The Dark Side of Dismantling
The Fifth Principle Project has recently received a detailed description from two UUs who raised their voices in opposition to authoritarian practices at their local UU church when they witnessed congregational polity being disrespected. The Discussion below is their story of their suspension from their community for five years. We are publishing this account to build a record of the experiences of fellow UUs. If you have a story you are willing to share, please do so in a Comment below so we can continue building a full accounting of the harm and damage occurring within the denomination.
This Discussion is longer than our other posts, but we ask for your patience and read the full Discussion and comment accordingly. For privacy for all involved, we have removed names, locations, and the congregation’s name.
A Cautionary Tale of UUA Overreach into a Local Church
by Two Suspended Members
If you are curious about the future of Unitarian Universalism in local churches, wonder no longer. The future is here now. We have seen it; it is not pretty. In fact, you will not recognize it as Unitarian or Universalist. Most certainly, it is not the “beloved community.” It is the “new uu.” This essay is our story on the disintegration of our church. This is our lived experience. After 40 years of membership and raising three children in our church family, we were suspended from membership in 2020 and ordered off the church premises for five years.
Our church went from engaging and functional to one in disarray. Our minister resigned this summer. Members have withdrawn themselves and their resources. Attendance, around 50, is lower than at any time in over forty years. Hate, anger, blame, and shame are alive and well. Rather than a means to admit wrongs, seek forgiveness, and restore justice necessary for peace, Restorative Circles, now in process, are being used by leadership to vindicate themselves, steer members into a covenant process, and divert members from the hard work of restoring justice.
Was It Always Like This?
No. In the spring of 2018, before calling the just resigned minister, our church was arguably among the more highly functioning churches in the UUA. Our membership was about 290 and things looked positive for more growth.
Volunteer engagement for internal and community work was strong.
- We had a strong Religious Education program for all ages.
- We sustained a literacy program and a free children’s bookstore in our local neighborhood public school and a partnership with a nearby foodbank.
- A “UU-the-vote” type campaign significantly increased voter turnout at our church precinct.
- We supported the local Pride Parade, an important nondiscrimination referendum and established ourselves as a welcoming congregation.
- We joined in crafting police reforms.
- In a public park, people watched as a former minister offered on-the-spot marriages to LGBTQ couples the day of the Supreme Court Obergefell decision.
Our Journey Toward Racial Justice
“Our Journey Toward Racial Justice” was profound. We were recognized in the UU World and local press for our Reconciliation Service with descendants of a black minister who was barred as a UU minister due to his race. To continue his legacy, we established a memorial fund in his name annually attracting community applications for grants.
City, county, and state representatives were present at our placement of an historical marker honoring a black member who established the first black public high school in our state. We partnered with a black Presbyterian church forging friendships with monthly discussion groups, potlucks, combined choirs for Reconciliation Sundays. Members participated in Stop the Shooting marches in our urban neighborhood.
Additional Services to the Wider Community
- We sponsored two refugee families, one from Kosovo, and the other, in partnership with a neighboring black church, from Sudan.
- We took our youth group to Guatemala for service work.
- Our board-approved Support Congregation designation brought us into the local Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition.
- We recruited Muslim, Humanistic Jewish, Mennonite, and Christian congregations to support us in the Interfaith Hospitality Network as we sheltered and fed unhoused families four weeks each year for 20 years.
A Place for Personal Growth and Social Action
Over the last 40 years, nearly all ministers and interim ministers brought out our best. Helping to build community. Our previous minister’s sermons often included anecdotes not just about her but also about us and the challenges in the world around us. Her love was palpable. While bringing forth new endeavors, she also found what was working and made it work even better.
Our annual Heart and Hand Auction was huge fun and profits. Members also earned money for needed church furniture by teaching English lessons for three months to Chinese exchange teachers. Members gave money even beyond pledges—for recognized needs inside and outside the church.
There was enormous commitment because we, as a church, voted on major issues and the minister worked with and for the congregation. There was joy in the work and in Sunday worship services. Members felt welcome to bring new social justice concerns and new interest groups to the church which we often took on without detracting from our other work. A more “we-centric” (borrowing from the lexicon of “new uu-speak”) culture would have been hard to find.
Our church was the home congregation of a U.S. President and Supreme Court Chief Justice, the UUA’s first black president, the UUA’s first black Director of Religious Education, and the UUA’s first coordinator of its “On the Side of Love” campaign.
We were more than ready for a black minister; we were excited for all we could do together to work for greater equity in the community. We were open to more soul-searching and action to become the anti-racists we wanted to be.
Since 2012, we had rebounded from disagreements regarding governance. Rejecting strong minister policy governance favored by the board, the congregation voted for Collaborative Governance. The board then adopted and expanded this model including several good governance ideas from policy governance such as updating policies, running more efficient meetings with consent agendas, giving the minister administrative authority for the staff, and setting annual goals.
The defeat of the strong minister model, however, caused hurt feelings. Unfortunately, healing opportunities missed.
Since 2012 there had been no talk of governance change. It was reassuring in 2017-18 during the ministerial search process when the Board President wrote to the authors of this post and affirmed that Collaborative Governance is good for [our] Church.
Cause of Our Church’s Disarray
There is no nice way to put it. Broken trust was and is the problem at our church. In 2018, the ministerial search committee and board, with influence –or undue pressure–from the UUA, made commitments to the ministerial candidate to abandon our chosen Collaborative Governance model and implement the previously rejected strong minister policy governance model.
Most significantly the ministerial search committee and the board chose NOT to include or inform the members of that commitment BEFORE asking the membership to vote on calling the new minister. Over several years as the facts of this situation emerged trust further plummeted.
How Do We Know This to be True?
First, there were small annoying concerns: The new minister asserted control over common spaces; removed from our Sunday service written or verbal joys and concerns; placed a prominent and expensive electronic sign at the church entrance.
Then there were greater concerns: The removal of the portraits of the black minister and his wife from our lobby. This action felt like a slap in the church’s face given our considerable reconciliation efforts. Sidelining members who had devoted time, energy, and resources to establish the Memorial Fund was hurtful. A lack of cooperation with the Extended Ministry Committee for memorial services also caused wounds.
Then very serious concerns arose: At a Congregational Meeting, the board/new minister, contrary to our Collaborative Governance model and bylaws, unilaterally announced edicts. The edicts told us how certain committees were to be managed by the new minister, who would chair, who would belong, who would vote, who and when someone could speak, and how many projects the committee would support.
Then the proposed 2019-2020 budget revealed a diversion of Endowment Outreach Funds, meant for use outside the church, to the new minister’s chosen programs within the church. One longtime supporter of the Endowment Outreach Fund orally gave the budget her tentative support but on the condition that the board and Endowment Trustees would meet with interested members to edit ambiguous language in the Endowment Outreach Fund protocols. That did not happen.
The board/new minister appeared tone deaf to legitimate member concerns. The authors sent emails asking why actions were taken that were inconsistent with our Collaborative Governance model, Principles, and bylaws. There was no response to our concerns. Our requests to speak with the board and Endowment Board went unanswered.
Other members of the church responded to this lack of engagement. The Co-Chair of the Social Justice Committee left the church. He told the authors that he was not interested in micromanagement by the minister. Due to the Co-chair’s significant work in the immigrant community, our ethnic lunches and immigrant panel discussions also left.
Other members began to wonder.
- When would their volunteer work be micro-managed by the new minister?
- Why were there no congregational meetings to discuss big changes?
- Why the board went into executive session more than at any time in forty years?
- Why the new minister attended the executive sessions?
- Why agendas and minutes arrived too late to inform and alert people of pending issues?
The board no longer seemed to represent the members. Some members told the board that their inattention was likely going to affect future giving to the Endowment Outreach Fund. The board/new minister were unmoved. We were experiencing a rigidity foreign to the culture of our Church.
Community Outreach Was Negatively Impacted
After the arrival of the new minister, the authors, on behalf of the Church Asylum Family Project Coordinators, sent the Social Justice Committee a request for $750. The funds would provide three weeks of hands-on assistance to a family as part of our publicly recognized Support Congregation commitment.
As a courtesy, we copied the minister who, even when informed that diverting the request to the board was improper, did so anyway. We received a corporate-style letter, admonishing us for making the request, claiming it was contrary to the bylaws (untrue) and telling us not to make such requests again! We were stunned and saddened that our community work was now negatively impacted!
The Authors Respond
Stunned and demoralized that our public commitments to the wider community could so easily be abrogated, we resigned. However, a day or so later, we were alerted that “inactive” membership status would be more appropriate. With this new information, we immediately informed the Board President that we wanted to be listed as “inactive members.” He said he would so inform the Church Registrar.
At the same time, our hopes rose when we learned that the board/new minister were bringing in consultants to address “issues” in the congregation—-issues about committees and race.
With this new glimmer of hope, we informed the board that we were returning to full membership. However, the Board President called to tell us they were “considering” our request and would get back to us. What? The board never before acted on inactive/active status changes. It had always been a perfunctory task to simply notify the Church Registrar.
Collaborative Governance Model Abandoned
In the December 2019 church newsletter, a board member wrote:
[The church] with its dedication to a new ministry, has chosen to pursue a revision to its governance. That dedication was begun by its decision to call the Minister as our spiritual leader and the agreements we made with her in that process.
WAIT. WHAT? The congregation had not chosen to revise our Collaborative Governance model! The congregation knew nothing of a “dedication” for a governance model change nor “agreements” when we were asked to vote to call a new minister. Nor was any congregational consent given after the call of the new minister. Whatever was happening did NOT have congregational approval.
Based on the newsletter announcement the authors wrote to the board. We asked if it were possible that without including church members in discussion or even awareness of governance change commitments our leadership asked members to vote to call a new minister? We asked since the congregation did not approve of the changes, could our church be placed in a possible breach of an oral or written contract situation? The authors suggested that, if so, leadership bring in someone to work out a compromise: a win-win-win with the new minister, a board member rep, and a congregation rep facilitated by an attorney skilled in controversial negotiations.
Answer to our Questions: Five Year Membership Suspension
About a week later, we received the answer to our questions in the form of a letter suspending our church membership for five years.
In January 2020, three board members, refusing our invitation to come into our home, merely handed the letter to us on our front porch. One board member insensitively commented that the authors should “get some help.”
We were absolutely stunned. What was more stunning was the board’s public “shaming” campaign. That evening the board posted our suspension letter on the church announcement listserv. The following morning, the suspension letter was read aloud at the start of the worship service. Some members gasped, some cried and at least one walked out. Members and visitors were invited to meet with the board and minister following the service. Such public meetings, without our presence or representation, were held on subsequent Sundays. We felt unfairly shamed and pilloried and particularly alarmed that this was all done pursuant to UUA advice.
The Impact of a Strong Minister Policy Governance Model
The implications of the abandonment of our Collaborative Governance model were illustrated in our membership suspension action. The board justified our suspension stating that it followed the recommendation of a task force. That task force, however, was co-chaired by the chief opponents of the Collaborative Governance model that was debated a decade earlier. The task force co-chairs were also the same individuals who co-chaired the search committee. The same search committee that put this controversy into motion by egregiously making commitments to the then ministerial search candidate. Their obvious bias was overlooked. They did not speak to us.
The five-year membership suspension was to proceed immediately. This rush to judgment was based on a 2018 board action, with no notice to the congregation, that had merged the “disruptive” and “violent” behavior policies into one. This policy merger effectively eliminated all due process.
Many members were appalled at the severity of our punishment:
- Five-year membership suspension.
- Banishment from church property including memorial services, public events, and events conducted by private or nonprofit entities renting our space.
- Re-admittance as members after five years only if a “committee” decides the timing is good for the congregation.
- Restoration of membership only if we agree to the committee’s stipulations about our ongoing involvement in church affairs.
The board/new minister further justified their actions to the church membership by highlighting the stress our inquiries had ‘inflicted” on them. In our opinion, their physical and emotional symptoms were the angst they felt by their unwillingness to answer our questions honestly. The honest answer would have been, “because we made commitments to the candidate. . .” As always, the truth could have set them and the church free.
Be aware that at this time, we knew nothing of the controversies in the UUA. We knew nothing about the Fifth Principle Project. We knew nothing of the “new uu” use of “pain” to cut off dissent. We knew nothing of the unscrupulous use of “covenants” to remove people.
Suspended but Not Quiet
Since we were given no due process, we felt no need to go quietly into the night. We shared our concerns about how the actions of the search committee and the board were weakening our church. We highlighted that our external and internal congregational polity was at the heart of what empowered members to join the church. Those who knew us, knew our concerns were not “me-centered” nor voiced out of “privileged” expectations. They knew we were expressing concern for all of our voices.
We offered to meet with the board, search committee, and task force that recommended our suspension to review and discuss all that had happened and to make any appropriate, and perhaps, mutual apologies. Members were appalled when they learned that our church leadership had not invited us to a single meeting prior to our suspension. Some members offered to pay for neutral mediation. The longtime and highly respected Church Counsel suggested to the board/new minister that a right relations process and, if warranted, a gradual implementation of steps would have been appropriate. He got nowhere. He resigned as the Church Counsel and later resigned his membership. Other member resignations followed.
With the church leadership’s refusal to engage with us, we retained an attorney skilled at conflict resolution. Church leadership would not engage. He got nowhere. To this date, the new minister nor anyone in leadership has spoken with us.
Institutional Damage – Bylaw Revisions
Not surprisingly, a bylaw revision process began moving forward. The bylaws rewrite was done by a small team consisting of one former and three current board members. It was apparent that they did not want broader congregational advocates at the table.
[Fifth Principle Project Note: It is important to note that at the 2022 General Assembly, a UUA Board sponsored resolution was approved giving a select number of individuals the power to re-write our national Association’s bylaws.]
The bylaws team did not conduct a single open congregation-wide meeting or debate either by Zoom or in person on these, the most extreme bylaw changes in the modern history of our church. The board explained to the members that the UUA had already seen the bylaw revisions and deemed them good.
The revised bylaws, contradicting the historic independence enshrined in our national Association’s bylaws that the Association’s member congregations are autonomous, self-governing entities, would restrict that independence by requiring that our church only hire individuals in fellowship with the UUA and members of the UUMA as future ministers. This revision would grant the UUA control over the supply of ministerial candidates.
Ironically, such a requirement will not allow consideration of a modern-day exemplar of the black minister with whose family we reconciled! Or the hiring of a non-UU minister as another local UU church has done! Or the hiring of the minister at another local UU church who has ceased her membership in the UUMA.
The new bylaws also removed a non-board member as our Church Registrar eliminating a watchdog over board actions on membership. There would no longer be a trustworthy accounting of the membership.
The limitation on the pool of future ministerial candidates and removal of our Church Registrar are just two of the twelve extreme bylaw changes that eliminated congregational rights, powers, and protections.
There was another blow to democratic checks and balances. No longer allowed would be direct congregation–made nominations for two of the three members of the Nominating Committee. Henceforth, the board would control all nominations. This change disempowers church members and adds to the insularity of leadership. This change brought about another member resignation.
Lives and reputations can be ruined when democratic practices are not followed.
At the start of post-COVID reopening, a motion to delay the by-laws vote until there was ample opportunity to set up in-person discussions and consideration of amendments was narrowly, and rudely, defeated. The board and minister failed to publically call out uncivil oral bullying. Intimidation of dissenters was becoming normalized. Not surprisingly, such leadership modeling led individual members to demean members both face-to-face and in writing . . . even in “Restorative” Circles!
According to the old bylaws, any number of attendees at a properly called Congregational Meeting is a quorum. There were about 70 members present at the meeting. About 50 members voted for the bylaw revisions and about 20 voted against them. Effectively, only 20% of the membership supported the new bylaws. One can count to 50 by adding up board and search committee members, the treasurer and their partners. Presumably the leadership had gained little support beyond themselves.
From the pulpit, the new minister repeatedly admonished those members who just wouldn’t “accept a majority decision.” Poppycock! No true democratic process . . . no true majority and certainly no mandate for change.
Atmosphere of Intimidation
After our suspension, some members quit immediately and others just stayed away or quit later. Still others withheld or reduced pledges. They were in shock that a UU church would banish members and ramrod through bylaw revisions. Some members felt the UUA was now the “Vatican.” They were now in a church not unlike the Catholic and Protestant churches many had fled.
Members who respectfully protested our suspension, were admonished as “insurrectionists” and as examples of the church culture of “privilege” and “bullying.” The concept of covenant was weaponized with members being told to come into “covenant.” In services, the “new uu” mantra was recited, “We welcome all people but not all behaviors.” This greeting, while serving to vindicate the punitive actions of the board, task force, and minister, immediately signaled to visitors that they had entered an unsafe place of judgment.
Petition to Board Rejected
Unbeknownst to us, 34 members signed a conciliatory and respectful petition asking the board for a reasonable modification in our “sentence”…namely, that we be allowed to attend memorial services and non-church public or private events held on the property. Each petition signer got a written answer . . . No. The decision of the previous board will not be revisited.
More members resigned or further distanced themselves from the church. In neither the newsletter nor minutes nor letter to the congregation did the board/minister share the petition’s actual content. Why? Because they knew that in the eyes of most members, the board’s response to such a reasonable request would be considered simply wrong.
Not long after our suspension, a dear member died. We had been friends even before he joined the church. One of the authors had led his two sons in Coming of Age and on a UU “pilgrimage” to Boston. Our friend’s bereaved wife asked the new minister if we could attend the memorial service to be held at the church. The answer was no. Only after one of the sons of the deceased member personally interceded were we allowed to attend.
Two years later, another dear longtime member died. His bereaved wife informed the new minister and board president that unless everyone was welcomed to the memorial service at the church, including us, she would have the service somewhere else. We were allowed to attend. However, responding to the complaints of a few former board members that our presence caused them “pain,” the board made a new policy: Only the board as a whole would make any future decisions regarding our suspension terms.
In a letter to the entire congregation, the board apologized for its “inconsistent” monitoring of our punishment and promised to do better, explaining how future exceptions would be made. The letter brought more sadness to the bereaved family and drove members further away from the church.
Another Dissenter Targeted
After our suspension, a deeply respected member of over 30 years who has spent her lifetime advocating for good governance both in the church and in our city, also raised concerns.
She asked for due process, reconciliation, moderation, and compassion for us. She asked for the congregation’s voice to be heard on the bylaws. She signed a petition. She asked for editing of the Endowment Fund protocols. She wrote to the new minister asking for modification of the ban prohibiting our presence on the property as a first steps toward congregational healing. In response, she was told to go into deep self-reflection, and bring herself into “covenant” with the church.
Church leadership declared a second year of trying to craft a covenant and would provide ample opportunities for members to meet, discuss, debate, and parse every word of their intended new or revised covenant. Covenants, unlike bylaws, are not legally binding. Yet, church leaders found no reason to involve members in the creation of their bylaws. How Absurd!
Covenants, like loyalty oaths, can be used for good or bad. They are open to interpretation and, in the wrong hands with the wrong desired ends, can be used for harm. Or, tossed aside when needed.
We Have a Right Relations Covenant … Ignored when Needed
The Right Relations Covenant, written inclusively by members in 2018, before the new minister’s arrival, includes guidelines for civil behavior and was always meant as an instrument for reconciliation. Why was it not used in our suspension process? The covenant reads, in part,
Building on a foundation of love for one another and trust in the democratic process, we covenant to . . .
In voting for this Right Relations covenant, the congregation affirmed their awareness that civil discourse can only be expected on a foundation of fairness and love. It was not used because the leaders had failed to follow even its very premise.
Even worse, the current Right Relations Task Force turned itself into an inquisition panel. The chair, disingenuously saying she was not speaking as the chair, used innuendo, fake research, and communications, never meant for her, recommended that a member be required to attend Restorative Circles. If at the end of the Restorative Circles, if the accused did not covenant with the church, she would be recommended to leave. Her accusatory letter contained the word “covenant” no less than seventeen times.
As more power was transferred to the board/minister, church wide communication became more and more controlled including opaque and untimely board meeting minutes, content of the newsletter, and topics forbidden on the church discussion listserv.
Even worse, a new policy stated that any email, verbal, or written communication a member has with any board, committee, team, or task force member is a public record and can be shared, without the writer’s permission, with other bodies or with the entire congregation if even one member deems it to be in the interest of the congregation.
This policy effectively deters members from engaging, questioning, or protesting church leadership actions for fear of retribution. One need only to cite our five-year membership suspension to understand the possible actions that could be taken against a member who wrote an email.
Shortly after the Spring 2022 board meeting, the new minister resigned.
What happened to the church? The answer depends on whom you ask.
Our church leadership wrote in the August 2022 Newsletter.
“We are trying to break our church’s 180-year pattern of questioning ministerial authority that has caused departures of several ministers and significant divisions among members.”
A search committee member noted that the problem is in our “Church DNA.” He claimed our history was on repeat due to a few disgruntled “privileged” members that were running the minister out just as happened in the 1800’s when a small “privileged” group unhappy with a minister’s stance on abolition ran that minister out of town. The search committee member, ignored evidence of our rich history of internal collaboration and community coalition building, also admonished the congregation for being “me-centric” rather than “we-centric.”
Our resigned minister in a January 2020 sermon, since removed from the church website, ranted about a church “infection” that needed to be removed.
These aspersions are particularly galling. They use well-known prejudicial tropes “infection” and “genetics” to dehumanize a minority and deflect responsibility away from perpetrators of injustice.
Resigned Minister by Proxy
This summer a Minister-in-Training spoke with the resigned minister but no dissenters, patronizingly boiled it down to our alleged misunderstanding of our own Vision Statement and to our resistance to change.
UUA Regional Office
A UUA Regional Office stated in its July 2022 newsletter.
“And I have to also name that another reason for this lack of professional ministers is the congregations of our faith with challenging and mal-adaptive behavior that have led too many minsters choosing to leave congregational ministry altogether.”
What We Believe
The troubles at our church started when church leaders, under pressure from the UUA and without congregational knowledge and approval, committed our church to governance changes when hiring a new minister. Church leaders, influenced by a newly graduated minister, steeped in “new uu” thinking, and encouraged by the UUA Regional Office, eroded the church’s foundation of trust, democracy, and compassion.
The second, fourth, and fifth Principles must be evident in all that we do both inside and outside our walls. But we need more than our UU Principles. We need the guardrails of democratic practices, transparency, and built-in checks and balances to prevent our worst tendencies from surfacing.
We urge UUA leadership to abandon autocratic practices. Stop making ministers into UUA mouthpieces. Stop pushing covenants and theologies. Step up national and global leadership in social justice work. If more congregational ministers are needed, cut back on the many ministers in Boston and regional offices. Stay out of local congregational polity. Return to mutual respect built on love and democratic practices.
Two Suspended Members of a “new uu” Local Church
Two Important Things
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A sad tale — but what’s missing from it are the names of the people who wrote it and the name of the church to which they belonged. Journalistic responsibility absolutely requires that this information be included. Note their emphasis, near the end, on transparency. Well, yeah. You’re not transparent if you’re remaining anonymous. I’d like to share this essay with my own congregation, but I’m reluctant to do so when it has been stripped of such basic facts.
This has been extensively discussed with the authors, who labored for some time to write the story as accurately as possible. Jay and I felt that to reveal such specifics would put the congregation in a bad spot as it tries to recover from this very unfortunate series of events. It would further do the same to the minister in question, who in all likely hood is also trying to recover. Having said that, revealing such important details is completely the decision of the authors who, if they choose to, can do so in their responses to this post. Either… Read more »
Home church of UUAs first black president should be a pretty strong clue, but authors should offer this information nonetheless.
In that case, you might want to post here under your own name also?
These are complex issues, and I agree the story cannot be taken at face value as it cannot be verified, but I understand that all parties want to pick up the pieces. Maybe something to consider, since we provide email addresses to post here, is that individuals may request to receive that information privately so they may review the parts of this conflict that are public record on the agreement to leave the choice to post publicly in the authors’ hands.
yup. it was easy to find from that clue.
Only if you’re steeped in UU history. I’m not.
It looks to be the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati.
There are plenty of identifying details in the piece.
It is saddening to me that the Fifth Principle Project publishes a one sided story like this. This church and their minister have been through something that seems very painful, and this piece affords no privacy as they try to heal.
OK. I hear that. So why did you publicly identify it? (Not that it was that hard to do… Taft and Sinkford…)
If it’s clearly identifiable, why the pretense of anonymity? There are abundant indicators of who is being referred to.
,,, simple solution — fire the minister. We are congregational churches and our governance comes from the members of the church as freely elected members of the board of trustees. As to covenants, If another party (the UUA) comes along and insists you make a covenant with them, reason and self respect will refuse this absurd proposition. Ministers are there to preach, participate in special events, and support people who are sick or dying. A church can find itself by doing these things themselves. Hire a person who can give a good sermon (or get sermons from members); People who… Read more »
The description of the process (if we can dignify it with that term) pursued by the elders of that congregation leads me to suspect that they would simply have had a cow rather than engage in a respectful and logical discussion of the points raised. It is a general characteristic of what’s happening in UU these days that the people who are causing the trouble do not want to engage in a respectful or logic-based discussion. (I need point no further than the vicious and grotesque response to Todd Eklof’s book, an open letter that was signed by hundreds of… Read more »
Please remember that there are several Rebecca’s who follow the FFP.
Indeed, and I’m yet another Rebecca! Tho on this particular thread I’ve remained silent.
I will say that for me the dealbreaker would be “Reason is a symptom or creation of White Supremacy Culture.” Demand laying reason aside and nope. Just nope.
My money is on Cincinnati (though it could be All Souls Unitarian in DC), and by extension the Minister in question is probably Connie Simon. Her tenure lines up perfectly with the story, and she derisively talks about the FPP, indirectly talks about kicking people out, and refers to the “DNA” of the church in a sermon here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWPnd3O1P6w
I hope everyone takes advantage of the link provided and listens to Rev. Connie Simon’s entire sermon.
It occurred to me that the minister may have been misled by the search committee as to the church polity when they promised her something that the congregation as a whole had not agreed to. If that’s the case then she was victimized by the board and the search committee also. They set her up in a conflict situation that she was probably not aware of or prepared for. Just speculation, of course.
Or perhaps she mislead the board and the search committee as to the ministerial style when she promised them she would abide by the congregation’s governance. If that’s the case, she victimized the board and search committee. She set them up in a conflict situation that they were probably not aware of. Just speculation, of course.
Yes, just got done viewing it. Reminds me to listen more than talk.
I think you make good points about lack of responsibility and transparency Jim.
I don’t think this is a good idea. If you’re looking for personal stories about how people have been harmed in their congregations there’s a ton. I, myself, could provide some involving interactions with egregiously incompetent ministers and other leaders – but, if I were to do so, I would provide supporting evidence that could be investigated. And that would be a difficult and challenging thing to do. But without supporting evidence I would feel quite uncomfortable whinging away about these situations. The anonymity involved here could lead to anyone who might have a bone to pick with their congregations… Read more »
Agreed. This is really complicated. On the one hand those who are struggling with such issues in our congregations may benefit from seeing how others have failed (though I would desperately prefer to see more stories of how genuinely divided congregations have succeeded), but on the other hand, as you say, there are always multiple experiences of any conflict. And I have seen far too many instances where key factors are left out and/or misrepresented to feel that one-sided airing of problems help much.
That said, this story does deeply sadden me.
I agree Jim about it being a bad idea. And it weakens potential for whatever good work FPP intends to do. It is “not a good look” for the FPP to use its platform like this.
I am appalled that you would publish this anonymously without the congregations identity. If the authors are not willing to own up to their experience FPP is no better than those ministers who signed condemnation letters without reading the books they condemned.
This article should include both the authors name and an invitation to a member of the congregation leadership to respond.
I’m not “appalled,” other than by the despicable behavior of the elders of that congregation — but I agree with you that it’s not a good idea for FPP to publish this without the names of the authors, and without an invitation to the elders of that congregation to respond.
Well said Mark. This unfortunately lowers my opinion of the FPP, maybe it will for others too. and it weakens some of the FPP points and arguments.
Also, the congregation and minister are easy to identify to anyone with knowledge of our congregations or ability to google. This is a huge ethical breach.
It is consistent with much of the other sharing of “I heard,” but most of that is not specifically targeting individual people.
Anyone who claims anonymity while stating that ““Since we were given no due process, we felt no need to go quietly into the night” do not get the benefit of my doubt.
Anonymity is wrong only when it is an attempt to hide something or deliberately mislead. Otherwise, there are tons of legitimate reasons to employ anonymity. It’s done all the time without violating journalistic ethics, as was the concern of Jim Aikin. If anything here is “appalling” it is your accusation that the authors, merely because they chose to be for the present anonymous, are liars and cowards. There is testimony here from members of the congregation in question that corroborates the veracity of the story. Therefore, anyone here is free at any time to invite anyone from that board to… Read more »
This story so closely parallels my experience at New Orleans that I have no trouble accepting it for face value. The UUA, and an uncertain percentage of individual congregations, have been taken over by an authoritarian mindset so aware of its own invalidity that it cannot handle dissension. Any lack of total submission is called disruptive. Since survival is fundamental, and dissension threatens survival, it’s okay to ignore one’s own principles if necessary to survive. But a group that transgresses its own sense of what is acceptable, maybe doesn’t deserve to survive. The UUA is a product of the individual… Read more »
Glad you are still attending UU services ! In 2006, I visited NOLA after Hurricane Katrina & attended conjoint services of several urban fellowships, who met out west in Jefferson Parish. It was 6 months after the storm, but the people talked liked it just happened the previous wk. We all have stress in our lives & need connection with others for support. Would love to see an investigative reporter do a story on the UUA issues that have been cited on FPP.
“One board member insensitively commented that the authors should “get some help.”” That statement alone shows that the leadership of the church would have a drastically different story to tell, and publishing an anonymous diatribe does not inform or improve anything.
The true meaning of the “get some help” comment would have been in the tone of the delivery. Since the authors commented that it was “insensitive,” the authors interpreted the meaning as a put-down that they were insane or otherwise mad, not worthy of being considered of merit. Granted connotations and tone are always subject to different interpretations. Obviously, the authors did not feel that the comment was made by the board member in an attempt to be of help, rather it was interpreted as negatively judgmental..
I don’t think that comment requires the context of “tone” for interpretation. It seems clear to me that it was meant as you say, to suggest the authors of this piece are “insane or otherwise mad, not worthy of being considered of merit.” It was a board member who uttered it to boot. Saying it’s “insensitive” is certainly true, but also a backhanded way of supporting it. Perhaps it’s a prime example of what leadership means by putting love at the center of our faith.
It’s clear what the impact of “get some help” was to the authors of this piece. Why is intention of the church leadership important?
First of all, the leadership of the FPP in their ethical responsible actions would not have allowed this presentation without vetting the authors and using independent sources. Secondly it can be an act of kindness not to name names and open or re-open old wounds. Third, there could be legal reasons to “technically” remain anonymous. However, for those of you who feel “it’s not a true story because “ no one has named names, I am painfully aware of all of the happenings reported. As a 45 year member, personally knowing all of the personalities involved, I can and do… Read more »
I would be quite interested to know what vetting and verification was done of this piece, especially because when the fifth principal project stated its intention to share stories, I urged them to get input and consent from others involved should they do this. I also invited Jay Kiskel to contact me directly over these concerns.
Odd that. Because I would be quite interested to know what vetting and verification were done with those folks in the COIC report that the authors used as “data” for verification, but who appear to us only as avatars.
I guess you would have to ask the people who prepared the report that question. But as to my question, I gather that the answer is “none.” Got it. No need for Jay to contact me.
“They do it too” is not a cogent argument. If you’re going to start collecting “lived experience” anecdotes you need to realize that, in the great post-modernist babblefield, it is the numbers, popularity and power of one’s anecdotes that carries the day. The COIC has you overwhelmingly defeated by these measures that, of course, have little relationship with facts or evidence. So, they ask: In what ways have you or your group or community been hurt by current racist and culturally biased attitudes and practices within Unitarian Universalism? And you are going to respond with: In what ways have you… Read more »
I’m not doing whataboutism here. I’m merely saying that if one supports anonymity in the COIC, a document that serves as the blueprint for thorough changes to the nature of our faith, then you’re in a piss poor condition to dismiss a story we publish for the anonymity of its authors and others who figure prominently within it. So no, we did it ask and will not ask such questions.
Actually, I would love to see a “report” based on the question: In what ways have you or your group or community been hurt by current authoritarian anti-racist and biased attitudes and practices within Unitarian Universalism? But only if it had the institutional backing, financing and marketing power of the COIC “report.” Unfortunately that will never happen. Given that impossibility, I would like to suggest the importance of choosing one’s battles and picking an advantageous battlefield. Going into battle, if that is what is happening, with inferior numbers and a disadvantageous battlefield guarantees defeat. Actually, I think that alternative “report”… Read more »
I didn’t dismiss the story. I asked about Chuck’s perception or claim of vetting..
I have no doubt whatsoever that this story is true. Although my former church was not as dysfunctional as the one in this piece, it had already descended into poisonous “groupthink” four years ago when I resigned my board position and the congregation.
I agree that the anonymity of this story may be problematic. However, I also found that the lack of any names at all made the narrative difficultly readable. Whether or not someone decides there should be less anonymity, I think it that the narrative would be much easier to follow if at least fictionalize names were used instead of “a committee member,” “a deeply respected member,” “the chair of [xyz] committee.”
Maybe the article should not have been published anonymously. Surely there is another side to the story. However, what I believe to be true, and what I find most egregious is that the board of this church summarily banished respected long-term members from the congregation and church premises without due process. Where’s the democracy in that?
Please don’t get caught in the weeds with this discussion. Don’t loose the point. The last time I communicated on this site I sensed trolling going on; it smells like that again. Let’s say this story is pure “fiction”, like reading a novel. Each of us has to ask ourselves, does it reflect my personal reality back to me? Am I moved by it, does it speak to me or a need I have? That is the point to me! This story accurately describes the general experience we are going through at our 387 member church for the past 3+… Read more »
IMHO, this congregation needs mediation services. This used to fall to the District Executive. Now, I’m not sure. I’d think the Region could offer the service. They aren’t the first congregation to run into trouble and need help. The responsible thing to do is to seek professional help from the Region or the UUA.
You want documentation of the wokeology of the changes in the UUA? Simply review the footnote and professional documentation in one of the prior FPP discussions. Cycleback’s Report “Illliberalism at the UUA”. A very scholarly book (or report). The current personal story here of a twice UUA recognized national social justice leader (think gay marriage and US Supreme Court) is an attempt to make real the harm being done at all levels of UUism. So yes. The cancel culture “We are always right, and are in control, so you can’t do a thing about it. If you do not comply… Read more »
What a sad story. Banning people from a UU church is a rare event in my 71 years as a UU. In the mid 70s the San Francisco board ban a man from future attendance when he came to the Christmas Eve service with a can of gasoline and a whip. The Cedar Lane Bethesda Board ban a man from attending after he served two years in prison for sexually molesting two girls under the age of 10 that he lived next door to. I agreed with these two decisions but mostly when staff or church members complain about a… Read more »
OK. Here’s a tl;dr about this stuff. Having been through three UU ministerial explosions (and one incompetent interim minister- which I will not mention) I can definitely empathize with this story. To my point, the first two explosions that led to minister resignations, board resignations and congregational shrinkage happened before the current UUA Anti-Racist Evangelism. The problem is that, as Richard Trudeau says https://youtu.be/IGKHfHj8smk “we are cats” and trying to get UU’s to march in a common direction – as directed by the minister – is deeply frustrating to any authoritarian type. UU’s, from my experience, tend to be opinionated, cantankerous and… Read more »
UU ministers should never be granted nor assume automatic authority. What “authority ” we have is earned by being consistent and showing integrity over time. That’s the tension that holds both minister and congregation responsible.
You have asked the essential question. What has been the effect of all this “anti-racism evangelism”? I have tried to answer this myself from data available on the UUA website. Using these data, come the following observations. 1) Overall UU membership has been falling since 2009, but the rate of change has been greatest from 2020 to 2022. 2) The number of UU Congregations has been falling since 2012. Unfortunately, the severe membership declines since 2019, when the 8th Principle “evangelism” began in earnest, have been masked by the CoVid pandemic. Establishing how much CoVid contributed to the decline over… Read more »
The drop from 2021 to 2022 was even bigger.
Steve Myles: Interesting. Thanks for putting this together, as I am interested in following these trends as I continue to seek shared and synthesized perspectives to attain common ground (something I have unfortunately learned does not seem to be a goal here, however). You might need some input from statistically gifted UUs with other viewpoints to produce credible results. Regardless of what one thinks of the COIC reports’ processes with interviews/testimony and/or its final product reports, I understand they represented input from around 1000 individual UUs. As I’ve noted before, rather than simply trying to discredit the reports and thus… Read more »
So, you tell us you strive after common ground, but in the same breath say the FPP continues to polarize, even involving deliberate distortions of the issues or data. I’d ask for examples but I’m too accustomed to the failure of those who make such charges to provide and defend their accusations.
Some people have sought common ground here, myself included, to try to separate issues and address some of those on which we might agree and address together, and such efforts have chiefly been disregarded in favor of continuing to lump all the issues together and increase the perception of “sides.” While a desire to seek synthesis and resolution between such sides may seem overly idealistic, it can also be seen as overly realistic or cynical, that is, I do not believe that the frameworks either side is increasingly polarized into defending is a complete picture of reality. As evidence, I… Read more »
That’s what K is to you, and that’s fine. But endless debating is counterproductive. In my view, if K seeks peace, it has nothing much to do with compromise. After all, the FPP, in her view, persistently seeks to polarize. I don’t think you can hold such a view and claim to seek compromise. Rather, what you seek is capitulation or elimination.
Frank: You are entitled to your opinion. However, my comments elsewhere on this website I believe speak for themselves, and I addressed your perception directly in my own comment below. Moving on.
David Cycleback: I copy your comment in its entirety below, so that this reply will still make sense to others trying to follow, if you delete your comments as you have previously done. I have never claimed to be “objective.” On the contrary, I have stated dozens of times that objectivity is not obtainable by anyone but something we can only aspire to. This is why we have to take “evidence-based” claims with a grain of salt. Whenever I have referenced subjectivity and biases, I have included myself (unlike some people who characterize their opponents as emotional or ideological and… Read more »
No, it doesn’t matter how many people agree with you when there are also many people who disagree with you. Fairness and compromise are about getting those considerations to come closer together in a constructive way. It is definitely quite laborious and tedious (both to write and to read) trying as best as one can to do this from multiple perspectives, to try to tease apart what may be points of agreement and among points of disagreement, which is why I’m abandoning the effort on this venue (there are also too many other problems, like not being able to delete… Read more »
Frank Casper: What “capitulation or elimination”? I am not at the UUA nor on a Board or any committee in my congregation. I have no power over you. I have the same power as any ordinary UU–to express my opinions. It is no longer surprising to me (but could almost be amusing) that people who routinely call all sorts of names will take umbrage at being called “polarizing” or say that they are being “called out” when someone takes note of insults. You have only to read posts on this page and book reviews by “pro-Gadfly” or “anti-CRT” folks to… Read more »
K., thank you for your moderate tone. Just thank you.
You are certainly welcome–and good luck.
Smiles…. and you are absolutely right about “and good luck.” Uncannily so. So much to say. So much to watch and understand and weigh.
Good luck with your congregation. A lay leader at another congregation with difficult conflicts recommended this book to me, and I have ordered it. Maybe it will be helpful to you as well (a recent enough title to include reference to the pandemic): Transforming Conflict: The Blessings of Congregational Turmoil, by Teresa Cooley.
I didn’t suggest you were defending her. I was merely saying my impression over a good deal of time differs. As the the UUA et al, we’re on the same page.
I know, and to my knowledge no counterpoints to those critiques have ever been made by anyone defending the COIC report. They are all simply ignored.
“K is an endless debater, asking for endless proof, and in an eternal Sisyphean struggle to get the Hatfields and the McCoys, the illiberals and liberals, the lion and the lamb, to somehow come together and live in peace and harmony. She doesn’t realize that maybe lamb and the lion don’t want to lay down together.” David Cylceback: This comment mischaracterizes me, as you know. And yes, it is fairly clear to me that at least at the Fifth Principle Project page, there is no interest in seeking a compromise. However, any congregation that has a right relations policy is… Read more »
I never said that I could distinguish how much of the membership decline was due to CoVid and how much to “anti-racism”. I suggested the larger decline in the latter period MIGHT be due to “anti-racism” dogmatism. If there is another identifiable causative agent at play working across the thousand or so congregations beside the reaction to the anti-racism dogmatism, I am unaware of it. Exit interviews are the only way to understand the reasons for leaving. They are never published and seldom express the true reason(s) for leaving. The bottom line is that UU is has been losing members.… Read more »
The COIC reports detail other reasons. Our congregation does do exit interviews, but as you said, they are not shared. Because I try to talk to people on all sides of the issues, I am well aware that people are leaving for both reasons described in those reports and described here.
I agree that better attention needs to be paid to the losses.
I imagine if you polled every single UU – maybe 150,000 at this point – and asked a “negative question” like, “Have you ever felt uncomfortable, hurt or emotionally distressed in your congregation?” You would get 150,000 responses in the affirmative and most would be happy to elaborate on those responses. But then if you asked the same 150,000 UU’s “Have you ever felt comfortable, affirmed and emotionally uplifted in your congregation?” You would also get 150,000 responses in the affirmative and most would be happy to elaborate on those responses. If the goal is to create communities where a… Read more »
Interesting read, thanks.
I have elsewhere called the Widening the Circle of Concern report ‘garbage’, or something like that. It seems to be wholly innocent of any familiarity with ordinary tenets of social science. Take the experiences of these ‘avatars’. If you want to know how a representative SAMPLE of any population thinks, ask them! For instance: “What has been your experience with the other members of your congregation? Have you felt valued and appreciated? Treated fairly? Or not? Please be as specific as you can.” And you’ll get a range of responses all up and down the emotional scale. But if you… Read more »
I agree. That whole project was entirely question-begging. But what I thought was the most ridiculous of all was a step that you left out, When they first asked specifically for stories of “harms” experienced due to UUs “white supremacist culture,” they got very few responses at all. A rational response to this lack of response would be to say: “Oh OK, I guess we aren’t that racist after all.” But instead they took the very lack of response as evidence of racism so pervasive that it made UUs afraid to speak out,” That’s crazy!
It reaches a level of absurdity that becomes very hard to grasp. How can members of a denomination, that started with the foundational statement (from 1961) “a free and disciplined search for truth” and that covenants a 4th Principle, enthusiastically embrace and support this kind of absurdity? It boggles the mind. They even put out a “Study Guide” to ostensibly help congregations understand and implement the “theological mandate” that has been constructed upon this wobbly foundation of absurdity. Here’s what the “Study Guide” says about WCOC: Widening the Circle of Concern: Report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change must… Read more »
This banning story coupled with another minister recent near firing trauma at a Canadian Church makes me realize that us Unitarian cats have very different ideas about the role of the minister. This is coupled with ministers themselves having different conceptions of their role in the congregation. Are they senior employees who serve at the pleasure of the congregation/board or are they ‘prophetically inspired” leaders with a mission and responsibility to guide the sheep, or are they general managers charged with money and personal and growing the congregation, Obviously ,these are just a few of the possible roles. Unfortunately congregations,… Read more »
Dear Friends, It is similar in my small congregation here in Europe. During more than a year of efforts to restore good governance, and minimum democratic standards, l received scathing personal character assaults, intimidation, ostracism, scapegoating, and growing isolation. Covenantal and group conformity with authoritarian type leadership increased alarmingly during the Covid crisis. On the positive side, some progress was made. But I now hesitate to speak up spontaneously. Fear for myself has become a new experience for me in my congregation. And after a half century of being a proud Unitarian, I’m looking for ways to protect myself and others. I am… Read more »
I am sorry to hear about these painful experiences. Something a minister once said to me after a really disruptive conflict that was never resolved properly in our congregation was that in her perception, she didn’t think anybody felt like they had “won.” I think that is a sad truth of how these differing ways of understanding and addressing issues is playing out in the congregations. I wasn’t aware people were experiencing this in Europe as well. I hope that your congregation finds some better solutions and perhaps you will be able to share them. I know there are congregations… Read more »
This is terrible. How can they call themselves UU?
Well, they’re changing UU to mean Undermine and Unfriend.
> UU: “Undermine and Unfriend”
Good one. I laughed at this new meaning for UU, although sadly it is becoming more true.
I’ve thought about this a lot since first reading it. In terms of not revealing names, I’m ok with that. It’s a common practice in journalism and legalities. On re-reading I see the title is “A Cautionary Tale” – and that’s indeed the part that stays with me. Could this happen to me? The “alleged punishment” is more severe than I’ve heard of, but I know of members of congregations who feel they were “fired” from their volunteer role or simply ignored/passed over for volunteer opportunities they used to be invited to perform. I consider myself cautioned and appreciate the… Read more »
If you’re publicly naming Connie Simon it’s only fair to name the other people involved. This was written by Al Gerhardstein and his wife Mimi Gingold. This story is very one-sided and does not mention the YEARS of disagreements they caused in the church and the MANY conversations church leaders had with them before they were asked to take a break from the church to give everyone time to heal. Many members did leave – but mostly because Al and Mimi keep fanning the flames with their baseless accusations.
As Chuck, a 45-year member of the church, did earlier, I can attest to the veracity and general timeline of what is written in the above article. The authors, who I shall not name, of this article were members of the church when I joined, and I was friends with them. I won’t even try to list all the hours, energy, and money they each devoted to the church year after year after year. Just as they did to the greater community. I was a 35-year member of the church and was its general counsel for over 20 years. Over… Read more »
I really appreciate this post, and I believe that it is often legitimate and valuable to publish an anonymous autobiographical account like this. For someone like me, who has experienced dysfunctional or vindictive behavior in a UU church, it is helpful to hear that I am not alone, and that others are coping with similar experiences.