Updates to UUA presidential resignation and controversy over hiring practices

A guide to developments in the controversy over UUA hiring practices and the resignation of UUA President Peter Morales.
Christopher L. Walton | 4/1/2017  (All items in red are links to original documents or videos)

March went out like a lion in the world of Unitarian Universalism. Here are some of the developments we’re following as the month came to a dramatic close.

On Monday, March 27, Elaine McArdle reported on the controversy that erupted since March 17 about hiring practices in the Unitarian Universalist Association, which critics say reflect and perpetuate white supremacy and a bias toward ordained, usually male religious professionals. Four days later, on March 30, I reported that UUA President Peter Morales announced he was resigning effective April 1, and that the Leadership Council vowed to conduct a comprehensive review of hiring practices.

This story evolved rapidly through the week. Here is guide to some of the key developments we have not yet covered:

Morales’s letter to staff on March 27—which we included in our first report—pointed to slow but real growth in the number of UUA employees, UU religious professionals, and UU youth who are people of color. “We are all committed to creating an open, diverse, excellent and effective Association,” Morales wrote. “Working for justice is at the center of what we do. We are in this together. The stakes today are very high. Our core values are under attack. Let’s not attack one another.”

But another sentence in Morales’s March 27 letter provoked strong pushback: “I wish I were seeing more humility and less self righteousness, more thoughtfulness and less hysteria.” And the next to last paragraph in our March 27 story also alarmed observers:

Some have noted that a preference for ministers for certain staff positions also means the candidates will skew white, since there aren’t many UU clergy of color. Morales said the Association would be open to a religious educator in leadership positions but said they seldom have as much management experience as ministers. “So the question is, are you willing to overlook that and train them?” he asked, adding, “you don’t want to set people up for failure” by putting them in positions they aren’t ready for.
Aisha Hauser—a religious educator and member of the UUA Nominating Committee who had first publicized concerns about the hiring of another white minister to lead one of the UUA’s regions—responded, “Why call those who are raising important issues ‘self righteous’ and accuse them of ‘hysteria.’ There has to be a place for hard conversations and public accountability without resorting to coded language that has been used for centuries to dismiss women and people of color.”

Tim Atkins, a religious educator and UUA trustee, responded to Morales’s statement about the relative management experience of ministers and religious educators: “I know I have felt a bias against religious educators before serving as a Board member. . . . But I wasn’t sure about a bias in hiring—in fact, I had been trying to research this in advance of our April Board meeting. Well, this quote confirmed it for me.”

Elandria Williams, a UUA trustee and member of the UUA Presidential Search Committee who served on the original organizing collective of Black Lives of UU, wrote, “Please continue to raise your voices and cry out even if some say it is self righteous and hysterical because frankly who gives a damn!!!!!”

The leaders of several UU professional organizations responded to the controversy. The president and executive director of the UU Ministers Association wrote: “Unitarian Universalist organizations and institutions were built by and for the dominant culture; we have work to do to continue learning how to dismantle our institutional oppressions. . . . [W]e are listening carefully to the conversation and witnessing to the pain it evokes” (March 28).

The president and president-elect of the Liberal Religious Educators Association issued a statement “to recognize and support our colleagues who are courageously speaking truth to power and leading another round of critical conversations about intersectional issues of oppression within our Association” (March 28).

The president and moderator of the UU Musicians Network wrote: “We want to articulate our continuing support and connection to our partners in shared ministry who are carefully and bravely articulating their concerns around current issues which reveal that we have fallen short of living up to our stated beliefs and the behaviors we articulate as being just” (March 30).

A group of prominent UU ministers of color, including former UUA President William G. Sinkford, published a letter they sent to the Board of Trustees on March 29: “[W]e are choosing to add our voices to what is not ‘hysteria,’ but rather a critical, deeply needed moment of self-examination, reflection, and—we pray—action on the part of our Unitarian Universalist leaders. . . . Why is it that we are comfortable with senior-level volunteer service from our people of color and not paid senior leadership? We are either rampantly tokenizing, rampantly discriminating, or unabashedly doing both.”

The Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizing collective followed up on the statement we quoted in our March 27 story by sponsoring an online worship service and support group on March 30; announcing the formation of a Black Lives of UU Ministerial Network to provide pastoral care to black UUs; and urging congregations to hold a “UU White Supremacy Teach-in”: “During your Sunday worship time on April 30 or May 7, devote your program—youth group, children’s chapel, all-ages sermon, Sunday morning forum, and so on—to explore white supremacy, and help your UU community commit to resisting it.” (UU World senior editor Kenny Wiley is a member of BLUU’s organizing collective.)

The steering committee of Diverse Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries wrote: “We join in expressing disappointment in our UUA leadership, in how they have held this moment. This comes after years of rolling back efforts to address systemic racism and cut investments in self-determining UU People of Color communities. These have removed structures of accountability and relationship that are essential to providing direction and evaluation for the Journey Towards Wholeness Resolution” (March 30).

Former UUA Moderator Gini Von Courter—who chaired the UUA board during Morales’s first four years as president—encouraged UUs to demand a plan to increase the number of religious professionals of color by 20 percent by 2019 and to “pull the plug” on donations to the Annual Program Fund if there’s “no progress” toward that goal (March 29).

And all this came before Morales announced his resignation.

Following Morales’s announcement, Moderator Jim Key said the Board of Trustees will meet via teleconference on Monday, April 3, “to consider our next steps” in filling the vacancy through the presidential election in June. He added:

It has been heartbreaking to read the many letters that the UUA Board of Trustees and I have received this week about our association’s failure to build the diverse staff that both our faith and our policies demand. I want my friends and colleagues in our movement to know that the Board of Trustees has received with great sadness and humility the scores of letters from hundreds of religious professionals and lay leaders. They have told us of your deep disappointment in the hiring practices of our association.
The three candidates running for president met April 1 in Bethesda, Maryland, in the first of five regional candidate forums to be held over the next six weeks.

Finally, two UUA staff groups have published self-assessments of the ways white supremacy manifests in their departments: the six-member Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries (part of the Ministries and Faith Development staff group) and the three-person Outreach Office (part of the Program and Strategy staff group).

For even more links to commentary on the controversy, see Elizabeth Mount’s public Google document, “Regional Lead Hiring Response Compilation.”

Christopher L. Walton

Christopher L. Walton is editor of UU World. He holds degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Utah and is a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.

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