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


  1. Anonymous7:27 PM

    Tom, thank you for these posts. Some distinctions to highlight about Susan Frederick-Gray's leadership. She's been a a vigorous, joyful, and relational fundraiser for the congregations and interfaith organizations she has served. This has meant major growth in pledging (and numerical membership) in a rust belt setting and in Phoenix, and she's led three capital campaigns, including one right now! Given current challenges, the UUA President will probably have to devote even more time to raising money. Susan's persistence and her grounded leadership enabled the successful coordination of the GA stakeholders and UUA power brokers. This makes her power analysis of what keeps us in our systemic status quo both relevant and compelling. She notes that to be organized for impact, we must be mission-focused, but first we need a mission! Susan's leadership in Nashville after 9/11 and her solidarity and physical bravery at the hands of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jailers in Maricopa County are evidence of her grit,, faith and courage. Uniquely she brings experience in congregations in all five regions of the UUA, and plans for UUA staff to have regular conversations with all our congregations. To me, in these anxious times, she embodies the prophetic engagement, institutional savvy, humility and self-differentiated leadership that we need.

  2. Tom, I disagree with your narrative that anti-blackness, assumptions of white supremacy and a deep suspicion of African Americans knocking on our door are the sole reasons that ours remains a predominantly white, Euro-American denomination. When I followed your ministry in Worcester, for instance, you left me a First Unitarian Church with all white staff and an almost totally white membership, despite the fact that Worcester is a diverse city with significant minority populations (15% Latino, 5% Asian, and 7% African American). I was only in Worcester for a few months, but your ministry spanned over a decade, I believe. Yet I would not blame you, your personal failure to overcome your own latent racism, or your deep suspicion of black people for the fact that your church was so monochrome. Without denying that white liberals (including Unitarians) can often be consciously and unconsciously biased, I think there were also other historical and sociological factors at work. For example, up until the 1960's, less than 2% of the population of the state of Massachusetts was black. (Other New England states like Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont that were close to the geographic center of our faith were even less diverse.) So our churches that traced their roots to New England--including churches like the one you served in Worcester--were unlikely to be centers of robust multiculturalism over the course of their histories. By the time significant numbers of African Americans, Latinos, and Asians began moving into central Massachusetts, the church you served was already in decline, again not through any fault of yours, but part of a dwindling membership that affected established, mainline denominations across the board. Significantly, other "liberal" denominations like the UCC and Espiscopalians are even whiter than we are, while the most racially inclusive religious bodies in the U.S. include the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses. The explanation for these statistical variations could be that Congregationalists and Episcopalians are even more racist and steeped in white supremacy than we are, and that they are way more bigoted than Witnesses, Adventists or Pentecostals--but I doubt it. Again, I would point to complicating factors, including the fact that African Americans tend to be more conservative than whites on many social issues, including tolerance for homosexuality and women's equality. (Both the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the National Baptist Convention, which are virtually all black, leave wiggle room for individual congregations on these questions, but tend to frown on the idea of gay marriage and women's ordination). So "liberal" churches with a justice agenda like ours are not necessarily natural magnets for large segments of the church-going black community. When it comes to welcoming difference, indeed, it could be said that UU's have been exemplary at attracting GLBT folk to our churches, even though assumptions of hetero-sexism and "straight" culture are "water in which we swim" just as much as assumptions of white supremacy. On this score, I remember the most striking instance of diversity I found at the Unitarian church in Worcester was that it included the head of the local Tea Party--an extreme political conservative--who was drawn to the congregation because he and his wife were parents of a transgender child. That was good work, Tom, and you should take some credit. While continuing to press for full racial equality, speaking out against hate and prejudice, working for voting rights and an end to mass incarceration, and doing our best to overcome the color line on Sunday morning, let's stop beating ourselves up for not being more diverse racially in our congregations, or in the Association that represents and reflects that historic reality.

  3. The Chicago Tea Party included people I thought would have been naturals for UU Churches. All the Illinois Tea Parties were deliberately silent on Social Issues and Foreign Affairs. Their focus was on government growth and intrusion they saw evidenced in the Bank Bailouts and Affordable Care Act. The "extreme political conservatives" in Illinois at least (I'm think Phyllis Shafley) may have welcomed the Tea Party but the were not of the Tea Party. Libertarian sorts of people have been good fits in some UU Churches, and it would seem they should be natural fits, but not in the current environment.

    Regarding the AME or NBC, African Americans have Churches with long proud Histories. Why they should forsake those Churches (or Latin Americans their Catholicism or Evangelicalism) for UU Churches unclear to me. Why would anyone enter a UU Church to be an identity and member of a victim class; a token really. I once thought UU Churches could offer a home to those disgruntled with their own traditions just as the Churches I belonged to in Chicago had become homes for many Jews and Catholics disgruntled with their tradition. I don't think many UU Churches offer sanctuary anymore for people of a skeptical frame of mind, and the case for others to leave their own traditions for ours tough to make to the others. It is really, a kind of unconscious bias: a Liberal Supremacy held by overwhelmingly white people. That's the ugliness at work within UUism and it should be surfaced in these White Supremacy seminars. If that happens, then they will have been very good things.


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