I am writing this letter to the entire Sunnyhill Community as both an expression of personal frustration and as a plea for action which I believe must taken to resolve the crisis now dividing and embittering this community. It is only one person's opinion – I make no claim to speak for anyone else. But I can no longer, in good conscience, remain silent. I have chosen to do this by letter in order to avoid unnecessary emotion and allow for timely reflection.
When I first came Sunnyhill a little over two years ago I was fascinated and amazed by the delightful diversity, intensity and collective brilliance of this relatively modest grouping of people. It was an experience which had heretofore been missing from my life. I was at once amazed and totally reenergized to have found all of you. And, perhaps even more important to me, to have been so readily and quickly accepted as a fellow in your company – a relationship about which I feel as strongly as ever, and one which I want to endure.
Unfortunately, the ongoing discontent concerning the relationship of the minister to the congregation and congregation to the minister is casting a grey pall over all of us, to the point where it threatens to destroy the very institution of community that is Sunnyhill. At the time I joined the church, I was unaware of the roiling discontent within the congregation. Since then, the atmosphere has darkened considerably and it saddens me immeasurably to see this cancer continuing to spread through the community. The recent status letter concerning this year's pledge canvass makes it clear that the conflict is beginning to impact the capacity of the organization to function in some very real and soon to be painful ways. Along with the missing pledges, the many empty seats at services in recent weeks is a tell-tale sign of the crisis – and the problem of activity space is no longer the burning issue it was as recently as a year ago.
Problems of this nature are not altogether uncommon in churches. What is uncommon is that we have permitted it to persist at Sunnyhill for such a long time – to fester without any serious or effective effort to bring it to a head. It is never easy to confront such demons and I know, as a liberal congregation, we don't want to injure anyone's feelings; but, in the process of avoiding difficulty and injured feelings, we risk imminent self-destruction.
Last spring's "Conversations", coming as they did on the heels of an apparently poor evaluation of the minister, clearly identified that we are a church in "extreme crisis", with, at that time, fully 25% of the congregation identifying the minister as the source of discontent. Considering that 7% discontented membership constitutes a "problem church", it should then have been crystal clear to the Board that something serious and tangible needed to be done immediately. Yet, still, the Board elected to sit on it for almost another year – until the blow-up following the " Power and Authority" sermon forced them to look up from their visioning to once again confront the persistent reality confusion and discontent in their midst.
As far as I can determine, the entirety of the current distress revolves around the minister and her job performance over the past four years. The congregation is confused, confounded and frustrated because the Board has consistently refused to provide it with the information necessary to fully understand and respond to the problem – insisting that confidentiality and secrecy took precedence over congregational awareness and understanding. Instead of acting forcefully and decisively to address the situation, the Board has chosen to "punt" – delegating its responsibility to UUA third-parties in search of what can only be described as soft-core feel-good solutions. The results to date: increasing angst and anger among the congregation; fewer members; three new Board members; substantially reduced pledges; and the promise of more of the same to come. This is not being responsible, it is being cowardly.
The Bylaws state that the Board is responsible for performing an annual evaluation of the minister and is responsible for "creating and enforcing the employment contract with the minister" and, further, that the minister can only be dismissed, upon motion, by a two-thirds vote of the congregation present at an Annual or Special Meeting of the Congregation. Thus, the Board can and, in my opinion, must apprise the congregation in a timely fashion of the results and the contents of its annual evaluation of the minister – prior to the Annual Meeting – particularly if the evaluation is marginal or unsatisfactory. While the Board is charged with performing the evaluation and managing the employment contract, it is solely the responsibility of the congregation, when asked, to determine whether the minister should stay or go. This congregational responsibility can not be exercised responsibly without specific knowledge of the issues involved, and this can only be provided by the Board of Directors.
Why is the Board afraid to bring the matter to a head and trust the congregation to act in the best interest of the church? Why are we being subjected to another soft-headed feel-good approach – bridge-building – when what we need is to address the problem directly and specifically? Why has the Board failed and refused to perform the required annual evaluation in 2007? And why is the Board unwilling to share the information it has concerning the specific issues and the results of the 2006 evaluation with the congregation? The congregation has an absolute right to this information – and the Board a duty to provide it. The congregation is, after all, the actual employer. These issues should be confronted, discussed and debated openly, not in hallway whispers, furtive phone calls and e-mail rumors. There is no need to include personal information, confidentially provided; but specific types of complaints and instances of behavior and performance can and should be formally aired to the congregation – not during or following Sunday services, but at one or more special congregational meetings called by the Board.
I strongly suspect the answer to the above questions is that the Board is afraid that if it brings this information and these issues directly to the congregation and requests a congregational vote to retain or dismiss the minister, the congregation will vote to retain. And if it be so, so be it – the congregation will have spoken. But whether the congregation decides to retain or to dismiss, the issue will be, at least for the moment, settled. Everyone will know the facts and just where one another stands on the matter – then we can begin to move forward together again. It is at this juncture, and only at this juncture, that something like bridge-building might be beneficial.
I fully appreciate the difficult position the current Board of Directors finds itself – three new members thrown into the breach and escalating internal strife in the community – but more delay and delegation will not settle anything. I do not, by this criticism, mean to in any way denigrate the efforts and sacrifice each and every Board member has made during this extended process, nor minimize the personal pain and toil each has put into her or his duties as Board members. I am certain that what was or was not done by the Boards (present and past) was in good faith and belief that it was in the best interest of the church – it's just that they appear to have been in conflict avoidance mode, not problem solving mode. In order to get back on track again the Board must recognize that, given the proper information, the congregation can be trusted to do what is in the best interest of itself. It must, in good faith, share the information it possesses relating to the job performance of the minister – good as well as bad. Finally, it must allow the congregation to be the final judge – not the UUA or the Ohio-Meadville District or some other third-party consultant.
Should the Board elect to change its current course, the task ahead will most certainly not be easy or painless, but it is an essential part of the process if the community is to survive as a vital organization retaining the wonderful blend of diversity, intellectual ferment and caring concern I have come to know and love since discovering Sunnyhill. Writing this letter has been a sad and painful task, but I can't sit back and see the community tear itself apart because too many of us are unwilling to step up and say enough is enough – it's time to move on. More importantly, I don't want Sunnyhill, and you, to stop being a part of my life.
Thanks very much for taking the time to read and contemplate these thoughts.
Then comes the first reply:
John,I believe your statement as follows summarizes the problem as it now stands:This congregational responsibility can not be exercised responsibly without specific knowledge of the issues involved, and this can only be provided by the Board of Directors.My suspicion regarding bridge building is that we are repeating the Pittsburgh history of building bridges to nowhere.Having no complaint about Lynn myself (I do have some problems with the position of minister existing at all, but that is a separate issue), I have been extremely frustrated at trying to determine the specifics of discontent. What I have heard, if true, warrants dismissal. However, I have heard what I have heard from third parties, not from the grievants themselves.Ordinarily, the lack of any specifics to contribute to an informed determination slants me toward ignoring a subject. However, the real world effects cannot be ignored if we wish Sunnyhill to survive. The Board, in seeking third-party intervention, is providing the proverbial straw to a drowning person. The Board has not even provided the minimum action of an annual ministerial evaluation, which is its duty. The neglect or refusal to complete the ministerial evaluation is anywhere from an abdication of responsibility to outright manipulation of the situation. In any case, I now see the Board itself as an obstacle, not a resource, regarding any solution to the current problems.My question is, lacking an effective Board, what are our options . One, of course, is individual resignation, which more people seem to be exercising. I care nothing about Sunnyhill as a corporate entity, but I absolutely do not wish to sever myself from Sunnyhill as a community. I feel that the Board, in its failure to effectively deal with the situation, has caused the loss of this community to those who have left, and the loss of them to those of us remaining. I suspect there are others who simply stop coming without the formality of announcing it, which are opportunity losses to both them and us.Another option is to request the Board resign en masse, and call for immediate elections. This would provide members who feel they have a solution to present it to the congregation. I don't see this as a positive action only because, even if it could be done, we need a Board because Sunnyhill is a business that requires management authority. Leadership in the current situation, if it comes, will come from the congregation, not the Board.Another option is to repeat the founding of Sunnyhill, and form a separate church/society, with or without the blessing of corporate Unitarianism. This is not as outlandish as it seems, as we seem to have distinct groups notwithstanding the issue of the minister, and the talent for organization certainly exists. I have heard several people state they have no to little need of a minister, and would be open to separating with a group of like-minded individuals. Are there at least 10 (or more) people open to discussing this?I myself feel that a congregational meeting not chaired by the Board or third-party representatives is the next best step before looking at other options. As the distribution list for your email is hidden, I am copying everybody in my list that I can identify with Sunnyhill. Is there any interest in this?Note-I accept responsibility for any anger this email and its general distribution may cause, but accept no credit for any positive responses, as these things are merely what someone needs to say.Herb Caponi
Lynn was thought to have posted in email in response:
Herb and all,
I urge you to trust the board (for at least the next month). Take the time to show up and see what this Bridge Building process is about and what it actual brings us before criticizing it. If the process is a total failure you can act at that point. However the board has been working very, very hard. For months they have been taking the things they know about the situation at Sunnyhill and combining that with their learnings about the possible ways to help the congregation through this crisis. I trust the board. True, they aren't perfect. None of us are. However, I urge all of you to trust that their combined wisdom will lead us somewhere worthwhile. At very least please give them a chance for the next few weeks.
Jay P, President of the UUCSH Board wrote:
Wow, I must say I am struggling with how much of this to respond to. I think there is a lack of understanding as to what Bridge-building is. I take responsibility for that. We have perhaps not been effective at getting the message out. What it is NOT is the board getting someone else to do our job. An outside facilitator leads us to both describe all our problems (of which not having a written evaluation of the minister I submit is only a very small part) and then also assists us in leading our own dialogue among members to create an action plan to deal with all of our problems. I submit that if an internal person (of which we have many very talented people who could do this) would not be considered by all as unbiased. Unfortunately the current climate to me indicates that we MUST have an outside party facilitate our working through this. If an action plan includes voting to release our minister, so be it. I would remind you that last spring Tom Chulak reported that in his conversations with over half our congregation, he concluded that 25% of us had serious issues/problems/complaints with the minister. While that is an extremely high percentage, if a vote had been taken then to dismiss the minister, it would have failed. Our bylaws require a 2/3 majority present at a congregational meeting to dismiss. Do you suggest that if we hold a vote now to dismiss the minister, either way the vote goes, all our problems go away? I suggest that is extremely naïve and shallow thinking. Maybe then the “losers” of that vote would then voluntarily leave. Is that what we want? Are we not capable of working through our disagreements? Or maybe it isn’t worth the trouble. Am I reading of a suggestion to dismantle Sunnyhill and start all over? I suggest that we are all still here because we do NOT want that to happen. Do you suggest that if we evaluate the minister, our problems go away? Please.
The suggestion is being made that we begin making the minister’s evaluations public. That is a strong argument. Personally I disagree, but it is certainly worth talking about. Let me remind everyone of the communication I sent through a letter last spring as well as an article in the drummer recently. John, I also talked to you personally on November 3rd regarding many of the issues you have spoken about. As I told you then, and through public communication, the board has been working on shoring up some organizational weaknesses that we have been living with for quite a while. A clear and structured process for evaluating our staff is only a very small part. Making both the minister and DRE evaluations public should be part of that discussion. There is clearly a lot of support for that. This was one piece of the work that THIS board took on last spring. Unfortunately it had to be put on hold because the uproar caused by the “Power and Authority” sermon in October necessitated the board change its focus.
There seems to be an implication that this board loves secrecy and is working in the dark to further its own, shadowed agenda. Please. We have neither the desire, nor the energy that would take. Sunnyhill is facing some unprecedented challenges and we are trying to figure out how to deal with them. You present arguments concerning minister evaluations as if we have been purposely keeping information from the congregation. Last year, to my knowledge was the FIRST time a minister from Sunnyhill has had a formal evaluation. I’m not sure how it worked when Kirk was here so I can’t really speak to that. I also know that something was written for Lynn to be considered “settled”. Sunnyhill has been in existence for over 40 years! This was never a problem until a couple of months ago. Do you want us to change something like that on a dime simply because you write a letter? We have also received criticism concerning putting people on to the board agenda. In the past, this has not been a problem, and frankly I love to have people share their concerns with the board in person. But we are not working in the same environment as we have in the past. In the past, the board did not routinely have 10-15 people show up at its meetings to observe. There is much more tension, less understanding and compassion, and more formality. That is ok. We will work under the conditions that we have to. That’s why we were elected.
I would encourage everyone to participate in the Bridgebuilding process beginning on January 6th. If after that initial meeting you feel your concerns will not be addressed, then you of course will not be forced to participate. If you want to drive your own process, then you are certainly within your rights to do so adhering to our by-laws. I would hope though that everyone be engaged in the same process, because unless we as a whole congregation are working together to achieve the same goals—a strong loving, supportive community, then we are going to continue to bleed members, and foster anger and resentment. And that will be a very sad legacy to the many remaining founding members who started this organization we call Sunnyhill.
President, UUCSH board of trustees
Then comes the final letter via email in this chain. Others are free to post in the comment area. The blogmaster scrubbed the idenity of this person who sent in the letter as he was not interested in following along in the conversation. Hint: He is a former board member and ex-president of the board.
Jay:If you wish, you can chime in with the comments on this blog. But, there is little insurance that anyone will read the postings as this blog gets few viewers.
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