An enviable partnership

Denny Davidoff and the Rev. John Buehrens in 1993

From the General Assembly to interfaith justice campaigns, UUA Moderator Denny Davidoff and UUA President John Buehrens have led as a team.

Image: Denise Davidoff and the Rev. John Buehrens embrace at the 1993 General Assembly, where they were elected as moderator and president respectively of the Unitarian Universalist Association. (© Nancy Pierce)

© Nancy Pierce


Boston Common was still covered in snow, and General Assembly several months away, when Tom Stites, editor in chief of UU World, grabbed his tape recorder and sat down with UUA President the Rev. John Buehrens and Moderator Denise Davidoff. Elected in 1993 and reelected in 1997, Buehrens and Davidoff are handing over leadership to a new president and a new moderator, who will be elected in June [2001] at General Assembly in Cleveland. Under UUA bylaws, the president and moderator may serve no more than two four-year terms.

In separate interviews, Buehrens and Davidoff reflected upon their eight eventful years in office together and the state of the UUA. Here is Stites’s report, plus excerpts from each interview.

UUA President the Rev. John Buehrens and UUA Moderator Denise Davidoff have shared a working relationship that many heads of state would envy.

“It was a tremendous gift,” said Davidoff, who as moderator is the highest-ranking volunteer in Unitarian Universalism, chairing the UUA Board of Trustees and wielding the gavel at General Assembly. “Right from the start we were partners.” Buehrens agreed. “It’s easy, in an organization that has two chief officers, for there to be difficulties,” he said. “Some of our predecessors did not get on well. One moderator resigned in a huff. But Denny and I have been a real source of support to one another. I have been struck by how convergent our yearnings for this movement have been.”

My interviews confirmed this sense of convergence. Several of the questions I put to them were identical, and their answers were uncannily alike.

Both officers are champion frequent flyers—Buehrens preached to or visited more than 600 of the 1,050 congregations since the two took office in 1993, and Davidoff estimates that she has preached to more than 100. This has provided each with a broad perspective on congregational as well as denominational life.

Not surprisingly, both cited the same indicators as evidence of the health of our movement:

Spiritual deepening. “There’s a much greater degree of genuine worship on Sunday morning,” said Davidoff. “I think the people who are practicing our religion are actually becoming in love with being religious.” Buehrens said people are working to figure out “what we are called to do and be—how we sing and pray and encourage and laugh together on the journey. It’s the healthiest thing going on.”

Increased giving. Buehrens said that after accounting for inflation, giving by UUs to their local congregations had about doubled in 10 years. He termed this astonishing and pointed out that in the same period, the largest UUA capital fund drive undertaken to date had exceeded its goal. Annual Program Fund contributions to the UUA by the churches also rose, as did gifts to Friends of the UUA. Davidoff sees this as a sign that the congregations appreciate the growth in UUA services to congregations.

Youth and young adult growth. Davidoff cited growth in UUA services to young people in high school and college and young adults in the congregations as crucial and identified it as an area where more work is needed. Buehrens estimated there are five times as many high school-age youths in UU congregations now than when he took office in 1993. “Nothing makes my heart sing more,” Buehrens said.

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© Unitarian Universalist Association

Anti-racism understanding. Buehrens mentioned the UUA’s justice initiatives several times in his interview, and when Davidoff was asked what made her happiest about her time as moderator, she replied, “The commitment to anti-racism on the part of the board and the staff and so many people out there in the congregations who are starting to do this wonderful, hard, frustrating, justice-making work.”

Advances in UUA interfaith work. “John and I have been very intentional about working in the wider religious community in coalitions that have involved public policy and witnessing for justice,” Davidoff said. She characterized this as not only appropriate but also necessary. “We live our Unitarian Universalism by speaking it and acting it in the big world out there,” she said.

Both officers expressed pride that the UUA is providing more and better services to congregations, citing growth in staff based in the Association’s 21 field offices scattered across the continent as well as an array of new programs. They mentioned the Our Whole Lives sexuality education curriculum, conferences to help lay leaders and ministers from congregations of various sizes, an increasing number of workshops on racial justice and cultural diversity, and the publication by Skinner House of books on meditation, worship, and individual spiritual needs.

‘For the sake of believing that everybody should think their way in our direction independently, without any aid or assistance, we end up depriving whole communities of the witness we could bear.’ —John Buehrens

Davidoff went further, saying she detects an unprecedented level of cohesiveness among UUs. “There are enormous numbers of people talking about how to have a better UUA,” she said. “More covenanted, more effective, more funded, more growing, more open, more diverse, more empowering of our youth. That’s why there are so many people coming to GA. The conversation is cohesive. That tells me there are a lot of people who are hopeful. Hope is a powerful element.”

Yet both Buehrens and Davidoff also see signs of weakness.

“The problem in Unitarian Universalism is not the lack of idealism,” Buehrens said. “The problem is sometimes an idealism that is too abstract and too good to be true.”

He called for UUs to move past the ideal that UUs shouldn’t proselytize to see the value in starting new congregations. “For the sake of believing that everybody should think their way in our direction independently, without any aid or assistance,” he said, “we end up depriving whole communities of the witness we could bear. There are still 300 or 400 communities with a population of 75,000 or more just in the United States that don’t have our presence—whole cities like Newark, New Jersey, a lot of the old urban centers. There are whole racial and ethnic populations we have never even tried to reach out to. That’s a big part of what the UUA anti-racism initiative is about: to help us recognize how tacitly complicit we are with maintaining patterns of isolation.”

‘If you love this religion, learn more about it, learn its history, and go out and speak it. Go out and be it in the world.’ —Denise Davidoff

Davidoff said there is still too much conflict in our congregations. “There’s not enough love,” she said. “There’s rancor and backbiting and complaining and an unwillingness to compromise. That is shadowed by a real unwillingness to change—which means it’s hard to welcome people who aren’t just like you.”

The only notable divergence between Buehrens and Davidoff concerned the election of officers. As it stands now, candidates have to raise money for their campaigns.

“I don’t like the way we force the people who want to be president to behave like politicians,” Buehrens said. “I think the election system ought to have a nomination system in it. Most people seem to agree with me.”

Davidoff is not among them. “What’s wrong with raising money?” she asked. “It’s good practice. They have to raise money after they’re elected. It’s not that hard.”

In their calls for UUs to take action, however, Buehrens and Davidoff revealed a sense of common purpose that will be a part of their legacy.

“All the lofty talking to one another about implementing our principles will not do one bit of good unless we do concrete things together that take our time and our resources,” Buehrens said. “We need to look into one another’s eyes on the road together. We need to be patient with one another. We need to sing the songs that give us hope and pray together and laugh together, and to believe that if we keep going we’re going to grow as individuals, we’re going to keep growing as a movement, and we’re going to grow in impact on the world.”

Said Davidoff: “The old saw says the preacher has one sermon. Mine has been, ‘If you love this religion, learn more about it, learn its history, and go out and speak it. Go out and be it in the world, not just in the comfort of your home church. Get out there and be a Unitarian Universalist.’ That’s my sermon.”