Just Relations in a Faith Context

Fredric Muir

Unitarian Universalists (UU) are generally eager to share their faith journeys and I, like many others, have had the opportunity to listen to many of them. Especially among new members, I’ve heard that being “comfortable” is an important reason for membership in a local Unitarian Universalist community: It used to bother me when I heard newcomers speak of being comfortable; I wanted people who came to church because they were challenged, inspired, healed, and energized, not comfortable. I now understand that comfortable doesn’t mean lax, stuck in political or social opinions, or stagnant; members mean that the church is a place where they feel safe to question belief, risk speaking out, exploring who they are, or imagining the Holy, Divine, or Transcendent in ways they thought unimaginable in a former faith context. Both new members and long-time members want sanctuary, a religious community where they can be at ease going about a life of pilgrimage—discovering, affirming, and celebrating.

Together we share our faith and order our lives aware of the differences that unite us. We look to our seven Unitarian Universalist Principles as a point of common reference. The first and last Principles are theological statements about what we believe; they derive from and affirm our Unitarian (seventh Principle) and Universalist (first Principle) heritages. The vision we share, our vision of the Beloved Community, is found in the second, third, fifth, and sixth Principles. The character of our time together and shared journey is described in Principle four, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Our Principles give substance and depth to the comfort and safety that congregants feel in our faith communities; they shape contexts that encourage risk-taking, authenticity, and vulnerability and support honest religious journeying. (For a good presentation on the UU Principles, see Articulating Your UU Faith: A Five-Session Course by Barbara Wells and Jaco B. ten Hove).

In her book Is Nothing Sacred? When Sex Invades the Pastoral Relationship, Marie Fortune names seven elements of justice-making in a congregational setting that parallel our Unitarian Universalist Principles. When scripture is added as a third reference, these attributes and characteristics compose a paradigm for just relations in a UU faith context that is not only provocative but gives any UU group a way to look at being a safe congregation. Looking at our Principles, Fortune’s wisdom and experience, and scripture together provides an opportunity for every congregation to create a more vibrant and caring community.

The first of Marie Fortune’s seven elements of justice-making is acknowledgment, which allows a person to feel heard and affirmed in their worth. Our parallel UU Principle is “The inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and the scriptural passage is Genesis 1:27.

Many make the assumption about life in a religious context that all people should be treated with “inherent worth and dignity” because they are “in the image of the divine.” Many ask, “If you can’t be safe in church, then where?” But the qualities of inherent worth and dignity do not protect people exempt from abuse; we have learned that not all faith communities are safe places. Reports and investigations of unsafe congregations, abusive clergy, and staff with reputations for boundary violations have unfortunately become common news stories.
Our Universalist heritage guarantees that God loves all people equally: Universal salvation—the theological idea from which the Universalist church took its name—promised that people are not divided into the elect and the damned. All are equal before the Divine; all are created equally with sacred and unique gifts; all are holy creatures of the universe. To divide, abuse, or mislead God’s creatures is sacrilegious; it’s a sin. “Give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God,” early American Universalist John Murray told his followers. Another way to say it is “Affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” To be a Unitarian Universalist is to hold this first Principle close to your heart. This Principle and the seventh, affirming the interdependent web, are the uniting and sustaining theological affirmations that bind us together.

In a safe congregation, in a congregation committed to just relations, acting on this Principle means ensuring that congregants feel heard and making sure they know they are valued just as they are. Two Unitarian Universalist programs in particular encourage congregations to live out the first Principle. The Welcoming Congregation program assists UU communities who want to address the challenge of homophobia. In a similar way, participation in the Journey Toward Wholeness program is an important way to welcome and value all people. “Journey Toward Wholeness” is the name for the UUA’s entire anti-oppression, anti-racism, multicultural initiative. There are several paths on this journey—the paths to dismantle racism, eradicate heterosexism, abolish ableism, and combat economic injustice. The Journey Toward Wholeness reflects a common, overarching process grounding our transformation and includes all of the programs, resources, strategies, committees, resolutions, and alliances that make up Unitarian Universalism’s anti-oppression efforts. These two programs assist congregations in welcoming, hearing, and affirming those whom society has traditionally marginalized, whose dignity and worth have been questioned or denied.

Welcoming people into our Unitarian Universalist safe communities—whoever they are and whatever their past—requires vigilance and perseverance.

Fortune’s second element, restitution, is the renewing of right relations and the patching of broken wholeness. Unitarian Universalists describe this as “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” in our seventh Principle, and Proverbs 25:28 affirms that a person “without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.”

Unitarians were ostracized, imprisoned, and martyred for their theological belief that Sacred Reality (God) could not be divided but must be experienced and known in its holiness and wholeness. Reductionism is a common way to view almost everything including religion, but Unitarianism has always affirmed the theological belief that “God is One.” Reality is an interdependent web that cannot be broken down into pieces. Moreover, breaking the web is destructive to all living things, including human beings and our congregations.

Unitarian Universalist congregations are covenantal religious communities, not creedal ones. Our communities are built on the promises we make about the way we want to be in relationship with each other. (Often, these promises are implicit. “Writing a Covenant” in this book will assist your congregation in making your promises and relationships explicit.) The interdependent web of relationships that comprises a congregation does sometimes break; it’s guaranteed that promises will be broken. But as the line from Proverbs suggests, without structure and a strong congregational web, renewal won’t happen. Creating just, safe congregations is essential to a UU vision of the interdependent web: When our covenant of right relationships is broken, when relations are not honored and respected, then restitution and restoration are necessary. Restorative justice is a model of healing that has wide appeal and great potential because its focus is on forgiveness and healing relationships.

Center County Unitarian Universalist Church had an experience with restitution that is illuminating. They had written a covenant several years ago. It appeared in their newsletter and Sunday order of service bulletin. It was a public document in which they took great pride. A year after they had written the covenant, a member of their professional staff had an affair with a church member. Clearly the covenant was broken (as was the staff member’s professional code). This crisis was compounded when the church’s leadership chose to handle the matter secretly. The staff member resigned and leadership (and others who knew about it) chose to say nothing. Two years later, with rumors and accusations growing, demands for explanations reached a point at which something had to be done. Leadership feared the worst. District staff was invited to strategize with a leadership team. Two important pieces of the plan involved restitution: listening to and affirming the hurt and anger of those who felt excluded, betrayed, and confused and renewing the covenant and mending the web of relationships. Members wrote a new covenant together. This was authentic and bold action, which is what living the interdependent web requires.

Restitution—living right relations and patching the broken wholeness—means committing to live as a Unitarian Universalist, making the interdependent web of life essential and central to one’s being and doing. In a congregation, creating a context for restitution means creating a faith community where just relations are a priority.

Marie Fortune’s third element, truth-telling, involves looking at all of the circumstances and dimensions of a particular problem or incident. This closely parallels our fourth UU Principle affirming “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” and the related scriptural passage is Daniel 13:1–16. His relentless commitment to justice and fairness saved Susanna’s life and brought intergity to his community.

After a crisis hit the Center County congregation, their leadership thought, as others have, that handling the issue in secrecy was the right way to proceed; they weren’t sure why the congregation had to know or be involved (see “A Systems View of Congregational Life” and “Boundaries and Confidentiality” for more background and depth on these issues). A free and responsible search for truth and meaning often involves a delicate and wise balance. Indeed, the fourth Principle is the centerpiece of not just the UU Principles but of a just relations paradigm.

When the president of the board at River’s Edge UU Congregation received a letter from a professional staff member detailing emotional and sexual harassment by a member of the church, the steps the congregation followed highlighted at least three common challenges that leadership teams can address in their efforts to find the truth in a responsible way.

First, a congregation can rarely keep secrets effectively. If the leadership team feels that privacy is needed, then confidentiality and anonymity may be called for, but secrecy rarely works. It can lead to rumors, attacks, and misinformation that hurt and anger members. River’s Edge tried to keep the harassment charges a secret among the fifteen members of the board and other staff. In a couple of weeks the entire church knew some version of the story.

Be deliberate and intentional; don’t rush. Often a congregation yearns to get back to normal. Doing the hard work means involving all who need to take part, hearing them out. The River’s Edge leadership team began meeting immediately, setting up interviews with everyone involved; the team had little time to reflect on what had happened and where they were going. As a result, some team members became angry or depressed, and several even left the church.

Lastly, don’t try to go it alone. UUA staff have walked with other congregations during similarly tumultuous times: Congregational leadership must call on UUA expertise for support. River’s Edge leadership and members were embarrassed by what had happened; they thought that they could handle their crisis with the help of church members who were social service professionals, and some lobbied against going outside the church. As a result, the leadership and congregants lost valuable time and eventually the trust of members.
Compassion is another key element of justice making, the ability to feel the suffering of another person. Our second UU Principle is “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations,” and the scripture is from the Dhammapada, “Thousands”: 1: “Better than a thousand empty words is one beneficial word, hearing which, one becomes at peace.”

Compassion isn’t about taking someone’s side or defending them; it is simply being present with them. In a faith context, compassion means sharing a walk with, supporting, affirming, standing with a person who is hurt, oppressed, confused, or frightened. This is hard work. Eventually you may gain greater clarity about a person’s circumstances, but this is not the goal of compassion.

The religious leaders of one congregation were stunned when they learned that a member was the primary suspect in a brutal sex crime perpetrated against another church member. Without getting in the way of the police investigation, which was very intense, the congregation’s ministry team supported each member, showing compassion and equity and offering spiritual support, counseling, and ongoing contact as well as the congregation’s best wishes and encouragement. Eventually a tip led the police to arrest a man—a neighbor of the victim—who later confessed. Justice, equity, and compassion were the congregation’s goals for both of its members, not choosing sides.

Sometimes passive acknowledgements can demonstrate compassion. For example, when a church or fellowship posts its community’s Safe Congregation Covenant or Welcoming Congregation certificate in a conspicuous location—whether in its building or on its web site—it communicates to visitors that the setting is one where justice, equity, and compassion are integral to the life of its members.

Protection is the fifth element of justice-making, the acknowledgment and acceptance of what has occurred and the action taken. Protection is inherent in our third UU affirming “acceptance of one another.” As Deuteronomy 10:19 says, “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

When a well-liked but relatively new member of one church confessed to his minister that he had served a prison sentence for child molestation, the minister explained that he could not keep this a secret. He would have to talk with his director of religious education and members of the church’s board. This was not information that could stay between the minister and the member. The religious professionals, board president, and an outside state-appointed social worker (who was already assigned to the member as part of his transition from prison) met with the member and wrote an agreement that everyone signed, stipulating clear, uncompromising boundaries and rules of behavior for the member. Violation would result in his immediately being asked to leave the church. This parish minister was protecting his congregation from potential abuse by a member with appropriate, fair, and timely safeguards. The member was also being protected from himself since the agreement gave him clarity about boundaries and expected behavior.

Acceptance of others—protecting the stranger or vulnerable one—doesn’t mean an absence of guidelines and rules; rules and guidelines are ways of showing acceptance and protection since they communicate clarity. For example, knowing your state’s child protection laws and implementing a religious education safety policy that includes teacher background checks shows parents that church school leadership cares enough about its children to create a safe environment for them.

When a congregation takes adult misbehavior seriously, members and friends will report their concerns, which was the case with Bo, a lonely, intensely gregarious, middle-aged single man. On Sunday mornings and at other church events, Bo would seek out others and often monopolize them in conversation. During a morning discussion group, Bo met Adam, who was visiting. Bo took an instant liking to Adam and began calling him, writing him notes, stopping by his place of work to say hello, and leaving messages when Adam wouldn’t return Bo’s calls. Soon Adam said that he couldn’t come back to church because of Bo’s excessive attention. Marie, the parish minister, took the initiative and called Bo. After verifying everything that Adam had reported, Marie told Bo that he had to “back off” and allow people their space; he was turning people away from him rather than welcoming them into friendship and the congregation.

As the passage from Deuteronomy suggests, we all know what it feels like to be a stranger; it can help to know what the expectations are in a new setting. We can protect, welcome, and accept others when we create and work within community structures that are clear, identifiable, and beneficial to all.

Element six of justice making is vindication, freeing ourselves and others from blame and making things right. Our parallel UU Principle is “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all,” and the scriptural passage is from Dhammapada, “Happiness”: 9. We will never know all the hurt, pain, abuse, and neglect that congregants have had to endure and carry with them. Yet vindication, from the Latin root meaning “to set free,” can come in unexpected ways with simple but authentic expressions of compassion and thoughtfulness.

“Simple Solutions,” an article in Christian Century, tells the story of John Salveson, who was sexually abused by his parish priest for seven years. When he entered the University of Notre Dame his abuser followed him there, first as a visitor and later as a graduate student and employee of the university. Salveson had ended the inappropriate relationship with his priest earlier, but it wasn’t until he met his future wife that he realized he wasn’t at fault. He started what became a nine-year battle with church authorities to have the priest removed from active ministry. One day he bumped into Father Theodore Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame, on a train and told him about the abuse. Hesburgh responded by saying that he wished Salveson had come to him when he was a student as he would have removed the priest. When Hesburgh got to his stop on the train, he walked half way down the aisle to get off, then came back and said to Salveson, “If no one has said it to you, I apologize for what happened to you.” No one had apologized before. Abuse victims, says Salveson, want three simple, inexpensive things from the church: acknowledgement of the abuse, an apology, and some help paying for resources to get their lives back together.

Similarly, when Unitarian Universalist Association vice-president Kay Montgomery boldly and compassionately apologized to delegates at the 2000 General Assembly for the inaction and lack of vindication in response to victims and survivors of UU clergy sexual misconduct, her words were welcomed as a step toward peace, liberty, and justice. Montgomery said,

Let me say this as simply and unequivocally as I know how: The Association has largely failed the people most hurt by sexual misconduct—the victims and survivors. These brave and bruised people have, more often than not I suspect, been left lonely, confused, afraid, angry, and betrayed—un-ministered to. What I feel about this is great sorrow and regret. I am profoundly sorry. And I pledge that this gap, this failure, will be remedied. We will change and learn and in this untended area, we will bend toward justice.

“Bending toward justice” is just that—bending, leaning, and moving in the right direction. While we cannot always feel another’s turmoil, agony, or anger, we can be present with them, offering empathy and acknowledging their experience by naming their offender’s acts of abuse as wrong. There can be a sweetness of peace and tranquility in this bending. The freedom that comes from the peace, liberty, and justice associated with vindication can be powerful and transforming.

Fortune’s final element of justice-making is accountability, the acceptance of responsibility and the willingness to explain one’s actions. Accountability is crucial to our affirmation of “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations,” and the parallel scriptural passage is Exodus 18:18b: “For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”

A distinguishing and unique attribute of Unitarian Universalism is congregational polity. Our commitment to polity is reflected in the UU Principle that “affirms and promotes the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.” This Principle recognizes the wisdom in Jethro’s comment to Moses: “You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” When one person carries too much authority, when there is confusion over who is responsible, when leadership acts in relative isolation, the congregation is not sharing the work of its faith.

Institutional accountability is a key factor in creating a context for just relations. When a congregation integrates measures that acknowledge shared power and accountability, a system is in place that all can see and to which all can refer. Several aspects of congregational process and leadership are important in the creation of organizational safeguards and accountability:

  • Institute term limits for all positions of leadership. From board and committee positions, to religious education teachers and advisors, to representatives who serve the church in community and UU organizations, a regular and predictable rotation of leadership is important. Some version of term limits prevents a sense of “turf.” Rotation encourages fresh thinking and new leadership shares the joys and challenges of membership and faith.
  • Control access to buildings and records. Power comes in different forms. Whether it’s a key to the building or the password to a computer, when one person or a small group keeps control of these symbols of power a subtle erosion of the democratic process becomes likely. It’s advisable to monitor and control access to these important tools of congregational life.
  • Consider carefully whether partners should serve at the same time. Depending on the nature of the leadership positions, partners may want to turn down roles that would put them in conflict; neither their relationship nor the community needs this potential tension. If both partners wish to be involved in serving their congregation, roles can be found in which they can avoid conflict. When in doubt, ask one to wait until the other has completed their term.
  • Fill paid staff positions with non-members. When members serve in paid positions, accountability can be difficult to maintain. The tensions from the dual relationship—relating to the congregation both as a member and as a paid employee—can be overwhelming for the employee and church leadership. When a church chooses to employ a member (and sometimes this is the only possibility or it makes the most sense), careful and direct consideration needs to be paid to how the relationship will change.
  • Be clear about who’s in charge. There are many models that can help a congregation address issues of accountability, responsibility, assessment, evaluation, and staffing. The model that a congregation chooses should reflect its membership and staff size, programs, and history. The point here is not to recommend one model over another but to strongly encourage church leaders to provide clarity so staff, members, and friends understand who is responsible for maintaining a faith context that promotes just relations.

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process are characteristics of our Unitarian Universalist congregations with which few, if any, disagree. UUs take pride in our heritage and how we express it. Doing the essential work of living out this Principle can be challenging. In all congregations, especially in smaller ones, creating and sustaining organizational safeguards of accountability can be a big help. And they are necessary for shaping a context for just relationships.

People arrive at our faith communities wondering if they will be safe to imagine the Divine in unorthodox and meaningful ways; safe from physical, emotional, and spiritual stress or harm; safe to be in relationship with companions who share the religious quest; safe to be honest and authentic; and safe for partners, children, and families. Being attentive to what makes a congregation a place that values just relations can help to make it safe in all these ways. We should expect nothing less.

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