All Souls Unitarian Church is embroiled in a divisive and at times vitriolic dispute over the departure of its associate minister, the Rev. Dr. Susan Newman Moore. In February some congregants and other of Moore’s supporters even staged a protest outside the church, carrying signs that read “Do black lives really matter at ‘All Souls?’” and “Justice for Rev. Susan,” who is black.
“It’s been a very painful time for me and for everyone in the congregation. There is no getting around that,” says All Souls Senior Minister of 17 years,Rev. Dr. Robert M. Hardies. “I am heartbroken by where things have ended up.”
Former church member Reeve Tyndall, who filed a complaint against Moore last July that spurred a cascading congregational conflict, says in an interview: “I wish I wasn’t talking to you about it. I mean, it’s been a very painful experience for me. … The pain for me has been losing a community that I’ve been a part of for a long time. And I feel hurt that others have been hurt in this.”
And Moore no longer holds ministerial authorization or standing within the United Church of Christ, which ordained her. She resigned her own authorization in March, after the UCC’s Potomac Association Committee on Church and Ministry conducted a fitness review and determined that she is not currently fit to minister. (Other denominations are not obliged to abide these findings.)
The argument began over an unsigned check in the amount of $350. Last summer, on Sunday, July 23, Rabbi Alana Suskin delivered a guest sermon at All Souls, where congregants often come from (and appreciate hearing from) other religious traditions and denominations. After the service Moore sought to pay her, but a problem arose: That check and others were not signed, and none of those authorized to sign checks had attended church or signed in advance. Later that day, Moore emailed relevant parties within the church suggesting adjustments to the check signing procedure. People on the email chain discussed aspects of the process and expressed agreement with Moore. Tyndall was one of them.
But then the exchange escalated from basic to fraught. After Moore followed up with additional information on who holds responsibility for check signing, Tyndall, a volunteer assistant treasurer, shot back with an email saying that Moore had not submitted an invoice in enough time. He wrote that he would leave his position as assistant treasurer if she had a problem with his performance, and that both she and Hardies, who is white, behaved toward him in an unloving way. Tyndall was a volunteer usher as well. Moore replied with a long and conciliatory email, thanking him for his service and saying she’d left him a voicemail to talk it through. His reply indicated that she should apologize for blaming others for her mistake.
The next day, Tyndall resigned his position as assistant treasurer.
Four days later, he sent a three-page letter to the board complaining against the two ministers, Moore and Hardies. He described under-appreciated staff members, writing, “I have seen a pregnant receptionist lift heavy dishes in Pierce Hall. … I have seen countless staff members simply disappear one Sunday without explanation.” He wrote that the two ministers’ back-to-back sabbaticals had strapped the church, and pointed to two instances in which Hardies had never responded to congregants in need. (To the latter accusation, Hardies responds: “I’m sorry for the times when I let down members of the congregation, and I know that as a minister I’m not perfect. And as a minister I try to say that to people face-to-face.”)
Tyndall furthermore claimed that the way in which Moore was called to a permanent position at All Souls about seven years earlier violated the Unitarian Universalist Association’s procedures. (In a letter, the board countered that the church acted appropriately.) He recommended that Moore resign and that Hardies apologize to the congregation for his treatment of staff.
He did not stop there. As an usher he’d often listened to sermons twice on Sundays, and he’d suspected that Moore was plagiarizing for a while. “You really get to know the voice of the person giving the sermon,” he says.
He did the research, and on August 7 sent the church’s board of directors a letter describing four instances of plagiarism: one in a recent sermon, one in the online text describing a 2013 sermon, one in a 2005 book Moore wrote, and one in a personal statement she wrote as part of applying to the associate minister role at the church. City Paper reviewed the plagiarism accusations and determined that she does appear to have copied text others wrote, sometimes making slight adjustments to wording.
Asked about plagiarizing in an interview, Moore talks about a debate over the famous quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often credited with saying this, but it was inspired in large part by the words of 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker.
She also says: “You don’t say every time, ‘Well according to Merriam Webster.’”
In a sermon she gave on July 2, Moore repeated—altering some words—parts of a Wikipedia entry on a speech by Frederick Douglass. The passage took up a little over one minute of a sermon that was about 40 minutes long. Months later, in a video conversation with other black Unitarians, Moore talked about being accused of plagiarizing Douglass himself, though Tyndall’s complaint was over the Wikipedia entry.
The Sunday after Tyndall submitted his plagiarism complaint was also the the day after a massive and violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. That Sunday, Moore preached a sermon substantially on those events and race relations. In it, she said, “In my seven years here at All Souls church, this summer has been the most difficult in my entire career as a pastor. And there are those who would wish I would not share this with you, but it’s behind closed doors that oppression is promoted, and the truth is never known.” She went on to say that there is a pattern of microaggressions she receives when she is acting senior minister, which was the case at the time because Hardies was away for the summer.
Tyndall did not attend, but later listened to the sermon online, and felt that she was talking about his complaints in a part of the sermon.
Ten days later he sent his letters to the Unitarian Universalist Association, which referred Tyndall back to his congregation for his complaints against Hardies because of “the congregational polity of the UU religious tradition which gives autonomy to congregations,” according to a UUA spokesperson. As for his complaints against Moore, the spokesperson wrote, “Rev. Moore is not a UU minister, but ordained within the United Church of Christ, and the United Church of Christ determines how they evaluate and investigate ministerial conduct for its ministers.”
Tyndall went on to send his complaints to the UCC, and in October, a local committee within the UCC opened a review of her fitness for the ministry.
On November 1, Moore’s mother, of whom she had often spoken lovingly in sermons, passed away. That very same day, more than 200 congregants gathered at All Souls to learn the about the UCC’s fitness review process, though not its substance, from the UCC’s Rev. Audrey C. Price.
Moore would be on personal leave until the end of the calendar year, and many congregants expected that she would return. All Souls is not obligated to mind the UCC. Congregants were blindsided, then, when a January 29 email from All Souls announced that she and Hardies had agreed that she would separate from the church.
Over the following months, congregants became increasingly frustrated by a lack of knowledge about what had happened and a lack of open access to Moore’s perspective. (Tyndall’s complaints have not been widely available, and the UCC’s review is confidential.) Hardies and others church leaders were able speak about Moore in meetings and in mass-emails to the congregation, and to make brief announcements about her status from the pulpit, as they had been doing since the fall. She had access to none of these channels; she no longer worked there.
The church board and leadership has meanwhile sent the congregation a series of long and sometimes overwrought emails about the status of Moore’s departure and the UCC’s review. (Raised Unitarian in another state, this reporter has occasionally attended services at All Souls for the past year-and-a-half, but is not a member and not on the church email list. A tipster alerted City Paper to this story.)
On the evening of Feb. 27, Moore’s supporters, which included people from other churches, protested outside All Souls. Those present estimate 40 to 60 in attendance.
“This woman has been a significant woman,” says the Rev. Dr. Christine Y. Wiley, who recently retired from Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ and is close with Moore. “She has been serving in ministry since she was 15 years old. She’s a scholar. People are just amazed that this has happened to her because she is respected throughout the UU community and the UCC community and the Baptist community.”
Sources close to the functioning of the church report additional troubles with Moore’s work, saying that she used congregants as part of her support system and had an issue with confidentiality. On the one hand, she was a beloved pastoral care minister to many church goers. On the other, the sources say she betrayed confidentiality within the context of her ministry.
The racial questions raised in her separation are also part of a national picture. On March 29, an article in UU World stated that the UUA “has been asked to help resolve more than fifteen congregational conflicts involving religious professionals of color” so far in 2018. Moore’s case was one of them.
Lena K. Gardner, executive director of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU), says, “I think the most obvious way racism shows up in Unitarianism is that there is a commitment within the institution to order and process over making change.” And she adds, “There is this cultural component of UUs of color being held to different standards than their white counterparts, and when a conflict arises they’re seen and treated as disposable.”
Paula Cole Jones, a lifelong All Souls member who helped the church after the controversial departure of a black minister about 20 years ago (which followed the 23-year leadership of another black minister, Rev. David H. Eaton), has long worked with congregants to develop a way to talk about race and racism.
“We don’t know what happened yet,” says Jones of Moore’s departure. “But we don’t need to lose time debating about whether or not what happened was about racism, it is clear that the impact is racialized.” Based on all of the work that many congregants have done, she says, people are able to stay at the table and have difficult conversations about race at All Souls, though 20 years ago they were not equipped to do that.
In the case of the unsigned check, Moore says: “The fact that I wrote that note, a black woman in charge, that was the straw that broke his white male privilege and white male fragility back.” Tyndall says: “I filed my complaint against two ministers, and one of them was a white man and the other one was a black woman, and I felt they both were misbehaving.”
Both Moore and Hardies agree on at least one factor: Their relationship had deteriorated.
“It’s sort of like when a marriage is no longer working,” says Moore. “For the sake of the children, we separate.”
Hardies says that problems arose as far back as 2013, that the ministers and staff took a number of steps to improve relationships on staff. “This work, over several years, was not enough to sustain healthy behaviors and relationships,” writes Hardies. “It’s this history of intentional, well-meaning, and no doubt imperfect effort that led us to the meeting on January 17 and the mutual agreement for Rev. Susan to separate from the church.”
Congregants report that the pews have remained full, that there has not been a mass-exodus, and some express greater investment in one another than in their ministers.
The most recent communication from the church’s board, dated March 30, describes a dispute over Moore’s severance pay.