How Would You Feel About a Layperson as UUA President?

All UUA presidents have been ministers.  This doesn’t seem like a pattern that will change anytime soon (perhaps never).  Is that a good or a bad thing?

Requiring the president to be a minister sharply curtails the pool of potential nominees.  It excludes people who frankly might have far superior management and financial skills and training than most clergy.  It ensures that the presidency will go to someone in the entrenched elite of the UUA, and by definition puts someone with more immediate concerns for the smaller number of ministers in power rather than someone with visceral concerns for the much larger number of laypeople.  And it encourages the tendency of some to view the UUA as some sort of ecclesiastical authority, with the president serving as a religious mouthpiece that represents and in some way defines other Unitarian-Universalists and their religion.  Given that the UUA has vigorously striven in recent years to convince us that it is merely an organization that supports affiliated congregations, it seems like a mismatch to then cede to it the prophetic voice of the denomination and turn its head into anything other than a (much-needed, well-respected) CEO of one (large, infrastructurally-crucial) special interest within UUism.

On the other hand, a lay president would lack an inside perspective of the minister’s job, and the ministers are not only a huge pool of centrally-positioned UU talent, dedication, and hard labor, they are inextricably defined by their relationship with the UUA.  Would a president without the mandate of the ministers be able to govern effectively at all?  Surely not.  Ministers have experience running the very congregations that the UUA exists to support.  They have clear commitments to Unitarian-Universalism, and a clear investment in its health and growth.  Ministers are familiar with the workings of the UUA and the needs of the congregations it supports, and have some training in UU history.  And a minister as president can provide a critical point of common orientation for a religious movement that is defined more by centrifugal than centripetal forces.  While we all know that ministers are not always more spiritually advanced (nor is it clear that spiritual attainment is necessarily a needful quality for running the UUA), nonetheless ministers are expected to have put in hard time on personal and religious development and thus to be better representatives of who we wish to be as religious persons.

What do you think?  Is it possible that a layperson will ever be president of the UUA?  Is it desirable?  Why or why not?  (note: this is not meant as a slam on ministers or laypeople or any of the current or past candidates for the office, merely a thought exercise that seems worth exploring)



Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism

20 responses to “How Would You Feel About a Layperson as UUA President?

  1. Taft was President of the General Conference of Unitarian and other Christian Churches which I believe later became the AUA.

    A Lay Person may be exactly what UUA needs.

  2. Bill—

    William Howard Taft was President of the National Conference of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Churches, which later merged with the older American Unitarian Association, an individual membership organization, to form the a new organization with most of the organizational characteristics of the National Conference, but with the revered older organization’s name.

    Unfortunately Taft may not be the best exemplar for lay leadership of the UUA. At the most critical point of his leadership, he allowed his political views to triumph over his duties to the religious community. Famously, during the First World War he led the attack on John Hayes Holmes, the acknowledged leader of liberals and progressives among the clergy, for daring to introduce a mild resolution calling on the National Conference to respect the rights of ministers and congregations advocating pacifism. Not only was Holmes ousted, but so were other ministers and congregations daring to retain pacifist ministers were denied any support by either the National Conference or the AUA, which went along with the witch hunt. Most historians consider it one of the most shameful episodes in our history.

    As is so often the case Holmes is now viewed as a hero and his example is much more influential on the modern UUA than is the former president.

    For biographies on both Taft and Holmes illuminating the episode, visit the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography at

  3. I suggested this to a friend of mine who, at one time, was thinking about running for UUA president.

    My friend said that the reason that the President of the UUA should be a minister is because of some of the personnel issues (appeals and other legal things) that come before the President that could only be handled by a minister.

    My friend also told me some other reasons they thought the President should be a minister, but I have forgotten those.

    • Transient and Permanent

      @Bill, could you say more about why you think a layperson could be what the UUA needs? What is it specifically about a layperson (or the UUA) that you’re thinking of? Do you have any suggestions of actual potential candidates?

      @Patrick, I was preparing a historical comment when yours came in and did the work for me, thanks very much

      @Kim, could you clarify/expand on what personnel issues your friend might have had in mind? No problem if you’re not certain yourself.

      What would you think about your friend’s candidacy? Do you think she/he would make a good UUA president?

  4. Ooops! My typing fingers left out an “n”. The name of the great Unitarian progressive was John Haynes Holmes. Mea culpa, mea culp, me maxima culpa.

    • Transient and Permanent

      Yeah, I noticed that, but I wasn’t going to say anything. Would you prefer me to go back and edit your original comment? I believe I can do that in WordPress.

  5. A factual point concerning Bill’s comment: The National Conference was the predecessor of the General Assembly, and Taft’s role was analogous to the current Moderator’s role. The AUA still had its own president who led the denominational staff.

    • I hate to contradict so august a personage as Philocrites, but he has this wrong. In 1917 the National Conference and the AUA were still separate organizations with different missions, although they obviously related and cooperated with each other.

      The AUA was an organization of individuals aiming to promote Unitarianism. Membership included most clergy who considered themselves Unitarian and many laymen, including those with deep pockets. It had no formal relationship with congregations. Think of it primarily as a tract and missionary society. It raised funds for activities like the printing of tracts, newspapers, and supported ministers sent west to establish congregations outside of the traditional New England stomping ground. Later, they also supported some fledgling congregations and occasionally lent money, or co-signed for loans, for church construction. Their only real “denominational” role came almost accidently. The Secretary of the AUA kept and published an annual directory of ministers who considered themselves, and were considered by their peers as Unitarian. By extension, this inferred that the churches that they served were Unitarian, although many never used that name. This directory became controversial when a less orthodox minister was excluded one year, leading to charges and counter charges about exclusion and creedal tests.

      The National Conference was formed after the Civil War by the tireless efforts of Henry Whitney Bellow to provide for Unitarianism what it had never had before—a true denominational body. This was an organization of congregations, not individuals. Respecting the traditional independence of member congregations under congregational polity, the form of organization was the conference, with no ecclesiastical hierarchy, or even the authority of another body like a board of Presbyters. This followed the model of other congregational polity churches like the Baptists and Universalists. The highest governing authority was, naturally enough, the annual Conference. But the conference employed a paid staff to manage denominational affairs between meetings. You will note that this is essentially the same model of organization as the current UUA.

      By 1900 the AUA was also restructuring to provide more support and services for the Unitarian movement. Samuel Atkins Eliot assumed the new title of President and exercised executive authority, replacing the largely administrative leadership of the Secretary in the AUA office. At the same time the organization was brought into line with the Board and executive model of governance in line with other national voluntary organizations like the Red Cross.

      By the time Taft took office as President of the National Conference, he was no longer expected to show up at the office each day and supervise the staff. That job was largely delegated to a Secretary. But as President Taft was expected to have broad supervision over the staff, lead the Board, and sign all important documents. It was still a more executive role than the current Moderator, although like the Moderator he did preside over the annual meetings and the Board.

      By 1925 Eliot succeeded in melding the two organizations under the name of the American Unitarian Association and continued on as President, his authority now extended over a denominational body—although congregational polity purists still insist that there is no denomination, only an association. The new organization retained the ultimate authority of the annual meetings, now styled as the May Meetings after the old AUA usage, with the previously mentioned heightened board authority.

      At consolidation with the Universalist Church in America, the larger and more powerful AUA under the leadership of Dana McLean Greeley, was able to impose its governance model. But the UUA President no longer presided over the General Assemblies or acted as chair of the board of trustees. A new post of Moderator was created to do those duties. Almost accidently, it became traditional for that position to be filled by a layperson.

      In point of fact, however, the UUA President does not need to be a minister, nor the Moderator a member of the laity. But sometimes traditions—even relatively new ones—and established practice carry more weight than written by-laws.

      • How fascinating! There’s clearly a big ol’ gap in what I know. Where can I read more about these denominational structures, roughly 1890-1910?

        • Check the standard Unitarian histories. Some cover organization and polity much more in depth than others, which prefer to highlight evolving theological discussions or seem to be little more than parades of “famous Unitarians.” The UU Biographical Dictionary on line provides much helpful information when you check on the biographies of major participants like Bellows, Eliot, Taft, etc. The high priestess of congregational polity purity, Rev. Alice Blair Wesley has written widely—and highly critically—of Samuel Eliot’s role in imposing the board and staff governance model.

          But these things are complicated. While researching your question on line, I stumbled on a facsimile version of George Willis Cooke’s 1902 book “Unitarianism in America” which revealed that in 1884 the AUA had amended its bylaws to allow for direct membership of congregations while retaining individual membership. Cooke, writing under the cover of the AUA, asserted that over time member churches took effective control over the body from the individual members. But the mission of propagating Unitarianism in what might be described as an evangelical manner, rather than providing services and governance to the member congregations, remained the same.

          Thus in Taft’s time, both organizations represented Unitarianism, but only the National Conference exercised denominational authority. But the AUA retained deep pockets and its “missionary” grants to churches, particularly to the rebellious western congregations which remained much more theologically and socially liberal than the New England base, became the bludgeon by which Eliot meted out the punishment of errant pacifists that Taft’s National Conference had called for. Confused yet?

      • You know, I’m still not convinced that I’m wrong. I’m looking at the Constitution and By-Laws for the National Conference in the 1901 “Unitarian Year Book”, for example (thanks, Google Books!), and it looks very much like the General Assembly and Ministerial Fellowship Committee, with volunteers in all roles as they are today. The AUA, however, maintained a building for its own staff and for the various semi-independent denominational service agencies, like the Sunday School Society; it had funds for outreach programs; it published books and pamphlets as well as the Year Book; etc.

        I’m still trying to track down evidence that the National Conference itself maintained a staff.

  6. serenityhome

    It does not seem incongruous to me for a lay leader to be president/ceo of a religious organization anymore than for a minister to be the president/ceo of a non-profit secular organization. There are already many successful examples of the latter. However, while the possibility does not seem incongruous, are the two roles equal in the skills needed?

    There are certainly advantages/skills that a minister would have in the role that a lay leader would not. Many of these advantages have already been spoken of in your post. But perhaps the greatest advantage that a minister has is the knowledge of how different running a religious organization is from running a corporation. And it would most likely be from the corporate model that a lay leader would arise to run for president of the UUA. It is this clash that many of our corporately trained boardmembers have with their ministers currently, namely the reference point or grounding of their leadership orientation. To risk stereotyping, these individuals tend to see ministers as hired personnel and not as individuals who are following a calling. Few people outside of the ministry, understand what a calling is and how it shapes our individual ministries.

    It is this understanding that, in my mind, would be essential for a lay person to become president of the UUA.

    • Transient and Permanent

      Thank you for an interesting comment. I’m intrigued enough by this idea that I’m going to make it a post all on its own.

  7. Pingback: Do Unitarian-Universalist Ministers Have a Calling? « Transient and Permanent

  8. Regarding Taft, I’m not sure Taft let his politics influence his work among Unitarians any more than Holmes religious-pacifism influenced his naivety towards Hitler and Fascism he tried to spread among Unitarians. (Read Holme’s sermons from 1940 in Joe Loconte’s “End of Illusions”.)

    Back to Lay Leaders… I’ll try and post something on my blog but for the moment, suffice to say your second paragraph speaks a pretty powerfully why a lay leader would be good for UUA.

    The following paragraph where you lay out the reasons for sticking with Clerics is pretty weak.

    I’ve always belonged to UU Churches I thought were well run. I think UU theology or a UU prohetic voice is been getting thinner and thinner. I’d rather devote those trained to the task, to that task, and draw on the ranks for managers.

    • Bill–

      Comparing Taft in 1917 to Holmes in 1940 is dishonest. Taft wheeled real power in the organization, but exceeded even that when he stepped down from the Chair of the Conference to bitterly denounce on the floor Holmes and any who would even sympathize with him and demand punishment for all. Holmes had not even tried to sway the Conference to make any statement in opposition to the war. He had asked only for a resolution respecting the right of conscience for dissenters. It was mildly composed and he was shocked by the ferocity of the reaction.

      On a personal level, Holmes was consistent. He was a pacifist in 1917 and was a pacifist in 1940, although that did not mean that he was by any means supportive of either the Nazis or fascism. And again, in speaking out against America joining another world war, he did nothing to impose his position on other Unitarians. In the light of Nazi atrocities—and Soviet ones as well—could his pacifism be deemed naïve and counter productive to his life long championship of progressive causes and justice? Of course. It is an argument you make regularly about pacifists and the war du jour. It is clear that you loath pacifists and pacifism. But our tradition honors the freedom to champion naïve and unpopular philosophies, just as it honors your right to advocate knee jerk bellicosity.

  9. Have you read what Holmes was preaching? He was certainly trying to sway someone then… Read Holmes book “Out of Darkness”… or his Sermon “The Same Old War” in The Christian Century of Dec 11, 1940…

    The Point of the Post was Lay Leadership of UUA and Taft’s leadership as a Lay leader relevant… who took us on the Taft v Holmes thread Pat and it’s really irrelevant to the post.

    There were plenty of Unitarians opposed to German Militarism in 1917 and 1940. It had little to do with Taft’s leadership as a lay person.

  10. I mean “you took us”, not “who took us”…

  11. Pingback: Called vs Hired « A Unitarian Universalist Minister in the South

  12. Pingback: Lent for UUs, minister canned for basketball (long ago), and more « : The Interdependent Web

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