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Jim Key wins moderator election in close contest

40 votes separated Key from Tamara Payne-Alex.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
6.24.13

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Jim Key

Newly elected UUA Moderator Jim Key. (© 2013 Nancy Pierce/UUA)

In a narrowly won contest, Jim Key of Beaufort, S.C., became the new moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association by a margin of 40 votes.

In Saturday’s election during the 2013 UUA General Assembly in Louisville, Ky., 945 delegates, or 51.1 percent, cast their votes for Key, according to the official count provided by outgoing UUA Secretary Tom Loughrey. Tamara Payne-Alex, of San Jose, Calif., received 905 votes, or 48.9 percent of the vote.

Loughrey announced the results Saturday evening, June 22. The races for other UUA positions were all uncontested, and the nominated candidates won, including UUA President Peter Morales, who will serve another four-year term.

Key spoke briefly in plenary after Loughrey announced the results. “Thank you so much for your support. I’m humbled, of course. I’m honored to serve.”

He also thanked Payne-Alex and her campaign team. “They made me a better candidate,” Key said. “Her collegiality in this whole process will make me a better moderator on your behalf.”

Speaking afterward with UU World, Key said, “I am on a high. I’m incredibly positive about our potential as a faith movement.”

Following this election, the Association has a new moderator, a new financial advisor, Ed Merck, and a smaller, 13-member board. “I aspire to provide a safe space for the newly assembled board to develop a culture of boldness, agility, and taking risks,” Key said.

Key was elected to a six-year term as moderator, the Association’s highest volunteer position. The moderator presides at General Assemblies and meetings of the UUA Board of Trustees. He replaces Gini Courter, who has served as moderator since 2003. (Courter served two four-year terms as well as the last two and a half years of her predecessor’s term. The General Assembly changed the terms of office in 2010.)

“I self-identify as a UU evangelist. That’s about spreading the good news of our faith,” said Key, his voice catching with emotion. “I’m very passionate about this.”

Key acknowledged that the vote was extremely close. “Democracy has a dark side,” he said. “People with a good heart and passionate views—their view doesn’t always carry the day.”

He said he planned to seek Payne-Alex’s counsel on how her “lived experience” could inform his role as moderator. Key said they both pledged to one another early in the campaign that they would connect with one another after the election, however it turned out.

President Morales said in a statement, “I congratulate Jim on his victory and look forward to working with him in this new capacity to achieve the shared vision of our Association.”

Many leadership roles

Key helped build his congregation, the UU Fellowship of Beaufort, from the ground up, as an organizing member and later as congregational president for five years. He has also been president of the Southeast District of the UUA, which changed its name from the Thomas Jefferson District during his tenure. And he has served the Association as chair of the Audit Committee and member of the board task force that proposed a smaller UUA Board of Trustees and of the board’s Linkage Working Group.

Key discovered Unitarian Universalism in 1999, and he realized he had been looking for it for decades without knowing what it was. It caused him to wonder why he had never encountered it before. In an April 2012 interview with UU World, he said, “I read the papers. I’m engaged. And every other denomination I can think of had invited me to church,” Key said. “It was just curious to me and painful to me that so few people knew about our saving message. And that has fueled my leadership roles.”

As president of his district, Key helped shepherd conversations and votes around changing the name of the district that once carried Thomas Jefferson’s name. “It was an emotional couple of years,” Key said. “It was clear to me as district president that it was not a name that welcomed everybody and clearly it caused a lot of pain and anxiety for folks.”

Central to the name-change process, Key believes, was providing forums for people to voice their views and feelings. “People’s hearts were changed, and therefore their minds were changed,” he said. After the name change, he continued to reach out to people disappointed with the outcome to reconcile with them.

Although Key, 73, did not discover Unitarian Universalism until well into his adulthood, looking back, he says he realizes he was a Universalist at age 11. He was raised in Virginia and North Carolina in the Methodist church, the fifth child of a single mother, and says he was schooled at the knee of his radically liberal grandfather.

He attended Virginia Tech and graduated from Syracuse University. During college, he began working for IBM, where he spent much of his career. “I attribute all my cultural competencies, beyond what I learned from my grandfather, to IBM,” says Key, who worked in management, overseeing a diverse staff, living for a period in Tokyo, and working with people around the world. “To be successful, you have to lose your U.S.-centric, white-male-privilege point of view,” he said.

Key founded his own consulting business, Shenandoah Group, in 1997. The firm consults on governance, risk, management, and compliance for a group of international clients.

He is married to Elizabeth Stockton Key, and he has three adult children and six grandchildren.

Key believes the most important work the moderator and the UUA board can do is “generative thinking work.” “We can’t ignore the fiduciary or the strategic, but we have to do those things efficiently so we can do the heavy lifting of imagining, ‘What does Unitarian Universalism look like in 20 years?’”

Never far from his mind is how Unitarian Universalism was hidden from him for so long, even as he was seeking a spiritual home. “I think there are another 900,000 additional people like me who are either unchurched or are on a really deep spiritual journey and they haven’t found us yet,” said Key. “So from my point of view, that is where I think governance ought to be focused.”

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