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Nashville church urges conversation about clergy misconduct

Moderator candidates both sign petition pledging to strengthen UUA’s response to victims of misconduct.
By Michelle Bates Deakin

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The Rev. Gail Seavey, minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, leads the dedication of a tree to remember and heal from ministerial misconduct at the church 20 years ago. (Alan Leiserson)

First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tenn., is marking an unusual and painful anniversary this year. The congregation planted a tree and devoted a worship service in February to acknowledge the twentieth anniversary of the announcement by the church’s then-minister that he had engaged in misconduct with female members of the congregation.

Congregants have called the chapter in the church’s history “the great unpleasantness.” Although it is a difficult and awkward story, they are still talking about it. Church members and leaders have spoken openly about the ministerial sexual misconduct as an abuse of power that is both a pastoral and a justice issue.

Now they hope to open a larger, denominational conversation about clergy misconduct and how to prevent it from happening in other congregations.

In anticipation of thousands of Unitarian Universalists gathering in Louisville, Ky., for the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association this week, members of the Nashville church created a petition asking for a new national conversation about clergy misconduct. Both candidates for UUA moderator have endorsed the petition, which states:

We, the undersigned, are asking the candidates for UUA Moderator and Board of Trustees to publicly indicate their willingness to start a new national conversation on clergy misconduct in the UUA, and to ensure that survivors of misconduct have a real voice in that conversation. We ask them to commit to using the powers of the Board to take ownership of the recommendations of the Safe Congregation Panel, to update them as needed, and to hold the staff accountable for implementing them fully. And we ask them to investigate the accountability relationship between the Board and Ministerial Fellowship Committee, with an eye toward balancing the need to protect institutional interests with a pastoral responsibility to care for victims of misconduct.

Abuse of power

In February 1993, the minister of First UU Church, confronted with allegations of misconduct, gathered the members of the congregation and told them he had in fact had improper relationships with congregants. Members were also concerned about his improper control of church communications and finances.

UUA staff investigated the misconduct, and the minister left the congregation, under the agreement that he could not serve another nearby congregation, according to the Rev. Gail Seavey, who has served as senior minister since 2005. The turmoil divided the congregation.

Members who remained at the church have been wrestling with the issues of power and authority ever since. The phrase “the great unpleasantness” has given way to “the birth pangs of our shared ministry,” said Seavey.

Church members have rewritten the bylaws to create policies that nurture a healthy congregation, establish appropriate boundaries, and sustain a shared ministry with shared authority.

They also established a group called Safety Net, whose mission is “nurturing positive relations and healthy boundaries in UU congregations.” That group is spearheading the petition drive.

Seavey said that UUA districts do not have consistent resources to respond to congregations that suffer ministerial abuse. “We have compensation consultants,” Seavey said, but “we need people who can do this.” For years, Seavey has been getting referrals from ministers to work with people who feel they have nowhere else to turn because of an issue with their minister. They keep it to themselves, Seavey said, like a family secret they have been told not to tell.

Seavey said that the denomination has not publicly addressed the issue of sexual misconduct by ministers since the 2000 General Assembly in Nashville. At that meeting, Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery issued an unequivocal apology, stating:

The Association has largely failed the people most hurt by sexual misconduct, the victims and survivors. Other denominations have done better. These brave and bruised people have, more often than not I suspect, been left lonely, confused, afraid, angry and betrayed. Un-ministered to. What I feel about this is not so much guilt, I guess, as great sorrow and regret. I am profoundly sorry. And I pledge that this gap, this failure, will be remedied.
In 2001, the UUA’s Safe Congregations Panel issued a series of recommendations. In July 2002, the UUA used those recommendations to change the process for handling misconduct complaints as it restructured the staff, according to a short history of the UUA’s handling of professional misconduct.

In 2009, the Religious Institute, led by the Rev. Debra Haffner, began a systemic review of the UUA’s sexuality-related policies, programs, and advocacy, and issued a report called Toward a Sexually Healthy and Responsible Unitarian Universalist Association (PDF).

The Rev. Sarah Lammert, the UUA’s director of Ministries and Faith Development, said that the UUA made changes to the process for filing a complaint following the publication of Haffner’s report. Lammert said that the system for handling complaints of ministerial misconduct is grounded in the following principles: pastoral concern and response to persons victimized; concern for the health and well-being of congregations; concern for the integrity of the ministry and the UUA; congruency with UU principles; and transparency.

In the past two years, a new requirement was added to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee’s (MFC) “competencies” in the area of sexual health, sexual boundaries, and sexual justice that includes extensive training in healthy boundaries for religious professionals, Lammert said.

“The UUA continues to collaborate with partners like the Religious Institute and experts in the field of ‘after-pastor care’ to assess and improve our processes,” said Lammert.

“We will continue to make mistakes, but we will also continue to learn and grow in our ability to help prevent and heal from the truly damaging impact of ministerial misconduct. The UUA staff and the MFC welcome ongoing attention and care to this issue.”

The chair of the MFC, the Rev. Wayne Arnason, said he welcomed the chance “to have a wider conversation in the association about the long-term consequences for victims, congregations, and ministers of clergy sexual misconduct. The enduring damage and pain created by clergy boundary violations has been a consistent preoccupation and challenge throughout my years and roles of denominational service.”

Arnason said that he signed the petition “as an individual,” but as chair of the MFC he intended “to encourage full cooperation and leadership from the MFC in any study or conversation the Board decides to create.”

Moderator candidates respond

First UU Church would like to take the process further. Its petition asks the candidates for UUA moderator and the Board of Trustees to indicate their willingness to “start a new national conversation on clergy misconduct” and “to ensure that survivors of misconduct have a real voice in that conversation.”

Both candidates for UUA moderator responded to First Church’s petition, endorsing the initiative. Jim Key and Tamara Payne-Alex pledged to pursue the conversation if elected moderator and posted statements on their campaign websites.

Jim Key wrote that “secrets and conflicts not spoken of and not addressed chill a congregation’s health and growth. Our congregations need support as they move through these important conversations of healing. As an association, we need to ensure that resources are available to support our congregations during these periods of reconciliation.”

Tamara Payne-Alex wrote that she is “committed to holding our association accountable for fulfilling its promise to victims of clergy misconduct and other abuses of power.”

The Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, candidate for the UUA Board of Trustees, also signed the petition, and included his pledge to review the association’s policies for providing support and counsel to survivors.

Ongoing conversations

The Nashville congregation will continue to explore the lessons of the misconduct its members endured in this twentieth anniversary year, with additional events in September.

In February, members planted a living reminder of the controversy that is also a symbol of the congregation’s ongoing healing. They planted a serviceberry tree—a native shrub—in the church’s garden.

During the dedication of the tree, Seavey told members they would “water it with our tears” and “fertilize it with our history of well-rotted manure” so they could “ever transform this tree, this congregation, these individual souls, so that we all survive and heal, so that we all thrive and grow.”

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