UUA president resigns amid controversy over hiring practices

UUA president resigns amid controversy over hiring practices

The Rev. Peter Morales steps down three months before end of term amid charges that a senior hire reflects white supremacy and failures to promote staff diversity.

UUA President Peter Morales announces his resignation

UUA President Peter Morales informs staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association via teleconference that he is resigning effective April 1. (Screen capture by Kenneth Sutton/UUA)

© Kenneth Sutton/UUA


The Rev. Peter Morales announced his resignation from the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association this afternoon during a brief all-staff meeting. Morales stepped down in the midst of an escalating controversy over the UUA’s hiring practices and statements he made in response to charges that those policies reflect and perpetuate “white supremacy” in the liberal but predominately white religious movement. (Read our earlier coverage.)

Morales, whose eight-year tenure as president was to end with the election of a new UUA president at the General Assembly in New Orleans June 24, is leaving his position effective Saturday, April 1, 2017. The Rev. Harlan Limpert, the UUA’s chief operating officer, will continue in his role as head of the staff.

The UUA Board of Trustees is authorized to appoint an acting president, who would serve until the presidential election in June.

In a letter to the Board of Trustees, Morales acknowledged the “ongoing controversy regarding the UUA’s hiring practices and lack of diversity in our senior leadership.” He added:

Unfortunately, a note I sent to UUA staff a few days ago made matters worse. In my hasty effort I created more hurt for those already hurting. I failed to lead appropriately. I reacted when I should have listened. I am deeply sorry.

I have clearly lost the trust of many people and my comments have become a focal point in the ongoing discussion. It is clear to me that I am not the right person to lead our Association as we work together to create the processes and structures that will address our shortcomings and build the diverse staff we all want. We need space for healing and listening.

Morales told the staff that the decision to resign was entirely his own. “No one forced me to resign, or even mentioned my resignation,” he said. He thanked the staff for their “excellent work,” adding, “On a very personal level I will miss you.”

Limpert read a letter to the staff from the remaining ten members of the Leadership Council, who said they honored Morales “for his service to our Unitarian Universalist movement” while vowing to put together a plan for an “immediate internal review of how our institution advantages white leaders, and Unitarian Universalists.” The Leadership Council also said:

We want to apologize for the way our leadership at the UUA has fallen far short in building the diverse Associational office that the core values of our faith demand. In addition, we understand that our responses and silence in response to recent public statements have layered harm upon harm.

We take very seriously the question of how our policies, practices, leadership and culture systematically center and advantage white people within Unitarian Universalism. We acknowledge that it is past time for us to examine more deeply than we ever have the patterns of institutional racism that are embedded in our practices of leadership, including hiring.

It has been humbling, devastatingly sad, and inspiring to read so many courageous calls to a deeper justice, to more courage, more faithfulness from us, especially from Unitarian Universalists of Color who have helped us hold a mirror to our own institution. We recommit ourselves and our service to this call.

During Morales’s presidency, the UUA embraced immigration reform and immigrant rights as key public witness priorities and promoted Black Lives Matter. (The UUA board committed $5.3 million to support the new organization Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism last year, a decision that took Morales by surprise.) Morales launched a comprehensive review of UU ministry early in his presidency as part of a push to make Unitarian Universalism “a multicultural faith,” and pointed with pride to the growing number of ministers and seminarians preparing for UU ministry who are people of color.

Critics bristled, however, at changes in antiracism programs offered by the UUA during Morales’s tenure, at the scarcity of senior positions held by people of color, and at preferences for ordained clergy in senior staff roles. The Black Lives of UU organizing collective said on March 27, “Specific, drastic, and swift changes are needed.” A letter from UU ministers of color—including Morales’s predecessor, the Rev. William G. Sinkford—asked, “Why is it that we are comfortable with senior-level volunteer service from our people of color and not paid senior leadership? We are either rampantly tokenizing, rampantly discriminating, or unabashedly doing both.”

Update 4.1.17: See our guide to developments in the controversy over hiring practices, with links to key documents.

In the fifty-six year history of the Unitarian Universalist Association, only one other president has not completed their term. The Rev. Paul N. Carnes, who was elected in 1977, died from cancer after less than two years in office. The board appointed the Rev. O. Eugene Pickett to complete Carnes’s term, and Pickett was reelected by the General Assembly to a four-year term in 1981. Every other UUA president elected since 1961 has served two four-year terms.

Because of bylaw changes adopted by the General Assembly in 2010, each president elected after Morales’s term ends will be eligible to serve only one six-year term.

Three women are on the ballot for the election at this summer’s General Assembly: the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, lead minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix, Arizona; the Rev. Alison Miller, minister of the Morristown, New Jersey, Unitarian Fellowship; and the Rev. Jeanne Pupke, senior minister of the First UU Church of Richmond, Virginia. The three candidates will be speaking together at forums at five regional assemblies over the next six weeks, with the first this Saturday morning, April 1, at the Central East Regional Leadership Day at Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Maryland. The April 1 forum will be livestreamed.

When Morales was elected in 2009, he became the first Latino and the second person of color to serve as president of the UUA. His election was also the fourth contested election in a row in which a male candidate defeated a female candidate. This summer’s election will be the first to feature only female candidates—and it will be the first since 1977 with more than two candidates.