Congregational polity is destroying people of color in Unitarian Universalism.
I am currently in the process of returning to work after a 5 month medical leave. In September, I realized that stress, internal organizational conflicts and pressures had simply gotten to be too much for me. I was not caring for my body, I could not “wind down” and sleep had become a losing crapshoot. As a 56 year old man, and a former wellness professional, I knew I was doing everything I used to tell people NOT to do in order to avoid having a stroke or heart attack. Most graciously, my congregation (specifically, my board and committee on ministry) advocated for and granted me time off. In my absence, the congregation rose to the challenge, the staff put out a herculean effort and a ministerial colleague was brought in to mind the store. The world did not fall off its axis and I am significantly better off for the time I spent investing in my health, both mental and physical. I am proud of my congregation and I am proud of myself for being proactive.
During this time off, I had a chance to consider more than just my work and the day to day strains of parish ministry. I had the opportunity to do a significant amount of reflection, writing and research. I looked back at some of my writing over the last 10 years which includes my time in seminary, my internship and my settlement into called ministry. I looked at the writing of my colleagues both in various magazines and in academic journals as well as looking closely at the Widening the Circle of Concern report from the Unitarian Universalist Commission on Institutional Change. I talked to colleagues both white and people of color. I talked to colleagues outside of Unitarian Universalism and I talked with people in ministerial formation. I also witnessed more death from stress related diseases and more religious professionals pulling up stakes. Although I’m well aware that the pandemic had an effect on us all, I am mostly aware (from my own experience) that it really just amplified what we were all experiencing already. We may have been willing to “hang on” in a job because we knew we needed to be practical, or we had some vision of ourselves that was “better than just walking away”, however, in the end the impulse to say simply “enough” was always there.
I also had the opportunity to witness one of the most important processes within Unitarian Universalism reveal its toxicity as a gatekeeping tool designed to harm people of color. I will not name the process or the people because it is a situation that is still unfolding. Suffice it to say, more than anything, that process and its utter failure makes it clear to me that a culture of non-accountability, both intentionally and unintentionally built around congregational polity is destroying us.
Puritan congregational polity (from which Unitarian Universalism originates) was born out of a 17th century, European, white-centric, colonial impulse for religious self-determination. I will not go into the finer points here. The important thing to understand is that today, the idea of each congregation being its own governing and responsible body is the primary ethical foundation for Unitarian Universalism as an “association of congregations” as opposed to it being a religious “denomination”. Governance, not doctrine is what officially connects Unitarian Universalists. Free will, self-determination, self-definition, the sole ability and responsibility to call and ordain clergy…these are what we as modern UUs are told over and over again are the most important parts of how and why we gather. It is a structure of governance that affirms our commitment to individualism and also heavily influenced the foundation for the structure of the United States government (think “states rights”.)
And congregational polity came from the same people who enslaved Africans and killed Native people and who were conflicted for 200 or more years over the financial impact of abolition (Unitarian United States President Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Law) and supported back to Africa movements, Native removal and certain Jim Crow segregations.
But that was then. Surely, self-determination and the importance of the individual as theology are more relevant than ever today in a world where voting rights, abortion rights, transgender rights, economic rights, housing and healthcare rights, etc. are under attack? Maybe. But at what cost in our organizations? The most common complaint I hear from my colleagues of color and what is painfully well documented is how they are often literally used up by UU congregations. While they are asked to lead the justice movements of well-meaning predominantly white liberal communities, they are also being held to unsustainable standards of over-functioning. Leaders of color are constantly having to play translator to an absurdly and almost arrogant ignorance around how to be in relationship across multiple cultures and identities. The result is that many are burned out and burned up.
Many UU religious professionals of color are less in the business of being religious professionals and more so tasked with herding communities of extremely pampered cats who are just as quick to scratch and bite as they are to cuddle and purr. Many UU leaders of color never know which one is coming next: fur or fangs. Sadly, for many religious professionals of all stripes, our congregations become clubs of individuals who use the word “independence” as an aspiration, as a religion and as a weapon. It is no small task for any minister, religious professional or leader to take this on, let alone when you are constantly having to create, define, explain, educate and too often defend your own social location.
Then, when our communities have truly devastating challenges, there is no overarching entity to which anyone will answer…because we are self-determining, right? Religious professionals are abused, ministers are undermined, lay leaders are subverted and when it comes time for another new leader to come along and fix things, they can’t…although they continue to try. Too often, the cloak of congregational polity shrouds a self-defining cycle of harm, with no culture of accountability outside of self-reference. The end result is generation after generation of toxic behavior disguised as “individuals” or people being “just who they are.”
We must ask more of ourselves.
We must ask more of “faith”…even if many UU individuals bristle at the word.
What we have lost track of is that faith is not an excuse for your failings, whether that is bigotry or bullying. Faith is simply an invitation to be better.
If congregations are where our leaders are grown, endorsed and certified by the wider community, be they religious educators, ministers, administrators or other leaders, it stands to reason that there must be some standard to which those incubators of the future are held. Without a standard, we get independence sure, we get self-determination, yes…and we also get veiled racist excuses, negotiated resignations, sudden disappearances and what can only be called a frayed and inconsistent history of damage, suspicion, and dread.
Congregational polity is destroying people of color, because having a heightened focus on the individual means that being a person of color in itself becomes the primary focal point of our individuality. Focus on our individual difference from the dominant culture is not how people of color have survived in the wake of colonial oppression and ongoing mental and physical Euro-centric occupation. Speaking from my perspective as a Black American, I know that we value the individual as much as anyone. And we have also gathered and communicated and built languages and accountabilities in our communities that constantly call each other in. Regardless of religion, solidarity has also been our savior. It is not perfect, but the “we” is taught to us to be equally prominent as the “me”.
The first thing my mother expressed to me when I came out as gay was a worry about what other black people would think. That will sound like the greatest tragedy to a white UU and sure, it was problematic for many reasons. At the same time, it made perfect sense to me because accountability to black community had been drummed into my head from before I could speak. I was taught that I am and will always be part of and representative of what it means to be black in America. And that accountability was never presented as a burden no matter how challenging. It was offered to me as a gift…a gift of belonging so that I would always do me and mine proud and so that in a world where I had been robbed of my history, I would always have a place to culturally call home.
If Unitarian Universalists are going to actually become anything even vaguely close to what we say we want to be, we have to let go of unexamined congregational polity as a foundation for community. Congregational polity was born out of white supremacy mixed with fear and paranoia, not just of people of color but the fear of other whites. It is a structure that rests entirely on the concept of what separates people. Being somehow united in separateness feels counterproductive to the modern mission of Unitarian Universalism. Why not build ourselves on what we share in accountabilities, goals, equity and peace?
What is more, perpetuating this posture of distance, can only mean ongoing pain for those of us who are harmed by its legacies. It is high time Unitarian Universalists have some guts and build something that works for all of us. Not a retrofit, or rethink…a clean slate. Build something new that contains some of the bricks that I bring from my African and Caribbean roots, some of the bricks of the Latin-x diaspora, some of the bricks of the vastness that is AAPI culture, some of the bricks of indigeneity, bricks of different ability, bricks of gender-non-conformity. Until we do, marginalized communities will always be marginalized within Unitarian Universalism. Specifically, people of color will always begin their journey in Unitarian Universalism from the outside, even when they have been born into it. The traditional wall of congregational polity is built entirely of white bricks.
Tear down this wall.