Q & A with UUA Moderator Jim Key: the Bonus Round
Jim Key, UUA Moderator

Jim Key , Moderator of our Unitarian Universalist Association, gave the keynote address via webcast to the four Annual Assemblies of the Southern Region, Saturday, April 26. There were many more questions afterward than time for Jim to respond, and Jim graciously accepted our request to answer them in writing offline. They are organized below by district. Thank you, Jim, and thank you everyone who helped the AAs so well!

-- Carlton Elliott Smith,
   Congregational Life Staff 

Florida District (FLD)

Rev. Dee Graham: Jim mentioned adding more [UU] ministers. What kind of ministers? Community or settled? How will they be supported by the denomination, as there are more ministers in search than congregations in search?

We need to focus on Excellence in Ministry and attracting young adults and people of color.  The emerging data suggest that the pipeline is including more candidates in those categories.  Moreover, the age demographic of ministers implies that retirements over the years will provide openings for newly credentialed ministers.  As for denominational support, I was encouraged by the generative discussion at a recent Panel on Theological Education I recently attended with the many stakeholders in theological education.  Those stakeholders include the UU Identity Schools (Meadville Lombard Theological School and Starr King School for Ministry), UU Ministers Association, UUA, Ministerial Fellowship Committee, and UUA senior staff. Those conversations focused on the economics of ministerial education, student debt, competencies required of ministers, and continuing education.

What resources, initiatives, programs, etc. can our congregations expect from the UUA to help engage and attract young adults?

My personal view is that congregations must be intentional in their desire to attract young adults, beyond just wishing for it.  First, congregational leaders must become familiar with the emerging demographic studies and the attributes and interests of young adults.  The regional staff can assist with pointing you to that research data.  The congregations should then examine their programming, style, and form of worship, music, web site, and use of social media to determine if there is opportunity to alter them to be more attractive to young adults and others.  Leadership will have to engage members to gain buy in, if changes are deemed appropriate.  This is an opportunity for congregations to work together in their clusters to offer leadership development in this area.  Finally, we have a very capable staff in Youth and Young Adult Ministries, which can direct you to those congregations and programs that are effective. But I increasingly see the UUA and regional staffs as curators of successful programs that congregations have created rather than developers of new programs.  The best ideas come from congregations, which the staff can curate or provide an incubator.

Mid-South District (MSD)

Rev. Jeff Jones: For me, the loss of the district executive has led to a significant loss of identity and cohesion. Comments?

I have believed since I was a congregational leader and later as a district leader that our structure of 19 districts was unsustainable for a small organization like our UUA.  They were wildly variable in their available resources to support congregations and tended to reinforce the notion that we as a faith movement would somehow be better if we focused inward to our immediate needs for service.  But if we are to be relevant in this century as a faith movement, we need to be focused outward and looking for people to invite in.  I believe we can learn to be better at that with a regional staff that is organized so that every congregation not only knows who their primary relationship professional is, but also that every congregation has equal access to specific skills and portfolios that simply cannot be offered in a district organization.
I confess to mourning the loss of my DE both as a congregational as well as a district leader.  I have experienced the challenging transition we are currently in.  But I am positive that if people of good faith move through this transition with love and compassion, we will not only come out the other side stronger but with growth in the numbers of people we serve.
You will recall in my opening reading, Autobiography in Five Short Chapters http://www.doorway-to-self-esteem.com/autobiography-in-five-short-chapters.html that the solution to the problem of the hole in the sidewalk was to walk down a different street.  I believe that is time for us as a faith movement to try something new since what we have been doing hasn’t led to the growth we want and need.

Jim Newton: As a humanist and an atheist, I find that I am apprehensive about defining our "core theology" more succinctly. Can you reassure me that I won't feel less welcome at UU gatherings?

I too identify as a humanist, and I am comfortable with trying to articulate my “theology” in order to attract more humanists or “spiritual but not religious” or “nones”.  My personal core theology will not be the same as the Christian UU, or Pagan UU, or many others.  Our challenge is to find ways to articulate our inclusive theology that all of us on the spectrum of religious liberals can be comfortable with and confident of telling others about.  Unless we are successful at telling others about this liberal and liberating faith, the more vulnerable we are to irrelevancy.    I don’t pretend this is easy, but believe we must struggle to find the answer as to how to articulate our inclusive theology and why it matters.
This is how I would answer the question of what is Unitarian Universalism’s core theology.  “As Unitarians we believe that there is one God for all people – whatever that terms means to you – and all the religions are different pathways through which we can experience God.  For some, ‘that which ultimately concerns humanity’ might be a better expression of the concept of God.  But, however named, this is a power pulsing through all creation, inside each of us, calling us to be and become our best selves.  Each of us has a spark of the Divine, a seed of holiness, which is what makes us inherently worthy and dignified.  The truth about God is not contained in any book, but rather inscribed on every human heart and writ large across the face of nature.  God does not cause natural disasters nor save us from our own worst decisions, but God is the power that helps us bring forth the greatest possible good from even the worst imaginable catastrophe.  As Universalists we believe that we are one human family, agnostic about any state of being beyond this life, so must share in the this life equally, which is why it is important to work for justice now.”

Mani Subramanian: How do we retain UU-raised children in our congregations? Should we to make UUism grow?

We are a faith that relies on reason and not fear.  The downside of that is that we teach our children to think for themselves and then we feel badly when they do and choose another path.  In the many conversations I have had with youth and young adults on this subject, they tell me that they haven’t left Unitarian Universalism but they have left their congregation because they are not valued for their opinions.  We want them in the pews but not in leadership.  We are not open to their suggestions for making the worship service more engaging in the way they prefer to gather.  I would refer back to my answer above to the unknown writer.  Congregations must do some deep introspection about who they are now and what they want or must become to attract whomever the congregation is intentional about attracting.  It must start with inventorying their shared values, and move on from their with a vision of what they want to be in the community.  Once the shared values and vision are embraced, developing a strategy or long-range plan for getting there will be clear.

Rev. Jane Thickstun: Would you please start using gender-inclusive language? For example, "humanity" instead of "mankind"?

I do try to use gender-inclusive language, but will do better.  I wasn’t aware that I used the word, which confirms the degree to which our patriarchal society, which I inhabit as a male, has influenced the language of oppression we use unconsciously.  Thanks for calling me out.

Do we have any lobbyists to represent UU social justice interests?

Our best lobbyists are the Legislative Ministries that function in many states, some of which are just emerging as a result of the recent regressive legislation around rejecting Medicaid funding, sharply cutting education budgets, and restricting voting rights.  I encourage you to contact the regional staff professional for your congregation and get connected to the Legislative Ministry in your state.  And if there is not one there yet, then work with other congregations in a cluster setting and organize such a ministry.

Southeast District (SED)

Henry: When it comes to membership, how do we not just bring in visitors, but [also] the visitors we don't usually see much in our fellowship?

We have to begin with examining who we personally associate with on a day-to-day basis and find ways to broaden that sphere of association.  Religious communities grow by personal relationships and inviting people in.  If we don’t have relationships with people different from us, we aren’t going to be successful in diversifying our religious communities very much.  So we need to start by examining our circle of associates and seeking ways to broaden that circle.    And follow with inviting them into our worship circle as well.

Larry: How can we have a theology without a creed?

Theology is a system of religious beliefs or ideas and doesn’t require a creed to exist as a theology.  As a matter of UU theology, we don’t subscribe to a creed because it is limiting and does not consider new revelations of truth and understanding.
“Theo” means god and god goes by many names. For theists, that may be God; for humanists that may be ‘that which ultimately concerns humanity’.  As the Rev. Dr. Galen Geungerich notes in his Theology for a Secular Age, “an enlightened faith never asks us to set aside what we know.”  I refer you to his seven-part series that can be found on YouTube for more on this.  Find the videos at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oU6dZgjeY_A&list=PL55FF021517EE63FD&index=2

Southwest Unitarian Universalist Conference (SWUUC)

Tony: What is the UUA doing for accessibility for people who have developmental differences such as autism, deafness, blindness, etc.?

I would refer you to the resources enumerated on the website at http://www.uua.org/accessibility/ and ensure the leadership is familiar with those resources and uses them to assess its level of accessibility to identify opportunities on how to become more welcoming.  I favor an accessibilities certification process similar to our Welcoming Congregation and Green Sanctuary programs.

Rev. Jennifer Innis: An important reason for the particular success of the North Texas Cluster in providing trainings and programs are its deep financial resources. If the regional finances are to be consolidated into a single body, will that result in any financial support for the creation of other clusters?

While this is a question for staff, I can share my own experience when I was the Vice President of the Thomas Jefferson District.  A by-law required the Vice President to liaise with congregations.  We tried many things to connect congregations to the district and the larger movement and vice versa.  We weren’t very successful until we created some natural geographic clusters (one strong cluster already existed which we were trying to replicate across the district), provided each a small amount of funding and some modest staff support to get organized.  The last report I had was that all but two of the congregations in the Southeast district were identified with a cluster.  They have varying energies and successes I am sure, but it confirms to me that is not enough to wait for an organic cluster to create itself and being working together.  It also needs funding and staff support to become the catalyst to grow.

Rev. Jennifer Innis: Will the work on professional boundaries include all professionals, not just ministers?

Yes, our first steps are with the process for professional ministry, but the scope of our work is to harmonize the investigation processes so they are similar and that complainants are assigned an advocate much like the good officer for clergy and are treated with compassion throughout the process.  We expect to report specifics of our actions to date at GA in Providence.

Patti Withers: Why are you calling UU seminaries "identity schools"? Are they no longer seminaries?

Our fellowshipped ministers have backgrounds from many seminaries or schools of theology or schools for ministry as they are variously called.  The term UU Identity Schools refer to Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkley, CA and Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, IL.  It is simply shorthand for referring to our two seminaries.

Erin Sullivan: How can we reclaim our Christian roots and stop shying away from Western religions?

Our Judeo-Christian roots are clearly claimed in our Sources, which are imbedded in our bylaws, Article II, and I am aware of no movement to shy away from them.  I do believe we sometimes have difficulty in claiming and reconciling our Theist and Humanist theologies, and that is one of the reasons I talked about the need to succinctly articulate our theology to visitors and potential members that includes both and others.  I have scheduled a presentation at one of the GA General Sessions titled “GA Talk – Humanism and Theism in Conversation” to get the conversation started and in the open so we can find ways to reconcile the rift that sometimes emerges between those of us who favor head over heart or vice versa.