Monday, March 21, 2011

Positive Tax News from IRS for Domestic Partners

I was talking with a friend a few days ago and he said he was re-doing his taxes back to 2007.  I'm kind of nerdly about tax rules, and I had not heard of this, so I assume that there may be others who have not either.

A May, 2010 IRS letter allows domestic partners in community property states to split income between the partners (who still have to file separately.)  If one partner makes significantly more than the other, this has advantages because they then fall into a lower tax rate.  He and his husband (married during the window before California Prop 8) have been domestic partners for many years, so they are allowed to restate their taxes back through 2007 (a three-year IRS window on re-filing for a refund.)
I haven't researched this, but there is apparently a time constraint of April 15th, 2011 for refiling some or all of the prior years (since my friend is rushing to get his 2007 re-done by then.)

IRS Chief Counsel Advisory 201021050:
Private Letter Ruling 201021048:
A 90 minute webinar from January 2011:

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Are You a Closet Dissenter?

In What's the Moral Here, Scott Wells writes that all the recent top hits on his blog site have been "posts critical of the Unitarian Universalist Association, or something Unitarian Universalist," which is not really the goal of his blog.  But he notes that there is clearly a market for that kind of material.  I had been thinking of writing a similar piece myself.  My posts and guest posts about the firing of the PCD district executive have received approximately 500 hits.  But when I posted about the Turley, Oklahoma church that was covered in the UU World, I got maybe 50 total hits.
Pledge break:  if you want to do something useful instead of reading blogs, go read my previous post right now, click through and give them some money.  Twenty bucks will do.  Then come back here for some more analysis.
Maybe the moral is that there is pent-up dissent within Unitarian Universalism?  In Beatitudes for a New Day, revtony wrote, "Unitarian Universalists do not bless dissent."  In Giving up Unitarian Universalism for Lent, Scott Wells wrote, "If I hear covenant used as a coded message to clam up and step back in line, I’ll scream so loud that Cotton Mather will rise from his grave."  Today my wife (a life-long UU) was talking to another old-time UU, and she noted that over that last decade it seemed like there was less tolerance for dissent in our home church; and she had thought that it was just our church.  But it seems to be widespread.  I have had a few responses to my blogs by people who said they had been UUs for decades, but were just getting tired of it.  Engaging in a bit of armchair psychology, I think there are multiple sources or manifestations of this problem, in no particular order.

1.  Church members who have found a wonderful spiritual home that is not beating over them the head about whatever failing that other churches (or the wider world) saw in them don't want dissent.  Their new home is wonderful, and they don't want to have discord in this place that offers them comfort.

2.  Tension between those who do and don't think that Unitarian Universalism is the religious wing of the Democratic Party.  News flash:  it is possible to have different ideas about governments and still be a religious liberal.  Full disclosure:  I'm as Democratic as the next person here in the City of Pelosi, but I have friends who are UU Republicans who are marginalized, and that's just wrong.

3.  Tension between the various religious wings - old-line Humanists, Universalist Christians, Pagans, New-Agers, Social Actionists, Post-Modernisits, and the rest of our 31 flavors.  No matter which of these you are, you know in your heart of hearts that some of your fellows are just cranky, illogical, or silly.  Rather than engage in reasoned dialog about our views, we just suppress them in the interest of false comity, and seethe about it instead.

4.  A wider cultural trend that equates support with agreement.

5.  Self-censorship.  We see what happens to those who dissent - you get labelled a troublemaker, and marginalized.

6.  A funny feeling that I get about UU ministers being scared.  Revtony alludes to this in  Beatitudes for a New Day:
Beyond the congregation, my experience is that for all our talk of congregational polity, our tiny little religious association is like a small national business or law firm and if you expect to have a career as religious professional in this business, you quickly learn to play by the rules, make allies, and certainly don’t question the powers that be and prevailing (although by no means successful) way of doing things, at least until you have final fellowship. For all of our storied history as heretics, I see us as a conservative bunch that doesn’t really like dissent.
I have seen some of this in the events at the PCD - comments suggesting that ministers are afraid of their congregations and the District Executive.  I can only guess at the reasons, but I think some of it is related to worrying about their current position, and moving to the next position.  I have heard of multiple Committees of Ministry at different churches, including my own, where the minister had no interest in critique, and packed the committee with minister groupies.  In a congregation, this can play out in a minister having an interest in suppressing dissent because they are afraid that it might turn on them.  Reading between the lines of the UUMA Guidelines, it's pretty clear that ministers are not to criticize each other.  (My observation of this pattern is what led to All the Other Ministers.)
So where does this leave us?  We have no cultural capacity of dealing with dissent - no habits of presenting reasoned arguments, finding points of agreement, understanding the reasons for why we disagree (even if I disagree with you, I assume you reason - and if you don't, you should just retire from the discussion), and moving to a new point.  But this does not happen.

The result is that a lot of dissent is bottled up.  And blog posts about dissent become attractors for someone who says "gee, someone else besides me has a beef with Unitarian Universalism."  The number of blog hits that we get are probably a measure of this suppression.

So what's your dissent?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Creeping Creedalism, Batman!

What words are missing in this page that I found on the Starr King web site?
Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to …..
Unitarian Universalists will recognize the Seven Priniciples, taken from the UUA By-Laws and the front of the hymnal. The By-Laws read, "the Member Congregations covenant to affirm and promote….," but Starr King says individual UUs, a very different thing.  I have seen the exact same re-wording elsewhere, including the bulletin board of my own home congregation.

In the context of the By-Laws, these are just some principles for which an association of congregations is formed. But minus the "congregations affirm" wording, this starts to look like creeping creedalism.

And there is zero mention of the Sources, as if Unitarian Universalism sprung fully formed from the brow of Zeus.  In 1961, the Sources came first; in 1986 they moved to second place; now they apparently don't rate a mention on the seminary's web page.

I have even had a discussion (with a member of UUA officialdom, no less) who asked, "you do believe in the Seven Principles, don't you?"  Well, actually, I never considered them as an article for "belief," and if that is what they are there for, they're pretty thin beer.  However, that's a discussion for another blog, and others have done a better critique of the Principles than I am likely to produce.

So ignoring the critique - is there anyone else who is bothered by the transformation of the Seven Principles from an enumeration of plausible points of agreement in organizational by-laws into articles of belief?  (And I'm not interested in subtle word games on the difference between "affirm" and "belief.")

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Clara Barton District Executive Forced Out by UUA

In this guest post Ms. Lynn Thomas tells of her "resignation" as District Executive of the Clara Barton District (CBD).  The Clara Barton District comprises western Massachusetts and the Connecticut Valley. She served as District Executive from 2001 through the end of 2009.

In reading the entries on this blog, and in particular your Tragedy in Four Acts, The Recent Unpleasantness, I realized that the sequence of events for Cilla in the PCD was eerily similar to my experience as (now former) District Executive in the Clara Barton District.

I spoke out several times against regionalization - at two consecutive all-district staff meetings (called Big Complex Meetings), with my board, and with a small group of the board finance committee and UUA trustee. (The UUA trustee is Jacki Shanti, now UUA first vice moderator to Gini Courter as moderator.) Clearly all was impolitic.

Terasa Cooley was the Massachusetts Bay District DE, so we were in the same staff cluster. On more than one occasion, she asked me how long I was going to stay in the position.

Prior to Terasa Cooley's joining the UUA staff, Harlan Limpert requested the then-CBD Board president Ken Wagner to have the board members poll ministers about my performance. The results reported to the CBD board, in my presence, were all stellar. Now of course they did not poll every minister in the district. I recall that Harlan then contacted specific ministers and received negative input. One minister had, from the time of my becoming DE 8 years previously, refused to interact or meet with me because I was not a minister. I had been told by ministers that one other had been quite vociferous at UUMA chapter meetings that he did not want me there because I was not a minister. His wishes did not prevail among the other ministers, who regularly welcomed me to meetings. However, that minister then married Terasa Cooley. I am far from perfect, but it felt like Harlan was building a case against me.

A new CBD board president took over and was almost immediately contacted by Harlan Limpert to broach the subject of ending my employment. She was taken aback, didn't even really know who he was or who she could talk to about it, so she went along to see where it would go. She didn't inform the rest of the board.

Harlan called me into his office to tell me my work was not good enough and he wanted my resignation. He told me that if I fought it and he went to the board with details, "it would not be pretty."  This was September 2009, and I told him I was prepared to resign effective the following June.  He wanted me to leave immediately. My response was that I had not embezzled any funds nor did I commit any sexual misconduct, etc., so I refused. We finally agreed that I would continue employment until December 31.

I wrote a retirement letter and presented it to the board at the October 2009 meeting. The board was quite surprised and offered much support and appreciation. Harlan was waiting in the other room. Immediately upon my leaving the meeting room, Harlan entered and began to discuss details of regionalization, complete with drawings. Afterwards, a board member remarked  about the suddenness of learning of my retirement and this UUA regionalization plan, and that he was not alone with feeling a bit stunned.

My personal circumstances were different from Cilla's in several respects. First, I had been contemplating (but speaking to no one) about retiring at the end of the church year. Second, I was older and knew my social security and retirement would kick in, so that enabled me to retire. In addition, the Board was not in a position to take a strong stand, and I knew that.

So it seems to me that the UUA staff members are working from the same plan, and at times, the same script. I have been a UU for about 55 years (not quite birthright), wherever I have lived across the country including California. I have been active and appreciated in multitudes of lay positions at the congregational, district, and UUA levels. I had served as a paid Organization Development Consultant to UU and other religious and not for profit organizations.  My educational credentials and experience are in Clinical Social Work and Organizational Development. I have been disappointed and frustrated by our faith many times, but never previously felt the deep betrayal of our principles and lack of trust that I do now.

Lynn Thomas

Editor's Postscript
Terasa Cooley became Director of Congregational Life at UUA Headquarters effective September 1, 2010. Almost immediately she began the process of firing Cilla Raughley, District Executive of the Pacific Central District.

Since Ms. Thomas left the position more than a year ago, there has been no replacement District Executive and no plans for one - a single DE is in charge of Clara Barton and Massachusetts Bay Districts.  The last independent newlsetter of CBD (May 2010) notes the District office was combined with Mass Bay and "the District administrator ... has left our employ and ... we wish her well in future endeavors."

The Clara Barton District decided March 5th, 2011 to end co-employment of their District Executive.  The UUA is now in charge.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A House for Hope: Church Gets Challenge Grant

I've been a little hard on ministers lately but here's a chance to support UU values in action. The "abandoned place" featured in this month's UU World has received a challenge grant for much-needed capital improvements.

I have driven through this area and it's pretty grim. (My wife grew up in Tulsa, and her mother still lives there.)  The census data for this area shows a median household income of $20,000 to $25,000 per year.  Per household.  Think about it. Where I live that wouldn't even make the payments on a Lexus SUV.  Although like many UU churches, this church is located in the "well-off" area -- the census tracts just south of them have a median household income of only $11,000 to $15,000 per year, down a whopping 45% since 2000.  As Rev. Robinson says, this is an abandoned place.  Payday loan shops instead of Starbucks.  Abandoned places, and abandoned people, need a lot of things -- not least among them hope. I may not be able to fix Turley or the social and economic forces that are sharpening the income divide across our country (although I'll try).  But I can send hope in the form of money for a roof. I can tell this small church they may have been left behind but they are not abandoned and they are not forgotten.

You can help too.  Click here.