UUA president steps down amid outcry over hiring practices

UUA president steps down amid outcry over hiring practices

Board calls for inquiry into bias in hiring, appoints interim team; widespread support for examination of white supremacy within UUA.

Elaine McArdle
UUA board meeting January 2017

UUA trustees Christina Rivera (center, in red) and the Rev. Andy Burnette (second from right) were candidates to lead the UUA’s Southern Region. (© Christopher L. Walton)

© 2017 Christopher L. Walton


This summary of UU World’s online coverage appears in the Summer 2017 edition of the magazine. Find all of our coverage here.

In the midst of controversy over the Unitarian Universalist Association’s hiring practices, which critics say perpetuate white supremacy, UUA President Peter Morales resigned April 1 with three months left in his term. In a new model of shared leadership, three interim co-presidents—the Rev. Sofía Betancourt, the Rev. William G. Sinkford, and Leon Spencer—are serving until a new president is elected June 24 by the General Assembly in New Orleans.

“It feels like an opportunity to re-center ourselves, to look at our core values, and to take a hard look at the difference between who we most want to be in the world and how we are acting on our values,” said Betancourt, an assistant professor at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California.

“We want to find ways to treat this period as an opportunity rather than as a series of problems,” said Sinkford, who served as UUA president from 2001–2009. “Sometimes it takes a shock to a system to get it unstuck, and if nothing else, we’ve gotten that shock, and my commitment and the commitment of my co-president colleagues is not to miss the opportunity that this shock represents.”

The Board of Trustees named the co-presidency team on April 10. In its meeting in Boston April 21–22, the board met for the first time with the co-presidents, where they discussed how to move the Association forward, including through a racism audit of the UUA and a Commission for Institutional Change as outlined in an Interim Presidency Transition Plan created by the board after Morales resigned. It is unclear yet how much the transition team and plan will cost, said UUA Moderator Jim Key, although the salary the UUA would have paid to Morales in the last three months of his presidency will instead go toward compensating the co-presidents.

The co-presidents and Key said they are heartened by the response to a UU White Supremacy Teach-In developed by three religious educators. More than 600 UU congregations signed up to participate in the teach-in, most on April 30 or May 7.

Interfaith partners are watching to see how UUs respond to the current crisis, since the problem of white supremacy is pervasive in our culture, Sinkford said. “If we have any hope to retain our prophetic voice, this is a path we must walk,” he said.

When Morales was elected in 2009, he became the first Latino and the second person of color, after Sinkford, to serve as president of the UUA. Critics bristled, however, at changes in antiracism programs offered by the UUA during Morales’s tenure, at the scarcity of senior positions held by people of color, and at preferences for ordained clergy in senior staff roles.

Controversy over UUA hiring practices erupted on March 17 at the Finding Our Way Home annual retreat for religious professionals of color, where Morales was asked why the leaders of the UUA’s five regions are all white. Morales’s response—that the UUA needs a larger pool of qualified applicants of color so that people are placed into positions where they can succeed—upset many at the meeting, including UUA trustee Christina Rivera, who identifies as Chicana Latina. Rivera and another trustee, the Rev. Andy Burnette, who is white, had each interviewed to be the next leader of the UUA’s Southern Region; Rivera had learned that morning that Burnette had been offered the job. (Burnette later declined the position.)

The issue quickly exploded on social media as UUs examined the racial makeup of UUA leadership. Even though the UUA has made progress in hiring people of color, Morales noted, only eight of fifty-six people with supervisory responsibilities at the UUA are people of color, or just over 14 percent. Among the eleven people on the Leadership Council during his presidency, the only non-whites were Morales and Taquiena Boston, who is black and directs the Multicultural Growth and Witness staff.

Criticism of Morales escalated after he lamented “hysteria” on social media in a letter he sent to staff, and after UU World published an interview with him in which he said religious educators seldom have as much management experience as ministers.

Trustees received a “tsunami” of critical emails, letters, and phone calls from UUs and UU organizations, Key said.

Aisha Hauser, director of religious education at East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, Washington, and a member of the UUA Nominating Committee, led the charge on social media to challenge the UUA’s hiring practices. “It’s not enough to say we believe in equality,” said Hauser, who identifies as racially black and ethnically Arab. “It’s not about intention but impact, and the impact is a white supremacy paradigm with zero accountability.”

A letter signed by 121 UU ministers and other religious professionals said that “the practice of hiring white people nearly to the exclusion of hiring people of color is alarming and not indicative of the communal practice to which our faith calls us.”

Each of the three candidates for UUA president—the Rev. Jeanne Pupke, the Rev. Alison Miller, and the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, who are all white women—promised to institute more diversity at the UUA.

The Black Lives of UU organizing collective called the controversy “a moment of crisis for our faith” in a March 27 statement. “[W]e cannot effectively respond to ‘looming threats’ of white supremacy beyond us until we tackle the white supremacy within us,” the leaders said, adding, “Specific, drastic, and swift changes are needed.”

Morales announced his resignation at a staff meeting on March 30 via teleconference from his home in Washington State. He said he was leaving to take the focus off himself so the UUA could move forward. He insisted that the decision was entirely his own. “No one forced me to resign, or even mentioned my resignation,” he said. Key said he had received no calls for Morales’s resignation.

A week later, the Rev. Harlan Limpert, chief operating officer, and the Rev. Scott Tayler, director of Congregational Life, who made the regional hires, announced their resignations. The Rev. Sarah Lammert is serving as interim chief operating officer. Sinkford announced two new members of the Leadership Council: Jessica York, interim director of Ministries and Faith Development while Lammert serves as COO, and Carey McDonald, the UUA’s outreach director. Both are people of color, and Sinkford said that their appointments are “a recognition that we need to change the way Unitarian Universalism looks.”

The co-presidents have overlapping duties: Betancourt is leading the Commission for Institutional Change; Sinkford, senior minister at First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon, has taken on the role of president as outlined in the UUA bylaws; and Spencer, professor emeritus in Leadership, Technology, and Human Development at Georgia Southern University, is leading constituent outreach, focusing on those who have been involved in or affected by UU antiracism work.

The co-presidents quickly instituted a “modified hiring freeze” at the UUA “so that we can take a breath and make sure we have the right understanding and policies in place,” said Sinkford.

“I hope you can take away from my presence that we can not only survive this period but thrive in it and through it, if we are willing,” Sinkford told staff.

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