A response to the election of Susan Frederick-Gray as the next president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
I am excited that the Unitarian Universalist Association has elected Susan Frederick-Gray as our next president and I wish her many blessings. I will support her work enthusiastically. At the same time, within this celebration of breaking one more glass ceiling, I feel compelled to continue looking forward in order to understand how Unitarian Universalists can truly live the lofty values we put forward. This election is only one step in a series of many that must happen for us to accomplish that goal. I will not rehash the troubled journey within the UUA over the last three or four months, nor will I debate the history of racial and gender bias in the denominational leadership. Instead, as a new minister about to assume the great responsibility and privilege of leadership at the pleasure of a long standing and dedicated congregation, my question is much more basic: why must the President of the UUA be a minister?
On a simple level, it is very easy to see the structure of governance and the balance between “professional” and “lay” leadership that is attempted in our association. Yet it is that same balance, that says to me having a minister at the helm of the entire Association seems an arrangement we should question in today’s world. What is more, considering the specificity of how our ministerial leadership is developed in terms of educational pedigree, demographics, economics, age and ability it seems like we are perpetuating the very systems of exclusivity that we are asking our spiritual community to commit to unraveling. Above everything else, the challenges of the world in which Unitarian Universalism as an organization is being asked to navigate are not challenges that our ministers are being explicitly prepared to meet as organizational leaders.
I’m well aware of some of the incredible professional histories that our past and new president bring to the table. They are remarkable and multi-skilled people with passion and dedication. They are immensely qualified leaders. What is more, a minister leading a religious/faith organization just seems appropriate; one wouldn’t ask Elon Musk to lead the Episcopal Church. But then again why not? The assumption that a minister will lead a spiritual organization is status quo thinking and I’m sure that the progress we want to see over the next 10 – 20 years is not status quo progress. When I look at the list and background of our history of Association leadership we have been blessed to draw the cream of the crop; but it is only a ministerial crop. What are we missing by not looking across all of the crops within our vast acreage of talent?
I have had the pleasure to meet many incredible people in our congregations and the bulk of them are not ministers. I have met lay leaders and professionals including Religious Educators, Musicians and Administrators. They are former and current corporate and non-profit executives, they are lifelong organizers and activists, they are teachers and professors and they are deemed as somehow not qualified to lead this organization because they lack the title “The Reverend.” As a denomination, we place a lot of weight on the three-letter abbreviation (Rev.) But the title doesn’t make the person. One of the greatest lessons I have learned through my own ministerial formation takes its cue from something Michelle Obama once said about her husband and the Presidency of the United States: “Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.” Becoming a ministerial leader is the same way, it is a process of constantly peeling away layers until you are your most forthright and present self. Even then you continue to evolve and change and discover new layers of truth and strength. It tests you in ways that until now, I’ve only seen from the outside. But coming to ministry from a very different background of management, it is also very easy for me to see that the crucible that is ministerial formation does not guarantee that one will always be an effective organizational leader or that they will peel away the most restricting layers. It also doesn’t guarantee that one will be the right leader at the right time. Again, leadership, any leadership is something that is revealed.
As we embrace the new direction of leadership that will be revealed in Susan Frederick-Gray’s tenure, I say hallelujah let’s celebrate! But I would also say that it is not the time for us to sit back with relief and sigh “whew…at last, we did it!” We’ve only rolled on to the tarmac, we haven’t taken flight yet. Rather, it is the time to embrace Susan’s forward thinking and the forward thinking of all the candidates and say “what a great FIRST step toward wholeness!” We have a long way to go my friends. We are preparing for a long flight. Let’s continue to challenge the structures that cultivate complacency, dominant culture oppression and mono-cultural vision. At last we’ve proven that our leadership can rock a pair of heels (if she wants to…thank you Sofia Betancourt, Susan Frederick-Gray, Alison Miller and Jeanne Pupke). Now, let’s keep proving that both our leadership and our lived faith can reflect the economic, racial, social, cultural, ability and educational diversity that we talk so much about.