Meet the Candidates for President
General Assembly 2000 Event 513
A forum to present the candidates for Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President to those gathered in Nashville, TN for the UUA General Assembly occurred on Monday, June 26, in packed room at the Nashville Convention Center. Rev.Wayne Arnason, Secretary of the UUA, served as Moderator for the event. All three announced candidates for the office of president participated: Rev. Diane Miller, Rev. Lawrence Peers, and Rev. William Sinkford. Arnason asked the candidates for eight-minute opening statements, followed by thirty minutes of questions from the floor during which time each candidate would answer the question asked. That period would be followed by three minute concluding statements.
Rev. Diane Miller spoke first. She said, in part, "my campaign has emphasized my experience as a parish minister because my experience is in sharp contrast to the other candidates. To be an effective President of an Association of member congregations is not the same as being an effective minister to congregations. The knowledge of parish life is important because the issues that come across the President's desk will emanate from our 1060 congregations. I have experienced first hand the burdens of ministry and its joys. I am not saying parish ministry is more significant than ministry as a religious educator or as a community minister. The key is long term experience in ministry working in a member congregation."
Miller indicated that she had thoughts on "what I would do more of, less of, start doing, stop doing." Regarding the first category, she said, "All of us are in favor of more visibility for our public movement. I would expect more of you…getting the word out is a two way street. The future depends on each and every one of you…it is a well-known fact that 70 percent of our people join because someone told them about it. I challenge all of our member congregations to become Honor Societies, contributing to our effort. [Doing] less: I would shift the Association…away from behaving like a small family sized organization…all of this is outdated for the UUA and impedes our ability to work effectively. There would be less of the small sized behavior, more opening up to have structures geared to this century. I would have the staff spend less time in codifying so-called best practices…no two congregations are alike…experience has shown that best practices do not travel well. Let's teach more about adaptive skills…[What I would) start: there is a lot of talk about decentralization. I don't think we need to have a mini-Boston elsewhere and [I would] evaluate this based on need. I would stop doing elections the way we are doing them… I would encourage a strong field of candidates and seek to make our elections more open."
Rev. Lawrence Peers spoke next. He said, in part, "I hope that you have many vibrant memories as I do and that your memories will nurture your faith…all during these days of the General Assembly (GA), the Future Church Peers campaign has been presenting our platform…and hosting interactions in which we ask these questions: 'what are your hopes for the vision and future of our movement?' 'What are the obstacles to these visions?' 'What bold step can you imagine for our movement?' We have included in these questions people who can vote and people who can't vote…we have asked these questions and others and we have kept the cards on which the responses were written.
"When we launched our campaign…we asked people to 'be the change you want to be' …we are not waiting until after the election to be that change…the listening, the learning, and the leading from that listening and learning is a style that is natural to me. Listening, learning, and leading is a style that is experienced throughout the Peers campaign, and it would be central to a Peers administration of the UUA.
"I envision during a Peers administration that we would work in these directions: the direction from spiritual anemia toward spiritual deepening, from being self-absorbed toward becoming a UUism engaged with its communities, the continent, and the world; from being fragmented in our approach toward congregational services to an approach based on our primary mission, toward moving many sources of expertise including the best practices developed in our congregations and being participatory and interactive."
"I believe that as an Association of congregations, it is important for us at this juncture…to not just maintain what is, but seek to develop together what might be. From my perspective the question is not just 'got experience,' but how is our experience relevant for leading this Association in the 21st century. So let me give some of my responses…I have been in professional ministry for thirteen years, and value my experience in religious education and in organizational change…I have worked with hundreds of congregations and their leaderships…small, mid-sized, awkward sized, and large….this is relevant experience for someone who wants to serve you as a leader of an Association of congregations."
Rev. William Sinkford spoke next. He said, in part, "I believe that there is enough health and energy in our movement for UUism to claim a larger vision than we have been willing to claim, and to call our congregations into gathered community to the communities in which we all must minister. I believe that UUism has a saving word to offer…(and) the tradition in which we stand and live can be a gift to the world in which we live.
"I was a leader in our youth movement, and imagined myself in our ministry…but it was during that time that we retreated from our work in racial justice…I left our movement, deeply betrayed, because we were not willing to live up to our values…I ran my own business for ten years and was in the place where 'the buck stopped'…it is a comfortable place for me to be. I returned to Cincinnati in my thirties, and it was there that I was able to reclaim my faith at the time of my mother's death. It was that perfectly ordinary act of ministry [of another UU church member] that allowed me to return to UUism.
"I spent the next ten years being a lay leader, like many of you. I know what it is like to be a lay leader in a congregation and that is critical information…I was called into ministry as I understood UUism to be a central part of my life…I went to seminary and was called into ministry by John Buehrens at the UUA, where I have had the pleasure of serving you, managing by far the largest staff group and the largest budget. The ministers and staff who have benefited from that consultation will testify to our effectiveness…
"I believe we need to focus our efforts toward public ministry…marrying what we do in our congregations with what is outside the walls…the last great growth of our effort took place in the 1950's and 1960's during the time of McCarthyism. I also believe that we need to bring Religious Education in from the margins of our congregations to the center…what our congregations should be about is lifelong learning communities…learning the paths that lead to depth and personal satisfaction…redouble our effort to provide bridges for our young adults and youth. They are the persons for whom we are building this movement, and we need to partner with them so that they will stay UUs. You, the lay leaders, are the critical persons who help to manage the emotional systems of our congregations. Far too often, the congregations erupt into conflict they don't know how to manager. We need to provide you with the skills to understand that conflict is not only not unusual, but healthy….the Association can help provide the skills that will allow you to do that.
"The candidates for President and Moderator have covenanted together to stay focused on the critical issues our faith must address. I commit myself personally to live up to that covenant…this election will take place in Cleveland Ohio. The last time GA went to Cleveland was 1968…a time when our covenant was not strong enough to hold us together…we must come out of Cleveland united, not divided…a source of personal strength and comfort to us all."
Question and Answer Period
Arnason introduced Larry Ladd, a candidate for re-election for Financial Advisor (and whose position is not contested), who was not speaking at the forum. He then moved to take questions from the audience. The candidates re-stated the question, and responded in rotating order.
From a new UU: "I was struck at the Service of the Living Tradition and realized that some of the struggles we may be having as young adults are connected to whether such things speak to us on a faith level. How was that sermon different from [what would be said by] any person off the street…how would you introduce a spiritual element that impacts us as spiritual beings and not just liberal thinkers?"
Lawrence Peers responded first, saying in part, "we need to receive people where they are with that question and provide rich opportunities to reflect on that question in their congregations…I have had workshops around the country on sharing our UU faith that helps people develop their faith."
Diane Miller said, in part, "this [Marilyn Sewell's] was the first sermon that I have been involved with …that have had a prophetic social justice message…one of the most promising ways for our congregations to deepen peoples' connection to other personal faith is the small group ministry model, a way for people to translate their action into reflection in their lives."
William Sinkford said, in part, "The Statement of Conscience that was passed yesterday will provide us with a real spiritual challenge…it is easier for us to proclaim, harder to live out of our values…this is true with our work on race, as we work to find a spiritual grounding…and no less true with the issue of economic justice. We need to connect to our seventh principle and …look deeply at ourselves and our connection to economic privilege."
From Kurt Jensen, Fairfax, VA: "It seems that this election process has gone awry with three candidates from the staff and no one from congregations…could you comment?"
Diane Miller: "We have had a mixture in the past of UUA staff and individuals from the field. This is the first time that all three (candidates) are from the staff. The amount of time to do this campaigning limits what a lot of ministers and lay people feel they could give to it and make a strong campaign. Early in my Presidency I think we would need to start a change process…to restructure the costs and time and utilize technology to make this an open process."
William Sinkford: "Almost all our cousins in the Protestant world and the larger religious world have some sort of nominating process for their top levels of leadership…we need to limit the time and the cost for campaigning, and the faith community needs to take some responsibility for cost. Much of this work has already been done, and it was done by a Commission that Wayne Arnason led….we need all of your help to make this happen…we need to build consensus around this issue."
Lawrence Peers: "I agree that we need a nominating process and that we need to share the funding so that all the burden does not fall on just a few. Yes, we are all from the UUA staff, but not from the same levels. Sometimes you have to have a clear view of what it is like to be in the institution to know how to lead…I have some valuable insight of working across the continent as well as within the staff…it is an asset to have both those sets of experiences."
Pat Emory, Golden CO: "The job of President will demand discipline, and a great deal of travel. Could you speak to your physical stamina and the impact (of the position of President) on your families?"
William Sinkford: "It is a physically and spiritually demanding job. In my current work, I travel as extensively as John Buehrens does now and have found ways to do that effectively and without compromising my person... It requires presence in the congregations and the organizations that make up our congregations. I have an 18-year-old son going into the service and a 15- year-old daughter who is the light of my life…and we make time for ourselves when we can."
Lawrence Peers: "I travel extensively and have managed to balance…my partner, Joe Byers, has participated in that discussion (of how this job would impact our lives) and Joe would go with me on some of these trips…it is when I am able to take that wholistic perspective about what is essential that I can balance these needs."
Diane Miller: "The stress of this work is very high. All three of us have many of these same issues, we have found this way of addressing them…it is key to maintain balance in our lives…one of the things that recharges me is going to church…worship experiences are key to keeping me centered. My family is 100 percent behind this, my husband is a consultant, my kids have always known me as a minister."
Eddy Carroll, Denver CO: "We (my congregation) have spun off two offshoot congregations and one is struggling…I am wondering what ideas you have on how to start new congregations, not only those sponsored by congregations like mine…how do we start congregations, make them vibrant, and keep them going?"
Lawrence Peers: "There are a variety of ways in which congregations are currently developed in our Association…the most successful are those where they plan their efforts and gather a substantial number of people from the beginning…we tend to have a small number of people who gather around a candle flame and declare themselves a congregation…it requires a larger number of people…you jump too soon and then all your energy and effort gets depleted when you should be more outwardly focused. We need to understand ourselves as an Association of congregations more and give to the development of new congregations."
Diane Miller: "Here's an idea: there is excitement in our large, healthy congregations for taking on a leadership role for growth in our movement. The UUA has a good system for sending out money, but it is more effective for growth for congregations becoming teaching congregations…they can come together and learn from the expertise of larger congregations…this would utilize skills and learning from other congregations. I believe we need to collectively covenant and assist our neighboring congregations to help each other so that they can gain support."
William Sinkford: "Yes to support of large congregations and the support of covenanting congregations. The greatest strength (in new congregation organizing) is with the rapid start model in which the UUA works with other congregations so that new congregations have religious education and a full church model. It is still early but growth rates (in these congregations) of 30% are what we are seeing."
"How would you handle the relationship between the UUA and the Canadian Unitarian Council?"
Diane Miller: "I would say that we need to listen carefully to what the CUC says, about changing their structure…they need to keep the same kinds of shared services, ministry, and so on but want to move in some Canadian information. I would say that as a person who has not been deeply engaged in that…it is going well as a transformation process...the relationship is healthy."
William Sinkford: "The issue here often centers on money and what services will be done where – that is the history of the relationship. The CUC in its recent vote was addressing issues of identity, and there is a strong wish for Canadian national identity to be seen. The UUA must listen to that and be in honest relationship based on our respect for their identity."
Lawrence Peers: "We have to be refined in our thinking a bout what kind of relationship we want to establish…not in a mechanistic way. We need to look at a spectrum of ways to stay related as well as some shifts. I have trained people from Canada in leading planning for growth workshops, understanding that they will shape that based on their individual needs."
"You will be representing the UUA at the highest levels. What are your credentials for working at that level, and what message would you put across?"
William Sinkford: "It is clear to me that the President of the Association needs to be the primary spokesperson along with the Moderator, articulating our faith to the world. The language must be grounded in the principles and purposes, and in the liberal tradition in which we stand. We now have a 40-year history since merger…part of what I do (now) is speak for the Association…That experience would stand me in good stead, and I would look forward to learning more about our international work."
Lawrence Peers: "I have been serving for three or four years on the Faith Communities Today program funded by the Lilly Foundation, to develop a comprehensive study of congregations. I am involved with Lilly in working with Protestant churches to help them implement the learning community of practice model. I was in Transylvania leading a training...it's not just the principles that guide our work, but the model."
Diane Miller: "As a spokesperson I know that I would be speaking out of my unbroken commitment to this movement and also as a member of the Principles and Purposes Committee that helped us write that document for our community. I have always had in my education experience a strong international and interfaith experience, both at MacAllister College and Harvard Divinity School. Most recently I represented our movement in going to England for the British General Assembly."
"Being clear that you (three people) are, in the Association, voices for minorities that have been excluded, I want to know how the three of you are going to address that…being voices for those who have been oppressed? How does your identity influence that (you would have) as President? How will you talk about it with others?"
Lawrence Peers: "This is an important issue in some ways…[but] I don't want us to get distracted by identities or identity politics…we need to speak from our own experience and understand that whatever our experience of oppression has been, we need to link that to others. I can only speak as a gay man and a religious speaker and finding a religious home that welcomed me in a culture that at many times discounts those needs and identities."
Diane Miller: "We have—the three of us—spoken about this issue to have a conversation about how we would work in this campaign. We have asked people not to make divisions around these categories…no matter what the outcome of the election, the UUA will take a step forward in its commitment to diversity. Another is that I have heard people talking about what they care about…this is something for us to get used to. When you have true pluralism, you have a wealth of opportunities."
William Sinkford: "I know that there is tremendous symbolic power in the person (who fills the office of) the President, and we should not shy away from it. (But) the president has to be elected because you believe that this person is the best person to lead the movement. There will be opportunities for ally-ship and that will accrue. The primary focus of work now is not on diversity. I trust now and pray that in time our movement will look different that it does now. We need to work on deconstructing the systems of oppression that have affected us all."
Diane Miller: "My vision for this Association is that there will soon be a day when UUs speak enthusiastically about their faith to friends and neighbors…a day when eighty to ninety percent of our membership attend worship each week…a day when people of other faiths pass by our congregations and think what an asset the congregation is to the other world….The vision of our religious movement resides not just with the President, but should burn brightly in our hearts and souls…our religious faith should transform our lives and those of the people around us. Let us not fear being remade in a new image and refreshed from deep wealth. Let us trust our heritage and covenant anew."
William Sinkford: "We are an Association of Congregations. The role of the President is to help us make that Association real. One of the values of serving in Boston and of being the President is to take the broad view and see congregational system after congregational system, and see those things that are working as well as those that are not."
"I affirm the need to see best practices…that does not mean creating cookie cutter approaches, but sharing the best of what is there and letting you fit your congregation's life (into those approaches). The president should function less like a gate keeper and more like a broker of information."
"For the last eighteen years, UUism has been growing…but very modestly, at about 1 percent a year. Coming out of Cleveland, starting today, we need to help this movement to expand far more rapidly... we will make that expansion or we will start to contract and become more marginalized. Staying the same is not an option. I invite you to be in dialogue with me as we move through this yearlong process…we need to be about the business of building consensus, and offer our good news to a hurting world."
Lawrence Peers: "We are joined in a common enterprise of the spirit. We gather in assemblies like this one because we know that our compelling visions for justice and deepest desires for the holy must support and inspire each other. This campaign is just as much about you as it is about any of us."
"Imagine with me a future UUism that provides for its young adults a justice center in an urban area of this country, where young adults can…do social service and come together to reflect on their UU faith as they work in the spirit that brings forth deeper justice in the world…imagine young adult contemporary worship services where new ways of the spirit and new expressions of our deepest yearnings can find expressions and move us to deeper and broader places than we could move to alone ….Imagine your church board gathering around the table and thinking deeply about the spiritual motivations of what they are doing, so that your church work becomes the work of the church."
"I am committed to taking away those distinctions and working with you…any movement for real change begins when any one of us says 'I will be divided no more.' Join me in that enterprise of the spirit."
Reported by Debbie Weiner.