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 Members have withdrawn themselves and their resources.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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