Further updates to UUA resignations and controversy over hiring practices

Further updates to UUA resignations and controversy over hiring practices

Summary of news developments, support for critical examination of racism within Unitarian Universalism, and reactions to President Peter Morales’s resignation.


With additional updates, April 9.

Feeling overwhelmed by the flurry of news about the Unitarian Universalist Association this week? You are not alone! Here is our guide to developments since the resignation of UUA President Peter Morales, which took effect April 1 and occurred amid controversy over hiring practices that critics say systematically privilege white, ordained religious leaders:

The Board of Trustees met on April 3 to draft a plan for the transition period between Morales’s resignation and the election of a new UUA president at the General Assembly in June.

Two more senior staff—the Rev. Harlan Limpert, chief operating officer, and the Rev. Scott Tayler, director of Congregational Life—announced on April 5 that they would step down, too.

On April 6, UUA Moderator Jim Key asked the Rev. Sarah Lammert, who is director of Ministries and Faith Development, to serve as interim chief operating officer until the newly elected president can assemble an executive team. Lammert told the staff that afternoon that Jessica York, director of Faith Development, will serve as acting director of Ministries and Faith Development.

The UUA Leadership Council sent a letter to congregational leaders on April 6, which included an apology for the harm caused by “unfulfilled commitments to dismantle racism” within Unitarian Universalism and at the UUA, and which described recent events.

The board met again April 6 to approve the presidential transition plan, emphasizing the need to provide pastoral support to staff people of color and to launch a commission to evaluate hiring practices that systemically advantage white people. In a separate motion, the board also committed to launch a “racism audit” of the UUA.

This weekend the board is meeting in closed session with the remaining members of the UUA Leadership Council. The board committee charged with selecting an interim candidate will also meet in closed session.

When the full board convenes again on Monday evening, April 10, it may name the interim president. That meeting will be open to observers. The board will meet in person in Boston April 21–23.

Updated April 9: In a letter April 9 to the congregations and leaders of the Southern Region, Tayler announced that the Rev. Andy Burnette—whose hiring as the new regional lead sparked the ongoing crisis over diversity in hiring—has decided not to take the job and will continue as senior minister of Valley UU Congregation in Chandler, Arizona. The regional lead position will remain unfilled as the UUA reviews its hiring practices. Tayler writes:

There are important and valid criticisms of the lack of diversity among UUA leadership. This is separate from the exceptional leadership that Andy exhibits and was willing to share with our Southern Region. The concerns involved do not reflect on Andy personally. I regret the pain and challenges that have resulted for Andy, his family and his church community.

Moderator Jim Key published a letter April 8 explaining that he and the Board of Trustees “are doing our utmost to stand prayerfully at the center of the storm of controversy and concern.” He added an explanation of the board’s use of the term “white supremacy”: “White supremacy is a continuum. When we refuse to acknowledge our place in that continuum we risk being lulled back into complicity. Not this time friends.”

Now, to back up and include other developments since our April 1 update:

Challenging racism within Unitarian Universalism

UU racial justice advocates have continued pressing the board and administration for major changes. In an open letter to the board, the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU) organizing collective wrote on April 2:

If the Board doesn’t focus NOW on organizing towards the creation and sustenance of the Beloved Community, what will be left is an infrastructure that no one is around to live into: emptying congregations, unattended meetings & fantasies ONCE AGAIN about what could have been. A big tent with no one underneath it. . . . We pray that you lean into the boldness of our principles and ask the questions that should drive this important decision: How do we listen better to marginalized people and how do we fully support their ideas, suggestions and work?

A group of Latinx religious leaders wrote to the board on April 3:

We do not see ourselves adequately represented at the leadership level of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and it is not for lacking of trying. . . . A UUA President of Latinx heritage has not been enough to offset our increasing marginalization. . . .

Before we asked for our seat at the table, now we are demanding a seat.

The steering committee of Diverse Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM) wrote on March 30, “expressing disappointment in our UUA leadership”:

This comes after years of rolling back efforts to address systemic racism and cut investments in self-determining UU People of Color communities. These have removed structures of accountability and relationship that are essential to providing direction and evaluation for the Journey Towards Wholeness Resolution. [See the 1997 General Assembly business resolution “Toward an Anti-Racist Unitarian Universalist Association.”]

The steering committee of Allies for Racial Equity, an organization of white allies of DRUUMM, wrote on April 3:

As a predominantly white organization that claims to be working toward being anti-racist and anti-oppressive, we need to learn to stop looking away, and face [white supremacy] directly. We need to see ourselves in the patterns that continue to oppress and silence the People of Color in our midst and in our leadership.

Religious educators are promoting a “ UU White Supremacy Teach-in” for April 30 or May 7 as a way to help congregations and UU groups examine their own histories and legacies. UU organizations and leadership groups have endorsed the effort, including the Board of Trustees, the UUA Leadership Council (which is organizing a teach-in for staff), the Liberal Religious Educators Association, and the UU Ministers Association. On April 6, the Church of the Larger Fellowship’s weekly live chat, “The VUU,” featured teach-in organizers Christina Rivera and Kenny Wiley for a conversation about the teach-in.

Several antiracism organizations also endorsed a movement begun in 2013 to amend the UUA’s Principles by adding an eighth Principle that would affirm and promote “journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.” (Amendments to the UUA Principles are governed by Article XV Section C-15.1(c), page 15 of the UUA Bylaws.)

Responding to President Morales’s resignation

A handful of news media have reported on President Morales’s resignation and the controversy over hiring practices. A March 31 syndicated Religion News Service story was published or excerpted by news media in several parts of the country. An April 3 Washington Post“Morning Mix” story summarized UU World coverage of the resignation. The Reading Eagle, in Reading, Pennsylvania, reported on the controversy and resignation on April 8.

Within the UU community, reactions to Morales’s resignation also included expressions of gratitude and sympathy. The Rev. John T. Crestwell Jr., lead minister of AWAKE Ministries and associate minister of the UU Church of Annapolis, Maryland, wrote on March 30:

We have a lot of work to do as a faith around race and need new paradigms to do this work based on true power not force. One creates conversation and the other tramples over and the loudest voice wins. One erases and the other embraces. Until all people get that we are all collectively complicit in the problem of race and it's perpetuation, we will be stuck taking sides. If there is a side to take it's the side of love and reconciliation--what we normally get to after we shoot our bullets, as we've done.

I have questioned whether I'm a UU many times--don't like the whining around race and the privileged entitlement on all sides; but I persist because of those seven principles. I pray today that we remember your time Peter as one of creativity and love. You will always be my friend.

The Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, who served as director of Congregational Life from 2010 to 2013 and as officer for strategy and vision at the UUA from 2013 to 2015, wrote, “As a former senior leader at the UUA I feel serious self-recrimination over much that we (I) could have done differently.” She added:

What is foremost for me right now though is concern for my former colleagues who work tirelessly for our faith without much reward or recognition or remuneration. Are they perfect? No. Are many responsible for perpetuation of the system? Yes. And they are human beings who are pressured not just by the internal system but also the external system to provide ever increasing services with ever more depleted resources. A system under this kind of pressure is necessarily resistant to wide-scale change. The UUA has, I believe, done some very good work in the last 8 years, and I hate to see that become totally disregarded even while failures must be explicitly acknowledged.

The Rev. O. Eugene Pickett, who served as president of the UUA from 1979 to 1985, wrote that he was “saddened and distressed” by Morales’s resignation. The Rev. Diane Miller, who served as director of Ministry from 1993 to 2001 and ran for UUA president in 2001, published his letter on April 5:

Undoubtedly this will create an internal distraction to the effective witnessing of our liberal religious movement. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when our liberal religious voice is greatly needed in our fractured society and when our democracy is so seriously threatened.

Many past Presidents of the UUA, including myself, have struggled to provide leadership to increase the diversity of our staff. At the same time we developed policies and programs that would help our congregations become more diverse and multicultural. There have been successes, though never enough. I know the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I also know that good intentions help pave the road to the “beloved community” and a better world.

The Rev. Gretchen Haley reflected on Morales’s residency on her congregation’s website on March 31:

[In his first term, Morales] repeatedly called on our Association and our congregations to Get Religion, Cross Borders and Grow Leaders. I found this focus clarifying and relevant to the challenges we were facing, and a strong jumping off point for our work together. By the time of his second term (which began in 2013), however, this vision had fallen away as the challenges of institution-building and alignment presented themselves, the ups and downs of regionalization and the insufficient funds at a national level ran their course, and the politics of our small UU world played out. The role of the UUA President often seems to me like the most challenging/frustrating parts of large church ministry put together with the most challenging/frustrating parts of serving our smaller, most change-averse congregations. By which I mean….it’s a job filled intense pressure, public judgment, resistance to change, suspicion of authority, and polarized thinking – as I said to the three candidates currently running for President – you must be very brave. The job seems to me, exhausting, and often, disheartening.

The leadership of the United Church of Christ—the Christian denomination with which Morales forged close interfaith ties—offered “prayers for the UUA in a time of transition” on March 31.