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.

Let Me Be Saved By Small Things

Spirit of Life, Radiant Mystery,
Source of all that is good and holy:
I confess to a certain weariness of spirit.

Just as we were beginning to recover
from the other disasters,
another shooting.

And since the rains have still not come
the power will be turned off

And people who should love one another
and speak with kindness
or at least civility
are shouting in rage
and flouncing away–
forever!–they say
from their circles of love and support.

What is to become of us?

I long to pray to an omnipotent god
who would fix all this
if we just said the right words

But since that is not an option

I take myself
to the running waters
and listen to their song.

I call my dear friend
and listen to their beautiful voice.

And I sit with a four-year-old child
and read our favorite story.

Salvation is not something grand
heralded with trumpets;

It is instead effected by
a hundred small things:

The good dinner on a beautiful table,
a small child bouncing on your belly,
a dog chewing a bone against your leg.

The way water slides over smooth stone
over and over again but
never exactly
the same way twice.

The way the ravens converse
as they fly over the neighborhood
talking to each other
at the end of the day.

The way moss springs to life
the moment
it is touched
by rain.

Spirit of Life,
let me be saved by these small things.

Blessed be.






You… Shining (A Prayer for Yom Kippur)

Great Spirit of Life, Mysterious energy
that moves in and through all things:

Our old unwanted thoughts and habits
lie underfoot like the old leaves
that now begin to fall
on your hillsides.
We may have needed them once,
but no more.

Send the sweet rain
of Your love and compassion
that these old things
may be transformed
into rich soil for new growth.

And as feathery moss awakens
to the touch of rain,
and sends out new, seeking tendrils,
may we be made so fresh, and alive, and alert,
that when we look into each other’s faces
we see… You, shining.


We Need Only Be

Spirit of Life,
Great immensity of love in which
we live and move and have our being:

Sometimes words fail.
Sometimes the catastrophe is so great
and the pain and fear and bewilderment
are so overwhelming
that we run out of things to say.
It feels impossible to pray.

In those times help us remember
that it is not our words
that connect us to you,
though they can help.
It is not our deeds
that connect us to you,
though they can help too.

No, it is rather that
we can never become disconnected.
Like a bird soaring on an updraft,
we need only be
and we are held in you.
We need only breathe,
and we breathe in you.

I breathe in God,
God breathes in me.
I breathe in Love,
Love breathes in me.

I rest in God,
God rests in me.
I rest in Love,
Love rests in me.

I move in God,
God moves in me.
I move in Love,
Love moves in me.

Help us remember:
we need only be,
and we are held in infinite love.

Blessed be.

God’s Porch

If you just lost everything in a fire
If the floods have taken it all away
If the diagnosis is worse
than anything you imagined
If the pain just won’t let up

If you are afraid for the life
of your grown-up child
If you can’t keep a baby growing
If your failing parent is far far away
And you can’t afford to travel

If you spend every day in the car outside
the worksite of your toddler’s father
singing to the baby and praying each moment
that ICE won’t come today

If you are hiding in the hills with no place to go
because the trailers for the workers
burned down

If you can’t go outside
without some jerk shouting comments
about every aspect of your body

If you fear for your life
when you see a police car
If you fear for the life of your son

If you worry every day
about what kind of world
this is for raising your children
If you’re scared of the man
with his hand on the button
If you’re afraid of what’s happening
to your marriage

Come to my house.

Come sit on the porch a while.

Look up at the trees. Listen to the quiet.
Allow peace to enter your heart.
A dragonfly darts to and fro above the yard
and butterflies silently flutter.
Hummingbirds drink from the feeders
and bees work in the clover.

There are wind chimes of metal
and one of bamboo
and they sway
sometimes sounding
in the breeze.

Come sit on the porch,
or lie down if you prefer.
We have many different kinds of chairs.
Breathe in the sweet air.
Gaze up into blue sky.
See the bright colors of the zinnias.

I will bring you something
delicious to drink
and if it is cool I will tuck you in
with a blanket

You can lie back and rest and relax
And just leave it all to me.

My love will wrap around you
and you will know you are safe
and nothing will ever hurt you

Come sit on the porch a while.
Come on up and rest.

I am here waiting
for you.

Growing Together

Spirit of Life,
Great Immensity of Love that birthed the stars
and washes through our bodies
with every beat of our hearts:

Help us know you as the greening force
that pushes tender shoots through hard pavement.
They penetrate and then grow, and grow,
prying apart the hardest places.
Lush green life reclaims ugly surfaces.

May it be so in our own lives.
May we welcome in the seeds of love.
May we encourage them to take root.
May they take hold and pry apart
any hard casings on our hearts,
anything that separates us, one from another.

Cracked open, may we all weep
with one another’s sorrow.
May we all laugh
with one another’s joy.
May we grow together, our roots intertwined,
beautiful with the life we share.

Blessed be.

What is good and real and beautiful

A cellist in Sarajevo
once played for 22 days in a row
to honor 22 people who were killed by a mortar
as they waited in line for bread.

When asked “How can you play music
when bombs are being dropped all around?”

He replied, “No, the question is,
how can people drop bombs
when there is such beautiful music?”

Today we paddled our kayaks
across a lake
and into a creek
between canyon walls lush with
willow, alder, cottonwood,
maple, fir, pine,
madrone, oak, cedar
Green upon green upon green
in so many different hues

Bald Eagle greeted us
by swooping over our heads
and hundreds of dragonflies
darted above the water.
Little fish swam just below
and the loudest sound
was the fluting call
of a hermit thrush.

This time on quiet water
among green trees and with
our other-than-human relatives
is necessary

Because for some unfathomable reason
people do drop bombs
and hurt children
and pretend there is no climate change

and we need to remind ourselves of
what is good and real and beautiful.

There is music.
There is the fragrance of the pines
on a warm summer day.
There is the kiss of our beloved.
There is the laughter of a happy child
as she bounces on our lap
and sings her little song.
There is the fluting call
of the hermit thrush.

If we can keep these in our hearts
we will be strong enough
to go into the belly of the beast
and put out its fire
with the sweet, sweet waters
of love.




The Heart Outside Your Body

At the grocery store
I saw a baby in the seat
of a cart and he smiled at me
with such delight
that he reminded me of my own baby
and I was instantly transported
back to those days
such a long time ago

when I was his favorite person in the world
and he would raise his little arms
with fingers pointing up
and a winning smile
knowing that I would lift him high
and swing him through the air
before settling him on my hip
and taking him to the next big thing.

He too would sit in the cart
and smile at people who walked by
always so friendly
and slightly mischievous

no words yet
but you always knew
just what he meant.

Now he is a grown man
overtopping me by a foot
with a man’s beard and muscles
and his expression is often hard to read.

He is one of the good ones
and as much as I would like
to claim credit for that
I must admit
he was born that way.

Elizabeth Stone said that to have a child is
“forever to have your heart
go walking outside your body.”

Even long after they are grown
This is true.
I miss my sweet baby boy
but I love the man he has become
and I wish his heart didn’t walk
quite so far away
so much of the time

because even though
I am no longer his favorite person
he and his sister
(also grown)
are still mine.




What The World Needs

Spirit of Life,
You who urge the spring salmon upstream
and the geese back to their nesting grounds:

There is so much pain in our world.

It is tempting to shut our eyes
and shut our hearts
just so we can survive.

But what the world needs
is for us to keep them open.

Help us keep our eyes open
to the suffering we see.

Grant us the strength
not to turn away,
but to move toward
those beings and places
where our love is most needed.

Help us open our hearts.

Help us know
that it is when we are most open
to your movement through us
into our beautiful and hurting world
that we will feel the most joy.

Help us open our hearts to joy.

Blessed be.


What The World Needs Now

excerpted from “Live For It” by Ellen Bass[i]

Jasmine unfolding, the scent and color attracting the bees,
the darker veins guiding them toward the nectar,
honey in honeycombs, worms aerating soil,
the levity of bird bones,
fins of fish, the eye blinking—
who could have ever conceived it?

The crescent moon, tender as new love in the luminescent blue,
Milkweed silk—who could have imagined it?

And my lover, when she lifts her lips to me
and I first feel that softness,
warm like summer nights as a child
when she rubs against me like fur
and small cries escape my mouth like birds,
“Sing to me,” she breathes
and I sing glory I did not know was mine to sing.

What is this but a miracle?
What is this but the improbable, marvelous reward of desire?

Desire—that fire I was taught to suspect,
that intensity I struggled to calm.
“Don’t want too much,” the voices warned.

No.  Want.  Want life.
Want this fragile oasis of the galaxy to flourish.
Want fertility, want seasons, want this spectacular
array of creatures,
this brilliant balance of need.
Want it.  Want it all.

Desire.  Welcome her raging power.
May her strength course through us.
Desire, she is life.  Desire life.
Allow ourselves to desire life, to want this sweetness
so passionately, that we live for it.


What The World Needs Now

(Offered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Chico, February 10, 2019)

What does it mean to love and be loved?  What is healthy love and what is not?   What is the place of love in human life on earth, and why does it matter?

In the field of systematic theology, these questions fall into the category of theological anthropology, or human nature in relation to the divine.  Wow, you may be saying, that sounds dull.  I thought we were going to be talking about eros today!  I was expecting something a little more, shall we say, exciting?

Okay, let’s talk about eros.

Have you ever stood in a winter storm with your arms open wide and your face to the wind and felt it scour you clean?  In the summer, have you ever been so hot that you slipped off all your clothes and slid naked into a cold river?  Have you ever stood between the rising of the full moon, and the setting of the brilliant sun, and felt the turning of the earth?  Have you ever lost yourself in music or painting or sculpting, or danced in joy until dawn?  Have you ever tasted a strawberry picked straight from the plant and nearly swooned as the bright flavor exploded in your mouth?  Have you ever made love with another person and felt, if only for a moment, your two selves become one?  Has longing ever pierced your heart?  Has beauty ever made you cry?

These are erotic experiences, experiences in which we feel the life force moving through us and responding to the life all around us.  We feel a longing to intimately participate in this life; we long to know and be known, to love and be loved.  We see beauty and respond by creating more beauty; we are the world consciously loving itself.  We are part of a great communion of all life.

Erotic love is one of the most joyful pathways human beings can follow to awakening to this communion.  Relationships based on mutual care and pleasure provide refuge and sustenance for their partners.  These would be wonderful enough, but even more is possible.  The ecstatic awareness that comes with erotic love can be a magic portal.  Through it people can enter a new relationship with what some call the interdependent universe and others call the divine.  Do you remember your first mutual love?  Did colors seem brighter?  Did birds seem to be singing in a language you could almost understand?  Did every breeze seem to caress your skin?  Did the moon seem to hang low and lush, just for you?  The heightening of our senses that comes with desire can make us exquisitely aware of our interbeing with all that is.

This was what happened to a Muslim man named Mevlana Jelal Ad Din Muhammad Rumi, in 13th century Persia.  Rumi, as Americans call him, was born in what is now Afghanistan and moved to what is now Turkey as boy.  He was a respected scholar and jurist—until the fateful day when a wandering ascetic named Shams came into his life.  Shams means Sun in Arabic, and for Rumi Shams was his sun.  He fell madly in love.  His love for Shams opened his whole being so wide that he began regularly to experience all life and love as One, in Arabic called Allah, THE One. In the mystical school of Islam that Rumi began, Allah is said to have created the universe that Allah might be known by Allah.  In other words, the universe both is God and is a mirror of God; in still other words, the universe is Godself becoming.  In still yet other words, humans are the divine beholding the divine, both Lover and Beloved.  The job of lovers is to see the divine in each other and grow, through love, toward union with the whole.  In Islam, there is a concept of the unity of all creation.  It is a communion of all life and the divine, from which human beings often feel cut off, but long for.  The name of this concept is tawhid.  According to Rumi’s teachings, this communion, this state of participation in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, is what we seek when we love.

Here is one of Rumi’s ecstatic poems:

Some Kiss We Want

There is some kiss we want with
our whole lives, the touch of
spirit on the body.

Seawater begs the pearl
to break its shell.

And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling!

At night, I open the window and ask
the moon to come and press its
face against mine.
Breathe into me.

Close the language- door and
open the love window. The moon
won’t use the door, only the window. [ii]

Rumi taught that when we love well, when we move past the limitations of our own ego, when we reach consciousness of our unity with the divine whole that is our world, we have no choice but to love that whole and care for every part and being.  Rumi taught his followers to love and care for peoples of all religions, castes, and nations, as well as the other creatures of the earth.

Hafiz was another Persian poet from this same school of thought.  Here is one of his works, which can be found in the back of our gray hymnal.

“Cloak yourself in a thousand ways; still shall I know you, my Beloved.
Veil yourself with every enchantment, and yet I shall feel you, presence, most close, dear, and intimate.
I shall salute you in the springing of cypresses and in the sheen of lakes, the laughter of fountains.
I shall surely see you in the tumbling clouds, in brightly embroidered meadows.

Oh, Beloved Presence, More beautiful than all the stars together,
I trace your face in ivy that climbs,
in clusters of grapes,
in morning flaming the mountains,
in the clear arch of sky.
You gladden the whole earth and make every heart great.
You are the breathing of the world.”[iii]

In this way of understanding, eros, the life force, our drive to love, is the divine moving in us, making us aware, giving us our ability to perceive beauty, making us long for union with all that is.  These Islamic teachers express an idea of the divine as both immanent—fully present in this world now—and transcendent.  Transcendent in this case not meaning something separate and apart, but rather a reality that is greater than the sum of its parts, something of which we are members and in which we participate.

One thing that might occur to you as I speak of these teachings is how familiar they sound.  Do they sound a little bit Unitarian Universalist? The unity of the divine, and the divine as both immanent and transcendent?  The universality of divine love?

This is not actually a coincidence.  Islam directly influenced the development of Unitarianism in eastern Europe, and that influenced American Unitarianism.  The Persian Sufi poets greatly influenced Unitarian and Universalist thinkers, particularly the Transcendentalists.  Think of William Ellery Channing writing:  “Nature is a great shining forth of the Divine Mind.”  And Emerson writing:  “Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball-I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me-I am part or particle of God.”

Partly as a result of these Islamic influences, our faith tradition has a long history of understanding the world as sacred and beautiful, and the human capacity for relationship and sexual love as being one of what Channing called “the powers of the soul.”  Our faith tradition values all healthy erotic relationships.  As Rebecca Parker writes in the book, A House for Hope,

“Eros is more than acceptable in liberal religious understanding, it is revelatory of humanity’s deepest capacities to touch and be touched, to take joy, to be transported and to transport another, to create life… at its best, sexual intimacy can reveal the powers of the soul—our ability to feel and be affected, our capacity for both vulnerability and power, to receive and to give.  It can teach us that we have agency to act in the world and that we can be moved deeply by the presence and the actions of another.  It can transport our hearts into spaces of openness, flexibility, tenderness.  It can renew, refresh, and satisfy our love for life—not only our affection for a beloved, but our affection for the world.  Same-sex affectional and sexual relationships do all this, just as heterosexual relationships can.”[iv]

These understandings directly counter conservative church doctrines holding that the world is corrupt, human sexual love is dangerous, and same-sex love is wrong.  Was anyone here taught these doctrines at some point in your life? According to these doctrines, the only way human beings can reach union with the divine is through obedience to God’s laws.  Rebecca Parker, again, shares an experience she once had in talking to a conservative colleague in ministry about the divide in the Methodist church over same-sex relationships.  She writes:

“Sam felt loved by God when he was obedient to God’s rule…In (his) interpretation of (Genesis), God created humanity in two genders, male and female, and created woman to be man’s helpmate.   Patriarchal heterosexual union is the way God has ordained things to be.  Only by complying…could people receive God’s love and be in right relationship with God…those who turn away from God’s love will suffer the torments of the damned, and those who accept it will be rewarded with eternal life…God’s love, he said, includes rewards and punishments, because human beings are nothing more than selfish, willful children…motivated by what gratifies us, by what we want, not what God wants…For him, love was inseparable from a hierarchical structure of command and obedience.”[v]

Our faith tradition sees this identification of love with “a hierarchical structure of command and obedience” as precisely the problem—in fact, we see it as the biggest problem facing life on earth.  It haunts personal sexual relationships, structures of political and economic power, and our relationships with the whole web of life.  Relationships with each other and the rest of the world that are based on patriarchal dominance, on control, and power over, cause harm.  Between individuals, at best, they limit women’s freedom, and at worst result in outright abuse and violence.  At larger levels, they give rise to industrial capitalism and empires whose machinery and wars endanger all of life on earth.

Unitarian Universalism offers an alternative.  We affirm the beauty and goodness of eros.  We affirm that healthy erotic love between human beings, whatever our sex or gender, can bring us joy.  Not only that, it can be a doorway through which we enter into profound awareness of our interbeing with all life.  Love is the seed, love is the green growing stem, love is the flower, love is the fruit, and love is the seed again of more love.  Love is the life force expressing itself in our human forms.  Eros, desire, longing…when we can let go of our need for control, and surrender to these powerful forces calling us toward communion, toward intimate relationship with the world, in ways that create life and beauty, we fulfill nature’s purpose.  We are ourselves fulfilled.

This is the Unitarian Universalist theological anthropology about eros.   It is what we believe about what it means to love and be loved, what healthy love is, and what the place of love is in human life on earth. And so it is critical that Unitarian Universalists make our voices heard in the public sphere.  Our faith tradition offers a path to healing our broken hearts and our wounded bodies.  It offers a path to healing our broken society, and our relationship with the whole community of life.  As Rebecca Parker writes:

“As we face the future, we need a rebirth of love for life, for the planet, and for one another, grounded in a relational understanding of human existence…There needs to be a (religious) home built on the understanding that all life is interdependent, whose foundation is faithful care, whose threshold is open-hearted welcome, whose kitchen serves any in need, and where love can lie down in peace and take joy.  This kind of love can provide us the nourishment we need to resist the excesses and injustices of market capitalism.  It can instigate more justice and sustainability for the planet.”[vi]

May this community be such a home for love.

Blessed be.

Artwork:  Pink Rhythms Chalice by Peg Green

[i] Bass, Ellen, “Live For It,” from Woman of Power.  Excerpted in Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, eds., 1996Life Prayers From Around the World:  365 Prayers, Blessings, and Affirmations to Celebrate the Human Journey, Harper Collins, San Francisco. Pp. 234-235.

[ii] There are so many translations of Rumi’s poetry online and in print that it is difficult to choose one to cite. A quick Google search will reveal many possibilities.

[iii] The same applies to the poetry of Hafiz.

[iv] Parker, Rebecca Ann, 2010.  “A Home for Love.”  Chapter Nine in Buehrens, John A., and Rebecca Ann Parker, A House for Hope:  The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-First Century.  Beacon Press, Boston.  Pp. 130-131.

[v] Ibid,  pp. 124-125

[vi] Ibid, p. 136.