Anna Belle Leiserson and Phil Thomason

One of the first things I noticed when I arrived to take up the position of minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville was that things seemed very much like they had in my previous experiences with UU congregations. People took a cautious approach to professional ministry. Congregational leadership was struggling with policy and structure. Some individuals felt they were on the outside of things. And hurt feelings rose to the surface at surprising times.

I learned over time that things were more complicated than I could at first discern. I knew the history of the congregation's experience of misconduct and the conflict that ensued. What I could not have known was how this experience affected the individuals involved and the congregation as a whole. I’m very grateful that many individuals helped me understand and share in this ministry to a broken community.

Every community is, of course, broken. And every individual in some way wounded. Yet when the wounding and the brokenness take on an institutional life—the process of healing can be very challenging.

In this ministry there have been moments of great frustration and exhaustion. Sometimes it feels the process will never end. And so it is with ministry. We do not ever make ourselves completely whole. And so our communities are never completely whole. The work of healing does not end. I cannot imagine work more important, though, than the work of rebuilding trust so that ministry is possible.

Each time my breathing would quicken with frustration or my sigh would reveal my exhaustion I would discover the possibility of ministry on the other side. It very rarely came from my own insight or creativity. Instead it would surface from the honest vulnerability of someone asking for help. Sometimes the plea was direct. Often it took time to translate. Every honest sharing was a gift that led to the possibility of ministry. Through years of deepening trust and openness, the possibility of ministry here has grown.

Because of the courage of individuals who spoke up for the importance of right relationships, this community has come a long way. Because of the honest and direct way the congregation has dealt with its experience, I believe it is better equipped than most to face woundedness and the need for healing. Because our members have learned about the importance of understanding power and boundaries in their relationships with each other and with their professional leadership, I believe they are better equipped than most to have healthy relationships.

I hope this story will offer some insight for other communities. I know that it is offered with courage and in a spirit of hope.

—Rev. Mary Katherine Morn

In February of 1993, at a hastily called congregational meeting, our minister confessed that he was “addicted to lust.” He went on to say that he had had one affair while serving as our minister but that he had been “sober” for many years and was in an addiction treatment program. In the weeks following this confession, rumors of additional affairs surfaced along with other allegations of inappropriate counseling. A congregant filed a formal complaint with the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) and a petition was signed by dozens of church members asking for a full investigation by the MFC.

Our minister had served our church for over ten years and was much beloved and respected by many congregants. Over the next several months the congregation began to split into several factions. One felt the minister should be forgiven for any past transgressions and provided him support, while another group wanted an investigation to go forward. Some members attempted to stay neutral while others simply stopped attending church.

Antagonism in the church community mounted and hostility was open at the annual meeting where, for the first time in the church’s history, an alternate slate was nominated from the floor. During the summer, representatives of the MFC conducted an inquiry into the complaints against our minister. In September, the MFC issued a letter concluding that our minister was “guilty of conduct unbecoming a minister.” This letter also revealed our minister’s admission to multiple affairs during his ministry. The board circulated this letter throughout the congregation and it left many with a sense of betrayal and sadness. Those who felt that the bond with the minister had been irretrievably broken prepared a petition to the board requesting a congregational meeting to decide whether to retain or dismiss our minister. Others organized an effort to protect the minister. “The Board from Hell,” as it dubbed itself, was split, hammered by negativity from all sides and haggard from too much work. Realizing that a congregational vote on this issue was inevitable, the board scheduled a meeting for early December. Prior to the meeting the minister voluntarily resigned. The minister’s supporters tried to force a recall of the board, but in another rancorous congregational meeting the board was retained by a two-to-one margin.

In the months following the minister’s resignation, the various factions within the church attempted reconciliation. Outside counselors worked with congregants to try to find middle ground and consensus on how to move forward. However, our differences were so great that one of the counselors stated that ours was “the worst conflict he had ever experienced.” After months of contentious meetings and workshops, approximately fifty members who had supported the minister left the church and formed a new congregation.

When the church split, it was the culmination of over a year filled with anger, bitterness, and despair, likened by some to a Greek tragedy. Trust was shattered and many congregants, particularly those who had questioned the minister’s behavior, felt marginalized or worse. Old friendships were sundered and the social fabric of the church unraveled. Attendance plummeted, financial resources were drained, and there was a sense of collective exhaustion in those who remained.

Ten years later, we are a vibrant, strong, loving, and growing community—anything but a Greek tragedy. While some in the congregation still question whether or not we have healed, nearly all agree that in most ways we have. We have many new and long-time members (including some of those most hurt in the crisis), a first-rate staff, an exceptionally strong lay leadership, and an incredible variety of activities happening every week. The question is: How did we do this?

The reality is that we were trail-blazers and made many mistakes, particularly early on. To quote one congregant, “It was our misfortune to be the leading edge.” However, it is our hope that in sharing our experiences, we reduce the likelihood that others will repeat them or that we will put ourselves in a situation where this would happen again. While we had never heard the term restorative justice, much less its specifics, nonetheless we blindly found our way to many of the same answers.

Looking back, the key ingredients were:

  • acknowledging the abuse of power and breach of trust
  • developing lay leadership
  • taking care in hiring the next minister
  • working intentionally
  • restructuring and developing new policy
  • emphasizing compassion, respect, honesty, and apology
  • accepting that we are not fully healed

Acknowledging Misconduct

It is an astonishing but consistent truth that even in churches where misconduct is clear and egregious, the response is typically to minimize or deny its significance. The stories of clergy misconduct that we read in the newspapers are typically reflections of religious leaderships that are unable or unwilling to acknowledge that there have been abuses of power or that such abuses have damaging consequences. Without this acknowledgment, religious organizations become stuck and healing is impossible.

Judith Lewis Herman articulates this pattern most clearly in her work, Trauma and Recovery:

When traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. The bystander is forced to take sides.

It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement and remembering.

Even to this day, our church must cope with the tendency to “speak no evil, ”to conveniently pretend that what happened was not so bad, that it was someone else’s issue, that it is time to move on. “Move on” can be a code phrase for “Be quiet and don’t bother me with this ugliness.” But looking at it another way, moving on is what healing is all about and we can only do that by seeking the truth. Once a congregation can embrace the fact that it has experienced misconduct, understanding has begun and the community has started on the path to healing.

The experiences of various members of our congregation were, of course, vastly different, as were their understandings. Yet through the persistent, even stubborn, work of individuals and the leadership widespread understanding has grown. Two pivotal points for our congregation helped that understanding grow. The first was when the Ministerial Fellowship Committee sent its finding of conduct unbecoming a minister to the board. The second was when the board sent a copy of this finding to all members of the congregation. Without these two acts, it is unlikely that healing would ever have happened.

Developing Lay Leadership

Once we understood the misconduct, it became apparent that power within the congregation was skewed and lay leadership had withered. Over the years, more and more of the operations of the church were handled by the minister. We had lost our foundation of community. A significant aspect of healing was the work of finding that foundation again.

Some of the key people, in particular members of the board, looked at why they were part of this community and began to develop their own vision for the congregation, finding new ways to lead the church. During such a crisis, the person who has the best chance of making a difference is the board president. Our board president for 1993–1994 set the tone and under extremely difficult circumstances, quickly developed strategies that made enormous differences in the long term. In particular she found techniques to help us listen to each other better. With the board itself, she made sure that every member talked during a meeting, often going around in a circle. With the congregation, she encouraged members and friends to write their thoughts to the board, resulting in a flood of mail. In general, she modeled a new style of leadership and improved communication.

While no longer “from hell,” the next three boards continued to work under fire and to retool models of leadership. They opened avenues of communication even more and made a series of tough decisions. For example, the 1994–1995 board decided to implement a formal “Listening Process” for the entire congregation. It was a controversial move, but in the end it was clear that the board had made the right decision.

At a more insidious level, many congregants felt that the same few people were always in power positions. In particular, the Nominating Committee was structured in such a way that it could have abused its power. In theory, it was possible for one person to be the nominating chair for life. To address this, we began with a partial revision of that section of the bylaws. While the new language and process were both labored, the changes addressed this problem for the interim until we completely rewrote the bylaws a few years later.

In two other areas, worship and publicity, the unexpected loss of our minister forced lay members to take leadership roles. The Worship Committee had to arrange services for a mid-sized congregation without a minister for eight months, and did so admirably. The Publicity Committee established a newsletter policy and routinely produced excellent information. To this day these remain lay functions, and in general the council and program committees have assumed more responsibility for the everyday operations of the congregation.

Hiring the Next Minister

We took great care in calling our next settled minister, waiting three and a half years. This deliberate plan of action was developed by the board and affirmed with a congregational vote. Following eight months without a minister, we had three years with five interim ministers, which the UUA made a special effort to help us find.

While not all agree, most people in the congregation think having so many interims was helpful. It showed us what different kinds of healthy ministry look like, which was a revelation to many of us. All of the interims brought something to the table and helped move us along in different ways.

Meanwhile, the Search Committee had plenty of time to do its work, figuring out what we most needed and the right person. Some of the characteristics they emphasized were integrity, listening skills, a solid understanding of boundaries, and knowledge of our history and who we were.

Today when congregants talk about our healing, they typically mention the minister first. People who suffered through the worst of the crisis say that her presence is very healing and that she won’t let congregants mistreat each other in the ways they did in the past. She did not push us too hard too fast and she makes a constant effort to be fair to everyone. But perhaps her greatest gift to us is that she loves us. By the time she came, we felt we had a terrible reputation in the UUA. While some of it was probably deserved, much of it was not, and she saw us for who we were—our gifts and our foibles—and made it clear she wanted to be with us.

Intentionality and Process

In addition to the minister, congregants who went through the crisis frequently credit the leadership’s many different ways of working on these issues for the community’s healing. While quite a number of the efforts were not that helpful, the gestures themselves meant a lot and they bought us time until we found the right approach. The silence was broken and we were developing a culture of openness. Overall the church leadership worked intentionally and deliberately for as many years as we needed, offering everyone opportunities to talk and process what happened.

Many of us attended the Mountain School for Congregational Leadership and the lessons we learned there undergird our efforts at healing. The school placed a great emphasis on process. For the last ten years we have been concentrating on just that—process, process, process—at a congregational level, within the board, in the council, in certain committees (such as the Ministerial Search Committee), at staff meetings, in lay ministry training, and at individual and small group levels.

In the early stages of our crisis, when we were severely fractured, we eventually learned (through trial and painful error) to divide those hurt into as many groups as needed and to minister to each accordingly. The major groups, with overlap among them, were:

  • the lay leadership
  • the staff
  • the victims (a term we struggled to accept as accurate for our situation)
  • the “messengers” (those “shot” when they tried to challenge the minister’s behavior)
  • long-time members
  • newcomers
  • people who temporarily withdrew or were otherwise unaware of the situation
  • those who continued to support the former minister

The last group (supporters of the minister) formally named themselves the Phoenix Group and consumed much of the leadership’s time and attention in 1993-1994, while other groups, particularly the victims and messengers, remained marginalized during this early period.

Ultimately this group resolved to “exit with dignity” and formed another congregation in town. While the fractures between the two churches are still felt and make it difficult to have a cohesive local UU presence to this day, most agree that the split was necessary to make healing possible.

Our congregation made three major programming efforts to support the healing process and a number of smaller ones as well. The smaller efforts included things like one-day workshops and a group of congregants training with Marie Fortune, a consultant on the issue of clergy sexual abuse. The first major effort took place early on, in January of 1994, when money given by the UUA was spent on a consultant trained by the Alban Institute. He worked primarily with the board and the Phoenix Group, focusing on the conflict but not the misconduct.

A year later we did a formal “Listening Process,” funded by the remaining money from the UUA and a grant from the Unitarian Universalist Funding Program. This was another pivotal point in our healing. We hired three grief counselors, who listened to anyone who wished to talk to them over the course of several months. The very fact that their specialty was grief was a revelation for some of us—precipitating awareness that grief and loss accounted for much of what we were experiencing. The counselors listened to both individuals and small groups, letting us decide how best to work with them. At the end of the process, they issued a formal report, presenting it orally and in writing at a congregational meeting. While not everyone found this process personally helpful, many did. It was by far the best opportunity to talk, assimilate, and heal that we had experienced as a congregation up to that point. It was particularly helpful for the victims and messengers, giving them their first real venue for personal expression about the experience.

The third major program effort took place in early 2001, when the church was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. During the previous four months we had celebrated the first four decades of the church. But then we were faced with our troubled years—the 1990s. It was difficult for us to see anything to celebrate, largely because the damage was so profound that the first things we thought of were usually the pain and the mistakes and not the many things that we did right. But the minister used this opportunity to air what had happened with the help of the lay ministers, small discussion groups, and a sermon. Some of those most involved in the church during the crisis said that even though so much time had passed, this opportunity to communicate and listen filled in critical gaps in their understanding. The gift of time detoxifies some of the issues, so it can be particularly helpful to revisit what happened much later.

Restructuring and Policy Development

Many of our efforts at recovering from what had happened took place at the congregational level and were focused on looking into the community. But we were not alone, and we could not have accomplished what we did without the association and its structure.

Of course, this too was an area fraught with challenges. In particular, misconduct in a UU congregation throws the inherent tension between congregational polity and our covenant with the association into high relief. Our church was typical in that its leadership knew almost nothing about misconduct but bore the responsibility for addressing it. Whether or not associational leadership knew or cared much about the situation, they were limited in what they could do. Victims were particularly lost in both the power struggle and the gaps created by this dynamic. In part because of experiences with our congregation, the association is working to improve this area.

The UUA also encouraged us to rework our core documents and gave us samples to work with. In the past ten years, we have either written or rewritten our vision and mission statements, our covenant, and our bylaws. We have also written a child abuse policy. In general, we have restructured church operations from the top down, with an eye toward instituting appropriate checks and balances of power and emphasizing why we are together.

Compassion, Respect, Honesty and Apology

While process helps congregational healing and structure strengthens associational ties, it is critical for individuals to experience healing as well. A congregation that has experienced misconduct cannot heal without work at all three levels (associational, congregational, and individual). As our current board president observes, “Healing is very personal. Until everyone is healed to a certain point, the group can’t heal.”

A number of the formal processes, particularly the Listening Process, set the stage for individual healing. The restructuring cultivated a different behavioral ethic. For example, we now have leadership that models what being in right relation looks like and is willing to help us individually work toward that goal with each other, no matter how long it takes.

In 1993 and 1994 people in our congregation said awful things about each other—some true and some not—or they didn’t talk at all. We suffered from an extremely toxic mixture of painful truths, hurtful misunderstandings, manipulative behaviors, and silence. We had to sift through all of this in order to heal.

But we did just that in many different ways. To quote a congregant, “It was the little things. I felt barriers because of what people had said about others. When someone reaches out, it’s like starting again.” Individual apologies, while they can’t be documented, were among the most central pieces of our healing. Typically they meant a lot to both to those receiving the apology and to those apologizing. For the former, it acknowledged their pain, affirmed their value, and built a bridge back into community, while the latter often experienced a sense of relief because they were freed to let go of a burden of guilt or shame.

Individual healing also happened when individuals got involved in different ways. Some congregants who had never participated in religious education, for example, chose to work with our director of religious education and teach during those difficult years. For them it felt healthy and maintained a good connection with the community. In general, our religious education program and our music program provided arenas for involvement that were removed from the most intense areas of difficulty. We were fortunate to have a steady and compassionate director of religious education and music director during this period.

Accepting That We Are Not Fully Healed

Healing is an ongoing process that requires us to be proactive and conscious about what has happened and ensure for now and as far into the future as possible that we are truly a safe congregation. It is unlikely that we would be as strong a church as we are today without this very difficult experience. We have lost that youthful naiveté that bad things can never happen to us, and yet we have solid community, faith, and hope. A critical part of this is having struggled with exactly what healing means.

Healing from misconduct is not like healing from a cut on the arm or an illness. It does not mean returning to where we were before. Trust was broken and we have had to both rebuild it and also establish a new kind of trust. For now, at least, we understand that we are all wounded by life and that’s okay.

Hopefully we can retain this humility and never bow to the forces to “just move on.” As a congregation, we made good decisions to be a healthy, functional, forward-looking institution, but part of that has been accepting that there will always be congregants who are permanently scarred and congregants who minimize or don’t understand what happened. We continue to work with such people as we are able.

If We Could Do It Again

Looking back, things we would do differently and would advise other congregations to think about are:

  • having good policies in place. While it’s never easy to write such policies, it’s much easier to do so before rather than after, much less during, a crisis.
  • having professionals clarify what boundaries really are. Boundary is a loose term that people frequently misuse, but there are some very helpful concepts behind it that are core to a healthy congregation.
  • spending more time finding ways to minister to those harmed by misconduct and the ensuing conflict.
  • focusing less on the dynamics of conflict and more on the dynamics of abuse of power.
  • finding good outside experts to help, particularly in the earliest stages. We hope the UUA develops a list of such experts and monitors their work.

Our Future

Although we have been working on this for ten years, the work is clearly not over. There are at least four things we still need to do as part of our healing. First, while we have a policy to protect children from abuse, we do not have policies to protect the staff and adult congregants. These need to be written. We also need to write a narrative of our conflict and embrace it as part of our history. Work on this is underway but finding the right words is difficult. We need to recognize that the messengers among us spoke truth to power and were doing social justice work. Even now it feels too close and personal to have an institutional shift in this understanding. Finally, we hope one day to have some art (most likely stained glass) to commemorate what happened to us. We went through a trial that made us strong and validated that Unitarian Universalism stands for something. The art will represent that something. We are proud of what we have accomplished and of our faith but have little to show for it. Art has the potential to represent what we have gained.

As Judith Lewis Herman tells us, “The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.” If ever there was a demanding victim, it was me, Anna Belle Leiserson. After trying unsuccessfully to resolve issues directly with our former minister, I ended up writing a formal letter of complaint in April 1993. I knew when I wrote the letter that it would result in an arduous process, but I had no idea just how bad it would be. Ultimately it was much more difficult than the original incidents. I will never forget the hatred I experienced—congregants who would not talk to me or who openly questioned me but not the minister, the unfair labels applied to me (like “mentally unbalanced,” “puppet,” and “man-hater”), and mass mailings sent to most of the congregation that demeaned and misrepresented what I had done. I could cite multiple egregious violations of all of our Principles perpetrated in the name of Unitarian Universalism.

Most people in my situation leave and with very good cause. So why did I stay? There were two reasons. First, while I was deeply confused by many things, it was always clear to me that what we were experiencing was, simply put, wrong. Either Unitarian Universalism would live up to the test I was unintentionally putting it through or it wouldn’t. Either it was a faith whose core values represented social justice and compassion or it was a hypocritical religious institution with a core of virtuous words that were in fact empty.

More importantly, I was always in touch with UUs who affirmed in many ways that what was happening was indeed wrong. They came from surprising places. The most important were my family and a few people in the congregation. The latter I had not known before all this happened, though now they are my dearest friends. But I think also of the person I met on the UU listserv who wrote to me as often as I needed; of a minister representing the Ministerial Fellowship Committee who believed me; of our director of religious education, who went out of his way to speak with me at a time when almost no one would; of the UUA staff member who helped me reach the president of the association because she thought he needed to hear what I had to say; and others. Their faith and many acts of kindness and compassion carried me through the difficult times and gave me hope that Unitarian Universalism was what I had thought it was.

From this foundation I have slowly reintegrated into our congregation and our faith, finding a depth and meaning to Unitarian Universalism I had never imagined. While perfect justice is not possible, the healing discussed in this essay has constituted more than adequate justice, and like most victims, that’s all I really need. I am, in fact, very grateful for it all. I know I am extremely fortunate to be part of a community that would do so much. But there is more; my circle of friendships widens and deepens all the time. About a year ago a new friend who is bisexual shared with me her joy that she can be who she truly is in our congregation. As she said this, I felt that old familiar stab of pain but had new words for it. I still could not quite be who I really am at our church—almost, but not quite. Like a person who is gay or lesbian, I must choose whether to come out over and over and over again. Simply to have this understanding is one more unexpected step in the journey of healing, but to have it affirmed as a more universal experience and to find a kindred spirit is a gift. If this is redemption, and I believe it is, then redemption means being open to all of life’s curve balls—doubt, sorrow, connection, joy, wonder, and community—with intention. We engaged first, then acted, and now we remember.

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