In a sometimes emotional meeting January 27–28, 2017, the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees reaffirmed its commitment of $5.3 million to Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, even as trustees acknowledged concerns with the process they used last October to make that commitment. Board members also made personal pledges to contribute toward the commitment.
The board did not take a formal vote to fund BLUU in October. Instead it set aside Robert’s Rules of Order for a discussion that resulted in the decision to fund the new organization. At the January meeting, both UUA President Peter Morales and UUA Financial Advisor Lucia Santini Field said they were caught off guard by the funding request and the speed at which the board moved on it.
Morales told the trustees that he had been in conversation with BLUU leaders and knew that they were scheduled to make a presentation about their work at the October meeting, but “no one indicated to me there’d be something like this ask [for $5.3 million],” he said. “So not only was it a surprise, but in the moment it felt like someone had withheld important information and was working not only around me but around the staff. It felt dismissive of work the staff had done.”
Santini Field said, “Like Peter, I struggled to overcome the feeling I’d been purposefully kept in the dark about something monumentally under my area of expertise and responsibility and I felt completely blindsided and disrespected.” She added, “I just felt [that] in fulfilling the moral imperative I believe I abdicated my fiduciary duty and that is what troubles me.”
UUA Secretary Rob Eller-Isaacs said he had planned for the BLUU presentation to take place the day before the board’s October meeting, during an antiracism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism (ARAOMC) training that wasn’t open to the public. He said he envisioned the board discussing the BLUU presentation between its October and January meetings, and that BLUU would make its funding request in January.
But the BLUU presentation was moved from the ARAOMC training to the open board meeting, although explanations for the shift differ. Eller-Isaacs said the change was made because facilitators felt there wasn’t enough time for the presentation during the ARAOMC training. UUA Moderator Jim Key, however, told UU World after the meeting that he did not believe the BLUU presentation belonged in a closed meeting and he wanted it moved to the open meeting.
Once the BLUU request for $5.3 million was made in the open board meeting, “I, for right or wrong, felt a moral imperative to respond,” Eller-Isaacs told his colleagues. He then made the motion for the board to approve BLUU’s ask before leaving the meeting to return to a previously scheduled event at his congregation, Unity Church–Unitarian in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He wasn’t present when the board approved the funding.
At the January meeting, Eller-Isaacs told Morales, “I hope you know by now there was no intent on my part to manipulate you or your team.” He also apologized to the Rev. Harlan Limpert, the UUA’s chief operating officer, for the fact that his motion and the board’s action took place in Limpert’s absence; Limpert had previously informed the board he would be unable to attend the October meeting.
Vice Moderator Denise Rimes said, “Perhaps if we asked a few more questions, we might have taken our time a little bit more to make sure we were not only doing the right thing by BLUU but the right thing by the staff.”
While some other trustees also voiced concerns about the process, they stood firm by the decision itself. “I think we did the right thing—and I think there was a way to do that without injecting so much anxiety into the system,” said the Rev. Andy Burnette, trustee.
Tim Brennan, the UUA’s treasurer and chief financial officer, said that when the board’s decision was shared with UUA staff in October, they cheered. Members of the UUA’s Leadership Council had “tremendous enthusiasm” for what the Rev. Sarah Lammert, the UUA’s director of Ministries and Faith Development, called a “bold” and “hopeful” action.
Trustee Christina Rivera said she wondered, after the October decision, when the board would have the bigger discussion about the process that led to it. She said she was glad the discussion was finally happening so the board could move on to working with the staff on BLUU’s “wonderful proposal,” but she also said she agreed with trustee Gregory Carrow-Boyd, who, like her, is a person of color, that it was “a little rough” to hear trustees discuss process when black lives are at stake.
Rivera and Leslie Mac, one of two BLUU organizing collective members who made the October presentation, are crafting a document that will explain to UUs how the board made its historic decision, based not only on trustees’ recollections of the October meeting but also their own personal histories that led them to support the funding request.
Pledging to support BLUU
Board members have committed to raise funds to meet the commitment to BLUU, which is framed as a guarantee against the UUA endowment. Board members themselves have already made individual donations totaling over $54,000, said the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, the UUA’s director of Stewardship and Development.
BLUU is hosting the first BLUU Convening, March 9–12, 2017, in New Orleans, to bring black UUs together for spiritual nourishment and to plan the organization’s future. Key said that BLUU leaders have asked him and the board to slow down the process of transferring funds to BLUU until after the Convening, where BLUU is working to expand its numbers and have a more participatory leadership. (See also Key’s written Moderator’s Report.)
The first $300,000 in funds to BLUU will go to supporting the Convening and to develop BLUU programming for the June 2017 UUA General Assembly in New Orleans, among other things. The $5 million in long-term funds will go toward ongoing work, including growing more opportunities for pastoral care specifically for black UUs and providing direct support to congregations during times of racialized conflict.
At the January meeting, the board continued discussing alternative ways to make decisions that do not rely on up-or-down votes. At Key’s request, Tom Bean, the UUA’s legal counsel, presented training for the board on their responsibilities as fiduciaries of the UUA (see related presentation). Bean emphasized that trustees have a duty to ask questions to make sure they fully understand decisions they make, no matter how decision making occurs.
On January 30, Key wrote to BLUU: “This past weekend the UUA Board reviewed our unanimous decision to affirm and fund the ministry you outlined at our October 2016 meeting. We want to reaffirm not only the Association’s financial commitment but also our enthusiastic intention to work in close partnership with you and the UUA administration to help to bring your vision to life.”
The board was “encouraged” by BLUU’s plan to use the March Convening to draw more people into its planning process, Key wrote. He asked BLUU if it would designate three or four members of the BLUU organizing collective to work with a similar number from the UUA board and staff to guide and monitor the relationship between BLUU and the UUA.
In other business, the board endorsed a January 18 joint Declaration of Conscience by Morales and Tom Andrews, the president and chief executive officer of the UU Service Committee. “At this extraordinary time in our nation’s history,” the declaration begins, “we are called to affirm our profound commitment to the fundamental principles of justice, equity and compassion, to truth and core values of American society. In the face of looming threats to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community and the rise of hate speech, harassment and hate crimes, we affirm our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
Morales said that the declaration reflects unprecedented coordination between the UUA and the UUSC in response to “real human rights threats we are facing” from the Trump administration. More than 5,000 organizations, individuals, and congregations have signed the declaration so far, Morales said. He encouraged all UUs to sign it. (The number of signers is now approaching 10,000, according to the UUA’s outreach director, Carey McDonald.)
Morales said that the UUA will contribute staff time to the collaboration with the UUSC and will redeploy staff regionally to respond to actions by the Trump administration. The UUA is “at our best,” he said, when it is in partnership and responsive to things happening at a grass-roots level. He pointed to examples such as partnerships with immigrant justice groups in Phoenix in 2012 or with Native American and climate justice activists at Standing Rock in 2016.
The UUA’s finances are in good shape, Brennan told trustees. The annual audit gave clean reports to the UUA, the Common Endowment Fund, and the Employee Benefits Trust. In addition, the auditors gave strong positive evaluations of the senior UUA staff, Brennan said.
Between FY2015 and FY2016, there was a $21 million decline in total assets, from $299,906,000 to $278,698,000, mostly due to market declines, some of which were triggered by the Brexit vote in the U.K. There was also a $3 million decline in liabilities, he said. Total expenditures increased by $1.2 million, or 3 percent, due mostly to the Southern Region’s merger with the UUA. (As the former districts of the Southern Region dissolved, the UUA took on the full costs of employing the regional staff in those areas.) On the operations side, the UUA did a little bit better than break-even, which is the goal, Brennan said.
Larry Ladd, chair of the Annual Program Fund Task Force, updated the board on the task force’s ongoing efforts to change the formula for congregational giving to the UUA from per-member to percentage of budget. Morn told trustees that there will be no change in the “ask” to congregations in Fiscal Year 2018, but that they will receive more detailed information in April about the pilot plan the UUA hopes to launch in Fiscal Year 2019.
In a discussion about risk management at the UUA, trustee Tim Atkins said, “With our new political regime in place, a risk I hope the UUA is looking at is its nonprofit status, because if they start cracking down on liberal religious institutions, we’d probably be on that list somewhere.” Brennan said this was an excellent suggestion, and added that the UUA puts effort into ensuring that its work does not jeopardize its tax-exempt status by crossing the line into lobbying or political action.
Morales responded that there are “zero examples of nonprofit status” being removed from congregations, but said that fears of it happening cause UUs to be “overly timid.”
UUA presidential election update
Two of the three candidates for UUA President, the Rev. Alison Miller and the Rev. Jeanne Pupke, attended the board meeting in person. The third candidate, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, participated watched the meeting via live streaming.
The UUA General Assembly will elect a new president on June 24 for a six-year term. Because there are more than two candidates, this election will be the first since 1977 to use the UUA’s instant runoff voting provision, which was added to the bylaws in 1969. Each congregation that certified its membership by February 1 will receive delegate information in March.
The UUA will host six regional forums at which all three candidates will present their platforms: February 25 in Eugene, Oregon (Pacific Northwest District Assembly); April 1 in Bethesda, Maryland (Central East Regional Leadership Day); April 8 in Charleston, South Carolina (Southern Region Spring Gathering); April 21 in Woburn, Massachusetts (New England Regional Assembly); April 28 in Oak Brook, Illinois (Mid-America Regional Assembly); and May 6 in Walnut Creek, California (Pacific Central District Annual Meeting). The candidates will also participate in a forum at GA in June.
Eller-Isaacs said that a formal complaint about one of the candidates “was addressed in a confidential and effective manner, and I believe we can say it was resolved in a way that has encouraged better communication and helped to make this a richer and more coherent effort.” He thanked the Rev. Manish Mishra-Marzetti, chair of the Election Campaign Practices Committee, and committee members for their efforts in resolving the matter.
In other business
The board heard reports of ongoing work from a number of committees including the Task Force on Covenanting, the Commission on Social Witness, the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee, and the Congregational Boundaries Working Group.
Congregational Life staff reported that two member congregations have dissolved: fellowships in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The UUA has recognized two new “covenanting communities” (a new category of affiliation with the UUA): SunPoint Farm Sanctuary in Derry, New Hampshire, and Castle Rock Unitarian Universalist Community in Sedalia, Colorado. Atkinson Memorial Church in Oregon City, Oregon, has adopted a new name: UU Congregation at Willamette Falls.
The board appointed the Rev. Shawna Foster to the Open UUA Committee. It also appointed trustee Christina Rivera as board secretary-designate, and trustee Tim Atkins as financial secretary-designate, with both to take office the Monday after the conclusion of GA 2017.
In other business, the board voted:
- To hold its January 2018 board meeting in eastern Tennessee, at the invitation of the Rev. Jake Morrill, minister of the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, UU Church;
- To donate the special collection at GA 2017 to Standing on the Side of Love;
- To increase the cost of registration for GA 2017 from $350 to $360 for regular, full-time adult registration, and other categories of registration by a proportional amount;
- To hold GA 2020 in Providence, Rhode Island; and
- To accept monitoring reports from the administration about policies on the audit and on asset protection.