Helpers among the community of Pittsburgh area UUs. Link to the main Sunnyhill site.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

BRIDGE BUILDING from the realm of Herb Caponi

Herb Caponi wrote in an email to the community:

I do not feel that Bridge Building, as it has been presented, is an adequate instrument for resolving or even addressing the issues present at Sunnyhill. Specifically, it seems to be substituting therapy for effective leadership or effective management of church affairs. In terms of systems theory, I believe it will be a self-reinforcing system rather than a self-limiting system, increasing rather than reducing existent problems.

I resent the imposition on my time and energies in being involved in this process. However, not participating in a major church activity, no matter how ill conceived I view it to be, is not an acceptable option. I propose that we should examine structure and organization rather than pursue therapy.

We cannot address or resolve issues if we do not know the issues. As best I can determine from the only resource available to most of us, rumors and hearsay, there are two major issues.

The first is a dispute between the Minister and former Director of Religious Education regarding the role of religious education at Sunnyhill. Dispute resolution is a skill required of all professionals; however, absent a resolution between the Director of Religious Education and the Minister, the by-laws are clear that the Director of Religious Education reports to the Board, not to the Minister. The Board did not meet its duty to the congregation in not resolving this issue when it first appeared. The DRE operates independently of the minister, and the Board should defer to her judgment absent demonstrated cause to overrule her.

The second issue is alleged mistreatment of some church members by the Minister. I do not have any first hand information regarding this issue, and do not feel it appropriate to address it in factual terms but do feel it can be addressed in principled terms. I do feel that it is the Board’s responsibility to investigate the facts of this issue objectively and to present a reasoned fact-based recommendation to the congregation. I am not sure it is practical or even necessarily beneficial to investigate what are now aged allegations of misconduct, but others are certainly welcome to present contrary points of view. I do not say this out of any lack of sympathy for the feelings of those involved, but out of a lack of knowledge of what has happened and the impact on those involved. It is obvious from the consequences that the issues are significant.

I do not mean to slight anyone individually, but do feel obliged to state that early effective action by the Board could have resolved both issues before we reached the current state of affairs. That said, we still need a Board to run the everyday business of the church, so I cannot see requesting the Board to resign. We cannot retrieve the failed opportunity to have resolved these issues at their beginning; however, we can look to the future and determine our options from here forward. I feel that this is an opportune time to be looking at the fundamental structure of the church.

The three reasons to come to Sunnyhill which I have heard since being here are “spiritual”, religious education for children, and the companionship of interesting and agreeable persons. I put spiritual in quotes because despite diligent search, I cannot find a definition that does not encompass some form of supernaturalism, stated or implied. However, we cannot neglect the needs of those who find the word helpful to define the needs Sunnyhill fulfills for them. These needs seem to be, at least in part, the ministerial components of the minister’s function. My question is can we structure a way of meeting these needs other than the historical approach of a separate position for minister and director of religious education? I believe that we should look at combining the functions into one position for directing both adult and children’s programming and religious education. I do not include program presentation as part of the duties of this position but do include program planning.

Obviously this idea cannot be fully explored in a memorandum such as this one, but looking at who we are and what we need as a congregation has to begin somewhere. Questioning the structure is to me more important than presenting a finished plan at this time. There are other resources for those functions that are strictly ministerial. Absent the minister’s salary, we could afford speakers and get far more wide ranging points of view than any one individual minister could present. We have committees and lay people to reach out to those going through stressed periods of their lives. The local humanist organization, Center For Free Inquiry-Pittsburgh has services available for ministerial functions, such as weddings, funerals, etc. I do not speak for them but would be willing to ask them to present their available services to the church. A look at what resources are available cannot but be beneficial.

Restructuring the functions presently filled by separate positions for the Minister and Director of Religious Education into one position has more than the obvious budgetary advantages; it has the advantage of one resource person being responsible for addressing our needs as a congregation with consequent accountability. It also has the advantage of substituting an educational and program role for an implied or assumed power role relationship in the congregation.

I wish to specifically note that I do not propose this idea as a back-door way of firing our current minister. I think that for ethical and practical reasons we should honor the original term of the contract. The justifications for terminating a contract before its terms expire are generally lack of work, lack of funds, just cause, or gross incompetence. The ministerial position does not currently seem to lack enough work. If we are unable to fund the position, then what? The need is still there. Just cause requires, in my mind, clear and convincing evidence of misconduct; gross incompetence requires clear and convincing evidence of being unable to perform the requisite duties of the position. If the evidence exists for just cause or gross incompetence, bring it forth in an appropriate forum.

I do feel that the present level of dissatisfaction justifies deciding now not to renew the contract at its termination; it may establish gross incompetence.

I also wish to specifically note that I do not feel that a part-time minister is the solution unless it is considered on its non-financial merits after due consideration for that specific purpose. A part time minister still does not resolve the issue of power relationships in the congregation. Unitarians tend not to grant power over themselves to others without examination and justification. The existence of a minister position at all is for me a blanket granting of authority that has no reason for existing.

I think that we have to examine the authority mechanisms of hiring and firing for all positions. I was rather surprised to learn that the Board cannot hire or fire the minister. The congregation does not interview the candidates for the position, and has little choice but to defer to the judgment of those who do. The lack of Board authority to dismiss the minister coupled with the unreasonably high requirement for a dismissal by the congregation is effectively giving the minister the ability to function without accountability. This is an unacceptable interpretation of using democracy to conduct church affairs. The By-Laws should be amended to grant this authority to the Board for future employees. If the Board shows a disinclination or inability to deal with the responsibility, running for the Board is the solution that fulfills conducting church affairs by the democratic process.

For future reference, for any position in the congregation, I see neither need nor value in long term contracts. A one-year contract with an acceptable renewal clause should work nicely, and is rather common.

In addition to examining the personnel structure, I think that an issue that should be addressed is replacing the building with a modern structure designed for the purpose of being a church. The present building necessitates two services, a practice that fragments the congregation and limits expanding life craft. The number of meeting rooms also causes frequent scheduling problems due to the limited meeting space. Again, the issue cannot be adequately explored in a memo, but I feel it should be raised and considered. Effective long term financial planning, in addition to budget planning, is a corollary to this issue.

Another issue that I feel should be explored is the value and role of the UUA. The UUA may be a legitimate resource to the church, but the justification for that eludes me. I see the UUA as “corporate” trying to impose their formulaic vision of Unitarianism. Currently, the UUA has also provided a means of looking to a third party source for resolving issues that we should be addressing ourselves. In addition, the delays consequent to involving the UUA have allowed the problems to accelerate.

I think that we need to examine our relationship with the UUA specifically to determine if it has grown into an unexamined authority with power we never intended. There may be legitimate value in the UUA, but I feel that we would be better off as a congregation if we were convinced of that after an examination process.

We cannot help but benefit by examining our structure, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

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