Change must come if Unitarian Universalism is to thrive, say co-presidents

Change must come if Unitarian Universalism is to thrive, say co-presidents

‘We end our service in hope,’ say co-presidents as UUs take up opportunity to dismantle white supremacy.

Elaine McArdle
Interim Co-Presidents Leon Spencer, William G. Sinkford, and Sofía Betancourt

Interim Co-Presidents Leon Spencer, William G. Sinkford, and Sofía Betancourt (© 2017 Nancy Pierce/UUA)

© Nancy Pierce


The three interim co-presidents of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who were appointed in response to the resignation of former president Peter Morales after charges of white supremacy culture at the UUA, received their second standing ovation in two days at General Assembly 2017 in New Orleans, when they gave their presidents’ report Friday morning, June 23.

Over their 11-week tenure, “the shortest interim in UUA history,” said interim co-president William G. Sinkford , the three have come to essential conclusions about the future of the faith. (A new president will be elected on June 24 at GA.)

“First, and most important, it is crystal clear to the three of us that the inspection of our culture and how it impacts persons of color—how it impacts all of us—is urgent. It is overdue,” said interim co-president Sofia Betancourt. “The risks of failing to engage these issues are enormous for this faith. Change must come if our faith is to thrive.”

Also clear, they said, are recurring patterns within UU culture. “We have repeatedly engaged issues of race, begun investing resources both financial and spiritual, only to turn away, withdraw those resources and that attention without addressing the fundamental cultural issues,” said interim co-president Leon Spencer. They said that trust must be restored, and that people of color will need additional support as change goes forward.

But their message to UUs is one of hope, they said. “There is a fundamental hope in our values and our aspirations that speaks to persons across the boundaries of race and culture and language and economic circumstance and ability,” said Sinkford. “It is our culture and not our theology that has been our biggest obstacle. And because that is true, our final message is a message of hope. We can change our culture if we have the will to do it.”

This effort has far-reaching implications beyond Unitarian Universalism, they said. Other communities are watching Unitarian Universalism “again” as the faith engages in the work of dismantling white supremacy, said Spencer. “They are watching because they are looking for hope. They want us to succeed because they know that our struggles will soon be their struggles. Both for us and for those around us, this time is not fundamentally about our problems but about our promise. It is fundamentally about hope.”

When the board appointed them as co-presidents on April 10, in a collaborative, multi-person leadership model the UUA had never before used, the three found “a religious community in a state of shock,” said Sinkford.

In an event unprecedented in UUA history, Morales had resigned April 1 after widespread criticism of hiring practices at the UUA, which many saw as favoring whites, especially white male ministers. His departure was soon followed by the resignations of two more top staff, chief operating officer Harlan Limpert and the head of congregational life, Scott Tayler. The UUA staff was “dispirited and anxious,” Sinkford said, and the staff of color felt “particularly vulnerable,” Spencer added, although hopeful because “long unspoken truths were being spoken.” But boundaries between the staff and board “and the clarity necessary for good governance had “blurred beyond good practice,” Spencer said. And volunteer leaders across the nation were stunned by all the changes.

“The charges of racism in hiring shocked our community. Many white UUs asked how this could be? But most UU people of color were not surprised—only surprised that it had been called out. And that difference in reaction was itself a shock and challenge to our community that we want to call Beloved,” Sinkford said.

In doing their work over the past months, the co-presidents spoke at length with staff and leaders of color within Unitarian Universalism, as well as with donors and many others to answer questions and provide assurances. In their commitment to transparent leadership, they also posted weekly updates on their work. They’re begun plans to support fundraising efforts to support the UUA’s financial commitment to Black Lives UU and to expand the association’s racial justice work, they said.

“Our presence has been welcomed, we are told, and the resignations have not continued,” said Sinkford. “Only time and leadership decisions of a new president will determine whether that stability continues.”

On their first day in office, they instituted a modified hiring freeze until new hiring practices could be developed that will set goals for increasing people of color in decision-making roles at the UUA. From less than 20 percent people of color/indigenous people overall on the staff, they set a goal of 30 percent; from less than 15 percent at the executive and first management level, they set a goal of 40 percent.

“These goals, with “have pushed the limits of what procedures are legally permissible,” Sinkford said. “It should be noted that with the three co-Presidents,” and the addition of Jessica York and Carey McDonald to the UUA Leadership Council, “we virtually achieved that 40 percent goal on day one of our service—at the executive and first management level. But not at the critical second management and professional level, where the hiring controversy originated. And not permanently.”

However, he emphasized that when the co-presidents step down upon election of a new president on June 24, only three of the twelve members of the Leadership Council will be people of color.

In their report, the co-presidents described positive indications that Unitarian Universalism is finally poised to truly live into its values. The White Supremacy Teach-In, created in response to the crisis by three UU religious educators of color, Aisha Hauser, Christina Rivera, and Kenny Wiley, was joined by nearly 700 UU congregations across the country. And in response to their charge from the UUA Board of Trustees, the co-presidents have established a Commission on Institutional Change to do a broad-based examination of white supremacy as it operates in UU spaces. The Commission is expected to take at least 18 months to do its work, and Betancourt—whose particular role as co-president was to focus on creation of the commission—said she will remain connected to it for the next several months to smooth the transition. Among other things, the commission will establish a truth and reconciliation process at the UUA to examine the events around the recent hiring crisis, which they said they hope will help build truth and reconciliation into the DNA of the faith.

“This is work that requires every one of us and I hope that if you, your congregation, your affiliate organization, or other UU connection are invited to join in this dialogue and engage the work of the commission that you will answer with your most faithful and generous ‘Yes!’” said Betancourt. “Together we will live into the love and justice that already exists at the heart of our movement.”

Sinkford concluded their report by saying that they would be “less than honest if we pretended that our tasks have not weighed heavily on our shoulders and our spirits at times. But it has been a privilege to serve, and a privilege to serve together . . . We have heard and felt the willingness of this community to engage, to not let this time of opportunity slip away. We find ourselves convinced that we can move through this period together. We end our service in hope.”