The UUMA Guidelines and the limits to criticism

It’s funny — I am, quite deliberately, not a member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, but its Guidelines continually affect me, and all Unitarian Universalists. In particular, there is a troubling culture that has grown up around one of the expectations of conduct:

I will not speak scornfully or in derogation of any colleague in public. In any private conversation concerning a colleague, I will speak responsibly and temperately. I will not solicit or encourage negative comments about a colleague or their ministry.

These Expectations of Conduct apply to all forms of public or private media including electronic and internet communications.

Which is fine, as written, and a bit embarrassing that it needs to be spelled out.

But the rule, as applied, has grown legs and can run. Too often, it claims the power of “covenant,” which so far as I can tell means “because I said so” and which really comes from our Unitarian and New England-ish approach to interpersonal power.

That power gave us strength — in the past. The kind of principled, theological debate that once marked our traditions is long gone. So, there’s a decided chill to not only not “speak scornfully or in derogation” but to not speak negatively about another minister, his or her thoughts or behavior or conduct in the ministry. Or really say anything that could be read negatively. I’ve spoken to several ministers over the years who have decided to self-censor and not criticize or challenge bad ideas for fear of being hauled up on charges of unprofessional conduct. There’s no reason someone’s reputation should be menaced by a fragile personality, yet our system allows it.

And we are the more bland, insular and stupid for it.

We are at the beginning of an over-long campaign for the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a position that (for the life of me) I can’t imagine anyone wanting. Two ministers were nominated, one has since dropped out. Another candidate, almost certainly a minister, will be presented by the same nominating committee to be run though an ersatz grassroots nomination by petition. I suspect others will see the opportunity and run. The process is in tatters, but where is the analysis? Ministers are candidates, nominators, campaign supporters, whips, funders and voters. What, in our subdued culture, is right to say?  I suspect we can demand little from ministers, and get less. How is that leadership? What can we demand of the candidates in public, however nominated?

I add in public because when there’s a pressure not to speak candidly, back-channels and coded language takes its place, in this election and in all our business.

So, first, let’s look at this rule and not over-function. To “speak scornfully or in derogation” assumes the application of emotion over reason, and presumably to speak against the person — ad hominem — and not the ideas, prospect, record or plans. It means to use the rhetorical skills associated with the ministry carefully, and the care means asking those tough questions — in public — among the ministerial college.  Apply the rule as written.

Our heritage, dignity and reputation demand nothing less.

4 Replies to “The UUMA Guidelines and the limits to criticism”

  1. Absolutely. I am no longer a member of the UUMA either, but I was for 33 years. During that time I found numerous occasions where the Code was invoked to protect colleagues who were sexual predators, in some cases notorious predators. But you couldn’t call them out on it or you would get into trouble.

    At one point I decided that if one were designing a system intended to shelter abusive ministers, what you would design would be about what we had. That was a hard thing to realize.

  2. I’m at the disadvantage Coming from outside the UUA-milieu in this regard, but I have experience in policy-making in my secular employment. I question how the UUMA guidelines quoted work in ensuring good practice in A) promoting a “duty of candour” – an open and honest working culture, as well as B) ensuring reporting routes for abuse, misconduct, or whistleblowing are robust and keep reporters safe.

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