Our Experience

Looking Back - What We learned

What Your Church Should Know

What Your Church Can Do

What the UUA Could Do


Recommended Books on Clergy Ethics


Clergy misconduct in Unitarian-Universalist churches is not a frequent occurrence; consequently few U-U church boards or congregations are prepared when it comes up. Our board had to deal with a confusing mix of rules, by-laws, congregational polity and ministerial policy. Board members, regardless of their viewpoint, showed a strong commitment to the congregation. They spent many extra hours dealing with this issue in addition to the ongoing church business.

When the first evidence of ministerial misconduct came in the fall of 1996, church leaders felt that this was an anomaly – a single dubious act in the career of a good minister. Most of us felt that the situation could be handled in a manner that would save his career and his ministry at our church.


Our church had had a brush with misconduct 6 years earlier. We were about to settle a new minister when our denominational Ministerial Fellowship Committee called his previous misconduct to our attention. A few months after the minister arrived the MFC suspended him from fellowship and he resigned. Even this relatively clear and brief case caused a lot of conflict in our church.

This case was less clear. Our minister developed a relationship, for his first and only time, with a married member of the congregation. Her husband was also a member. When first asked about suspicions of a relationship, our minister denied it. When accused by his wife he admitted to the relationship, but stated that it was not an affair or romance. Later when he admitted that his actions crossed boundaries, he maintained there was no serious breach of conduct.

As this situation unfolded, it left our church leadership in a quandary. Was his behavior serious enough to constitute a charge of ministerial misconduct? If so, what was our board's role in educating themselves and the congregation in ministerial ethics, revealing the facts to the congregation, and disciplining the minister? We studied the Ministers Association's Code of Professional Practice, but had varied interpretations. Some board members felt that there was a clear violation of the Code. Other board members disagreed. The board and minister agreed to call in an independent consultant who could give us an impartial evaluation.

We called on our District Executive and the UUA Department of Ministry. The DE gave us information on how the affected parties could file a formal complaint with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, but she could not give the board the evaluation we sought. The Dept. of Ministry also gave us information on how the principals could file a complaint, but could not act as or provide us with a consultant. A DE from another district was suggested as an independent consultant, but she was unavailable. A minister that we hired for short term coverage declined, probably wisely, to accept this advisory role. All the UUA and the District Executive could offer was an assessment team.

Ministers and members of the UUA staff gave us opinions privately, but no one would or could give us a ruling without a formal complaint and hearing. The directly affected parties did not want to file a formal complaint with the MFC for personal reasons. The board did not want to file a complaint because we thought it would have too great a negative impact on our minister's career.

Over the next few months our minister announced his relationship from the pulpit and in the newsletter, and took a leave of absence. The board sent a letter to the congregation revealing only the basic situation, feeling that revealing details was an invasion of the privacy of our minister and others involved. This situation caught the attention of the media, and articles appeared in the local paper. As the situation unfolded the board swung over to a majority thinking our minister should resign.

Having been unsuccessful in getting a consultant, we agreed to accept the UUA assessment team. A team was formed consisting of our DE and a UUA Deputy Director, with staff support from Boston. Our board expected that this team would interview the involved parties and give the board and the congregation a report on what had happened and their opinion on whether or not it constituted misconduct.

Instead, the assessment team tried to evaluate the impact this was having on our church. They interviewed congregation members about how they felt. Many commented that they needed to find out more. The assessment team was surprised when board members, the ones closest to the situation, indicated that our minister had misbehaved and should resign.

A week later the assessment team gave their report, which further divided an already fractured congregation. Those who wanted the minister to stay felt empowered by the report. Those who wanted the minister to leave thought that the assessment was biased. The "stay" contingent organized and petitioned for a vote. The "leave" contingent became radicalized into action and began wearing buttons emphasizing the ethical issues. A congregational meeting and vote was scheduled. In the absence of information and guidance, people began to solidify their positions based on feelings and not facts.

At one point our minister offered to resign and proposed settlement terms, but negotiations failed. Supporters encouraged our minister to stay and so he withdrew his offer.

Meanwhile the "leave" group and some board members, frustrated by lack of resolution and concerned that an ethical issue could not be properly addressed by a congregational vote, filed a complaint with the MFC. At first the MFC did not want to accept this complaint because it did not come from an affected party, but the group argued successfully that all our church and even the denomination was affected because of our minister's public admissions and the media attention.

In fact the MFC had already learned of the situation, and in November had summoned our minister to a preliminary hearing at their next available meeting in April. At that hearing the MFC found that there was "probable cause" of ministerial misconduct and scheduled a full hearing. Our minister resigned the next day, and has since requested and been granted a voluntary suspension from fellowship.


We had two board members who were former UUA trustees – one had even served on the MFC and later on the Board of Review, an appeals committee for MFC decisions - but their experience was never really recognized or valued.

To satisfy the board members who argued that privacy should be preserved, full details of our minister's actions were never given to the congregation, setting up a situation of an informed leadership and an uninformed congregation.

Our board was never able to find the impartial consultant that they sought. Ministers and UUA staff members that we consulted privately agreed that there probably was misconduct. Most of them said our minister should resign, but none would say so publicly.

We initially believed that the MFC complaint and hearing procedure was available only to the principal parties and was punitive to our minister. We learned later that the process is fair, and is designed to protect ministers and the ministry as much as it protects churches and individuals. Frivolous complaints and political squabbles are rejected.

Our church by-laws provided for removal of a minister only by vote of the congregation. The board realized too late that violating the Code of Practice was also a violation of our minister's employment contract, and was therefore grounds for board action.

Because our board operated by consensus, we were in effect a hung jury. Discussions were held on suspending our minister and on asking him to resign. Votes were never called because there was never consensus. This and the power of the pulpit allowed our minister to control the situation until the MFC hearing.


Our denomination practices congregational polity, which means that each church, fellowship or society is independent and self-governing. They are voluntary participants in a continental (US and Canada) organization, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

Within the UUA, the Department of Ministry handles ministerial functions including education, settlement and development of ministers. The Director of Ministry also serves as Executive Secretary of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, the credentialling body that grants fellowship to ministers. Ministers are also voluntary participants in the Minister's Association. The UUA maintains a presence in each district through a District Executive or Consultant.

Each church calls and ordains its own ministers. There is no requirement that a UU church call only fellowshipped ministers. Churches do call ministers converting from other faiths or new graduates into preliminary fellowship, usually with the condition that they achieve full fellowship within a set period of time. However, if your church desires the cooperation of the Department of Ministry in searching for a minister, it must be calling a fellowshipped minister.

Because of congregational polity, the UUA will not intervene when there is ministerial misconduct. UUA staff and ministers will not publicly criticize a fellow minister. The Ministers Association has a disciplinary process and can censure ministers, but it generally deals only with colleague to colleague complaints.

The Ministerial Fellowship Committee is the only body that can censure a minister for misconduct. They cannot remove a minister from a church, but their rulings carry a lot of weight with both congregations and ministers. It is the MFC’s policy not to go on witch hunts for errant ministers. They will not act without a formal complaint or overwhelming evidence. The directly affected parties may not want to file a complaint for personal or legal reasons. For example, a spouse may not want to escalate the situation, may be financially dependent, or may have been advised by their lawyer not to file a complaint. When the situation warrants it, the MFC will start its own investigation.

The MFC’s written rules on misconduct are terse. They simply state that a minister may be removed from fellowship for conduct unbecoming a minister and go on to provide the procedures for complaints, hearings, etc. The document that more thoroughly defines ministerial conduct is the Ministers Association's Code of Professional Practice. The MFC Rules and the MA Code are both available on the UUA World Wide Web site at

There is other information available about clergy misconduct in general and clergy sexual misconduct in particular. The UUA Bookstore and the Alban Institute carry several books and reports on the subject. Many of these books are concerned with the impact of misconduct on the congregation and the healing of a wounded congregation. The Alban Institute can be reached at 1-800-486-1318. The UUA Bookstore can be reached at 1-617-742-2100.

Much of the other written material is based on ministers who abuse the power of their position for multiple, predatory sexual conquests. Most of this material presupposes that the minister is male. A case where the minister becomes involved in a singular relationship with a member of the congregation is different than this type of abuse, but is still a violation of the Code of Practice.

Misconduct often lies in later actions as much as in the initial actions. How was the situation handled? Was there deception or cover-up? Did the minister violate his professional responsibility or betray the trust of the congregation? Did the minister abuse the power of the ministry or the privilege of the pulpit?


Most UU church board members are volunteers and therefore amateurs at church governance. It behooves board members to be familiar with basic information on misconduct and know where to go for more information and help.

If it is your church's intention to call and retain only fellowshipped ministers, this should be spelled out in your bylaws. The requirement for fellowship may also be written into the minister's employment contract. Conformance with the Ministers Association Code of Practice should also be part of the contract with your minister.

Further, the contract should spell out the terms of discipline or termination in case of misconduct. If a minister is terminated for misconduct, is she or he entitled to the normal severance and sabbatical pay specified in the contract? Severance pay in addition to interim expenses can be a burden on a church. A possible procedure could be that when a complaint is filed with the MFC, the minister will be placed on leave until the hearing, and the church and the minister will abide by the MFC judgment.

The board should be aware of the minister's contract. If it is written as suggested above, it may provide the means for remedy.

The board should be also familiar with the MA Code of Practice. In a case of misconduct, it will be the board's duty to make a judgment and to educate the congregation. There is little guidance available to the board from the UUA, and the MFC’s actions may be too slow and deliberate to help the immediate situation. By the way, the MA Code of Practice is not all negative news about misconduct, but contains inspirational standards for the role of ministry.

Ministers need to be aware of the impact that their actions can have on a church. Even if they do not admit to misconduct, they should realize that it might be beneficial to the congregation if they remove themselves, by resignation or by leave, as soon as possible.


Church boards need more support in making ethical decisions. A person who would tell the board what the Ministers Association expects of ministers and what is meant by the Code of Professional Practice would be a great help. The UUA has Good Offices persons to support ministers, and District Executives and assessment teams to support congregations, but who supports church boards?

The formal complaint and hearing procedure of the MFC needs to be portrayed as an acceptable solution to questions of misconduct. Now it is seen as inaccessible to the board and punitive to the minister.

Complainants need support, both from the local and the national level, especially if they are directly affected parties. In our case complainants and principal parties were not notified of hearings or results until after they heard about them from other sources and pressed the UUA for first hand information.

The UUA needs to take a clear stand on professional ethics, especially when the local papers are portraying our denomination as "the church where anything goes."


The year was wearing on our congregation. People stopped attending church to avoid the conflict. Sunday attendance is down about 25% and pledged income is down about 20%. The stress was particularly great on the staff. Both our Administrator and Minister of Religious Education have left their positions.

Guidance to a clear course of action for the board and/or an early resignation by our minister before we became divided would have led to much less hurt and anger.

While the board tried to avoid the win-lose situation of a congregational vote and to find a solution that wouldn't divide our church, the assessment and our minister's reluctance to resign drove us toward a vote. Both sides thought they would have won a vote and continue to think that. Now we have winners that don't feel good and losers that are angry.

In reality this was a lose-lose situation. Some lost their minister when he initially admitted his actions and the rest lost their minister when he resigned. And we all lost the friendship and trust of someone who took the other side. We are in for a long, slow healing process.


Steve Bottorff has been a U-U for over 25 years, and is past President of the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland, located in Shaker Heights, OH.

March 25, 1998
Minor grammatical changes Nov. 15, 2000