The Path of Love: Proposed Changes to the UUMA Guidelines, 2019

The Path of Love:  Proposed changes to the UUMA Guidelines

August 2019


If our faith is to have any hope of helping heal this world, we need to begin by healing our own community. Our covenant can be a means of perpetuating systems  of oppression among ourselves and in our ministries, or it can create space for the flourishing of love and trust and boundless creativity. As colleagues and members of the UUMA, we long for the latter. To this end, we are proposing revisions to our Guidelines for the Conduct of Ministry.  These revisions fall into two categories:  the ethical standards to which we hold ourselves (what), and the ways in which will hold ourselves and each other accountable to the standards (how.)

Our theology calls us toward love—always toward love.  This means our ethics must begin with love and justice, compassion and solidarity. We may differ on strategies for accountability, and should have robust discussions of how to respond to pain and minimize trauma.  How can we of the UUMA embody love in our relationships with each other and in our ministries?  How can we restore covenant when covenant has been broken?

There are two things we hope you will keep in your hearts as we begin this year of study.  First and foremost, the language we propose is the result of speaking with dozens of people, some with broad understanding of our ministry and some who have been hurt and/or frustrated by our current system.  We honor the stories shared with us. We heard so many stories of when and how our current process doesn’t work — when people want healing, not punishment, and can’t get it. When ministers with less social power were ignored by those with more. When ministers spoke up, but the process took years — and the one who hurt them just quit the body.  We heard cases of careers damaged, of talented staff abused, of congregations harmed — and of the esteem of ministry deeply damaged. To those who shared your stories with us:  we wept with you, raged with you, and designed a system that, with practice and improvement, may respond better. We heard you and we see you.

Second, we as a body must think about why the ministers are in covenant at all. What is the role of the UUMA in holding ourselves and one another accountable to our standards of practice, especially to our clear need to stop perpetuating systems of oppression such as white supremacy and heteropatriarchy? The Guidelines Ethics and Accountability Committees have spent a year listening to stories filled with pain from colleagues with less power who had no ability to hold their colleagues accountable and who had no support from their professional organization to do so. In the past, our Association has upheld the right of ministers to keep their misdeeds secret. That has allowed powerful ministers to prey on those with less power in the system.

The tradition of “Thou shalt not speak ill of another colleague” (“I will not speak scornfully or in derogation of any colleague in public. In any private conversation concerning a colleague, I will speak responsibly and temperately. I will not solicit or encourage negative comments about a colleague or their ministry.”)  has kept ministers from naming the damage that has been done to them and to others. The expectation that one must first speak directly to the colleague who has done harm has gagged ministers of color and women and anyone with less systemic power, preventing them from bringing complaints forward because they could not confront a powerful colleague, or because doing so resulted only in further abuse.

In order to heal our community, we, the members of the UUMA must hold each other accountable. The question is, how we do that effectively?  For a generation or more, we have said we hold each other accountable, but we have done so unevenly at best.  It is another kind of injury to say that we have standards of ethics but fail to uphold them consistently.

These are the circumstances under which our teams were asked to add and revise language in our Guidelines and develop a new system of accountability. We humbly acknowledge that our proposals will need continual review and revision. At the same time, we must begin in some way to change our system from one that supports the perpetuation of harm to one that confronts abuses of power and seeks to heal trauma and restore covenant.

We think our proposals are a way to do that.  If you have ideas for tweaks, corrections, or counter-proposals that would improve our proposals, we wish to learn what they are.  As we engage in this year of study together, we welcome your feedback and input.

Thank you for joining us in this brave new adventure.

In faith and solidarity,

Committee on Ethics and Committee on Accountability

The Path of Love: The Proposed Changes to our UUMA Guidelines

By Rev. Dr. Leisa M. Huyck, Member of the Committee on Ethics, in consultation with Rev. Kim Wilson, Ethics Committee Chair, and Members Rev. Dr. Anita Farber-Robertson, Rev. Nathan Ryan, and Rev. Rob Keithan.

There is an old teaching story that goes something like this:  once upon a time, there was a little town next to a river.   One day, a man saw a baby floating down the river.  He ran in and pulled the baby out, and called for help.  No sooner had the man handed the baby over to someone else, when another baby floated down, and no sooner had he rescued that one when yet another floated along!  Soon the townspeople were organizing a brigade:  some people would catch the babies as they floated by, others would take them to shore, and still others would find food and housing and clothing for them.  The townspeople became very efficient.  But after some time went by, two people were seen leaving the town.  “Hey, where are you going?!”  the townspeople cried.  “We need all the help we can get!”  The two replied:  “Someone has to find out what’s happening upstream.”

Today there are babies floating everywhere, both figuratively and literally.  Climate change, war, poverty, mass shootings, hatred and violence toward brown and black people and gay and trans people, toward women and Muslims and homeless people—the list goes on and on.  So many of us work so hard at rescuing babies that not only do we endanger our own health, but we also forget to investigate what’s going on upstream.

And it is essential to go upstream.  It is essential to find out the causes of these interconnected crises.  Only if we know their causes can we begin to resolve them.  Only if we know the causes of white supremacist heteropatriarchy can we begin to root it out in our own communities and thus begin to heal our planet and its many interconnected peoples.

If the prospect of rooting out white supremacist heteropatriarchy from our movement is not enough to get you excited about doing this work, consider the fact that ongoing global catastrophe and its resulting trauma are the context in which we minister now.  Fear, anger, hatred and a palpable sense of doom fill the air.  If Unitarian Universalism is to be relevant to the needs of this world, our leaders—particularly our professional leaders—must be equipped to guide those in our settings on the path of Love, through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  We need to know how to dismantle the systems of oppression that have brought us to this pass.  We need to know how to heal trauma and restore relationships.  We need to know how to form effective alliances with widely diverse groups of people.  We need to go upstream and understand how we got here. We need to understand how making changes in the circle of our own community can ripple outward into larger and larger circles.

The good news is that we can do these things.  We are very good at learning new ways of thinking.  We are very good at practicing new skills.  We can do what is needed. And as it turns out, it’s not as hard as it may first look.

The remainder of this paper will briefly describe

  • the reasons why the UUMA Board charged our Committees with revising the Guidelines (The Problem),
  • the charge each committee was given,
  • the process we used to study the current Guidelines and develop the proposed changes,
  • our findings,
  • theological grounds for making changes,
  • obstacles to change, and
  • a hopeful look ahead. 

The Problem(s)

Imagine this:  a well-known White colleague with a great deal of social capital in the UUMA goes to serve as an Assistant Minister in a large congregation.  We might think this minister’s credentials would protect them, but we would be mistaken.  For several years the senior minister bullies this Assistant Minister, as well as the Director of Religious Education, so severely that they are deeply traumatized.  The Assistant Minister and the DRE separately think about filing a complaint about the senior minister, but there is nothing in our Code of Conduct that says a minister should not bully staff—no official grounds for complaint.  The senior minister then leaves to serve another congregation.  The assistant minister is prevented by our current Guidelines from saying anying negative about this colleague to the search committee.  The senior minister eventually commits sexual misconduct, is found out, and resigns. When a formal complaint is filed, the minister resigns from fellowship and the UUMA.

Under our current Guidelines, there is no way to hold this senior minister accountable for their actions.  Even if there were something in our Guidelines saying bullying staff is wrong, there is no process by which to address and heal the trauma the senior minister has caused to the staff and congregations.  Even regional staff are prevented from speaking openly about the damage a minister has caused to a congregation and to the esteem of our vocation.

Furthermore, what if, in a few years, this minister comes to a true awareness of the harm they have caused, and wishes to seek forgiveness and make amends?  What if they want to worship in one of our congregations?  We have no process for restoring the covenant that has been broken.  We have only a legalistic mechanism for identifying gross misconduct and punishing the wrongdoer.  Does our Universalism extend to colleagues who have misconducted in serious ways?

Now imagine this:  a powerful senior minister in an urban congregation makes racist remarks to a junior colleague of color.  Nothing in our current Guidelines says ministers should not behave in a racist way.  Nevertheless, the junior colleague feels they have been harmed and seeks the help of a Good Officer in restoring covenant.  The senior colleague says they are too busy to go out of their way to have a conversation.  The junior colleague must fly to the big city where the senior minister serves in order to seek reconciliation. The Good Officer holds space for the conversation but does not participate in any way. The senior minister never acknowledges having caused harm.  The junior colleague wants healing, not punishment, and goes away feeling unheard, unsupported, and more degraded by the attempt to restore covenant than by the initial remarks.

These are but two of dozens and dozens of examples of ways our current Guidelines are no longer serving the needs of our body.  After becoming aware of these and numerous other cases, the UUMA Board decided it was time to revise the Guidelines.  It was clear that changes were needed both in the ethical standards to which we hold ourselves, and to the accountability process.  The Board therefore charged two committees, as follows:

Our charges

Committee on Ethics

The UUMA Guidelines Committee A is charged with studying the existing Guidelines and proposing revisions to clarify and strengthen our professional standards against behaviors that perpetuate white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and other systems and structures of oppression. This should include, but may not be limited to: unambiguously forbidding sexual harassment, contact, and/or relationships between ministers and anyone and everyone they serve, supervise, or otherwise hold authority over; changing or removing provisions that aid mis-conductors in evading accountability; adding a specific provision against bullying and harassment; naming the malicious deceit of those we serve an actionable offense; and making it explicit that the imperative to confront and dismantle white supremacy and heteropatriarchy should take priority over collegial courtesy. While it may eventually be necessary to completely rewrite our Guidelines, we want this committee to focus its scope on the gaps in our ethical standards in the Code of Conduct as well as the inconsistencies that compromise clarity about ethical conduct in the entirety of the Guidelines.

Committee on Accountability

The UUMA Guidelines Committee B is charged with developing a clear, transparent and accessible process of accountability and restoration for colleagues who have a covenantal breech with another colleague or colleagues.  The committee is asked to focus its scope on covenantal breeches, knowing that accountability processes for handling complaints of misconduct are being pursued through other means.

The committee will bring forward these recommendations for consideration during the 2019 annual meeting. The committee will assist chapter leaders in facilitating adaptive conversations during a year of study and recommend either adoption of the 2019 proposed changes or new changes based on the year of study for consideration during the 2020 annual meeting. The Committee will assist staff in developing a resource guide for the accountability process within our Guidelines.

Our Process

These two committees had met virtually for more than a year and decided that the Guidelines needed to be completely re-written.  The UUMA Board said that might be the case, but since that would be a long process, in the meantime, some immediate changes were necessary in order to protect vulnerable people from  harm.  The committees were not getting much traction, so the Board brought the two committees together in person in October of 2018.  On the first day we all met together in a workshop. We were asked to brainstorm everything we would like to see in Guidelines, and again came to the conclusion that they need to be completely re-written.   Again the Board said that this might be true, but in the meantime, we needed to patch the current language in order to protect vulnerable people from further harm.  We agreed that we would do this, if in the future we could re-write the guidelines in their entirety.  The Board agreed.

We then separated into our two different committees for the remainder of our meeting time. The first thing the Ethics Committee had to do was understand the nature of the two different sections of our covenant that set our ethical standards.  These are the Code of Conduct and the Guidelines for the Conduct of Professional Ministry.  The Code of Conduct contains the rules that we covenant with each other to keep, and is actionable.  In other words, if someone breaks the rules in the Code of Conduct, there are grounds for formal complaint and consequences.  The Code of Conduct lays out a legalistic method for accountability, focusing on identifying misdeeds and punishing the perpetrator.

The Guidelines for the Conduct of Professional ministry are just that, guidelines.  They are not actionable rules, but rather suggestions. Some of the most important standards we have are currently in this section rather than in the Code of Conduct.  That needs to change.

The next thing was to brainstorm a list of UU organizations and individuals with whom we needed to consult.  We needed to hear from people experiencing harm in the current system.  We also needed to hear from people with particular areas of expertise and/or with very broad perspectives and understanding of our ministry.  We assigned members to contact each organization and/or person on the list and interview them.

We interviewed over two dozen people and heard many stories of harm experienced and witnessed.  We gathered information about the ethical standards of other professional organizations (physicians, social workers, therapists) and about the issues that our interviewees raised.

Then we developed a proposal for changes, which we submitted to the Board.  The Board made a few changes to our proposals.  Then we reached out again to our interviewees, plus a new group of UU organizations, to ask for their feedback on what we had developed.  We incorporated the excellent feedback we received into our second round of proposals.  We submitted this to the Board, they again made a few revisions, and we were ready to go to Ministry Days. 

Our Findings:  Kyriarchy, Systems, and the UUMA

As we read the Guidelines more intensively than we ever had before, and listened to people’s stories, it became clear to us that the Guidelines are rooted in and maintain a kyriarchal mode of social organization.

Kyriarchy is a social system characterized by dominance, or power over, and submission.  Kyriarchy is built on fear and violence.  Its most fundamental belief is that a human being is an individual, alone in a dangerous world, who must compete with other beings for survival.  This leads to the strategy of dominance, of trying to control everything and everyone in order to survive. (An alternative belief is that a human being is part of an interdependent community of life, and that collaborating with other members of the community is the best strategy for mutual flourishing.)

The strategy of dominance, of power over, can work for some people for a limited amount of time.  But it does not serve the whole community of life, and it does not even serve individuals for very long.

The reason is that in reality, human beings ARE part of an interdependent community of life.  This community of life is a living system composed of other living systems, which in turn are composed of other living systems. Living systems have rules.  If we break the rules for very long, living systems fail.  They collapse and die.

One of these rules has to do with feedback, or communication between different parts and levels of the system.  Whenever change happens—which is all the time—living systems need to adjust.  Our bodies, for example, are made of organs and circulatory systems, which are made of cells.  Each cell has its own needs and its own job.  If a need doesn’t get met, the cell can’t do its job.  It sends out messages to the other parts of the system, and the whole system gets sick until the need is met again.  So, if our cells aren’t getting enough water, they send out little distress signals that are picked up by our brain, and our brain tells us to drink water.  These little messages are feedback.

If we respond to the feedback and drink water, our cells get better and they stop sending out the signals.  If we suppress feedback, and don’t drink water, we can get very sick, or even die.  The system collapses.   The tricky thing is that our needs for water change constantly, depending on how hot or cold we are, how active we are, what size we are, and so on.  But our bodies are so finely tuned that unless we’re sick, our cells tell us just how much water we need to drink.

This is how all living systems work, from the tiniest microorganism to the whole planetary ecosystem.  Feedback is how the system adjusts and adapts to change, which happens all the time.

Human beings live in interdependent systems with one another and with other forms of life.  And human beings, like all organisms, have needs, and our needs change, and different people have different needs.  In order for our systems to be healthy, we have to be able to express our needs so we can get them met.  And we have to respond to each other’s needs in ways that keep the system healthy.  We need to have ways to give each other feedback.

We can handle the feedback by making adjustments to keep the system working, which would be the healthy thing to do—or we can suppress the feedback.  Suppressing feedback is what happens when people or systems respond violently to other people’s needs, as tyrants and dictatorships and bullies do.  Kyriarchy, by definition, suppresses feedback.  Suppressing feedback is also what happens when we do not express our own needs directly.  We may be afraid to do this because in the past, others have responded to our expression of needs with emotional or physical violence. We may have learned to just go along and not rock the boat.  But just like if we don’t listen to our body telling us to drink water, suppressing feedback can cause the whole system to collapse.

Alas, the dominant culture does not teach people how to give or receive feedback in health-bringing ways.  It only teaches us either how to compete and dominate, or submit and either express our needs indirectly or not at all.  Kyriarchy is expressed in family systems, in society at large, and in the relationships between human and the wider community of life.  It is why we have poverty, racism, heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, ableism, ageism, sexism, domestic violence, war, pollution, massive species extinction, and a global climate crisis whose magnitude dwarfs every other problem in human history save the threat of nuclear annihilation, which we also face now.  All of these problems are interwoven and intersect, and all result from kyriarchy, in which one person or group strives to dominate all others, including the web of life that supports them.

Unitarian Universalism arose from and is enmeshed in the dominant culture, so it is not surprising that it shows many signs and symptoms of kyriarchy. Just as a congregation will behave in ways that reflect its cultural “DNA,” so does our faith movement as a whole, including the UUMA. While in some ways, we are a countercultural faith tradition, our behavior toward each other reflects our kyriarchal DNA.  When we of the Committees listened to people telling us their stories, we heard about racism, both institutional and personal.  We heard about tokenism and ableism and sexism and heterosexism and cisgenderism and ageism.  We heard about bullying and cruelty, about casual disregard for people’s needs and humanity.  The stories were heartbreaking and enraging.  As our colleague Rev. Sean Dennison pointed out at the meeting of our body at Ministry Days, it is one thing to experience these isms in the wider world; we all expect that to a certain degree.  It is entirely another to experience them with our colleagues.

When we listened to ways in which people had tried to use the current system of accountability to restore covenant, we heard about legalism (assumption of innocence until proven guilty; threats of lawsuits against those seeking to be heard; filing of complaints that take years to process.)  We heard about a system in which persons with very little systemic power are expected to speak directly to someone with more systemic power about ways in which the more powerful person has caused harm.  We heard about traumatized people being expected to confront an abuser with little or no guidance or help, and no resources to help them heal.  And these are the people who are still here.  We can only guess how much harm has been done to the people who have left our movement.

All of the “isms” present among us, and the legalistic framework for our accountability process, are symptoms of kyriarchy.  Our guidelines allow us to try to maintain our own power and control at the expense of others more vulnerable than we are.  They provide no means for healthy feedback and needed adjustments to occur.

The greatest weakness of kyriarchy is that it causes its own demise.  It flouts the rules of living systems and so it always collapses. Every kyriarchal civilization in history has collapsed. Given that we do not want Unitarian Universalism or our ministry to collapse, we need change.

What change is needed?

Theological Grounding:  Moving from Fear to Love

Kyriarchy, as previously discussed, is built on fear: the fear that a person or group feels when they believe they are alone in a dangerous world, and must dominate and control everyone and everything around them in order to survive—and also the fear that this person or group inspires in those whom they dominate.

Our current covenant, with its ethical standards and accountability process, reflects this fear.  As Unitarian Universalists, we know a thing or two about the antidote to fear:  Love.   Love and its power in the world.  Not weak, vague, superficial love that says everyone is just doing their best and we should just all get along (without specifying how this might actually happen, or working toward it) but strong, true, deep Love that has power and grit, courage and determination.  This Love gets results.  This Love knows we are all part of an interdependent living system in which, as our colleague Theresa Inés Soto says, “all of us need all of us to make it.” This Love gives us the strength and courage to do hard things.  It calls us into healing our relationships with each other.  It calls us into healing our relationships with all of life.  This Love calls us to listen to others when they are hurting, and respond to their needs by adjusting the way we do things.  This Love says we know we can do this, we can change, we can change together.

Recall that Calvinists believed God to be an angry, vengeful deity who redeems humanity through violence, and divides people into the saved and the damned.  Recall that Universalist Hosea Ballou, and Unitarians William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker, could not accept this idea of God.  They argued that since people model their own behavior on what they imagine God to be, this concept of a wrathful, bloodthirsty God results in earthly hell.  It results in the division of people into the worthy and the worthless, and it sanctifies violent oppression of those deemed to be worthless.  They said that this theology caused people to live in and from fear.  Ballou understood that fear resides in the body, and causes people to behave with violence toward each other rather than with kindness.

Ballou, Channing, and Parker believed that a theology of a loving God would instead enable people to live in and from love. They argued that God was all loving, and people were created in the image of that loving God.  Ballou said that if that were so, then no one needed to worry about where their soul would go when they died, because everyone would be united with God.  Unitarians said that if that were so, then everyone is equally worthy, and oppression was unconscionable.  In both lines of thinking, the job of human beings was understood to be attending to conditions in the here and now, in this world.  People should embody love here—that is, give love arms and legs and voices and speech—to make sure every body was fed and clothed and housed and liberated.  Then no one need fear for their survival.  People’s bodies would be liberated from fear, love would abound, and heaven would be realized here on earth.

Present-day Unitarian Universalism still reverberates with these ideas about love.  Even though UU’s do not all have the same beliefs about whether God exists, or what God might or might not be, our seven principles and six sources affirm our belief that love is a powerful force for healing, in our own lives and in the wider world.

We saw it work in the 19th century, when Unitarians and Universalists took it into civic and political spaces and made major social change.  We saw it work in the struggle for marriage equality, and we are using it now in our struggles around immigration and climate change.

Love has real power in the world. Love can disarm kyriarchy and dismantle systems of oppression.  Love not only can resist oppression but also create entirely new ways of being and living.  And the key to bringing this power to bear is actually embodying it in our own lives and our own communities. Embodying love means learning some new skills.  When we practice these skills in our own communities, we transform them, and the effects ripple outward in wider and wider circles.  Thus it behooves us as ministers, as the spiritual leaders of our people, to do this work and learn these skills.

Obstacles to Cultural Change:  The Servants of Kyriarchy

Change is not always easy.  In the case of the kyriarchy that is our dominant culture, change is extremely difficult, because kyriarchy has several mechanisms by which it reinforces itself.  Fear is the main one.  Kyriarchy says, if you don’t do as I say, you will be punished.  Common expressions of this fear of punishment in UU culture are perfectionism, conflict avoidance, and groupthink, also known as mob mentality.

1.Perfectionism: We believe we have to get it perfect or we are worthless/people will know the real truth about us/we will lose our job or standing in the community.  Our Universalist theology, which says we are all loved and worthy of love no matter what, counters perfectionism if we let it.  However, we can get confused by what Channing called the “perfectibility” of human nature.  Perfectionism has a long history in Puritan theology.  (Believers could tell who was one of the elect by the “signs,” and if your character was impeccable that was a sign.) The theological history of the term “perfect” is interesting in that when it is used in the Christian scriptures to describe the nature of God, Western interpreters have translated it to mean without flaws, when the Greek term actually means something more like “ripe,” “mature,”or “fully developed,” like a fruit.  Even the ripest, most mature, most fully developed fruit still has flaws.  Perfectibility then might come to mean the capacity to ripen and mature, not the capacity to develop a flawless nature.  No one and nothing is flawless; we are all perfectly imperfect.

Some ways perfectionism manifests in UU communities, including the UUMA, are:

1.1) refusal to speak or act unless or until we feel we can say it perfectly.  This leads to paralysis when we see harm being done, which reinforces kyriarchy.

1.2) public shaming of those who do not say it perfectly the first time, or who make big mistakes.  This also leads to paralysis.

1.3) Confusion and/or conflation of calling back in with shaming (by both the people doing the calling back in and people being called back in)

Some people, when they call others back into covenant, do it in such a way that it turns into public shaming.  This is harmful and reinforces kyriarachy.  Some, when they are called back into covenant, may feel ashamed and/or believe that they are being publicly shamed.  This has been called fragility:  white fragility, male fragility.  The thing to remember about fragility is that it develops as a result of the violence of kyriarchy.  It is not, in itself, something to feel ashamed of, but something to heal from.  Healing fragility is possible, and we can do it together. We can learn that calling someone back into covenant is a good thing.  It means the person is valued by the community and expected to be able to uphold its standards of behavior.  It means we value the person’s inherent worth and dignity.  We can also learn ways to call each other back in that are healthful rather than harmful.  We can also learn how to release perfectionism.  We can learn all these things together.

2.Conflict aversion/avoidance

The Commission on Institutional Change has reported that one of the things that holds UU culture back from its potential as a liberating faith that can help heal the world is a “toxic triangle” of racism, conflict aversion, and idealism.  In other words, we behave in racist ways, think we don’t, and don’t want to talk about it.

Conflict aversion or avoidance results from a culture in which differences of opinion or expressions of emotion receive a response of emotional or physical violence. People become afraid to express themselves anytime their emotions are engaged.  The problem with this, as previously discussed, is that in order for a system to function in a healthy way, there has to be a way for feedback to move through it.  If we avoid conflict, we are suppressing feedback.  There is a very simple solution to this:  learning new communication skills, and regularly practicing them.  None of us was born with the skills we needed, and if we grew up in a kyriarchy, which we all did, we did not generally acquire them as we grew up.  Fortunately it is a relatively simple thing to learn the new skills we need.

3) Groupthink and mob mentality

Groupthink happens when a subgroup of a larger whole gets together and defines a problem affecting the whole—and the solution to the problem—without consulting anyone from outside the group.  This leads to a mob mentality in which the insiders in the group have a certain way of thinking about something, and attack anyone outside the group when they express a different way of thinking or behave in a way that is problematic according to their own definitions.  People who want to be seen as insiders then pile onto the bandwagon (or the Facebook page).  We have seen and heard numerous cases of colleagues being deeply traumatized by this behavior.  Not only have they been damaged emotionally, but their careers have been damaged as well.  It is essential that we learn the skills we need in order to communicate in ways that include rather than exclude, and repair our covenant when it has been broken.  Again, these are skills that can be learned and practiced, and we have every confidence that as a body, we can learn them.

Looking Ahead

Contemplating the changes we are proposing has produced fear in some of our colleagues.  What if they/we don’t do it right?  What if they/we are publicly shamed for making mistakes? What if being called into the proposed accountability process damages their/our careers?  Shouldn’t we all be able to just talk things through?

As to this last question, if we could, we would not need to make any changes to our Guidelines.  Our proposals were developed after the UUMA Board, the UUA Ministerial Fellowship Committee, the Good Officers, and regional (or district) staff spent decades trying to cope with numerous cases in which people could not just talk things through.  The proposed new accountability process is intended to help people be able to talk things through. It is intended to protect the more vulnerable among us from harm, and help them heal when they do experience harm.  It is intended to help preserve their careers and vocations.  It is also intended to prevent shaming, and preserve the careers and vocations, of those who inadvertently cause harm.  It is intended to help us realize that none of us is perfect, and all of us make mistakes, and that’s okay.  It is intended to help us repair relationships when we are harmed or when we make mistakes. It is also intended to prevent those who cause harm, either intentionally or from willful ignorance, from doing so repeatedly.  

It will take some time for us, as a body, to learn the skills we need in order to successfully navigate the path that we are proposing.  To aid with this, we are planning to offer new Continuing Education opportunities.  Along the way, we can expect, as in any new human endeavor, to make mistakes.  But that is not a reason to not continue.  In this time of global crisis, we are faced with a marvelous opportunity: to free Unitarian Universalism from the constraints of kyriarchy so that it can become the liberating and healing faith, and the great blessing in the world, that we long for it to be.  If we can heal ourselves and our relationships with each other, if we can learn how to repair covenant when covenant has been broken, then we have a chance of succeeding.  May we choose this path of love.

The Way of the Chalice

Pink Rhythms Chalice by Peg Green

How do you explain Unitarian Universalism when people ask you about your religion? A few years ago I was meeting with a group at my home congregation to brainstorm some ideas for how families can build UU spiritual practice into home life. A newcomer asked, “What is it that we believe, anyway? How can I find out?” I asked her, “Have you read our Principles and Sources?” She said, “Well, yes, but the principles are social, political views, not spiritual beliefs. There must be something at the center here, something like a creed, or it wouldn’t be a church.” It reminded me a little bit of what newspaper reporters say after every General Assembly. They often claim Unitarian Universalism is not a real religion. It has nothing at the center. The seven principles are political statements that have nothing to do with God. One year a reporter said, you can’t draw a circle around nothing. Another reporter said, there’s no there there.

But the thing is, we do have something at our center. What’s more, each of our principles is a statement of a theological position with thousands of years of history behind it. AND, like other liberal religions, our faith focuses on life here and now, in this world—which means that for us, the political is the spiritual, and vice versa.

So, what is this thing at our center? What makes a UU group a religious community? We don’t often mention God, we rarely hear sermons based on biblical texts, and most of our churches don’t offer a Eucharist. We certainly don’t have a creed. So how can we call ourselves a religion?

Well, the word religion comes from the Latin, re-ligare, to bind back, or to hold together, to link. It’s the same root as in the word ligament…you know, those cords that hold our skeletons together. I like that image: without religious community, we fall apart into useless pieces. With it, we can accomplish great things.

Unitarian Universalist religion comes together not around a creed, which is a profession of beliefs that all members share, but rather through a covenant. The word covenant comes from the Latin “co,” together, and venir, “to come.” A covenant is a promise about how we come together.

Creeds are actually rare in religions: only a few forms of Christianity espouse them. The idea of a creed wasn’t even developed until the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the state religion of the Empire. Before that, Christians, like their Jewish predecessors, had constantly debated with each other about the meaning of their faith’s teachings and texts. In the Jewish tradition, such argument and debate is seen as healthy; it is a way of engaging with each other that keeps people also constantly engaged with the divine. But in order for a religion to be aligned with the power of empire, there must be one correct interpretation of everything. So Constantine called a meeting, the Council of Nicaea, at which he demanded that the bishops decide, once and for all, any points of doctrinal dispute, and write them up as a unified statement of belief. This is how the Nicene Creed came to be. A prospective member of the church would have to believe and recite the creed, in every particular, in order to be accepted. Anyone who disagreed with any part of it was considered a heretic (which actually means “choice,” or “one who chooses.”) At first, heretics were only excommunicated, but later they were tortured, or burned at the stake. The creed became a matter of life or death.

By the sixteenth century, the alliance between church and state had become so cruel and oppressive that large numbers of people protested…and so was born the Protestant Reformation. According to Rebecca Parker, “Reformers …reconceptualized church. They dismantled the hierarchical power structure and said instead that church comes into being when human beings freely make a covenant with one another to walk together.” 1 What made this “walking together” a church instead of just a political community was that God was considered to be the organizing member of the covenant. So the Salem Covenant of 1629 says: “We Covenant with the Lord and with one another; and doe bynd ourselves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himself unto us in his Blessed word of truth.”2

Unitarians and Universalists both inherited the covenantal form of church from our American Puritan ancestors. Unitarian Universalism has purposely chosen to keep this form. So, in our churches, as Parker says, “every member of the church has a say in what the church’s purpose is and why we come together. This places democratic process and human promise-making at the center of church life.” 3 As James Luther Adams put it in our responsive reading, “the goal is the prophethood and the priesthood of all believers.”4

But what exactly is it that Adams’ “believers” believe? Is God in our covenants? Many UU’s believe in some form of God or divine energy, but many do not. UU churches have atheists, agnostics, religious humanists, and Buddhists among our members, along with our many varieties of theists. If we don’t all covenant with God, then with whom, or what, besides ourselves, do we covenant? Is there something larger than ourselves, some transcendent reality, with which we covenant, and to which we hold ourselves accountable?

To answer this question, let’s take a look at the actual covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It’s on the insert in your Order of Service. Let’s read the first half together, just through our seventh principle.


The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.

At first read, these principles might not sound particularly religious. They might not seem to say anything about God, or not-God. But as I said earlier, each principle is actually a statement of a particular theological position, with a very long history. Take just our first principle. It evolved from our religious ancestors’ belief that people were inherently good, because they were created in the image of an all-loving God—an idea from the Hebrew Bible. This directly counters the doctrine of Original Sin developed by Augustine in the late fourth century. According to Augustine, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had done such a bad thing in disobeying God that the consequences of their sin were visited on every human being from then on. Every baby was born in state of complete separation from God, and would therefore go to hell UNLESS it was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That was the only remedy. The doctrine of Original Sin is still in the Catholic catechism, and it’s still alive in many forms of Protestantism. But our ancestors in faith rejected it. And their belief in the goodness of human beings also countered the Calvinist idea that humans are utterly depraved. It gave our ancestors in faith the impetus to fight against slavery and for women’s rights. Our first principle now counters all forms of oppression. It is a brave and daring statement of our beliefs about human nature. It is also a statement of radical hospitality.

Because of our first principle, my daughter, who identifies as queer, had a safe and loving community to grow up in. She understands her sexual orientation as a lovely and essential part of herself. In stark and tragic contrast, recently a friend wrote me to say that a transgendered friend of hers had committed suicide. This friend was raised in a faith that could not accept her for who she was. Her parents had a funeral for her, but not really for her. They had the funeral for the son they wish they had had. How differently might this young person’s life have turned out, if her family’s religion had welcomed her, and loved her, just as she was? How differently would her parents’ life have turned out? Our first principle can make the difference between life and death.

Each of our principles has this much importance to the living of human life. Each has this much–or more!–history and depth.

And not only are our principles statements of theological positions, but the way they are organized speaks to our theology of interdependence, of interbeing. They begin with a statement about individuals, and then move outward in concentric spheres. Our seventh principle is about the health of the whole interdependent web of being. So our covenant expresses a vision of abundant love in which each individual flourishes because the whole community of life does, and the whole flourishes because each individual does.

What all this means is that we do covenant with a transcendent reality. We do understand there to be something larger than ourselves, into which we were born, that can help us when we are in need, and to which we can hold ourselves accountable. For some of us, this transcendent reality is the living universe that gave us birth, and gave us the capacity for love. For others, it is a personal deity they call God. For still others, it is simply the love we create when we come together in community, which holds us, and gives us power to do bigger things in the world than we could do alone. There are many ways to understand this transcendent reality, which James Luther Adams called “the ultimate source of existence.” So, our covenant has a second half, which names six sources of our living tradition.

Now, before I can talk about these, I want to give you another way of understanding the relationship between our covenant and the ultimate source of existence. This is through the symbolism of our flaming chalice.

The chalice is an open container. It provides a place to rest, a place to hold something sacred, a place to elevate something beautiful. It does not close off what is inside, but rather lifts it up, gives it space to move. The chalice is created by our uplifted hands, our covenanted community, the sacred space we create when we come together. Our community forms the chalice. At its center is an open place, and at the center of that dances a flame.

The flame is a powerful, and potentially dangerous, interaction between energy and matter. It re-creates, at a small scale, the moment of combustion that began the universe, a process of simultaneous creation and destruction. It re-creates the power that has brought all of life and death into being. It can provide light, and heat, something to see by, something to warm us; or it can burn, and consume. It is the mystery at the center of our faith community. The flame is a locus of pure possibility.

So our community forms an open container, at the center of which dwells this spark of pure possibility, energy that can both create and destroy. What each of us sees in that space of creative/destructive energy, and what meaning we make from it, might be different. UU theists might see it and name it as a personal God, with whom they can have an intimate relationship. UU religious humanists and atheists might see it as the impulses toward love and fear, good and evil, that are found in every human heart. UU pagans might see it as the Goddess in her aspects of maiden, mother, and crone. UU process theists might see it as the divine energy which manifests itself in the form of the becoming universe.
Each of us looks for, and sees, “something” that keeps us in the chalice, in the community. We generally find that this “something” changes as we grow and develop. So we covenant to use the sources of our living tradition—including our own life experiences, our mystical encounters with the divine, our powers of reasoning, and the wisdom of the many religions of the world—to expand our awareness of the possibilities.

Whatever we see at the center of the chalice, we limit what we do with it. We limit how we behave, toward each other and the wider world. Contrary to what many people think about us, UU’s are not free to believe just anything. Our chalice may be an open container but it is still a container. We live in covenantal relationship with the others in our community. And since we understand our community as an interdependent web that extends infinitely in all directions, we limit what we believe, and how we behave, to what is healthful for the whole web of life. Which means that however many ways there are for us to understand the symbol of the flame, at the center of all them is love.

Doesn’t this sound wonderful? I think so. I am passionately in love with our life-giving and life-saving religion. But I have to be honest with you. In my view, our covenant has a serious limitation. This is that we only covenant to affirm and promote our principles. We do not, as yet, covenant to live them. I think this makes our religion weaker than it could be. I think it’s one reason why many UU churches seem like social clubs for likeminded people, rather than religious communities that engage us at the very deepest levels of our being.

But imagine—just imagine—what might happen if we covenanted to LIVE our principles? If we covenanted to LIVE the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, and respect for the interdependent web of all existence? This would make our religion quite demanding, wouldn’t it? We would have to shed any possessions in excess of what we need. We would have to learn how to communicate, and behave, in nonviolent ways. We would have to act in the world, every day, as Marge Piercy says, to “bless whatever (we) can with eyes and hands and tongues, and if (we) can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.”

Can we meet those demands? Can we bless the world, or make it new? YES, WE CAN.

We can, because we walk together, in covenanted community, with none of us alone. We can, because the many sources of our faith give us sustenance for the journey. We can, because we love.

My brothers and sisters, let us deepen our covenant so that we live it in every moment. Then can this religion of love claim its true power in the world. Then can the Way of the Chalice be the way of blessing we want it to be.

May it be so. Blessed be.


1Parker, Rebecca A.  “Under Construction:  Knowing and Transforming Our Unitarian Universalist Theological House.”  Unpublished paper, presented at Collegium, October 23-26, 2003.  p. 6.

2Wright, Conrad.  “Congregational Polity and the Covenant,”  Redeeming Time:  Endowing Your Church with the Power of Covenant, Walter P. Herz, ed., Boston, Skinner House Books, 1999.  p. 39.

3Parker, ibid.

Adams, James Luther. #591 in Singing the Living Tradition.  Boston, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993.

See also Buehrens, John A. and Rebecca Parker. A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century, Boston, Beacon Press, 2011.