(Note: this is a guest post by Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Landrum.)
The UUA has two candidates running by petition against the UUA Nominating Committee’s candidates for UUA Board of Trustees this year, as well as a protest happening outside the General Assembly, as announced by the Fifth Principle Project. The Fifth Principle Project is an organization not directly affiliated with Unitarian Universalism, but dedicated to changing the course of the UUA. It has sponsored forums hosting the two petition candidates, put out announcements about them, and was created by Frank Casper and Jay Kiskel, who ran a failed campaign for UUA Board of Trustees last year. The two candidates and the protest happening at GA are all linked by one galvanizing issue, so it’s worth examining that case to understand why such a mountain has been made out of it.
The Fifth Principle Project’s and Petition Candidates’ Claims
The Fifth Principle Project, in announcing the protest, says that the UUA has taken an “authoritarian, and anti-liberal turn.” This rhetoric is used by all three of these sources. One example given is:
“Personally attacking and silencing dissenters rather than engaging their ideas – openly rejecting the need to even read their words before publicly condemning them. Condemning disagreement as “harm” to people of marginalized identities. Officially censuring and disfellowshipping ministers for expressing dissent.” (Source: https://fifthprincipleproject.org/2022/05/30/update-on-election-campaign/)
This statement blends together at least three separate issues/incidents, but is referring primarily to one individual: the Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof.
First, the statement about “rejecting the need to even read their words” is the key to understanding this whole first claim. It is referring to a letter signed by ministers after the publication and distribution of a book, The Gadfly Papers, by its author, the Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof at the General Assembly in Spokane in 2019. The Rev. Dr. Eklof and his supporters claimed (mostly falsely) that the ministers signing the letter about his book had not read it.(**1) The letter stated, in part:
“As white ministers, we write today to make clear that this treatise does not represent us or our values, nor does it represent our vision for the ministry or for Unitarian Universalism. We deeply regret the harm this publication has already caused, and we know that this is another (intentionally provocative) incident that comes on the heels of months, years, generations of harm toward our colleagues of color. (We also acknowledge the harm in the treatise directed toward LGBTQ+ people, religious educators, people with disabilities, and others–many of whom are also people of color at the intersections of multiple identities.)” (Source: https://www.muusja.org/reprint-an-open-letter-from-white-uu-ministers/)
This was not a UUA statement, it was a letter signed independently by over 500 UU ministers, none of whom were acting in a UUA role. The UUA has not made any statement condemning the Rev. Dr. Eklof’s words.
Second, the statement about censuring and “disfellowshipping” needs to be broken into two parts. Two ministers have been censured by the UU Ministers Association. The first was the Rev. Richard Trudeau, who chose to publicly share his private letter of censure from the UUMA in various online spaces. The Rev. Dr. Eklof was also censured by the UUMA, more publicly. However, both censures are from the UUMA, not the UUA. The UUMA is an organization designed to provide ministers support in their ministries and relationships with one another. Member ministers also subscribe to the UUMA Code of ethics. The UUMA is a completely separate organization from the UUA in all ways, including leadership, governance, and finance. Thus, like the previous point, adding UUMA actions into the protest against the UUA is just done to make the list of grievances against the UUA seem longer.
Third, we come to the one issue that is actually about the UUA. There is one minister they are referring to who was “disfellowshipped,” not multiple ministers. (The more accurate term is “removed from fellowship,” by the way.) It’s the adding “censure” into the statement that allows it to be plural. And the one minister who was “disfellowshipped” by the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee, the credentialing body for UU ministers, was again the Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof, author of The Gadfly Papers and its follow up, The Gadfly Affair. (See https://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/mfc/clergy-misconduct-investigations)
So the whole paragraph from the Fifth Principle Project of grievances against the UUA boils down to one UUA action. I’ll go into more detail on this action below.
Rebecca Mattis, candidate for UUA Board of Trustees by petition says, says much the same thing. She says:
“At least six ministers/lay ministers I know of have been disfellowshipped, censured, unseated, or otherwise sanctioned for sharing their opinions in the past five years.” She goes on to say, “The fact that ministers are being punished for stating their philosophical and political views is a situation that I claim is a direct attack on freedom of conscience. This is what my campaign boils down to.” (Source: https://rebeccamattisuu.blogspot.com/2022/05/dogmatic-and-authoritarian.html)
When asked in the comments who she is referring to, she names only two ministers: the Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof and the Rev. Richard Trudeau. Again, the Rev. Trudeau’s example has to do with the UUMA, not the UUA, and thus is not an issue that relates to a campaign for the UUA Board of Trustees, a separate organization. Mattis also gives a third example of Mel Pine, a lay person, who was not disfellowshipped, censured, or unseated by the UUA or UUMA. Mel Pine had a reading of his removed from the UUA’s Worship Web, which might be called “otherwise sanctioned.” But it is a stretch to consider this relatively small and mild action a sanction.(**2) I see this as a red herring in this discussion.
The Rev. Beverly Seese,(**3) the other candidate for UUA Board of Trustees by petition says much the same thing:
“Condemnation of carefully thought out books and pamphlets written by ministers and other leaders in our association, slander and threats of de-fellowshipping of ministers and other leaders for disagreeing with controversial actions and statements of our UUA Leadership. . .” (Source: https://beverlyseeseuu.blogspot.com/2022/05/my-position.html)
I have seen no major public response to pamphlets. Nor am I aware of any controversial pamphlets, and only one book that was publicly responded to by UU ministers and UU leaders, ( the Rev. Dr. Eklof’s The Gadfly Papers), unless The Rev. Seese is counting negative Amazon reviews as public condemnation.
It is strange for her to claim that she is running for the UUA Board of Trustees because of something ministers did independently. Ministers are granted freedom of the pulpit, and their public response to a public document is not overseen by the UUA, much less the UUA Board of Trustees. The Rev. Seese gives no examples of ministers being slandered, so we must assume that she is considering the public letters disputing the claims of The Gadfly Papers to be slander.(**4) She likewise provides no examples of threats, to remove fellowship or otherwise, made by the UUA over disagreement or anything else. There are no threats. Once again, the UUA’s sole action alluded to here was removing the Rev. Dr. Eklof from Fellowship.
Understanding the Role of the UUA, the Board of Trustees, and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC)
These candidates seem to have vital misunderstandings about the nature of the Unitarian Universalist Association and how it relates to congregations, ministers, and professional organizations for UU professionals. They also misunderstand the role and powers of the UUA, and the relationship between the UUA Board of Trustees and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. The UUA is an “association of congregations.” In our congregational polity, individual congregations choose their own minister, own their own buildings, and are free to disagree with any denominational statement made. Even Actions of Immediate Witness passed at the UUA’s annual General Assembly do not compel its member congregations, nor their ministers, to take specific actions. That’s why most statements at the UUA begin by “urging” action. It is important to make a distinction between the UUA and UUMA here. The UUA provides services to its member congregations, and provides leadership in that it suggests best practices. Its leaders issue statements about justice and ethics issues.
However, Ministerial Fellowship, which is a credentialing process by the UUA of UU ministers, is done by a committee of the UUA, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC). It is a voluntary and demanding process that ministers undergo. Ministers who go through this process have proved their fitness for UU ministry, and are then are held to certain standards by the UUMA, as well as the UUA, as maintained by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC). Ministers choose to go into Fellowship because, primarily, they believe in being held to ethical standards. And congregations, in choosing to call a Fellowshipped minister, know that their minister has been vetted by this process. However, a congregation can call a minister who is not in Fellowship – the Rev. Beverly Seese is an example of this.
It is no small matter that the Rev. Dr. Eklof was removed from Fellowship, and I will examine that more thoroughly. But it is worth noting that to run for UUA Board of Trustees in order to influence the Ministerial Fellowship Committee is a misunderstanding of the power and role of the UUA Board of Trustees. The UUA Board of Trustees does not directly interfere in the actions of the MFC, nor should it. The only relationship between the two is that some MFC members are appointed by the UUA Board of Trustees, and the UUA Board of Trustees approves any changes to MFC Rules.
The Removal of the Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof from Fellowship
As shown, the one actual case, at the center of this mountain of candidacies and protests, is the molehill case of the Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof and The Gadfly Papers. And the one thing that the UUA has done is remove him from Fellowship.(**5) None of the other actions was even taken by the UUA. Given that this one action, removal, forms the basis for these campaigns and protest, it’s worth examining exactly what happened. A good detailed timeline of the events for folks who want to know more can be found at https://revdennismccarty.com/think-pieces/.
So why was the Rev. Dr. Eklof removed from Fellowship? In his follow-up book, The Gadfly Affair, Rev. Dr. Eklof complains that he was censored and mistreated. But if one reads with a more thorough understanding, however, and examines the accounts of others as shown in the appendices, the true story emerges.
When ministers are in Fellowship with the UUA, it means that we are required to follow a code of ethics, and we are required to abide by the rules of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. (Ministers who are Members of the UUMA also agree to abide by the UUMA Code of Ethics.)(**6) This is the main way we can affirm that ministers are held to a consistent standard of ethics and behavior. One of those MFC rules is that if a complaint about an ethics violation is brought against a minister in Fellowship, that minister is required to go through the MFC ethics investigation process. We ministers have certain rights in that process – we can bring along a Good Officer as a support person, we get to state our case before the MFC, and we can invite letters of support about our character and actions.
Ethics cases can come to the MFC for a wide variety of reasons and from a wide variety of sources. We know many of the details of his case because the Rev. Dr. Eklof shared them himself in the appendices to The Gadfly Affair. A complaint was filed with the MFC by the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA), which is the professional organization for religious educators, akin to the UUMA. The Rev. Dr. Eklof had a substantial passage in his first book about a LREDA conference he did not attend. LREDA charged that the Rev. Dr. Eklof violated the Ethical Standards in the UUMA Code of Conduct in four areas: being honest and diligent in the work; demonstrating respect and compassion without regard to race, color, class, sex, sexual orientation, and additional categories; working to confront attitudes and practices of unjust discrimination; and not engaging in public words and actions which degrade the vocation. They made this case in an eight-page detailed complaint, with additional impact statements (which have not been disclosed) from eleven individuals.
When the MFC receives such an ethics complaint, the first thing it does is start an initial investigation, to see if that complaint warrants further investigation. Spurious complaints, which are rare, are weeded out at this point in the process. The MFC appoints an independent investigator, someone not a member of the MFC. This person meets with the complainants, meets with the minister charged with ethical violation(s), and prepares a report to the MFC about whether the alleged ethical violation merits further process with the MFC. No decision is being made, to this point, about the minister’s conduct. The MFC is merely determining whether further investigation is warranted. Most of the time, there will be enough cause found to warrant further process. In the case of the Rev. Dr. Eklof, this initial process happened, and it appears that the investigator found that there was “enough there” to recommend further review. It also appears, from his own account, that the Rev. Dr. Eklof refused to even meet with the investigator for even this first step in the process.
In the next step, both the minister and complainant(s) meet separately with the MFC’s Executive Committee, (a smaller group within the MFC), after which the MFC Executive Committee decides whether to involve the whole committee in further in-depth investigation. At this point, however, the Rev. Dr. Eklof refused to meet with the MFC, even though that was required under MFC rules, if the review was to be completed. In this way, Rev. Dr. Eklof made it impossible for the MFC to complete its review process.(**7)
One requirement of Fellowship is for a minister to meet with the MFC when asked to do so. To refuse to meet is akin to resigning Fellowship. When the Rev. Dr. Eklof flatly refused to meet with the MFC when asked, the MFC then voted to pursue a full fellowship review. The Rev. Dr. Eklof again indicated that he would not comply with the process. So the MFC was faced with no other option than to remove him from Fellowship. The opportunities for better outcomes were cut off by his refusal. The MFC wrote:
“Ministry is a relational endeavor, and it is a sine qua non of fellowship as a minister in the UUA that one be willing to engage with others when there is a concern expressed that one’s words or actions have caused harm, particularly to those from historically marginalized communities.” (Source: https://fifthprincipleproject.org/2020/06/08/the-price-of-having-a-voice/)
So—was the Rev. Dr. Eklof removed for his dissenting views? No. Since the Rev. Dr. Eklof rejected the MFC process, triggering automatic removal from Fellowship, we don’t know for sure what would have happened if he had remained engaged. But there are some things we can still examine. First, would the Rev. Dr. Eklof have been removed from Fellowship for having expressed unpopular opinions in his book? The answer is a clear no. The LREDA complaint was not about unpopular opinions, so he couldn’t have been removed for that cause. But if a case had been brought that was about dissenting or unpopular opinions, the answer is still likely “no.” We have zero other examples of ministers being removed from Fellowship for unpopular or dissenting views. (See https://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/mfc/clergy-misconduct-investigations) In fact, we have a long history of ministers having a broad diversity of views, including ministers who have been vocal supporters of the Rev. Dr. Eklof. These ministers have made public statements on blogs and other online platforms. None of them have been removed from Fellowship for their views.
Would the Rev. Dr. Eklof have faced some consequences for his behaviors? The MFC stated:
“Rev. Dr. Eklof refused earlier attempts to ‘come to the table’ after the distribution of his book The Gadfly Papers at the UUA General Assembly in Spokane in 2019 was received as harmful – particularly by the LREDA, Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM) and other organizations representing Unitarian Universalists with historically marginalized identities.” (Source: https://fifthprincipleproject.org/2020/06/08/the-price-of-having-a-voice/)
It was, in fact, the Rev. Dr. Eklof’s failure to even ask LREDA members about his account prior to putting it in his book,(**8) along with his refusal of invitations to enter conversation after its publication, that forced LREDA to seek redress through the formal MFC process in the first place. Ministry is, as the MFC says, “a relational endeavor.” Under the circumstances the Rev. Dr. Eklof likely would have faced some consequences for his failure to come into right relationship. If his engagement with the process had been a good-faith effort to restore relationship, however, it is very unlikely that it would have resulted in his removal from Fellowship.
Contrary to the allegations put forth by the Fifth Principle Project, the Rev. Beverly Seese, and Rebecca Mattis, the question at stake in the UUA is not “Can a minister have dissenting beliefs?” It is this: “Can a minister do harm to people with marginalized identities, and then refuse to listen, to learn, to come into conversation with, and to be in relationship with the people who were harmed?”
The Path Forward
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I’ve been thinking a lot about a case where I, as a blogger, blogged about a particular program within Unitarian Universalism, and how I felt it was flawed. I did so without much thought to those involved, and without talking to the people running the program. I was later told by one of those people how they thought this was wrong of me. I should’ve talked with them first, they said. It was harmful to them, they told me.
I still continue to think I was right about the flaws of the program. I still continue to think that raising awareness of that program’s flaws was something that could be learned from. But I have learned that my process was bad – ministry should be inherently relational. And I am chagrinned thinking of it. I hope I apologized that day, although I do not remember. If I were called to account for my behavior now, I would know to listen and to learn, to apologize and to grow. I may be right about my ideas, but that doesn’t mean that everything I did was right.
This is what it means to be a minister in our association. This is what the Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof’s supporters, and he himself, ignore. This is what the Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof, as well as his supporters, need to understand if they want to be leaders in our faith: our faith is covenantal and relational. Our religious life together is something we take incredibly seriously. Ministry is a series of relationships, commitments, ethics, and covenants. Our obligations to each other as colleagues, to our congregations, and to our faith can’t be boiled down to a simple narrative of free speech, authoritarianism, and censorship. The leadership of our association, and our Board of Trustees members, need to have the depth of experience to uphold this commitment to one another, faithfully.
True leadership in our faith is shown less by expressing controversial opinions, and more by building beloved community. The greatest thing the Rev. Dr. Eklof and his supporters could do for our faith right now is to heal the divide they’ve created, not by protest but by connection and relationship, by learning from these mistakes, and by showing remorse for harm that was done. If they could do that, they might be the leaders to take us to the mountain and into the next era of Unitarian Universalism. As it stands now, they are just gadflies, making a mere molehill with their willful misunderstandings and division.
**1 EDITOR’S NOTE: As soon as Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof released his book, The Gadfly Papers, Rev. Dennis McCarty bought a copy, read it, and shared his analysis with colleagues. Rev. Dennis McCarty found the book sloppily (probably hastily) written, poorly reasoned, historically inaccurate, and in places, demonstrably untrue. Ref. McCarty’s full examination can be found at: https://revdennismccarty.com/the-truth-about-the-gadfly-papers/
**2 EDITOR’S NOTE: The editor can only observe that, in a 50-year professional writing career, including nationally published novels, magazine articles, etc., he has had any number of pieces rejected. He has also offered readings to WorshipWeb. Some have been accepted, some have been rejected, and one or two were eventually taken down after being accepted. That is the kind of decision editors make, it is certainly not a policy decision made by the UUA. If, as a writer, the editor bewailed all his many item rejections and deletions to his friends, there would never be time to write anything new.
**3 EDITOR’S NOTE: While Rev. Beverly Seese is part-time minister at a small fellowship in Indiana, she has never applied for Fellowship with the UUA Ministerial Fellowship Committee, is not a member of the UUMA, and is not bound by the UUMA Code of Ethics. Because of the strong Unitarian Universalist tradition of congregational independence (congregational polity), congregations can retain ministers who are neither in Fellowship, nor members of the UUMA. This means, however, that these ministers have never been vetted by any UUA credentialing body, and cannot be disciplined by the UUA for any misconduct that takes place.
**4 EDITOR’S NOTE: It is easy to call something “slander,” but beyond meaningless name-calling, it is a term with a legal definition. For example, while followers of Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof have expressed extreme displeasure at Rev. Dennis McCarty’s analysis of The Gadfly Papers, no one has ever brought any kind of legal action for “slander.” This is because, ever since the American Revolution, American courts have held that a statement must be false to be slanderous. Honest criticism–and pointing out poor logic and factual inaccuracies–are not slander.
**5 EDITOR’S NOTE: Since member congregations in the UUA can call any minister they choose, Rev. Dr. Eklof’s removal from Fellowship has not affected his employment. He is still minister at the Unitarian Church of Spokane, WA, drawing full salary.
**6 When Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof was granted Fellowship by the MFC, and joined the UUMA, that included his agreement to abide by MFC rules and the UUMA Code of Ethics, which includes a Covenant between ministers. After being removed from Fellowship, in a sermon he delivered Oct. 17, 2021, he incorrectly claimed that Unitarian Universalism is not a covenantal tradition, and that he had never been party to any Unitarian Universalist covenant other than our Seven Principles. That was not true. The UUMA Covenant is a voluntary agreement between all UUMA members. More information on this sermon, and its many inaccuracies, can be found at: https://revdennismccarty.com/it-cant-possibly-be-a-bird-todd-eklofs-ignorance-of-covenantal-theology/
**7 AUTHOR/EDITOR’S NOTE: So the MFC’s process of investigation stopped at this point. What would have happened next can vary. The MFC could find that no further action was necessary, and the process would end there, with no actions taken. If the MFC Executive Committee found further action necessary, they would convene an investigatory team. That team would investigate, talking more thoroughly with the minister and complainants, conducting follow-up research, and issuing recommendations for action to the MFC. At this point, again, they could decide no actions were warranted. Or they could decide that the minister’s ethical violations were such that some level of action should be taken. This might be anything from counseling or taking a course, to suspension or removal from Fellowship. The team would make that recommendation to the MFC, and the MFC would again meet with complainants and minster before making a final decision. It is only after all of this process, with all facts in hand, that the final decision decision would be made. Removal from Fellowship occurs only in the most egregious cases. It would be more likely that actions would be taken short of removal from Fellowship. But the minister needs to participate in the process for that decision to be made at all.
**8 EDITOR’S NOTE: Rev. Dr. Eklof’s own RE Director had, in fact, attended the LREDA workshop Rev. Dr. Eklof wrote about in his book. It was apparently not worth his time to walk down the hall and ask her about her experience. Her blog post about the workshop in question is available at https://uucschildrenandfamilyministry.wordpress.com/2017/12/07/lreda-fall-con-a-shift-in-perspective/ It is completely different from his second-hand account.