Beyond Categorical Thinking: A Summary by Larry Romans

On September 21st, Jo Ann Dale and Gil Guerrero, trained by the UUA Transitions office, gave a three-hour workshop on Beyond Categorical Thinking (BCT). We had a great turnout (about 30 people). BCT is a program to highlight unfair discrimination in choosing a new minister. UU congregations are less likely to choose ministers who are people of color, Hispanic, people with a disability, or bisexual, gay, lesbian, and/or transgender.

BCT is designed to help congregations explore ways in which its members may have both conscious and unintentional biases that may lead to a decision not to pick a person who might be the best minister for congregation. For those of you who weren’t able to attend, there were many talking points that I will try to summarize as the main “take-aways.” These are my own interpretations of what was said.

Unlearning and countering the stereotypes that lead to oppression is lifelong work. For example, going through the Welcoming Congregation program to promote the inclusion of LGBT folk or Building the World We Dream About program to combat racism does not mean that we have “solved” those questions. The same is true about hiring a minister of color or an LGBT minister. That in itself is not “proof” that we are not racist or homophobic. We need to continue to fight subtle and not-so-subtle racism and homophobia in our midst.

We also can’t expect that hiring a minority minister will attract more members from that minority. We might hope that having a Black minister will mean that we will attract more Black people or we might fear that having a LGBT minister will turn us into a “gay” church. The minister herself cannot act as a magnet. Instead, the minister and the congregation have to work together to be welcoming to all minorities, and history has not shown that those minorities become majorities in our congregations.

Once we have chosen a minister, if she is a member of a minority, we have to watch out that we don’t define all of her actions in terms of her minority. The magic number for a minister to be labeled as single-issue is “3.” That is, once a minister of color mentions race or ethnicity three times, people begin to say that that’s all she preaches about. Those three times don’t have to be sermon topics; they could include a quote from Martin Luther King or Maya Angelou.

Sexuality can easily be a hot-button issue and bring stereotypes to the fore. According to the BCT curriculum there is more bi-phobia in our congregations than homophobia. Bisexuals are seen as promiscuous, although this has been more an issue with heterosexual males in the UU ministry than with bisexuals. Many conservatives worry that their congregation is “not ready” for a transgender minister. As in many areas of stereotyping, “not ready” translates in “need to be educated.” Heterosexual, bisexual, or whatever the orientation, ministers are expected to live within the same ethical boundaries in our congregations.

Another source of stereotyping that can prevent us from getting the minister who might be the best fit for us is disability. We might hear that making the building accessible will be expensive, we might think that disability means lack of stamina; no doubt, some members will fear that, like the member of any minority, a minister with disabilities is going to have an agenda and will be one-issue oriented. However, most congregations can spend money to make the church more accessible not only to a new minister but also to current and prospective members. Lack of stamina can be found with anybody. And “stamina” can be a code word for our expecting minister to work 50-75 hours a week. Like ministers from other minorities, their disability minority status may not be their focus at all.

Beyond Categorical Thinking for finding a minister and Standing on the Side of Love for all of our interactions encourages us to remember that “We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.” We are working to build a society where the color of our skin, the conditions of our birth, who we love, how we worship, and how we express our gender do not determine our worth, rights, and opportunities.

As we go through the process of choosing a new minister, we must work to make sure that stereotypes and discrimination do not keep us from choosing the minister who is just right for our congregation.

Photo By Lisa V. Connor
Photo By Lisa V. Connor

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