"PopUUlism" and Processes

I posted the following on Facebook this morning. 

Reading about SKSM, I am convinced again of the wisdom of our recommended processes of our ministerial search and settlement processes. It would NOT be recommended for a Search Committee to announce the names of the final three pre-candidates. Nor would it be recommended that they collect recorded feedback on the candidates by congregants. Why not? Because those steps would imply a democratic process when the final decision is being made by a committee, which is (and should be) free to choose to not follow what seems to be most popular course. The result of such a bad process is that the new minister is burdened by a self-conscious group that would have preferred another actual and viable candidate. Instead starting out with 95% -- the new minister/President would be starting out knowing that up to 2/3 of the people would have chosen another candidate, if they would have had a vote. I know nothing about the specifics of the situation beyond what has been reported. But I can't imagine a church or a congregation choosing such an ultra-democratic process.
I thought it needed a little elaboration:

I am not concerned with the proper way to get student and faculty input on the choice of a new President of a School for Ministry. It's not that I think it is unimportant, but that sort of checking in with the rank and file is already given too much emphasis in most liberal religious institutions.
What does not receive enough emphasis is fidelity to our tradition and to our mission/purpose. Asking the question: "Given the wisdom that we have gained, what are we called to do and be in the future?"  We need to bring these two concerns into balance.

I especially worry about processes that imply a democracy when none really exists. To say that there are three candidates, and then to collect people's opinions of them, implies that people's opinions are going to have a great weight. Even though it may be explicitly stated that this is just input and not votes, it gives an impression of an election. But then, the final decision is made by a Board, or a Search Committee, or some smaller group. As it should be, I believe.

Regarding SKSM, my reading (and I don't really know) is that the documents were leaked because they showed that rank and file evaluations didn't match the final choice. Where did that expectation come from?

I have called the pervasive mistrust of leadership that affects UUland: "PopUUlism" -- the belief that a shadowy insider elite manipulates our processes. PopUULism feeds on itself. It doesn't matter how 'democratic' our processes are made, the mistrust continues. Because the mistrust is not in the processes, but in the people.

We, rank and file UU's, have to make the decision that we are going to extend more trust to our leaders. It's a personal decision that will affect how you view your minister and everything that other UU's do. (Do even bother to make any comments to this post that characterize what I am saying as "getting in line" or "following blindly" or "giving up critical thought": I am talking about "more trust".) It's a decision to let the UUA staff choose a logo. It's acting as though your minister might know more than you do about the real meaning of Unitarian Universalism. It's letting a school that prepares UU ministers choose its President.

Why would we do that? Because Unitarian Universalism is a healthy influence in our culture and in the lives of people, and it should  be stronger and more effective, and it should be embodied in strong institutions.

(Extra Bonus Digressive Rant: Another example to prove my point. General Assembly.
I think the business of the Association would best be done by elected delegates from congregations and ministers in fellowship. That would balance the need for accountable democracy and authority held by those invested in and knowledgable of the UU tradition. Given our persistent mistrust of leaders, GA has become more and more open. Anybody can go. But the opening of GA does not really mitigate the mistrust of leaders. Not everybody can actually afford to go. It's still only congregational delegates who can vote, yet we are moving 'beyond congregations.' If you are so inclined, you can still see GA as obscuring an elite run system. My question is 'Is there anything that would end your choice to be so inclined?'


  1. Sharon Wylie1:13 PM

    I want to lift up Theresa Novak's post http://theresauuco.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/trouble-in-paradise-starr-king-school-for-the-ministry/ and her radical observation that small institutions require support. I have been surprised in all this brouhaha to hear Starr King characterized as a "powerful institution," certainly news to most of us familiar with the place. I understand that characterization is made in response to the withholding of diplomas, an action that certainly does emphasize the power of institution. But organizations like Starr King, the UUA, and our UU congregations are not powerful in the same way as, for example, the Catholic Church and Walmart. UUs tend to conflate all these things together and imagine that when we "take on" our own institutions, we're fighting for justice. Instead, all we're doing is fighting (and hurting) ourselves.

  2. Thanks Tom, I am linking this to my blog post which, I think, makes some similar points http://wp.me/p3BiVX-cL

    Rev. Theresa Novak

  3. Elz Curtiss1:41 PM

    Skepticism is the opposite of trust. Unitarianism and Universalism both long ago arose from experiences of abuse by leaders who claimed to be custodial and caring, by religions that claimed to be generous but were thieving, by social and governmental norms that promised progress and uplift but instead prostituted themselves to forces of greed and power, seducing the public with deception.

    This is not the era in which skepticism should apologize and step aside. This is the era in which institutions being challenged by skepticism need to engage in constructive dialogues about boundaries, fair play, and how much secrecy can be peeled to liberate the full potential of the institution under question.

    The other side of this demand, though, is that skepticism must apply itself with accountability to reason, compassion, and evidence. Tom is right that anyone who challenges the authority of others must constantly challenge their own authority as well. Not the right to speak up independently, but the wellspring of the impulse, the tendency of the argument, the tenor of the conversation at large.

  4. I've been trying to remember what the process was like when I was a student at Meadville Lombard and ML was in a presidential search. Ian Evison was the interim, and Bill Murry the eventual presidential candidate. I'm not sure if there was a student on the search committee, but I think there was. If so, that was the vehicle for the student's voice to be heard. I don't know if faculty met finalists, but the students sure didn't. It does seem like a decision to have the finalists meet the faculty and students is almost guaranteed to leave a large percentage of the institution upset by the eventual choice. And when one finalist is from the institution itself, then it's not a balanced process and can't be, so all the more reason to not do it.

  5. Joel Miller5:05 PM

    Elizabeth: I distrust skepticism when it is confused with our mission. I'd hate to see Tom's observations characterized as telling us "skepticism should apologize and step aside." I haven't yet seen a comment (and I've been reading a few) that suggested we should.

    But I do see us, collectively, confusing skepticism with our calling as a Living Tradition. I'm not interested in giving my life to the sacred work of doubting things. But I do aspire to be an effective skeptic.

  6. Minor point on your digressive point:

    Why shouldn't credentialed Religious Educators be in that mix of elected delegates and fellowshipped ministers?

  7. Tim, minor point taken. It wasn't a serious proposal.

  8. Kate Rohde2:19 AM

    I have to say that I don't think the issue in this particular case is whether we should put more trust in leaders. I think this issue is that someone acted unethically by leaking confidential documents anonymously. Therefore, as a religious institution, SKSM must hold folks involved accountable for unethical behavior.

    I don't see us UU's generally as being more distrustful as a group than our leadership deserves. There have been quite a few breaches of ethics by leaders. There is quite a history of insiders doing things with impunity that outsiders are shunned or punished for, etc. I suppose that is not unusual in any organization. But I disagree with you that good process can't somewhat ameliorate my distrust by having consistent processes that are followed for everyone. And by much more transparency in certain areas. Some things, such as personnel decisions, are necessarily confidential. But institutionally we are often pretty confused about the difference between what should be confidential and what should not be secret.

    However, in what little I know about this particular situation, it doesn't seem to have to do with distrust. It has to do with someone who didn't get what they wanted acting unethically. As clergy, we see this in churches all the time and, too often, rather than making one another accountable for clear cut violations of trust, as this appears to have been, side issues are thrown in and end up distracting us from taking a moral stand with our own.

  9. Anonymous9:19 AM

    In the corporate world and in my case a public university there seems to be endless effort chasing after better processes only to be followed by pink slips delivered by management to worker bees. No wonder there is mistrust of managment when workers know by previous experience that when process consultants are engaged it usually means people will lose jobs.


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