Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association and Starr King graduate (M.Div. 1999), shared his hopes, concerns, and challenges for the future of Unitarian Universalism during a visit to Starr King School on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011. The school was delighted to host Rev. Morales and Dea Brayden from the UUA for a delicious vegan lunch followed by Peter’s remarks and an extended period of comments and responses from the gathered students, faculty, and staff. Rev. Morales spoke about the current state of religion in the United States, Unitarian Unversalism in particular, and his view of the road ahead for UU congregations and ministers.
He began his talk with a challenging statistic for faith leaders—that “people who have no religious affiliation went from one in ten to one in six” in recent years. He believes that people are not against religion, but that “people are against the deadness and the hypocrisy they have experienced in many mainline religious congregations”. Peter said that “getting religion means we take ourselves seriously as a religious movement” as well as “getting past knowing what we aren’t versus claiming who we are“. Within the UU association of congregations, he sees that one of our real challenges is “to trust one another and empower one another” and to “think of ourselves as less of a collection of congregations and more as a religious movement.”
Rev. Morales offered another provocative statistic, particularly for UU leaders, that “three out of four UUs do not belong to a congregation”. As he sees it, “the problem is not how do we get these people into our congregations, the problem is how do we engage all these people that share our values?“ He is optimistic about the opportunities for ministerial leadership. “I think the members of our congregations are ahead of our ministry – they are hungrier for change and see possibilities”, and as a result, he says, “our movement is hungry for leadership.”
Asked by a student why UU’s at times seem to overly distrust their own leaders, Peter responded that “we are a people born in rebellion and skepticism about authority. Mostly that is a good thing. In my darker moments, sometimes I think what we do is disempower everyone and call it democracy.” He is a strong advocate for effective governance, saying “let’s not be so afraid of offending one another and over-focus on process versus what is needed to be effective.”
A native of Texas where his first language was Spanish, Rev. Morales spoke about the rapidly changing demographics of the US population and urged that “everyone get some cross-cultural experience – build this into the formation of ministers”.
A student pointed out that weekly religious services are still the most segregated hour in America, and asked “what are we [UU leadership] doing about that?” Rev. Morales answered that “there is nothing, nothing, intrinsically upper middle class, white, or Yankee about Unitarian Universalist values,” and he acknowledged the challenge of greater diversity in our congregations, saying “it isn’t going to happen overnight”. Other students shared their concerns about the future of ministry to youth after the ending of YRUU and the issue of fair share pledging by congregation members.
As President of the UUA, Rev. Morales forsees a huge transition in UU ministry over the next decade. He quoted several compelling statistics to make his case. “The median age of UU ministers is 58 – about my age”, he said, and “that means a 50% turnover in ten years.” “There is going to be a sea change and a generational shift of leadership [ministers] leaving – and they are disproportionately in larger churches”. Peter emphasized that “one-half of the ministers in our largest UU congregations are leaving in the next 5 years” and therefore “most UUs will have a new minister in 5 years”.
The Starr King community was honored to spend time with one the school’s most distinguished alums. Rev. Morales seemed to enjoy his time at the school too, and joked “I always dreamed of the day when I would have a reserved space in the [notoriously crowded] Starr King parking lot!”
[Many thanks to Emily Webb, Starr King student and co-president of the student body, for sharing her excellent notes from Rev. Morales’ visit.]
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