A public witness

President William G. Sinkford looks back on eight years of leadership.


The Rev. William G. Sinkford completes his second and final term as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association at the General Assembly in June 2009. UU World sat down with him in March to talk about his eight-year administration. [The interview below includes sections that do not appear in the print edition.]

UU World: When you were elected in 2001, you said, “We live in a world of hurt and we [Unitarian Universalists] have a healing message. It is our job, and it will be my job as our new president, to make this healing voice heard far and wide.” How have you brought Unitarian Universalism’s healing voice to the wider world during your presidency?

Sinkford: I think the first decision that I made as president was to expand our Washington Office [for Advocacy and Witness], increasing the number of staff [through what] we now call the Legislative Intern Program, and also committing that I would be in Washington monthly. So I had the opportunity, with the support of an expanded staff in Washington, to be very present on a range of issues in the nation’s capital. I should say that the young adults who staff the Washington office have performed brilliantly. One of the things that I learned was that, although the national news tends to focus on graybeards like myself in Washington, Washington is actually run by people who are 25 to 30. It’s just been a pleasure to work with them.

UU World: What public witness or public visibility initiatives are you most proud of during your presidency?

Sinkford: Marriage equality would be right at the top of the list. Our witness there is both deeply grounded and our congregations have been doing the work of welcoming BGLT [bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender] folks for decades. Although there was a setback in California on November 4, the UU Legislative Ministry was acknowledged as the most effective religious advocacy group [working] to maintain marriage equality in California.

I was surprised actually at how effective the [2005] virtual march against global warming was. The issue of concern for the environment runs deep in our theology, but we were remarkably successful: I gathered more folks in support than almost anyone else. So that would be up there.

The chance to go to Chad and witness the refugee situation for the folks fleeing Darfur with [Unitarian Universalist Service Committee President] Charlie Clements would also be high on my list.

And I should mention our advocacy for comprehensive sexuality education, which has really been led by our Washington Office staff, but I have been down every year on the Hill with the young adults who are trained each year to be advocates.

UU World: What do you see as Unitarian Universalists’ greatest opportunities for public witness in the next few years? And what obstacles could keep us from realizing these opportunities?

Sinkford: I think the biggest challenge for us is to move away from an instant criticism, which has been what we’ve been doing for the last eight years—and I think we needed to do that—into a way of being, which recognizes that we’re going to be at the decision-making table on a number of issues that are central to us. We have to develop some new skill sets, because instant criticism is not going to serve us well.

Clearly, marriage equality is going to remain important. It’s going to be battled at the state level for some time. We’re going to want to be faithful in our advocacy there.

Environmental justice is also critical and we have a particular slant on it. Although we’re certainly in favor of reducing global warming, we tend to look at the marginalized communities that are most dramatically impacted by our decisions, and I think that’s an important perspective to bring to the public square.

UU World: What do you see as Unitarian Universalism’s healing message in the context of the current economic crisis?

Sinkford: As more and more people are getting more and more anxious about the impact of the recession on their lives, I think our healing message remains the same: that we are all in this together and that attempts to divide us one from another are to be resisted at all costs. Ours is fundamentally a message of inclusion, which recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and that each and every person is a blessing—or can be a blessing, if we stay in right relationship. Our goal is to create the beloved community where each and every human being is honored.

UU World: In 2003, you urged Unitarian Universalists to find ways to engage with explicitly religious language again, provoking what people have called the “language of reverence” debate. Although you were urging UUs to find ways to speak about the more personal dimensions of their religious lives than the Principles and Purposes discuss, you were also urging people to get involved in the process of reviewing the Principles and Purposes. The Commission on Appraisal has now done that, and the General Assembly this summer will vote on its proposal to revise the Principles and Purposes. Does the proposed revision speak more deeply to you than the current one?

Sinkford: The Principles are a wonderful ethical framework, but they don’t pretend to get to spiritual depth. My wish has always been that Unitarian Universalists will find more pathways that can get them below the neck. We tend to be very heady, and we need to marry that to a more emotional and spiritual way of being religious people. In terms of the Purposes and Principles, I always thought that what we needed most was a greater sense of mission rather than a revision of the Principles themselves. And I had hoped that we would be moving toward a statement of purpose which is closer to a statement of our mission in the world.

UU World: Have you noticed anything shifting in the worship style or in the religious experience of the hundreds of congregations that you’ve visited?

Sinkford: Oh absolutely. Worship is becoming more soul-satisfying in our congregations and less a purely intellectual experience. I see it in many ways. It’s amazing how many congregations have taken up the habit of singing two or three hymns prior to worship to get people into that space. I think it’s also true, and I’ve heard this from numerous colleagues, that my willingness to step out front on the language of reverence actually freed them to be more honest about their own spiritual lives with their congregations. It’s almost as if it allowed some folks to come out of the closet.

UU World: What have you found spiritually challenging about your role as president and what have you found spiritually helpful?

Sinkford: My personal spiritual practice is prayer, and it always includes an element of gratitude for the many, many blessings of my life. And I try to get from that gratitude to the sense of humility. I’m not always successful, but I try to get there. But sitting in this beautiful huge office, one of the best offices in the city of Boston, with a staff of over 200, always raises the danger of arrogance. And so I’ve tried to be very mindful of that, I think with some success.

The other spiritual challenge is that this is a very demanding job, and it would be very easy to make it a 24/7/365-a-year commitment and lose any sense of personal boundaries. I’ve been so blessed by having [my wife] Maria with me. So I look forward to going home, and at the same time, she’s traveled with me quite a bit. She loves the church and she loves our faith, and so she actually believes I’m doing the right ministry. So it’s been a real blessing.

UU World: Your presidency has introduced or transformed a variety of services and programs to congregations. What programs and services are you most proud of?

Sinkford: This could be a long list! The Tapestry of Faith curriculum, free online, is going to help redefine Unitarian Universalism for the next generation. Moving into the electronic age has been an important achievement.

Our address of race and oppression has shifted dramatically. I would hold up the “Building the World We Dream About” curriculum, which tries to take congregations where they are and show them the next steps for them rather than enforcing a single model. It’s going to help us tremendously.

Our enhanced advocacy and witness presence certainly needs to be mentioned.

Our willingness to do national advertising to increase the visibility of our faith should be on the list, with a surprising number of congregations picking up the idea and doing their own more visible promotion.

And the Diversity of Ministry initiative is critical. It’s just really getting up to full steam, but it is beginning to feel like a tipping point might be in sight.

UU World: Do you want to say more about the kind of tipping point that you see?

Sinkford: Part of it is the bully pulpit, because I’ve made this very visible in my public speaking to Unitarian Universalists. Here are some facts: We now have thirty-three ministers of color serving our congregations, and there has been a steady increase up to that number. Second, all of the ministers of color who receive fellowship are finding jobs in our congregations. Third, what I thought was probably a one-time bubble of fifty or so seminarians of color seems to be sustaining itself. It varies a little bit year to year, but we have another forty ministers of color-to-be that are preparing to serve our faith. It’s too early to call it a tipping point right now, where one of the problems is that, although ministers of color have found jobs, the average length of ministry is considerably shorter. So one of the real objectives of the Diversity of Ministry initiative is to create fully sustainable ministries for these ministers.

UU World: You’ve taken on some fairly intense projects in your administration: reorganizing the social witness programs and shifting the way the UUA promotes antiracism work; moving the UUA support for youth programs away from the denominational level back towards congregations; promoting Unitarian Universalism through regional and national marketing campaigns; and even engaging the two UU seminaries in a conversation about possibly merging. Did you know in advance how complex or contentious some of these would be?

Sinkford: [laughs] Yes, in most cases I did. The UUA president has to be willing to do what needs doing. If the president is not willing, then she or he is really ineffective as a leader of the community. I was blessed by, not universal affection, but by very widespread appreciation and respect, so that I had some relational capital that I could use. And I felt free to use it.

UU World: During your administration, the UUA experimented with a new approach to planting new congregations. Although one of the explicit goals for the initiative was to create new large churches, the two congregations formed as part of the program—the Pathways Church in Southlake, Texas, and WellSprings Congregation in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania—each have fewer than 100 members. What did the UUA learn in the process of this initiative and what do you see as the future of the Association’s church-planting efforts?

Sinkford: I said when I was elected that growth was a priority, and that we were going to move into experimental mode to try some things that we hadn’t tried before. The decision to attempt a Large Church Rapid Start was one which had been recommended by a commission that had studied the issue here at the Association and by the large church senior ministers, and it seemed to me that we should at least give it a try. The results were disappointing in the first start, for certain, and we learned a ton. The second start, the WellSprings Congregation, although it is still small now, is actually meeting all of its benchmarks. So I think some of the things we learned have actually paid off.

One of the major things that we learned was that new congregations work best if they have the strong and very present support of a local, good-sized, healthy congregation. That’s the case with WellSprings. It was not the case with Pathways, which was basically set out to do its own thing pretty much on its own. I think the other thing that we learned is that, despite large amounts of money, because we are so little known out in the world, it probably is unlikely that we’ll be able to be as successful as the Baptists in planting large churches. They plant a large church and thousands and thousands of people know what a Baptist looks like and acts like. We plant a church and we still have to explain what Unitarian Universalism is. So our planting may take a little bit longer.

There are some very exciting things happening now that we’re supporting in terms of multisite congregations. I’m thinking of Albuquerque and San Diego, which are up and running now. But again, [these projects are] tied into healthy, good-sized churches. So I expect that’s more the way we’ll be going.

UU World: Your administration has shifted how the UUA relates to international UU groups and to other interfaith groups. What do you see as the future of international engagement for UU congregations?

Sinkford: We’re in the middle, or perhaps the beginning, of a process that will, I think, deepen the international engagement of our congregations. And that deepening of engagement will lead to a deepening and enriching of the spiritual lives of our people. I think it’s very exciting. There are many, many signs of this. One is the expansion of the Partner Church Program beyond just partnerships with congregations in Transylvania to new partnerships with the Philippines and Khasi Hills [in India]. There will be partnerships with African UU congregations, which I think is very exciting.

The Rev. Eric Cherry has done an absolutely wonderful job providing congregational resources, which was the job that he was hired to do [as director of international resources].

And in terms of our interfaith work, we really have shifted away from a focus on particular organizations, like IARF[the International Association for Religious Freedom] or the World Conference of Religions for Peace, to one which will engage our congregations more directly. It’s fine for the UUA president to show up at this board meeting and that board meeting. It’s much better, deeper, and richer if a particular congregation can be in authentic relationship with a faith tradition from another part of the world or a congregation in another part of the world. So that’s the direction we’re going.

I came into the job having very little experience with international work, and both friends and critics were fast to say that I needed to get up to speed—and I did, I think, quite quickly. What I didn’t anticipate was the incredible privilege of getting to know some religious leaders from other parts of the world and other traditions. I think particularly of our Japanese partners, Rissho Kosei-kai and the Tsubaki Grand Shrine. I have friends around the world who have taught me so much. It has been a joy that I didn’t anticipate.

What we’re attempting now with the Rissho Kosei-kai, as we have moved away from reliance on IARF to be the container for our relationship, is moving toward congregation-to-branch partnerships. One U.S. congregation will be partnered with a Rissho Kosei-kai branch in Japan, probably the Hiroshima branch. And the Rissho Kosei-kai is moving into this country. So on the West Coast we’ll have one of our congregations that’s partnered with a branch, probably in the Los Angeles area. They’ll actually be able to be in human contact, which would be ideal.

The Rissho Kosei-kai is also supporting an internship at the Clearwater, Florida, church for one of their ministers-to-be, so that he can learn from how we do church in this country and that congregation can learn from him about his own spiritual practices. This is very much facilitated by the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, but there are some real actual points of contact that are being made.

UU World: The Board of Trustees has been moving the UUA toward a modified form of Policy Governance over the course of the last few years. If you had not been elected eight years ago, but were about to take office now under the proposed Policy Governance model, how would your presidency have been different?

Sinkford: We all hope that the move to policy-based governance by the UUA Board of Trustees is going to be a blessing. That governance system is supposed to maximize the ability of the president and his or her administration to lead and minimize interference on the part of the Board of Trustees, but this is a new system that we’re just beginning to move into. So it’s unclear to me how much, or whether, there is going to be benefit to the Association in the transition. We’ll just have to wait and see. I would hope that it would not have had any impact on my ability to address the things that I tried to address in the course of my presidency.

UU World: What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the emerging governance model?

Sinkford: I can tell you what the purported strengths are, because I’ve never actually worked in a Policy Governance environment so I can’t bear personal witness. Policy Governance is supposed to result in greater clarity on the part of the Board about its role. As I said before, it is supposed to provide wide leeway for the chief executive and the administration to live out the mission of the faith.

I had major concerns about the decision to move in this direction, and so I’ll list as challenges of the system those things that I objected to. I frankly think that the language of Policy Governance does not suit a religious organization—talk about “Ends” rather than mission and vision, and so on. I fear that it is a system that is overly rigid with many, many monitoring reports required, which take staff time to prepare, all theoretically coming through the president’s office. I question that.

And although I understand this system is being used fairly widely in our congregations now, with mixed reviews, I fear that so much of the Policy Governance system is designed to prevent Board meddling when we actually don’t have the problem of Board meddling. So it may be fixing a problem that we don’t have.

UU World: Do you have plans to endorse either Laurel Hallman or Peter Morales for president?

Sinkford: No.

UU World: What do you see as the primary challenges facing your successor?

Sinkford: Well, certainly dealing with the economic realities. Although we were very successful in finishing up the Now Is the Time capital campaign, which I’ll be announcing at General Assembly, the environment for major donor fundraising right now is, well, “tough” would not be an overstatement. The fundraising will be a central challenge.

There are important initiatives that are underway that I hope will be enthusiastically continued. One would be finding a way to continue to increase our visibility, whether that means advertising or public relations. The Diversity of Ministry initiative is, in my judgment, an opportunity and a challenge that, if we blow it this time, may not come around again. And although we now have the New Imagination for Youth Ministry[pdf], that needs to be implemented, and I frankly had hoped to be a little bit further along on that path. And then, finally, although we have experimented with a variety of ways to help grow Unitarian Universalism, we don’t have the recipe right yet.

UU World: What’s next for you? What do you see after the UUA presidency?

Sinkford: I’ve accepted the position of senior minister and adviser to the UU Urban Ministry here in Boston. It’s part time, which will leave me some time for writing and reflection, and I’m very much looking forward to it. It’s a ministry that is near and dear to my heart.

In terms of your broader question, you know, when I entered the ministry I was called to the parish. I thought I would be a parish minister, and I’ve never had the opportunity. So that has a real pull for me.

The center of gravity of our family is shifting quite radically to the West Coast. My son and his wife and my first grandson are in San Francisco. My daughter is planning to pursue a career probably in nursing, and she plans to go out to San Francisco to take her nursing degree there. So I expect that there will be a move west for us.