Two UUA bylaw changes were passed at this morning’s plenary, and one Action of Immediate witness statement was debated and passed.
Controversy erupted over a proposed bylaw change allowing for the removal of a UU minister from fellowship for incompetence. The sentence in question reads: “The fellowship of a minister may be terminated by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee for unbecoming conduct, incompetence, or other specified cause.”
The Rev. Dan Schatz of Buxtown, N.J., protested the vagueness surrounding the term “incompetence.” “I recognize the good intentions of the amendment,” he said. “However, it is too vaguely phrased. I’m afraid that this would damage the ministry by encouraging clergy to cover mistakes rather than admit them. Expectations should be specific and clear.”
The Rev. Wayne Arnason, who serves as the head of the MFC, tried to explain the committee’s sense of the term “incompetence” when someone at the procedural microphone raised that question. “Ministerial candidates are required to demonstrate competencies,” he said. “Incompetence is when they’re behaving in ways that demonstrate that some of those competencies have been lost or were never that good.”
The Rev. Burton Carley, UUA board member and MFC liaison, explained in his opening presentation that the rules had been updated for several reasons: to reflect current practice; to remove rules referring to no longer existing rules; to make them more readable; and to address them to all ministers, instead of using the former system of ministerial categories. Changes had been made in the disciplinary section, he said, to make the rules less legalistic and more suited to a credentialing body, such as the MFC.
The Rev. Jory Agate, the UUA’s director of Ministerial Development and one of the authors of the revised rules agreed. “There are situations where the committee would like to respond to misconduct or incompetence, but the way the rules were written guaranteed that every case would become a court process,” she said.
Denny Davidoff, former MFC member and UUA moderator, spoke at the “pro” microphone. “We are involved even now as a movement in a deep, and thoughtful, and much needed conversation about excellence in ministry,” she said. “We wouldn’t have this conversation if so many of us had not experienced as congregations, incompetence in ministry. There is incompetence in ministry and lay people have felt unempowered to do anything except suffer through it.”
An additional concern was raised by the Rev. Paul Johnson, minister of the UU Church at Shelter Rock, N.Y., who felt that the new rules were not explicit about whether ministers could have legal representation during the disciplinary process.
Agate said the ministers could have lawyers, if they preferred to do so, but that it wasn’t immediately required. “There are situations when it is warranted,” she said. “Someone can hire an attorney at any time. But not every review would be set up like a court situation.”
After an extended debate, UUA moderator Gini Courter called for a vote and the delegate body approved the revised rules without changes.
A second bylaw change merging the Northeast District with the New Hampshire/Vermont District to form a new Northern New England District passed without discussion.
Because of a lack of time, only one Action of Immediate Witness was presented: “AIW 3: End Present-day Slavery in the Fields.”
The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, minister of the Clearwater Unitarian Universalists, spoke on behalf of the action citing cases in which farm workers had been recruited and had literally been enslaved by their bosses. “Modern-day slavery continues to stain the fabric of the present-day United States,” he said.
Despite objections that the action was not comprehensive enough, it passed with little discussion.
The headline and second paragraph of this blog post initially described a UUA bylaw change imprecisely. The rule change allows the Ministerial Fellowship Committee to terminate a minister’s fellowship with the Association—in effect, their accreditation—for incompetence, but the committee does not have the authority to “terminate” a minister’s settlement in a congregation or to revoke their ordination.
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Jane Greer is a former senior editor of UU World magazine.