The Unitarian Universalist Association gave severance packages totaling more than $500,000 to employees who voluntarily resigned during a controversy over the association’s hiring practices, according to a statement released by the UUA on June 15. Interim Co-President William G. Sinkford described the severance agreements as “shocking and appalling” during a staff meeting held hours after he and the two other co-presidents revealed the existence of the packages in an email announcement.
The severance packages, which Interim Co-Presidents Sofía Betancourt, William G. Sinkford, and Leon Spencer learned about after they took office on April 10, are legally binding, according to lawyers that they consulted in an effort to undo them. However, the co-presidents are in negotiations with the recipients of the largest packages in an effort to reduce the amounts paid out. “We believe that we will be able to mitigate, somewhat, the financial cost that the UUA must bear,” according to the co-presidents’ announcement.
The co-presidents did not identify the recipients of the packages, how many people got them, or how much each received. However, Sinkford said the co-presidents are focused on renegotiating the two largest packages.
Sinkford told UUA employees that one of the packages was negotiated by former UUA Moderator Jim Key, who was “serving as CEO when there was no CEO in place at the UUA,” Sinkford said, referring to the period of time after UUA President Peter Morales’s resignation on April 1 and before the board named the interim co-presidents on April 10. Key resigned as moderator on May 13 due to health reasons and died on June 2.
Another package was negotiated by Chief Operating Officer Harlan Limpert, “again at a time when there was not a CEO in place,” Sinkford said.
The co-presidents would not identify the employees who had resigned with large severance packages. In April, UU World reported that Limpert and the Rev. Scott Tayler, director of Congregational Life, both announced their resignations on April 5 as part of ongoing fallout from controversy over UUA hiring practices, which critics say favor white people, especially white male ministers. The controversy was also what prompted Morales’s resignation.
In their announcement, the co-presidents wrote:
Shortly after we were appointed, we were made aware of severance packages committed to employees who had recently resigned. The total cost exceeded $500,000, in addition to the normal cost of a sabbatical for the departing President, which is provided by policy and already funded in the UUA budget.
In a financial environment in which cuts to staff and programs have become all too common, the diversion of such substantial sums away from the mission of the Association is difficult to accept.
For employees who are terminated, UUA policy allows for severance payments equal to one month’s compensation for each year of service, up to a maximum of six months, and unused sabbatical time has sometimes also been recognized. (Morales is receiving nine of the twelve months of sabbatical salary that the UUA grants to presidents at the end of their tenure, according to Lucia Santini Field, the UUA financial advisor and a member of the Board of Trustees. Morales received “no special treatment,” she added.*) But the co-presidents’ announcement said that two recent severance agreements exceeded UUA policy, and one was originally four times that maximum amount.
The recipients of the large severance packages chose to resign and were not terminated, the announcement said.
“The co-presidents see these severance agreements as representing a moral issue, a breach of any reasonable understanding of right relationship and an example of the culture of white supremacy in operation,” they said. “There are individuals who bear primary responsibility for this situation, including the individuals who received these benefits and those who negotiated and signed them. But we all have been part of the system that allowed this particular result.”
“We share this information because, as individuals and as interims, we place a high value on truth-telling as the best way forward toward a change in our culture,” they added.
The three candidates who are running for election as the UUA’s next president issued a joint statement calling the “outsized severances” a “breach of trust.” The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the Rev. Alison Miller, and the Rev. Jeanne Pupke said that revelations about the severance packages showed “patterns of white supremacy and patriarchy in operation in the association.” They added: “We candidates commit to transparency in leadership and to support and engage this ongoing work to analyze the way that power and privilege operate in the association.”
The UUA Board of Trustees learned on May 30 about the severance packages, according to Acting Moderator Denise Rimes. The board has promised to put policies in place to prevent such commitments in the future without board approval, according to the co-presidents’ announcement. A specific financial limit on “outside- the-budget” expenditures by the UUA administration was removed four years ago in an effort to streamline governance practice, the announcement said.
At the staff meeting, Acting Chief Operating Officer Sarah Lammert said she learned about the severance packages on the first day she stepped into her interim position when Limpert resigned. While the UUA’s severance policy, “as written, is fair,” she said, “I don’t think it’s good to go outside the procedures in the way that happened here. I can’t defend any of it.”
At the meeting, employees asked questions and expressed anger or dismay over learning of the packages. Susan Lawrence, managing editor in the Ministries and Faith Development staff group, said, “To me this feels like theft.” She said she wasn’t interested in finding out the identities of those involved but wanted to “find out how this could happen.”
Sinkford, noting that he also was “stunned that this could happen,” said that it has taken “an enormous amount of time to try to understand how it happened, whether or not these agreements were legally binding—which we are told by every attorney we consulted that they are—and to explore alternatives.”
He added that “it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen and there should have been policies in place to prevent it and there weren’t.”
Sinkford said that “people who were operating with authority at the time made the decision and signed the agreement,” adding that he doesn’t believe those involved “are evil people.”
The resignations were voluntary, Sinkford emphasized. “They were not requested or urged.”
“The choice now is how we deal with it, and to put policies in place so it doesn’t happen in the future,” Sinkford added. While he reiterated that he found the agreements “appalling and shocking,” Sinkford said they are not illegal, “and so the accountability here is not quite as straightforward as many of us might like.”
But he added that the amounts may be reduced. He said that the “individuals involved, when called, have been willing to come back to the table and we are still in negotiations even this week to mitigate the financial cost to the association, and that’s a kind of accountability, to stay in relationship and be wiling to come back to the table.”
In response to a question about the co-presidents’ decision to go public about the packages, Sinkford said, “What we decided as interims, all people of color, was it was not our place to make secret what we found when we arrived, that that was more than could be asked of us, so we decided to make it public as part of our interim work naming places that need attention in our system.”
Kareem Watson, office administrator for Faith Development, said that he did not find the co-presidents’ announcement transparent because it did not name specific people involved and did not specify the financial terms of the packages, which leaves “a lot of people in the dark.” He also wondered why it took so long for the co-presidents to make the packages public.
Sinkford said that it took the co-presidents “far more time than I’d ever have thought” to find out whether the packages were legally binding. He said they also had to discuss the issue with the leadership of the board of trustees, which “took some time.” Both legal considerations and good management practices influenced the co-presidents’ decision not to name specific names and amounts, Sinkford said, adding, “What we wanted to point out was the pattern rather than specific individuals or specific amounts.”
Betancourt and Sinkford emphasized that ultimate accountability requires an examination of the system that allowed this to happen. They described that system as grounded in white supremacy. They said that the ongoing work of the newly created Commission on Institutional Change, which grew out of the hiring crisis, will examine this and many other issues.
“We really are looking at underlying patterns, cultures, and trying to develop pathways in new ways of being,” Betancourt said. The commission “will look at these patterns and make recommendations,” and it will fall to a new administration—which will take office immediately after the June 24 election of a new president—to implement changes. She said she expects the commission to take two years to finish its work.
Betancourt said that while the UUA has a lot of work to do, the current attention on and resources directed to challenging white supremacy give her hope for a level of opportunity she hasn’t seen before. She added that it has taken decades of work by dedicated leaders to get to this point. “I’ve never seen a communication like this one come out of the UUA,” she said.
Audra Friend, communications coordinator for Multicultural Ministries, said that the news was very hard after years of being told there would be no raises and only minimal cost-of-living increases in staff salaries. She said that she, like many employees, donates a portion of her salary back to the UUA to support its mission.
“One of my strongest reactions when I first saw this was distress that resources were being stripped away from the organization,” Sinkford responded, “and being found for this when they couldn’t be found” for other UUA needs. “That was one of the primary reasons for my distress.”
An earlier version of this story said that former President Peter Morales had been given a year of sabbatical upon his resignation, in keeping with UUA policy. The story has been updated to reflect new information from the UUA’s elected financial advisor, Lucia Santini Field, who reports that he would have received twelve months had he completed his term, but that he is receiving only nine months of sabbatical. Click here to return to the updated paragraph.