Congregational Accountability and White Supremacy Culture

The subject of Congregational Accountability came up again at the UU Ministers Association Meeting, again. It always comes up, because the problem never changes and is never solved. What is meant by the phrase is that congregations are never asked to justify to the wider UU movement why and how they sent a settled minister on their way. It's the murkiest decision in congregational life. Why did a minister leave, was it voluntary, or were they fired? What were the grounds? What does it say about the minister? What does it say about the congregation, its leadership, and its processes. Should  a minister in search be forewarned about that congregation? Should a congregation be forewarned about that minister? Has anybody, anywhere learned anything from this experience?

Compare the process of calling a minister with the process of ending a ministry. When a minister is called, there was a democratically elected search committee, who tried to communicate everything they can to the congregation. They select a candidate who candidates for a week, so everyone can evaluate them, and then a democratic vote is taken, aiming for an overwhelming supermajority for the call.

Now, in the by-laws of most congregations there is similarly democratic process called for to end a ministry. Congregational meetings and a vote of the congregation.

That meeting, that vote, that open and transparent process just does not happen. Usually a much smaller group, centered in the leadership of the church, lets the minister know that they are no longer supported. The minister and the board enter into confidential negotiations, a settlement is reached, and then, the congregation is notified that the minister is leaving. Usually a large portion of the congregation is surprised, and many don't see the need.

This is how white supremacy culture deals with difficult conflicts and processes. Instead of open democratic processes where everyone can see what is going on, and has a voice, the way of this white world is that open processes are subverted by unofficial processes behind closed doors. Insiders decide. Secrecy prevails. The majority is just told that everything is under control. Inevitably, there are lawyers involved.

But, unless dirty linen is washed in public, it usually doesn't get washed at all.

The way that Unitarian Universalists handle the problem of conflict between ministers and congregations seems designed to preserve the status-quo. The goal is to get past this bump in the road and put this unpleasantness behind us. Because we seem to think that this conflict is the exception to what is otherwise a smoothly running system where ministers are called, serve for life, beloved of their congregation and everybody's birthday is a national holiday.

But think about the opposite proposition: if we acknowledge that most ministries are not for life, and that conflict is the norm, and the inevitable result of development, then we would want to know in detail, why ministries end. Think of what we could learn about the actual challenges facing the practice of Unitarian Universalism. We might even start to consider alternative ways of matching ministers with congregations.

Why aren't congregations held accountable for a pattern of treating ministers unfairly, or for a pattern of undercutting every minister because a significant faction doesn't want a minister at all. Why can a congregation persist in calling ministers that they will blame for not changing what they don't want changed?

But if no one knows how and why congregations decide to end ministries, they will never be accountable for those decisions. The fog of secrecy protects congregations that have unhealthy attitudes toward ministers, and by extension, their mission. That same fog also protects misconducting ministers.

So, I say let's gather our courage and insist that churches and congregations follow their by-laws in withdrawing their call to a settled minister. They should be required by the UUA is publish a report, approved by the congregation, that lists their reasons. Of course the minister could respond.
Everyone should see it.  I predict it would be painful, but I also predict our congregational life would improve.


  1. Maggie4:09 PM

    Thanks for this. I think you're right. Transparency is important and the tendency of groups to choose closed-door meetings over airing of actual issues is a big problem.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

the difference between "principles' and "virtues"

Denise Levertov's Poem about Thomas

Starting a Discussion about Multi-partner relationships

Reflection on Merger (Dialectical Theology Part 8 of many)

What's In Our DNA (Dialectical Theology, part 7 of many)