Sinkford outlines plan for more diverse ministry

Sinkford outlines plan for more diverse ministry

Board of Trustees hears UUA president's proposal for new ministry opportunities for minorities, approves General Assembly review of UUA's Purposes.


UUA President William G. Sinkford outlined a plan to promote expanded ministry opportunities for “ministers of color and Latina/Latino/Hispanic ministers” during the January meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

Meeting in Boston January 19 through 21, the board approved a modest increase in registration costs for the annual General Assembly, adopted three “Public Policy Statements” summarizing official UUA positions on controversial subjects, appointed trustees to the UUA’s new health insurance trust, and took further steps toward a change in the Association’s governance that will include a review of the UUA’s Purposes at the General Assembly in June. Sinkford’s Sunday morning presentation about the need for greater diversity in the UU ministry offered a far-reaching challenge.

Sinkford, who became the first African American to lead a historically white denomination when he was elected president of the UUA in 2001, lamented that “after decades of commitment, we have only 31 ministers of color [or] Latina/Latino/Hispanic ministers serving our congregations, and only 49 ministers in fellowship with the Association.” (There are 826 ministers serving congregations and 2,180 in fellowship with the UUA overall, according to the Ministry and Professional Leadership staff group.) “And so many ministers of color have decided to leave us,” he said. “It breaks my heart every day.”

Sinkford said he was pleased that 50 minority candidates are actively preparing for ministry, but too few congregations seem prepared to call them. “Will we assume that our current system will somehow do what it has not done in the past and find successful ministries for these persons called to serve Unitarian Universalism?” he asked.

Although the plan is still under development by the UUA’s interdepartmental Diversity of Ministry Team, Sinkford said it will involve deepening current working relationships and building new ones, sustaining current ministries, and creating healthy new ministries.

“I am convinced,” he said, “that if we do not embrace this time as an opportunity, Unitarian Universalism will pass on a legacy of failure that our children and their children will ultimately have to redeem.”

The Diversity of Ministry Team includes the Rev. José Ballester, UUA trustee-at-large and minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, Tex.; Paula Cole Jones, a consultant for congregational antiracism initiatives and member of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C.; the Rev. William Chester McCall, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia, Pa.; the Rev. David Carl Olson, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Flint, Mich.; and several members of the UUA staff: the Rev. Michelle Bentley, professional development director; the Rev. Sofía Betancourt, program coordinator for racial and ethnic concerns and convener of the Diversity of Ministry Team; the Rev. Keith Kron, director of the Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns; Chris May, ministerial credentialing administrator; the Rev. David Pettee, ministerial credentialing director; the Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, director of congregational services; the Rev. John Weston, transitions director; and Sinkford.

In a separate presentation to the board, Sinkford described a nationwide marketing campaign the Association is preparing to launch. The UUA has hired the Swardlick Marketing Group of Yarmouth, Maine, to develop materials for the campaign, which will focus on creating awareness of Unitarian Universalism. Sinkford said the national campaign won’t replace metro-area campaigns the UUA has been sponsoring with clusters of churches in Kansas City, Dallas, St. Louis, and Orange County, Calif. (The next metro campaign will begin in the San Francisco area later this year.)

An “Association Sunday” this fall, part of the UUA’s $20 million “Now Is the Time” capital campaign, will help fund the marketing initiative.

Sinkford told the trustees that the UUA’s metro-area campaigns have proven that advertising can draw new visitors to UU congregations and that significant numbers of these visitors become pledging members. “More importantly,” he said, “we have learned that congregational cultures can change—and can be changed.”

During the board’s January meeting, trustees approved the Association’s first “Public Policy Statements” drafted by the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy. The statements summarize positions adopted over the years by the General Assembly and the Board of Trustees on key policy questions. The three statements approved by the board address equal rights for bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender persons; international relations; and reproductive health. Rob Keithan, director of the Washington Office, said the statements will make it easier for people to determine the UUA’s policy without having to sift through four decades of social-witness resolutions.

Although the board had approved the creation of public policy statements in October 2004, this is the first time such statements have been presented to the board. In an introductory letter to trustees, Keithan explained that the statements “will be drafted by UUA staff and approved by the Board of Trustees to ensure that they appropriately represent the statements from which they are drawn without creating new policy.” The statements will be published on the UUA’s website.

Social-witness resolutions may have become the focus of General Assembly business, but the board sees another set of questions as more fundamental for the Association: What are the UUA’s purposes and what is the proper governance structure that will help the Association achieve its mission? The board’s ongoing transition to “policy governance” and its plans for this summer’s General Assembly are both focused on clarifying the Association’s goals.

In an interview following the January board meeting, UUA Moderator Gini Courter (who chairs the Board of Trustees and conducts the General Assembly) explained how the board intends to engage congregational representatives in a conversation about the UUA’s mission. Small groups will assemble during the General Assembly in Portland, Ore., in June to talk about the mission of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The small groups will identify priorities for the Association using “Open Space Technology,” a set of techniques for democratic decision-making. The small groups’ priorities will be distilled by ten larger groups, each of which will present its top three priorities to delegates in Saturday’s plenary session. Delegates will vote in Sunday’s plenary on the priorities they consider most important.

Courter said she believes the GA conversations, which will be repeated and refined at the 2008 General Assembly, will also engage delegates and prospective candidates for the 2009 UUA presidential election in deeper discernment about the UUA’s mission and ultimate goals. “If you were waiting to attend a GA that made a difference,” she said, “ya’ll come the next two years.”

The General Assembly conversations about the UUA’s mission coincide with the Commission on Appraisal’s review of the UUA’s Principles, Sources, and Purposes, which was announced last year.

The conversations are also related to the board’s ongoing efforts to transform the governance model used by the board and administration in leading the Association. During its January meeting, the board reiterated its commitment to a transition to a modified Policy Governance model for the Association, this time setting October 2008 as the date when the board will vote to implement a new governance model. Policy Governance requires the board of a non-profit organization to focus on “ends” or goals while the organization’s staff focuses on strategies and techniques to achieve those ends. Greater clarity about what congregations want to do together as an Association will help the board set appropriate ends. (See the link to “UUA Board moves toward new governance model” below for more information.)

Courter said the timing of the board’s vote on a new governance model is deliberate. The June 2009 election of a new UUA president opens the door to significant changes in the way the Association’s elected board and its elected chief executive officer interact. “We’re trying to have the most influence we can have at the right time,” Courter said about the board’s governance changes. At the same time, the GA discussions of congregational priorities for the Association are meant to influence the presidential race, she said. “We’re trying to create an authentic and responsible political conversation in a political season.” Candidates may announce plans to run for president in the 2009 election as early as January 2008.

“What congregations say they want is going to influence folks who may or may not want to run for president,” Courter said. “It’s going to influence the conversation.”

In other actions, the board:

  • Approved a $5 increase in General Assembly registration fees to subsidize programs for children at the UUA’s annual convention. (Registration for GA, which will be held June 20-24 in Portland, Ore., opens March 1.)
  • Adjusted the rules governing the UUA’s General Investment Fund to allow congregations and other trust beneficiaries to receive distributions up to 7 percent.
  • Approved an amendment to the UUA Bylaws for consideration by the General Assembly in June that would give the board final approval of rules adopted by the Board of Review, a separate body that handles appeals of decisions made by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee and the Religious Educators Credentialing Committee.
  • Approved the trust that governs the UUA’s new self-funded health insurance program and appointed five trustees to one-year terms. The trustees are Dr. Paul Bluestein of Fairfield, Conn., Kathleen Burek of Coon Rapids, Minn., Mindy Scharlin of Newton, Mass., David Tedesco of East Bridgewater, Mass., and Brent Wilkes of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
  • Approved the six-month interim appointment of Joan Benziger of Iowa City, Iowa, to fill a vacancy on the General Assembly Planning Committee.
  • Adopted a covenant that forbids trustees from endorsing candidates in the 2009 UUA presidential elections until the conclusion of the 2008 General Assembly.
  • Postponed a vote on a new policy governing the Association’s international work after some trustees expressed concerns about the absence of an explicit commitment to promote the Association’s anti-racist/anti-oppressive/multicultural agenda. The board will consider revised language at its April meeting.

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