Morales: ‘It was clear I had lost credibility and trust’

Morales: ‘It was clear I had lost credibility and trust’

UUA President Peter Morales explains why he resigned amid accusations of white supremacy in hiring practices.

Elaine McArdle
UUA President Peter Morales

UUA President Peter Morales, shown here at the 2016 General Assembly, resigned April 1, 2017. (© Nancy Pierce)

© Nancy Pierce


Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales’s resignation, which he announced at a special all-staff meeting March 30, took almost everyone by surprise.

A few hours after announcing his resignation, Morales reiterated in an interview with UU World that he resigned—with three months left in his presidency—to take the focus off himself in the midst of controversy over the UUA’s hiring practices and its predominantly white leadership so that the association could move forward during a difficult time.

“This is an opportunity, and I hope we seize the opportunity, to listen to one another, to come together to find common ground, and to move forward, in a way that the overwhelming majority of people are actually in agreement with, on the way we need to go,” said Morales.

What is “the way we need to go”?

“To move toward creating a diverse and multicultural and multiracial movement and association and its staff,” he said, “and to make sure we don’t unintentionally perpetuate processes that marginalize people.”

Morales announced his resignation, effective April 1, via teleconference from his home on the coast of Washington. The Board of Trustees plans to name a president to fill out Morales’s term, which ends June 24 when the General Assembly will elect a president. The board met April 3 and meets again April 6 to discuss its plans for naming an interim president and evaluating hiring practices.

As this story goes to press, the Rev. Harlan Limpert, the chief operating officer of the UUA, announced he would resign April 20, the day before the board’s in-person meeting in Boston. And the Rev. Scott Tayler, director of Congregational Life, announced he would step down June 30. UU World will cover those announcements in more detail soon.

Morales told UU World: “I’ve decided that I’ve become the issue here, and that doesn’t help anything. And candidly, on a personal level, it seemed like a very difficult thing to go through. I saw no greater purpose in it.” He said that comments he made in his March 27 letter to UUA staff in response to the controversy had inadvertently made the situation worse. “It was clear I had lost credibility and trust with a lot of people.”

Morales had already promised to present a report on the UUA’s hiring practices and staff diversity during the board meeting April 21–23 in Boston. The administration is still preparing a report, although it is not clear at this time who will present it. “I felt that anything put forth in a president’s report by me as a proposal to move forward would have been suspect,” Morales said.

He expects that many UUs and representatives of UU-related organizations will attend the meeting in person or electronically, including many “who would be quite angry,” he said. “I felt that my presence and their reactions to what I had said was going to detract from what had to happen going forward.”

Morales emphasized that no one had pressured him into leaving. “I suspect some people won’t believe that,” he said, “but it was entirely” his own choice.

UUA Moderator Jim Key told UU World that while some UUs had contacted him because they were unhappy with comments Morales made in response to the controversy, no one had raised with him the issue of asking Morales to resign.

‘My being out of the way is a bit of a jolt, and it shifts the discussion a bit and encourages people to take a deep breath and come together.’

“I’m hoping [my resignation] creates a space and that some really practical things could come forward for discussion,” Morales told UU World. But, he added, “this isn’t about this programmatic shift or that process as much as it is a real need to come together and listen deeply and create a common vision about how to move forward.”

A strong influence on his decision was that he had only three months left in his presidency. “It’s not like I can implement any of these changes people are talking about,” he said.

While he said he believes he did the right thing by resigning, “I feel badly for my colleagues who have to face all this. I realize now that other people are going to have to carry this burden.”

Does he feel he should have stayed on to help his colleagues carry that burden? “No,” he said. “Time will tell, but my being out of the way is a bit of a jolt, and it shifts the discussion a bit and encourages people to take a deep breath and come together. I’ll be bitterly disappointed if that doesn’t happen.”

When Morales announced he would resign, the UUA Leadership Council also announced that it is creating a plan “for how we will engage in an immediate internal review of how our institution advantages white leaders, and Unitarian Universalists. This will include a review of hiring and promotion procedures and goals, the involvement of outside expertise, working together with the UUA Board, and engaging in critical self-examination about how all of our programs and initiatives advance our commitment to anti-racism and inclusivity.”

Key said the April board meeting in Boston will be extended—with longer meetings on April 21 and 22 and with meetings on Sunday, April 23—to accommodate discussion of whether the UUA is living its stated racial justice values and commitment to multiculturalism in its hiring practices. In recent years, the board has met for two days only at its quarterly meetings.

Under UUA bylaws, the Board of Trustees can name a replacement to complete the last three months of Morales’s term. The executive council of the board met April 2, Key said, and the full board began discussing the transition during a Monday, April 3, teleconference—which approximately eighty-five observers logged in to hear before maxing out the service. Key said he didn’t know if the board would choose a president before or during its April meeting in Boston, but said, “We need to move swiftly.”

Key added: “We have a lot of healing to do,” so the board will be looking for a person “who certainly has pastoral qualities and healing qualities and can help us through this period until a newly elected president takes office.”

Three candidates are running for election by the General Assembly to a six-year term: the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the Rev. Alison Miller, and the Rev. Jeanne Pupke.

In a Facebook post March 30, Key wrote that it “has been heartbreaking to read the many letters that the UUA Board of Trustees and I have received this week about our association’s failure to build the diverse staff that both our faith and our policies demand. I want my friends and colleagues in our movement to know that the Board of Trustees has received with great sadness and humility the scores of letters from hundreds of religious professionals and lay leaders. They have told us of your deep disappointment in the hiring practices of our association. The board hears you and knows that it is our responsibility to review the Administration’s response and act on it.”

Upon receiving the administration’s report at the board’s in-person April meeting, “we will consider how best to design an inclusive planning process to chart our course forward,” Key wrote. He encouraged UUs to follow “this very important discussion” by watching the meeting, which will be live-streamed, and said the board’s agenda will be posted on its website by about April 14, so people can know when the report will be discussed.

The controversy over UUA hiring practices first erupted on March 17 at the Finding Our Way Home annual retreat for religious professionals of color, where Morales was asked why the leaders of the UUA’s five regions are all white. Morales’s response—which referred to the need for a larger pool of qualified applicants of color so that people are placed into positions where they can succeed—upset many at the meeting, including a UUA trustee, Christina Rivera, who had been interviewed for the position but did not get the job. Rivera, director of administration and finance at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church UU in Charlottesville, Virginia, identifies as Chicana Latina.

‘The UUA is not perfect, but what I do wish is there were more of an assumption of good will and common purpose.’

In the weeks since, a sharp spotlight has been shined on the fact that the UUA’s leadership is almost entirely white, and the issue has dominated UU social media. Trustees have received scores of critical emails, letters, and phone calls from UUs and UU organizations.

Criticism of Morales escalated after his March 27 letter to staff and comments he made to UU World in a story published that day.

One sentence in his letter to staff—from a paragraph expressing frustration with “a disturbing tendency to treat UUA staff as somehow the ‘other’ and to criticize with incomplete information”—especially provoked critics. “I wish I were seeing more humility and less self righteousness, more thoughtfulness and less hysteria,” wrote Morales.

Aisha Hauser, a UU religious educator and member of the UUA Nominating Committee who had posed the question to Morales at Finding Our Way Home, responded, “There has to be a place for hard conversations and public accountability without resorting to coded language that has been used for centuries to dismiss women and people of color.”

UU World’s March 27 story also described the president’s comments comparing ordained ministers and religious educators:

Morales said the Association would be open to a religious educator in leadership positions but said they seldom have as much management experience as ministers. “So the question is, are you willing to overlook that and train them?” he asked, adding, “you don’t want to set people up for failure” by putting them in positions they aren’t ready for.

Tim Atkins, a UUA trustee and a religious educator, responded on Facebook, “I know I have felt a bias against religious educators before serving as a Board member. . . . But I wasn’t sure about a bias in hiring. . . . Well, this quote confirmed it for me.”

Morales told UU World that, while it was hurtful to read the criticism, “I also understand we live in a time where for people of color and a number of groups, these are very anxious times. The UUA is not perfect, but what I do wish is there were more of an assumption of good will and common purpose.” He added, “Social media makes it much worse because people say things they would never face-to-face in a room with people, and it does damage and it does not bring out the best in us.”

Morales, who is the UUA’s first Latino president, said he’s been aware for some time, through the administration’s regular reports on racial diversity in the UUA staff, that there was room for progress. “When we saw it, there was no real debate,” he said. “People thought, ‘Okay, this isn’t horrible, but we need to do better.’”

During his presidency, he conceded, “hires at the most senior level have been Anglos, white people, people of European origin.” He continued, “But the truth is that simultaneously I’m very proud of the people I brought in: Sarah Lammert, Mary Katherine Morn, Scott [Tayler].” (The Rev. Sarah Lammert heads the Ministry and Faith Development staff; the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn leads the Stewardship and Development staff; the Rev. Scott Tayler is director of Congregational Life.)

Morales said he “would have been delighted to select a person of color, [but] they didn’t come up in the pool” of candidates, “and my fault was that maybe I should have stopped the process and looked harder, perhaps.”

‘There was really no debate about the need to do more than we were doing, but in my mind it wasn’t urgent because there weren’t any senior-level positions open, and I was leaving.’

Morales emphasized that he sees the problem as a pipeline problem, where there aren’t enough people of color moving up through the ranks of the UUA to achieve leadership positions, “a case I inartfully made in the letter that got me into so much trouble.” Ministers from mid-sized and large congregations are most likely to move into management positions in the UUA, he said, “and maybe that’s wrong, but that’s been the pool,” and few of them are people of color. Morales said that when he hired Lammert as director of Ministries and Faith Development, “I honestly do not recall if there were any applicants of color, and maybe I should have gone looking, but I’m not sure where I would have looked.”

“I’m convinced, and I was convinced before any of this came up, that the time had come to look at practices that other institutions use, like, do you get to a certain point in the process and if there are no minority candidates, you stop the process and reopen it? And you set some real targets around that, even though the kind of quota thing gets dangerous,” he said. “But those are the kinds of things you need to look at.”

Morales also said that he did not see the issue as “an urgent thing,” in large part because he didn’t foresee any senior-level positions opening up before the end of his presidency. “There was really no debate about the need to do more than we were doing, but in my mind it wasn’t urgent because there weren’t any senior-level positions open, and I was leaving,” he said. The one position that did arise—head of the Southern Region—is not at the most senior level and so he did not participate in the hiring process, he said.

With regard to that particular hire, since it involves personnel, he said, “you can say nothing—and there’s much to be said,” adding, “I will say, we’ve been put in a position, especially Scott [Tayler], of defending something. And what many people are accepting as factual is different from our understanding, but it’s a violation of confidentiality to respond” to allegations involving particular people.

Rivera told UU World that Tayler told her she was a finalist; Tayler said no one but he and his hiring team know who the finalists were. Morales said he knows nothing of the communications between Tayler and Rivera.

Morales said he remains puzzled by the level of outcry over the racial makeup of UUA staff, especially within Congregational Life. At the beginning of his presidency there were no people of color in that staff group; over the last several years, six of fourteen hires were people of color, “and now it’s white supremacy,” he said. Still, he agrees that “the largest problems, in my mind, are at the highest levels” of leadership, where there are very few people of color. But he reiterated that with no senior positions opening up, “there was no urgency for taking any action.”

While the two weeks leading up to his resignation were difficult, Morales said, “I’m fine. I live in a small corner of paradise, I have a family, my resignation doesn’t mean that I’m unemployed and facing homelessness. I’m very privileged, and a part of this is [a sense of] relief,” although, he emphasized, “I didn’t do it for that reason.”

Morales doesn’t have plans yet for the future. “I’m in a unique position,” he said. “I’m retiring three months earlier than I thought I would be. My calendar was pretty packed and now it’s wide open.”