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February 9 2018 Reflection from UUMA Board
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 Rev. Elizabeth Stevens, UUMA Board Member At-Large

 
The#MeToo movement has shone a light on toxic patriarchy in our society and within our collegial community, reinvigorating the conversation around sexual harassment, healthy boundaries, bullying and accountability. As a board, we've identified improving the health of the collegial culture as one of our top priorities. To that end, we have commissioned two teams to look at our guidelines, one to strengthen and clarify the language around sexual ethics, and the other, to strengthen and clarify our accountability procedures. However, changing the guidelines only addresses the tip of the iceberg. The deeper question is how do we shift our culture?
When I first entered into collegial community in the late '90's, the messages I received around the expectations of my behavior included:
  • Best to be seen but not heard until I had earned enough 'credibility' so that my words might carry some weight.
  • Some colleagues might act inappropriately toward me as a young woman; that was 'just who they are' and I was expected to tolerate it.
  • Complaining publicly about bad behavior would result in my being branded a troublemaker, and might even endanger my career, making it difficult when I went before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee.
All these years later, I am still sickened and distressed by the memories of those interactions. This is not how we are called to be together.
 
A healthy collegial culture would be at the minimum, safe, and at best, supportive for all people. Recognizing that each individual holds a unique and necessary perspective, it would encourage truth-telling as well as deep listening. People being people, we will make mistakes and harm one another. In a healthy system, these harms would be addressed immediately and without a lot of defensiveness or drama.


One of the pieces that hampers our ability to do this work is people's unwillingness to lodge complaints or name the ways they have been hurt. One colleague, when asked why they were reluctant to engage another colleague's inappropriate behavior, said, "I don't want to be seen as weak." How can we shift the culture so that people who raise issues are seen as healthy and well-differentiated, rather than troublemakers? As powerful agents of change and transformation rather than whiners?

On the other side of the equation, most of us are not that skilled at being held accountable. We go straight to defensiveness, just like normal humans. At the root of that defensiveness, most often, is a fear of being judged and found unworthy. What will it take for us to be comfortable with confrontation? Can we embrace our imperfection, and keep learning and growing?

There is a culture of secrecy that shrouds our accountability procedures. While this exists to protect people who are falsely accused of misconduct, it also protects misconductors at the expense of victims. Were we to normalize the process- if we accepted that all of us break covenant sometimes and need to be called back into right relationship- then we could be more transparent, because being held accountable would not be such a Big Deal. As a result of increased transparency, patterns would emerge, and it would become clear who the serial offenders are. We wouldn't have to rely on a whisper network to protect ourselves; predators would be required to reform, and, if unable, would be removed from our community.

I wonder sometimes if our lack of a consistent theology of sin, redemption and grace hampers the work of building healthy community. If we begin by admitting that we all fall short, we all miss the mark, then we are more open to being held accountable- we learn, we apologize, and we do better going forward. We could embrace the messiness of community, and offer ourselves and one another a little more grace.

Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, 24 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210-1409
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