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Hallman, Morales share visions for UUA presidency

Candidates for 2009 election take questions at New England fall conference.
By Jane Greer
11.17.08

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The Rev. Peter Morales and the Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman

The Rev. Peter Morales and the Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman. (Nancy Pierce)

The Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman and the Rev. Peter Morales, candidates for the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association, participated in a forum at the UU New England Fall Conference in Worcester, Mass., on Saturday, October 18. The candidates responded to questions about their attitudes toward congregational growth, ideas for youth ministry, and ways of responding to the economic crisis.

Questions were submitted by members of the audience to the forum’s moderator, the Rev. John Gibbons, chair of the UUA’s Election Campaign Practices Committee and minister of First Parish in Bedford, Mass. Video of the forum and a complete transcript are available at the UUA’s Elections webpage, UUA.org/elections. (See sidebar for links to additional resources.)

Both candidates largely agreed on basic goals: the need to grow Unitarian Universalism, to engage youth in congregational life, to develop a diverse professional ministry, and to continue the UUA’s international engagement. They differed, however, in their approaches to issues. Hallman emphasized the importance of spiritual depth, while Morales stressed the need for broad cultural change in the denomination.

Each candidate was permitted 20 minutes to make an opening statement. Morales, who is minister of the Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colo., told a story about visiting a congregation several years ago where he was pointedly ignored. “I cannot imagine, were I not already a committed UU, returning to that congregation,” he said. “It was borderline hostile to me.” Too many congregations, he said, had a similar track record. “I believe that the way we often treat people coming to us seeking community isn’t poor manners, it’s immoral. It’s the equivalent of not feeding the hungry.”

Morales said the need to become more welcoming is imperative. “The key role for the president is to relentlessly cast a vision of a more open and welcoming religious movement and to create and help sustain a sense of urgency about that,” he said.

This urgency comes from major changes in the make-up of the American population that are on the horizon, Morales said. “Of Americans who are 70 years of age or older, three-quarters are white, European-extraction, Anglo.” he said. “Of Americans who are 10 and younger, one-quarter are. If not a single immigrant crosses our border for the next 20 years, three-quarters of young adults in America are going to be African American, African-Latino, Asian, or some mixture thereof.” If UU congregations fail to welcome and include this changing American face, Morales said, Unitarian Universalism faces a strong possibility of becoming irrelevant. He also stressed the need to recruit more ministers to lead this change because it is possible that half of all current parish ministers will be retiring in the next eight years.

In her opening statement, Hallman, senior minister of the First Unitarian Church in Dallas, told a story about a small congregation in Maine that needed to raise money to replace a steeple. The financial goal, which initially seemed impossible for such a small group, galvanized the congregation. After years of potluck suppers, pumpkin sales, benefit concerts, and other fundraising activities, the congregation got its new steeple, and found new life as well, Hallman said. “Income rose, membership rose, and they became much more involved with the rest of the community.” She lit a small wooden chalice made from some of the old steeple wood, “as a symbol of the hope that I see among us for our future.” Hallman said that as president it would be her job to share these stories, calling UUs to a new spiritual depth in their lives.

Hallman also stressed the importance of Unitarian Universalism in interfaith dialogue, saying that UUs are uniquely positioned by their tolerance and by their understanding of other faiths’ religious language and symbols. “We have a chance to pull up a chair at the religious table and speak the language of metaphor and truth through the symbol of religion and through theological terms, religious language,” she said. “We are amazingly positioned to do this at a time when the literalism of religious terms and religious ideas is rampant.”

One of the first questions put to the candidates was how they would address the current financial crisis. Hallman described the economic crisis as a spiritual issue. “Anxiety is at the heart of spiritual life,” she said, warning that it was important not to be “kidnapped” by this anxiety.

Speaking practically, Hallman also said that it was important to keep goals in mind and then monitor them carefully. “We’ve got to be realistic about what’s going on,” she said, “and be able to make some alternative futures possible in our visioning so that if we need to retrench, we can.” She said that if priorities were clear, retrenching could proceed with deliberation, rather than panic.

Hallman also said that is was important to use limited resources strategically. “We need to look at our priorities not just from a loss point of view but how we can leverage what we have in new ways, so it’s more effective,” she said.

Morales described the current economic crisis as “the logical consequence of a kind of acquisitive individualism that is an ethic of our culture. We need to be in a position to critique that and assert once again an image of a common good,” he said.

Morales cautioned that the UUA would need to tighten its belt for several years because income from the UUA’s endowment would be down. “We need to take a hard look at what’s most essential to our future, preserve that, do the things that we’re doing well, and preserve that. The things that are less important and we’re doing less well, has to be where the cuts are.”

The candidates were questioned about their experience with policy governance, a form of governance in which the board of trustees is charged with determining goals, while the staff is responsible for implementing them. The UUA’s Board of Trustees is currently working toward implementing policy governance in July 2009. Both candidates are ministers of churches that have adopted a form of policy governance.

Hallman talked about the spiritual questions that boards need to answer when deciding upon goals, questions such as, “Why are we doing this?” “Why are we here?” and “What do we think that we’re doing, and whom are we serving?” “I would invite you to sit with those question in your board meetings and in your private meditations,” she said. “Because it will take you deeper into why we’re here.”

Hallman praised the clear line of accountability that policy governance would bring to the UUA, starting with the “UUA Board of Trustees to the president and then down to everybody who’s doing the implementation,” she said.

Morales said, “If implemented properly and well, [policy governance is] a freeing and liberating relationship to build on,” pointing to the wide latitude that the president and staff are given in executing goals set by the board. The real challenge to the UUA, he said, is in developing good systems of evaluating work. “One of the things that I would plan to do as president is bring in a new level of assessment, evaluation, and accountability to what we do so that we can get to those ends,” he said.

“We’re really evaluation-averse as a culture and it does not serve us,” Morales added.

Another questioner asked how the UUA’s mandate for growth would affect small congregations with limited growth potential.

Morales assured listeners that not all congregations would be forced into a program of rigorous growth. “Growth is not an end in itself,” he said. “I never want an emphasis on growth, which is really an emphasis on being open and welcoming and engaging, to be misunderstood as a bias toward large churches. . . . There’s a place for all of our churches.”

Hallman agreed, citing information from the Alban Institute, a church consulting group, which puts a new spin on assessing growth. “[They’re] saying that you should measure growth not in membership numbers but in participation,” she said. Hallman added that she thought the UUA should measure a congregation’s growth using three criteria: by the ministries established by individuals as well as the congregation inside and outside the church, by the influence for good that the congregation wields in the community, and by the way the congregation transforms the lives of the people it touches.

Both candidates agreed that spirituality and social activism were “wedded,” in Hallman’s words. “The people I know who come from a position of strength because of their spiritual practice are able to have a steady core out of which they act,” Hallman said. She referred to a program she has developed called “Living by Heart,” which guides people in developing a personal spiritual practice.

Morales added, “The opposition of spirituality and action is an absolutely false dichotomy.”

The candidates were asked about their visions of youth ministry and what they would propose to replace YRUU, the continental youth organization, which the UUA stopped funding in July 2008. Morales said, “We don’t do a very good job of engaging the natural idealism and passion and energy of youth. We’ve got to go so far beyond hanging out as a model of interaction for youth.”

Morales also referred to his upbringing in a Mexican-American family in San Antonio, Tex. “All gatherings in my community were multigenerational gatherings. It’s not just a part of our religious culture,” he said, referring to the social separation of age groups, “it’s part of middle-class Anglo culture. That makes it harder to battle.”

Hallman said, “I believe there is a new energy among our churches, both with and for our youth.” She said that youth disengagement may be a myth. “I think there are lots of ways that our youth are becoming engaged. We will be implementing more programs and more ways for youth to become connected to our churches.”

Both candidates spoke of a need to continue to recruit and develop excellent ministers. Hallman cited her experience as a board member of Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, praising the school’s efforts in redesigning its curriculum. “This is a very fertile time in terms of recruiting and training ministers for the next generation,” she said.

Morales urged support for potential ministerial candidates from the first moment they might consider the ministry all the way through professional development. He spoke of getting congregations involved, too, in looking for potential ministerial candidates within their midst. “We have got to involve our congregations and the broad base of our ministers in the developing of our ministry,” Morales said.

Morales said that the two UU seminaries—Meadville Lombard and Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif.—will thrive “if there is an increasing demand nationally for ministers.” He added: “If it’s clearly known that those schools are the best places to go and are preparing the best ministers, then people will flock to them, and they will be healthy, and they will be able to get the kind of financial support that they need.”

One of the last questions posed to the candidates concerned their plans for international engagement. Morales expressed his support for continued international engagement, but also challenged people to think about the idea that Unitarian Universalism has a place beyond the bounds of North America. “Throughout Europe and Latin America, there are lots of religious liberals who end up discovering us on the Web,” he said. “I’m on a very active Spanish language chat group. . . . That has to be nurtured and we have to be good partners with them.”

Hallman praised the Office of International Resources, set up by current UUA President William G. Sinkford, which links congregations with international programs and resources and also serves as a liaison with different international liberal religious organizations. Hallman said it was important to honor and maintain the historical relationships that the UUA has created with Unitarians in various parts of the world, including the Philippines, Japan, Transylvania, England, and the Khasi Hills in India.

“We dare not fence the spirit,” Hallman said, quoting the Rev. Wallace Robbins, a Unitarian minister and Meadville Lombard’s first president. “We have to be careful, we have to be diplomatic, but we dare not fence the spirit.”

In closing, Hallman reiterated the need for personal and congregational spiritual reflection. It’s [important] “that all of us reach deeper into the core of our faith, reach deeper into the possibilities of what we can do as a people together.”

Hallman said that one of her strengths was knowing how to bring people into community. She told a story about a former neighbor of hers in Bloomington, Ind., who had been an active participant in the UU church there, but had moved to another city and had dropped out. “He’s out there and we need his expertise,” she said, “I intend to find the people in our midst, get them in to congregations, and use what they know to assist this denomination in being articulate, effective—not just re-running our old scripts but finding new ways to do things.”

Morales emphasized the necessity for a UU cultural change to revitalize the movement. “I began my presentation with a story about not feeling welcomed in a congregation,” he said, “and drawing a picture of a movement that is sadly, frustratingly, declining as a part of American religious life. That fact simply drives me nuts. It ought to drive every person in this room nuts.”

Morales said that he was confident that the UUA could lead that change. “The capacity to revitalize this movement, to make it dangerous, to make it powerful, to make it include a broad spectrum of people . . . the capacity to do that is in our hands,” he said.

See sidebar for links to related resources, including video and a complete transcript of the candidates’ forum.

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