Created by 2010 General Assembly vote, committee will pick two nominees for 2017 UUA presidential election.
The people who have run for the office of president of the Unitarian Universalist Association have been, since the UUA's founding in 1961, self-selected. Typically, they've been ministers of large congregations or staff members of the UUA. Would-be presidents decide to run, then set about creating a campaign organization and raising money.
That system is changing. In 2010, the General Assembly approved the creation of a Presidential Search Committee and charged it with selecting at least two nominees for president. The General Assembly also shortened the president's term of office from two four-year terms to a single six-year term.
Members of the search committee were selected in 2013. This spring they are exploring how a system might be created that would be open to more people. "The goal of the committee is to not just select candidates," said the Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson, co-chair, "but to think creatively and systematically about what the job entails and to broaden the circle of people willing to consider this opportunity."
"I've seen the presidency just take a toll on the people who have occupied it," Johnson said. "In part that's because it has not been clear about what is and is not part of the job."
So the committee is creating a job description. "Currently there isn't one," said Johnson. "There are references scattered throughout the UUA bylaws, but nothing more than a line here and there—that the president shall act as CEO, shall serve on this or that committee, or make appointments to other committees. One of the things we're determining is: What is the job? What cannot be delegated?"
The committee has seven members. Johnson is senior minister of the UU Church of Rockford, Ill. Liz Jones, the other co-chair, is director of religious education and family ministry at First UU Church of San Diego. The Rev. Dr. Michael Tino is minister of the UU Fellowship of Northern Westchester in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. Elandria Williams, a member of Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville, Tenn., is an educator at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn. Jacqui C. Williams, a member of First UU Society of Albany, N.Y., is an anti-oppression consultant and founder of Filling in the Gaps in American History. The Rev. Wayne Arnason is co-minister of West Shore UU Church in Rocky River, Ohio. The Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford is a minister at First UU Church of Houston, Tex.
"We have a wide variety of experience," said Johnson. "We're balanced geographically and we represent small to large congregations." The Board of Trustees named Jones and Fontaine Crawford to the committee. The others were selected by the UUA Nominating Committee and elected by the General Assembly. They will each serve a six-year term.
To develop the job description, committee members are talking with former presidents and runners-up as well as former moderators. They will also be in touch with about thirty stakeholder groups.
The committee met for the first time in October 2013. It will meet three times a year in person and monthly by phone. In May, it will meet in Houston to draft the job description, which will be discussed at a workshop at the General Assembly in Providence, R.I., in June and presented online. The work of the committee can be followed through its blog, UUA Presidential Search Committee. All of its meetings are open to the public.
Johnson is quick to dispel any perception that the committee was created to give certain candidates the inside track. "That is simply not the case. We have all checked our assumptions at the door about who the nominees might be. We won't even begin to talk about names until this fall."
Starting this fall through General Assembly 2015 in Portland, Ore., the committee will solicit names of potential candidates.
Ultimately the committee will select two or more nominees for the 2017 presidential election. Other candidates may run by petition.
Two questions loom large. The UUA has never had a female president or one who was a layperson. But that doesn't mean those two groups have an edge, said Johnson. "No decisions have been made."
The committee is also discussing campaign finance limits. "We have presented some options to the board in regards to a top limit on fundraising—enough money to travel and pay for materials," said Johnson. "It will be up to the board to decide on those limits, and up to the Election Campaign Practices Committee to enforce those limits." The committee also plans to suggest a limit on individual donations.
Limiting the cost is one way to make it easier for people to run, said Johnson. Another way is to limit how much travel a candidate should have to do. "With the way that technology has changed, we think there's a better way to campaign than to fly to 16 district meetings," said Johnson. "More appearances could be made electronically." The committee will be reviewing campaign finance statements from the past four elections.
What has been lacking when the UUA selects its top leadership is a sense of community and common progress, Johnson believes. "There isn't a sense of what we are seeking together. We want the process to be driven more by the movement and less by personal interest."
A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of UU World (page 49). Photograph (above): Members of the UUA Presidential Search Committee, front row, from left: the Rev. Dr. Michael Tino and Elandria Williams; back row, from left: the Rev. Wayne Arnason, Liz Jones, the Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford, the Rev. Matthew Johnson, and Jacqui C. Williams.
Please note: newsletter on hiatus
Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
UUA kicks off presidential race
Names of at least two nominees will be made public on February 1, 2016.