Leadership in Unprecedented Times

Leadership in Unprecedented Times

Reflections on the transformational presidency of Susan Frederick-Gray.

Elaine McArdle
A white woman leaning against a table with a chalice visible. The woman is smiling.

Portrait of UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray.

© Kevin Thai/Three Circles Studio


Editor's Note: As President Susan Frederick-Gray’s term winds down in the coming months, the UUA will be sharing content to honor her legacy and contributions to our faith movement. We can’t wait to lift up the beautiful and inspiring pastoral and prophetic messages she’s offered us over these past six years.

We are so grateful for the leadership she’s brought to the UUA, which has guided and nurtured our UU community. This was support we could count on even on the heels of a time of turmoil and change in Unitarian Universalism, and then in an especially fraught period of uncertainty and injustice in the larger world.

In the coming weeks, stories and sermons from Susan Frederick-Gray's leadership will be tagged with #SFGlegacy. We begin our storytelling with this recent UU World interview.

It has been an extraordinary time to be president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

When Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray became the first woman elected as UUA president, in June 2017, the Association had been rocked by controversy over the racial disparity in its hiring practices, the resignation of the former president and other top staff, and the death of beloved UUA Moderator Jim Key.

Over the next six years, Frederick-Gray’s tenure played out against the Trump administration, the rise of Christian nationalism, attacks on democracy, a pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, the January 6 insurrection, the overturning of abortion rights, attacks on LGBTQIA+ rights, and the ongoing climate crisis.

With a passion for justice grounded in UU theology, Frederick-Gray seized the bully pulpit of the UUA presidency to amplify the voice of liberal religion and the values of the faith. Her twin rallying cries—“This is no time for a casual faith” and “This is no time to go it alone”—exemplified her commitment and that of her leadership team “to take more seriously our religion’s imperative to love, justice, and equity, and our commitment to one another to work in partnership and mutual support,” she says.

A multiracial group of people after a climate protest.
UUA Climate Strike 9.20 with Amnesty International

In New York City for the 2019 Global Climate Strike with representatives from the UUA, Amnesty International, Fourth Universalist Society in New York City, and New York City Council.

© David Vita

In less than six years, her team revamped UUA hiring practices, fulfilled a $5.3 million pledge to Black Lives of UU, strengthened relationships across the Association, launched UU the Vote, and fought for reproductive rights and the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, including trans children.

Yet Frederick-Gray would be the first to say that much work remains.

“I absolutely believe that the pastoral is prophetic and the prophetic is pastoral,” says Frederick-Gray, who as lead minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix, Arizona, was at the forefront of working for immigrants’ rights. “It matters that we have progressive religious leaders being out front and clear, and taking risks to show that there is a religion that’s invested in justice and democracy and human rights.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Frederick-Gray took the unprecedented step of urging UU congregations to shut their doors and hold services online. “We did that because we were listening to the disability community, communities of color, Indigenous communities, who were experiencing the disproportionate impact of COVID,” she says.

Through myriad challenges, Frederick-Gray has retained not only compassion but a profound sense of joy, expressed by her love for breaking out spontaneously into dance. “I’ve often thought I want to leave more love behind and leave things better than I found them,” she says, with her trademark broad smile.

In June 2023, when her successor is elected, Frederick-Gray will leave behind an organization with a clearer mission and stronger framework for the essential work of creating a more just world.

“Her leadership of our faith has been nothing short of transformational,” says UUA Financial Advisor Lucia Santini-Field.

Rev. Jordinn Nelson Long, lead minister at the UU Society of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, agrees. “No one would want their tenure to be this, but what we saw from Susan was a willingness to center our covenantal values and do that under extreme pressure.” Rev. Carlton E. Smith, regional lead for the UUA’s Pacific Western Region, adds, “She was definitely the right president at the right time.”

“She has this extraordinarily authentic pastoral presence combined with really tenacious leadership,” says Rev. Sara LaWall, minister of Boise UU Fellowship in Idaho. “How do you get that in one person?”

Pastor in Chief

Hours after Frederick-Gray was elected president at General Assembly 2017, in New Orleans, two UUA employees were mugged, with one suffering serious injuries. After visiting him in the intensive care unit, Frederick-Gray comforted his distraught colleagues at a staff gathering, setting a tone of strong leadership combined with pastoral care that would define her presidency.

“She is a leader literally willing to put her life on the line for her values, with a tremendously powerful modeling of allyship, of commitment to a world that’s fair and just for everyone.”

“I had supported another candidate, but the minute she stood up and talked about that staff person, I thought, ‘There’s the president,’” recalls Rev. Meg Riley, who in June 2020 became co-moderator of the UUA Board of Trustees, with Charles Du Mond.

“From really the very first moments of my presidency, the need for a pastoral presence to the faith, to our staff, to Unitarian Universalists everywhere was so apparent and clear,” recalls Frederick-Gray. It helped her accomplish “some incredibly important things that were needed prophetically from our faith community over the next year”—and deal with a host of unprecedented crises.

A week after Frederick-Gray and her family moved from Arizona to Massachusetts, white supremacists announced a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Answering a call for support from local activists, Frederick-Gray traveled to face off against racists armed with assault weapons. The situation became violent—activist Heather Heyer was killed when a white supremacist drove into her with his car—but police did not protect the counter-protesters, says Smith.

“I felt very much compelled to show up as a progressive faith leader, as a Unitarian Universalist, as the president of the UUA saying, ‘We will not tolerate hate, we will protect our communities, we will be in solidarity with one another for a multiracial, pluralistic democracy where all are equal and all thrive,’’’ says Frederick-Gray, who is white. Asked to preach that Sunday at the UU Congregation of Charlottesville, she asked to share the service with Smith, who is Black.

“She was the only denominational president of any stripe that was there, and she was literally on the front line,” says Smith, who stood with Frederick-Gray. “She is a leader literally willing to put her life on the line for her values, with a tremendously powerful modeling of allyship, of commitment to a world that’s fair and just for everyone.”

“To see your president of your faith community unequivocally condemn police violence and show up in Charlottesville felt not just prophetic but pastoral,” says the Rev. Alexandra McGee, who was the congregation’s assistant minister. “That’s a big part of Susan’s leadership.”

Dismantling White Supremacy

Frederick-Gray came into the presidency during a grassroots push across the Association to dismantle white supremacy culture and center the voices of those on the margins. Frederick-Gray had a strong commitment to this work and to collaborative leadership within a racially diverse team. Executive Vice President Carey McDonald, a biracial UU with close ties to UU BIPOC communities, has served as a close thought partner in this work. Together with the UUA’s leaders and partners, they set out to reimagine the UUA, including repairing sometimes-frayed relationships with leaders, congregations, and UU-affinity groups.

“If we don’t do things together then we can’t actually move the change we need to make,” she says, noting her “many partners in the work,” including McDonald. “We’ve been able to move a lot of change in the organization because of our collaboration.”

“Susan has been tremendously consistent in her position as far as countering white supremacy culture is concerned,” says Rev. Lauren Smith.

In the wake of the 2017 hiring controversy, the interim co-presidents—Rev. Dr. Sofía Betancourt, Rev. William G. Sinkford, and Dr. Leon Spencer— set diversity goals for the staff. The first item Frederick-Gray and McDonald prioritized was the need to reform UUA hiring practices. They did this work with UUA Director of Human Resources Rob Molla and Taquiena Boston, who was the director of Multicultural Growth and Witness (MGW) and was named as Special Advisor to the President for Inclusion, Equity, and Change. Since the UUA’s antiracist work tended to be siloed in the MGW staff group, they oversaw a shift to infuse it throughout the Association. They appointed the first Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) team to shape organizational culture change, and they completely revamped the hiring process. And to measure their progress, they did a widespread cultural assessment of the UUA.

By 2019, the UUA had more than doubled the number of people of color in top leadership roles, with the Leadership Council including 42 percent people of color, up from 14 percent, and overall staff numbers rising from 20 to 30 percent people of color.

“Susan has been tremendously consistent in her position as far as countering white supremacy culture is concerned,” says Rev. Lauren Smith, a Black woman, who in 2019 was named director of Stewardship and Development. “It is evident throughout her presidency, and it’s reflected in the staffing of the UUA.”

The newly diverse leadership prepared the UUA to respond effectively to the pandemic and the uprisings after George Floyd was killed. “Because we already had diverse leadership, we immediately responded to COVID differently because we were talking about the most vulnerable,” Frederick-Gray says. “That was coming from our staff, who were from BIPOC communities and disabled communities.”

One of the first things Frederick-Gray did was to create a clear mission statement for the UUA, with three foci: to equip congregations for vital ministries; to support and train lay and professional leaders; and to advance Unitarian Universalist values in the world. This clarity created a “profound shift in the organization,” she says, and was “critical” for responding to the crises that arose during her presidency.

A self-described governance wonk, Frederick-Gray has strongly supported the work of rewriting the UUA’s bylaws to better reflect UU values. And she put significant energy into strengthening the UUA’s relationships with UU-affiliated groups, including DRUUMM (Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries), TRUUsT (Transgender Religious professional UUs Together), EqUUal Access (a disability and accessibility rights group), LREDA (Liberal Religious Educators Association), and the UU Service Committee. She also increased funds for theological education, including for UU-identity seminaries Meadville Lombard Theological School and Starr King School for the Ministry.

Through UU the Vote, the UUA built stronger relationships with and support for state action networks. Her progressive faith voice has been featured in the media, including in op-eds she penned supporting trans rights and other key values.

Watch Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray’s sermon “Embracing Possibility in Times of Change” at vimeo.com/773623494.

Racial Justice and Equity

In June 2017, the UUA Board of Trustees appointed the Commission on Institutional Change to assess structural racism and white supremacy culture within the UUA’s institutions and its wider religious movement. Three years later, the Commission issued a report, Widening the Circle of Concern.

“The report is profound in its assessment and recommendations for our faith, and we’re working as much as we can to bring that work forward,” Frederick-Gray says. “It provides a roadmap that goes beyond any individual president—and that is a gift to the faith.”

In addition to “calling out systemic issues that we as UUs needed to address as part of our spiritual work,” Frederick-Gray has worked to ensure that people most directly affected by decisions help make them, says Rev. Leslie Takahashi, Commission chair. She emphasizes that while a lot has been done, a lot remains to be done, adding, “Susan has been willing to say at times what she does not know, which, when you’re undergoing massive systemic change to right historic inequities, is very important.”

Frederick-Gray inherited the UUA’s 2016 commitment to support the work of Black Lives of UU (BLUU) with $5.3 million in funding. Though some UUs were critical of the commitment, it was fulfilled at GA 2019, a year ahead of schedule.

“She took a proactive approach not because she was compelled but because she felt it was in alignment with UU values, even when there were some people offering an alternative opinion to that, which I think were mired in white supremacy,” says BLUU Executive Director Lena K Gardner. “She led the charge in offering up the UU resources in real ways that felt useful and really helped BLUU get where we are now.”

As Frederick-Gray describes it, “It’s about investing in the leadership and the ministry of Black UUs, knowing that they are on the forefront of the transitions, the cultural changes, the practices and changes that need to happen in our faith for us to live into Beloved Community.”

Marching with clergy in Charlottesville, Virginia, in an interfaith, nonviolent protest against a white supremacist rally.

Marching with clergy in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, in an interfaith, nonviolent protest against a white supremacist rally.

© Jill Harms

In 2017, some UUs continued to object to the faith’s support for Black Lives Matter, McDonald says, but by 2020, that resistance had “mostly vanished.” While there continues to be some opposition to the UUA’s “unshakeable commitment to antiracist and multicultural and fully inclusive” work, he adds, “UUs are choosing to pick which thread of history we want to embrace.”

When George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police in May 2020, after a string of other killings of Black people by police, Frederick-Gray criticized the “lack of accountability” in a police system “that is corrupt at its foundation.” She emphasizes that her criticism is not aimed at individual police officers but at a system that desperately needs restructuring. “If we don’t reject that system and stop it, we will continue to be further and further from justice and less able to fight for our rights,” she says. Similarly, the climate crisis disproportionately affects marginalized communities. “We have to be growing coalitions and scaling up and deepening our theology and resilience to keep moving for change,” she says.

Says McDonald, “Being a prophetic leader means being pastoral to marginalized communities, and Susan has been a historic leader in that.”

UU the Vote

Frederick-Gray and McDonald built a strong relationship with co-moderators Rev. Mr. Barb Greve and Elandria Williams, who took office in 2017, and with their successors, Riley and Du Mond. Riley credits Frederick-Gray as “a huge part of the bridge” to creating a trustworthy, functional relationship with the board.

“UU the Vote was imagined as a way for Unitarian Universalists, as part of a progressive faith community that believes in democracy and the inherent worth and dignity of all people, to have a role to play in the 2020 election,” Frederick-Gray says. “To me, that was our faith in action.”

In 2018, with the board’s blessing, Frederick-Gray and McDonald created the Organizing Strategy Team (OST) to coordinate the Association’s justice work. Together, they clarified four intersectional justice priorities: decriminalization, including addressing mass incarceration and the criminalization of immigrants; climate justice; LGBTQIA+ and gender justice, including reproductive rights; and democracy.

“It’s important to recognize how Susan’s organizing background came in. Not only did she begin to put resources and staffing toward it, but she explicitly named organizing as a priority,” says Rev. Ashley Horan, who was hired in 2019 to lead the OST. Together, Frederick-Gray and Horan launched UU the Vote with B. Loewe, a seasoned organizer, and hired Nicole Pressley as its national organizer (she is now the UUA’s Field and Programs director).

“UU the Vote was imagined as a way for Unitarian Universalists, as part of a progressive faith community that believes in democracy and the inherent worth and dignity of all people, to have a role to play in the 2020 election,” Frederick-Gray says. “To me, that was our faith in action.”

Working with local partners around the nation, more than 450 UU congregations and 5,000 volunteers participated in voter mobilization and election defense efforts, contacting more than 3 million voters across the country. “That leading through following, that humility of being in a position of solidarity or support and disavowing what can be a position of savior or chauvinism, especially for talented and successful people in our congregations, can be a challenge. That was a core part of the culture or posture of the campaign that we tried to create, and Rev. Susan models that,” says Loewe.

For the 2022 midterm elections, they reached more than two million potential voters, and the OST now has “incredibly robust” programs in other issue areas, too, Horan notes.

Pandemic Response

On March 12, 2020, as the pandemic was erupting globally, Frederick-Gray made the decision to urge UU congregations to stop meeting in person, although she couldn’t force compliance. “It was the hardest thing in my presidency,” she recalls. “I knew we needed to stop meeting in person in order to stop the spread and protect the most vulnerable. But boy, was it scary.” Many describe it as a legacy-defining moment. A few months later, she pressed congregations to remain virtual for at least another year.

“The UUA was willing, with Susan as the voice, to set a line and hold a standard that we saw other [national] leaders be too afraid . . . to offer that same protective line,” says Nelson Long, the Fairhaven, Massachusetts, minister.

Frederick-Gray sent frequent emails and videos of support to UU ministers throughout the pandemic, and the UUA worship team quickly prepared materials for online services, fostering “that spirit of ‘we’re all in this together,’” says LaWall, the Boise minister.

With BIPOC communities experiencing disparate levels of death and illness, Frederick-Gray and McDonald prioritized pastoral care for BIPOC UU religious leaders and urged UUA staff to prioritize their own self-care to withstand the challenges of the pandemic and other crises.

Dancing during the opening celebration of the 2022 UUA General Assembly in Portland, Oregon.

Dancing during the opening celebration of the 2022 UUA General Assembly in Portland, Oregon.

© Nancy Pierce/UUA

When the UUA announced that GA 2020 would be exclusively online, the staff made a massive switch in short time. Virtual GA attracted nearly 5,000 registrants. These innovations helped forward a longstanding goal to make GA more accessible to everyone, and two years later, GA 2022 became the UUA’s first fully multiplatform GA, held online and in person in Portland, Oregon.

Into the Future

Frederick-Gray plans to take a sabbatical when her presidency ends and is in discernment about what to do next. “I’ve been really grateful for the honor and privilege of serving as UUA president,” she says. “It’s been a tremendous gift.”

Smith says, “The truth is, she could do anything at this point. She is the kind of leader we’d want to see on a national government level, someone with that sensitivity and level of commitment.”

Frederick-Gray has high hopes for the faith. “I know we’re going to have a great president; I know the work that we’ve been doing is going to continue well. We have our work cut out for us in terms of the struggles for justice, but I think we’ve been scaling up and growing our relationships. We recognize this is no time for a casual faith and no time to go it alone. I’m excited for the ways that we’re going to keep moving ahead.”