The Rev. Peter Morales’s presidency came to a sudden end this spring. But in resigning as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association three months before the end of his eight-year term, Morales opened up a time for urgent innovation to address one of the needs he had long championed.
Morales stepped down amid criticism that the UUA has failed to challenge white supremacy in its own hiring practices. Yet recruiting a more diverse professional ministry was one of his campaign promises and remained a central theme of his administration.
Shortly after taking office, he launched a strategic review of professional ministry with the goal of preparing “a new ministry for a new America.” The task force’s 2011 report is blunt about the cultural obstacles that keep UU congregations from serving the United States’ increasingly multicultural population. It quotes Morales: “Frankly, this new multicultural America exposes the greatest weaknesses of our movement”—our identification with the norms and values of the highly educated, largely white/European-ancestored/Anglo-American middle class. The report observes: “Cultural change is a wrenching undertaking and cannot be accomplished only by recruiting the right religious professionals and ensuring that they are equipped to lead more diverse Unitarian Universalist congregations. If we are to have a vital future, it will require the strategic commitment and creative engagement of our leaders, both lay and professional, at all levels of our Association.”
Morales pointed to some positive signs—especially to the growing number of seminarians and ministers who are people of color. The Finding Our Way Home retreat, a UUA-funded annual gathering for religious professionals of color, grew from forty participants in 2007 to ninety-seven in 2017. (Although Morales tended to focus on ordained ministers, Finding Our Way Home includes administrators, religious educators, and musicians, too.)
Critics complained that this growth was not translating into opportunities for senior leadership roles on the UUA staff. Since 2001, there had never been more than two people of color at a time on the UUA’s Leadership Council—and one of those was the president—until the Board of Trustees named three people of color as interim co-presidents in April and Co-President William G. Sinkford appointed two more staff people of color to the council. After Morales resigned, nearly two-thirds of UU congregations signed up to sponsor “UU White Supremacy Teach-Ins,” using resources developed by three religious educators to help UUs challenge practices in their own congregations that privilege white people. (See our news coverage.)
Morales will be remembered for his abrupt departure, but his legacy includes other notable innovations. The most tangible is the UUA’s new headquarters, which was designed to foster the collaboration and flexibility he urged UUs to embrace.
Morales disliked the symbolism and limitations of 25 Beacon Street—the office building the Unitarians had erected next to the Massachusetts State House in 1926. It “reeks of privilege and hierarchy,” he complained; it was also old-fashioned, inefficient, hard to adapt, and challenging to people with disabilities. The UUA’s other Beacon Hill office building, which housed the program staff as well as Beacon Press, had no direct connection to the internet: the UUA beamed a wireless connection to 41 Mount Vernon Street from the roof of 25. Modernizing the office buildings and two guest houses would take close to $10 million.
In 2013, the board approved Morales’s plan to purchase 24 Farnsworth Street, a six-story warehouse-turned-office building in Boston’s “Innovation District,” as a new headquarters. The UUA paid $25.5 million for the building; renovating and furnishing it cost $10 million more. The UUA sold its four Beacon Hill properties for $35.1 million. At the end of the deal, the UUA had all its Boston-based staff in one modern, accessible facility, with videoconference-equipped meeting spaces. The new headquarters also achieved one of Morales’s environmental goals—LEED platinum certification—and it generates $1 million a year from corporate tenants. “It modeled that changes—even controversial and complicated ones—can and should be taken on,” said the Rev. Harlan Limpert, the UUA’s chief operating officer.
Morales communicated his priorities tersely and without much elaboration. Even on his signature issues, such as immigrant rights, it was easy to miss the depth of his personal investment. The creation of the UU College of Social Justice, an experiential learning program launched by the UU Service Committee and the UUA in 2012, wasn’t just about learning for him. On a UUSC trip to Guatemala in 2006, he and his wife Phyllis met a Mayan human rights activist; in 2014 they quietly opened their home to him and his family as asylum seekers—a story they only shared this year.
The 2012 Justice General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona—organized with local immigrant and indigenous rights groups—was the UUA’s largest experiential learning program. A candlelight vigil outside Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s notorious Tent City jail drew several thousand people and brought more media attention to the UUA than anything else in Morales’s tenure.
Morales campaigned as a congregational growth expert—the congregation he served in Colorado had seen sustained growth throughout his eight years as senior minister—but UUA congregational membership, which hit its high point of 164,684 in 2009, has slid each year since, to 154,965 in 2016. Religious education enrollment began slipping earlier, in 2002, and continues to fall even faster.
The good news in these numbers is only relative: Many UU congregations are growing, although more are not. Compared to mainline Protestant denominations, which are closing thousands of churches and losing tens of thousands of members each year, we’re a success story. But religious disaffiliation is widespread, and not just among younger Americans. “None” is the fastest growing group in the religious landscape.
In 2011 Morales wrote a white paper about the opportunities a societal shift away from congregational life might present to the UUA. In “Congregations and Beyond” he wrote, “I am realizing in a profound way that congregations cannot be the only way we connect with people. . . . We have long defined ourselves as an association of congregations. We need to think of ourselves as a religious movement.”
Some of the UUA’s work already engaged individual UUs who had no congregational ties, from its Standing on the Side of Love public witness campaign to UU World’s website. The UUA website was redesigned twice in Morales’s presidency to focus ever more on outreach to unaffiliated people. In 2015 the UUA introduced a new model of affiliation for groups that don’t structure themselves as congregations. With the UU Ministers Association and several business schools, it launched a two-year program to help “entrepreneurial” ministers design additional models.
Will these innovative expressions of UU values help congregations and the UUA find new ways to engage more people? It’s too early to tell.
Morales’s presidency began as the global recession hit the UUA’s budget hard. Months before he was elected, the UUA cut 15 percent of its budget and eliminated the equivalent of thirteen fulltime positions. In almost every year of his term, Morales cut positions, pared down programs, and looked for new kinds of partnerships.
Several complex innovations continue to evolve: what were once nineteen separately funded UUA districts are shifting into five regional groups; the funding model for the Association is moving away from per-member “dues”; and the governance model—the relationship between the General Assembly, the committees, the Board of Trustees, and the administration—continues to evolve.
In his first UU World column as president, Morales wrote: “Our organizational issues are not what will determine our success. The true challenges before us are spiritual. . . . In the coming months and years we must remind ourselves that we are the spiritual heirs of people who were willing to leave the past behind in order to embrace the future.” Even in leaving, Morales may be helping us do just that.