One of the most urgent issues we’re facing as Unitarian Universalists (UUs) is the rising number of difficulties experienced by our religious professionals of color in their ministries. As our faith works hard to challenge its historic white-centered practices, we know that supporting our hundreds of UU leaders of color is absolutely essential, and the concern over lack of support is being raised by many different people and groups, including the UUA Board of Trustees. This concern was a part of the Commission on Institutional Change’s April report (PDF), which also contained recommendations for the UUA. This issue is critical one in confronting white supremacy culture in Unitarian Universalism and creating a faith where religious leaders of color can thrive.
I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t have all the answers. However, in the interest of transparency I wanted to tell you what the UUA is doing to respond and to show UU leaders the resources available for you to take action in your own congregation.
Right Now—Mobilizing to Meet the Need
We said in March that this year has been a high-water mark in the number of conflict situations involving religious professionals of color. While each situation has different details and presenting problems, the trend line is deeply concerning. Our staff are prioritizing in-depth work with individual congregations and leaders experiencing conflicts through customized coaching, advising boards of trustees, and pastoral and financial support for leaders in crisis. We are adding consultant and adjunct staff to increase our capacity. We’ve convened a cross-staff team to ramp up the UUA’s response and to improve our skill and coordination through case studies and team-based approaches. That collaboration has also extended to professional groups like Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) and the UU Ministers Association (UUMA), who are making changes in their own organizations to respond.
What You Can Do
Reach out! If you or your congregation is seeing warning signs in the health of a ministry that involves a religious leader of color, and especially if it’s your own ministry you are concerned about, know you are not alone. UUA staff is better positioned to help than we were even six months ago, so contact your regional staff for our assistance. If you are a religious leader of color who does not know who to reach out to, start with Dr. Janice Marie Johnson, our Director of Multicultural Ministries, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even more important, don’t let yourself get isolated—reach out to colleagues, other congregations, and networks of support.
Next Fall—Investing in Healthy Ministries
Conflict situations are often years in the making, so prevention is the best medicine. At the UUA, we’re rethinking “start-ups” (intensive workshops when a congregation gets a new staff member) for diverse ministry teams to help make certain that race, power and difference are in the conversation from Day 1. Next year, we’ll be making healthy leadership assessment tools available for ongoing ministries, encouraging regular “check-ups” on team dynamics. We’ll continue to urge and support all congregations in working to dismantle white supremacy culture and advancing racial and other forms of equity as core values to the overall public health of our faith. And we’ll be reviewing and coordinating the UUA’s various financial streams to make it easy for leaders to get the support they need, from research grants to scholarships for the annual Finding Our Way Home gathering to emergency assistance.
In the coming year, the UUA will be diving more deeply into the systems of ministerial transitions, including search, settlement and interim ministry, to understand how to use the ministerial transitions process to assess and address anti-racism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism competencies, and how to support and help hold accountable ministers, staff and congregations in the impact of their anti-racism commitments over time. The time of ministerial transition is when congregations work most closely together with the UUA, so we want to use it fully to help one another live up to the Association’s anti-oppressive commitments, in partnership with professional groups and interim religious professionals. In the meantime, we continue to strongly encourage ministers of color who are in search to be in conversation with UUA transitions and regional staff about possible settlements, to discuss what was learned from Beyond Categorical Thinking trainings and what work might lie ahead for the congregation.
What You Can Do
Keep having the tough conversations. If the leadership of your congregation claims diverse identities, make space to regularly check-in on the dynamics those identities create. If your congregation doesn’t have diverse leadership or isn't engaged in this conversation, check out our Staffing for Diversity and Dismantling White Supremacy Culture curated pages. Regardless of your staff and leadership diversity, take the time you need to regularly and thoughtfully review the ways race, gender, ability and other identities shape your congregation.
Going Forward—Big Questions on the Table
The past year’s conversations and discussions about white supremacy culture in Unitarian Universalism are really a preamble for engaging with some big questions that confront our faith. In the next few years, the Commission on Institutional change will be analyzing the experiences of religious professionals of color and making recommendations. Last month, the UUA Board of Trustees affirmed the request of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee to dig deeply into systemic racism and the ministerial credentialing process. And the Board itself is recommending a reimagination of the UUA’s bylaws and structure (PDF).
What You Can Do
Stay involved! Come to General Assembly, district and regional assemblies, and professional cluster gatherings and conferences. Follow UUA communications, including our social media channels and coverage in UU World. Look for opportunities to have respectful and honest conversations with folx who have a different perspective than you. Next year, there will be new ways to join conversations about these big picture questions through surveys, summits, virtual meetings, and more. Be an active participant, because Unitarian Universalism needs your voice and your passion to make this the anti-oppressive faith we know it can be.
The conflicts faced by religious professionals of color in Unitarian Universalism didn’t arise overnight; they are an acceleration of dynamics that are decades in the making. And as the number of religious professionals of color grows, so will the impact of a critical mass of leaders challenging our faith’s white-centered norms. Those of us at the UUA who are religious professionals of color know just how personal this struggle is, and what is at stake. So please, remember to reach out, have tough conversations, and stay involved!