Appearing for their first GA Assembly Forum together, on Saturday, June 25, the three candidates running to become the next president of the Unitarian Universalist Association described their vision for Unitarian Universalism as a liberal faith and voice for social justice.
Before a packed auditorium of GA general session, the candidates—the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the Rev. Alison Miller, and the Rev. Jeanne Pupke— answered a series of questions ranging from their priorities for the faith to their commitment to addressing the problem of clergy sexual misconduct, in a forum moderated by the Rev. Manish Mishra-Marzetti, chair of the Election Campaign Practices Committee. The new UUA president will be elected at GA 2017, in New Orleans; unless a male candidate enters the race before the February 1, 2017 deadline, the next president will be a woman, for the first time in UUA history.
In a respectful discussion where they seemed to listen carefully to each other, the candidates each talked about racial and other types of social justice, congregational and denominational growth, and the need for strong leadership and vision. The candidates agreed that the president has several primary roles: spiritual leader of the faith, prophetic leader, chief executive officer, and the chief fundraiser for the UUA.
“I believe strongly we can be a faith on fire!” said Pupke, senior minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, Virginia, who is a former Catholic nun, former CEO in the corporate world, and a former member of the UUA board of trustees. “I am an encourager of people, I’m someone who wants to build up our faith to make it its best self,” she added.
“We are in a time of great change for our country and our planet,” said Frederick-Gray, lead minister at the UU Congregation of Phoenix, who was key in organizing Justice GA, in 2012, in Phoenix, which focused on immigrant justice. “Unitarians are called to be a bold and vital voice for love and for justice.” Citing her relationships with Opal Tometi, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and with the Rev. John Dorhauer, president of the United Church of Christ, Frederick-Gray said that as president she would forge partnerships with social justice organizations and other liberal faiths.
Miller, senior Minister of the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship in Morristown, New Jersey, and president of the board of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, said, “I am running with a deep sense for the possibilities our faith has to offer in healing our lives.” She said Unitarian Universalism needs “to embrace powerful change,” and that “we need to risk boldness in how we lead our congregational life together” in order to realize what she sees as “real possibility for growth.”
Before the forum, delegates submitted questions they hoped the candidates would answer. The question that was most requested, “by far,” said Mishra-Marzetti, was how they would handle the problem of clergy sexual misconduct.
“How is it that across our entire UUA, there have been so many instances of abuse of power?” asked Miller. “We would be naïve not to look at the systems of power at the UUA” because “it is not just a matter of clergy abuse. How is it that some people were not held accountable for such a longer period of time?” She would set up a tsk force to examine the problem at every level of the association, she said, so that survivors don’t end up exposed “while the perpetrator ends up protected.”
Referencing the 2016 Berry Street lecture, by the Rev. Gail Seavey, which focused on clergy sexual misconduct, Pupke said, “We heard a long legacy and disappointing set of truths on how we have been historically indifferent to ministerial misconduct of many kinds that preyed on disempowered people.” As president of UUA, she would form a commission to address the issue, so that the problem is “attacked with vigorous and thorough-going examination and adjudication,” she said.
Frederick-Gray thanked the First UU Church of Nashville, Tennessee, where she did her ministerial internship, for being a courageous leader in addressing the problem, including through creation of UU Safety Net, an action team working to change policies and attitudes toward misconduct. She said the UUA needs to model the same type of collaborative and transparent approaches to the problem. She also said that the tendency toward “diffuse power” within the association “means no one is fully accountable.”
The candidates will be appearing together in five regional forums over the next year, sponsored by the UUA, in order to present their platforms to UUs across the country.