In first meeting with interim co-presidents, UUA board talks about racism; discusses proposed bylaw amendments; hears call for general conference.
The UUA Board of Trustees meets in Boston on April 21, 2017, with interim co-president Leon Spencer (on projection screens) joining the meeting via teleconference. (© Christopher L. Walton)
The Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees met April 21–22 in Boston for the first time with the three interim co-presidents it appointed after the unexpected resignation of President Peter Morales on April 1. The main topic of discussion was how to assess and challenge white supremacy within Unitarian Universalism.
Morales and the UUA’s chief operating officer, the Rev. Harlan Limpert, stepped down in the face of criticism that UUA hiring practices favor white, ordained people for senior positions.
Over the two-day meeting, the board, the co-presidents, and about twenty onsite observers discussed a wide range of issues related to the UUA’s commitment to antiracism. They worked to differentiate a board-mandated “racism audit” of the association from the Commission for Institutional Change the board charged the co-presidents to launch. And they discussed the board’s controversial use of the term “white supremacy” in describing the UUA’s culture.
The current “turbulent period” at the UUA, in the words of UUA Moderator Jim Key, arose from frustration that most of the top leadership at the UUA has remained white even though the association has made progress in recent years in hiring people of color.
The Rev. William G. Sinkford, one of three co-presidents who will serve until a new UUA president is elected June 24 by the General Assembly in New Orleans, told trustees: “I want to express my gratitude to the board for getting to real clarity that the primary focus and fulcrum need to be the issue of racism.”
Sinkford continued: “I want to express gratitude to the board for their willingness to use the ‘white supremacy’ term, even though it’s deeply uncomfortable for many who claim the identity of white.” Sinkford, who served as UUA president from 2001 to 2009 and was the first African American to hold that office, is senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon.
Until June 24, the interim co-presidents—Sinkford, the Rev. Sofía Betancourt, and Leon Spencer, all of whom are people of color—hope to “lay the groundwork so our engagement with the opportunities of this time can be at their broadest and healthiest and most inclusive,” Sinkford told trustees. “We have an opportunity here to recast a vision for the Beloved Community, and why wouldn’t we take the opportunity to do that?”
Many black UUs—including a young Sinkford—left the faith during the “black empowerment controversy” of the late 1960s and early 1970s, feeling betrayed and disappointed with unfulfilled promises of racial justice. Sinkford told the board, “We are being given yet another second chance this time, and my response of ‘Yes’ to this call was grounded in the hope we would not blow it once again.”
Spencer, who participated in the Boston meeting via teleconference, said, “I have gratitude, hope, and excitement working with our leadership team. I see the board willing to make some brave moves in what I call the sea of white supremacy.”
Sinkford said that other religious traditions are looking to Unitarian Universalism’s leadership on this critical issue. “They are offering prayers for our faithfulness, and hope that in the path we walk they will find some wisdom to guide them.”
He added, “If we have any hope to retain our prophetic voice, this is a path we must walk.”
In his moderator’s report, Key said that recent events have resulted “in a great deal of heartbreak, uncertainty, and anxiety throughout our movement,” particularly for people of color, including religious professionals. Key said the board had received “a tidal wave, a tsunami” of feedback from “passionate, interested, educated UUs and others who are praying for us, hoping that we’ll do good work.” Key said that with the appointment of the interim co-presidents, the “flood” of emails has shifted tone to thank the board for its work in “holding the center as we work through this turbulent period.”
(The board published 275 pages of correspondence as part of its meeting packet, although that document is no longer online.)
The co-presidents have already made some decisions, instituting a temporary hiring freeze for UUA staff until they can develop new policies for staff hires, which they hope to draft before GA, and adding two people to the UUA’s Leadership Council who are people of color: Jessica York, interim director of Ministries and Faith Development, and Carey McDonald, director of Outreach.
Key responded to the discomfort many UUs are expressing about applying the term “white supremacy” to the UUA by saying that he’s looking for white people to “live with that discomfort” in understanding the term to mean not violent racism but a widespread culture that privileges white people over people of color.
The co-presidents said they saw signs that UUs were willing to engage the term. Over 600 UU congregations signed up to participate in the UU White Supremacy Teach-In, many on April 30 or May 7, which was endorsed by the board, the UUA’s Leadership Council, and most other denominational organizations. Using resources assembled by a team of UU religious educators as the crisis was erupting, the teach-in was designed to help UUs explore the ways that racism, sexism, and white supremacy continue to exist within UU congregations and institutions.
“When the idea [of the teach-in] was first surfaced, I heard people say, ‘Nobody is going to participate, congregations are just not going to do this, particularly little congregations in Georgia that cherish their independence,’” said Spencer. “We’re doing it! The response has been overwhelming. It gives a sign of hope for me.”
During the meeting, the board used a new “shared leadership” model, with Key stepping aside for much of the meeting to allow four other trustees to conduct business and facilitate conversation. Key said he plans to share facilitation at the General Assembly in June, too.
Key said the interim leadership team is keeping the three candidates for UUA presidency apprised of their decisions. All three candidates—the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the Rev. Alison Miller, and the Rev. Jeanne Pupke—attended all or part of the board meeting. They also spoke at a candidates’ forum at the New England Regional Meeting on April 21.
Betancourt, who is assistant professor of UU theologies and ethics at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, is serving as interim co-president for the Commission for Institutional Change. She said she envisions a “small, nimble team” to begin the commission’s work, with the idea of engaging an outside consulting group as the process continues. “These ten weeks are laying a usable foundation going forward,” Betancourt said.
Among the issues the commission will examine is how power operates in the association, Betancourt said. While the commission’s work will focus on race, Betancourt emphasized that an intersectional approach means that class, gender, sexual orientation, and other categories are also part of the work. She said that she has heard concerns that a focus on race will exclude other social justice efforts, but emphasized that the UUA’s work on other fronts will continue.
The board also discussed the racism audit it authorized alongside the Commission for Institutional Change. Trustees Rob Eller-Isaacs and Dick Jacke and Financial Advisor Lucia Santini Field expressed concerns that the audit and the commission might be redundant, that the audit’s specificity might be overly prescriptive of work the staff will need to do, or that the commission and the audit might end up competing with each other or duplicating each other’s work.
Trustee Greg Boyd responded that “almost everything in this motion is a direct response to asks from DRUUMM, Aisha Hauser, and BLUU. . . . This was our opportunity to be accountable.”
Trustee Elandria Williams said, “When something has not happened, or used to exist and gets defunded over and over again, and the call is, ‘Can you please re-fund?’ over and over again, and it doesn’t happen . . . that’s normally when a board steps in.”
The work of the commission, Williams said, is planning and assessing; the racism audit motion is an act of accountability: “This motion helps people feel they were finally heard.”
Trustee Christina Rivera said, “A lot of this has to do with trust, and trust that has been broken in the past. . . . I see this specificity as saying [to the administration], ‘Here’s what we really want you to focus on.’” She asked the co-presidents if they had concerns that the overlap between the audit and the commission would make their work harder.
Betancourt responded, “I said to [Sinkford], ‘This is a list of all the things that have been lost.’ That kind of accounting comes when there has been a breach of trust.” She added that she saw “this motion as a covenant, as a highest aspiration,” and that the co-presidents would interpret it that way in shaping the commission.
Key said “as chief governance officer” that the degree of specificity in the motion “wasn’t business as usual,” but that it was appropriate. “It comes from a caucus that we haven’t listened to effectively over the years.”
Sinkford told the trustees that “re-establishing trust” with people of color is the top priority, and that UUs should see that process “not as one heavy lift with a single ask but in increments.”
Lena K. Gardner and Royce W. James, members of the Black Lives of UU (BLUU) organizing collective, updated the board on BLUU’s work, especially the first BLUU Convening, which took place in March in New Orleans. The convening drew 105 participants from ages 4 months to 70 years, Gardner said, including many UUs who had stopped attending congregations. Gardner said the vast majority identified their primary need at the convening as spiritual nourishment.
The convening was a “deeply powerful” gathering for black UUs, whose voices for years were “discounted, minimalized,” she said, in a faith where “our bodies counted but our lives didn’t matter.”
BLUU provided 86 percent of attendees with full funding to attend, said Gardner, who thanked the UUA board and staff, and her BLUU collective colleagues, for their support.
In October, the UUA board pledged to provide BLUU with $5.3 million, which is to be raised through a campaign framed as a guarantee backed by the UUA endowment. At the April meeting, Key announced that the Northern New England District had voted to give $100,000 toward the UUA’s donation to BLUU. The Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, director of Stewardship and Development, said the district also approved another $100,000 in matching funds for congregational giving from the district toward the BLUU fund.
The UUA is now accepting individual contributions to BLUU.
The board also discussed the upcoming General Assembly and how to structure it to reflect ongoing changes at the UUA. Sinkford said that the opening worship service Wednesday, June 21, will need to address the “sadness, grief, anger, and feeling of loss” that people will be bringing to New Orleans, or “it will dominate the rest of the assembly.”
The Rev. Chip Roush, chair of the General Assembly Planning Committee, told trustees that, due to the circumstances, there will be more chaplains and more members of the Right Relationship Team at this GA.
There were 350 requests for scholarships to attend GA 2017, compared to 150 last year, said Vice Moderator Denise Rimes. Everyone who applied for a scholarship by the deadline received some funding, with a priority for youth and young adults of color, said Roush. The board voted to authorize the GA Planning Committee to spent up to 50 percent of its current reserves to provide more scholarship funds for GA 2017, in an amount to be recommended by the board’s executive team. The executive team voted May 1 to make $150,000 available for scholarships to people of color, which will be administered through BLUU and DRUUMM.
The board also discussed the possibility of handling the Distinguished Service award in a different way this year. Even before controversy over UUA hiring practices arose, Rivera had suggested that the board consider not giving the award this year since each of the nominees is white. A subgroup of the board is meeting to discuss plans for the annual award.
Trustees also discussed how the board should respond to business resolutions on the agenda this year to amend the UUA’s “Principles and Purposes” (or Article II). Delegates could vote on each proposal, which would also need to be approved by the General Assembly next year, but delegates could also recommend sending the proposals to a commission for further review. The proposed bylaw amendments would change the First Principle’s affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” to “the inherent worth and dignity of every being” and would broaden the Second Source’s reference to “words and deeds of prophetic women and men” to “words and deeds of prophetic people.”
Other moves are underway to bring two other amendments to the UUA’s Principles and Sources, but neither one was introduced as a business resolution for this year’s agenda. One would add Islam as a source; the other, which BLUU is urging UUs to adopt, would add an Eighth Principle affirming the centrality of antiracism.
Trustees discussed whether a commission should undertake a broader study of all the UUA bylaws, especially as the association examines its identity. Some trustees preferred to have the Commission on Institutional Change complete its work before another commission consider a wholesale revision of the bylaws. Others said there is an urgent need to move forward on the Eighth Principle proposal.
The board also heard from the Task Force on Re-Imagining Covenant it commissioned in 2015. The task force recommends that the moderator call for a “general conference” no later than the fall of 2018 to explore “what the UUA is called to be and do in today’s world.” The task force report made a distinction between a “general conference” and a “general assembly”: a general conference is an ecclesiastical meeting of congregational delegates gathered to discern Unitarian Universalism’s purpose, it said, while a general assembly is an administrative body governing a service organization.
“GA as currently structured is not a good place for covenantal conversation,” said Kathy Burek, a trustee who was appointed in March to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of the Rev. Andy Burnette. Burek is one of four members of the task force, which recommends alternating General Assemblies with General Conferences.
The task force also urges “systemic reexamination of the roles and responsibilities enshrined in our current bylaws” because “the racist, sexist, and class biases that formed and which are reinforced by our structure . . . [preclude] the full realization of covenantal relationships.”
“Our recommendation is to have some good conversations that get us going at GA  around issues of race and racism and this association, there’s immediacy around that, but to also start to think about [having] deeper conversations on a more regular basis,” Burek said.
In other business, Tim Brennan, treasurer and chief financial officer, told trustees that the UUA was operating at the end of the third quarter with a small surplus, but added that “a lot has happened in the last month that may affect the financial outcome for this year and next year” that is not reflected in the budget. The cost of the racism audit and commission, for example, are as yet unknown.
Morn, who leads the UUA’s fundraising, said that the UUA “has seen a great response to our direct mail campaigns” in the wake of Trump’s election, and has not seen a big drop in donations in response to the current controversy at the association.
In other business, the board made several appointments that will take effect at the 2017 General Assembly: William Young to the Appointments Committee; Julie Skye to the Socially Responsible Investing Committee; Caleb Raible-Clark to the Open UUA Committee; Katherine Brewin, Andrew Chirch, and Nick White to the Retirement Plan Committee; and Karin Ferguson to the UUA Employee Benefits Trust. The board voted to approve the 2018 budget and the 2018 capital budget as presented. It moved to thank the Rev. Harlan Limpert for his years of service as clerk of the UUA, which ended April 20 when he resigned as chief operating officer, and appointed the Rev. Sarah Lammert, acting COO, as clerk of the association. The board noted that First Universalist Society of Hiram, Maine, has dissolved, and that the Unitarian Church of Summit, New Jersey, has changed its name to Beacon UU Congregation in Summit.
With additional reporting by Christopher L. Walton
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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