out into a damning critique of white supremacy in Unitarian Universalism. It has been revealed that, beneath political liberalism of the Association, there lurks an anti-blackness that manifests as a deep suspicion of black people who are Unitarian Universalist or who are interested in it. UU’s understand Unitarian Universalism as a “white” religion, and while they often bemoan that, they are discomfited by rising diversity within what seemed to be the previously white space of their faith. It is a quite a bind: UU's love their UU culture, but hate its whiteness. They yearn to be a multi-racial faith, but push away and marginalize the very people who make it a possibility. 

 White Unitarian Universalists are being called to a profoundly different way to relate to their faith community. They are being challenged to know that they don’t own their religious organization, but must share it with the global majority. And once white UU’s grasp that Unitarian Universalism is not “their” religion, and that the local UU church is not there to meet ‘their’ needs, they will hear its call to be an anti-oppressive religious and spiritual movement. For many, answering that call is a leap into the unknown. 


The leap into an unknown future involves a new set of skills in relationship building in the President of the UUA. Neither the ministers, the Administrative Staff, or the UUA Board of Trustees are the leading element in creating the UU future. The real functional leadership (the ones who are leading) are people of color in our movement, organized into various groups, none of which are named in the by-laws: BLUU, DRUUM, the Religious Professionals of Color. How the elected, official leaders of the UUA work with the real, prophetic leaders of our faith is the open question of this election.

Black Lives of UU Organizing Collective

The Election of the UUA President: Appreciating Jeanne Pupke

An Appreciation of Jeanne Pupke

Jeanne Pupke comes to the campaign for the UUA President as an experienced and seasoned veteran of the UUA’s governance. She has served on the UUA’s Board of Trustees and been chair of the Board’s Finance Committee.

She has also served as the Senior Minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond, Virginia. In addition, she brings a wealth of other experience to her candidacy. She was a member of a Roman Catholic religious order, and then a business consultant, before she entered the Unitarian Universalist ministry. Jeanne is “savvy” and speaks with the authority of experience. Above all, I appreciate her experience and the tough mind it has given her.

When Jeanne is asked about the sources of her commitment to social justice, she answers first about the televised image of children beset by dogs in the Birmingham struggle in 1962. (I think that this is common of people of a certain age; those images are vivid in my mind, too.) The second thing she recalls is reading about the lives of the saints, with those strong images of courage and martyrdom. She did not mention being a lesbian in the conversation that I had with her about her deepest motivations for justice, but how could that not be a part of it.

In these appreciations, I have been trying to make as few direct comparisons of the candidates as possible, but I do think the fact that Jeanne is a lesbian has relevance. She is the candidate who was not encouraged from youth or young adulthood to be a UU minister. She had no home church minister who saw her potential. I appreciate this about her. (I also appreciate the others for their opposite experience; appreciation is not a zero-sum game.)

Another way that her Roman Catholic background reveals itself: when she talks about going to the Richmond Church, she was warned that the church was difficult for ministers. Her response was that “someone has to go.” She has a strong sense of duty. 

What I really appreciate in Jeanne is her long experience in governance in the UUA. She has had a front row seat to what has been going on back to the days of the Board/President conflicts with Gini Courter and Peter Morales. She pledges to work in partnership with the Board. She would bring a level of institutional memory and continuity with her into the Presidency, which would valuable in what will be a post-Morales, post-Key, new era. 

Jeanne has revised, sharpened, clarified her platform as the campaign has progressed. (As long as this process has been going on, it is the sign of learning.)
Now she has three main points:
  1. Creating a “commonwealth of congregations and covenanted communities” as a different way to be together than “an association of congregations.” The difference is the amount of mutual help that congregations and covenanted communities offer to each other. We build this commonwealth by listening to each others’ needs and dreams. The theme of building this commonwealth gives her an opportunity to speak directly to, and about, the work of small congregations. 
  2. Her second “Plank” is organizing the UUA for the 21st century. I have heard her talk about making better use of social media and communication to draw UU’s together and to speak to the wider world more effectively.
  3. And her third is “a faith on fire through radical inclusion.” I appreciate what I think she is driving at with this: that our habits of exclusion cut us off from the potential vitality of our faith. Resolving our white supremacy is ‘building a new way’ of being religious liberals, which will be on fire, exciting, having that quality that now seems lacking.  

I appreciate Jeanne’s experience in ministering in the epicenter of organized white supremacy in US history: Richmond, Virginia.  I wonder if skill and experience in working across the black/white divide might not be the most necessary attribute of leadership for the future. 

The Election of the UUA President: Appreciating Alison Miller

An Appreciation of Alison Miller 

Alison Miller is the Senior Minister of the UU Fellowship in Morristown, New Jersey. She is the only candidate chosen by the Presidential Search Committee who is still in the race. (For those of you who weren't paying attention many months ago, the other chosen candidate, Sue Phillips, withdrew her candidacy. Susan Frederick Gray was then urged to run, as she had been the third choice of the Search Committee. Jeanne Pupke is running through a nominating petition process.)

Alison Miller (like Susan Frederick Gray) is a child of Unitarian Universalism, having grown up in All Souls’ Church in New York City. 

She started working for Unitarian Universalism as a part-time sexton in her church as a youth, and she has worked for nearly three decades in a wide variety of projects and ministries as a lay and ordained leader.

She brings an astonishing breadth of experience to the campaign, having been involved with almost every sort of ministry that UU’s have been practicing and forming in the past 3 decades. She points out that many of them were new ministries. She was involved in the creation of an AIDS ministry while at All Souls. She created a youth ministry in New York that was very successful; she worked at the UUA in creating a campus ministry network. She currently serves as the Board President for the Church of the Larger Fellowship, during a period when the CLF has been leading the way into online ministry and worship. 

I appreciate Alison’s “worldliness” in talking about the realities of congregational life and budgeting, the ways of the UUA as an organization; the budget decisions we have made. She can get really concrete, questioning whether we resource what we say is important. Her call to increase the amount of UUA staffed with supporting worship (currently one half time position) is an example of this. She mentions the decision to not fund the Washington Office as another concrete example of not matching the funding with our goals.
In some ways, I think that Alison the most “insider-ish” candidate of the three, attuned to the nuts and bolts of the way the UUA is managed. Her long experience is one reason. Related is her experience, which she shares with several other ministers, in the UUA politics about youth and young adult ministry. I have never been able to figure out the whole story, but for many it seems to have been a formative experience. My impression is that for them, their lasting learning was that the UUA staff, structure, and budgeting process can choke off potentially powerful ministries. 

Alison’s parents came to UUism as an interfaith couple seeking somebody to perform their marriage ceremony. Their need was met at All Souls New York, and that is where they stayed and Alison grew up. Her mother is Jewish and her father Protestant. They came from different economic and social classes. Her interfaith family is an important part of her understanding of Unitarian Universalism. 

When asked about what motivates her social justice ministry, she invokes her mother’s Jewish tradition, taking from it that there is no option to quit: survival and persistence is necessary. 

I knew Alison the least when I started this process, but she is a very forthcoming and generous presence. I appreciate her natural ease as a communicator; she listens well, really engages, and always seems to have a well-formed response. She always has something to say. 

The catchphrase of the Miller campaign seems to be “make visible the bonds of love”. And the three aspirations below that are “ignite faith”, “empower change” and “advance justice.” 

There is an interesting section on her website, entitled “Together We Can”. It lists several goals that “we” (unitarian Universalists) can do. I appreciate that the list is a list of ways we can be different. It is mostly about how we are together. Together we can “free our communities to be spiritually alive”; Together we can “practice gratitude for the heritage”, etc. It is a set of practical goals for UU’s as we work together. I appreciate that she seems to recognize that we will move forward as we increase the level of our cooperation with each other. 


I appreciate Alison Miller’s deep experience in the workings of our denomination, in her confidence in what UUism could be that is based in her own life experience, and in her sense that we need to get out of our own way and get to the work ahead. 

The Election of the UUA President -- Appreciating Susan Frederick Gray

An Appreciation of Susan Frederick-Gray


Susan Frederick Gray started to run for President of the UUA after the Justice GA in 2012, because of her experience in planning that event.
She was at that the Minister of First Church in Phoenix and active in immigration issues prior to the passage of SB1070, Arizona's notorious "show me your papers" bill. She was active in the first wave of Unitarian Universalist denominational intervention in that struggle.

Participation in the Immigrant struggle meant Susan's worked with local groups and leaders from Arizona's immigrant communities. It also meant negotiating the various viewpoints of stakeholders in the UUA. Yet Justice GA was seen by all as a success. Her run for the President of the UUA is based on the authority of that experience.

Susan grew up in the Kirkwood, MO church were the Rev. John Robinson was her minister. That congregation was a source of peace and support during her parents' painful divorce. The church was her extended family.

Her education was in molecular biology, but a meditation practice led her in another direction. She began to hear the call to ministry during here college period.

Her church experience includes the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Youngstown, Ohio, which is the church of my childhood and youth. I try to keep that in perspective, though I do think that experience is the Rust Belt would be helpful to UU leaders.

Susan was named by her mother after the 19th century feminist icons: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She cites that feminism as the source of her passion toward social justice.
Her campaign uses these three themes: spiritually vital, grounded in relationships, organized for impact. 

The latter two relatively straightforward and represent understandings and aspirations broadly shared. Most people understand that, at least on the national level, that our work in the public square needs to done with partnerships and coalitions with others. This is one way that we recognize the limits of our particular social location. We are acknowledging the need to step back as others step up. I think that the need for partners may not be as clear to local UU congregations, which can be inwardly-focused and isolated. 

And “organized for impact” speaks to the widespread desire to be more effective and forceful. It’s a potent phrase, combining our desire to be more powerful in the public square, and our frustrations with our debilitating organizational practices. 
And “spiritually vital”?  What does she mean by that?

“By vital, I mean healthy, life-giving, essential. We need congregations and ministries that invite people into greater connection across families, generations, neighborhoods and cultures to offer a path away from disconnection and division.”

I appreciate Susan’s effort to “go there”, “there” being the most ineffable subject among us: the felt need for some spiritual leadership from the new UUA President.  I think that this is a crucial aspect of the leadership that we are looking for.

Susan’s words from her website, again:  “a vital spiritual voice that calls us toward our best selves – to articulate the power of love in the face of fear, the importance of compassion, reverence and interconnection when it comes to how we must live into the global realities of the 21st century.” 

Note the three elements there: 
1. personal transformation: “calls us to our best selves
2. highest values: “the power of love in the face of fear, the importance of compassion, reverence and interconnection”
3. Context: “global realities of the 21st century”

I appreciate Susan's formulation of this: she connects the work of personal transformation with the social values Unitarian Universalism must embody in the times we live in. 


Friday, April 28, 2017

A UU General Conference

The Board Task Force on Re-Covenanting has recommended that a General Conference be held sometime before the Fall of 2018. The recommendation is still just a sketch and not a detailed plan.

I am on that Task Force, but do not speak for it. These are ideas still in development.

I think that there are three concepts that are at the heart of the General Conference Proposal.

1. Mission Alignment.

The General Conference is not about governance; it is about mission alignment. (Rev. Ritchie brought the concept of mission alignment into our discussions. She was inspired by example of the American Baptists who see their discernment work as sitting around 'the mission table'.)

Every entity within Unitarian Universalism has a few purposes and a mission. I am not talking about mission as their idealistic aspirations, but the practical work that they do. The typical congregation has these missions: to conduct a weekly worship service, to teach UUism to their children and youth, to form and sustain a committed community through social activities and mutual support, and to engage with their wider community for love and justice through some specific projects and ministries. Forget the high-flown language--this is what they do, and where they spend their resources of time, energy, and money.

Unitarian Universalism has a mission in the world. Perhaps the document that most explains it is the Board's Ends Statement. Perhaps the Seven Principles? Perhaps it is not yet articulated concisely; it does not have to be. It is probably a waste of energy to try to get agreement on the exact language to express it.

Mission Alignment is the work of entities who share an overlapping mission to discern that mission, to bring focus to that work, to align that work with others. It is not making governance decisions, which is legislating what others have to do. It is discerning with others what ought to be done, and then each entity changing what they do to more closely work others.

A General Conference would need to be focussed on one big question to be effective. The Task Force asks for a conference to explore "what the UUA is called to be and to do in today’s world."

2. Spectrum of Practice

UU's do the work of Unitarian Universalism in many different organizational forms: congregations, covenanted communities, "independent affliliated organizations," identity-based groups, professional groups, community ministers embedded in non-UU organizations, camps and conferences, and more. There is a spectrum of UU practice, and entities all along that spectrum should be participating in a General Conference. Governance tackles the question of how all these diverse forms of organizations are represented and integrated into one organization. A Mission oriented conference skips over that question and asks what can each of these entities contribute in our mutual discernment. 

3. Network of Covenants

The goal of a General Conference is not the adoption of one big covenant, but deeper discussion and discernment about a crucial issue. The output should be the creation of hundreds of covenants between UU entities to work together in a mutually accountable agreements. The possibilities are endless, and hold the potentiality of bringing more UU entities into right relationship. 




The Board Task on Re-Covenanting is Rev. Susan Ritchie, Kathy Burek, Rev. David Miller and myself.  They are brilliant and creative.  This post speaks for me, and no one else. 


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Calling for a UU General Conference (LINKS FIXED)

I have been serving on a UUA Board "Task Force on Re-Imagining Covenant."  For over a year, we have meeting to imagine a Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations defined by mutual commitment to shared values and each other. We have been looking for an alternative to present non-profit service provider/client relationship between congregations and the UUA. We have been looking for alternatives to the membership model of participation and toward a model of shared mission.

As we thought this over, it became clear to us that UU's needed to have a different kind of discussion and in a different kind of setting. Our report became a call for a forgotten kind of gathering: a General Conference.

Our task force presented our report to the UUA at the most recent Board meeting. Of course, in the aftermath of the resignation of one President and the appointment of three co-Presidents, our report did not receive much attention.

I am publishing our report here, so that anyone can see it. It has sets forward our proposal, and our rationale for it. It also provides an historical overview of how we are presently structured as an Association.

Here it is

Recommendation: From Board Task Force on Re-Imagining Covenant.

The task force members who submitted this report are:

Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, Chair
Kathy Burek
Rev. David Miller
Rev. Tom Schade

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

White Supremacy in Liberal Religion, particularly Unitarian Universalism

I posted this elsewhere; 


To break down white supremacy in the UU hiring context, it is an unspoken (but indefensible) assumption that because UUism is "predominantly white", UU religious leaders who are white will be more effective leaders, a better fit, more likely to be team players with the rest of the leadership and less likely to run into problems with our mostly white congregants and congregational leaders. 

It is also an assumption that investment in creating congregations of color is very risky and most likely to fail. 

It is also a white supremacist assumption that most people of color are not interested in a religion like ours, therefore UU religious professionals of color are doomed to failure -- unable to minister to people of color outside our congregations and less likely than their white colleagues to minister effectively to the white people in our congregations/communities. 

These assumptions lead inevitably to the unspoken conclusion that when it comes to hiring religious leaders for the UU movement, white is better!

This whole train of assumptions and conclusions are based on the idea that liberal religion and Unitarian Universalism are culturally appropriate to white people, but not so to people of color. It's white supremacy, friends.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

More Interviews with UUA Presidential Candidates

The UUA Presidential Campaign is heating up.

Over the last few weeks, I have interviewed each of the candidates about their thinking about the role of the UUA President in the widespread resistance to the Trump administration. I asked similar questions to all three candidates so you can compare their answers and approaches.

You might especially interested in the last question I asked each candidate about where their motivation to struggle for social justice comes from in the personal history. Each answered in a different way.

Here are the interviews:

Jeanne Pupke:




Alison Miller




Susan Frederick-Gray 

















Note: I started this interview process before the announcement of the decision to hire Andy Burnette as the Lead of the Southern Region. In order to keep the interviews on the same topics, I did not ask about that decision and all that has followed in its wake. I am sure that the candidates views on the whole question of the white supremacy active in the UUA's hiring practices will be checked out during the campaign.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Sin, Shame, and Compensatory Goodness

Like so many, I am struggling with the news of Ron Robinson's arrest for possession of child pornography. He has been a friend of mine since I was in seminary. I suggest you read Tony Lorenzen's account of his influence on a group of us. I considered him a modern hero of Unitarian Universalism, someone whose vision of ministry was a prophetic challenge to the rest of us. If you are not familiar with Ron's ministry, read this 2010 article in the UUWorld.

I do not know what happened in Ron's life to give rise to such unhealthy and dangerous desires. We don't even know how much his desires were acted upon. But there it still is, the presence of such an orientation to abusive desire, an orientation toward sin, in one I thought an exemplary human being.

We are told that such an orientation toward abuse, such sin, does not spontaneously arise, but often has roots in the person's experience. The abuser was once the abused.

But none of us now know that about Ron Robinson.

What we see is two things in contradiction. One is this sin, which has now been revealed. The other is what we have seen all along: an extraordinary ministry of service and generosity.

What is the relationship between the two?

One possibility is that a malignant sociopath created a whole facade of faithful, loving service as a elaborate ruse, to hide behind, while he sought to gratify his abusive desires.  A demon in disguise. But I have to say in my 25 years of interacting with Ron, I never saw something that seemed insincere, self-serving, manipulative, or otherwise bullshit.

Another possibility is that his secret orientation toward abusive desire was a source of shame, and out of that shame, a whole counter-life was lived, to compensate for the shame, to prove to himself that he still had worth.  A self-destructive "sainthood," because its purpose was really to destroy a part of the self that is a source of shame.

The second possibility seems kinder, but is terrifying upon reflection. It means that we ought to suspect the hidden motivations of those who seem the most heroic, and the more heroic, or self-denying, the more we should be suspicious. There are people who are too good to be true. In retrospect, should I not have seen that in Ron?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Simple Messaging for Trump Supporters

Forget converting them !

The goal is to neutralize them by diminishing their enthusiasm.

Many people liked Trump because he was (1) wealthy (2) a success at business and therefore (3) beyond corruption because of his wealth and thus (4) free to speak the truth as he saw it.

But none of those are actually true:

He is not as wealthy as he claimed, but deep in debt, much of it to foreign banks and shadowy Russian businesses.

His reputation as business leader depends on overspending on his projects and then going into bankruptcy. Businesses can advantageously go bankrupt. The US government cannot. His particular business skills are irrelevant to the job of being President.

His debt and obvious cash flow problems are forcing him into corruption. He is selling the Presidency for quick profits. A truly wealthy person would divest and liquidate his holdings, content to live the rest of their life on the profits accumulated over the years. But Trump's refusal to divest means that he needs to continue to make money through his businesses. He is probably too indebted to liquidate. If he sold everything, he wouldn't make enough money to pay his debts.

And yes, he speaks whatever is on his mind. Unfortunately, it is the incoherent bluster of a profoundly uninformed person.

There was a certain logic for voting for Trump. But you have to see that the logic for Trump has turned out to not make sense.