Moderator candidate: Tamara Payne-Alex

Moderator candidate: Tamara Payne-Alex

Lifelong UU strives to be ‘accessible’ moderator.


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.

For many years, Tamara Payne-Alex has imagined being moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

“I love Unitarian Universalism deeply,” she says. “I’m a UU in every little speck of DNA that’s in me.” People have long asked her, says Payne-Alex, when she was going to run for the UUA’s highest volunteer post, which presides at General Assemblies and meetings of the Board of Trustees.

A lifelong UU, Payne-Alex has served the association at many levels—as a youth and as an adult, in her congregations, her district, and in denomination-wide posts, including the Board of Trustees, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, and as a member of the Black Concerns Working Group.

She hopes to bring a “sense of joy” and a “presence of faithfulness” to the moderator position. Payne-Alex said it’s important that people see the moderator as accessible. “The moderator is a lay leader of our faith community,” she said. “The capacity for that role to hold what is sacred and religious about what we do together is important. It’s important not because we don’t have other ministers who do a fabulous job, but because we believe in shared ministry.”

The Board of Trustees nominated Payne-Alex and Jim Key (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.

Payne-Alex is an active leader in First Unitarian Church of San Jose, Calif. In her congregation, she has been part of the transition to Policy Governance, the same governance model used by the UUA board. She found the transition to be fascinating and challenging, as she helped write monitoring reports to demonstrate how the congregation was meeting its policy “ends” or goals. “I’ve been on the policy side,” she said. “I didn’t feel defensive about it. I understand the role the board is trying to play.”

The current UUA board and administration have struggled over monitoring reports, which has created some tension and the appearance of mistrust. Trust, Payne-Alex believes, is central to good Policy Governance, or any model of governance. “I’m not a rabid Policy Governance person,” she said. “I’m a good governance person.” Any governance model is ultimately modified by the body that adopts it, she said: “Democracy is modified. Capitalism is modified.”

The advantage Payne-Alex sees in Policy Governance is its clarity of roles and its usefulness in establishing effective accountability structures. In San Jose, Policy Governance has allowed the ministers and lay leaders to know what they are doing well.

Payne-Alex, 47, lives in San Jose with her husband, Michael Payne-Alex, a high school teacher, and her two children, daughter Kalaya, 16, and son, Sias, 14. She works as the area manager for an education company that helps school districts provide on-site childcare and programming. Payne-Alex has also worked as a corporate diversity consultant. She’s a graduate of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

Payne-Alex grew up in Unitarian Universalism. Her father was in the Air Force, and the family moved often, attending UU churches wherever they lived. As a young child, she primarily attended First Church of Christ Unitarian, in Lancaster, Mass. As a teenager, she attended the UU Church of Worcester, Mass., where she became active in youth activities and met her future husband. Payne-Alex rose through youth leadership, becoming president of her district’s Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU) and co-chair of the Youth Adult Committee.

After college, she applied for a position at the UUA. Although she didn’t get the job, she became acquainted with the Rev. William F. Schulz, then president of the association. He introduced her to the Rev. Mel Hoover, who was staff liaison to the Black Concerns Working Group, on which she served for many years, working with people such as Leon Spencer and Norma Poinsett. “For me, who had grown up UU but had not been in a community of color of any substance, it was incredible,” said Payne-Alex. “The folks on the committee became my second family. They reflected back to me a way in which I could integrate myself as a person of color and a Unitarian Universalist.”

As part of the Black Concerns Working Group, Payne-Alex traveled to many congregations and districts to conduct anti-racism and anti-oppression workshops. While she was doing that, Spencer, who was then serving on the UUA board, asked her to consider serving on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, a position she held for six years. That experience, she said, was transformative. “For a volunteer lay leader, there’s probably nowhere else in the association that holds in its portfolio and in its heart what ministry is and what ministry can be for our movement,” she said.

She followed her term on the MFC with a nine-year stint on the board, from 2000 to 2009, first finishing a term for an ailing board member, and then serving two terms of her own. During her years on the board, she served as the board-appointed member of the Panel on Theological Education and chaired the board’s Association Working Group as it changed its relationship to “independent affiliate organizations.”

Payne-Alex has held a wide range of volunteer positions in her congregations, too, serving on search, religious education, and canvas committees. She was an interim religious education coordinator—and, she added, “It’s also a little known fact that I served as a church custodian in high school,” working to save money for college.

She says she’s excited about the UUA board’s recent work and where it is heading, and she sees an opportunity for an effective moderator to make strides for the denomination. Payne-Alex would like to see the board grow more effective as the number of trustees shrinks in 2013. “A goal of mine is to maximize this time of flux, and really set the board on course for being an outstanding board in this new configuration and enhancing its linkage with our congregations.”

Payne-Alex said that she “yearns to get in there and roll up her sleeves.” She’s excited to partner with the board and the administration and to use Policy Governance to recognize the “great job they do, and use it as an effective tool and partner with them to continue to grow in their effectiveness.”

Overall, she said her vision of moderator is to embody shared ministry from a national perspective. “I care about what Unitarian Universalists do in the world,” Payne-Alex said. “And I care about how we do it.”

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