Presidential Job Description

The Unitarian Universalist Association, within which I am a longtime covenanted gadfly, has posted a job description for its next president. I had been ignoring this news, partly because my life is already overfilled with personal joy and work, and mostly because I feared sliding back into the black hole of polity, which tends to leave my house in a mess and my body in pajamas all day. However, someone whose opinion I honor has asked me for some thoughts. Trusting her compassion, I will answer briefly — and then get dressed and clean the kitchen.

First, let me reiterate my strong moral antipathy to the foundational vision of our current structure. Rather than emphasizing Policy Governance and Prophetic Voice, my highest requirement would be for someone with a vision for transforming and empowering our regional bodies, in keeping with the vision of Henry Whitney Bellows and the National Conference of Unitarian and Other Liberal Churches, or the Universalist National Convention. The top-down homogenizing elitism of our current model has an odious history, from Joshua’s invasion of Canaan to Vladimir Lenin’s “entering wedge” reinterpretation of Karl Marx. Seeing ourselves as a movement means willingness to tear up the landscape; I prefer a polity which begins with a commitment to living with, on, and from said landscape. Our centralizing polity traces to Samuel Atkins Eliot, whose stated goal was to transform the entire continent to the Jeffersonian ideal of educated householders. This led him into good works, such as personal tutoring for incarcerated people and their families, but his primary personal “prophetic vision” called him to leadership of the stated ethnic genocide performed by The Bureau of Indian Affairs. I cannot support a polity which has not cleansed itself of those foundational assumptions.

Secondly, I do not support corporate structures in which the Chief Executive Officer sits on, or leads, the Board to which she or he is supposedly accountable; this is how the One Per Cent propagated itself. This means that I support a shift from vaguely unicameral to clearly bicameral leadership. Our Board of Trustees structure has little to recommend it, according to either private sector or religious sector analysis. Politywonk urges ALL UUs to study the reforms instituted by the Council of Trent to make local bishops (Roman Catholic, now also Anglican/Episcopalian) more familiar and accountable to those they serve. A bishop is required to visit every congregation, in its setting, in person, every year or two, on an occasion announced in advance and open to all attenders. This openness includes dialogue time, not just with leadership but also with the individuals. Where the number of congregations is too large for one bishop to visit on this basis, secondary bishops are instituted, accountable to the primary bishop, but again, accessible on a regular basis to all the people. Here is where we see the wisdom of Bellows’s polity: regional leadership with enough personnel to be both reflective of, and accountable to, the many sacred voices shaped by each local historical and geographical ecosystem.

So, then, given those concerns about our Bylaws, is there good to be found in this job description for our next president? Each UU must answer that question for her or himself.

First, go through and look for all the stuff that speaks of an egotistic, arrogant, triumphalist public profile, either to outsiders or within our community. Both our Christian and our Buddhist theological leaders have good noses for this kind of stuff. Take it out.

Second, look for stuff that calls for administrative competence. Are these elements in conflict with each other? I don’t know — and I really mean I don’t know — whether the ability to foster and lead centralized efficiency occurs in the same person who can inspire, support, and empower regional power centers. Historically, this has not been the case, but hey, what has history to teach us? In my own case, I would line up everything that smacks of prophetic voice and make it accountable to listening and delegation, rather than preaching and teaching. I suspect that this item, “Impressive leadership skills, including especially the ability to manage a complex organization, delegate to others, and assess and plan for effective work” is humanly impossible. I mean, what would be this person’s MBTI sorter?

The phrase, “Be a faithful risk-taker in service to a compelling vision” easily explains how Dana MacLean Greeley wound up shifting the Theological Fund to things he considered more important. People who see this as the primary purpose of their president make a point we have to address: how do we establish a counterweight to religiously oppressive charisma? This is especially important in the era of Pope Francis and Joel Osteen. But note that the Quakers have done this without giving away their polity. My own family includes a story of how this got done, because we are mostly Friends. During the era when my sister’s Yearly Meeting did not support equal marriage, her local meeting had to separate itself from this, their regional community, in order to witness their vision. But to the credit of both levels, the separation did not require a schism; instead, for several years, the local meeting stepped from voting to observer status. Active dialogue continued behind a publicly-stated “concensus.”

And how could they do this? Because the Friends maintain vital and accountable regional organizational structures, with annual face-to-face raw honesty among themselves. How could the Episcopal Diocese of little New Hampshire become the first to elect, install, and maintain an openly-gay bishop: because New Hampshire is a place where people can, if they choose, know each other by character rather than category. Because Bishop Robinson entered a polity structure in which his flock knew they would see him regularly, openly, they could take the risk of prophetic vision for themselves. 

As to fund-raising, I am on record, and will repeat that assertion again, that the UUA needs to move out of Greater Boston, further west and south, to the place where land prices are smaller and despair is greater. For is not the first call of Universalism to bring hope to the hopeless?

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