Relationships define outgoing Unitarian Universalist president's tenure

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Boycotting Salt Lake City never made sense to the Rev. Bill Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

The association was planning its general assembly in Salt Lake City for the first time in a decade just as many in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community cried for a boycott of the city, headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Though he knew the pain felt by many Unitarian Universalists over the LDS Church's role in persuading California voters to reject gay marriage last fall, Sinkford saw a different way forward:

Through relationship.

"I'm a strong believer that you can only work for change when you are in relationship," says Sinkford, who is finishing his second and last term as president of the Boston-based association.

That ethic has permeated Sinkford's eight years as head of the association, which comprises more than 1,000 congregations across the country, including four -- five, if you count an emerging congregation in Utah County -- in Utah.

Sinkford, the first black president of the association, has made it his goal to have Unitarian Universalists engage more with other faiths and nonreligious organizations, to have a higher profile on the important social-justice issues.

He added more staff to the Washington, D.C., office and joined with other faiths taking stands on issues such as the Iraq war and global warming.

"The problem was the voice of the fundamentalist right was dominating the religious discourse in the public square," he says.

Sinkford's reforms extended to Unitarian Universalists themselves, as he called in a 2003 sermon for greater use of a "language of reverence" that could capture the hearts of those seeking a free, liberal religion.

In his mind, Unitarians and Universalists, dominated for decades by humanists who eschewed language that sounded Christian, had lost some of their ability to connect to outsiders, and indeed each other, on spiritual issues.

"We had allowed our language to go to the least common denominator," says Sinkford.

Sinkford's call set off a firestorm among many Unitarian Universalists, particularly humanists, he says. But it also allowed prayerful pastors to talk about their own journeys.

"It was almost like allowing them to come out of the closet," he says.

Reclaiming the language of reverence, he says, is part of a transformation under way among Unitarian Universalists. The UUA's board of trustees also is putting more emphasis on congregations than on individuals, as in the past.

"There has been a process of our coming of age as a faith community over these past eight years," he says. "There's less reactivity and a deepening of our congregational life. There's a greater willingness to be in relationship."

Relationships with other faiths -- such as the LDS -- are likewise important, he says.

Sinkford expects the LDS Church to be represented, as will Utah's Catholic and Episcopal churches, at a public event in support of immigrant families Friday night.

"I'm one that believes that you find partnership where you can on the issues where you can," he says. "It's an opportunity to talk about other things."

Forgoing a boycott of Salt Lake City, he says, allowed Unitarian Universalists to show support for Utah's LGBT community in person, he says. Besides a "Prom for All" planned Friday night, the UUA will donate the proceeds from its Sunday worship offering to the Utah Pride Center.

Among key challenges for Unitarian Universalists going forward, says Sinkford, are attracting people who yearn for a liberal religion and reaching out to ethnic minorities.

"We have this wonderful, open theology. We need to start matching our practice to that theology."