In the effort to bring about the Beloved Community, we often err on the side of the individual as the primary agent of change over and against systemic change. Motivated by the belief that if we, as individuals, are not racist, sexist, ableist, and are willing to recognize the ways in which the accumulation of privilege for some depends on the marginalization of others, then the work of dismantling white supremacy culture is well underway. Open hearts and minds, loving kindness, faithful fellowship, and our commitment as individual Unitarian Universalists, to promote and affirm our inherent worth and dignity are indeed invaluable. Yet individual efforts do not guarantee the Beloved Community. For this, we need hard and committed work that engages the individual as well as soberly addressing the institutional dimensions of the work.
We need to keep in mind that individual Unitarian Universalists do not operate in a vacuum but in institutional and cultural contexts. Our cultural context provides us with unconscious learning about who is valued and who should be heard and undoing these is key to our survival and ability to welcome and be inclusive in our faith. Just as institutional health can provide for the structure which supports our best intentions – while ill-health in our institutional structure can leave Unitarian Universalism unable to accomplish its transformational ministry in the world. Institutional structural health is also imperative in order to accomplish any task which requires a commitment over time – and unlearning a preference for white, male, heteronormative, ableist leadership is a change that requires a commitment over the long haul. Without these, new forms of leadership cannot thrive.
Our commitment to growth, learning, and institutional change requires a commitment to leadership development and support. Many of our institutional structures will be challenged to set clear goals and cast an expansive vision as we journey towards the Unitarian Universalism of the future.
While many of our congregations and institutions may choose to experiment with new and different organizational structures, some basic mechanisms help ensure that institutions may always need to organize themselves in order to get things done. These mechanisms required regular maintenance to ensure their health and to promote shared leadership. Key among these are mechanisms for leadership development and conscious cultivation through key structures such as Nominating Committees.
Nominating Committees play a key role at all levels: Congregational, in the Association, and in Unitarian Universalist professional associations, camps, and conference centers. These committees play the function of determining who we call into leadership and how they understand their commitments to work toward justice and equity. These are fundamental areas of concern during this time. We need to capture the learnings of our recent history and inform our movement forward by these lessons. We cannot afford another failed opportunity to transform who we currently are into the vision of who we need to be as a faith community.
When a Unitarian Universalist congregation, or community, has taken on the task of developing language, vision, and creating a justice and equity informed mission in areas of justice and equity, it is important not to lose momentum. Staying the course can be more easily achieved with a commitment to guiding into leadership those who share the commitment to institutional change and are well supported in this goal.
Nominating Committee members themselves should understand that their assignment to bring forward qualified candidates for leadership roles in our congregations and institutions means that they must commit to challenging systems of oppression with the choices that they make. Nominating Committee members should see themselves as a part of the process of change-making. If we wish for leaders who can help design more equitable systems, Nominating Committees should choose committee members with clear training, experience, and background in counter-oppression work and ministry. There should also be an effort to create onboarding practices that identify, develop, and equipped potential Nominating Committee members to promote healthy organizational health.
Informed and committed Nominating Committees can lay the groundwork to desegregate congregational leadership by expanding leadership diversity in historically marginalized areas like age, race, class, gender, and ethnicity. They can prepare members of our institutions and congregations to lead into the future by making it clear what particular education and experiences are required for Unitarian Universalist leadership. And by engaging leaders in conversations that lead to a shared systemic common analysis of Unitarian Universalist culture.
This expansion should not come about by tokenism. Sustainable and transformative change will come with transparency, open processes, understanding of roles and responsibilities, training and support, evaluations and assessments, required programs and experiences to prepare for leadership, time for study and reflection, and goal-setting.
Our Unitarian Universalist belief in democracy is not based on a belief in “political democracy” alone. Our understanding of democracy is articulated in our theological belief that our congregations are places where all are entitled to be informed about and take part in governance and where we are each able to use our reason and our conscience to make decisions to support our community of faith. Furthermore, our understanding of democracy will be strengthened by the embrace of equity models in our living together. Who should lead Unitarian Universalism into its future? Maybe it should be you?
The Commission on Institutional Change calls us into a dialogue on who and how we call people into lay leadership. Have a brave conversation with members of a nominating committee in a UU organization important to you. Ask how they incorporate skills in the area of equity and inclusion into their nominating processes.