Assistant Minister's Corner - Rev. Monica Dobbins

18 August 2019

In these times, it seems there’s a new crisis every day – or even every minute. As I sit down to write this column, our nation is stunned by the death of Jeffrey Epstein, the mogul and acquaintance of President Trump who has been charged with multiple counts of child sex abuse. Almost as soon as the headline broke of Epstein’s apparent suicide while being held in municipal jail, conspiracy theories formed on Twitter: the right claiming the Clintons set him up to be murdered, the left claiming the Trump organization must have done it. Neither camp claimed to have any facts to back up these outrageous claims; yet, the bell only rang louder and louder. It felt true, somehow, to believe that there must be more to the story.

Never mind that 300 Americans every year choose suicide in jail rather than facing justice. After all, suicide is the leading cause of death in jails in the United States, and over 400 lawsuits have been filed in the past 5 years over guard negligence in jails. ( To apply Occam’s Razor and assume that Epstein did the same makes sense here, though a thorough investigation must be conducted to rule out foul play. But the phenomenon of conspiracy theorizing in this case reveals a deeper problem. As my colleague Rev. Kat Liu puts it, it reminds us how badly the public trust in institutions has eroded. 

It’s been a long time coming. I remember President Reagan saying, when I was a kid, that “government cannot solve your problems - government IS the problem.” But I can remember thinking, even then, that the government is not an independent being; it is made up of people, ordinary people who go to work every day and do their jobs the best that they can, just like everyone else. Government employees and officials bring their own worldviews to their work, to be sure, but how is that different from anyone else? 

The problem is not government itself, per se, but rather the presence (or absence) of strong structures of mutuality, accountability, transparency, and fairness. People working together, checking up on each other, and holding one another and the institutions themselves accountable to their mission and their constituents make those institutions trustworthy. And when the accumulation of power becomes more important than those structures, the institution will inevitably crumble and fall. 

That’s why it’s so important for churches to mindfully, intentionally build and maintain those same structures. The trustworthiness of churches has eroded perhaps even faster than that of government: sex abuse scandals, misuse of funds, collusion with government, and failure to update faulty and harmful theology are just some of the reasons that many people no longer trust churches and other faith communities. 

Some of what has been lost is an understanding of how churches function, and how they are different from other kinds of institutions in our society. Churches are invested in equity and fairness, and in providing care for people, so they don’t operate on a fee-for-service basis. There can be no expectation that “you get what you pay for” in a church. On the contrary, you may give much of yourself, and not get anything tangible in return. Yet what you can get in terms of life-changing experience may be immeasurable. 

Likewise, churches are not intended to support government in any way - including partisan politics. They are called to hold ALL government structures to account for upholding moral values, and all officials, no matter what party they come from. Churches are to resist state-sanctioned evil, and it can be infuriating to see churches and ministers using twisted, harmful theology to support that evil. 

Reclaiming and reteaching an understanding of the church’s proper role in society can go a long way toward restoring people’s faith in it. However, it’s important to remember that, in the same manner as before, most churches are simply made up of people, who, by and large, are doing the best they can, as faithfully as they can. Taking risks, making mistakes, and learning as we go are not failures of churches – they are essential to spiritual and relational growth.

How can we - the ordinary, extraordinary people of First Unitarian Church - make this a trustworthy institution in our city, and for our future? We, too, must invest in structures of accountability: committees that are faithful to the mission of the congregation, communication with the Board and with the ministers, and honest communication with each other. We must not be afraid to speak out when we feel that our values are not being fully honored - inside the church, and certainly outside it. And yet, grace and forgiveness have a place in building and maintaining trust. In the spirit of our third principle, encouraging one another to spiritual growth, we must make conflict and criticism serve the larger purpose of growing as people, and so we must use speech that is direct but kind and loving, so that the larger message is always, “I care about you, and I care about our relationship.”

As we begin this church year together, I encourage you to think about the relationships that make our church life together meaningful, and how we can lean into building trust within our congregation and in the public eye as well, thereby giving us the power to make Utah a better, more just place for all people.