Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?

An Open  Letter to my Unitarian Universalist Siblings:

I hope this letter finds you all thriving and happy.

I write in the hope that you may assist me in resolving a professional question that arises out of the present crisis in our denomination.

As a shared frame of reference, I  offer the following excerpts, the first from the UUA Website and the second from Wikipedia. Together, I believe they provide a summary of what any interested member of the public would understand to be the essence of Unitarian-Universalism and UU ministry.

What the public understands is important, for between my published writing and my work as a law enforcement chaplain, my UU ministry mostly operates outside the church and our institutional assumptions. Whether at a book reading or at the scenes of the various wild-land calamities to which I am summoned,  I am very likely to be the only representative of our faith. Recently   I have begun to doubt that I am representing it honestly.

Ministers are spiritual leaders of our faith communities, the UUA website says.   They help us to explore life’s questions, encourage us to live out our values and comfort us in times of suffering. Ministers teach, preach, listen and learn by serving congregations, serving as chaplains and working for justice in the community. 

…UU ministers are a diverse group…their personal beliefs are as diverse as  Unitarian Universalism and all are committed to UU values. Rather than telling others what to do or believe, ministers encourage people to make sense of the world in their own way,  supporting them on their life’s journey.

So far, so good.

I have been a UU minister since 2004. As a  chaplain, my ministry is by definition ecumenical and all-inclusive,  but when asked, I readily identify myself as a UU. Since many people don’t know what a Unitarian-Universalist is, I explain it pretty much the way Wikipedia does:

Unitarian Universalism (UU) is a liberal religion characterized by a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Unitarian Universalists assert no creed but instead are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth….Unitarian Universalists  state that from [their twin traditions] comes a deep regard for intellectual  freedom and  inclusive love.

I never doubted that this tradition was where I belonged, nor did my fellow UUs  ever suggest that I was in any way failing to live up to the standards of the faith.

Quite the opposite, in fact. When my memoir, Here If You Need Me, became a New York Times bestseller,  I was positively profiled in, among other publications,  UU World. Among the various prizes and honors I received, I was most pleased to join such luminaries as Taylor Branch, Toni Morrison and Tim O’Brien as a recipient of the UUA’s Frederic G. Melchor Award, bestowed yearly for that book “judged to be the most significant contribution to religious liberalism.”

I was glad to learn from correspondence with readers that many were introduced to Unitarian Universalism through my books, or through my interviews with, for example, Krista Tippet in NPR’s On Being.  When a story I told on  NPR’s  The Moth Radio Hour went viral,  it meant ten million people had listened to the voice of a UU minister.

As an author and also as someone with expertise in sudden death and grief and/or law enforcement, I teach, preach,  listen and learn around the country and, indeed, around the world. I’ve preached sermons in UU but also Congregational, UCC, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian and Lutheran churches and in synagogues.

I’ve trained American law enforcement officers and other first responders in the theory and practice of compassionate on-scene bereavement support and death notification, and offered lessons learned working with game wardens in the Maine woods to wildly diverse audiences including physicians and surgeons, the FBI National Academy, the POMC (Parents Of Murdered Children);  to hospital and prison chaplains, the incarcerated and  high school, college, graduate school, medical school, law school and yes! even divinity-school students.  As a UU minister I’ve blessed new babies, new marriages (including same-sex ones, of course) new cops, new chaplains and new lawyers.

It was as a UU minister that I offered the opening prayer to thirty-thousand people at the  National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial service in Washington, DC, as well as at the groundbreaking ceremony for the National Law Enforcement Museum. In 2010, I gave the opening prayer for the United States House of Representatives.

For my work,  I’ve been  honored with various state and national awards including, in just the past year,  the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill  Lifetime Achievement Award, the University of Maine’s MaryAnn Hartman Award and, in 2019, I was named by Maine Magazine as one of its “50 Influential Mainers.”

I could go on, but the point is not to boast of my accomplishments. Rather, it is to underline what I would hope would be obvious: When I am recognized by a group or, for that matter, by a stranger who happens to bump into me at the airport, I am explicitly and implicitly representing Unitarian Universalism. And herein lies the rub.

The events of the past few years—- especially the ructions attendant upon the publication of Rev. Todd Eklof’s The Gadfly Papers—-now impel me to ask a simple and serious question.

I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am a minister…but am I still a Unitarian Universalist minister?

For it seems to me that, though the descriptions offered on the UUA Website and on Wikipedia haven’t changed, Unitarian-Universalism has changed. There is a new, de facto if not quite yet de jure definition coming from the top down, of what it means to be a UU Minister. I am not sure I can still be located within it.

I believe in the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  I have a deep, downright passionate regard for intellectual freedom and inclusive love and, indeed, believe that one is not possible without the other.

But if Reverend Todd Eklof is an apostate, so am I. If Reverend Richard Trudeau is worthy of censure by the board of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, so am I—-indeed, I am more worthy of such censure than either of these men.

After all, their free and responsible search for truth and meaning led neither of them to be Republican-tolerant, Trump-voter-sympathizing, uniform-wearing,  androphilic, pro-life-adjacent, reason-loving, dialectic-enjoying, America-approving, pro-capitalist and pro-free speech cop-lovers.

During the two decades in which I’ve been hanging out with mostly-male police officers and comforting the suddenly and violently grief-stricken, or writing books that have nothing whatever to do with systems of oppression, the Revs. Eklof and Trudeau have been doing all the right things,  in UU-approved ways.

If, after all his years of good-faith UU service, Reverend Eklof can nonetheless be instantly and mercilessly condemned by nearly two hundred of  his colleagues within hours of distributing a thoughtful, well-intentioned book; if Reverend Trudeau pour encourager les autres  can be  censured by the UUMA for causing unenumerated harms to unnamed “colleagues of color;” if, for that matter, an ordinary congregant, Mel Pine, can be subjected to a twenty-minute obscenity-laced online diatribe and then have his work removed from the Worship Web merely for questioning the behavior of those who are, quite clearly, now in control of our denomination… what on earth should happen to me?

I never got around to being “fellowshipped” so I suppose I can’t be “un-fellowshipped.” I don’t belong to the UUMA, so I don’t know whether its board has standing to censure me.

Still it seems quite obvious that I ought to be censured, and someone needs to post a video condemning me, too. The briefest Google search would surely be sufficient to turn up all sorts of transgressions against the new orthodoxy. At the very least, my picture and story should be removed from the UUA website, on the grounds that I have been misrepresenting our faith or, to put it another way, I’ve been telling lies. In my defense, mine are the same lies still extant and uncorrected on that same website but I’m sure the webmasters will get around to adjusting that soon enough.

In the meantime, at the very least, the UUA, UUMA, BLUU, DRUUM etc. should surely abjure me, and instruct me  to cease and desist describing myself as a UU minister in any and all interviews, awards ceremonies, speeches, sermons, public prayers, radio and television appearances and on the jackets of all future editions of my books.

Of course, I could be wrong. As I say, I don’t really “do” systems, just people, and grieving ones at that. So perhaps I have misinterpreted recent events?

If so—that is, if the UUA and all its acronymic subgroups would just as soon have me continue to self-identify as a UU minister— perhaps you would be kind enough to let me know why? And, for that matter, how?

Ideally, such a reassuring explanation would take the form of one of those “Open Letters” co-signed by dozens of my colleagues, though if it’s all the same to you,  I’d prefer to have signatories of all colors, not just white ones.

If I don’t hear anything from you, please know that I shall respectfully interpret this to mean that you all do indeed prefer that I no longer publicly associate myself with Unitarian-Universalism. Of course I shall respect your wishes. If it would be helpful, I can notify the New York Times, the Washington Post, Krista Tippet et al,  that nothing I have done, am doing, or will do in future should be presumed to represent the principles and values of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

With thanks in advance, I remain, pro tem, your colleague,
Reverend Kate Braestrup

134 comments

  1. After reading Rev. B’s letter, this letter was sent to me by UU Salem Oregon congregation member Joan Stembridge

    I just read Kate B’s message and many of the responses. What a wise, powerful woman and thinker. Thank you for giving our congregation this information and encouragement to resist the top-down, dictatorial, mean-spirited demands of the UUA/UUMA leadership.

    I believe the members of congregations throughout the country now have the opportunity and responsibility to speak out, speak up, support those who have been vilified for expressing their opinions.

    UU congregations throughout the country need to reclaim the essence of what it means to be a UU. We, the people, who make up each congregation, need to vote as a congregation as to whether we want to be “branded” with the label of being a White Suppremacist Organization.

    I, for one, find the label to be unjust, hateful, demeaning, and racist. I reject the label. And, if UUA insists on retaining White Supremacy as a defining label of being a UU, I cannot remain a UU.

    Because my whole life has been about service and support for those who are marginalized. To take on the label of what I abhor is not something I am willing to do.

    Thank you for your work and wisdom,
    Sincerely,
    Joan

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for saying exactly what I believe and feel. I am a former board member and Unitarian who resigned from my board position and quit the church in Southfield, Michigan in April. The close-mindedness and intolerance of those who say they value the “worth and dignity” of every person yet cannot bear to have legitimate questions raised is hypocrisy in its truest forms.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I received an answer to my letter from Susan Frederick-Gray as follows:
    __________________________________________________________
    Thank you for your letter. I appreciate the ways you have ministered through your published writing and your chaplaincy work.
    I cannot tell you whether to continue to identify yourself as a UU minister. You have chosen not to pursue Fellowship in the UUA, and you are not a member of the UUMA (which does not require fellowship). Your ordination by the UU congregation of Rockland, Maine, entitles you to identify as a UU minister. If you are questioning that identity now, I encourage you to be in conversation with members of that congregation with whom you are in covenantal relationship, as well as through your own spiritual discernment.
    We will not always think alike, but it is important to try to honor one another’s efforts and to find ways to embrace multiple paths to a fully inclusive and multicultural faith community. The UUA is putting an emphasis on listening to and centering those who have traditionally been on the margins of our faith, fostering diversity of leadership and creating an inclusive work environment that makes room for all people to bring their full selves and gifts. I hear the criticisms of our work. At the same time, I want to share how inspiring it is to work in the most diverse organization I have ever been a part of – and trying to address and navigate the most complicated issues of our times and our society. It inspires me every day, even when it also is challenging and messy.
    Again, I thank you for your email. Blessings to you and your ministry.
    ________________________________________________________________
    It’s not the answer I wanted…but it is an answer, isn’t it?
    Is it just me, or is it a little odd that everyone in UU land is being asked to make “dismantling white supremacy” the highest priority when what we are really talking about is the apparently-vexed relationship between middle-class, educated, progressive white employees of the UUA and middle-class, educated, progressive POC employees of the UUA?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Susan F-G made her reputation by going out into the Pheonix community and rubbing shoulders with the immigrant community and building bridges to faith communities that represented the actually oppressed. It takes an enormous power of will to overcome the isolation that comes with high office. I supported and voted for her because I thought she was the one of the three candidates most able to overcome that isolation, but this letter to you, Kate, indicates otherwise.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Hi Kate,
      Whether I entirely agree with Susan’s answer or not, I think her answer is clear. Since you are in covenant with the congregation that ordained you, you remain a UU minister. I’m curious: What was the answer you wanted?
      I agree with you that it’s odd that everyone in UU land is being asked to make “dismantling white supremacy” the “highest” priority. However, my reason for thinking it odd is that we are in the midst of human-induced environmental degradation that is already causing the death of hundreds of millions and is likely to lead to the death of billions. Yes, our antiracism work is important, and it should be in a larger context which includes economic, political, gender, class, education, healthcare, etc. justice. Rev. Dr. Barber, following in the footsteps of MLK and expanding on his work, can help guide us to more inclusive justice work that builds rather than shatters community.
      Thanks, Earl

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, right, Earl! That is to say that many UUs would argue that if we are facing an existential environmental crisis, why are we offering five million dollars to BLUU and not, say, offering funds to help mitigate the effects of extreme weather events on vulnerable communities? For that matter, wouldn’t it make more sense to model decent, thoughtful, respectful conversation between people who don’t agree. After all, even if “we” are absolutely right about this or any problem, the solution cannot be imposed by force. Not in our churches, and not in the country or world as a whole.

        I should add that I am not belittling the feelings or needs of Unitarian Universalists of color; if the UUA is indeed a racist organization, or if people in the hierarchy have been (consciously or otherwise) rude, thoughtless or intimidating to people of color, I am sorry. And I agree that it matters, both for the well-being of those on the receiving end of such behavior, and for the (im)mortal souls of the perpetrators.

        But it’s not unreasonable (let alone racist) to point out that there might be other, more urgent problems in need of emphasis, whether we’re talking about the needs of communities in rural Maine or the larger, indeed, existential problems facing the planet.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This seems apropos:

    Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

    More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

    Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

    More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

    – “A Man For All Seasons”, Robert Bolt (Act I)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Rev. Frederick-Gray responded only to a technical question, and did so with a legalistic answer. I wanted a robust reassurance, preferably with evidence, that the UUA remains fully committed to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, committed to intellectual freedom combined with inclusive love.

    And that isn’t what I got. Well, of course it isn’t. However, as I say, it is an answer.

    So I’ve asked her to see to taking my photo and story off the UUA website. It just feels like a falsehood to leave it there.

    Like

    1. The UUA does not get to define what UU means. As a minister, YOU have as much, or more right as anyone to state what YOU believe UU means. Just because the UUA moves away from traditional UU values, doesn’t mean that you have to move, or leave. I say, stand your ground, and take a stand for core UU values.

      Liked by 5 people

  5. I used to identify as UU.
    Until the officials went off the cliff into intersectional politics and claiming that UUism is somehow “white supremacist”.
    If they ever decide to return to what they SAY their principles are, I’ll be happy to return.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Dear Kate,
    I am so very grateful for your words and the courageous and empowering conversations that have sprung from your original post. The passionate comments in print here or on several Facebook streams reveal measurable outcomes, yet the words spoken between colleagues who share from tender hearts (while harder to track) are more indicative of the discouragement many carry because of the shifts in our faith that you speak of. Thank you. As one who has recently chosen to end my own pursuit of UU Ministry (and Fellowship) this exchange has brought both challenge and affirmation.
    As we continue to hold and affirm that 4th principle (at the heart center of the 7) may your free and responsible search (and finding) of truth and meaning be a warm hug for your heart and a blessing to those you will continue to serve.
    Warmly,
    Rev Maggie

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Thank you Kate! You’ll remember from our UU History class that we Unitarian Universalists are democratic, and therefore bottom-up, in our polity. One becomes a UU minister when one is ordained, not when when is granted fellowship through the national MFC process. Ordination is done by the local congregation — as yours is. So the technical answer is yes, you are a Unitarian Universalist minister, if you choose to remain among us. The harder question is, are you willing to put up with our human frailties and failings? Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Haynes Holmes questioned their affiliation to Unitarianism in their times, and yet are among our “saints” today. Stick with us. please. We need your honest voice and your passion.

    Liked by 7 people

  8. Hello, Mark! How nice of you to weigh in. I’d love to hear your take on all of this.
    As for whether I’m willing to put up with human frailties and failings…that’s an interesting way to put it.

    The human beings who currently run our Association are—I believe—doing what human beings generally do, given the chance: They are seeking to expand their power and influence, and they are creating “urgent” work for themselves to justify their own jobs. I frankly don’t consider anyone currently employed by the UUA to be “marginalized” or “oppressed” in any meaningful definition of the terms. They are exhibiting human frailties and failings… and they’re behaving like real jerks.

    What does “putting up with” these frailties and failings mean?

    I came across a comment by a self-described UU minister on Reddit the other day which stated that persons who are, or have been, or are descended from or identify as… the designated categories of “marginalized” must be given license to be rude, self-centered and cruel, especially when interacting with anyone who isn’t, wasn’t, or can claim no descent from the “marginalized” (that is, white men). Not only do I think this is stupid (and breathtakingly condescending) it’s also —very simply—not love. It isn’t love to endure, justify or explain-away bad behavior, particularly when one isn’t in fact putting up with hurt inflicted on onself, but rather that inflicted on someone else. Self-sacrifice is one thing; other-sacrifice is something else entirely. Sacrificing someone else to appease the powerful is a human thing to do. That is, any one of us might, when faced with even minimal threats to social standing or employment, cry: “Look! Look how enthusiastically I am stomping that horrible sinner over there! Surely the sincere sinner-stompers [allies] will be spared the full wrath of God [or Lesley Mac] will be mitigated when it comes to the sincere sinner-stompers [“allies”] like me?”

    It’s human, but it isn’t admirable or noble.

    Liked by 5 people

      1. I don’t expect an articulate presentation of all sides, but the interest this has generated nationwide and beyond seems to me to deserve some sort of mention. I know they’re aware of it. And yet I find myself bracing for it going unmentioned because of editorial slant.

        They stopped reporting on laypersin leaders’ blogs after MacFayden’s conflict with you. I did notice that and thought it inauthentic to our polity.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. I was really disappointed by their coverage of l’affaire Gadfly Papers. A couple of paragraphs in their media column, citing a local paper’s coverage of Eklof’s sort-of ejection, and providing a rather condescending and empty response from a UUA official. Very sad.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks for your thoughtful essay, Kate! I’ve been following this controversy (and blogging about it) for a while. I’m catching up this week because I have an appointment in a couple of days to talk to my local UU minister about it. I have requested the opportunity to present a lay sermon on the topic, and while the door hasn’t been slammed shut, I have the impression that the minister is resisting the idea.

    I re-read Eklof’s book yesterday, in preparation for the meeting, and I like it even better than I did the first time. I honestly couldn’t find anything in it that looked dodgy — and there is absolutely nothing.in it that could possibly justify either the grotesque Open Letter or the official Letter of Censure. It’s clear to me that a bunch of people in the upper echelons have lost their bearings, if not their marbles.

    I’m not quite ready to bail on my church membership. I like the people in my local congregation a lot! It’s the national organization that alarms me.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I’m with you, MidiGuru. I really do wonder whether the national organization is handicapped (enabled?) by being in Boston which, being a college town, can be a marinade of academic fashions in a way that , say, Topeka is not. And there is a tendency to generalize what is, in fact, particular…whether to Boston, to the NorthEast or to large (ish) cities. To me, the idea of telling a bunch of UUs in South Paris, Maine that their top priority needs to be Anti-Racism, or accusing them of having a White Supremacy Culture just seems goofy (or sadistic, depending).

    Indeed, I find myself wondering whether the real, toxic racism is in Boston, and maybe Chicago. Instead of just addressing that problem, they are projecting it onto the rest of us. The motivation may be the inelegant but very human desire to relativize guilt, but it may also be snobbery. After all,. “if we were caught being this lousy to POCs at UUA HQ, imagine how terrible the race relations must be in backward, unenlightened Topeka!”

    I’d love to see them try to find an example of, say, the hiring of a white guy over a woman of color for some prestigious and lucrative position at the UU Church of Caribou, Maine.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. FWIW, I feel you’re asking (at least) two very different questions here: (1) “Am I a Unitarian Universalist minister?” and (2) “How am I, as a minister, affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association?” These two questions should be answered separately. I believe (quite strongly) that you can be a Unitarian Universalist minister (or a Unitarian Universalist layperson, for that matter) without having any affiliation with the UUA. Indeed, I think we’re going to see a growing trend of unaffiliated Unitarian Universalists (mostly laypeople, but also ministers) over the next decade. There are so many trends going against the way the UUA operates: you mention their top-down approach where the world has gone increasingly bottom-up, but that’s just one example of how people are doing social institutions and religious organizations differently these days, and the UUA is having a very hard time keeping up. (And who can blame them for flailing — all religious organizations in the U.S. are facing major challenges.)

    So I hope you will continue to call yourself a Unitarian Universalist. I say this out of enlightened self interest — as Unitarian Universalist minister myself, I want people like you around, who are doing Unitarian Universalism in innovative, interesting, and creative ways. It makes Unitarian Universalism much stronger. I say, call yourself a Unitarian Universalist minister, and don’t worry about the UUA.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I strongly second Dan’s comment. I think we need to control what we can control, which is how we conduct ourselves. Although we should also enter into dialogue with others, both within and outside of UU circles, we should not assume that everyone will agree. We should try to learn from those with whom we disagree, and we might hope for a community in which those we disagree with do the same. But regardless of what others do, we can still learn by being open to different ideas, while subjecting them to tests of reason, intuition, experience, and data.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Thank you, Dan and Tim! I got the latest issue of the UUWorld today, and was descending into what has become an all-too-familiar UUW-inspired despairing funk…good cheer-up from you two!

    Like

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