UUA presidential candidates take questions at GA

UUA presidential candidates take questions at GA

Laurel Hallman and Peter Morales talk about presidential priorities.
Donald E. Skinner


The two candidates for president of the Unitarian Universalist Association responded to questions at the UUA General Assembly in June, giving many UUs their first opportunity to meet and learn about them.

The Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman, senior minister of First Unitarian Church in Dallas, and the Rev. Peter Morales, senior minister of Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colo., are campaigning to succeed the Rev. William G. Sinkford, who is completing his second four-year term in June 2009, which is all that UUA bylaws permit. (see below for links to UU World’s profiles of each candidate.)

The election will be held at the 2009 General Assembly in Salt Lake City next June. Between now and then the candidates will be appearing at district events and before congregations, groups of religious educators, ministers, lay leaders, youth, young adults, and others.

UUA Secretary Paul Rickter estimated that 900 people attended the candidates’ forum at GA in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on June 28. Hallman and Morales responded to ten questions selected by Rickter and the Rev. John Gibbons, chair of the UUA’s Election Practices Committee, from more than 150 questions submitted.

Opening statements

In an opening statement, Morales said he would have three priorities as president: growing Unitarian Universalism so that it will be a stronger force in the world, continuing the public witness and social justice ministry that has become a hallmark of Sinkford’s presidency, and developing a new “strategy of ministry,” ensuring that we will have the quality and number of ministers that we need in the years ahead.

Hallman spoke about the importance of building “a church that shall be free.” She shared the story of how she found Unitarian Universalism when she was 22, and said she “won’t forget all the others who haven’t found us yet, and . . . will make sure it’s all right when they come.” She said she would bring to the presidency the leadership skills she developed in building and leading a 1,100-member congregation plus “a lifetime of spiritual work.”

Top priorities

Asked what would be their top priorities and what would constitute a successful presidency, Morales said growth is “the one great measure.” He added that, “everything [the UUA has] tried in the last generation has not been effective.” He said the UUA should focus more on learning from rapidly growing congregations, like his own. He said he would develop a plan to ensure that there are “dynamic, thoughtful, and diverse religious leaders for the new America we are living into.”

Hallman said her highest priority would be to convince congregations of the need to focus on young children and recent high school graduates. “My highest priority, and I’m not being facetious, is the nurseries in our congregations,” she said. She also noted, without recommending it for the UUA, that the Mormon Church requires young people to give two years of service to the church, which “reengages or engages the young people . . . and their parents at a time that they would leave.”

Elevator speeches

The candidates were asked for their “elevator speeches”: how they would describe Unitarian Universalism in the span of an elevator ride.

Hallman said her speech is: “We’re a church that was founded, at least in America, along with the freedom of our government. We believe that no pope should tell us what we should believe and no rabbi or minister or priest should stand between us and our relationship with God. It’s unmediated. It’s a free church. Now, the definitions of what makes it free have expanded dramatically since those early years, but those founders of the democracy of our country and also of our free faith were able to put in place a structure that could contain much more than they could even imagine.” Hallman said her speech “helps people connect with our country . . . and it aligns us with that.”

Morales said his elevator speech is, “I believe that religion is much less about what we think than about what we love. And we are a group of people who loves life, who believes in compassion for one another, who believes in human dignity, who believes in peace and compassion, and if you believe in that, we have the same religion.”

Growth strategies

The candidates were asked for their strategies for growing Unitarian Universalism.

Morales, who served as the UUA director of district services from 2002 to 2004, said he has led many workshops for other congregations about growth. His congregation’s practices have been featured at UU University, a leadership training conference that led to the creation of a DVD about its welcoming and membership practices. Morales said he proposed and participated in a UUA-sponsored growth conference in November 2007 that brought together 12 ministers of rapidly growing congregations. He said Jefferson Unitarian Church has almost doubled in size in the past nine years. (JUC now has 775 members.) “Growth is really a matter of repelling fewer visitors,” he said. “Too often people come to our congregations looking for the bread of life and are given a stone.”

Hallman, who has served First Unitarian Church in Dallas since 1987, said growth in her congregation is due to “the fact that we are a religious home, we are a people of faith, a people who take very seriously our call to ministry in the world as professional ministers and as lay ministers.”

Policy governance

The candidates were asked for their assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of policy governance, a style of governance for nonprofit organizations that gives clearly differentiated roles to the governing board and the staff. The UUA Board of Trustees is moving toward adopting a modified version of policy governance.

Hallman said the following questions are key to policy governance: “What are we doing? For whom? To what end? At what cost? . . . If we could get clear about those statements, there would be no stopping us.” She said she first encountered John Carver, who developed the policy governance model, during her ministry in Bloomington, Ind., and said that both of her ministries have been transformed by policy governance.

Morales explained that JUC “doesn’t do formal policy governance,” but uses a model close to it. “I have worked in organizations outside of churches all my life,” he said, “where there were very clear goals, very clear roles and accountability, and I’m very comfortable in that.” He added, “I really don’t believe that there are significant differences among any of us on our goals . . . The issue is about being effective, and moving forward, and being clear, and having real accountability in moving toward those ends.”


The candidates were asked what experiences have helped them understand the mindset and values of another culture and what practical things they would do to help congregations take “authentic steps of transformation.”

Hallman said she has worked with Crossroads, an organization working to dismantle racism and build diversity. She also mentioned travels to Transylvania’s Unitarian communities and to Japan, where she met with Rissho Kosei-kai and the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, two of the UUA’s historic interfaith partners. She said she would support ministers of color and congregations that call them. Referring to a time when female ministers were beginning to come out of theology schools and the UUA helped them come together with congregations, she said, “I am absolutely committed to these kinds of things that intervene at very important places . . . to help us where we might be coming with some fear to the table, or there’s a special transition we need to pay attention to.”

Morales, who is Latino, began his answer in Spanish. “I spoke Spanish before I learned to speak English,” he said. “My entire life has been lived crossing the boundary of one culture to another, and I think that inevitably gives me a sensitivity to what’s involved.” He said it will be “absolutely essential” to support and encourage congregations with ministers of color and to nurture youth of various ethnic backgrounds, “the way a high-tech company pays attention to research and development.” He said he was the first minister to hold the antiracism, antioppression, multiculturalism portfolio on the UU Ministers’ Association Executive Committee, and has led UU Service Committee trips to Chiapas and Guatemala. “I think we do perhaps too much highly cognitive abstract training and not enough allowing people to actually experience a different perspective and a different culture, and we need to nurture that in our movement.”

Independent affiliates

Asked to comment on the UUA board’s controversial decision to reduce the number of independent affiliate organizations, Morales said, “We need to find some vehicle for channeling the enthusiasm of these groups and giving them legitimacy and participation.” He added, however, that he sympathized with the board’s disinterest in “an administrative function of certifying and recertifying” so many small groups. That work “can’t just be left in limbo,” he added. “It has to be assigned somewhere.”

Hallman concurred that ways need to be found to keep these groups involved and suggested that a different process might have created less stress. She said that each time that a decision is made that affects people who are "committed and very much are a part of our family," it "needs to be implemented in ways that take into account the people that are involved, with alternative possibilities for the ways that they can do programming.”

Youth and young adult ministry

Asked for her thoughts on youth and young adult ministries, Hallman said ministry to these groups is “absolutely crucial” because young adulthood “is where you either left the church of your birth or you reclaimed the free church that you were raised in.” Balancing UUA support for congregations and for youth and young adult organizations needs to be done in ways that doesn’t “have people feeling cast out,” she said, but acknowledged, “It’s not easy to find an equitable way . . . to use the resources of the UUA to help programming in congregations and at the same time provide lateral experiences so that UU youth can come together.”

Morales said the UUA has not done a good job involving youth and young adults in the planning, design, and vetting of programs. He said he would treat these age groups as more than “consumers” and would work to make them partners with the UUA and to engage their “natural energy and idealism.”

International relations

On the value of international work in the future of Unitarian Universalism, Morales said he supports maintaining and nurturing the international relationships the UUA has. “Ours is a faith that ought to be among the most international, and it isn’t,” he said. His focus, however, would be more on “our own vitality” here in the United States, adding, “We need to get our own act together before we pretend to lead” internationally.

Hallman said she frequently hears from people from many parts of the world who find her sermons online. “We have a global economy and we’ll soon have a global faith,” she said. “This free faith is unstoppable. That we think we can manage it is our own misunderstanding.”

Personal faith

The candidates were asked what is at the center of their personal faith. Hallman said her central spiritual practice is to “sit outside everyday and wait.” She continued: “The experience that comes, deep in the heart and not up here in the mind where I usually live, is always a vital word for me. There are many things that I’ve learned in that silence. . . . It feeds me when I need it.” She said her second practice is “worship within the gathered congregation.”

Morales said his practices are walking in nature and listening to music. He said the Quaker phrase, “Let your life speak,” resonates with him: “Ultimately the measure of my spirituality—and the measure of yours—is our lives.” Spirituality is ultimately about connection, he said. “When we truly appreciate the interconnectedness of life we cannot sit by and watch what is happening to the capacity of our earth to sustain it.”

Innovative teams

Asked to describe an “innovative, high-performing team you have built or were part of,” Morales named his congregation, one of the fastest growing in the UUA. “Our job as leaders is to cast a vision and to reflect the collective vision of the people . . . and then, particularly in our congregations, which are overflowing with bright, energetic people: equip them, empower them, and get out of their way.” He said as UUA president he would “have very high expectations, very clear goals, measure whether they are getting done, select really terrific people, and then let them go for it.”

Hallman described the strategic planning process, Holy Conversations, that her congregation used in recent years and which hundreds of people participated in. It led to a $9 million capital fund drive. She called the planning process and the fund drive a “marathon relay” because of the leadership turnover during its duration and the need to continually bring others into leadership. There was a “constant passing forward.” She said everyone who worked on the project felt sustained by others. “That was huge.”

Courage to be lonely

The final question was: “The presidency of the UUA is a very stressful position. Do you have the courage to be lonely?” Hallman said there is loneliness in parish ministry as well. She said she believes there will be joy as well as loneliness in the presidency. She said she has already been buoyed by contact with many people who have responded to her decision to run for president. “I have confidence that—not that I’m saying it will be easy—but it will be joyous.”

Morales said, “I haven’t had a moment to myself for some time. Loneliness looks better all the time right now." But, he added, “there is something about working with a team of dedicated people and seeing the results of your labor, which is just energizing. It’s one of the most wonderful experiences anybody can have. . . As I imagine doing that at the national level, it is thrilling. I can’t wait.”

Closing statements

As her closing statement, Hallman quoted from a list that some of her friends had created, called “When Laurel Leads.” Among the statements she read: “We are transformed in our worship together. We claim the strength and possibility in our tradition . . . We give and ask others to give joyfully . . . We are tenacious in our pursuit of justice . . . We pay attention . . . We trust our leaders and we trust ourselves to make good decisions . . . We give our children wise teachings.”

Morales said the UUA needs “prophetic” leadership in this time of fear, oppression, and environmental destruction. He said, “Our congregations need to be brilliant moral beacons in their communities.” He said he would bring more management experience to the presidency than anyone who has ever served, but that this is not about management. He stressed that focusing primarily on solid management is “a prescription for disaster. . . . This is a time that calls for vision, passion, boldness, but a boldness that is practical and tested. I believe I offer such leadership. We really can be the religion for our time.”

The candidates also spoke at a General Assembly forum on environmental justice. Recordings of that forum (#2009, Thurs. 11 a.m.) and the forum reported on here (#4059, Sat. 6:30 p.m.) are available from Content Management. Ordering information is at uua.org/ga.

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