June 11, 2015
By Anna Belle Leiserson
In April 1993 I filed a complaint with the Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC) of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). I alleged clergy sexual misconduct and, six months later, the minister was found guilty of conduct unbecoming. However, even though the MFC had required that an alleged victim (not another concerned congregant or even the church’s board) file the complaint, it would not send me, the complainant, a copy of the finding.
This was the most obvious of quite a number of things that were off kilter for complainants — and overall I had the sense that unnecessary mistakes were made not just with me, but also with the accused minister and the congregation. So in August 1993, shortly before the MFC was due to make its determination, I spoke up — writing a letter to our District Executive. In case I “lost” I didn’t want to sound like sour grapes. (It was already clear to me that everyone lost.) In hindsight, that day 22 years ago I became an activist.
Here and there in subsequent years, I continued to work as an activist with the UUA, speaking at GAs, serving on the Safe Congregations Panel, etc. It was never easy work and leaders often tried to avoid me and my truth, but at least I was generally treated respectfully. However, in 2006, when I became concerned that the UUA leadership was not doing what they had promised in 2000 and reached out to them, to my surprise they repeatedly rebuffed me. So I gave up. Or so I thought.
Then one Sunday morning, as I listened to the Rev. Gail Seavey speak, I realized that my congregation, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville (FUUN), had a powerhouse of potential activists. For many years, Gail had been one of the UUA’s most outspoken ministers and I was (to my knowledge) the only outspoken complainant. In addition, I thought of several other people with much to contribute, including Nancy Stott, a therapist who screens candidates for the Methodist ministry, and Doug Pasto-Crosby, a physician who served for 10 years on FUUN’s Safe Congregation Panel.
So I resurrected an idea I’d had a few years before of starting a Social Justice team named Safety Net. I’d already registered the domain name, but hadn’t done anything else of significance. To my amazement, everyone I asked to join said yes. Thus Safety Net began in the fall of 2007.
From the start we have had two guiding principles. They have remained constant.
- Our goal is to work in positive ways to effect much-needed change in the policies, procedures, and attitudes surrounding clergy sexual misconduct in Unitarian Universalism.
- Our covenant is to only do this work as we are able. Until recently, working on clergy misconduct has been deeply depleting. In fact, our first few years this covenant meant that we almost never met. And that was fine. I think that if we had pushed ourselves in that climate we would have fizzled — giving up in despair.
Between 2010 and 2013 we picked up speed. Our work at that time focused on developing model policies and procedures for congregations. We used our congregation as a laboratory — working with FUUN’s Board and a few committees, in particular the Committee on Ministry. In addition, two complainants and two congregations with a history like ours reached out to us and we helped them as much as we could. In particular, we shared what had been most helpful to our congregation and to some of us individually in our healing.
Safety Net almost folded in September 2012. I had been chair for five years and was too central to its work. I was burning out. Fortunately Sara Plummer, with an able assist from Tedra Walden, agreed to chair Safety Net. Without the two of them I have no doubt Safety Net would have ended prematurely.
In 2013, we reached another crossroad. There’d been too little for too long from our association. So in May, during the Moderator election campaigns, we posted a petition on change.org to “Open a national conversation on clergy misconduct.” The response was beyond our wildest dreams. The UUA’s Board has made improving the response to clergy sexual misconduct a highest priority and UUA Moderator Jim Key, the Rev. Sarah Lammert, and UUA Board Member Natalia Averitt came and visited Safety Net and our congregation in May 2014 to continue the dialog.
This past year, we have been actively continuing to partner with the UUA’s leadership. Gail and I served on the UUA Board’s Congregational Boundaries Advisory Group. In addition Safety Net is coordinating a workshop at General Assembly on “Breaking the Silence.” And as part of this workshop, we are in the early stages of developing a “Sacred Listening Process.”
With the recent changes, working for Safety Net has an entirely different feel. Burn out is no longer a concern. Rather, we are energized by the symbiosis we have developed with the UUA’s leadership. Many of us, including me, now find this work to be a source of not just personal fulfillment around realizing a long-hoped-for dream, but also of spiritual growth.
That said, I am stepping down on July 1 as an activist — including leaving Safety Net. Over a year ago (in March 2014) I realized I was still too identified with UU clergy misconduct. And so I resolved to let this go after GA 2015. It’s a decision I don’t regret. Today it comes easily to leave without a trace of bitterness or resentment — something that would have been impossible as recently as two years ago. To the contrary, I have great hope for Unitarian Universalism.
One final note: none of this work would be possible without the support of our amazing congregation — in particular, the Social Justice Committee and Board. Our heartfelt thanks go to these unsung heroes for making all of this possible.