Mark’s Resignation from leadership of Community Church of New York Unitarian Universalist

January 31, 2009 (An open letter)

Dear Community Church of New York Unitarian Universalist,

I believe that it is essential to have an empowered, effective and engaged Board of Trustees representing the congregation. The actions leading up to and at the Congregational Annual Meeting on January 25, have, I believe, undermined this and have made it clear to me that it will be impossible for me to fulfill my legal and fiduciary responsibilities as I see them (please see more detail below).

Therefore, at the Special Board Meeting immediately after the Annual Meeting, I declined reelection as Board Chair and resigned from my various volunteer leadership positions serving on the Board of Trustees, the Strategic Planning and Congregational Self-Assessment Team, and from the Communications Committee (which I also chaired).

For now, I will retain my congregational membership and continue to serve on the Ethelwyn Doolittle Justice and Outreach Fund Committee and as a member of the Anti-Racism Committee. I continue to support the Unitarian Universalist denomination and will continue my justice making activism as well has pursuing my spiritual path as a [Zen Buddhist,] Humanist, Pantheist, and Atheist both at Community Church and at other venues, including the other New York City Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Some have suggested that after this very difficult and divisive period, we need to move on, support our minister, and begin healing. I think that this would be skipping a vital step and would be unproductive. Just as one must properly clean out a wound before bandaging it up to prevent that wound from becoming infected and festering over time, I would suggest that it is important to look at the underlying causes of this conflict. We skipped that step five years ago, and suffered the consequences.

Although some of the conflict was caused by poor process and falling short of our covenant to always “treat each other with kindness and respect” – a failing on all sides – I think a larger component were differing expectations on how we agree to work together and how we “do church.”

Just over a year ago (January 6, 2008) UUA President Rev. William Sinkford said to me “There are no solo acts in our faith work, everything we do features an amazing ensemble team cast.” That’s simply not true at Community Church.

Rev. Bruce Southworth is a solo act. He’s like Barbra Streisand, Jay Leno, and Michael Phelps. Community Church has a history of solo acts with John Haynes Holmes and Donald Harrington – perhaps it’s in the DNA of what it means to be Community Church of New York UU.

Ensemble Ministry (I don’t use the term “shared ministry” because that means such different things to different people) can be compared to a Jazz ensemble, a Broadway Musical such as “A Chorus Line”, a symphony orchestra, or say “Saturday Night Live” or “The New York Yankees” in good years. No one leader, just a team effort.

This is not meant as a pejorative or criticism of Rev. Bruce Southworth or of Community Church. Most of the great orators or prophetic voices of our denomination would also be considered “solo acts.” We all owe a lot to them.

A clergy friend of mine said, “I am not ‘The Minister’, we are in ministry together.” That sort of thinking leads to an ensemble ministry. I believe in this sort of spiritual relationship – with the professional minister as a spiritual colleague, teacher, mentor and elder sibling. A Senior Minister-centered congregation just isn’t right for me. That doesn’t mean that we can’t work together in areas where this isn’t an issue.

A peer-to-peer relationship is, for me, an inherent part of our UUA principle of “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and in support of “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” I simply don’t believe in respecting any minister or clergy more than any other person. I have never had any intention of following, supporting, or bolstering one individual’s ministry above others.

These are two totally valid but different approaches and expectations. I feel it is really important to unapologetically embrace what Community Church is – and wishes to be – and update bylaws, committee charters and expectations accordingly “to be in support of the Senior Minister.” Perhaps it is this unusual ministry style choice that our congregation has chosen that has been the recurring stumbling block over the past many years with our second ministers.

This very public conflict has certainly scared away members and would-be members as well driven away many talented and engaged people who have given so much service to our congregation as dedicated lay leaders. There are many vital committees that will have empty chairs and long-lasting negative effects over this conflict.

It is my hope that people will vote with their hearts and hands, and thus create a more harmonious (abet smaller) congregation that can thrive and grow with a common direction. And that those who opposed the board’s actions over the last year will now step up and engage as our congregation’s lay leadership, and will put in the long hours of service that are needed to fill this void. If they do not, the consequences will be dire for the future of this once-great congregation.

It was bittersweet to see about 120 of our 285 voting members at this year’s Annual Meeting. That’s the largest membership turnout for any event in my memory, and that level of engagement is wonderful and something to celebrate. Keep it up! I am, however, saddened that the Senior Minister and the Congregation chose to show such enthusiastic activism and engagement over a matter of internal governance and returning to the status quo rather than some outward issue of social justice or community outreach.

At the beginning of my letter, I said it would now be impossible for me to fulfill my legal and fiduciary responsibilities. Let me explain this in more detail. The bylaw section 7.3 states, “The Board shall have general supervision of the affairs of the Church. The Board shall have custody and control of all property and funds of the Church, shall conduct the business affairs, shall supervise the management and administration of the Church, it being understood that the conduct of worship services and pastoral duties are reserved to the Ministers.”

In the past, it has been difficult, if not impossible, for the Board to assess the effectiveness of the Senior Minister’s administration in supervising the day-to-day operations of the church. It’s important to remember that almost half of our $2 million operating budget is spent on payroll; so being efficient here is a vital part of preserving church funds.

It has also been difficult, if not impossible, for the board to prioritize administrative tasks that were different from the Senior Minister’s priorities, such as “hiring a webmaster” which went un-done for three years, even though the congregation voted funds to do this and the board voted to authorize this action and repeatedly stated this to be a high priority. Part of the problem is the difficulty that the board has had in relating to the Senior Minister as both spiritual leader (reporting only to the congregation) and administrative subordinate (reporting to the board).

These are some of the reasons why the board chose to make the changes it did, that were now un-done at the Congregational Meeting. Perhaps this dual reporting problem will become a non-issue if the bylaws are amended in such a way so that the board’s responsibility is not beyond its ability to take action. I hope so. I also support moving toward a policy-based form of governance, although full “Carver Policy Governance®” would be overwhelming for a congregation of our membership size.

Rev. Bruce Southworth is one of the highest compensated ministers in our denomination. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, assuming that this is the congregation’s intent based on his doing a great job, both as a spiritual leader and administratively supervising the day-to-day operations of the church. However, our congregation has never conducted an assessment of the Senior Minister, so we don’t really know one way or the other. The only two measurements that we now have are size of the endowment (which has grown well, up to now) and attendance and membership size (both of which have become much smaller). I hope that the new board will take prompt action to correct this long-overdue self assessment so that we can celebrate what Rev. Bruce Southworth is doing well, get help in those areas that might be able to be improved, and make sure that everyone is working toward the same goals. This Leadership Assessment process needs to be done at least every few years in order to keep healthy.

In closing, I hope that our congregation will take the time to thoughtfully engage in reflecting on the facts, processes and behaviors that lead to this difficult period. It is important to take the time to fix what is broken and then heal the wounds and hurt feelings so we can all move forward. Please do forward this letter to others that might not be on my personal e-mail list. I ask that you take the time to read my Board Chair’s reports to the Board and to the Congregation. In this spirit of reflection, I will post them and related documents, along with this letter, to our personal website I would be happy to send paper copies to anyone who phones me. They are also available from Valerie Lynch, the congregation Membership Coordinator.

I want to thank those of you who have telephoned, e-mailed and stopped by in person over the last week. Your love has reminded me why I have cared so deeply. Again, thank you for the privilege and honor of being able to serve you.

Yours in community,
Mark de Solla Price

Immediate Past Board of Trustees Chair

Community Church of New York Unitarian Universalist

(212) 924-1845

2009-01-21_Board_Letter_to_Congregation 2009_01-25_Mark_Response_to_Committee_on_Ministry
2008-04-08_Chair_Report_to_Trustees.pdf (larger file from PowerPoint)
2008-03-26_Trustee_Agenda 2008-02-27_Trustee_Agenda