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The Rev. Sarah Lammert, director of the Ministries and Faith Development staff group (Dea Brayden/UUA)

Board wants new process for handling complaints about clergy misconduct

UUA Board of Trustees also votes to support business resolution on fossil fuel divestment.
By Elaine McArdle

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As part of an ongoing focus on creating and sustaining sexually healthy congregations, the Unitarian Universalist Association will revise its process for handling allegations of clergy misconduct, the Board of Trustees voted at its April 10–13 meeting.

Under current procedures, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC), which evaluates and accredits UU clergy, also investigates complaints against ministers for sexual and other forms of misconduct. Concerned about conflicts of interest and fair treatment of complainants, the board directed its Congregational Boundaries working group to work with the Rev. Sarah Lammert, director of the Ministries and Faith Development staff group, to revise the process so that members of the MFC are not involved in clergy investigations and so that complainants and accused ministers will have equal opportunity to participate in the process.

Anna Belle Leiserson, who filed a complaint about clergy sexual misconduct 20 years ago and later founded Safety Net at First UU Church of Nashville, Tenn., an advocacy group for victims of clergy abuse, said she was pleased with the board’s attention to the issue. “You’ve listened so graciously,” she told the trustees, “to stuff that’s very hard to hear.”

Although the UUA, through then–Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery, made a formal apology to victims and survivors at the 2000 General Assembly, Leiserson says that in the 14 years since, the pledge to remedy failures was never fulfilled. However, Leiserson, who met with Moderator Jim Key, Lammert, and a small group of trustees the day before the board meeting began, also said that she sees a new commitment to addressing the topic. Before the entire board, Leiserson thanked staff and volunteer leaders for exhibiting “very little defensiveness” about the issue.

The board directed the working group and Lammert to work with other UU professional organizations—such as the Liberal Religious Educators Association, the UU Ministers Association, and the UU Musicians Network—to coordinate investigations of professional misconduct in instances of overlapping jurisdiction and to develop and share best practices. It is also seeking input from Lammert and the Audit Committee on metrics about sexual and other types of misconduct in order to facilitate a board conversation about the scope of the problem and the risk to the UUA. The board also charged the working group and Lammert to explore how the UUA can support congregations in efforts toward restorative justice and pastoral care for all parties in cases of alleged abuse, including the congregation itself.

And the board voted to offer a formal apology to victims and survivors of clergy and professional misconduct at this year’s General Assembly, which will be held June 25–29 in Providence, R.I. It charged the working group and Lammert to craft the apology and to create a report to be presented at GA.

A formal apology is “well overdue,” said the Rev. Debra W. Haffner, president of the Religious Institute, who is completing a five-year, broad-based study of the UUA’s sexuality-related policies and programs. Haffner addressed the board for an hour about the findings of her 2010 report, "Toward a Sexually Healthy and Responsible Unitarian Universalist Association." She is preparing a final report this fall.

Supporting emerging groups

The future of Unitarian Universalism—and what shapes it will take in the 21st century—was another topic the board addressed at several points throughout its three-and-a-half-day meeting. Trustees discussed emerging congregations, entrepreneurial ministries, and denominational growth in an era when fewer people are attending church—and when many denominations are experiencing much steeper declines than the UUA.

The Sanctuary Boston, which launched in October 2012 as “a community of vibrant worship” rooted in Unitarian Universalism, led Sunday worship for the board with a service filled with clapping, drumming, and music. Afterwards, founder David Ruffin, a ministerial intern at First Church in Boston, addressed the board’s interest in entrepreneurial ministries. He described Sanctuary’s success in drawing scores of young adults to its twice-monthly Wednesday night services.

“I appreciate the work you are doing. It’s incredible,” said trustee Julian Sharp, one of the youngest members on the board. “I like what I feel is UU identity without some of the institutional baggage young people are not so attracted to.”

Noting that it’s searching for ways to encourage entrepreneurial and non-traditional groups to affiliate with the UUA, the board charged its Emerging Congregations working group to work with the UUA staff to explore changes in UUA bylaws, policies, or practices that will create new opportunities to welcome emerging congregations.

The board also discussed but took no action on new ways of conducting General Assembly. That topic, and others, will be addressed in a June 4 webinar the board is inviting delegates to attend in preparation for this summer’s GA.

Trustees Susan Weaver, Jim Key, Donna Harrison, and the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie are developing the webinar, with support from UUA staff. The webinar will include an explanation of what will be on the business agenda, a description of a business resolution calling for the UUA to divest from fossil fuel industries, and an explanation of the upcoming conversation about transforming various aspects of the General Assembly itself.

One of the questions the board hopes to ask delegates is whether GA should place more emphasis on what it means to be a UU than on governance.

Board votes to support call for divestment

The board voted to support passage of a proposed business resolution regarding climate change that calls on the UUA to divest from fossil fuel industries within five years (see Tentative Agenda, page 15). Before the vote, trustees spent significant time discussing how best to approach the resolution, which includes a provision that allows the UUA to retain or purchase enough shares to engage in shareholder activism with fossil fuel companies.

After testimony from members of the Investment Committee, the Socially Responsible Investment Committee, and divestment advocates and investment experts who favor divestment, the board decided the UUA should use all tools available to it to influence corporate action on climate change, including shareholder advocacy and divestment of shares in companies doing the greatest harm to the environment.

The board will present a statement at GA supporting the business resolution as written, but trustees agreed they will support changes to the resolution that may be proposed during mini-assembly only if those changes are agreed to by the same parties that crafted and support the current resolution.

In other business, the board:

Photograph (above): The Rev. Sarah Lammert, director of the Ministries and Faith Development staff group, described the UUA’s current process for handling complaints about clergy misconduct and talked with the board about ways to improve the process (Dea Brayden/UUA). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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