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 Contents: UU World Back Issue

Unitarian Universalism grows under Sinkford’s watchful eye

by Alex Poinsett

Picture the Unitarian Universalist Association as a massive ocean liner easing into port. Imagine the Rev. William G. Sinkford, the UUA president, as a tugboat skipper aiding its docking. As he deftly nudges it to and fro, the skipper is acutely aware that his maneuvers must be subtle and—as with the task of steering a religious movement—honest.

“Much of what I do—the kind of pushing I do—is very often simply to try to reflect back what I’m seeing,” Sinkford explains in a telephone interview. “All that I’m doing is saying, ‘This is what I see. Do you see the same thing? If so, what do we need to do to shift and change?’”

As his second year closes at the halfway point of the four-year term he won in a lopsided vote at the Cleveland General Assembly, Sinkford’s nudging has steered the Association toward:

  • GROWTH in the number of healthy, vital congregations in underserved and/or high potential metropolitan areas that could accommodate locally tailored growth plans.
  • PUBLIC WITNESS through a clear Unitarian Universalist voice in public dialogue about religious meaning and social issues now dominated by the religious right.
  • ANTIOPPRESSION efforts addressing multiple oppressions, not just those that are race-based.

Strategic planners convened in 2000 by Sinkford’s predecessor, the Rev. Dr. John A. Buehrens, proposed a $50 million price tag for starting 10 new congregations a year for five years. Later, Sinkford urged the UUA Board to create at least 20 new congregations annually. Planners abandoned the UUA’s policy of starting mid-sized churches (under 150 adult members), opting instead to create large congregations immediately. The “pilot” for this bold plan is Dallas/Fort Worth, which lists only one Unitarian Universalist for every 3,000 inhabitants. By mid-January, Administrator Meryl Gunter was hired, joined later by the Rev. Anthony David as the church’s senior minister. At least 400 attendees are expected for the opening-day worship services.

Forming brand new congregations is only one phase of Unitarian Universalist efforts to grow a faith seeking to “share the good news with a world that badly needs it,” according to Sinkford.

In January, Kansas City UUs launched a national campaign to attract new members, thus addressing adult membership growth that has been consistently less than 1 percent a year and 25 percent lower than a 280,000 high in 1960. Believing they can increase UU church attendance, local UUs erected six highway billboards, advertising “Unitarian Universalism, the Uncommon Denomination.” Similar TV messages aired on NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox affiliate stations, 15 radio stations, and were printed in the city’s two newspapers.

Meanwhile, Sinkford’s stress on public witness has flourished. Last fall, a week after his pastoral letter on Iraq appeared on the UUA Web site, there were 40 press mentions of his reflections. Since then, the UUA has been receiving even more press coverage.

In another strategic thrust, Sinkford is pushing to strengthen Journey Toward Wholeness as a faith-based, antiracist, antioppression, multicultural initiative throughout the UUA. He reports:

It’s been interesting to experience the reaction of UU’s to having a black president. Most feel very positive about that, but some feel “well we’ve pretty well taken care of the issue of race by electing a black man.” That’s far from the case. We still have work to do. The Association wishes to be more racially and culturally diverse than we are. I tell folks who ask how we’re going to do that to look at the church schools and see the racial and cultural diversity that is already there, as a result of adoptions and blended families, and to think seriously about what kind of religious institutions we want to leave for all of the children. Not just the white children.

Sinkford laments that the Journey Toward Wholeness initiative has “run up against a roadblock” in which too many Unitarian Universalist leaders—particularly ministers—have shut down around the issue. “What I’m trying to help us do is to get unstuck,” he says. That means shifting UUA support of its antiracism initiative from one department to multiple departments and switching from top-down directives to more consultation. Sinkford asks senior ministers of the largest churches to be open while addressing national and denomination-wide racism. Least helpful, he suggests, are UUs who shun talking about race issues for fear of making mistakes. “If we’re not willing to engage,” the president warns, “we’re not going to learn and grow.”

Meanwhile, Taquiena Boston, director of Identity-Based Ministries, which analyzes multiple oppressions, not just those that are race-based, explains that an American society claiming to be inclusive will not become so until, for example, whites understand how white identity influences how they experience the world or until men and women understand how maleness and femaleness color their outlooks. In short, these perspectives of the various identities boost or limit participation in a larger society structured by certain “norms.”

Sinkford frets that he has only a few years to achieve his objectives as president. For example, racism was not constructed in ten years, he notes, and is not likely to be deconstructed in ten. Similarly, he is patient about transforming religious education into lifelong learning and growth in moral character, spiritual values, religious literacy, and ethical practice. He complains that UUs have both under-supported and under-valued religious education, even though it should be central to Unitarian Universalist ministry. “We’re trying to make religious education not just a downstairs church for children, but one in which we’re all engaged,” he explains. “We call it faith development rather than religious education. Too often in our congregations, children and youth are marginalized. We need a shift to a more intergenerational, family style of church where children, youth, and young adults are so valued that a youth, for example, can be asked to join a church’s Board of Trustees.”

Sinkford hopes to enhance existing lay leadership development programs and also attract promising ministerial candidates by targeting scholarship support and reducing theological education debt, which currently is so expensive that even students who work part-time while in seminary must often borrow more than $30,000 in student loans. Some graduate with an indebtedness of $40,000 to $60,000 or more.

As Sinkford moves through the second year of his busy presidency, gently pressuring, persuading, drawing on expertise amassed during two decades in corporate America, wary of premature critiques of his leadership, sacrificing the tennis he once played well but shelved to keep pace with his ever-faster treadmill, he says: “It’s a demanding schedule, but it’s about the only way that I know to do the job of hearing from folks in the congregations, learning their concerns and trying to give them the vision we share. I haven’t figured out a different way to do it.”

Buehrens, Sinkford’s long-ago Harvard classmate, says it differently: “People are impressed with what comes across as a deep calm. Someone once said that ‘leadership is the art of fighting your panic.’ If that’s the case, Bill does it very well.”

Alex Poinsett was an editor at Ebony Magazine for 26 years and is the author of five books. A member of Chicago’s First Unitarian Church, he serves on the President’s Council and is on the Board of Starr King School for the Ministry.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

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