Transparency, Confidentiality and PopUUlism

Believe me, I know nothing about the Starr King situation beyond what everybody else knows. I have read the same public statements  by the incoming President, the Board Chair, and the attorneys representing the students whose degrees were granted conditionally.

I am aware, though, that I don't really want to know more. I have an actual fear of knowing more. I suspect that if I find out more, I will find that somebody I respect, admire or have hopes in will have behaved badly. I don't want to find that out. It will shake up my little world.

Many express pain and sorrow over the situation.  Is that an anticipatory grief over a feared loss of innocence?

Turning from this particular situation to a broader view:

UU institutions, down to the level of individual congregations, want to have "transparent" governing processes.  It's part of being democratic. Yet many of the biggest decisions being made are personnel decisions: searching, hiring, evaluating, firing people. It is obligatory that those processes are kept confidential.

So, you end up with confidential transactions in the center of a transparent process: a glass box containing a black box.

If there is not overall trust in the institutions and in the leadership, it doesn't work. But when in UULand, is there ever that kind of trust?

There is a persistent anti-authoritarianism in UU culture (I hereby dub it "PopUUlism")
that believes that an elite manipulates our process somewhere inside that black box of confidentiality, no matter how transparent the rest of the process is.

While knowing nothing about the particulars of this case, I suspect that the larger issue involved is the conflict between transparency and confidentiality in the poisonous UU atmosphere of distrust. Whatever comes of this story, I suspect that we will see it again and again, even in local congregations.


  1. Oh, that innocence was lost long ago, because not only will we see it again and again, we've seen it before and before. Thus the pain and sorrow. And expressing sorrow just because people I know and love are in pain over this. It's sad for a president who should be retiring amidst praise and thanks and celebration, sad for a president who should be coming in on a wave of hope and excitement, sad for students who should be graduating and going off to start their internships or ministries. There's plenty of room for sadness.

  2. Anonymous9:21 PM

    There are never any winners in a situation like his. I believe Tom has hit the nail squarely.

  3. Just want to add from the perspective of the Open UUA Committee that we are developing criteria for what should be transparent and open and what should not. No question for us about transparency here in a search process for exactly the reasons of what happened.

    And nobody is without flaws. Each of us has people who don't like us and are willing to tell someone else about it. I have made mistakes that will be with me for the rest of my days. And I have done some good and helped some people and maybe even said something creative and original on occasion. Institutional work is less than perfect and messy. Maybe UUs need to lower their expectations of what institutions can achieve while at the same time striving for making them work well and supporting them generously. More and more I am with Jesus - judge not lest ye be judged.

  4. Another very useful article which once again pushes a button: There is a profound and meaningful difference between being against authority and being anti-authoritarian.

    You confuse them in writing; those you criticize confuse them in practice. I think you mostly criticize them rightly; perhaps more clarity from you on this point might help them take your criticism to heart.

  5. It's a hard truth about the kind of folks we tend to draw, that they have a very low level of trust in the leadership of any of our institutions. You can post the minutes in a dozen places and people will still accuse the governing board of not communicating. I think that people mistakenly believe that a democracy means everyone has to discuss and weigh in on every decision. If that's so, why hire or elect leaders? It's so very frustrating in our little microcosm, this popUUlism - and thanks for the word, Tom.

  6. Once again you get to the heart of the matter. Distrust is part of UU culture. In my experience, however, the levels and extent of trust and distrust vary greatly. I find that variance encouraging.

  7. Simple comment - Thank you, Tom.

  8. Anonymous9:44 AM

    All kinds of humans have worthy roots in brave heresy. When something doesn't feel right, fair, just, we question. And we challenge. Blanket statements about We Are This and They Are That are just so....binary. Our human consciousness calls us to either take the time to engage a critical controversy, or if we don't have time, excuse ourselves. I'm the first one to be provocative and say something loaded, usually at a party. Yet, at the hands of my peers, teachers, mentors, and guides I have been required to take what comes back my way.

    So wait, we can question the 1% but we can't question institutional/ labor practices? We can be vehemently liberal, yet if we are skeptical we are poisonous? If we hold our own experiences of glass ceilings, or glass boxes containing a black boxes, we still aren't allowed to be distrustful? It's just not as simple as that. Never was and for as long as we will know, never will be.

    We should never Assume Good Intentions. We should demand of each other to Engage Due Diligence.

    Whoever controls the image and information of the past determines what and how future generations will think; whoever controls the information and images of the present determines how those same people will view the past.
    — George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

    Take at hazard one hundred children of several educated generations and one hundred uneducated children of the people and compare them in anything you please; in strength, in agility, in mind, in the ability to acquire knowledge, even in morality—and in all respects you are startled by the vast superiority on the side of the children of the uneducated.
    — Count Leo Tolstoy, "Education and Children" (1862)

  9. Joel Miller10:00 AM

    Disbelief is a destructive spiritual practice -- disbelief in Christianity nearly destroyed us 50 years ago, in my experience. And disbelief in trust and authority has poisoned the possibilities for our Living Tradition to serve all the people it ought to be serving.

    I become aware of my own disbelief when I start an emotional fondling of my resentments. I choose -- when I'm able -- to live by the faith that encourages and empowers us.

  10. Anonymous:
    "We should never assume good intentions." If you cannot make that assumption about one's own religious movement's leadership, then is it time to reconsider one's affiliations?
    As to questioning the 1% vs one's theological school's institutional/labor practices -- just making the equation demonstrates the problem.

  11. It is with wonder and much gratitude that I have observed the absence of the sadly typical UU corrosive mistrust and squabbling for the sake of squabbling, in the church of which I am now a member. People are on the same page and pull in the same direction in a way that I do not associate with my previous experience of UUism (not that I ever witnessed any extreme examples, but the whole atmosphere is simply different and frankly healthier in my current church.) I hope that never changes.

  12. Anonymous10:30 AM

    Perhaps it would have been better to say that we should never AUTOMATICALLY assume good intentions without covenant and accountability. Certainly I do not support assuming bad intention. I apologize if that's how it came across.

    If I have questions about the institutions that guide my community living, I will try to address that. Meanwhile, faith lives without or without us.

    I choose to stay with this faith.

  13. Steve, I think your experience is more common than we think. I have been in healthy, forward looking churches with strong leadership, as well. Yet, what I find as well, is that UU leaders are often nervously looking over their shoulders, anticipating hostile and distrustful criticisms for everything they do. It doesn't more than a few before leaders become risk-averse. But maybe it is getting better.

  14. I don't think it's an accident that my church is the one that Gordon McKeeman led for many years. Leadership of that quality puts a stamp on a church's culture that can last a long time. My wife, who is new to UUism, likes the current minster very much (as do I, he's terrific), and has worried about what will happen when he move on someday. I assured her that, just as when he was called, this congregation will know how to recognize and attract the right candidate.

  15. Anonymous4:49 PM

    "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." Maybe the real problem is that, too often, UUs are so worried about having everybody assume good intent that we forget that we can never fully know anybody's intent--even our own. This is where humility comes in. But, of course, to talk about humility means talking about virtues instead of values and that is something I don't think most UUs would want to do.

    However I think the Starr King situation is slightly different because we are not talking about a congregation; Starr King is an academic institution and academic institutions run by different rules. What is truly distressing in all of this is that everybody involved in the situation--with a couple of notable exceptions--is a minister or preparing to be a minister. The actions that started the ball rolling are a violation of ministerial ethics. These are people who knew better. Or should have known. That's the real concern.

  16. I don't know enough about the situation to know whether the problem is lack of trust in authority, abuse of authority, or both.

  17. Kate Rohde5:43 PM

    I believe with you that the current reactivity surrounding the change in leadership at SKSM is an artifact of a culture in which leadership is not trusted. This distrust is one of the things holding us back in all kinds of ways. However, I think it is a mistake to place the problem in the laps only of the mistrustful. The fact is that there is a legacy of a great deal of untrustworthy behavior in our churches and beyond in which clergy and others were not held accountable for their untrustworthy actions. If you look at congregations with "authority issues" you almost always find something important in the last several ministries which is far more than a human mistake but rather an abuse of the office. I don't know how or if this applies to this current situation, but a systems problem like this one is usually embedded in past history in some fashion. I suspect the current situation is an artifact of things from some time ago in the school's history. What is always so unfair to me is that the new leadership often pays for the sins of predecessors...

  18. Anonymous7:55 AM

    Thank you Tom. What you say resonates with me.

    Someone wrote "There is a profound and meaningful difference between being against authority and being anti-authoritarian." Cpuld you clarify that, I'm not finding the important difference

  19. Anonymous, I'll expand, I hope briefly.

    There's a difference between authority and authoritarianism.

    Authority has many forms and many sources, most of them healthy in many situations, and some few of them unhealthy almost always. Authoritarianism is extreme deference to the less healthy forms.

    One test which often works to distinguish the two is to see what the answer is to the question "Why?" If there's any answer besides, "Because," you're probably dealing with authority.

    So we get anti-authoritarianism, which is healthy when thoughtful, and anti-authority, which is generally unhealthy. Unfortunately, there's no good word for being anti-authority, so the word anti-authoritarianism gets substituted in, and that, I think causes problems. It's not got the ill will in it that I find when people use "spiritualism" as a stand-in for "spirituality", but it's still misleading.

    That said, anti-authoritarianism can be unhealthy. For some people, it means a knee-jerk opposition to any authority. Please note I said above, "See if there's any answer", not "Require that every answer be given to you on demand". A healthy anti-authoritarianism looks for answers on its own, gives legitimate authority the benefit of the doubt, and doesn't throw fits over each exercise of power.

    Does that help?


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