Presidential candidates reflect on new process

Presidential candidates reflect on new process

Process leading to 2017 UUA election did not anticipate a nominee dropping out.

Elaine McArdle
Four candidates for UUA president in the 2016–2017 race

From left: The Rev. Alison Miller, the Rev. Jeanne Pupke, and the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray prepare to speak at a 2016 General Assembly UUA presidential candidates forum. Inset: The Rev. Sue Phillips withdrew from the race in February 2016. (© Nancy Pierce; inset courtesy Sue Phillips)

© Nancy Pierce and © Sue Phillips


The election in June 2017 of the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association wrapped up the first election cycle using a new process for choosing candidates. It also played out in a time of intense change within the UUA: President Peter Morales resigned three months before the election amid calls to undo “white supremacy culture” throughout the Association.

UU World interviewed all four candidates—Frederick-Gray, the Rev. Alison Miller, the Rev. Jeanne Pupke, and the Rev. Sue Phillips—about the campaign.

Building a new way: Introducing a search committee

Amid complaints that ministers of large congregations had an advantage in running for the office of UUA president, the 2010 General Assembly approved the creation of a presidential search committee to encourage a more diverse group of candidates. Selected in 2013, the search committee was to nominate at least two candidates for president; it developed a job description, sought recommendations, and vetted potential candidates who applied.

In January 2016 the committee nominated two: Miller and Phillips. Citing conflict between her role as a candidate and her staff position at the UUA, Phillips dropped out a month later.

Whether the new process worked well depends on whom you ask.

“Having a group vet names and put them forth facilitates a process where you could have a real dialogue on the issues. That felt exciting,” said Miller, senior minister of the Morristown, New Jersey, Unitarian Fellowship. “It was something that made a difference to me in terms of putting myself into that application process, knowing that they had the freedom to select as many candidates as they felt would meet [their] criteria.”

Phillips, who was the UUA’s regional lead for New England when she was nominated but who left the UUA staff in July 2017, agrees. “I was impressed by the search committee process, start to finish,” she said, including “the integrity with which they engaged, the scale of their process in terms of the amount of stuff they asked for, the people they asked to talk to.”

Frederick-Gray, lead minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix, Arizona, had put herself forward to the committee, but decided not to run by petition when she wasn’t nominated because she wanted to support the new process. When Phillips dropped out and the committee asked her to run, she agreed. “I still felt that call very strongly,” she said. “The process worked well even if it didn’t work out the way we expected, in that I think the Presidential Search Committee did a good job setting out a process.”

New way collapses: What if a candidate drops out?

As a UUA employee, Phillips immediately hit a series of obstacles that made her candidacy untenable, she said. Concerned that the UUA not be perceived as favoring Phillips, the Rev. Harlan Limpert, then the UUA’s chief operating officer, placed significant limits on what she could do as a candidate, including requiring that her opponent, Miller, appear at any UUA-sponsored event featuring Phillips. But Phillips was a regional leader whose job required her to meet with congregations on a daily basis.

“It’s absurd my opponent would have to be invited to every event at which I was working,” said Phillips. She believes that she and Miller could have worked out concerns over any unfair advantages Phillips’s job gave her. But Phillips said the UUA leadership instead “triangulated” the relationship between her and Miller, and put other unfair requirements on her, including insisting that she not speak to anyone on the UUA staff about her campaign and that her wife, the Rev. Tandi Rogers, also a UUA employee, not publicly support her campaign, even on Rogers’s personal Facebook page.

In the UUA’s anxiety over being perceived as unfair, “I believe I was treated unfairly,” Phillips said. “I knew my withdrawal would cause a mini-constitutional crisis, so I withdrew quickly when I saw I was not being successful in my attempts to mitigate the insanities.” Phillips now works at Harvard Divinity School.

When Phillips withdrew, Miller had to surf changes in a rapidly evolving process. The Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, board secretary, and Moderator Jim Key believed it was critical that the race have two candidates and that a second person be nominated quickly; but in their haste, they didn’t realize that the deadline had passed for the search committee to nominate someone new.

Compared to the years the search committee spent designing the process, soliciting nominations, and vetting candidates, Miller said it was “interesting to see the anxiety that arose in the system and the desire amongst leaders to fix it quickly.”

In hindsight, everyone agrees the search committee should have set up a procedure in case a candidate dropped out. “When you had two [more] people enter a race in what had been a more traditional, by-petition process, it put all the reforms of the past to the side because folks who hadn’t been vetted by the committee had to get their name out there,” said Kim Mason, Miller’s campaign co-manager, “so it was basically the same campaign style we had always had.”

Pupke, who served on the UUA Board of Trustees when it voted for the new system, believes the search committee’s “value added” was low this first time around. As evidence, she notes that they initially didn’t nominate Frederick-Gray, who ended up winning. And because the UUA hasn’t yet figured out how to involve UUA staff “without having them control the election,” she says, staff were not invited to give input on what qualifications a president should have even though they arguably are the ones most directly affected since they work for the president.

Pupke had thrown her hat into the ring, but when the search committee did not select her, she had no plans to run by petition—until Phillips dropped out. Once Miller and Frederick-Gray were the two candidates, “Now we’re down to people who’ve never set foot inside a boardroom, and who have some staff experience but not recent,” said Pupke, who has run small businesses. “Truly the reason I was motivated to run was because we need people with experience.”

All agree campaign process is too long

All four candidates agree that the election process—which lasted 18 months from the announcement of nominations to the election—is far too long.

Frederick-Gray discussed the possibility of a campaign season of nine months: three months of pre-campaign work for a candidate to assemble a team and website, and six months of public campaigning.

Phillips would cut it to a maximum of six months and said that candidates should be released from their regular jobs but continue to receive their salaries from their congregation or the UUA or other employer.

Pupke has a “dream scenario”: at the GA a year before the election, anyone serious about running for president participates in an open forum, after which delegates participate in a straw poll. Based on that poll and their own evaluation, the search committee would announce a slate of candidates. Campaigning could not begin before October 1 and would end in January; in February, congregations—not delegates—would vote, with a weighted average based on congregational membership. The new president would then be installed at the GA in June.

Campaign reforms: Did they work?

Under the new process, the campaigns were prohibited from spending more than $100,000. Miller and Phillips were told they would be required to do much less traveling than past candidates, with appearances at four or five regional meetings and a handful of preaching engagements, said Mason.

But once the new process was upended, the candidates did much more traveling than expected. They appeared together at six regional meetings and several other gatherings. Still, Miller said she found much of the travel, including to the Black Lives of UU convening and the Liberal Religious Educators Association conference, very instructive for understanding what UUs in different contexts were wrestling with.

Covenant made for a positive experience

Many UUs commented at GA on the positive tone of the campaign, a striking contrast to the negativity and personal attacks taking place around the same time in the U.S. presidential race, the candidates say. “People were so appreciative of how we were running the campaign that it also helped us keep running it that way,” said Frederick-Gray.

Miller and Phillips drafted a covenant between themselves about the campaign; when Phillips dropped out and new candidates entered the race, they and Miller drafted a new covenant governing right relations among them.

One key point was that they agreed not to undermine each other during the campaign because they wanted each to continue to serve the faith no matter who won. “That was really the foundation of the covenant, to try to create a process to honor one another’s leadership in an ongoing way,” Frederick-Gray said.

The Rev. Sarah Stewart, Frederick-Gray’s campaign manager, had the idea of including an explicitly stated feminist ethic of mutual support in the covenant. The candidates also agreed that if one were invited to an event, the others would be invited to appear too, so that all had equal access to potential voters.

“It was really important to all of us that we wanted to model a different way of being with one another,” Miller said.

“I will say personally that being in competition with two other colleagues and people I care for and have deep respect for was not easy,” said Frederick-Gray. Yet she said the three stayed “focused on the issues and the gist that we each brought and our vision for the faith and did not devolve into attacks against one another or our character, and that was beautiful.”

“The three of us did our best,” Miller said. “I really think Unitarian Universalists were longing—with the backdrop of the U.S. presidential election—for a more holistic and holy conversation, and I think we succeeded in that.”

Update 4/24/18: The Presidential Search Committee has released its own report [PDF] about the process, and the Election Campaign Practices Committee has also released its report [PDF] about the 2016–2017 election cycle.