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Storms facing West

Twenty-five years after Bob West navigated the denomination through the painful and divisive 1970s, he is regarded by many as the 'unsung hero of the UUA.'
By Warren R. Ross
July/August 2002 7.1.02

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Bob West

The Rev. Robert Nelson West, UUA President from 1969 to 1977. (Ivan Massar)

A perfect storm has come to be a metaphor for a succession of events that, hitting one on top of another, threaten survival. Less than a decade after its hopeful launching, the Unitarian Universalist Association, formed in 1961 by uniting the Universalist Church of America with the American Unitarian Association, ran into just such a storm—a threefold crisis so severe that it seemed to many that the association's ninth General Assembly might also be its last.

That it was not, that Unitarian Universalism survived its perfect storm, is now widely credited to the leadership of the surprisingly young minister who was elected president at that same wrenching General Assembly. This July marks twenty-five years since the Rev. Robert Nelson West completed his two terms as UUA president, and as this anniversary approaches, many longtime UUA observers are remembering his accomplishments in the face of overwhelming odds with renewed appreciation.

The most emotional of the three concurrent crises was a fratricidal confrontation over racial justice that pitted advocates of black empowerment (represented by the Black Affairs Council, or BAC) against advocates of integration (led by Black and White Action, or BAWA). Almost as volatile were deep divisions triggered by the Vietnam War. Worst of all, though the least visible, was a desperate financial situation, approaching bankruptcy.

Nor could these issues be faced dispassionately, for this was a time when many on the left, young people especially, felt that the first step toward a better world was to dismantle all existing institutions, triggering reactions from puzzlement to rage.

To capture the way all this played out at the 1969 GA, listen to how the Rev. Dana Greeley, our first president, describes the events in his autobiography:

There were two most shocking moments for me in the Assembly. One occurred when a young black delegate took one of the floor microphones forcibly, put it under his coat, and wouldn't release it. . . . The second shock came during a speech of Jack Mendelsohn's from the rostrum . . . [in which he said that he] was going to leave the Assembly, boycott it, and anybody who wanted to leave with him was welcome to do so. . . . Here was my minister, walking out on my administration and my Board and my Assembly (and his), and going over to my church (and his) [the Arlington Street Church] for a rump session or to form a dissident or splinter group.

The Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, minister at Arlington Street and vice chair of the Black Affairs Council, agreed with Greeley on very little except the high pitch of emotion and hostility. He later recalled in an interview that after BAC lost a procedural vote,

Almost all of the two to three hundred black delegates who were there got up and walked out. There was such confusion and turmoil over that that a recess was called and I went to find out where the hell they were. I found them in a room at the Statler [Hotel]. They were saying good-bye to one another, they were in tears, they were broken, they were going home because they felt nobody had left with them. I asked them to give me an opportunity to go back [to the GA] and ask for the right to speak. . . . I said, 'I'm going over to Arlington Street Church and I'd be glad to have any of you who want to join me so we can consider what we can do about this.' And as I walked off the podium, one of my honored colleagues got up and spat in my face.

The eye of the storm

In the midst of all this turmoil, the delegates had to elect a new president. After eight years in office, Greeley was barred by the bylaws from running again, and seven candidates vied to succeed him. Turning away from those strongly committed to any one side of the rancorous controversies, the delegates chose West, a centrist. Amazingly enough in such a scattered field, West not only won but also achieved a clear majority on the first ballot.

What made his victory even more surprising was that West was, in a sense, the antithesis of his predecessor. Dana Greeley—tall, with a booming voice and a grand Brahmin personality—was widely admired for his charisma. West was, by contrast, the "anti-charisma" candidate. Only 39, with a noticeable Southern accent (he was born and grew up in Virginia), he spoke softly and without rhetorical flourishes. He was, as someone has said, the Jimmy Carter of Unitarian Universalism—modest, somewhat introverted, and painfully honest. He did, however, have a substantial record as a minister in Knoxville, Tennessee, and then in Rochester, New York, and as a member of two GA planning committees, the Theological Education Commission, and the Religious Education Advisory Committee when it launched the professional accreditation program for directors of religious education. He had planned to manage the presidential campaign of the Rev. Paul Carnes, but when Carnes dropped out of the race because of health, West agreed to run, convinced that the UU needed someone who was not a single-issue candidate. And despite the walkouts and name-calling at the General Assembly, despite tears and confusion, the delegates responded to his healing message, a hopeful sign that the underlying resilience and unity of the denomination would enable it to endure.

But that didn't mean that Unitarian Universalists now rallied around West in a post-election honeymoon. Far from it. Taking their battles to the UUA board, those who had lost the election were determined to frustrate the agenda he had run on. West was by no means naive about the problems he faced. A cartoon circulating at the GA showed him running the Association out of a phone booth, and in his platform he spelled out his belief that "our movement today is in severe crisis affecting programs, finances, attitudes, and identity. There are issues so important and feelings of such intensity that some see our effectiveness, even our existence, as being seriously threatened."

Now it was left to him to put things right.

A nasty surprise

West knew when he took office that just about every cent of the UUA's unrestricted capital had been spent, and that he had inherited a budget with a $650,000 deficit. He didn't know, however, until a staff member casually mentioned it some six months into his first term, that a $450,000 demand note was due only days later—or that the UUA had borrowed another $50,000 only two weeks before he took office.

West prevailed on the bankers not to call the note, pledging to put the UUA's financial house in order. His remedy called for cutting the budget by 40 percent (some $1 million), adding no new expenses without offsetting reductions, and allocating all unrestricted future bequests to debt reduction. It was bitter medicine, but within a year all loans had been paid off. The UUA had successfully skirted bankruptcy.

While the bankers agreed, West met strong resistance to his recommendations on the UUA board, where the money crunch intersected painfully with the bitterness surrounding the racial controversy. In 1968 the General Assembly had voted to fund the Black Affairs Council at the rate of $250,000 per year for four years, for a total of $1 million. West's platform had called for funding BAC not through the UUA budget but through voluntary fund-raising, but once in office he sought a less drastic solution. He proposed honoring the denomination's commitment by stretching out payments to BAC over five years instead of four, reducing the yearly installments by $50,000. BAC and its supporters were furious. Hayward Henry, the group's chair, called the board vote "a shocking revelation of the institutional racism still rampant in the UUA."

Other budget cuts were hardly more popular. West laid off five department heads and eliminated roughly half of the 150 other UUA staff positions. The UUA also consolidated the staffs of the twenty-one districts into seven inter-district offices. These moves, too, met strong resistance and open hostility not only from many of those let go but also within the districts. In sum, West received the blame for the situation he inherited.

On top of all that, this was a time when, in addition to rampant anti-institutionalism, insults in public discourse were fashionable. There was much talk of "revolution." West recalled, "Supposedly responsible UU ministers were publishing such sentiments as 'UUA headquarters should be blown up,' or '25 Beacon Street should be sunk in Boston Harbor.'" It was more than rhetoric. Pledged to transparency in UUA operations, West had moved board meetings, which used to be held in the privacy of the president's office, to sites where observers were welcome. But the observers were often disruptive, shouting and yelling and calling names. Lawrence Ladd, now UUA Financial Advisor and then a leader of the UUA's youth organization, recalls that so many people showed up that they lined the walls, "surrounding the trustees and literally peering over their shoulders . . . from the opening session until the final vote just before 5 p.m."

"It was very stressful," West said. "I'm an idealist and I like working with people, but the way people were behaving, trashing what I thought were the ideals of our association, what our denomination ought to be, was a very unpleasant thing."

All through the stress and turmoil, Bob (as even his opponents called him) remained courteous and calm. At the GA that elected him, members of the so-called "moral caucus" stood in front of him, yelling insults, trying to provoke him, but he refused to react. At board meetings, he was helped tremendously in maintaining a semblance of civility by Joseph Fisher, the moderator whose terms overlapped with his. A veteran of local politics in Virginia, Fisher was widely respected for his impartiality and served as an essential stabilizing force as he presided over the General Assembly and conducted board meetings. (He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1975, where he served until 1981.) But like West, he found the personal strain hard to bear. Both seriously considered not running for another term, changing their minds only out of a sense of obligation. Another contested election, they believed, might well have restarted all the simmering controversies and destroyed what was left of family coherence. As it turned out, they both ran unopposed.

A couple of West's character traits may have made his burden even more stressful. For one thing, his meticulous attention to detail kept him from easing his administrative burden. One of his staff members recalls that putting a typed reply to correspondence on his desk for a signature hardly ever saved time. If it was to be his letter it needed to be exactly as he would say it, and so he'd rewrite even routine correspondence. For another, he was so intent on protecting his privacy that even his friends had difficulty reaching out to him. With the help of his wife, Nancy, though, he was able to relax when board members gathered at their house around the piano, belting out Methodist hymns West recalled from his childhood.

Reading the same pages

If West's only contribution had been to keep the UU craft from capsizing, his two terms would still have been a signal achievement, but he also pioneered several initiatives that have lasted to this day. One that has made a deep impact is the magazine you are reading.

Both the Unitarian and Universalist journals, and their combined UU successor, had historically been subscription publications of minimal circulation. In his first campaign, West proposed improving communications among UUs by sending a newspaper to all members of all congregations. Not only would this serve to keep everyone informed of major denominational developments, it would also help to create a sense of belonging, a sense of Unitarian Universalist identity. Launched in March 1970 as a tabloid, Unitarian Universalist World (now UU World magazine) started arriving in the mailboxes of all active UU families, bringing news of doings in Boston, in the districts, and in member societies all over the U.S. and Canada. It served to broaden the horizons of folks who had signed a local membership book but knew little of what took place beyond their congregation. And it cost no more money: eliminating the cost of selling and renewing subscriptions offset the cost of additional printing and postage. In 1987, during the presidency of the Rev. William Schulz, the magazine format was adopted, but as the brief statements on the bottom of page 1 of this and every issue spell out, the original aim remains unchanged.

Reversing the downward spiral

When the UUA was founded, there was great hope that membership would soar. But ten years later, the adult membership had gone down. A number of factors explain the reversal. For one thing, the decline may have been as much artifact as fact. Until member congregations turned over their mailing lists for the launch of UU World, there had been no reliable figures against which to compare optimistic reports of growth. Now better data punctured the Potemkin balloon.

But there were also all-too-real losses. Between 1961 and 1983, 315 congregations died; many others lost members. Highly publicized antiwar activism on the part of many ministers and congregations led to disaffection by more conservative members. The racial controversy led some people on both sides to take their leave. The shrill pitch of the disagreements disillusioned others. Meanwhile, the opprobrium poured on liberalism by the McCarthyite right and the radical left tainted liberal religion with "the L word." And as if all that weren't enough, this was also a time when all mainline Protestant denominations began their steady decline. It was no time for moderation.

Slowly, though, the tide began to turn. Part of the impetus came from an initiative West called "Sharing in Growth," which sought to help congregations not only gain membership but also attend to the warmth, depth, and breadth of their religious life.

Other innovations of the West years included setting up the Church of the Larger Fellowship as an independent congregation; creating offices of gay concerns and aging; and publishing the UUA's first curriculum kit on human sexuality—the pioneering "About Your Sexuality" program. Despite the budget crunches, West was also able to increase support for Starr King School for the Ministry, the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, California, which was on shaky financial ground.

Perhaps of most long-lasting impact, West was able to establish a relationship of trust with what is now the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, New York. The substantial assets of the congregation's Veatch Program have, over the years, provided millions of dollars to fund imaginative new programs—and to sustain the UUA budget at critical moments.

Through West's initiative, the denomination also scored another important monetary victory. An eccentric Pennsylvania millionaire, Jonathan Holdeen, had set up a number of trust funds that named the American Unitarian Association as a proximate beneficiary. After Holdeen's death, the UUA received modest checks from time to time. West suspected that the amount was egregiously less than what was due the UUA and instructed a lawyer to demand an accounting. He was prepared, if necessary, to pursue the matter in the courts—and it was. After a long legal fight, West's suspicions were proved correct and the UUA started receiving funds that have totalled more than $35 million. Under the terms of various Holdeen trusts, they support denominational programs in India and other parts of Asia (see UU World, July/August 2001) as well as at home.

Such persistence also stood West in good stead when it came to reorganizing UUA headquarters. He appointed the Rev. Robert Senghas, a lawyer as well as a minister—and today a member of the UUA board—as his executive vice-president, and together they introduced professional management and personnel policies: grading all jobs, establishing firm salary ranges, and putting an end to a system under which staff members negotiated their salaries behind closed doors. Most important, West stopped the resort to off-budget expenditures that had kept even the board and finance committee from a full understanding of the financial situation.

These changes helped put the UUA back on a solid foundation, but one major crisis was still to come.

A visit from the FBI

Though personally a firm supporter of efforts to end the Vietnam War—he was the first public figure in Rochester to speak out publicly in opposition—West was careful not to go beyond positions adopted by the General Assembly when speaking for the Association. For instance, when 100,000 protesters held an antiwar rally on Boston Common, across from UUA headquarters, West wanted to show his support while respecting Unitarian Universalists who were offended by such highly publicized protests as draft-card burning at the Arlington Street Church and the sanctuary movement that sheltered draft resisters in houses of worship. His solution was to display a four-story banner from the front of 25 Beacon Street that quoted a GA resolution: "The Unitarian Universalist Association transmits to the President and Congress its continued concern for peace in Vietnam"—a somewhat euphemistic rephrasing of the incendiary slogans being chanted across the street.

But those who sought to straddle this contentious issue were soon jolted out of their circumspection by none other than Richard Nixon.

In the summer of 1971, Gobin Stair, director of the UUA's Beacon Press book publishing house, came to ask West for approval to publish the Pentagon Papers—a 7,000-page collection of documents that revealed how the government had used lies and duplicity to get us into the Vietnam War and then to combat dissent. When excerpts from the papers were leaked to newspapers, Nixon used every tactic, legal and illegal, to suppress publication, forming the infamous team of "plumbers" to track down the leak. While such tactics eventually triggered the Watergate scandal that drove Nixon out of office, before the helicopter lifted him from the White House lawn for the last time the UUA became a target of his fury.

Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, a Unitarian Universalist, had obtained a copy of the Pentagon Papers and after a fruitless search for a commercial publisher turned them over to Beacon Press. West, despite the risk, supported Stair's decision to make the full text available for scholars and libraries by publishing them in book form. As Stair later explained: "It was essential to make the full record available . . . and as a free press we felt we had a responsibility to publish needed information when others would not." Or as West put it in a statement to UU congregations: "The issue is whether the American public has the role of central participants in the democratic process, or passive observers of government actions."

The response of the Nixon administration was swift. On October 27, 1971, the UUA treasurer received a phone call from a bank asking whether he knew that FBI agents had asked to review the UUA's bank records, including lists of contributors. Told that the UUA had not only given no such permission but had not even been notified, the bank insisted that the FBI produce a subpoena. The UUA then obtained a court order halting the FBI investigation.

Those were scary times. William Duffy, a UUA attorney, acknowledged that proceeding with publication meant risking criminal sanctions. "Bill Duffy explained to me that it was his job to keep Gobin and me out of jail," West said.

The book was published, but publishing and legal costs caused another financial crisis, which required another round of budget cuts. Despite intensive fund-raising efforts, only the generosity of the Shelter Rock congregation kept the UUA from running out of money once again.

The positive result of the confrontation was that the denomination was reunited, with even West's most persistent critics rallying to his support. By the end of his second term, his various initiatives and reforms had led to an encouraging upturn in the denomination's fortunes. For instance, contributions to the UUA Annual Program Fund, which for years had been declining, increased by a modest but encouraging 4.3 percent in fiscal year 1974-75. As West himself summed up the situation in an interview, by his last two years in office, "a dominant tone of hope and optimism seemed to have developed, together with a level of vitality that had not existed. There was a constructive climate among lay people and clergy; the morale of ministers was much higher; people seemed to feel that problems were solvable." Also, he sensed that there was "a renewed interest in worship and theology . . . [and] in personal religious growth."

Praising an unsung hero

After leaving the presidency, West spent a sabbatical in England ("I needed time to recover"), then entered the private sector, first as a management consultant, then as executive director of major law firms. But despite pleas from his successors and friends, he has not involved himself in UUA affairs or attended a subsequent General Assembly. Meanwhile, with the perspective of hindsight, praise for West's decisive actions in meeting both internal and external crises has become almost universal, and many observers have credited him with saving the association. Several, asked for their assessment, have independently called him "the unsung hero of the UUA."

The Rev. Gordon McKeeman, who served on the UUA board during the West years and himself was twice a candidate for the presidency, credits him with "doing all the right things with courage and caring and with finesse and grace." As a key member of West's staff and later himself a UUA president, the Rev. Eugene Pickett had an even closer vantage point for assessing West in action. Describing him as a "strong, competent administrator," Pickett summed up: "Bob West became president during one of the most difficult periods in the life of the association. He had to overcome tremendous obstacles to keep [it] solvent while keeping it operating—and it operated at a surprising degree of effectiveness." And the Rev. Carl Scovel, Dana Greeley's son-in-law, acknowledged that "Dana left Bob with a horrible job . . . firing people, closing down district programs. It was tough on him . . . but he came through."

What about his own assessment of that time twenty-five years ago? At first West said he was unwilling to revive old conflicts or to appear to be either self-congratulatory or defensive. But he did make this comment:

"I am glad to have been able to be of service to our denomination during an exceedingly difficult period. I am gratified that the last quarter of my tenure witnessed a turning point among our members and clergy that was characterized by a newly constructive ambiance, accompanied by vitality, optimism, and a renewed hunger for grappling with basic religious issues. I find comfort in knowing that mine was a major role in laying a solid financial, organizational, and programmatic base on which my successors could build.

"Someone once said," he added, "that the most important function of a leader in a free and democratic society is to preserve its oneness, while guiding the battles that divide it. I believe that observation to be the most incisive brief summary of my experience and labors as UUA president."

Those who admire his achievements can only hope that with the passing of the years his own wounds have also had a chance to heal.

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