Live your Unitarian Universalist values out loud. Make your year-end gift today!
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General Assembly 2014 Event 302
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This report is part of a longer event. Go to General Session III for the complete video and order of business.
Jim Key, Moderator: I'm pleased to offer this, my first report to the General Assembly as your moderator. Since my election last June in Louisville, I have visited scores of congregations, a few clusters, several districts, a region, many organizations, too many committees to count, and all of the UUA staff groups. Meeting with hundreds of Unitarian Universalists and others who share our values confirms to me that we are a religion whose values position us well to partner with other organizations—religious traditions—to serve the new generations in new ways.
This morning I want to do four things with you—share my personal story, so you know why I chose this faith—to introduce myself, if you will. I want to talk about clergy sexual misconduct and apologize to victims of this abuse. I want to report on our continuing efforts to right size governance. And finally, I want to challenge congregational leaders to be bold and take risks.
So let me start with my story and why I chose to be a Unitarian Universalist evangelist. And let me tell you, it's not easy being a UU evangelist. Some folks want to focus on whether that is an appropriate word to use, rather than whether it's a relevant goal to spread the good news of a free and liberal faith.
Even more basic, it's not always easy becoming a UU, or it wasn't in my case, and I suspect for too many of you others out here. I'm committed to my core to finding those people like me who were seekers, but having trouble finding us. Or worse, not quite understanding what we're all about when they do encounter us. I grew up poor in the Jim Crow South, influenced by my radical grandfather, a social gospel Methodist. Under his tutelage, I was courage to speak out against the evils of segregation and the errors of theology he observed in most white Christian denominations of his time and his place.
I married someone I met in junior high school and we raised two sons and a daughter. We enjoyed a privileged life and I, a career with IMB for over 30 years, living and working all over the United States in Asia; always seeking, always joining the most liberal and progressive congregation we could find. I was a restless and questioning soul, having many doubts about my own evolving theology and the relevance of organized religion in an increasingly unjust world. As our family moved about and sought a religious community, we never encountered a Unitarian Universalist, in all of the places we lived—Virginia, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Tokyo, Georgia, Connecticut.
I'm pretty sure UUs were around, but no one seemed to be out. We never passed a Unitarian Universalist facility. We never noticed a Unitarian Universalist ad. And we were never greeted by a Unitarian Universalist at any of the many progressive organizations we were a part of. People identifying as atheists to Zoroastrians introduced themselves to us and invited us to know more about their beliefs, but we never met anyone who identified as a Unitarian Universalist, in all of those decades—not one.
Liz and I moved to Beaufort, South Carolina in 1997, and it was there that I was finally introduced to Unitarian Universalism by a Presbyterian minister.
She said, you need to be over there with those people.
Those people were a small group of UUs displaced from their natural habitat in the Northeast who were organizing a Unitarian Universalist congregation in this small southern town.
I soon became the finance and stewardship chair. That's what I always do. In 1999, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort became an affiliated congregation of the UUA. Liz I had found our liberal and liberating religious home after searching for over three decades. As brand new UUs, we were founding members of an emerging congregation, and, I'm proud to say later, a breakthrough congregation.
Now, that might be an engaging enough story if it that ended there, but a life changing event occurred on December the 15th, 1999. I was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, prescribed a palliative treatment of chemotherapy that would continue for 10 months, and told to get my affairs in order. Now, there is nothing like a death sentence to focus the mind. I put much of my life on hold—completion of our new house, starting my new consulting practice—but not my new religious community.
I experienced the five stages of loss and grief, but with the support of my UU siblings, I moved quickly to acceptance. I had responsibilities after all. I was supervising the finances of this new UU congregation.
My faith community was my North Star. Their love was unconditional. Their hope, contagious. Their support for Liz and me, boundless.
In the middle of my chemotherapy, a person who had been an early organizer of our congregation asked if I would serve as president. I was stunned. I asked her if she thought it could wait a year. She said of course, but I'll be back. Indeed, she did come back the following year, held a mirror under my nose, noted that I fogged that mirror, and asked me to serve.
So a year and a half after the diagnosis, I became the second president of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort and served in that role for five years. Friends, hear this clearly. Unitarian Universalism saved my life. I owe this faith something, and so I serve as best as my talents allow.
And you just have to love a group of people with a sense of humor that ask you to serve on committees and boards while at the same time, you're planning your memorial service. You do. You just do.
The good news of Unitarian Universalism arrived for me just in time. Others shouldn't have to wait—shouldn't have to die prematurely.
We must come out, live our values, speak our truths, and be amazed at and changed by those who join us. Now let me move to a subject most would wish to avoid—clergy sexual misconduct. As a candidate for moderator, I signed a petition circulated by Safety Net—a social justice organization of first Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville. This petition called for a national discussion of clergy sexual misconduct.
Let me put this in the proper context. I'm speaking of incidents of UU clergy, albeit a small number, ignoring professional ethics and boundaries who preyed on vulnerable congregants. There were no incidents of abuse of children or elders in my investigations. Safety Net was formed to support people who had filed complaints and who had not been well served by previous institutional responses and promises.
I have met with victims of clergy sexual misconduct and I've heard their stories. I shared those hard to tell, hard to hear stories with our board of trustees. The board asked Natty Averett, UUA trustee, to convene a working group to examine our current processes, consult with the Ministries and Faith Development Office—headed by Sarah Lammert—and recommend changes.
Natty will update you on those efforts in the trustee report that follows. The staff and Sarah Lammert specifically have been swift and compassionate in their response, as well as proactive in updating and improving our processes for handling complaints. Additionally, the UUMA Minister's Association has been responsive and helpful as we assess how we go forward.
On behalf of the UUA board of trustees, I want to express my deepest apologies to those of you who have been victims of UU clergy sexual misconduct, whether you have come forward or not. I want you to know we are sorry for the suffering caused by one of our Unitarian Universalist ministers. The board and I grieve with you over this breach of sacred trust and professional ethics. It is unacceptable that a minister has taken advantage of you sexually and emotionally. It was not your fault. Exacerbating your pain, some people in your own communities added to your trauma by challenging your need to come forward with your complaint.
Now, some of you have heard this apology from this stage before, and might justifiably ask, what is different now, and why should you have any confidence that this time there's an institutional will to make the process of filing a complaint more transparent, but most of all, more compassionate? I pledge, as the chief governance officer—along with your board—to hold all of us, both individually and institutionally, accountable to the values that are at our core. Finally, I want to acknowledge the courage of those of you who have had this experience but remained faithful to Unitarian Universalism and are helping us to live more fully and truly into our values. These are the true, brave souls of our faith that we've been talking about all week.
Now let me say a few words about right sizing governance. The present board of 11 at-large trustees has been as agile and generative in its work as the previous board imagined. The previous board brought the bylaw changes to the delegation in 2011 to reduce the size of the board. I thank them for their courage. They gave up their own privilege in order to strengthen the governance of our association.
Effective governance is the enabler of our dreams. It is how we operationalize our covenant with one another, our promise to one another, and our accountability to one another. It's been a great pleasure to be a part of this collaboration as the board and staff have begun living into our covenantal faith together, making promises one to another, holding each other accountable to the other as well as to the congregations and communities that we serve. You'll hear the trustee report, how the board and administration have operationalized our global ends or shared values in moving towards effective monitoring of those ends.
Finally, I want to challenge the delegates and other congregational leaders in this hall and following on live stream to learn from your board of trustees' experience. The board is very clear about the fiduciary strategic and generative modes of governance and the appropriate scale of policy style governance. My charge to those of you in leadership is this—seek clarity about the modes of governance in your own congregations and communities. Rise above the daily grind we face around the issues of power and authority, funding, and whether there's too much or too little language of reference on Sunday morning.
Focus on what the Unitarian Universalists are called to do in this world and how we will build the world we dream about. Assess how effectively we are answering that call and living into that dream. Then you will be practicing good and right sized governance—governance as a spiritual practice.
Thank you for the trust that you have placed in me. It has been a joy to serve for you on behalf of you this year. Thank you very much.
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Last updated on Friday, July 25, 2014.
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