Moderator candidate: Jim Key

Moderator candidate: Jim Key

District leader describes himself as ‘evangelical UU.’


This article profiles one of the two candidates for moderator nominated by the UUA’s Board of Trustees for election by the 2013 General Assembly.

When Jim Key discovered Unitarian Universalism in 1999, he realized he had been looking for it for decades.

He also wondered why he had never stumbled across it before. “I read the papers. I’m engaged. And every other denomination I can think of had invited me to church,” Key said. “It was just curious to me and painful to me that so few people knew about our saving message. And that has fueled my leadership roles.”

Key helped build his congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort, S.C., from the ground up, as an organizing member and later as congregational president for five years. He has also been president of the Southeast District of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which changed its name from the Thomas Jefferson District during his tenure. And he has served the association as chair of the Audit Committee and member of the board task force that proposed a smaller UUA Board of Trustees and of the board’s Linkage Working Group.

Key is now running for UUA moderator, the UUA’s highest volunteer post, which presides at General Assemblies and meetings of the Board of Trustees. He calls himself an “evangelical UU.” “I want this faith that I love to reach out and find people who are searching for a liberal and liberating faith, but don’t know that we are here,” he said.

He believes that Unitarian Universalism is at a “critical point of who we want to be in the world in the next decade. We need to be agile,” he said. “We cannot move at the speed of church.”

The Board of Trustees nominated Key and Tamara Payne-Alex (see accompanying article) for the 2013 election that will replace Gini Courter, who has served as moderator since 2003. Other candidates may enter the race as late as February 2013. Under new bylaws, the next moderator will be eligible to serve a single six-year term.

Key’s fellowship has grown to 100 from its 30 original members. “We are a small congregation committed to building a multicultural, multiracial congregation,” he said. As president of his district, Key helped shepherd conversations and votes around changing the name of the district that once carried Thomas Jefferson’s name. “It was an emotional couple of years,” Key said. “It was clear to me as district president that it was not a name that welcomed everybody and clearly it caused a lot of pain and anxiety for folks.”

Central to the name-change process, Key believes, was providing forums for people to voice their views and feelings. “People’s hearts were changed, and therefore their minds were changed,” he said. After the name change, he continued to reach out to people disappointed with the outcome to reconcile with them.

Key would like to take what he learned from that process to the moderator role. He imagines the moderator having “spiritual advisors” or “chaplains” who could reach out to people who feel disenfranchised during General Assembly debates. “It breaks my heart when I see someone come to the ‘con’ mike . . . and is in pain,” he said. “Democracy has its dark side. I saw that during the name change. It would be terrific to have spiritual assistance chaplains. It seems like it’s what we ought to be doing as a faith movement. We don’t think of winners and losers. We think of people acting out of their best instincts to forge a better world.”

He also envisions working on the relationship between members of the board and the UUA administration—relationships that have at times been frayed by growing pains from the transition to Policy Governance. “It’s critical to intentionally build relationships outside the board room,” he said. At the same time, Key said, “A little dynamic tension is healthy in any good governance system.”

Key has worked with Policy Governance firsthand on the district level. The Southeast District adopted it in 2009 as part of its process of reimagining district governance, reducing the size of its board, and looking at a regional governance structure. “I approach governance as a spiritual practice,” he said. “It is for refining our beliefs and enabling our dreams.”

Key has been inspired by work he did in a December 2010 gathering of district presidents, trustees, and staff to create “The Orlando Platform,” an initiative to strengthen clusters of Unitarian Universalists, whether by geographical region, spiritual affinity, racial or cultural background, or other groupings. Out of the meeting came a commitment to develop organizational and governance strategies to strengthen UU congregations and communities. “It’s Policy Governance that spawned all that generative thinking,” Key said.

Although Key, 72, did not discover Unitarian Universalism until well into his adulthood, looking back, he says he realizes he was a Universalist at age 11. He was raised in Virginia and North Carolina in the Methodist church, the fifth child of a single mother, and says he was schooled at the knee of his radically liberal grandfather.

He attended Virginia Tech and graduated from Syracuse University. During college, he began working for IBM, where he spent much of his career. “I attribute all my cultural competencies, beyond what I learned from my grandfather, to IBM,” says Key, who worked in management, overseeing a diverse staff, living for a period in Tokyo, and working with people around the world. “To be successful, you have to lose your U.S.-centric, white-male-privilege point of view,” he said.

Key founded his own consulting business, Shenandoah Group, in 1997. The firm consults on governance, risk, management, and compliance for a group of international clients.

He is married to Elizabeth Stockton Key, and he has three adult children and six grandchildren.

Key believes the most important work the moderator and the UUA board can do is “generative thinking work.” “We can’t ignore the fiduciary or the strategic, but we have to do those things efficiently so we can do the heavy lifting of imagining, ‘What does Unitarian Universalism look like in 20 years?’”

Never far from his mind is how Unitarian Universalism was hidden from him for so long, even as he was seeking a spiritual home. “I think there are another 900,000 additional people like me who are either unchurched or are on a really deep spiritual journey and they haven’t found us yet,” said Key. “So from my point of view, that is where I think governance ought to be focused.”

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