The Unitarian Universalist Association (of which we are a part) offers a workshop called Beyond Categorical Thinking to any member Unitarian Universalist church that has embarked on a ministerial search. It is designed to help congregations see beyond societal categories that might sometimes constrict our choices, and to consider prospective ministers who might not fit into our “categorized” thinking.
The UUCUV Ministerial Search Committee arranged for such a workshop on September 24th, 2017. It turned out to be an extremely hot and sunny day. After the Sunday service given by Jacqui Williams (the facilitator), approximately 38 workshop participants enjoyed a lovely lunch provided by the Board.
After lunch, Jacqui spoke to us at length on how easy it is to put people of color, people with a disability, people who are LGBTQ+, and people who are young or old into categories that may prevent us from seeing their value as a minister, a member or a friend of a congregation. She gave us examples from around the country.
The first workshop exercise was to imagine growing up as someone different than who we are. We counted out the numbers 1,2,3,4 around the room, and Jacqui then assigned these scenarios: 1 was born into a family of color, 2 was born with a mental or physical disability, 3 was born gay or transgender, and 4 was assigned a different (than what they are) sex at birth. Each person had to consider how their life would have been different given those circumstances. It was interesting to hear the discussion and to realize how we are so affected by the happenstance of our own situations.
Next we formed groups of five or six, each group facilitated by a member of the search committee. Each group was given about 5 case studies of uncomfortable situations (that had actually happened in UU congregations) regarding attitudes toward a person of color, Latino/a, Hispanic, LGBTQ, disabled in various ways, young or old, formerly addicted, obese, and formerly mentally ill. Our task was to choose one of the situations, determine whose problem the situation was, and discuss what would have been the most appropriate response. This challenging exercise compelled us to grapple with our own attitudes as well as to think about the integrity of those in the case study and the greater good of the congregation.
Finally, we were asked to fill out a survey that assessed what our concerns would be regarding ministers of color, LGBTQ+ ministers, and ministers with disabilities, and what the benefits would be of having such a person as minister. In general, participants said the benefits would include educating the congregation, broadening our thinking and responses, living our principles, and helping to reduce prejudice. Participants’ concerns about these categories brought up some important points to consider.
In response to some people’s concern about whether a minority minister would be comfortable or happy here, Jacqui pointed out that actually, people who are members of minorities have a lifetime of experience of being a minority in a majority-dominant culture, and they have the agency and intelligence to know what they’re getting into and to make their own choices. Their comfort is really not for us to discern or even to worry about on their behalf.
Jacqui’s response to those who don’t like the statement “Black Lives Matter” and would replace it with “All Lives Matter” was, “When your house is on fire, and the fire department responds, they don’t water all the houses equally. They put the water on the house which is burning.” To say, in response to “Black Lives Matter” that “All Lives Matter” is to refuse to acknowledge that in the United States currently (and historically), black lives are significantly more in jeopardy than white lives.
In response to some people’s concern about the functionality and longevity of ministers with certain disabilities, Jacqui pointed out that ALL ministerial candidates with the UUA go through a vetting process, which includes a psychological screening and a criminal background check. All ministerial candidates who have a history of mental illness and/or addiction must have been effectively treated and functional for a period of time, such that they are capable of doing the job and worthy of being in the candidate pool.
Jacqui told us that the most common disability is hearing impairment. According to Google, hearing loss afflicts about 20% of the population, while over 40% are nearsighted. However, nearsightedness is almost always easily fixed, while hearing impairment is more difficult to fix.
Participants grappled with concern about issues of too young, too old, and obesity, and how such circumstances would or would not hinder a minister’s ability to fit well and function well in our congregation. Jacqui advised that many searching congregations are also grappling with these concerns, and responses depend on the history and circumstances of each congregation as it seeks the best fit.
The Beyond Categorical Thinking workshop was challenging, interesting, and educational! Thanks and kudos to all who took time on a sunny, hot Sunday afternoon to participate, thus giving the Search Committee a wealth of thoughts and ideas for our process going forward, as we seek a minister who best fits our unique congregation.
From the Ministerial Search Committee
Joani Nierenberg, Grace Alden. Kathy Christie, Leah Goat, Maureen McNulty, Bob Riccio, and Mandy Ruest