With organized religion facing an uncertain future, where lies the hope for Unitarian Universalism?
Ironically, it’s the Unitarian Universalist Association’s small size that gives it a distinct advantage for innovation and adaptation, according to the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, who resigned January 31 as chief strategist for the UUA, where she promoted initiatives that she believes can reinvigorate Unitarian Universalism.
“By having a smaller system, it’s easier to be agile and do new things, as opposed to turning the cruise liner” of a huge denomination, Cooley told UU World, adding that Unitarian Universalism is the only major religion putting significant attention toward re-imagining itself and supporting a wide variety of innovative efforts.
Cooley, one of four members of the UUA’s executive team, chose to step down in January after she unsuccessfully sought nomination to run for president of the association. (The UUA Presidential Search Committee nominated two other candidates, the Rev. Sue Phillips, Cooley’s successor as a district executive in Massachusetts, and the Rev. Alison Miller, minister of the Morristown, New Jersey, Unitarian Fellowship.) “The search committee and I didn’t agree on visions,” Cooley said. “I’ve reached the ceiling of what I can do. There isn’t going to be any other place I can go in this institution.”
“I’m not someone who can just maintain,” she said. “I need a big project, and that’s inappropriate to start right before a new president comes on.”
Among the initiatives that Cooley helped foster at the UUA are Commit2Respond, a climate justice coalition; relationships with non-traditional spiritual communities such as the Sanctuary Boston, the Sanctuaries in Washington, D.C., and UU Community Cooperatives; and rebranding the UUA.
Cooley received a standing ovation from the UUA Board of Trustees at its meeting January 23, where Moderator Jim Key asked her where the association should focus its energy.
Cooley described witnessing the November 2015 Soul Slam at the Sanctuaries in Washington, D.C., which drew a crowd of over 250 people. Two-thirds of the attendees were African-American, she said; one-third were Muslim. “It was an extraordinary expression of how people could bring traditions together and create something greater than its parts,” Cooley said. “I thought, ‘This is the greatest expression of Unitarian Universalist values ever—and they will never call themselves UUs,’” because they don’t want to leave their primary traditions behind.
She challenged trustees to figure out “how to use your role as a board to create a container for that innovation, and not force it or try to predict what it will be or needs to call itself.”
Cooley, who invited almost fifty people to a Summit on the Economic Sustainability of Ministries organized by the Council on Church Staff Finances in June 2015, told trustees that traditional ministerial education may not be what every religious leader needs or can afford. “How do we move forward with a different kind of ministry model and affirm and support them but not necessarily have to credential them?”
She urged trustees to ask whether the theological schools and credentialing bodies have responsibility for this issue. “As the board, you have the opportunity to convene that conversation,” she said.
As she encouraged the board to promote innovation, Cooley said she is also “hyper-aware” of the stress that major changes place on existing staff. “You can’t expect staff to make those huge paradigm shifts without resourcing it,” she advised.
UUA President Peter Morales named Cooley the UUA’s first program and strategy officer in 2013. Cooley described herself in an interview as the person “with the longest institutional memory” on the staff (although several employees have worked at the UUA longer). After her ordination in 1989, she served as a parish minister for fifteen years, then became a district executive for the UUA in 2005 and regional lead in Massachusetts and southern New England before serving as director of Congregational Life from 2010 to 2013. As program and strategy officer, she oversaw several staff groups totaling 103 employees, including the Outreach team, the UU College of Social Justice (with the UU Service Committee), Congregational Life, Ministries and Faith Development, International Resources, and Multicultural Growth and Witness.
Cooley shepherded the association’s “regionalization,” a move from a network of nineteen semiautonomous districts to five regions, which is still in process. (Seven of the UUA’s districts have voted to consolidate into two regions of the UUA; twelve other districts are working cooperatively in three other regions.) “The people who engaged in that—the district presidents and boards—did a remarkable job on how they could best contribute to our faith and be in partnership on that,” she said. “It’s been really faith-affirming to go through that process with them.”
Cooley traveled extensively to meet with congregational and district leaders, and to participate in social witness events. She joined other religious leaders in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting death in 2014 by a white police officer, and marched with other UUs in Baltimore protesting the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.
“I feel I got to see more of the depth and breadth of expression of Unitarian Universalism than any other staff,” Cooley said, since she was “in the trenches.”
“It was always wonderful to see the meaning that congregations bring to people’s lives,” she said. Cooley was also exposed to new models of spiritual expression that may shape the future. “It’s not either/or. Supporting congregations is essential, and those congregations themselves need to begin—and are—looking at moving into the world in a different way.”
Cooley also directed the UUA’s re-branding initiative, which kicked off in 2014 with the introduction of a new logo and continued with a new UUA website, a more modern and cohesive brand, and a branding curriculum and website template for congregations.
She also helped create and oversee Commit2Respond, a climate justice coalition that now includes 300 organizations and nine partners. “It kind of rapidly grew more than we were able to sustain or resource it, and we’re still trying to figure out how to take it in more concrete directions,” she said. “It’s still an experiment.” She hopes it will provide “a gateway” for people to deepen their understanding of the relationship between their faith and climate justice.
What does Cooley hope for Unitarian Universalism going forward? “My greatest wish is that rather than seeing themselves as having to protect and uphold our institution, congregations get a deeper sense of mission in the world: How can they be partners in their communities? Who do they need to serve? We see the beginnings of that in [support for] Black Lives Matter, which is very hopeful. Congregations in relationship with communities has been transformative for a lot of congregations, and they see it as really deeply important work,” she said.
“Ferguson was the first public wave of congregations getting involved, because it was so egregious there. So with the visionary leadership of Julie Taylor and Barbara Gadon and Krista Taves and Thomas Perchlik [UU ministers in the St. Louis area], they realized they needed to be together and brought that cluster of congregations together in a way they hadn’t been before.” Her dream, she said, is “for us at the UUA to understand our role a little differently—rather than telling people how to do that, let’s shine a big light on what they’re doing and inspire other congregations to do that in a way that’s contextually appropriate.”
Cooley said she is leaving herself open to any number of opportunities after stepping down from her position at the UUA and is “wildly excited” about what lies ahead. She expects to do some consulting while she figures out next steps.
“I’ve learned so much doing this work and it’s been such a privilege to be able to do so many different things and interact with so many different sectors.” With her broad skill set, she said she feels prepared to do any number of things, including, perhaps, helping a private company with social entrepreneurship. “They need our values, and frankly, they’re hungry for somebody who can help.”
An earlier version of this story reported that Cooley supervised staff groups totaling sixty-six employees, based on incomplete data on the UUA website. According to Robert Molla, director of human resources, Cooley oversaw three UUA departments, with 100 employees, and the UU College of Social Justice, with three employees. (2.22.16)