Tuesday, May 30, 2017

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

An Appreciation of Susan Frederick-Gray


Susan Frederick Gray started to think about running 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 feminism inspired marriage renegotiation. 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. 


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.