Meet the UUA Presidents
Presenters: Rev. William F. Schulz, Rev. John A. Buehrens, Rev. William G. Sinkford, Rev. Peter Morales, Kay Montgomery
Four Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) presidents, including Peter Morales, reflect on their own time as president and offer advice for the future of the Association. Kay Montgomery, Executive Vice President, facilitates.
KAY MONTGOMERY: ...presidents of the association have been these. Dana Greeley from 1961 to 1969, Bob West from 1969 to 1977, Paul Carnes from 1977 to 1979 and Gene Pickett from 1979 to 1985. Those I have worked—I've known all of those people by the way, but those I have worked with directly have been the folks you will be hearing from this morning. Bill Schulz, 1985 to 1993, John Buehrens, 1993 to 2001, Bill Sinkford, 2001 to 2009 and Peter Morales, 2009 and still our president.
Knowing these people as I do, I have asked my close colleague, the Reverend Harlan Limpert to time them. And so I've asked them to speak for seven to eight minutes, and some of them of course will only take two or three. But Harlen is going to cue them at seven minutes so that there is time for questions and answers afterward.
So the questions that I asked the first three, Bill Schulz, John Buehrens and Bill Sinkford, and then a different set of questions for Peter Morales of course. The questions that I asked them where these. Looking back, what are you most proud of in your time as UUA president? What were the most difficult things you had to learn? What were your biggest disappointments? And if your presidency were beginning today, knowing what you've learned from the past, what would you do?
I've encouraged them to use those as simple spring boards to telling you what they'd like to tell you about their time as president and also to be interesting. So with that as the test, Bill—
BILL SCHULZ: Thank you Kay, and good morning to you. Kay's first question is what are you most proud of in your time as president? And I was tempted to say, maintaining my sanity, but I realize that would be a controversial remark. The truth is that no presidency is the president's alone. And my presidency was influenced by many, many people on the board and the staff, but in particular by three. One was my predecessor Gene Pickett. Gene's six year term in my eight year term were really in some sense one solid term of fourteen years. Gene was my mentor, and I am eternally grateful to him.
Secondly was the board of trustees chair, the moderator at the time, Natalie Gulbrandsen of Sacred Memory. Natalie was a full partner to me in every way possible. We would fight like cats and dogs, by Godfrey as Natalie would say, but we loved and respected each other, and I was extraordinarily fortunate to have such a partner.
And the third was Kay, and actually, despite—I say this not because she's sitting on my right within striking distance, but really the proudest thing I did was to appoint Kay as executive vice president. And her service to this association has been enormous, not always fully recognized and appreciated, but what she has given is—for once I actually mean that. I do, and I'm proud of that.
So everything that we did, I'm sure this is true of my colleagues, was a collective effort. I thought the other day, as Peter was eloquently describing the challenges of dealing with an increasingly culturally diverse nation, that there are such challenges in every era. In our era among the challenges for example, were moving women ministers from entry-level positions to senior positions in large churches. And we undertook very intentional efforts to do that. Today it's commonplace, but it certainly wasn't then.
Another challenge of a multicultural nature was the whole issue of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender], not just LGBT rights but engagement within Unitarian Universalism. And I'm proud of the fact that we undertook the welcoming congregation program, and it is almost second nature to us today, but it certainly wasn't 20 years ago.
You heard last night about the anti-racism initiative, which was undertaken towards the end of my administration. I'm immensely proud of that. The partner church program, also initiated with Natalie's strong support. The Singing the Living Tradition Hymbook, again a gesture of greater inclusiveness, was published in that era
And then there are couple more personal things of which I'm proud. I did manage once to skewer Pat Robertson and I have always taken pleasure in that. Robertson, you may recall, was running for president, and he had announced that his candidacy was ordained by God. And when he lost the Massachusetts primary, I challenged him to explain why he should not be prosecuted under the blasphemy laws for bringing into ridicule the holy word of God by having lost the primary election. And that got a fair amount of attention.
The last thing I'll mention in this respect was my Nixon to China moment. When I went to theological school, I was broadly dubbed Bill the Boy Humanist. And I tried hard when I was president—I know I've been associated largely with social justice causes, but over and over again, I tried to remind us that at the heart of Unitarian Universalism is religious sentiment. That we're not just an educational enterprise or a vehicle for building community or for doing justice, but a faith seeking community that seeks to frame and experience our world in supplementing reason with radiance and being open to religious language.
Now Bill Sinkford, when he was president, I'm very glad that he's the one who got into all the trouble about language of reverence.
BILL SINKFORD: Thank you Bill.
BILL SCHULZ: They took the flack out on him but I'm very proud to have contributed in some small measure in that respect. The next of Kay's questions was, what were the most difficult things to learn? The most difficult thing for me to learn had nothing to do with the presidency.
When I was seven years old, the school principal sent home a note to my mother which says, Billy gets very good grades, but he needs to learn to be more patient with the other children. And my mother, thinking to be cautious with this fragile ego, took me aside she said, Bill, Mrs. Kurtz has written us a note. And she says that you're getting very good grades. And your father and I are very proud of that. But you know, sometimes teachers believe that other things are also important. And I said, Oh sheesh Mom, just get to the point. So patience has never been my strong suit. I said at Forrest Church's memorial service that among the things I loved and admired about him was that he suffered fools so kindly they never knew they had been suffered. And I am afraid I may not have lived up to that standard.
And then Kay asked what was my biggest disappointment. I guess my biggest disappointment was that there were so many damn fools I had to suffer with my very modest patience skills. So that's what I would have done better. This is a tough job. Being president of UUA is a very tough job. You are constantly criticized for every petty little thing. You may remember in that ear that white collars on colored shirts were very popular. So I wore some dress shirts with white collars and colored blue or pink or whatever the color was. This became a cause celebre. I got feedback, why is he wearing those white collars or those blue shirts? Doesn't he know that that's not appropriately sartorial.
So it is a tough job, and one is always tempted—and this is a hard lesson to learn—one is tempted to retreat back into a small group of close friends whom you can trust and to and isolate yourself in that way. Certainly I was tempted many times to do that, and it is a counter-intuitive but critically important thing to resist that and to reach out.
So the last thing I'll say is this. So the question is, finally, if your presidency were beginning today, knowing what you've learned from the past, what would you do differently? The first thing I'd do is wait 30 years to run for president. I was 35 when I was elected president, but I would not have been president if I had waited. And nonetheless, the truth is that I was a far better head of Amnesty then I was president of the UUA. I think I'm a far better head of UUSC [Unitarian Universalist Service Committee] than I was head of Amnesty International. Youth is wasted on the young, and leadership is often vested in those who don't yet know how to lead.
The other thing I would have done differently is to learn more about cost accounting. And I say that to mean symbolically that the times I got in trouble were when—a leader is 80% inspiration but 20% administration and detail-oriented. And the times I got into the most trouble, whether at UUA or at Amnesty was when I forgot that.
And the last thing I'll say is this. When I completed my presidency in '93, I vowed that I would never again preach in the pulpit of any minister who had not been kind to me when I was president. That eliminated 50% of the pulpits. But you see now, either most people who were not kind to me are dead, or I have forgotten why I was mad at them. Kay, just before we came up here, reminded me of someone who I thought in recent years that I always loved, and she reminded me that I was furious at him for many years.
So I will conclude by saying that the best thing about being an old UUA president is that the farther you get away from being president, the better it seems, whether it was or not. As my grandson always says to me when I'm grousing about something or other, Grandpa Bill, it's all good, it's all good.
JOHN BUEHRENS: Well let me start where Bill left off. I remember so vividly, Bill, your showing me two letters you had received while president. This is when I was being oriented to the job after having been made one of the two candidates for the position. And they were just horrific, both signed by sitting ministers in the association. And I had no idea that when I became president, many of my colleagues were going to start to do unto me what had recently been done unto them. So that was the biggest disappointment and shock, I think, in becoming president of the association. It was to realize that—any office of leadership of course and religious leadership is going to be a projection screen. But that the president is a projection screen for the clergy had not fully dawned on me until I actually occupied the office.
I reacted to that by making it a spiritual discipline to literally pray for my colleagues every morning that I held the office. And often by name because I wanted to be in relationship and I wanted God to deal with some of them. It is a difficult position. I became very aware of the hard work that Gene Pickett and Bill Schulz had done in laying a respectable groundwork for the services that the association could provide to its member congregation again.
In long historical perspective, let's remember that the 1970's were pretty much disastrous for us. When Bob West became president of the association, the first thing he had to do was let the entire field staff go. The association was functionally bankrupt. During a large portion of Bob West's long-suffering tenure, the association frankly was almost pretending to provide services in areas that needed more attention than we could provide staff for. Bill came onto the staff as the first director of social justice after a period when the UUA had no social justice function at all for almost a decade.
So rebuilding a credible organization to service the congregations was already under way. I was lucky in that in the 1990's, the winds were at our back, the economy was good, our congregations were realizing that we could in fact raise more money than we ever had before. The first general assembly that I helped to orchestrate was focused on stewardship, and I think one of the things I'm proudest of is I went out and I raised a ton of money. I visited over 600 congregations, I went to 166 building dedications and often reminded people after they had refreshed their tired 1950's building that there were other things that we needed to invest in for the long term future.
We needed to invest in scholarships and training for the clergy. We needed to invest in stronger youth and young adult programs. I love the fact that the youth office had a little shrine set up to me for a while with a picture of me with a glass of scotch in one hand and a rubber chicken in the other. Because one of my top priorities, in fact, was to—when I ran for president, I looked about and only somewhere between 10% and 15% percent of our congregations even had a high school youth group. We were down to about 19 college campuses in the United States where you could find a young adult presence that was labeled Unitarian Universalism.
By the time I ended, we had more than 100 such campuses, and the youth program was, again, at least at the congregational level where it counts, not necessarily at the district level or the national level, but at the congregational level we were seriously engaged with young people once again. And I'm proud of that.
I wanted to re-frame our relationship with our global partners, recognizing that it was probably not wise for us to admit congregations overseas into membership in our association, this delicate body, because we couldn't provide services that were truly multicultural and anti-racist. And I'm very proud of working with Denny to carry forward the anti-racism agenda in the 1990's. That really needed to doing. It occasioned a lot of those poison pen letters and difficulties and misunderstandings, but that, I came to understand, is all part of the process.
Recognizing unmerited privilege is certainly one of the things that religious leaders are called to do in this day and age. And helping people who have more privilege than they want to be accountable for begin to use that privilege in ways that liberate and empower others. That became a central mission of mine. I loved working with Mel Hoover on those issues. He was an honest broker. He sat there with me and said, as I came to realize, that one of the things we Unitarian Universalists are not good at is developing an adequate theology of sin and evil that will allow us to do what we did in our opening ceremony last night, which is confess publicly our faults and our failings and then move forward and love again. So I'm proud of some of that work.
I think if I were to become the president of the association at this point, and I've told Peter this, one of the things that would concern me most is that our very culture of openness and democracy makes us more open to the toxins in the culture than we are often able to recognize. People hate, on the staff, hated it when I would point out that we are the most heavily staffed religious body in North America on a per capita basis. Both at the congregational and at the denominational level. Why is that? It's our social class position.
We are infected with entitlement and consumerism, and we want what we want with excellence and we want it right now. That's one of the reasons that we get dysfunctional congregations, and I think this somehow needs to be named. I'm concerned right now that there are at least three major congregations that I know of that at one time had 450 members or more that are frankly in total meltdown. Where there's no church school left. Where people have been fighting among themselves over issues that, frankly, are about as unspiritual as you can get because they are full of self-righteousness.
I remember one of my—I guess it was on Gene's watch—that we had to do an intervention at Arlington Street. The Arlington Street Church, which had been the cathedral of Unitarianism in Boston, was down to about 50 members. So if I had to worry about the overall focus of the association right now, I'd be thinking about, how the heck do we put congregations into receivership? And intervene when they are ruining the reputation of Unitarian Universalism in a given metropolitan area. Enough said.
KAY MONTGOMERY: Bill Sinkford.
BILL SINKFORD: Thank you Kay, thank you Bill, thank you John. Your first question about what I'm proud of as I think back on my eight years as president of the association is a complicated one for me, Kay. I understand pride to be at best a tricky emotion religiously. I'm very mindful that whatever I was able to accomplish and that I might be proud of was done together with so many others, not just the leaders of the association that you see and read about in World Magazine, but with the good folks like you, many of you, out in congregation land.
So I'm reluctant to use the word pride, but there are some areas where I think we did move ahead when I was serving as president. And I want to name a couple of them. The first is the public visibility and public witness of Unitarian Universalism. Now I want to say at the top that my ability to take us to a new level was built on the firm foundation that both Bill and John created quite intentionally. And they deserve much credit for that, but we were blessed.
In fact, the development of marriage equality as a central organizing issue for us was a huge gift, and the thing that I would take pride in is that we were able together to organize around it. To realize that we had been offered a great gift, that we were called to respond and to take leadership, that in fact we had some important religious things to say about the issue. And that and we were important, despite our small numbers, as the embodiment of the reality that there was more than one religious voice on the issue. And we were able to do well with it and we continue so to do. Amen, you can applaud for that.
That led, although there were many twists and turns, into the standing on the side of love campaign as we broadened the understanding of what we were about in the public realm beyond marriage equality and BGLT rights, where we have done so much work over such a long period, into a broader embrace, taking us into new areas in which we do not have the historical credibility on. I think about issues of immigration. But I'm delighted that that's a part of standing on the side of a love called into new space
I think about the language of reverence that Bill mentioned that I did take a little bit of heat for as it was introduced. And I am delighted that that was one of the things that helped our association, our faith, engage with our religious roots, as opposed to our secular and justice based roots. What I found was that there was a hunger, first and most obviously among ministerial colleagues, in some sense to come out of the closet as who they were religiously. And then more and more, having to push aside some of the angry response, I found the same thing in you all, in the good lay folks. There was a yearning to reconnect with what it meant to be a religious person in a world which was increasingly secular. And a world in which religious values were increasingly devalued.
There was a hunger, and so I was not pleased, but I was not unhappy to be the target for the criticism when I introduced a conversation. And I'm very pleased that it's been taken up. Some of you know that the minister's association has been engaged in a conversation called, whose are we? I understand that to be the next step in the conversation about the language of reverence. And who knows? Perhaps at some point, we will even get to the point where we can acknowledge the fact that we grew out of the Christian faith. it's a possibility. Just a possibility. I don't want to push it.
The third thing that I would mention in the pride or pride-like category has to do with the support for ministers of color and religious professionals of color. It was the way that the first African American president could find most effectively to assist us in our work in becoming a different kind of faith, racially, ethnically and in terms of our attitude toward justice. And I'm quite proud of the progress that we made, a dramatic increase in the number of ministers of color who are serving our faith both at the parish level in community ministries and continuing in the formation process for ministry among us. It is not a pride which believes that merely having leaders who are persons of color will automatically transform the color of this faith because that in fact won't happen. It's not happening out at First Portland where I now serve, although there are a few folks who are coming to check us out under my leadership.
But it is an affirmation of the possible. If we can't find a space in our spirits to welcome the leadership of persons of color, then frankly we should simply stop talking about diversity and accept who we are and move on from there. but But I was not willing to go there. I thought that there were things we could do, and in point of fact, I think we made some progress there.
Most difficult. I'm a very hopeful soul, and I took on issue after issue after issue in my eight years. And perhaps the hardest thing I had to learn was that there are limits to leadership, and that was a hard learning for me. Right up to my to my last year, I was taking on new issues, and that probably was quite unwise. I left much actually for my successor, Peter, to pick up. And that was probably neither wise nor fair, Peter, even though the issues were important, youth ministry being central among them. John did wonderful work. There is wonderful work yet to be done because we have a long way to go in that regard.
The second thing I would mention in terms of the disappointment category was my long-standing commitment to the formation of ministry and to the preparation that we offer our ministers. My approach to it was to try to strengthen our two Unitarian Universalist seminaries by bringing them together. That one failed. I recently tried to help Meadville Lombard by joining with Andover Newton and that failed. I probably do not have a resume that would recommend me to those who are interested in seminary merger as a solution to our problems.
But under-girding it all, and part of my hope right from the beginning in the Meadville and Starr King talks, was the knowledge that we had to get our congregations to own the development of new ministers in a way that they still do not. That's given over to the seminaries, it's given over to the random choice of calling. We need to be more intentional, and we need to provide more support. How am I doing, Harlen? That's it. It's been a pleasure, thanks.
KAY MONTGOMERY: Our last speaker before we open for questions from all of you is president Peter Morales. And the questions that were posed to him are, how's it going? What have the high points been? The low points? What most influences you from the past 50 years? And looking ahead 10 or 15 years, what do you want your legacy to be? Peter?
PETER MORALES: Thank you. There's a shop in Boulder, Colorado that sells t-shirts with silly phrases on them. And one of them I've always liked but I've never actually bought it, was, "If I have not seen as far as other, it's because giants were standing on my shoulders." And I feel a little of that. It has a bunch of [UNINTELLIGIBLE].
KAY MONTGOMERY: Peter, you get time off to repeat that. We have one person who wasn't able to hear you, and it shouldn't be missed.
PETER MORALES: I'm sorry. The line is a twist on Newton's famous line. And the t-shirt says, "If I had not seen as far as others, it's because giants were standing on my shoulders." As opposed to standing on the shoulders of giants. More seriously, I'm very aware, and particularly at this GA and with these colleagues, of how much my presidency is built upon what went before. And especially in the area of public witness, one of the things I was committed to as a candidate coming in was to build on that legacy and to take particularly the standing on the side of love and expand that and then really work to empower much more grassroots efforts.
I think that's been really the highs, what has happened in Phoenix around the immigration issue, what's happening in state after state after state on marriage equality where we're really a significant presence. And also in environmental justice, and the capacity of the association to be effective in public witness is really terrific. As son says, we fight above our weight class in public witness. We really have much more impact than our numbers would indicate.
And so far, also going well is I've been very pleased at the way that the staff has come together, the senior staff. There's a period of forming a new team with a new president, and that's paying dividends all over the place because there's a level I think of collaboration that I'm very excited about. I challenge staff to make proposals that scare me. And it's one of those, be careful what you wish for things. Because there's a lot of really terrific and exciting stuff across our program areas that I'm very happy about, the leap of faith program, the work around a strategic review of ministry and where we're going that Bill Sinkford was just talking about as a major issue, this appreciative inquiry based engagement of congregations and gathered here. There's a lot of terrific stuff going on.
The lows have been that it was hard to come in during an economic crisis and have to—with a bunch of ideas and then wanting to initiate a bunch of things, and then being confronted with actually having to make significant cuts. And cuts to things that we all value. So that was probably the hardest. In some ways, a small cut gives you cover for doing some things you might want to do anyway, but cuts at the level of $4 million that we were looking at, 10% or 15% percent, really make you cut into the important programmatic areas. That's been difficult.
Influences over the past 50 years. I think there's a continuity in our faith of being what I call a religion that is beyond belief is the way I frame it. Where what one believes is what's central, it's what one is passionate about and cares for. What one holds sacred. What one loves. I think that that is a thread that certainly guides my own presidency and the view of what is possible.
Looking ahead, and you'll be hearing more about this but let me throw out my three things. I think we have three central—and they're not really organizational challenges, ultimately they are spiritual challenges. One is, again there's continuity here, the first one I call getting religion. I think as a movement, we really need to get religion, to be unashamed of being a religious movement, to tap the passion, the affect, the spirit of our people, their idealism. And another critical piece of that is that religion is inherently a collective enterprise, not an individual enterprise. It's about our relationships within our congregations and across congregations and in our movement. To do that, we need to move beyond an individualism that's a very strong strain in our movement. I've called individualism the spiritual disease of our time, and I really believe that's true.
The second one is what I'm dubbing growing leaders. And ministry is part of that, but all religious professionals but also lay leaders. And the spiritual issue for us is trust. We're a skeptical lot and we grow out of a tradition that is very skeptical about power and the abuses of power and hierarchy. But neither does it make sense to disempower everyone and call it democracy. We need to learn—effective organizations at any level learn to identify leaders, nurture them, empower them, hold them accountable but to give them the ability to lead. That's a big challenge for us.
And the third one I'm calling crossing borders. And the critical ones have been the ones that my predecessors have worked on, the ones of class and culture. And the spiritual challenge there is learning to reach out, to move beyond our area of comfort. Not only in privilege, but also to deal with people who are a little scary to us. The essence of being loving is to reach out. That's what love does. And so we need to move beyond the borders.
What I would hope my legacy would be is that this movement realizes a large part of its truly stunning potential. There are many things that are moving against us in the culture, but there are also many that are moving for us. And the rise of the number of people who are hungry for religious community and want an open and non-dogmatic religious community is enormous. We're in a position to take advantage of that. So that's what I would hope my legacy would be. And I'm getting the red flag.
KAY MONTGOMERY: Are we lucky or what? So there's a microphone over here, and if you all have questions you would like to ask any of these past or current presidents, please form a line and speak up.
EDDIE DANIEL: Hi, my name is Eddie Daniel. I'm from the UU Church West in Brookfield, Wisconsin. And my question was inspired by your comments, John, about the flaws and the problems that you expressed. And I'm very grateful to you. I was very happy to hear all of you speak and the things that you said. I was very grateful for your forthrightness. And it moved me. My question is for Peter Morales however in going forward. Coincidentally perhaps, my daughter is currently working for the UUA. She started in November. When she started there, I was thrilled and proud. And I still am.
And I shared that with a number of ministers, and their reaction was surprising to me. It was not to be thrilled and proud as I was. They expressed some concern for her well-being. I'm hearing from John Buehrens that that wouldn't be a surprise to you, perhaps. And I'm wondering if, Peter, you feel like there is still a disconnect between the organization, the UUA as John expressed it, and the ministers and the congregations and what that means for the denomination.
PETER MORALES: And I invite any of my colleagues to jump in on this one as well. Without knowing any of the particulars of the situation, there's also a culture among UUs. It's not unlike college sophomores who complain about the food at the cafeteria. Grousing about the UUA is—and in a true moment of confession, lord knows I've done it once or twice—so there's a part of that. I don't know why in fact, again not knowing the particulars it's very hard, our staff is by and large a very dedicated staff. I've been very proud of what we have been able to do with significantly lower resources. They've taken some real hits and redoubled their efforts. And there's wonderful stuff going on at the association. And I think I'll leave it at that. I don't know if anybody wants to add anything.
JOHN BUEHRENS: I remember my last meeting with the senior staff of the association. Kay and Bill were there when I said that part of the job of the president of the UUA seems to me to be forced into playing the role of superego in an organization that at times appears to be almost all id. Feed me, pay attention to me, add more staff, provide more services. And the president ends up, frankly under our structure, bearing an enormous weight of having to ultimately set priorities and set limits to what we can provide. So I think that these things are not well understood broadly in the association, nor are the consumerist demands that I alluded to.
BILL SCHULZ: The only thing I'll say is this. The truth is that there are very few ministers who wouldn't be thrilled to be asked to work at the UUA. And only a limited number can possibly be asked. They might turn it down, but they would love to be asked. You figure it out.
ERIC KAMINETZKY: My name is Eric Kaminetzky. I serve as the minister of the Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church. Thank you for your service to our congregations and our denomination and our organizations. With experience at your backs and wisdom in front of you, what would you call our ministers to do now?
BILL SINKFORD: My turn. Thank you Eric, I think. I think there are some religious challenges for us and if we are going to be successful, if we're going to move ahead, which we're all committed to, and I think almost all of us believe in, we're going to need religious leadership. And it's going to come, at least in significant part, from our ordained leaders. So I would ask my colleagues, as many of them are, to get to the heart of it. I would ask my colleagues to help us all understand that our faith needs to stem from a deep well of gratitude for all that we have been given, even in our privilege, for all that we have been given. And to allow our religious life to grow out of that gratitude, and perhaps even contemplate the possibility of getting to praise.
SPEAKER 1: Hallelujah.
BILL SINKFORD: Amen.
JOHN BUEHRENS: One of the things that occurs to me is that the clergy are often thought of by lay people as being primarily pastors and preachers. And if there's one function that I wish would be lifted up more for the clergy, both by the clergy themselves and by lay people, it's the function of the minister as educator. There's a tremendous need and hunger for greater historical, theological death. And I really wish more ministers would orchestrate and lead programs of in-depth, lay theological education. We are constantly processing people who are brand new to us, and that is a crying need among our congregations.
PETER MORALES: And briefly one I would lift up is I would encourage colleagues to lead, to be less afraid of leading. I find our people hungry for religious leadership, and often colleagues being understandably cautious, having been burned. But to really stretch and lead I think would be a great gift to our movement.
CAROL ORTS: I'm Carol Orts, and I come now from Reading, Pennsylvania. I would like to take the liberty of asking a question of Kay Montgomery. You have served with all these gentlemen, and we know how long and how hard you have worked. I would like your comment about what it takes to be the executive person from day to day and changing with these strong personalities.
KAY MONTGOMERY: Resilience and a deep surround and being surrounded by people who truly love me.
KAREN TYSON: I'm Karen Tyson from Mount Vernon, Virginia, and the point that John made about us being the most heavily staffed religious groups, both congregationally and at the association level, really resonated with me. I grew up in a Roman Catholic Church with 8,000 people. We had six priests, and we thought we were in the lap of luxury. When I got to the Unitarian Church, they suggested that when you get above 250 members, you should be thinking about a second minister. That was amazing to me. I love that level of service, but I'm also an economist and I know that resources have alternative uses. And I wonder, to the extent that we're serving ourselves, we're not making an impact outside. So I wanted to ask Peter how he viewed that point and how you think you can articulate that to our membership.
PETER MORALES: Having just come from a congregation that was multi-staffed, and the staff was terrific, I think the question is more about what people are doing. For example, several years ago, the church I was serving added a position in social justice. And doing that allowed us to function at a completely different level in the community. If gave a shape, an organization to our different groups. It allowed us to coordinate that. It allowed us to be present in interfaith things in the community. So it's not a matter of—as much the level staffing I think is where those staff are targeted. If it's all about internal and pastoral stuff, I think that can be a problem. But adding staff to help us be engaged in the wider world can have a dramatic difference.
LINDA OLSON PEEBLES: I'm Linda Olson Peebles, a minister of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist church in Arlington, Virginia. And I would like to ask a question of all four of you to reflect on the history of the association's engagement with how we serve our families with children. I think it's a really crucial thing right now since in my congregation, our cultural diversity is in the children. And if we aren't there to serve those families, we're going to miss. It's right now. It's crucial that we figure this out.
And I'm also aware of the fact that not only do I see half of our history right now on the podium, I am aware that this is the year of the 30th anniversary of the creation of a ministry of religious education, which now no longer really exists. So reflecting on the ebbs and flows of how we support our ministries to children in our congregations, how we support the professionalism of those people who we're asking to care for and lead those. If you could give me a little reflection because you've all been involved in half of our history on this.
JOHN BUEHRENS: Well let me kickoff Linda, by saying that I think you're onto something very important. I started out—my first two jobs in ministry were in religious education. I served on the UUA committee, the Benson committee that created the ministry of religious education. By the way, I got myself into deep trouble, especially with the people with MRE, and after their names later, by predicting that eventually it would go away just as the distinction between preacher and teacher went away in the early Puritan churches of New England. That we would recognize that it was all one ministry again.
But we're at a very critical moment in family life in the middle class families that make up the bulk of our congregations. The economic pressures, the dual career family, the over-programmed child are all realities that adroit congregations and their leaders are having to deal with. I think that some of the innovative models that are coming out of places like Unity Church Saint Paul, with more of a workshop model of religious education that is less curricular and didactic than some of the models in the past. A lot more inter-generational work. My own congregation has had for the last a year and a half a major inter-generational task force just completely revamping our life as a congregation in order to do more successful integration of the rising generation.
We're going to have to completely rethink what it means to educate in our congregations, I'm convinced. It's going to be much more experiential and less like school in the years ahead. And I'm not sure that conversation has sunk in deeply enough in enough places as yet. This may be one of the reasons why what were large congregations that I alluded to now have no church school at all, which means they're going to die. And that conversation needs to be pushed forward a lot.
BILL SCHULZ: Let me just put in a plug here for a new project that the UUA and UUSC, thanks to Peter's vision, is exploring together. And that is, under the rubric of what we're calling the college of social justice at UUSC, that is to provide our young people with very practical hands on ways to put their faith at work in a Unitarian Universalist context rather than to go to an Amnesty International or a Habitat for Humanity. Children of all ages—I'm not just talking about teens and young adults—but to find ways in which our young people can recognize opportunities and realize opportunities to live their faith within a Unitarian Universalist context. We talk a good game. This new initiative with the UUA and UUSC is going to, we trust, provide opportunities to live that good game as well.
PETER MORALES: A quick comment I can't resist is if you look at human history, dividing people up where most of their interaction is with age peers is a very new idea. But Americans and people in modern industrial societies, they got to day care, preschool, kindergarten, they go through school like that. It's lousy idea. It's a terrible way to organize human relationships. And congregations are really the only multi-generational institution left in modern life, and we need to nurture that. And it's pushing against the culture. It's not an easy thing to do. We gravitate toward the first grade class, the second, grade class, the third grade class, the junior high group, and it takes enormous intentionality, on the level of trying to become anti-racism or multicultural, to become inter-generational.
And part of the organizational piece is that one of the things professionally we need to work on are the relationships among our parish ministers and our religious educators. Rather than have those be separate fiefdoms, that needs to be integrated at a level that we've never done.
BILL SINKFORD: The only thing that I'll add is that I think where we are, and it's the right question Linda, in my judgment absolutely the right question. But I think we need to acknowledge where we are, which is that we don't have a good idea of how to do this. I just started serving First Unitarian Portland, and one of the things that pleased me most was that among the top five big chunk issues they identified that we needed to be in conversation about, one of them was inter-generational church life. So I think for us, just getting the topic on the primary agenda would be a fabulous first step for most of our congregations.
TERRY ELLEN: Terry Ellen, consulting minister out in Cumberland, Maryland. Also executive director of UU social justice, DC, Baltimore area. First off, I just wanted to say our association has all kinds of problems, but looking at the strong and beautiful thread here, we've done some things right. And I want to thank you for taking the often ridiculous heat that we put on our leaders. Really, you've talked on that.
I guess I want to add, Lindi Ramsden at her 25 year talk yesterday talked about climate change, climate chaos, global warming as just being absolutely huge. And at the risk of being monomaniacal myself, to me it's just an absolute game changer in what we're facing as a religious movement, let alone as Americans and a species. I'm just wondering how that issue affects how we think about our future as a religious institution. And that's just a general question.
JOHN BUEHRENS: Well, I want to thank my successors for having created a recognition program for congregations to become green sanctuary congregations. My little flock in Needham, Massachusetts has just earned that distinction. And we did it in part by doing a building renovation that made us what the EPA has called the most energy efficient house of worship that they've measured, which is pretty amazing in a building that was built in 1836.
SPEAKER 2: There's no heat [UNINTELLIGIBLE]?
JOHN BUEHRENS: Yeah that's right, we just sit there in the puritan cold. The way they used to, by God.
Accomplishing that gave my lay people such a sense of accomplishment. They are now spreading out into the whole community, leading the environmental work in the whole region. The EPA held their Northeast regional conference in our building. Interfaith Power and Light did their statewide meeting in our building. I think our congregations have this thanks to those principles and purposes that made the seventh principle a key part of our consciousness way back in the '80s. Thanks to the way we worked with spreading Earth Day in the '70s. It was a long time coming, but I think our congregations have played more of a catalytic role in changing the attitude of religious communities generally toward environmental and climate change issues then we recognize.
And it may be one of those areas where we need to, just as we're doing with the equal marriage effort where I'm very active as co-chair of the freedom to marry organization nationally, I think we need to recognize that we are leaders. And we're accomplishing—I love this, Peter, you're saying we fight above our weight. That's exactly right. And so when we feel discouraged, and see the areas in which we are still somewhat spiritually immature, and that's the area that I think we need to work on, we also need to recognize that there are areas where we are ethically quite accomplished. My old friend William Sloane Coffin used to say that the mystery of Unitarian Universalism for him was how we got such a thick ethic out of such a thin theology.
BILL SINKFORD: The programmatic piece is important, and thank you, John, for complementing the work that we did together during my time. The programmatic piece is important. Taking the steps to embody our commitments is critical. There's also, I think, a central theological piece for us. And it has to do with A, with out relationship to the creation. And there are some wonderful resources that are now among us. I think of but Rebecca Parker and Rita Brocks's work reclaiming the idea of paradise. And that is central to the Christian tradition from which we came. I think we need both the programmatic and the theological, the spiritual piece, to point the way forward.
BILL SCHULZ: Let me just add another dimension to this. Unitarian Universalists could reduce our carbon footprint to zero. We could have all green sanctuaries, and the appreciable impact of our small numbers on global warming will be, let's say, modest. But let me point out another dimension to this issue. Who are the people who are being initially most profoundly impacted. They are marginalized people, whether it be people in Darfur, Sudan, or whether it be the 13% of American Indians who do not have access to potable water. 13% percent in this country, unbelievable, Both because of economic dislocation and because of growing desertification in this country as a result of global warming. What we can do, and have a very appreciable impact, is stand on the side of the marginalized who will be the first and most profound victims of growing climate change. We've always done that. We can do that as well.
JOHN BUEHRENS: That inspires me to just add something that I wish I had mentioned in my primary remarks, and that is that, during the time that I was president, nothing sustained my soul more than going to India with Kathy Sreedhar. Where we couldn't publicize the work we were doing with the UU Holdeen India program well enough because we were in 26 of ridiculous litigation over the bizarre trusts that had come to us that made that program possible.
But that's a place where we Unitarian Universalists have been working with the marginalized in the most effective ways I've ever seen, and where again, we should take enormous, although dangerous, pride in the fact that we have partnered with people who have shown such incredible courage. And we owe Kathy, who is winding up 28 years of leadership of that program, and enormous gratitude. I wish the heck we had—
KAY MONTGOMERY: Stand up Kathy.
BILL SCHULZ: I just like to point out that I appointed Kathy too.
KATHY SREEDHAR: And I'd like say that only Unitarian Universalist [? members ?] supported the the work that we do. Only Unitarians. Nobody else.
DOUG JONES: Thank you for being here and for serving us. I'm Doug Jones from Channing Murray Foundation at Urbana, a Unitarian Universalist campus center. I think as a denomination, we all realize that we've had a flat membership and we have not figured out how to grow. And I think one of the big issues is retention, that most of our young adults leave us. And I think that effective and pervasive UU campus ministry needs to be a priority. First of all, for all those young adults. We raised them, we should provide ministry to them, we should show them our love. Secondly, if we retain 10% now, if we had effective campus ministry, maybe we could retain 30%. If we did that for 20 years, we would grow by 30% to 40% through retention.
And then lastly, I worry about our cultural integrity. As we grow, if we don't have any native speakers, if we don't have raised UUs in our pews and in our congregations and in our leadership, how are we going to maintain our cultural integrity? So what do you gentleman think about making, denominationally a priority, campus ministry. I know all of you spoken to it. John, you mentioned that during your time, it went from 19 to 100. We were one of those. We would like more peers.
JOHN BUEHRENS: Let me say, I really wish more of our congregations adjacent to colleges would engage with campuses. And that often means going to the campus, not waiting for the young people to come to you. And I think the association has a mission in urging congregations to see that as a mission. But we also need to be realistic, and in 1945, sociologists point out, only 5% percent of Americans who were religiously active were active in a religious community different from the one that they had been raised in. By 1995, it was 55% of Americans who were religiously active were active in a religious community other than the one they were raised in. My wife, who's a priest in the Episcopal church, tells me that one out of twelve Episcopal youth become active in the Episcopal church.
This is an era of choice, and we raise little choosers deliberately. We are not going to retain everyone. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't have attractors. But this is going to require quite a difficult conversation about what is possible and practical. The resources available for doing the kind of thing that you have going—you know you benefited from a dead church, essentially, the merger of two congregations then the assets of one of them becoming a campus ministry. That's a very rare situation, and not one that we can easily replicate.
PETER MORALES: Thank you for your question. It's a huge issue and there are a lot of parts to it. One is that, candidly, we don't have the resources, nor are likely to get them, to initiate from central office. There's no pot of money to subsidize campus ministry at the large campuses even at the big state college level across the country as much as I would love to do it. There's another part of it in congregational life I'm becoming increasingly aware of.
We do a lot better at Unitarian Universalism 101 for newcomers than we do at Unitarian Universalism 304 for people who grew up in our faith. And the way we do much of our congregational life and much of our programming is less appropriate for someone who has been a UU for 15 or 20 years. So that's something that we need to deal with at the congregational level as well. So there are a lot of pieces to do that, and it's going to take awhile to address it.
The other one is that—to add on to John's—I can't say this often enough, the world changes quickly. I often hear talk about evangelicals and how they're growing. Evangelicals haven't been growing for a generation. That's over. They're actually in slow decline as well. What is growing by leaps and bounds are the unaffiliated. And it's growing almost exponentially. It's doubled in the last ten years. So there is a whole new—and these people are spiritually hungry young people and wanting religious community and something that doesn't feel like it's hypocritical and not dogmatic. We potentially have a tremendous opportunity there.
ROGER GRUNKE: I'm Roger Grunke from Long Beach, California. A couple of questions. I'm probably going to get into real trouble, but I think we spend an extraordinary amount of time on 10% of the population and not 90% who's the rest of it. And I think we need to focus on the larger population than what we have been doing. I don't know why we have focused on what we've done, but it seems like we've missed the unaffiliated, the folks who are coming to church to fill the church in Long Beach with 10,000 members. And that's not a faith based group. It's, I don't know which group it is, but they have 10,000 members.
The other I have is when Long Beach about 25 years ago had a very strong singles group, and I understand it was a national organization called Discovery. And I think we are the only singles group that is still called Discovery. But it's something that I think we need to take a look at to service the single population, not of any—just single population. And I think we've missed that whole group. So thank you.
KAY MONTGOMERY: I'm going to interrupt here to say that I'm conscious that we have a question on the floor and three people in line and four minutes. And so I'm going to propose that, so everyone does get a chance to answer their question, that one of you answer each question unless it's so riveting you can't hold yourselves back. OK alright.
KELLY MURPHY MASON: So hello. I'm Kelly Murphy Mason. I'm a community minister in metro New York. And I want to first commend you all on your presidencies and thank you for your service to the UA. I was conscious last night at opening worship about the women in religion resolution being introduced in the '70s. And it seems to me that we have a triumphalism around gender in this denomination, that we came in early on the scene and we resolved things handily, and we really don't need to be having certain conversations anymore.
And as someone who was a minister of [? formation ?] for a long time, it seems to me gender dynamics are very prevalent in ministry, and also unexamined and also silenced. So without evolving into identity politics, I was conscious of how few women were on the dais last night, and I'm also conscious that we haven't had a woman president of the UUA despite having a female dominated ministry, which is what makes it conspicuous. Otherwise, male leadership is not so conspicuous. So the question buried in all of this is, what are the implications of that for the UUA?
KAY MONTGOMERY: Which one of you would like to take that one one, she asked.
SPEAKER 1: How about you Kay.
KAY MONTGOMERY: Oh no, I think that's for one of you.
BILL SINKFORD: It is ironic isn't it, that there has not been a woman president of the association, given all of the attention and the work that we have done on gender equity. And it's not that qualified and competent have not run. So I just wanted to say that out loud. And I'm not going to—against all of us. And I'm not going to try to analyze why that is so. That's not, I don't think, for me or for us to do. It is important though to acknowledge that the work on gender as a category is nowhere near finished in our faith. And if the ceremony last night communicated a triumphalism, I think we should apologize. I think what it tried to communicate was a sense of accomplishment, of attention paid and work done, not of work completed. At least that's the way that I wanted it to come across.
SPEAKER 3: I may ask the toughest question you'll get. A lot of good ideas for the future here and limited resources. I had a [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] say one time, if you have more than one top priority, you have none. I'm asking the question, given the resources, if you had to choose one goal for the future to put the resources in, what would you choose?
PANEL: That's Peter's.
PETER MORALES: At the risk of seeming to duck the question, I think I laid them out and they're interrelated. They are a package. I guess I would say, if forced into a corner, I would push the identification, development, mentoring and coaching of religious leaders. Because if we have a cadre of religious leaders who are passionate and entrepreneurial and well formed, then they will lead us into a fabulous future.
BILL SCHULZ: I appointed Mel Hoover, so I'll answer your question now.
MEL HOOVER: Actually, a part of it comes across through a number of things because I have worked with all of you. And one of the things, as look at our faith and talk about our future, what is the role of Unitarian Universalism within the sacrifice zone? It's the place I've moved intentionally because as I looked at our country—and one of the things that's disappeared from our language, basically, are poor people, working class. It's not in our political language. Obama doesn't talk about it. What's our message to poor whites in terms of being cared for? Who are the white people that care about lifting up and making lives human for other whites in the country so they don't have to beat up other people or find a way to try and have their own identities.
What's the message that we have to speak to that? And that also cuts across our Eurocentric understanding as an institution. If we're going to be a leader in connecting in the world culture and expanding ourselves, what's the message to those who feel a sense of hopelessness? And quite honestly, if you're talking about West Virginia, Kentucky, you're talking about the future of this country. And very few people understand what that ripoff and the plantation situation is impacting the potential of our whole country. How do we, as Unitarians, speak to that. What do we need to be doing?
BILL SCHULZ: Did I say I'd answer that question? I guess, shorthand Mel, I would say it is to preach our gospel that your fate and our fate is not in the hands of an inexorable economic climate or an angry God, but is in our hands if we stand empowered together and prepare to empower each other. And I think implicit in your question is the fact that we have not done a good job of that, reaching across those boundaries. Peter's talked about crossing boundaries.
You will recall a number of years ago when I gave the Berry Street lecture entitled "What Torture Has Taught Me," one of the things I said was that as I got to know victims of torture, it forced me to regularly ask myself of my own preaching, how would these words be received by someone who had experienced torture? And I think we who are in religious leadership are also well served to ask ourselves, how are the words, the conceptions, the mission that we articulate, how would that be received, perceived and heard by people such as those you have described who are not well represented among us?
MEL HOOVER: And how might they change us so we might be able to lead the world.
BILL SCHULZ: Exactly, so that our words as religious leaders reflect that experience, and so we ourselves are deepened and enlightened in that respect.
PETER MORALES: I need to add too. We've done this, but we need to do more of it, is the phenomenal redistribution of wealth in America must not be discussed as a purely economic issue. It is a deeply moral issue.
KAY MONTGOMERY: Peter, John, Bill, and Bill, thank you so much.
Meet the UUA Presidents is General Assembly 2011 event number 2030.
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Last updated on Monday, August 29, 2011.